Darkness Visible - RMIT Research Repository

Darkness Visible - RMIT Research Repository
Darkness Visible: An
exploration of recurrence
Part A
The Sacrifice
A novel submitted in (partial) fulfilment of the requirements for the
degree of Master of Arts (Creative Writing)
Kate Holden
(BA Hons)
School of Creative Media
Design and Social Context Portfolio
RMIT University
August 2008
DECLARATION
I certify th a t except where due acknowledgement has been made, the work is th a t of the author
a lone; the work has not been submitted previously, in whole or in part, to qualify for any other
academic award; the content of the exegesis is the result of work which has been carried out
since the officia l commencement date of the approved research program; and, any editoria l
work, paid or unpaid, carried out by a th ird party is acknowledged.
Ka te Holden
6 August 2008
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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I would like to th ank the RMIT Masters of Creative Writing by Research group 2005-8, for all
their support, feedback and collegia lity. In particular I am grateful to Craig Garrett for his
consistently thoughtful and intelligent critiques of drafts of th is project. I would also like to
especia lly th ank my primary supervisor, Antoni Jach, for his enormous generosity with
criticism, discussion and encouragement.
In addition I extend thanks to Varuna—the Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains and Peter
Bishop, its director; and especia l gratitude to Matt Pritch ard and Margot Holden, for their
critica l suggestions and copy-editing of the exegesis.
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AUTHOR’S NOTE
Th is novel is entirely imaginary, but I have based the historica l and folkloric references on
materia l found in the wonderful local history section in the library of Dea l, on the east coast of
Kent in the UK, and in the local h istory museum of nearby Sandwich. I extend my th anks to the
anonymous volunteer custodian of the museum. The village of the novel is an imagined
combination of Dea l and Sandwich. Old Soar is the rea l name of a nearby village.
I have consulted more history books, documentaries and folklore collections than I can list, but
one crucia l text was Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return (1954). I learned much of
Celtic religion and history from books such as The Celtic Realms (2000) by Myles Dillon and
Nora Ch adwick, and Celtic Myths (1993) by Miranda Green. The quote on p. 30, ‘Grief is stronger
th an the sea…’ is taken from ‘Exiles of the Sons of Uisliu’, an early Irish saga, found in Dillon
and Chadwick’s book. I was also inspired by many time fantasy novels, particularly Penelope
Lively’s Astercote (1970), Nancy Bond’s Country of Broken Stone (1984), and Alan Garner’s The
Owl Service (1967).
Several wonderfully generous friends and colleagues read drafts and offered
invaluable criticism: Tegan Bennett Daylight, Mandy Brett, Laurie Clancy,
Christine Darcas, Michael Heyward, and my mother, Margot Holden, who
copy-edited the manuscript for me.
I would like to th ank my supervisor Antoni Jach for h is unflagging support, and my colleagues in
the RMIT Masters of Creative Writing by Research group 2005-8 for their feedback on the
manuscript and general helpful encouragement; Varuna—the Writers’ House in the Blue
Mountains and Peter Bishop, its director; the Copyrigh t Agency Limited fellowsh ip committee,
for offering me the Second Book Fellowsh ip at Varuna in which to develop th is novel; and
Nicholas Ranshaw, for very kindly a llowing me to stay in his house in Kent and have the
le isure to explore the beautiful, uncanny and haunting landscapes of history there.
The story of the flint in the tree may seem like a novelist’s excessive fancy, but if one goes to the
churchyard at Ringwould, Kent, one may see a yew tree estimated at over th irteen hundred
years old, split and hollowed as the tree in my book is, and in the lintel of the bark, a very old
and mysterious stone embedded there. Long may it reside and keep its secrets.
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Dedicated to my sister, Jenny Holden.
A sacrifice, for example, not only exactly reproduces the initial sacrifice revealed by a god
ab origine, at the beginning of time, it also takes place at that same primordial mythical
moment; in other words, every sacrifice repeats the initial sacrifice and coincides with it.
All sacrifices are preformed at the same mythical instant of the beginning; through the
paradox of rite, profane time and duration are suspended. […] there is an implicit
abolition of profane time, of duration, of “history”; and he who reproduces the exemplary
gesture thus finds himself transported into the mythical epoch in which its revelation
took place.
Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return
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PROLOGUE
There are rivers in England that call to passers-by. They want a drowning. Every
year, three years, seven years. Someone must come and be lost. It’s time.
The hour is come but not the man.
A wailing, a mewing; a shriek, a sob. The river’s voice. A man might stop,
stare, listen. His friends will notice, or perhaps he’s alone. A woman, on her way to
bring her man’s dinner in the field; a drunk on his way home from the pub; a child
listening to the moan.
The hour is come but not the man.
The river is not one to spill its banks and grab. The victim must come
willingly. He must step, deliberately, nearer. Down to the bank, down to the shining
water. Or, better, if he runs. Into the shallows, deeper into the current, the chill
around his knees, his waist. His organs shrinking from the cold, his heart hot, mouth
open.
Deeper still.
Then the water will rush down, fast, singing, and take him. Holy, offered,
precious, gone.
There was once a man who stood frozen beside the river and when his
friends urged him to walk on with them, did not shake his head or laugh or come,
but remained standing, watching the river with a strange smile. And when his
friends shook him he began to run. He rushed to the water—but his friends seized
him, and took him to a church, to prevent him taking to the depths, and left him
there locked inside, to come to no harm. And when they opened the church door in
the morning there he was, on the floor beneath the holy water font, all the holy
water all over his face, his lips wet and his breath gone.
The hour is come but not the man.
How the river calls, calls, calls.
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Part One
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Joss lies in bed early in the morning. She’s always wanted an upstairs room; the breathy
delight of looking out of an open window, looking down. At home in Australia, living
with her older sister Rebecca and Rebecca’s husband Mark in their rented house, she’d
been stuck out the back in a little room next to the laundry.
This new room of hers, now, is emptier than she’s ever known. She had to leave
most of her books in Australia, crammed into a storage cubicle. We’ll send for them,
Rebecca had said. Her little mattress on the floor. Briefly she misses her collection of
books with a mental pain like a hunger cramp.
But there’s a grace in emptiness too. A kind of clarity. Perhaps she’ll never fill
this room.
The light of the early morning creeps across the mattress on the floor. It’s only
five thirty. Jet-lag. She’s awoken as instantly, vividly, as if someone had touched her and
spoken her name. The first thing she is aware of thinking is Yes.
The house is quiet but she can hear the trees, and seagulls flourishing themselves
in the clean air. The building hides in its little cowl of land. Joss imagines the rooms
below, empty since Mark’s ex-wife Diana went to hospital to die, their stillness, the sun
and light washing in and out of them, the doors unopened, the window-frames settling
more snugly in their sills. Perhaps the house was surprised when Joss and Rebecca and
Mark arrived last night. Perhaps it was sleeping. The house doesn’t feel hostile. Perhaps
this morning it too awoke and said Yes.
In Australia Joss never knew when someone would walk past her door. Now she
writhes slowly against her sheets and ploughs a hand down to between her thighs.
It’s new, this secret. It took her a long time to master it. At first she’d felt like a fool,
sweating and grimacing and fiddling away in search of something she’d only heard
about. Don’t you do it? the girls at school asked her. Of course, she’d said. The first few
times it didn’t work. But her fingers have learnt their tricks. The first time it was like
being drenched in water, the surprise of it. Every muscle rigid with shock, and then a
relaxation more profound than she’d ever known. Oh yes, she’d thought, and made it
happen again.
She’s not especially pretty, thin, or fit. Her pants are tight in the seat and thighs,
her arms are from time to time speckled with spots. She doesn’t get a lot of attention
from boys, but that’s fine with her. The boys she knew at school stank. In class the room
was loud with the sound of mouth-breathing from slack jaws. Touching any of those
boys would be like sitting in dirty bath-water.
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Though there was Sam in her class. He hid his face beneath dark hair, his berry
cheeks and bright eye. He’d talk to her, peeping up sideways through his hair, droll and
clever. She’d liked Sam. But his hand, when he’d taken hers on the night of the school
concert, was damp, and she’d smelt something different on him, a sharp, body-ish smell,
dark and unexpected: not-Sam. There was a moment when she knew she was meant to
kiss him, and she’d felt her heart cramming her ribs, had faltered, and let those
tremendous seconds pass. The next morning the feeling she’d had was, most of all, relief.
Then it was too late.
She brings Sam’s smile to mind, but it won’t adhere, it sags away. Her fingertip
circles, slowly, luxuriously. The thing that fascinates her is the images that do flush up in
her mind’s eye. A cavern scooped from her, a well dropping. An arched bow of thin
wood, as she rises on the backs of her heels, her belly tight now, the bed hard beneath
her shoulders as her head thrusts backwards and her thighs tense rigid. Her fingers work
and work at her flesh, tiring; she concentrates on finding the thread of tension, stringing
it through every tendon. She sees an opened mouth, she sees water, a glimmering, a
bared throat, a head tipped back, her own face, she sees herself engulfed. More and
more urgently, almost with panic, she jabs her fingers at herself—a hot hand of blood is
laid across her brow—something collapses inside her, she thinks she will plunge through
the bed; she bucks and coils, holding her breath, holding her breath; she’s drowning.
She lets go. All over her, sweat and relief.
Has she made a sound? Is that a footstep?
It’s nothing. The house composes itself around her once more. Joss lies there,
giggling silently, smoothing her clever hands down her hips.
Anything is possible here.
::
Mark has gone out, to buy milk and bread and some basic groceries so they won’t starve.
He got up early, when Rebecca was still floundering in sleep, and went into town. She
heard him say, ‘I’m sure I remember where everything is.’ Then she had plunged back into
sleep so dark it bruised.
Being alone in the new house is good. It’s still morning, but Joss isn’t up; how
quiet it is here. Rebecca runs her fingers along the windowsill of the bedroom, looks at
the old lock on the sash. The wood beneath the paint is soft with age.
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She’s weary. They’ve come across the world, switching time-zones and seasons,
all that long ploughed way over the seas, picking up the car at Heathrow, the long
dreamlike drive to the house as dusk stained out the daylight.
Joss walks down the hall to the bathroom and shuts the door in Rebecca’s face
and Rebecca just stands there a moment in the passageway. Her younger sister is not a
precious teenager in general, but she can emit resistance like a fume. It’s hard to know
what will set her off. Joss seems to hold her head one muscle more tightly since she
turned fifteen. Within the bathroom the shower turns on, full. The water-tank clanks and
hisses. Rebecca goes to the front door, opens it, pauses on the threshold.
The house is in a declivity, about a hundred metres wide; around it the land
rises, so the house seems half-sunk in the earth. Rebecca has asked Mark for the reason
for this strange hunkering, but he didn’t know. ‘It was Diana’s house,’ he said. ‘It suited
her, to be a bit hidden away.’
It faces the road, shaded by a tunnel of trees where the road turns in front of the
gate. Beyond that, to the right, is a thicket of trees and past that, further around, above
the rising of the ground, Rebecca can see the gold of a field.
A seagull strays across the sky. They are near the sea, but not in sight of it. It’s
very quiet. There’s a burger wrapper lying by the verge. The road-sign, black letters on
white, points in one direction to the village and a windmill, and, to the other in green
and white, to Canterbury. On the way in, the other evening, she saw another sign
labelling this a Pilgrim’s Way.
Rebecca looks out on it all now in a kind of amazement. Then she shuts the door
and goes upstairs.
The bags lie, bulked with clothing, on the bedroom floor. Some of Diana’s
furniture is still here; she had spent the last months of her life in hospital, and her family
has removed the personal belongings and cleaned the dust from the sills, but the bed
remains, a dresser and some tables and chairs. For now, Joss is sleeping on a mattress on
the floor in her room at the end of the hall. Not quite like a furnished house: but there’s
still the sense of Diana in the way the bed is tucked into an awkward corner of the
room, the dresser of beautiful teak balancing it across the room. Rebecca sits on the bed.
That’s enough, she says, and stands to begin unpacking. Outside, through the
window, she can see the field baking gold, and the line of dark trees edging it at the
horizon. The shapes are so mild here, the horizon is close.
::
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Mark returns with milk and bread and a look of exhilaration on his face.
‘I can’t believe how little the place has changed,’ he says, placing the plastic bag
on the table and pulling out a newspaper and a map of the town. ‘I got you this, so you
can see where everything is, but I’ll show you around. Oh god, it’s strange being back.
Ten years! It feels like no time.’ When they all arrived at the house the other night,
Rebecca had seen Mark’s lips tighten and still with each room they entered. Once these
were his rooms, too.
Mark’s work as a geo-physicist involves scanning the earth with electronic
equipment that takes mysterious signals of depth and density from below the surface.
Each stratum, or buried object, is revealed to his equipment as a stain or wriggle on a
white screen. Clusters, blurs and concentrations of substance. As a younger man in
Britain he’d used this in the archaeological field, helping to decipher remnants of old
settlements submerged below grassy fields, but in Australia, he turned his work towards
surveying for property development on vacant lots. He can see at a glance when there is
a blockage to be cleared, an unsuspected flow of water, or a hidden dump of things left
behind to get in the way of the bulldozers.
He married Rebecca two years ago. She hadn’t expected it of herself, to be a
bride for crying out loud, and to this man with his hair in a dark cowl around his skull
and his slightly dry skin. But he had put his lean hand on her arm, and stood very close,
and she felt a tremor of relief that ran through her and out again before she had a chance
to turn her feminist glare on it, and she said, smiling gently, ‘You’re ridiculous, marrying
a stringy chick like me.’ And then it was done. Besides, she’d felt, at thirty, more like a
middle-aged woman. It was eight years since her parents died in a car crash; she’d
proved that she could survive, could take care of things. She was tired of being alone.
And there was her little sister Joss, needing a second kind-of parent, to think of. She
hadn’t expected that either but there she’d been, since twenty-two, mother to her own
sister, struggling alone. And five years before all of that, she’d been an only child. She
wasn’t sure, at times, whether the feeling that still spread amply in her belly was shock,
dismay, or pride.
After some toast Mark is poking about upstairs and Rebecca opens the back
door to find a walled garden, soft pink bricks holding a cup of warmth and light. It is
calm and quiet here, sprung with ivy and flowering weeds, more weeds feathery all over
the beds within. In one corner an old fruit tree is espaliered against the wall, its brittle
dark branches puffing out thick white blossom. The over-grown grass is still wet with
dew even so late in the morning and in the clean morning light it glitters like tinsel. The
sun is frail on her face. In Australia such a direct sun on the face would prickle and burn,
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she’d be looking for shade, she’d be making sure Joss had a hat. Here the sun only
warms, it doesn’t penetrate. Her bones feel light as pumice.
There is no one to see and for comfort Rebecca slips a finger inside her
underpants and lays her hand on her belly. Like a young child does. The sweet comfort
is good. She just rests her hand there, quietly. The morning is like a breath exhaled.
A tickle, a shock; Joss is teasing her face with a frond. Rebecca damps down the
sudden smack of panic, pulls her hand out of her pants and smiles. ‘All right there?’ She
scratches her nose.
Joss is ignoring the hand. ‘It’s amazing.’
‘I’m glad you’re here,’ Rebecca says, rubbing where the tickle remains on her
cheek. The sight of her sister seems inordinately reassuring here. She had drifted into
feeling quite strange. ‘I’m really glad you came.’
‘I had no choice!’ But Joss is smiling. ‘There was a horrible boy at school who was
always asking me out, I had to escape. It was either that, or stab him and flee anyway.’
‘All the way to England. Can you believe we’re in England?’
Joss sits, balancing on a stray fallen brick, looking up at the pale blue sky. ‘The
sky seems lower.’ She looks around at the garden, the unfamiliar wildflowers. ‘It’s like a
book.’
‘Ridiculous,’ Rebecca agrees. ‘Nearly revolting.’
‘It’s like walking into some kind of dream. All the times I’ve seen England on TV,
and here it is. I was expecting football hooligans and everyone whining; you know, rain.
This is great.’
‘It’s hot,’ Rebecca says, ‘who’d have thought?’ The skin on her arms is flushed.
‘Well.’ Joss dusts her bottom free of brick-dust. ‘Think I’ll leave you in peace.’ She
strides off.
In some places the vegetation is as high as a girl, but there are still faint seams in
the chaos, where a planting bed is limned with bricks.
It was like a plot in a children’s book when Mark returned from the lawyers two
months ago. Back in her childhood Rebecca had read many a tale of children sent away
to houses in the English countryside, or irresponsible parents buying old tumbledown
castles, where secrets lay and adventures awaited. As a child she’d yearned for such a
thing to happen, but now it dismays her. Rebecca had not known what to say when
Mark told her Diana had left him the house. His hands, pulling the cap off a pen,
pushing it back on, pulling it off, as he faced her across the living room, the sound of the
seven o’clock news starting on the television.
‘Didn’t she have anyone else to leave it to?’
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‘It was ours. It was all in her name, after the divorce, but—it was ours once. She
knew I’d want it back.’
A pause.
‘Do you?’
Mark twirled the hard end of the pen into his palm. ‘It’s there.’
‘So far away,’ Rebecca murmured.
‘Australia was far away to me once. And if I’d never come here, I wouldn’t have
met you.’
‘Can we think about it?’
‘I still can’t believe she’s dead.’
‘I said, can we think about it.’
His hands seemed raw and aged, the knuckles red. He rubbed a finger into his
eye. ‘It’s there. You know we should go.’
It wasn’t as if it was hard to give up the cramped house she and Mark and Joss
shared in Melbourne but every day as she boxed up her belongings for storage, put
another part of herself away, judged what little she’d need, it had seemed unreal. It’s
true that Mark would be happier. She’d picked up homesickness in him from time to
time over the years—as his mother back in England grew older, as he began to grow
older himself. He’s had ten years in Australia and it’s only fair to turn about. She
remembers the surprise of the first time he had reminded her of all he’d given up to be in
Melbourne.
‘But you love it here! You always say you’re glad not to be back in grisly old
England.’
‘Yes. It’s just… Sometimes you have to go back. It’s not right, not to go back.’
She hopes she’ll find a new way of living—find a job, find a school for Joss. It
seems enormous, starting up a whole new life. ‘Choice is sacrifice,’ she remembered her
father telling her once. ‘For everything you gain, you’ve let something else go.’ She
swallows down the gulp of anxiety. The sun is warm on her teeth. She presses the back
of one hand to the wall behind her, the rough scrape of it against knuckle, and waits. It
is just stone. But Rebecca feels that it is real, and that’s enough for now. Maybe soon
she’ll feel real too.
The silence is like glass. She thinks that surely it isn’t possible to be so alone here.
There’s always someone watching her, or it has always felt like it. She moves carefully,
always, because of that. A certain selfconscious set to her mouth. Now, apart from Joss,
singing to herself somewhere in the weeds and Mark, upstairs, there is no one. Rebecca
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wonders how long it will take, in this isolated place, before she relaxes. She shuts her
mouth and closes her eyes again, just in case someone sees.
There’s the sound of weeds brushing stone, hushed as hair, someone breathing
out, and then no more sound.
::
This coast is one long, gently wavering strip of shingle and marsh, where reeds grow
sparsely among pebbles almost down to the water, where the land appears as flat as the
sea beside it. Marsh flattens the contours of the land, and banks of shingle have shoved
up beneath the rich green grass of this lip of England. It is a very old place, and in the
way the sea has deposited more land over centuries, also a new one.
The house is on the outskirts of an old town jammed up against the eastern
shore. It was once a handsome town, renowned for its port and pride: kings and queens
embarked here, houses were snug with imported luxuries, and the wharf was bright with
gilded poops. It is still pretty, still proud, but the river silted up and the sea withdrew
its custom long ago. Now it is sleepy, a quaint old village really, where tourists wander
in little quiet groups and its young people walk resentfully through the little medieval
streets, banging their hands idly against the old lurching timbers and squealing loudly,
for the echo.
Mark takes them for a walk around town. It’s the first day. He leads them
through the little streets, past the river thick with reeds and the battered little fishing
boats idling at the quay, past pubs called The King’s Head and The Greene Man. Joss
stops to marvel at a wooden gargoyle craning out from a corner. Her sister smiles at her
curiosity and Joss walks on quickly.
The shops of the high street are mostly plain Georgian with blank brick walls and
small doorways, or cake-icing Victorian. A greeting card store, the usual chain outlets,
Woolworth’s, an old-fashioned bakery and butcher’s, another pub. There are baskets
hanging from many of the windows, filled with bright flowers. Joss squeals when she
sees a thatched roof and a tile scratched with the house’s date.
‘1590! Look at how old that is!’ She stares at it in wonder.
Mark walks ahead, with the ostentatiously casual pace of the guide. Rebecca and
Joss linger to look in the shop windows, as if they’d never seen hardware supplies,
cheap women’s clothing, ugly lampshades before.
‘The village church,’ says Rebecca. ‘Oh what a cliché.’ It looks just like the dark
stone churches at home, with a severe dark pointed steeple and thick stone lintels, but in
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Melbourne they’re no more than a hundred years old, pastiches of the real thing in
England. This might be hundreds. It is cobbled all over with lumps of dark rock like
growths.
‘There’s a better one near our place.’ Mark takes her arm. The footpath is narrow
and it’s hard to walk together. A car goes past, very fast and loud, with a shavenheaded young man at the wheel. He turns a raw face to stare as the car plunges past.
‘There’s your next boyfriend,’ Rebecca tells Joss.
‘Oh, shut up.’
They have coffee at a table outside a pub, watching the locals. The street is busy,
the people utterly ordinary. Joss keeps chanting examples of the flat, sing-song accent
under her breath to amuse the others. ‘They all sound so wistful,’ Rebecca says. ‘As if
they expect to be slapped.’ No one takes any notice of the new citizens. Mark points out
that there are no Asians or black people to be seen.
The village is called Soar. ‘Funny word for a place, isn’t it,’ he says to Joss. ‘It’s
an old Norman word. Means something like “grief”, but that’s just the countryside being
poetic for you.’
They walk out of the village again, taking the long way home through some of the
outer roads. For all its flatness, the land seems to change constantly. There are, after all,
little shallow hummocks and grooves. To one side of the road, towards the coast, the
land drops a little where the sea has slowly deposited silt and shingle to make a soft
fertile strand between the old shoreline and the new. Lines of dark trees hem the
meadows and roads, fresh green in these early days of summer. The fields are pale, the
crops already ripening in vast neon blankets of yellow. There are hedgerows everywhere,
springy with wildflowers and stalks. Three massive concrete cooling towers of the power
station, pale as dust and smoothly shaped, rise out of the horizon not far away, almost
beautiful in their sculpted simplicity, serene and pale as if shaped from clouds. The sky
above is vast and flattened, as if caught in a panoramic photograph, its clouds skewed
sideways.
‘It’s so much greener than home,’ Rebecca says. She’s thinking of the parched
straw on the nature strips, even during the autumn they’ve just left.
She has an unsettled feeling, as if her thoughts are floating like a dish on top of
water. Not quite stabilised. This is the first time she’s been out of Australia and it seems
impossible, implausible, that reality can be so concrete in a place she’s never been. She
would rather like to be back in their little bedroom in Melbourne, where everything was
where she’d put it, the very paint on the walls smelt like her. That room, where she lived
for two years: she can see it so vividly in her mind but already framed, like a painting. A
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still life, because that room is now dismantled and everything packed away or given
away or thrown away, and now she herself is away, far. The house they’ve come to live
in is bigger, and charming, with its jumble of rooms and softer light in the windows, and
she knows she’s lucky, but that morning she had awoken for the first time in the new
place and all she could think was: I’ve never slept in an upstairs room before, there’s too
much air beneath my bed. Like a tree house, but without the close cage of branches
around her.
‘The Roman fort,’ Mark says, pointing across to the towers. ‘Just in front of that.
The first proper fort they made, and the last one they sailed from centuries later.’
‘How Famous Five,’ Rebecca says absently. ‘Joss, you’ll have to go and have a
‘scramble’ around there with your ‘chums’.’
‘Picnics, lashing of ginger beer, smugglers, spies…’ Joss says, trailing a hand along
a hedgerow.
‘Actually Soar was a real smuggling town,’ Mark says. ‘And there was a huge
depot here in the First World War. Sending supplies to Flanders, bringing the bodies
back.’
‘I guess it’s so close,’ Rebecca says.
‘St Augustine landed just next to those towers, and the Vikings.’
‘I should hope so.’
‘Henry the Eighth built the castle…’
‘Least he could do.’ The corners of her mouth are turning up mischievously.
Mark perseveres. ‘Famous shipwrecks, secret stuff going on in the second war,
Lord Nelson, all the battle ships just off the coast…’
‘Sounds just like home.’
They unlock the front door and walk into the house with the unfamiliar smell.
‘Time for a cuppa,’ says Mark, and his voice is already more English than ever.
::
Mark sits in one of the stiff-backed wooden chairs in the lounge room. Rebecca next to
him, hands in her lap, cup of tea on the floor. The movement of the trees outside keeps
catching her eye; she pulls the rings off her fingers, nervously, twirls them around and
around in her fingertips.
The room is oddly half-furnished: a table, two dining chairs, an old wire
magazine rack. Nothing else, dust hanging in the air. Diana’s relatives have plundered
the house of all the comfortable items.
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Joss is sitting on the table, where she has been writing her diary. Face fierce and
intent, she writes from time to time: clearly their advent to England has provoked an
entry. Perhaps she’s taking notes from what Mark is saying, as he gives another of his
awkward little lectures.
The pre-historic settlers came here, he says. He went to the museum in London,
years and years ago, and he still remembers how simple were the oldest things. ‘Flint
tools. And wood. Big branches of yew that they found in the bogs. You could still make
a table from them. Just those two things, so simple and durable.’
‘There are things just as old in Australia,’ Rebecca observes.
‘Not quite!’ Mark is amused. ‘Aborigines arrived in your country 50,000 years
ago, more or less. A long time, I know. But imagine. This place—this very spot where
your chair is—has been inhabited for many times that, an inconceivable number of
years…’ Rebecca wants to say something about Australia, Mark can’t simply make these
sweeping statements, and anyway, he’s wrong; but he talks on. ‘The Celts were here,
too. Later.’
Joss looks up. All her life she’s read mythology, history books. To her, ‘Celtic’
means Stonehenge, druids, mistletoe, mysterious rites at dawn. ‘The Saxons, the
Normans, the rest,’ Mark goes on.
‘Tell me Celtic stuff.’
‘They were pretty frightening,’ Mark says. ‘Mysterious, very poetic. Obsessed
with sacrifice. I remember reading something gruesome about it once. They’d cut the
heads off children and hung them from hooks, a whole ghastly row of them. They put
the heads of their enemies in the trees.’
Rebecca raises an eyebrow. She’s been gazing absently at the trees outside the
house, their softness, solidity, the felted darkness of them massed around the building.
She has been feeling something for these trees she doesn’t know, a kindliness. They’re
animals to her, animals with quiet memories, sitting there, moving and immoveable.
‘…or they murdered young men and left them in the bogs and the wells. And god,
they were vicious. They didn’t just kill a man; they drugged him, hit him with a stone
axe, strangled him, cut his throat and pushed him in the water.’
‘Why?’ Joss is fascinated.
‘They were very careful about nature, I suppose. They wanted to propitiate the
gods. Keep the balance right. Nature gods are the most powerful, you know. These Celts
were here in a dark place. It was all forest around here then. All forest, right down to the
sea. A huge carpet of trees, it would have been terribly dark and scary. You’d think all
sorts of things in a place like that. I’d have been putting things at the foot of trees too, if
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they’d only not crush me. The Romans called it Silva Anderida, “the wood where no one
lives”.’
‘I love that,’ Joss says. ‘I like the big ones. Oaks? With the leaves like hands?’
Mark smiles. ‘Quercus. Isn’t that a wonderful word? Quercus. I looked it up, when
I was planting the garden with—’ That quick check to his emotions. ‘The trees weren’t all
native, of course. They came over from Europe too. Migrants, like everything else. That
idea that England has always been ‘England’ is just bullshit. And they still come, you
know. There are trees here, now, that people brought back from Japan, Russia, America.
Even Australia. There are gum trees here.
