I wrote my last post over three months ago, during the last few days of my aunt’s life. I wasn’t with her when she died, but when I saw her body, already smaller in my grief stricken mind, I wept. During the following days, the necessary tasks of funeral arrangements, meeting with lawyers occupied me. And during the funeral itself, it felt as though I was more in touch with the grief of those around me, than with my own sadness. Christmas and New Year passed, then it was time to sort through her personal belongings as we prepared her flat for sale. As an executor of her estate, this was my task along with the other executor.
Both at practical and emotional levels, two is so much better than one for making decisions: charity shop? bin? recycle? auction? family member interested? Each item, it seemed, provided a snippet of information about my aunt’s life.
As a young and new bride, she’d lived in South America where my uncle was a buyer for Coates. In the bureau I found correspondence relating to her visa application in 1946 and a record of the mandatory inoculations. She’d then lived in India before a bad bout of typhus led to her return to the UK. There were family letters dating back to 1938 and many black and white photos of weddings, and bundles of bereavement cards sent and received. In the bedroom wardrobe was an old brown envelope containing a forelock of golden hair from a child born in 1888. Someone who’d died in early childhood? All communication relating to bank statements, car insurance and other financial matters had been meticulously kept since the 1960s when she and my uncle moved to Edinburgh. There were bundles and bundles of church bulletins as she’d been an active member of the church for many years. I found Wimbledon brochures dating back to the 1950s and remembered her telling me about going to the championships in the days when women were expected to wear hats and gloves.
In the kitchen was a shelf of beakers for feeding her, packets of Complan, powder to thicken her tea. Swallowing something too thin was as potentially dangerous as something too thick, for someone having experienced a massive stroke which left her with a swallowing impairment as well as being unable to walk. And of course, the liquidiser for turning solid food to a purée that she could manage. In the dining room were piles of folders about her care over the last five years or so. Depressing reading. A formerly active woman confined to a special reclining chair, where the only thing she could do for herself was wipe her eyes. And which had such an impact on her – along with ever deteriorating eyesight – that during the last few years, she virtually stopped talking.
She’d been a keen curler, going to Switzerland every year for competitions. There was an impressive display of cups won by my uncle and her. Those Swiss trips were more than just about curling. Always coinciding with Burns’ Night, there was a chance to show the Swiss how many Scottish people celebrate this occasion. In for a centime, in for a Swiss franc, they would drive there with large amounts of haggis in their car boot. As the last part of the journey was (and still is) made by mountain train from Lauterbrunnen to Wengen, this was an operation requiring military precision. My aunt and her friend would supervise the hotel chefs as they prepared the meal, a friend would pipe in the haggis and there’d be recitations of Burns’ poetry.
She’d also been an enthusiastic gardener, and there were faded notebooks with information about bulbs she’d planted, and lists of gardening tasks. Golf was also a passion and she’d achieved a low handicap and been captain of the ladies’ section of an Edinburgh golf club. In various cupboards I found packs and packs of bridge cards, grubby floral boxes containing tiny bridge pencils and yellowing score cards.
Less independent, for years she and my uncle had gone on National Trust cruises, and I stumbled upon invitations to join the captain’s table for dinner and many photos of the Norwegian coast and other parts of Europe.
We are nearly finished the task of emptying my aunt’s flat. What has affected me most, to date, is finding a cinema ticket for Testament of Youth in her otherwise empty handbag. My aunt’s favourite carer Bea and I took her to the film. Bea dressed her in a black outfit complete with black sequin top, a fur coat and hat, and made up her face. Until the end, my aunt was a handsome woman, her green eyes never losing their beauty. During the film, Bea made sure my aunt was warm enough, gave her sips of fruit juice from time to time. Although my aunt probably couldn’t have relayed the plot hours later, the outing was a great success, temporarily returning a glimmer of her former zest for life.
It occurs to me that once the flat is sold, more grieving will kick in, perhaps manifested in unexpected times and in unanticipated ways. But although we could have opted for having a company pack up the flat, the process has allowed time for reflection.
It’s not so much that I now feel I know my aunt better, more like a reminder of what an active life she’d led, something I’d forgotten during her last greatly restricted years. And something I’ll always treasure, are a few loving comments she made to me in hospital, all the more valued after two years of being unable to ‘reach’ her regardless of how hard I tried.
