A well-turned ankle – thinking about feet and walking

I have just finished reading Baggage, A Book of Leavings, by Victoria Field. A memoir of walking the Camino de Santiago as a way of reflecting on and recovering from the end of a marriage. Earlier this year, a friend rang to say that he was going to be walking the Camino, or part of it, as he only he had two weeks in which to do so. ‘Are you going to find yourself?’ I asked, only half joking. This friend had been through a major health scare in the previous year, as well as his wife’s treatment for breast cancer the year before. He needed this trip. I followed his progress on Facebook, recognising the pain of blisters and fatigue, but also with envy. I couldn’t ‘do’ the Camino, unless someone offered to carry me in a sedan chair or on the back of a motorbike.

I realised that I had to make changes, make my own pilgrimage. And I keenly felt my inability to walk far, how I still miss going out for a trek 19 years into an illness that ‘put a halt to my gallop’, as my mother used to say. My mother died earlier this year. One of those things that makes you stop and reflect on your life. In the past two years, I have moved house, my husband had a heart attack, and I have lost a friend of a similar age to me. Lost as in died: let’s not sugarcoat it. I also lost the ability to write for a long time – now happily returning to me like an old friend whose company I have missed, but who often annoys the hell out of me.

Whilst reading Victoria Field’s book, I have thought a lot about feet as well as walking. There is a pilgrim with boots made especially from a mould taken of their feet, who nonetheless finds himself in excruciating pain. There are blisters, feet with flayed skin, and an account of a man who devotes himself, unpaid, to tending the feet of pilgrims by the side of the road. Before her pilgrimage, Victoria decides on a pair of ‘cheap and nasty’ boots that she has been wearing long before her trip, rather than shell out hundreds of pounds on a ‘good pair’, and these boots serve her well.

Maria at college, in her walking days

I have been writing recently about the difficulty of finding physical and psychological space, living in a large family in a small house when I was growing up. And I realised that I found that space when walking. It was always with a purpose, rather than going out for a stroll – to work; my Saturday job in Woolworth’s, or to college when I decided to leave the grammar school and go to an FE college to take my A-Levels. The school was yards from my house, and I had never experienced the bus journeys to school of my classmates, having also lived within a short walk of my primary school. When I told my mum that I was leaving the sixth form, during the first weeks of term, she firmly said that she would not pay my bus fares to college, so I walked at least one way every day – some three miles. I did this in plimsolls or flip-flops when it was warm enough to wear them. I had never had fitted or expensive shoes, and there was no question of buying good walking boots.

I got a certain rhythm whilst walking, and would pride myself on how far along the road I got before a bus passed me. Neighbours would often say that they had seen me ‘going hell for leather’ as they had passed on a bus. It was the only space I had to myself, between home and work, home and college, and I often walked late at night, coming back from parties or nights out. I was only ever bothered once, during these late walks, by some lads at the hot dog stand in town, and when one came over to me, I just mentioned my older brother’s name, hoping that they might know him, and was left alone to continue my journey.

Into my twenties and thirties, I continued to walk with a purpose, and found, after my marriage had broken up, that walking by the river and across the Rochester Bridge would help me to sort out things in my head. My body would loosen, my mood lift, and more often than not, something I had been trying to figure out would resolve itself as I walked.

Then illness struck and, slowed to a snail’s pace, I still walked until I reached a point of near collapse, like when marathon runners hit a wall, except the distance I covered was minimal. I was deprived of my way of creating space for myself, solving problems, feeling better. I dreamed of it still, of running for a bus, of walking, jumping, skipping.

I am treating my toenails at present. Stripped of their summer clothes of brightly-coloured varnish, I am tackling the thick and discoloured nails with a twice-daily lotion, applied like nail varnish with a brush. I have noticed that the nails on my right foot grow faster than those on my left. I have noticed the stripes on my feet from wearing the same sandals all summer: two broad white strips across the lightly tanned skin. The second toe on each foot is longer than the big toe. Someone once told me this is a sign of being psychic. My feet are quite long and slender, and I like the look of them. I think of the phrase ‘a well-turned ankle’. I think it was used at a time when women showed little of their legs, and a flash of an ankle could drive a man, or woman, to desire.