‘People, maybe people in Australia think of England as always being British,
these goodly blond stout people, at least until the last forty years. My gran used to hate
the idea of outsiders. But the country’s always been a mix, people coming and going.
And this part, this has been the starting-place for so much of Britain. It was on the coast
just here that Julius Caesar turned up’
‘He might have walked right past this house,’ Joss says.
Rebecca is listening, but she’s not really engaged. It’s a long time since she thought
of history, except her own. In Australia, she’s heard, it’s said that the indigenous people
go into the future with their faces pointing at the past. She doesn’t know quite what that
means. The future has always been unreal to her: a haze barely worth peering at. But the
past is no clearer, or more enticing. Really, she sometimes thinks in cranky moments, the
past is all best swept away. What’s that quote? History is a lie agreed upon. In
Australia, it’s complicated, thinking about history. Whose history, who can tell it, and
all the really old, ancient history of the country tied up in land and memories and stories
that she doesn’t even know, or know who to ask. She has no Aboriginal friends to ask.
And it seems wrong to learn their stories out of books. They’re not book stories, after all.
‘Don’t you think, Rebecca?’
Her thoughts are with the trees now, how they hem the house, how they make her
feel safe. Joss is leaning forward, though, rapt. Mark talks on.
‘This road—did you see the sign? It’s a very old one. The freeway we took down
here from London: part of that is Watling Street, the old Roman highway. A lot of the
roads around here were used by the Saxons, and they followed the old Roman ‘ways’.
God knows if they were used even before then. A road is a road. If it’s a good way,
people will always use it.’
‘We’re sitting on history,’ Joss says.
‘We certainly are.’
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‘In Australia… I know it’s a very old place. But it always feels like, like there was
no one there before. I don’t mean that ‘terra nullius’ stuff we did at school. I don’t mean
that it doesn’t count, what went on before the whites. More just… There’s nothing to say
there were people living where our house is. I know they were there, but…’ Joss says. She
flaps her hands. ‘I can’t wait to see something really old.’
Mark laughs. He’s pleased that someone is interested. All this history he has in
this place, this country, and he’s never spoken of it. All the facts and stories inside him.
In Australia he’d usually confined himself to appreciating the modern lifestyle and
mocking the nation’s ignorance. He glances over to Rebecca. ‘And you? Are we going to
find you prettily decorating the trees with heads?’
‘I’ll find something,’ she says. ‘Just watch me.’ She looks at him steadily.
Mark turns away and Joss goes back to her diary, writing furiously now, and
Rebecca watches Mark thinking of the past, his face motionless, as she crams her rings
on and off her fingers.
::
When she was a little girl, Joss sat in her backyard and dug for treasure. Maybe the local
tribes had walked across this land; maybe lived right here. But there was no trace in the
buffalo grass. All that was unimaginable, in that pale suburb where the gum trees grew in
straight lines along roadsides. She dug up broken glass and tattered plastic; in the dusk
she put her child’s fingers in the soft black earth and felt the hollow scoop of something
small and hard, something with sharp edges; a bird’s skull, she thought. Or, with a
terrible thrill, that of a human? But when she pulled it out, gleaming like bone in the
twilight, it was only a crushed old piece of plastic. There was no point in digging further.
This was only a back garden in a suburb that had sprung up fifty years earlier. Anything
older had left no trace.
She had hidden in the school library, and held soft old paperbacks in her little
hands, held them right up close to her face, absorbing the scent of the doughy paper, the
ink illustrations, the quaint chapter titles. She walked home from school through the
blasted heat of a summer afternoon, the gum trees rasping with their bark hanging limp
like peeled wallpaper, and she tugged at the bark, but when it came away there was no
message written there, no secret door behind. In the low-ceilinged, yellow brick cottage
she shared with Rebecca and Mark, she dreamed of attics and towers. She wanted a
horse’s skull, a magic portal, a stone circle in which to stand and be transformed. The
bare boards of the backyard fence were not standing stones.
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Imagination glosses everything if you try hard enough, a gloss that can set like
varnish.
::
Once the meagre unpacking has been done, and the house canvassed, and the village
visited, there is an uncertain pause. The second day, Mark, Rebecca and Joss sit in the
kitchen.
‘Well, I should show you the sights,’ Mark says. He sounds a little apprehensive,
as if he’s just realised that having brought the women all this way, he’s somewhat
responsible. He looks the part of a capable pater familias, with his crisp mouth and
straight spine, but in reality he has always hung back from taking too much on himself.
‘There’s a castle,’ he offers now. ‘And the Roman fort. And there’s a little
museum in the village.’
‘No?’ Rebecca says. ‘Gosh!’
He gives her a sharp, hurt look. ‘You don’t have to come. I only thought it might
be nice. Joss will like it.’
‘I think it’s going to rain.’
Mark makes a face at Joss, and she rolls her eyes, but they keep sipping their tea
and Rebecca turns a page of the newspaper.
‘I’ll come, of course. Though as you see I’m flat-out busy.’ She tries to make it into
a joke.
‘Where’s the castle?’ Joss asks.
‘Down the coast a bit. There are a few of them. Some of them are in better state
than others. Dover Castle is the really spectacular one, so that’s where we’ll go.’
‘The White Cliffs of…?’ Joss asks.
‘No singing,’ puts in Rebecca. ‘No singing allowed.’ Joss pokes her tongue at her.
She has a weakness for old songs.
They drive down the coast, on a curving road that seems to pass no other
villages, only near-identical fields, bright yellow and green. The road rises and then dips
just before they get to Dover and there, on a high promontory against the horizon, is the
castle. Its flags flutter, its stern grey battlements look neat as Lego.
‘Is it real?’ Joss queries.
‘Very.’
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They park, pay the large fee for entrance, and walk in through the massive stone
gate. The walls are terrifyingly thick and high, studded, like the village church they’d
seen, with black eggs of flint. They are informed that the tea room will close at four.
‘What did you think?’ Mark asks two hours later as they tramp back down the
drive to the car park.
‘It’s huge,’ Rebecca says, stretching her back.
‘Pretty cool,’ Joss offers. She had insisted on exploring every nook, every
oubliette and dank hole and staircase. ‘It’s like a toy, though. All those little fancy
painted signs: ‘The Keep’, ‘The King’s Room’. And it’s so perfect, it doesn’t seem like it
had ever been used.’
‘It’s just amazingly well preserved. You think things are only historic if they’re
damaged?’
‘No…’ She pauses for thought. ‘But it’s good to see something to show that
people have been there. If it’s too clean, you know: it looks like a display home. None of
the taps actually run water.’
They have lunch in Dover, a grim, stained town plastered along the base of the
cliffs which are, to Joss’s approval, actually white, and topped with bright green grass.
The town is cluttered on one side by the immense docks, and on the other it is squeezed
against implacable rock. This, Mark tells them, is the edge of the great chalk downs that
make up the geology of the county.
‘Did you know,’ says Joss, bright with knowledge, ‘that chalk is made of dead
things?’
‘I did not know that,’ says Rebecca. ‘How macabre.’
‘Millions of them, all packed down and mineralised.’ She glances at Mark to see
that she’s got the right term. ‘It was all under water once, you know. Now we’re sitting
on a bed of a zillion tiny little dead bugs.’
There is a little museum in the town, and Mark, deciding to deliver the best of
local history all at once, chivvies the other two in there.
Among the cases of old railway tickets, lumpy flint knives, scraps of Roman
armour and Civil War paraphernalia, the thing that captivates Joss is a small, crudely
made terracotta oil lamp. Rebecca finds her staring at it through the glass. The case isn’t
well lit, and Joss is crouched to see better.
‘Something you’d like to take home?’
‘Look at that.’ Joss points. ‘See how it’s black where the flame was? Someone
actually lit that. Like, two thousand years ago.’
‘Not a model-home oil lamp, then.’
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Joss scowls. ‘No.’
‘I wasn’t having a go at you!’ Rebecca calls, but Joss has already moved on stiffly
to the next room where a grinning mannequin is modelling some rigid fabric, a Saxon
costume.
‘Had enough?’ Mark says, coming up a while later to where Rebecca is dully
staring at a collection of Second World War evacuation posters.
‘Evacuate me from here,’ she says, putting her arm around his waist. ‘I can’t take
too much of this all in one go. I end up feeling old.’
‘It’s important to get a feel for the place.’
‘I know. But it’s just as Heritage to want a good old cup of tea, right?’
He hesitates; kisses the top of her head. ‘Poor thing. We’ll take you home.’
Joss wanders up, looking cheerier. ‘Cool stuff,’ she says.
Mark pushes the door open for them to leave. ‘We English are obsessed with
oldness. Obsessed! I looked in the newsagents in town. There are three magazines of
local history. You’re going to have more history here than you know what to do with.
You should go to the library.’
Joss really is enthralled by all this talk of history. Rebecca wishes she could be as
happy to be here, that she too had something to be looking forward to. Australia hovers
in her mind, a bright-lit kite, an airiness, the colour yellow and the burning blue of the
sky. She has left what she knows and she doesn’t yet know what she has gained
instead.
‘Since you’d be in school in Melbourne, and here you are at a loss until next term
starts—why don’t you make that a project? Find something about the history down
here, and write it up for me. It’ll be interesting, sweetie.’
‘That’ll keep me off the streets,’ Joss remarks. ‘You’ll be glad of that.’
‘Find one thing,’ Mark suggests. ‘Do some reading, find one thing that gets you
going, and trace it all the way through. Find the continuity. There’s got to be something
you can use.’
They get back to the car. Mark and Joss talk about the castle and the artefacts all
the way home. Joss is satisfactorily impressed, and Mark animated with pride. Rebecca
sits and looks out the window; the best bit of the day, she thinks, is driving past the
fields, the horizon steady, the green flickering from dark to light, from yellow to blue, a
subtle peace out there as the car moves her through it, heading towards the sea.
::
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‘Have you seen the cups? They’ve all disappeared!’ Rebecca calls up the stairs.
‘There were only two anyway,’ Mark replies from the bedroom. ‘Plastic ones
under the sink.’
Life in this house really is like camping out. ‘I can’t find anything,’ she mutters.
She drinks her tea out of a glass jar she finds in the pantry.
Mark comes down. ‘Where’s our miss?’
‘Around somewhere.’ She sips awkwardly from the jar, the thread for the lid
unfamiliar against her lips. ‘I hope she’s all right here. She seems happy so far. It’s just
such a huge jolt, this new world. I’m still trying to catch up myself.’
‘What have we done, that’s what you’re thinking?’ He leans against the table.
‘Where on earth have we come to? How are we going to eat? Will we have to hunt in the
woods? Come on mate, it’s early days yet.’
She flicks him a glance. ‘We’ll have to find her a school. Some other kids to meet.
She was pretty brave about there being no internet, but you know how she lives online.
We didn’t even set up her phone to work here. I know she’s a loner, but I don’t want her
to feel completely shut off.’
He looks at her, something hovering behind his firm mouth. ‘She’ll be fine.’
‘She couldn’t even bring her guitar. Her books. Most of her clothes…’
‘Listen.’ He doesn’t move to comfort her, but his voice lowers. She knows to pay
attention to this voice. It’s a voice that promises to take care of things. Sometimes she
wishes the assumption hadn’t been made that things needed taking care of for her. She
thought when they married that Mark would be a support, but it looks like she found a
father-figure instead. How trite, how weak. Her friends might have been correct to watch
her bridal walk with the sceptical smiles she suspected they’d hidden from her. How
easy it is for her to play the child, even after all these years of growing. But how good it
is to be looked after.
‘Joss is busy finding out about the place where she lives now. She’ll find things to
do instead of talking to all those pathetic people online. She’ll have to go out into the
real world now. She might learn something new.’ Mark comes over now, and touches her
shoulder. She doesn’t move closer, or shrug him off. A faintness of despair comes over
her. She wanted things to be different here, but now they’re just strange.
He moves away again.
‘Brave new world,’ she says. ‘I’m sure you’re right.’
::
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In the library in town, old men belch over newspapers, a young Slav man talks quietly,
urgently into a mobile phone, there are young mothers with prams at the bank of
computers devoted to internet use. A truck passes outside; someone is surreptitiously
eating crisps, the smell of onion and cheese sour in the artificial air of the building.
Joss is here to get more books for the endless reading at night. She’d said she’d
learn about the area, and, dutiful girl, she is doing so. There’s a lot to read; Mark wasn’t
joking when he said the people here were obsessed with the past. Although when Joss
had asked at the library counter for local history and, trying to be friendly, said to the
librarian, ‘You live in a really interesting place,’ the woman had gazed at her, pebbleeyed, and said only that she was from Nottingham and didn’t really know anything
about history.
Joss is very young and she doesn’t know much about time but she understands
that she feels more secure when she can find her place in it. This year is so different to
last year at school; whoever she was when she was twelve feels remote as a ghost. For
her, the wide valleys of ‘history’ have always been a landscape, marked out with
recognisable moments like strata, like the layers of soil and rock that Mark had shown
her on his scans, the deposits and wrinkles where cultures have folded themselves over
and over, like a man turning earth. The richest loam for her is the very distant,
mysterious past: myths, legends: stories which take her somewhere on the line between
knowing and not-knowing, the places where, secretly, ‘maybe’ becomes ‘might be’. Now
she is here, it’s as if she’s been given a shovel and invited to dig.
::
Bound on three sides by water, this corner of Britain is claustrophobic with itself. The
past violence of the place can’t be denied, but it is well hidden. What are now miles of
peaceful fields, bland and identical beneath their crop of yellow rape and barley, have
been battlefields, roads, places where people lived and passed. There are the usual
ghost stories, and tales of murder, tales of smuggling and shipwreck and piracy. There’s
a ring of beech trees, built on the ruins of a Roman temple; the legend tells Joss that the
Devil appears if you run around the circle seven times on a dark night. There are the
Countless Stones, another circle, which cannot be numbered no matter how often one
tries. The area is jammed with stories, with histories silting up on each other. Used to a
room in suburban Melbourne, Joss looks up from her book and realises that the
Countless Stones are only an hour’s bus-ride away. The church down the road from
Mark’s house was built by the first Normans; the sky above the house was reamed by
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German fighter planes. It’s all a little hard to believe. A kind of vertigo of the
imagination.
So, summoning her courage, on her way home she walks past the house and
keeps going. A ridiculous thought crosses her mind that, like some kind of Huckleberry
Finn, she should have some bread and cheese tied up in a handkerchief; she giggles. To
be honest, she’s a little apprehensive of going out into the countryside alone. All she’s
known is suburbia, and the occasional bushwalk in the hills outside Melbourne organised
by her school. Mark and Rebecca weren’t ones to go far afield; they prefer cafés and
markets. Joss wonders if she should take a map with her, but after all, she’s not going
far. This is just an exploratory wander. It’s not like the bush, where you can get hurt.
It’s bright out here, bright and quiet.
She swings quickly down the road, her footsteps loud on the asphalt, a different
sound on the rough gravel or untidy grass of the verge. A profusion of vegetation,
feathered and fronded with blossoms and thick tangled stems blocks her view on either
side; the only thing is to follow the road wherever it leads. She knows that eventually it
connects with a big road towards Canterbury, but that’s a long way away. She’s
certainly not going to walk to Canterbury; whatever 40 miles is, it’s probably a very long
way. Though, she thinks, in a way she feels like a pilgrim. A pilgrim to the places she’s
yearned for in her imagination. Wherever they actually are. Judging from the
impenetrable hedgerows, Olde Englande is going to be forever blocked off from her.
She’s just about to give up and turn back when the hedgerows relent and there’s
a gap; beyond, a field and above her head, a sign pointing into the field, saying Footway.
She’s not sure what this means, but she thinks Mark’s mentioned the old footpaths that
cross the countryside regardless of roads. ‘Old ways’ he’d say. ‘No one can quite wipe
them out.’ Looking, she can see a thin seam in the crop, a delicate low feathery stuff.
She walks in, feeling conspicuous and prepared at any moment for an irate
farmer to charge out of the hedgerow shouting at her. But there is no one, and she walks
cautiously along the seam, which is a kind of path, feeling rather Biblical as she stands
amid what looks like some kind of corn. Alien corn? she thinks. Something to do with
exile? How appropriate.
On the other side of the field there’s a stand of trees. She reaches it, and rests a
moment under the shade. So, she thinks. I’ve made it in.
Now what? It’s not like old Enid Blyton or whatever, some wizard isn’t going to
come down from the tree and tell her something. It feels weirdly like that might happen,
though.
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Pale clouds cover the hot sky. She stands and squints through a hedgerow,
wandering her hand through the soft grass and honeysuckle tendrils, to see the field on
the other side, some kind of different crop this time, burnt yellow. There’s a big
windbreak of trees on the other side.
A crack of thunder comes over. Joss looks up. The sky is shadowed, with big
sultry clouds barging into the light grey. Wind shuffles the hedgerows. She stands there,
looking at the field. A weird brightness; thunder crushes again.
A drop of water hits her face. A drop. A drop. Then the rain shouts down.
She stands there, thrilled. Water in the creases of her closed eyelids, running
down her face, soaking her hair. Water thrashes on the ground.
Joss opens her eyes, grinning against the streaming rain. On the other side of the
hedgerow she sees a movement. A boy, cream and gold, flickering past the high fronds of
vegetation, the delicate flowers. He’s running across her vision on the other side of the
field, fast, fast—he runs to one side and she can’t see him anymore.
The rain is overwhelming, and there’s another flare of lightning. I should get to
shelter, she tells herself, and stands there still, looking to the right to where her house is,
the direction the boy ran. The country is all hers and she stands there, marvelling at how
empty air can be so full.
::
‘So these,’ Mark says, ‘are the grand ladies.’
He and Rebecca walk that evening under the shade of the huge trees that cloak
the entrance to the house. The trunks remind Rebecca of thighs, smoothly muscled;
above, the leaves are large, a lustrous fluttering green.
‘I suppose they were a lot smaller when you were here,’ she says.
‘Well, only because I was a giant of a man back then,’ he says, smiling. ‘No. They
were just the same. Just the same. Aren’t they lovely?’ The leaves cast myriad shadows
on the still-damp road, shifting like water, in patterns of gold and bronze. ‘As Gerald
Manley Hopkins said, God bless dappled things.’
They’re strolling out, after an early dinner. Mark promised to take her for a
perfectly safe walk, ‘No boring monuments, no scary social challenges…’ Rebecca threw
him a look. ‘We’ll just walk around a bit. Then you can teach Joss how to recognise a
yew, and other useful things.’
‘We do have trees in Australia, you remember. Even some of these.’
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‘Yes. But these are trees.’
They walk towards the village, down towards the sea. They do not hold hands,
but they walk in step, from habit.
Rebecca pushes her hair off her face. ‘We’ll have to get the place set up soon. I
feel naked without all my junk. I must be more materialistic than I thought. When you
lived here the house was full of stuff, I suppose.’ She hesitates, but Mark’s hand hasn’t
tightened on hers, or removed itself. ‘Does it feel weird, being back here?’ she goes on. ‘I
suppose it’s like you’ve never been away?’
‘Mmm. Yes.’ He looks at the road just ahead of him, as he always does when
he’s walking. ‘It’s as if time has tucked around itself, in a way. Have you ever gone back
to a place you knew well before? It’s the most uncanny thing. You, who you are now;
you almost feel like… a ghost or something. The house is the same, the countryside’s the
same—though I lived here before they started planting this horrible rapeseed everywhere,
that bright yellow stuff you see. And I feel like I should be different, after all this time,
but I’m not. Or I am and I can’t see it? Sometimes I feel like I’m going to walk into the
room and see Diana there. Because I wasn’t here when she died, she’s more real to me
alive, than dead. And then it’s you, instead.’
‘I can see why that would be a nasty shock.’ She’s trying for joking, but it comes
out a little sour.
Mark doesn’t notice. ‘Perhaps there’s two of me now, the one from before, and
the one now, superimposed.’
‘Hmm.’ Mark’s not usually this fanciful.
‘It’s an odd feeling.’
The light, at nine in the evening, is simply darkness bleached pale. The road rises
a little, rounds a corner, passes the service station and the pub, takes them between
more fields and then between houses. The village, at this hour, is almost entirely quiet.
Televisions can be heard in the lounge rooms that stand right on the high street. Rebecca
isn’t used to walking down a street and peering in a window to someone’s living room.
A car comes along, but takes a corner and disappears. There are a few middle aged
couples at a table outside one of the old pubs, but they’re mostly musing silently on their
pints. Rebecca doesn’t suggest they stop for a drink. All the shops are closed. They walk
on.
‘Did you love it here, before?’
‘I did.’ He’s walking steadily, with a rangy, loping stride, a walk that will take
him far and fast. She always loved Mark for walking as fast as she. ‘I thought this place
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had a real atmosphere. It meant something, to be where things had started. Even to me,
coming from the Midlands, it seemed old.’
‘I don’t feel that. It’s just a place to me. It has fields and houses and trees, but I
don’t feel any—’
‘—We’re very proud of oldness, the English.’
‘—echoes. Echoes!’ She laughs. ‘And I used to be really romantic, believe in
ghosts, all that. If there were something, I’d like to think I’d notice. I just don’t feel it
here. Maybe it hasn’t been long enough.’
He looks at her. They’ve neared the beach, and the wind comes up against their
faces as they pass down the last narrow street before the broadness of sea and sky.
‘I don’t believe in ghosts,’ he says. ‘I think things have a spirit of place, though. I
do. I can feel it all around me here.’ He points at a plaque screwed into the side of a
bench along the promenade. ‘Look at this.’
From this place generations of sea-men launched the lifeboats which brought Soar the gratitude of many.
In the memory of all souls lost at sea, and with the heartfelt prayers of those saved. 1936.
‘But that’s what I mean,’ he goes on. ‘Because you can read as much as you like about
this place, for example, even every plaque on every wall in this town, and you still won’t
get the feeling of—what is it, resonance?—that I can feel walking in the fields—that
understanding that someone else has walked here long ago; as strongly as if they stood
beside me. Some things persist.’
‘I just don’t get it. Do you think it’s because I’m Australian?’
‘Do you?’
‘I hope not. I have ancestry, I have an understanding of time as much as anyone
from Europe—I think. But I must say, I don’t feel as if I’m walking in anyone’s footsteps.
I’ve spent most of my life trying to get over the past.’
‘But look at me. I thought I could, and now…’
They are trudging down onto the shingle. Ahead the beach is soaked in shadow,
and the water comes slowly, the tide going out little by little. The pebbles on which they
walk are shiny and dark with water still.
‘Maybe, what you’re talking about, it’s a bit like the Dreamtime. Aborigines don’t
feel that it’s history. To them, it’s all happening right now, because the land endures,
and the stories endure, and it’s all still Dreamtime, to the old ones at least. If you believe
it, time can disappear. I wish I had that, sometimes. Mum and dad could still be alive,
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even though they’d also be dead. I could be the person I used to be, as well as who I am
now. If you could have everything at once...’ She grimaces.
‘But perhaps that’s too much for a person to take on alone. That’s what I’m
saying, I guess.’
A seagull comes idling overhead, holds its position on an invisible breaker of air.
‘I hope you can come to love this place,’ Mark says.
She stands and looks out over the water. It’s beautiful, but the loneliness of the
expanse disturbs her a little. All the lines between sea and sky are collapsing. She’s glad
she’s got Mark to break the force of the fresh breeze, and she moves further into the
shelter of his body. She wipes hair out of her eyes.
‘I’m sure I will. It’s hard for me, this thing about Diana—’
‘Don’t think about her.’
‘Well, you do. I know you do.’
‘Let the dead rest,’ Mark says, looking out to the horizon. ‘Let the dead bury the
dead.’
::
Joss opens up her laptop. As soon as the screen flashes into light she relaxes. It was a
blow to find that there was no internet connection here. For a moment she panicked.
What would she do with all her time? Normally at home Joss lived online. She was a bit
of a gamer, and had a blog, the usual stuff. All of that is snatched away here; the idea of
a house without a connection is shocking. But she’s brought her files, and she brings up
one of the landscapes she was working on before they left. At fifteen, she is expert
enough with a visual editing program to be employable. Hours, she’s put into this:
composing an imaginary terrain of mountains and valleys, haunted by a foggy sun and
sheened with a kind of supernatural glow, the obscured turrets of a castle in the
distance. She stares at the landscape, which she had invented to suit a certain mood—a
kind of wistfulness, a kind of wishing. It’s beautiful, and she knows that back in
Australia it meant the world to her. But here she has hopes of finding something like
this, for real.
She gets up and goes back to her pile of library books. She’s a good student, she
makes notes, and is working through chronologically. There are things familiar to her
from all the fantasy books she’s read back in Australia: special stone knives, magical
wells and springs, groves of trees. There are wonderful quotes from old poems. ‘Grief is
stronger than the sea, if you could understand it,’ says one. Water is a big thing. Water
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was special. They were very careful to respect it, and to give to it. Archaeologists have
found all sorts of things at the bottom of rivers and wells: swords, jewellery, flint tools
and even bones. Joss likes rituals. She likes the idea of this.
She reads about how just near the village there is a field where there was a manor
house, formerly a castle, and before that there was a Saxon church, which was built in
the ruins of a Roman temple, which was apparently put on top of a Celtic shrine. It was
a shrine to a god called Teutates, who liked cutting throats. Joss draws her lips back. It
seems that cutting throats was a big thing. All those bog bodies strangled, sliced and
drowned.
She reads on, about the Celtic love of shape-shifting, and immortality, that souls
can travel from one body to another, and how dogs are the symbols of death and the
underworld. The old people paid a lot of attention to things that moved between the
two. Perhaps that was why water was so important: it came out of the deep of the
earth, it moved. It couldn’t be held tight.
That old world enthrals her. It sounds strange, a little sinister, very organised.
You knew that they had understood something, some deep dark truth. In a frightening
world, it was important to keep the balance right.
::
Mark’s thigh lies heavy against hers and Rebecca is aware of his groin cushioned soft
behind her buttocks. He is so heavy with sleep and she is tight and awake. His breath
goes on, one long exhale and another. She is awake. Sweat sticks them together; she longs
to shift and be released, to disturb her husband, to make something happen. She thinks
of him inside her, and her belly tenses. The night is so densely silent, except for his
breathing. Her own throat makes no sound but it is open with restlessness. The room
doesn’t have enough air.
There’s a hotness in her, a child’s petulant confusion. This was Mark and
Diana’s bedroom, was she lithe and lovely here? Diana, with her quick blonde hair and
her English refinement and this house, all hers. Diana would have stared at this ceiling,
past Mark’s face, with an expression of ecstasy. Diana would have had a younger,
stronger Mark. His neck uncreased, his mouth supple. Grief twists inside Rebecca. She
would like to curl up and cry.
It’s been a mistake to come here, she’s a fool. Mark, too, is thinking these days of
Diana, she is sure. A hot memory.
She whimpers aloud. Hold me, comfort me, wake.
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Abruptly she writhes and turns. Mark stirs and then places his hand over her
shoulder, sleepily pushing her away as he rolls to the other side. Now he curls away
from her, and she presses up again, fitting to the snug of his spine, the front of her thighs
against the back of his. Her arm falls around his ribs, the hand flattens against his belly.
She appears to be sleeping but she’s not, her hand presses, senses. Lowers to where
Mark’s penis waits, takes it in her palm.
Her fingers are clever, her whole body is aware; invisibly, as she softly teases the
hot sticky flesh, the muscles of her legs flex and quiver. If he would just wake, and turn.
He breathes.
She massages more firmly, vehemently, until there’s stiffness and her palm is full
of a hard thing, she’s using her whole hand now, it’s incredible that he doesn’t wake. Her
breath comes more hoarsely against the ball of his shoulder, she can feel it on her face.
She is getting wet.
‘What are you doing?’ A whisper. Her hand falls still.
‘Is that okay?’
His hips don’t move. He sighs.
She keeps massaging him, half-furtive, half-provocative. She lets him feel her
open-mouthed breathing, her hips pulsing slowly against his thigh.
Mark’s hand pushes at her shoulder. He’s telling her to turn on her side, the other
side. Obedient, she goes. He pulls at her leg, raises it in the air. A shameful flush of
gratification heats her face, turned to the door. Mark’s face is in her hair, a hand grasps
her shoulder, pulls her taut. He fumbles with fingers within her cleft, puts himself at her
entrance. She moans, gladly, into the pillow.
