Excerpt Chapter 1 – Take Me to the Mountain

Chapter 1 

Retreat: Picking up the thread of life

*

The secret is just this: you’re always home, no matter where you are, because Now is home.  Now is forever … 

Now is Forever

When we were children we understood about retreat. We knew how to live in the moment which is really what retreat is after all. Watch any child at play and see how totally absorbed he is. Nothing else matters, not what happened yesterday or might happen tomorrow, just Now. He is focused in a world of his own imagination, unconcerned with what happened last week or what might happen next.

As a child it never occurred to me that I was young. I was just ‘me,’ exactly the same ‘me’ that lives on today and who has lived throughout time. I was also aware of a ‘before life’ (uncomfortably so at times) and reasoned that there must therefore be an ‘after life’ too – in other words some continuity of consciousness that exists beyond birth and death. Life was an ever-unfolding miracle, inseparable from the Now.

Some years ago I wrote a short story called Now is Forever. It focuses on two children who experience ‘Now’ as their true home and thus discover the eternal thread that runs through life. I wanted to experience a lost world through these two children, to re-capture the magic of childhood and show how this magic disappears once we grow older and life’s challenges and responsibilities take over. I believe if we choose to, we can learn to be children once more and regain our youthful spirit. We can pick up the thread of Life again and find that ‘Now’ really is forever, in one single unending moment.

Children love stories that remind them of the magic that exists just beyond our physical sight. They are very close to the subtle worlds and will often know instinctively that beyond our physical sight there are countless ‘worlds within worlds,’ both the microcosm and the macrocosm. I was lucky; my father, a very stern man with a military background, was also of Irish descent and unusually sensitive. He taught me about the ‘Little People’ and I was able to ‘see’ fairies and not just read about them in books.

My son, I discovered quite by chance, was able to see auras and he naturally assumed that everyone did! His reading of other people was uncannily accurate. He, like many others, would often talk to unseen friends and also showed signs of remembering a ‘before life.’ He lost these psychic abilities for a while along with a degree of telepathy once puberty began but I think this may have been necessary for his development along other lines.

Left to their own devices – and under the right circumstances – children will naturally display other soul qualities such as empathy and the desire to help one another. Something else that is all too sadly lost later in life.

Retreat allows us the space to regain a child-like a sense of the timeless, and to see the world anew. This truly is the life of the Soul.

 

Who Am I? Why Am I Here?

The more time you spend in the company of your Soul, such as on retreat, the more interesting life becomes. You may begin to feel younger, more energetic, because the soul is eternally youthful. You will inevitably start to identify with the timeless in you and lose any fear of death because you know you are eternal and therefore deathless.

You begin to search more deeply for meaning and ask questions, like Who am I? Why am I here? For every answer you find there is another question that probes more deeply.

When I was in my early teens I would search my local library for books that might reveal to me the secrets of Life. I knew that such books must exist but had no idea where to locate them. This was the pre-Beatles era, before meditation became popular in the West. There were no esoteric sections in bookshops or Mind, Body and Spirit Fairs, no computers to help me with my search. Then one day I happened upon a very old volume tucked away in the library’s Philosophy section. I remember my excitement, reading about the ‘Music of the Spheres’ and although it made little sense to me, it was a start! A few years later I met a young man who belonged to the Rosicrucian Order, a modern-day version of the ancient mystery school. He taught me about meditation and so much more besides concerning the spiritual Laws of Life.

Today there are countless books on Eastern and Western spiritual philosophies; New Age publications abound. The problem nowadays is perhaps too much choice – too many cul de sacs and false pathways for the spiritual seeker to become lost in.

 

Enlightenment and Spiritual Ambition

My friend Bob often joked that all spiritual books should carry a health warning. He complained that too many made exaggerated promises of health and happiness and that some were positively dangerous. He had learned the hard way, sending himself half mad as a result of practicing certain unsupervised techniques. Spiritual ambition can have devastating results.

Most dangerous of all are those teachers claiming to offer ‘enlightenment.’ Any extreme exercises designed to speed up spiritual awakening (such as the forced raising of kundalini energy through breathing exercises) should, in my opinion, be avoided unless under the supervision of a highly experienced teacher. Kundalini (the dormant force at the base of the spine) is intended to rise through the energy centres normally and systematically and in its own time. Likewise, spiritual growth is best attained through a natural unfolding, facilitated by simple, tried and tested exercises, and always combined with some service activity. To be in a rush to gain enlightenment (which is a never-ending process after all) suggests spiritual ambition – a contradiction in terms if ever there was one!

 

Retreat, Meditation and Altered States

Retreat, meditation and a more relaxed attitude to life all lower stress levels and produce definite health benefits. These include lowered heart rate and blood pressure, improved digestion, healthier hormone levels and even increased immunity and fertility. There are many studies to support these claims, including Dr Herbert Benson’s well known work ‘The Relaxation Response.’* In meditation brain rhythms change from beta (active conscious) to alpha (rested and reflective), and also theta states (meditative and creative). Meditation therefore can stimulate memory and creativity.

Retreat involves periods of ‘silent sitting’ (meditation) and mindful activity. Any focused meditation strengthens our contact with our soul. This doesn’t mean making the mind go blank but rather quieting the mind so that thoughts no longer disturb the inner peace. The actual experience of meditation doesn’t matter at all. Sometimes it may be blissful, sometimes tiring or even downright boring! It is, I believe, the willingness to meet ourselves in Silence that matters most. Although meditation is an ‘altered state’ – that is to say it differs from ordinary waking consciousness – it is a most natural human activity.

There are said to be as many types of meditation as there are people and techniques such as mantras or breathing exercises are simply tools to still the chattering mind and help the individual to experience his own unique essence.

This practice of ‘stilling’ allows us rest in body and mind and leads ultimately to transcendence, a bodiless, deathless state.

People who have ‘near death’ or ‘out of body’ experiences (NDEs or OBEs) frequently describe the bliss and freedom of their bodiless state. In fact, the experience can be so compelling that they are reluctant to return to the body and may take some persuasion before agreeing to. In the extra-physical state worldly attachments no longer seem to have the same attraction – not even those people we love the most – in comparison with the ecstasy experienced there. Re-entry to the body is often reported as uncomfortable and constricting, although any pain felt on return is frequently transformed and redeemed by a new sense of perspective and hope – and even physical healing. There are many dramatic reports of cures following NDEs. Especially impressive is Anita Moorjani’s account of her own return from death and recovery from terminal illness in her book, Dying to be Me. **

Many people discover their essential ‘self’ through spiritual healing – and this is the primary purpose of healing of course, to bring us into contact with our own Healer, the Soul. Perfect health and happiness can never be guaranteed although a state of contentment, even bliss, is certainly possible. It should be remembered though that any focused spiritual practice, while enormously helpful for our mental, emotional and physical health, also brings to the surface any unresolved issues we have. And we all do! In Transcendental Meditation this process is called ‘un-stressing’ and although beneficial it can be temporarily uncomfortable too!

 

Retreat and the release of stress

We often avoid silence and stillness for very good reason. Instinctively we know that without our usual distractions – television, telephone, the internet, and so on – we are alone with our thoughts. Retreat can be both a refuge and a catalyst for the release of trauma.

It is in stillness that painful memories or unresolved issues arise, usually as tears or an outburst of anger. This process is a normal and necessary movement of emotional energy that is all part of the healing process. It can happen during private and public retreats alike – occasionally during my own. When it does I ask everyone to breathe with the person involved – as an example let’s call him Joe. This breathing together results in a tremendous sense of being ‘held’ and supported. There may be a tendency to rush forward to help Joe, to console, but it is far better to allow him space for the energy to move off in its own time. Such a movement of energy can have a powerful effect on the rest of us and remind us of our own emotional pain. Our throats may tighten up, tears well up in empathy. I ask everyone then to continue to breathe steadily and to remain very poised. It helps enormously to raise the attention to our ‘High Place,’** the Ajna centre between the eyebrows, and thus allow the process to complete.

People naturally feel embarrassed at having drawn attention to themselves so at some point I thank Joe for staying with it and for enabling us all to acknowledge our own pain. It all adds to a great sense of group coherence and bonding.

 

I Am the Mountain

At such times I have found it very helpful to identify with the mountain, solid and strong, eternally unmoved by winds and storms (see Chapter 4). This is a very simple technique: simply imagine your feet as the base of a mountain, your head as the summit and your whole body rock-solid and poised against any internal or external force. At the same time you think: I Am the Mountain!

The Messages included in this book often refer to mountains – how their peaks are not really as distant as we might imagine since we have already come a very long way through life’s challenges, each one a mountain to conquer. As the famous explorer and mountaineer, Sir Edmund Hillary said: It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.

So many of our difficulties are self-created, that is to say by the way we think. Indeed we are capable of breaking our own hearts by repeated ‘wrong thinking.’ Our obsessions and anxieties mount up over our lifetimes, yet this mountain of suffering is not as solid as we might imagine. It can be reduced to dust once we penetrate those layers with the light of awareness, the Soul.

The mountains and other remote places in the world have long been known as the retreats of the Masters, Those wise teachers who have evolved ahead of us and mastered all aspects of life on this planet – body, mind, and emotions – and now guide humanity from age to age.  Climbing the mountain is an obvious metaphor for human aspiration; of our evolutionary impulse to reach towards some greater goal, to overcome our earthly limitations and so master ourselves. Self-mastery, whether or not we are aware of it, is our ultimate goal for we are all Masters in training.

 

Enlightenment and the Upward Struggle

Pain and suffering, as the Tibetan Master Djwhal Khul describes, is our upward struggle through matter.*** It is only by enduring and overcoming those things we find most difficult that we eventually reach the summit of the mountain.

However, we would do well to remember that there are always further experiences ahead of us – yes, even for the Masters themselves – and greater summits too. That is the nature of evolution: enlightenment is only relative after all!

 

Retreat: The Blessing of Suffering and Change

Those who live with chronic physical pain often say that the worst kind of pain is emotional, especially the agony of loneliness, anxiety and depression. My wise friend Bob knew this all too well. Although he was adept at helping others to heal he privately struggled right to the end of his life with his own loneliness, depression and grief.

Retreat offers us the space to observe our life throughout all its ups and downs. Inevitably we learn that everything that gives us pleasure will also bring pain – and then the very knowledge that life is uncertain, that things are not always going to be wonderful, can bring a sense of acceptance. We can either accept our difficulties as opportunities or become embittered and thus prolong our own suffering. This is a choice that involves a good deal of attention and objectivity on our part. Not easy for sure!

