Thresholds

pont-medium

Last night, when I couldn’t sleep, I had a notion to open my eyes. There are no street lights where we live and I have never known a darkness like the darkness of our bedroom. There is nothing to become accustomed to – no subtle shades of black, no slit of moonlight at the curtains or shadowy furniture. I could hear the wind, but the room is like a crypt and you lose perspective within it. Muffled through a metre of stone in the old walls, it could have been the sea, or thunder, or a plane passing over – all are noises that soar and fade.

It’s different here at Sandside. The sound comes to me from all around the bay. It’s one of those dull days when the waves roll out of darkness into white froth. Boom, and then the close silence of the sliding back. Each one leaves a stain on the shore, the dark shrinking as the sand absorbs it. Where the shallows cross and blend, the waves form bands of shadow like contours on a map.

Perhaps my searching of the darkness last night was Timothy Pont’s doing. I spent yesterday looking at his early maps of the north on the National Library of Scotland’s website, peering at the slanting script of ink that is now over 400 years old.

dyvers kynds of wild beasts

specially heir never lack wolves, more than ar expedient

This on the map where my house is now, and the darkness and the wind.

Further out, the bigger waves collapse over the slab rock with a constant far away drone. The clouds out there are moving fast. I wonder how those early map-makers felt as their work was completed; distances shortened, the unknown falling away, the previously inconceivable no longer feared. Like waking to the gentle glow of a night light.

In the squall I lose sight of even the Fast Reactor, its huge white dome melding into the mist. Only the streetlamps around the plant are visible, like a string of fairy lights on the coast. When the mist clears, I see the electricity pylons stretching inland, below them the thin green headland, and red cliffs sweeping down to pale sand.

The wind batters my hood so that I can’t hear anything else. It could be some wild dystopian tale, this talk of wolves and nuclear power stations. But here in the far north, it all feels within reach. Strange things happen at the edge of the map. Men in radiation suits, their eyes deep inside the masks. Wolves slinking out from shadows.

I watch the waves at my feet push upwards, and in the froth that slides back I see a whole map of the world – hazy white continents that drift and collide, before falling away with a hiss.

 

Timothy Pont’s maps can be viewed on the National Library of Scotland’s website.

Mirror

Under the pier, there is darkness. At first I think it’s the river, its surface reflecting the black sky, but where the cloud is broken the water has clear patches and these shimmer. If I look past these reflections, I can see the bladderwrack that blots out the pale riverbed. Smoke comes to me from the house on the hill, but as I brush stray hair from my cheek, the smell is replaced by a mineral one, my fingers silty from throwing Tone’s ball. He swims back to me now, his wake rippling the calm.

img_0676

It’s the end of the year. A time for reflection. When memory’s shadows light up at things recalled. And while Tone and I fill in time, waiting, I’m thinking of all those other winters you’ve brought us here to this beach, as though each summer is just one long trough in a wave. Those days I’ve sat in the van in my hat and gloves, listening to you change in the back, your rash vest draped on the heater’s vents, and then the door sliding opening, and finally the rumble of a block of wax on your board; how I’ve watched you on the long paddle out, a black speck in the acres of blue, while all the time breath condenses on the scarf at my chin. You say it’s like taming something wild, but shouldn’t I worry when the spray from your board is just a hangnail on a giant?

Walking back to the van, I check my watch. Still an hour of daylight left. Currents etch the river’s steep banks – swirls and trenches that gleam wetly and themselves reflect the sky (or perhaps reflect the river reflecting the sky, like circus mirrors). At this time of year, the landscape sinks into itself, one brindled mass with a streak of tar and chip road. It will grow paler and paler over winter. But the rivers and burns will still shine. It’s their reflections that bring the land to life – the upside down hills cast blue, yellow fields gleaming, clouds tumbling from every lochan on the moor.

But now it really is getting dark (the darkness I felt earlier only that of seaweed and rock). The gloom rises from the moor, seeping between clefts in hills. And all those reflections die back, like experiences passing into memory. The other surfers have packed up and gone. But you are still out there – happy that you have the waves to yourself. You will stay until the last bit of light fades, and the ocean blushes, and just as in those other winters, grey days that I remember all of and none of, I’ll take the torch and I’ll find you trudging up the hill, your board glowing in the dusk.

Memories

img_0252

Before we moved to Scotland’s Far North, we spent many years visiting the area in our homemade camper. I’m delighted for The Peatlands Partnership to be featuring a poem I wrote about this on their ‘Stories’ page.

Flow Country

Another bridge, only here at Dornoch the tide

is out, mudflats stretching into the summer dusk

with endless glowing puddles, while out to sea

it is as white and intangible as heaven. We’ve made

this journey many times, first in your R-reg Transit,

and now in the silver VW, but always loaded with

your surfboards and a yellowing Silentnight mattress,

my books piled about the floor on the passenger’s side

(usually some Neil Gunn, which I will insist

on reading aloud even though you hate it).

