Camellia Stars

The day was silver; cloud flooded and icy cold.

The ground was speckled white with snowdrops, sometimes pink with cyclamen, sometimes even yellow with daffodils. A great big shiny promise of spring.

Soon. One last winter-soaked breath.

We escaped away from the crowds, away from the drops of snow, away from accidentally photobombing people’s flowery snaps, and wandered into the woods.

Wandering into the woods is always a good idea, despite what the fairytales tell you.

We found no wolves or witches.

Only petals fallen to the path and camellia stars stuck to the sky.

Pink camellias and tree silhouettes in winter.
Camellia stars + naked trees + silver skies

Reads – Holloway

At 36 pages, Holloway by Robert Macfarlane isn’t the longest read on the planet, but it was one of the nicest reading experiences I’ve had in a long time.

It’s teeny-tiny and delicate and cherishable, something to be picked up and reread every now and then. Something to get lost in for ten minutes. Something ‘within which ghosts softly flock’. It’s kind of like a prayer book – one where God is south Dorset (biased? me? *waves hand dismissively but guiltily*), gnarly knotted trees, sunken many-lives-haunted pathways, friendship, and quiet adventure.

It made me want to escape to the real world.

Just maybe when it stops raining.

Holloway - by Robert Macfarlane, Stanley Donwood, and Dan Richards - book review.

 

Reads – Lullaby by Leila Slimani

Lullaby by Leila Slimani (translated from French by Sam Taylor) starts and ends with two murders and one attempted suicide. In between, the story tracks the slow unravelling of the bourgeoisie Parisian family and their nanny at the centre of that crime.

It’s not normally a genre I read, and, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have read it if I hadn’t set a goal to read more translated books this year (trying to beat my score of one from last year – looking likely at this point). But I’m so so so glad I did read it.

The book grew more and more claustrophic, more sinister, more claggy against my heart with every page. It pulled me under and dragged my wimpish soul kicking and screaming, strangely hypnotised, to its ugly conclusion. The writing and translation are dream-like and smooth, a lullaby. Just a lullaby that drifts towards a nightmare.

‘Her heart has grown hard. The years have covered it in a thick, cold rind and she can barely hear it beating.’

Obviously, there’s no happy ending or salvation. But the journey. Ugh, the journey. It’s not perfect, but it is really, really, really good.

Lullaby book cover, by Leila Slimani. Instax mini 9 photograph.
Lullaby by Leila Slimani

At The Castle

The castle looms like it always does, a tangling mess of steely grey rock studded into tufted grass.

I try to ignore my hands as they turn redder and redder, try not to worry about the purple blotches growing in amongst the red.

I collect a ticket and hand it back in a minute later, after the bridge, after the wobbly entrance arch, after getting attached to it and feeling like I don’t want to hand it in (the hoarder in me wants to keep it, as if not keeping it will mean I have never been).

Beyond the entrance, there are stocks to the left. A memory of sticking my head and hands in it years ago flurries round my head. My lungs remember how much my sister and I laughed that day.

Up, up, up goes the path, and I follow.

More paths, more steps.

The views are beautiful. Fields and trees and hills and tantalizing sunbeams falling far away.

Heart slowing, lungs calming, I stop with one hand pressed against a towering chunk of wall that’s angled very unhow a wall should be angled. The picture of it crumbling, the feel of it giving way, floods my head. Maybe it’s best to move on.

Walk, slip, trip.

Broken hallways hiss with icy gusts of wind. Walls are painted green with veils of moss and drip with sticky rain. Elsewhere, they are blotchy with lichen, a mix of grubby white and sickly yellow that blurs into the grey.

The sound of children playing on their lunchbreak twinkles all around the air, filling it with echoes of playful happiness. The sound of traffic buzzes like it buzzes almost everywhere. I wish I could eavesdrop on the sounds of five hundred years ago and five hundred years from now, wish I could know who’s stood here before and who’ll stand here one day.

I take a turn. It leads to a dead end. I head back, try to refind the main path. I attempt to take a shortcut and slide inelegantly between a rock and a hard place. I pray there are no cameras to record my momentary wedgedness between aforementioned rock and hard place. I wonder if walking/shuffling through (getting slightly stuck in) a wall makes me some sort of ghost. I worry I might’ve just frightened someone in the fifteenth century.

Soggy steps lead downwards.