I wrote this poem during the last week of my aunt’s life.
Pink tinged morning clouds drift through the sky,
Radiant yet peaceful.
Beside me, you lie so still, your breathing aided
By oxygen, your body filled with morphine and
Other drugs to make you comfortable.
Like clouds, memories drift through my mind
Of what you have meant – to me and others in my life,
Many of them no longer around, yet ever present in my heart.
The colour fades from the clouds, as life ebbs from you.
For so long I have grieved,
Hating the condition which robbed you of too much.
And when you leave, as soon you will,
I will rejoice at your reunion with those who went before,
While grieving further for what I have lost.
In response to an article by JK Rowling about feeling bereft at the end of the Harry Potter series, a reader dismissed her emotions with the comment that she’d made so much money, why would she be sad? Obviously not a fellow writer. You can be rich and still feel sad and lost without the people closest to you, and Rowling spent almost two decades with her characters, both writing them and then being involved in the film production.
Last Christmas, while doing a housesit in Switzerland, we drove to Brunnen, the setting for my first novel, Daughters of the Lake. On our way there, I found myself longing to see my characters: Portia, Vienne, Lawrence, Annie and Madalena. Not necessarily to meet them, simply to observe them as they ate dinner in the hotel’s private dining room, or walked by the lake.
It’s not surprising. Your characters have occupied headspace while you relayed their stories. They’ve been your puppets, sometimes surprising you by freeing themselves from the strings to do their own thing, perhaps looking back to check with you that this is okay.
Of course you’ll never meet them. At the same time, no one can harm them and they’ll never die. They are preserved in time and years, part of you, a part to access whenever you wish.
When we arrived in Brunnen, the snowy landscape contrasted with the hot summery days when the story took place. It didn’t remind me of my book. In the future, however, similar scenery will bring my characters closer to me. I am thinking of this on the eve of departing to do another housesit in a different part of Switzerland, where, no doubt, the lake and mountains will bring me closer.
Perhaps this is one of the best parts of being a writer: the creation of something which remains permanent in your heart.
March 2015 The delights of eating out in Copenhagen
Read any guide book and it will tell you that Copenhagen is known for its food. Currently it has 15 Michelin-starred restaurants. This notwithstanding, it can take time to find somewhere you want to eat.
I decided not to patronise a restaurant called PUK. As well as the off-putting name, the menu was rather fishy – literally. I also chickened out of going to one which offered dishes such as deep fried crocodile with ravioli and a passionfruit and honey sauce, and kangaroo fillet, served with a Tasmanian pepper sauce.
Where I ended up was Café Wanna ‘B, described as: Trendy all-day spot for an eclectic menu of home-made burgers and unfussy dishes, plus comedy acts. My reasons for choosing this were twofold: firstly it was raining heavily; secondly, I was fascinated by one menu item describing ladies’ brunch and the one next to it, men’s brunch.
I chose the ladies’ brunch, but did wonder what would happen if I’d opted for the men’s one. Would I be subjected to intense interrogation of my sexuality? Or was this a marketing ploy, like the Yorkie chocolate bar which isn’t for girls?
The men were promised this: scrambled egg, fried sausages, fresh fruit salad with vanilla and orange, fried chorizo sausage, fried bacon, baked eggs with spinach, pancakes with maple syrup, fresh baked croissants, jam, Danish Vesthaus cheese with pickled walnuts, slice of Riberhus, slice of turkey. Served with two kinds of organic wholemeal bread and butter.
It wouldn’t take a nutrition expert to realise that the men were to have an overdose of saturated fat: chorizo sausage, fried sausages, slice of turkey, fried bacon. Obviously so that they could go off and do manly things afterwards: build battleships, chase wild boar. Whereas we women, with the meat exchanged for a crunchy salad and leek pie and the yoghurt thing, were apparently not to be geared up for such calorific activities. Well, I ate all of my food (as always), knowing I’d need fortifying for a few more hours walking around the city.
And, in case, anyone is interested, I had the saltiest ever stew and chips in the Big Bravo, yesterday afternoon and spent a big chunk of the remaining day, drinking soft drinks.
