Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Tag: prose

Introducing Evangeline*

Detail from 'The Derby Day' by William Powell Frith

Detail from ‘The Derby Day’ by William Powell Frith

Imagine Epsom a huge tray of type rolling, popping, reversing at it is shaken, and there you have this field of hats and heads, toppers, skimmers, brimmers, bowlers, billycocks, and caps, all peppered with ladies’ bonnets, twirlers, birders, and fascinators as though someone had tossed cloured comfits into the jiggling type. The men of course are the blacks and greys of the inky letters, apart from a handful of jays and mandrakes. In all this steps Evangeline, as though she is treading from tussock to tussock in a wind-disturbed swamp or from boat to boat in a bobbing harbour, although her paces have all the precision of a prima ballerina’s. She only appears to be pushing through the press, which in fact parts, imperceptibly, for her. She sees all, sees the punters, tic-tac men, bookies, buzzers, down-and-outs, up-and-comings, lordings out on the slum like so many drunken second-sons. Evangeline’s back is straight, the face she shows to each person she slides by is what they want to see; she is their equal whether they expect a whore or a lady, oh my, oh my, she can counterfeit all, especially that which she genuinely is.

“I have the skin of a fish,” she thinks, says under her breath, an arcane choice of phrase by which she takes pride in her ability to sense the movement of the crowd and isolate the ripples and disturbifications that are just a little foreign to it. As now she does, finding the zig-zag of a dipper whom she knows, searching for his titfer amongst the thousand, spotting it with a smile. It’s Ganzy Gil Degarry, called ‘Old Cawhang’ by his pals for his Channel Island cant and patois, though more than half he puts on, having left Guernsey as a young’un, and indeed he’s not that old. She sees him making a mark, lifting his hat in apology to a man whose weskit he has just relieved of a deaner or two, a drackmer, or maybe of his best jerry, or maybe of a long-tailed note. Ganzy Gil’s quite the mobsman, quite the tooler.

“What’s this?” she thinks, says under her breath, as a new counter-eddy makes itself known, paralleling the pick-pocket. Her eyes rake the stylish tiles, settling on a couple of bowlers circulating on the periphery. Two Miltonians (she’ll be bound!), one whose gait she recognizes as he whom she calls ‘my grasshopper’, the other no doubt his sergeant. No doubt either that their courses spiral in towards the progress of Ganzy Gil, whom they have spotted at his business. So she herself cuts a curlicue process towards the thief, prettily, carefully, lifting the skirts of her coat. Despite the deliberate ease with which she penetrates the jostling press, she knows they will have him before she gets to them. From her pocket she slips a small bottle of gin, swigging from it to perfume her breath and to give her an excuse to stagger a little.

Ganzy Gil’s skillful monkey-fingers are about to harvest a pocket-book from a portly cove when the sergeant’s hand rests lightly but obviously on his shoulder. He halts, looking for a way out, but is confronted by the grasshopper who stands before him like Dover cliffs. And so Ganzy Gil is voided of his energy – inevitability has seen to that – and his swagger sags. Inevitability, however, suffers a little reverse, when Evangeline takes a small, tipsy stumble backwards, and the heel of her shoe presses down hard on the grasshopper’s foot. He yells in pain, his colleague is distracted for long enough for the pick-pocket to swing away from under his grasp and dodge into the crowd. The sergeant springs to pursue, but Evangeline staggers in front of him and is knocked to the ground.

“Here! What’s your game?” she cries, not in the least winded. “Stop him! Stop him someone! That brute attacked me!”

A dozen or more bodies bar the sergeant’s way, and if Evangeline had been on her feet more quickly, she would seen a cheeky, over-the-shoulder grin from Degarry serving as his a la perchoine to the peelers. As it is, Evangeline is returned to her feet firmly by the grasshopper, whose grip lingers on her slender arm, strongly enough to be a restraint, gently enough to leave no trace of a bruise. “Blind me and bless me,” she thinks, “but he’s done this before, held a woman suspect immobile.”

“Miss, I think you are well aware that I am an Inspector of the Metropolitan Police,” he says, loudly enough so that the eagerly watching crowd does not turn nasty and instead knows him for the jack he is. “Furthermore I think you were well aware that my colleague whom you impeded so excellently is a sergeant of the same force. I also think you know the criminal whom we had arrested and who escaped thanks to your intervention. To put it simply, Miss, you’re nibbed.”

“Sir,” says Evangeline, brushing mud off her coat with her free hand, “you think a deal to much. And since you are a policeman you will know that your thoughts to not amount to evidence. Are we to miss the races because of your thoughts?”

“I see you are not as tipsy as you first appeared,” says the grasshopper. “That goes a little way towards being evidence. It is at least a suspicion in my mind, and as such is enough to oblige you to come with me and be questioned.”

“Then allow me a little dignity,” says Evangeline. “Allow me to take your arm as fits a lady. Your bulldog can walk behind and make sure I don’t cut and run.”

So Evangeline and ‘her’ jack swap their who-holds-whom, at her insistence and without his resistance. Together, and with the sergeant stalking behind like a zealous duenna, they walk through the once-again parting press as lady and escort. When a gaze meets hers she smiles, slightly inclining her head, and the gazer can’t help but touch the brim of his hat respectfully.

