Category Archives: Debatable lands Vol. 3

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 26, 27 & 28.

Sharing with Cat

It was difficult in those days for me to know where ‘we’, both human and non-human beings, each stopped and started, and to a degree that remains the case even now. Sometimes I seemed to overflow into other people or animals, and them into me. With Kate, Cat and, in a different way Hamish, in particular.

It is still hard to write about Cat, even now. It’s as if she crawled inside my skin when she died and, as a result, became so close as to be invisible. As girls we would tell each other everything: share gossip, dissect the grown-ups stupidity, discuss clothes we liked, food we didn’t, people in the village, the weather, songs we’d heard, everything that made up our world. We also fretted endlessly together about ‘what to do next’: about my skinniness and hair, about how I might deal with Mrs. Purvis,about our spots, Cat’s sweet tooth, and her Mama’s controlling strictness. All exhaustively andwithout restraint. Cat was less than three months older than me but started puberty well before me and, enjoying her advantage, kept me up to date with every detail. We had become friends soon after I arrived, then best friends, so I believed we had no secrets from each other.

Sometimes when we had a homework project to work on together, Cat’s papa – who had a trim black beard and was, so I firmly believed at twelve, the most handsome man in the world, would bring her over to stay on Friday night. After we’d been sent to bed and, having tried unsucessfully to gentle us into settling, dad would eventually put on his stern voice and call up:

‘Enough talking, put that light out now, please’.

Cat would slip quickly out of the the little truckle bed always Dad pulled out for her and turn out the light. Then she’d turn, pause, and whisper:

‘Faun, can I come in with you, please’?

And, happy at the trace of pleading in her voice, I always said:

‘Yes, of course’.

There was hardly room for the two of us in my little bed but somehow we fitted ourselves together like two spoons, usually with her hand over my heart. Once or twice this arrangement led to kissing and some chaste mutual touching, but it was nothing more than curiousity, not as I remember. Mostly I recall falling asleep to the slow rhythm of her breathing against my neck.

Later, whether through choice or carelessness, I forgot those nights close to Cat, something which seems inconceivable now. Then one evening staying with friends in London we had to lift little Freddy out of his bed and back into his old cot so I could userp his place. In the early hours I woke, balanced precariously on the edge of the bed, to find Freddy positioned like a car jack between me and the wall. After some gentle pulling and pushing we compromised and shared his bed fifty-fifty. His fat little stomach, impossibly hot against my back, must have triggered old memories and, a few days later, my nights shared with Cat rose back into consciousness.

When she was staying over and our school work was done, we’d spent hours in complicated worlds that spilled out of my room, across the landing, and either slipped sideways into the bathroom or else cascaded down the stairs. They grew from whatever was to hand. Chairs, a wooden dryer and blankets became a castle. A cardboard box, washing basket, and mop, a ship. A stool, pillows and old skipping-rope, a great white horse.

‘Faun, you be the great soldier who defends the castle and keeps all the women and children safe from the enemy.’ ‘Faun, you be the captain and guide us through the storm.’ ‘Faun, you be the prince and rescue me’. Somehow she always had me take on the traditionally male roles, although this never stopped her being in control or from coming up with the most violent interventions into whatever I was having us do. Maybe she just liked to maintain her new-found woman’s status.

As we started to get bored with such adventures, we spent more time locked in the bathroom while we strained to catch the wobbly music on my tiny transistor. We washed, dried, and combed out each other’s hair, swapped cloths and studied our changes, trying to make sense of their mysteries while speculating about becoming the kind of sexual beings we glimpsed elsewhere, mostly via magazines and Kate’s stories. All this in entirely unnecessary whispers. We acted as mirror images of each other, were inseparable until a month or so after Cat’s fourteenth birthday. Then, within the space of a few weeks, that entire world started to evaporate and our adolescence began in earnest.

The trigger was two quite different events. One was discovering the Borders ballads. We were mesmerised by their account of a great, raw, tragic, yet uncannily familiar world in which a lord’s wife picks up a beautiful boy outside the church and takes him home to bed. (So then they both get killed, but at least she tells her husband what she thinks of him first and, we told ourelves, had no regrets). Where the husband insists the murdered lovers are buried together, but with her on top because she was posh. Where a girl meets her dead boyfriend as a revenant, then follows and frees him so he can die properly. Where a young woman disobeys the people who tell her what she can and can’t do, runs across country to argue her property rights and gets a lover. A young woman who argues back, takes responsibility for her own fate, acts on her own choices. Who was just like we were going to be, except that maybe she turns out to be The Dame of the Fine Green Kirtle in the end, and not an ordinary girl at all.

‘Gordon Moss’.

A dangerous, very real if semi-magic world of wild rivers, vivid prophetic dreams, incest, bloody fights and murder; of canny girls who outsmart and outride soldiers, or win back their child’s father from the Elphen Queen. What, as an American said to me recently: ‘isn’t to like’ about such songs, particularly if you’re two teenage girls who need to rebel but don’t know how or against what.

Before we found the ballads we had had very little to help us imagine our way into the world where our bodies meet our particular places; no ‘young adult’ books, as Sarah had Janni Howker’s much loved Martin Farrell, a tale of the Reivers. We had no Anne Eliot, no ill-fated Bess Graham, to give us imaginative keys to the hardness and bodily hurt, the hills and black moss, the bloody world of (usually) men’s violence, the meeting of the natural and supernatural worlds in a pig’s heads or a swarm of flies. Beyond Kate’s stories (which Cat always wanted to discount), we had no way to intuit the fate of women, the particular gendered nuancing of sex, suffering, death and haunting that is the invisible marrow in the cold bone of our Borders. The ballads were our Songs of Experience by proxy.

Later we came to believe that Annie Briggs, Jacqui McShee, Maddy Prior, and Sandy Denny had bequeathed these songs specifically to us, not to boys caught up in the noisy posturings of rock music. Finding the ballads freed us from the uneasy hold of the fund of generic tales that all seemed to have been written for boys, or in which the girls’ job was to be a suffering sister or daughter. What we craved, and found in the old ballads, were stories which firmly put girls like us, brave and canny, at the heart of the story, and did so in our own familiar landscape.

The second, and initially far more unsettling, trigger was that Cat kissed Mike, shifting the whole shadowy issue of sex from theory to practice. There had previously been intense discussions after games of Doctor and Patient and, later, after we’d gone skinny-dipping with the boys. And there had always been Kate’s stories of her adventures. But this was different because it was Cat, not Kate, doing the kissing. What she told me was that she and Michael had found themselves hiding together in the big upstairs walk-in cupboard during Sunday’s game of sardines at Homehaugh. She’d whispered: ‘shove up, you’re squashing me,’ but he’d just shushed her. So she kissed him. She added, in an indigent voice: ‘to stop him shushing like that.’

When I questioned her she wouldn’t say if anything else had happened but, because she blushed furiously, I knew it had and pressed her to tell. Eventually she admitted there’d been some ‘touching’ but absolutely refused to go into detail. A refusal that, by excluding me from her experience, cut me to the quick. Our friendship never really recovered its former intensity after that. In a deliberate act of revenge I broke my promise to Cat and told Patsy everything. A couple of days later she reported that she’d asked Michael if what she had heard was true; that he’d touched Cat’s titties and she’d touched his thing. He’d stomped out of the room without answering.

Everything began to change. Cat and Michael had secret knowing that Patsy and I didn’t, bodily secrets that both fascinated and hurt us. The privilaged world Cat and I had built around ourselves began to fade. We remained good friends, but I knew we no longer mirrored each other. To make things more complicated, Patsy initially bombarded me with questions I couldn’t answer. Secrets between Michael and Cat made her quite uncharacteristically cross. That unsettled things further because for a while she obviously thought I was keeping secrets from her too. (It only came to me much later, when Michael was dead, that maybe she was jealous.) Although Cat and I remained close, our attention started running out in parallel towards our other friends, the world of the ballads, and the actualities of village life.

The day world

I think I always slightly resented that the twins’ parentsowned everything around us, with the result that they really belonged to quite another world to my own. Another world that, through Mrs. Oliver’s friendship with their mother, had always pretty much included Lizzy and Kate. As little children they’d all four gone to the same parties, played the same games long before I’d come to the village. I knew I should be grateful that I was now part of: ‘the Oliver girls’ menagerie’, as the vicar called us. (He had also been overheard to say that we: ‘let the side down’, although it was never clear to us what he meant). But sometimes my anxiety made any such graditude difficult. I also knew from Mrs. Purvis that Sir William didn’t like the Olivers, which suggested to me that ‘the menagerie’ was always somehow under threat.

I was also worried about my own status. I felt myself to be an outsider, a late-comer. As the last addition to the menagerie, I naturally became its most ardent devotee. That led me to ‘not seeing’ all manner of tensions, not least between Kate and Lizzy and between the twins. Only with The Judgement did I really begin to notice how much those tensions, many of them handed down from the adult world, simmered just beneath the surface of our childhood.