Such a space may help us to understand both the cause and the purpose of our suffering – for unless we do we shall continue to draw to ourselves more of the same. We may see that many of our circumstances are created, moment to moment, from our own attitudes. Every problem then becomes a challenge to accept and transform and every challenge met renews our confidence and enthusiasm for life. By acknowledging our human vulnerability we demonstrate the power of the human spirit to overcome challenges – and to find meaning and purpose in them.

Although suffering doesn’t necessarily guarantee spiritual advancement there can sometimes be solace in the knowledge that our difficulties are necessary ‘tests’ that bring rewards of their own. This may sound like a platitude but it really can never be overstated: tests help us to grow in stature and show us that we are much bigger than our difficulties. They help us to get to grips with the mind and its fear of change, loss and above all, death.

We learn that things don’t last; good times, bad times, all passes by, and everything moves in cycles. We try especially to ignore the uncertainty of our own lifespan; we avoid death for as long as we can. Yet death is an everyday reality- we die every day. Something dies, something is reborn – our cells, our relationships, even our ideas about things. But when we become rooted in our inner life, our death becomes less of a problem. We understand that it is only the smaller part of us that dies, together with our temporary identity, the personality. What remains throughout is our consciousness, the Eternal Thread of Life or Soul. This is beyond suffering.

 

Creativity and Transformation

Creative pursuits can bring solace in times of stress. They help us to find meaning, to transform suffering into a thing of beauty – a fine painting, a piece of literature, a symphony, a garden, and so on. Artists are transformers. They do more than reflect or interpret life; they turn their life experience into something greater, not by prettying it up but by creating something new and meaningful. That should be the purpose of all inspirational work. Not that we should ignore the darkness at all – it’s too important for that – but should instead raise it up, transform it.

Creativity is an essential part of this retreat. It is a natural expression of the soul and can be anything from decorating a room to writing a memoir.

There has never been another ‘you’ or another ‘me’ and there never will be. Whatever we create is an expression of that uniqueness. To quote the American writer William Faulkner we create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.

So, it is vital that we be ourselves – and not what someone else would like us to be! This is our spiritual destiny. We are each born to create and our creations, however humble, live on in the world long after we have said our goodbyes.

 

Compassion

Suffering can also increase our compassion, that ability to ‘feel with’ and care better for others. Indeed, it can spur us to alleviate their suffering, as well as our own, in very practical and creative ways.

It’s very important that we treat ourselves with compassion, especially when we feel lost, devoid of comfort, of answers. This is the Wilderness experience and is a necessary part of our spiritual journey. Remember that while distress is very real for the ‘little self’ in the world, for the Undying Self it is all part of a much bigger story. The Wilderness eventually leads us beyond our distress and upwards to the Mountain of Revelation itself.

 

*The Relaxation Response (Dr Herbert Benson and Miriam Z. Clipper) Harper Collins 2009

 

**Dying to be Me: My Journey from Cancer, to Near Death, to True Healing (Anita Moorjani)

 

***The High Place is actually an energy centre, a point between your eyebrows. It is known as the Ajna or brow centre, one of seven major centres in the body. In the chapters that follow and the exercises contained in them, we shall constantly return to this High Place, our portable sanctuary.

 

****A Treatise on White Magic (Alice A. Bailey) p.53

 

 Copyright © 2013 Moyra Irving

 

Reviews – What Other’s Have to Say:

Take Me to the Mountain is a book to be savored and cherished by all true spiritual seekers. This gentle and compassionate guide to living life as a Soul is a work to be read again and again. It glows with the radiance of the author’s soul, as she lovingly leads the reader into the spacious, timeless reality of the eternal Self where transformation occurs. Moyra Irving has distilled gems of wisdom from spiritual teachings and from her own experience into graceful, fluid, and deceptively simple language that carries seeds of illumination. Golden keys to spiritual growth reveal how suffering and anxiety can be transformed into catalysts for living a peaceful, purposeful life of service. Anyone who practices the guidance offered in this book can expect to come away more fully healed and more actively part of the planetary wave of evolution leading toward the birth of a new world.Nancy Seifer, Author: When the Soul Awakens: The Path to Spiritual Evolution and a New World Era

Go on retreat in your own home with this practical and simple to follow guide; an hour a day is all it takes to change your life. It is packed with practical, real life advice and inspirational ideas on planning your retreat, from flasks to ear plugs. Moyra Irving has used her own experiences and knowledge to blast potential barriers out the water. This innovative book offers a 40 day retreat that can be split I to 5 mini eight day retreats. Each day of this retreat is mapped out for you with 40 separate messages, on everything from contemplation to acceptance, from patience to mastery. Written in a clear, accessible style it offers advice and exercises as a means of learning the skills of mindfulness and meditation. An excellent manual for anyone who has ever wanted to experience a retreat, but without the funds or time to facilitate it. This book is a must buy for anyone trying to navigate the vagaries of modern life. So what are you waiting for? Buy Take Me to the Mountain and go on retreat NOW!Dr Liz Boath, Reader in Health, Faculty of Health Sciences, Staffordshire University, UK.

How can I possibly distil my love, respect and admiration for a remarkable woman and her tireless inspirational work in only a few lines? I am beyond excited that Moyra has committed her genuine heartfelt wisdom and lifelong commitment to healing and spiritual growth to writing which will be an enduring testament, if one is needed, to her indefatigable spirit and inspiration to others. From running local free healing clinics and weekend retreats to setting up a charity with the aim to end world hunger, Moyra truly stands at the forefront of a new humanity. This book will speak to the heart of all those who are ready to answer the call of the ‘New Age’ – a call to reconnect with that sacred eternal place that dwells within the heart of each and everyone of us, a place from which humanity can be healed and propelled forward. The view from the mountain beckons and the journey begins here!Dawn Barrington (Post-Graduate Certificate in Emotional Education)

A remarkable work, conveying many spiritual truths with great simplicity and the authentic ring of personal experience. Guaranteed to prove both healing and redemptive.Julian Middleton Author & Astrologer

 

 

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The White Hart

It seemed that summer might never come that year but after weeks of rain the skies cleared one night and sunrise, silent as snowfall, brought sleepy gasps of surprise. Beyond the mouse grey farm cottages, acres of farm land and poppy fields rolled down to the river and, in the distance, a pale mist hung over the Ridge. Today the whole world shone, vibrated with colour.

 

John Deaville saw none of this. For him it was an unbearably quiet morning; today even the tractors and farm dogs were still. Watching from an upstairs window he sipped his coffee slowly. Before him he saw a great complex of cattle sheds and warehouses overlaying the little farms, and fields of high yield crops. A vision spoiled only, he thought sourly, by the wretched tenants. What a backward lot they were with their drab little cottages and namby-pamby herb gardens, their noisy brats running wild in the fields. He scowled at the mouse grey buildings with their broken fences and ramshackle sheds, swiftly demolishing them all in his mind.

 

He put down his coffee cup and drew the heavy drapes carelessly across the window, knocking over a red lacquer vase of dead tulips as he did so. The last of the petals wavered on their stalks and scattered their pollen. He mopped up the watery dust with his sleeve and sank down onto the bed and yawned. On the floor – and at odds with the orderly opulence of the room – were boxes filled with books and next to them an open suitcase still unpacked after weeks. Shirts, poorly folded, lay alongside jackets in need of a hanger and crumpled tee-shirts, already worn.

He wriggled out of his damp, stained shirt and threw it on the floor. He had found the tulips on the steps of The Hall, still in bud then and stuffed into an old watering can. His first night here – how many weeks ago, was that? Six maybe: no more. There had been a little box of provisions too; a loaf of bread (still warm), and six eggs, each carefully wrapped in tissue. With equal care someone had inscribed a message on the side of the box: Welcome Home.

 

His hand strayed to the empty side of the bed where a notebook lay. There was a letter too, crumpled as though having been squashed into a tight ball and tossed into a bin, then later retrieved, smoothed out as an afterthought. He held it against his chest. How could this ever be home without Jenny? He turned over and his heart turned over too.

 

Tempted by sleep he closed his eyes. Even in his dreams there was a distance between them. He saw her, pushing an empty pram down the lane at dusk. Evening after evening she’d made the same solitary journey, walked for hours, glad to be unobserved as night fell. Neighbours had looked away, stayed away, unsure of words that might fit. He remembered the cards, lined up on the mantelpiece, gathering dust, and the day he’d taken the call: We did all we could but he just came too early.

More cards arrived and Jenny would arrange them around the room, Congratulations and Sympathy in uneasy accord. Months passed and still they filled the mantelpiece, the table; the shelves: Congratulations! On your loss …

 

One evening, seeing her leave he could bear it no more. ‘Tim!’ He lunged at the cards, swept them to the floor, stamping and cursing. That night they clung together, stirred by the passion of strangers or lovers, never to meet again: illicit, irresistible. Never again, were their thoughts. This is the last.

 

In losing their son they had lost each other.

 

Later, much later, there were girls, five, six, he had lost count – but each time he told himself: This is the last. In losing his son he had lost himself.

Moving here to The Hall had been his attempt to make things right, start again but in the end Jenny had refused to come. He picked up the crumpled note and read it again, eager to find the hope that had so far eluded him. ‘I can’t leave here, John,’ she had written. ‘This is Timmy’s home.’ The words had a dreadful permanence about them, as though etched in stone.

 

Soon his thoughts were interrupted; from above came the now familiar sound of footsteps, the to-ing and fro-ing of someone busily occupied. They had become company almost; a reminder that he wasn’t alone, even though with Mrs. Bloom the housekeeper gone, the house was empty.

One evening he took a torch to search the attic but found there nothing but a number of broken picture frames and a grimy old notebook.

 

He fingered the little notebook now, its cover inscribed with a pair of interlocking initials, EC, and the date 1897.

Jenny would love this, he mused, recalling her fondness for old things. Resigned, he wrapped his thumb around the finger where his wedding ring had once been (there was still a little groove left there – how soon might that fade, along with everything else? He wondered). His thoughts turned back to his land.

 

Over the weeks to come he set to work on his land development plan. The days would be taken up with calls to fertiliser companies and meetings with lawyers whose job it was to find loop holes to eject the tenants. At night he would dine alone, a place set for him by Mrs. Bloom. Sometimes, bored, he took a tray to his room and turned his attention once more to the little notebook.

 

One day he examined the deeds of The Hall and found that it had once been the home of a 19th century artist called Edgar Childes. Childes, he discovered, was best known for his paintings of country life, in particular the hunt. Wealthy and ambitious with a reputation for extravagant living, Childes was a keen huntsman himself. His work had been much sought after by the new middle classes, landowners, and industrialists, although at the height of his popularity failing eyesight brought his career to an abrupt end. He died, a recluse, in 1897.

