Six year old girl, blonde hair, green eyes, hovers over a dead body. Her first dead body. There is no rule book for this situation, there was no picture book to tell her what to do or prepare her for this.
My sister, two years younger, had run away at the sight of the rusted fur but something tied me to the fox. Its body lay sprawled at the base of a horse chestnut tree. One of many that made up our wood; the envy of classmates who dreamt of tree houses and conkers.
Above, in the protective canopy, white and pink candles proudly declared Spring’s presence. I remember the man we found in our driveway staring at the waxy peach cones, amazed, full of questions about this abnormality. Questions we had no answers for, this was just how they grew, with their darker, smaller leaves and empty spiny shells that disappointed our friends. They had expected the rich smooth gift of a conker.
A glassy eye blinked. A muscle reaction I would later find out.
I stood watch over the body; chestnut tail, russet body, milky ruff and charcoal tipped ears.
There was no blood. The small creature lay seemingly as peaceful as a cat basking in the sun. It was not the fox I feared, it was not the death I feared, but I did fear leaving it alone. It felt wrong to witness death and walk away.
We buried it, my Dad and I, under a beech tree. Near the family pets but not so close that the fox would terrorise the guinea pigs, the chickens or the cats in the afterlife.
One of the tasks from the Wild Words course I did was to write about flooding. In York, in 2015, there were awful floods which affected many people and areas that aren’t usually flooded. York does flood regularly but this was the worst I’ve seen in.
December 2015 wettest month since records began Ouse and Foss catchment saturated
Boxing Day: unprecedented situation on the Foss
weekend Bank Holiday middle of Christmas
27th BT exchange flooded
loss of landlines internet mobile phones no electronic communication misinformation can take hold
four hundred and fifty three residential properties one hundred and seventy four businesses flooded
remarkable efforts generosity community spirit assistance offered quickly unstintingly. Donations local, national international
spontaneous volunteers ‘unwavering response from responders’ praised for dedication and contribution
thirteen thousand sandbags builders’ merchants very helpful opened depots on request
voluntary sector: evacuation-meals-shelter-warmth-assisting with clean up-warehousing and distributing donated goods-practical emotional recovery support
disruption evacuated no warning upheaval traumatic
‘Recovery from flooding does not simply end when people move back into their homes.’
problems with insurance claims managing builders living in a state of disrepair
long-term issues identified: respiratory problems made worse- mental health problems exacerbated-disruption to home-lost personal possessions-strain of moving in with family-strain of being separated from family-breakdown of relationships-financial pressures-lost ability to earn-went out of business
problems do not recede as quickly as water
York will flood again an inevitability
‘York as a community would benefit from becoming more resilient and better prepared for an emergency situation.’
Ancraophobia is the extreme fear of wind. This is not a word for me. I don’t fear the wind. But I am not comfortable with it either. I feel attacked by the wind. I feel small. I want to retreat, hide, and escape.
Ancraophobia is never present at birth. The fear of wind most often arises as a result of a negative experience in the person’s past… Most often an ancraophobic person experienced a situation where the wind was blowing heavily and they found themselves afraid that the wind might destroy or kill them. – Wikipedia, accessed 29th January 2020
When I was 7 or 8, there was a horrific storm. It was Christmas Eve and the power cut out. For some reason that I no longer recall, my dad had to go outside. The wind was screeching, lightning striking and the sky was crashing almost in time to the flashes.
I was terrified for my dad. He was out in this hellish tornado, surrounded by trees, and who knows what was caught in the wind. I had seen Wizard of Oz a few times. I knew about hurricanes.
He had been outside for years. Hours at least. I was scared. I opened my mouth but fear held back the words. It took a few tries before I could raise my concerns with my mother.
Looking back, I can see she was also afraid. But she snapped at me. Told me off. Made me more terrified. My teeth bit down on my lips and my fingers curled, nails in skin. Eyes kept on staring into the storm.
I was already petrified, unable to move from my place, on guard at the window. I didn’t need someone to yell at me and tell me not to be so stupid. It had taken so much for me to ask. To ask if she thought he was ok. I didn’t need to be knocked down.
I had visions flashing through my childhood imagination. My dad knocked unconscious. My dad trapped under a tree. My dad squashed by a fallen wall.
I needed to be told he hadn’t been gone very long. I needed to be told he was ok. I needed her to be the adult. To act unafraid, even if she was. I needed to know that in a fight between my dad and the wind, he would win. Not to be shouted at to shut up. I went quiet, silent and alone with my fears. And that silence was filled with the bawling wind and the cracks of trees just a couple of metres from the house.
I stood between window and curtains, trying to turn the shadows into familiar shapes. Peering into the darkness, knowing I couldn’t have seen him even if he was there.
I am not afraid of the wind. I am afraid of the power it has inside my imagination. The destructive whirlwind that rips through my imagination and decimates my safety net.
As part of my writing course we looked at a poem called ‘A Short Story of Falling‘ by Alice Oswald and were asked to write a poem following her structure. I don’t normally write rhyming poems, let alone rhyming couplets so this was a challenge for me. It took a lot of work and tweaking and editing but I enjoyed stepping out of my comfort zone.