Dad and I weren’t ‘locals’ like Lizzy, Kate, Hamish, Mike and Patsy but nor, in my view at least, were we just ‘incomers’ like Cat’s parents and, in Mr. Oliver’s view, Sir William. We were, after all, distantly related to Mrs. Oliver. In my private but passionate view Peter and James were ‘inbetweens’ just like me. But then the Aitchesons were a Name, a sept of Clan Gordon, and Lady Aitcheson(née Reed) had been born here and, more importantly, was what Dad called ‘County’. At eight I simply didn’t understand these adult distinctions but, while the others, even Cat, seemed to accept them as given, I struggled to make sense of what I resented. All this was further complicated by school.

There were about thirty children in our little Victorian primary school and we did a great deal together, without any very obvious social distinction. Either as ‘the primary’ or, when necessary, as ‘the little ones’ or ‘the big ones’. Nature walks, day trips out together in the old bus, and school plays where almost everyone got to do something. All of this initiated by Miss Richardson and Mrs. Roberts but, I am certain, discretly supported by Lady Aitcheson. Not, I think, out of any desire whatsoever to promote social equality but paternalistically, because she saw all local children collectively as ‘Reeds estate children’. So I did not have to confront the mysteries of class head on until Lizzy approached eleven.

That year Lizzy went to a local private school as a weekly border where, in due course, Kate and later Cat and I, would join her. First, however, Cat and I had to sit scholarship exams. These were the final act in a mysterious process, initiated by LadyAitcheson,that involved letters to an educational charity and our having gone to church each Sunday. Nobody bothered explained the details to us, and we did not ask, but we knew our parents could never have afforded the fees and, once again, understood that we had acquired an unspoken debt of gratitude. At eleven Peter and James went away to their father’s old boarding school in Yorkshire, while Hamish, Mike and Patsy did the 18-mile round trip to the big comprehensive school, with Mary, Barbara, the two Maggies, Charlie, Eric andthe rest of our former classmates. Hamish, quick to learn if slow to speak, was happy enough. Michael, only truly at home with what he could do with his hands, was never much interested in school and indifferent to the new situation. Only Patsy really suffered. Diminished when transplanted into a bigger, less initate world, she became quieter, less assured. Once among the livliest at primary, she gradually came to dislike everything associated with school, leaving as soon as she could to help her aunt and, building on her Saturday work at the Co-op, to establsh herself in a proper part-time job.

During the holidays we initially simply reformed in our old group, walking, and occasionally riding, the woods and moorland together. We talked in an animated huddle well away from our elders and met for approved and illicit activities as before. But although there was never a clear-cut division, after a while Lizzy and Kate, the twins, Cat and I grew a little apart from Mike, Hamish and Patsy and, more radically, from our other former classmates. The sisters and twins remained the nucleus around which we all gravitated but, by the time I turned twelve, we were only occasionally nine. More often there were just the six of us.

We still met regularly in the shabby former playroom next to the kitchen at Homehaugh. That big greystone house – two spacious main floors, a small stone cellar, and three little attic rooms – stands back from the top of the village street behind a mossy lawn and neglected flowerbeds. The old, southfacing, walled vegetible garden running down the right side as you face it has, however, been renovated and a little home garth on the left is now grazed by a resident pony. The walled yard, stable block and hayloft that run along the lane at the back of the house remain unchanged to this day, as does the small home field beyond that. Built in the eighteenth century, it’s all of a piece with the church and the Big House, where Peter and James lived (located at the end of a long drive in a private domain of its own that I rarely visited).

Homehaugh was the center of our late childhood and early adolecence and the locus of the bleak, if sometimes beautiful, world into which we grew. A world of great whale-backed and seemingly bare hills; deep, twisting, hidden cleughs full of steep fast-flowing burns; rivers that carried a restless cargo of gravel and stone torn from their own banks and are bordered by green haughs. Running up from these were clusters of fields, which I later learned only appeared around eighteen hundred. Each field is defined within an irregular grid of lichen-covered dry stone dykesleading up towards the White Lands above. All this part of a larger lacework that includes the tracks, farms and other buildings, along with irregular patches of natural woodland ofoak, birch, alder and hazel, and the great dark, roughly rectangular plantations of managed forestry that, close to, remind me of the scary illustrations in a old and treasured book of folk tales in Russian belonging to my mother.

Abandoned forestry hide.

Dad passed it on to me at Christmas the year she died. (Although she never knew own her parents, my mother ‘Anna’ had actually been christened Anastasiya). The book, with a text neither she nor I could read, had beautiful, vividly coloured pictures of wolves, bears and strange beings like Baba Yaga, with her cabin on chicken legs but no windows or doors. A perfect match, somehow, for the hides to be found at the edge of any young Sitka spruce plantation.

At first this larger world seemed inpenetrable. I only began to feel differently when we walked or rode the ancient tracks and drove roads that cross the Cheviots. I learned that for centuries these had been busy routes, with drovers taking herds of cattle from the western Isles to southern markets, peddlers bringing goods and gossip, or beasts being hurried away after some raid. As I developed a sense of the histories that still haunt the region, as dense as they are invisible, I began to feel less displaced. But I remained divided between my love of the natural world that presented itself to me and the hidden world of adult power that seemed inseparable from it.

 Off the coast

 We rarely went to the sea when I was young and, perhaps for that reason, it always fascinated me. The second summer after I left London I badly needed both money and a change, so I got a summer job working in Oban. For three months, I cleaned and helped re-stock a variety of sailing boats hired out by the week. Towards the end of the season things went quiet and, when there was a sudden last-minute cancelation, my boss Ted decided to take a trip around Skye and Lewis with his wife, a young couple they’d befriended, and their two sons. He offered to take me with them as a galley hand and general crew. It was quite an adventure and, at one point on our return journey, we stopped in the mouth of a secluded sea loch so that Ted could gather scallops.

It took a while for me and one of the sons to row out from the boat, while Ted guided us to the scallop bed. Even when he’d found it we had trouble keeping the little dingy steady and in the right spot, given the constant tug of wind and swell.Ted, masked and wet-suited, then took his knife and basket and disappeared down into the weedy darkness.

Within moments they arrived, bobbing up to watch us with big, liquid eyes. The light was already starting to fade and, at intervals, a big black muscled head and shoulders would rise ghostly quiet out of the inky water, always disconcerting me because a seal would never appear in the same spot twice. To cut resistance to the wind we kept our bodies low and our heads down, listening to the slap of water on the side of the dingy and the dull swish of the kelp moving in the swell. The seals were so close and so curious that it was impossible to ignore them and, with the dingy sliding and twisting in the wind and tide, it became increasingly hard focus on holding the little craft in the right place. I started to feel an unexpected panic rising in my stomach.

The root of my panic was simple enough. An image in my mind had pulled me back to my childhood reading of Scottish folktales about the Selkie Folk. Then a question had risen and insinuated itself into my consciousness. How, in the gathering darkness, could I be sure that when the next great round head rose out of the sea and moved to climb over the gunnels and into our little dingy, that it was Ted coming aboard and not some vast water-black male Selkie?

 

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 21 and 22

Another Lizzy

‘What’s that about my life?’ Lizzy came unsteadily into the kitchen as her mother was speaking, wrapped in the new red quilted dressing gown Sarah and I had given her for Christmas.

‘We’ve been talking about men, pet. I was just saying …’ Lizzy grunted angrily. ‘Oh, fucking great.’ My stomach knotted. Lizzy only swears when she’s been seized by the sudden bouts of anguished rage that have dogged her since Peter died. She thumped down onto a chair and, glaring at the tabletop, tugged at a strand of hair. ‘Faun been playing the Elfin Queen again?’ (Our private term for casual sex).

‘Pet, she was just …’

‘Christ, mummy! Faun can speak for herself. What were you saying Faun?’ I repeated that I’d wished that, like her, I’d settled on one man when I was young and stuck with him.

‘Oh, instead of fucking half the art students in London?’ I said nothing. Lizzy knew I’d had a couple of brief affairs before Quentin. I’d hardly been promiscuous, but then she had always been something of a prude.

‘Christ, you think Peter and I were a fairy story with an unhappy ending. You’ve no idea, Faun, not a clue’.

Mrs. Oliver, now visibly upset, knew better than to intervene. Like the Ancient Mariner, Lizzy needs an audience and, having chosen one, insists on full attention. If you stay quiet and listen she’ll rant and lament and then, tearful and exhausted, sleep for hours. If not, she gets violent and starts breaking things. I was just thankful Sarah was staying over after the party because she finds her mum’s outbursts unbearable

‘You  think Peter and I …? Oh for fuck’s sake, Faun …’

Her mother stood up a little unsteadily and left the room. Lizzy then spent the best part of two hours filling me in, with far more candour than I would ever have expected, about aspects of her life about which I indeed knew almost nothing.

 

A Blackbird

The girls of the ‘Oliver menagery’, including Lizzy it now seems, had always assumed she and Peter would eventually marry. But by the time she started university he was all but absent from her life. When she’d ring him in York he was largely monosylabic, clearly deeply preoccupied with his family’s problems. His answers to her letters consisted of a few scribbled lines. After a while she gave up, desperate to concentrate on her studies and assuming he’d get back in touch when things at home had settled down. So in a relatively short time she went from being at the heart of a group of friends to barely socializing at all. Initially, because she was preoccupied with working and trying to reestablish her relationship with Peter, then because she turned in on herself, consumed by a toxic mixture of unhappiness, anger and self-doubt.

