Surprise Visitors

IMG_1128When I was planning my drive north for Christmas, I predicated all my plans with a cautious ‘depending on the weather’, recalling a couple of years when the snow and ice blanketing the country had made my journeys stressful white knuckle rides, even though I had followed the prevailing recommendations and kept to main roads and stocked up with a blanket, a hot flask and a shovel.

As it has turned out, we are laughing at the thought that snow might be a bit of an inconvenience this year, as much of the country is drowning below unprecedented levels of rain and flood water.  But I’m well trained, so although the shovel was a little superfluous in these conditions, I did equip myself with more food than would be normally necessary for a single day, as well as my flask of hot water, just in case.

And how hideous it is to drive in torrential rain, across roads shimmering with surface water, beneath the wheels of lorries throwing up oily spray.  I was boss eyed by the time I had completed my journey, the thrum of the windscreen wipers on double speed echoing inside my head long after I had arrived.

The idea of some nice calm quiet snow is very appealing, and I remembered this morning at Wellspring House a couple of years ago.  A Big Storm had been threatening for a couple of days, and we had been tracking its course on the news and weather sites, hearing that Washington DC was to be closed down in anticipation of its arrival and feeling relieved that we didn’t have to go anywhere if we didn’t want to.  The snow fell during the early evening and through the night, and I had been woken in the small hours by grinding noises and flashing lights, which turned out to be a local man, gardener in the summer, snow shifter in the winter, clearing the main drive to the house.

And then when dawn came, the air was clear and very soon the sun emerged and illuminated the crunchy white landscape.  I took the photo before anyone came to spoil the smooth snow just outside the front door.  Soon the necessity of a walk or the building of a snowman, or the throwing of snowballs would churn up the surface, and overlay the animal prints with the cleats of sensible boots.

I’m no tracker, so I’ve no idea what sort of creatures these were which came up to the house after the snow stopped falling, nor what they were looking for, but I love how neat the tracks look, and  the fact that one of the animals came up the path rather than across the flower beds, and that they all seemed to approach the front door, albeit sideways.  Were they all there at the same time, I wonder?

But a few moments later, when the normal traffic of life resumed, all the traces were gone…..

Simple – A Photo

Early one morning after a deep fall of snow at Wellspring House, Ashfield, before I’d even put the coffee machine on, I opened the door to check the depth of snow outside.  The sun was so bright it was difficult to believe that it had appeared so quickly after such a major storm.

I don’t know which animal made the tracks, but they’re tiny and delicate indentations, as if a fairy had danced across the surface.

As soon as the first person left the house the traces were obliterated.

Numbers – a Photo

It may not be an obvious step from Numbers to a graveyard, but it’s not that much of a stretch.

After the name on a gravestone, the next thing you look at is the dates, when was this person born, when did they die.  You can build a story around that information; maybe they died very young, or for their era they lasted a long time.  How extraordinary would it be to see the resting place of a person from the 18th century living into their 80s or 90s?

These photos were taken on one of the cemeteries in  Ashfield, Mass.  In its past Ashfield was a Puritan town, and the stones reveal that history.  There’s nothing fancy about any of them – just the basic information, name and dates, maybe a family relationship, and a resigned little aphorism – ‘My work is done’.

There are some splendid names on the stones, although many are worn away after years of exposure to the harsh weather; but they reveal the Puritan heritage, like Thankful, Humble, Clemency and Comfort, indicating either the frame of mind of the parents, or their future expectations at the delivery of a child.

Every society has their own way of commemorating the burial places of their dead.

One of the places I found endlessly fascinating when I lived in Moscow was the Novodevichy Cemetery.  It is the burial ground for the great and the good from the Soviet era (and some from a little earlier) who weren’t quite important enough to make it into the Kremlin Wall.

Chekhov is there, near Shostokovich, across the way from Molotov. Khruschev, the only Soviet era leader not to die in office is commemorated by a headstone which is half white stone and half black.

Graves are grouped into sectors and it is possible to see that a spirit of fierce competition survived most of the interred.  In the military section the slabs of marble grow in size as one progresses down the path, the carving more elaborate.  Every one appears to have wanted the military hardware over which they had command in life to be there with them into eternity, so many have tanks or planes depicted on the stones.  My particular favourite had a rocket launcher on top.

I used the Cemetery as the setting for a couple of key scenes in my novel set in Moscow, and I have had to address feedback on the implausibility of there being military hardware in a graveyard, and all I can say is, you’ll have to take my word for it.

One of the reasons that the gravestones and monuments are so elaborate is that together with the competition of the Soviet elite, it was one of the few ways in which sculptors and artists could get paid work, so one can only imagine the escalation of artistic ambition in each commission.

There are myriad stories of artists wreaking sideways revenge against their clients, by adding obscene or unpleasant features, which could only be observed from particular angles, to their work, but I was never able to confirm them.

10 minutes in Elmers


Ashfield Lake in Spring

Elmer’s is a breakfast place in Ashfield, western Massachusetts.  It serves thick pancakes designed to absorb the maple syrup produced just up the road at Gray’s Sugarhouse with limitless cups of coffee; it sells organic vegetables, hand-crafted ceramics and artisan bread.  The mugs are mismatched, the plates huge, the number of variations on the theme of breakfast multitudinous.

The menu is written with an eccentric sense of humour, reflecting the idiosyncrasies of the owner and her team, and on Sundays its clientèle, an eclectic mixture of locals, blow-ins, academics from the nearby colleges and hand knitted babies, queues outside onto the porch for its turn to eat.

And, for me, most importantly, Elmers is 5 minutes walk from Wellspring House,  a retreat for writers where I have spent several weeks over the last couple of years.  When the tyranny of the blinking cursor on the empty screen became too oppressive, a friend and I would escape to the pleasures of a table in the restaurant.

In the few minutes while we waited for our order, under the indulgent eye of the waitress who has seen it all, and much more besides, before,  we would set ourselves the challenge to write for 10 minutes on a random topic we took turns to suggest:

A character has a haircut

Someone crosses a bridge

Utterly haphzard, but with the knowledge that there is someone else trying the same thing, and the assurance that it will only take 10 minutes, something happens to focus the attention, and an idea emerges.  Sometimes it’s rubbish, but sometimes it’s not, and it turns into a scene that survives through expansion, edits, rewrites and more editing, into the final draft.  Oddly it is the exercises suggested by my friend, rather than mine, which have had a higher hit rate for me.  It’s as if I need to creep up on my imagination and take it by surprise.

Why is that magic so hard to replicate on one’s own?  I’ve read of a new phenomenon of on-line silent writing groups, where writers log on and join each other in not talking, but instead spend the hour of the ‘group’ writing in the  company of the other people ‘virtually’ connected with them, doing the same thing.

I’ve tried something similar with a couple of friends on Skype, but it’s never worked anywhere near as well for me; I think it’s because it’s too easy (for me) to cheat.

I’ve yet to find an alternative to those 10 minutes in Elmers.

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