________

*My previous post was a teaser about ‘Agent Delta’, a fragment of an unwritten novel. Here is one which introduces ‘Evangeline’ – Victorian orphan, sometime mountebank but with true psychic talent, well-born friend of criminals and prostitutes, and destined to be a ‘Woman Searcher’ with the Metropolitan Police – and her ‘Grasshopper’, an unnamed Police Inspector, loosely based on the real-life Jack Whicher (though what an officer of ‘the Met’ is doing at a racecourse in Surrey is in itself a mystery).

I am fascinated by the thought of ‘lost slang’. I know that things I recall from my own lifetime have come and gone, leaving gaps in social history. Nothing appears on the mighty internet about them. They might never have been. For that reason, along with London’s Victorian argot that I have researched, my intention has always been to drop expressions into the mouths of my characters for which there is absolutely no evidence.

One other thing I ought to mention is an additional way that these fragments have been constructed to ‘tease’. All the original text fragments of both my ‘Agent Delta’ and ‘Evangeline’ works-in-progress are written in the first person, the protagonist narrating; however the two pieces I have composed and posted here are written in the third person, though focalized on the protagonist. I like to play. This is all helping me get back into the discipline of writing…

Introducing Agent Delta*

gills

Agent Delta lifted the crime scene tapes and stepped into the cordoned-off area, turning up the collar of his dark grey suit to an insistent, cold wind. Somehow the large, sliding doors of the disused warehouse were funneling it, as though it had been whistled up for the occasion. Something was rattling or slapping arrythmically, irritatingly, against an iron rail. Odd pieces of litter were bouncing and tumbling through the space, looking for a way out at the other side; most trapped themselves against the far wall and fluttered, reminding Delta of the death-twitches of a Great Hawkmoon Moth.

Death. That’s why the tall, gaunt, lank-haired man with the grey suit and black turtle-neck was there. “There’s been a death,” they had told him. “The ‘locals’ don’t know what to make of it. Go and sort it out.” And indeed, in the middle of the empty, wind-bothered space there was a corpse. Crouching by it was a figure in a disposable, white oversuit. Standing a few feet away was a second figure; as Delta walked towards them the second figure turned and strode quickly to intercept him. Delta looked him up and down – the beige mac flying open in the draught looked expensive, as did the tailored suit, darker than Delta’s own, and the brogue shoes. “Too well-off for a policeman,” Delta thought, and then he spotted the distinctive cufflinks of the Holy Tabernacle of Continuing Pentecost. That bunch set great store by appearance.

“And you are?”

The man’s fragment of a sentence was curt to the point of incivility, but Delta was used to this kind of thing on the rare occasions that he turned up at crime scenes like this. His coming was seldom announced, and this one probably hadn’t been. He reached into the inside pocket of his jacket, pulled out a slim wallet, and flipped it open. The man made a show of stopping beyond arm’s reach and craning his neck to look. There was a badge on one side and Agent Delta’s photo ID on the other. The words Chthonic Intelligence Agency were in bold red type below the photo.

The man’s attitude didn’t exactly change. Delta couldn’t shake off the feeling that his presence was resented, as the man’s eyes flicked up from the credentials to Delta’s face and back again.

“I’m Detective Inspector Ellis. Come this way, Agent Delta.” The policeman walked off towards the corpse and the figure in the white oversuit. He stepped quickly to draw ahead of Delta, as though maintaining his authority over the scene.

“I don’t often get to meet people from your Agency,” he said, over his shoulder, and then to the figure in white: “Doctor Phillip, this is Agent Delta from the Chthonic Intelligence Agency. Doctor Phillip is a Home Office pathologist, Agent Delta.”

Doctor Phillip stood up, pulling back the hood of the oversuit to reveal hair as blonde as Delta’s own but tousled. She was almost as tall as the agent, certainly as slender, and her gaze was direct. In that gaze Delta read more than resentment at his presence, he read something that was almost a direct challenge to his very existence. “She’s a scientist and therefore a rationalist,” he thought. “Maybe even a Dawkinist. Many scientists are. She’s already resentful that the policeman she’s working with is religious. I’m the last straw – a wizard.”

“Unfortunate set of initials your outfit has,” she said. No other greeting. “Could lead to a certain amount of confusion.”

“I hadn’t heard that initials were copyrighted,” said Delta. “What do you think we have here?”

“The body of a man in his mid-thirties. Appears to have been dead for about four hours.”

“His clothes are wet,” D I Ellis put in, “and there seems to be water on the ground beneath him.”

Agent Delta looked up. At this point the roof seemed intact and sound. It was unlikely that rain could have got in from above, and if it had blown from somewhere else there would have been other patches of wetness. He looked at the pathologist, and for a moment imagined them in bed together, imagined that resentment and challenge directed into something else, and he felt the corners of his mouth turn upwards into half a smile. Then he remembered his wife, alone in the old manor house that had been in his family for generations, her mind alienated by – what? – a lifetime in magic, his neglect, their son’s sullen rebellion, a dozen things. He remembered the narrowness of the bed in his London flat, where he stayed seven days or more out of every ten. He remembered the handful of meaningless sexual encounters that had fizzled out almost as soon as they had begun. The half a smile ceased to be.

“What else do we have?” he asked the pathologist.

“Nothing to smile about,” she replied. He wouldn’t bother to put her straight about what had made him smile. “There is no immediately visible cause of death. There is a strange contortion to the limbs and to the facial muscles. A small amount of froth at the mouth and nose might suggest drowning. I say ‘might’. If so then he didn’t die here. There’s something anomalous – what appear to be five or six slits on the side of his neck. And there’s this…”

She crouched down again and pointed to the dead man’s left wrist. His left arm was crooked up awkwardly, the fingers of his left hand were clawed. Something was protruding from the sleeve of his jacket. Doctor Phillip must have taken it for a stick from wherever the dead man might have drowned, because she was reaching to take hold of it and pull it out.

