Her Winter Song

Earlier this year, I wrote, very quickly, a long short story or short novella. I gift it now as the evenings draw in; it is an early draft, but not something I plan to develop now or which would be publishable.

(Please note all text copyright, Anna Vaught, 2022)

A tale of terrible things, lost hearts, ghosts, immortals and White Horses for The Winter Solstice and Christmas

Below the White Horse of Whitebury lies Briddle or Bridewell Spring. According to the tale, when the clock (in – ) strikes midnight, the White Horse comes down to drink from the spring.

Mysterious Britain, Janet and Colin Bord

Come taste my fire

And drink, drink this all

As the spirit of solstice

            Will you all enthral.

            Drink, drink my darling

            Of life and of heart

Here is  sweet feasting

And you shall be part.

The following account was found in 2020 as the round barrow near the White Horse above the village of Stowton was excavated following research begun by the late Professor Richard Stourbridge, of St John’s College, Cambridge. It was wrapped and placed there by someone known only as The Man, who had identified it as a record of the place and what happened there.

1.

I do not apologise for what I have done

All this happened a long time ago. I do not set down the story, my story, to make you understand my motivation or absolve me of the awful sins you are sure I have committed, but merely to set down a record, as in former days I would have done in the driest of my academic research.

            You might have done the same, you who is reading this, uncovering it in years to come if our village is terribly disturbed and the Winter Song comes to an end.  In the county of Wiltshire, there are thirteen White Horses, carved on the chalk uplands. Eight are visible. Once upon a time, these were all connected and so much more. But not only that. I live in a beautiful village; I am inordinately proud of it, but it is not where I am from – which I scarcely remember. I do not remember much of my earlier life, which seems so insubstantial now that I live in something so rich and strange and always, always will. I had an old life, when I was a fellow in Archaeology at St John’s College, Cambridge, but how pale that seems now. How very pale: the taupe of the Cam, the flatlands of The Backs, the fens. I look back and see a man, in the summer term, in a punt. In charge, the Dean of the college and off we go, Clare College, Kings and onward until, heaving the boat onto an upper reach, we are at Grantchester Meadows. I tell you this now: a memory of a summer’s day and it is a dream. Only that: a paltry dream.

            The Winter Solstice approaches: a fine time. You could tell this story now or save it for Christmas. We do not light our village for Christmas and the old church has other purposes now. Stowton, in the county of Wiltshire, nearly enveloped by The Plain, is abundantly populated and brighter than you could imagine.

            Let us begin. Forgive me, or not. I do not care and that I do not makes me happy.

                                                                        2.

The Man

I saw The Man again today.

            On previous days he had avoided my gaze but now he looked at me

As before, I was walking on the Downs above the village of Stowton, along chalk paths by the White Horse. My curiosity got the better of me. I asked him if this was a place he often sat and he told me yes. I told him I was in the area to rest – Wiltshire was a county, with its plains, handsome downs, and of course sites of interest – which I had always admired – and furthermore to begin writing a book about the iron age fort here, segueing in some way into an account of the White Horse cut into the hillside in this area on the edge of Salisbury Plain. I had not been confident about what I was doing; any outline was ridiculously vague and an insult to academic pride, but my spirits had been revived in the last few days by recent and unusual discoveries that had been excavated in the area by my former colleague in the Anthropology Department of Cambridge University. I had just read some papers which had come to light at my college.

Let me offer you a sketch of this place. The original Iron Age hillfort defences were built at Stowton Camp over 2000 years ago. These earthworks protected a settlement containing round houses, granaries, stores, and workshops. The design and construction showed the effectiveness of the hillfort to its enemies. The site was excavated in the 18th century. However, three thousand years earlier a Neolithic long barrow existed on this hill, and later excavations in the 19th century uncovered human skeletons and cremations. Today, this extensive chalk grassland supports herb and grass species that provide a habitat for a diverse range of insects, including the rare Adonis Blue butterfly and the scarce forester moth. The White Horse is visible from afar and is a famous local landscape and yet for many years local people avoid the area. Local records suggest that the horse was originally cut in the late 1600s, probably to commemorate the supposed Battle of Ethandun, thought to have taken place at Stowton Camp in AD 878. Bones had been found in a previously unexcavated area near the horse and while they were not recent, neither were they iron age, as the original inhabitants of the camp on the top of these plains. However, Professor Ruchard Stourbridge, this colleague at the university, a fellow archeologist with an interest in fields of Biology Anthropology, had discussed in detail his beliefs – dismissed by most scholars – that not all the structures and marks in this area were iron age, but connected with the White Horse and pagan festivity. He also contested that the White Horse was much, much older, suggesting further that many of the horses in the area were also more ancient than previous research had suggested, because Wiltshire is rich in these designs: there are thirteen in the county although eight are fully or partially grown over. The last significant excavations within the fort had taken place in the 18th century by Jeffrey Whitaker, a local schoolmaster, uncovered quern stones, pottery, and Roman and Saxon coins. Also found were ‘nearly a cartload’ of large pebbles, probably sling stones kept ready on the ramparts to throw at any attackers. More recent were those by this former colleague of mine at Cambridge, Professor Richard Stourbridge. He had not finished his work, but he had written to friends in the Senior Common Room about the bones and two bracelets he had found, however, and then shortly afterwards, left the university summarily. As I say, the paper he had partially written had now come into my hands and stimulated my interest.

Stourbridge had written, then, to say that he had had an epiphany out there on the plain, looking back across the green swards of Wiltshire, that university life was constraining him; he saw it now; admitted it to himself and he was sorry. It must have been a great loss to at least one department because he had been a brilliant man and had never been afraid of censure from his colleagues for his interests in what some of them derided as simple folklore. Whether he took up further academic positions elsewhere I did not know, but I had wondered if he retreated into a new life just as I had sometimes longed to do myself. I might have been described as a fine scholar, but there was little time to travel or see things beyond the university, I had few I would call close friends – or even friends – and I had no talent for teaching. That autumn, as I walked along The Backs in front of Clare College, I had been consumed by these thoughts, found myself unexpectedly in tears, and it was then I had decided to apply for a short sabbatical, a leave of absence really. I had recently finished a book, my two graduate students could be supervised by someone else, and I had no teaching until the Lent term.

So here I was. I was jaded, tired of life. Getting old and having failed to marry. The one time I thought I might, I did not have the courage to ask her to marry me and we grew apart. Or rather, she married someone else, and quickly. Now, I was in the area to rest, take a short holiday but as I said, my interest had also been piqued by Stourbridge’s investigations. I knew that I was depressed and sometimes terribly ill at ease; I could not force my rational mind to free my imagination of images and ideas I did not want in my head. I asked for a short sabbatical from the university on the grounds of health – and it was granted.

As I said, now here I was. I had asked in the village pub, a singularly unfriendly though civil place with carved vine leaves on the lintels – it was called The White Horse you will not be surprised to learn –  and been told that they had met Stourbridge, that he told them he had decided his excavations were, after all, fruitless, and that they had, as a courtesy, gone up to the hillside and covered up the areas where he had dug to preserve the land; there was a fine show of rare fritallaries and harebells and he had seemed oblivious to such delicacies. The men at the bar laughed about that and outside heard someone spit onto the ground. He had never mentioned if he had seen the scarce forester moth or the Adonis blue butterfly which populated the uplands. I wondered if this had been true – I would have assumed, from what I knew of him, that he’d have been sensitive to landscape and all it contained, but assumptions are often wrong, of course. Because, of course, Stourbridge had suddenly quit the university, leaving a research paper incomplete and colleagues and students in the lurch, so perhaps he had been in ill health, but further along than I had been. It was odd. Odd but I decided to take it as a warning, or rather, one warning: the wrong one, as you will come to know. Back then, I thought the men at the bar were uncouth; rough and uneducated, but I was wrong about that too.

But I was telling you about The Man, looking out across the plain by the White Horse.I was already less sure than I used to be – of myself and of everything – and I confess, I was rattled by The Man’s eyes; flaming. In my younger days I would have walked on. But there are things I had seen from the corner of my eye; perhaps even shadows in the recess of my mind which I did not invite in.

The Man told me he came here often. I am socially extremely gauche, so it was my inclination to start talking in the deep silences; he held me in his gaze and said nothing. I fully embarrassed myself as he might have known all of this anyway. I spoke about how local records from 1742 suggest that the horse was originally cut in the late 17th century, probably to commemorate the supposed Battle of Ethandun, thought to have taken place at Stowton Camp in AD 878. In the 17th century it had become popular to commemorate these supposed Saxon battle victories over the pagan Danes with White Horses, in celebration of the belief that the Saxons had brought Christianity to Britain.  The last recorded scouring took place in 1853. In the late 1950s, the horse was preserved by covering it in white-painted concrete and…I was trotting out details and perhaps you, as reader, are being lost and then…

Here he cut me off.

He said, ‘You have a story you want to tell, but everyone has a story they do not wish to tell. Here is mine. But if you hear the strike of the farrier’s hammer but know there is none in the village, or the blacksmith’s hammer, when one is long-gone, leave here quickly. And if you hear hoof taps and see no horse sounding out those taps. I am sorry for your loss: it is too late, and you must stay here with me in this perpetual dusk. Soon, though your heart will no longer beat, you will live on. You will be in . You hear The Winter Song. As I said, I am sorry for your loss and that you are…’

Here he tailed off and looked over to the White Horse; it was quite dark by this time, and I remember that spots of rain hit the pulse on my wrist and made me jump. I said, ‘I am still listening, so do continue if you can?’

The Man took a deep breath: ‘I am sorry. You should leave.’ But as he said this, I saw a smile play around his lips.

Then, I should have got up and walked away. I ought to have left the village.

I tell you now that I used to be a sceptical man, a scholar. I did not believe in spectres and the uncanny of the sort he seemed to be describing. There was much else I did not believe in – I confess that I did not believe in love – not of the sort that could sway you and turn your mind about. I am not sure that I was particularly kind and I know I was not happy. Now, I am different. I made him tell his story

            The Man began to talk again, for a long time, and, this time, I fell silent and allowed him the rhythms and hollows  of his story. It was the 1st of December and, as I recall, there were Christmas trees already lit even though Advent had just begun. I was a traditionalist and always remembered that my mother told me it was vulgar to put up a Christmas tree so early, but I rather liked it and had always felt sad about the rigid traditions in our family home. On the journey from Bath to Whitebury, I enjoyed seeing the lit trees and there had been a particularly fine one at Broadstone on Avon Station, not long before I pulled into Whitebury Station. I saw them in front rooms on the taxi ride from Whitebury to Stowton, but in the village there were none and no lights in the windows. The silence was eerie and the dark, falling now as we pulled into the village, deeply dark and suddenly into my mind came these lines of Milton’s Comus. I had had the fortune to see it performed in Ludlow Castle its original venue some years previously, but now I shivered as the words came to my lips:

Come, let us our rights begin;

‘T is only daylight that makes sin,

Which these dun shades will ne’er report.

Hail, goddess of nocturnal sport,

Dark-veiled Cotytto, to whom the secret flame

Of midnight torches burns! mysterious dame,

That ne’er art called but when the dragon womb

Of Stygian darkness spets her thickest gloom,

And makes one blot of all the air!

Stay thy cloudy ebon chair,

Wherein thou ridest with Hecat’

The next part of this story is about The Man. We will return to my part in this later. The man had shivered too, and do you know, though I was fascinated by him, I could not tell if it was fear or pleasure, or cold. Or all.

Before the gods that made the gods

Had seen their sunrise pass,

The White Horse of the White Horse Vale

Was cut out of the grass

G.K. Chesterton, from The Ballad of the White Horse, 1911.

                                                                        3.

                                                                        An account of Stowton

‘I came,’ began The Man, ‘from a village near here, Brattes Tun. People talked about Stowtun and said it was odd, never went there unless it was essential – and really, it was not – but I was headstrong and just thought I was more imaginative and less judgmental than the people around me in this part of the county. There’s something about these dips and hollows below the plain which makes people sour and jealous of their neighbours. I have never understood it. People went into the village, of course; tradesmen, others. The village school had closed down because of numbers and, anyway, many preferred to educate their children at home and in small groups in the village hall. My father had been a headteacher and I remember him saying that when the inspectors went in, as they did occasionally, they found the children to be extraordinarily astute and wise beyond their years. The pristine curriculum material handed over from a cupboard had been well prepared and really beyond the expectations of home education.

            My father is gone now.’ He smirked. It was repellent. I did not love my own father particularly, but I should not then have smiled at his demise.

            He saw me looking at him and altered his expression.

            ‘I had come in to work on kitchens because there was a particular fashion for cupboards with many shelves and built-in racks. That was the odd thing: they all wanted their kitchens to be the same and not really in a style that was fashionable, but it was good and reliable work. Here was another strange thing: I liked the village, its oddity – you could feel it. But it was quiet. There was a steep and up and down walk to Stowton Church, which I liked and sometimes I would go there in my dinner hour or after work. To tell the truth, it was mostly after work because I didn’t want to go home. There was a rushing stream next to you as you climbed down and below you as you went up. And there was a spring I saw. I asked about it, when I was in the houses or mending other things in their gardens, the similar fences, or a last job: the fire pits they liked in their gardens. I did not ask about that. I know now. The spring, which the villagers called The Bride’s Spring, was dedicated to St. Bridget. Now, I asked my father about that because he was interested in local history. He said St. Brigid’s Day is linked to the Celtic festival of Imbolc, heralding the return of spring on the first of February and he told me that the Celtic Goddess Bríd was regarded as a goddess of healing and the ancient Celts acknowledged her on this day as the day that signaled renewal, new growth, and escape from darkness.