 

One evening after supper the footsteps in the attic became unusually agitated. He had already begun, painstakingly, to transcribe the faded notes. The first entry was dated 4th April 1897:

Commission for H.A.B. almost done.  A skilful work but lifeless, I cannot say why. Vision much weakened.

There followed a series of sketches, clumsy and childlike, mostly struck through or scribbled over. The last few pages of the little book were the most difficult to read since by now Childes’ sight had almost gone.

 

7th June 1897:

Purposeless. Can no longer see to write, let alone to paint.

A stain, possibly port wine, obscured most of the next page, then:

 

5th August 1897:

Late one evening an intense light filled my studio, discernable even to my failing sight. It
troubled me and I fell to my knees. Suddenly, as though perceiving my concern, a gentle
Presence touched my hand. Was it an angel? I wondered, having a sense of wings
brushing my skin. Next, although in truth there was neither a ‘ before’ nor ‘after’ for it all
seemed to happen at once, a beam of light hit me between the eyes. Inwardly I saw a
screen on which I watched my wasted life play out. Clearly I saw my own greed, the
gambling and womanising, the bloodlust of the hunt and the suffering of the poor beasts. And finally, I saw my empty work too – the trivial themes I had so often repeated to please
those with more wealth than discernment.

 

John Deaville moved to the window and looked out on the quiet fields. He was not often given to self-enquiry but now uneasily he began to consider his own life. Below him in the courtyard a tenant farmer was tinkering with a broken down van. In his mind, though, John was touring The Hall. As if in a dream, he passed through doors rarely opened and explored rooms that were never used. He wandered like a ghost, a visitor in his own home, but aimlessly and without the curiosity a stranger might have. ‘Do I need all this?’ he murmured at last.

 

At this point a shabbily dressed woman had joined the farmer with a flask of tea. The two were soon chatting and laughing together, their faces bright. Children darted between them, clutching at the adults’ sleeves, hiding, playing noisily. After a while they trailed off together, arms around shoulders, into one of the little cottages.

Envious suddenly and unbearably sad, he returned to the little notebook.

 

At this point, Edgar Childes continued, I could no longer bear to look at the screen
and concluded that I must either be mad or about to die. But then the images began to
change. Bewildered, I watched now as a precise three dimensional likeness of a young
deer appeared to me, a white hart with almost human eyes – a preview of what was to be
my last and finest work. Suddenly my heart melted as the beast met my startled gaze. Such compassion shone from its eyes that a feeling of aliveness and purpose returned to
me. Guided by the Presence I reached for my brushes.

 

From that day onwards my sight weakened – yet my vision grew! The Presence remained
close and for seven weeks I worked, often without sleep. Sometimes I would drop brushes
or stumble into cupboards, yet I always trusted that my hand could not fail. Each colour
would be mixed exactly as it should be, each loaded brush placed where it would reveal
the splendour and dignity of the Hart. Then, all too soon, I heard: ‘It is done!’ and the
Presence left.

 

John Deaville put down his pen. The footsteps had grown even more restless now, running noisily the length of the Hall. He got up and began to search the unfamiliar rooms – sitting rooms, library, and study – and climbed two great staircases to the gallery and bedrooms. ‘Can this ever be home?’ he wondered. Then he opened the attic door once more, casting torchlight onto rafters and boards. Stillness. Silence. Three times he circled the attic and was about to leave when he spotted something – face down in the darkest corner – a large canvas, blackened with grime. He carried it down to the dining room and gently brushed away layer upon layer of dust until at last an image of a white hart emerged. Its face had a curious and almost human expression. ‘Come home,’ it seemed to be saying. ‘Come home.’

 

*

 

The next morning Mrs. Bloom arrived early. She placed porridge and toast before him and then brought in a bowl of freshly picked strawberries.

‘A little gift for you from the tenants, Mr. Deaville,’ she announced cheerfully and drew back the heavy drapes. Dust motes danced around her on ribbons of light. ‘What a grand morning for the market.’ Then seeing the White Hart with the human eyes she nodded, as though unsurprised and opened the windows wide. A little crowd had suddenly gathered in the courtyard below.

‘Have you seen, Sir?’ She beckoned him to the window.

 

The broken-down van had now been mended. Its engine was ticking over noisily while a group of farmers loaded great crates of vegetables and fruit on board. They were the finest crops he had ever seen. Whole cheeses, boxes of eggs and pots of preserves came out of the little cottages, followed by trays of bread, pies and fruit cake. For the farmers’ market, Mrs. Bloom explained. Visitors from the city paid good money for organic food.

Bewildered, he surveyed the tenants’ tiny plots and chicken runs. ‘How could they possibly produce all that with so little between them?’

 

But Mrs. Bloom didn’t really need to answer for somehow he already knew. They did it together. What little they had, they shared.

The White Hart with the human eyes stared out from its frame and caught his eye. This land belongs not to you but to all who live here, it seemed to say. And looking into the Hart’s eyes he realised exactly what he now had to do. ‘What a wonderful idea, Mrs. Bloom,’ he said excitedly.

 

Suddenly light-hearted he climbed the stairs, three at a time, to his room. There he opened the heavy drapes and diamond clear in the morning light he saw the land as it could be. The fields were now home to woodlarks and butterflies; there were hedges of cherry and alder fruit, orchards and allotments. And even the tenants’ mouse grey cottages were freshly painted now, their fences mended. And like Edgar Childes he found his own vision was growing too. He imagined the rear of the Hall where a sign announced Deaville’s Cottage Cooperative and out buildings that now housed an organic shop. For all to share! He smiled and thought of Jenny and how proud she would be.

 

‘Come home to me, Jenny,’ he whispered and already the distance between them seem to have disappeared. Impulsively he reached for his mobile phone and imagined the empty rooms now filled with friends and family – and maybe more children of their own. Come home, Jenny! He wrote.

This could be your finest work, a voice in his heart said.

 

Then he began to unpack at last, first the books then his clothes, still folded in the suitcase. It was nightfall before he had finished and by now the tenant farmers had returned. Together they lit a bonfire and began to prepare a shared supper.

He listened again for the footsteps but tonight, for the first time, there was no sound, just the laughter and singing from the gardens.

Why not join them, John? The voice in his heart prompted. After all, what have you to lose?

Only my loneliness, he replied and, as he hung up the last of his shirts in the wardrobe, he felt almost happy.

 

He glanced around the room for anything he might have missed, smoothed the bedcover and rearranged cushions. He unravelled a bunch of sweet peas and placed the lacquer vase back on the table.

Just then his mobile phone began to beep. I miss you too, the message read. He smiled. I have, he decided, finally come home.

 

 

© Moyra Irving 2011   

 

 

“The Marian Gate”

‘Thank God that’s over.’ Shiva consulted her watch and followed her father out of the church. She hung back, brushing imaginary flecks from her coat while her mother and the others moved further down the drive.

‘Siobhan?’ Shiva looked up. A stranger in a long coat had come close and brushed against her. She felt the warmth of his arm against hers while together they watched the coffin disappear into the hearse. He blew his nose noisily then passed her a small card which she stuffed absently into her bag.

‘He was proud of you.’

‘You knew him well then?’ she snapped, doubting that anyone had really known her father well.

 

He was an awkward young man – a colleague perhaps, wearing a coat that was too big for him, borrowed no doubt for the occasion. And as though reading her thoughts he looked down at his coat and smiled. ‘My father’s,’ he said with a shrug, and offered her a cough sweet from his pocket.

Shiva glanced at him blankly. He frowned as though searching for something more to say then, sensing her indifference, hurried off down the drive and into a waiting car.

 

Shiva un-wrapped the sweet and pressed it against her palate with her tongue. Its pungent juice dribbled from the sides of her mouth, reminiscent of cherries and bringing with it her earliest memory. They had always been her favourite fruit, had even decorated the curtains in her room; little bunches of them on glazed cotton, bright and exotic, in a very ordinary room in a very ordinary house where nothing ever changed. She would watch them brighten whenever moonlight flooded the room. One night, unable to sleep, she had gone to the window and stood in the little gap between the curtains for they never quite met. Touched by the light, she imagined herself made transparent and bright like the cherries.  Soon she floated down the stairs in her nightdress, weightless as a ghost, and hovered by the open door, quivering like a cat about to pounce on a leaf. The moon cast long shadows across the garden. Her father stood smoking, his gaze fixed on a lone star. Sensing her presence he turned suddenly.

‘Hey, Shiva!’ He reached down and gently lifted her up, pulling his jacket around her. She burrowed inside for warmth and its rough tweed collar tickled her cheek.

‘See the Great Bear?’ He began to draw a shape in the sky with his finger and when she peered out from his jacket the sky was now full of stars.

 

Shiva bit into the sweet, its edges now rough against her tongue. All that was thirty years ago.

A crowd had gathered around her mother now. ‘We’ll miss dear old Ted,’ they said, patting her hand.

‘Old bastard,’ Shiva muttered, spitting out the last of the sweet. She edged round the side of the church and squatted on a gravestone, breathing in the cold November air. She rummaged crossly in her bag for a tissue and, finding none, dabbed her eyes with her sleeve and brought out instead a brown leather wallet. Instinctively she looked around her and, seeing no-one there, opened it. She felt inside its lining and drew out an old paper driving licence, then carefully removed a photograph concealed in its folds; its worn edges suggested that it had been there for years. She narrowed her eyes, taking in every detail: a young woman in a blue dress smiled back at her nervously. She was undeniably beautiful, wearing lipstick and pearl earrings, her hair dressed in the style of thirty years ago. On her lap sat a small boy with a serious face; a boy who must now be almost as old as she was.

 

Only a week ago she had collected her father’s belongings from the hospital: an old tweed jacket and the wallet which for days she had kept close, turning it out from time to time in the vain hope that it might offer up some clue to the unfamiliar couple. A name perhaps, or a telephone number: anything to end the giddy suspicion that her life was about to change.

The photograph, she decided, was not for her mother’s eyes. Soon she knew the wretched thing by heart, every detail – the crumpled edges, the blue eyes, just a shade darker than the dress, the nervous smile; even the boy’s dimpled knees. It lay heavy in her hand.  And finding it both familiar and unsettling she was unable somehow to throw it away and would return it to the wallet, where it lay hidden once more in the folds of the licence. Her father’s secret – for that is what it seemed – had now become her own.