“No!” Delta said sharply. He recognized the butt of a wand when he saw it. he had one similar up the left sleeve of his own jacket. What they had here was a dead wizard. That’s why someone had called him in. He bent over and looked at the ‘slits’ in the corpse’s neck. They looked like small shark gills, a sure sign that the dead wizard had enchanted himself to survive under water for a time. So how would he have drowned? Where was the nearest water? The Birmingham canal system? Hardly. Delta took out his thaumatometer. To the pathologist and the policeman it would have looked like a mobile phone, but the ‘camera lens’ was the knot-hole of an alive oak from Arkham Forest, and what looked like a winking, red LED was a scale from a Sri Lankan salamander. He passed the meter over the corpse. The winking light did not change colour – a totally negative reaction. Despite the gills and the wand, everything about the corpse, everything on or near it, had been totally drained of magic, and that was dangerous. The whole place was thaumaturgically unstable, the equivalent of a magical black hole.

“Step away, Doctor Phillip,” said Delta. “In fact I’d like you and Detective Inspector Ellis to leave the scene right now.”

“What? No! Are you serious? I’m here as Home Office pathologist. I don’t leave, and I’m officially taking charge of the corpse for a post mortem examination…”

“No, you’re not,” Delta interrupted. “In fact you are leaving. I can have you removed if necessary. This area is now off-limits to the police, the Home Office, and in fact to anyone outside the Chthonic Intelligence Agency. I do have the authority to do this, Doctor. Please do not oblige me to exercise it to its full extent.”

Doctor Phillip was furious but speechless as the Detective Inspector led her away. Delta looked down at the corpse. Sure this was a mystery, but his mind strayed back to the piece of paper in his pocket. It was a talking note from the Head of the Agency. He already knew it was a summons, he just didn’t know why…

__________

*Agent Delta© and the Chthonic Intelligence Agency© are part of a world I have thrown together in a handful of experimental writings, maybe towards a novel, maybe towards a few short stories, maybe towards nothing at all. I’m introducing Agent Delta to you in the fragment above for one reason only – not because I intend the mystery of a drowned wizard with shark gills, miles away from water, to go anywhere, but because this is a neat way of illustrating the process of how I write.

Most stories appear to be linear. In fact they are not. Writers start with the resolution in mind – in effect they begin with the end – and it is the resolution, not the linear steps, that drives the story. In the 20c a handful of great modernists like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf challenged this process. However it persists. Whilst most of the fiction I write has a resolution of some sort, that’s not the way I approach writing. I like to start with an idea, a character, an episode, a piece of dialogue, a feeling, a style of writing, or with something evocative of place and/or time, and simply throw words at it. From that process a plot line with something resembling a resolution may suggest itself and the work move towards completion. That’s how I wrote Lupa and The Everywhen Angels. Or the process might not lead to a completed work at all, and I may be left with notes, fragments, and so on. This started unintentionally, but it is now simply and deliberately how I work. What I would say about that unfinished residue is this: when we unearth a preliminary sketch by Picasso or Leonardo da Vinci we regard it as a work of art in its own right, but we do not accord the same respect to sketches by composers, authors, poets, or creators in other artistic fields. I’m not the Leonardo of fiction writing, I’ll grant you, but on behalf of my fellow writers I would like to claim that artistic ground for our unfinished works. If you like, I’m forming the ‘Edwin Drood Society’.

Over the next few posts I might introduce you to a few more characters or scenes from my sketchbook.

I met the real ‘Agent Delta’, by the way, when I taught for one term at his school, and again when studying as a ‘mature student’ for my ThauM in ‘the History of Magic’ at the Miskatonic Institute of Sorcery and Thaumaturgy. My presence at both places of learning was controversial at the time, as I was the first non-magical person at either. The young ‘Delta’ was an arrogant and unpromising pupil, but I saw something in him that was only realised in maturity. When we met again at Miskatonic the arrogance had mellowed. We have been in touch ever since, and he has kept me informed about his adventures in the Agency. At least, as far as he is allowed to tell…

‘The Everywhen Angels’ wallpaper – free to download!

everywhen-angels-wallpaperHow would you like the cover art of The Everywhen Angels as your computer desktop? Just click on the thumbnail to open the image in your browser, then right-click and save or drag it to your desktop. Then you can set it up as your desktop in the normal manner for your computer operating system. NB: The artwork is the intellectual property of Millie Ho, and no permission is given for its use, reproduction, adaptation, or storage other than as specified here.

Loss (flash fiction)

Because this started out as an idea for a poem, and is prose-poetry rather than straight fiction, I’ve posted it on my poetry blog.

‘Dryad’ (with Joanne Harris)

People often ask me how I started writing. The answer is I started writing because I found I could. I entered a competition where participants had to complete a short story started by Joanne Harris. It doesn’t matter now how successful or unsuccessful my entry was; what does matter is that a quirk in my mind was turned towards writing, and I am glad of that. I thought you would like to read the story, partly © Joanne Harris, partly © me, to see the way my mind suddenly started to work back then.