February 2015 A privileged relationship
Today at a writer’s lunch, one of my friends stated that I have a lovely relationship with my work, looking at me for confirmation. It made me think. My first reaction, though unspoken, was ‘don’t you?’, but she’s told me from time to time that she doesn’t like writing, something that for years has surprised me as we met while studying for an MA in Creative Writing, she teaches creating writing classes, and has just completed a PhD, part of which included a novel. The other friend, equally talented, has an up and down relationship with her writing.
Several years ago, I conducted a series of interviews with fellow writers. My first question was: ‘What does writing mean to you?’ Answers were varied but with common themes, such as:
Everything, a compulsion/obsession, an act of necessity, feelings of deprivation without it
Freedom: to be myself and say what is in my heart without judgmental attitudes trying to stop me, the only way I can embrace real life and remain whole.
Imagination: Writing takes me into a whole different world—a world that I create. it can be a vacation without leaving home.
Therapy: escape after bereavement, perhaps
Search for connection: It’s a way for a shy person to connect with others – writers, other readers, quote: ‘I’m terrible at small talk, but I can speak to a perfect stranger for hours about books.
Mental health: An antidote to certain insanity. ‘All these stories shout for attention in my head.’ A way of making sense of the world, for self- preservation.
And the answer I liked best was: It’s like having a secret lover. It’s a hidden passion full of highs and lows.
November 2014 When to let your novel go
I am recovering from sitting up until 7am on yesterday morning. Why did I do that? Editing. I’d given myself a deadline of Saturday to have my novel on Amazon, and on Friday evening was incapable of going to bed until I’d finished the final edit.
Situation: Published novel required re-launching: better cover, better title, a final proofread, just to check….
Action: Found professional graphic designer who made a great cover.
Intention: Re-read original version, for proofreading purposes.
What actually happened: Did this, resulting in more changes than I’d expected. Why? Because in the intervening two years, my writing style has evolved, and I found it impossible not to try to improve the text. As well as rewriting some sentences, I deleted a few which now seemed redundant. I found more ‘he said/she said’ tags than were necessary. I found a few things weren’t as clear as I’d originally thought.
Intention: Print out latest draft, only to proofread.
What actually happened: Did even more editing. Very few proofreading mistakes found. Lots of other changes made, however.
Intention: Go through tracked changes on latest, latest draft, online.
(Resolve: Not to print out again thereby risk doing even more editing)
What actually happened: Stuck to checking for punctuation, spacing and making a few tiny changes online.
What finally happened: Uploaded novel. Phew! Elation….
RESULT: Daughters of the Lake is now available on Amazon Kindle
January 2011 Curry, with a twist
The story goes like this: I’m in charge of cooking dinner, something that happens less often now, given my lousy time management and penchant for being easily distracted. There’s left over basmati rice and lamb jalfrezi from Saturday night’s carry out, chicken remains from a roast. I make a chicken curry for my son and me, which we eat contentedly at 6 o’clock. I add some chicken to the lamb jalfrezi, ready for my partner when he returns later from a meeting. As an afterthought, I mix in raw spinach from a bowl in the fridge.
When he arrives home, I heat up the curry and rice in the microwave, and serve it to him. I disappear into another room to fetch something, and moments later he appears, plate in hand, telling me he wishes to make a complaint to the kitchen. As I look at him questioningly (my curries are usually well-received, and this one didn’t even need much cooking), he lifts up a green scouring pad, about 4″ by 2″, speckled with rice grains and fragments of spinach ( exhibit 1).
He’s amused, I’m baffled and apologetic. We devote five minutes to wondering how this scourer could have appeared in his meal without my noticing. There’s no obvious explanation. Was it the kittens, taking revenge for my colossal efforts to prevent them from scrambling up my plants? Was it me in a moment of extreme preoccupation? Was it the butler? Whatever/whoever the culprit, it won’t do my culinary reputation any good… Though of course I could use this as a springboard to opening a restaurant specialising in unusual ingredient combinations, all with a washing-up theme – tender loin of beef with seasoned pot brush; tomato and thyme cod with a mushroom and Fairy Liquid coulis; lamb and yoghurt Egyptian cotton tea towel wrap. Hmm – worth thinking about.
November 2010 Bygone times
I went to a family funeral today. The deceased was a second cousin, G. Having no first cousins, second cousins have always been important, and there are loads of them. I hadn’t seen G. – or most of these second cousins – for yonks, partly due to moving to France myself, for three years.