My ankle was well-turned in a fall down the steps of the house I used to live in. I sprained the ligaments in my left foot, which swelled up and turned from black to blue to yellow as the bruising progressed. This was some fifteen years ago, and I still get pain in that foot, that ankle, from time to time.

I no longer wear plimsolls or flip-flops. A year ago, I decided to take better care of that foot and ankle, and to buy better shoes. I spent £80 on a pair of comfortable yet stylish shoes, which are serving me well. My feet deserve it.

As for a pilgrimage, walking the Camino is not for me, but I am going to do some travelling in my sixtieth year. By train, mainly. I never had a gap year as a teenager, never went interrailing or grape-picking, and have seen little of the world. My aim, as part of my Sixty Firsts, is to ‘travel fearlessly’. The trips may be short and not as ambitious as others might undertake, but I shall be broadening my world, flexing my feet, and showing a well-turned ankle..

Sixty Firsts – Eating Gözleme in London Fields

Gözleme, a Turkish flatbread made of flour, water and oil, cooked dry on a hotplate, stuffed and folded with a choice of two fillings: potato and onion; spinach and cheese.

There are two women sitting on the floor in the window of the Saray Broadway Café, legs outstretched, making flatbreads, which they cook on a hotplate. The café has plastic chairs with tube-framed legs fixed to tables, which are also screwed to the floor, in the style of a greasy spoon. These women are not in headscarves in the window during the week, but the Broadway Market is on a Saturday with its artisan breads, cheeses and vegan brownie squares at £4.50 a go.

The market is crowded on a hot day. The sun is in its third or fourth week of belting down relentlessly, turning the grass yellow in nearby London Fields.

Radu, Jamie and Maria in Greenwich, 2017

We are four: my husband, my brother, his boyfriend and I, and we opt to take our Gözleme into the park, to sit in the shade of the London Plane trees. The Gözleme are £3 each. We buy cans of drink in a nearby international supermarket. The hot wraps are stashed into brown paper bags inside a blue plastic one. Even with the walk to find a combination of bench and shade, then opting for just shade, the Gözleme are piping. Jamie, my brother, advises eating the edges first, to allow the filling to cool from its volcanic temperature. It’s delicious, the spinach and unspecified grated cheese. Jamie and Radu, his boyfriend, are vegan, so have the only other option: potato and onion. As I suspected, filling enough without the vegan cakes that the boys had added to their lunch menu.

People are out on blankets with small children and small dogs, the latter occasionally invading our circle of folded legs and stretched out bodies to sniff and say hello. Balloons are attached to trees and party food is carried across the grass to other circles of bodies all over the park. Buff, tattooed young men, stripped of their shirts, display their athleticism on the outdoor gym equipment. The entrances to the Lido and café can be seen in the distance; a film crew set up by a row of houses at the edge of the park.

Jamie tells me that Broadway Market was very run down when he first lived in Hackney, before the hipsters moved in and property prices soared. A patch of wasteland outside his low-rise block of flats, where foxes once roamed, is now filled with new apartments, with the obligatory ‘affordable housing’ going for upwards of £450,000 for a one-bedroom flat. The social housing element of the development, what we used to call Council Housing, has a separate entrance to the privately-owned dwellings enclosing a gated square.

We stop by the building that used to be a Housing Benefit office, now called Mare Street Market, an open space of café, cocktail bars and small businesses. The hubbub is unbearable, with diners sharing long, canteen-style tables and paying £5 for a half round of bacon sandwich. On artisan bread, of course.