Dryad

In a quiet little corner of the Botanical Gardens, between a stand of old trees and a thick holly hedge, there is a small green metal bench. Almost invisible against the greenery, few people use it, for it catches no sun and offers only a partial view of the lawns. A plaque  in the centre reads: In Memory of Josephine Morgan Clarke, 1912-1989. I should know – I put it there – and yet I hardly knew her, hardly noticed her, except for that one rainy Spring day when our paths crossed and we almost became friends.

I was twenty-five, pregnant and on the brink of divorce. Five years earlier, life had seemed an endless passage of open doors; now I could hear them clanging shut, one by one; marriage; job; dreams. My one pleasure was the Botanical Gardens; its mossy paths; its tangled walkways, its quiet avenues of oaks and lindens. It became my refuge, and when David was at work (which was almost all the time) I walked there, enjoying the scent of cut grass and the play of light through the tree branches. It was surprisingly quiet; I noticed few other visitors, and was glad of it. There was one exception, however; an elderly lady in a dark coat who always sat on the same bench under the trees, sketching. In rainy weather, she brought an umbrella: on sunny days, a hat. That was Josephine Clarke; and twenty-five years later, with one daughter married and the other still at school, I have never forgotten her, or the story she told me of her first and only love.

It had been a bad morning. David had left on a quarrel (again), drinking his coffee without a word before leaving for the office in the rain. I was tired and lumpish in my pregnancy clothes; the kitchen needed cleaning; there was nothing on TV and everything in the world seemed to have gone yellow around the edges, like the pages of a newspaper that has been read and re-read until there’s nothing new left inside. By midday I’d had enough; the rain had stopped, and I set off for the Gardens; but I’d hardly gone in through the big wrought-iron gate when it began again – great billowing sheets of it – so that I ran for the shelter of the nearest tree, under which Mrs Clarke was already sitting.

We sat on the bench side-by-side, she calmly busy with her sketchbook, I watching the tiresome rain with the slight embarrassment that enforced proximity to a stranger often brings. I could not help but glance at the sketchbook – furtively, like reading someone else’s newspaper on the Tube – and I saw that the page was covered with studies of trees. One tree, in fact, as I looked more closely; our tree – a beech – its young leaves shivering in the rain. She had drawn it in soft, chalky green pencil, and her hand was sure and delicate, managing to convey the texture of the bark as well as the strength of the tall, straight trunk and the movement of the leaves. She caught me looking, and I apologised.

“That’s all right, dear,” said Mrs Clarke. “You take a look, if you’d like to.” And she handed me the book.

Politely, I took it. I didn’t really want to; I wanted to be alone; I wanted the rain to stop; I didn’t want a conversation with an old lady about her drawings. And yet they were wonderful drawings – even I could see that, and I’m no expert – graceful, textured, economical. She had devoted one page to leaves; one to bark; one to the tender cleft where branch meets trunk and the grain of the bark coarsens before smoothing out again as the limb performs its graceful arabesque into the leaf canopy. There were winter branches; summer foliage; shoots and roots and windshaken leaves. There must have been fifty pages of studies; all beautiful, and all, I saw, of the same tree.

I looked up to see her watching me. She had very bright eyes, bright and brown and curious; and there was a curious smile on her small, vivid face as she took back her sketchbook and said: “Piece of work, isn’t he?”

It took me some moments to understand that she was referring to the tree.

“I’ve always had a soft spot for the beeches,” continued Mrs Clarke, “ever since I was a little girl. Not all trees are so friendly; and some of them – the oaks and the cedars especially – can be quite antagonistic to human beings. It’s not really their fault; after all, if you’d been persecuted for as long as they have, I imagine you’d be entitled to feel some racial hostility, wouldn’t you?” And she smiled at me, poor old dear, and I looked nervously at the rain and wondered whether I should risk making a dash for the bus shelter. But she seemed quite harmless, so I smiled back and nodded, hoping that was enough.

“That’s why I don’t like this kind of thing,” said Mrs Clarke, indicating the bench on which we were sitting. “This wooden bench under this living tree – all our history of chopping and burning. My husband was a carpenter. He never did understand about trees. To him, it was all about product – floorboards and furniture. They don’t feel, he used to say. I mean, how could anyone live with stupidity like that?”

She laughed and ran her fingertips tenderly along the edge of her sketchbook. “Of course I was young; in those days a girl left home; got married; had children; it was expected. If you didn’t, there was something wrong with you. And that’s how I found myself up the duff at twenty-two, married – to Stan Clarke, of all people – and living in a two-up, two-down off the Station Road and wondering; is this it? Is this all?”

That was when I should have left. To hell with politeness; to hell with the rain. But she was telling my story as well as her own, and I could feel the echo down the lonely passages of my heart. I nodded without knowing it, and her bright brown eyes flicked to mine with sympathy and unexpected humour.

“Well, we all find our little comforts where we can,” she said, shrugging. “Stan didn’t know it, and what you don’t know doesn’t hurt, right? But Stanley never had much of an imagination. Besides, you’d never have thought it to look at me. I kept house; I worked hard; I raised my boy – and nobody guessed about my fella next door, and the hours we spent together.”

She looked at me again, and her vivid face broke into a smile of a thousand wrinkles. “Oh yes, I had my fella,” she said. “And he was everything a man should be. Tall; silent; certain; strong. Sexy – and how! Sometimes when he was naked I could hardly bear to look at him, he was so beautiful. The only thing was – he wasn’t a man at all.”

