A meeting in the garden

Recently, I have returned to a childhood favourite, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. My copy is tatty and falling to pieces as I’ve read it many, many times over the years. I remember receiving it for Christmas when I was ten, and being very excited. It was my best present that year. As a child, I devoured books and was always in need of something new to read. Both my children enjoyed the book as their bedtime story when they were small, so it is special to me and my family.

Revisiting The Secret Garden is like being wrapped in a warm blanket. I know the story so well I can relax completely into it; comforted in the familiar. I meet up with old friends and reacquaint myself with their personalities. There is Mary, spoilt and selfish, with a tragic past. There is Martha, with her sunny disposition and optimistic outlook. There is Ben Weatherstaff, grumpy and cross, with a hidden, soft heart. There is Colin, crippled by his heart-broken father’s rejection. There is the bright, beady-eyed robin, intelligent and all-seeing. Finally, there is Dickon, a breath of fresh, untamed air, bringing nature and wild things with him.

For an ordinary girl, living on a dreary council estate in the 1970s, an isolated manor house set on a beautiful, unpredictable moor provided the perfect backdrop for the story. The idea of a secret, walled garden opened exciting, romantic possibilities. My own life, with worries about school and growing up, could be forgotten for a while. I think I fell a little bit in love with Dickon.

Now, turning the yellow pages of my ageing book, I am reminded of days sitting reading for hours, immersed deeply in the story, unaware of anything going on around me. Although I still read as much as possible and get lost in other worlds, it is rare for me to abandon reality in the carefree way I did as a child.

 

Which old favourites from childhood do you enjoy revisiting? Do they stir any memories?

The Little Dog

Ben stood in the dark hallway of the large, stone house. Outside the air was hot but here it was cool. Removal men bumped and strained around him. He was a forlorn six-year-old lost and forgotten in the chaos. Normally, he bubbled with curiosity and adventure. He liked to explore the natural world. He loved to be in the open air. Now, he stood uncertain. Moving to this new house with its enormous, verdant garden terrified him. He had left everything he had ever known. The security of the home where he was born. His bedroom with its pale, green paintwork and dinosaur border. The safety of his Grandma whom he loved best of all. He would miss her gentle, laughing voice. Her silly stories. Her funny songs. He would miss her cuddling him close and the warm smell of her rose-perfumed cardigan.

A new home meant a new school. His stomach gripped tight when he thought of it. He would have to talk to new children. Make friends. He was happiest in the company of adults. He could find interesting things to tell them; about animals, plants and insects. Grown-ups listened, asked you questions, wanted to know. Children were rough and tumble. They shouted, tugged at you, talked nonsense.

‘Ben darling,’ Mum called him softly, ‘Why don’t we go and look at your new room?’

‘All right,’ he said, reluctantly leaving his corner.

He followed Mum upstairs, along a bright landing and into a large comfortable looking room. His bed was there and boxes full of his things.

‘It will soon be your room – just like the old house,’ Mum smiled, ‘Why don’t you start unpacking? I have to make the workers some tea but I’ll come back in a bit.’

Ben went over to the window. A spider skittered wildly across the glass. His nose wrinkled in concentration. As he watched, he whispered to himself under his breath. He looked out at the garden. On the lawn sat a little white dog gazing up at him. It seemed friendly. Wagging tail, shaggy hair and beady, black eyes. Ben ran out of his bedroom, down the stairs and into the garden. The dog still sat on the grass.

‘Hello little dog,’ he said holding out his hand carefully.

The dog eyed him excitedly, pink tongue lolling to the side of his mouth. Ben thought he was smiling. He knelt down on the springy grass.

‘Come here,’ he said tapping his knees, ‘Come to me little dog!’

The dog ran to Ben and barked invitingly. The two new companions played in the garden all afternoon.

 

When Ben returned to the house, face flushed with exercise and excitement, his parents smiled knowingly at one another.

‘I see you’ve been enjoying the garden,’ Dad said, ruffling his butter-coloured hair.

‘I enjoyed playing with the little dog,’ Ben said, his intelligent brown eyes alight, ‘We found lots of insects and a pond with frogs.’

‘Must be a neighbour’s dog,’ Mum said. ‘Just think, you’ve got the whole holiday to play. But now…it’s tea, bath and bed for you. You’re filthy!’

 

Ben played outside every day, little dog at his heels. One afternoon, they were investigating a different corner of the garden. It was shady and overgrown; weeds reached up to Ben’s waist. Nearing a stone wall, the dog began to whine, pawing at the ground and cowering in the damp undergrowth.

‘What’s wrong little dog?’ Ben asked, screwing up his nose in thought, ‘Nothing to be scared of…we’ll look after each other.’

He picked up a narrow branch and thrashed at the long grass. The dog did not move. Ben pulled away the vegetation, clearing an area next to the wall.

‘This is hard work…just move this…oh…what’s that?’ he muttered to himself as he worked.