 

‘Siobhan, where are you? We’re leaving.’ Hearing her name, Shiva shifted uncomfortably on the cold stone. In the distance car doors slammed as the cortège headed off for the Crematorium. A sudden wave of anger swept her to her feet and she ran in the other direction, footsteps clattering on the flagstones.

Leaving the churchyard she stumbled up the hill to Starlings Rise. They had walked here often, Shiva and her father. The air up here was raw and halfway up she paused to lean against an iron gate, her face stinging with cold. Here, half hidden by brambles, a rusty plaque caught her eye: The Marian Gate. Entrance to the garden 1d.

She tried the gate, puzzled that she had never found it before, but it held fast. Bolted to it was a slot machine for old pennies and she searched in her purse for a coin that might fit. Nothing. So, forgetting her funeral clothes she scrambled up the gate, tearing her tights and scuffing her shoes. She fell heavily into the walled garden and caught her knee on a stone and cursed. But the grass was soft underfoot and she sat down, peeling off her ruined tights and began to relax a little, despite her self. Although winter, the air here was unusually warm, and heavy with the scent of jasmine. There were sweet peas and daffodils, bushes of blackberry and lavender. It was truly a garden for all seasons. Sunlight touched her face and she sat, shading her eyes, for a long time.

 

Last night Shiva had taken out the photograph and placed it against a clock on the bedside table. The woman and the boy looked awkward in their unfamiliar setting where nothing had ever changed, where the glazed cotton curtains, though faded, bore the same little bunches of cherries she’d loved as a child.

She didn’t hear the door, nor notice the photograph fall to the ground, dislodged by a current of air.

Her mother stood, silent, in the doorway and the woman with the nervous smile looked up at them both.

Shiva snatched up the photograph (it lay, sticky, in her palm) and searched her mother’s face for some hint of reassurance. But she had closed her eyes as if to wipe out the image of the mysterious woman and her child. Then finally she spoke: ‘Her name was Helen.’

‘Was?’ The old clock ticked in the unchanged room and the cherries rippled on the curtains as her mother closed the door behind her.

‘She died five years ago.’

‘And – the boy?’ Shiva’s thoughts swerved dangerously as part of her, sensing alarm, raced down the stairs. Her words seemed to come from somewhere far off. ‘Who is he?’

‘Edward.’

Shiva repeated the name, her father’s name. ‘Edward?’

‘Yes. Edward is his son.’

Her mother’s lips continued to move but Shiva had ceased to hear. She was now too far away. She had escaped from her ordinary life and the unchanged room and was running, as if to save her life – her old life – where secrets and affairs and half-brothers and cheating fathers didn’t exist. Those things just didn’t happen to people like them. The picture still lay in her hand and she wished only to crush it, to crease the perfect face so it was no longer beautiful.

‘Would you like to keep it?’ Her mother stood near, stroking her daughter’s face, but her words were a long way off too. ‘He did love us all, you know.’

 

Back in the warm garden, a great weight had settled in Shiva’s chest. How could she ever forgive, as her mother had seemed to? She imagined Edward, tucked inside her father’s tweed jacket, sharing a sky full of stars, stealing her own special moment. She had been snatched from his heart by the boy with dimpled knees. She found a tissue, tucked up her sleeve, and blew her nose noisily. Suddenly remembering the young man at the church, she reached for her bag and pulled out a small, crumpled card.

The handwriting was unaffected, simple and straight. The kind of hand you would immediately trust. My name is Edward, the message began.

Just then a gardener appeared from behind a rose bush. His white hair shone in the afternoon sun. ‘I see you came in the hard way.’

Startled, Shiva stood up and blood began to trickle down her leg from the graze.

‘You mean there’s another way in?’

He laughed. ‘Of course, isn’t there always?’ There was such a brightness about him that she felt lumpish and dull in her funeral clothes.

He stepped forward without a word and, raising his hand, passed it in front of her chest, as though swatting a cloud of gnats. Then, without a word, he returned to the rose bush and disappeared as quickly as he had come. The heaviness in her chest had lifted completely and, studying the little card once more, she continued to read:

Like you, Edward had written, I never knew till now. You are as much a surprise to me as I am to you.

*

From beyond the rose bush where the gardener had appeared comes the distant sound of drumming, each beat growing louder than the last, and filling the silence.

At the edge of Shiva’s vision a young woman in a blue dress takes form. The folds of her dress are pulsating with the same steady rhythm as the drum. Shiva’s heart thunders with anticipation. And dropping the card, she realises there is no need to know more – only that Helen had left and in the course of time married Tom; the man Edward calls dad.

Now the blue dress fades and the woman too, but in her place stands a small marble Madonna with outstretched arms. Her father is there too with his rough jacket and his love for a son that he barely knew and, suddenly, his arms, like hers, are open wide.

‘Come home, Shiva,’ he seems to say, and there is, she knows, room in his arms for them all. The statue smiles.

 

Something inside her takes its last breath and, all anger and jealousy gone, she looks down at her knee and sees that the wound has gone too, not the faintest trace remains.

 

*

When the gardener returned the sun had sunk behind the trees.

‘Are you ready?’ he asked and, taking her hand, led Shiva through the garden until they reached the Marian Gate once more. ‘They’ll be missing you.’ He touched the gate and it whinged open with ease.

Home! She imagined them all, warming their hands by an open fire and tea passed around, laced with whisky, and little trays of sponge cake and buttered scones.

‘Do you remember?’ they might ask, and remind one another what a good life old Ted had lived. And perhaps he had after all.

‘I have a brother,’ Shiva thought, seeing the young man in his stepfather’s coat and her magnificent mother serving him tea, adding a drop more whisky for the cold. ‘Imagine,’ she said aloud, ‘a brother!’

 

Outside the garden the wind had risen and rain was coming in from the sea. As the gate swung shut Shiva turned to thank him, but the gardener had already gone. Then, kicking up the gravel on the path, she hurried, spiralling down the hill, her feet barely touching the ground.

‘I’m coming home,’ she sang and her voice was carried on the wind, lifted up like a kite. ‘Home… home…’ echoed around the hills and the cliff walks and danced with the air currents until it was almost lost amidst the seabirds’ cries. And, as the tide broke against the rocks, the sound of her own voice rose up and stirred her heart. ‘I’m coming home!’

 

 

(The Story Behind) The Extra Guest Charity – Part Two

Myrrnah was woken abruptly the next morning by the telephone.

‘Well, you know we never liked him.’ Her mother didn’t try to hide her relief, hearing that David had left. ‘But we have a suggestion for you. Your father and I are taking off for six months or so. Why not come back to Brighton and run Langton’s while we’re away?’ Myrrnah – who knew the business as well as they did – would be their new manager.

Not that I ever go back, Myrrnah reasoned privately then suddenly she remembered the child with the bowl. What if this wasn’t going back at all but moving on? She remembered Sally’s words too:You should open a restaurant. Something different, with a twist,’ and pictured the Brighton hotel’s rather dated dining room transformed. There was, she mused, so much she could change.

 

Six months became five years and the Langtons, happy to leave things in their daughter’s hands, retired. The drab old dining room had soon become The Extra Guest, a stylish eating place known for its imaginative cuisine, and the little hotel quickly doubled its bookings.  Each summer Lupin came to stay and would often recall, a little wistfully, The White Hart, and how much she had missed its strange but alluring human presence. And often, Myrrnah would have a dream in which she was searching for something she’d lost. She would embark on long journeys to unfamiliar places, driven on by a sense of loss, until at last her dream led her to The Gallery where the Hart appeared, clear as day, in the window. Thereupon, having gone inside to buy it for her friend, she always awoke with a thrill.

*

 

And now ten years on, she was back in Hartridge once more. Puzzled by the portrait of the woman in pink, she strolled back into town, bought a coffee and panini in the Ambergate Arms and unfolded her newspaper and spread it across the table:

 

Myrrnah Langton is here to promote her latest cookbook ‘The Extra Guest.’ It highlights a new trend in ‘ethical dining,’ initiated at her Brighton hotel. Ms. Langton encourages her diners to pay for an extra place setting (or ‘extra guest’) and proceeds go to combat poverty in the undeveloped world. £0.5 million has been raised so far and schools built in several African villages. The scheme has now been taken up by restaurants and bars throughout the U.K.

 

It was a full-page article with colour photographs of the newly painted hotel and smiling school-children, neatly uniformed, and there, in the middle of it all, herself. She felt a sudden surge of affection, almost love, for the woman in the publicity picture. Shyly displaying her new book, her eyes were bright enough but behind the closed smile was a certain buried loneliness. There had been no-one since David, no-one in ten years, for how else would she have done all this? A successful hotel, a collection of cookbooks and a thriving charity had left no room for anything else. She refolded the newspaper and glanced at her watch. The book signing – she had almost forgotten and Lupin would already be there, waiting and wondering what had delayed her.

 

She hurried back to The Gallery for one more glimpse of the woman in pink. But the portrait was no longer there, only an empty easel. It seemed rather like looking in a mirror and finding no reflection; she had suddenly ceased to exist. For those few moments outside The Gallery the woman in pink had become an extension of her self – and perhaps more than that, a promise of things to come.

 

‘I noticed a portrait here earlier.’  She pointed to the empty easel and hoped that the girl at the counter hadn’t spotted the likeness. Her neck reddened but the girl was busy, tidying the counter.

Woman in Love? It’s not for sale?’

‘And who is the artist?’ Myrrnah persisted, emboldened by curiosity.

‘Miss Trostin? The owner?’ Annoyingly the girl made everything she said sound like a question.

Myrrnah imagined her Miss Trostin; an elderly lady most likely with a talent for water colours.

‘I see.’ It was clearly all a coincidence and anyway, time was now short. ‘In any case, I was looking for something quite different. I was told you might have it here.’ She lied – she was, after all, only here on the strength of a stupid old dream – and began to describe the white deer with human eyes. Feeling foolish, she waited for the girl’s response, afraid suddenly that she might actually say yes.

Frowning, the girl opened her order book and ran her finger down several pages. Finally she shook her head. ‘The White Hart? No luck, I’m afraid?’

A current of air from an overhead fan cooled Myrrnah’s cheeks. Unsure whether it was relief or disappointment, she reached falteringly into her bag to call Lupin then remembered she had left the phone in the car.

 

‘Miss Trostin did have it here once?’ the girl murmured as an afterthought but Myrrnah was already through the door. ‘For quite a while, maybe?’

