Things that Zig-Zag into the Distance

At ten past three, I go about the house turning on all the table lamps. The one in the hall, the two in the lounge. I tell myself it’s because I don’t like the shadowy feel of the place, white cloud looming at every window, but really I hope their glow might fill the emptiness.

I last heard from you at eleven. You were sitting in the airport in Düsseldorf, waiting for a plane to Malta, and then to Libya. I count the hours in my head and figure you’re in the air now. Somewhere over the Med.

The job came up quite suddenly. It was only yesterday morning you got the call. I can’t shake the feeling that this is my penance. I was a moody cow all weekend. I kept it up for three days before confessing, late on Sunday evening, that my writing wasn’t going well. ‘I’m thinking about giving up,’ I said. ‘What’s the point if it makes me unhappy?’ You looked at me a moment, and I’m sure you were thinking that things would be so much easier if this were true, but when you blinked, whatever future you’d been imagining vanished. ‘I reckon you’ll always need something to brood about,’ you said.

Sometimes I think you’re so full of love that I can only do us justice if I’m my best self all the time. I’ve spent the day feeling contrite, thinking over and over how much I love you and wondering if it’s a type of abuse – my being unhappy and making you feel it’s your fault.

Yesterday, coming back from dropping you at the airport in Inverness, I put the car radio on and turned the volume up, carefully arranged my jacket and bag over the vacant passenger seat. I had a headache – a knot between my eyes and the top of my nose, like my sinuses were blocked, and I felt that the knot was you, and that I was destined to carry you there for days. The radio lost its reception just after Altnaharra, which was around the same time I started crying. Nine years and I still cry every time you have to leave. I pulled over by a loch; I don’t know which one because I’m rubbish at remembering, and you weren’t there to tell me.

Loch and boathouse

It was already getting dark. No, not dark, lighter, the horizon bleaching to nothing and that morning’s rain shining in rivulets down the tar and chip road. I looked at the loch through my tears, and it seemed to me then to have this huge stillness – long and wide and so deep that everything around me – the endless heather, all the reeds, and the seedling conifers, the road, and every one of the passing-place signs that zig-zag into the distance, and all the hills – might tumble into it and be lost forever. In a way, that the loch could contain all that, and hold it muffled below its surface, felt right and just and maybe even inevitable, and perhaps it might take me too, perhaps the cold water creeping through the door seals would be just the thing to jolt me from these thoughts of you.

*

I turn all the lights on now, including the bathroom and bedroom, but it doesn’t help. The teaspoon clinks round my cup, and when I drop the bag into the bin, it thumps on to the other rubbish there and the swing lid thwacks back and forth; even the steps I take between sink and kettle are surprisingly heavy. The dog lies in the corner and I know I’m forcing him to listen to all this, to all this silence, and that he misses you too.

By the way, I should tell you that he chewed the trim on your new rubber boots after you left. It was your smell I guess that drove him to it, an unanswerable need to be closer to you. I know that feeling.

Tone and his love boot
Tone and his love boot

Sitting here in the quiet, I decide something. If my moods ever get too much, if I’m pushing you away, I’ll go back to that loch, the one with the boathouse, back to its stillness – I’ll drive there with the contents of my desk drawers spilling over the seats (remember, I told you, it’s so deep it’ll hold everything), and I’ll stand and I’ll toss in my journals and my carefully labelled hardback notebooks.

As I’m thinking this, the feeling becomes irresistible, and I get out a pad to jot it all down – the lamps, and the loch, and the silence and you; I think about how I’ll tell it in the second-person present tense, and how I’ll structure it, and the fact is that my hand across the page is unstoppable, and I hope you won’t mind. I really hope you won’t mind.

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When the Day and the Night are Equally Long

Paul took me out in the rib yesterday. A leaden sea and clouds so low, you could reach out and touch them. It was calm but not completely without swell, a thickness to the surface as it caught the light in puddles, growing shrinking flickering. I sat in the bow with the anchor, almost at sea level, looking back on our wake while the outboard droned.

When Paul suggested it was perfect for a boat trip, I was unconvinced. The morning hadn’t brightened, the day the same as it had looked at seven. He went on about it so much it was hard to say no. I didn’t say yes either, just put my waterproofs on and trudged out to the van. I made sure he saw me eyeing the sky.