            But I was telling you that I used to walk there, alongside, and above it. Grace, my wife…I. I had known her a long time and I loved her but…I had not been faithful to her. I am ashamed to tell you, but it is part of the story. I found our home life constraining and dull. Now, she was ill and at first, I tried hard to look after her, but in this I had lapsed. I know I must sound like a dreadful person to you, but I have paid for it repeatedly. She would cry and say I was dreadful, and I had not ever cared for her. She’d say I was not looking after her now and, in those moments, I would detest her, though I knew it was true and so, as she became more and more ill, I would renew my efforts to help her get better.’

‘It was a belief very strongly and generally held by the ancients — of

whose wisdom in these matters I have had such experience as induces

me to place confidence in their assertions — that by enacting certain

processes, which to us moderns have something of a barbaric

complexion, a very remarkable enlightenment of the spiritual faculties in

man may be attained: that, for example, by absorbing the personalities of

a certain number of his fellow-creatures, an individual may gain a

complete ascendancy over those orders of spiritual beings which control

the elemental forces of our universe’

M.R. James. ‘Lost Hearts’, 1895

                                                                        4.

                                                            But, would you be missed, Sir?

The Man paused for a while, and he asked me if I would be staying in the village long; if I would be there for The Winter Solstice. At that stage, I was unsure.

            ‘I can tell you are curious,’ he said. ‘I think you will stay and then you will stay some more.’

            I told him I had responsibilities at the university, and he asked a strange thing. ‘But truly, will they miss you, Sir? I do not think they will. And I wonder who you will meet in the village. Things will change your mind and she will make you feel so important.’

            ‘She?’

            ‘Can’t you hear her now? Her Song comes up from the valley. Her winter Song and she is making it stronger and stronger. We are not far off the old solstice, I mean St Lucy’s Day. Sir, the thirteenth, and the new of the twenty first. On your Christmas Day – that is presuming you are a Christian, Sir’ – and here a wan and faintly unpleasant smile played on The Man’s lips – we love the darkness here, too. She likes to acknowledge the old and the new ways; says she is generous in remembering the old times.’ Again, the strange smile.

            ‘Who – you say she and her as if I might know who she is?’

            ‘The Woman. I hear her in my head all the time, and I hear them around me whispering because of what we have done.’

            Here he began to cry, and I rifled in my pockets for a handkerchief.

            He was right: I was curious. And whether you think it’s not to my credit, my desire to know more was greater than my sympathy for The Man; if it should distress him to carry on. Perhaps it was just an academic reserve I had cultivated over the years; something to which I defaulted and made me cold: I was detached when collating evidence or being presented with facts – or even a story. More accurately, I had come to care less about my fellow human beings. I told you, I was not particularly kind and I know I was not, then, particularly happy. I encouraged him to wipe his eyes and nose and invited him to keep my handkerchief. After a while, The Man continued.

‘In the darkest times of Grace’s illness, I was working in Stowtun and off the centre of the village, where the lane heads to the church, was a red-brick cottage. It had, like the others, an immaculate garden, with an extensive herb patch and a fire pit, which I mentioned before. This was where The Woman lived. Her clothes were odd. I am not well travelled like people I have met – perhaps like you, Sir, butI could see she was old fashioned with a long skirt and a lace collar. Some would have said, if I had told you about her prim shoes, that she sounded dowdy. But you should have seen her.’

            Here he paused and breathed deeply, and I saw his eyes glitter though the sky was so darkened. He said again, ‘But you should have seen her.’

            I am not very experienced with women, and, after heartbreak, I decided I would just stay a bachelor, but I could imagine. Even me: there are those people – and you do not meet them very often – who could light your way, confuse you, dazzle you. There is something in their eye and the confidence of their walk, their sway. I asked him, surprised at my boldness, if this was how it had been.

            ‘Yes,’ he said and down came the tears.

            When he had settled, I encouraged him to talk more.

            ‘She had long hair like autumn – the colour of a copper beech leaf, it was extraordinary, and from time to time she twisted it behind her neck so it it fell like rope behind her. Her skin was pale and her eyes – I am not sure, even now. Violet, I think, though…not always so, as you will see from people in this place.’

            ‘What do you mean – about their eyes?’

            ‘That…there is change; instability’ – and as he said this, I thought I felt something at my elbow, but dismissed it. This was a good yarn from a troubled man, and I told myself just to remember that. He continued, brushing tenderly at his sleeve as if he, too, felt something at his elbow. I remember that then, I shivered, as I had done when I had come into the darkness of the village a few days before.

            He continued his story.

            ‘She led me into her house, her strange kitchen, cramped but vital, and this was where I would be doing further carpentry work. They were, as I told you, very particular about their kitchens. Here was a little different, though, because she had a wall of cupboards and these were divided up into many sections and there were two long shelves which struck me as particularly strange – they were like those of a ship’s galley, with slots and holders for cups and bottles. It was this which had become unsteady with frequent use – for what, I thought? – and I was to remake. People in the village were very impressed by my skill. It was not often you saw such a fine craftsman and one so amenable to particular needs. I confess, I was flattered. She smiled and those eyes glittered again. But I was not fine. I – forgive me – I wanted her. She kept looking at me so that I was uncomfortable and, because she knew it, that she was making me restless and uncomfortable, I wanted her more. She knew that too. I imagined others had stood in this place. I knew I had been unhappy; that I was bored and tired. I wanted to love Grace, I had always wanted to truly desire her and my duty to her depressed me, despite myself and knowing I should not, I smiled back at The Woman and held her gaze: I cannot say how long it was but I recall – at least I think I do – that the light outside shifted slightly; that blue became more navy.

            I worked all morning on the galley shelves, planing wood and routing. Then she asked me to paint them, although that was not usually part of my job, and I did. There was more work. Deep drawers and repairs to doors; all on the ground floor of the red-bricked house.

            The following day, and the day after that, planing, adjusting, and fitting until it was all done.

            Often while I worked, The Woman watched me and sometimes talked about the village and what a fine, fine place it was. How she had been there a long time. At one point, I recall I felt dizzy and that she fanned me with something. It is hard to recall…but I do know that it smelled of something sweet. The Woman said, ‘Oh, that is Orris root. Some say it is used against evil spirits – for personal protection. But that is not why I am using it now, of course not’ and she looked away and on her beautiful face there was a grand smirk, and here was the awful, awful irony of it: her expression was repellent. And yet I wanted her more and found it delightful. I was ashamed.

Grace asked me about the day and before I knew it and because I felt guilty, I said, ‘Come with me and meet her. I mean, The Woman I’m working for. I think you will like her,’

She said, ‘Oh no, I don’t think I want to go out to Stowton’ but later – because I encouraged her; it was all because I felt guilty: she was ill and I had been thinking about what The Woman would be like in bed. With Grace, and I might as well say this aloud now and if you don’t mind, Sir…’

Here I interrupted him and told him he did not need to call me Sir. I was an old-fashioned and not very worldly man, but even to me this was stiff and too formal. ‘You may call me Michael’ and he said, ‘But I hardly know you and you seem…just from your vocabulary much better educated and a different class from me so I would feel uncomfortable, Sir’ and I thought this was odder, but dropped the matter. So, The Man continued,

‘I was talking about Grace. She was a plain woman, Sir, but I thought her face didn’t curdle milk, as my father used to say. But she did not have much to say or, I had thought, much to do. You must be a man of the world so…I mean she was cold in bed. She was not interested in that side of things whereas, although I tried to push the feelings down, I was. I found other women. I didn’t think she would realise. But I felt guilty about that, too, though not guilty enough to stop and when she was ill I was prompted by that guilt to always do better by her. So, I thought a trip out to Stowton, strange as it was, and meeting this unusual woman might be interesting for her.

Unfortunately for me, I was right.’ Again, a smile, so oddly out of place, played about his lips.

The Man had a pipe with him which he lit and sucked hard on now. It reminded me of my great grandfather, whom I had known only briefly. His clothes reminded me of him, too. Next to me was, I thought, a man out of time.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky.

And an old White Horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

T.S.Eliot Journey of the Magi, 1927

5.

A new and dangerous softness

The Man took up his story after a time of sucking hard on his pipe, and looking across the valley, east to Salisbury Plain and west towards Bath and the lovely valley that contained the River Avon and the Kennet and Avon canal, travelling side by side into Bristol, where it ended its journey from Reading. I recalled that Stourbridge had walked its length during the Long Vac.

‘Grace continued her treatment at the big hospital in the city. Poor thing, but I confess to you now, Sir, that when she was being given treatments and I waited outside on the hard bench, I felt, sometimes, in a new softness – like I was sitting on a soft pillow. It is hard to explain quite what it was like.

            When Grace came to find me in the waiting room she said, ‘Oh did you miss me?’ but her eyes were cold. I had not been thinking of her.

            She had to rest that day, but I had work in the village to continue for The Woman and for other villagers, so I left her. Before I did so, I asked her, as I had before, if she would like to come and walk by the White Horse with me and I also told her that there was a person in the village she might enjoy meeting; an unusual woman for whom I was working. She did not agree. Grace had few friends because she was so rigid in how she wanted people to be, and this had always been a problem for me.’

            I was becoming bored with his tales of marriage. There was a bigger, deeper story here. I said, ‘But as you told me, she agreed to come to the village. I think that is the next part of the story.’

            He paused. ‘Will you walk with me, Sir. It’s surely getting too cold for you and the paths are difficult in the dark. I had not expected to come so long, and I did not bring my lamp.’

            I agreed but had noted the word ‘lamp’ thinking how stiff and old-fashioned he was. I had thought he was younger than me, but now he seemed so much older and like my late father, perhaps, stubborn and wedded to old words, I didn’t know. As we walked between the ridges of the earthworks, past the barrow that Stourbridge had been excavating, he asked me if I knew why the village got its name. I said I did not. Then he told me that it had perhaps not always been called Stowton, though he could not say when it might have changed. Perhaps it had been, then, a different place. He told me he had problems with his memory so that, sometimes, he forgot where he had come from or where he had been born or, in fact, if the village had once been called something else though he thought it might have been.

            I found this all so strange, and I was feeling very tired. I remember that this night in December was particularly cold and, as we accessed the lane from the ridgeway down into the village, I tried to rouse myself by running my fingers along the plants in the hedgerows as we walked; at one point, there was a ditch and the beginning of frost on the tall yarrow spikes caught my eye: white and silver; opalescent, suddenly, even in this darkness – and strangely jagged on my fingertips. He said, ‘Stowtun means a holy enclosed place’ and I thought about this. I knew that Stow was often associated with the name of a Saint. Why would the place name not contain Bridget, which was the name of the church here – and a well-known saint, you might have thought? I had seen this in Stourbridge’s notes plus his query on the oddity of there not being a sign outside this place and its always being locked. Stourbridge was a church man, of course. I thought of the more general ‘enclosure’ and then how, in a more specialized and extended sense, it meant (Christian) burial-ground – a church-site. Tun was less interesting, just a place, a settlement. I felt the frost prick at my fingers and then felt the blood as I caught the fingers of a dog rose. The Man stopped and breathed heavily, and I had come out of my ruminations on place names and their meanings. He said, ‘Be careful’ and quickly handed me the handkerchief I had already passed to him, winding it round my fingers, a little too forward for me. ‘Keep it well stanched,’ he said firmly.

            It was strange of course. Then he said, ‘Stowton means to us a holy enclosed place and this lane we are on is called The Drag. You said you were at a university, so I imagine you are interested in these things.’

            ‘From the Old Norse meaning to drag. It referred originally to boats being dragged and I wondered if this is something to do with Viking occupation in this area, a boat burning for victory as here there was no river or isthmus to pull boats across – I realised how little I actually knew about this area – and The Man said this, the hairs on the back of my neck, my arms, standing up straight and I heard my blood pulsing and him saying, ‘Shhh Sir’ and it must have been to that because I was not speaking then; he said: ‘On no: it comes from ghost Sir. A spirit, or not so much a ghost but a revenant – such as the reanimated of the deceased inside the burial mound. You saw one near us, by the White Horse. I think you did, Sir? But it is not only that, not only that at all.’

            I was silent. I pulled the handkerchief tightly around my fingers.

            He accompanied me to my lodging in the village and said he was likely to be near the White Horse any night that week if I would enjoy talking more.

            As I lay in bed, unable to sleep, I heard midnight from the clock tower of St Bridget’s and tapping and in my dream that night I heard a Song like buzzing about my ears and saw a cloud of red hair – like Rossetti’s Proserpine, she who was the goddess of the underworld.

And I saw, and behold a White Horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer. … And I looked, and beheld a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.

Revelation, 6, from verses 1-8

6.

I had made love to a woman once

The next day, at first, I had felt exceedingly tired, perhaps unwell. Having read through Stourbridge’s notes in the morning, over an unappetising breakfast at the guest house where I was the only guest, I returned to my room. I could not be sure, but it seemed as though someone had been there. I had nothing to steal, nothing of any value and nothing was in disarray. Only this: when I opened the drawers where I had stored my clothes and the wardrobe where I’d hung up a rain jacket and a smart jacket – for what reason I do not know; also, I had brought my college gown such as I’d have worn in Hall – as if it were needed here. I had been so tired when I left, too. Distracted. I looked at these things now and ran my fingers over them and felt, I did not know how then, a warm and barely perceptible press of fingers had been there, feeling, noting.