 

Lupin was already outside the book shop where quite a queue had formed for Myrrnah’s latest recipes. Later, every copy sold and signed, they wandered back to Myrrnah’s car, debating whether to stop for supper at the Ambergate Arms or take a leisurely drive back to Brighton and arrive before dark.  The mobile phone displayed six missed calls, two voicemails and an impatient text from the hotel receptionist: Tried you several times. Please return urgently – half the staff down with ‘flu.

 

Suddenly the two paintings were forgotten and as they set off together for her annual visit to the sea, Lupin spread out a handful of cards on her lap.

‘I have a good feeling about today all the same,’ she confided, selecting The Wheel of Fortune. ‘After all, the best things always happen when least expected. It’s a good omen for us both, I’m sure.’

 

They arrived an hour before opening to find Langton’s in chaos. With three staff ill and the sous-chef sneezing violently, Lupin prepared the tables while Myrrnah grabbed an apron and set to work in the kitchen. Soon she was interrupted by the girl from reception.

‘Excuse me, Ms. Langton, but there’s someone at the desk insisting that you see him now. I’ve told him you’re busy but he just won’t go away.’ Myrrnah wiped her hands on her apron and followed her into the hall.

 

A distinguished looking man carrying two large packages was waiting at the desk. His hair was dark and he wore an elegant suit and well-polished shoes. ‘Good evening,’ he said. ‘Do you happen to have room for an extra guest?’

‘I’m sorry, sir.’ She smiled professionally and ran a finger down the list of rooms. ‘We’re a little short-staffed today but I can find you a room tomorrow.’

His face lit up. ‘You don’t remember me at all, do you? I’m Richard Austen from The Gallery. It seems our journeys have crossed today.

His smile was a searchlight.

‘So, you’re Miss Trostin?’ Myrrnah said, mimicking the girl in the gallery. Then she laughed, remembering the scruffy angel at the party, unrecognizable now with his smart suit and tidy hair. ‘And you’re really the new owner?’

He nodded. ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’

Myrrnah hesitated, taking in his golden skin and inviting smile. He would certainly impress the guests. ‘I don’t suppose you’d like a little job for the evening, would you, Richard? We could always find you somewhere to stay.’

‘Well, why not?’  He had begun to unwrap one of his packages but changed his mind and asked if they could be placed somewhere safe for a while. ‘These can wait till later, I think.’

*

‘Well,’ said Myrrnah, locking up as the last of the diners left. ‘Shall we eat?’ She set a place in the empty restaurant for herself and Lupin and their unexpected extra guest. ‘Let’s open a bottle of something special.’

Richard had collected his two packages and began once more to un-wrap them. He removed a canvas from the first and leaned it against their table. The woman in pink looked back, poised and untroubled by love.

‘I’d better explain. This is how I saw you at Phil’s – not as you were then of course, but as you will become one day.’

He had worked painstakingly from the little New Year’s Day photograph and, as the years passed, the portrait had changed, become gradually older but curiously more beautiful. ‘She’s taken ten years to finish and I reckoned now was the time you should have it.’

 

Before she had time to thank him he was un-wrapping the other package and soon he revealed another canvas. ‘I found this in the Oxfam shop, soon after you left. I mended the frame and I think it inspired me to paint you. Now the portrait’s done it seems time to pass it on.’ For a moment it seemed that the White Hart had actually winked.

Myrrnah filled their glasses and proposed a toast. (He was, she had to admit, a complete angel; and a rather presentable waiter too): ‘To Richard, our extra guest!  Lupin, your hart is in the right place at last, the book is selling well and we’ve made enough here this month to build another classroom.’ And it seems perhaps I’ve learned to love myself too, she smiled, if Richard’s portrait is anything to go by.

 

‘You love all this, don’t you?’ Richard Austen observed.

‘Oh yes,’ she answered. ‘It’s my passion – just as painting is yours, I suppose.’

 

‘No Myrrnah dear – not painting!’ Lupin teased when they were alone. ‘Not by that look on his face.’

‘Rubbish – he hardly knows me.’ She protested but her apricot cheeks had ripened a little.

‘He’s just spent ten years getting to know you, silly girl. Remember The Wheel of Fortune? The best things happen when least expected,’ said Lupin, carrying The White Hart to her room.

‘Give it time.’

 

 

 

(The Story Behind) The Extra Guest Charity – Part One

(The Story Behind The Extra Guest Charity)

 

Myrrnah Langton cleared her throat as the call went onto voicemail. ‘I’ll be a little late – just an hour or two, no more.’ She dropped the phone onto the passenger seat, relieved that she wouldn’t have to explain her delay, and gathered her things from the back of the car. ‘This is it, girl,’ she told herself. ‘You’re here. No bottling it now.’

She took a long breath, holding it close as if reluctant to let it go. A sigh followed – an intonation of such bleak resignation that it took her by surprise. No-one had forced her to come after all.

 

The phone rang the moment she left the car. She glanced back at the passenger seat where it lay and paused, her key ring looped over one finger. If she went back now she might change her mind, drive off without finding what she had come for. In any case she didn’t believe in going back; it was a rule she had lived by for years.

Ignoring the phone she crossed the main street and stopped at a kiosk to buy a local paper. Celebrity Cook Returns to Hartridge, the headline announced. Book-signing today. Close by, a signboard in the shape of an arrow advertised a gallery. She walked briskly in the direction of the arrow, fanning her face with the newspaper. There was still time to get to the book-signing. She could see the gallery ahead of her now, at the end of a row of half-timbered cottages. It was a still day, hot and airless, and she stumbled a little on the cobbles, slowed down by her narrow skirt and high heels. She smiled nervously, aware suddenly that she had broken her own rule. After ten years away she had, at last, returned to Hartridge.

 

Upstairs the gallery windows were wide open; faded curtains hung undisturbed by any breeze and baskets of parched lobelias drooped in the midday sun. The shop, now under new management, was closed for lunch. There was a card in the window advertising a vacancy for a part-time assistant. Reading it Myrrnah caught her own reflection in the glass; a graceful girl, with well-cut hair and serious eyes; in the heat her cheeks had taken on the colour of ripe apricots.

She searched the display anxiously, eyes darting from one canvas to another, desperate to find there what she had come for. Tiny hedgerows in enormous mounts, scenes of foxhounds and horses and an extravagant painting of lilies in a china pot: nothing. She sighed and loosened her jacket. It really was unbearably hot. Her blouse was damp and sticky on her back.

Undeterred, she shaded her eyes and peered further into the gallery’s dark interior. A girl was reading at the counter, unaware of her presence and nearby, beneath a small spotlight, sat a woman of perhaps sixty-five. She appeared serene and unaffected, a pink cardigan thrown carelessly about her shoulders. Tiny hearts decorated the low scoop of her neckline and at her throat hung a small silver locket, also heart-shaped, which had fallen open to reveal a miniature self-portrait. Although no longer slender, the woman had a contented poise. As though no longer troubled by love, Myrrnah wondered; a compensation for lost youth perhaps.

 

It was an accomplished painting, almost life size. She narrowed her eyes. Careful brushstrokes revealed little lines and folds, shadows where the eyes had sunk. But there was also something oddly familiar about her, a sense of having met her somewhere, of some shared experience. And then it struck her: the woman in pink, though so much older, had the same serious eyes and apricot cheeks as her own. This is me, she marveled, in another thirty years, a plumper me with features that have begun to droop and hair that is no longer sleek.

Just then a siren pierced the stillness; with a single stroke it cut the day in half. For someone, somewhere that sound would signal the end of life as they knew it. Just as it had, for her, ten years ago…

*

They had been standing at the entrance to The Gallery, gazing blankly at the display. ‘Let’s go in,’ Myrrnah said, glancing up at the flat above, where a cloud of smoke escaped from the open window. ‘Lydia’s obviously having trouble with lunch.’

It was New Year’s Day and a small crowd of guests squeezed past them, armed with flowers and bottles of wine.

David Langton was staring into the distance. ‘Myrrnah, I’m leaving.’ Just at that moment a siren sounded and an ambulance turned into the cobbled street, its lights flashing. As it passed Myrrnah placed a hand on her chest, realising that for someone somewhere, things would never be the same again.

‘But you can’t. Philip will expect us.’ Silent now, the siren still echoed in her heart.

David stared down at his shoes. One of the laces, she noticed, had come untied. ‘Myrrnah, I really can’t do this. I’m leaving Hartridge.’

Lupin Mc.Innery had warned her about him from the start. They were unlikely friends, Lupin being twice her age, but she was very wise in her own eccentric way. She read the Tarot and was keen to give advice, especially where love was concerned. Her house was filled with obscure old volumes on dusty shelves, huge lumps of crystal and framed reproductions of Dali and Magritte.

‘He’ll be off, you’ll see,’ Lupin pronounced one day and selected a card from her pack. ‘Death!’ She crowed, waving the card before Myrrnah’s eyes as proof of her judgment. Then, seeing her concern, added: ‘But you will find love.’ She paused mysteriously then began a lengthy discourse on courtly love and the medieval tradition of pursuing the beloved. ‘Remember, never go hunting the hart.’ She tapped her chest softly. ‘Instead of looking for love, first be in love with yourself!’

 

Myrrnah looked up and noticed a new painting on Lupin’s wall. A white deer with startlingly human eyes stood out from the collection of prints. It was quite old and in a broken frame, its surface cracked, and it looked quite out of place with all the other pictures. It had come from an old aunt, thought to be mad, and passed down through the generations. Although intriguing at first it was not, as it turned out, an easy companion to live with: for there was nothing the White Hart missed, nothing those searching eyes did not see! It seemed, Lupin said, to draw everything to the surface, each secret thought, each hope, each uncomfortable memory. But seeing it, meeting it, there today, Myrrnah felt unusually happy, as though the hart had spotted her and was determined to stick around. She stepped from one side to the other but wherever she turned The Hart went too, following her every movement; and unaware, it seemed, of its own imminent fate. For soon the painting would be gone, stuffed into a box of paperbacks destined for Oxfam, something that Lupin would regret in the years to come. The hart’s image was, in any event, already etched in Myrrnah’s heart.

 

Outside the gallery she watched the back of David’s head as he walked away then turned mutely and went inside. At the back of the gallery a scruffy young man in enormous boots was cutting mounts. Hearing her enter he looked up from his work and smiled broadly. For a moment she stood perfectly still, caught in the searchlight of that extraordinary smile. He had rather golden skin, suggesting that he had caught the sun even though it was winter, and spiky blond hair that was black at the crown. As he returned to his work a pretty girl with cropped hair burst in through the door and, with a brief wave to Myrrnah, threw her arms around the boy.

