Issue #65 - January 30th - February 6th 2004
The beauty in the way that we are living (part 2)
The long lost diary of Miss S L Gleaden (part 16)
Imbolc - The Quickening
I did not have Sexual Relations with that Dossier
- An Inquiry into the Hutton Report
Strawberry Field... Forever?
Finally the lawn was completely taken over by strawberries. No-one really knows where they had come from, but come spring - there they were! Of course we'd seen them arrive, fat dark leaves, slightly serrated and with the hint of a speckle, looking fatter and darker and more jagged from the contrast with the summery light-green of the smooth-fringed shards of grass. We hadn't know what they were then, though, these invasive clumps of... something. I suppose I should explain, really: you see, there aren't any strawberries (that I'm aware of) anywhere near us, so they weren't exactly the first thing to spring to mind. I don't even mean like farms - I'd never even seen them in a garden within a hundred kilometers, though of course I hadn't seen every garden.
The way we figured it - the only theory that remotely made sense, though it seemed too farfetched a confluence of factors to be exactly credible - was a long shot indeed, which went like this: Sometime, months before we saw them there for the first time, and shortly after we had moved in, we had held a party at the house - a house-warming that we had hoped would merely be a taste of things to come. We had all been very excited - it was the first time any of us had had our own house. We were determined to make the most of it. It had been the start of term, and a lot of people had just arrived in town, some from very far afield. The lawn - which we had already started to fuss over, and were determined to keep as neat as possible, since it was really the great redeeming feature of an otherwise rather unremarkable house - had been momentarily sacrificed to the need for a makeshift parking-lot.
The only possible explanation that we could come up for the sudden appearance of the plants was that someone at the party had stopped somewhere along the way at a distant strawberry farm - presumably one of those where you're handed a basket and allowed to pick your own, paying according to weight - and that a particularly virile and fecund fruit had somehow become squashed into a tyre-groove, intrepidly survived the long subsequent journey over abrasive tarmac and rough dirt-road, and then (inexplicably) dropped off on making contact with the feathery grass, its seeds or spores or whatever it is that strawberries have miraculously still intact and then germinating into soil in which no other strawberry-plant had ever stood a chance. I know - like I've said, it's incredible.
And yet, there they were. We tried to weed them at first - that was my job, by the way, I'd sortof taken the lawn under my wing - but even though I spent a couple of hours at it everyday, I couldn't nearly keep up. They were sprouting up everywhere, and one day - after the first spring-rain - the lawn was suddenly aflutter in a dazzling cloud of tiny white butterflies - only, when we looked closely, they turned out to be blossoms. So many! Thousands upon thousands of tiny white blossoms. That's when we really started to look closely, and the penny dropped.
At the time we were thrilled of course. Imagine: thousands of juicy red strawberries, all for us! Imagine the social opportunities afforded! Plans were soon being hatched: Jane went out and bought a juicer (we all chipped in immediately), Alex phoned his gran and wrote down recipes for preserves and jams and confections and whatnot.
The excitement was however soon being tempered by a sinister buzzing that we should have anticipated, but hadn't. Of course, an entire carpet of sweet-smelling blossoms was bound from the first to attract the attention of every bee in the neighbourhood, and so it proved. It got so bad that at times we had to shout to be heard above the busy drone, and the entire lawn seemed to undulate and shimmer gold and black in the summer sun. We became virtually trapped inside the house for a while there, claustrophobic and choked behind shut windows and sealed doors. It was hot, but you really felt that you were taking your life into your hands by stepping outside. We got to drawing lots for who would go shopping, and the poor sucker would make sure to get everything we could need, but never more than could be carried from the car in one go.
By some miracle we all got through that without being stung at all though, and some of the old optimism returned as the flowers faded, fell and eventually disappeared, the bees disappearing with them. In fact, we were now looking forward to the fruit with even more fervour, because in a weird throwback of ingrained Calvinism, we felt that somehow we'd deserved them. We'd suffered - we really had - and were about to get our just desserts, as it were.
But we'd lost the blitheness of our earlier naïve expectation, and with the first budding of the small green fruit, we started realizing what the next problem would be.
