The Horse on the Road

The Horse on the Road

The road is pretty much a straight one: highway, with various intersections and stop lights.  It passes a small shopping mall, a tiny airport,  various yards stacked with lumber , a used car lots, garages, two farmer’s markets.  To the left:  high ground, still snow-capped; to the right, glimpses of the ocean.  Houses. Densely packed trees. Occasional fields. What you see most of all, however,  is the road itself,  signals,  blacktop,  crash barriers, signage,  and, of course, the cars and trucks ahead, to the side, or glimpsed in the mirrors. It’s pass or be passed on  a two-way river of metal and glass; the road reels out and on, suspending us drivers in the means to our ends, and active trance,  a kind of super-alert sleep…  Then the brake lights ahead  go on and we’re  down to forty, then twenty kilometres per hour. Ten. Gaps narrow.  Traffic clots to a standstill,  vehicles pack the road ahead solid until it disappears around a bend.  All of a sudden we are  going nowhere.

Some days, the sky is spectacular, cerulean,  stormy, or multiply rainbowed,  but today it’s an even  grey. We sit under it and wait, each in our metal box.  One by one, we  switch off our engines, reach for the radio or phone. A grey-haired man in the Subaru next to me winds down his window, lights up a smoke.  According to temperament, we rage or resign ourselves. Perhaps five minutes pass before  the reason for all this appears: a perfectly groomed chestnut horse – so real  that he seems  like some kind of hallucination – appears  between  a  piled logging truck and  an empty  a school bus and trots at a steady pace against the now-stilled flow of traffic. He does not appear  to  hurry.  Choosing always  the widest gaps, anticipating, never slackening his pace, he threads his way between the  vehicles as if they were simply part of the landscape.  His mane floats up and sinks again  with each step. Unfettered by any kind of reins or  bridles,  he disappears behind another truck,  reappears and is suddenly just feet away: I look up from my bucket seat at a being from the World Before Cars. I see  something far larger than I am with long teeth, soft lips;  deep, velvet  nostrils;  brown eyes fringed with  a plethora of lashes. His coat glistens, and beneath it, every muscle seems independently alive… Oh, to  climb up there and be joined to him, part of the fleshy world instead of the metal stream. My own, lesser musculature aches  for  that lost world, for movement itself. All I can do is  wind down the window to catch  the beat of hooves on the road, the tang of  equine sweat as the horse passes, going where he wants to go.

         Our engines cough into life. We pull away from each other, accelerate, drive to work. 

 

The Wishing Tree

DSCF2358While drinking coffee at the Cornerstone Café in Fernwood, I noticed  something flickering in one of the  trees across the road. The tree grew in the paved area by the Belfry Theatre–it was some kind of ornamental cherry,  I thought–low and unusually broad, the  lower ends of its branches either trimmed straight, or  growing in remarkable harmony with each other, so that they all ended a foot or so above head-height. Labels or tags of some kind had been fixed at the ends of  these branches, rather like fruit,  and  they were blowing in the breeze, drawing attention to themselves.  I  soon crossed over to look.

There were at least a hundred  labels, probably more. Most were the old fashioned kind made of cream-coloured card, with a punched hole threaded with   brown string. Others were  improvised from pieces of paper and card, torn or cut  to size and fixed with anything that came to hand.   I took hold of one of them and read: “For my mom to get better and be big and strong like she used to be.” I let go and chose another, which read, “I wish that mermaids were real.” A wishing tree!  I spent  a while reading, moving through “For a day off,” “Mum and Dad to be happy and healthy for ever,”  “To be able to fly,” “That Jake reads this!”  and “To be an DSCF2359awesome father,” to “For Fernwoood to stay  as it is and not be spoiled.”  There was an interesting mixture of childish, righteous, simple, complicated and often deeply personal wishes, and I read on until I came to “I wish my daughter knew me.”

 There I stopped, brought suddenly close to tears by the suffering inherent in those six words, and by the way the wish was both enormous and modest at the same time Not loved, but known.  Was it written by a mother or by a father?  In either case,  someone who had given up their child, or someone who had been kept from their child. I remembered the drug users I used to work with in a London rehab. Some of them had lost touch with their children, often out of shame, or given them up to foster care or adoption, and dreamed of finding them again one day when – or if – they were living well again. The wish, bobbing on its scrap of paper, was a door into someone’s life story, and an invitation to imagine. The tree was a book, full of lives and possibilities.