I look up as the sun bubbles through a patch of clouds. It’s framed by one of the many derelict windows and I try to take a nice photo, but, no matter how many I take, none of them look better, none of them shine brighter, than the real-time thing. Away goes the phone.

I head back down the hill, trying not to slide down the cobblestones, trying not to surf down the grass.

The castle looks smaller than it feels in my head when I look back up, and I’m not sure if I’ve imagined it big or my eyes have tricked it small.

I came here looking for something. I don’t know what exactly. I don’t even know if I found it. I hope so.

I do feel better, lighter, clearer.

Colder, redder, and purpler, too.

Corfe Castle on a cloudy, rainy day in January. English castle ruins. Gothic style photograph effect.
Corfe Castle, Dorset, January 2018.

Once Upon a 2018

The clock struck midnight and the world didn’t change. People cheered, danced, started a giant can-can; fireworks went off; confetti filled the air and fluttered to the pavement. The world didn’t change.

Still, there were butterflies in my belly and a stupidly happy happiness in my heart – that I’m sure wasn’t entirely rum based – at the prospect of 2018.

I know it’s just four numbers in a row. I know anything can happen – good and bad, beautiful and ugly. I know for an absolute, sure-fire fact that 2018 will see my face red and puffy and snotty and tear-stained on an embarrassing number of occassions (the ugly). I know I will laugh so hard my stomach will hurt (the good). I know I will love and I’ll probably hate too (naughty me). I know at points I’ll be elated, disappointed, bored, excited, inspired, confused (happens easily), annoyed (again, happens easily. Note to self – work on moral failings). Basically, emotions will be all over the place because that’s how I like to keep my emotions.

And I know that I have an unnervingly good feeling about the next 12 months.

Here’s to the next chapter in all our stories.

Heart drawn on steamed up car window, with raindrops in the background.

The Light Circus

Roll up, roll up!

Come and walk where the trees burn with rainbows! Join us in a land of magic and wonder, where colours bleed into the sky and claw their way towards the stars, where darkness is made bright! Ladies and gentlemen, follow us to a place where the air is so cold your lungs will turn it white, a place so cold your skin will bump with gooses!

Roll up, roll up, and keep your eyes wide open!

And please, ladies and gentlemen, remember to stay with us on the paths!

For we cannot help you beyond the lights. We cannot help you in the dark.

And who knows what’s waiting for you there?

Christmas lights in Dorset. Colourful illuminated trees in December. Rainbow colours. Christmas illumination in a country garden, England.

Reads – Let the Right One In

I always seem to end up reading vampire stories in the run up to Christmas.* Last year, it was Dracula (which I ended up hating). The year before, it was The Quick (which I ended up liking). This year it was Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist (which I ended up loving).

For the first fifty pages or so, though, I cannot stress how much I really did not like it. It just felt miserable and horrible and bleak and disturbing and really gross, and the cosy/happy/rainbows-and-unicorns part of my brain couldn’t handle how gloomy it was. But the curious/you-need-to-know-how-all-the-horribleness-turns-out part of my brain manhandled the reins out of the cosy/happy part’s grip, and I’m very grateful it did.

What is written about is horrible. It’s bleak and it’s gruesome. But the story is compelling and the characters (most of them anyway) glimmer with a small sense of hope or goodness that keeps you crossing your fingers that things might turn out better for them. Just don’t get too attached to the hospital janitor, because things really don’t work out too well for him. And to think I was already afraid of lifts. *shudders*

It’s certainly not a festive-cheer-inducing, feel-good book. But it is a very good book.

And it’s already got me wondering which vampire story I should read for Christmas next year. Any recommendations are very welcome!

*I’m not 100% sure why this weird tradition has started – maybe it’s a subconscious rebellion against tinsel and carols? – but it has and I’m more than happy to keep the tradition going.

Cobwebs

You know the saying “blow the cobwebs away”? After walking at Durdle Door today, I’m pretty sure I’m sorted on the cobwebs front for life.

It was so – so, so, so – windy. My face hurt. My ears hurt. My eyes hurt. My eyelashes even hurt, as the air tried its best to burrow into my eye sockets and brain.

Between the steps down to Man O’ War beach and the steps to Durdle Door, the air funnelled through so hard it was like being battered in the face and chest. I thought, at one point, my shirt and jacket might sink through my skin, tear through my ribs, and rip out through my spine, leaving a tangly mess of me and my clothes in the churning sea below.