Read the whole piece over on their website.

Depths

If you’ve ever seen a wavelet break in the mouth of a burn – the tide pushing in where the stream runs out, the quick folding along a crease, the frantic ripple, a determined progress like toppling dominoes – that’s what I think of when I see the juvenile herring shoaling, not pushing through the water but unfolding, as if pulled on a line, and the sound of the fish jumping, the movement of their whole bodies, like each little splash of the wavelet.

*

At what seems like the edge of the world, I find a way down the rocks. The Atlantic turns over shadows where the swell lifts and a grey sky fades to nothing on the horizon. I hear an engine drop in pitch. I hadn’t noticed it until now, the drone of the motor steady above the water. All I can see from here is the boat’s dark hull and a couple of orange floats. Already it is disappearing around Boursa Island.

Kneeling on the rocks, I wonder how deep it is below me. It’s not like being on a beach where the shallows are translucent and wave froth skims the sand. Here, I can’t see beneath the chop. I imagine silt-hazy depths, currents churning. I’m scared of the sea – it’s a fear of choking, of surfacing with hair in my eyes as the next wave breaks.

A shadow, the size perhaps of an orca, sweeps through the ocean, darkness sweeping through light, then tiny ripples, the water puckering as silver rips the surface, the fish all turning over at different times. The waves jostle but where the wind whips up white flecks, the herring gleam – some arching beneath the surface and others jumping, and though I’m used to the sound of wind around this coast, this is different. The herring slap the sea as they land. Shoal chatter.

Version 2
Tone Investigates

When they come close, I see them quite clearly – each three or four inches long. One gets stranded on the rocks, flicking its body in the bladderwrack, a silver sliver on a mass of ochre weed. It convulses on its side as water washes over – water with the clarity of glass, and its eye staring up at clouds and sky. Still the sea simmers as bellies flash. And again they are on the move, like iron filings following a magnet, they swirl and push, and all the time the noise goes with them.

Scotland’s Far North was the epicentre of Europe’s herring fishing in the nineteenth century. Tens of thousands of barrels were cured for export every year. I read recently that the stocks are replenishing themselves. Standing here, feeling like a character from a Neil Gunn novel, I get the sense of history, and time, being round like the world itself – a big bowl of chaos, where now and then events surface.

There is a dive site near here: an underwater wall where langoustines hide, and then a shelf, and the water-depth plunges. The fry are feeding on zooplankton – arrow worms and copepods – but I can’t help feeling that there is something in the deep chasing them. And perhaps my fear of water is that too – a fear of shadows moving below me. A fear of chaos and uncontrollable time.

Eriboll

Tone demands to go swimming. ‘You’ll have to find something,’ I tell him. He goes off in search of driftwood, settles for a bit of rope. The loch shows a breeze I can’t feel, the dark flecked with white. But where it laps the shingle, it is the colour of the moon. Ethereal and calm.

img_0537

You pull on your drysuit and harness. The tanks are already in the water, two yellow lines below the green surface. Golden light undulates in diamond patterns. I throw the rope for Tone and watch the silver trails he makes, his current a ghost. When I look again, you have gone. I never hear you go – no splashing, no hissy intake of breath. The water is silent. But after a moment I turn and catch your lazy fin break the surface. For the next half hour it is just me, Tone, and his bit of rope. I have tied a knot in it for weight but, wet, it keeps slipping. I will ask you to fix it on your return. Your voice in my mind laughs: ‘If you can’t tie knots, tie lots.’ But none of this matters because somehow the slipping of the rope and my only half-hearted caring is what this weekend is about.

IMG_0533.jpgWe often used to spend time like this in the north – rough camping at Strathy, Melvich or Torrisdale. When we finally moved up here, all that changed. We said goodbye to the homemade camper. You took the bed out and I helped haul it into the loft where it’s been these last four years. And then yesterday, on a whim, we hauled it down again. You dusted off the cobwebs, hoovered up the dead moths and spiders. It was a simple enough thing: a longing to lose ourselves in the landscape. Just the van, two deckchairs and the hills.

You are noisier coming back and I hear the chomp chomp of your feet on the shingle. Your towel, jammed in the van door, ripples as the wind picks up. Years ago, this would have been a place of work: the ferry ploughing back and forth to Portnancon, and the limekilns aglow. Today, time here feels hollow, like the empty scallop and whelk shells bleaching on the shore. As you cast off your harness, lay the wet things on the grass, it occurs to me that you’re my moon-coloured water. The world foam-flecked and tricky, in you I find an ethereal calm. And beyond that, nothing matters. Nothing at all.