Her assumption that, after college, she and Peter would get engaged, marry, and in time live on the Reed estate, now seemed presumptious to a degree that appalled her. There had never been any explicit understanding between them. She’d just somehow presumed that signs of affection on his part, a quick hug or peck on the cheek on all the usual occasions, were a prelude to all that. Now she neither knew where she stood with him, nor what she herself really wanted. She was too furious to talk with Kate, who she blamed for triggering Peter’s family situation, and didn’t want to discuss it all with her mother. She’d also started to obsess about something James had once said when she, Kate, and the twins were arguing about what to wear to a posh fancy-dress party the Easter before we were all caught drinking. (‘Posh’ being my tern for anything the rest of us were not invited to). He’d proposed they go as their fairytale selves and they’d all asked him what he meant.

‘Lizzy always does the right thing. She’s our parochial equivalent of the beautiful and virtuous princess. Go as that. Kate is the mischivous fairy who gets everyone into trouble, of course.’ Kate threw a magazine at him and asked about the boys. ‘Dad’s taken to introducing Peter to his shooting crowd as his ‘son and heir’, so he’s obviously the Prince who’ll inherit a kingdom. He’d better go as that. Which means I’m the younger son who has to go out into the world to seek his fortune. So, rags and a stick with a bundle in a spotted handkirchief for me. Or I suppose, if the younger son is lazy and cunning like me, he might just steal the virtuous princess from under his briother the Prince’s nose  and live happily ever after off her father’s land!’

It had all been smilingly said, in the usual half-joking, half-mocking way James used to wind people up and that Lizzy usually ignored. But she had a bit of a soft spot for him and he’d smiled so warmly at her as he spoke that, despite knowing it was all nonsense, she’d been touched by his calling her beautiful (something James had never done), and a little flattered by his proposal to steal her away. And now, because of all that had happened since, those feelings returned to trouble her.

Then by a stroke of ill-luck a student, whose demeanour and self-confidence reminded her a lot of James, transferred into her seminar group and quickly become the centre of attention among its largely female attendees. Lizzy, troubled by his similarities to James, studiously avoided him. He quickly noticed this and took it as a challenge, going out of his way to greet and flirt with her whenever they met. She started to feel haunted by James’ doppelgänger. She had always told herself that she was angry about Kate’s sexual adventure with James because of its consequences. Now she began to realise that, at some level, she was also furiously jealous of her sister. She’d always rather liked James and Kate had had carnal knowledge of him, something she could barely admit to herself that she too might have wanted. This became mixed up with her increasingly ambiguous feelings about Peter, her gratitude and irritation at his being the quiet, steady, and yes, slightly boring, twin; for not having made her want him enough to do what Kate had done with James. And so on, interminably.

Lizzy now doubted everything she’d formally believed about herself and, increasingly consumed by self-loathing, clung to the life-raft of her academic work. Often unable to sleep, she would pace up and down in her tiny top-floor flat, fearful that she was heading for some kind of break-down but equally determined to block out that possibility.

Then one evening James’ doppelgängersaw her on her way home, dodged the traffic on the busy street to cross and speak to her, insisting she let him buy her a drink. She said she had to get home but, true to type, he refused to take no for an answer. Tired and unable to resist his smiling insistance, she eventually reluctantly agreed. She drank a gin and tonic faster than was sensible and was then cojoled into accepting a second. The result was a sudden emotional thaw and, knowing quite well she shouldn’t, she accepted a third. Later, very drunk, she invited the doppelgänger back to her flat.

When she finally woke next morning Lizzy was first appalled at what she’d done and then incandescent with a blind rage. She blagged the doppelgänger’saddress from the departmental secretary on the pretense she’d picked up his essay with her own and needed to return it. She went to his flat and, when he answered the door, forced her way in. When his flatmate tried to intervene, Lizzy boilded over, screaming and yelling. The flatmate called the police. The angrier Lizzy got the more the doppelgänger actedbemused. They’d had a drink, she’d invited him back to her flat, he’d used condoms, what was her problem? Fortunately the police arrived in time to help the flatmate restrain her from hitting him a second time.

She spent several hours in a police cell until the doppelgänger informed them that he would not be pressing charges. She was released with a caution. But she knew she had completely lost her way and dispaired. Knowing both her parents would be out she drove back to Homehaugh and, having gathered up all the pills she could find, drunk the best part of a bottle of whisky to get up the courage to take them. The alcohol kicked in really quickly, she eaten practically nothing in the previous twenty-four hours, and she dropped the pills, most of them white, onto the white bathroom carpet. When her mother came home later she found Lizzy slowly circling the bathroom on hands and knees like a damaged insect, sobbing wildly as she tried to collect up the pills. She was literally blind drunk. Her mother put her to bed and rang the university to say she’d had an accident and wouldn’t return for the last week of term. When Lizzy finally woke up she was as mortified as she was monumentally hung over.

Mrs. Oliver tried to insist Lizzy take time out from her studies. She refused but promised to see somebody and get help. At the start of her second session with a counsellor, she heard herself say all this, adding that she obviously didn’t love Peter. She was so shocked by this that she couldn’t speak for the rest of the session, just shook and cried silently while the counsellor passed her tissues. Nothing really changed for a long while. Afraid to go home, she barely spoke ouside tutorials and seminars. These were a nightmare because she was convinced the whole world knew what she’d done and despised her. But her deepest fear was that she’d fail her degree. That terrified her but also kept her working.

Then very early one morning she heard a blackbird singing. The sound upset her terribly, which in turn shattered her numbness. Shivering, she ran a hot bath and, soaking in it, realized with a clarity she’d not experienced for months that the blackbird’s song  reminded her of times with Peter.

Once, on a winter charity walk, Lizzy, Peter, and James’s group got caught in a white-out. It took the young woman in charge about ten minutes to orient them and start them on their way down but, before that happened, Lizzy spoke out of turn, something about which direction they should take. She’d been told in no uncertain terms to shut up. Humiliated, she’d sulked at the back of the group. Peter had dropped back to walk with her. When they got back to the village Lizzy, still miserable, sat down on the low wall behind the village hall and cried. Peter sat down beside her and put a rather tentative arm around her shoulder while offering her his rather grubby handkerchief. A blackbird sang nearby and they sat and listened to it until she’d stopped crying. Then he’d walked back with her to Homehough.

‘LA’.

Remembering Peter’s concern that day let loose a flood of memories. Most particularly, Lizzy remembered going with Peter’s mother to pick him up at Edinburgh airport after a school trip. She’d been maybe fifteen. Peter didn’t see her hanging back until he’d put down his luggage and hugged his mother.  When he did see her his face had lit up.  She’d given him a little hug and kissed his cheek and he’d blushed and ducked his head as he aways did when he was really pleased about something. They’d sat together in the back of the car and, when it got dark, Peter had reached out and found her hand on the car seat and held it until they got back to the village.

When the cold bathwater brought Lizzy back into the present, she knew all she wanted was to finish her degree and put things right with Peter. She wrote him a long letter and, contact reestablished, struggled through the rest of her degree to get a Two One (we’d all expected her to get a First.) Peter and his mother came to her degree ceremony.

By the time she’d told me all this Lizzy’s anger was quite spent.

‘Not a fairytale princess, Faun. Just weak, stupid, neurotic. Jealous of Kate about James, and angry Peter hadn’t wanted me the same way. I fucked a nobody, tried and failed to kill myself and, yes, finally married Peter because I couldn’t live without him. And now I have to anyway. And Faun, I never told him. I just pretended he was the first because I was so ashamed. I’m a lie, Faun, everything about me is a lie.’

She started to rock back and forth in mute anguish.

‘Come on Lizzy, you’ve coped wonderfully with Sarah and the farm, with everything.’

‘Oh God Faun, I miss him. I needed Peter so much and now he’s gone.’

I helped her upstairs and then got her into bed. She was asleep in moments. When I got home I set the alarm so as to be at the farm by seven. When Lizzy wasn’t down for breakfast by half seven, I phoned Arthur and got Nessa.

‘She’s had a bad night.’

‘Right Miss Flora, I’ll tell himself she’ll speak with him later.’

I collected Sarah from the sleepover and, when we got back, Lizzy, although still in her pyjamas and new red dressing gown, was eating breakfast while making a list of groceries with her mother.

Cattle on the high hill

‘Hello pet, did you have a good party? There’s toast left over or grab some cereal. And soon as you can, please, let the hens out. I had a bad night and I’m already terribly behind. I must go and help with the cattle’.

Sarah gave her a sharp look and openned her mouth to say something. But whether because of the redness of her mother’s eyes, her grandmother’s warning glance, or the slight shake in Lizzy’s voice, she closed it, nodded, buttered a piece of toast, and went upstairs to change into her everyday clothes.

 

 

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 14, 15 and 16.

Lower valley, March (sketch)

 Editor’s note. Flora included among her notes various descriptions or ‘sketches’ of visiting local places at particular times, of which this is the first. These are, I believe, as much ‘portraits’ of her kith as are her descriptions of the children she grew up with. 

The roar of the river descending is overwhelming – every surface throws back or drowns out all other sounds in this narrow place. I resist the draw of the falls and turn elsewhere – my attention running out ahead feeling its way into the complex tangle of saplings, fleshy plants, old fallen trees, then down to test out the uncertainties of the path as it turns suddenly underfoot – first scree, then mud, twigs, water, fractured rock, the path a fading trace.