But when he’s inside, her body arced between his prick and his hand, it’s just
flesh, not what she wanted after all. Her body feels inert as mud. She keeps her head
turned, and she knows Mark has his eyes closed. He slumps back to sleep after, and she
lies there, her head thrown back, eyes open, not thinking anything at all except, ashamed.
::
Mark holds his hand out, the next morning, as Joss is dumping toast crusts in the bin. He
has his rucksack on, is heading out. ‘Coming?’
‘What?’
‘Not ‘what?’— ‘pardon’.’ He cocks his head at her. ‘I’m going for a walk. Do you
want to come along for a bit?’
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She is a little shy. In Melbourne she had usually avoided being alone with Mark—
not unwilling, exactly, but there was a freight of caution. She was always afraid of being
too young, too foolish and mute with him. He is a smart man, and Joss wants to be a
smart girl, but on the occasions back home when he’d driven her to the dentist, or
Rebecca was out with her friends and the two of them had had an evening together, talk
was a little clumsy, swung heavily with a weight of awkwardness. They spoke shyly, not
quite looking straight at each other. They spoke of schoolwork, books, history; safe
things. Matters on which it didn’t matter if their gazes skittered, if words stumbled a
little, if there were pauses.
Joss blinks, pleased now. ‘Sure.’
The road outside is gilt with morning sunshine. A fresh cool breeze stirs the trees,
but the countryside is quiet. Joss inhales, settles into a steady pace next to Mark’s. They
walk in silence for a little while, away from the sea, along the curve of the road.
Joss finds herself relaxing. The air is so light, her legs feel young and strong. Birds
call out from the trees, calls she’s never heard before.
‘I know it’s a bit of a wrench,’ Mark says. ‘We’ve just abducted you from
school—I suppose you’ll be missing your friends.’
‘I don’t really have many friends there.’ She trails her fingers through the fronds
of a hedgerow. ‘I’m a sad loner.’
‘Me too.’ He pauses. ‘To be honest, I’m glad to escape.’ He inhales, lets it out.
‘Are you?’
‘I’m not really the convivial type. Happiest with a field on either side, the sky
above. Real man of the land.’ He pats his chest, laughs at himself. Joss giggles.
‘The kind that sits in the corner of a pub, making faces at everyone?’
‘That’s it. Cap pulled down low, pipe in the corner of my mouth.’ His smile
grows. ‘People say I killed my brother, but they never found the body, out there in the
bog.’
‘You wear nothing but old woolly stuff.’
‘I smell like dogs.’
Joss is giggling. ‘But you have a passionate affair with the barmaid. It’s a tale of
forbidden romance, and no one knows, but she’s young, with firey red hair, and you love
her—’ She stops.
He glances at her, amused. ‘Yes, a secret love.’
She walks on, a little unsure. ‘Yeah.’
The road seems to just go on ahead of them; she can see it appearing at the rise
of a hill beyond.
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‘Joss?’ She looks at him. ‘Have you got a boyfriend?’
She doesn’t reply.
‘Bit early for you?’
‘Boys are rubbish.’
Mark laughs. ‘Indeed. You’re probably right to leave them alone. Horrible beasts.
Not anyone on your blog?’
‘That’s all girls.’
‘I remember when I was fifteen. Terrified of girls. My parents had given me the
idea that if I slept with a girl, I had to marry her. And they were so vicious! The girls I
knew—and I went to a boys’ school, so I didn’t get to see them often—they were so tall
and perfect and looked like they’d have your head off with a hockey-stick as soon as
look at you.’ He chuckles. Joss wishes he’d stop talking about this. ‘The first girl I kissed
tasted of orange juice. She didn’t even like me, she only felt sorry for me, I think. Her
name was Madeleine, though, and I thought that was the most romantic thing in the
world. Madeleine, in a pink dress, her beautiful knees.’ He smiles at the road in front of
him. Then at Joss. She doesn’t know what to say.
‘Have you kissed anyone, Joss?’
She shakes her head.
‘Would you like to?’
Her steps faster on the road, she feels for a moment the relief that they’ll be there
soon, and then she remembers that they’re still walking away from the house.
‘Kissing’s not so bad,’ he says from somewhere far away.
There’s a terrible sensation in her chest, as if something is flaking and shedding.
‘It isn’t, you know.’
They are passing under trees, the shade is cool. Her face feels wrong.
‘Well.’ He puts his hands in his pockets.
She must make herself say it; she coughs, slows, doesn’t look at him. ‘Can we go
back?’
Mark swivels where he stands. ‘Of course.’
They walk back to the house, not speaking. Joss is aware that on her face is a
small half-smile, of nervousness and also, a terrible kind of satisfaction.
::
In Melbourne there was a rhythm to things: they would eat out once a week, watch
television most evenings, or have friends over for dinner: routines that swept them
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through year after year, rarely at a loss. Even when Mark entered their lives, not much
changed. Joss had her homework, her online friendships, and whatever fad of interest
she was going through, like the guitar she sporadically played.
Here the evenings are stiff things, and they all feel in a rush to have them over
with. The light, in early summer, lingers on and on. It is not even quite dark when they
clear the table from dinner and go to their rooms to read. Reading is the only thing to do,
and each of them sits, isolated by a sheath of lamplight, in their bedrooms, disappearing
into worlds other than this.
Dinner is late, and the house is still light, with the pale grey haze of the day’s
fading outside. Rebecca goes to the garden for a cigarette afterwards. The birds scream
in the trees. All the flowers are closing up.
‘It’s so peaceful here.’ she says to Mark, who’s come to lean against the doorway
behind her.
There’s silence.
‘It’s very pretty.’
Her belly is tight, she hates it when he forces banality from her like this. She lets
out a stream of smoke.
‘I’m buggered. I think I’ll go to bed.’ A hand rests on her shoulder briefly, and
then is lifted away.
‘See you in there, love,’ she says, as the door snaps shut. He always keeps the
doors shut, and the windows, even in summer when she wants to throw them open.
What’s the point of summer if the windows are closed? Freshers and fuggers, someone
had told her. Men all seemed to be fuggers.
How long has she been nervous of him?
::
In the bath, Joss sticks her legs out of the water. In the uncanny silence of the bathroom,
every time she raises a hand to wipe her hair from her face, the noisy trickle echoes and
then deadens. Her heartbeat is slow and heavy under the hot water. She’s reading about
prehistoric people, and their careful placating, their diligent care of their gods.
The ancient people, according to this book, saw the world divided into two: the
holy, and the other. Normal time, normal experiences could enter holiness by repeating
the acts of the gods. In a sense everything was holy: eating, fighting, sex, birth, death.
But only if it were done conscientiously, with the deliberation due to something sacred.
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To eat was to consume the world as the gods had; to fight was to enact an epic conflict
between hosts of primordial deities. Without sanctification, cosmos was merely chaos.
There’s something about this shadowy macabre which makes sense to her. Ritual
and reason, the mad logic of the ancients. A sense of balance and equity. Up and down,
to and fro: the constant comforting of fretful gods, the fearful, cynical offerings. To life,
the people brought death. For death, they spoke to themselves of eternal life. Always the
offering, the sacrifice. Joss wonders. Are they the same thing?
She had practised her own made-up little rites once: the careful placing of stones
in a gutter to make a shrine; always the biggest stone last, the key. The hoarding of
detritus, for fear of losing the one piece of scrap paper which might reveal the magic
map. The furtive pouring out of a glass of Mark’s wine in the back garden, for deities on
the other side of the world. Always leaving something on her plate, as she’d read in a
fable, against bad luck inflicted for greed. Never watching someone pass out of sight.
That would mean you’d never see them again. Superstitions she barely noticed, though
she enacted some of them still.
And for the old people, to imitate the gods was to reanimate them. Spirits of the
trees, spirits of water, spirits of a shrine, they were present and living in the moments
when humans did again the things that the gods did: ‘did’ become ‘does’ and time itself
was vanquished. For when an act was made sacred, then again the god performed it;
holy time was no-time, and the instant became eternal. Space and history didn’t exist;
only the recurrence, only the endless now, with each birth, each death, each sacrifice. All
of them pressing together: the momentless folding in of time.
Joss is struggling with this. The steam has made her sleepy; she heaves her other
leg out of the water and lets it rest on the side of the green enamelled bath. The idea of
no-time radiates in her at this moment: she feels unreal, as if she has always been in this
enclosed, silent room with the candlelight wavering on water made metal by shadows;
the Joss who went to high school in Melbourne, who walked those streets, saw those
people, is gone, as a dream; this is a dream, here; every morning she awakes and
bemusedly, contentedly agrees to it. She knows she passes from moment to moment,
along with the world, but for her there is only the instant, and that, too, baffles her.
::
Rebecca stands outside the kitchen door in the walled garden, after getting up for a pee.
She is too alert to go back to the bedroom where Mark has just dropped off to sleep. She
thinks she might have a cigarette and look out at the darkness. But outside it is very
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black, blacker than she is used to in the street-lit nights of suburbia in Melbourne, and
the body of darkness that stands beyond the door makes her halt still on the doorstep.
The kitchen light is on, and a curve of illumination paves the steps before her. Past that,
however, the whole world has disappeared. No pale outlines, nothing. The sounds are
more vivid than she likes. A night-bird chuckles, there is a strange repetitive clanging
somewhere in the distance, a creature rattles twigs, the trees make a noise like the sea,
always coming closer, never arriving. Stupid superstitious fears about sudden grabbing
hands and looming faces come to her, as if she were a child. Smoking more and more
quickly, she finds herself retreating. She looks out into the darkness, because to not look
at it is more disturbing. The curious thing about light, she thinks, is that the stronger it is,
the more it creates its own fugitives in shadows. Then she finishes the cigarette and
shuts the door, turns the light off and walks quickly through the shadowed house, where
the shadows are deep enough to be, in fact, the world.
::
It’s muggy today, close, as if someone has hands pressed over her cheeks, and the
window glass is so cool against her hot face. She opens her eyes, and there’s something
there. Outside. There’s a person in the front garden below. He’s small, standing just
inside the wall, looking up at her. A blond, thin boy, tanned dark as honey, a little
younger than she is. She can tell from the skinniness of his limbs, the size of his elbows.
Wearing khaki pants and a green shirt. He’s smiling at her.
Joss moves back from the window. He waves. She comes nearer again, a hesitant
smile on her face, though surely he can’t see her expression hidden in the dark of the
house. He’s still smiling, with his lips closed, looking steadily at her from across the
yard. Joss waves, a little wave, her fingers closing again quickly over her palm.
Then he turns and hops easily over the wall. Joss watches as he walks to the
shade of the trees in the road outside and vanishes.
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Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Part Two
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
They’ve been in the house for over a week. The early summer air moves around them
so lightly they barely feel it. Joss has already stopped remarking every day ‘It’s only
three days since we left Australia, it’s only five days…’
Mark goes out every day, walking. Suddenly he seems terribly British and
competent. Rebecca thinks there’s something fuddy-duddy about his earnestness. He
comes home in the early evenings and collapses. ‘Did you take any photos?’ she
asks. He hasn’t asked her to go with him. She hasn’t invited herself.
‘Just notes.’ He stands up wearily to put his boots outside. ‘I’m having a
beer.’
He seems intent on getting out of the house where he’d lived once with Diana;
but he brought them here. He wants to speak of her, but keeps his memories private.
It is as if, nostalgic for the past, he finds the reality of what remains more alarming
than comforting. He looks like a man who is feeling things, but cannot begin to utter
them.
There’s a forbidding distance about him these days. The more she tries to
reach him, the cooler his politeness seems. The kitchen is where they meet most often,
since they barely speak in bed these days; they exchange their terse pleasantries, they
eat, with Joss, they cast glances at each other when the other is staring into a bowl of
food. When he speaks, it’s in a low voice, tiredly, as if Rebecca has asked him to
recall some trivial detail of an old life. ‘I suppose so,’ is a phrase he uses too often. It
makes Rebecca want to mock him. But she doesn’t speak this new terse language, she
cannot find the steadiness in it from which to tell him what his distance is doing to
her.
His memories of Diana taint the house invisibly, a fug.
‘Love you,’ she says, in bed at night, smiling. Trying yet again. She curls
towards him.
‘I’m very fond of you,’ he says, but he rolls away and goes to sleep.
She’s settling in, she supposes. Rising late in the morning, drinking her tea
slowly in that lovely quiet garden. Watching the sky, and the trees heaving in the
breeze. The weather’s warming into June, pure and fresh; there are more and more
wildflowers growing in the weeds. Occasionally she bends and yanks out some
fronds, in a gesture towards gardening, but she likes the rough profusion of it, the
garden is a good place to hide.
This morning she ambles up the path to one of the old sheds that sag at the
back of the garden. Crooked slate tiles teetering towards the edge of a sloped roof;
peeling paint walls. The door is wooden and opens with a tug: no lock. The scent
inside is of rotten wood and stone dust, hot air captured in a small place, musty and
familiar. It smells like her father’s shed, when she was a child. Oh, Dad. She
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
remembers him for a moment. How she misses him and her mother. They lay light
hands on her shoulders and are gone again.
In the shed there is the usual jumble of cast-off household stuff. A radiator, a
broken deck chair, some tins of paint and a shower curtain, cracked and brittle with
age, over something larger. Rebecca pulls it off. A bike.
Years since she’s ridden a bike. She drags it out, tosses one thigh over the
saddle. The tires are a little slack but otherwise seem fine. It’s a little too low for her,
and she places her feet on the pedals, pushes one forward cautiously. In the long
grass the traction is good. Weeds hiss at the spokes of the bike as she trundles it out
the front gate.
This a freedom Rebecca hasn’t expected. One hesitant push with her foot and
she spins off down the road. Lightness and ease rush through her. One long thigh
shoves down on the pedal, then the other, and she’s amongst the fields. Down the
slight hill she goes and goes.
It is an oddly comforting feeling, to be following Mark into this land, seeing
the things he’s been seeing. If she can’t do it with him, she can come after him. It
makes her feel closer, as if she’s seeing through his eyes; as if he’s somehow inside
her.
She could ride forever, like this, past the blank bright fields. Past a thatchedroof cottage, past an old coaching-inn; a dog barks from a garden. There are no
people to be seen. One after the other junctions appear and random turns are taken:
it all looks the same, whichever direction she goes but there are signposts, she’ll find
her way back. Suddenly it doesn’t seem to matter after all. She sings to the cows as
she passes them and they look up with their calm intelligent eyes. The sun is blazing
and she’s sweating, but there’s no overwhelming heat. She’s proud of the wet under
her arms, damp on her back. ‘One of these mornings,’ and she inhales, ‘you’re going
to rise up singing…’ In the tunnels of trees through which the road passes, the air is
cool and green.
She stops the bike on long stretches, when it takes her up high, and across the
rim of trees she can see the sea and closer, the fields. They are all full of that crop she
doesn’t recognise; of course, she wouldn’t recognise any at home, either. Stalks a
couple of feet high, fringed with pale yellow fronds on either side. The field looks
soft, like a thick carpet. This is a kind of corn or barley perhaps. There’s a plume of
cloud on the horizon that might be smoke. Imagine if it were smoke, a settlement
burning. For a moment she forgets to concentrate and there it is, a possibility of
imagination. Someone has stepped here, in this field, people have walked and died
here. It’s calm. Thoughts flush away.
The trees, close and far, are her great delight. They are markers here, she
orients by them, pays attention. The endless twisted silhouettes of them: she’s never
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
seen this kind of beauty before. Laced about with ivy, filigree leaves, a hundred
shades of green and grey, they are so different to the ghostly eucalypts of Australia
and even to the staid European trees she’s known at home.
Rebecca is one of those people who loves the bush in Australia, but never
goes to it. Somehow there was never time to go camping, or for more than one jaunt
to the hills a year. Absurd, really, when being in the tangled cocoon of vegetation has
always soothed her. An odd kind of soothing, because it seemed a consolation
despite itself. There was something alien about the bush; it belonged to other people.
She always felt like an intruder; bush walking, those few times, she had often taken
the position at the rear of the line of walkers, so she could sometimes pause and look
behind, at where the trees were carefully ignoring her passage, lowering their eyes
before the hikers disappeared out of sight and the bush could ease again. She
respected its privacy, that was what was consoling about it; it respected hers.
Here the trees range along hill-tops, wreathing their perfect dark limbs against
each other, substantial and still delicate, grave and beautiful. A harmony of forms
which holds her rapt. As she passes the hedgerows she thinks hawthorn, birch, lime,
chestnut, oak. The names come to her from memories wrapped up in comfort and the
cosiness of a childhood bed.
Coming up a hill on the way home, panting, the bike heavy in her arms as she
stands on the pedals, there’s field enclosed within a hem of trees, dark, fir-like, cool.
She thinks she’ll pull in there, sit in the gully between the barley and the trees. As she
yanks the bike through the opening she notices flies.
Feathers under the tires. Ripped, a wing-bone, dirty grey and white, a dank
smell. Where she was planning to rest there is a mess of bird carcasses, smashed and
torn, matted, crushed. There are dozens of small white and dirty bodies and a rank
smell.
She wheels out again in revulsion.
The day is bright like a glass of wine. She can leave the dead place far behind
in only a minute.
But at the top of the next hill, heading back towards the coast and home, she
pauses, sweaty and breathless now, and looking to one side sees a meadow, like any
other, except that Mark is in it, standing there in the middle of the long grass. He has
his head in his hands. His shoulders are bent.
She is about to call out when she sees how he shakes.
He seems a stranger, this man crying alone in a field. Very quietly, she puts a
foot on a pedal and pushes off.
::
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
While he talks, she looks at the details of his face. It’s a good face, firm and
characteristic: the neat nose, slightly veined now with age, the dark brows, the thin
firm lips, the elegant planes of his cheeks. The kind of face one might see in a
regimental portrait, or a university don’s hall. Rebecca remembers, vaguely, loving the
tender plateaux of young men’s cheeks, the little creases beside their soft mouths, the
fragile skin at the corner of their eyes. But to her, this is what beauty has come to
look like.
And love is looking closely, and never flinching; only, ever, looking more
closely, less and less afraid.
He turns the side of his face to her now because he cannot seem to address
her directly. She has the sudden urge to tell him not to be ridiculous, not to be so
fucking British and stiff. Oh Mark, she says inside, You really are turning into—what
would you call it? A chump.
But then he turns to her and she can only notice how frail his skin has
become, how the light catches in his eyelashes, as he says, ‘It’s a long way.’
She hasn’t been listening closely. He was talking about his mother, up in the
middle of the country, and how ill she’s been, it’s been so many years and how she
might not be around for much longer, she’s over 80 now. They’re not close, Mark and
his family, and after ten years overseas he’s become simply a name to his mother, a
voice on the phone and a collection of old school-books in her house. But he has
begun talking about her since they arrived, and obviously it was only a matter of time
before they all trooped up to some godforsaken industrial town and paid their
respects. It might be good to get out of this place. Her whole body feels stiff, as if all
she’s done is lie in bed.
‘Okay,’ she says. ‘When’ll we go? Next week? Joss has to start school soon.’
He looks at her and almost without thought she realises: he hates me.
‘I don’t think so,’ he says, very distinctly. ‘I know you’re not stupid. But
you’re not listening.’
‘What?’
‘I’m trying to tell you.’ He makes to take one of her hands; pulls his hand
back. His voice is formal, with a note of caution that is only patronising. ‘I’ll say it
slowly. Rebecca. I do care for you. You know I do. But I’m going to have to go away.
For a while. I don’t know when I’ll be back. I…’
She sits very still. Something flushes through her, a rinse of shock. And the
immediate wash, following, of familiarity. Oh, she knew it. Just as when her parents
died suddenly, and she thought, most of all: How stupid I was to think I would
avoid that.
‘You’re going away on your own?’
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
‘It’s being here. I am sorry. I thought I could stick it. This house, it’s just too
much. I’ve got to get away for a bit. And…’
She stares at him.
‘And you. I need some time alone.’
Her pulse, slowing, is the only thing that moves her. She can feel herself,
swaying minutely in her chair, once a second, with the rhythm of her heart.
‘You arsehole.’
‘What?’
‘You—’ She fights for control, to breathe. ‘You’re going to leave? You’re just
picking up and moving on now? What do you mean, you have to go away for a bit?
Are you coming back? What do you mean, ‘and you’?’ She slaps his arm, messily. It
comes out a weaker blow than she meant. She slaps him again, harder. ‘Fuck!’
‘Rebecca…’
‘Jesus Christ.’ She’s trembling.
Mark is clenched tight with resentment. ‘I knew you’d make it difficult. Get
hysterical. I just need some time for myself. This is hard.’
‘Go fuck yourself.’
‘Fine. Fine.’
They sit there for a few moments. Rebecca cannot make herself look at him.
Breath is a bubble in her throat, caught and painful. She has no idea what expression
her face is making.
‘Look, I didn’t want to upset you. But I have to do what’s best for me. You
demand a lot, you know. At this point, I just don’t know if I can give it anymore.’
Rebecca speaks quietly. ‘I thought maybe… maybe we might try again. Mark?’
She doesn’t know where this thought has come from but suddenly it opens in her: a
cup of light.
Now he stares. ‘What on earth are you talking about?’
‘I know I wasn’t ready last year. We decided together, but I know really it
was me who wanted to get rid of it. But now I’m thinking, and it could be really
great, you know—you, and me and Joss, and a little baby…’
‘I’m going tomorrow,’ Mark says. ‘I’m sorry. I’ll keep in touch. Don’t fall
apart, Rebecca. For Christ’s sake.’
He gets up, awkwardly, from the little narrow old chair, and Rebecca
watches as he walks out of the room. His footsteps are loud on the stairs. She sits in
her seat for a minute before she begins to breathe hard, pressing her fists against her
sternum, beating her fist against the heart.
::
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Joss is out, and Mark has gone. When he put his arms around Rebecca in farewell this
morning before driving off, she felt every inch of space that he carefully held between
them. A formal embrace. She could barely look at him, but as the car disappeared
around the corner she watched it out of sight, found herself leaning forward.
Now Rebecca flinches through the rooms of the house. Outside the sun is
shining, inside the house is chill. Her bare feet don’t seem to meet the floor surely. She
finds she is walking with her head meekly held forward, penitent. Under her heart,
right there beneath her breastbone, is pain. It feels as if an anvil is swinging, straining
the muscles from which it hangs. It aches and aches.
She puts on her boots, jams a packet of cigarettes in her pocket, and walks
out the door.
The day’s brightness blasts her. There’s the sound of birdsong, and the trees
against the house whisper. Everything in the world has been going on out here
without her again.
She takes the path from the front gate, turns, and follows the outside of the
garden wall to a nest of trees, wrapped in ivy, trying not to put her hand against any
trunk or drape of leaves. There are spider webs, but only tiny delicate ones. She can’t
see a path through the thickness of vegetation, but on the other side of it is the big
field that lies behind the house. Rebecca wants to be in it. The crop has been shorn
and the large pale yellow space is empty enough for Rebecca’s yearning. With an
Australian’s fear of snakes and spiders, she gingerly picks her way over the rumpled
ground, its lumps of ivy-covered stone and tussocks.
In the shadows on the other side of the glade, Rebecca pauses. Is she allowed
to walk on the stubble? She feels watched. ‘For god’s sake, you fucking idiot.’ She
strides out.
Underfoot the ground is clumpy with the drying crop stumps, and the scent
of it is dusty and fresh. There are patches where stones—are they flints?—have been
ploughed up and some broken. Most of them are intact, however, lumpy and chalkwhite as bones. Her boots make a loud sound as they crunch in the runnels of cleared
ground. The sky is hazing with clouds, darkest to the east, but the sun is still shining.
It’s the middle of the field and she lies down suddenly. Flat on her back.
There is the sound of stalks under her hair. The sky a great blue skin above. ‘So,’ she
says aloud.
Her mouth makes the shape Mark’s does, when he’s holding something in. She
can feel his expression on hers. It’s a comforting ghost. But all her words when she
mumbles them in her mouth like a pebble taste only of water.
The sun is prickly hot. She can smell her own skin, feel the glossy heat
covering her hair like a cap.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Back out onto the quiet road, and there are the signs: St Crispin’s. The white
arrow points to her right. Rebecca hesitates, then swings down it with quick, cross
steps. There is no one around; only one more house, on the corner, and no flicker of
life behind the lace curtains there.
At a junction with a smaller road to the right there is another sign. This road
is lined with aspens and they sough as she passes beneath their kind feathery shade.
Five minutes’ walk around the base of a shallow hill and there’s the chunky steeple
of the church, rising above a thick of greenery. She slows.
They’re almost all Norman around here, Mark had said. Churches. The
Normans arrived on the south coast, not so far away, and they put up castles and
churches. Sometimes they were shoved on top of older Saxon ones. The Normans
wanted to put their stamp on things. And god, but they knew how to build. All
made of the same stuff, see? And he’d gestured at the thick flint walls and square
towers. Castles, churches, they all look the same. Indestructible.
This one is benign with quietness. It’s surrounded by a low flint wall; she runs
her fingers along the chunky stone as she walks, until the tips go numb. There is a
little wooden portal opening in the low wall, a structure on poles like the kind of roof
put over a wishing well in children’s stories. Rebecca bends to read the faded yellow
tourist information plaque by its side. The lych gate dates from the 1760s and forms the
entrance to the Path of the Dead, along which bodies were borne for burial.
She steps through the gate.
There is grass and ivy everywhere, soft and forgiving, massed around the
half-sunken gravestones that sprinkle the grounds. Clusters of them nearer the church
itself. Inscriptions in old, elegant script like Book Antiqua on Rebecca’s laptop. Here
lieth Sarah Wooton, relict of Samuel Wooton, who departed this life on y 20 Jan 1756.
Rebecca notices some strange graves, with stone bodies, it seems, lying above the
earth. Rounded mummies, with a ball for a head and a tapering tube for a body, as if
in their shrouds. There are two or three miniatures, the size of children.
She strolls, slowly, narrowing her eyes at the tombstones as she tries to
decipher the eroded scripts. There are precious few she can read. No matter how
grand the stone, how large and carefully inscribed, most of them have not endured
two or three hundred years in legibility.
She nears the church itself, its flint-studded foundations warped to the
uneven ground. The steeple rises, stiff and square, like a watchtower, square at the
top, clad in ivy all over one side. Halfway up the façade of the church is a crumbling
carved rosette with a round, projecting nub at the top. Looking lower, as the clouds
topple the tower towards her, she notices more nubs, on either side of the door’s
lintels. They are heads, she sees, almost life-size. The one on her left is a woman,
wearing a cowl, her face smeared with time but still recognizable. She is smiling. Her
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
companion on the other side is also a woman, also hooded, but her mouth is chipped
out of shape, and her eyes have a sadder aspect. Rebecca stares at the two of them.
They make her feel as if she’s welcome here. Three women, gazing peacefully at each
other.
She wonders, briefly, where Diana is buried. This place looks as if no one’s
come to worship here for years. Diana is probably in a modern cemetery, lined up
alongside all the other shiny black marble bookmarks. Perhaps Mark has been to see;
he didn’t say.
Rebecca has not been to a church service since her parents’ funerals ten years
ago. And they were awful, stiff affairs. The priest got her mother’s name wrong, she
remembers. Margaret, instead of Marguerite. And there were flowers everywhere,
prissy arrangements, all the wrong colours. White and orange. She didn’t like the bare
modern chapel, with its pale pine fittings and blank white ceiling. There was nothing
grand or eloquent there. Only awkward people and too much space around her
body, so she’d pulled little Joss closer to her, feeling the trembly warmth of her
sister’s body, hating everything, wishing only for somewhere dark and small.
There are notices pinned up in the porch of the church, and on either side, an
age-shiny wooden bench. The porch is stone, and it smells damp and old. On the sill
of the inner door are scratches in the pale stone; little fine crosses. Another tiny label
on the board draws visitors’ attention to them. Crusader Crosses, it says. It is believed
that Crusaders, on their return to England, would blunt their swords on the lintel of the
first church they saw, in thanksgiving for a safe homecoming. Rebecca draws her fingertip
along one of the frail lines. What did they do when they departed in the first place,
she thinks. Was there a sharpening of swords? She likes the idea of marking an
arrival. Perhaps she should do the same, somehow. Here I am.