I sat on the bed and though I would have been deeply embarrassed, ashamed, ever to share this with anyone, now, as I look back, I am not. I am the opposite of ashamed. I was aroused and this was new. I had always thought of myself as lukewarm. I had made love to a woman once, but after a while she drifted away and told me I was cold and so I was too nervous to try again and, after all, she was right. But now, as I sat on the bed in my lodging, thinking of that imperceptible and warm press on my clothes, I was different. I should have thought that I had been invaded. No-one should have entered the room or touched my things, but if I had taken it up with the couple who ran this guest house, how could I have proved it? I said nothing.

I felt pleasure and something dark that was beguiling me.

Later that day, I walked down towards the church and looked at the Bridewell springs bubbling. I dipped my hand in. As I did so, I caught sight of something; someone. The flap of a dress, a long dress, in the trees to one side of the church. Of red. It was gone. Now, I climbed up a footpath behind the church that was narrow and muddy. I stumbled and now the flap of the dress and the red came into view. A woman in the churchyard called good morning and told me to be careful because people fell on that narrow path. Flame hair. I knew who she was, and I felt that she knew I did, too.

            ‘Thank you.’

            ‘You are welcome. I hope you are enjoying your stay in Stowton and please, as I said, be careful on that path and as you go up to meet your friend.’

            ‘He’s not -’ I began, but she turned her back and somehow, I knew she was smiling.

From a ledger in the Parish Church. Repairs to the steps to Bridewell Springs have been completed but a note has been placed in the parish circular advising parishioners to take care. The church will remain locked other than for festivities and will be open for 24 hours on The Winter Solstice

It was not signed by a priest, as you might usually expect; the handwriting was beautiful copperplate.

They saw a lady upon a beautiful White Horse, of steady and stately pace; and she was clothed in a garment of gold brocade.

From, The Mabinogion, Geraint the Son of Erbim, 11th and 12 centuries

6. A dream

I had another dream that night I saw a lady. And she was Rhiannon of The Mabinogion; she was La Belle Dame Sans Merci: she was unknown and familiar all at once, and sometimes she was of extraordinary beauty and sometimes vicious and at the corners of her mouth there was blood. She rode a white horse towards the sea and islands, and then I saw the islands were not islands but raised areas and round and long barrows in the county of Wiltshire. I knew it was Wiltshire because I saw the Stowton White Horse, Stonehenge, The Avenue, Avebury in autumn as the long tree roots snaked round the stones and in winter when the snowdrops first pushed up. Then there was blood on the stones and the snowdrops were streaked with carmine, a hideous hybrid plant. Now, the lady, The Woman, emerged from West Kennet Long Barrow and danced a dance to The Winter Solstice and sang her Winter Song and she was on top of Silbury Hill looking out across the county.

Then, I woke, shouting, in a fever: something soft on my brow. It might have been fingers or my down comforter.

The Italian Renaissance scholar, Marsilio Ficino (himself the son of a physician) had recommended that human blood could act not just as a specific curative, but as a kind of elixir of life. The elderly might, he suggested, restore their vitality by sucking directly from a vein in the arm of some healthy youth. Towards the end of the 17th century, we find a Franciscan monk making a kind of jam or marmalade from human blood (“stir it to a batter with a knife…pound it…through a sieve of finest silk”). From The Lancet, 2008

The specifications clearly imply a desire to use the human body as a kind of elixir of life…

The Lancet, 2008, on German chemist Johann Schroeder

7.

Presences

The Man spoke on. I was making notes, though not successful ones, as I surveyed the area around The White Horse. He began to tell me how he felt sorry for Grace, felt guilty and he had brought her to Stowton to meet The Woman. Disconcertingly for him, The Woman embraced Grace warmly and he saw his wife respond in kind. She had never been so for him. The two walked out and his wife looked back at him.

            ‘In her eyes something new. In the face of The Woman, satisfaction. I attended to my work and then…well I became curious about the house. I saw picture frames full of Blue Adonis butterflies and rare moths and artfully pressed harebells and fritillaries – all the delicate and special things of our home, Sir. But then a horrible curiosity came over me. It felt forbidden, but I couldn’t help it. Sir, I looked in the drawers and those cupboards I was not mending, and I found things. I found knives and old books of arcane text and surgeons’ knives. I could not help myself, I turned about, could not resist it. There were books of spells and incantations and powders in little vials and I walked outside and was wild. I thought about the fire pits in the garden and the braziers up on the lower ridge, above the Bridewell spring near the church and suddenly it was like I was in a trance. I whirled about and as I did so, I saw I was not alone. The Woman had not come back and neither had Grace and there was no body near me, but instead presences of those who had gone; and as I looked up I saw a face of one in the parlour door, grey with hands stretched out in a mode of abject terror, desperate for help and I whirled about again and there was another at the window, and I felt them all around me, crying for witness, people through time, Sir, even before mine. I balled my fists as hard as I could and pressed them into my eyes and even then they could see me and they extolled me to bear witness. I did not know then who they were and suddenly, everything was gone and The Woman was back with Grace, who looked as well as I had seen her in a long time.

Grace looked at me: ‘We had a lovely walk and I have been shown the springs, the pretty church and we walked on a ridge below the White Horse. I have seen that so many times from my house, looked across the valley, but you never brought me to see it,’ said my wife.

‘You never said you wanted to.’

‘Oh did she not?’ said The Woman and smiled. ‘You seem flustered’

‘I…’

‘Did something bother you while you were working?’

‘No, of course not. I am just tired. Not feeling so well today.’

‘Well, ha!’ said my wife, too sharply, I thought.

‘Oh dear man, dear man. You should not bother about disturbances. I myself do not care for them at all’ and her lovely face lit up with a radiant smile of the purest evil.

Late in the evening the strange horses came.

By then we had made our covenant with silence,

But in the first few days it was so still

We listened to our breathing and were afraid.

Edwin Muir, ‘The Horses’, 1956

 8.

Oddities. Wonderful oddities, but a warning to the curious

I am sure you want to know about the oddities in the village. Are you curious? I should warn you. Remember that! I learned first of many of these things from The Man, but most unfolded as I explored myself. I began to feel my tiredness lifting. It was the 13th of December. A clear and frosty day and I looked up at the downs in first light and it was amethyst behind The White Horse and the ridges along the hillsides held their hollows in a rosy glow. I recall that this day, I walked along the back lanes of the village, to the church and back and I noticed, not for the first time, that everyone knew one another. That is not so odd in a village, even in the most modern times, but I felt a ready intimacy between them. I could see that fires were lit in the houses and what is more that I could see and smell smoke rising from gardens at the back of the house and I knew then it was the fire pits that the villagers had.

            The firepits kept them warm, you see and kept them happy. Nourished them. Ha!

            Then I walked up the horse, after a plain but satisfying breakfast at my lodgings. Once more, I sensed that someone had been in my room and once more I was filled not with threat but a sense of languorous pleasure that was new to me.

            From somewhere I heard a cry, and I should have run to it. Was someone hurt and no-one else had heard? But I did not run. Instead, I sat on the bed and watched the lovely amethyst and rosy glow. At my leisure I walked towards the hill and up I went, pausing to look at the old terraces, made by farmers thousands of years ago and then, up at the horse. Until I smelled pipe smoke and saw The Man. Today was St Lucy’s Day, The Winter Solstice in the old Julian calendar. Now, I could see that the smoke was not just from The Man’s pipe, but from small braziers placed in the ditches around the horse and the barrow. Coals and scraps of wood were smoldering and looked to have been all night. As I watched, I saw that next to The Man was a sack of wood and a barrow and that he was responsible for the braziers. As I approached, he said, ‘They have had me here all night and will again for the bigger celebrations. It is part of my work, my punishment and my privilege.’

            At this something brushed past me, and I heard a sound in my ear then a tapping at the braziers. The Man said, ‘Don’t mind them, Sir. It is a consequence of what we do.’

‘For if a ghost may send a foot or an arm or a leg to harry one person, he can dispatch his back-bone or his liver or his heart to upset other human beings simultaneously in a sectional haunting at once economically efficient and terrifying.’

The Imperishable Ghost,  Dorothy Scarborough, 1921

8.

Burning

The Man now fell silent as he moved about between the braziers keeping them alive but burning low. He must have struggled with the heavy wood, up the long lane, The Drag, to the hill fort, the horse. He began to speak about Grace, his wife; he said, ‘She was becoming more distant; alone in her illness: I was feeling lonely. Although Grace and I did not have that sort of relationship, I was still glad of her body next to mine in the morning and I wanted her to get better and to talk to me, but then sometimes I had a dreadful thought – and I can say it to you know because what does it matter – I thought it would not be so bad if I lost her because I could begin again and there would be no shame.

I went to Stowton, lost in these thoughts of how it might be. I had been making and mending some of the strange additions to their cabinetry. The dips and hollows and places for little vials. In The White Horse, I drank some beer and they brought me bread and cheese; it was all made in the village – their food was simple because they wished to bring nothing in. The Woman came in and spoke in a low voice to the landlord and the three men at the bar who pressed in and smiled and then she crossed the room to me. She smiled at me, Sir. She brushed my cheek and I reddened. She said nothing but held my eye.

Work finished, I walked to her house; she knew I would.

She was sitting there mending butterflies. I see you pause. Perhaps you have seen the lovely Blue Adonis butterfly near the horse? It is rare, but thrives here and when they die, she preserves them, with other precious specimens from the chalklands. You could see them in her house. I sat, watched, then began to join in. I thought I heard a stifled sob from somewhere about the house, or perhaps a laugh, something low and feral. It was not a happy laugh. There are lots of laughs in the village that are not happy; desperate; hysterical, but always held in check, I didn’t know how then, but then I came to notice the inhabitants of Stowton shh them or gently bat them away with a hand.

Well. She certainly smiled and looked up at me, handing me pins to pierce the Blue Adonis specimens and mount them in their box frames. Then she pierced my thumb with a pin and drew me towards her, rubbing the drops of blood into the table and smiling. She licked her fingers, then she pulled me towards her and kissed me deeply. Her body was warm, her fingers a lovely warm and strong press’ – as he told me this I remembered the lingering presences on my clothes in my lodging – ‘but Oh Sir, I kissed her back and her kiss was as cold as the winter water in the Bridewell spring and she knew it and laughed as I responded and she also knew that I could taste the metallic tang of my own blood on her lips, her tongue. I could not have resisted her; I could not. And when I left Stowton, The Woman said, ‘Give my love to your wife. Won’t you’ and it was a command.

Whilst the girl stood still, half smiling, with her hands clasped over her heart, the boy, a thin shape, with black hair and ragged clothing, raised his arms in the air with an appearance of menace and of unappeasable hunger and longing.warm as sunlit earth and as cold as the tomb. I realised I was scared and drew back

M.R James, ‘Lost Hearts’, 1895

9.

Heat and cold and parti-coloured things

‘The guilt I felt’ said The Man, ‘as heat and cold and voices and touches from elsewhere, well it was tremendous, but nothing could stop it.’

            I went home; my wife was there. She looked a little better, I thought. She knew what I had done. And my wife; she had done the same thing. She sat there, some colour in her face and told me she knew about the other woman and she knew about The Woman and regretted to inform me that she had made love to her first.

Grace said, ‘My dear, her kiss was as warm as sunlit earth and as cold as the tomb: I have been frightened by so much all my life, but then I was not afraid and will never be again. And I will be both warm and cold and I can live in Stowton. The Woman has promised me all this.’

But then she turned a glare on me and said, ‘But when I live in Stowton, I will not live with you.’

There was a cackle and a cry; an indigo shadow passing the window of our home, a modest one storey dwelling. I had always hated it it plainness. I had hated my wife hers. Now I was paying for it all.

Wynter wakeneth al my care,

Nou this leves waxeth bare;

Ofte I sike ant mourne sare

When hit cometh in my thoght

Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht.

BL Harley MS. 2253

10.

Church services and devotions

I had felt embarrassed by The Man at this point and, to be honest, I felt it distasteful that he had told me this story. I returned to my room and wrote up some notes, then scratched them out because they were insubstantial. I read Stourbridge’s: human remains; a femur; most definitely not iron age; evidence of burning near the round barrow and further back, the same; there were braziers placed at one end of the level plain behind the escarpment.’ He had added, in a most unscholarly way, ‘The atmosphere was chilling, and I had the distinct impression I was being watched, which I attributed to some local simpleton. These villages are frequently suspicious of the outside world and I did not get the impression that many left to make better for themselves or that they were well educated.’

My mind was now whirling from the decadence of The Man’s story, though you may say I was not blameless in the thoughts I had had. I walked to The White Horse and they were more vocal than usual, the landlord telling me they enjoyed this warm-up to the solstice and some of them would be going to the church. ‘For Compline, Sir’ – to which there was much guffawing. I smiled, to be polite, but did not laugh too. They began telling stories- when people visit and move away again, that is odd that they do not stay in touch. Laughing about putting flowers in the church, attending to the mysterious fire pits The Man had spoken of. I felt it began to get ugly.

It did.

The laughter stopped. ‘Been listening to the stories from The Man? He’s an odd one. We give him lots of jobs to see him straight.’

‘Oh yes, He set off early with all the wood from Wilkins’ Farm and will be sweating by The Solstice.’

‘Don’t you love winter, Sir. Its beauty. Nothing can compare. We want it always to be winter here and maybe some time it will always be, but regretfully we need the warmth for the crops.’

‘Yes we like to be self-sufficient.’

The Woman came in and everyone fell silent as her beautiful and cold face broke into a dreadful smirk and she turned the headlamp gaze on me.’ Something rang in my ears and brushed my hands and I heard the people shh and a couple swat with their hands as if they were swatting wasps in the height of summer on a day better and cleaner and truer than this, all this I thought. Now, the people in The White Horse smiled and laughed; they shook hands, though not with me, and some kissed languorously. It was wretched. Slowly they licked their lips. Something rose in me. I screeched at them, ‘You wretches, you beasts’ but of course they were these things and happily so and what could I do.