Again, I've been rather tardy in explaining. You see, we don't have any sort of path. We had thought about building one to the front-door at first, but then we all had rather got to liking the unbroken green moat encircling the house, so we had left it. Besides, the grass had always been so lush that even after the heaviest rain, we had never had to worry about mud or the like.
But gradually it was becoming clearer and clearer that the ripening fruit would become a problem. There simply was no way you could reach the front-door without dragging a messy pulp along with you. You'd think this would last only a day or two until a path had been cleared by force, but so impossibly rank was the growth that whatever trail we'd managed to blaze the day before would be covered again in sprightly red the following morning. The only way of keeping the house remotely presentable was to get into the habit of leaving our shoes outside the front door, or else spend laborious minutes minutely cleaning them off before entering. Soon we were all barefoot all the time when inside.
Of course it wasn't all bad, not by any means. We certainly got our fill of strawberries and every conceivable thing you could do with them, it was very pretty in a way and the garden was overrun by birds, which was nice too. But unadulterated strawberry palls on the palate surprisingly soon. And we still couldn't use even a fraction of the crop, no matter how we ate and drank, and baked and boiled and juiced, and gave away. The rest started to rot.
There's nothing quite like the smell of sweet fruit rotting abundantly - ubiquitous and invasive. It was high-summer and the sun-driven fermentation gave off a nauseatingly sour smell. We thought at first that we'd get used to it, but it's extraordinary how resilient the nose can be when you need it least. To make matters worse, the liquefying fruit to an even worse sludge underfoot; of course, there was nothing left of the "lawn" by this time!
This too passed in time, of course, and soon all had been returned to the relatively sanity of merely clumps of plants again, green and innocuous. But we could not forget. I think we all realised that there would not be an end to this - the whole cycle would start again all too soon. We hardly spoke about it anymore, but we all felt it - no-one wanted to go through it all again. So, when the plants did not recede again in favour of the grass, and our last hope was gone, we gave notice, and advertised the place. I'm half-ashamed to say, we dressed the strawberries up as a plus in the ad, hoping to secure a breathless lessee soon as possible. I guess we felt they owed us, the strawberries; for us, they were a millstone we were eager to get and stay rid off. I wonder what the new people thought?
For us it was the end of something though. When we'd moved in, it had been with great expectations of the year that we would have. We had all already been friend, to varying degrees. We'd been looking for a house to live in together and to entertain in together, saw the lawn, and had fallen in love. We dreamed of the gorgeous green lawn and the parties we would have. Gin and tonic. Sunbathing and croquet. Lazy Sunday afternoons patching up the carnage from the night before. We had that for a little while, I guess, and then a whole lot more, which had proved too much.
We all split up then, each finding a room here, a flat there. We hardly saw each other after that, perhaps bumping into each other casually, but the friendship had evaporated, perhaps soaked into those dripping walls in which we'd cloistered together, hiding from the bees, perhaps stamped into the ground like so much overripe fruit. Perhaps bled dry by this supposedly wonderful thing that had turned into too much to bear. Something that should have been wonderful, and then turned into a crisis it should never have been. For the longest time, I still had three jars of strawberry preserve that I could never quite muster the desire to eat, and which eventually became much-appreciated gifts. And so it was all gone.
Sometimes I still think about that summer though, and how easily an unsuspected dream had turned into an almost-nightmare.
The beauty in the way that we are living, installment two
Later on and while discussing having kids and what age is good for one to do so Nick says you could see two twenty-two-year-olds chasing each other in the park but you wouldn't see two thirty-year-olds doing so. I agree, though where would Nick see such a thing remains a mystery. There aren't many parks and Greece and we never go there anyway. Not to mention Greek twenty-two-year-olds are hardly ever that much fun.
"Well yes. But that's only until I turn thirty."
The sunlight has almost disappeared from my street when it dawns on me that the sunset could be visible from the spot I discovered while wondering aimlessly in the neighbourhood in November. It's nothing special, just a playground and three benches that are sort of on top of a hill, overlooking an ugly highway and some even uglier buildings - but they do so in the general direction of the sunset. I leave the house in a rush.
One third to the way there I realise I've forgotten the record player on and it will continue to spin until I get back. Two-thirds on the way there and slightly lost in the little streets I don't know very well I realise I forgot my camera. Three-thirds there, panting, I realise the sun's just touched the mountain and I get a (distant) view of the sea as well. And that standing on top of a hill on a pretty afternoon is uplifting even if the view bellow isn't very pretty.