Ben knelt on the soft ground. He saw a small headstone, worn and green with age. He could not see any writing on it. He turned to show the little dog but he was gone.

 

At bedtime, Ben told Mum about his discovery.

‘This is an old house,’ she said, ‘…must be someone’s much loved pet, buried in the garden.’ She kissed him goodnight. Ben fell asleep thinking about who might have lived there before.

 

All summer, Ben played with the little dog. They became best friends, sharing fears and worries. He began to love the house and garden. He missed his Grandma but, with the dog by his side, he felt he could cope with anything. Even starting a new school.

 

The holidays were nearing an end. Ben stood at the window, waiting. He was excited. His nose rumpled with anticipation.

‘Soon be here…won’t be long now…,’ he chattered happily to himself.

Dad’s car pulled up the drive.

‘She’s here!’ Ben shouted. He watched his Grandma walk up the path carrying a large box.

Grandma came into the hall. She put the box gently on the floor.

‘Hello my boy,’ she said, eyes sparkling. She bent and kissed Ben’s curly mop.

‘Grandma…’ he hugged her tight, breathing in the smell of flowers.

‘I’ve got a present for you,’ Grandma said. She passed him the box, ‘Open it carefully.’

Ben could hear a snuffling, scratching sound from inside. He lifted the flaps cautiously. A small puppy pushed out its head. Bright eyes, wet nose, black and white fur.

‘Thought you might like one of your own…’ Grandma smiled, ‘He can walk with you to school.’

‘Oh…’ Ben gasped. He delicately picked up the dog and held it close. It smelt warm and safe.

‘Thank you Grandma,’ he said.

Ben loved his puppy. He ran out to find the little dog. It would be fun to explore – all three together.

‘Little dog!’ he called but there was no response.

Ben knotted his forehead. Holding his pup to his chest, he searched for the little dog in every corner of the garden. There was no sign of him.

 

Every day Ben played in the garden with his puppy but he never saw the little dog again.

The wait is worth it

Being a parent to teenagers seems to be a process of waiting. Certainly I spend hours every week waiting for my son. With coat and shoes on, keys in hand, I wait for him to be ready to leave the house. In the car, windows fogged, radio on, or scribbling in a notebook, I wait while he has a piano or guitar lesson, or for him to finish work, or for his college bus to arrive. Breath bated, I wait for him to make a decision (about anything – he likes to think things over).

Whenever I begin to feel impatient or frustrated about the time I spend waiting, I stop and remind myself that this won’t last forever. Each stage of parenthood is a fleeting moment on a whirlwind train journey; each station passed in a blur. We have our children with us for such a short time before they head off and make their own way. Once, I waited for nine months, nervous and excited, for my babies to arrive. Today, I can barely remember what it felt like to hold their warm bodies in my arms; tiny, vulnerable and needing only me. As I paced the bedroom floor every sleepless night, humming lullabies and rocking my restless little ones, I would never have believed I could forget; then it was all-consuming, now I miss it sometimes.

So, I am thankful for these moments of waiting for my son. I am happy he is still here for me to enjoy his company. I make the most of the time we have together before he is off, like his sister before him. Waiting provides me with an opportunity to think, to listen, to observe and to create. The radio is an intelligent companion and suggests many ideas for writing. Looking out of the window, I observe interesting characters passing by. I watch the changing sky and the swooping birds. The pages of my notebook fill up. Great chunks of my novel have been jotted down as I sit waiting.

Waiting is worth it.

 

 

 

 

Talking to yourself is a sign you’re a writer

I am never alone. I have multiple personalities inhabiting my head. A throng of people, of varying genders, sizes and ages. Sometimes these people talk; they whisper, shout, argue, cry and laugh inside my mind. Sometimes they burst out into the real world. They escape on to paper; become stories and poems others can read. Sometimes they break out as words; fragments of conversations spoken into the air where others can hear. My husband and children are used to my odd behaviour. ‘What did you say?’ they ask and I reply, ‘Just talking to myself’, or ‘Just thinking about a bit of my novel.’ With a shrug of the shoulders, they carry on. When it happens around other people, it can be embarrassing.

The first time I remember, was as a small girl, in a supermarket which was rather dull. I was making up a story to relieve my boredom. I’ve forgotten what it was about. In the middle of an involved exchange with some imagined character, I looked up and noticed two shelf-fillers had stopped what they were doing and were listening to me. They had broad, entertained grins on their faces. Reddening, I turned and hurried back down the aisle.

Since then, I have had many experiences of being overheard. My mind gets carried away, the characters come to life and out the words come, normally hushed under my breath. It can happen anywhere; on buses, trains, walking the dogs, shopping. I have had people ask if I am all right or if I am speaking to them. I have had people laugh or sneer. I have had people edge away awkwardly, concern on their faces. Mostly, I am met with bemused amusement. I feel a little foolish but it does no harm. In fact, it even does some good. The listener gets a good chuckle and something to talk about, while I develop my story lines.