With the turn up hill my ears adjust, start to catch differentiations against the diminishing roar. The irregular and muffled ‘plock’, ‘plock’ as the stream pushes one stone after another over a lip of rock to fall onto the pitted shelf below. Sounds that appear to be the drowned ghosts of hard, clean, crisp sounds of stone and water; sounds that bypass my turning thoughts to work directly on the nervous system. These speak of the singular unity, weight and density of each small stone that falls. Beyond the wild garlic and saplings are the sharper notes of melt water finding its way down through irregular stone heaps, frost-shattered boulders, the iron-stained crumbling cliff. There are an infinitely variety of sounds of trickling, falling, spouting, running, streaming down. And back behind all this still further, there is a faint, counterpointing, rumble and boom of water hitting the black pool edged with shreds of swirling, soapy foam.

So, along with an opening up of and losing sight of what is in view, a shift dictated by the simple logic of following the path, the valley is simultaneously re-constellated in quite another way; as the damp, chill, all-pervading space of sounding water in all its variations.

After bell-ringing practice

 As usual, I’d spent much of the Christmas holiday going down to the farmhouse to visit Lizzy, Sarah and Mrs. Oliver. This must be eight or ten years back now.

Lizzy had dropped Sarah off at a party early in the evening of New Year’s Day and, on her return, we started to tidy up the aftermath of the festivities. Then the phone rang. There was a pony out on the road above the ford and could Lizzy please help catch it? Mrs. Oliver hears well enough when she wants to and, as Lizzy put the phone down, she asked me if I’d go instead. Lizzy started to protest but, when I agreed, shot me a grateful look. I knew only too well how much she always missed Peter over the Christmas period. I put on coat and boots and went out into the rain.

When I got back the kitchen was immaculate and Mrs. Oliver was sitting straight-backed in her chair, a sherry bottle, two old wine glasses, and a large wide-necked plastic container of mixed nuts on the table in front of her. Without speaking she poured me a large glass of sherry and pushed the nuts towards me. Pulling off my coat, I caught sight of the photograph of the bell-ringers and, on a whim, asked who they were.

‘Lizzy’s gone up’.

I thought she’d decided to ignore my question but, after a sip of sherry, she adopted the storytelling voice I’d not heard since Sarah was little. She’d clearly been on the sherry some time.

She wasn’t particularly keen on bell ringing, but she was keen on the boy second from the end on the right. (She referred to him variously as ‘the boy’, ‘Bill’ and ‘Billy’, always with affection.) They were second cousins once removed and, looking carefully, I could see that his face somewhat resembled hers, round, strong browed, serious. She didn’t remember much about the rest of the group, only Billy and her friend Millie, but thought the younger man in the over-large suit was arrested in 1945 for selling black market goods. Billy was involved in bellringing because his uncle was both a church warden and a bellringer. Having persuaded Millie to sign up with her for moral support, Mrs. Oliver set about getting Billy to walk them home. (Millie lived two doors down.) As soon as she did Millie, now redundent, was allowed to gave up bell ringing. That happened shortly after the photograph was taken and, with Millie out of the way, Mrs. Oliver could focus on Billy.

They started walking out together properly when she was seventeen and, when Billy became an apprentice motor mechanic, she found weekday work cooking in a little hotel near the garage where he worked. Despite the hours, she and Billy managed to see a fair bit of each other. When the wat broke out and he was drafted into the RAF, she somehow managed to get work in catering at the big airfield where he was based. She then joined the WAAF when she was there and eventually rose to corporal. While she was there, she met Aircraftwoman 2nd ClassElizabeth Reed. Despite their different social backgrounds, the two women became lifelong friends.

Billy died just outside Caen, the result of burns following an accident. The two of them had promised his uncle they’d go back and ring the bells when the war ended, but when it came to it she hadn’t the heart. After her mother’s death she found the bell-ringers’ photograph among her mother’s things.

After the war she’d returned north to a job managing the canteen at Oliver and Son, an agricultural suppliers business. There she met young MasterMichael, a decorated soldier and a Socialist in a largely Tory world. She danced with him at the 1947 Christmas office dinner and accepted the offer of a lift home afterwards. After a short courtship they married. She’d wanted lots of children but he hadn’t. Once his father died he put the business first, something she took in her stride; that, his politics, and the charity work he did with his Polish friends. They had the two girls and, she added fondly, later you and the other children would always be around and needing to be feed.

 When she’d refilled our glasses a second time she asked about men in my life. Taken aback, I meant to give a quick answer and go home. But the sherry got the better of me. I told her that after Hamish I went off boys for a good while. I didn’t mention Mario. Instead I told her about London, the strangeness of living among people I knew nothing about, and who neither knew nor cared about me. About how, as a a child, I had longed to be just myself, Flora, not ‘Andy Buchan’s daughter’ or ‘one of the Oliver girls’ gang’ and, in consequence, how London had given me both a real shock and a new sense of identity. Finally, I told her a little about Quentin and my leaving him to return north.

‘Not much luck with the men then.’

I didn’t answer. I knew I should go home but it was blowing a gale again outside, the rain hammering the corrugated roofs of the outbuildings and clattering a metal bucket somewhere in the yard. I told her Quentin had been desperate to be a successful painter, and I didn’t want to play second fiddle to that. I didn’t tell her about going back to our flat with a sick headache one lunchtime and catching him and a voluptuous Spanish Masters student in flagrante delicto on our bed. I’d known for months we were drifting apart, but it took the shock of that betrayal to finish things between us.

‘Nobody local courting you?’

‘No.’

After another silence, she asked me what I was thinking. I had in fact been thinking wistfully about an all-too-brief affair in the last days before I left London, but I said I wished I’d been like Lizzy, set my heart on one man when I was young and, for better or worse, waited for him. Even I could hear just how maudlin that sounded.

‘Lizzy’s life’s been more complicated than you think.’

 

 Upper valley, June (sketch)

The rapid call of oystercatchers that rise and swerve sharply away, a flurry of black and white avoiding our advance, breaks into my reverie. From the distant hillside, now thick with flowers, come the barely audible sounds of sheep, curlew, lapwing. A small cloud of fieldfares rises from beyond the tree-covered bank and is swept away by a wind that does not yet reach down into these broad, sheltered, pool-dotted flats that run up alongside the upper burn above the gorge.

Closer at hand there is the ever-present plash and tumble of water that, combining with the unexpected warmth of the sun, becomes a soporific. The zigzag of ripples where we step across the narrowing burn echoes the strange, rhythmically stabbing heads of two goosanders working against the swift current in the river, now far below. Topping the steep bank above the ford we re-enter the realm of wind, its sound once again battering all else away from the inner ear. Everyday time returns.

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Parts Eleven and Twelve.

Telling Stories

Miss Richardson was Northumbrian born and bred, and had a great fund of old Northumbrian stories that she’d slip into our lessons as pointers to how the world worked. She knew we’d shut our ears to anything that smacked of preaching and so always told her stories accordingly. I still remember some of them. One was about the couple from Netherwitton who are asked to adopt the son of the king and queen of the fairies. The man is then blinded in one eye when he catches the king stealing. She had begun by asked what we thought of old stories about fairies. When we didn’t know how to respond to what seemed to us a silly question, she suggested that if people can’t criticize authority directly, they invent stories that allowed them to draw attention to the injustices they suffer.

The story I remember best was one she told us older children just before I left, about the treasure in Broomlee Lough. The treasure should have been recovered long ago, but a link in the specially forged chain needed to pull it up had broken. I can still feel the pleasure of the shock of her explaining that this was because the smith who had made it was not the seventh son in an unbroken line of smiths as his father claimed. It turned out his father had gone away to Willimoteswick to gamble with the drovers and, while he was away, a bold young tinker had visited the farm. Nine months later his wife had given birth to the boy who became the smith who made the link that broke. She said we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be impressed by people who claimed their family or birth made them special, because everyone has their faults.

Another story, which I appropriated and retold one evening in London when talking politics with Desideria, Giulia, Francesco, Mario and Simon, was ‘The Faa’s Revenge’. It’s about what happens to the people who forget that ‘their’ land is taken from the people who previously tended it; their wealth acquired at the expense of others’ labour. People who fail to respect the basic laws of human compassion. Being the amateur historian that she was, this tale was mixed in with information about Kirk Yetholm, for centuries the headquarters of the ‘Egyptians’ or Gypsies in Scotland. (We’d not then learned to call them Roma). Their king, John Faa, a contemporary of King James V, had been granted a letter under the Privy Seal that confirmed his authority over all his people in Scotland and required all sheriffs in the country to assist him in maintaining the laws of ‘Egypt’.

In my mind, I always link of this story to the old Border ballad I associate with John Faa’s people: which Child calls ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsy’, but is also known as ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsies O’, ‘The Gypsy Laddie’, ‘Black Jack Davy’ and ‘Seven Yellow Gypsies’, but I know next to nothing factual about Faa himself. There is, however, a story that presents a very different tale to that in the songs. Namely that Faa ran away with the Countess of Cassillis and that her husband followed them and caught them at a ford over the river Doon, still known as the Gypsies’ Steps. He then forced his wife to watch from an upstairs room while he had Faa and his followers hanged in front of the Castle Gate at Cassillis. She was then said to have been imprisoned for the rest of her life. While Faa’s role as king of ‘Little Egypt’ is historical fact, there is absolutely no evidence to support the story of John Faa and the Earl of Cassillis’ wife.