Once, early in the morning, Beelzebub arose,

With care his sweet person adorning,

He put on his Sunday clothes.

‘The Devil’s Walk’, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1812

11.

Ghosts

I walked out with them laughing behind me, climbed up although it was dark, feeling hands brushing about my ankles. I truly thought of them as hands now. They were desperate but somehow, I did not feel sorry for them. I have already begun to show you that though I felt disgust at the lecherous and unbroken behaviour of the people in The White Horse, I am not sure I ever cared greatly for others’ suffering. Perhaps I was always a good, a practical and ready fit for the village of Stowton. I walked sideways and up and stumbled. Below me, I saw that the church had been opened and could see some people going to it, lights on, but dimly twinkling. It was late now. I knew I was not alone.

            The Woman.

            She was there. Walking, but she only looked at me. She walked ahead, behind, to one side: I was not sure. Sometimes I thought she was in all places at once. Wild eyes and a broad smile. Still things wreathed, swirled around my ankles, calves and she said something in strange words, then I heard her call, from somewhere, ‘Go away. Stop complaining. Go your rest. You are wretches. This is not your world now. ‘

She was suddenly beside me, rubbing my arms. I was shivering. Stupidly, I had left my overcoat in the pub. Her hands were colder than my cold flesh as she rubbed me deliciously warm. She was wearing a long coat, soft fur, old fashioned, white, and from a deep pocket she brought out a narrow flask and said, ‘Dear Sir. You are so cold, and I am worried you could fall; please drink this. The wind whips up here and we are used to it, so we are prepared.’

I cannot remember exactly the order in which it happened, but I know that the lights in the church below grew brighter, seeming to be right in front of me, dazzling, I felt her batting her hands behind her and, once, it was as if she was peelings things off me that coiled around my ankles, my calves, thighs. Long and flexible fingers. Cold, cold fingers. Blue; cyanotic. I don’t know how I knew they were blue. The lip of the warm flask was on my mouth and I drank, before I knew what I was doing. It was a rich wine, an unusual taste, and spiced. Glorious. There was a bitter aftertaste, but even this had a velvet depth on my palate, in my throat, my chest, if such a paradox can be imagined. Now, my head was befuddled; for a while I did not know where I was and thought that I might be dreaming, back in the lodgings; clawing to come away or crying to dream again, I did not know. Again, she was behind, around, holding me, pulling that cloud of red hair, refulgent even in the darkness, its own fire. Then I knew that we were walking up the hill, above the ancient crop terraces, the spits of chalk and, below, the crop fields were rippling, just visible.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘You will learn to see things, tiny things, movements, even in the darkness. I love the winter. I wish that it would always be winter. Suddenly I was aware of a prickling at my fingertips: the edges of yarrow, seed pods, haws, and hips, piqued by the settling frost: hard edges, soft textures. We were on the escarpment, then by the horse and she was pulling me along and telling me the horse would soon run, ‘Won’t you my darling, my sweetheart’ and she smoothed the chalk brow of that still horse and pulled me to her. I craved more of that rich sweet wine, and she laughed and filled my mouth, chanting, and singing, I did not know what. She said, ‘Too late, too late’ and we made love, or she made love to me, the greatest loving of my life so I carry it with me now, on the chalk path, with the expansive views of the valley and where the trefoil shines in summer though I could feel its dormant strands and tendrils and I knew not how that could be, either. She said, ‘Ah,’ and we ran down The Drag as if we were flying and crossed to the church, taking a drink at the Bridewell Springs. ‘It is,’ she laughed, ‘As if I am your bride, now.’

We paused outside the church.

She took me inside. On the altar, sat two of the villagers from the pub. They were drinking and I smelled the delicious, sweet wine. There was nothing of Jesus in that church.

The Man was there, strewing the aisles with weeds. He said, ‘You drank then? And did you feel?’ He said, ‘I hate it, but I also love it. She made me drink the wine and I so wanted it. It was punishment, in part, for betraying Grace, my wife. They may all be evil here, but they have respect for some things.’ They all laughed.

‘Will you’ whispered the woman in my ear, ‘join me in song and drink some more wine?’ I wished to say not but could not. ‘It is my Winter Song’

Come taste my fire

And drink, drink this all

As the spirit of solstice

            Will you enthral.

            Drink drink my darling

            Of life and of heart

Here is 

And you shall be part

Oh reader, it was dangerous and glorious. We desecrated that church. While we did, there was scratching at the door and scraping at lower windows and then, in the nave, above the font I saw something entirely terrible. Faces at the window above. Above Jesus and his disciples, the lamb, there were awful faces, rising from the gloom outside and, like in an old story which was once read by the Praelector by the fire at Christmas in Senior Common Room at St John’s College, I could now see their horrible hands across their chests as they mouthed unintelligible things at me, at The Woman, at the people brightly gallivanting in the church.

‘They cannot come in,’ she said and laughed. ‘This is a holy place!’

‘Who are they?’

‘Poor fool, have you not guessed?’

Now I saw The Man. ‘They want their hearts back. They want to be alive. I am sure you felt them, on the escarpment and while you walked. Writhing around your legs. They are an irritation but sometimes I feel sorry for them. Look in the font.’

The church had been warm, oddly so on this winter night. The stone of the font carved all around with dragons and now, I saw, decorated with seed pods and small dead things and all the natural vestiges of winter, well it was warm, impossibly so. ‘Ah, that is , too,’ she laughed. ‘I hold it in me. I hold everything in me and, as I begin my Winter Song on St Lucy’s Day, The Winter Song becomes louder and louder as more of us sing it and as I add more verses. On the twenty first we shall sing all night. You have helped me; helped us all. In those pretty cabinets you made and repaired, with all their compartments, we place the things we need to make this delicious wine. Herbs; dead desiccant things; spices. The villagers roast portions in their fire pits which, through delicacy, they would not mix indoors with their food. We may be monsters, Sir, but we have our standards and we are epicures. Before that, though, we drink from their veins while they are quick but nearly dead – when The Woman has command of them. It is the elixir of life. Its own fine wine.’

At this, there was much laughing…

The figures at the windows scratched louder and one reared up and released his hands and now I recognised the figure. It was old Stourbridge. He looked directly at me, his hands above his head. There was a gaping and awful hole where his heart had been and parts of his body that looked misshapen, as if he were without scaffolding: a body made of ragged silk and a melting face with an expression of abject fear upon it. He tried to call my name, but no sound ensued and what was odd was this. When The Woman told me how they killed him, over-curious, and arrogant, and took his heart and some bonds to heat and grind and put into the sweet wine of which I had just drunk, I was not horrified. I have already told you; I have been proud of my honesty in this respect, that I had never cared much about others at the best of times, but now I did not care at all. I felt The Woman stroked my back, I understood that The Man, though punished for his infidelities to which Grace his wife was not a willing accomplice – in the village it scarcely mattered as lechery and a luxuriant life were part of its beating and callous heart, even The Man though he felt cursed and had warned me to stay away, and hated this life, still loved it and was drawn forever to The Woman. She who had smelled my blood when I caught my hand in the prickly winter plants, she who had made love to me and who now gave me more rich sweet wine from the font which with She controlled and I knew it was full of the spices and herbs which the villagers collected and of ground bones and roasted hearts: from those who had strayed into the village and been lost. It took just a little, I somehow understood, and the wine gave me knowledge. It told me that Stourbridge had been right: there were bones and old entrails – had he dug further – under the round barrow on the plain by the horse: this was where they secreted the parts they did not want. Because they were clever, they could always make a case for why people had disappeared and took care to make it people about whom few cared, for such is the state of the human race.

Well now, I tell you. The human race. Pitiful things. There was one more thing I learned.  was gathering for the solstice and then they would worship by the White Horse among the ditches and terraces and encircle the burial chamber and every feature of this beautiful, and blasted land. The Winter Song got longer and stronger and, through the wine, and the imbibing of the dried hearts of others, we cheated death, and were made immortal. A dark and syncretic power overarching: call her Epona, Earth, Mother Goddess or just call her the very devil, it does not matter She was ours; I now understood and was thrilled. She had made us all immortal. The Man had been made immortal against his will, which was why he suffered his melancholy and brooded, looking out across the long plain from the White Horse. There was something else and, that night, as I looked at myself, the same but so radically different, in the mirror at my guesthouse, I saw it in myself too. The eyes. I had hazel eyes, but as I watched their colour darkened and shifted. I knew this was because of those whom I had imbibed; I had eaten them, and I might in future drink, too. To be true, I found the instability alluring and, of course, before I lay down to a sleep of pleasurable and horrific dreams – the last pulses of my conscience, I suppose – I looked at myself again. Now they were blue. The same had been true of the people in the church; of the villagers; within them the last vestiges of the , consumed and lost-hearted.

It indeed appeared to Reason as if[10] desire was cast out, but the Devil’s account is, that the Messiah fell, and formed a heaven of what he stole from the abyss.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The Voice of the Devil, William Blake, 1790.

12.

Nourishments

I said to her, ‘How many have you killed and eaten?’ and she kissed me hard. There was one more thing. The church clock struck midnight and she said, ‘Listen’. I heard rustling, a kind of tearing noise and then the sound of hoof taps, galloping at first, then a trot. Splashing. She led me into the churchyard, standing on a grave and dancing and showed me the White Horse drinking at the Bridewell springs. ‘Every night, at midnight he hears the church clock strike and uncouples himself from the hill. He is thirsty, and especially so at this time of year. He is my darling and very old, as I am, as many of us are here and you have noticed the language, the odd formality of The Man. Ah a Victorian. He will never lose his upright character and his deference, and you will always be Sir to him. The time slips and loops make this village so extraordinary, don’t you think?’

            I had to agree. She led me to the White Horse, kissed him and climbed on his back, rode him about the fields and bridleways and back up to the top of the hill, red and white in the early hours. Do you know that when the Winter Song is at its zenith, all the horses that can, in the county of Wiltshire, so uncouple and come to drink at the Bridewell springs?

            The Man was there. ‘I would,’ he said, ‘have told you this part of the story, but it is yours now.

Wynter Wakeneth al my Care

[MS. Harl. 2253. f. 49r]

Wynter wakeneth al my care,

Nou this leves waxeth bare.

Ofte y sike ant mourne sare

When hit cometh in my thoht

Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht.

Anonymous, c. 1300

13.

Approaching a wonderful short day

Oh these days.

            Delirious short days and long, long nights. That is the exquisite irony of all this, for as The Winter Solstice tells us of nights shortening and days lengthening, what we pray for is darkness.

            Rich aphotic pools of it. Oh.

As we approached the solstice, more wine was made, braziers smoldered day and night, our festivity. I ate little but drank and loved most and the psychic portions of those we consumed writhed around my legs, the things The Man had once been frightened of, I batted my hands behind me to push them away and once I said, ‘Boo’ to poor old Stourbridge. We all hear Her Winter Song lengthening. Many are buried under the barrow, but not only there. In the full graves of those no-one misses and in the deepest ridges of the escarpment. Tidily and resolutely done after a bloody butchering, a drink – then beautiful housekeeping and sweet wine.

Come taste my fire

And drink, drink this all

As spirit of solstice

            Will you now enthral.

            Drink drink my darling

            Of life and of heart

Here is 

And you shall be part

Imbibe it my sweet ones

And drink from a vein,

Take deepest pleasure

From others’ small pain.

Grow in the winter

The best of the year

Grow in your foulness

Your goddess is here.

And as it grew dark, by four o’clock in the afternoon and we had made love all day, each with each, we ascended to the top together and sat and sang quietly in the darkness, held hands, pinched thumbs and as we walked up The Drag, embraced the beautiful forms of nature on the shortest day and in the sharp cold. We licked leaves, touched the feathers of yarrow, felt the texture of bark and, when our fingers were pricked by the briars, we let one another sip the precious drops. I remembered The Man binding my hand and thought that perhaps it was, as with all else, an awakening in him of some wretched conscience. He was never, in the years after this in which I knew him, quite without it and was the least popular person in the village. I was, myself, extremely popular and enjoyed the vanity of this. In The White Horse I would enact grotesque parodies of my teaching days and the villagers would play along, pretending to be my colleagues, or particularly stupid students. It had always been a fetish of mine to have my college gown with me when I travelled and so I wore it then and entertained them.

But as I was saying, up we went. On the way we had drunk from the Bridewell spring which seemed to be its own enchantment. Revived, we sat and listened to The Woman speak in a language or languages I did not know and yet I understood everything she said. And then we would sing. There were many verses now

Come taste my fire

And drink, drink this all

As spirit of solstice

            Will you now enthral.

            Drink drink my darling

            Of life and of heart

Here is 

And you shall be part

Imbibe it my sweet ones

And drink from a vein,

Take deepest pleasure

From others’ small pain.

Grow in the winter

The best of the year

Grow in your foulness

Your goddess is here.

Be still my children

And then we shall ride

Ride on forever

And never have died.

Warmth in our bodies

From sugared dark wine

A Winter Song lengthens

And shall you entwine

And on it went, countless verses, evolving, growing stronger. At midnight in the longest night, we would hear the rustle of the horse and run with it to the Bridewell Spring, and, on this night, it was not alone: the other horses in the county, far, far more ancient than you realise and before that I knew, gathered together. They are solid, glowing white. We ride them throughout the night and we are strong, so strong.

Now I fele hit is þe fende, in my fyue wytte3,

Þat hat3 stoken me þis steuen, to strye me here;

It is most cursed kirk that ever I entered.”