What we wish for should be what shapes our future. It should,at lest.  Did any of these wishes lead to action or to some kind of choice?  Did writing them down make them more likely to be acted upon? What did it feel like to have a wish out there on the tree with everyone else’s, rustling together in the breeze, instead of buried, perhaps unspoken, in a corner one’s heart or mind? 

 I can’t answer those questions but I can say that it was  exciting  and moving to stand under the tree, reading what people wished for. The wishing tree energizes the entire space around it with human desire. It reminds me powerfully that everyone I pass in the street is full of yearnings, large and small, and that this is a wonderful thing, even though the gap between reality and desire is sometimes painfully wide.

 How did the wishing tree come about?

DSCF2362The funny thing is that no one I asked seemed to know, and neither does the internet, though it seems that is it has  been there in some form since 2013.  Was there a visiting community activist or artist, or did someone just  dream it up or hear of something similar, like the idea, buy a packet of labels and  stand in the street to get it started? Did it happen during a festival of some kind, or on a regular afternoon, or over a week or an even longer period of time? Are people still adding wishes?    No one seems to know.  “It was probably just someone  from the community,” the servers in the café told me. Fernwood is a place where people do things such as plant community gardens, start festivals, give things away, so that makes sense.   I noticed that no-one else was stopping to read the wishes. Perhaps they had simply grown used to the sight of them fluttering there, or felt they were or should be private. My only regret is that I didn’t have time to read them all; my thanks go to  those who  thought of the Fernwood wishing tree, and to all those who joined in and made it real.

What would you wish for?

 

 

 

 

Living in The Mansions

Carlton Mansions

I now live in a forest on an island near Vancouver.  But it has not always been so, and I’ve been meaning to post this piece about Carlton Mansions for over a year.   I understand that the residents are still fighting the council’s latest attempts to evict them from 387 Coldharbour Lane, where I spent some very formative years.

Living in The Mansions

Carlton Mansions, on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton: I lived there between circa 1980 and 1987, and I enjoyed telling people my address. There was the piquant contrast between the two names, one suggesting luxury, the other austerity, and an equally delicious contrast between the stately-sounding Mansions and the reality of the accommodation. The long, thin block of sixteen flats had been derelict and was at that time in the process of turning itself into a housing co-operative. The building, which stretches along the side of the railway line, so close that passengers can see into some of the flats, was riddled with rot and woodworm and had to be gutted. It had shuddering sash windows, a leaky flat roof, lead pipe-work and far too many cats. Those who lived there or wanted to had to put in the time to fix it up. We had to learn plumbing, brickwork, carpentry, window-glazing, plaster work or whatever was required at the time. Most of the materials we used were reclaimed from skips. Until others were installed, there here was just one a communal kitchen, supplied with cast-off vegetables collected at dawn every day from Covent Garden market. None of the hard work was a bad as the interminable house meetings, but the point was, you ended up with somewhere to live, and those, like me, who put up with the downsides of the place were people who either wanted or had to live out the box: artists, activists, and vulnerable people of various kinds.