She wouldn’t put it past Joss to have some little ritual. She’s good at things
like that. After the funeral Joss, aged only five, had insisted that Rebecca and she
stand in the back garden. Stand, said Joss. Here. Next to me. The two of them stood,
in the buttery late light of the evening. Now bow, said Joss. This way. She turned to
the left. And this way. Rebecca followed. They did a circle, bowing in every
direction. Joss pointed up at the sky, to where two clouds were being tugged slowly
towards the sunset. Now mum and dad know we’re sorry.
Maybe Joss has made her obeisance to this place already. She’s taking hold of
England in a way Rebecca is resisting. Rebecca lays her palm on the cold yellow
stone. Maybe she should try harder. Anything’s better than this mewling and
listlessness. The wet cement in her heart. But oh, she thinks. How hard it is to give up
that sweet grief too.
The dense wooden door to the church is locked. Well. She goes back out into
the sunshine. There is a huge thick tree near the door, scrubby-looking, with tiny little
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
dark leaves like needles. Its branches extend in every direction, long, twisted and
fringed with smaller twigs. It’s grotesque, almost sinister; under the boughs, as she
wanders closer and ducks her head to reach beyond where the branches curtsey right
to the ground. The shade is cold, colder than the other air. It’s a messy tree,
haphazard, not pretty, with stiff dead twigs bristling out in a chaos of shapes. But
she sees the trunk and comes up to touch it. The bark is contorted, corrugated and
dark, harsh as asphalt, but sheened as if with skin where the sun catches it. The little
needle leaves make a fluttering, rushed sound.
Knotted and ridged, with columns of bark twining against each other; the
trunk has split at one point. There is a hollow inside, and the bark edges there are
glossy and round, like leather. Rebecca peers in. Cobwebs, a dry dusty scent. The
hollow is big enough to sit in, if one weren’t afraid of spiders.
There is something about this tree that makes her feel good. It’s ugly but safe
as its boughs drape down all around her. Yew trees, Mark had said. They’re for both
life and death. Very common in churchyards, even when they’re older than the church itself.
That tells you something. Some of them are more than a thousand years old. They live so
long and they’re always green, people associated them with eternal life, that’s why they’re
in graveyards. But they’re also poisonous. So, death. Very tidy symbols, aren’t they?
Something hard presses on Rebecca’s palm as she leans in to peer into the
hollow. Wedged into one side of the wooden lip is a stone. A flint. Like a blade, like
a handle. Strange. She tugs at it, but it feels stuck tight as a rivet. A knife in a tree.
Abruptly a little rotten wood crumbles away under her fingers. The flint
loosens a little. Sunk so deep for so long, unchanging within a living, growing thing,
like a chunk of time itself. She lets it go, sorry to have disturbed it.
She walks on, and out through the church gate again, feeling almost as if she’s
trespassed. But she would like someday to come back. The weather is turning.
::
Joss spends the afternoon reading in bed, in her bright eyrie of a room, all the
windows open and the hot smell of grass coming in.
Mark’s gone to visit his mother: Rebecca seems devastated, but Joss doesn’t
really understand what’s happened. She figures she’ll be upset later, if that’s
required; but for now, she’s feeling almost relieved. So she writhes into a more
comfortable position on the bed and fingers the edges of the pages of a history book.
Below, in the house, there’s a distant sound, as if Rebecca is moving
something, dragging some furniture around. Joss twirls her hair and takes another bite
of her apple. She doesn’t, she realises, actually like sour apples, though she always
chooses them.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
::
He is there as she’s walking home a couple of hours later. Stiff from lying on her hot
bed, Joss had walked a way down the road just to get some air, and then turned to
go home. More fields, more road, more trees. Twilight, the birds loud in the trees
across the fields, the hedgerows a pale spume on either side of her. Singing under her
breath, swinging her arms. Hastening a little, not wanting to be caught in the dark.
Joss is not used to being in a place without street lights, she wonders just how dark it
will be out here in the fields. It would be blacker than anything she’s ever known. She
starts to hurry.
The boy comes towards her in the gloom, down the road. He might not know
her. But he’d waved, that time. A stranger on a road. He comes right up to her now,
smiling. There is something about the way he walks, an odd little jerk: he limps.
He stops. She stops too. He grins at her.
‘Hi.’
He smiles more broadly.
They stand there, in the thick gloom, the sky streaked with grey and silver,
huge clouds lazily taking up the world.
He cocks his head. He is only a boy, younger than she is, she thinks. ‘Do you
live around here?’
He takes a hand out of his pocket and shakes it out by his side in a strange
gesture, still smiling. Then he points across the field to her right, where there is a
slight hillock crowned with trees.
‘Over there?’
He nods, thoughtfully.
‘You’re kind of quiet. You don’t talk much, do you.’
He laughs, and walks on. As he rolls away with his lopsided gait, he turns
and smiles at her: a smile so fresh and knowing and fond, as if they are old friends,
that she too grins and waves.
He is strolling away with his strange tight lurch, further down the road to the
dark horizon, his hands in his pockets. Everything in the air is gathering in. She walks
home quickly, smiling.
::
Already the smell of Mark in the sheets is vanishing. But Rebecca carefully covers the
sheet with the doona every morning when she gets up, like tucking a child into bed.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
She doesn’t want his scent to go. She knows it’s ridiculous—morbid—but she
snuffles her face into his pillow at night, damps down the scent with wet eyes.
This is why he’s left, it’s her, it’s the shame of her, she was weak and stupid.
She showed him everything. And he’s left, because how could anyone love her, so
naked and hoping?
She knuckles herself into the bed. The trees are blowing against the house, in
the dark. She hears Joss’s footsteps, going down the stairs to the bathroom.
Something about sex always simultaneously frightened and amused her: the
frantic bucking, the absurd fleshiness of it all. Men so urgent and intent, their faces
transformed and swollen with blood and their single-minded clambering, their eyes
staring beyond her. As if they were trying to squeeze themselves through a tiny hole,
invisible, somewhere in the air behind her head. She’d often had to fight the urge to
laugh; once, she began to giggle helplessly, and the young man she was with had
stopped dead, and glared at her. Rebecca’s own body had embarrassed her, with its
ungainly reaching, the way it fought her as she, too, tried to swim through that
narrow aperture of pleasure into bliss.
For years she has known only Mark’s body, and the revelations of her own
under his touch. She has, for a long time, missed the moments when his gaze became
hot as he bent his face to hers.
Then, after sex one night last year, she had realised she’d forgotten to put in
her diaphragm. ‘Well,’ said Mark. ‘Perhaps you didn’t really forget.’ It wasn’t as if he
asked for a child. But Rebecca, at thirty-one, was at the age where she might consider
one. And when she had found she was pregnant, Mark waited for her to say ‘Oh,
god, this is awful’ before he said, ‘I guess it is.’
The termination hadn’t been so ghastly; what had seeped unhappily at
Rebecca as she lay in the recovery room was the knowledge that Mark, in the waiting
room, was mourning the loss of a child he had wanted. ‘Choice is sacrifice,’ she
repeated apprehensively to him later. He had simply smiled sadly, and taken her
hand out from under the pillow of their bed where they lay, and lain there, his face
still and his eyes closed, while Rebecca tried to see in the dimness whether there were
really tears beneath his lashes.
::
Joss corners Rebecca in the bathroom. ‘When am I going to get a real bed?’
‘Oh, shit.’
‘I know you think I like being a total rat, and I don’t really mind sleeping on
the mattress, but it’s a bit yucky.’
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Rebecca’s hair is such a pale brown in the mirror that she looks, literally,
washed out. There are shadows, almost yellow, beneath her eyes. She’s lost weight
from her face so fast: Joss thinks she looks like a little kid, and at the same time, so
much older than she really is. Thirty-two looks like hell, she thinks.
‘Can we at least go and buy me a kind of bed?’
‘You just want to go into town and email your friends about what a revolting
time you’re having,’ says Rebecca. She goes back to plucking her eyebrows, but she
gives Joss quick, not unsympathetic glances in the reflection. ‘I don’t know what
we’re doing, mate. I know this is bullshit. But we’re here now, at least for the time
being.’
‘Can we afford to make the place a bit more—’
‘Sure.’ Rebecca plucks at a hair. ‘Sure we can. Anyway,’ she says, frowning at
her reflection, ‘We’re grown women. We can fend.’
::
They go into the village, get a bus to Canterbury, and find some furniture. A fold-out
bed for Joss, a desk for Rebecca, a couch, a television; some other small things to
make life civilised. After a few weeks in the small realm of the house and its
surroundings, the bigger town feels almost overwhelming: the stores pumping music,
the young people in their bright clothes, the acerbic glares of the elderly. They spend
an hour at a café simply gazing at passers-by. The consensus is that the mass of
humanity is not, after all, worth pining for.
A van comes the next day and delivers everything. For a morning, Joss and
Rebecca are invigorated, flushed with the pride of making the house theirs. ‘Fuck
Mark,’ pants Rebecca, as she pulls the couch into place below a window. ‘This is
what happens when he leaves me.’
Joss doesn’t say anything, but shoves the couch against the wall and wipes
her cheek.
The most exciting moment is when they connect the television and the mellow
tones of a BBC newsreader tell them that there was a massive traffic jam on the A25.
‘Lamps,’ Rebecca observes. ‘We forgot lamps. I hate overhead lights.’
But Joss has a stash of candles.
‘You are a little boho.’
‘Hobo, more like.’
‘I like this, you know,’ Joss says, later. ‘It’s kind of like camping. Like we’re an
outpost of Australian civilisation in the wilds of savage Britain.’
‘Kind of like a reverse First Fleet?’
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
‘That’s it. They don’t realise it yet, these people, but we’re going to violate
their women, steal their land, and make ourselves boss. They’ll be lucky if they get to
keep their ancestral Jaffa Cakes.’ Joss takes another one.
‘You know, really, we’re like the ghosts of the colonies, come back to haunt
the place.’
‘We must have had family here once. Do we know anyone?’
‘Well, we don’t have anyone here now. Not that I know of. But I remember
mum telling me once that we’d come from convicts sent to Tasmania, and that they
were smugglers. I wonder if they came from around here? Mark said something about
smugglers, didn’t he?’
‘That would be typical. I always thought you had a sly, kind of criminal look
about you, Beck.’
‘A rough tough cream puff, that’s me. A nasty pasty.’
‘Yeah. All that bad-ass pastry stuff.’
But after a last cup of tea, Rebecca becomes silent again, and smokes a
cigarette out in the garden with her lips pressed tight against tears. Joss says
goodnight, but Rebecca doesn’t answer, and her sister goes to bed abruptly irritated,
for what good is a sister if she’s not paying attention?
::
From her bed, Joss can smell cigarette smoke and hear Rebecca in the garden. She’s
talking to Mark.
‘And you, you never, god, you never tell me anything, you just make me sit
and wait and wait like a fucking… You’re so stiff and righteous, keeping all your
secrets, like Diana, what the hell was she like, you made it all sound so perfect and…
Shit. I wanted you, I loved you so much, you bring me and Joss all this way and then
you leave, you leave…’
::
Rebecca is growing accustomed to waking with her legs stretched across the bed.
Luxuriously, they scissor back and forth in the warm cavern of sheets. Sleep rises off
her like steam. And then she is awake, and she lies there very still for a moment,
aloneness thudding in her throat.
Joss has been wandering, a new child it seems. Free and unafraid in the new
country. Rebecca doesn’t know where she goes. ‘Oh, out,’ Joss says carelessly. She’s
pulling her boots on in the kitchen when Rebecca sleepily walks in. ‘I just like it.’ Joss
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
gives a short tug to the laces. She gets up, straightens her shorts, and leaves with a
quick smile.
There on the kitchen dresser, forgotten, is one of Mark’s Ordnance Survey
maps. Rebecca opens it. It all looks quite complicated, until she peers closer and
realises that it simply represents everything in the countryside. Bridleways, manor
houses, copses of trees, golf-courses, hamlets of a few houses. All are shown in tiny
pictographs. There’s St Crispin’s, the church. Rebecca hadn’t realised the road
outside curved so; nor that a river was so close, and the Roman fort. Not far away is
a small plot marked out in dotted lines, with the label ‘Disused dump.’
There is nothing to do today, except for sitting in the garden, fondling fronds;
except for the washing; except for waiting for Mark. She has resolved to push the
thought of him out of her brain whenever it comes, with its taste of vinegar in her
mouth.
After a moment’s thought, Rebecca grabs an apple, the keys, the map, and
leaves the house.
::
There’s her sister, far ahead on the straight of the road before it curves off again like
a blade into the distance. Joss swings down the road quickly. Rebecca ambles more
slowly, hovering by the hedgerows, ready to push herself furtively into their cover
should Joss turn around. It’s not that she’s following her, but she feels a bit foolish
walking behind. The white broderie flowers of Queen Anne’s Lace brush her face. The
scent from the hedges is sweet and powdery. She snatches a handful of daisies and
valerian, rolls the stalks in her fingers as she walks.
The road curves, there is a grove of trees—oaks, their stiff sturdy trunks and
friendly big leaves—and Joss is on a diagonal across the verge when Rebecca sees her.
Against the dry grass verge there is planted a windbreak of poplars shivering white
in the breeze, and beyond them a field. Joss, who always in her Australian life
walked on the footpath, superstitious of stepping on the cracks, is climbing the white
wooden stile of someone’s meadow and striding through the barley. Rebecca,
hesitating as she approaches, notices a sign: Footway. It points into the field. Perhaps
she’ll follow Joss a little, after all.
Once she has swung over the gate, she notices that the crop of barley is run
through with a track that bends the stems in a smooth line to the horizon. More trees
up there on the little hill. Out in the open, wary of being noticed, Rebecca pulls back,
lingers against the poplar trunks. The many leaves make a smooth susurration in the
breeze.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Joss has reached the stand of trees on the hill They are bent low, more
wrenched and thick than the serene poplars. Rebecca sees her bend, take off her little
satchel, plop down and cross her legs. A silhouette dark against the bright day, pale
against the dark trees. Which is it? Rebecca squeezes her eyes shut, opens them. Joss
sits, facing the field. Rebecca shrinks back. Joss’s head is tilted, her legs spread
carelessly.
She plaits her fingers, stretches them; then pulls weakly at one ankle—her
sloppy socks, thinks Rebecca.
Rebecca creeps around until she’s behind the poplars. This is like spying on
herself, in the moments when, idle, she presses her blood-warm lips to the cool thick
paint of the kitchen door frame, or finds herself absently swinging her hip against the
hip of the table, just for the movement of it, the easy sway. Lonesome things. Joss is
lonesome too. Not once has Rebecca asked how she feels about Mark leaving. Joss is
all alone here. The realisation recalls the vinegar of hurt to Rebecca’s mouth.
She has been staring at the bark of the poplar and forgetting Joss, the field,
the hill and the trees up there where her sister is sitting. This is mad. What’s wrong
with her? She heaves off the tree’s support and turns back to the road.
::
Joss scratches her ankle and eases her spine. The fields below her lookout are
shivering with yellow heat.
There’s a footstep behind her.
She jumps. Her heart a silly bird. Flush under the sweat on her face.
His face is brown, with clear skin over dark freckles, summer’s flush beneath.
Black irises in hooded eyes. Joss thinks of the broken flints she saw at the church in
town, eggs of stone embedded in the walls, broken off roughly, each surface bevelled
a dozen different ways, each angle glossy as black water. His knuckles are torn,
patches where the sunburned skin has rubbed off, pink against brown. He smells
dankly of sweat. Like an animal. Joss breathes him in.
There is a flex inside her that is like the sweet panic of touching herself. She
lets it wriggle inside her, voluptuously. She too is damp.
The boy looks right at her, smiling a little, his sharp teeth crooked at one
corner. He squats, crosses his arms over his long thighs. His forearms are smooth and
brown, but flawed here and there with small shiny scars. Joss stares at the fine blond
hairs there, the thin sinews of his hands.
A boy. He is so beautiful she thinks she will burn.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
She looks out over the field below their little eyrie, the dry green trees
dissolving in the thick air into the distance. ‘It’s so pretty around here.’ Is it stupid to
call this place pretty? He’s watching her. ‘I live over there.’ She points to the right.
He nods.
‘My sister’s husband got the house. We’ve just arrived. It’s, um, it’s really
cool.’ Just how stupid is she making herself seem? She is stupid, stupid, stupid.
‘Where do you live exactly?’
He points to the left, towards a deep thick of trees that runs down and out of
sight, and beyond, where the land melts towards the sea. They can’t quite make out
the water from here, the horizon is too hazed, but it’s there, a pale rim.
‘You live with your parents?’
The corn-coloured hair over his forehead is spiky with sweat. He runs thin
fingers through it, pushes it back. There is a long scar on his temple, pale seam
puckering the skin, Joss is entranced.
She’s wet under the arms, pink in the face. It’s getting even hotter, but the sky
has clouded, cataract on a blue iris.
The boy is looking at her steadily, with his black eyes, simply staring. Then he
takes her hand and wrenches her to her feet. The bright world tunnels black for a
moment and then swerves back into focus. She feels trembly. He stands there and
looks at her, smiling, with serious eyes, intent.
‘What’s your name, anyway?’
He makes that odd gesture again, shaking his fingers out. ‘You don’t talk, do
you.’ she says. ‘I’m going to just call you Flick. You kind of flicker.’ He still has her
fingers loosely held in his. ‘I’m Joss.’
He looks at her in silence. He clamps her fingers more tightly and tugs her
hand, as if wishing to lead her somewhere.
The wind comes up and all the trees around them flex towards the ground.
Leaves shake and shake.
‘Come on then. Show me.’
::
The woods are cool and damp after the sun. Thin young trees close around as she
follows Flick’s footsteps, his careful treading over mulch and twigs. She thinks they
are heading towards the sea, but she can’t be sure. He’s taken her, sometimes holding
her hand, sometimes walking ahead but always turning back with a secretive,
conspiratorial smile, encouraging her as they walk across fields, alongside
windbreaks. The land around had seemed flat, but Joss feels that she’s walking
downhill. Everything is getting dimmer and deeper and her hands are clammy as she
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
follows Flick between the still, silent trees. She can hear birds, distant, then one
flusters out of a tree just ahead of them, shrieking. The chinks of sky are white
through the pale green millions of leaves above. They walk in quiet.
Ivy cloaks many of the trees, where they are not scaly with lichen and moss.
Small flowers spill in pools where the ground is clear: delicate white cups of silk,
bulbs of dark indigo. The air smells of growth. There is no track, and they crunch
through ferns and brambles. Joss accidentally brushes a craggy stalk of green with
one finger; the sharp pain startles her. A nettle. She’s read about nettles.
There’s the sound of water somewhere nearby. Joss is thirsty. Flick is going
ahead, his small, straight back, blond hair metallic in this gloom. Joss’s boots
stumble. She stops.
‘Flick?’
He turns. There is a strangeness in his face. So fine and smooth, his child’s
features, the polished planes of his cheeks, the silken skin of his lips. In the light
beneath the trees he is gleaming like gold.
‘Flick? Where are we going?’ She is embarrassed to be faltering. Not brave
enough, bookish girl, city girl, foreigner. Mark would scorn her. Perhaps she’s not
ready for this adventure. Her finger is stinging sharply from the nettle. It’s getting late
in the afternoon. She gives Flick a tentative smile. ‘Are we nearly there?’
He takes three steps back towards her. It’s strange how nervous she is of him,
a boy younger than she is. She wishes he’d say something; what’s wrong with him?
He stares into her eyes.
‘Yes, yes, I’m coming. I’m fine. It’s just—it’s just, I reckon I should be getting
home—’
The trees hiss in a little breeze. How dark the irises of his eyes are. He takes
her hand.
The way he yanks her forward, startles her. His small hand is very strong. Is
he taller than she’d thought? She lurches ahead, finds her pace again. The scent of
sweat from him is strong, bitter. He leads her to the side, towards the sound of
water.
There is a little creek there, water running in glossy roundels over rocks. Joss
steps forward, peers into the water. The light here is dim, shaded, and the trees are
thick on the other side of the bank. The water is loud, running past, there’s no other
sound now. Among the weeds trailing the banks is a clump of something, ragged and
tattered. She glances up to Flick. He stands, looking into the water, smiling with
pride.
‘Beautiful.’ Joss doesn’t know if this is it, if this is the place they’ve arrived.
It’s a creek, where she hadn’t known there was one, but she doesn’t know anything
about this country, should she be impressed? ‘Lovely.’
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
He gestures at the water.
She looks more closely at the round thing there. The water is curling around it,
easing past, relentless. It seems the current is growing stronger, the sound of the
water’s passage is becoming loud. The shape in the creek is fabric, a cowl of fabric
torn at the top, and inside there is something leathery, pale. Something sinewed.
‘Oh, god!’ Joss jerks back.
The drowned dogs are like wood, stained and polished by the water. Their
muzzles are lean, their flanks, where the skin appears over the smooth rippling
surface, spongelike. The eyes of the dogs have pearled white.
Flick laughs.
Joss looks at him in horror.
‘Yours?’ He shrugs. She can’t stop staring at them. Their snouts all pushed
together, a rope tied cruelly around the thin stiff legs.
She feels as if snails are crawling over her. ‘I don’t know why you—’ She bites
off the words. He seems very strange now and Joss wishes she were home. This
country is all wrong. Where are the spells and the fables? Where’s the magic? The
creek stinks, she realises. Small bugs are festering around the dead animals,
swarming in the water.
‘I have to go now.’ Her voice is shrill. She will just get home. She’ll find the
way. ‘Thanks. Thanks for the walk.’
His hand is on her arm again. His hands seem bigger, the fingers reach all the
way around her upper arm. He is taller than she is, surely he was not so large before?
Not a child, a young man. His gleaming face comes near, she can smell his breath. She
prickles all over.
His eyes close and he leans in, his other hand at the back of her head, he pulls
her face forward, and his tongue is squirming at her lips, slithers between. Joss
grunts. Her teeth part, her head goes back, she is kissing, she is kissing a boy, he
tastes of metal and he’s right inside her mouth, he’s swallowing her. The world is a
mouth.
He breaks the kiss and steps away.
Joss’s face is warm and wet and there is a cool smear of saliva on her chin. A
loose smile on her face. She doesn’t know what to say, she is frightened. Her lips are
cold.
He looks at her; walks away. Turns. A smile, perhaps scornful.
He turns again and ambles off through the quiet trees, further into the woods,
towards the sea.
Joss stands and stands, and she doesn’t know what to do, which way to go,
except back.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
::
Joss wakes the next morning, and, slipping a hand along her upper arm as she rolls
slowly into wakefulness, she finds a soft pain beneath her fingers. She throws back
the light summer coverlet and sits up.
Four small bruises, the colour of moths, in a curved row along her bicep. Flick.
Her mouth wets.
A kiss, her first kiss. She wasn’t expecting it, and it scared her. But now with
her limbs loose and soft from sleep, a new feeling sits high in her throat as she looks
down at the length of her smooth young body in the creamed morning light, she
thinks that she isn’t really sorry; she will, instead, open her mouth for more.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Part Three
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
But when she sees him the next day the sight of him fills her veins with cold water.
Joss pulls back into the hedgerow, out of sight of the boy coming towards her far
ahead on the curving road. The twigs crunch and rasp loudly near her ears as she
pushes into the prickled growth, but she can only hear her heart thumping. She cranes
her head forward a little, peeps around the bend.
He has stopped. He knows she’s there. Joss flinches back into the hedge. This
is ridiculous, but she knows only that she can’t see him, she cannot move towards
him, will not meet the gaze she knows he’s casting back down the road. Something
terribly frightened beats in her chest.
Why is she so fearful? There’s just something about him. Something hard and
cold, for all his golden heat. There’s something in the way he was coming down the
road, how he’s not coming any closer, but just standing there invisibly, his black eyes,
his smell in her nostrils even from a distance.
She waits and then, more carefully, she peers again. He has gone. The hedge is
a spring; it pushes her back out into the road. She hurries back to the house.
::
‘Huh?’ Rebecca says absently.
Joss is stirring coffee on the kitchen counter. Her sister has been staring at the
Ordnance Survey map.
‘I…’
‘Quiet, I mean,’ says Joss. ‘Should I be going to school?’
The days seem too open around them, without corners.
Rebecca says, ‘You seem busy.’ She’s still staring at the map, its busy green
road lines and firm circles for towns.
‘Not really.’ Joss sits down, jogs her foot up and down.
They’ll have to enrol her in the local school, it should have been done ages
ago. What a mess. It’s the long holiday now, but soon—will Rebecca and Joss still be
here? What if Mark’s not coming back? What should they do? Inside her, Rebecca
feels embers wearily flickering out.
‘Met any friends?’ Rebecca knows she sounds stupid. In Melbourne she and
Joss could talk easily, about things going on, Joss’s homework, Rebecca’s friends who
were all like aunties to Joss, laughing and lively; weekend afternoons in cafes, joints
smoked by the adults under rattling gum trees in the back garden.
‘No.’
‘I’m sorry.’
Joss shakes her head, quickly.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
The morning, outside, is flashy with sunshine. Joss tips up her mug, drains her
coffee. Rebecca goes to the open kitchen door, lights a cigarette.
‘Wonder what Mark’s doing,’ Joss says.
Rebecca inhales, smoke hot in her throat. ‘I couldn’t care less.’
::
They watch television together, eating off plates on their lap. Fried eggs and bacon
and huge mugs of tea. The Wimbledon tennis is on: a posh-sounding commentator is
lustily quoting Dylan Thomas. ‘Do not go gentle into that good night,’ he admonishes a
failing player. Joss snorts and changes channel.
There’s a documentary, about Britain before the Romans. Footage of
meadows and Stone Age monuments is saturated to bring out the resonance of
colours, with unearthly greens; fields aflame with crimson poppies, bruised vast
skies. Eerie Irish music plays. A historian with excited gestures and a scholarly little
ginger moustache wades up coastal paths and down hillsides, explaining about how,
in the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany, the dead could return to the
living world. It was the time when time stood still, or turned about: the apparition of
the horse with its funeral associations, and the ritual combats and the mad sexual
frenzies to assert the power of life and fertility in those black frozen days when the
year turned on its pivot, and almost stopped.
‘Wow,’ says Joss. ‘I imagine it’s pretty exciting around here at Christmas time,
then.’
‘Oh yeah,’ Rebecca says, reaching for a biscuit. ‘They block the whole high
street off for the sexual frenzy.’
They sit and watch more. The historian visits an old church, blackened and
stern. He tells them that enclosed within this Norman church is an older Saxon one,
and below that, the foundations of a Roman temple, where, thrillingly, the skeleton
of a child was found. And below everything, a prehistoric sarsen stone, blank and
implacable as a giant tooth.
‘Now that’s cool.’
‘It looks a lot more fun on telly than real life. But you really love this stuff,
don’t you? You can get hold of it,’ Rebecca dares say. There’s no knowing what will
make Joss prickle, of course; she’s got all the secrecy and perverse pride of a small
child. Remarking on her predilections and obsessions has had doors slammed in
Rebecca’s face before. But Joss is sleepy and comfortable, her legs resting across
Rebecca’s lap.
‘Yeah, I guess. I like it. It’s like some safe world, some place I can just go, in
my head.’
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
‘Do you have much feeling for… I don’t know. For the amount of time that’s
passed here?’
‘I’m fifteen. I don’t even know what it’s like to be sixteen.’
They sit in silence. The news comes on, a brief update, and then a talent
show. Everyone in the audience is pinkly sunburnt. The contestants are garish with
fake tan.
‘It’s strange here. The stories aren’t really just stories anymore. They’re more
real.’ Joss shifts sleepily.
‘I don’t know about that. It was all a long time ago, whatever that means.
And you know, I keep thinking of that joke, about the American tourist arriving at
Heathrow and asking a policeman, “Excuse me, could you direct me to your nearest
pageantry?”’
Joss giggles. ‘I know, it’s a bit much sometimes. Good old Olde Englande. I’m
such a sucker for it.’