Þis is a chapel of meschaunce, þat chekke hit by-tyde,

Hit is þe corsedest kyrk, þat euer i com inne!

(Now I feel it is the fiend -the devil -in my five wits that has covenanted with me so that he may destroy me. This is a chapel of misfortune—evil betide it! It is the most cursed church that ever I came in)

Gawain and the Green Knight, late 14th-century

14.

I am happy

I am a devil, and I am happy

Perhaps you thought, as you began to read, that this was, above all, the tale of The Man, but now you see it is not. It is just as much my own story. This is where I now live, in Stowton, beneath the hill, the White Horse and the plains which tower above me. I walk on them and love them, and I have little need of anything else. Sometimes I meet The Man there. Occasionally, something in my heart allows me to feel sorry for him and recollect the day when I first met him, but generally I do not. My eternal heart is happy, and it is cold. I do not care to see his pangs of conscience, while I greet the clouds of gregarious Adonis butterflies with joy. The Man and I pass the time of day, I sometimes doff my hat at the place where my old colleague’s guts and bones are buried and sometimes I smile at that. Would he have taken professional pride to know that, rather than just worm food, he was part of the spell and story of something beautiful and everlasting? Would knowing that it was so dreadful have quelled any pride? He must have been frightened in his last moments, but so be it. What a fitting burial for an archeologist and one interested in this place that he should be interred in the site below the iron age tumulus and near our gorgeous loci  of worship in the deep night. How glorious.

            I shall ask him, when I see him holding his hands across his chest again. Perhaps he is even part of me. I recall that he had piercing blue eyes and sometimes these are my eyes, too.

And how glorious for me, too. I believe in the love that twists and turns your mind. As I told you, I used to be a sceptical man, but now I am changed.

The village looks up at the old settlement and has turned its back on the world as The Woman begins her Winter Song and the fading light of solstice glances off the horse, before the light is gone and the horse stretches, ready for its daily refreshment.. A laugh rises up, perhaps a cry, then the smell of sweet and heated wine fills the street. How delicious! Someone new and I must ask from where. At midnight, as the clock at Stowton church strikes, the horse will uncouple itself from the hill and come down to the spring to drink. I will never leave here and, like Stowtun, I have turned my back on the world and my cold eternal heart is glad.

Before I left my post at Cambridge University, I handed in no further information to complete the research work of the missing Stourbridge; instead, I wrote a paper on the thirteen White Horses carved on the glorious uplands in the county of Wiltshire. It was my firm hope that something might, in future years, come of it. Of those thirteen horses, only eight are visible and I impressed on my former department the importance of having a complete record of these horses and for undergrowth to be cleared and the horses recut and scoured. They are a vital part of England’s history, I said. It seemed wrong that such a superb job was done of retaining earthworks in the county, yet the horses were neglected or entirely forgotten; I amassed the evidence for early dates for these creatures and explained how some of the horses were originally beaked and likely dragons. My paper was not innocent and not only of scholarship. I wanted to know what might, one day, ensue if all the horses could be free and if other villages could have the tremendous opportunity, irritations of the psychic portions of those necessary to their nourishment notwithstanding, to live a life as we do here. But most of all, it felt right, moral even – when looked at from a certain point of view – that each horse should be free and, like our Stowton beast, be able to drink at the local spring or water course. How parched they must be!

Oh, how fine our Magick. How beautiful is the Winter Song above all? How evil and yet how terribly beautiful.

The sky is red tonight. It is late. I hear hoof taps and I am replete. Look into my eyes if you like. They are cold but even in this darkness, do you see their changing colour? Is it not fine?

For you. If you want to write and get it published; if you are tired, unwell, stretched or broken-hearted. This is for YOU

I took a long time to be published; by that I mean, I took a long time to start writing. I didn’t have the confidence. Now I have, it’s like a torrent. I am six years in. When the occasional person decides to be a bit snarky about the seven books I have written in that time, I tend to explain that they were in my head for decades and that’s why everything is as it is now. My bravehearts, do your own thing; believe in your work first and foremost and do not apologise for the way in which you work, whether it be ‘too fast’ or ‘too slow’. Here is my first bit of love for you all and it is about productivity – but perhaps not in the way you might expect. Also, being gentle on yourself and always working with what you have.

So, let’s go on this adventure together. For a start, you work with what you have. That is, it’s lovely to have an office or a dedicated room, but if circumstances demand that you write at your kitchen table, or on your lap wherever you are, so be it. If you wait for those perfect circumstances, you will never start, so yes: always go with what you have. I write at the kitchen table and am frequently interrupted. I go with it and use headphones for busy times. Remember that genius exists in the finest library, but also at a scruffy kitchen table. Also, if you think you must assemble ideal conditions – that is, ideal emotional or psychological conditions – before you write or continue writing, then I do believe that is deferring your creativity to fate. You may feel down, sad or that heavy weight of grief that comes after the first pains which you think will kill you. My darlings, I am so, so sorry. But you know, you can write in rage and sadness, too. Maybe not yet, but you will. Sometimes, little bits of story unfurl within the sad story of you and yours; cling to them, because they are still there and precious. Think I don’t know? I am writing this now, to you: after a second very broken night, this little story unfurled while I was on the phone to care providers and emergency staff because I have a very unwell eldest. I find it heartbreaking sometimes and after years it seems a solution is not within our grasp, but within those feelings, I try to draw something else out. Today, this morning, so tired, it was for you. Take it.

It may seem that, with difficulties in our daily life, for those we care for or, or with ourselves, we cannot create, but that is not so. Here is more about me: I manage several long-standing mental health problems and I have been recovering from Long Covid (I think we are getting to know each a bit better, right?) – and I am not writing from a position of privilege, telling you sweet things. I am aiming to comfort you, so that you might follow a dream and, hopefully, get paid for it, too – but we will come back to the latter.

What about the adage of writing every day? That real writers write every day. Well lovely if this is you, but it cannot be everyone. I cannot do it. If you are poorly or managing any combination of circumstances, or just because it doesn’t work for you, then you cannot do it. This does not mean you cannot produce a book. Again, go with what is available to you because, again, if you think it is only possible with (perceived) ideal circumstances, then you may never get started or find your progress is stymied because you are feeling anxiety about your lack. Look, instead, at what there is. Thought. Cogitation. Reading. Listening. Man, you’ve been busy. So, you may not have committed words to the page, but a process is still ongoing. Pondering is the writing, too. Don’t forget that now. (I dedicate this last sentence to my fantastic agent who had to remind me about this and specifically in the context of pondering the plot. Ahem.)

This point follows on from the last. You may not write every day – as in get words down on a page – but try to inhabit the world of your book. What might that mean? Perhaps, that you mull over its characters and plot, read, think about it all on your commute, go for a walk and just let it sit and let your mind freewheel and see what springs up; that you keep reading; that you look over edits – your own or someone else’s – and maybe you could do bits of admin if the urge is that strong. Do your page numbers, check SPAG or write an acknowledgements page: these things can be lovely little boosts and make you feel your book is evolving into an actual THING. Think of the work and the writing as not only being the writing down, but also of the rumination while you are having a bath, or resting, say. If you do that, you may find your attitude to it shifts and you realise you’re further along than you thought.

A little exercise to do right now. If you don’t have a dream…Grab anything (if it were me, it would be a not very fancy exercise book and a felt pen, I expect). Now, scribble down in any way it comes to you some thoughts about the kind of book you want to write. What would it explore? What themes are in it? Where is it? Not what you think you ought to be writing, but what you dream of doing because you need to test it on your pulse. It must make you feel excited. That will focus the mind. You could also think about what your dream is in publishing: again, consider what you really want. Shall I tell you mine? It’s to write books that you can see in bookshops, have at least one of them made into a film and empower as many people as I possibly can along the way. That’s what this book is. I also want primarily to be a novelist, but with other short fiction, features, and non-fiction texts. To build a portfolio of varied books. In terms of industry, I want to be with industry professionals who are supportive, open and flexible. Over six years this has not consistently been the case and, with my everyday concerns, I found it startling and then eviscerating. We will return to looking after and working with this side of things  later as it is all part of the picture.

BUT

Most of all I am going to get totally lost in what I am writing – and we are back to testing on your pulse. This is where everything starts.
I have a second exercise too. I said, work with what you have. Well, what do you have and how can you make it better for yourself? Never mind the conditions in which you think you ought to be writing; never mind what you have surmised everyone else is doing. Where can you work, how can you make it a nicer environment for you – which includes things that are soothing if you are prone to anxiety or those troubling MY WORD MY WRITING IS SHIT WHO AM I KIDDING thoughts which may bubble up as you work. I have essential oils and fake peonies in a vase and music to the rescue on the kitchen table or a desk in my bedroom. Think also about you: reflect on your assets, your reading, life experience, the way you see the world, your dialect, accent, phrases specific to you: all that richness and beauty that you are. Think about where you have been – yes, even if it was in your imagination – your sufferings and joys and know that with all the stories and the myriad experiences you have, you are extraordinary. And don’t tell me you are ordinary, because no-one is that, especially not you. In reflecting honestly on what you have, your vision becomes clearer, I think. Your vision of who and what you are as a writer; if you can feel reassured that you don’t need the glittering education, (readers, I went to Cambridge, albeit from a not very good comprehensive and was sure that everyone there had had a better previous education than me and I still met lots of people – forgive me – who were exam-smart but dumb as soup),or  the MA or MFA (although there are many lovely reasons for doing one). I do not have a room of my own, but I have a table I gussy up and earplugs. And I know who I am. I have found my voice. I hope you can hear it speaking to you as I encourage you or remind you to find yours.

A quiet life. I think that’s where I’m heading

I’ve always been quiet; I am merely accidentally loud. I love activity, but become extremely stressed and tired out by noise when it is clamouring for my attention and when it is a noise competing with other noises.

I have always been melancholy; I look the opposite!

A while ago, if you read it, I wrote about an epiphany I had in Nando’s – here it is again: https://annavaughtwrites.com/2022/02/25/an-epiphany-and-some-things-i-want-to-say/

I’ve been thinking about all this again – and the noise and the melancholy – because I need to reflect on changes I feel I must make. These are really changes in my thought and, because writing and reading are at the core of what I do, some of those changes may impact on that, or rather my perception of it. You see, after the past intense years of my eldest son being terribly ill and the total failure of multiple agencies to help him and us, while I was already managing chronic illness, I am a bit tired.

I wrote before about how I don’t have the strength to pitch articles now. I may do the occasional one with someone I already know, with whom I have worked perhaps, but that’s it. Also, I will continue doing as much of the recommended push for The Alchemy, which I am crowdfunding for – https://unbound.com/books/the-alchemy/?utm_campaign=thealchemy&utm_medium=AuthorSocial&utm_source=AuthorActiv …but what does not work and what I cannot do, I shall not berate myself for. Everything else: I will meet deadlines for forthcoming books, greet good news for future work with love and enthusiasm, but other than that, I need to start relying on others a bit more (not to mention avoiding those who have been unsupportive or unkind; I cannot make everyone like me, can I?) Because the asking, pitching, getting involved in a lot of things is, I’ve discovered, too much for me. Everything I have learned about the book business has been through twitter, but I can’t constantly hawk my work in the way I have been. I thought that was what sold books; it isn’t: it’s a good team of people behind you with strategic planning and you, being your bookish self, as part of that.

I was reflecting, as I looked at Instagram briefly this morning, that, even if I were to be invited to do exciting book events all over the country or abroad – I am not proud to admit that I get awful pangs of jealousy and might have beens as I see many doing such things – how could I? The kids need me, because when one is long-term ill and there’s no professional support – we are talking years here – it has an impact on everyone. And I am managing pain and mental health stuff, as usual; waves of fatigue. I’ve been pushing myself too hard, haven’t I.

So yes, time to rely on others a bit more. There are plenty of lovely book folk about and some of the bad experiences I have had are put to bed while we focus on what comes next.

I think the key here: take your time and find good folk and work with them. Don’t try to do too much and don’t expect too much of yourself if your life is already complex.

Books – the reading and the writing are a joy: don’t lose that in the clamour.

Sometimes a quiet life is where it’s at.

x This is me, looking at you – in case you need quiet, too.

THESE ENVOYS OF BEAUTY

For this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and by kind permission with the publisher of my forthcoming memoir, I offer you part of the opening section of that book. Please note the trigger warning and that this book is still in an editorial stage, to be published Spring 2023. Text is copyright. Here is the publisher’s link to the book:

https://www.reflex.press/these-envoys-of-beauty-by-anna-vaught/

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A collection of interconnected essays on the natural world and its detailed and passionate observance over decades in the context of trauma and mental illness.

Trigger warning. Please be aware that this book is about personal experience and includes accounts of or references to mental ill health, OCD, self-harming, suicide, depression, anxiety, dissociation, and derealisation. Also, to violence and cruelty within a family. Importantly, some of these experiences were lived through by a child so please read mindfully.

TO go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities , how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty and light the universe with their admonishing smile. (Ralph Waldo Emerson. From Nature, Chapter One[1].)

A note on the text.

All epigraphs are from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay ‘Nature’, as is the title of the book (shown in the first longer epigraph), I have included botanical names for all plants and trees because they are so beautiful and I thought readers might enjoy seeing them, too. As a kid, I loved to learn them and would roll the names around in my mouth. Like sweeties. Only – arguably – Latin is better for you in the mouth than butterscotch.

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Introduction.

So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes

There are twelve essays in These Envoys of Beauty, and each looks at some element – or elements – in the natural world and what it has meant to me. When I say that, I mean in terms of how I look at it, how I feel, how that has changed but, for the scope of this book, what any of it has to do with trauma and its management. Let me explain.

