Sunday, 20 September 2015

Ups and Downs

Writing can be full of ups and downs – which is no different from life itself, of course.

Just in the last couple of weeks, my YA novel was rejected by a publisher – although that could, perhaps, be counted as half a tick, as I had got as far as having the full manuscript read.
Then came the launch of ‘Secondary Character and other stories’, the WSSN anthology, which included my PENfro-winning story, ‘Ingrid, Audrey and Jean.’  This was definitely an ‘up’ moment, though there I was again, reading in illustrious company.  

Secondary Character Book Launch, WSSN
'Secondary Character' book launch, Swansea
(Photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)

However, I was lucky enough to have a few old friends to support me, and I think it went well – it was certainly an enjoyable night.  The book is available on Amazon, if anyone wants to buy it! 

A couple of days after that, I was emailed the results of a competition, with my entry nowhere to be seen.  Always a bit depressing, when you believe the story to have been a good one…
But following swiftly after that, came the results of the PENfro memoir competition, and I learnt that my work, ‘Revenant’, had been commended.   I was really thrilled by this, both on a ‘professional’ and a ‘personal’ level.  From the writing point of view, this was a form I had never tried before.  Indeed, I have never studied, or even read, memoir.  So it was a particularly satisfying result – all writers tell themselves short-listing is what counts! 

On a personal note, this was the first time I had written about having breast-cancer (I don’t intend to make a habit of it.)  It was difficult – in a way, I was using the competition to shape my thoughts… using writing to shape my thoughts.  Therapy, perhaps, but I still wanted to produce a good piece, and I think the commendation tells me that I did.

I’m including the whole memoir here – I’m not sure where else it could go, anyway.  It’s meant to be positive, so, family and friends, thank you, as always, and don’t be upset!  And thank you, also, Pembrokeshire.

Pembrokeshire Coast
(Photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)


Coming here…  I was going to chase ghosts.  To run after tattered wraiths of memory, and make them live again.
Coming here… was bound by a dream-catcher.  A web flung far, to trap ‘finding a home’, ‘building a garden’, ‘connecting with nature’ all together, and making them real.
It was about living in a place where land met sea, and saints met stones, in provocative confusion. A landscape of contrasts, dramatic enough to shake awake any idling spirit.  All washed in an Atlantic light, that was said to inspire the work of artists.  Writers, too?  Maybe.  Perhaps.
Instead, there was darkness. Fear, needles, blood, pain.  Black.  Black, again.  The spun dream become the worst of nightmares, holding me fast.

On the day we arrived, it started to rain.  Not unusual for the far west of Wales.  But it carried on raining for thirty days and thirty nights, a span of biblical proportions.
And then it began to snow.  The first snow in a decade, we were told by our new neighbours – and that was strange.
Still, it didn’t matter.  Spring was coming;  soon, there would be everything we’d hoped for.  The walks along the coast path, sharing its unique wildlife; the beginning of the garden, a novel finally finished.  That ‘home’.
And then came the dark.  ‘Black’, the word they use for depression.  ‘The black dog’.  But for me, ‘black’ is the time around my diagnosis of breast cancer, and the treatment that followed.  All woven together with coming here…

‘Here’ was Pembrokeshire. The ghosts I looked for varied in substance and form.  My great-grandparents haunted a lonely valley to the north of the county – or perhaps the next, or even another, its location shape-shifted across boundaries by men in distant council offices.  And the church where my great-grandfather preached had long been demolished, the manse turned into a farm, abandoning them entirely to a place that did not exist.  Yet, from ‘somewhere’, my grandmother walked ten miles to school in Llandysul – so she said – and rode her horse, and flirted with the curates, who visited that lost vicarage. 
There was another vicarage to the south, where a hundred-year old woman, dressed in deepest black, sat, unseeing, unmoving, in a pose stolen from a Victorian daguerreotype. She was the mother-in-law of my god-mother, descended from the ancient princes of Wales.  The house was a haphazard of rooms – a scene from a fairy-tale, to the eyes of a child.  And this was the revenant I craved most of all – my childhood self, as if, found, it would conjure the magic of the past into the promise of the future.
For Pembrokeshire was about ‘holidays’ – those interludes from the long passage of days, that stay locked in memory, and thus, most likely to keep that innocent wonder safe.
So I searched for an eight, nine, ten-year old girl, walking along the beach at Newport, and on to the cliffs beyond, where she would sit, gazing at the sea.  In St. David’s, alone with her father – a rare treat.  In Tenby, she almost drowned, though no-one else will acknowledge it.  At Ceibwr, she frowned at the wrinkled cliffs. In Nevern, someone said there was a tree that bled, and she believed it.

And then, with the coming of illness, none of this mattered.  ‘Here’ became no more than a bed, in a room still full of unpacked boxes. Family and old friends wrapped me in comfort and love.  But the new friends I had hoped to make were reduced to an ever-changing circle of women, with tubes in their arms, and fear in their eyes. Writing was forgotten – reading was hard enough.  And the exotic wildlife spawned by the ocean was diminished into the most common garden kind.
Mostly, I saw crows.  Or rooks, to be more precise.  Lying there, recovering from the latest dose of chemotherapy, they were the only things I could see, as they nested in my neighbour’s trees.  I came to love them – my only animal companions.  And I learnt something about crows.  When Pandora’s box was opened, and all the evils of the world let loose, only the crow remained, clinging to its edge.  And so the bird became a symbol for hope.  Of what might be.  With luck.

The early summer slipped through my fingers, always out of reach, but as Autumn approached, I was able to get out more.  The cliffs were difficult, steep slopes defeating me. But there were plenty of flatter areas – the beaches, Newport estuary, Cwm-yr-Eglwys to Pwllgwaelod.  Solva harbour.
As I walked, I gave my hair to the birds of Pembrokeshire.  Golden filaments, stroked out and left in the bushes for them to collect.  Looking back, I see it was the wrong time, the nesting season finished.  Still, it gave me comfort then.
I picked up white pebbles from the beaches, and slipped them in my pocket, to scatter about home and garden. Quartz, to counter negativity.  For health.
And I decided to keep a wildlife diary.  My ‘proper’ diary was full of appointments, treatments, scans.   I wanted something else.  I wanted to reclaim Pembrokeshire.

August 22nd.  Newport. Spotted a gold crest, smaller than a wren.  An egret flew over the estuary.
September 12th  - seals, at Strumble Head! A mother suckling her baby, the youngest I have ever seen!  Pure joy!

And then,
18th September, Porthgain.  Walked up to the beacon for the first time since...

Porthgain Beacon, Pembrokeshire
Porthgain Beacon
(Photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)

Onward, upward, became one of my many mantras.  I carried on.  And on.

It’s five years ago, now. 
Sometimes, I still see ghosts.  Perhaps some of them are real.  There must be some in that room, who didn’t make it through.  But others are dimly recognised shades, their hair grown back, their faces filled out, their eyes determined.  ‘Do I know you?’ I think of saying.  ‘Were you..?’  But I let it go, and move on.  Just as I’m going to do, when I finish writing this.
I’ve been officially discharged.  I walk the cliff path all the time, even the highest points.  I’ve seen dolphins, porpoises, dozens more seals, puffins, guillemots.  I’ve finished that novel – and another, and made friends through the writing of them.  The garden this summer is the best it’s ever been. Pembrokeshire is the best it’s ever been.
Being here … that’s all there is.  Just that.

Pembrokeshire Wildlife, Puffin, Egret, Seal, Dolphin
Pembrokeshire Wildlife
(Photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)