‘Have you been reading much?’ Rebecca asks. Christ, she’d forgotten to ask.
‘Of course. I wouldn’t want to disappoint you when you’re going to hassle me
all the time.’ It’s clear from Joss’s look that she’s noticed her sister’s entire lack of
interest.
‘You’ll have to show me.’
‘Just old stuff. Just lots and lots of old stuff.’
‘I found something the other day,’ Rebecca says, shifting Joss’s legs a little. ‘A
beautiful old tree in the churchyard, with a stone stuck in it. Some kind of old knife.
It looked like something out of your old books.’
‘You’ve been to church?’
‘Mm. I thought I might get Born Again. In the love of Jesus.’
‘Uh-huh.’
‘You’ll have to come and be baptised with me in the well. It’s a long drop, but
they said it’s quite safe. You look like you could do with a wash, anyway.’
Joss is watching the television. It’s showing a picture of an up-ended ancient
tree, its trunk buried in a marsh, its roots spread out to the air. ‘What?’
Rebecca pats her hand. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, I’m too much of a poor sinner to
be let into a church. There was no one there. But the yard is nice. All those wonderful
trees, witchy trees, it’s so peaceful there. I don’t hate everything, you know. Contrary
to appearances.’
‘You’ll become some kind of mysterious woman of the wood,’ Joss says,
standing and stretching. She reaches for their empty cups. ‘I’m going to turn into
some Celtic princess and you’ll be the wise witch. I guess we could see that coming,
couldn’t we.’
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
::
He comes to her again, in the road outside the house, as she’s on her way out. He
stands on the other side of the low stone wall, where she saw him once through the
window. Nervous, Joss doesn’t know where to look.
His hands in his pockets, his dirty hair blown sideways. He seems so small,
his knobby elbows, his pure skin. Freckles dark beneath the tan across his nose. He
jerks a shoulder back, raises his eyebrows. Come with me. There is metal in her
mouth, but she says yes.
Down the shaded road, into the fields, across a pathway. Joss hesitates as
they near a darkness of trees. The weather is brackish, murky. More thunderclouds
on the horizon, the blue of the sky paling above. ‘I don’t want to go in there.’ She
stops, well clear of the grove.
Flick watches her. Then he sits down and beckons her to do the same.
They sit in a runnel between barley stalks, where a footway passes through
the crops. Already Joss is used to these; the old rights-of-way, across private farms
and crossing highways. They’re marked with signs from time to time, but not always
clear.
His darkness is gone; he’s easy with the day’s warmth. Joss will not speak of
the kiss.
She waits, staring warily at him and then at her own bare knees, the dried
barley stalks beneath. He does nothing, doesn’t attack her. Then their gazes drift off
to the horizon, they sit in silence, and she lies back, and the sky pearls more, and
she’s enormously aware of him sitting just beside her.
The crops blow and tick their dry leaves together in the warm breeze. Flick
breathes; shifts occasionally, settles. Minutes and minutes dissolve. Joss is almost
asleep. The air has grown damp and the sun has gone. Under her head the dried
barley tatters rustle until she stops moving, and she lies there, concentrating on that
silence, that stillness. The trees have quietened.
She has her eyes closed, she can’t even hear him breathing. Behind her eyelids
she sees his face, so fine and clear, the burnt skin and the brown. The thought of him
just near to her comes like a surge across her body, exciting as fear. Now that he’s
here, she has to respond to him; this is real. What she feels, more than anything, is
want. Then again, she wishes nothing need happen; that there be no next moment,
that they could lie like this forever, caught out of time.
He’s only a child, she reminds herself. But his grip was so hard, in the wood,
his mouth so fierce. She imagines his skin hot, how hot he would be if only she could
move and he would move and touch her. He has nakedness beneath his clothes.
Something shivers across her skin.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
She opens her eyes a little and squints up at him kneeling over her. He is
looking at her mouth, with a hard, adult gaze. He doesn’t move at all.
‘Flick?’
Heat is coming from him in a haze, or is it just the thick afternoon air? She
twists awkwardly to rise, and his eyes are huge, staring at her now, his face has
firmed, he is the only golden thing in this pale field, he is the only colour against the
blank heavy sky. His hair is bright gold and the scar on his temple is crimson.
She kneels and she puts her hand on his arm. They look at each other. His
gaze is almost fearful.
Joss lowers her head, and watches her hand stroking his arm. Her heart is
beating so fast she think she is going blind. A plane passes somewhere lost in the
hazy sky, sounding large as thunder.
When she lifts her head once more it is closer to his. She can see the fine hairs
of his brows, the spangled iris of his dark eye, his chapped lips. She can taste his
breath. She has a sensation that the air itself is pushing the two of them close
together.
He murmurs, but too low to hear. She puts her mouth to his.
Lips meet, press.
Then he clamps her hard with his hand. Resistance becomes give, give
becomes want.
A kiss like a fight, clumsy, scrambling. Their bodies push together in haste.
Hands grasping, grabbing, restless, hungry. Joss barely knows what she’s doing, she
pursues him, she grunts and flattens against him as he arches against her, both of
them straining to climb each other, falling away and clambering harder. Her body has
never made these movements before. Her throat has never made these sounds.
It is as if there’s water in her ears, she is drowning in this boy. Under her he
writhes, twisting her, legs tough beneath hers, and something else hard, thin and hard
against his belly. The fulcrum of her body pushes onto it, pushes onto it deliciously
again. Her breath stops with need, her flesh empties. She’s nearing something,
something frightening, wonderful.
There is distraction in the distance. A voice.
Joss?
The boy clasping her. Joss tunnelling into him, silent and animal.
Her hearing clears, she is sweating, she lifts her head.
Rebecca, calling her. Joss opens her eyes.
Her sister is coming, looking for her, and Joss scrambles backwards, blinks
away heat, scrubs her hair from her eyes, looks around.
There’s Rebecca, on the other side of a windbreak, a small figure. Joss gulps
down her fright and looks at Flick.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
He is gone. She is alone in a tunnel of pale reeds. There’s only Rebecca,
coming closer, a dozen feet away, smiling.
‘What do you want? What do you want?’ Joss says. The words jerk out of
her, she’s not aware, her face is flushed. She feels as if the humid air has lightened
and her body is floating. It’s not possible that he could have gone like that.
Rebecca halts. Her face, confused, is loathsome at this moment. ‘What are
you doing?’
Joss is hollow as a stalk. She gets up from the ground. ‘Nothing. Nothing!’
They walk home, Rebecca cautiously silent, Joss staring at the road. There is
more space between them than there might be.
::
It takes two days for the new bruises to appear. Three fingerprints along the side of
her throat. They rise on her skin, welts of memory. Joss hides them with her hair, rubs
at them gently, with closed eyes.
::
The next day, Rebecca wakes thinking of taking the bike out again, but then she feels
tired, and doesn’t. She’s been waiting for Mark to ring. The courage it’s taken, to
wait, is enormous. All day every day, in fact, days and weeks, she has waited, and
thought of him thinking of her, and how soon he’ll give in and call to say I was wrong,
I’m coming home. But he doesn’t and doesn’t, and she’s so disappointed that sitting
up in bed, simply imagining herself sitting up in bed alone, unwanted, she curdles
into tears. It is early afternoon before she rises, leaden.
‘Jesus,’ she says when she walks into the kitchen. ‘What the fuck’s this?’
Joss, eating a boiled egg at the table covered in newspapers, looks at her.
‘What?’
‘I suppose you haven’t gone out to get milk, either.’
Joss stares.
‘I’m really not in the mood for this,’ Rebecca says, yanking out a chair and
sitting at the table.
Joss is silent, but edges her book away from Rebecca, pretends to read.
‘I can tell you’re not reading.’
The younger girl doesn’t say anything but inches her book even closer to the
edge of the table.
‘Your eyes aren’t moving.’
‘Go away,’ Joss hisses. ‘You’re being a bitch.’
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
‘Fuck.’ Rebecca gets up and shoves the switch of the kettle on. Joss’s chin
becomes ugly.
‘What’s wrong with you?’
The sisters raise eyebrows at each other. ‘Oh for god’s sake,’ Rebecca says.
‘I’ll have to put you in the naughty corner.’ She jerks her head towards a nook where
the tea-towels have been stashed. ‘Fuck!’ she says suddenly. As she sits down again
she clenches her eyes closed. ‘Sorry.’
Her sister scowls at her. ‘You look like shit and you’re being a total, total—’
‘I am a bitch. I am the biggest bitch there ever was.’ She glances at her sister.
They sit in silence for a minute, Joss picking up egg crumbs with a fingertip. ‘I’m
sorry, I’ve been awful.’
‘You’ve been very boring, yes.’ A pause. ‘What’s going on with him?’
Rebecca tilts her head. ‘He hasn’t rung, but I got a postcard yesterday.’ She
takes it from the kitchen counter and hands it to Joss, puts her head down on the
table again.
‘Doesn’t say much, does it.’
‘He’s never coming back. I guess.’
Joss gets up, pulls a mug out of the cupboard, puts a teabag in it. ‘Don’t say
that.’
‘I’m afraid it might be true.’
‘Yes.’ Joss switches the kettle on. ‘But don’t say it. Don’t they always come
back in the end?’
Her sister looks up at her. ‘Only in books, my love.’
‘Well, then.’ Joss tilts her head towards her book. She pours boiling water.
There’s no milk and Joss has forgotten the sugar, but Rebecca takes one slow
sip after another. ‘I can’t believe I’m taking advice from a fifteen-year-old.’
‘Shut up! How long are we going to wait?’
‘Well, we’re here now. Can’t afford to leave. We’ll have to stay until he kicks
us out.’
‘I can’t imagine how you feel, you know. I don’t know anything about—about,
you know, being married.’ Joss thinks she knows something of love. For the first time,
she knows something about love. It’s too precious to talk about.
‘Me neither.’
‘Is it awful? This?’
‘Yes. Yes it is.’
Joss gets up, reaches out her arms, bends awkwardly to hug her sister. It’s the
first time they’ve touched like this in a long time. They press into each other. Rebecca
is warm and small. Flick, thinks Joss. I want his body. Is it wrong, to want him so
much?
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
‘I’m okay.’
They disengage, step back again, embarrassed. Rebecca wipes her eyes. ‘This
place. It makes me claustrophobic. You seem to like it.’
‘That’s because I’m a better person than you.’
‘Shut it.’ Rebecca knocks her sister in the arm.
But now Joss is thinking of Flick again, and says nothing. He’s pressed hard
up inside her throat, and she’s nearly choking. There’s a new kind of loneliness, she is
discovering, not to be caught having a secret.
::
The beach slopes towards the water, ridged in banks where the receding tide has
paused and thought, then dredged down. Her boots crunch firmly on the pebbles:
small ones down the slope, bigger ones at the keel of each hollow.
She’s left all behind except water, stones and sky. Once the light thickens the
fishing boats sit alone with their pennants fluttering. Everything is grey, soft, soft
velvet, a little bluish, exquisite. Far off there’s a ship’s light shining scarlet, and there
are a few lighter clouds still smearing the grey, but all else is peace. The sea withers
and worries at the shore. Giving a little, with each handful of stones cast up; taking it
back with long slow scrapes.
The water makes a low roar, slopping the last of its ebbing tide onto the finer
pebbles along its edge. It has cleaned the basin of its passage and skitters with a
kind of fatigue in long, messy curves, back and over itself, skimming, as if any
moment it will subside altogether and rest. Every now and then, when she’s lulled
herself with the ceaseless rustle of it, there’s a bigger crunch and a heavier wave
slumps down, like a sleeper throwing out a careless arm.
If she waits until it’s a little darker, she can scrabble up a handful of the
stones and throw them, hard, against the rest by her feet. She can snatch up cold
round pebbles and smash them down; tiny little sparks will jump off. Much of the
beach is flint, that oldest of playthings; it’s hard but brittle, easily chipped if a blow
hits it the right way. In a hundred pebbles there will be ten with their chalky white
skins battered to reveal the glossy dark centre of each stone egg. Flash, flare—the
sparks vanish instantly. It’s for the satisfaction of throwing that she does it, not the
useless light.
She’s already left it late to leave on the walk home to the house down the
dark road. Since when did she become so nervous of everything? Rebecca clamps her
palm savagely over a sharp flint of stone until it hurts. Sitting down, she finds a tiny
scrap of charcoal. On one flattened grey pebble, almost unthinking, she writes Here.
On another, There. On a third, Me, and places it between the others.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
The beach is dissolving further into a fog of greys and powdery blues, all
edges vanishing. There is hardly any telling where the shore becomes sea. A little way
away she can see the pale orange streetlights of the town. The afterburn of them
makes the soaked blue of the shore even deeper.
So she’s lost her husband, it seems, and that baby that might have been. Her
parents, long ago, and her old home. She sits on the shingle, aware that she, in her
dark clothes, is the only solid object in this haze of grey: marked out, so utterly
solitary in all the space around.
For years she had carried her mother’s laugh within her own, oddly released
when she wasn’t expecting it; her father’s way of jamming his hands in his pockets
and swaying gently from side to side as he talked. Her whole character is, she
sometimes thinks, made up of the memories of those she’s known. One friend’s way
with words, another’s opinions; all absorbed into her, all coming out again when she
doesn’t expect it, when she thought those people long gone. Now that she’s alone,
here in this country where, but for Joss, she knows no one, she wonders who she will
be. And without the glints of others’ lights illuminating her, who’s to say she even
exists?
She looks down at her thin hands, the darkness of her clothes; almost
obscured in the growing dusk. Well, she has this. A sense of herself as discrete, whole
and condensed as a glass marble, buried right down deep inside. Her strong hands,
her straight body. The woman she has become, in this place, in this extraordinarily
beautiful moment. Something solid, something true.
And, biting her lip, smiling, she says to herself, finally says it: I think I might
be pregnant. She lets out a shout.
It’s late enough to see it now. She stoops, gathers a palmful of small flints,
and throws them as hard as she can at the shingle. For one beautiful instant, flecks
and sparks ring out bright. She does it again and again.
::
Flick, Flick. Joy burns inside her. She fancies his scent is still on her, her own breath
smells like his, her skin. He’s coming out through her pores. At night, in the morning,
she twists under the sheet, one hand between her thighs, thinking of his face, his hips,
the way he breathed against her ear, fast and helpless. The way she had undone him.
The pleasure is like a searing, it hurts, makes her body move to meet his phantom
touch.
She tries to press bruises into her skin as he has done but her fingers leave no
mark.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
::
The packet from the pharmacy is easy to open. Rebecca’s hands are trembling as she
unwraps the little plastic wand. Naked, she sits on the toilet. Outside the sky is just
a haze of palest orange. It’s important to get the result on the day’s first pee; she had
woken, impatient to find out, and now, in the glare of the bathroom fluoro, she
urinates onto the plastic. She puts the wand aside, dries herself, averts her eyes.
If it’s two blue lines, if it’s two blue lines. She tries to envisage what the two
lines will look like, how she will feel. If she could only jump ahead five minutes, and
then scoot back plump with knowledge, but nothing actually irreversible.
In the mirror, as she waits, she anxiously regards her face. It’s too thin, and
she looks older than she should; there are faint seams from nose to lips which have
appeared in the seven weeks since she and Mark last made love, in the weeks since
Mark left. They’ll fade if she’s pregnant, if her body and her face grow round. She
practises a look in the mirror: the happy expectant mother. Slightly too smug. She
practices dismay. In the reflection her eyes are unexpectedly forlorn.
The sky is going pink; it’s going to be hot again. Or does it mean rain? Red sky
in the morning, shepherd’s warning. Her mother told her that; ridiculous. When did her
mother ever care what happened to a shepherd?
It’s time. Sooner than she expected. She picks up the plastic wand, careful
not to look at the aperture that will show the result. She covers that with her other
hand. Looks at herself in the mirror. One, two three. She uncovers it and looks down.
One, two. Two lines. She is pregnant.
::
One moment she thinks of Flick, and there’s nothing. No feeling. Her body doesn’t
cramp with want, she can’t even remember what he looks like. She blinks. There is a
smear of gold in her mind, where Flick used to be, dissolving away.
She concentrates, remembers his fingers trembling on her shoulders when he
kissed her, the curve of his neck as he walked ahead of her, the way he’d narrowed
his eyes at her. There it is again, that cold flush, the hot pleasurable promise in her.
He rises in her mind’s eye, is present in the angles of her body as she spreads her
limbs and then curls them tight again. She can bring him back, he’s always in her, he’s
too precious to let go now.
It’s been ages, but Joss remembers her landscapes. She borrows Rebecca’s
laptop and lies on her bed on a hot, drowsy afternoon. Opening the program, she
flicks through files she has collected of landscape features, looking for some she can
stitch together into the right dream. She picks out an image of a shaded forest;
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
another of sunlight. This she makes transparent, so that only glints of light stain the
green glade. The trees aren’t quite right: she elongates them, makes them paler, more
spectral. In the midst of the tableau she runs a river—she takes only the water of the
original image, not the rocky banks—so that it streams through as subtly as light. She
darkens the image, to bring out the shadows; raises the saturation of the green,
adjusts the contrast, for drama; uses the light-casting tool to angle a strange glow
from one corner. Lastly, tweaking the levels to blend it in perfectly, but blurring the
outline so that it appears lustrous against the dark background, she pastes in the
image of a naked man—a nude god. His marble body twists away from her; she
warms the tone of his flesh to gild it. Thighs and torso show young muscle: his form
is harmonious, boyish, but deliberately sexual. Joss conjures a shadow for him. The
shadow absorbs the detail from the river glade; it’s soil-coloured, extended, reaching
towards the viewer.
Joss compresses the layers, saves the file. She stares at the picture she has
made. It is something, it’s beautiful, but it’s no longer enough.
::
A week of weather radiant as joy. The roadsides are splashed with frail scarlet
poppies. Every day is a little hotter, a little more voluptuous than the last. It’s
unbearable, alone.
Joss tears at her nails with her little teeth, uses all the hot water, changes
channel restlessly, eats nothing but toast. She complains of the heat, throws the
windows open to let it in, treks dust into the house. Rebecca doesn’t mind the dust—
housecleaning is the last thing on her mind—but she flinches anew at the truculence
thrown at her. She’d thought they were growing closer again. Eating dinner on their
laps in front of the television, gentle goodnights in the passageway between their
rooms. A little while of that, and then Joss’s cheer had suddenly become brittle, she
had become impatient with Rebecca’s mild jokes. Sealing herself up over something.
The quick glance of apology after a sharp remark, the inability to stop herself making
it in the first place.
It seems as if, good sisters, they take turns being out of sorts. Turn and turn
about.
Rebecca hasn’t told Joss about the pregnancy test. It is, for the moment, her
little glow of a wonderful secret: flesh-coloured, deeply warm within her. Joss isn’t
the only one feeling disturbed, however. Rebecca has begun already to feel tired,
slack and sloppy, her belly aching and dreary nausea coating her sensations. But Joss
isn’t helping. Her fretfulness is like someone scratching fingernails too lightly on bare
skin.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
How much does Rebecca remember of being fifteen? She recalls the fluttering
joys of her teenage years with disdain: it had been books, boys, loathing for her
unshaped, pudgy face, pride in her strong body. All of that long since forgotten. Her
face is thin now, her body in her early thirties already beginning to thicken. She does
not remember what she dreamed of half a lifetime ago.
Rebecca wonders whether Joss had a boyfriend in Australia. It would be
typical of her to keep it a secret, in her awkward pride. There’s something virginal
still about her: her clean face, her hair rough and long. She hasn’t that glittering
selfconsciousness of a girl aware of her power. But there is a sheen to her skin, a way
she has of smoothing her palms against her thighs as she sits. Rebecca has woken in
the night aware that she is not the only one awake, and heard a muffled croon from
Joss’s room. My darling, she thinks. When it comes, it will hit you like a bomb.
::
Four long days have passed since the barley field and Joss feels frayed with waiting.
She’s been walking the roads, one alert step at a time under the dappled shade of
trees, along the endless hedgerows. They’re a mess of foliage, foamy white flowers
and delicate pink ones, sometimes tiny forget-me-nots, orange daisies and a dozen
types of green leaf all crowded together in banks of growth and twigs. She picks
flowers and tries to make them into chains, but the stems split too easily and the
chains fall apart in her fingers. Fretful, she throws the flowers behind her and walks
on. Every moment she expects to see Flick, find his hot hand laid on her arm. The
reality of him seems hard to pin in her mind; he’s become a shadowy thing of hard
bones and golden skin, a flashing skewed smile, the river-light in his black irises. His
scent, rich as a body’s secrets. The sound of him, breathing. Just thinking about his
harsh helpless breathing, his body beneath her, she moans aloud, buckles at the waist
in a billow of pleasure. She will do anything he wants, she will be radiant under his
attention. Just let me put my hand on you, let me flatten against you. Bear me up,
swallow me down.
Her mouth tastes of water, bitter and mineral with want. Where is he?
The road is empty, the trees restless as she is. Above, the sun glares and she
realises she is also waiting for thunder, waiting for that sultry oppression in which
Flick comes and sets her alight.
::
The evening is warm and drowsy as Rebecca walks home from the library. A lateafternoon summeriness, such as she remembers from her childhood, a kind of
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
benevolence in the mildness of the light, the way it melts away on her face. She walks
down the ugly high street with her hands in her pockets, the insides of her arms
greeting the air. Stopping at a shop for a newspaper and milk, she enjoys the cooler
air meeting the warmth of her skin. Outside, as she approaches the fields between
the town and the house, she raises her face to the trees. A matt of trees, stitching sky
to land in dense knots.
Growing always from the same place, in soil that’s been turned again and
again for centuries. A rock in field tossed out of the way by one farmer, tossed again
by his son, by his son, by his son, never moved very far. This field will have a name,
an old name. It is reassuring, this great continuity.
For Aboriginal people, she heard once, trees, like the rest of the landscape,
mark places and what has happened there. They are full of spiritual power,
reservoirs of spirit, ignitable. When someone dies under a tree, he is called after the
place. The tree is special; but when it too dies, its offshoot, perhaps from a seed
drifted a little further away, is still known by the same name; the dead person’s
family might travel away; the memory of the dead dispersed and diffused, but
surviving.
She had thought, when she was a little girl, that Europe was the place for her,
not scant, brittle Australia. She’s changed; she came too late.
But she finds she has grown used to these textures and colours, this soft
rustling, so different to the casuarinas and gums she’s known. It’s not that these trees
are more beautiful. She loves the ragged dry things of the bush. That’s her habitat,
not this. Here she feels foreign, for all that she has the same skin as the locals and
perhaps those smuggler ancestors of hers might have known these same fields. It
seems incredible that she has no family here, and not much of it in Australia either.
Small bubbles of DNA, which have floated far from their origins, that’s her and Joss.
Australia, with its own dizzy cliffs of time, its mystery, is her place. She envies Joss
the liberty of her roamings; she herself feels clamped by this country, its history.
Jammed in, choked. Her imagination can only take her so far; then it’s just an inert
stone, the empty fields all around. No one speaks to her here. The voices are too
many, too soft, too dead.
These trees, though: perhaps they’re the only things that call to her. These
friendly beasts.
A tree is endurance. Wearing its breathing skin against all weathers and
seasons. There is a great courage about trees, she thinks as she passes beneath a
small glade along the road. The varieties here have stateliness. Poplars shaking and
silvering. Lime trees, generous and at ease. Others which Rebecca cannot name. She
recalls another of her mother’s sayings, a song about oaks.
Three hundred years growing
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Three hundred years standing
Three hundred years dying.
Rebecca walks along, the sun cupping her head in its hot hand. She is smiling
at the trees, brushing her hands against leaves, slowing under their shade. Inside her
something is richly growing. Above her the trees surge and surge and surge in the
wind.
::
Here I am, says Flick. Here I am. And he tips his head back, to show the underside of
his sweet throat, the elegant tendons, the golden skin. His brown hands, long and
boned like wings. Don’t be scared, he says. It’s all okay, it’s okay, he whispers. I love
you.
Behind Joss’s closed eyes, everything is golden. Like the bottom of a river in
sunlight. And Flick comes swimming up out of it, towards her, smiling, and again
and again he holds her and pushes her legs apart and the water runs right through
her bones.
Lying alone under a tree on the edge of a field, she plays this dream over and
over, drowsily, curling and flexing in half-sleep, smiling too.
::
Rebecca takes the library books to the lounge room. It is sunny in there; the brief
minutes when the sun finds its way in through the thick windows.
She looks through the books: a guide to varieties. She feels stupid, still not to
be able to recognise most of the most basic types. Looking through it quickly, she
realises that she’s barely observed anything of details. She couldn’t say whether a
birch tree has big leaves or small. Honestly, she may as well be blind for all the notice
she’s taken.
She’d borrowed a book describing various famous old trees of Britain and
another, of legends associated with trees. She flips through them. Naturally, British
tree-lore is odd. The memory of the sanctity of trees in the pagan days has clearly
not quite faded in the modern era. Rebecca reads of a ‘Wishing Tree,’ situated by the
side of an old highway, its bark encrusted with coins pressed into it by passers-by
with wishes for protection. Some of the coins date only to the Seventies. A huge old
tree in the north of the country is known as the ‘Bleeding Yew’, after it seeped
crimson sap and a legend emerged that a holy man had once been hanged from it; of
course, trees were also used as gibbets.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Rebecca remembers a story one of her friends had told her in Melbourne: ‘A
true story,’ Sarah had said. About driving down a lonely country road at night, past
an old tree once used as a gibbet, and seeing, flaring in the headlights, a pale figure
walking down the middle of the road. ‘It was totally dark, that was the thing,’ she’d
said. ‘And this person was all white, like a mummy. Swaddled in cloth. And when I
drove past—quickly, I’m telling you, because there was something very, very weird
about it—the thing that frightened me the most was that it had no face. No face at
all.’
Rebecca is sure there is no shortage of ghost stories around here. There are the
eldritch stories in this book: a yew which, if one stuck a pin in its bark and ran
around it exactly twenty-four times at midnight, would allow a person to peer in
through a window of the nearby church and see a vision of a woman murdering a
baby. You can see that on any episode of a crime drama, thought Rebecca, without
running around a tree like a lunatic.
The yew, with its resilient wood, was prized as the material out of which to
cut great longbows with which to deal death, but its evergreen branches were also
used in place of palms in religious ceremonies. Boughs of such symbols of eternal life
were placed under bodies, as biers. And the power of trees to restore or repair life
was undisputed. There were Miracle Trees of the Middle Ages, passing under which
could cure disease, and others whose fruit and leaves were taken as an antidote to
the Plague.
Perhaps the woods were creatures of life, but they, too, had begun to die. The
woodlands of the county had ebbed and flushed through time. The Silva Anderida of
Roman days was cut back for charcoal; Andreadsweald in the Saxon era had
thickened once more, hollowed out only by settlers. During the Civil War a thousand
years later, the trees burned away as fuel in homestead fires, but then grew again; the
threat of Napoleonic invasion had them forming the keels of a hundred navy ships,
holding cargoes and men safe above far-away waters. The last great woodlands of
England were felled only seventy years ago, in the War, and now, as Rebecca had
seen on Mark’s map, only minute little remnants stand. One of the largest, she reads,
is not far from the house, down by the river. One of these days she will pay it a visit,
in tribute.
She should go back to her yew tree in the churchyard. It had bent over her
with such grace and solace, when she had needed grace and solace. No wonder the
old people had worshipped them, and given them tribute. Perhaps, Rebecca thinks,
the stone knife is like that. Someone put it there once, for something. How lovely. It
seemed right, to give up one thing that you loved, to set a balance right.
She should like to give up her sadness. If only she could find some place that
would want it.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
::
Again, in the morning. A bruise on her leg, and another, a handspan away. Quiet as
flowers, they are, blooming in the night. Joss smiles. It won’t be long now.
::
Rebecca finds herself picking up the phone. It’s the first time she’s used it; how odd.
There isn’t anyone to call in England, and she’s been shy of confessing the situation
to her friends at home. After the big send-off in Melbourne, it is too humiliating. As
far as the people at home are concerned, she imagines, she’s simply disappeared.
Out of sight, out of mind.