I grew up very rurally, raised by a Welsh family on the Somerset-Wiltshire border, but I have habitually spent a great deal of time in West Wales, particularly Pembrokeshire, because that is where most of my family is from. I now live in West Wiltshire. Open land, woods, riverbanks were and are my world. I am also sure that they are how I survived – not better, but intact.

What I show you in this book rests on formative incidents as a child and adolescent: bookish, nerdy, and socially awkward (all of which I still am, only I do not mind now). I spent as much time outside as I possibly could and was always scrambling about somewhere, up trees, in ditches, into rivers and streams and home to look things up and, sometimes, preserve specimens in books or a flower press – or found antique treasures in pillboxes and tins. That is still me today. If you had looked in my primary school books or those in the early years of secondary school, what I wanted to be when I grew up was a botanist. I would spend hours out there and, afterwards, hours in there, looking at my guides and drawing plants and animals – a particularly tame wren on the dog roses; a tree mallow with its flowers open to the sun, looking happy. Lavatera arborea: I loved the rhythm of those words as a child and would linger there now.

            I was raised on the crest of a hill, with orchards and old woods behind me and the fields below me and to one side; the river Frome in the valley, near to where it meets the Avon. The Wiltshire sign was below our house but parallel with a lower wall and I was always delighted that where I lived straddled two counties. I must have thought this was unique, back then. Or forbidden: that you had to live in one place or another, not in two. Then, the time in Wales: St Brides Bay, Cardigan Bay, the islands – Ramsey, Skomer and Skokholm – and the water lands; the Daugleddau estuary where my grandmother had once lived, where part of it ended at Cresswell Quay. There were other places that felt like a home, too – Cardiff Bay, the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains and I have always felt more Welsh than English, because I was raised by Welsh people in England. I feel that within me, and I like the way the two things tangle, itself a story for another book.

In many ways I was so lucky, and I am very aware of the privilege of growing up in these places. This is one story: bluebells, wild garlic, wood aconites, red campion, mud, and flood and feeling the lichen and moss and stone stiles.

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But there is a second story.

I did not understand the dynamics of my immediate family, that I was blessed in where I lived made me think it was terrible to confess it, and I am not sure who I could tell. There was deep weirdness, death, unspoken illness, and psychiatric problems the nature of which I did not understand in my father’s family and, since the day he died, when I was eighteen, I have not seen them: they cut me off, just like that, my world there and everything that it brought into my imagination at first, had disappeared. I did not understand at first that its best bits could live on in that imagination, lively and fresh, though wrought by that deep weirdness. Then, my parents and sibling. I did not understand and still do not and, because I have explored it elsewhere and it is not the main thrust of the book – though you can see and infer much, reading through – I will not do so. But there were events which still, as I write, make me feel unsettled. My mouth becomes dry, and I feel that I am under threat. I do not expect to get better from this. It is all because of my mother. She was a splendid woman and I loved her, really, against my will. Because although there were streaks of that splendidness with me, what I was given and what I was left with was the sense that I was evil, the bringer of harm, a blot, a brat, a harlot, a slut, a terrible, selfish thing. This, she would always tell me, even when I was very small, was what everyone else thought too. I did not know any different.

She would slap me, pull my hair, kick me when I had fallen and scratch at my ears, but mostly it was the words. The confusion lay, as I say, because I grew up in a beautiful place. I could see that, empirically, but I knew it, hard, because my parents had come from large working class rural families, and had made the ascent, they would say, to the middle classes, or were very much on the way. It makes sense that they should want to remind me of blessings. But, you see, my mother also repeatedly told me I did not deserve it. She was ill a great deal and I remember feeling sick and shivering at the tension in the house. She took the time to tell me that I had made her worse. Then, when I was thirteen, my father became ill. The descent was slow at first, then rapid and dizzying. I did my best to help them both, to care for them, while feeling that I was burden and blot and then came the day that I was told I had hastened his death. I had always worried I was capable of this. Now it had come true.

At night, I would recite Latin names from plant books like mantras and talismans. I had awful ruminating and intrusive thoughts. I would feel a bad thought about someone ushering in – not something I felt, but a collocation of words in my head; a fit of diction, that was all. But by the time I was seven or eight, it was so entrenched that I was a bringer of harm that I decided I had to expel the words so as not to make the bad thing happen. I would have to go and tell that person, always an adult, a dinner lady, a teacher, the school caretaker, the vicar. What they thought I cannot imagine, but I do not remember reassurance ever being given.

By my late teens I had developed severe anxiety, depression. I first tried to take my own life when I was fifteen and again when I was nineteen. On the first of those occasions, my mother would not take me to hospital but instead said I should go to my room. I did not tell anyone this until after the birth of my first child, when I was dreadfully unwell and being looked after by a consultant psychiatrist in outpatients and a kindly GP. This is the first time I have written about it. I don’t know whether she hoped I would die – I had taken a considerable amount of paracetamol – or if it was simply too much for her to think about. I did not understand then, and I still don’t and will never have the opportunity to ask. Both my parents were dead by the time I became an adult.

From the age of twenty one I have been in and out of care – such as is available – and, ever since my teens, I have had difficult periods, of varying length and intensity, where I don’t know where or quite who I am; where my edges are. It is exhausting. It was never talked about by my parents, and they did not try to help me. My mother said mental health problems were an indulgence. She said moods were a myth, especially moods in teenagers, a licence for bad behaviour. PMT, she said, was made up. People who were mentally ill were those who had failed to control themselves. I don’t know why she said these things, but I feel now, looking back, that there was such burning life in her which had been thwarted. Moreover, mental illness – and severe mental illness – was rife on both sides of my family and I wonder if neither of my parents could bear to accept it within our family home. They rejected it because they were frightened and wanted to retain control and function; in doing so, they created something that was dysfunctional. Any one of us can be ill – and any one of us can have things go wrong with our mind.

I remember that it often felt so cold in our house, though a fire was often lit. I remember the day when my mother bought lamps as a development from the days of big light. I felt like we had arrived, and I loved the soft pools of light which fell on the floor and then, wonders, beside my bed. But you see that softness did not last and it was cosmetic. I looked outside.

Oh, there was a lot more than I feel I can tell which went on, but you can infer as we go because the point of this book is not degradation and terror, but joy and survival. Of course, I learned a good deal from some – not all! – of my therapy received sporadically over the decades of adulthood, but all that time, today, this afternoon, it was my connection with the natural world (and my reading[2]) and all things in it which shored me up. On my worst days, I cannot go far, so I am just outside, but I am listening intently. I am a rural girl, but I am observing wherever I go.

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In this book, stay with me as I try to show you the world I explored, what it meant to me then, and now. The essays are not chronological, but dart back and forth between them and within, memories and ideas associating and cohering. I do not mean to mythologise nature, because it is also full of facts and yet it illuminates, calms, and makes things intelligible. Sometimes I feel it as a metaphor, sometimes just as a sense or a reminder or prod – in the hard lines of something or the delicate feather of rime – to think about something with a different attitude. Also, even when it is small about me, I perceive space; that’s how it was for me as a child.

‘We constantly refer back to the natural world to try and discover who we are. Nature is the most potent source of metaphors to describe and explain our behaviour and feelings,’ notes Richard Mabey in Nature Cure[3] and that is true, I think. When I was very young, and I would run out, or just stand and stare, I would look to plants and trees to help me explain to myself a bewildering world. There was something else, encapsulated by Wilson A. Bentley, known as ‘The Snowflake Man,’ who studied the snow and published many extraordinary photomicrographs of snowflakes. Bentley saw the snowflakes, as he observed them from Jericho, in Vermont, as a metaphor for all things beautiful on earth, but also ‘The snow crystals…come to us not only to reveal the wondrous beauty of the minute in Nature, but to teach us that all earthly beauty is transient and must soon fade away. But though the beauty of the snow is evanescent, like the beauties of the autumn, as of the evening sky, it fades, but to come again.’[4]

I want to reiterate. Nature has not been my cure. It has been my inspiration, teacher, and companion.

I am not better, but I have never been alone.

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[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Essays, Lectures and Poems, ed. Robert D. Richardson, Bantam 1990, 2007. ‘Nature’ was written in 1836

[2] If you like, you can read an account of reading, the imagination and survival in an essay I wrote for Trauma. An Anthology of Writing about Art and Mental Health, Dodo Ink, ed Mills and Cuell, 2021); it also uses some sections from my first book, which was a work of autobiographical fiction.

[3] Nature Cure, Richard Mabey, Chatto & Windus, 2005, Little Toller, 2021, p. 32

[4] Quoted in The Snowflake Man, a Biography of Wilson A. Bentley, Duncan Blanchard, Macdonald and Woodward Publishing Company. 1998.


My Writing Year

I was wondering if I had enough to say here! That is, I’ve tweeted quite a bit of it, in personal terms there is only so much I can say without breaching confidences and in writing about the difficulties of the publishing year that are particular to my work, I would rather move on positively as there so many blessings! Some things were connected with timing; others with having little control over situations. But chin up, I thought! I will keep this short and do write and share your thoughts, if you like?

I was mildly ill with cold-like symptoms in early March, as were my husband and one of my three kids. At this point my eldest had been seriously unwell, so we were navigating difficult times before Covid and so marched on. I will come back to that! With advice – a lot of it from the brilliant people you meet on twitter – and a great community, we could cope. When the pandemic began, I had all three at home and then was responsible for home learning with the youngest and access to ongoing support we really needed with eldest ebbed away. I had a book out imminently, Saving Lucia. The launch was cancelled and there were no other events, barring my involvement in the fantastic Lockdown festival and a turn for SL on some online events. I was devastated, but decided it was best kept in context because of what folk were going through, though I still had to acknowledge that it mattered to me because I had waited two and half years for publication from acceptance. It helped so very much to connect with readers, read extracts from the book and think about my new book having a long life – beyond this time. I found someone to have mentoring chats with and that really helped. Also, to write short pieces related to my books for various journals and for my blog. Keeping it moving and lively as much as I was able. BECAUSE the other thing that happened was that I was not well and I have not been for about 9 months now. Hello Long Covid. You remember I mentioned the cold-like symptoms in early March? AArgh. Chest pain, vertigo, shortness of breath and hello fatigue like I had never experienced it.

Once Saving Lucia was out, I decided what I needed to do was focus on the book under construction. I had seen my lovely agent in February, shortly before she went on maternity, and had great edits and notes. I do believe you should always be working on something, because there are a lot of waiting, planning and, I think, variables in writing and publishing. Between April and August, I rewrote my novel and began plotting another one, The Cabinet of Curiosities. Just as I finished this run of The Zebra and Lord Jones, I won the publishing and writing section of Creative Bath, which was great because it was a broad acknowledgement of what I am trying to do with my volunteer and community work alongside my writing. Then, in September, Famished was out. Again, I found it wonderful to focus on engagement with readers, to offer readings of the book and to work diligently on social media. We had a lovely launch event and then – very 2020 – Instagram went down shortly after it started. Very important to laugh, my bravehearts!

When all is said and done, I am immensely proud to have been part of two little teams and to have met so many brilliant people. Also, I think, to have been building new and enduring friendships because of the books, because of a shared love of reading and, frankly, because I have had to ask for help in navigating what is still a new world to me alongside work, domestic stress, exhaustion and illness. I am immensely proud that we got two books out this year, that I rewrote another one and, frankly, that I coped as well as I did when a further novel and volume of short stories were turned down this year and I was told rights and translation were not shifting. This happens; it’s natural. But it’s hard! But we made a plan and hopefully it will come to fruition.

So, The Zebra and Lord Jones (novel) rewritten, I began a new novel, The Cabinet of Curiosities and made some – for me! – major pitches for features. I also tentatively began plans for a non-fiction book I am passionate about doing. Where are we as we stand? I have to be vague about a lot of this as you can imagine, so I will say that I am working on this pitch, making approaches to people, keeping in touch with my agent and that there is a lot of work on desk. Recently, I was longlisted for the new Barbellion prize – you can read about the prize here – https://www.thebarbellionprize.com/ for Saving Lucia and, in four books and lots of entries for prizes, it is my first longlisting and I am delighted.

During this year, I have also been fortunate both to work on several manuscripts with writers, to mentor and, also, to receive some mentoring myself from kind, brilliant and inspiring people whom I will not embarrass here. And for 2021, well…as I said, there is a lot on the desk and I know that we will be clarifying, planning and strategising. As I am still not better and because I still have complexities within my home life – and quite possibly I will have 2/3 not going back to school and college (the other is on a rather uneventful gap year before studying Psychology at university) – I need to pace. I have made some PhD applications – that is, a PhD by Publication to be worked on with three of my own books – but it will not be the end of the world if it does not happen; far from it. In a terrible year, there is, if I may say, already so much that I am thankful for.

Much love,

Anna x

For young people and their parents. Thoughts on mental health.

Dear all,

I thought I would jot down a few resources and ideas for you, if you have concerns about your secondary age and moving on (or trying to) teen. I am not a mental health professional, but my background is in secondary teaching plus tutoring and mentoring with young people, mental health advocacy and, with my own family, I have navigated various parts of the system and continue to do so; my older offspring are teenagers and life certainly has its complications for us at the moment! I have had various conversations with and messages from worried parents and friends over the past few weeks, so this is my response. Of course, I am thinking of the way in which education has been abrupted by Covid, but I hope there might be something here which could help at any time. It may also be applicable to younger ones. I went there too! Finally, services will be stretched and it’s a very busy time, understandably. Make sure you’ve got a cup of a tea and a decent biscuit if you’re going to be waiting on the phone for some time.