‘Sal!’ The boy’s face lit up again.

Sally’s boyfriend has the face of an angel, Myrrnah thought, climbing the stairs to the flat above. She paused on the landing and watched the young friends in the gallery below. They were clearly untroubled by love.

‘So who’s the woman with the serious face?’ the angel murmured.

‘Oh that’s only Myrrnah,’ the girl replied. ‘Uncle Dave’s missus.’

 

The guests had assembled in a low-ceilinged room where Philip’s paintings filled the walls: bold abstracts and some loving but unflattering studies of his wife in handsome frames.

‘So where’s that twin brother of mine then?’ Philip greeted Myrrnah with a glass of wine in his hand. He wore a paint-spattered tee-shirt, his hair tied back in a rubber band. ‘Don’t tell me, too busy to come? Just as well – Lydia’s ruined lunch.’ He looked Myrrnah up and down appreciatively and she ruffled his hair, thinking how he couldn’t look less like his brother David with that ridiculous pony tail.

She glanced around the room at the others, feeling out of place. All those arty people: painters, sculptors, and a few musicians who had travelled up from London, strangers mostly, and she with nothing to say. She began to wish she hadn’t come.

 

‘Now, you’ll remember Matthew and Vanessa?’ said Philip. The couple nearby gave a little wave. ‘And you must meet Richard Austen; he’s our new framer, an old school friend of Sal’s. Not a bad painter either.’ He pointed to a self-portrait that Myrrnah recognised at once as the scruffy angel downstairs. ‘Sal should be back by now; I’ll give them a shout.’ He opened the door and yelled down the stairs. ‘Richard! Sally! Come and join us.’

Just then a flustered Lydia appeared, hurriedly pushing past her guests to reach them. ‘Oh, this wretched oven – thank God you’re here!’ She offered Myrrnah her cheek. ‘At least you’ll know what to do.’

She butted open the kitchen door and the two women disappeared together into a cloud of smoke.

 

Myrrnah peered into the fridge and pulled out a jar of olives. Used pans, some of them ruined, filled the sink. Every surface was littered with recipe books and abandoned attempts to interpret them; carelessly opened packages spilled their contents onto the tiled floor. It was chaos but at least in here she was safe, wouldn’t have to worry about David or offer opinions about paintings she didn’t understand. Here she was in her element.

‘Right, Lydia. Shall we start again?’ She opened a cupboard in search of inspiration and took down an expensive-looking bottle of vintage olive oil. She had given it to Lydia last year but it had never been opened. ‘By the way, David’s left me.’

Lydia stared blankly. ‘What! I don’t believe it – I’m sure he’ll be back.’

Strange, they’d never married, David and her, though they’d shared a house, a bed and even, by coincidence, the same name for years. Myrrnah of all people: capable, kind and with looks to die for! ‘He’ll be back,’ she said again.

‘Nope,’ Myrrnah snapped, tipping burned potatoes into the bin. ‘Some things just can’t be saved. Now just leave me to it, Lydia, and talk to your guests.’

Lydia hovered then obeyed.

‘Give me twenty minutes,’ Myrrnah called after her, ‘and I’ll rustle up something they won’t forget.’ Growing up in a small seaside hotel, she had always loved to cook. It was what she did best and she had discovered very early in life that whatever the crisis, cooking was always the answer. For some reason, the more stress, the better the dish; so today, lunch promised to be exceptionally good.

 

She surveyed the mess in the kitchen and began to clear a space. Inside however, the confusion was harder to clear. Things hadn’t been right for a while. Was it the stress of his job, she wondered, or another woman? Whatever the reason she knew he’d already left her months ago in a way.

 

A little later she reappeared with a huge bowl of pasta a la romana. A tray of little side dishes followed – olives, mozzarella, artichokes – and a bright insalata mista, all glistening with oil and lemon.

‘A masterpiece!’ cried Philip, admiring the perfect blend of colours. ‘Richard! Be an angel, will you?’ He passed a camera to the scruffy young man who obligingly captured Myrrnah’s impromptu creation.

 

Throughout lunch the guests discussed their latest projects: music, sculptures, photography, painting, and the recent exhibition at the Saatchi gallery. Sally and her friend were arguing good-naturedly about whether a messy bed or a pickled sheep could really be called art while Myrrnah sat quietly, wondering if soon she might soon slip away unnoticed.

‘But Rich, Hirst and Emin are so brave and original,’ pronounced Sally, ‘true reflectors of our time.’

The scruffy angel frowned. ‘Ah, but do they actually inspire?’ He turned his attention to Myrrnah. ‘It’s important, don’t you think – to inspire and not simply reflect? Whose work inspires you?’

They were all so intense. She had always gone for posters in wooden frames, colourful things from Ikea that brightened the room. Not their kind of thing at all.

What the hell am I doing here, she wondered, on New Year’s Day with my ex’s family and a bunch of people I hardly know? She glanced across at David’s empty chair where someone had draped a jacket.

‘I’m no artist,’ she began apologetically, avoiding the young man’s searchlight smile.

‘But clearly you are,’ Sally protested. ‘A culinary artist. People would pay a fortune for food like this. You should open a restaurant. Something different, with a twist.’

Richard nodded. ‘You could be the next Delia.’

Hearing them Lydia and Phil joined in. ‘Or Clarissa Dickson-Thingy.’ They all laughed, remembering the ‘Two Fat Ladies’ on the television.

‘A full English breakfast is the best cure for hangovers. The liver embraces it,’ mimicked Phil in a plummy voice. ‘I loved their style.

Myrrnah excused herself quickly and went into the kitchen to make coffee. Lunch over, it would soon, thank God, be time to leave.

 

‘A Happy New Year to everyone!’ Lydia sang as Myrrnah returned with the tray of coffee. She passed round dishes of Christmas cake and burned mince pies.

‘May it be unforgettable,’ said Philip, rather ambiguously Myrrnah thought, for certainly it had begun that way. Then he clapped his hands for silence and proposed a toast:

‘To the lovely Myrrnah: for saving the day.’

‘To Myrrnah,’ they all echoed, sipping wine.

Next he raised his glass to David’s empty chair. ‘Absent friends!’ He slurred drunkenly, spilling his wine as Lydia nudged him sharply. The moment passed and the talking continued.

Philip began flirting with a girl little older than his daughter but Lydia didn’t seem to mind. Occasionally he would glance back at his wife and smile as if to remind him self – and her – how lucky they were. They are close, Myrrnah thought wistfully; too close for petty jealousies. Openly affectionate, they would taunt each other mercilessly at times. But it was safe to do so. Myrrnah watched them now, envying their honesty and ease. But it had not been so with David. Together, they were awkward, their dealings polite and cautious. They spoke only of things they observed – the need for a new piece of guttering or the state of the garden since the last storm – but never things that were felt. That was no longer safe to do, it seemed.

 

Someone put some music on the hi-fi and one or two, tired of chatting, got up to dance. Myrrnah went to fetch her coat, her handbag slung over her arm. ‘You can’t go yet!’ Philip and Lydia chorused. ‘We need a group photo first.’

The scruffy angel took up the camera once more.

‘Do count me out,’ Myrrnah pleaded but he feigned not to hear. Then, as everyone gathered round and smiled for the camera, she jumped.

 

There in David’s seat, for an almost imperceptible moment, sat a small child. He seemed as surprised as she was to find himself in such unfamiliar company. But meeting her gaze he smiled – such a look of love it was – and held out an empty bowl. His eyes were familiar, not unlike the white hart’s. ‘So will you help?’ he whispered and instinctively she bowed her head, having the feeling there was something extraordinary she’d just agreed to do. At once the bowl began to fill with golden coins.

The camera was passed from person to person. ‘Damn, I blinked at the wrong time,’ said one. ‘I look drunk,’ said another. ‘But look,’ Lydia laughed. A spiral of white light hovered over David’s empty chair. ‘We have an extra guest.’

 

As she left, the angel touched Myrrnah’s arm in passing. ‘Did you see him then, the extra guest?’

 

She returned home to find that David had emptied his wardrobe. His car had gone too but the house keys were still on the kitchen table alongside a note (which turned out to be a check list of things to pack) and an empty coffee mug that he hadn’t bothered to wash before leaving. Still wearing her coat she sat down, unaccountably happy, and stared at the empty chair opposite her. The boy with the bowl still hovered in her mind.

 

The house had never felt so peaceful.

 

 

 

 

(The Story behind The Extra Guest Charity to be continued in Part Two…)

 

 

“Awakening”

Above the highest peak of the highest range of mountains in the world, somewhere beyond Heaven and Earth, dusk falls and a lone star appears in an amethyst sky. This peak is not known to many and has been climbed by fewer still. Yet here, somewhere beyond Heaven and Earth, is a State called Perfect Peace. Here, beyond the seasons and the tides, young souls slumber and sing to the stars. You may sometimes hear their distant song.

Now and again a visitor called Time enters the remote State of Perfect Peace and awakens one from his dreams. He is looking for those who will travel with him into the Dark Unknown that stretches far below Perfect Peace. Now and again, and not realizing the sacrifice he is about to make, a young soul offers himself and, carrying only a bright lamp in his heart, he leaves the State of Perfect Peace to journey with Time into the Dark Unknown…

‘Young Soul,’ Time announces, ‘always remember who you are! Your mission is this: to bring Light to the world below us.’

 

The way down is long but, guided by the light in the young soul’s heart, they come at last to a high peak of great beauty and peace and capped with snow. The young soul hesitates here for a while, reminded suddenly of home. Then, surveying the valleys and river beds below them, all shrouded in mist, he and Time make their final descent. At last, after many miles, they reach their journey’s end and unaccustomed to the darkness, the young soul blinks and rubs his eyes. He gazes, intrigued by his new surroundings.

A great hooting and clanging echoes around them and he winces, covering his ears. How strange is this noisy world with its curious forms and slanting shadows, and so far from Perfect Peace. Already the snow covered peak is a distant dream.

‘Where shall I take my light first?’ he says, playing his lamp on rocky outcrops and tunnelling the crystal depths. He rides the wind on eagles’ wings and sails to the silent waters of ocean caves. At night he sleeps beneath the desert sand and watches sunrise through the eye of a jungle cat. Deeper and deeper into the World of Shadow and Form the young soul casts his light until ….

Time passes by one night and whispers into his dreams: ‘Young Soul, always remember who you are!’ But, so happy to play in Shadow and Form, Soul is already forgetting who he is. ‘I am the dragonfly,’ he cries, ‘I am the snowflake, the mountain and the fire!’ He leaps from one form to the next, dancing in the light of his heart, dancing in his own shadow, until finally he announces: ‘I am Man!’ And, as night falls once more in the World of Shadow and Form, the young soul’s light slips deep into the heart of Man.