"I should stop living in my own world so much!"
Paranphrasing Belle & Sebastian, you could say I asked a hundred questions that made a young boy smile and look forward to the future. I think he implied something like that, anyway.
"I'm so proud of myself then!"
And everytime I think of that, I want to cry.
(Yet more to come)
The long lost diary of Miss S L Gleaden
The diary of Miss S L Gleaden had peacefully travelled the world with the dippy but loveable adventurer. Its life had been interesting and slightly unpredictable, but no matter where it was S L Gleaden provided a safe corner in her rucksack. Until that is insisted that the pair should part company catapulting the diary into a whirlwind of bizarre and slightly random situations and as a which placed it into the hands of the young New Zealander Rebecca Phillips.
Rebecca was a collector. Her small room was filled with drawers and those drawers filed with small treasures. Shells from a recent holiday to stay with her Aunt, brightly coloured hairclips, postcards from unknown relatives were to name but a few of her prized possessions. A casual observer may have assumed that each of these objects were arranged in a higgledy-piggledy fashion with no thought whatsoever but they couldn't have been further from the truth.
Each item was placed with the up-most care in a specific location that only it could occupy. For example the bright green hair clip with the butterfly on it belonged with the refined thin gold slide for the simple reason that Rebecca had saved long and hard to buy both of those accessories. In her mind they did not belong with those clips that had been bought for her and therefore this was reflected in the arrangement of the drawer.
Melanie was not a collector. She did not store memories to connect random objects and so was often baffled by the sentimentality that her best friend displayed. Her own bedroom was neat, tidy and filled with new but meaningless objects. When something broke it was replaced. If it could not be replaced it was forgotten.
The day had started with so much promise. Yellow light had tickled the breakfast table and the thought at being allowed to sleep over at her friends house that night had filled her with excitement. But now Melanie was bored. Rebecca's mum had asked her and her sister to say "happy birthday" to their Grandmother. The conversation had been taking rather a long time and Rebecca had been downstairs for what seemed like a lifetime.
Noticing some felt tip pens, Melanie's fingers began to itch. A pack of 101 colours all with tops. All just waiting for her to use. She began scouring Rebecca's room for some scrap paper.
Had she asked Rebecca for this she would have been given a bumper notebook with a picture of an elephant on the cover from the bottom drawer a bright blue chest of drawers where it was carefully filed under a stack of comics and a photograph of a family of multi-coloured guineapigs. Instead, after opening and shutting many drawers, Melanie came across the diary of Miss S L Gleaden. Not bothering to read the book she thumbed through the pages to the very end which were blank.
"Perfect!" she said with a smile while looking at the faded yellow paper.
Meanwhile downstairs, Rebecca, who was oblivious to the disastor which was about to strike the poor diary, was chuckling down the phone. Her grandmother had been telling her about poor old Uncle Bartholomew who had been trying to make her a birthday cake but had confused the salt for the sugar. Her grandmother had drunk 16 glasses of water since eating the smallest of mouthfuls but was still so thirsty that she felt as though she had been living in the desert for 10 days solid.
Whilst Rebecca and her grandmother said their final goodbyes the diary of Miss S L Gleaden was in the small but deadly hands of Melanie who had decided that she would need to tear out the paper from the "smelly old book" if it would be any use to her.
The diary, if it had been possible, would have been trembling like a leaf at that moment.
"two near death experiences, the indignity of being swallowed by a fish, and prolonged spell acting as a chair prop on a fishing ship and this is what becomes of me? Where is the justice? Where I ask? Where?!" The diary sighed and braced itself as well it could.
Melanie's fingers were about to tear out a handful of paper just as Rebecca bounced in the room.
"NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" she shouted.
Melanie dropped the diary in surprise and the lucky diary escaped with only a superficial tear to its last page.