Underworld

Dark water marbles the moor. There is deer grass and bog asphodel. Already I’ve sunk my welly halfway up. I look to the wind turbines at Fiscary, but rather than being a comfort – a reminder I’m not alone here – they seem at this oblique angle to be slowing down. Turning to a stop.

Finn McCool by Stephen Reid
Eleanor Hull, The Boys’ Cuchulain (1904); illustration by Stephen Reid

There’s a timelessness about the bog that makes all those stories of giants and fairy people, the ones found in out-of-print books with cloth covers or websites about Celtic spirituality, seem possible. Although no one tells them anymore, I get the feeling the stories are still here, under the surface. All around, the moor floods the horizon, and just as marine birds die at sea, it’s easy to imagine a fallen giant here. The peat can preserve fallen trees for millennia. Their branches decay but the trunks are dug up whole – charred-looking but smooth. I tramp over pink sphagnum with whorls like fingertips. Is this where my giant lies buried, his face covered in moss? I move on, imagining eye sockets, a nose and chin into the hollows and lumps under my feet.

I hear you laugh. The thought of his giant strides shaking your high street is unimaginable. And with bay windows and balconies to catch his ankles, towers pricking his soles, the jumble of houses in the suburbs like walking on shingle, why would he bother? Ahead of me is Watch Hill, a perfect stool for a giant while he dips his feet in the kyle, keeping vigil for invaders.

My welly sinks again. Before I pull myself free, I look around at the bog. Strands of hair blow over my eyes and mouth. And just for a moment I remember how things were in my other life, four long years ago. I see myself walking around an air-conditioned office in my high heels. Pencil skirt, glossy hair, these things feel too real for memories, too distant for reality. That person – defender of budgets, keeper of spreadsheets – is unlikely to exist for me again. She has become a thing of myth.

Raindrops patter my hood. Occasionally a big one echoes like a finger tap but I don’t look round. It is dark when I get into the van, and I put the lights and wipers on just as a heavy shower falls. I feel bigger somehow. The feeling of being out on the moor, where size is meaningless with nothing but mountains for comparison, swells inside me. A small voice whispers. I strain to listen, but it’s just that the radio, turned down low, has picked up a station.

Revived

July 20th, 2016

IMG_0482We had thunderstorms last night. I left the bedroom window open and woke to shudders and cracks, flashes and bitter rain. This morning still feels heavy, the sun behind thick cloud. At the turn off for the loch, I pause in the middle of the road to wait for two cars to pass (rush hour on the North Coast 500), and at the rolled down windows the air is sticky. Everything is a damp kind of green. Tourists stopped on the roadside are taking photos of Ben Tongue. One is wrapped in a scarf, confusing the white sky with winter.

IMG_0491I haven’t written anything for weeks. At times like this a fear slowly dawns. It’s not writer’s block so much as the conviction that everything good I’ve ever written was a fluke. I want to walk it out and have chosen this spot where the glint of unknown water beckons. I pull over on the bog road and we get out. A track scars the hill, zigzagging upwards where it turns to little more than a landslide, the face all stones. In the quiet as I stop to tie a lace I hear deep splashes from the ditch (Tone amusing himself) and a sudden waterfall – last night’s heavy rain coming straight off the sod, the water etched with the downward press of green blades, into a gulping, swirling hole of froth. The track stretches out, long puddles shining in the ruts. I can see the loch now, below me to the south-west. Tone goes wild at the smell and bounds off over the moor. I follow, a little slower.

IMG_0500Coming down the bank, I squeal. There at the water’s edge is a makeshift metal boat, Thunder in red paint on its stern. It seems an ominous name for a boat and I wonder if there’s some sentiment that I’m missing. Something virtuous, something warrior-like. Or is it simply the sound the hull makes being dragged over a pebbly shore? I think of last night’s storm, of rising to pull my window to, and how exposed I had felt with just a pane of glass between the violent sky and me in my nightie. I feel the same way now, at the loch’s edge, with nothing on the horizon but frozen waves of heather.

Heading back, it is further than I remember. Drizzle dashes my hood. Eventually my eyes pick out the steady progress of a car on the main road. The way the light is, the water shining from the reeds has a blue tinge off the peat. There were islands in the loch, and I consider that in another place, with paved pathways and manicured grass, there might have been pedalos for rent, an ice cream hut. Instead all the loch had was that abandoned craft, the rusty inside camouflaged sphagnum orange.

IMG_0497

At home, I stare at the white page on my laptop. My fingers flexed, a pitter-patter of black characters dots the screen, and then a stream, a torrent of words, the downdraft of key strikes followed by a dissipation that feels just as real as any break in the weather – weeks of sticky awkwardness gone.

A freshness, a revival.