The flat I ended up with was at the front, opposite the old steam laundry building, with huge windows looking out over the street and the market arcade on the other side. Despite the incessant traffic, the yelling and the music from the street, despite the way the passing trains rattled both windows and floor at least three times an hour, day and night, I felt instantly at home. I knew all my neighbours. If something went wrong, I had to fix it myself, but the affordable rent meant I could take time to work out what I was going to be and do. I’d graduated from university, and had not quite given up on my idea of being a painter. During my years in The Mansions I took up wood-carving as a hobby, but it turned out that what I mainly did there was write. I started out at an evening class at the City Lit, and just kept on at the end of it. Six of us women from the class continued to meet every two weeks, hosting in rotation. Again, there was a great deal of contrast: one lived in a vast converted warehouse flat with a grand piano, views over the Thames and original art on the walls, another in a tiny first-time buyer flat – but no one had as much space to herself, such extraordinary neighbours or such convenient and interesting food shops as I did. We ate, talked, read our work aloud. Over the course of a year or two I wrote my first novel, Back in the First Person, and then another, The Unborn Dreams of Clara Riley, both of which went on to be published by Virago Press. I became a writer. It’s still what I do. Writing of course rarely pays well. I wanted a job that didn’t drain my creativity, and since I had enjoyed the building work, I signed up for a four year apprenticeship in carpentry and joinery with Lambeth Council. One of a group of pioneering women in the trades, I emerged at the end of it with a certificate and a good job. By then, The Mansions had passed through the Brixton riots, weathered various other storms and, to a certain degree, matured. People painted their front doors, fixed up window boxes, and even swept the stairs. Some of us grew almost house-proud. Others not. Meetings continued to be tortuous: perhaps not surprising when you consider that the caste of characters included a man who wore rubber gloves on his feet, whom I shall never forget. There was an under-employed actress, a council employee, an art student, an ESL teacher. Right above me lived a wonderful puppet-maker who chipped away at blocks of wood into the small hours. Another tenant was a photographer whose sideline, chandeliers made of recycled glass, propelled her work into the pages of glossy magazines. It was a very good place to be and hardly anyone ever moved out. I did sometimes wonder if I’d ever be able to leave ­– but then, quite suddenly I did. I moved to Norwich to begin an MA in writing, and never returned.

I live in Canada now, teach at a university and continue to write. But for over twenty years I’ve kept in touch. The Mansions is still, as it ever was, both a haven and an eyesore, but now the housing co-op has been there long enough for it to have a history, too. The huge mural on the wall has become famous, and is commemorated with a plaque. Some of the tenants have lived there a quarter of a century or more. So I was a shocked and saddened to hear that Lambeth Council may be about to close The Mansions down and make everyone move on. I only hope they remember that communities like this, which allow the non-conformists, the vulnerable and the artists amongst us to carve out the shape of our lives and make a contribution to the whole are just as vital as all the other kinds of accommodation cities provide: I’ve absolutely no idea what would have become of me had I not lived in Carlton Mansions, on Coldharbour lane.

Paradise & Elsewhere in Upcoming4me

Paradise and Elsewhere  comes out in the USA this month. Here in Upcoming4me  is an article about the background to the book, and how one  the stories, “Low Tide,” was inspired by a trip to Oregon.

For years, I carried the idea of a new short story collection in the back of my mind, yet did nothing about it. Procrastination? Of course, but in my defense, short stories are far harder to administer than novels are. Scattered in the filing system, they lurk in various degrees of completeness: published, unpublished, in progress, embryonic, forgotten; some are crying to be sent somewhere, and others for help, which may include radical surgery or even dismemberment prior to use elsewhere. Add to this that agents and publishers tend to discourage the production of short fiction, and you’ll see that it’s easy to let a year, or three, or five go by, and so I did, until a friend of mine pointed me in the direction of Biblioasis, a dynamic indie publisher described in the Canadian trade press as “the gold standard for short fiction.”

Encouraged, I gathered my stories together and began to arrange them. There were two kinds of writing: the regular realistic, contemporary kind of story, and something else rather hard to describe – stories that have a mythical, magical, uncanny, futuristic or fable-like, quality. I liked both kinds, but had to admit that they did not mix particularly well. Belatedly, it dawned on me that I had two collections, not one.

It was exciting to put the two books together at once, and especially so to see the many ways the fabulist stories in Paradise & Elsewhere connected with and amplified each other. For example, there are recurrent motifs and themes: travel, trade, money and sex: what happens when a stranger arrives at the gate, or on the shore. What are we looking for when we make journeys? What kind of relationships do we create? In one story, a group of media people venture out of the city in pursuit of a story – a journey which only one of them will, barely, survive. In others, travelers return home after many years, arrive at a desert oasis, or visit the relics of ancient civilizations. The stories began to talk.

I sent both books to John Metcalf, the editor at Biblioasis. Within a week he made contact to acquire the realistic collection. I asked about Paradise & Elsewhere, but he hadn’t  read it. Three months later, we began editing The Two of Us and he still had not. When pressed, John admitted that he had a prejudice against non-realistic writing, and said that he tried to discourage his authors from taking that path. Still, I begged, since I already had taken it, would he not take a look? Dreading both the read and the letter he would have to write to me, John agreed to at least run his eyes over the MS.