‘Jan. 1979’

 

Laura

Iain, even now I find writing about Laura difficult. The facts are straight forward enough. Laura was Hamish’s imaginary friend and, apparently, my ‘lost’ twin sister. (Just how or why she was lost I was never told, but she was supposed to have disappeared soon after we were born.) Literally speaking, then, Laura was simple a fiction. But, because of being a shared secret I never participated in first hand, because of things that happened and didn’t happen between Hamish and me later, and because she became all too real in my dreams, it’s all rather more complicated than that.

I can’t find the James Hillman quote in the first Debateable Lands book just now, but the gist of it has stayed with me. That we don’t die alone but join the ancestors, the little people, the whole multitude of compound souls who inhabit our nightworld; the various complexes we talk to, the invisible friends who pass through our lives, all with their gifts of desires, fears, regretful sighs, surprising ideas. The multitude who accompany us all along, both angelic and demonic figures. Both angelic and demonic accomplices who, like the beasts in Rilke’s first ‘Duino Elegy’, are aware that we’re not really at home in this interpreted world but, as with habits, liked us and lodged, never gave notice. I think many children, like the animals they often feel closest to, notice how literally, reductively, adults take the world. Literally, of course, in large part to avoid having to acknowledge the ancestors and accomplices who give the lie to our belief that we are self-contained, self-sufficient monads. All of which is a way of saying I’ve come to think differently about Hamish, so haunted by his feared father’s obsessive vocation, and by all the ghosts of dead priests and academics who created the family library going generations back. Haunted too, I suppose, if only for a while, by me, Laura’s supposed twin sister. But all this relates, strictly speaking, to the time when Laura had gone to ground after my arrival in the village.

Hamish had been a sickly, and an unhappy, child. His maternal grandmother cared for him much of the time when he was small because his father insisted his wife put parish business first. His grandmother had worked as a librarian at Edinburgh University until she married a Classics professor twenty years her senior. When the Professor died, she moved south to be near her only daughter. Mrs. Laidlow read Hamish fairytales and all manner of poetry, including Petrarch’s The Canzoniere, which is maybe where the name ‘Laura’ came from. She knew perfectly well that her son-in-law regarded fairytales as an irrelevance in a properly Christian culture, and thought secular poetry was produced by unbelievers and degenerates. I like to think that’s why she read them to Hamish.

Hamish never spoke to me about Laura and I never asked him about her. I think he must have been afraid I’d tease him or challenge his story. I know, however, that before I arrived, Laura was the great secret he shared with a select few: Patsy, Cat, and two other girls at school, Mary Bell and Barbara Dunne. She became the central figure in their imaginative lives until my arrival broke the spell.

This seems to be what happened, pieced together from what Cat and Patsy later told me. They all somehow missed the announcement that a little girl called Flora was to join them next term, all except Patsy, and she misheard it. In high excitement, she told the others that the teachers had said Laura was coming to join them at school next term. I don’t know what Hamish made of this, only that Laura’s imminent arrival ‘in the flesh’ caused some consternation.

Hamish had enthralled the four girls with stories of Laura’s adventures for several months. Although Cat always insisted she knew perfectly well they were ‘just make-up’, Patsy insisted they all wanted very badly to believe in Laura. At that time Hamish had that pale, slightly unreal, aura of someone recovering from serious illness, so it no doubt it seemed entirely possible to them that he’d know about a mysterious girl who lived alone in the moss. Someone adults mistook, if she appeared in their peripheral vision, for a vixen, a roe doe, or a brilliant dragonfly.

Laura lived in Lady Moss and the surrounding woodland.

Later, when I learned ‘Long Lankin’, I used to imagine Laura and Long Lankin sharing a shelter there, with her listening to his muttering about the wrongs done to him and the terrible revenge he’d take. But Hamish was talking about our moss, one of the rare places that, as primary school children, we were expected to stay away from. Not, as far as I remember, forbidden because adults thought it was particularly dangerous (it wasn’t), but because it was simply somewhere they’d rather we didn’t go.

This, of course, made our going there essential if we wanted to earn the respect of our peers. There was, however, a ritual to be observed when making such a visit. You always told a friend you were going to the moss, you went alone, and you marked your visit by adding a little stripe of fabric with your first name written on it to the old tree right in the heart of the moss. Judging by the amount of old, decaying cloth there when I was a child, this ritual had been observed for a long time. Whether the moss was originally home to a ‘clootie’ tree I simply don’t know, but its name suggests it might in some way have been connected to either the Virgin Mary or to the Queen of Elphame.

Located between a big Sitka spruce plantation on one side and a string of small upland fields, our wooded moss lay just to the north of a flat, meandering section of Black Burn. With its dim light, numerous moths, tangle of stunted birch roots, dark pools, and sense of almost uncanny stillness, the moss was a perfect place in which to imagine Laura.

Patsy later told me that, after I turned up, Hamish quickly explained me away by saying the grownups had made a mistake. I wasn’t Laura but her very ordinary twin sister, and that I didn’t know a thing about her because she’d been stolen away.

When I was a girl, I tended to assume that Hamish was just naturally quiet, since that’s how he usually was when we were together. Later I wondered whether his silences weren’t the result of his being deeply preoccupied, working out how to locate me in relation to Laura, his first and perhaps deepest, all-be-it imagined, love. Did he really see me as her twin, or as her pale shadow or, later, perhaps as her uncanny, uncertain double; perhaps even as a dubious, ultimately illusory, seductress sent to make him forget her? Our imaginal life works in such odd ways any of these seems possible.

Quite some while after we split up, a figure I just knew was Laura started haunting my dreams, my ominous darker-haired, sharper-faced doppelganger. Her persistent presence eventually became frightening and, in the end, I had to exorcise her by making a ‘Laura’ mask for a little ritual where I ‘became’ Laura. (Why this took the form of a stylized fox’s head I don’t remember, but no doubt it was suggested by the dreams.) I got a friend to photograph me wearing it, to evidence the fact that I had finally ‘become’ Hamish’s Laura. But still, occasionally, there’s this young girl’s voice in my head that tells me I’m just imaginary, an invisible part of someone else’s kith!

I have wondered about Laura and her animal forms since I learned of the widespread folk beliefs that a person’s spirit can take possession of an animal, often to help the living in some way. You’ll remember our discussing the idea that children have a sense of themselves as emerging out of a field of forces and materials too big for them to grasp, only some of which are captured in their current, human, form? I suspect Hamish was just such a child, somebody who was troubled with illness and an unhappy home life and didn’t make the conventional absolute distinction between humans and the animals and insects he saw around him on an almost daily basis. So, Laura could also be a fox, a roe doe, a dragonfly, as well as a girl. Just as like so many girls in old songs who take animal form and then, as often as not, are killed accidently by their lovers.

I’ve also linked all this to A.’s comment in your book that he was all for permeability, which he linked to explorations of various figures from old folk cultures: the Mistress of the Animals, the Women from Outside, Artemis, Richelle, the Mistress of the Game, Oriente, and the Queen of Elphame. All these powerful figures who could move between the visible and invisible, the worlds of humans, animals and the dead. After his beloved and awe-inspiring Nana’s death, maybe the poetic figures she’d evoked leaked into Hamish’s world, a compound that took the form of Laura?

Sarah Aitcheson wearing the Flora / Faun / Laura mask.

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Part ten – Something elusive

Something elusive

 One August morning in my childhood I remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom with my chin on the windowsill. A great flurry of rooks and jackdaws wheeled out over the big field behind the cottage, which had been cut for hay late into the previous evening. The field was dappled by swift shadows as a succession of small clouds blew past high above. I absorbed this unthinkingly, with the sun’s warmth, much as a cat might. The quality of these northern uplands that are, and yet are not, my home, was already settling into my marrow.

Now this is all bound up with a sense of something I can’t name but recognise as related to Don McKay’s notion of ‘wilderness’ as ‘the capacity of all things to elude the mind’s appropriations’.[1] But as soon as I write this I feel doubtful. In the past, London friends have interpreted my reluctance to talk about my northern childhood as indicative of some lack; an oblique reference to a problematic exile following the loss of my mother.

I think that’s nonsense, but ….

I suspect my not speaking about certain aspects of my childhood relates to something more complex and elusive than that loss; to my unruly love/hate relationship with the brooding and beautiful land in which I’ve lived and worked most of my life. A relationship that is also bound up with my intense dislike of a system of land ownership and management, based on a largely unacknowledged history of violence, that still determines so much about this landscape.

However, that child with her chin on the windowsill might, if you’d persuaded her, have admitted that her reluctance to speak about such things also had to do with her fear of glaciers. She imagined glaciers as vast implacable and deadly cows’ tongues, slowly rasping away the big salt lick of the world. She must have picked up on something Miss Richardson said at school and glaciers and ice fields haunted her imagination for years. She had nightmares about them freezing and eating everything living in the whole world. This seems so strange now, in a world of rapidly melting ice-caps, but was vividly real to her then. In that nightmare, vast sheets of rough ice came oh-so-terribly-slowly down the valley in the darkness, inexorably crushing and freezing everything in their path as they headed for our cottage. And with them came an overwhelming sense of an icy death without rest or stillness.