Mrs Clarke sighed, and ran her hands once more across the pages of her sketchbook. “By rights,” she went on, “he wasn’t even a he. Trees have no gender – not in English, anyway – but they do have identity. Oaks are masculine, with their deep roots and resentful natures. Birches are flighty and feminine; so are hawthorns and cherry trees. But my fella was a beech, a copper beech; red-headed in autumn, veering to the most astonishing shades of purple-green in spring. His skin was pale and smooth; his limbs a dancer’s; his body straight and slim and powerful. Dull weather made him sombre, but in sunlight he shone like a Tiffany lampshade, all harlequin bronze and sun-dappled rose, and if you stood underneath his branches you could hear the ocean in the leaves. He stood at the bottom of our little bit of garden, so that he was the last thing I saw when I went to bed, and the first thing I saw when I got up in the morning; and on some days I swear the only reason I got up at all was the knowledge that he’d be there waiting for me, outlined and strutting against the peacock sky.

Year by year, I learned his ways. Trees live slowly, and long. A year of mine was only a day to him; and I taught myself to be patient, to converse over months rather than minutes, years rather than days. I’d always been good at drawing – although Stan always said it was a waste of time – and now I drew the beech (or The Beech, as he had become to me) again and again, winter into summer and back again, with a lover’s devotion to detail. Gradually I became obsessed – with his form; his intoxicating beauty; the long and complex language of leaf and shoot. In summer he spoke to me with his branches; in winter I whispered my secrets to his sleeping roots.

You know, trees are the most restful and contemplative of living things. We ourselves were never meant to live at this frantic speed; scurrying about in endless pursuit of the next thing, and the next; running like laboratory rats down a series of mazes towards the inevitable; snapping up our bitter treats as we go. The trees are different. Among trees I find that my breathing slows; I am conscious of my heart beating; of the world around me moving in harmony; of oceans that I have never seen; never will see. The Beech was never anxious; never in a rage, never too busy to watch or listen. Others might be petty; deceitful; cruel, unfair – but not The Beech.

The Beech was always there, always himself. And as the years passed and I began to depend more and more on the calm serenity his presence gave me, I became increasingly repelled by the sweaty pink lab rats with their nasty ways, and I was drawn, slowly and inevitably, to the trees.

Even so, it took me a long time to understand the intensity of those feelings. In those days it was hard enough to admit to loving a black man – or worse still, a woman – but this aberration of mine – there wasn’t even anything about it in the Bible, which suggested to me that perhaps I was unique in my perversity, and that even Deuteronomy had overlooked the possibility of non-mammalian, inter-species romance.

And so for more than ten years I pretended to myself that it wasn’t love. But as time passed my obsession grew; I spent most of my time outdoors, sketching; my boy Daniel took his first steps in the shadow of The Beech; and on warm summer nights I would creep outside, barefoot and in my nightdress, while upstairs Stan snored fit to wake the dead, and I would put my arms around the hard, living body of my beloved and hold him close beneath the cavorting stars.

It wasn’t always easy, keeping it secret. Stan wasn’t what you’d call imaginative, but he was suspicious, and he must have sensed some kind of deception. He had never really liked my drawing, and now he seemed almost resentful of my little hobby, as if he saw something in my studies of trees that made him uncomfortable. The years had not improved Stan. He had been a shy young man in the days of our courtship; not bright; and awkward in the manner of one who has always been happiest working with his hands. Now he was sour – old before his time. It was only in his workshop that he really came to life. He was an excellent craftsman, and he was generous with his work, but my years alongside The Beech had given me a different perspective on carpentry, and I accepted Stan’s offerings – fruitwood bowls, coffee- tables, little cabinets, all highly polished and beautifully-made – with concealed impatience and growing distaste.

And now, worse still, he was talking about moving house; of getting a nice little semi, he said, with a garden, not just a big old tree and a patch of lawn. We could afford it; there’d be space for Dan to play; and though I shook my head and refused to discuss it, it was then that the first brochures began to appear around the house, silently, like spring crocuses, promising en-suite bathrooms and inglenook fireplaces and integral garages and gas fired central heating. I had to admit, it sounded quite nice. But to leave The Beech was unthinkable. I had become dependent on him. I knew him; and I had come to believe that he knew me, needed and cared for me in a way as yet unknown among his proud and ancient kind.

Perhaps it was my anxiety that gave me away. Perhaps I under-estimated Stan, who had always been so practical, and who always snored so loudly as I crept out into the garden. All I know is that one night when I returned, exhilarated by the dark and the stars and the wind in the branches, my hair wild and my feet scuffed with green moss, he was waiting.

“You’ve got a fella, haven’t you?”

I made no attempt to deny it; in fact, it was almost a relief to admit it to myself. To those of our generation, divorce was a shameful thing; an admission of failure. There would be a court case; Stanley would fight; Daniel would be dragged into the mess and all our friends would take Stanley’s side and speculate vainly on the identity of my mysterious lover. And yet I faced it; accepted it; and in my heart a bird was singing so hard that it was all I could do not to burst out laughing.

“You have, haven’t you?” Stan’s face looked like a rotten apple; his eyes shone through with pinhead intensity.

“Who is it?”

I kept laughing. And then I stopped. We stood looking at each other, there in our front room, and I couldn’t find anything to say. My eyes wandered over to the table, where I had left my sketchbooks, and Stan’s gaze followed mine; then we looked at each other again, and I fancied I could see more in Stan’s eyes at that moment than I would have thought possible in such an unimaginative man. There was a sort of realisation, without understanding. There was anger, and there was pain.