Back in Broadway Market, there is the odd café that has survived gentrification, including F. Cooke, an eel pie and mash joint, like the one I knew when I lived in Woolwich in the late ’70s and early ’80s, with white-tiled walls. An older man sits by the door at the end of the counter, waiting for a single customer to cross the threshold.

It is forty years since I first moved to London, thirty years since I moved on to Kent. The landscape has changed beyond recognition. As we drove from Kent to Hackney that morning, the crane-like roof structures on the O2 came into view on the East Greenwich peninsula, which was mostly derelict and empty when I lived nearby. The shining towers of banks and hotels rose on the other side of the Thames as we entered the Blackwall Tunnel. Some of the places where I lived where once considered undesirable. Bathrooms shared with other tenants, water heaters, cookers and gas fires condemned as dangerous. Now houses in those streets are beyond the reach of locals or students (as I was) staying on beyond the end of their degrees.

As for my brother, nearly twenty years in Hackney, his local authority rent is controlled and his tenancy protected. He would no longer be able to live in the area if he were to start over, find a new place to live.

Sixty Firsts

I shall be sixty years old in September 2019. I am aiming to do sixty things for the first time before that date, many of them small. This was the first time I had eaten Gözleme, and my first visit to London Fields.

I married a Muso

We are at a beer and music festival, and our ears are assaulted by the wonderful noise of Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society. I am somewhere between ‘Wow, this is amazing’ and ‘When will it stop?’ – I think this is what the band are aiming for. I find just the right description for it, and Tweet: ‘The Medway version of the Wall of Sound @stfes’. My husband Bob leans towards me and says, ‘You can’t hear [guitarist] Bob Collins’. ‘Go and speak to the sound man,’ I say. He looks uncomfortable. ‘They don’t like it when people do that.’

He squirms a little longer, then heads off to the speak to the sound man.

Our wedding cake, decorated with poetry and a guitar

Just as our ears are recovering and we have refreshed our glasses – Wantsum bitter for him, Dudda’s Tun elderflower cider for me – a lone guitarist takes the stage, Darren Hayman. He decides the stage itself is not intimate enough, and steps off the low blocks with his mic stand, into the audience. From the little I have learned from being married to a musician, and the buzz of feedback, I know this is not a good move, sound-wise. ‘He’s given the sound man a headache,’ Bob says, ‘With the mic in front of the speakers.’ I nod. The sound man does his best, and marital and musical harmony are restored.

Before we met, I knew that Bob was a musician. His profile shot on Dating Direct showed him leaning on a guitar. On the third date, he brought his guitar with him and sang to me in my living room. He was a member of several bands at that time. I called him a musical tart, as he’d pick up his guitar for anyone that asked. I wondered, when I first went to see him play, why the band’s other wives and girlfriends weren’t there. I soon learned that having a muso for a partner meant arriving hours before the gig and sitting at a sticky pub table, alone, while they set up, played, then packed up the equipment.

At our wedding – not so much a reception as a music festival – I had to remind Bob not to spend all evening on stage with the various bands that he played in. I decided, in the end, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, as I grabbed the tambourine someone threw in my direction and joined in with backing vocals on ‘Fisherman’s Blues’.

We don’t go to many gigs together, but when we do, I know that Bob wants to be close to the stage to see the guitar work. I often indulge this, bagging second row tickets for Loudon Wainwright III and Richard Thompson (billed as Loud and Rich) at the SouthBank. Front row tickets for Martyn Joseph at Whitstable Playhouse proved too much for my poor neck, head tipped back to see the man with the guitar on the high stage. We moved seats after the interval, causing Joseph to remark on the empty seats, and I, with some embarrassment, shouted out that we had only moved further away.