“Actually,” he told me two days later, “I like them very much. I think we should do them first.”

Asked for an adjective to describe my writing  process, I’d have to pick slow, which may not  at first sound attractive, yet has hidden depths and merits: consider slow, as opposed to fast food. Years sometimes pass between the idea for a story or a novel and its first draft, and although occasionally a story comes out almost whole, others demand numerous drafts and then insist on lying dormant before I can finish them.

Not surprisingly, given its themes, many of the stories in Paradise and Elsewhere originate in journeys I’ve made for personal or professional reasons. I don’t travel frequently, but when I do, it has a powerful and lasting effect on me. I look carefully and think about  what I find abroad, and so you could say that I am a hybrid of the two sisters (one stay at home, one traveler) in my story “I Like to Look.”

One story, “Low Tide,” was written in 2013, but has its origins in a journey that took place five years earlier when we attended a family  wedding in California, and took the opportunity return slowly home to British Columbia using the coast  road. On one of our many stops we visited the lighthouse at Cape Blanco in Oregon.  I have always liked lighthouses­ – the isolation, the potential for drama – and Cape Blanco is a particularly beautiful example, with its shell-like spiral staircase and, at the top, a multi-faceted Fresnel lens. It was a bright but windy day with good views of the wild coast there and I did not want to leave. The lens in particular fascinated me. That evening, I recorded the visit in my notebook, adding that at some point I must write about a lighthouse, and the idea promptly drifted out of consciousness until John Metcalf and I began to edit Paradise & Elsewhere. Two of the stories were, he felt, weaker than the rest and he suggested that I replace them. Although this was hard to hear, I knew that if I accepted his praise, then I should also listen to his more critical thoughts. I was nervous, though, about writing to order, but soon realized I had plenty of ideas slowly maturing in the back of my head.

Every story arises from a variety of elements and comes together through a kind of alchemy.  In the case of “Low Tide,” I began with a feeling that the book, which features several stories set in deserts,  needed water. This led me to an image of a beach at low tide,  and to the selkie stories from Orkney. I’ve heard these tales since childhood and there are many variations, but the essence of the story is that a woman (or it can be a man)  emerges from a seal’s skin and is taken my a human lover, who hides her pelt so she cannot return to the sea. The selkie cares for her human lover, but still yearns for her own kind. I was interested in the idea of a seal-woman who actively sought out her transformation, as opposed to being caught. From there I found my way back to the lighthouse and its keeper, who would be her lover.

Much of “Low Tide” takes place inside the lighthouse and it was a huge pleasure to write about one at last (not exactly Cape Blanco, but close) and to include the Fresnel lens: “A glass beehive, he called it, though also, I thought, it could be a gigantic insect eye.  In daytime, the lens glittered and took on the colours of the sea and sky; at night its many planes glowed, so that it appeared  to hover in the room: a hallucinatory  vessel, a ship that might have travelled from beyond the moon.”

Each story has its story, and this slim book contains many years of work: the ingredients have matured, then been combined, refined and distilled.  I have come to accept that the process is long, as with making wine, fine cabinetry, a garden or any number of worthwhile things. It’s pointless to yearn for speed. On the whole it works best for me when experience is slowly mulled over, absorbed and almost forgotten, then later retrieved and combined with other unexpected ingredients to make something new. I certainly do procrastinate, but in the end (which naturally takes a good long time to reach) that seems to be a good thing.


Kathy Page on the Blog Tour

Arnon Grunberg, from Writers at WorkWe writers may not always admit it, but we love to know how other writers work, and, if my experience at readings is anything to go by, it’s something  readers find fascinating, too. Why should this be?  On the face of it a person sitting, standing (or even walking) at a desk, either typing or staring into space is not a promising subject, but perhaps that is just it: What is really going on?  Can it possibly be as dull and peculiar as it sounds?  No. The devil is in the detail: routine, word-count, early start, midnight oil, inspiration, perspiration, planing, free-fall, cork-lined room, cafe,  music, no music, same music every time…  There are indeed many ways of getting those words on the page.  So  when Barbara Lambert, author of The Whirling Girl,  invited me to participate in this blog tour,  which asks two writers a week to  answer four questions about the way they work,  and then nominate two more writers to answer the same questions, I said yes. My responses are below.