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Rubha Standstone, east of Melvich

It’s odd to watch the land unfold. The country I live in – the idea I had of it as something cohesive and whole – crumbled into rocks and gullies. All of it formed 400-million-years-ago, apparently, which is nothing, I’m told. Along the coast, there’s metamorphic rock that’s perhaps six times as old. Glaciers, lava, shifting plates: all were plausible looking up from the rib. Byres and sheds appeared from nowhere and the sandstone strata pitched suddenly into the ocean, stray slabs slick black. I felt as though I’d just found out the world was round. Ink diagrams on old parchment stared back at me.

Look.

Gulls flying so low they almost skimmed the water, overtaking the rib, and this – my eye and the low flying gulls – at the same level, and me with the same gliding motion, so that my experience and theirs were in that moment as close as they might ever be; the noise of the engine separate but heard by both.

Paul took the boat between a sea stack and the land it was once attached to, motoring slowly, so that we could look up and see shags balanced on the ledges – slender necks, accusing beaks and oh so black. With the motor only puttering, I felt a sense of inversion, as though we weren’t really moving at all, the sea and rocks advancing on a kind of travelator. Near the edges, the water changed to shimmering turquoise and the rock loomed golden underneath, the surface something in itself, something liminal, between air and water.

Sometimes when I look in the mirror, and my hair needs brushed and there’s dark circles under my eyes, I can’t see that other me, the one who wore kohl and mascara and had perfectly matte skin, and I’ll lean closer. Of course the bathroom is all shadows – only the tiniest of windows in stone that’s a metre thick, and it’s hard to make much out, so my reflection looms there above the sink, and there’s a thickness to the light, and if I lean further still, press myself to the basin, occasionally this other shimmers.

You’d be better at the stern.

I’m fine, I said, turning away.

Why do I always care how things look?

Golden underneath and black above, angled like faces, like black giants, and the boat passing below only with their patience for it, their good will. Paul pushed the throttle forward. Now the expanse and the elevation between the boat and land seemed impossible to cross: we were so low and it was so high, something fixed and static whereas the terrain to the north was dark and lapping. The sea so grey below a pale sky that it looked perverse, upside down, and perhaps that’s why the clouds felt so close. The horizon was different too – its deixis altered – no longer belonging to distance but to us, closer in that we seemed to be one liquid part of it.

Some better Nature, or some God was he

that laid the strife, and severed earth from sea,

the sky from earth, and ether’s liquid glow

from the dim atmosphere of clouds below.

We made for the slip before the tide got too low, the bow lifting and slapping the waves. After a while I may even have smiled. Today is the autumn equinox, and I keep thinking about the mirror, the millennia of creases round my eyes, halfway now – the day and night of equal length.

Gone Surfing

It’s seven o’clock on a Saturday evening and I’m waiting for you at the kitchen window. It’s a few days after midsummer but it’s misty, and I can’t see much through the rain-bleared glass. I cut a slice of bread and eat it standing over the sink, not wanting to drop crumbs in the house I’ve just cleaned. Time passed easily while I was dusting and mopping. Now the floors shine with your absence, and still I don’t hear the familiar growl of your van coming two fast down the lane.

I’ve seen you do it a thousand times: come speeding down the lane and give the window a glance to see if you’ve been caught. I’ve seen it so often, I can imagine it quite clearly, the baseball cap, and your sleeves rolled up, the line of your arms on the wheel, but imagining it doesn’t make it happen, and I just have to wait.

I can hear the wind in the cooker’s extractor hood, going round and round, a whooshy messy noise, see the rhubarb plants across the way bouncing. There are things that move in the wind – grass, telegraph wires, the line you strung yesterday to mark where the new fence will go – and things that don’t, stoic things – houses, cars, wood piles, their colour and shape unflinching. The loose tendrils of clematis that have outgrown my neighbours trellis and now reach almost to the house’s gutters wave two and fro.

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Tone hates waiting too

You left at three to go surfing. I wouldn’t consider this long if it was epic conditions – no wind, gently peeling waves. Craning my neck to the corner of the window, and the rhubarb leaves flapping over next door’s dyke, the ocean appears to me as a jagged jumble. Further back white crests merge with the mist.