So many people turned up for the service that I thought they might have to install a television outside the crematorium, (as they do at Wimbledon when British players are performing well) for those who hadn’t managed to fit even into the balcony. G. was an expert in the maintenance and repair of classic cars and the three people who delivered a tribute to him at the service managed to do so in a way that allowed the mourners to reflect on his life and to laugh as well as feeling moved. No small achievement. As someone said afterwards, it would have been easy to have everyone in floods of tears, but each speaker had the knack of hitting the right note so there wasn’t too much emotion.
Following the service, about sixty of us went back to the home of G’s brother. The immediate family had stuck up on the walls clusters of photos of G. and others, photos spanning fifty years. Over a finger buffet and tea I caught up with many people. There was a lovely warmth to the occasion, a feeling of being part of something special. After my mother died, when my brother, sister and I invited people back to the house, G. and his brother lingered long after other guests had left. I remember feeling cocooned by their presence, as if I still belonged to something bigger. Today I was only one of many, and not as close a blood relative as most, but I hoped my attendance, my staying until the end, meant something to G’s siblings. I can think of few families who care about each other as much as that clan does.
At such times there’s a tendency to look back. When growing up, one of the highlights of the year was the family Christmas party. This rotated round four families and was quite an event. It always followed the same routine. We’d arrive around 6 pm, and receive a welcoming drink. Dinner was a grand affair, seated – generally – at one long beautifully-laid table, perhaps about 30 of us. The menu was traditional and sumptuous. You could imagine how long it took to serve thirty people turkey with all the trimmings.
The dessert course consisted of at least five puddings – some brought by the guests, and including Christmas pudding. In those days, it was still the fashion to bury trinkets in the pudding, including five pence pieces. As a young child I remember staring in horror and awe as an elderly aunt – a brusque, witch-like woman with straight white hair and a fringe – pretended to choke on a five pound note. Coffee would be accompanied by chocolates and other candies.
After dinner we would play games – often far too intellectual for me. As well as the cerebral ones, we’d also indulge in the more silly variety like having two teams whose task it was to pass by mouth a slice of orange speared by a cocktail stick, to each other. Each family had to produce a party piece. After the games there would be country dancing, which I loved. This would be followed by carol singing, which I hated. Then there were group photos. And finally, though we were still stuffed full of turkey and puddings, tea and sandwiches would be served. On the drive to the party, we would count the number of Christmas trees we spotted in people’s homes.
G, of course, was always at those parties. He was a tease, and I was never able to match him in repartee. I remember, as a twelve year old, the following conversation.
‘I was shopping in Woolies,’ I told him.
‘You mean Woolworths,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I replied, duly chastened. ‘Then I went to Marks and Spencers.’
‘You mean M & S,’ he said.
I nodded. Bemused. Confused.
G. knew everything about everything.
As an older child, I developed a crush on one of these second cousins. D. was tall, dark and ruggedly dashing. He worked for the RAF, in catering (nothing as glam as being a fighter pilot). As D’s family lived in the south of England, they didn’t attend the parties that often, so when I saw him there, my young woman’s heart moved up a gear or two. Imagine the tension of waiting to see if he’d asked me to partner him in the Gay Gordons or spin me round in Strip the Willow. Stretch your imagination further and think of a flock of – by that time approaching elderly – aunts watching the dancing, and, I was convinced, looking out for any signs of impropriety: a blushing smile on my part, a harmless if flirtatious comment on his. Not quite the same degree of angst found in John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga where Fleur Forsyte and John Forsyte couldn’t be allowed to love each other. But D. and I were second cousins and sometimes the air felt thick with disapproval if I even said ‘hallo’ to him.
If this happened now, of course, with all the electronic social networking methods at our disposal, I suppose I would have been emailing, facebooking, texting D. to see if anything might come of us. In those days, though, it would have been a question of writing, and I was far too demure and lacking in self-belief to take such initiative.
This large brood of cousins were outgoing, had varied interests and at least superficial confidence and were great company. Grown up nephews would ask elderly aunts to do a sedate Canadian Barn dance. Socially-skilled twelve year old boys would twirl their nine year old boy cousins round and round so they felt included.