I was terrified. I thought he might hit me. Then I thought he might do something to my sketchbooks. But at last he turned and went back upstairs, coming down a few minutes later in his working clothes. At the foot of the stairs he pulled his boots on, took the key to his lock-up workshop from the stand by the door, and went out of the house without saying a word or looking at me.

There was nothing for me to do, I felt, but to go back into the garden, and put my head against the trunk of The Beech.

People tell me that there was a terrible squall that night, and I am sure that the wind did get up awfully. But that can’t account for the way The Beech behaved to me. He seemed even angrier than Stan, now that our secret was out, and there was nothing slow about how he showed it. His trunk swayed, as he lashed his branches by my face, making me flinch. A falling branch glanced off my shoulder; a hail of leaves whipped my face. “Go!” he was saying to me. “Go! Go!”

Feelings of rejection and betrayal battled inside me with the sudden realisation that I had put The Beech in danger. I dashed back into the house, pulled on coat and shoes, and then I was out of the front door – leaving Daniel alone upstairs – running down towards Stan’s workshop. To Stan, a tree was nothing more than raw material, and the workshop held tools for dealing with that raw material. I knew what he wanted to do, but God knows what I could have done to stop him.

When I got to the workshop, Stan was sitting at a workbench. He was gripping the handle of a saw tightly in his right hand, but he was just sitting there, not moving. When I got closer to him, I could see that his eyes were glassy, and there was spittle running down his chin.”

Mrs Clarke sighed, and looked at me.

“That was his first stroke – the first of three. It put paid to his business, and to his dreams of a new house in the suburbs. It put paid to his power of speech, and suddenly I lived in an almost silent world, as The Beech no longer spoke to me either. We had to move after all, but into a downstairs flat at the other end of the borough. Stan couldn’t manage stairs, and in those days you looked after a sick husband, no question. He lived through the war, right into the mid fifties. I’m on my own now – Dan’s in Australia. I still draw. From memory……”

It had stopped raining, and I stood up, conscious that she had run out of steam.

“That’s quite a story,” I said. “Look, I’ll come back soon. I’ll see you again. But please excuse me, there’s something I must……..”

Not finishing sentences was catching! I looked back at her, as I hurried off towards the gate of the Botanic gardens. She smiled briefly, and then turned back to her sketchbook, and to her pictures – the pictures of our tree!

I walked home too fast for a pregnant woman. I hurried past the supermarket which stood, as I recalled, where the old lock-ups had been. I turned left into Station Road, and by the time I got to Mafeking Avenue, a street of refurbished terrace-houses, I was breathing hard. At number thirty-eight – my house – I fumbled in my pockets for the key, and opened the front door impatiently. I walked straight through the front room, through the dining room, through the nineteen-seventies’ extension, and out into the York-stone-paved back yard, with its terracotta pots and planters. I went straight down to the semicircle of earth at the far end, stopped, and looked up at The Beech. It had seemed familiar in Mrs Clarke’s drawings, but now I knew it beyond doubt. It was older, but it was the same tree.

I stretched out my hand gently, and laid it on the trunk – and began to understand! I turned, and rested my back against it, tilting my head round so that my cheek was against it too. I raised one hand to caress it, heard a sighing from the branches, and felt a few drops of rain, shaken from the leaves onto my face.

That’s where I was when my contractions started.

Twenty-five years have passed, during which time I have patiently learned the lesson which she did not: a secret has to be kept. The patience which I have learned from The Beech has spread outward into the rest of my life. The doors which had been clanging shut before, began to ease themselves gently open. My whole existence has seemed calmer, slower, more fruitful. My marriage went on, and produced a second daughter; oh sure, David left eventually, but men do that anyhow. I always meant to go and confide in Mrs Clarke, but I never saw her in the Botanic Gardens again, and eventually I found her in the municipal cemetery. The seat was a gesture to her, nothing more.

My life with The Beech has not been one of conversation, but of communion; not sex, but the meeting and merging of our essences. Oh there is passion, but it does not rage out of control. I sit with my back to him, to all intents simply a woman resting against a tree at the bottom of her garden, and I learn how to see and to feel with his slow consciousness, as it overtakes mine.

Soon – as a tree understands soon – my younger daughter Alice may well leave for college, or get married herself. But I shall never be alone. I shall be here, patiently waiting for answers. Do I carry a seed inside me? When I am dead and buried, will a new tree spring from the ground, and will its new thoughts be mine, or yours, or his own? This is the destiny of the dryad.

__________

© Joanne Harris/BBC/Marie Marshall

“Can you write a teen-vampire novel for us?”

03

If you scroll down through this blog section of my web site, clicking on the older posts as you go (a worthwhile exercise, by the way, as there is some interesting reading there), you’ll come across occasional news updates of whatever my ‘latest project’ happens to be. So what happens to them? Where are the finished products? In most cases they simply aren’t. Finished, I mean. Many of them are little better than ‘good ideas’. Other things get in the way – editorial work, judging a competition, work, food, sleep, and so on. Mainly they run out of steam, or I run out of commitment, and I know that is a personal flaw – ‘successful authors’ don’t have this flaw, if you believe their soundbites. But I feel every project was worth starting, just to see if it would work, just to see if it would carry me along.