It doesn’t matter anyway, because you aren’t down there, and I think of the dozen beaches and points between here and Thurso. It never seems important to ask where you’re going, not until you’ve been gone four hours and your phone is lying abandoned on our bed.

I could be peeling tatties, but I don’t like to make a start until you’re back. If I do, each newly peeled potato will add to your not being here. Eventually I would have to put the knife down and go to look for you, leaving an earthy pile of skin, and the potatoes going brown on kitchen towel. And at that point my mouth will be dry, the sacrifice of a few vegetables too little too late.

And so I stare out the window, trying to see past the salt spray and the wet streaks and the slanting raindrops, watch the wind blow silver shadows through the grass.

‘I parked myself deep in a tube, boy,’ is what you say on your return, the baseball cap pulled down on wet hair. ‘Oh man, it was sketchy.’ Your eyes shine with saltwater euphoria. I should be euphoric too, I guess, but it takes a lot of energy to worry about you, and for a while the kitchen will be split in two, like the wind commingling with silence in the extractor hood, and the rhubarb leaves clashing with the dyke.

Stile

My new neighbour tells me all the places he has walked. He boasts about finding a dead gannet, waves to a spot on the opposite headland where his dog unearthed a set of antlers.

‘Up there,’ he says, ‘you get a good view from up there.’

He is pointing now to some cliffs in Lednagullin, somewhere I’ve never been.

As I head off on my walk, Tone plods behind. On the beach he lingers over oarweed. I catch him gazing at the sea, tongue lolling.

‘You’re too slow,’ I tell him.

I know the path up the headland my neighbour speaks of, but there’s a stile to cross, and Tone’s paws are too big for its plinth. His belly catches on the barbed wire. We tried once – it didn’t work.

While Tone sniffs the weed, I listen into the lulls. And then the crash, from somewhere in the unravelling white, growing higher in pitch as the wave consumes itself. A final tinny flourish, then silence.

We could follow the burn inland, cross the bridge, look down at the tea-coloured water. Or we could explore the overgrown bit at the other end, the jungle-like thatch of moss and marram, cross into the farm where the fence buckles so low it’s buried in sand. But we’ve done all that before.

I sit on a rock and Tone drags his sandy drool over my jeans.

‘Four years,’ I say, ‘and we’ve never been further than that stile.’

He pants, a pink oh of tongue hidden in his jowls. With each breath, he gently nods. I put my cheek to his ear, so that we share the same view of waves unfurling, and feel the space between charged with so much stillness that it’s hard to pull apart.

Tone for StileThe tide is so high we have only a ribbon of sand to walk. A wave turns itself inside out on the steep beach, a ruffle of froth on its fringe, a glint of turquoise, and it’s quashed, the sliding out unspeakably flat. Wind billows through the dunes, all in green shadow but for a ridge of light along the top.

We turn for home and the rhythmic hush of sand thrown from my heels. I catch Tone’s head from the corner of my eye, keeping pace with me. It’s always like this – his silence accompanies me everywhere, giving the quiet the texture of something soft and well worn.

The oystercatchers at the mouth of the burn take off at our approach, flickering black and white, and then the young gulls, heavy and lumbering. Between waves, the sea is so still it reflects the headland, yellow fields shining in the shallows.

At the top of the hill, I look down on the beach. Tone and I are casting shadows on the sand, and I see the two of us as others must: I’m all stick arms and legs, but the creature following me is the size of a lion. My neighbour’s terrier is small – quick black eyes and wiry legs. Glancing back at the opposite headland, I trace the fence up to the faint brown of the stile.

‘It’s like that song,’ I say. ‘You’ve got to love the one you’re with.’

And he nods, and nods.

 

Signposts

April 15th

At the old salmon bothy, I check the signpost. Poulouriscaig 2.5km. It doesn’t sound far but it always takes longer than I think. In the mist the moor is brindled brown and ochre – last year’s bracken, desiccated deer grass, half-dead whin on twisted stocks. It is months yet before the heather and bog asphodel will bloom.

IMG_0045In the last week it’s rained so much that the top of the cart road turns into a stream, froth bubbling over the stones and the water bright and cold, as though the dirt of the world has been washed away. I’m thinking of a conversation I had with my neighbour – that at this time of year, the sheep navigate the bog by remembering how it looked in the summer: where the green stuff had grown will be firm under hoof. Remembering is essential.

