driftwood on the beach
waiting for the tide to turn
and lift me away
driftwood on the beach
waiting for the tide to turn
and lift me away
still summer morning
two sycamores’ raw embrace
holding on, always
late winter haiku
clamped against the cold
bird in the bare black branches
Deep winter stillness
Two limbless trees embracing
Sighing for the spring
THE LITTLE HOUSE sits on my bedroom shelves all year round, quietly gathering dust. Barely an inch square – its frosted cardboard walls shabby and peeling, the hint of pink glitter at its lower windows hardly convincing – this house is nearly 90 years old. Less a decoration, more a holy relic. But I love it dearly. Because this belonged to my mother Kathleen, one of the few objects of hers that still remains. And every time I look at it, it reminds me of her.
Once a year it is brought downstairs – displayed amidst the winter candles, placed on the tree, and lit, for a few weeks, in a hazy glow of memory and glory, before disappearing back upstairs, as another year turns.
Kathleen died in 2005, at 82 years old. She grew up in urban Lancashire, at a time of hardship and austerity, between the two world wars. Her mother died young, so she was brought up by her grocer dad and a rather fierce and forbidding Aunt Lil. There was no money for luxuries. It was a somewhat punishing, gloomy era. And as a result – even when her circumstances eased, and she had a family of her own – mum acquired a habit of self denial and thrift that persisted for the whole of her life.
My sister-in-law told me once that when they took my parents on a trip over to France, to stock up on food and wine from the bulging French hypermarkets – even as my father loaded the crates with chablis and fruity reds, the one thing Kathleen chose was a big bag of salt.
Unsentimental and practical to a fault, the only time my mother became openly emotional was when she remembered her childhood. Home, I got the impression, was not a particularly happy place. Despite having two close cousins living not far away, she was a rather wistful, lonely little girl. In light of which, the little cardboard house gathers a symbolic poignancy, as well as dust.
But Kathleen compensated her grief in spectacular fashion, by turning into a vivacious, fun-loving, adventurous – and rather wild – young woman. She met my dad in her early 20s, and they married soon after.
“She used to run all the way to work – run everywhere”, he said, as he recalled – not long before his own death in 2010 – his first glimpses of my mother. “I had never seen anyone so beautiful, so full of life.”
Determined to create a big family of her own, after the fracture of her early life, Kathleen went on to have three children – I am the youngest, with two older brothers – and to establish a household that was hectic, noisy, chaotic. Full of shouting. Full of laughter. Teeming with life.
And that house was never busier than at christmas and new year, when there were parties and gatherings of various haphazard and gleeful proportions. None of which seemed to phase my mother, who simply didn’t stand on ceremony of any kind.
If you came to our house, at any time of year, then you knew what you were in for. There was always delicious food, but sometimes erratically presented. When two schoolfriends came for tea once, she cut the first slice of home-made apple pie proudly at the table – only to reveal a large, scrunched up lump of silver foil, which had been carelessly abandoned at some point during pie preparation, then somehow sealed under the crust and cooked, alongside the fruit, to emerge, in a triumphant swirl of steam, when the pie was opened.
There were certainly gifts at christmas time – but scantily wrapped, in paper re-cycled from the previous year, or the year before that. There was a tree – but the decoration was lopsided, gaudy. And somewhere in the branches, was the frosted cardboard house – miraculously surviving, season after season, with the least possible care given to its status or preservation.
One of my brother’s friends would make the pilgrimage up to our house every year during the holiday season, standing, without invitation, at the front door, having escaped his own family, where everything was rather dull and ordinary. Occasionally we would apologise to him, when some argument kicked off at an inopportune moment. His eyes would shine. “I like it when you argue”, he said. And he meant it.
But things come full circle. The noise and the hectic subsides. My own immediate family – just myself and my grown up daughter – is small and very calm in comparison to mother’s mayhem. We don’t go in for big parties during the darkness of winter – preferring to go out into the world to do our wassailing, and then disappear back through the bright red door of our house, and into the blessed quiet.
It is 11 years since mum died, and the world still seems an unnecessarily serious place, without her sense of fun and her peals of giddy laughter. There will always be a mother-shaped absence in my life. Still, there is beauty and comfort in the ritual of the seasons turning – tealights and candles burning through the dark winter nights, waiting for the return of spring. A house full of light in the absence of the sun. And mum’s miniature house, dusted off, and lifted downstairs to be among the twinkle. Reminding me of my indomitable mother, and of the little girl she once was : holding, as we all do, to the fundamental need for the light, the welcome – and the warm winter refuge – of HOME.