Let’s also talk musical taste. Bob and I don’t always agree. Martyn Joseph is not my cup of tea; Bob adores him. I have fallen asleep at two Martin Simpson gigs (technically brilliant; does nothing for me). I had a wider musical education than Bob, starting with the Irish bands played on the Dansette at home, through a love affair with Motown and Soul, exposed to ska and reggae by my siblings, and finally coming to heavy rock via my school friends. Punk was not my thing at the time (a kind of tribalism at play), but I later came to love it. The folk thing came a lot, lot later, and was what attracted me to Bob when I saw his profile on the dating site and sent him a message: ‘Are you a folk bloke? You’ve got the beard for it.’ Which he ignored for several months, leaving me thinking I had offended him.

Bob looks blankly at me when an old song comes on the radio that I identify within a few bars. (Who needs Shazam when you live with me?) Bob was pretty much a folk and Prog fan all along.

There is much we agree on, music-wise, though. Including that we don’t like jazz. Before Bob, I had a boyfriend who loved jazz. I went along to jazz sessions and gigs with him. Lovely people, the jazz audience, very friendly. Lovely man, too, the boyfriend. Trouble was, I couldn’t stand the music. I turned to the boyfriend after several minutes of what I’d describe as musical wanking, and said, ‘So what’s wrong with the 3-minute pop song?’ At a whole day of the goddamned stuff, a festival in a marquee by the river Medway, I stepped outside for a break and contemplated throwing myself in the river rather than returning to that tent and watching the admittedly skilful musician play two saxophones at once. Let’s just say, nice man, but the relationship was doomed.

One more thing about being at a gig with a muso – he just wants to be on stage with the other musicians. He’ll say, ‘They could do with a bass player,’ or the like. I know that, if he were invited to take an instrument and join in, he would leave me in the audience and do it. Our date night would become his gig night.

Bob only plays with the one band now, Acoustic Architects. Though he is quick to find other musicians wherever he goes. He left me for a good half hour recently, when he discovered the man running the Kent Wildlife Trust stall at a local event was also a musician. They exchanged numbers, and within a week Bob was off to the man’s house, guitar, mandolin and mandola in tow.

Anatomised – a life changed forever by Lyme Disease

A few years ago, I heard Andrew McGuinness read a story at the University of Kent. It was a funny tale, and his delivery owed much to stand-up comedy. McGuinness taught creative writing at the university, and at Christchurch, the other university in Canterbury. I saw him at many events, reading his own work, interviewing writers and hosting panels. And then I didn’t.

Anatomised coverLike Jack Mann (a stand-up comedian and the protagonist of Andrew McGuinness’s new novel, Anatomised), Andrew McGuinness was struck with a mysterious illness. I don’t like to assume that all of Jack Mann’s experiences reflect those of Andrew McGuinness. This is a work of fiction. However, my guess is that the research that has gone into Anatomised is borne of hard personal experience. The medical details, the intricacies of test results, and the psychological effects of having a life-changing illness that no-one can explain. Jack Mann is thrown from a comfortable life (albeit with family and bereavement issues in his background), having just relocated to the Kent coast, to a Kafkaesque nightmare of weird symptoms, hospital admissions and doctors who can’t see beyond their own specialties – stroke, MS – to alternative therapists who advocate positive thinking when the tinctures they give Mann don’t work.

I nearly stopped reading Anatomised, as Jack Mann’s experiences reflect some of my own as a person misdiagnosed, mistreated, disbelieved and ignored, both in the early days of my own chronic illness, and even several years on. The falling away of friends and relatives, the isolation, the unexplainedness of it all, the grief, the suicidal thoughts. Jack Mann, in a darkly comic scene, fails to throw himself on the right railway track, watching the train (which he has timed from hearing it pass at the end of his garden) speed past on the opposite track as he lays there, awaiting oblivion. My own (lack of) attempts were less dramatic. I walked by the river Medway several times a week, past some steps that descended into the water. I imagined stepping down and down to a watery grave. I never even took the first step down, but my dreams, when they came amidst years of barely sleeping, were of drowning, then a hand pulling me out at the last moment.

