Three years ago, I spent a week in Shropshire and finally began to write of things I loved. These were memories of the farm I grew up on. For years, they’d been fidgeting as I sat down to work on my fiction, so that it was hard to ignore them. But up until this point, only fragments had slipped into my stories. I wasn’t sure if it was confidence that stopped these glimpses taking centre stage – the thought that my childhood couldn’t be interesting to anyone but myself – or that I wasn’t sure how to work with autobiographical material. What was clear, however, was how happy it made me to return there once more.
In the years after we left the farm, I dreamt about it most nights. I still do, though not as often, and the dreams have a murky air about them: gone is the childhood belief that if I wish hard enough I will live there once more; often, I find myself as an adult, standing by the house, which has been ravaged by fire, or discovering that the surrounding fields have now become a housing estate.
Writing about the farm, I’m more in control about how I want it to appear. I can walk across the bathroom’s cork tiles, calling to my older brother who can’t be more than nine or ten. The heat of the day is all around me – a layer I can’t penetrate, which has left me slow-moving.
Let’s put our swimsuits on and wobble in the bath, I say as his head appears round the door, knowing that the two of us have made a world for ourselves in this isolated place, never rejecting the other or sneering at suggestions.
The avocado-green tub was tiny, and yet on those blistering days it became all we needed. I recall the sense of swimming breaststroke for miles and miles, cool and free.
Last year, I felt hemmed in, living in Oxford – a cramped terrace, my garden overlooked by the whole street. The farm was where I could escape, but the feeling became like viewing happiness down a telescope. I wanted to reach my fingers out and touch something, but my hand, my Self, belonged to another plane.
That week I spent in Shropshire allowed those two parallel worlds to merge. I was on an Arvon Writing retreat, learning all about how to turn life’s journey into prose. I spent an afternoon, wandering through a pine plantation. The ground was cushioned with a thick layer of needles that had dried all summer and left the air clean; not the synthetic fresh of a disinfected kitchen, but the cleansing fresh of air that’s free of man’s trace – full of the scent of the earth alone. The happiness I’d been unable to touch, which had been a too different perspective to my reality, had appeared outside my window. There was no need for the telescope.
The name for this blog came from my writing group. We were workshopping a short story of mine. My pieces were finally becoming fully autobiographical – writing them, I had a feeling of fascination, a sense of being lucky. There was no panic as I wrote about events of my life, no boastful pride, I was simply travelling through for the pleasure.
After a few moments discussion of the parts of the story that had stayed with the group, the moments they felt were not necessary, or heavy-handed, one of the women reached out her hand. Her fingers moved like minnows in a stream.
There’s a real sense of a journey here, she said.
But it wasn’t just the journey of my eleven year old sense in the story, it was also the journey of the writer, making her way into these memories, investigating, almost testing.
I knew then that I wanted to start a blog. I felt it would be a place of no expectation – not like my short stories where a voice in the back of my mind wonders: will this one be published?
My blog would be a place to simply write about my experience of passing through life, and watching it as I go – not judging, but allowing it to be as it is.
Now, I find myself back in Shropshire, back at that Writers’ Centre. But this is not another retreat – I am here for good, as the Assistant Centre Director.
For a long time I was angry with the child of my past – I blamed her for my grief at no longer having the bravery and lack of restraint that she’d had, running through fields all day long, wobbling in the bath. I had lost faith in her – having wished to be back at the farm for so many years without fulfilment, and even finding the gift of it in my dreams to have shifted.
But now I can smile at my child, and feel content that I am living a life I have dreamt of for a very long time. On my days off, I walk that pine plantation, which takes me up into the hills. I then descend into an enormous basin where a lake lies silver beneath the sky – a jewel amongst cushions of grass, and not a house, not a soul. In this silence my heart feels able to grow, so much space, so much stillness. Words come now, not in an attempt to recreate a life I am mourning, but as a salute to what lies around.
For a link to The Hurst – Arvon’s wonderful writing centre in Shropshire – and details of all the courses click here
I also write for the Arvon blog…click here