Luckily, that didn’t happen. Which is good, because it means I can go again sometime.

Maybe when it’s a little less windy, though.

Man of War Bay, Durdle Door, Dorset, November 2017.

Take Me Home

“Jacob?”

He turned, spine creaking, skin burning. A woman he didn’t recognise stood over him, dressed in yellow and framed in dying summer sun.

“You can’t stay here forever.”

Jacob looked back towards the sea, rubbing his eyelids with sandy fingers.

He could stay. He had to.

The woman didn’t go away like he’d hoped she would. Instead, she sat down next to him, pushing her bare feet into the sand and resting her arms on her knees. Big blue-green bruises patchworked across her ankles and calves, shimmering like fish scales in the light.

“You look tired.” she said.

Jacob closed his eyes. He was tired. His whole body hurt with it, and it hurt with sand and salt and sun. But it was so much nicer than the other hurt, the one that scrabbled at his belly, heart, and brain. That was the hurt he was afraid of.

“I can’t sleep.” he said.

“Not out here.”

“I can’t go home.”

The woman leaned a little towards him. “Not yet. Soon though.”

He shook his head. “Not without my sister.”

“No, I suppose not.”

The woman grinned and he stared at her strange face for a long while. Maybe he did know her? She wasn’t as old as he first thought – only just grown out of being a girl.

She sighed a long sigh and stood, holding out a hand for him. “I think we should go for a walk. It’s good to walk.”

He took the hand she offered – didn’t think it was odd, didn’t care if it was – and wrapped his fingers round her palm, gripping as tight as he could. His skin crackled as she hauled him to his feet and his muscles burned right through to his bones. She dusted off his shoulders, sprinkling sand and salt across his feet.

“We don’t need to go far.”

They walked hand in hand at first, but Jacob quickly slowed. The woman let his hand slip through hers, dawdling ahead. He stared down at the sand as he walked, trying to understand what was wrong with the footprints she left behind. But his eyes hurt and his head hurt and he couldn’t understand what was wrong.

Every now and then, the woman looked over her shoulder to ask how he was.

“Fine.”

Every time, she looked like she didn’t believe him. Every time, she carried on all the same.

The beat of the waves against the sand made Jacob feel better as he walked, and he smiled as he remembered how, just a few days ago, he had thought he’d never like the sound. At first – after his father had dragged him here, after he’d been kicked across the sand, dumped by the surf, pinned down and told not to return home without Lora – he had hated it. It had made him want to rip out his ears.

But now the sound wrapped round him like a blanket, cosy and snug, and he didn’t ever want to be without it.

The woman came to a stop by Cryer’s Cave, gazing up at the gaping scar of hollowed out rock.

“This is my favourite place.” she said.

Jacob hung back from the entrance, scrunching up his face.

“Are you scared?” She crossed her arms and leant against the rock. “I didn’t ever think I’d see the day.”

He frowned. What days had she seen him before?

“I’m not scared.” he lied and started forwards, his heart blundering at a strange rhythm – too hard, too quick. He hoped she couldn’t feel it too, though he was sure it was making the air shake. He tried to focus on each painful step and ignore the woman as she watched him, but he looked up as he passed her, almost stopping when he did.

Her hair was wet.

How had that happened?

She didn’t seem to notice the way her hair stuck to her neck or the way water bloomed across the top of her dress. Instead, she smirked a little smirk and followed him inside.

The cave was like a church, walls of rock towering up and up, echoes crawling off every surface, their breaths bellowing.

“Hello?” the woman called, grinning as hundreds of hellos rattled back. “Is anybody there?”

The air lulled back to quiet. “Your turn.” she whispered.

Jacob shook his head.

“Go on.” she teased. “Yell from right in here.” She pushed her fingers against her chest. “Take all the air you’ve got and scream.”

He shook his head again.

“Oh go on, Jacob.”

“No!” he yelled, and a rush of pain scrambled up his throat. He doubled over, coughing until his lungs felt bruised and he spat phlegmy blood onto the sand.

The woman pushed dripping hair back from her face. “I’m sorry. Are you all right?”

Jacob closed his eyes and waited until he was sure he wouldn’t cry, gulping blood back down his throat.

“I just want Lora.” he said.

“I know.” said the woman, ruining the echo of Lora’s name. “I just want to help.”