This isn’t a review. More of a reflection on lives that once were, altered forever – mine, Jack Mann’s, and Andrew McGuinness’s. And how writers can process their experience through fiction rather than memoir. McGuinness’s novel is not perfect – I felt the author’s anger at his mistreatment channelled through Jack Mann and his wife Alice. It was a little too noticeable at times. Would a reader who doesn’t know McGuinness’s story notice this as much as I did? Or a reader who hasn’t been through that kind of anger themselves, sometimes channelling it through poems and stories, which would have been better left until some of that anger had subsided? Perhaps a fictionalised account is the best one can do, given the closeness of the material, the pain. It gives the writer a distance from the awfulness of it all.

Anatomised has stayed with me, and given me a great deal of cause for thought. I read a lot, but needed a week before beginning another book, to process Jack Mann’s story, Andrew McGuinness’s personal story, and my own. I thought of it as I walked with my husband Bob on a recent holiday. Bob has only known me with my illness, as we met when I was some seven years into it. On this holiday, as I do in my daily life, I could only manage a couple of hours out everyday, then I slept and rested for the remainder of the day. ‘I’d understand if you wanted a wife who could walk further,’ I said, as I took Bob’s arm, struggling to walk back to the house where we were staying. ‘Nah,’ he said, ‘Think of all the bother of divorcing you.’ We laughed, but I thought of how holidays used to be, before all these years of illness; a third of my life lived like this.

I’m glad I didn’t take that walk down the steps into the river, because life is good, in spite of my limitations. I’m glad that Andrew McGuinness was able to recover enough, to fight enough, to give us Anatomised. It is lyrical and thought-provoking. I would particularly recommend the last few chapters, where … but I don’t want to give the game away.

Anatomised by A.F. McGuinness is published by  Red Sail Press and costs £12.99. A proportion of income from sales of the book will go to Lyme Disease charities.

 

The shed is dead

I used to be a sheddie. I had my very own writing shed that overlooked an orchard. I lost that shed at the end of January 2017 when we sold the house we had lived in for eight years. And yet the shed continued to feature as the header photo for this website … until today. And this blog page, which was called ‘The Word from the Shed’, has now been renamed ‘Written by the river’.

I miss my shed. Facebook often reminds me with Memories featuring the shed and the orchard; my latest book is about orchards, and features the shed. But the shed is dead, or now under the ownership of a lovely young couple and their baby. The shed is in good hands, and I must let it go.

Thames barges on the Medway

Thames barges on the Medway near to my home

Now my vista as I open the bedroom curtains in the morning is the River Medway. It lies just beyond the Jubilee Clip factory, with a view of Hoo Marshes in the middle of the river and Hoo St Werburgh on the other bank. I spend a good half hour after I wake staring at the river and the sky, watching the birds, the sky, and various shipping pass by.

My desk is now tucked downstairs at the back of the house. I write facing a wall, but if I turn, I can just see a sliver of river in the gap between the houses and the factory. I write in my house, down by the river.

The river and I have history. I used to live a short walk away from the Medway, when I first moved to the area nearly thirty years ago. I crossed it, via Rochester Bridge, to walk to work for a couple of years, then drove across twice a day when a new job took me further afield. When the Medway Tunnel opened, that served for more journeys than the bridge. When we drive beneath the river, the sat nav picture shows blue, as though we were swimming. And I was a kind of swimmer once, with Medway Mermaids women’s writing group. I still am. Mermaids only lapse; it’s like being Catholic.

I am written by the river. I write by the river.

Shall I tell you a secret?

Shall I tell you a secret? How weighted that phrase is. If I tell you a secret I am relieving some of the weight from my shoulders and bestowing it on yours. What would you do with that secret? Like the man from the story who had to shout into the ground, ‘The King has donkey’s ears’, as he couldn’t hold the secret any longer, secrets can rarely be buried.