It is acting with me taking every role. Playing out different scenes and characters helps me work out the plot. I become that person for a while; think, feel and respond as them. I decide how they would behave in each situation. It is part of who I am; I cannot imagine my life without the company of these others. Once, it worried me. I thought perhaps I was too caught up in a fantasy world; I was a bit kooky. After all, they say talking to yourself is a sign of madness. I am no longer bothered by it; I am aware where reality ends and the stories begin. It turns out that talking to yourself is a sign you’re a writer.

 

What do you think, fellow writers? Do you talk to yourselves too?

 

 

 

An unexpected sight

Summer is at an end. September has arrived in watery bluster and the holidays are over. Soon children will make the slow, sad trudge to school, tummies full of butterflies. My son will begin college and my daughter will be off to university; both looking for new, exciting adventures. My heart goes with them; wishing every happiness and success. I will be left alone at home, a little bereft, with plenty of empty time to fill with writing my novel. Well, that is the theory.

Today, in memory of summer, I post a final holiday poem from Ireland about some rather unexpected animals I met there living in the lush hills.

 

Emus in the Irish countryside

Walking cool

damp lanes,

quiet morning in

cleansing rain,

gleaming hedgerows

jewels of amethyst and

emerald, air

crisp with birdsong when,

alien in early

stillness,

booming of African drumming

vibrating, resonating,

deep throated thrumming.

Rhythmic pulsing,

nature’s heart

beating.

Life rising from the

Earth.

Holiday poems

SONY DSC

Holidays are a fertile time for writing. Away from normal routines, in peaceful, beautiful surroundings, there is opportunity and space to breathe; to allow time to think and to open our minds to creativity.

I recently made a trip to West Cork in Ireland and wrote some poetry whilst there. The landscape, wildlife and animals surrounding me provided wonderful inspiration.

Here is one of my poems:

 

Mountain view in Maughanaclea June 2017

Cloud on mountain

tops, misty fingertip

touch.

Shaded slopes sage

green, golden yellow hues

fold under sharp stone,

jagged crags of purple rock.

 

Sweet breath of fresh

silence, suddenly stirred;

jarred by strimmer

hum and moan,

slice and slash.

Vegetation smell,

sugary in nostrils,

catches thick in the

throat.

 

My goats need me

In the garden, I hear pleading bleats. At the gate, they stand watching with big, woeful eyes. I walk across to greet them. They push velvety muzzles into my belly and blow vinegary breaths into my face. We talk for a while, their intelligent faces turned up to mine, taking in every word. I stroke long, soft ears, bury my face in warm, hairy necks and kiss knobbly brows. My two beautiful, gingerbread boys. Outside world and worries forgotten. These moments matter.

Write about what you know

When I first started to think about writing my novel, I decided it might be useful to enrol on an online course on FutureLearn, Start Writing Fiction. I signed up with the worrying feeling I was about to make a fool of myself, but it turned out to be a genuinely useful experience.

Considering it is free, the course is excellent and I recommend it as a warm-up to beginning writing again. There are lots of helpful tips on writing rituals, keeping a notebook, developing plots, inventing characters and generally getting going. The best thing about it for me though, was the fact I had to share my work for peer review. I hadn’t shown any of my writing to anybody for years. Everything I wrote had been screwed up and dumped in the bin. Sometimes, I’d gone further and burnt it.

The first time I clicked the mouse to share a piece of my work, I felt physically sick. My hands were shaking and butterflies were beating frantically at the walls of my stomach. It sounds pathetic now but I was terrified. I thought if someone tells me my work is worthless then my dream of getting this novel written is finished before I even begin. As it turned out, I received some positive comments which gave my confidence the boost it needed. There were one or two less positive remarks too. I agreed with some of them but not all. Those comments helped me to improve my writing and also realize that you can never please everyone. Getting the chance to review what other people had written was useful too. We should always be learning from other writers.

One of the first lessons on the course was writing about what you know. This is the advice given to all new writers. It had me in an immediate panic because my mind was yelling at me, your life is ordinary and uneventful, what do you know? What can you write about? Of course, no writer actually writes about their life exactly as it is. We are story tellers, after all. Writing about what you know means using your experiences, observing the detail in the environment and the people around you. Everyone’s life is a novel. We all have stories to tell. I knew I had a story brewing inside me. It had been there a long time. I’d begun writing it once before but it had ended up, you’ve guessed it, in the bin.

So to begin with, that lesson about writing what you know had me in a state. I wrote this poem about my feelings:

 

Write about what you

know.

But what if you know

nothing?

Empty head; a vacuum, vault, void.

Memories, dreams, sensations

slipping; sieving out of

time.

Imagination once projected colour

cinema in the brain.

Thoughts now pile in corners; collect

dust.

Grasping at the whispered straws of an

idea.