The diary's journey that day, from drawer to floor, had been short but eventful and was only one of many other journeys which contributed to one long one. To cut a long story short the diary washed up on the shores of a small town in the long forgotten county of Cumbria. Locals were impressed by the story contained within, not to mention the book's ability to wash up on the shores of a landlocked town, and after many hours were able to track down the explorer herself and made sure that the book returned to her but not before they had read it from cover to cover of course…
The Cumbrian locals were suffering a power shortage and huddled around a candle to read the words written with the diary more carefully. Speculations as to whether S L Gleaden and her two companions would get arrested for illegally entering Bangaldesh had almost caused a punch up so they speculated in silence as to how far the of petrol could take the take the unlikely trio of travellers…
to be continued...
Shuffling out of the bedroom, Stan took one last, perfunctory look at himself in the hallway mirror. "Not bad for eighty-one" he thought. He adjusted his tie, inspected the gaps in his teeth for stray segments of leftover food, and then corrected the lapels on his blazer before giving the front a quick diagonal dust down with the clothes brush. He felt an inward surge of conceit, pride at still being able to fit into said blazer (vanity ought not to be the preserve of the young, he thought) after, what, thirty-three years? Was it really that long? Has Gus been married for thirty-three years? One look at the calendar, and then the invitation to his sons wedding, still pristine in the inside pocket of the jacket, confirms this. Thirty-three years. Came and went as if to feel more like a day. He mused on the fact that as you get older, time, distance, gets shorter, recedes to the point where, indeed, thrity-three years can pass in the blinking of an eye. One minute you're, what, forty-eight, enough to look back on but plenty to look forward to, the next you're eighty- one, with too much to look back on and half of which you can't remember. That must be it. That must be why the years stampede by before you've finished reading the sports pages in the morning, because your mind can only hold so much information, so many memories- it has to be selective and so consequently a lot of what we did gets lost somewhere. "That's why you can't remember what you had for dinner yesterday, Stan, but you can remember shitting your pants in that spitfire over Kent, with three of Adolf's finest tailing your arse, looking to make mincemeat of you. How you got out of that one I'll never know." He allowed himself a chuckle, a sheepish grin still tainted by guilt after all these years, that somehow he survived the bombs and the bullets, the incessant rat-a-tat-tatting in the clear skies over Kent's countryside, he survived when so many of his squadron did not. He remembered daring to read the facts of the war some ten years after it finished, and was neither astonished nor surprised that only one in six of those that flew Spitfires during the Battle of Britain survived. One in six of his own squadron sounded about right to him. Still, he remembered spending the next three days on a hell of a bender, dousing facts and memories in the flames of liquor, and ending up on a park bench in the French port of Le Havre. And, despite the dousing, the memories remained like hammer blows to the head. "She wasn't best pleased when I finally got home." He allowed himself a chuckle, remembering how she hit him around the back of the head with a saucepan, then packed her bags and left for her mums. "See who'll cook your bleddy dinner now!" she'd screamed, before slamming the door almost off its hinges. She was back by the end of the week, swayed by lavender perfume and a dozen red roses, heartfelt apologies and the new Billy Fury record that you had gone out of your way to get her.
"See who'll cook your dinner now" he repeated. He missed her like nothing on earth. Still, she'll be looking down on him right now, eyes shot through with pride, telling him to get stuck in, take no quarter, you are right on this point as you always are, that's it's the principal of the council tax, not the costs involved, that have driven you to end up in court again, that just as you fought for what you believed in the wide open spaces over Kent and the Channel, then you will fight for you believe in the county courts of the country that you helped to save. One last look in the hallway mirror, a lungful of air to puff up your chest, then it's out the door and into war again Stan, old boy.
Imbolc - The Quickening
The trouble with a Celtic witch writing about the Sabbats, for a readership across different time-scales, is that by the time those on the far side of America get round to celebrating it, I'm already recovered from the hangover!
The Celts celebrated Imbolc on February 1st; but the rest of the known world opt for February 2nd - it all comes down to the Celtic day being from sunset to sunset, while everyone else faffs around with that midnight malarkey. Of all the Sabbats, this one stands out as the most weird to try and pronounce, just about everyone has to take advice first before attempting those syllables!
Imbolc - the 'Im' or 'Em' sound is a matter of dialect, so take your pick. The 'bolc' part involves a distinctly Celtic wrapping of the tongue (here's me saying it over and over again wondering how on earth to write this one phonetically!): the 'b' is fairly obvious, but the 'o' is a cross between the 'o' in doll and the 'u' in bulk. The 'l' is like a full-stop, you stop saying it amongst as soon as you start; then the 'k' is also the one in 'bulk'. So Im/Em-bulk might suffice, as long as you practice that 'o'/'u' sound. OR you could try saying 'bow', but change the 'o' for a 'u' - that's close enough!