Notebooks full of secrets

Notebooks full of secrets

I’ve been thinking a lot about secrets in the weeks since my mother’s death. Our family was and is full of secrets. My siblings and I were told, as children, not to talk about things outside the house, things that happened at home. We also didn’t talk about secrets amongst ourselves. Over the years, some secrets have oozed out, secrets some would know about and not others. ‘Don’t tell your father’ was a regular phrase we heard from our mother, often followed by, ‘It’d kill him.’ So the lesson was secrets can kill.

I am writing this, for once, without drafting by hand, in my notebook full of secrets. Without reflection, research and careful thinking. I want to watch myself. Who knows what could slip out. Whom I might kill.

I carried secrets for years, under threat of killing or harming others. The result was that I harmed only myself, and when I did speak those secrets, guess what? Nobody died. But people fell silent. Or blurted for a while before it was all zipped up again. Or told me I was to stop upsetting people by speaking my truth.

Notice I’m not telling you the secrets. There is still a chance that people might die (though not my father; he is long gone; nor my mother; recently departed).

I did not go public about my mother’s death on social media. It was a secret. Mine. But I have let the secret out little by little to those who know the bigger secrets, some of whom have secrets of their own they have shared with me. Some who, like me, have spoken their truths and found the truth was not a welcome guest.

Leaving and going back

 

9780992648510-Perfect-MH-cropped-FRONT-COVER-with-outer-edgeLeave-taking was not dealt with well, when my mother left Ireland for England, carrying a suitcase bearing two of everything. When one of many leaves, are they missed? Or was it one less soul to worry about when she, the eldest of fourteen, left?

My own leave-taking was dealt with badly. I remember my bags piled in the hall, awaiting an uncle to drive me to the halls of residence. My mum and dad were not there, and I don’t recall any of my siblings saying goodbye in a way any different to if I was going out for an evening.

I think my mother couldn’t cope with me leaving, so avoided it. Every time I came home for a weekend, I would leave on a Sunday evening, and she would be sitting in her chair, watching telly, unable to see me leave or wish me well with my life away from home. She did not know how to say goodbye, nor did she know how to grieve, or to teach any of us how to do so. Funerals back home in Ireland were not attended, even that of her own mother, and the pain was held within.

For the Irish that made that brave journey from their homeland to England, in the 1940s, 50s and beyond, their travelling often ended where they landed. For my parents, they landed in Epsom, where jobs awaited, and stayed there. So did many of their fellow countrymen and women. So, many of the Irish friends and neighbours I knew as a child are yet living in the same houses as they were  50 or 60 years ago. Now they leave in wooden boxes, set for their last Mass at St Joseph’s church, and on to be buried, as is not the fashion these days, but that is what Irish Catholics of that generation did and do. They bury and are buried, the mourners wear black, and the coffin is borne on the shoulders of the men of the next generation, or the generation below them.

So it was with my Auntie Joan a few days ago – come to Epsom from Valencia in Co. Kerry in the early 1950s, she met and married a man from Sligo, Jack, who knew my dad. In turn, Joan and my mother became friends, and we always thought of Joan and Jack as relatives.

Joan arrived in church last Friday, carried by men that included one of my brothers,  to the sound of my other brother playing ‘Danny Boy’ on the violin – a song of leave-taking.

I saw a group of Irish women in a pub in Margate two years ago. I tuned in to their voices, watched their eighty-plus-year-old heads, dyed black and red. The conversation never lagged. They spoke of parish priests, of sick friends, of those that came on the outing last year, but had taken their leave in the past twelve months. They were from an Irish club somewhere in London. They said the younger Irish don’t come along to their club, to their annual trip, where they lunch at the same pub each year. I could see that their outing would not happen in five or six years time. They would all have taken their leave.

And so it is with that generation of Irish parents, uncles, aunts and neighbours. Taking their leave, depleting the ranks of the Irish that arrived in the middle of the last century. Soon, we will be the older generation, that second generation of children born in England to Irish parents. Left to tell the stories that were told to us, or to write them down in books, as I have done.