But there was a downside to all this. If you were less sure of yourself, you might sink without trace. Any incomers to the family, found them a formidable group to meet en masse for the first time. Apparently my father, always a shy if intelligent and well-read man, was terrified when he was about to be “presented” to them upon his engagement to my mother. His sister, also shy, also intelligent and well-informed, fared little better. Not knowing about the obligatory party piece to be dished up after dinner, on her first attendance she was shocked to be asked to sing. She had a lovely voice, but this enforced performance shook her so much that it took her decades to return to another get together, by which time most of the more intimidating attendees had popped their clogs.
Today this great family of my mother’s cousins are spread all over, the furthest relative living in Perth, Australia; another one in Calgary, Canada, yet another in Holland. The rest are interspersed over Scotland and England. Yet, they remain so close emotionally. To see them all together feels like one extended family. As second cousins, we always receive a welcome.
It was a delightful afternoon of reconnecting. Yes, it was sad to say goodbye to G, but there was a cosiness which I am always surprised and pleased to experience. During reminiscences with a cousin with whom I stayed in London on various occasions. I reminded her of the evening when she was cooking dinner. As she laboriously peeled potatoes, stopping every minute to tell me a story, I grew hungrier and hungrier. So much so that when she produced a loaf of bread, I devoured all of it before the potatoes were in the pot to boil. Naturally she recalled the evening differently.
I received open invitations to Garmouth, north of Elgin, and to Calgary. Genuine and not given out of duty. We might be blogging and surfing, living the technological life of the 21st century, the younger generation taking “gap” years before university, but such family events feel like going back decades.
I returned home to my most loved ones, mellow and reflective. Chances are I won’t see this gang until the next funeral but the warmth of the occasion will stay with me for some time. It always does.
June 2010 Getting to know you: friends and characters
Getting to know you, getting to know you and to like you…. (acknowledgement to Rodgers and Hammerstein.)
During today’s lunch with fellow writers we discussed the concept of visualising our perfect day to help us fall asleep more quickly. I was unable to extract one consummate day; however, as we talked, I was aware of being ensconced in one of a variety of very pleasant days: lunch with friends, followed by a swim.
The former involves a punchy exchange on topics as disparate as writing challenges and rip-off London landlords. We are a small, handpicked group who meet regularly to enjoy each other’s company, discuss writing, indulge in serious eating and copious amounts of laughter. All worthy aims and therapeutic to the highest degree, cerebrally and physically. Debating aspects of the writing craft is particularly stimulating and the swim afterwards allows me time to consolidate new ideas.
Breast stroke opens up more than the upper body. This afternoon, as I trawled up and down the pool, delightfully quiet and tranquil, my thoughts turned to characterisation. I tend to think in analogies and often those to do with writing are connected with food or furnishing houses. With characterisation, however, my metaphor is travel: arriving in a new city.
You can take a city tour in search of cathedrals, fortresses, main squares of impressive old townhouses and government buildings. This might give key pointers as to what sort of place you’re in. But it’s only by raking through the back streets at leisure that real knowledge comes of the location: the bakery which does the best croissants, a tall thin house where a well-known artist lived, the ambience of snow on cobbled streets late at night when restaurants have closed and tourist stalls are boarded up for the day. In time we feel we have a sense of where we are. A familiarity which goes deeper than appreciating magnificent architecture.
So it is with characters, I think. We might pluck at random a hair colour or body build, a profession, a favourite hobby. But what about that character’s pathological manoeuver, what childhood event influenced how they are today? When we reach the stage of knowing these traits, our protagonists attain depth. These are the metaphorical backstreets, the authenticity which a palace may fail to provide. If we find ourselves engaged with a book, it’s probably more attributable to the hinterlands of characters than their façades.
It occurs to me I sound as if I’m already capable of devising multi-layered characters. This isn’t the case. But by writing as if I am, perhaps I’ll come closer to achieving this.
June 2010 The one that got away
We’ve all experienced this: the job, the man, the surfboard that misjudged the wave. What about the deer?
Today I took a wheelchair-bound relative out for lunch. I burned up trillions of calories navigating the wheelchair out of her flat and down to the hotel, even more wheeling her back up the road again.
It wasn’t an auspicious start. When I booked the table last night, the receptionist didn’t ask for my name. And when we arrived we were the only patrons in the dining room – always a bad sign – and remained so. The walls were a mustard yellow and the lone chrysanthemum table centres lacked more than imagination.