She’s still not ready to talk to her friends, to breach the silence. But she holds
the phone, the back of her throat hollow with apprehension. In front of her is the
number for Mark’s mother. She dials it, quickly, before she can think about what
she’s going to say.
‘Hello?’
‘Hello? Mrs Cole? It’s Rebecca here.’
‘Who?’
‘Rebecca… Is Mark there?’
‘Oh, Rebecca. Yes, he’s here. How nice to hear from you, dear. I’ll fetch him.’
Sound of the phone being put down; mumbling voices; the phone is picked
up.
‘Hello? Mark speaking.’
Appallingly, tears spring to Rebecca’s eyes. ‘Hi. It’s me.’
‘Oh. Hello.’
‘I thought I’d see how you’re going.’
‘I’m fine.’ He clears his throat. ‘How are you?’
‘Fine.’
She holds the phone slightly away from her head, she wishes she could just
put it down and walk away quickly. Her voice is coming out thin and nervous.
‘We’re getting on okay. Joss is around somewhere. The house is still standing.’
‘Well, good.’ There is a pause. ‘I’m sorry I haven’t rung.’
‘That’s okay,’ Rebecca finds herself saying. ‘I guess you’ve been busy. How’s
your mother?’
‘She’s well. It’s fantastic to see her. Do you know, she didn’t bat an eyelid
when I turned up? Just told me to go down the street and buy more bread.’ He
laughs.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
‘That’s mothers for you. Hard to impress.’ If they’re going to have a jolly-jolly
conversation, she’ll keep her end of it up. ‘Did she ask about me?’
‘Of course. I said you were busy getting the house sorted, and she said she’s
looking forward to meeting you one day.’
Rebecca lets that one sit for a moment. ‘It’s nice to hear your voice.’
‘And yours.’ For a moment there, intimacy breathes on her face, she thinks he
might say something, his voice has softened, hasn’t it, he’s eager to talk to her. For
God’s sake, she thinks. But she’s smiling now.
‘Well, I’ll be in touch,’ she hears him say. ‘Say hi to Joss. All the best.’
It’s like a punch in the throat. She gathers herself. ‘You too. You too. Bye,
Mark—’ but he’s already hung up. She puts the phone down, quickly, carefully, as if
it’s hurting her. A moment later she’s in the walled garden, reaching for a cigarette
and then stopping herself. Her skin is goose-bumped. The baby—she’s glad now, she
didn’t mention it.
She bends, wrenches a small plant out of the earth, and hurls it as hard as
she can against the wall.
::
Joss flexes out of sleep. Fast, as if in fear. Her head is raised from the pillow before
she opens her eyes. Blackness in the room, pewter light at the window. Nearly dawn.
She can smell her own sweat; it lies as heavy on her as the sheet she kicks away.
Her heart is beating fast: has something happened? Outside the trees sough
and rasp. She is naked at the window, her mouth half-open and soft with
excitement.
Flick stands in the garden below. His chest is bare, his face dark in shadow.
He raises one arm to her.
Joss yanks on clothes.
It is disturbing, walking in the black house. She misses a step on the way
downstairs; her heart bangs.
Flick takes her hand. His palm is cool, dry; she clenches it between her
fingers. They walk out of the garden.
It’s a land of the underworld, this early morning twilight. There’s no sun at all
yet, just a silkiness to the dark sky which suggests the night is nearly done. Joss can
see the road pale beneath her, and stretching ahead. This old road, like a stream
between tall banks. On either side the hedges are closer than in daylight: their
tendrils of white flowers reach out to caress her as she passes. Flick is silent, holding
her tightly by the hand, walking steadily. His limp is scarcely noticeable. Now it’s
Joss who stumbles and hesitates. The wind is warm as water.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Down the road, around the corners, over the stile, across the field. In the
middle of the field Joss stops for a moment, to tip her head back and look up at the
sky. A sense of rapture comes over her. What a moment; so free. It’s like fever on her
face. The wind brushes luxuriously over the barley around them: one, two, three
heaves and then stillness. Flick strokes her arm, slowly. They smile at each other. She
thinks she will melt when he touches his tongue to hers, soft as the wind.
He is taking her back to the river, of course. As they pass into the woods Joss
is glad. She was startled, the first time, with the dogs and the savage kiss, Flick’s
face strange with intent, the way he had changed. She had thought him a small boy
then. Tonight he is as tall as her, his shoulders wide.
From him comes a sweet tang, as if he’s been running, the blood as quick in
his skin as it stings hot under hers.
In the woods there are sounds. A crackle behind a tree, skittering above. Such
darkness here where the sky above holds only the potential of light. Joss feels as if
her body is weightless, in this watery dimness, the close air. Her hand reaches out to
rest on slim trunks as they edge further in; the bark is the same temperature as her
palm. She is breathing through her mouth; she tries privately to wet the dryness,
thinking of the next kiss.
The river is noisy, as if the woods were all water. Joss’s hair feels tight on her
scalp, now that the breeze no longer lifts it. Flick takes her by the upper arm; she
squeezes it closer to her body, to let him feel the side of her breast. Now that it’s
here, she is patient with the brimming in her, she lets it shiver at the edges.
They are at the river bank. In the gloom Joss sees only a dim glisten, tiny flares
of light. She stands beside Flick as they stare at the darkness where the river moves.
‘I was hoping you’d—’
He pulls her down suddenly, and they’re on the ground, sprawling. He rakes
his hands down the sides of her arms; she staggers onto her back.
His fingers are skimming her, she can barely feel them. The world has jerked
sideways, she is unprepared. Flick above her feels unreal, is she asleep, who is
touching her? It’s as if she’s lying washed with wind; her throat is a hollow, her head
full of blood.
Flick moves quickly above her, ramming hard hands up beneath it against her
ribs. He squeezes her breast with chapped fingers, it hurts. Still her mouth is
stopped; by his, and then when he pulls it away for a moment, gasping, by an
instinct that if she just keeps quiet, if she waits, he will calm, and—
He jams his tongue into her mouth again. His hands are wrenching at her
pants, he pulls them over her hips, uncaring of how she is squeezed and pinched.
How heavy he is, his weight tilts and slithers over her but never eases. He’s making a
guttural noise, his mouth is messed with saliva; her face is wet from it and if she
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
could just free herself for a moment, have an instant to adjust, she’ll smile and hold
him. She squirms, makes a sound.
He takes her hand, which has been loosely resting on his back, and pushes it
down on the ground above her head.
This is sex, this is how it goes, this is what she’s been burning for, why is it so
ugly?
She is helpless as a doll. He sits back, then, and pulls his own trousers open.
Her pants are ruched around her ankles, great clumps of cloth awkward there.
Impatiently, he frees one foot, and shoves her knees up. A sharp scent. He is hard
against her hip. The hair on her pubis rasps on his. She dare not look down.
Everything is black with shadows, anyway.
The sensation of another’s flesh inside her. It’s difficult. He pushes, clumsy.
She can hear breath tight between his teeth. It feels as if a blade is parting her inside,
bloodily separating wings of flesh. She has her jaw clenched. Her hands grip his
shoulders, she pulls down, brings her knees up higher, he’s invading her. She fights
through. She did not know she had so much heat in her body, that anything could
hurt so much. Then something slicks and eases inside her; the hard part is done.
Flick’s breath is harsh in her ear, he’s jammed up against her and she pulls
him down, closer still. Her hands claw on his back, down to the curves of his
buttocks, pressing in tightly; her legs rise and crush him in. It’s easier now, the
passage of him, and percussion rings through her body with every thrust.
He squirms, then; writhes and rises, wringing something from her. He holds
his breath, moves his head slowly from side to side against hers, his face is so hot. A
groaning in his throat, echoed in hers, a long strange sigh. His pain almost breaks her
heart, but then she opens her eyes and sees him looking at her calmly, dazed. With
the blood still up in his cheeks his face is very young.
He lays his head down beside hers again and they are quiet.
Is there blood? wonders Joss. Was there blood?
She is very tired now. Flick’s body is heavy on hers, growing heavier, looser.
She opens her eyes again. Above the treetops the sky is a cup upturned, filled with
water that does not fall, glittering black-blue. For long moments she watches a
smudge of cloud move, pale against the darkness, towards the tree above her. When
she opens her eyes the cloud is on the far side of the tree.
Flick stirs and shifts, slumps off her to lie on the ground beside her. His face
is turned to the sky like hers. She fumbles and finds his hand, holds it hot and damp.
‘I,’ she says. Her mouth is dried, her throat coughs. He turns his head,
questioning. She moves her head a little, presses her lips against the softness of his
neck for a moment, lingering. ‘I,’ but her voice fails again. She mouths the words
silently into his throat. Love you.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
He stares at the sky again, and shakes his head a little, as if to say, It’s not
like that.
.
Joss feels a shiver run up her thighs as her skin cools in the air. She reaches
out and finds a piece of her clothing, pulls it across her belly.
He has raised his head, leans on his elbow. He plaits his fingers with hers.
‘We did it together. You’ve given to me, too. Haven’t you?’
He makes a sound of assent. But his face is drawn in a frown.
She hesitates, slides a hand across his chest. All she wants, as the air chills
her, is for his heat around her, an embrace, something to fit her back together again.
Her hand, remote, strokes and pats him.
He makes a hissing noise, stills her hand.
‘Flick?’
He lies there, his eyes closed. Faster and faster come the huffs of breath from
his nostrils.
‘Flick?’
She kisses his face. When she kisses his eyelids there is wetness beneath her
lips. ‘Oh, don’t cry,’ she says stupidly.
They curl around each other, two small creatures in the dark.
He shakes his head gently against hers. His eyes press blind against her
throat. She is so satisfied, she realises, to find him needing her like this. He makes a
small animal sound of misery.
Absently, Joss’s fingers paddle between her legs. She raises her hand to see it
in the faint silvery light: the tip of her finger is dark with blood. Softly she runs it
down Flick’s belly.
He says something then, suddenly. Something Joss can’t understand. He’s
looking right into her eyes, intent. Then he pulls away, fast, and rises.
‘Don’t—’ says Joss, clutching for him. But he stands over her, naked and pale
as wax.
Again, he says something. His voice sounds sad.
He runs to the river, and Joss hears a great splash, and then nothing.
In fright she scrambles to her feet. She cannot see the other bank clearly. There
is nothing, not even a ripple in the smooth sluggish water. No shadow, no glimmering
limb.
The trees say Hush. The sky comes down a little. Joss stands there, alone once
more, the print of Flick’s skin on hers, too shocked to cry.
How much darker it is now.
::
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Every tree has a million leaves hanging heavy and each leaf scuffles only as she
passes below. This dawn has become edged with unease, a strange stillness at the
centre, disquiet shivering at the rim. Joss’s eyes dart about as she steps uncertainly
through the woods. The sound of the river has gone, the sky has clouded and
lowered. Without even starlight there is no path to follow, without Flick’s hand in
hers she cannot walk straight. The dark is a negative left dazzling on the inside of her
eyelids after the brightness before.
She loses track of time as she walks, setting her narrowed gaze on the next
tree, the next, as their trunks mist up into vision before her. There is no lick of dawn
in the woods. She is the only person awake in miles.
A pressure has been lifted; she’s like a wave which had been poised,
travelling eerily static towards a shore, and now breaks.
Why did he leave her alone here? So solid, so present under her hand, his
breath moist on her mouth. Oh, the sound of him. In the middle of a pace she stops
and a cord snaps tight through her, her eyes water with the phantom of pleasure. It is
different to the sensations she had actually had with him. Was it pleasure she had
with him?
But he is always flitting away. It seems no sooner does Joss find him, clutch
him a little harder, than he is gone again. Leading her into landscapes she cannot find
her way home from. She stumbles on a rock buried in the dead leaves and bites her
lip.
This darkness is tightening, not loosening.
She raises her face to the sky and holds herself, binds herself in tightly, holds
to the small solidity of herself.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Part Four
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
‘Joss!’
Rebecca opens the kitchen door wider, listens. ‘Joss, that’s you, isn’t it?’
The front door slams, there are two footfalls, then silence. Rebecca can hear
someone breathing hard, rough on the inhale.
‘Where have you been?’ Frowsty with the early hour, she comes down the
hallway. ‘Don’t tell me you got up early for a walk in the bloody dawn! Have you
been out all ni—’
Joss is standing inside the door, her eyelids closed tightly. She has her arms
folded around herself and her hair is frayed with static and tangles.
‘Christ, what is it?’
Joss’s face is cold, Rebecca can feel the chill against her own cheek when she
draws close in the embrace. Joss puts her head down on Rebecca’s shoulder and says
nothing.
‘Come on. Let’s be British and have a rousing cup of tea.’ Rebecca is chemical
with dread. What’s happened? Assault? Rape? Has she seen an accident? Been in
one?
As she follows Joss into the kitchen Rebecca watches her sister. She fetches an
old hoodie and puts it around her. The kettle boils, Rebecca pulls a cup down from
the cupboard, turns on the light to banish the early morning bleakness, watches Joss.
The younger girl pulls the hood over her head.
‘Why are you up so early?’ A mumble.
‘Expecting trouble.’ Rebecca’s smile is the brave wry smile of a parent. She
had been restless all night, chewing on her fury with Mark.
‘Trouble?’ Joss’s head comes up, fearful.
‘You. You, you duffer. I didn’t realise I should be worried until I saw you
come in, though. Where’ve you been?’ She pours milk. ‘And are you okay. Tell me.
Are you all right?’
‘Tired. Cold. And—’
‘What?’
‘Lost track. Of time.’
‘And where have you actually been?’ She finds herself feeling the stern
mother. But she’s watching Joss, how small her hands seem, the way she keeps
shoving her hair behind her ear—Joss’s sleeve falls back and there’s a blue bruise and
scrape on her wrist—
‘Jesus. What’s that?’ She snatches Joss’s arm. ‘What the hell is that? Did
someone hurt you?’
Joss stares up at her, those eyes, the colour of a sky full of water, mumbles a
word. She rubs the bruise thoughtfully. ‘No, no one hurt me.’
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Rebecca sits down. ‘Just tell me.’
Joss drinks her tea, and talks. This is the first time Rebecca has heard the
boy’s name but she knew, oh she should have known, there was a boy. Here, though.
Out here in this new place, in the middle of nowhere. Some local kid, with pimples
and a shaved head, his father’s mean jaw and a hoodie and runners. How could she
have known? And Joss, out there in the dark with twigs in her hair and her wrist held
tight.
‘Oh my darling.’
Joss flares. ‘He didn’t hurt me! He’s nice. He won’t hurt me. I’m not a child.’
Rebecca sits back.
‘It was just…’ Joss gathers herself. ‘It was just that he was with me, and it
was all, oh, and then he just jumped up and left and I was walking home, I didn’t
mind that he left, I mean, that was cool and I know the way, but it wasn’t the way,
the right way—I think I got lost, and I saw things in the trees and time went all—’
‘Like when you were a kid, and we drove in the country at night and you
swore you saw a man jump out of a tree…’
‘No!’
Rebecca puts her lips to her mug, even though it’s already drained.
‘And time was wrong.’
‘Okay.’ Tiredness, and disorientation, and the imagination of a teenager.
Perhaps it’s been too much, coming here—it’s not like Joss was exactly normal back
in Melbourne, no parents, brought up by her sister… and this place… She’s always
lived too much in her head, that little box of wonders. Rebecca and Mark had even
talked about it, a little, how Joss loved imagination and history, and England would
be the perfect place where she could really dream and be herself. Maybe it’s gone
wrong. They are living here, but not really living; just existing, suspended: no work,
no school, in a house on the edge of a small town on the other side of the word.
Abandoned. It’s total madness.
Joss rubs her lips meditatively against the rim of her cup, back and forth.
Rebecca sits back, musing. ‘Did I ever tell you about Julian?’
Joss shakes her head.
‘He was the boy I thought I’d die for when I was your age. I’d never kissed a
boy, never thought anyone liked me. And he was so, so gorgeous.’ He had had the
kind of skin that flushed right up to his cheekbones when he was hot, as if he’d been
slapped. His hands: Rebecca remembers looking at his hands on the one time she’d
sat next to him on the bus, looking at them more closely, more marvellingly than
she’d ever looked at anything. ‘I saw him being picked on by other boys. That’s how I
knew I loved him. Because he was so clever and bright and the other boys hated him,
and I saw his face as he walked away. All I wanted to do was tell him I understood.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
So I bought him a candle, a beautiful round red candle. I took it to school with me
every day for a week before I got the courage to go up to him. I found him alone one
day and I said, oh god, I can’t believe I did it, now—I said, “I bought you this” and
rummaged in my bag and pulled out this damned candle and held it out. I may as
well have just yanked up a bleeding chunk of my heart to offer him. He didn’t know
what to do, he just took it and I walked away. He looked so embarrassed. And that
was it. I couldn’t bear to talk to him again. We never were true loves, I was just an
idiot.’
Joss glances up at her. ‘Is this meant to be a comforting story?’
‘Oh.’ Rebecca winces. ‘Well, I suppose so. Because the moral of the story, if
there’s a moral, was that I wasn’t really an idiot. I looked like one and I felt like one
at the time, but now that I think of it—it was a lovely thing I did. That candle, I
mean. There wasn’t anything wrong with giving him a candle. It might have been just
what he wanted. But I didn’t know how to give it, that was the problem. Maybe it
just wasn’t the right time. Or he wasn’t the right person. He didn’t know what to do
with it.’
There’s silence. A straying seagull squalls outside the window, briefly, then
shears away disconsolately.
She sits back and sees the grey shadows under Joss’s eyes. ‘Come on. Come
on and let’s get you to bed. Come in with me for once.’
Joss rises, creakily. The hood falls back from her face. ‘I’m tired. But thanks.
Nice parable about the candle.’
Rebecca blinks in apology.
‘I’m joking.’
‘Sorry. Not exactly what you need.’ Rebecca realises she’s nervous. Nervous
of Joss and her trouble and not knowing how to handle it. She puts a hand out
towards Joss’s shoulder, lets it hover, puts it down on the thin bone.
‘I feel like I’m made of water,’ Joss says.
They go upstairs, and Rebecca leads Joss into her bedroom and pulls the
covers back and curls around her. Joss’s bare legs are cold. Rebecca presses up
against them, for warmth. ‘I’ll be here if you’re scared,’ she murmurs, and Joss shifts
a shoulder, in impatience or acknowledgement, she can’t tell. A thick scent comes
from Joss’s skin. Rebecca knows that smell. It’s the smell of touch, and nervous
kisses, and a strange boy. It’s the rich seductive smell of sex. For a moment Rebecca
experiences a kind of envy; and then once more a low thrum of anxiety, and a great
tiredness, and then the warm rolling of sleep.
::
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Later, when Joss wakes up, the bed is empty beside her and the sun comes glaring
through the curtains. She lies there, curls tightly onto her other side, lets her body flex
back into feeling. She runs a finger thoughtfully over her dry cool lips.
So she’s not a virgin anymore. That’s done.
She lies with that thought a while.
Something brims inside her skin: satisfaction. The darker memory moves into
her mind. Joss wishes there weren’t that regret, spooling like cold dark water across
her satisfaction. But there’s something in fear that’s satisfying, too.
It is done. She has had sex. She’s lain with a boy, under that magic of trees
and night and the breathing of the river. Her body has opened and closed around
another’s. Her mouth has tasted the peculiar flavour of desire. It is different to the
pleasure she’s given herself; the way her body clenched and clamped at Flick. She
had barely been able to breathe in the hot flush of it. Not what she expected. She
was frightened, after all. Perhaps it’s always frightening. And it hurt so much. He
didn’t care, that he hurt her, that there was no time for her to feel anything. What
does that mean?
Enough that she was there, that she held Flick’s face hard in her hands as he
stared in panic at her and then found the horizon he was looking for; enough that her
skin was alive with feeling. The next time, she will move more slowly, she will kiss
him with every beat of her hips against his, she will be the radiant horizon.
::
There is another card from Mark in the post that morning. Will be here a while longer.
Am thinking of you. Are you all right? Rebecca has a moment of glee; then anger. She
thinks of Mark and she thinks of a heavy hand on her heart. How does he dare?
Baggage, comes the word to her mind. A word for a woman.
It would serve him right if he returned and found the house empty, the milk
sour in the fridge. She should take Joss away, that’s the other thing. This place is
doing something to her; the bruises, the boy. Running wild. That was something she
always wanted to do, herself. It scares her to see it in Joss.
She puts her shoes on and goes out, leaves a tea-bag in the bottom of a cup
for Joss, the sugar-bowl next to it.
Out the door, into the hot blue and green morning. There’s a dry wind in the
trees, stirring them. She thought of going into town and buy some pastries, a treat for
Joss; but instead the road is brighter in the other direction and on impulse she takes
off that way. Past the wildflowers: rowan, cow parsley, elderflower, hawthorn. She
can name some of them now. White archangel, viper’s bugloss, honeysuckle, fennel.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
White and blue and purple and yellow, mixed in with half a dozen types of green,
and black thorn.
She keeps walking where the road is lit with sunshine. And there is the
church, with its wooden lych gate and its soft stone. The building’s closed again;
that’s okay. She doesn’t want to go inside, it’s not that kind of comfort she needs.
She just wants a soft green place.
The big yew tree calls her over. At this time of day the sun hits the trunk low
down, where the branches’ shade gives way, and the bole of the wood billows out in
rough cushions, twisted and grooved over itself. When she lays her hand on it the
wood is warm.
There’s the blade, jammed into the wood. It doesn’t look like it hurts. The tree
has grown a little lip around the black stone, almost as if it’s pulling the flint further
in. Rebecca remembers something she saw in the Dover museum: a note against an
ancient flint axe saying that in medieval times such artefacts were believed to be
supernatural. Tiny old arrowheads were ‘elf arrows’. Perhaps it was in that time that
the flint was bedded here, an amulet, the tree its sheath. Or earlier. And that even in
the time before the Romans, people had believed the much older flints were magical.
They had no idea of history. They had taken skulls and stone axes from ancient
graves and used them as amulets; pierced and hung them. Now they lay under dust
in museum cases. Gods in boxes with clenched closed fists, she thought. The world is
full of dead gods locked away.
Time to go back over the tilt of the world: home.
::
The early afternoon is hot and bright when she gets back to the house. She finds Joss
in the gloomy lounge room. She is hunched up at the end of the couch, staring out the
window where the trees stand in a daze of sunshine.
‘How’re you feeling?’
‘Okay. I slept too much.’
Rebecca sits. ‘Did you have some tea?’
‘Yep. Thanks for that.’
The room is cold, even though it’s so hot outside.
‘I’ve been for a walk.’
A wan smile. ‘Good for you.’
‘Went back to that church. Have you found it? The one down there—a way
down to the left—’ She waves a hand. Joss shakes her head. ‘That tree I told you
about—with the stone stuck in it. I think it’s an old flint. A knife or something. It’s
like some magic totem or something. Wonderful.’
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Joss wraps her arms around her knees. There are breadcrumbs on her lap.
‘Really.’
She looks down, smiling. ‘Well.’
‘Do you think it’s funny place, this?’ Joss speaks into her knees.
‘No. Yes. It’s not what I was expecting. You know, I wasn’t really that sure
about coming, and I’m starting to think, now, that—’
‘Have you met any people around here?’
‘Only people in the village. They’re not very friendly.’
‘No one anywhere once you get out of the village, on this road. Don’t you
think that’s strange?’
‘I guess. I’ve been a hermit.’
‘I don’t even see people walking down the path out here, just driving. All
these fields, you never see any farmers. The whole place is empty.’
Rebecca is nervous of asking, but she must. ‘How did you meet this boy
then?’
‘Out there. We met up and he asked me out.’
Rebecca has the feeling that she didn’t handle this morning quite as well as
she might have. Start again. ‘So he’s nice?’
‘Yeah.’
‘But something’s wrong?’
‘No.’ Joss looks out the window. ‘I just don’t know where he is right now.’
That fretfulness to know, that possession. Rebecca remembers that. She
remembers it from a few weeks ago when Mark left. Like a gulp in the throat always
unswallowed.
‘He’ll be back. No?’
‘I guess. There’s something about him. I just don’t know—’
‘What?’
‘Anything much about him. He’s strange. He’s gorgeous,’ and she blushes.
‘But he comes and goes.’
Some fuckwit is messing with Joss. Rebecca says, ‘You don’t have to like him.
Just because he’s there.’
Joss stares at her hands. She’s wearing jeans and a hoodie and she’s washed
her hair so it hangs straight and fine over her ears. She looks like such a kid. There is
a blur of down on her smooth cheek where it catches the sunlight. A small pimple
beside her mouth. ‘I miss him.’
Rebecca snorts. ‘You saw him just this morning!’ She sobers. ‘Are you okay,
honey? I mean, really?’ Did it hurt, she wants to ask. Did you want it? Was it slow
and sweet? I don’t think it was.
Joss nods. Not vigorously enough to satisfy Rebecca.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
‘Just remember. You don’t have to do anything for him. If he’s not right. You
wait. You have all the time in the world. Now,’ she says, ‘I’m going to read the paper
in the garden and give you some peace. You come and talk if you want. And we can
go out tomorrow, go to Canterbury and buy some crap we don’t need. I think
actually we do need crap. Lots more of it. Definitely.’
She leaves Joss sitting there, pushing her hair behind her ears slowly, with
those small fine fingers, that far-away gaze. In the garden, at the back of the house,
she doesn’t hear the front door open and close.
::
At the library, Joss finds a place next to a dozy young mother with a hectic child.
Thankfully the child rambles away to the children’s corner and the mother heroically
follows. Joss stakes her place, fetches books. Her eyes feel tight and the lids oily.
She’s a little trembly for some reason; her shoulders hunched high.
Rivers. The river is the key, she thinks. Water is magic, of course. In the past
weeks she’s instinctively avoided the river; feeling that it was a place beyond her,
where she wasn’t meant to be. But it’s not the only body of water around.
Floods. The silting up of the bays. This village was on an island once: where
the little river runs now was once a great channel. Water running underground, water
soaking into the land, being engulfed, eroding its way back. Washing around the rim
of this landscape, being forced away again. An infinitely slow violence.
Up on the shore here sledged the vessels of Romans, Saxons, Vikings, saints,
refugees, invaders; those escaping and those hoping; the fugitive and the proud. This
hem of land has received the first footfalls of many. What has it taken in turn?
Now she reads of the deaths.
Off the eastern shore hundreds of ships have been wrecked and thousands of
men lost; naval battles have taken others; the smugglers, of course; boats lost during
the wars, accidents on the Channel. The rivers of the county are mostly small now,
clogged with silt, but they also once brimmed with activity. And for the profit, there
must be tribute paid. The old people understood: if one death by water is avoided,
another must take its place.
Stories of accidents by water, murder near water, execution by water. In this
town, hundreds of years ago, thieves were put to death: the men buried alive in the
dunes, the women drowned in the river. A young boy senselessly murdered by a
young man on a bare river bank; other children disappearing, while playing near the
river; a young woman slaughtered on the old road along the sand line, where her
gravestone is still to be found, suffocated by weeds. One infamous night, a
shipwreck stranded over a thousand men on the great sandbank off the shore, where
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
they waited, waterlogged and freezing, for help. But the local men preferred to
salvage the wreckage, and let all the men drown. Curses were put on the town that
night.
Joss reads a story about a shipwreck victim washed up on the beach further
along the coast and buried there. The Virgin, in the tale, appears to the parish clerk
and led him to the churchyard, every step of her springing up green with grass. She
would not have the body in her yard, she said. So it was dug up, and put in the river,
where it floated til it reached here. And immediately all miracles ceased in their
church, and the land where the body lay grew perpetually wet, but when they tried
to take him out again, the land would not let him go.
A man drowned in the reeds, and four hundred years later ‘The Rush Sermon’
is still given in his memory. A drowned island off the coast, reputed to be haunted.
“The druids attach particular importance to the belief that the soul does not
perish but passes after death from one body to another.” Caesar wrote in his Gallic
Wars. He told of clearings with saplings interlaced to keep the sacred boundary, a
supernatural silence without birdsong, a spring bubbling in the glade; the trees were
said to move. On festival nights the people lit bonfires, and raised stakes around the
fire, topped with severed heads: ghost fences. Not far from the village where she sits,
Joss reads with a shiver, the skulls of fourteen babies had been found, the little frail
cups of bone nestled tenderly between flints.