Aeons pass in the World of Shadow and Form and the soul grows weary as one mortal lifetime ends and another begins. ‘Where has Time gone?’ he will sometimes say as a great longing for something half-remembered stirs in his heart. ‘Where can I find Peace, Perfect Peace?’

But, as the longing grows, so does his light, still buried deep in the heart of form.

 

One day his longing leads him to a place high above the World of Shadow and Form, where he can just make out the distant peaks of somewhere long forgotten. From his high place it is as though he sees, through the mists, his own Life unfold, lifetime after lifetime, and following comes a procession of memories, of pleasures and pain walking as partners, side by side in the valley below. But although he recognizes these memories as his own they now seem to be no longer part of him. He watches for a long time as thoughts come and thoughts go until finally echoes of a distant song appear. And suddenly, from his high place he sees the peaks of that somewhere long forgotten, and there is one final thought. Peace! The procession has halted now. Then sighing, he knows at once that Peace, Perfect Peace really is only a thought away.

 

He continues to climb until, as dusk falls, the distant song grows louder and the first star appears in an amethyst sky. Lifting his gaze, the mountains are no longer so far away. ‘Is it Time?’ he wonders and the light in his heart flickers and flares as, slowly, he begins to remember who he is. And at once a thousand other lights wink back – and more – until the whole World of Shadow and Form is ablaze with light. Then, hearing a familiar voice on the breeze, the old soul smiles as Time draws near.

‘Are you ready for the journey, old Soul?’ Time asks.

But ahead of Time Soul has begun to sing to the stars once more and, carried on a dream, he is already home.

 

 

Audio of Moyra Irving reading “Awakening”. Musical accompaniment: David Jimenez-Hughes

 

 

© Moyra Irving 2006

 

 

“The Girl Who Watched the Wind”

A large group had gathered under the trees. They huddled together, collars upturned and fists drawn up into their sleeves for warmth. Close by stood a small girl, a scrap of a thing, in a shabby old coat. As trees wavered, adrift in the squall, she covered her face, peering through fingers at the gathering swell. ‘See!’ she gasped suddenly, her voice snatched by the wind. ‘See the wind!’ It was coming in sea blue waves across the fields.

‘Tell the Others what you see,’ the wind seemed to urge.

The girl took a deep breath and braced herself. Her face shone and around her neck, on a silver thread, hung a little heart carved out of stone. The wind now billowed over hedgerows, driving rain clouds – grey on grey – ever closer. Laughing she lifted her arms, her old coat flapping about her like seagulls’ wings. Swirling currents of air broke at her feet and she jumped, riding waves that only she could see. ‘How bright and blue the wind is!’ she cried.

‘I am!’’ answered the wind. ‘I am.’

Unseeing, the Others shook their heads. ‘Stupid girl.’ They kicked up gravel beneath their feet, waiting for the storm to pass. ‘Anyway the wind has no colour.’

The wind played around their ankles, dallied with last year’s leaves, driving them into puddles and corners.

‘Who does she think she is!’ one cried.

‘Who do you think you are!’ echoed another.

And the girl, unable to answer, simply laughed: ‘I am.’

 

Branches rose and fell queasily above them, wet leaves spun limply to earth where they sheltered. But soon the skies began to clear and the wind grew calm. Weak sunlight had leaked through the branches and a rainbow appeared. The girl gazed in delight at the shining arc but, tired of her imaginings, the Others moved off. Their voices grew loud: The wind is invisible! Invisible!

‘Wait!’ The Girl Who Watched the Wind hurried after them, her feet crunching on the gravel path. The heart of stone on the silver thread beat, heavy, against her chest. How could they possibly not see the wind? Surely everyone saw the wind. But their words echoed in her mind and, uncertain now, she cast about her for another glimpse of the sea blue waves.

‘Are you there?’ she called to the wind. ‘Are you there?’ she called to the Others.

Breathless, the wind hovered. ‘I am.’

 

Birds whispered then scattered like darts. The girl’s face still shone as the last of the clouds disappeared and the rainbow faded. The afternoon grew suddenly warm.

Soon a Great Silence, as bright as sunlight, fell over the land and together in the Great Silence the girl and the wind paused.

‘Who are you?’ the girl asked politely and Silence spoke to them in the secret language of itself and said:  ‘I am.’

Hearing the voice of the Silence, the girl smiled.

‘Now,’ breathed the wind, ‘tell the Others what you hear.’

Touched suddenly by the wind’s breath, a sharp-eyed blackbird turned and regarded the girl. He too shone like the sun. ‘I am …,’ he sang, ‘I am …’ and with an eye to the heavens he shook out his wings. Unswerving he soared, so high that his light soon disappeared from view. But the light in the girl’s heart soared with him. ‘What purpose the little bird has!’ she marveled.

‘And what strength of spirit,’ said the wind, lightly brushing her arm.

 

The Others had now reached the road. It glistened in the heat. Glimpsing them the girl ran on, her feet splashing through puddles warmed by the sun. With her friend the wind at her back she cut across the field. Here poppies nodded and swayed in the Great Silence. Seeing their beauty she gasped. ‘Who are you?’ she called, stumbling over the furrowed land.

‘I am,’ they mouthed, each lipstick red, and scattered their petals into the arms of the earth.

Weighed down by the old coat and the heavy heart carved of stone, the girl sat down while the wind played happily in the trees. The earth slept beneath her, untroubled by the wind. Softened by the storm it was warm and heavy with the seeds of unborn life. Sensing her presence the Spirit of the Earth awoke. ‘I am,’ it murmured. ‘I am,’ and the girl lay back in the arms of the earth until the wind returned.

‘Tell the Others,’ he said and, lifting her up, carried her to the place where the Others waited, a little church with high windows and heavy doors fastened shut. ‘Tell them,’ he urged, ‘tell them of God.’

 

The Others towered above her but unafraid the girl took a deep breath and spoke of all she knew. Glowing, she told them of the wind and the Great Silence, the blackbird and the poppies and the Spirit of the Earth. She told them of God. But the Others, uneasy in her light, hid their laughter behind their hands. ‘Who do you think you are!’ they scoffed. And again the girl said, ‘I am,’ but her words were lost in their laughter.

‘There is no God!’ they taunted and, heads bowed, they continued on their way. Soon they forgot the Girl Who Watched the Wind and their footsteps disappeared over the hill.

Puzzled, the girl followed. No God. No God. Their words had cast a blanket over her soul.

 

The sun was now low in the sky.

‘No God?’ said the wind. ‘Then who am I? And who,’ he asked, gently brushing her hair, ‘are you?’

At once the blanket of doubt fell away and the girl smiled, radiant once more. ‘I am,’ she said and her words were snatched once more by the wind and carried across the land.

I Am … I Am …I Am …echoed brightly over the horizon and disappeared with the last of the sun.

The layered scents of evening drifted on the air and darkness settled over the fields.

‘Come home!’ cried the earth, drawing her body close.

Suddenly tired the girl lay down, her old coat muddy and torn. Alone with the wind and the comfort of wood pigeons she entered the great silence of sleep. And as the silver thread (already frayed) gave way, her heavy heart, carved of stone, fell free.

Morning followed and another night, and at last the Others returned. ‘Come home!’ they cried to the girl who was not to be found.

 

Time passed and the wind rose once more and whispered, ‘Come home!’

‘Home,’ she sighed and cast her old coat to the wind.

‘Come home,’ a blackbird sang and spread his taffeta wings. Gleaming he soared until, reaching the heavens, he drew down the light of seven stars.

‘Come home,’ beckoned the stars, lighting her Path of Return. Touched by their light, the Others lifted their heads.

 

Sea blue waves moved gently now across the earth and the Girl Who watched the Wind awoke. Light of heart she rode the wind, oh such a scrap of a thing, until she came to a silent shore. And together they rose, weightless between worlds, higher and higher still to the soundless, groundless Light of No Beyond. There in the flow where there is no before and no after. ‘Home,’ her heart sang as it beat with the silent pulse of the wind.

 

‘Come home’ is ever the empty call of the earth. ‘Come home,’ the Others still cry to the Girl Who watched the Wind. For years they have gathered by the little church with high windows, its heavy doors now open wide. They enter now, their footsteps clattering on the cold stone floor and, heads bowed, sing their half-remembered stories – of her lightness and laughter as she watched the wind, her flapping like a sea bird and the rainbow when the rain had stopped.

 

Hearing their song she hovers once more like a ghost between worlds. After many dusks and many dawns the girl, at last, is near. But now she is one with the wind and one with the earth. Returning, she is one with the sharp-eyed blackbird and the poppies and the Great Silence. She is even one with the Others. Her bright heart glows in the sun.

 

Hearing their song a stranger draws near. He listens, intent on their stories. ‘Has she come home, the Girl Who Watched the Wind?’

The Others shake their heads. Yet secretly they have glimpsed her running through their dreams, her coat flapping in the wind. Or caught a whisper, softer than thought, calling to them in the Great Silence.: I AM … I AM … I AM …

‘Are you sure?’ the stranger asks. A gentle breeze has found the open door. He wears no coat and the Others gather round, concerned that he might catch a chill. ‘See!’ he says. ‘See the wind?’ Birds whisper and scatter like darts as the wind grows strong. It carries in the scent of lavender and old suits, brought out for these occasions. It comes in waves, little waves which (even for a moment) they almost believe they can see.

 

‘And who are you?’ they ask at last as sunlight streams in through the high windows.

‘I am …’ he begins, but his voice is lost in a whoop of surprise as, dazzled, the Others lift their heads. And then someone, seeing a rainbow in the sky, declares: ‘At last a sign, the Girl Who Watched the Wind is home!’

 

 

 

“Now Is Forever”

‘Is it really a year since I saw you all?’ Mrs. Bannister wiped her hands on her apron and ushered her guests into a cool, lavender scented hallway. ‘Welcome home, my dears!’ She beamed, opening her arms to gather them all in. ‘Welcome to Newland. They all nodded, remarking that it hardly seemed possible, even a month was too long. ‘Then time really has stood still!’ she smiled.

For fifteen summers they had ‘come home’ to Mrs. Bannister’s, the Carmichaels by train from Derby and the Dunns from Bedford in their old Ford Cortina.

