Sunday, 23 August 2009
Well, that was hard! I've always known that I don't put much (enough) description in my fiction. It sounds a bit poetical to me, a bit poncy, but I leave too much out and my readers look puzzled after a few pages. "Where exactly is this?" is a common complaint. So I wrestled with the four exercises, how hard could describing a household object, a short journey, preparing a meal and being outside be?
Well, let me tell you, this did not come easily at all. My first notes for a short journey were from quick tour of the garden one evening. Immediately after we had moved house and nearly had an accident and my husband had nearly been killed... All of it kind of ran through the description. So, in the interests of quelling any emotional input, I turned it into a botanical description of the garden, killing any feelings. Two years on, having to redraft it, I cautiously put a bit of me back in it. Not the accident, but the sense of being in an alien landscape. Then I had to take out most of the abstract words and all of the unnecessary words. I'm quite pleased, not with the piece itself but with the improvement to it. So, here it is.
This is the evening walk I had fantasised for months, throughout the stressful months of packing and moving. I have never lived amongst hills and rocks before, being brought up on soft chalk and thick clays, red bricks and big skies. Here the landscape is hard, sharp against the sky. The valley rises on each side; long shadows fall on the dense scrub and trees that cling to bare, sheer slate. This is a place of sudden contours, cliffs falling like old walls into the fields below. The evening sun catches some planes and floods them with pinks and peaches.
The new place has its own sounds, alien, like an unexpected noise in a car’s engine. Over the constant shushing of the wind on the trees opposite the house, I can hear hundreds of birds on the threadbare oaks. They call, their replies echoing, sharp musical jackdaws against hoarse shouts of the rooks. Their combined cries rise to a roar when they throw themselves into the sky and curve around the valley. They quieten to a squabble for the best roost, black rags on a washing line. A cricket calls persistently from the ragged shrubs. A distant dog is magnified by the narrow valley, barks ringing and echoing. Seagulls shriek overhead, from a height where they must be able to see right over the town to the sea. Distant buzzards call more plaintively to each other, as they circle high in the pink and purple tinged sky. Pigeons soothe from the trees. Beneath it all, the steady hum and bubble of the brook that runs alongside the road, at the bottom of the drive.
The heat from the day’s sun still radiates from the stone wall of the house, the warm dusty smell novel after cool, shaded bricks of the last house. The path changes under thin soles, soft with thick grass in places, hard sculpted stone in others. When I reach the drive, my feet crunch into the slate gravel. Grass grows amongst the stones, dotted with tall weeds, untouched since the move. Flowers have tipped over into autumn and smell sour, slightly earthy, slightly bitter.
I walk slowly along the path, taking in tall shrubs falling under their own weight into the nettles and docks. Ragged seedlings of hawthorn and ash fight their way out of clinging bindweed. Old bramble leaves glow scarlet, a few purple berries remaining for the birds. At the end of the path, the sun becomes briefly visible from behind the two ancient pine trees that give the house its name. The yellow glow is balanced on the edge of the ridge at the end of the valley, on a line of young trees, its blaze obliterating a few of them as I shade my eyes. The gravel drive is covered with grey slate, as if flaked off the hillside. Looking back at the house, the windows are crimson with reflections of the sky; blind, impersonal eyes on the tiny troubles of its owners.
Between the sharp edge vertical stones of the retaining wall are sprigs of dry plants, withered but alive. The stone is cold and damp, but the soil is powder, the slightest touch sends puffs of dust into the air. Between the shrubs are rough hewn steps that lead to the herb garden. Fuchsia flowers bleed onto the first two steps, scarlet and purple, venous and arterial, glowing even in the fading light. Brambles arch across my cautious steps, thorns reaching from the planted borders. At the top, midges crowd in a rising, buzzing smoke, between the shrubs and the trees. The scents of oregano, thyme and chamomile are released as fallen branches are crushed underfoot. A bat flies overhead, as I turn and lean against a wall to look at the hillside opposite. Massed trees darken; the slow movements of a deer are silhouetted by the last of the light.