For starters I ordered pigeon and beetroot salad with balsamic vinegar. I hadn’t eaten pigeon before so wasn’t sure what to expect. In fact I sent it back because it was pink in the middle and bore a disconcerting resemblance to liver. Apparently it’s easy to overcook pigeon and end up with something too tough. Arguably it’s easy to undercook pigeon and end up with a mirror image of a prop from a horror movie. They offered me a replacement dish: the leek and potato soup seemed a safe bet but tasted more like saltwater than vegetables.
For the main course I opted for a promising-sounding venison and apricot pie with chive mash and when it arrived, attacked it with my usual enthusiasm for anything culinary. It was tasty, very, but with a conspicuous absence of venison.
With a gritty and determined conscientiousness that would have impressed Taggart and Poirot and all preceding and subsequent sleuths, I combed through it to see if I’d missed anything which could even vaguely be perceived as venison, more to appease my tastebuds than with the intention of whisking it off to forensics in a plastic bag. (All those years of watching detective series have not been wasted. Absolutely not.)
I found one morsel, smaller than a five pence piece. Somewhat rashly I ate it, instead of keeping it in splendid isolation for the inevitable exposé. When the waitress appeared to see if everything was alright, rather than wade in with yet another complaint, I ascertained she wanted an honest answer, and having been assured the hotel welcomed feedback, explained about the lack of venison in my venison and apricot pie. As we were the only diners, perhaps she appreciated an unusual task, regarding it as preferable to hovering, noticing smidgeons of dust on wooden surfaces and wondering if it was likely to rain that afternoon.
Whether the chef was wreaking his revenge on my rejection of his pigeon salad or was just slapdash, I don’t know but it seemed most odd. My aunt, meanwhile, was enjoying her pie which, as the menu implied, did contain venison. The waitress eventually reappeared with a soup bowl of venison and gravy, which I added to my plate of pastry fragments and mushy potato. We didn’t order desert.
The hotel is hosting a wedding reception tomorrow and while we ate, pots of geraniums were being arranged on either side of the steps leading into the hotel grounds. I was tempted to place cards on all the tables saying: don’t choose the venison, but, as we all know, revenge is a dish best served cold.
May 2010 A virtuous Saturday
This morning I took a trip down memory lane by doing some housework. I found a pretty apron, wrapped a scarf round my hair – truly fetching – used a GPS to find the vacuum cleaner and a private detective to locate the dusters. I didn’t rush through these stages. Like a convalescent returning to solid food or an exercise phobe joining a gym, I knew it was important to ease myself in gently.
I switched on the vacuum cleaner and in relaxed fashion began sucking up who-knows-how-many months of dust, humming away like Winnie the Pooh, feeling singularly virtuous. Surprisingly quickly there was a sense of familiarity and not the teensiest, weensiest tinge of angst about being deskilled, not even when the machine gobbled up the wire from the alarm clock while I indulged in scholarly thoughts about writing and wondered what to have for lunch.
The problem is I adopt a perfectionist attitude to housework. If I’m going to clean a room I MAY AS WELL DO IT PROPERLY. So instead of a quick skim with the duster I go for it as if I were spring-cleaning. Doing a room, therefore, may take an hour and a half (gasp), which is why I don’t engage in this activity often. People who profess to cleaning their homes in a morning obviously resign themselves to a more pragmatic approach. Something I, too, might consider. After finishing the master bedroom, I had two dusters ready to be washed and thought I could allow myself a little rest while they dried. Perhaps even get down to something creative.
As I suspected, my enthusiasm to continue this worthy pastime for which we women are divinely created and unarguably suited, had dwindled somewhat by the time the dusters were ready for further action. It wasn’t that I was the slightest bit envious of my partner whom I knew was spending several relaxing hours on a beach in Cyprus after days of back-to-back meetings. How could that be preferable to checking under worktops for dead mice and sorting through mounds of paperwork? No, I was itching to write (relief, as university deadlines edge nearer, yet again) and decided to regard my one room success as evidence enough I was still capable of domestic productivity.
By three o’clock I became aware I hadn’t eaten, let alone done any writing or had my swim, all of which ideally I would achieve before my son returned from an afternoon with friends to our Saturday evening ritual of a carry out meal and rented DVD.