I lived in Epsom for the first third of my life, and returned regularly for the second third. The past third has been a time of illness, for me, and a rift with some of my family. For reasons too intimate to go into here, I vowed not to return to that ‘home’, where my mother and eldest brother still live. But never isn’t always forever, and I returned to the town, if not the house I grew up in, for Joan’s funeral a few days ago. Things seemed smaller than I remembered; the town had changed. Yet I was recognised immediately as I entered the church, as ‘a McCarthy’, and was soon caught up in childhood memories at the wake, and in meeting some old friends that I hadn’t seen since I left home at nineteen.

My mother is frail now, and showing signs of dementia. Her time on this earth is not long. Many of her younger siblings have gone, and now her best friend, Joan.

It took me a long time to leave home in my head, in my being – many years after my physical leave-taking. For my mother and Joan, for my father and Jack, they settled in a foreign country, yet always remained Irish. I don’t where I really belong; I never have. But I have been back and settled a place in my mind that has loomed large for all my life.

My story collection, As Long as it Takes, is about Irish women and their daughters living in England. I asked Maggie Drury to draw me an image of two women linking arms for the book cover. These women could be Mary, my mother, and Joan, her best friend.

Footnote: My mother died a few weeks after her friend, Joan. Mary Catherine O’Halloran McCarthy, born 29 June 1931 in Ennistymon Co Clare, Died 2 March 2018 at a hospital near her home in Epsom.

Not building a wall, but making a brick

P1000418 smallI have a mini-noticeboard above my desk with interchangeable cards for how I am feeling today. I have attached to the bulldog clip that holds the cards to the wooden frame some homemade oblique strategies cards. The card that comes to the fore when I shuffle them states: Not building a wall but making a brick.

All I have done this week, towards a story I am working on, is to think about replacing ‘rectangle’ with ‘parallelogram’ in the phrase ‘a rectangle of light’. I think this, but don’t write it down. I have been working on this story, on and off, for over two years, adding small bricks, knocking down little walls that don’t belong.

Meanwhile, as I don’t write, I travel around my area, and watch new houses shoot up fast in empty spaces along the side of the road. Elsewhere, an old terrace of flats and houses is flattened. I used to look down on the communal gardens of these dwellings from the train. The plastic toddler cars and sandpits that were scattered about are gone. A giant crane towers over the ground, which is encased by hoardings proclaiming affordable housing to come. Not building a wall, but knocking them down.

Three new houses were topped off not long after we moved into our house in March of this year. I watched from my bedroom window as skips were filled and removed. Carpets were cut on the ground outside, offcuts and cardboard rolls dropped in the skips. It is November now. A billboard still promises three houses to come on the market, but there is no For Sale sign yet. The corrugated fence surrounding the parking spaces at the back and the tree at the front is covered in graffiti, bearing the tag ORES or DRES, and a cartoon of a man’s head. A light burns in one of the windows. No-one has returned to switch it off since the workmen moved out in the summer. I see it when I open my curtains before the winter dawn. Perhaps there are bricks to be made, walls to be built before the people move in. Perhaps, next summer, new owners will be breakfasting on the terraces placed on stilts above the parking spaces.

I watch a documentary on Bobby Sands and the IRA hunger strikers. There are images of people throwing stones and half-bricks at tanks. I have memories of that time, in 1981. Of the hunger strike being debated at the Student Union in the year when I took my finals. I remember standing in the doorway at the back of a crowded hall, listening to the debate. I remember a man I knew when I was growing up. He wore a black beret like the IRA marchers they show in the film. I store these bricks, these connections. They do not fit with the story I am writing. They might fit somewhere else.

I play with my granddaughter, with wooden bricks. She wants to build with only blue ones today. There aren’t enough blue blocks. We add some green ones.