Then just to make life interesting, there is a particularly druidic pronunciation. Their festival is called Oimealg, which, I understand, is pronounced 'Im-mol'g' with a hard 'g' on the end.
Imbolc is the Quickening. For those readers who have been pregnant, I've heard that there's a moment when your bairn moves inside you for a milli-second. It's so quick and so early that you aren't sure if it happened or not; it's definitely not the internal twelve rounds with Tyson as happens later, but it's the first time you have evidence of this dude inside your womb being a separate being. Imbolc is that for the earth.
It's the time when keen gardeners come rushing in from the garden with their faces glowing and little squeals coming from their throats. They grab the nearest person and drag them out into the cold, then do a happy dance while shouting 'Look! Look!'. You look and there's the tiniest little shoot of green just poking its head above the soil (naturally they have just brushed the soil off a bit or even dug down about half an inch to see it). This is Imbolc.
It's the light in the darkness; it's the quickening that will lead to Spring, just when you thought the rain, snow, wind and coldness were settled in for good. It's the promise of growth to come. It reminds you of heady summer days and jolts you into realising that they are on their way again. Imbolc is when people slowly start to uncurl from settees and long to be a little more active. This is Imbolc.
Meanwhile, on the farm, the animals (well the female ones at least) are either pregnant or have newborn babies. Imbolc means, variously, 'ewe's milk ' or 'in the belly'. It's also time to start planting the crops, hence the symbol of the plough, which is sometimes used for Imbolc. The ground is being prepared for planting; while the witches are busily consecrating the seeds. Everything is geared towards this future promise of food, warmth and hedonism, if only the work is put in now.
Imbolc belongs to the Maiden. She is working towards growth and renewal, ready to hand over to the Mother after the Spring. The Crone's keening is dying away and the time has come for life instead. The Maiden is a Busy Wench, it has to be said.
First of all, those rooms need airing after a season of keeping the windows firmly shut against the cold. Aired rooms naturally require a bit of a clean inside, especially with so many people cooped up inside them all winter. So the Spring Cleaning begins. It won't be over until the Spring, because people will insist that it's still too cold outside and carry on making the mess; but the Maiden has seen the crocuses and She's sick of everyone under her feet. The hearth fires were put out and re-lit after all of the ashes have been carted out to feed the plants. Even the back of the settee gets a sweep to lose all of those stray nut shells.
Then come the corn dollies. This is Brighid's Day. The Maidens twist their corn and straw into figures, filling them with their own energy - that of the promise of good times and the survival of everyone after the hard winter; protection for the home; happiness to come; nice things. There are lambs and crocuses, therefore we are on that side of winter which inevitably leads to sunbathing, holidays, barbecues and the Glastonbury Festival (if you're me. or British.). Suddenly summer isn't a long, long time in the future, it's something that can be counted in weeks or months. The Maidens, feeling all of this in their souls, make their corn dollies full of these energies, then they take them as presents to their loved ones homes. The corn dolly will fill that home with the same energy and promise. The news of renewal is spread.
For the Christians, it is Candlemas. It's the same principle - the light in the darkness. Their candles remind the sun that it's time to shine a little bit harder, just enough to get shut of those pesky clouds. In the Catholic church, Candlemas is also called Purification of the Virgin. which sounds very like 'it's the Maiden's Day' to me, but there you go. J On February 2nd, Catholic churches all over the world will be singing the 'Gaude Maria Virgo' in honour of the Blessed Virgin. Meanwhile, the Pagans are being blessed by our own Virgins (with a capital 'V' which has nothing to do with hymens. Well, not round here it hasn't!).
Candles have their place in Pagan ceremonies at Imbolc. The High Priestess might be wandering around with a cross between a crown and a candlestick on her head, desperately hoping her hair doesn't catch fire. (All pyrophobic High Priestesses are exempt.) It's the Crown of Lights, another hint that the light is here in the midst of darkness.
I did not have Sexual Relations with that Dossier