April 2010 Thoughts of childhood
Skye is peaceful. As a city chick, I wouldn’t want to live here, but there are aspects of it which are enduringly appealing – the one way roads with their frequent passing places and courteous, friendly nods and waves to other drivers; the complex coastline – a series of peninsulas, islands, spits of land; the greeny brown grass, bracken.
I always have visions of sitting on the beach at sunset, hearing a plaintive cry of seagulls, inhaling the pungent smell of seaweed, watching as islands turn darker and pink light on the sea fades to black. The reality is more likely to be returning from a wet walk, removing muddy walking boots, hanging up sodden fleeces and cagouls to dry and indulging in muffins and chocolate, slipping effortlessly into an evening meal of pies and beans and mashed potatoes. How easy it is for healthy eating to vanish when on holiday. In Skye you’re more likely to stumble upon a craft shop or gallery than a grocery store.
I love the place names: Waternish, Sligachan (silent ‘g’ – pronounced ‘Sleeahan’), Torrin. More like caresses than words.
Having mentioned the weather on Skye more than once, I should add that fortunately on an overcast day, unless the cloud is very low, the island still looks beautiful, in a different, more atmospheric way to how it does when the sun shines. It’s to do with the constantly changing light, the misty greys and mauves around the hills contrasting with the yellows, greens and browns of the grassland, the pools of silvery light on the water.
While here I’ve found myself downloading music from folk bands like Gaberlunzie, from another era of my life, reconnecting with songs such as ‘Mingulay’ while typing away; even worse, singing so loudly that I’ve disturbed my partner and son while they were watching ‘Lord of the Rings’ next door – yes, horrifyingly my tuneless warble could be heard over battles with the Orcs. That’s the problem of listening to music with headphones: you have no idea how horrendous you sound when you join in.
As children we holidayed on the west coast of Scotland, first Arisaig then Morar. Memories of these times linger. The excitement of my father attaching the trailor to the car and letting us bump along the road in the trailor. On the day of departure we’d leave at seven, which seemed so early that when we stopped for breakfast at Bridge of Orchy I couldn’t believe it wasn’t lunch time. I remember floury white rolls, the aroma of bacon, orange juice.
In Arisaig we shared a farmhouse with friends. It was a working farm and on my fifth birthday, the milk maids dangled me over a huge basin filled with milk, threatening to drop me down. Outside the farmhouse there was a grassy hillock sprinkled with buttercups. From my height it seemed like a mountain.
When the location changed to Morar, we stayed in another farmhouse, again sharing it with our friends. Camusdarach is famous for its ‘silver sands’, ( the venue for the beach scenes from ‘Local Hero’). Although we had this beach to ourselves, my father was called upon to divide it in half, one side for John, the other for me. Despite this huge, magical, empty space for two seven year olds, within minutes we’d be arguing about territory. We spent hours on this beach, building elaborate series of sandcastles with moats and grooves on which to roll down golfballs.. We would tumble down the sand dunes, too young to be environmentally aware.
There was a huge pile of logs outside the farmhouse, ideal for playing ships. There was also a campsite with a shop which sold chocolate. Even at that age, chocolate was a passion, worth spending all my pocket money on. I’d never considered myself as a ‘do gooder’, my flirtation with the girl guides short-lived as I was unhappy about doing a good deed every day. But I have a strong recollection of one of the families who lived at Camusdarach. I remember how upset I was when the mother said to her son, maybe aged about eleven, ‘I’ll give you two bananas if you feed the hens,’ and my muscling into the conversation with an offer to feed the hens for nothing.
Strange, the power of childhood memories, how years later a smell or sound can erode the intervening time. The stirring of wind through fir trees whisks me back to Camusdarach, a pile of newly sawn logs reminds me of the excitement of imagining them as a ship.
My mother hated those holidays: they were hardly a break for her. For us children it meant sunny afternoons on the beach, the gentle walk back over the field to the farmhouse, everything caked in sand: our canvas shoes, wooden spades with red metallic blades, our hair, the pink buckets and my yellow plastic binoculars whose smell I loved. Or a trip to Mallaig for icecream, a walk along the pier to watch the fishing boats returned with their catch, squawking gulls swooping down on the fish. For my mother it meant yet another washing, or a dreary walk up a hill on a day too damp for the beach. For us the summer month would stretch pleasantly for ever; for her it must have seemed interminable.