The track rises and I zigzag upwards. I look back once and see I’m already a good way from the house, the roofs of my village grown small. The moor swells into the distance in waves. After the second rise, the tumbled stones of Poulouriscaig shadow the yellow scrub. One remaining gable end points into the sky, its fireplace open to the world. The same fireplace where stories of changelings and water horses were told, stories I now only find in books. For the last short distance, I follow the sheep tracks, until these too disappear and I pick my way through the reeds.

Four houses stood here once. Fallen walls outline where the barns were, the easy undulation of long-buried lazy beds. Tourists coming across the place think the ruins centuries old, but I have a neighbour who was born here. Now, it’s just a scattering of stones on the hill. From below the cliffs, the sea sounds like static on a forgotten radio. I rest on a dyke, looking at what was once the neighbouring cottage. Lichen flaked on the boulder where I sit is as white and thick as cigarette ash.

The village was deserted in the forties. The people left, taking their few bits of furniture, their horses and livestock, the timber from their roofs, in search of better amenities. There was no electricity here. No natural harbour. No roads and so no cars. Perhaps the lack of these things left them feeling disconnected – unable to relate to others’ lives. Last summer, sitting on a foldaway chair in the draughty museum at Clachan, I watched a short film about Poulouriscaig.* It had been famed for its ceilidhs. I take a last look around, imagining a time when lanterns were hung from the doors and music drifted over the bog.

Coming back, I see the green and rust-red sheds of the salmon fishery, its caravan tucked into the lee side. The rain is fine as blown sand. I can hear it on my jacket but can’t see it, except that my jeans grow painfully cold. Bog holes and bygone eras. It’s a strange kind of day, somewhere between winter and spring, and I feel part of me is still back there on that dyke with the chain-smoking ghost whose radio is never tuned.

Though I have GPS on my phone, Netflix at home on my Smart TV, instantaneous Twitter notifications, I know that sense of disconnectedness. I never thought I’d say it but I miss the nine to five. I often spend afternoons scrolling through online job adverts. Not to work, never to get a pay cheque, is to set yourself apart from others, and it’s an empty, unpopulated place.

I have to remind myself that I’m a writer. In August I will get my first pay cheque, for a story that is being published in this year’s New Writing Scotland. By then, the green stuff on the moor will be growing again.

Remembering is essential.

* Draughty or not, the museum is a gem on the north coast and has a wonderful website.

Sense of Place: An Essay

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The environmental critic Lawrence Buell stresses the subjective dimension of what he terms ‘place-sense’, arguing that a required element in the concept of place is that is it ‘perceived or felt space, space humanized, rather than the material world taken on its own terms’.[1] Certainly, the Gaelic academic, John MacInnes would agree that ‘place’ is subjective: referring to the Gaelic oral tradition for panegyric poetry, MacInnes states:

The native Gael who is instructed in this poetry carries in his imagination not so much a landscape, not a sense of geography alone, nor of history alone, but a formal order of experience in which all these are merged. What is to a stranger an expanse of empty countryside… to the native sensibility can be a dynamic, perhaps even heroic, territory peopled with figures from history and legend.[2]

MacInnes’s ‘formal order of experience’ where geography merges with history and legend lets us see how complex the concept of place can be. Distinct, however, from the subjective nature of place-sense, is another dimension: that place endures regardless of its current human inhabitants, and that human life is a tiny part in the history of time. In this regard, Buell discusses observations made by Henry David Thoreau and Susan Fenimore Cooper. In his diary, Thoreau notes the muskrat nests in his village, which he is convinced have been erected since before the first human inhabitants, and will continue to be so long after the villagers have departed. Similarly, Cooper saw an old pine forest situated above her village to be a silent observer of the valley’s transformation from pre-colonial times to her present day.[3] It is a sentiment I have found mirrored in fiction. There are various references to it in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, my favourite of which is:

…that this marriage of hers was nothing, that it would pass on and forward into days that had long forgotten it, her life and Ewan’s, and they pass also, and the face of the land change and change again in the coming of the seasons and centuries until the last lights sank away from it and the sea came flooding up the Howe, all her love and tears for Ewan not even a ripple on that flood of water far in the times to be.[4]