Next up on the tour are Susan Juby and Marilyn Bowering, two multi-talented writers,  both colleagues of mine at Vancouver Island University (though Marilyn  has just left to write full time).

What are you working on?

Battersea Reference libraryI have a story collection, The Two of Us,  forthcoming with Biblioasis in 2015 and a set of linked stories, The Other Man, forthcoming in 2016, so I’m busy with both of those. I’m writing new work at the same time as  researching  for stories-to-be (there’s a historical element to the linked stories)  and revising pieces that are already drafted.  I enjoy having all these different tasks to turn to, and writing stories fits better with  the fragmented nature of the time currently available to me than would a novel. All the same, I do  miss my novel, and write to it in my note book. We’ll get back together eventually, and I know from experience (see the last question below) that the time away is likely to be beneficial.

How does your work differ from other work in its genre?  

Paradise & Elsewhere by Kathy Page thmbThe first thing to say is that I write in a variety of genres, and that in itself may be distinctive. In terms of the short story, this year’s collection,  Paradise & Elsewhere is unique in the way it blends myth and fable with contemporary concerns  and solid, believable settings.  I don’t see anything else quite like it. However, the next two collections will  be completely different from it and to each other.  As a (literary) novelist,  I’ve written contemporary realism, but also speculative and historical fiction.   There’s definitely a dark, thriller-ish edge to my last three novels. These are serious books  about very complex characters and they and the issues they face are what interest me,  but at the same time I do have a natural drive to build suspense, and end up with a book that hovers on the border between literary novel and psychological thriller. Perhaps what pulls all this together is that I’ve always been very interested in power, the way  it flows between people, and how the flow or balance can unexpectedly change.  Many of my stories and novels feature some kind of radical transformation. At the same time, story-telling itself  fascinates me and consciously or  unconsciously,  I often tap into the archetypical and mythical, which I  think can add resonance to a basically realist narrative.

 Why do you write what you do?

Madge PageI write what I do because it interests me emotionally, intellectually and, in terms of how to shape the particular piece, aesthetically. As to why I’m interested in what I’m interested in, I can only (and affectionately) blame my family. I’ve been thinking about this for a book John Metcalf is compiling called Writers Talk. There was a great deal of conflict in my family, which includes some dramatic, complex characters. I’ve always credited them, and my mother in particular, for the lessons they unknowingly taught me about writing dialogue; I realize now that  they are also in some way behind the  characters and the kinds of storylines I’m drawn to. It’s because of my family and how it made me that I have an affection for difficult characters,  an openness to the messy, imperfect qualities of human life, and an understanding of the potential in conflict. 

 

How does your writing process work?

Kathy Page in gardenIn a word: slowly. I have ideas and then put them to the back of my mind for years before setting to work, or start to work on something and then realize I’m not ready or have backed myself into a corner so  then  put the project aside for years.  The first half of my novel Alphabet,  eventually a GG finalist, sat in a drawer for almost a decade; it was only when packing to move to Canada that I rediscovered it, saw what it needed and completed it.  A short story I recently wrote for Paradise & Elsewhere has its origins in a visit  to a lighthouse made five years previously, though in that instance the writing itself was relatively swift. The collection itself took years to put together, and many of the stories have been through multiple revisions. Sometimes I’m impatient with myself and send work out too soon, and I always regret it.  Sometimes I wish I wrote quickly and more, but it is fruitless to  argue the way things are, and after all, many worthwhile things, such as wine and gardens, do take a long time to make. As for the rest of it, mornings are best, routine is good, and I can’t work to music, though sometimes Debussy will put me in the right mood.

 Also this week: Janie Chang, author of Three Souls. She is passing the baton to Théodora Armstrong and Kathryn Para 

Next up on my side:

 Marilyn Bowering

A multiple award-winning  poet, playwright,  novelist (To All Appearances a Lady, Cat’s Pilgrimage, What it Takes to be Human) , and songwriter, Marilyn Bowering  recently adapted her collection of poems about Marilyn Munro, Anyone Can See I love You, into an opera, Marilyn Forever, which  premiered to great reviews in Victoria. Soul Mouth,  a collection of poems,  came out in 212.