When Jacob opened his eyes again, he froze. He blinked, then blinked again, sure his eyes were wrong. But what he saw didn’t change.

The woman’s face was bleeding.

A huge gash had torn across her cheek and blood poured from it, spilling down her jaw and neck. The taste of his own blood made him grimace as he looked at it.

“Is something wrong?”

“Your face. You’ve cut your face.”

“Oh.” She ran her fingers along the gash, frowning.

“Doesn’t it hurt?”

“No, not really. Not anymore.” She wiped the fingers across her dress and turned, scaling a crop of rocks and picking her way across them. “There’s something I need to show you. It’s here somewhere, I just…” She stopped and faced him. “You have to promise you won’t run away.”

He would have laughed if his lungs hadn’t hurt so much. Hadn’t she seen he could barely walk?

“I promise.”

She cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. “You’ll want to, but you can’t”

“I won’t go anywhere.”

“Good.” She smiled, satisfied. “I won’t be long.”

She turned and clambered down the other side of the boulders, disappearing.

The sea and Jacob’s heart thudded in sync as he waited, and a horrible ache built under his skull.

I won’t be long.

The words went round and round, and made him want to scream. They were the worst words he’d ever heard and the worst words he’d ever said.

He tried to reach back four days and pull them out of the air, tried to erase them from his mouth and from Lora’s ears. He dug his toes into the sand and tried to go back, tried not to walk away, tried not to leave her playing all alone.

I won’t be long.

The sound of shuffling footsteps dragged him out of his looping nightmare. The woman reappeared at the top of the boulders, carrying something. Something with dangly legs and a floppy head. Something covered in shimmering bruises. Something wearing a yellow dress.

Jacob edged back as she descended the rocks towards him, the hurt he was afraid of rearing in his chest.

“Don’t run.” she pleaded. “You promised.”

The dangly legged, floppy headed something swayed at every limping step the woman took, its hair dripping and dress dribbling and face painted with purple-brown blood.

Water bubbled from each corner of the woman’s mouth as she handed the little body out to him.

“Please.”

He took the body in his arms and tried not think about how it was heavier than he remembered.

“I’m sorry.” he said, and the woman smiled.

“Take me home.”

Footprints in the sand at Lyme Regis, Dorset.

>>> No matter how hard I try, I can’t quite get this story right – but I’m releasing it into the wild anyway, because it needs to be free of my head and my laptop before it drives me mad with all the potential edits that can be made to it. The main idea for it comes from how people experience the unexpected death of a loved one. I was reading old accounts from families who lost relatives in World War I, and most of them wrote about seeing/hearing their loved one at the time they died – walking through the garden gate when they should have been (were) in France, appearing in a dream, etc. – and it kind of twistedly got me thinking about how there are no accounts where people see the death itself. It’s always very ethereal and rose-tinted, rather than visceral and horrible to watch. Here, the death has already happened and Jacob is witnessing the drowning retrospectively (and obviously a bit abstractly), to the woman Lora would have been. <<<

Sky Painter

Some nights she found it hard to paint the sky – matching it just so to how everyone had come to think it should look. Some nights she didn’t have to paint it at all – those nights were hard too, hard on her itching painter’s hands. She would stare at the top of the clouds and wonder what to do. Sometimes she would doodle across them, patterns of all different colours and shapes, patterns only she could see. Sometimes she would burst with anger and boredom and tear great, bright gashes through the air. She always regretted those and erased them as fast as she had made them, roaring with all the air in her lungs. And sometimes she would paint it just the same as on a clear and crystal night, because practise makes perfect and perfect was how people thought it should be.

There were nights, however, that she could paint the sky just how she wanted to, nights when no-one would notice the stars were missing.

Those nights, she would pour her whole soul into the moon, big and bright and shining. She would swirl the glowing, glossy emulsion round and round until she was dizzy and heartless and soulless, and when there was nothing left to paint with she would fall, swoop, glide to the ground and walk until her feet were sore – which happens quickly when you hardly use them – glancing up at her whole life, hoping, when the time came, it would fit back in under her ribs and skull.

Mostly, it did fit.

Some nights, there were pieces of it that didn’t.

And on those nights, she would scoop up the pieces of her life and soul and heart she had no room for any more and scatter them across the ground, hoping, when the time came, they would brighten someone’s dark.

Always, they did.

Full moon on a misty, foggy night in Dorset, England.