I have not written for a week. I do not sleep well. I worry. My head is full of different bricks: images, memories and connections. Still I do not write. I shuffle the cards and find the one that says: Not building a wall, but making a brick. Then I write.

The Fallen and The Faithful

Two sample pages from There are Boats on the Orchard, by Maria C. McCarthy:

TABOTO 4 The fallen

TABOTO 9 The faithful

 

There are Boats on the Orchard is only available direct from Cultured Llama, £7.00 (click here to buy your copy).

Noticing the beauty in ordinariness: There are Boats on the Orchard

I am delighted to announce the publication of There are Boats on the Orchard. These poems began as a filler of time, after I had finished the final draft of my story collection As Long as it Takes. I was bereft, having lived with those characters for so many years, and spending time in my writing shed, staring out of the window, or walking the orchard that I could see outside. So I started writing about what I could see: the bunting I had made dripping in the rain, then drying; the arrival of boats, parked by the dead tree near our fence; a woodpecker in the snow, as I sat at my desk with a sleeping bag wrapped round me; local children trespassing, bouncing on a trampoline left out by the orchard owner after a family party.

I went away on a residential writing weekend with Lynne Rees, showed her some of the poems, and talked about my feelings of bereavement after As Long as it Takes was finished. Lynne was encouraging, and I kept going, observing and writing and walking the nearby orchards. Lynne is also an orchard walker, observer – in fact an orchard owner –  and I am delighted to read her review of There are Boats on the Orchardalongside her own thoughts on the changing face of orchards, and how humans deal with change.

And it’s the themes of ‘endings’ and being poorer for what’s lost that percolate McCarthy’s collection: disappearing cherry orchards, the loss of an inspiring view, the absence of seasonal visiting sheep, and the urbanisation of green fields accompanied by the inevitable decline in wildlife: rabbits, woodpeckers, kestrel. So the threads of resentment and sadness throughout many of the 25 poems are to be expected. In ‘Eden Village’, a housing estate built on a former cherry orchard, the children do not play in the natural paradise suggested by the title but “are in their rooms playing games.” In ‘Strange Fruits’ the hedgerows are littered with “Stella cans, a Co-operative bakery wrapper/”. 
 
But despite this tone and detail I do not leave this collection feeling bereft or hopeless and that may well be down to McCarthy’s lyrical language and syntax which, like the pheasants in the previously mentioned poem, are often “Joyous miracles.” 
 
In her previous urban home, “The quarter hours chimed with stolen light.” (from ‘Prologue’ p.1). Her home-made bunting survives, “Rain and shine, rain and shine;/ washed and dried, washed and dried.” (from ‘Drought’ p.11). And I’m particularly comforted by the poplars in the final poem, “Last” that “shush as they bend.” 
 
Because isn’t this how humanity moves forward with grace? By noticing the beauty in ordinariness? By accepting what cannot be changed? By bending but not breaking? And by celebrating and commemorating both past and present, its joys and griefs.

Read Lynne Rees’s review here.

I’d long wanted to work with an artist on these poems, and was delighted to find that Sara Fletcher, whom I knew as a friend of a friend, had wonderful skills in sketching. We walked the orchards together last autumn, which turned out to be our last year living in the house that backed onto the orchard. Sara’s drawings have made There are Boats on the Orchard a beautiful thing, as has Mark Holihan’s design work.

On the day that There are Boats on the Orchard was collected from the printer’s, news came through of plans to build houses on the orchard that I thought of as mine. I am glad not to be there to see this happen, but happy to have the poems and images in this pamphlet to chronicle the years of living next to the disappearing orchards of Kent.

You can only buy the pamphlet from Cultured Llama, for £7 plus p&p: There are Boats on the Orchard 

The Hungry Writer by Lynne Rees is also available from Cultured Llama.

There will be events to launch There are Boats on the Orchard some of them in orchards. See Events on the Cultured Llama website.

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