Anyhow, now that my second novel, The Everywhen Angels, is about to be published, I have been wondering why it has been so hard to complete a third. And then I was asked “Can you write a teen-vampire novel for us?” That’s as near as damn-it a commission! My instant answer was “Yes. No. Maybe.”

To tackle this I would need to re-think my daily schedule. I have been lazy when it comes to writing. I don’t do what good writers are ‘supposed’ to do, which is to spend a fixed time each day writing. I would have to re-commit to that. I would have to shelve the two novels-in-progress that I have. That wouldn’t be shelving much, I have to confess, because they are in the doldrums anyway; but as I shelved one to write the other and now would be shelving both, well that wouldn’t do much for my confidence in finishing the third. I would have to start turning down requests for my editorial expertise; I wouldn’t be able to start any other projects, I would simply have to focus on this. Then the teen-vampire genre has been flogged as near to death as the undead can be, and is lying there waiting for a stake to be driven through its heart. Stephenie Meyer has seen to that. Is there anything left to say? Is there an unused plot? Is there an unexplored twist, an unusual angle? You can see why I said “Yes. No. Maybe.”

However, it just so happens that I have a pottle of notes, fragments, poems, and short stories about a vampire hunter. Could something be reconstructed from these shards? Let’s see if I can bang a stake in without hitting my thumb, or anyone else’s…

‘My life as a coble’, and other things

poetry life & times2

Poetry Life & Times has published a poem of mine, ‘My life as a coble’. You can read it here. A coble, by the way, is a clinker-built boat common to the east coast of the UK, particularly Yorkshire; its construction is thought to come down directly from the techniques used to build Viking longships.

Meanwhile, P’kaboo Publishers have taken on my second novel, The Everywhen Angels. More news later, including some possible promotional events.

Naboland and Pittenweem

Glenshee - Winter, © Kirstie Behrens

Glenshee – Winter, © Kirstie Behrens

Are you planning to go to Pittenweem Arts festival (3rd to 11th August)? If so, be sure to visit Venue 33, 7 Calman’s Wynd, where you will find the art of Reinhard Behrens, Margaret L Smyth, Kirstie Behrens, and David Behrens. This family group of artists grows in strength year by year, as the younger members hone their skills.

© Reinhard Behrens

© Reinhard Behrens

Reinhard Behrens is the creator of Naboland, where thrown-away objects find a new life, and a toy submarine voyages in and out of an almost-but-not-quite parallel world. One of Reinhard’s finds, the remains of a teddy bear, inspired me to write a prose poem – had the bear been dropped by a certain creation of Mary Shelley as he sped across the Arctic ice in search of his monstrous creation? I dared think so…

© Marie Marshall

© Marie Marshall

(c) Reinhard Behrens

© Reinhard Behrens

 

Art: a statement of priorities

Theodore Metochites

It occurred to me a long time ago that there are only two important factors in art – our expectations and the artist’s intentions – all else is subordinate. The extent to which one governs the other has been fluid over history. It is worth remembering that Théophile Gautier’s expression of autotelicism, “L’art pour l’art”, was a manifestation of a 19c movement, and therefore is less than two hundred years old. It is a blink of an eye in the history of art. However, it was an important movement, because it liberated the artist, more than any previous shift of influence, from the demands of patronage.

When we look at the 14c depiction of the Paleologue Emperor Theodore Metochites on the wall of the Church of St. Saviour in Chora, we are not looking at the work of an inept artist, simply because the stylized mosaic is not realistic to our eyes. Here the artist has created exactly what his Imperial patron asked for, and the priorities of the work radiate to us. The Emperor, his orientalism expressed in his turban and brocade robe, his power expressed in his senatorial beard, kneels before an austere Christ. In the potentate’s hands is a building, rendered model-sized – it is the Church that he had restored, and in which he was to end his days as a monk – which he offers to Christ. In his turn, Christ looks out at us, two fingers half-raised as if about to bless. We are meant to see piety, to appreciate holiness, and to feel awe. These are the semiotics of this type of Byzantine art.

face 09aThe fact that the image is already eight hundred years old reinforces the knowledge that it comes from a culture which had a sense of eternity. By contrast, an image hastily rendered in dripping spray-paint is ephemeral. The grotesque graffito of a face on a wall in Dundee was never meant to last – it leers at us for a while and is gone. I think even the wall has gone now. It comes from a culture which acknowledges and appreciates the throw-away. A very brief scan of both works of art suggests that if we took both artists we could train each of them in the use of perspective etc. and produce two adepts of photo-neo-realism. But why should we? What business is it of ours to demand that either should subscribe to our idea of what art ‘is’?

In 1907 when Pablo Picasso was midway through a birds-eye view of a group of prostitutes lounging on a bed, he was suddenly seized with the notion of incorporating a distorted version of an African mask into the picture, and two of his Demoiselles D’Avignon have markedly less realistic faces than the others. Modernist engagement with ‘the primitive’ was an exciting development in Western art. The fact that une demoisellethey got African culture(s) badly wrong, failing to see the sophistication of its art, is almost irrelevant to the dynamism of the movement. We do get it wrong when we look at things from outside our culture; by and large that can’t be helped.