Long before their train approached Tilford Junction the Carmichael children would gather excitedly at the carriage window to catch their first view of the sea, while the young Dunns, bored with ‘I Spy’ and car spotting, watched eagerly for ‘water’ on the road where sunlight struck the camber. A sign, Mr. Dunn would pronounce, of a hot spell to come.

There were five children in all but as the years passed only the youngest came, Susannah Dunn and Christopher Carmichael, the others having left home or become too old for family holidays.

Mrs. Bannister had lived at the top of Cloud Hill for as long as anyone could remember. Newland was a pretty, sun-bleached house with yellow shutters. It had seven bedrooms: the Harbour, the Garden, the Sunset and the Sanctuary and, at the top of the house, a large attic with windows that opened to the heavens. This was divided up into three smaller rooms, each decorated with stars and moons. It was known to the children as ‘The Sky.’ Here, silence hung like a mist, undisturbed even by the sound of gulls or the breakers beyond the sea wall. Here time stood still.

At the end of a long drive there was a gate which, when unlatched, swung noisily on its hinges. Hearing it, Mrs. Bannister would appear in the doorway, a small figure with a face that was neither young nor old, a face that had never changed in all the years they had come.

Once installed, the first to arrive would come down to greet the others. And in the cool, familiar hallway they kissed cheeks and marvelled at how the children had grown in a year. This year though the boy and the girl hung back, forgetting past friendship and eyeing each other awkwardly as strangers might. And it was true, they had grown; Christopher, almost thirteen, was already a sturdy young man with a hint of hair on his top lip.

‘Hi.’ He greeted the Dunns politely but his eyes avoided Susannah whose golden hair, no longer plaited, had been cut prettily to frame her face. Then Mrs. Bannister, sensing their awkwardness, took their hands at once. ‘To the Sky!’ she cried playfully and together she and the two young people raced up three flights of stairs to the top landing, their faces lit by excitement and by the yellow-gold light from stained glass sailing ships on the landing windows. Now they knew they were home!

 

From the moment they set foot on the stairs Susannah and Christopher had entered another world. Here in their Sky home summer promised never to end. And here, like Mrs. Bannister, they too were neither young nor old. Emboldened by rediscovered freedom, they were soon chatting eagerly through the partition wall that separated their little attic rooms, all shyness gone. And just as it always had, time stood still.

That night when supper was over the two families took a stroll around the harbour, ‘For a good dose of sea air,’ as Mrs. Dunn called it. Afterwards the adults chatted over coffee in the lounge the children returned to The Sky where they talked till late.

‘I wish I was Mrs. Bannister,’ Susannah murmured. ‘Imagine always living by the sea.’ It would be like being on holiday all year round, Christopher agreed. They lay in their little beds, watched over by wallpaper stars and moons – and the ghostly faces that appeared to emerge from the walls when darkness fell.

‘I don’t want to grow up,’ he announced solemnly. ‘I want to stay a boy forever.’

‘Mrs. Bannister hasn’t ever grown up, has she?’ Susannah said. ‘I wonder what her secret is.’ She yawned, made sleepy by the sea air. Soon the two friends fell silent and gave themselves up to sleep.

 

When night became morning their attic rooms were suddenly filled with seagulls’ cries and the delicious scent of fresh toast. The ghostly visitors now gone, the walls and ceilings revealed the little stars and moons that brightened again as morning light penetrated their rooms.

 

Each day Christopher and Susannah filled their bags with apples and cakes and climbed the sea wall that skirted the bay. At the top they would wait, panting in the silent heat … then hurl down the sandy slopes, squealing and clutching at sea grass to slow their fall. And, having anchored their towels and day clothes with a stone they ran, feet slapping on the wet sand and gave themselves up to the sea.

Gasping, they soon emerged, their appetites sharpened by the delicious shock of the water. Wrapped in their towels, they feasted on doughnuts and apples and warm Tizer while seagulls swooped low to feed on their crumbs. Afterwards they drew their names in the sand, six foot letters that, looking back, they could still see from the sea wall before the tide swept in and washed them away.

One day they looked up and, hearing the sound of an aeroplane overhead, waved. They paused, watching the thin chalk line it drew behind it in the sky. They began to imagine it carrying people from distant places, half-remembered from Geography lessons – Bali, Reykjavik, Marrakech. People who, seeing their names in the sand, might call to them in strange foreign voices which the two friends mimicked loudly: Chreestophair! Sootzahna! The wind carried their laughter out to sea and time stood still once more.

 

Returning home (for that is what Newland was), they staggered up the long driveway and trailed sand behind them in the cool, lavender scented hall. Here they were carried up on the air currents from the open door and on light beams from the landing windows, their feet light on the stairs. In their Sky world they emptied out their bags, now filled with salty treasures – shells and seaweed and little stones shaped like sugared almonds.

 

Every evening the adults went off in the Dunns’ car and the young friends stayed behind, happy to spend extra time with Mrs. Bannister. For years they had sat together in their dressing gowns on her old sofa, feet barely touching the ground. There was a mirror on the wall, yellowed with age, its brass frame shaped like eagles’ wings.

Mrs. Bannister always liked to sit by the window watching the light fade, at her feet a flatulent old dog, which for some reason smelled of chocolate. Rudely mimicking the poor creature’s affliction, they would shriek with laughter each time he ‘forgot his manners’ and Mrs. Bannister laughed too. Then without any warning she would press a finger to her lips as though listening intently. For what seemed like an eternity she would stare into the distance, her ageless face still and alert. They always knew then that they must be silent. But how almost impossible it was because of the urge to laugh, and how hard to breathe lest the old dog farted or snored. When they were quite sure that Mrs. Bannister wasn’t looking they would pull faces in the eagles’ wing mirror or nudge each other, one testing the other’s strength of will to be silent until, heads bowed, they buried their laughter stricken faces in their dressing gowns. Eventually Mrs. Bannister would sigh deeply and with a mysterious smile say: Nothing is ever lost because now is forever. Then, although mystified, they would sigh too and settle back against the shabby cushions.

 

One evening, the one that would be their last at Newland as it happened, Mrs. Bannister announced:

‘Before you go home I shall tell you a secret.’ A clock ticked unsteadily and chimed as one hand jerked to the half hour.

Over supper the Dunns had been discussing plans for their holiday next summer. Mr. Dunn had found a good deal on a time-share in Spain. The Carmichaels thought it an excellent idea. The kids, they said, would be too old by then for Newland after all.

Christopher and Susannah complained loudly. How could anyone ever be too for Newland?

 

‘But I don’t want to go home,’ Christopher said bleakly.

‘No,’ said the girl, ‘because here is home.’ She had seen how late it was and grew solemn, knowing that their last holiday here would soon end for they were leaving early in the morning. Through the open window the sweet scent of honeysuckle and night stocks drifted on the breeze.

 

‘Well, actually my angels,’ Mrs. Bannister said gently, ‘the secret is just this: you’re always home actually, no matter where you are, because Now is home. Now is forever. N-O-W …’ She sounded it slowly, drawing it out for what seemed like an eternity. ‘Remember this and I promise you, you’ll always be happy.’

Then hearing the kettle whistle on the stove she got up from her place by the window and went into the kitchen to make tea.

 

A fantail of light beamed in through the window and caught a piece of crystal on the sideboard, scattering rainbows across the worn carpet. The walls swayed with leafy shadows and the old dog yawned.

Mrs. Bannister was busy in the kitchen. A spoon struck a cup and water gurgled into a teapot, such comforting sounds that the boy and the girl relaxed a little.

For a very long time the room was silent – even the clock had stopped its ticking.

Eventually Mrs. Bannister returned and set a tray of milk and biscuits on the table for the two friends. ‘My goodness, time really has stood still,’ she said and began to wind up the clock with a key. Soon it began its unsteady ticking once more.

 

They couldn’t imagine a time when they would no longer stay in The Sky. Whispering through the partition that night they planned to return even when they were old. ‘Thirty or so,’ Christopher suggested.

‘And we’ll bring our children,’ Susannah said. ‘What a perfect place for them to grow up.’

Then Christopher, wondering what ‘our children’ meant, blushed a little into his pillow. ‘Goodnight,’ he called but, hearing no response, knew that Susannah was already asleep. ‘Goodbye Susannah,’ he whispered, remembering that the Dunns had an early start in the morning. The day was already a memory so all that was left really was ‘now’ and the delicious duck-down comfort of his bed. ‘Now is forever,’ he reminded himself, willing it to be true. ‘Now is home,’ he sighed. Soon there would simply be the silence and the stars and the wallpaper ghosts until, at last, he gave himself up to sleep.

 

As the years passed the Dunns and the Carmichaels no longer came to Newland. Yet twenty years on Christopher Carmichael is standing at the gateway once more. Silence hangs like a sea-mist on Cloud Hill. The house with yellow shutters is boarded up now and there is a ‘For Sale’ sign at the end of the drive. In his mind he can clearly see the ageless Mrs. Bannister at the door, her arms open in welcome. He remembers the lavender scented hallway, the lightness of his feet on the stairs and the yellow-gold light from the windows, as he is carried up once more to The Sky. There in his attic room he runs a hand over the embossed stars and moons and taps on the partition wall, half expecting to hear Susannah’s reply. ‘N-O-W is forever,’ he murmurs, knowing it to be so. ‘Now is home.’

Suddenly he too is neither young nor old but exactly what he always was and always will be. He sees the past with all its regrets and pleasures, and half-sees the future, shaped by his own hopes. All blend together in this one eternal moment: Home.

 

A car is parked at the bottom of the drive where his own children wait, a boy and a girl and a golden-haired woman who appears to be sleeping. He opens the gate which still swings noisily on its hinges and makes his way up the long gravel drive. The garden is overgrown but it still carries the sweet scent of night stocks and honeysuckle. Evening sunlight shines through the treetops, casting leafy shadows on the drive. His face is lit by excitement. He remembers the shabby room once more and the crystal rainbows and the long silence when time really did stand still. Just as it has right now.

 

He turns and slowly walks back down the drive. Seeing him, the boy calls impatiently from the car: ‘Can we go home now, Dad? Pleeease!’

His sister frowns. ‘Yes, we’ve been here forever!’ Bored, she breathes on the window and writes a name in the steam: Susannah. The golden-haired woman opens her eyes. ‘But we already are home sweetheart,’ she smiles. ‘What a perfect place to grow up.’

Christopher gazes a moment longer at the house with yellow shutters. Even the children’s impatience hasn’t troubled the silence. Then he presses a finger to his lips and, for what seems like an eternity, stares into the distance.

‘Your Mum is right,’ he says at last, ‘Welcome to Newland.’

 

 

© Moyra Irving 2011