So perhaps Mum’s death had a part in my reticence after all.

There’s one other thing that may relate to the glacier business and my associated fear of the cold. I was a beanpole of a child who said she was hungry all the time.[2] (I’m sure now that wasn’t true.) Perhaps it was my way of protesting against being landed in this cold, wet, and windy place where I always seemed to have to find the energy to walk up yet another hill. I do remember early on enduring weeks of cold, unending, near-horizontal rain that so lashed the valley that the sheep and cattle seemed permanently huddled in the lea of whatever afforded them shelter. A rain that rattled on our roof and could even be heard over the sullen growl and rumble of the river, which normally ran so quietly some fifteen yards from our front door. So maybe it’s no wonder that the warmth and bounty of Mrs. Oliver’s Homehaugh kitchen looms so large in my memory. While it’s certainly the case that, as a child, I grew fast and did feel the cold, Miss Richardson was right when she told me that saying I was always hungry was ‘just a habit’. But, writing this now, I wonder less about the habit than the question: ‘hungry for what’?

Mum died when I was nearly seven. She and Dad were work partners too and, I believe, very happy despite problems with Mum’s foster parents. She was twenty-two and Dad thirty-one when they married secretly in a registry office the day after she graduated from the veterinary college where he taught part-time. Her wealthy parents, her adopted father the last of an old Catholic family, were appalled. Dad was a godless Scot of humble farming stock and, to add insult to injury, I came into the world three months earlier than was expected by respectable people.

I used to pretend I don’t know how Mum died so as not to have to talk about it. In fact, Aunt Claire told me what happened. Mum got an infected cut that didn’t respond properly to antibiotics. She developed a fever and then became seriously ill. After eleven weeks of inconclusive diagnoses and progressively longer periods in hospital, she died from complications resulting from a neurotropic virus. It sounds clichéd, but I think part of Dad died with her. As far as I know he never so much as went out with another woman. But then I suppose his only daughter might have been the last to know if he had.

I owe a lot to Miss Richardson, but I took her entirely for granted then. She taught me to look, listen, and think carefully about what I saw and heard. She illuminated our lessons with her knowledge and enthusiasm as a highly competent amateur naturalist and well-respected local historian. She could be stern, even frightening (she needed to be, given some of the children she taught), with a brisk matter-of-factness that almost hid her essential kindness. But whatever our various quarrels with her when we were under her charge, I never heard an adult she taught speak ill of her.

 

I always enjoyed her stories and, when I heard she’d died, I came up from London for the funeral. Everyone turned out to pay their respects, including lots of former pupils who’d moved away. Her funeral gave me a sense of our community here that nothing before or since has matched. It helped me decide to move back north.

[1] The reference is to Don McKay (2001) ‘Vis-à-vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness’ Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Gaspereau Press MMI, p. 24.

[2] This once led to a strange exchange that Flora didn’t understand at the time but which stayed with her. She wrote in a letter to me that Miss Richardson had an eccentric woman friend, a regular visitor to the village, who was a folklorist from the Highlands. She would often come into the school to talk to the children and, on one such visit, overheard Flora complaining about being hungry and called her over. Flora vividly remember her saying, very seriously: ‘be careful what you say lass, or a just-halver might hear you. You don’t want one of them’. This stayed with Flora because she had absolutely no idea what the woman meant, seemed to be entirely serious, and so frightened Flora. The following passage is from Lizanne Henderson and Edward J. Cowan’s Scottish Fairy Belief (2001): “Humans who ate a lot yet never seemed to gain any weight were believed to have ‘a voracious elve’ called ‘geirt coimitheth, a joynt-eater, or just-halver, feeding on the pith and quintessence of what the man (sic) eats, and that therefore he continues lean like a hauke or heron, notwithstanding his devouring appetite” (p. 63)].

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Parts eight and nine

Many Selves

I can quite easily name some of my day-world selves. There’s the practical and pragmatic ‘countrywoman’ who is intermeshed with Lizzy’s local and regional worlds. Then there is her intellectual sister, the somewhat brittle ‘cosmopolitan’ or ‘European’ who learned her politics (and no doubt her tendency towards disdain) in London. Then off a bit to one side of them, and always slightly detached, there’s the ‘Mender and Maker’, on whom we’re all economically dependent. Back from these three there’s the ‘Listener /Respondent’ who first contacted you and who, I suppose, is the dominant voice in all this writing. She hovers uncertainly between my day-world and the night-world selves, who I’m far less certain about.

Maybe because we only find each other on the edge of reverie, catch each other’s eye at twilight, ‘between the dog and the wolf’, and then whisper to each other while playing games of hide-and-seek in dreams. There’s certainly a girl like the thin, uncertain schoolchild who loved Cat and Kate so fiercely. But then there’s her brother (?), a strange boy who might be the double of Dad’s uncertain little daughter as she was on the cusp of puberty. There’s a gaunt, older, woman who sometimes wakes me at night, whose yearning for a helpmate and bedfellow still unsettles me. And there are many others, odder and more elusive. For example, a woman dressed all in green, young or old is hard to say, someone I once tried to paint. In my painting she was thin-lipped, angry, righteous, and pale as death. For reasons I no longer remember, I called her Our Lady of the Roadkill. There are also numerous other, shadowy, beings (human and otherwise), many of whom have stalked me since childhood and, maybe, before. The shadowy revenants and composites, including a person who’s somewhere between Mike and Hamish, and various doppelgangers of friends like Richard and yourself.

All I can be certain of is that all these figures are somehow part of myself and none of them quite what they seem. They’re one reason why I’m writing all this.

Familiar animals

I sometimes wonder which animals would act as familiars if I were the ‘skinny little witch’ Lizzy once named me during a schoolyard quarrel? I imagine there would be at least three.

The first is called Finn by his owner. He’s a large white dog belonging to an ex-soldier who I greet regularly as he passes me on his bicycle. He and Finn live in a homestead made up of small sheds and a caravan, all set back from the path through the lower pasture beside Home Burn. Finn has the shed nearest the path but only barks if you go too close. He and his master appear disinterested, self-sufficient, uncomplaining. Both seem beings of considerable intelligence. I recently watched Finn as, untethered, he hunted rabbits across the low meadow and among the broom bushes that fringe it. He’s a swift and terrible killer. Mostly, however, he watches over the valley floor, its guardian and familiar.

The second is the large black cat who lives with Barbara Graham, a young widow, and her two boys in the end-of-terrace cottage next to the graveyard. The small steep fields above and below the terrace are his fiefdom, although occasionally I glimpse him much further away. (I assume from his swagger that he’s male.) I often notice him at dawn or around sunset, those in-between times. Then he haunts my peripheral vision, a lithe black presence suddenly animating some otherwise taken-for granted corner of land. He’s a mercurial figure, happy to mediate between my day and night worlds, moving purposefully or idly as suits him, out there at the edge of the human order and, sometimes, vast, shadowy yet soaked in moonlight, through my most private dreams.

I don’t know this cat’s name. He watches me speculatively when I past him, as if calculating something. Once he came slowly down the top of a wall and invited me to rub his head and under his chin before moving on. The quality of his purr was astonishing, a skin drum full of bees. He too is a skillful hunter and extraordinarily strong. I’ve seen him jump from the roadside to the top of a dry-stone wall with the corpse of a fully-grown rabbit in his jaws. I think he knows he has my greatest respect for this and his other qualities.

During our single face-to-face encounter, I was struck by the rough, luxurious density of his fur. He appears at a distance to be black but, in sunlight and close to, is a dark chocolate brown that shifts in intensity as he moves. The density and luxuriousness of his fur reminded me somehow of pubic hair. (I hear Kate say questioningly: ‘really, pet’, followed by her pirate’s dirty chuckle). That’s to say of the time when, a little girl of maybe five, I walked in unannounced on Aunty Claire to say I couldn’t sleep. She was standing with her back to me, quite naked, in front of the full-length mirror. Everything was dimly lit and smelled lovely and, in the mirror, I saw this thick luxurious dark triangle under her belly where I had only my little pale purse.

When I asked about it she quickly covered herself with a towel and laughed in that way adults do when they’re about to lie to children. She said: ‘Mummy will tell you all about it when you’re older’. But, of course, Mummy didn’t because by then she was dead. Ironically, it was Aunty Claire that Dad asked to explain the ‘facts of life’ to me. I’d known them for some time by then however, mostly thanks to Kate, but pretended I didn’t so as not to disappoint her.

There’s something uncanny about this cat with his dense black fur, something that differentiates him from solidly literal Finn in the meadows below. There is absolutely nothing uncanny or liminal about Finn. What you see is what you get. The cat, however, while he is preternaturally present and so invites me to be the same, is equally familiar in the shadowed between-spaces that link day and night, insidious memory and lucid dream, together; as much a carrier of sleeping souls as of dead rabbits over seemingly insuperable obstacles.

There is a third familiar, one I find myself strangely reluctant to write about because I feel its silent presence as being close to the void of death. I identify ‘it’, (I cannot provide a gender) and, indeed, there may be a pair, with the great ‘white lands’ of the high hills, the bleached expanses of Molinia and other rough grasses up there where the hares dance and have their forms. Unlike the other two familiars, I see it in a space now almost entirely outside the realm of current everyday human concern, a creature of the night wind and half clouded moon.