 Susan Juby

I am jealous of Susan Juby  a) because she makes such great use of humour in all her work and b) because is one of the most industrious and disciplined  and productive writers I know.  She too works in more than one genre. Her  teen sci-fi novel Bright’s Light was shortlisted for a Sunburst Award. Her most recent and very funny adult novel, The Woefield Poultry Collective,  earned rave reviews.

 

Other stops on the tour:

Matilda Magtree 

Alice Zorn

Pearl Pirie

Julie Paul

Sarah Milan

Steve McOrmond

Susan Gillis

Jason Heroux

Barbara Lambert

Reading in Real Time

CNQ88It’s out! The current bright red issue of Canadian Notes & Queries celebrates the work of John Metcalf, writer, critic and editor extraordinaire. Tucked in amongst appreciations of John from Kim Jernigan, Clark Blaise, Caroline Adderson and many others, is a short story of mine, “G’Ming,” from the collection Paradise & Elsewhere, forthcoming with Biblioasis in 2014, and, of course, edited by Mr Metcalf. So I’ll add my voice to the chorus: Working with John is an extraordinary experience, not just because of the blend of encouragement and astute literary advice he dispenses (advice which ranges from scrapping entire stories to moving commas or setting off on a week-long hunt for a satisfactory synonym), but also because it involves going back in time. John does not use the internet and conducts business according to the stately rhythms of Canada Post, with the occasional phone call when clarification is urgent. There are normally about two weeks between sending him revisions and receiving a his considered response in a letter as much as ten pages long, handwritten on thick, creamy paper, with accompanying photocopies from the text, relevant articles and so on, all interspersed with news, opinion and more general discussion.

At first the delay frustrated me, but now I’m converted. Each of us can forget the book a little between readings, and that helps to keep  it fresh. More importantly, this is reading in real time,  part of another person’s existence. The letters make me palpably aware of the book as part of both of our lives. My work is being carefully read, by a man I’ve not yet met who lives halfway across this vast country, and he wants it to be its very best… Knowing this is a powerful thing.

http://notesandqueries.ca/

How it Grows (memoir)

This article about emigration, gardening and family, was first published in Aqua Magazine, p28 on.   Click to  read it in the turning pages magazine format  with original illustrations. The text is below.

What I am planting, how it grows

In one of those windy, sunny days when  the light and sound levels are in constant flux, as if an exuberant  toddler  were  in charge of the effects, I crouch over my rows of carrot seedlings, thinning them to  a centimetre apart and knowing full well that I will have to do the job twice more before things are right. Every year I try and fail to sow them thinly enough. The seedlings are tiny, the first ferny carrot-leaves just appearing, their white stems fragile as hairs. I keep the plucked ones in my free hand to dispose of safely, since crushed foliage of any kind can attract the carrot fly.  It’s tedious, finicky work.  And at this time of day I should actually be working on my new novel, and I want to, I really,  really do – yet here I am squatting in the vegetable patch, an inane smile  spreading across my face.

In the bed behind me are rows of  huge lettuces with crinkled deep red and green leaves protecting tender green hearts.  To my right, onions, to the left, two kinds of potatoes and three kinds of beans,  rhubarb, beets, peas; over by the house, flowerbeds: all of them thriving under current wet then sunny conditions.   There’s a greenhouse  full of tomato plants over by the rocky knoll, and of course,  in between all these areas of cultivation lie vast  tracts of weed and wildflower, and round about it, the encircling trees.  The whole place hums with growth. What is it with gardening? Why do I love my lettuces so much?   Because I do: I love the crinkled gleaming look of them when they are thriving (this variety, Yugoslav Butterhead is as gorgeous as any flower), and I love the almost–sweet, wild taste and the soft yet very definite texture  of a just-picked leaf. Naturally, it delights me to be able to  avoid the pesticides and the supermarket, to feed my family and friends with what I have grown.  And gardening is certainly easier, mentally speaking,  than writing books… There’s all that,  of course, and yet there is more, too.