Thus when we see a work of art that is eight ninths vandalism of public property, it is very likely we simply get it wrong. After all, the culture from which it comes is arcane to us, with our bourgeois standards of behaviour and taste, and our own semiotics. It could be instantaneous, yes, almost mindless. It could be a deliberate negation of the whole concept of ‘public property’ and therefore some kind of political manifesto. It could be a personal expression of angst, pain, or terror It could be part of an intricate sub-culture which we do not recognize and whose semiotics are beyond us. We may one day learn face 17awhat is going on, we may not. However, thanks to Gautier and his contemporaries, we are no longer able to impose our tastes and our expectations, beyond saying whether we like something.

Or are we? An aspect of post-modernism seems to throw the ball back into the court of the onlooker, the reader, the consumer of art. In 1968 Roland Barthes published an essay entitled ‘The Death of the Author’. Rather than restore supremacy to the tastes and patronage of a privileged class, however, Barthes’ emphasis was on the interpretation by those before whom art comes as part of the continuing creative process. Therefore the modernists’ hash of ‘primitive’ Africanism could benefit from a reprieve; moreover, our own appreciation for something splashed on a wall gives it wings – perhaps – beyond its artist’s hoped-for flight. I would say we are nevertheless no longer able to damn something as ‘not being art’, or to scorn it because of the demographic from which it springs or because we find it hard to fathom or unpleasant. Art has long since become something with fewer imposed limits, if it has any at all.

You, Midge, and the box. (A poetic exercise for Richard Siken)*

Siken

There is a harsh, yellow light coming right in, right past the

drapes.

It is steady, like a searchlight but dimmer.

Hotter. You

came here along a cinder path, you came of your own free will,

and here you are.

Midge is mute in the rectangular room,

she can’t hear you, taking things out of the box, putting

things

into the box. Three nails, a book, and a folded scarf.

You call to her,

Midge look at me,

and she answers but it is like underwater, like at the pool when

you

are underwater and everyone is talking and laughing on

deckchairs. The box is blue, rectangular, with sharp corners.

The lid

is battered and won’t fit,

and the lock scratches your fingers.

Midge comes and licks your fingers and complains that they taste

of gasoline,

and you can smell it. You know this is not

the

right box, but you can’t say.

It is full of clouds. It is full of clouds

and peeling sunshine. Also the cries of children from outside,

and a backfire from an old car.

It is sick and cold here, and aching joints,

and all the time the television flickers. The shadows in the

room,

in the harsh yellow light, are hard, and they move.

They make a man’s shape, the seaside man, the man you know.

The

man lies down beside the box.

He nestles to it and shivers,

because

his back is bare, and Midge says

Look there, at how they criss-cross like tic-tac-toe.

The

man has scars and deep wheals

like the furrows in a ploughed field.

The man

has scars like dogtooth check. The scars are like rivulets of

tears,

running with rainwater, wheel-ruts, the mud sucking at

your feet.

There is a cold, cold mist in the fields, but not here in

the

rectangular

room.

It is still summer.

It is still.

It is summer. Dust is dancing

in the sunlight, though the sunlight never moves. The man

turns his face to you,

and

you know him because he has been on a thousand billboards.

He has laughed at you from magazines,

from the magazines your mother once bought for you.

He

is saying

Quick, come quick. Or go. Come with me or go.

But he isn’t moving. Lying there with one arm

round

the box, while

Midge is taking out the nails, the book, the folded scarf, and

putting them in a neat row.

You take them

and make the order go backwards;

a nail, another nail, another nail, a book, a scarf folded neatly.

She

takes them

and makes the order go backwards.

Backwards and forwards,

a neatly folded scarf, a book, another nail, another nail, a nail.

She

takes the scarf and knots it round her neck,

she stands upon a chair,

a black chair with a red seat and Arabic writing like a prayer.

The

man is laughing and Midge says

Goodbye, and goodbye,

there

is a sound outside like a single backfire from an old car.

You look from the light to the empty box,

from the empty box to the light. From the overturned chair to

the light, and always to the blue,

empty box.

__________

* There are dangers with imitating the style of another poet. Firstly that your product will be a poor imitation, secondly that it will be a parody – these two don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, but that’s just for starters. A few years ago I was asked to write, as an experiment, a poem in emulation of Richard Siken’s ‘The Dislocated Room’. At the time I hadn’t come across any of his work, but I bought his 2005 collection Crush and read the poem. Siken is one of these poets whose work I don’t know if I actually like, but nonetheless I find it compelling. ‘The Dislocated Room’, like other poems by him, seems to convey a sense of unease; images, phrases, whole scenes seem to repeat, but from a different angle or with a layer added; there is the ‘familiar unfamiliarity’ of a disturbing dream, one which is almost but not quite a nightmare. It starts thus:

It was night for many miles and then the real stars in the purple sky,

like little boats rowed out too far,

begin to disappear.

And there, in the distance, not the promised land,

but a Holiday Inn,

with bougainvillea growing through the chain link by the pool.

The door swung wide: twin beds, twin lamps, twin plastic cups

wrapped up in cellophane

and he says No Henry, let’s not do this.

I’m a fairly good parodist, so in my experiment I had to try to avoid that pitfall, hence I used the word ‘emulate’ above, rather than ‘imitate’. However, I couldn’t possibly get inside Richard Siken’s head. What I felt I could do was get close to the unease, the disturbing images, the implications of violence in the original poem. I needed to get out of the dislocated room and into another place to do it, a place inside my own head with my own unease; and so what I think emerged wasn’t a Siken poem but a Marie Marshall poem with Siken harmonics, undertones, overtones.

I’m posting this for the simple reason that this morning I stumbled across a reference to Richard Siken on Twitter, and it set me thinking.