This black radiance thrills her more than she would like to admit. She had
known there was something very deep and very nasty here. She’d expected it; she’d
felt it, surely, in the eerie quiet of the roads and meadows?
And above all, she reads, they sacrificed to water. In the watery places the
gods were nearer, and so was danger: reeds caught the clumsy, bright reflections
drew the dreamers down. In those places the Otherworld was luminously close:
could you not see its silver sky, its grey ghostly trees if you bent to the surface of the
pool?
And so the old people would tie rags to the trees, or flowers bound with
wool, to adorn those gods who rustled the branches, and cast into the waters the
shiniest, the most precious objects of metal. The swords were ceremoniously blunted,
the daggers broken, the coins bent, before the lowering into water. And then, when
silver and bronze and iron wasn’t enough, when the threat was greater and the air
was soaked with divine terror, they offered not only heads, but whole bodies: the
maimed or mumbling, the weak and the marked and the crippled.
Some were killed in a choreography of violence: stabbed, slashed, throttled,
beaten. The triple death was eased by a final meal, of rye, perhaps, infected with
fungus, enough to make the victim hallucinatory or comatose: visions spangling his
gaze, the drugged limbs barely resisting the tethering; the leather band tied around his
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
arm, the flint axe bashing his defenceless skull; the garrotte a slow strangling; his
head pulled back and the hard knife gashing soft flesh. Then he was given to the
water: a bog, a well, a river or a pool. Sometimes the victim was stitched to the
riverbed by wicker withies strung through the very flesh of his pierced arms. Or he
was simply laid down. Or pushed, still dying, face-first into the bog. The noose was
left around the throat, the body pinned down with stones and birch-branches; the
bindings of ritual death remained.
They drowned their own to keep the waters bright.
The soul passed from one body to the next, after all: this brief death was only
a pausing, a flicker through shade before the light returned. Unless the victim
deserved to die. Then the water, a place between this world and the other, might
keep him forever, static, neither living nor dead, unplaced, unpassing.
By making their offerings, some kind of balance was restored. And yet the
waters, greedy, held these treasures for millennia, and still took more. And again
and again, a young man meets his death by water. Must meet it.
‘The shelving, slimy river Dun,
Each year a daughter or a son.’
The dead in this country’s myths are unable to speak. That is how one
knows, even if they walk, that they are still dead. They are sometimes attended by
animals of the hunt, companions of the Otherworld: dogs.
Joss closes the last book, stands up, feels faint.
::
As the afternoon passes the weather is getting heavier. Rebecca notices how the sky
is blurred with clouds, but the sun seems to glare down more hotly through the
spaces between them. To the east, over the sea, there is a shadow, as if the sky itself
were dipped in water and slowly staining. The wind has fluttered closed and the
sound of birds and insects is intensely loud.
The lounge room door is closed and Rebecca guesses Joss is still on the couch.
She must be exhausted. The room is cool and aqueous at this hour and if Joss weren’t
in there Rebecca too would stretch out on the couch and have a nap. Such weight in
the air. It feels as if the membranes of her veins are thinning. She walks up the stairs
in the afternoon hush, quietly so as not to wake her sister, up to her room. She takes
off her boots and jeans, slips under the sheet. Mark’s scent has gone. There’s only a
pale flowery aroma of Joss, and that darker scent, that stranger smell. When she gets
up she’ll change the sheets. It’s been weeks.
::
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
It is clear what she has to do: what she is a part of. Something huge and shimmering,
bright with meaning, vast and full. Everything feels very certain, as in a dream. Or
like sex.
Joss slips back into the house. Rebecca is asleep when she peeks in through
her bedroom door. There is a breathlessness in her as she gathers what she needs: an
old tee-shirt, a small water-bottle that she fills with wine, a trowel from the shelf
near the back door, a bag of tea-light candles. Artefacts for a legend, she thinks:
hardly the chalice and the sword, but they will do. She jams them all into a bag and
runs out into the early evening.
::
The day is darkening early under its low skies and when she wakes Rebecca thinks of
the evening ahead: something good on television, a comfy dinner of sausages and
roast vegetables. The lounge room door is empty: Joss must have gone to her room.
The open windows frame scenes of static, saturated green; outside, in the kitchen
garden, every blade is still. It’s already six o’clock and Rebecca is hungry. She turns
on the light in the kitchen, pours a glass of wine and gets to work.
An hour later, the food is ready and Rebecca calls up the stairs to Joss.
Getting no response, she goes up and taps gently on Joss’s door. ‘Sweetheart? Are
you hungry?’
She can tell by the silence that Joss isn’t in her room, either. She is not in the
house at all, Rebecca realises; she must be on one of her walks. Bloody little bitch,
says Rebecca aloud, Can’t she stay put? But she is full of renewed fondness for her
sister, and she turns the oven off, slips the keys in her pocket and steps out the front
door.
::
The road outside is green with twilight and feels warmer than ever. The nights this
summer have generally been cool, even on the hottest days, but for the past two days
the atmosphere feels as if the sky has clogged and the day’s heat has only massed.
Beneath the grave, watchful trees the air is thick. Rebecca touches the flank of one as
she passes, as if for reassurance. Then, looking down the road, away from the
village, where Joss has usually headed on her expeditions, she notices that the
hedgerows are fluttering with pale stream-like flowers. Going closer, she sees that
they are thin strips of torn cloth wound roughly around the stems of thorn that
prickle out of each hedge; she recognises the pattern of one of Joss’s t-shirts. Has she
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
gone completely mad? Why on earth would she be tying bits of clothing to the
countryside? Rebecca fingers a scrap, casts a look around the roadway as if
expecting to see Joss crazily strewing her clothes around. But there is nothing but the
hedges clustering the roadsides, absolutely still in the close evening air, their
blossoms closing up, and far ahead, the range of poplars, their leaves, too, quite
motionless.
The rags disturb her. Joss fractures from her; she’s not familiar, she is
someone quite separate, doing something unaccountable. Rebecca walks on, turning
her head from side to side now, searching more urgently. When she gets to the
poplars she looks past, to the hill where she once saw Joss sit, but it is empty, and
darkening in the first moments of twilight. She can’t believe that she’s let this
happen; that Joss has been spending days—weeks—wandering the countryside,
without Rebecca knowing or even asking where or why. Something has been
happening and something has gone wrong. Mother, she thinks. Oh mum, I never
asked for this.
She heads across the field, hoping to catch a glimpse of her sister, but the
expanse is as empty as she has always seen it. Aren’t there farmers to work this
land? Where are the bloody people? She’s sweating as she toils across the lumpy
ground. Under the stand of trees on the hillock’s crown she pauses to check the view.
Down to one side the trees thicken into a wood—that must be the one marked on the
map, she thinks—but last time she came upon Joss it was in a field. She doesn’t think
her sensitive little sister would want to be in a wood at dusk.
Back onto the road. Beside it, spreadeagled upside down, is the body of a
fox, its head crushed, a pink and grey mess. Only a few flies bother it. Rebecca looks
away quickly from the horrible thing, obscurely frightened. Her belly heaves for a
moment; she puts a protective hand against it.
She walks on. There’s the road turning ahead. It was around here, wasn’t it,
that she’d seen Joss lying in the field? That time she was so defensive. She must have
been with the boy, though Rebecca had never caught a glimpse of him. Oh, she’s so
sly. Why didn’t she tell me, Rebecca thinks. Why did it all have to be such a secret?
She knows why, of course. Because at Joss’s age—even at Rebecca’s age, she
can admit it—love and lust are like golden bubbles, held in cupped hands,
swallowed down; they buoy you up and it takes only one brush against reality to
threaten puncture, the bubble to burst, the glorious gold reduced to everyday dross.
Because Joss has always had to make do, and close herself into her head, and
because Joss, god bless her, deserves to be loved.
All the way up that track she strides, the light starting to fade now, to clot
and grain. Rebecca is boiling hot and she wipes her face on her shirt. All the fields
look the same, the same bronze crops of barley, some harvested to stumps and some
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
still standing, the same hedgerows alongside, the same impassive racks of trees along
skylines…
Joss might be back at the house, perhaps she’s there, impatiently eating baked
pumpkin off the oven tray, glaring at the door, waiting for her ridiculous
irresponsible older sister to come home… Rebecca pauses for breath, and finds
herself at a corner of a low flint wall. There, behind a screen of pine trees, is the
church tower. She makes her way around to the lych gate, eases it open.
She searches the grounds for some kind of water; she’s desperately thirsty. A
tap in a corner relieves the parching of her throat. She presses wet hands against her
hot cheeks, but they only feel clammier a moment later. The churchyard is mad with
the sound of crickets. The graves hummock the grass. Oh, where the hell is Joss? She
thinks she’ll just go home, and hope to find her there—will ignore the apprehension
like a belly-ache inside her, will work to the normal, expect it; watch a documentary
or maybe a crime show. The two of them cosy on the couch. Hunger yawps inside
her. She would give anything to be watching the Channel 4 news right now, the lamps
on.
The yew tree, as she passes, seems darker and lower than ever, its branches
creeping out above the ground, its tufts of needle-like leaves bristling crazily. A dry
green dusty scent comes from it. For a silly moment Rebecca thinks Joss might be
hiding in the tree’s hollow, that snug hidey-spot; it’s a ridiculous thought, but she
ducks beneath the tree’s fringe of leaves and glances through dense shadows into the
dark cavern of wood.
It is empty of course, and Rebecca’s fingers resting on the edge of it find
another emptiness: a narrow slit, sharp with crumbled splinters where something has
hacked at it. The stone is gone.
Absurdly, Rebecca looks on the ground, in case it has simply fallen out. But
she knows better. How cheap, to come and remove this one precious thing. Vandals
have no subtlety. Then she is outraged, and she realises it is on behalf, stupidly, of
the tree. Injured, just for someone’s laugh, or trophy. Something stolen from this
grand old relic, and all that still time disturbed. She finds herself stroking the
fractured wood, smoothing splinters down, rubbing her fingers inside the aperture
where the wood is smooth and silken from its long growth against the flint. A hot
sense of sadness comes up in her throat. But she can’t spend time on a clammy
summer’s dusk, consoling a tree. She has to find Joss; pushing off from the trunk
where she has rested her weight, she wipes her way out through the branches and
back out to where the damp sky is now beginning to obliterate the church tower.
::
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
The house is empty. She hadn’t left the lights on when she walked out; the rooms are
quiet with shadows. Rebecca walks through quickly, flicking the light-switches,
spooked. She washes her face, pours a glass of wine, takes a long gulp. She has put it
down on the counter when she thinks to commit a trespass she’s never made before.
Finally, maybe, she thinks as she heads up the stairs, cramming a piece of pumpkin
in her mouth, I’m turning into a typical mother. Once more she puts her hand to her
belly. If she weren’t so alert with nerves she’d have laughed.
Up in Joss’s room, she finds her diary.
::
One thing they never thought to buy for the house is a torch. She’s only halfway
across the field when she realises she already needs to check the map. Her cigarette
lighter, left in her back pocket, is the only thing she’s got. In the stillness of the air, it
gives a steady flame. She’s on the right track, but it wasn’t clear from Joss’s diary
which part of the river in the wood she meant; it meanders around, a thin little thing,
more a creek than a river from the look of it. If she gets across this field, though, she’ll
be amongst the trees, and then she need only follow their line to find the water.
It’s hard going, in the fading light. It’s hotter than ever, she’s sure. The air
seems damp with dusk and warmth, and the trees ahead look darker than anything
she’s entered in her life. What are we doing here, she thinks as she struggles over the
weeds at the field’s edge. How did we get to this empty place? Madness. We don’t
belong here. We don’t know a thing about a place like this.
Dry lightning, soundless, surprises her. Then thunder. Far from here.
It seems cooler once she’s amid the trees, as if she’s walked into, invisible, a
clot of fog. She had thought of ‘woods’ as peaceful plantations, the tame European
trees well spaced with age, a fine bed of leaves beneath. This feels dense as an
Australian forest; branches are broken and fallen, obstructing her path, there are
swathes everywhere of ivy and grass, dry leaves are slippery beneath her feet.
But there, ahead, there are glimmers of white, and when Rebecca reaches it,
the rag is as good as a torch to light the way. Joss has led her, after all.
::
Joss waits a long time. The woods are heavy in the thick weather, the trees seem to
blur when she glances up at every small sound. The silence, however, is almost total.
It is terribly hot in there. What sodden light there is fades around the little cool flares
of the candles.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
In the end she is not startled when he comes walking towards her. She stands
up. She is ready.
He stops in front of her, by the bank of the river. He seems to ripple in the air,
as the light ripples over the streaming water.
‘It’s all right,’ she says. ‘It’s all right now, I understand.’
He smiles, and reaches a hand out to take her wrist. His hand seems nothing
but bones: he is so skinny, this flickering boy, and the smell of him is strong. It seems
to rest on her tongue, bitter. Her tongue still hurts where he had bitten it here last
night. She backs away slowly to avoid his touch.
‘You hurt me,’ she says. ‘Do you know that?’ She bends, picks up the bottle
of wine, and staring at him pours it into the river beside her. ‘Is this right?’
The boy is frowning. Perhaps he’s forgotten the proper way, the right order.
First the gesture, then the real offering. It be hard, of course. It’s nothing, unless you
feel the loss.
He moves for her again: his hand grabs her wrist, yanks it downwards as he
steps against her. She coils, twists awkwardly, shoves back. The resistance has
caught him by surprise; he staggers backwards, almost losing his footing.
Joss steps forward in one quick, sure stride, and with spread hands pushes
him again. She is hot with certainty. He falls, slipping so that he sprawls back on the
wet slimy bank of the water, his hair spreading and darkening as it soaks. She is on
him and thrusting his head beneath the water before his outstretched arms can raise
him again. It is almost dark now.
::
By the time she has worked her way through to the river, the light is going fast.
Rebecca is now more frightened of the dark than of what she might find; the
darkness is already with her, making every inch of advance a fight with
apprehension. Only occasionally does the dry lightning flare—it is more spectral than
helpful, making the gloom deeper after every slice of light. But she is slowly learning
that she can move in this strange place, she can put her hand out to feel her way
when the shadows are too dense, the world doesn’t fall away in fateful cliffs or
treacherous ravines. Her hearing sharpens, and her sense of smell; she feels like an
animal, crouching in the safety of her instincts. From time to time she flicks the lighter
on, but it shows only scattered shapes which don’t make any sense. One footstep
after another, further in towards the sound of water.
When she finds Joss, she’ll kill her.
::
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
The flint knife is clumsy in her hand. It seems impossible that it’s real; that there is
anything so solid in this world which seems liquid with sound and light, this silvery
shadow-world that makes her blink as she crouches above the boy, with only a hot
gold flare running up the core of her body and along her arm to where she holds the
stone above his head, the other hand pushing his face away. Flick’s mouth under the
water, gaping, his skin a dulled shine in the gloom: it all seems a mask. She
deliberately pushes down on him with her groin as he bucks upwards, clamps his
arm with one hand, twines her lower legs around his to anchor him down. He’s very
strong as he thrashes under her, but he seems small again; much smaller than she is.
But he is so beautiful.
‘It has to hurt,’ she grunts. ‘You know it, you’ve done this before—it has to
hurt or it doesn’t mean anything—’
She stares at him, and leans back. ‘Does it?’
He looks up at her. She waits for him to lunge up towards her. His mouth
opens in a soundless appeal.
‘Doesn’t it?’
She starts to cry. She’s too tired, suddenly, to rise. But beneath the weight of
tiredness she suddenly feels something lift her.
::
Finally, Rebecca finds herself lurching sideways as she slips on something. She must
be at the bank of the creek now; she can smell wetness and hear the faint wash of
moving water. Next to her are flashing gleams, shifting and passing as she moves her
head. Treading very carefully on the uneven, slimy ground and clinging onto trees, she
works her way along the bank.
When she sees them they seem, for a moment, like spirit lights, those flares of
flaming gas said to hover eerily over marshes. She’s never seen one, but that’s what
comes to mind. It’s with a cool, uncanny sense of familiarity, of already having been
here, that she sees the candle flames set beside the river ahead, and knows that she’s
found her.
The girl raises her head when she hears someone approaching. The look on her
young face, smoky and half-lit by the candles, is a look Rebecca hasn’t seen since
Joss was a little child. One could fall in love with someone from just that gaze, that
supernatural softness, the utter innocence.
For a moment the sound of the river is very loud. Then it quietens.
‘Hello, my love.’ Rebecca steps out from the shadows and into the magic
globe of candlelight. ‘Don’t get a fright. It’s just me.’
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Joss stares at her, the look unchanging on her face but losing all of its wonder.
Then she blinks. Rebecca comes closer, crouches beside where her sister is sitting
under a tree. She puts her hand on the trunk to steady herself. She refuses to think
about how frightened she is.
‘I came to tell you dinner’s ready.’ Rebecca laughs, a little loudly, looking
around at the black and gold trees. A little distance away, a moment later, one of the
candles wavers. “Maybe I should have brought it with me. We could have had a
picnic. Isn’t this just lovely.’
Joss is cross-legged on the ground, her head bent again now. There’s a scent
on her, unfamiliar, sweet and bitter at the same time: her clothes are wet through. She
is holding the stone knife in her two palms. It’s bigger than Rebecca had expected, a
hand-sized lump of black flint, chipped away on two sides to make a corrugated
blade. The edges, where the scoops of stone are very thin, glitter as she turns it from
side to side, glossy as water. The light almost shines through them. There is a smudge
of dirt on one end.
There are forest sounds: something easing through undergrowth a little way
away, the trees whispering, the water knocking and hushing.
‘You must think I’m mad.’ Joss whispers. She stares at the ground between her
thighs.
‘Well.’ Rebecca eases herself down onto the ground. She absently smooths the
dead leaves with her fingers. ‘I was worried.’
A pause. ‘Sorry.’
Joss continues to pass the stone from palm to palm in the soft light. Rebecca
wipes sweat off her face. She looks out at the ring of light. It’s peaceful here, after all.
Somewhere out of time, out of the world, safely enclosed by light. A little bubble of
illumination; it reminds her of the floating flares she sees when she closes her eyes.
This could be any moment in time, or all of them.
‘All this for a boy, huh?’
Joss nods, slowly. Then she shakes her head.
‘Well.’
‘Not just for him.’ She mumbles something.
‘Sorry?’
‘For me.’
The water passes them, unseen.
‘He didn’t come?’
Joss doesn’t say anything. She just turns the stone. Her hands, holding the
heavy weight, look as young and square as a child’s. There is a stillness about her
that Rebecca hasn’t seen before. A sadness, but something else. It is as if Joss has
given something away, something she wanted; for the first time she has done, or had
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
something done to her, something that really hurt. Rebecca can feel the tension in
Joss, that holding carefully a cup filled with feeling, the great poise of someone who
has just learned something about herself and needs to carry it a distance away before
setting it down.
In the distance there is a loud crack and rustle, as if a tree had lost a branch.
Joss starts. She looks sideways at Rebecca, almost shyly, bites her lip.
‘Ready to go?’ Rebecca says. She puts out her hand.
Joss takes it and together they heave to their feet.
‘We’ll put this back.’ Rebecca touches the flint gently. Joss nods.
‘I didn’t realise it had gotten so dark,’ she says, wonderingly. Rebecca bends
and picks up two of the little candles from the ground near the water, hands them to
Joss and takes two herself.
‘Here. And now, my darling, can you find our way home?’
As they move away from the river, Rebecca following in Joss’s flame-flickering
wake, she nearly wobbles into Joss as the girl stops. Joss looks back at the river.
Tears glaze her eyes. ‘Adciu,’ she says. ‘Adciu.’ Then she turns away.
‘What?’
Joss walks on. Quietly she says, ‘It’s an old word. It means I see.’ Then she
quickens her steps, untroubled by the tangles of ivy and the blackness all around
them, and leads Rebecca out of the wood.
::
The next day they wake to the sound of water. Joss lies in her bed, feeling the rain
run through her body as she stirs, as if every drop is washing her gently, soaking in
through her skin, rinsing her very bones before seeping out again. She rests, unmoving,
watching the water for a long time. She is only eyes looking, lungs breathing, no more:
barely even thinking. When finally she moves her limbs, it feels as if they’ve been
newly fitted, as if she’s never had a body before.
At the other end of the hall, Rebecca, too, lies in her bed and watches the
glass blur and waver. In her sleep she’s dragged a coverlet over her and it rests upon
her like a second skin. There’s a sense of great peace, after the night. Her bed is so
warm, the air fresh and cool as it comes through the half-opened window. Rain
spatters from time to time on the sill. A soft crush of thunder comes and goes. The
air gets greener and greener and Rebecca imagines a tender mouth kissing hers, and
kissing her again, deeply; she sighs as she thinks this, and cups one breast gently in
her hand, a warm handful of water; she holds it and rolls onto her belly and begins
to pulse, dreamily, against herself.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
::
When they’ve shut the front door behind them, both of them think to take the lead.
Joss sets off down the road towards the church, aware that this is, after all, really her
road—it’s the path she’s taken more often than she can count, it was the beginning of
all the secrets she discovered. But Rebecca knows that they’re going to her church,
and she uses her long legs to cut just an inch or two into Joss’s head start.
They stride on like this, both of them suddenly and obscurely jealous of the
track they’re taking, until Rebecca says, a little out of breath, ‘Why are we rushing?’
and slows. She isn’t feeling very well this afternoon. The rain finally pattered to a
close, and the sky is a thinning blue. After the heat, the day is the temperature of
blood, barely discernible.
Joss raises an eyebrow. ‘I wasn’t rushing.’
‘Let’s just take it easy. There’s no hurry.’
They walk on, side by side now, framed in the middle of the empty road by
the hedgerows on either verge.
‘God, it’s pretty here. All this wildness.’ A daisy waggling from Rebecca’s
lips.
‘What’s the date?’
‘First of August.’
‘Right.’
‘Why?’
‘No reason. I guess there’s a lot of summer still to go.’
‘Yeah. A lot of summer.’
They walk on, to the turn-off, up the side-road, to the churchyard. There’s a
lorry parked outside the lych gate, as they walk up, and three men standing in the
churchyard. Two of them have on neon orange vests, and the third is wearing a
jumper, shirt and cords.
‘Shit.’
‘We’ll never sneak it back right now.’
They open the gate and wander around the nearest edge of the graveyard,
browsing along the gravestones as if ambling around a gift-shop. They bend and
slowly read the blurred epitaphs as they wait for the men to go. Joss puts her hand
on Rebecca’s arm. ‘Look at this. John Caleb Kerrick. 1856-1870. Drowned at Soar. He
has outsoared the shadow of this night.
‘That’s sad. Just a young guy. That’s Shelley, isn’t it? From Adonaïs?’ Rebecca
frowns and closes her eyes in concentration. ‘“He has outsoared the shadow of this
night; Envy and calumny and hate and pain Can touch him not, nor torture yet again.
From the contagion of the world’s slow stain He is secure…” I forget the rest of it.’
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Joss says nothing, only smiles sadly and moves away. She looks at no more
graves, only trails her fingers against worn stone, the frail fronds of long grass as she
wanders slowly around the yard.
Rebecca makes a slow circuit, still feeling that great sense of comfort from this
place. The sunlight is fragile on the grass and the old grey stones She cranes her head
to look at the church tower, and then glance at her friends, the two stone ladies. They
haven’t changed, they still gaze out, one happy, one sad. She walks over to stroke
their faces with a light finger. Then, following their blind gaze over her shoulder, she
turns and she sees.
The men are gathered around the yew, and now she can see why. The bushy
top of the tree, so broad and etiolated with its long reaching branches that hide the
trunk, looked intact from the gate. But now she can see that its trunk has been
wrenched out of the ground, the whole thing tipped over, devastated, ruined.
The branches now reach out, across the earth. She draws closer.
The roots of the yew are as fearfully convoluted as the branches; a paler
brown, thickly tendrilled and fringed with tinier strands. One half of the root system
is bared to the air where it has risen from the ground. The trunk has sagged and split
a little.
One of the men in orange vests notices her. ‘Shocking mess,’ he says.
She stares, nodding.
‘Freak, must have been a complete freak. There was no report of winds in the
village. But maybe one of those, what do they call them? Micro-bursts, innit. Pulled
the whole poor darling right up. The mayor’s here, he’s upset all right. Bloody
shame.’
Rebecca takes a step forward, touches a root as she has just touched the
stone face by the door.
‘Over a thousand years old, this. So it’s said. There’s a legend, you know,
that there’s a sword buried right in the heart of it. All sorts of stories for trees like
these, of course. I’m a tree man, I’ve heard them all. Still, she was a beauty.’ He gives
a whistle.
The man in cords says something and the tree man winks at Rebecca and
moves away to continue the discussion on the other side of the tree.
Joss is beside her. Her mouth is open with dismay.
Rebecca lays a hand on the trunk, where it has split. She feels like crying.
‘I’m sorry,’ Joss says. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’
She walks around to the other side, stooping to look at where the hollow in
the tree now gapes towards the ground. The sill of it, where the flint had been
stowed, is all broken away. Bared shards of wood are shockingly raw.
‘I can’t put it back,’ Joss whispers.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
From the other side of the huge trunk Rebecca says, ‘I know.’
‘What shall I do?’
Her sister walks around to meet her. Impulsively, Joss puts her arms around
her. They rest against each other, breathe in, and out.
‘We’ll bury it.’ Rebecca speaks into the side of Joss’s neck.
‘Back there.’
Rebecca nods.
‘Will you come with me?’
Rebecca lets go and stands back. She gives her sister a weak smile. ‘Of course.
Of course I will.’
::
As they walk through the field towards the river, Rebecca pauses. ‘Hang on. I’ve got
to stop a minute.’
‘You look a bit pale.’
‘I know.’ She stands, holding her abdomen, her eyes closed, getting her breath.
‘Joss?’
‘Yeah?’
‘There’s something I should tell you.’ She opens her eyes. ‘Should have told
you before, I guess. I know you know that last year I had an—’ she glances away. ‘An
abortion. Well, now I’m going to have a baby.’
Joss’s face is almost as soft with surprise as it was soft with something else
last night. ‘You’re kidding.’
‘No.’ Rebecca laughs. ‘No! I’m going to have a baby! A bloody baby!’ She
cackles.
‘You’re insane! That’s wonderful.’ Joss throws her arms around her for the
second time that afternoon and squeezes her tight. She scrubs her sister’s tummy
with a rough hand. Rebecca crouches away, giggling.
‘Careful! I might puke.’
‘Sorry. But oh my god. You’re going to be a mother. Good grief.’ She makes a
face of mock-horror. ‘No, seriously. I’m really happy for you, Beck. Does Mark—’ she
grimaces. ‘Does Mark know?’
‘He does not. He hasn’t given me a chance.’
‘More fool him. We’ll raise it ourselves. It’ll be great. We’ll call it Godfrey,’ she
starts to chant, ‘and it’ll live in the bathtub, and it’ll eat only boiled eggs and—’
‘Shut it…’
‘It’ll make an honest woman out of you at last.’
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Rebecca makes a face. ‘We’ll see about that. Not everything in life is
redeemable’
::
The wood, this afternoon, is gilded and lovely. Sunlight catches the edge of every
shape, like gold illumination in a manuscript, a lustre that they walk through. The
light makes a metallic filigree of Joss’s brown hair as she walks beside Rebecca. The
ivy that smothers the place is a soft bedding now; the sound of birds makes the light
seem to quiver.
‘I have no idea where we’re going,’ Rebecca whispers. It’s so hushed here.
Their footsteps scuff the leaves below. ‘I don’t know how I found you last night.’
‘I know the way.’ She has grown straighter and more possessed of herself
since they entered the trees. What kind of trees are they? Birch, thinks Rebecca. Birch
and elder. Lovely princesses of the woods. Joss holds herself like a princess here, too.
She seems unafraid.