  1. If you have been looking after a young person with mental health problems, google and see whether you have a local carers’ group to whom you could talk. I am a member of one. You need care for you as you do the caring. Also, please accept that it is very tiring to be a parent or carer in this capacity; give in to that. Try to take a break from things which rattle you (this is why I need to be away from social media at the moment; there are some ongoing things which damage my well-being in the face of additional demands at home and that’s no good), and, also, if you have other offspring, aim not to make the whole household revolve around the person or people who are struggling. Easier said than done, I know! And take each day in small increments, rather than looking ahead, dreading what mood is going to be like when the kraken awakes. You know! (Again, easier said than done.)
  2. From my heart: if your child or your young person is in a hole, do your level best not to get in the hole with them. Which is to say that you care and you empathise, but you have also to look after you. That’s partly so that you can do a better job of caring, but also because you need and deserve that care, too.
  3. If you are struggling with making comparisons – with families where there is a lot of support from extended family or whatever it is that you feel you do not and cannot have – I urge you to focus on what you DO have. Compare and despair. It serves no purpose other than to make you miserable.
  4. CAMHS is Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. Generally this is up to age 18 BUT in your area, there may be extended provision up to the age of 25, so google with your area and see what lies if you are really concerned about your offspring; ask your GP if you can get through! Moreover, while (I know this first hand) the CAMHS wait like the wait for adults is extensive and you would need to be referred by your GP, in some areas, there may be self-referral, which you do via an online form. This provision exists in our area. So, for example, we may have been unable to access ongoing CAMHS support in the end, BUT a psychologist rang us and we had a talk for an hour and she wrote me an extensive letter summarising what we had said and pointers for things to do. I am sure that there will be variation, but I can tell you that this is what happened in Wiltshire, for me.
  5. Young Minds. It’s superb. Here. https://youngminds.org.uk/ There’s a stack of information about mental health and they have a dedicated section on Covid. There is information on a range of mental health problems, on what to do if you are really worried; that is, if it is an emergency or you judge it to be. There is information for you – with a dedicated parents’ helpline – and lots for your offspring to access for themselves. I have found them fantastic and, in the past, have booked an hour long session with one of their team. In its comprehensive information, there is explanation of CAMHS (see above), on hospital (for example, a blog entry by a young person on their experience) and a range of ways in which they can offer support. Do try. And remember it is for you as well as your young person. Young Minds looks after young people up to the age of 25.
  6. MIND. Mind can support you, but they may also operate young people’s services in your area, where, for a suggested donation, a young person can access counselling. There will be a wait, of course; in the case of our family, it was six weeks – which seemed short and support is an hour a week, commuted to a phone call at the moment or a short check-in once a week if things are doing okay. https://www.mind.org.uk/ and here: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/helplines/ If you click on that, you will see an advisor bubble pop up. Tell them what you are looking for. Mind is now running a text service, too. For some people that might be preferable.
  7. The Samaritans. You do not have to be suicidal to call. This is for you and them. Here: https://www.samaritans.org/ They now have a self care app which might go down well and also if it’s easier to write things down, you can email as well as call.
  8. If your young person is unwell or has been unwell and intends to go to university this year or next, here is some information specific to that. Some of it I knew already with my background, but some I have learned because of what our family has been going through. If you are the parent of an offspring in year 13 and you are concerned about the impact of your young person’s mental health on their grade and can substantiate this, then you may not have been given the opportunity to cascade this information to your school or college exams’ officer in this current strange situation. In our case, we were advised to give statements and information/records directly to the chosen universities (general admissions team and, if you can, the admissions folk for the department your offspring would be studying under). This is so that the university understands that there have been extenuating circumstances. You would do this, perhaps, if your young one were to have been physically ill for an extended period and there is no shame in regarding their mental health in the same way. Your young person can collate information and send it (they are an adult) BUT a university can receive information from you as a parent or carer IF your name is listed as ‘proxy’ on their UCAS form. If your young person rings the UCAS central number, then asks for your name to be registered also on their form, it means the university is able to take into account something that you, as parent, have sent. We have just done this.
  9. If your young one is going to university this year, make contact in advance and ask about their pastoral team and what is in place at the university or nearby in terms of support. Again, this is from the horse’s mouth. It means that something can, hopefully, be in place before term starts. You may well find that any paperwork amassed for point 8, above, does double duty here.
  10. There are many, many more resources; more helplines; lots of fabulous people but I want to end this simply by saying that I wish you all the very best whether as young person or their parent or carer and I send you so much love. Anna xxxx

A New Year Newsletter

Here is what I am up to next year. Or rather, here is what I can tell you so far. Now look, readers and writers: things have got most tricky at Bookworm Towers. It happens. But, you see, never feel that if life is difficult, if you experience illness or are bereft, your creativity will wither alongside. Take heart; nurture it and believe in it. Make things. That is what I am continuing to do. In the midst of sadness I am writing another book.

What’s coming? In April, you can read my new novel, Saving Lucia. Here she is above. The book that started with a chance sighting of that photo above – the one where the elderly lady is feeding the birds, so very tenderly. She was the Honourable Violet Gibson and, in April 1926, she went to Rome and tried to kill Mussolini, She shot him in the nose. She got closer than anyone else. Lady Gibson was knocked to the ground, put in prison and, eventually, deported; thereafter, she was certified insane and spent the rest of her life in St Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton. Later, a fellow patient was Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce. What if…and do you see the other women above? That’s Blanche, Queen of the Hysterics at the Salpetriere and that’s Monsieur Charcot demonstrating what happens under hypnosis. She is most remarkably responsive. To her right is Bertha Pappenheim, a prominent Jewish social worker, whose institute was razed by the Nazis. It was not until twenty years after her death that she was also revealed to be ‘Anna O’, in Freud and Breuer’s On Hysteria. These women have an extraordinary story to tell you, so stick around. The book is published on April the 24th, but Bluemoose Books is starting a subscription service, where it will be available to subscribers from (I gather) late February. Follow all news here: https://bluemoosebooks.com/ Saving Lucia is part of Bluemoose’s all women catalogue for 2020.

Below is a gallery of images pertinent to what I have been writing about; from a bookshop of towering shelves, an old asylum window, Victorian portraits (the first one has a memento mori which has been added subsequently, but I liked it!), a devil, a baptism in 17th century Virginia, shades of grief, my late grandmother’s house on the Cleddau in Pembrokeshire (the setting for two books now), the holy well of St Non’s near St David’s and Walton West church on St Brides’ Bay in Pembrokeshire, fictionalised in the book I have just sent to my agent…(see below)…

In June, I have an essay in Dodo Ink’s Trauma: Art as a Response to Mental Health; it’s called ‘In Order to Live’ and is about reading and the imagination in my life, kid up, in the face of trauma. Reading as survival, in fact. http://www.dodoink.com/blog and – details when they are up – I also have some weird fiction in a new anthology by Unsung Stories; it’s a really interesting concept and one very important to me: weird fiction exploring mental health themes but also hopeful uplift on these themes. You will see!

In September, my first short story collection is out. Here.

famished cover-c (1)

This is already available for pre-order as part of Influx Press’s subscription service. https://www.influxpress.com/famished Hit the subscription button.

‘In this dark and toothsome collection, Anna Vaught enters a strange world of apocryphal feasts and disturbing banquets. Famished explores the perils of selfish sensuality and trifle while child rearing, phantom sweetshop owners, the revolting use of sherbet in occult rituals, homicide by seaside rock, and the perversion of Thai Tapas. Once, that is, you’ve been bled dry from fluted cups by pretty incorporeals and learned about consuming pride in the hungriest of stately homes. Famished: eighteen stories to whet your appetite and ruin your dinner.’ Oooh and ugh.

Ah but that is not all my bravehearts. I have also, thus is the way these things work, submitted a second novel – witchery in mid 17th-century Somerset and Virginia called The Revelations of Celia Masters – and a second short story collection called Ravished. And if there is news, you will be the first to hear it.

AND

I have written my first magical realism and handed my work in to the literary agency who this year signed me: Mackenzie Wolf, NYC and one of the best girls in the world, my agent Kate Johnson. I think I am allowed to say that this is called The Zebra and Lord Jones. I have been asked by a few people why I am with an American agency. This is partly because we are an Anglo-American crew at Bookworm Towers and I try to split my time as much as I can, partly because they also have a presence here and partly because of my literary interests and ambitions and where. And because of Kate. The best girl. I am desperate to tell you more about this book, set in Wales, London and Ethiopia during WWII – but I cannot. x

When we have had a meeting about it, I will tell you more about a thing which I am over the moon to be able to do: for September 2020 I am offering at least partial fee remission for an MFA (in creative writing) for a student from a disadvantaged background. I have asked if there can be a focus on someone whose life has been circumscribed by mental illness. This is because mine has been – and that’s really why I wrote a novel, Saving Lucia (back to top) about this theme, too. And I am building a writing retreat and teaching room in my garden. I do mean I am building it. With a bit of help, When I am up and running, I will tell you all.

Oh, there will be a lot to share. We will bring you events and news on Saving Lucia – here she is again and note the four windows and the bird on this beautiful cover, below – and I shall share them here and on social media and tell you about everything else that is happening. Saving Lucia is my third book, with the first two Killing Hapless Ally and The Life of Almost no longer with their original publisher and on the move. We will bring you news on this all in good time; you can find copies floating about though!

I have chosen my FREE READ for 2020. I usually do four a year, but 2020 sees all this work on top of my day job (I am an English teacher, tutor and mentor for young people) and extra care for my two eldest boys who are in exam years and have additional needs. This is going to be a rollercoaster year, isn’t it?

I hope we get to meet and I wish you a Happy 2020 and much wonderful reading, perhaps writing. Oh – and I mentioned that I was writing a new book. Here is how it started. The image is of me with the two Shirley Jackson books which are the biggest influence on what I am writing at the moment. It’s called We All Live in a House on Fire -and have a Welsh cake for knowing that the title comes from Tennessee Williams’s The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. And I can’t tell you anything about what I am writing either. Except that I am a third of the way through and very excited. It’s strange how ideas bubble up. I was upset one night and couldn’t sleep. I started re-reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle and there we were. By 4.a.m. I had started writing chapter 2. I anticipate that I will have finished this new novel by the end of March. I write quickly; it’s just how I roll. I have written all my books in 3-4 months, but I wrote my two short story collections in three crazy weeks a pop. Everyone is different and, anyway, I’d say it’s not the writing that takes the time, it’s the editing. Imagine that, when your book goes to your editor – aside of what you have done yourself – it’s about half-way there. But you may feel differently!

But for now, it’s all about Saving Lucia. I hope you like it xxx

On estrangement

You may have seen news today on Meghan Markle’s decision to tale action against a British newspaper and Prince Harry’s rush to defend her. I am not a fan of the royal family at all, but I dislike the way the press has treated her and I might also understand his response. No-one has any right to pass judgement on estrangement and the prurient interest in it here, plus a tabloid rush to pass judgement, seems to have led to what has happened. You simply do not know what someone’s actions have cost someone else and you do not know what that former relationship has effected in terms of psychological damage. I don’t know the ins and outs of what has happened here, but I certainly think it is a private matter in public people. And, more to the point, I know about estrangement and why we might choose to make decisions to sever ties. And I simply do not agree that blood is thicker than water though I have heard this all my life. Family is beautiful, but if elements of it hurt you badly, you should not feel you need to maintain contact with those elements. In my case, it was a calamitous nervous breakdown when my youngest was eight months old that clarified a decision and a better process; when things came to a head again shortly before I was discharged from long-term therapeutic support, I thought that my need to stay away and our need to keep our boys away would be fully understood, but it was not.

Let me tell you a bit about that.

I should like to write very freely in this post, but I can only do so to a certain point. This, in itself, speaks volumes. It’s because I grew up with a lie. And it wasn’t even entirely a lie. Some bits of it were true and beautiful and kind. And the bits that were not true and beautiful and kind spun me into dissociation, sent me mad or provided, latterly – and God knows why I didn’t see, hadn’t grasped it before – some dark materials for writing. And through that, I came to see that I might have made my way through some things with a pretty sturdy imagination, plus I had the utter blessing of reading – because it was my escape and how I found my way through a world I did not understand.

And the reason I can only write freely to a certain point is that the lie was and is upheld by others. Sometimes they should do better and have done better; not entirely fail to believe someone because they didn’t see it with their own eyes. But a lot of the time the lie is upheld because it’s only a lie to the person who was on the receiving end of it. All they saw were the bits that were beautiful and true and kind.

When a person or people are systematically cruel to you in such a way as you are short-circuited in some manner so that your brain doesn’t work properly; when you flick awake, posed and ready for action as others groggily come to; when you have repeated nightmares, dissociative episodes, panic attacks and when you develop severe depression and an OCD which is predicated on atoning in ritualistic ways for some terrible crimes you believe you have committed and to atone in some small way for the terrible person you think you are; when all this happens and you know in your bones, the taste in your mouth, what you hear and the very colours behind your eyes, what is behind it, then this is a response – and baby I get the multi-sensory version and very tiring it is too – that is not normal. And it didn’t come from nowhere. This is a sustained and complex trauma and it has informed everything that has come after it. My shaky decisions, perilous lack of self belief, running away from rather than to something – the opportunities I have missed and denied myself because I thought I was not good enough or, frankly because I was too crazy to cope.

And yet the sources of this trauma may have been good parents, friends, colleagues, siblings, members of the community and all those things because people don’t tend to be one thing. Unfortunately, as a young child, if you see those you are frightened of routinely praised, loved and respected by others, then you believe the problem must be you.