It’s a great white barn owl that hunts among the tumbled walls and collapsing sheds either side of the top road. I usually see it gliding somewhere along the stretch of road that runs up under the long gray outcrop before it climbs the last ridge and takes you over into the next valley. I suspect this spectral bird nests in the last of the old quarry sheds left standing. I’ve seen it no more than a dozen times in almost as many years, although I drive that way at night at least once a fortnight during nine months of the year. But I always sense its presence there, wondering if the headlights will catch its feathered bulk in silent flight out over the night landscape.

 

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Part seven: The respondent

[This the seventh of forty-nine narrative sections that make up Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3, the concluding work of my Debatable Lands deep mapping project. The complete work is now available on request as a pdf. If you would like a copy, please contact me at: iain19biggs@gmail.com].

 

 

The respondent

Iain, I kept a copy of all my responses to you from our exchanges about the first ‘Debatable Lands’ book. You’ve probably long since forgotten them, but I think there are a few that still seem pertinent to what I’ve been struggling with in writing this. They are as follows.

 1]. You identified A. as a personification of questions about the world in which you earned your living. That identification was obviously central. You also called him a constant companion, which to my mind makes him equivalent to an invisible friend who accompanied you as you moved on from the world you conjured up in ‘Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig’. But it’s his role as the voice addressing the circumstances of your inability to reconcile your daughter’s long-term illness with the Apollonian attitudes of the medical world and, increasingly, of the academic research world in which you were enmeshed, that seems to me central to what’s been going on right across your work all these years.

This relates, it seems to me, to a powerful point of contact between the two of us. There are I think parallels between the, sometimes tense, role that A. played in your writing and the tensions between my ‘cosmopolitan’ self and the ‘country woman’ self who, sometimes grudgingly, participates in Lizzy’s world as seen by the local community. (There’s another Lizzy who is troubled and fragile and altogether different to the one the community sees). I would need to give more thought to this parallel but wanted to put down as a marker for myself about our relationship.

My provisional view is that A. was an aspect of yourself, a separate, even quasi-independent, entity who has a degree of distance from a situation you sometimes found almost impossible to live with. And I now suspect that I’ve taken on something of that grumpy old bastard’s role.    

 2]. I think you’re at least partly right about the working people here in the past living in multiple interpenetrating worlds; as interacting with, as I think you wrote, the familiar earth of animals and plants, the celestial world of God’s heaven, the demonic world of Satan, and the preternatural world of the planets and the stars. That although officially God sat spider-like in the center and governed the whole, in practice people lived among a multitude of contending forces located in an uncertain relationship to Divine Law.

Also, that ritual action, prayer, and chant or song might be employed to magically affect the interplay of contending forces. I liked your reminder that magic had different forms: ceremonial or angelic, natural, artificial, or demonic, the first two often blended with spiritual disciplines and prayers indistinguishable from the rituals of popular Catholicism. Of course, (she says!) this was associated primarily with women as practitioners of a magical form of healing, conducted out of motives of neighborliness, paternalism, good housekeeping, Christian charity or simply self-help. I’m sure many villages did have their nurses and wise women well-versed in herb-lore and in secret brews and potions, so that their medicine often blended into white magic and, as you say, sometimes verged on black. I still know people who can assume a certain authority locally based on a (perhaps misplaced) sense of that tradition and all that had once underwrote it. After all, I’ve heard an old man in Ellingham say that it was only when the railway came that the fairies stopped dancing on the Fairy Hill!

Who else but women would take the time to attend to all this, then as now? …

3]. You can imagine my delight at reading what you wrote about women’s lives on the Western Marches between the Twelfth and Sixteenth Centuries. The part of me who revels in the distaff Borders heritage I shared with Kate whooped with delight that in 1327 women on the Western March took part in raiding like some of their Gaelic-speaking sisters in Ireland. How very practical to carry off the shorn wool and linen that the men disregarded! No wonder they were characterized as independent-minded, courageous, absolute mistresses of their own houses, and concerned to dress well by foreign observers in Protestant Edinburgh. I do wonder, however, what the authorities there thought? I suspect they saw them as, at best, badly behaved and, at worst, ‘whores’. I particularly like the Italian ambassador’s comment about they’re being bold and not distinguished for their chastity because they gave their kisses more readily than Italian women gave their hands. That’s perfect for Kate, somehow.

You write that we have no equivalent woman’s penitential testimony to match that of Geordie Burn. But the Kates of our world in their earlier incarnations would surely have matched him, hopefully not in murdering, but quite possibly in drinking, stealing, taking deep revenge for slight offences, and in sexual adventures. I think of them as the Borders contemporaries of the Nurse in ‘Romeo and Juliet, Margaret in Much Ado about Nothing and Audrey in ‘As you Like It’.  Anyway, on a practical level, Geordie Burn never have found about forty men’s wives to fornicate with if there’d been no wives willing to oblige him! So, where are their voices now?

I’m sure that the repertoire of Borders singers in early Stuart times would have consisted of far more than Riding ballads about feuds and raids. You’ve only to think of the diverse repertoire of the early Bluesmen like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton and Peetie Wheatstraw. They all had to earn a living and did it by singing what people wanted to hear.

Furthermore, why would James IV pay the Carlisle girl twenty-eight shillings (which must have been a fortune then) to sing ballads that dignified the very way of life he was campaigning so hard to end? It’s easy to forget that ballad collectors like Scott and Child had their own presuppositions based on class, propriety, and gender. I doubt they were any more tolerant of bawdy than the pious folk who condemned the Blues as the devil’s music and I’m sure their collections represent only a fraction of the songs known to someone like the ‘Carlisle girl’. (I say this knowing something of the repertoire of her modern equivalents, the singers among today’s Scots Travelers.) 

Woman working at the Tar Heel Mica Co. Inc., in Plumtree, North Carolina.

(photo. Elizabeth Turrell)

I was very moved by what you wrote about Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles meeting with Cis Jones. Lovely that she sang them versions of the old ballads: ‘Long Lankin’, ‘Barbara Allen’, ‘Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender’, ‘Lord Bateman’, ‘The Elfin Knight’, and ‘Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard’. Moving too that she was sometimes accompanied by her two daughters and her granddaughters. Good for Maud for seeing through Sharp’s claim that Cis was of sound English stock and for acknowledging that about one third of Appalachian songs were carried on Scottish and Irish (I’d guess Scots-Irish) melodies! Interesting too that the supposedly English singers were mostly of northern English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish descent. So that Appalachian song culture, from the early C18th on, must have involved constant cross-cultural exchange between different European migrant groups, Native Americans, Melungeons, and Afro-Americans.

I’m also interested that Cis Jones’ belonging to the Holy Rollers religious sect didn’t stop her singing ballads, given how often they intervened to prevent the collectors from hearing ‘love songs’. I’d give a good deal to know what was in Cis’ mind when she said she was sure Sharp and Karpeles would make no bad use of the ballads. It makes them sound like spells, part of the lore of ‘granny women’ and ‘yarb doctors’. Maybe the other singer Sharp and Karpeles were particularly interested in, Julie Boone, was rarely at home, and wandered all around the country bare-footed staying wherever she happened to be when it was dark, because she was out collecting ‘yarbs’? Anyway, you’ve given me an appetite to discover more about all this and, when I do, I’ll report back.[1]

Re-reading these old thoughts again today made me think about the many different persons that make me up. I’ll come back to this another time.

[1] Flora was true to her word on this and, among other things, obtained an extraordinary set of photographs taken at the Tar Heel Mica Co. Inc., of Plumtree, North Carolina by the ceramicist Elizabeth Turrell, (see colour image above). Flora wrote to me that she’d like to think of the women in them as the granddaughters of people like Cis Jones and Julie Boone, although she doubted they still shared their beliefs.

 

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Part 6. ‘The Two Kitchens’.

The two kitchens

Almost the first thing Mrs. Oliver did when she moved in with Lizzy and Sarah was to ask if she could hang an old photograph from Homehaugh on the kitchen wall. When it was up she’d regularly glance at it, fondly but reverentially, as a devout Russian Orthodox believer might at an old family icon.

In that photograph, she’s about fifteen and looks assertively out from the middle of a group of bell-ringers. A rather short, serious-looking girl in school uniform who is already becoming the woman I’ve known since I was eight. On her left a taller, thinner girl with glasses, Millie, identically dressed but for white ankle socks. She looks as if she’s about to giggle. There are eight older men and one younger, who wears an ill-fitting double-breasted jacket. Finally, there’s a schoolboy about the age of the girls. Everyone looks very serious except Millie and the younger man.

This photograph now hangs in Lizzy’s kitchen next to an old child’s blackboard where farm and household tasks are written and erased daily. It overlooks the big kitchen table with its dark green legs, draws for cutlery, and ridged and knotted pine top. The house revolves around this table, located as it is between the yard beyond the back door, the farm office and passage that leads to the sitting room, and a shabby utility room dominated by a big old washing machine that’s always busy. It’s the hub of a working world-without-end, now watched over by Mrs. Oliver’s bell ringers. They used to face the kitchen window at Homehaugh, the house where Lizzy and her sister Kate were born and grew up. There, from opposite the massive double sink, they looked out across the narrow back lane, the small home field and churchyard, towards the high hill above.