And in George Gunn’s forthcoming novel The Great Edge the sentiment is expressed by the symbol of two ravens that are ever recurring observers of the happenings at a costal cave, where twelve-hundred years apart early Christian monks wish to inter a holy clarsach and a present day archaeologist wishes to dig it up again.[5]

At times, the subjective dimension of place clashes with the objective, such as with map knowledge: Buell compares the ‘mental maps’ of aboriginal peoples with scientific maps: the latter having ‘opened the way for a “desubjectified” cartography wildly at variance from the perceived reality of the more impressionistic and ethnocentric mapping practices of prescientific cultures.’ He talks about places being ‘bounded’ and says that drawn boundaries can violate the ‘subjectively felt reality’.[6] An interesting example of this is the Gaelic word for the Highlands – Gàidhealtachd – which according to MacInnes is not a place name ‘in the ordinary sense’, being geographically vague. Rather, the name denotes the traditionally Gaelic-speaking area of Scotland, which largely accords with the officially recognized Highland Line. Here, however, sense of place is everything and in fact the boundary is moving, with modern usage of the term often reflecting only those communities where Gaelic is still an everyday language. So in contrast to ‘the Highlands’, Gàidhealtachd is a fluid geography.[7]

So what does having a strong sense of place do for us in practice? To environmentalists like Wendell Berry, it is a fundamental component in conservation. Berry states that ‘without a complex knowledge of one’s place, and without the faithfulness to one’s place on which such knowledge depends, it is inevitable that the place will be used carelessly and eventually destroyed’.[8] An example of this supposition in action is shown in Robert Macfarlane’s ‘A Counter-Desecration Phrasebook’, which details the campaign undertaken by the inhabitants of the Isle of Lewis to save the island’s moorland interior, the Brindled Moor, from a huge wind farm development that would displace 5 million cubic metres or rock and 2.5 million cubic metres of peat. The company proposing the wind farm lacked the complex knowledge of place to which Berry refers, and instead saw the moor merely as a ‘wasteland’. The local community fought the action by educating the planning authorities in the part the moor played in their social histories, including the learned geography of this supposed wasteland, its references within poetry and song, and its language. In this last, a ‘peat glossary’ was complied which contained 126 locally known terms for describing the topology and phenomena of the moor. And it seems that place-sense and language is inextricably linked in this way: language is needed to describe the phenomena, and phenomena continue to be of significance for humankind only so long as words are known that can sustain their verbal communication. Certainly, Lewis’s Brindled Moor would undoubtedly have been destroyed, in the kind of ignorance that Berry describes, had it not been for the campaigners’ careful compiling of place knowledge.[9]

When it comes to a sense of place within prose, Buell suggests that ‘home places’ have a richer place-sense for writers, listing the following as some of the intimacies that fuel such feeling: ‘The extraordinary events in the community’s history, its redundant social rituals, persistent moth-eaten scraps of local gossip, and the infinite series of the intense and painful and joyous relationships of childhood.’ Perhaps it is this richness, this insider knowledge, that informs Raymond Williams’s claim that regional novels are ‘characteristically written by natives’.[10] Conversely, writing about one’s home place can be problematic. Buell again: ‘Whether from laziness or a desire for security, we tend to lapse into comfortable inattentiveness towards the details of our surroundings as we go about our daily business’. And in this he highlights the importance for environmental writers to see things afresh, to ‘continually recalibrate familiar landscapes’.[11]

Buell comments on the ‘sparse’ representations of place that are found to be acceptable even in ‘so-called realistic fiction’, and suggests that this is to be explained by the interpretation of the term setting to mean merely ‘backdrop’; he goes on to state that place ‘is something authors find easier to name and praise than to present’.[12] On the whole, given the complexity involved in a sense of place (see earlier quote from MacInnes), I agree with Buell that the naming of a place is not sufficient to evoke it, but I also think there are times with regard to my own place, when the name goes a little further than Buell would allow. I have been collecting place names of late – from road signs, gravestones, maps. Most of Scotland’s far north has names of Gaelic origin: Gaelic place names in this now wholly-English speaking region. Clashbuie, Achnabat, Clashnastrug: when contained within an English-language story these names carry with them a trace of the ethnic transformation of those communities.