IT IS a bright, sunny morning in early May, and I am walking the hill road, alone. The place is Knockroe West, on the wild Beara Peninsula in County Cork, Ireland. I am staying with two dear friends, who live in a converted farmhouse,perched high up on a slope, and surrounded by fields, overlooking an almighty blue ocean.It is about as different from my own home, in a suburb of Leeds, in the North of England, as you could get: although the surrounding countryside in Yorkshire – with its craggy, reckless coastline – bears more than a passing resemblance. Which might explain why I have lived in Leeds so long. Echoes, repeating echoes, in a constantly shifting inner landscape.
Neither friend is with me now. In fact, there is no one around at all. The air is still, as if the sky itself is holding its breath. The livestock in the nearby fields are quiet. I pass not a single soul – in car, or on foot – until I reach the main road into Allihies Village down below, forty minutes later.The only sound is that of a far-away bird, up overhead, and the steady, striking rhythm of my boots, on the grass-infested tarmac beneath. It is a solid and comforting thing – both the silence and the beat of those boots. Proof that I am back on my feet, after two years of problems with my health (where fatigue, for a long time, would have prohibited a walk like this.) And proof that I am back, too, in a terrain that has, through the years, been an inspiring, consoling, and essential component in my life.
The hill road curves, high and narrow, above the house where I am staying: rough hedgerows to either side marking edges and boundaries, filled with grasses, gorse and careless weeds. Here is no soft-centred beauty. This is a landscape carved, down the centuries, by wind and rain, and born of bare, simple necessity. Beara can be brutal, when the weather closes in: the people who work its waters and its land have a difficult time of it, with frequent sudden deaths on road and sea, and lives foreshortened by hard, hard graft.But the grandeur of it all: the heart-stopping magnificence of cliff edge and boulder-strewn waterline – the heights and vertiginous swoops of its topography – holds anyone who has ever been here in its permanent thrall. Like Prospero’s island in Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’: it is a place of pure,rough magic, to infect the soul.
As the road winds down towards Cahermore Strand, cars begin to hurtle past me on the main coast road, and the silence is broken. There is a cheerful mother, marching her two children towards the village, pressing them protectively against the hedges as the cars go past, backpacks firmly fastened in place. We are all smiles – at the unpredictable sunshine – and are making use of it now, since who knows when the curtain of mist will fall again, dropping the fields and mountains back into mystery? I cross the road and scramble over the grassy rubble, onto the little pebble beach itself, passing tufts of sea pinks coming into full bloom, and peering into rock pools; gazing at the slate-sharp masses that rise like black stone monsters from the ebbing tide. The suck of the waves sweetens my ears, enters my bloodstream, settles my brain. Beara is drawing me back once more.
There are some people who like to stay at home. Others crave adventure, pastures new: a place they have never been before. Others still – and I am one – are always looking to return. The places that resonate with me are few and precious in my life, so that – wherever I may be in reality – I am always looking for them in my mind. The Beara Peninsula is one such place. I first came upon it in my twenties: staggering off the back of a motorbike after an epic journey from Brixton, South London, to find a landscape unlike anything I had ever before encountered, in my town-and-city, urban-hectic, self-obsessive, books-and-writing, room-based life. Beara blew my head off. Left me speechless, shaken,at the majesty of it. It changed my life in an elemental way. On the day before we left, I walked to the edge of a cliff, and lay down on my belly in the moss, feeling the ground strong beneath my body – with my head left dangling over the edge, gazing at the waves, smashing against the rocks, far below. For years afterwards, back in the chaos of London life, whenever I felt lost and alone, I would summon that cliff in my mind’s eye. And it spurred me onwards. Gave me strength. In 2002, when my husband Tim was very ill with cancer, he wanted to take a road trip – somewhere that he had never been before.I took him to Beara. And he loved it, too. In 2004, after he died, my daughter and I scattered some of his ashes into the water, over a rock. Some places – even though you may leave and neglect them, they never leave you. The ghostly imprint always sticks.
Last week, I was walking through the centre of Leeds, back from my Irish journey – and hollow with fatigue, as I went from one appointment to the next, willing my legs to get me there on time,oppressed by the noise of the traffic and the press of people, hurrying along. Then I looked down at my boots, tuned into their rhythm, was slowed by their sound. And for a moment, I was walking the hill road again, in solitude and quiet, sustained by blue sky above, and solid ground beneath; held by a deep well of memory; nourished by experience – and strengthened by the knowledge of return. So, till the next time, lovely Beara, adieu…
*’A Handful of Earth’ by Barney Bardsley (John Murray), on the power of the land – and the making of a garden – is available here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Handful-Earth-Year-Healing-Growing/dp/0719596106
* Thankyou to Liz Mellon and Fiana Reid for being such magnificent hosts, as always….x