That photograph is also witness to a lifetime of Mrs. Oliver’s cooking. To thick yellow scones, large uneven loaves of brown bread, crusty meat pies, and the almost black rich fruit cake that always appeared in our bait-boxes on holiday trips, walks or rides out. To eat that cake again now is to return to childhood, to meals in the hidden river valley or the hills, the taste of many expeditions. And to drinking sweet tea out of chipped enamel mugs in the big shabby back room at Homehaugh itself on wet winter Sunday afternoons. The smell of cooking would waft in to where we all sprawled, us girls chatting with half an ear on the boys’ squabbling and to whatever music James was currently playing: Dylan, Them, The Animals, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Leonard Cohen.

Mrs. Oliver cooks less now and Lizzy is reluctantly stepping into her shoes. Reluctantly because she’s so busy on the farm, but also because she knows she’ll never cook as well as her mother and has a competitive streak. Mrs. Oliver helps her cook weekdays and, at weekends, teaches her granddaughter Sarah. That, along with her regular glance towards the bell ringers, suggests she’s feeling her age. I see these things because I’m in and out of that kitchen all the time.

I learned from Lizzy that her mother met Elizabeth Aitcheson (then Elizabeth Reed) as a canteen manager in the WAAF. Lizzy is named after her and because of that friendship they moved to Homehaugh in 1954, shortly after old Mr Oliver died. Elizabeth Reed’s older brother, a bomber pilot, was killed late in the war and her younger brother, a soldier who became a Japanese prisoner-of-war, died in 1947. At that point, Elizabeth Reed left home. (The locals always assumed there was a man involved, something Mrs. Oliver dismissed as empty gossip.) Elizabeth only returned after a car accident that left her permanently lame. Her father, old Mr Reed, never recovered from losing the boys and wanted to make a male cousin his heir. There was a monumental family row of the kind we specialize in on the Borders and have done from time immemorial. In the end, a formidable great aunt of Lizzy’s brokered a compromise whereby the estate was put in trust, although this involved certain conditions that put Elizabeth under pressure to marry. She left home again when she could and only returned when her father was dying. (Her mother had died four years after her younger brother was born.) Then Elizabeth suddenly married Sir William Aitcheson. Handsome, titled, a decorated war hero, well-connected in both the business and political worlds, he was considered by the Reed clan to be ‘a very good catch’, not to mention ‘a remarkably good fellow’ for marrying an eccentric, if wealthy, cripple. It was clearly a marriage of convenience from the start, since they mostly lived apart. She up here, him in York or London. He got his big country estate and shooting parties each summer; she her sons and a loosening of the trust’s hold on the estate.

Lizzy’s parents were uneasy about Sir William from the start. They felt he took too much for granted and, while Mrs. Oliver wasn’t entirely immune to his considerable charm, she thought him untrustworthy. Mr. Oliver disliked him from the start as a smooth Public School man, a snob, and an ‘incomer’ (conveniently ignored the fact that the Armstrongs have always been a Name to reckon with in the Borders.)

Personally, I think Sir William was predictably true to type, but with the savvy to find new ways to underwrite his traditional presuppositions about family, class, and entitlement. But then Lizzy would say I’ve always been unnecessarily critical of our landowning class since I went to London.

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Parts 4 and 5: ‘Fragments from genealogies’ & ‘Richard Kerr’

[These are the fourth and fifth of forty-nine narrative sections that make up Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3, the concluding work of my Debatable Lands deep mapping project. The complete work is now available on request as a pdf. If you would like a copy, please contact me at: iain19biggs@gmail.com].

Fragments from genealogies

 

 

Richard Kerr

Richard had rented a cottage on the southern edge of our high moorland for several years before I discovered he was there.

When Dad and I first moved north, Richard was studying at university and often visited us in the summer. I didn’t see a lot of him then because he stayed in the old caravan in the garden, although he sometimes ate with us in the evening. But I often heard him, talking with Dad downstairs late into the night, or singing when he came in for a bath. I was rather shy of him because his occasional appearances at breakfast, still glowing from his bath and dressed only in shorts, gave me my first, somewhat bewildering, taste of the mysterious attraction of the male body. I do, however, have a very fond memory of us all playing tag out in the back garden early one morning the year we moved north. Me rushing around on the wet grass playing the fool, and the two men so bent up with laugher they’d no chance of catching me. It was the first time I remember Dad laughing properly after Mum died.

After Richard graduated we got snippets of news from Christmas cards. He got a First in Earth Sciences, did a Masters in Environmental Studies, and then a Ph.D. on something involving the Forestry Commission. He was overseas when we had Dad’s funeral and I lost touch with him after that. So, when I heard where he was living I got his number and rang him. We agreed to meet for lunch at a pub after I’d made a delivery, suggesting neutral territory in case, after all those years, we didn’t hit it off. As it turned out, we did.

He was a little late. He’d helped with a stray bullock hit by a lorry and then needed to clean up. We talked over a ploughman’s lunch and then went back at his cottage and continued over mugs of tea. We walked a big mongrel called Mike, who Richard shared with a neighbour. Then he made soup and we ate it together with bread, cheese, pickle and his own small sweet tomatoes, grown in a little ramshackle greenhouse behind the garage. We were still talking when I noticed it was almost midnight and that I needed to drive home.

Richard had worked full-time for the Forestry Commission as a ‘field scientist’ and then diversified. He studies, and occasionally culls, roe deer and acts as a consultant. He also records data for various long-term environmental projects on forestry for two different universities. The cottage is full of books, the garden of vegetables and bees that, like Mike, he shares with a neighbour because his work involves traveling. When he’s at home he also does odd jobs around the village, mostly gardening, walling and other handyman stuff. He says it’s to supplement ‘the pittance’ he gets for his work, but I suspect it’s just as much because he’s gregarious, likes to gossip, and enjoys the physical work.

Richard is tall, lean, with a weathered face and crow’s feet around his eyes. His hair is thick, cut close, flecked with grey, and starting to recede. He has powerful arms and big expressive hands – the hairs on their backs are ginger brown but go almost blond in summer – with which he gestures as he talks. His voice is no less deep, lively or edged with laughter than in my childhood memories. When he gave me a farewell kiss on the cheek he smelled slightly earthy, with a hint of wood smoke, well lived-in wool, a touch of sweat, and a hint of garlic from the soup. As I turned I felt a faint tug of desire and, for the time it took me to walk to the van, turn, and wave back to the figure in the doorway, I wondered what he would be like as a lover. A mistake. But I made a resolution to visit him when I could.

‘RK’

As it turns out there wasn’t that much time for visiting. I saw him twice that spring and maybe four or five times over the summer and into the autumn. In early November, a community forestry group on the Isle of Mull hired him as a consultant. He met Margaret there and sent an email announcing that they were engaged and he’d be moving to Mull. The significant bit read:

I’ve met someone called Margaret McDonald, a wonderful woman who lives here with her son Ben, a boy who sings like a lark and has given all their hens Gaelic names. (Ben’s father was drowned at sea when he was three.) Margaret is fifty per cent of the post office here. She also helps run an internet repair business for the north end of the island. A pillar of the local community in the best sense, who has helped negotiate me a part-time job here on a highlands and islands community forest initiate. Despite my advanced age, she has also graciously agreed to marry me. Wedding invitations will follow in due course and, as soon as I can sort myself out, I’ll move to Mull.

I was invited to the wedding but made my excuses. I sent them the little yew box I’d made him as next year’s Christmas present, along with a copy of an old photo of Dad with myself, aged about ten I suppose. I last saw him when he and Ben drove away with the remainder of his possessions. He had spent a week sorting out his lease, saying goodbye to friends, collecting up the last of his books, furniture and so on into his van and a horse trailer he’d borrowed from Margaret’s brother. Mike and the bees had already gone. Sarah Aitcheson helped me entertain Ben while Richard was busy. A thin, darkly beautiful boy who said little, but smiled his dazzling slow shy smile to make up for it.

Richard, Ben, Lizzy, Sarah and I squeezed around my kitchen table for supper the night before they left. We had a grand evening together and, despite my sadness, I enjoyed watching Sarah, then just turned sixteen, try out her already considerable charms on young master Ben. She was wearing her big black DMs, red tights, short sleeveless blue dress over a black tee shirt, with her long dark hair tied back and up. Very adult-looking but still also just a girl – that wonderful combination of not quite knowing what to do with her body, of ready smiles and open laughter, the odd blush, and those almost savage little surges of energy that ensure she’s never still for long. Ben, probably a year or two younger, was clearly smitten. Watching them flirt and laugh together I remembered her aunt Kate at Sarah’s age. When we said goodbye outside his cottage late in the morning the next day, I had the sinking feeling in my stomach I get now whenever someone who matters to me goes away.

After the goodbyes, Richard started the van and, opening the window, passed me the white glazed ceramic bottle he’d kept among assorted oddments on the old pantry shelf. I’d said, the last time I called in, that it was a little white sentinel, keeping watch on the home road. As he gave it me he smiled and gave a little nod. Then he reversed the trailer around the yard and headed down the lane. Sarah, who had come to help load but spent most of her time flirting with Ben, forgot about being grown-up and jumped up and down, waved wildly, until they disappeared.

I went straight back inside to shut windows and start locking up. I needed time alone to still my heart.