Buell describes writing that vividly evokes place as giving the reader a ‘vicarious insidership’ that activates place-sense.[13] I have found this recently in the writing of Margiad Evans; in the introduction to The Old and the Young, Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan praises the ‘very strong sense of place and atmosphere that pervades all these stories’, attributing this to Evans’s love for Herefordshire – the land that was her ‘spiritual home’. In the following, from ‘The Lost Fisherman’, it is evening and a young woman looks from her window at the down-at-heel neighbourhood where she lives, whilst elsewhere in the town Londoners are seeking refuge from the Blitz:

The shadow of their gable was falling on the road, and the sun was pouring gold over the pale blue sky. A slow, dusty echo tracked each footstep. But down here in the faded part of town where there were no hotels but only poor men’s lodging houses, they escaped the weary rummaging on the hill.

Slum games were scrawled in chalk on the pavements, women looked at their neighbours’ doors, and men in shirt sleeves smoked. The human beings, the trees, bathed in the delight of the evening. Children, grime painting scowls on their faces, sulky mops of hair in their eyes, squealed and squatted akimbo on their games, monkey hands on their knees.[14]

For Evans sense of place is not simply landscape: indeed, this passage incorporates a sense, too, of the people that inhabit the space – and in doing so, it recognizes the human element in the concept of place. In Regions of the Imagination, W. J. Keith puts it thus: ‘But landscape is, of course, only the visible manifestation of a division that is reflected more crucially in the character, customs and manners of the human beings who live within it’. [15] Perhaps in the concept of place, all of these things are inseparable: Annie Proulx tells us that:

Everything comes from landscape… the particular place that affects what food people eat, how they make their livings and so forth – and the story rolls out of landscape.[16]

When story truly comes from the landscape, I believe that it is equally true that the place is to be found within the fiction. This has cultural and historical implications beyond novels and stories; W.J. Keith says of Sir Walter Scott that: ‘He offered his own people a record of their own history and traditions…’[17]

Sadly, Raymond Williams claims that in ‘advanced capitalist societies’ the scope and possibility of regional writing is lessening.[18] Is globalization, and its blurring of communities into replicas of each other in everything but geography and geology, making a sense of place immaterial? It’s an interesting proposition, but to what else do we moor our personal and emotional experiences? Without place, notions of history, culture and society all feel rather empty.

 

[1] Lawrence Buell, ‘Place’, in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed. David Lodge and Nigel Wood (Oxon: Routledge, 2013), p. 667.

[2] John MacInnes, ‘Gaelic Poetry and Historical Tradition’, in Dùthchas Nan Gàidheal, ed. Michael Newton (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006), p. 29.

[3] Buell, ‘Place’, pp. 674–76.

[4] Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2013), p. 165.

[5] George Gunn, manuscript for The Great Edge, pp. 6, 31, 213, 244.

[6] Buell, ‘Place’, pp. 678, 679.

[7] John MacInnes, ‘The Gaelic Perception of the Lowlands’, in Dùthchas Nan Gàidheal, ed. Michael Newton (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006), p. 35–36.

[8] Wendell Berry, ‘The Regional Motive’, in A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (New York: Harcount, 1972), pp. 68–69, quoted in Buell, ‘Place’, p. 667.

[9] Robert Macfarlane, ‘A Counter-Desecration Phrasebook’, in Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings, ed. Gareth Evans and Di Robson (London: Artevents, 2013), pp. 108, 120–24.

[10] Raymond Williams, ‘Region and Class in the Novel’, in Writing in Society (London: Verso, 1983), p. 233.

[11] Buell, ‘Place’, p. 673.

[12] Buell, ‘Place’, p. 668–69.

[13] Buell, ‘Place’, p. 673.

[14] Margiad Evans, The Old and the Young (Bridgend: Seren, 1998), p. 77; and Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, ‘Introduction’, in the same publication, pp. 7, 12.

[15] W. J. Keith, Regions of the Imagination: The Development of British Rural Fiction (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), pp. 26.

[16] Vittitow, ‘More Reader than Writer: A Conversation with Annie Proulx’, p. 7.

[17] W. J. Keith, Regions of the Imagination: The Development of British Rural Fiction (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), pp. 39.

[18] Raymond Williams, ‘Region and Class in the Novel’, p. 238.

Thresholds

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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.