To use a gardening metaphor, my family and I transplanted ourselves here from England about ten years ago. Language, climate,  and values were in may ways similar,  so we didn’t  go into transplant shock on arrival, but I have come to realise that while there may be romance and excitement  to a voluntary move such as ours, it is also a brutal thing. Even though emigration  is  softer, less absolute than it used to be before there were planes, phones, the internet and so on, leaving one’s country to make a home in another is  a rupture – one that deepens, rather than lessens over time. I miss not only my family –  especially, now, my father –  and not just certain loved or archetypical land and city-scapes,  but  also unexpected things such as newspapers and  radio programmes, accents, trains and train journeys, certain bushes and shrubs,  clothes that don’t shrink, and the relatively high quality of  supermarket-baked bread…  Emigration disconnects you from the physical  locations of your past, and also from the future that would have flowed from that past, had you not left, and so even though Canada, and in particular this convoluted, rocky island,  has been kind to me,  I  sometimes  yearn (impossibly) to return.

So, I  dispose of my carrot thinnings and  then return to the garden to  tug out the chickweed and dandelions that have started to grow  between the garlic plants. This forest soil, sandy and acidic is not what garlic wants.  It takes at least five years of adding compost and manure to  darken and develop real fertility. But the summer light and warmth are wonderful,  and if, as we do, you collect and store the winter’s abundant  rainwater,  it will take you right  through the dry  summer months.   The garlic is already tall and as  I reach between the stems, the sun warms my back and somewhere out of sight an eagle sings – a   strange fluting noise quite incongruous with the bird.

The eagle and its call are emblematic of   the West Coast, and I think one of the things I am doing here in the garden is joining myself, literally and symbolically, to a new  land. The hours I spend  out here working are also hours spent listening to the birds, the rustle of the deer  and the wind in the trees. I  observe the sky and the way the light shifts and changes, the weather, the quality of the air: I experience the same patch of land, many different ways.  I’m learning it and at the same time becoming part of it.

Yet the thing about gardening is that I have done it all my life, and so, despite this garden being so very definitely on the Pacific Rim, a new place for me, five thousand miles away from where I was born, tending  it reconnects me to my past.  When I am in the garden I am me, now,  working with raised beds and fish compost, dealing with tent caterpillars in my fruit trees,  sowing  peas called Cascadia and  beans called Gold Rush;  I am also a young woman with an allotment patch in London, the owner of a window box and then of a thin, shade-free  hundred foot slice in Norwich,  of a shady square, of a rubble-ridden rectangle in Tooting Bec  –  I’m all of those, but most  of all, but I’m  a child,  being shown by my father how to weed properly and how far apart to plant  the  peas.

There was a magnolia tree in the front of the house I grew up in, and Dahlias, plagued by earwigs,   grew to one side of the path that led to the front door.  Most of the garden was at the back, and it included both a  tree-house built  in a pussy-willow tree, and a swing  set close by a laburnum, the flowers and pods of which I was frequently reminded not to eat.   There was a peach tree on the south facing wall of the house, a  hazelnut, and several apple varieties.   A bed of azaleas and rhododendrons (which grow wild here) was treated annually to maintain the correct PH. Behind that  was a mysterious, key-shaped area surrounded in an ancient yew hedge that  had been  part of the grounds of the manor house on which the subdivision was built.

The vegetable garden ran down the  left side, from the kitchen to the  swing, and was my father’s domain:  the plants in  workmanlike rows, the soil  turned each spring. Before meals, my sisters and I would be sent out to pick. We were taught how to do that properly: how to  find the runner beans amongst the foliage, and take them before they got tough;  how to feel the pea pods and judge what was inside,  to turn potatoes without spoiling too many with the fork,  to rub the soil away from the tops of the carrots so as to make sure they were worth pulling,  and judge the ripeness of fruit. One of the best things was picking a  peach,  cupping it in your hand and  turning gently until it  came free.

My mother was in charge of storage: we wrapped lettuce or chard (which had to be picked or it would bolt) in damp newspaper  before we put it in the  salad drawer, and kept roots cool  in a  mini-cellar by the back door.  Apples and pears were wrapped in newspaper and stored in boxes in the garage. Convenience food was  increasingly available, but we had none of it.

My father commuted daily to his office job. My parents came from the inner city and grew up with untended, postage-stamp sized gardens, and none of our neighbours grew food. But it was what we did, and it’s what I do now. There’s no peach tree here, but I’ve shown my children (and my husband) many of the things I was taught.

The  wind  picks up. The  broad beans, which here we call fava, need staking – that’s what I’ll do next, and before I go in  I’ll pick rhubarb and some salad greens: lettuce, spinach, rocket – which here is called arugula.