For me, the problems were upheld – I suppose it was like an accidental gaslighting really – through my adult life and it is only comparatively recently that I have distanced myself from those who still praised and upheld those I was scared of and who reduced me, in my head, to nothing. I found I simply couldn’t listen any more. From the person who decided it would be a good idea to tell me on my wedding day what a disappointment I was, to those who, again and again, urged me to allow my three sons to have relationships with certain people when I knew, Mr Bookworm and I knew, that they meant them no good. It should have been radically obvious and yet, somehow, it was not.

So, when you hear about those who choose to estrange themselves from people, don’t make assumptions as it’s not generally a decision borne lightly. I doubt very much that it will have been this way with Meghan Markle. A latter day intense privilege must not cauterise your nerve endings; surely it cannot remove troubling memory or pain. So treat someone who has chosen to estrange themselves with compassion and don’t intrude on their decision. And also, if it is something you need to do, and you go ahead, I wish you all the love in the world. Anna x

 

 

 

x

Where All the Ladders Start

Where All the Ladders Start

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,

I sought it daily for six weeks or so.

Maybe at last being but a broken man

I must be satisfied with my heart, although

Winter and summer till old age began

My circus animals were all on show,

Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,

Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

W.B Yeats, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, verse I.

Here is a post intended to be encouraging to you if you have had or are currently managing mental health problems, but want to write; a post about what I do and what I’ve done; about how mental health problems prevented me from writing, but how I’ve tried to engage them in the process – and also how they’ve become subject matter. And when I started writing this new post I thought, as I have done before, of this Yeats poem, above.

What is my theme? What do I write about? How do I write about it and follow a process?

A lot of it comes from my heart. What I have endured psychologically. Certainly, I have drawn on events, but also method of survival, which involved reading, reflecting and sustained flights of fancy. I am not currently supported by the mental health service, but they saved my life and my therapy, post breakdown, two kids and a new baby in tow, led to my first book in the end. That’s because I was stronger, but also because I began to see that I’d used books, reading and my imagination for survival. And if I’d done that, why should I not try writing, too? All those things were teachers, surely?

Recent events and also mistakes I have made have meant that I now want to speak more euphemistically about my personal history, at least for a while, so let me only say that I came into adulthood thinking I was a terrible thing, incapable and weak and that I could do little or no good. Although, as I will tell you in a new piece on books as saviour next year, it was reading that sustained me, it took me a long time to feel that I deserved to write and be read. Does that sound odd to you?  Eventually, there were choices I made which were empowering. How I parent my boys, how I am as a guardian of others, as a young people’s mentor and mental health advocate and what I think about, watch for and think about when I teach and tutor. And now, as I aim to do in my life, I do in my writing, increasingly a raison d’être for me. I flip the bad bits and think, ‘Hmmm bad thing. Could I pop you in a story somehow?’ I think the reason I am so keen on writing gothic and weird fiction is because, to my mind, I lived it, every trope. I hope I make you smile a bit in writing that!

There will be genes and personality in there of course, but clearly my early experience bears a logical link to mental health problems. I’d lie awake for hours as a child, ruminating thoughts, frightened. It was reading that saved me. I think that tumbled me into OCD, depression, generalised anxiety and dissociative episodes. I am free of the OCD now, largely free of depression, but my anxiety levels can skyrocket, and I have never got on top of the dissociation that occurs, so I try and think of it as my brain having tried to protect me when I was younger because these reactions have been going on forever. I say, childishly, Good brain; clever brain; thank you, my darling. Like a kid; looking back to that scared little girl and giving her a cheery affectionate punch on the arm from big Me. Ah, if you are wondering what dissociation is, here is the NHS page: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/dissociative-disorders/ It is not fun; it gets colossally in the way of my life, but having not solved it, I try to find some seed of hope or creative purpose in it if I can. I can’t always, of course!

At the time we meet, I am doing edits for my third novel, Saving Lucia, which you can read next April; my first two books, novel and novella, are between publishers – and I am not going to lie; there are gains and losses in publishing and this has been a tricky thing to navigate; there will be an announcement on my first short story collection very soon, I have another novel and a second volume of short stories (I have to choose vocabulary carefully here so as not to give away details)…under consideration and I am half way through another book, a novella. I’ve also got short stories, features, poems, narrative non-fiction and essays in various publications and still to come. I notice, above all, that key themes emerge: of memory and trauma; flights of fantasy and imagination; books coming to life; myth, legend, a living landscape – and the latter is important, because just as much as I loved reading, I loved the natural world and saw it as a storyteller; I saw landscape and animals as voiced and intensely beautiful, often ignored. This is something I am writing about later today. I wish I could tell you what that is, but all in good time.

And…

While I had written features and articles before, I had not written anything else at all until early 2015, a little while after I had my breakdown and the first truly effective piece of therapy I had received. You might be interested: CAT – cognitive analytic therapy, over the course of a year on the NHS. And now my writing – whole novels – is coming out like a torrent and with relative ease and I am convinced this is because it was waiting all this time until the moment I committed words to paper. Which was, incidentally, after the school run one morning and I caught myself by surprise and just sat down and wrote. That was it. It’s weird: I’ve written anything from ten words to 20,000 words in a day. It is like I am catching up, and the reason I procrastinated is because I had so little confidence, because balancing mental health problems with three kids, partial care of more, teaching, mentoring and the rest of life – like cooking and filling in forms; painting the windows and so on; you know – well, it took everything I had. It still takes everything I have, every single day. I am exhausted today because I’ve had some bad nights: I wake up in shock, my system super-charged. It is manageable, but we have never quite managed to fix that, either. When I am not asleep, I am immediately awake, alert, ready; facing threat and challenge. I do not remember a time when my life was not like that.

But still I write, and don’t you worry about the tyranny of writing every day. If you cannot write, think. You’re at work.

That Yeats quotation at the top. What got me into writing long-form was thinking about the strategies and imaginative techniques I had used, for as long as I could remember, to deflect panic and fear. I had abiding relationships with characters in books and when I say ‘relationships’, I mean that they became as imaginary friends; the books (I moved on to song and film so that, at one point, my best friends were Albert Camus and Dolly Parton and there’s a yoking). I found relief and solace in words and scenes and imagined places. It was comforting and enlivening, and I didn’t tell anyone about it. Ever. I also had lines from poems I liked and pages from books that I would recite at some length when I felt frightened at night.

In late childhood, having been convinced by that point that I was the bringer of bad things, a sort of weird little kid who couldn’t help but cause harm, I can recall roots of things; weird reactions coming in that seemed to set me apart, at least to my mind, from the other kids I knew; for example, the dissociative experiences I still have today when I am not sure who or where I am or that the world around me is real. It’s like…I can see my toes, all pinked-up in their flip flops there, but I cannot compute that these are the same toes that will beat a path to my door. I don’t entirely recognise the world or people about me and I feel unsure of my edges, or as if I am above myself, or to one side. My life is full of odd experiences because of this kind of thing, and I should probably note that the dissociation is a bit more complicated too, but maybe we can talk about that face to face one day? And also, there is more to it in positive terms: because in the roots of such fear as a child and as a teenager, there must have been such resolve and, ultimately, a pretty powerful imagination and creativity. No-one told me; I just thought it was survival, and then, like I said, I started writing a few years back and it was like…in my head was a word hoard; from my fingers came story after story and I have never had writers’ block. Not for a second. It’s freedom.

It is intoxicating.

I hope so much that it can be of use to others.

And I want to say that if this is not your experience, don’t worry. And don’t ingest as truth that you cannot live a creatively fulfilling or exciting life because you have mental health problems. Just find your writing foothold gradually and learn to hear your voice. Because the last thing I mean is to make you question why your lived experience of chronic illness or mental health problems has not made it that you’ve coughed up a load of books like it did for me. That’s because you’re you. Listen to them, your precious thoughts and reveries, doubts, oddities, the lot: mine your experience.

I quoted a favourite poem of Yeats at top; now I quote its last verse.[1] I remember it when I think of the things lost and hurt and still painful. I think of the place where the ladders start and imagine that; for strategy in life, but also inspiration in writing. I hope this makes sense to you.

Those masterful images because complete

Grew in pure mind but out of what began?

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,

Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,

Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut

Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone

I must lie down where all the ladders start

In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

If you are struggling, you are not alone. If you worry that your writing is no good, you are also not alone. Rejected? You’ve survived worse, so back on your feet. If you can, find your tribe and your tribe can be online because I understand that health or funds or difficult feelings may mean you cannot get to a writing group. We are here! Find us on twitter and please don’t be afraid to start conversations and ask questions, because the writing community is welcoming and enormously helpful. And also, if you are managing difficult circumstances in your life, I bet you can write a book, or a poem, a story,  if you read and think and try and plan and cross it all out and start again. Because I also bet you’re hugely courageous and that you have a rich imagination.

Why not just start, or steel yourself to carry on? And remember that, each step of the way, I shall be rooting for you.

Love,

Anna.

[1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43299/the-circus-animals-desertion You can see the full text of the poem here.

An A-Z of Mental Health. C is for…

Hello again.

A mixture of things for you once more. For C, let’s try…(and I have a timer set for half an hour, which is why I always ask you to forgive some ragged edges)…

  1. Cats. Or chinchillas. Or whichever furry creature. Hugely soothing: beg, borrow, rescue. Volunteer as a cat cuddler if you have an animal sanctuary. I can honestly say that having our brood of creatures at home has got me out of a lot of scrapes, or soothed me after them, and provides immense comfort to my children. Recommended. Unless you hate them, obviously; people do.
  2. Counselling. I am not going to be glib and trot out the old ‘Help is Out There’ adage because we all know that it’s not that easy. But if you are struggling, it all starts with a conversation with a friend, a sympathetic person, a phone call, online. It may be that you can access CBT (which didn’t touch the sides for me, but it might be what YOU need) through self referral, but persist with your GP – if need be take someone with you to make you feel supported or, if need be, to help advocate for you. If you do not have a GP who is receptive to mental health needs, ask to see a different GP. And you may think that I am being simplistic by listing counselling here – it is a HUGE topic that I cannot begin to do justice to – but people feel ashamed and need not. If someone makes you feel that way, ignore them. We must support each other and make that conversation easier.
  3. Caring. In my case, if I get too involved in too many things; if I have too many people and things to care about and take care of, then things do not go well. Perhaps I have less room in my head or fewer resources than some others, but sometimes I have to retreat and calm my focus on some things and even, for a while, some people. Because I don’t have the energy. I know someone wants me to come round and talk something through with them tonight, but I have had to say I cannot:  I feel spent because of the battling – it really does feel like battling!- over the past three days: I am trying to get appropriate SEN provision for one of my lads and meeting rebuttal, denial and getting talked down to. I don’t think anyone means any harm at all, I really do not, but I don’t have room for a lot else this evening. It is important to pick and choose sometimes because we are not indefatigable.
  4. CAMHS. Ah, this is child and adolescent mental health. I wanted to say to you all, from the bottom of my heart, that if you have an offspring under CAMHS; if you have an offspring who is experiencing mental health problems; if you are caring and then some, then this is when you need to step up your own self care, even if you think you do not have time. And also, to put this bluntly, if your child is in a hole, do not get in that hole with them. I speak from hard-won experience. Having a child in distress is the hardest thing that has ever happened to me; I felt sick to my core sometimes. Learn from me here: practise self care as and when you can. Just a little time out; some relaxation techniques; saying some bloody good things to yourself. Promise?
  5. Cake. Or whatever it might be. Make something; eat something lovely, just because. Or light some candles. Or just a little something. You might think these details, these fripperies, do not impact on your mental health. I beg to disagree. I think it’s about the self care again; a simple act of making or being.
  6. Community. Every time. Look about you. Speak to people. Make small talk. It is, above all, community that helps to keep me, Mr Bookworm, two businesses and two other careers, physical and mental health problems, and three kids afloat. And I try every day to give that back in spades. It is one of the greatest joys of your life, Remember that your community can be online. If you cannot access other stuff, go here – and don’t you let anyone scoff: there is vitality, love and companionship here, too and I won’t be dissuaded from that!
  7. Oooh this is controversial. I want to say church, because I am a Jesus fan, you know. I don’t actually have a church now but I hope that one day I will. And yet consider your church, your temple, your spiritual life, your beliefs: give yourself time to reflect, to be still, to think about some difficult things because maybe one has to; talk about them to someone whom you trust. I feel that I want to write more about this topic, partly because in all the counselling I have experienced and in everything I read, it is the spiritual dimension that is entirely missing. You might find huge comfort from talking to someone within a religious community. Let me tell you that I am always cheered by knowing that in a place not too far away, there is a community of Benedictines who remember me in their prayers. I love that.
  8. CAT. I am back with counselling. This – cognitive analytic therapy – is the one that saved me, my bravehearts. The best bits of CBT with clear and sustained observance of roots of behaviour and patterns. Changed my life, this.  Maybe I should say change: change is possible. When you are utterly laid low, it could well feel that you will never get better. If this is you now, know that you are in my thoughts and that I hope for and long for the change that you need to live a better, happier life for you.
  9. Colour. It’s true: colour has a wonderful effect on me; putting it around me, wearing it, but mostly being in the natural world and really looking at plants and trees; at insects. It’s that absorption in the myriad beautiful things about us and the boost to our system that can occur with a shot of turquoise or cerise. Or whatever you especially like.
  10. Comedy. Sounds obvious, but find things to laugh at. It’s so good for you, and I don’t know about you, but like a dullard I forget this when I get low. If something is funny enough, you will laugh. Go look for it.

Much love, do look at A is for…and B is for…on this blog.

Much love,

Anna xxx

And,always,… xxxxx