A short story of the ones left behind
It is the story of the ones left behind between ebb and flow of tide
As waves retreat, new worlds emerge fleeting glimpses, soon submerged
Black rocks gleam, spray kissed, like jewels stand tall between impermanent pools
Acorn barnacles cling tight to mussels’ pearly blues and whites
Conical spirals of periwinkles littered through the seaside shingle
Bladderwrack entangles limpets cigarettes and fishing nets
Crab’s hermitage, a bottle cap first cosy home, then prison, trapped
Translucent sea jelly tentacles of vermicelli
Bag for Life, or Bag of Death? suffocating final breath
This is the story of the ones left behind by sea, and, by humankind
I remember the twisting landscape on the way to the jetty. Leaving Ullapool, overshooting the destination only to loop back on ourselves via the loosely drawn roads. The land ahead was flat, behind was hill littered, and you could see the tarmac snaking through like an S. The coast line still obscured but pulling us closer and closer to the shore.
This was a land of snaking s’s, shores and sand and scenery and the Summer Isles… scaling feelings and mountains came together for me, then. I was scrambling my way out of an eating disorder, a mix of some progress and some back sliding. Following an inner S road, twisting and turning, destination life, or death. Starvation or survival.
On the island, I was sharing a home with strangers who asked their questions – would you like some toast? Some cereal? Something? And noted when something was nothing. Strangers who walked, by torch light, home with me for that week. Toads calling, stars glimmering, paths slippery. And wished me a good night. One like I was his daughter, unaware he was seeing me as a toddler in those fleeting exchanges, but I held that sentiment close. The other, like I was her teenage daughter, concern spilling over. That week, they spoke with such care and concern for me.
That week with strangers was a salve.
On my way up to Scotland, on my way up to the Summer Isles, the train journey wound from York to Northallerton to Darlington, Durham to Newcastle. Then picked up the fracturous outline of the north east coast. At Edinburgh I switched trains, not too much lingering then a list of train stations to wrap your tongue around;
Heading further north, the autumn haze glossed over the land, golden fields and the sun highlighting the dust that hung around the purple heather. The vast tall sky, stretched up reaching for the heavens, but it’s aspirations were squashed by heavy grey clouds. The dark air that pressed down on the land had been pressing down on me for so long. Oppressing my lungs, making living, breathing, an effort. My blood was treacle and my heart hurt with the effort of pumping it. I had been living with anorexia and depression for so long that I couldn’t remember another way of existing.
At Perth, another change. So many changes on the journey north. So many changes needed to find my true north. Suspended raindrops blurred the land with sky. Wispy clouds clung to highland rocks as we wove our way through the Cairngorms to Inverness. Purple and gold hillscapes flickered past the train windows. White houses. Green forests. Grey rivers. A landscape of texture – soft ferns, prickling pines, hills undulating, rocks protruding. Ruins pull you into memories, yours and the memories of the ghosts who haunt the land.
Inverness brought with it a bookshop trip. A treasure trove of second hand books, my safe place. If nothing else, I always know I can enter a bookshop and buy myself a brief moment of groundedness. The certainty that knowledge brings. The feeling of being surrounded by information, research and other people’s stories would help me feel a small glimmer of hope that my story, my book, would have it’s own ending. Unclear whether the ending would be happy or not didn’t matter, just that this drowning would end. Sadly my bag was full so I left with a couple of postcards instead.
The bus from Inverness dropped me at Strathpeffer, where I sat, hoping that I’d planned the journey right and the next bus would turn up as the timetable suggested. My mind already planning what to do if not. Anxiety running riot. But it did, no emergency plans were required. Finally I arrived in Ullapool. A long day of travel had taken me 420 miles from home, and ended with another bookshop. I would be staying opposite this particular bookshop on the overnight pause in travel.
When I was little I used to make my own newspapers and would go round trying to interview people and write articles. There was the attempt to implement a newspaper in primary school and another attempt to do the same when I was a Guide. None of this stuck but I loved the writing involved.
(That’s all for now – writing the column, doing York Disability Rights Forum, staying alive during a pandemic and the darkening days of Winter’s approach are all taking a lot out of me. But I miss my blog and I do hope to get back to it soon!)
Back in February I did a course about poetry and paintings. One if the exercises was to imagine yourself in a painting. I couldn’t immediately think of any paintings so I was writing myself into an imaginary one, but here it is:
The girl in the sea
She is knee deep in riptides angry greys and blues and browns swirl round her feet. Dark cliffs loom behind her merging with heavy storm- filled clouds.
I am hot, sticky and oppressed by the humidity of a city summer. My blue cotton dress reflects off the protective glass and I threaten to overwhelm her.
I step closer squeeze beneath the gilt frame, between glass and oils and sink into her world. Breathing with relief for a second as the cool air embraces me. Then icy spray spits at my bare arms leaving goosebumps.
I should have chosen that picnic scene in the last room; the one with glasses of wine and the glow of autumnal gold.
The girl still stares towards the horizon knee deep water becomes waist deep and I become afraid. The sea is untamed and will think nothing of taking her as prey.