My parents tended that first garden for over fifty years, their second, for less than ten. My  mother’s gone, my father no longer digs and hoes. But I call and  tell him week by week, what I am planting, how it grows.

It’s because of you, I tell him, that I’m on my knees in the dirt.

I think that’s as it should be, he says.

 

Lost & Found

It’s with some trepidation that I stuff my suitcase with copies of my latest novel  and set out for Lost and Found: In Search of Extinct Species, an Explora International Conference at the Toulouse Natural History Museum.

The last time I  attended an academic conference was during my research for The Find. The 2005 Symposium on Dinosaur Park at the Royal Tyrell Museum turned out to be both useful fascinating, but since I was the only non-palaeontologist there (and almost the only person not wearing dusty boots and brown, technical clothes), the  initial experience was disorientating. It was as if I had been dropped into another culture – or even onto another planet – an impression  compounded by the arid, fantastically eroded landscape surrounding the museum, so very different to the lush temperate rainforest I  inhabit. Until I made a friend who could  help me translate the dense, polysyllabic language spoken, I understood only about one word in five, and  my  brain wound itself into knots as a result of the sheer effort expended in connecting those one-in-five words with assorted guesses at other words  and with the often baffling visual imagery presented,  in order to form some semblance of coherent thought. I was asleep by 8:30pm, utterly exhausted, and fully aware that I could blame no-one but myself. Now, that same self has gone and signed me up for Lost and Found…

Continue reading “Lost & Found”

Coming Undone

It’s unsettling when life imitates art,  and a story you have written starts to happen around you.   For example, shortly after I finished the Story of My Face, I met the teenage version of my character, Natalie, in a motel swimming pool near Vancouver airport.   She was called something else and she was in the wrong part of the world, but she was the right age looked exactly as I had imagined her:  wild auburn hair, a milky, freckled complexion. It was baking hot afternoon. She was on her own in the pool, trying to learn to swim. She waded over and started asking the kind of questions Natalie would ask –  about our family and what we were doing  there, and what it was like where we came from.   Her father was busy, she told us, waving at one of the poolside rooms, its door closed, its curtains closed against the sun… We went for dinner and came back, and Natalie was still there in the pool, in the dark,  half an hour before it closed.

Planes roared through the  indigo sky above our heads as my character’s doppelganger and I sank up to our necks in the water so to avoid the mosquitoes that had gathered above the pool.  How old was my daughter?  Natalie wanted to know. Where did she go to school? It was as if I’d stepped into my own book.  Just as the other (I nearly typed real) Natalie does in The Story of My Face, the pool Natalie seemed to desperately want to become part of someone else’s family, and I felt terrible, leaving her.

Recently, I contacted a local palaeontologist in the hopes of borrowing a photograph for a presentation about The Find that I’m giving later this year.  Did I realise, he asked, that here had been a recent discovery on Hornby Island, very like the one in the novel?  I did not,  so I looked it up. It was clear that although the news about the pterosaur discovered, Gwawinapterus beardi, had come out in January 2011, following the publication of the official description,  the discovery itself had taken place back in 2004, while I was writing  my book. Ironically, I was at the time trying very hard to avoid imitating life , and so not writing about the local discoveries, or the real palaeontologists,  about which I knew.  Despite these valiant efforts to keep fiction and fact apart, ‘my’ find had been taking place for real only  two hours drive from where I sat, typing away,  and  just few miles from the novel’s (fictional) setting. Naturally enough, both discoveries were made in the same geological formation.  As in The Find, the story of the real discovery involved a female palaeontologist and, I realised as I read further, there was controversy as to exactly who had found the specimen.

There (I hope) the similarities end, but even so, for an hour or two, the  world about me felt subtly different, somehow less certain.

It’s probably as simple as this: life is so prolific, that anything you can invent will happen, somewhere and probably more than once.  Another interpretation might be that all the stories ever written do exist, in a  multitude of almost parallel  but sometimes touching universes. In every story there are seams between  it the real  world. As I writer I work very hard on my seams,  but somehow they are  fraying, and coming undone…

Hornby Island’s Pterosaur

The Story of My Face McArthur & Co are re-issuing The Story of My Face in  April 2011