There they are, at the water’s edge. There are a couple of blackened places
where the candles were left behind. The water purls and slides silently between the
banks. There is a sledged part of the bank, where it looks like something heavy has
dragged across it, but the river mutters only over rocks. There is no sign, now, of the
dead animals Joss was once brought to see. Perhaps they rotted, perhaps they were
swept away, or were taken away and disposed of. It was a long time ago.
‘Where do you want to put it?’ Rebecca says, hoarse from the silence.
Joss hesitates. ‘I know I have to do it. But I hope someone finds it again some
day. I hope it doesn’t get lost. It’s precious.’ She pulls the stone blade from her
pocket. In the look she casts down on it is all the hot hope of her imaginings. She
holds this piece of ancient time, frozen in the shape of a blade, in her small young
hands. Then she kneels by the bank of the river where the soil is soft and bare, and
scrapes away at dead leaves and pebbles. Rebecca kneels and joins her. They dig
with their fingers, uncovering grit and softened leaves and thick, dark earth. When
the hole is about a foot deep, Joss picks up the stone.
‘Should I say something?’ she says, looking up at Rebecca.
‘What would you want to say?’
‘Goodbye for now,’ Joss says, and lowers her face. She places the axe in its
pit, pauses a moment. ‘Goodbye.’
When it has been covered over, she stands and looks steadily at her sister. ‘I
feel better now,’ she says.
‘Give me another minute.’ From her pocket Rebecca takes a sprig of yew
branch. It wasn’t easy to wrangle a piece off the tree; it was a tough material. She
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
doesn’t know if it will work; probably not. She was going to take it back to the
house, but now she plants the little sprig in the earth above the stone. Better not just
to bury something, she thinks. Better to let it start again.
She cranks herself upright and looks at the trees, the water, the muddled
ground scattered with leaves and stones and dead twigs, the grainy close air, the
golden light.
‘This is a strange place,’ she says. ‘Maybe Mark was right. Maybe you can
still feel things in a place like this.’
Joss offers her a small smile. ‘Maybe.’
They give the river one last look, the bank with its little circle of darker earth
and its twisted flag of green; the haze of condensation that has risen to fog the
further trees, the wonderful stripes of light, the odd grace that has come down
through the leaves.
‘We’re leaving soon, aren’t we,’ says Joss as they cross the field towards the
road. In these late hours, every nub and bump of the shorn wheat and bone of chalky
flint seems crowned with a cap of gold. ‘Back to Melbourne?’
Rebecca quirks a look at her. ‘Do you want to?’
‘I guess,’ Joss says, ‘I guess you won’t want to have the baby here. All alone.
You’d want to go back to your friends. They helped you with me, didn’t they.’
‘Yeah, they did. God, they were wonderful.’
‘It’s like you’ve already been a mother, haven’t you? But with me, you didn’t
get any choice. There wasn’t any choice.’
‘No, there wasn’t. But I never minded, Joss. You’re my sister. I love you, and
we were lucky we had each other.’ She puts a hand on Joss’s arm. ‘That’s what mum
and dad would have wanted.’
‘They’d be so happy for you now.’ And Joss finds tears in her eyes. ‘They’d
be really, really happy.’
‘They’d be proud of us both, my love.’ Rebecca kisses her little sister on the
cheek, swiftly.
‘Oh my god, your hormones are already completely out of control, aren’t
they?’ says Joss, bright.
‘Do you want us to go home?’ Rebecca asks, bending to tie her shoelace. It’s
not really coming undone, but she wants to stop. ‘I’ve been afraid that this place has
been no good for you. And I don’t know when Mark’s coming back. It’s rough—’ and
she sighs, ‘—but to be honest, even when he does, I’m not sure I want him. Who
knows?’
‘I’m sorry. But I’m also glad. Does that make sense?’
‘So we can do whatever you want.’
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
‘I don’t know what I want. Let’s just go home and have one of your cups of
tea for now.’
‘Jolly good then!’ says Rebecca in an awful English accent, and Joss smiles as
they climb over the stile.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
The water fills his body like a stain. Somewhere above is light and space. Here in
the water everything is substance, everything is dense. It loads him, soaks and
saturates. His skin is softening, his teeth are wet. Water washes in the hollow
channel of his throat. His body is heavier than it has ever been on the earth, and
yet it floats still, a little.
Flesh sinks, drifts like cold air, buckles and wavers, dissolves into darkness. The
river is deep and chill, the current gentle. The drowned man is gentled here.
Water turns in his deaf ears.
In a few days, his skin will be jelly. His hair will rise around his drooping head,
and then, with time, detach. The flesh will loosen and sag around his limbs; the
colour will become waxen, a pastel shade. His lips will shrink back from his
teeth, so wet, his glistening teeth. Water will make him sodden, and yet he will
rise. The body’s buoyancy, like the soul’s, will lift him.
He will rise, and then he must be buried again.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Darkness Visible: An
exploration of recurrence
Part B
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Time
fantasy, recurrence and The Owl
Service
An exegesis submitted in (partial) fulfilment of the requirements
for the degree of Master of Arts (Creative Writing)
Kate Holden
(BA Hons)
School of Creative Media
Design and Social Context Portfolio
RMIT University
August 2008
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
DECLARATION
I certify th a t except where due acknowledgement has been made, the work is th a t of the
author alone; the work has not been submitted previously, in whole or in part, to qualify for
any other academic award; the content of the exegesis is the result of work which has been
carried out since the officia l commencement date of th e approved research program; and,
any editoria l work, paid or unpaid, carried out by a th ird party is acknowledged.
Ka te Holden
6 August 2008
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I would like to th ank the RMIT Masters of Creative Writing by Research group 2005-8, for
a ll the ir support, feedback and collegia lity. In particular I am grateful to Craig Garrett for
h is consistently thoughtful and intelligent critiques of drafts of th is project. I would also
like to especia lly th ank my primary supervisor, Antoni Jach, for his enormous generosity
with criticism, discussion and encouragement.
In addition I extend thanks to Varuna—the Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains and Peter
Bishop, its director; and especia l gratitude to Matt Pritch ard and Margot Holden, for their
critica l suggestions and copy-editing of the exegesis.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Breaking Bread with the Dead
TABLE OF CONTENTS
DECLARATION
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION…………………………………………………………………………………...…1
Introduction………………………………………………………………………………………..1
The novel and the exegesis……………………………………………………………………….4
The wherefores of time fantasy…………………………………………………………………..5
A taxonomy of time fantasy……………………………………………………………………...8
The Owl Service……………………………………………………………………………………..9
Methodology and scope…………………………………………………………………………10
Review of resources and terms…………………………………………..……………………..12
Comments on terms……………………………………………………………………..……….14
CHAPTER 1: Repetition and haunting: The Owl Service………………………………………….17
1.1 Introduction…………………………………………………………………………………..17
1.2 Haunting the Present………………………………………………………………………...18
1.2.1 Haunting in literature……………………………………………………...……...…18
1.2.2 The claustrophobia of the past………………………………………………………21
1.3 The return of the dead in psychoanalytic thought………………………………………..22
2.1 1.3.1 Nostalgia and melancholic recuperation…………………………………………..23
Myth redivivus………………………………………………………………………………40
1.3.2 The uncanny, repetition and Doctor Freud……………………………………......28
1.3.3 Recurrence and multipl ication………………………………………………………32
1.3.4 Escaping the past…………………………………………………………………......36
CHAPTER 2: Repetition and myth: The Owl Service…………………………………………...….39
2.2 Introduction………………………………………………………………………………….39
2.2.1 Alan Garner and myth………………………………………………………………..41
2.3 Myth ic time……………………………………………………………………….………….45
2.3.1 Myth ic time and narrative…………………………………………..………………..47
2.3.2 Ch ildhood time………………………………………………………………………..48
2.3.3 Novelistic time and synchrony………………………………………………………49
2.4 Myth and repetition………………………………………………………………...………53
CONCLUSIONS……………………………………………………………………………………....61
BI BLIOGRAPHY……………………………………………………………………………………...65
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
…What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
T. S. Eliot
1
1
‘Burnt Norton’, from ‘Four Quartets’, Eliot, T. S. (1969). Complete Poems and Plays. London, Faber and Faber.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
INTRODUCTION
Il mondo invecchia
et invecchiando intristrice.
The world grows old; and as it grows old it grows sad.
Torquato Tasso 2
We have an ambiva lent attitude to les temps perdu—sometimes acknowledging, fetish ising
or celebrating it; sometimes placating, obliterating or rewriting it. A vast body of literature
and criticism speaks for the pervasiveness of feeling about the continuing presence of the
past. In this exegesis I will focus on a small but powerful sub-genre of fiction: time fantasy.
The term time fantasy refers to works, usually categorised with in children’s fantasy
literature, which h ave as their major narrative gambit a suggestion that time is not linear
and progressive but elastic or cyclica l, and th a t people, patterns, events or objects may
travel both forward and backward through it.
Time fantasy includes narratives of time-travel, time-doubling, visitations of the
supernatural in the form of ghosts, and, often, the suggestion th at events th at h ave occurred
in the past reta in a power strong enough to be repeated in the present. Time fantasy should
perh aps be distinguished from fantasy, and children’s fantasy in particular. 3 Fantasy
itself is a broad church of writing for both adults and ch ildren. Ch ildren’s fantasy has often
manifested as either High Fantasy, wh ich involves a complete secondary speculative
2
From Aminta (1580), quoted in (61) Lerner, L. (1972). The Uses of Nostalgia: Studies in Pastoral Poetry. London,
Chatto & Windus.
3
In a useful work on time fantasy, Maria Nikolajeva briefly examines some differences between ‘time fantasy’ and
‘secondary world fantasy’, which usually involves a more magical, exotic world. She notes “[a] close investigation of
the narrative structure of various texts reveals that the principal feature of time fantasy, time distortion, most often
expressed narratively by paralepsis (primary time standing still), is also present in the secondary world fantasy, as we
have seen in the Narnia novels. On the other hand, what is believed to be the principal pattern of the secondary
world fantasy, the passage between worlds, is most tangible in time fantasy.” She prefers to speak of primary and
secondary chronotype (timespace), instead of difference between the types of literature. (133) Nikolajeva, M. (2000).
From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature. Lanham, Md., & London, The Children’s Literature Association
and The Scarecrow Press.
Additionally, Sheila Egoff comments that “[d]espite its concentration on the troubles of its chief
characters, this subgenre of fantasy has remained quite stable and conventional and indeed meshes with much of
earlier fantasy in general. […] the young go ‘there and back again.’ However, their journeys are more difficult and
dangerous than in the past; there are roads from innocence to experience, and so they leave their childhood behind
them.” (289) Egoff, S. A. (1988). Worlds Within: Children’s fantasy from the Middle Ages to today. Chicago and
London, American Library Association.
Ann Lawson Lucas points out that High Fantasy appeared in British fiction not long after time fantasy;
while science fiction reacted against the past by looking far to the future, High Fantasy, often drawing on Deep
England and Arthurian legend, enshrined and reified the past. Thus time fantasy literature was one of the few
speculative fantasy forms which maintained an association with modern realist fiction set in the contemporary
world. (xix) Lucas, A. L., Ed. (2003). The Presence of the Past in Children’s Literature. Westport, Connecticut,
Praeger Publishers.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
world (for example, Tolkien’s Middle Earth) or another type of fantasy, in which a rea lworld protagonist is transported by magical means into a secondary world. Time fantasy is
perh aps best understood as a sub-set of th is second type, but instead of a secondary,
fantastical world, the protagonist visits another epoch by some manipulation of time; or a
past time erupts into the present, et cetera. A strongly rea list background for the primary
world is often a characteristic feature. Th is sub-genre can also incorporate elements of the
ghost story, realism, h istorical fiction, myth, speculative writing and horror. 4
Time fantasy exemplif ies a preoccupation with h aunting, featuring recurrence and
repetition in both its concerns and its narratologica l structure. I will be specif ica lly looking
a t a major work of the sub-genre, Alan Garner’s 1967 novel for young adults, The Owl Service,
(awarded both the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Award for children's fiction) which
suggests th a t an ancient myth may recur to impose its patterns on present-day protagonists. 5
Theorists and critics have long analysed the supernatural and myth as products of human
psychology. Sigmund Freud’s short but influentia l essay ‘The Uncanny’ was one of the first
to establish an analytics of haunting and the spectral as the return of the repressed, a figure
directly related to the process of mourning. Subsequent critics have cha llenged or expanded
Freud’s ideas. In Chapter 1, I will explore the poetics of haunting as a prelude to describing
the ways in which they may be at work in time fantasy, and will proceed to a reading
through Freud of The Owl Service as a specific example of the way time fantasy fiction
embodies cultural and psychological anxieties about recurrence. Using Freud and postFreudian criticism as a basis, I will suggest th a t time fantasy’s main devices (myth, timetravel and haunting) are allegories for the unease of human grief, uncerta inty about the
past, fear of death and ambiva lence towards identity.
I will also examine myth and mythopoeics, their rela tion to time fantasy, and the
particular significance of myth in The Owl Service. Chapter 2 discusses th is phenomenon and
reads Garner’s novel as an example of myth ic recurrence. ‘Myth ic time’ is often understood
as ‘timeless’ or cyclical, and th is attribute of temporal ity has implications for repetition
and reiteration in ways different to th at seen in a psychoanalytic model.
It is my view th a t time fantasy is a significant literary form, established now for over a
century and still popular, featuring high ly ta lented authors, and enacting a diverse range
of negotia tions with wha t are surely two of literature’s over-riding concerns: the effect of
4
See this Introduction for a more detailed taxonomy of the sub-genre as a whole.
5
Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
the past on the present, and its implications for identity and determination of behaviour.6
Although American, Canadian and Austra lian authors have contributed much to the subgenre in the English-speak ing world, British time fantasy remains dominant, and its
tradition of drawing closely upon the myths and history of Brita in makes it exemplary in
its concerns, anxieties and strategies for invoking the symbiosis between past and present. 7
The intelligence with wh ich authors of British ch ildren’s time fantasy, such as Alan
Garner, Penelope Lively, Will iam Mayne, Robert Westa ll, Penelope Farmer, Susan Cooper
and Nancy Bond, among others, have interrogated the cultural rhetoric of ‘the past’ with
imaginative narratives suggests th a t for such writers, conservative mythologising of
national h istory is less interesting than confronting th e anxieties, ambiguities and multiple
narratives of what may in fact be anyth ing but a coherent past.
6
According to critic Tess Cosslett, time fantasy novels negotiate against ‘heritage’ as time fantasy “offers an openness
to ‘other’ histories, rather than the potentially nationalistic search for roots; it problematizes the simple access to the
past promised by the heritage site; it critiques empty reconstructions of the past; and because of the way it
constructs childhood, it evades the dangers of nostalgia.” (244) Cosslett, T. (2002). "“History from Below”: Time-Slip
Narratives and National Identity." The Lion and the Unicorn 26(2): 244-251.
7
Australian children’s fantasy that falls within this sub-genre includes Playing Beatie Bow (1980) by Ruth Park; The
Nargun and the Stars (1980) by Patricia Wrightson, and Gary Crew’s Strange Objects (1991).
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
The novel and the exegesis
The object is the thing with which we construct our mourning.
Jean Baudrillard 8
Th is exegesis, Breaking Bread with the Dead, is a complement to my own novel The Sacrifice9
a lthough not a discussion of it. In both works I am interested in examining the power of the
past to ‘repeat’ in the present, both in terms of human psychology and in the figurative
sense of myth ic return. Though I will not use my own novel as the primary text of the
exegesis, a brief description will demonstrate how the academic part of my submission
rela tes generica lly to the creative part.
In The Sacrifice two young Austra lian sisters go to stay in England in a rich ly h istoric coasta l
area. The elder, married sister, Rebecca, soon becomes engulfed in grief after her husband
leaves them. The younger, Joss, is an impressionable teenager who becomes enthra lled in
fantasies of local h istory after meeting a strange young boy, Flick. S he becomes convinced
th a t he embodies the violent past of the area, and th a t the act of sacrifice is part of an
ancient pattern th at must be enacted. Through engagement with the landscape and
remnants of history in the region, each sister comes to terms with loss and finds th a t even
when someth ing has been given up, someth ing else may take its place. For Joss, the belief
th a t h istory can compel the present is a comfort, even as it leads her towards disturbing
experiences; for Rebecca, the past is an uncomfortable h aunting from which she wishes to
free herself. The novel is an attempt to narrate the enduring sense th a t the past pervades
the present, in both benign and malign ways.
The novel is also both a homage to, and negotiation of, the conventions of the time fantasy
sub-genre. In writing it I struggled to overcome ‘knowingness’ about the conventions and
clichés of the sub-genre, and so made Joss self-conscious about her susceptibility to
fantasising along such lines. The novel is intended as a cha llenge to such romanticising of
British h istory, with an Austra lian protagonist who, though she fits many of the
requirements of a time fantasy heroine, is led astray by the very constructions her reading
h as placed upon her experience of British folklore and landscape.
8
Quoted in Krips, V. (2000). The Presence of the Past: Memory, heritage, and childhood in postwar Britain. New
York & London, Garland Publishing.
9
See Part A of this submission.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
In my exegesis, Breaking Bread with the Dead, my main research questions are: What are some
possible roles in time fantasy literature of recurrence and repetition? And what do they imply in
terms of a narrative such as The Owl Service?
Th is inquiry naturally developed several minor research questions, as I sought frames
through wh ich to answer the question. The two chapters of my exegesis reflect these
subsidiary queries: if I looked at the project of time fantasy and its apparent ‘nostalgic’
desire to revisit the past, wha t ideas did psychoanalytic theorists such as Sigmund Freud
offer concerning repetition and recurrence? Wh at would result if I applied these ideas to a
particular text? And if I then looked towards the temporal dimension of time fantasy,
finding theories of myth ic time, wha t did the concept of cyclica l time and Eternal Return
imply about repetition and recurrence? And again, how might I apply th a t idea
specifically to Garner’s novel?
W h a t I offer in th is exegesis is a sketch of some possibil ities for understanding the
significance of recurrence and repetition in time fantasy fiction. A questioning of the
fundamenta l significance of repetition throws light not only on the work of Alan Garner, but
casts glints onto many other important aspects of modern cultural consciousness, anxiety, and
aspiration.
The wherefores of time fantasy
This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living.
Don Delillo 10
Einstein’s discovery of the Specia l Theory of Relativi ty, the cultural disorientation
following World War I, the birth of Modernism in art, and the inconceivable destruction of
the Second World War and horror of the Holocaust all contributed to “a sadder, more
doubting”11 as well as more energetic, complex, and ambiva lent 20th century attitude to the
past, and its relationship with the present.
At the same time as fantasy proper was gaining popularity as a modern literary genre, time
fantasy carved out a conjunctive niche in British ch ildren’s literature. From roots in fairy
ta les such as Rip Van Winkle, Goth ic fiction, fantasies such as H. G. Wells’s speculative
10
From White Noise (1985), quoted in (14) Gordon, A. F. (1997). Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the sociological
imagination. Minneapolis and London, University of Minnesota Press.
11
(xix) Lucas, A. L., Ed. (2003). The Presence of the Past in Children’s Literature. Westport, Connecticut, Praeger
Publishers.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
fiction and Victorian and Edwardian magical ta les for children, it developed most strongly
in the years following World War II. 12 The literary sub-genre of time fantasy has
developed alongside modern consciousness of time and h istoricity, and took on its fa irly
well defined major forms in children’s literature since the mid-20 th century. These forms in
many ways successfully articulate many of the apprehensions th at pervade our era.
The Blitz in England left a destroyed landscape which was rapidly overbuilt, apparently
erasing swathes of ‘Old England’ and arousing anxiety tha t ancient th ings were being
disturbed, destroyed, or brought to light. Classics from th is period include Philippa
Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden and Lucy M. Boston’s Green Knowe novels, which both
conta in a haunting sense of nosta lgia. Humphrey Carpenter, in his study of the sub-genre,
observes of the period between the 1950s and 1970s, th a t “the greater part of children’s
fiction produced in th is period has the same theme: the discovery or rediscovery of the
past.” 13 A frequent emphasis in many time fantasy novels is, for example, on the contiguity
of past and present landscapes.
A development in the 1970s saw works in which the psychologica l dimensions of the story
began to take the foreground.14 Wh ile conservative time fantasy (using many of the
established tropes) is still being written today, the sub-genre has become, since the 1970s,
more sophisticated and, in these works, more troubled by its own project. 15 Simple
transportation into another time has become an enmesh ing in the implications of history; in
many novels, including Alan Garner’s, rather th an an isolated individual passing
backwards in time, the past itself threatens to engulf the present, and the comforting
12
The sub-genre parameters Rudyard Kipling established with Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), in which children are
visited by ‘ghosts’ of previous spirits and inhabitants of a Sussex site, were enhanced by Edith Nesbit in 1908 when,
according to Ann Lawson Lucas, she invented the conventional time-slip novel as such in House of Arden, by adding
a country house to the Deep England landscape, and maintaining the trope of children with connection to their
antecedents (153) Ibid.
Nesbit was followed in this by several authors, notably by Lucy M. Boston with her Green Knowe books
(1954-1976). In Alison Uttley’s classic A Traveller in Time (1939) the form was nuanced by having an outsider as
protagonist, a visitor to an ancestral home who is transported back in time in order to further appreciate the history
of the place. See also, for example, Philippa Pearce’s Children of Charlecote (1989) and Penelope Lively’s The House in
Norham Gardens (1974) which both feature children exploring the history of old houses, a trope which continues to
be used in contemporary time fantasy fiction.
13
(217) Carpenter, H. (1985). Secret Gardens: A study of the Golden Age of children’s literature. Boston, Houghton
Mifflin Company.
Carpenter identifies three common ways in which this functions: (a) The past enables a child to realise
that time cannot be halted, the child must grow up. (b) The past allows child to better understand or endure the
present. (c) The past represents idyllic lost or imagined Britain and provides nostalgic escape from postwar austerity.
(160) Cited in Lucas, A. L., Ed. (2003). The Presence of the Past in Children’s Literature. Westport, Connecticut,
Praeger Publishers.
14
Major examples include works by William Mayne such as Earthfasts (1966) and The Battlefield (1971), Lucy M.
Boston’s Green Knowe series, Tom’s Midnight Garden by Pearce, Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes (1987),
Garner’s novels The Owl Service (1967) and Red Shift (1973), many of Penelope Lively’s novels for children including
The Driftway(1972) and Astercote (1970), and Robert Westall’s The Wind Eye (1976).
15
See Gary Crew’s Strange Objects for a post-modern example of ambivalence towards history and identity which
deliberately plays with the ‘reliability’ of historical documentation and the conceit of return to the past. Crew, G.
(1991). Strange Objects. Melbourne, Mammoth Australia.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
endurance of the past becomes a claustrophobic prescription. In th is gambit the fantasy
element is used more and more as a mechanism to allegorise or reflect real-world issues so
th a t, for Alan Garner, increasingly “it is the psychological tensions of the protagonists th at
create the supernatural events.” 16
Typica lly, time fantasy novels feature some kind of slippage of ‘normal’, linear time—
hence the often-used term ‘time-slip’ to describe works with an element of time-travel.
Carpenter defines the most common model of post-war time fantasy novel: it is one tha t is
like ly to concern one or two children who stumble across some feature of history or
mythology which concerns their own family or the place where they are living or
stay ing […] the children become drawn to it, usually at their own peril, and in
consequence achieve some kind of spiritual, moral or intellectual growth. 17
A taxonomy of time fantasy
A likely impossibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility.
Aristotle 18
Though it is a rela tively small body of work, probably numbering in the low hundreds of
titles, time fantasy moves through severa l conventiona l strategies, often retreading
familiar scenarios. I offer a brief taxonomy of time fantasy as follows:
1.
A person from the modern era travels back in time before returning to the present,
h aving undergone some kind of revela tion or maturing
16
Quoted in (303) Egoff, S. A. (1988). Worlds Within: Children’s fantasy from the Middle Ages to today. Chicago
and London, American Library Association.
Another time fantasy author, Penelope Farmer, for example, draws a distinction between ‘extrovert’ and
‘introvert’ fantasy literature. I would infer that for Farmer, time fantasy often manifests a greater preoccupation
with psychological and individual issues as opposed to High Fantasy’s “surface mechanics”. (238) Cited by Egoff,
Ibid.
17
From Secret Gardens, quoted in (52) Krips, V. (2000). The Presence of the Past: Memory, heritage, and childhood in
postwar Britain. New York & London, Garland Publishing.
Tess Cosslet, in a study of time fantasy literature, also offers a summary of the sub-genre’s common tropes:
“a deracinated child comes to stay in a new locality; a special place, often in conjunction with a special object,
provides access to the past; an empathetic bond is formed with a child in the past; a connection is made between
the past experience and the memory of someone still living; names, inscriptions and their decoding are important;
the history that is accessed is the everyday life of an ordinary child; the subjectivity of the present-day child is an
important element in the story; this child does some form of archival research to establish the truth of his or her
experience of the past; the experience of the past becomes part of them of moving on, growing, accepting change,
death and loss.” (245) Cosslett, T. (2002). "“History from Below”: Time-Slip Narratives and National Identity." The
Lion and the Unicorn 26(2): 244-251.
18
From Poetics, quoted by Susan Cooper, in (22) ‘Escaping into ourselves’ in Hearne, B. and M. Kaye, Eds. (1981).
Celebrating Children’s Books: Essays on children’s literature in honor of Zena Sutherland. New York, Lothrop, Lee &
Shepard Books.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
(a) through occupying the same place as a past person, or passing through a
‘magica l porta l’, by, for example, entering a wood or an abandoned place
(b) through the discovery of a ‘magica l totem’, such as an ancient artefact;
often the disturbance of a long-buried item is the precipita ting narrative
device.
2.
A person from the past appears in the present
(a) as a ghost
(b) as a time-traveller.
3.
Some powerful force or ‘pattern’ of behaviour or relati onships from the past, often
malign, and threatening the stability or coherence of the present, appears in the
present, via
(a) an old story, for example a myth or a sequence of historica l events, enacted
in the modern era.
(b) some kind of magica l force.
4.
A person in the modern era is made aware (often supernaturally) of someth ing in
the past th a t must be la id to rest or ‘put right’.
5.
More th an one time period exists simultaneously, the similarities or continuities
becoming increasingly apparent.
Th is is a crude breakdown of possible scenarios, and as may be seen, these categories are not
a ltogether exclusive—and in the work of many authors, are given many variations and
elaborations. Mine is simply a suggested categorisation of conventions. Eleanor Cameron, by
contrast, simplif ies her taxonomy of time fantasy as follows:
1.
the kind th at incorporates legend in an intrinsic as opposed to incidental way, for
example, The Owl Service.
2.
the kind th at explores the past, bringing history into the reader’s mind.
3.
the kind th at sits ha lfway between pure fantasy and science fiction, for example,
Garner’s novel Elidor (1965), and Will iam Mayne’s Earthfasts (1966). 19
The Owl Service
Writing and archaeology have a great deal in common.
Alan Garner20
19
(170-72) Cameron, E. (1993). The Seed and the Vision: On the writing and appreciation of children’s books. New
York, Dutton Children’s Books.
20
Quoted in Renner, B. (Date unknown). Interview with Alan Garner. elimae (Online journal).
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, which I sha l l be using as my key case study, uses several of
the above devices, such as the potency of place, but falls primarily into category 3 (a). 21
Three teenagers, Alison, her step-brother Roger, and a servant’s son, Gwyn, have arrived in
a remote Welsh va lley for the summer with the ir parents. They discover a forgotten service
of dinner plates, with a design tha t may be owls or flowers. Alison becomes apparently
possessed by the magic held in the pla tes, while Gwyn, whose mother was originally from
th is va lley, perceives th at the three of them are re-enacting a tragic love-triangle
established first in an ancient Welsh myth and then repeated through time by, among
others, his mother and two other men. Pragmatic Roger resists th is interpretation until he
comes to recognise th a t the others’ belief in it, if not the reality, is the crucial issue. Class
tension and male riva lry between Gwyn and Roger form the background for what seems in
inexorable capitulation to the force of a leth a l pattern. Whether the fundamenta l reality
of the sequence of events is ultimately psychological or supernatural, Garner places the
idea of recurrence in centre-focus, and examines its consequences and command.
Garner has never settled for simple resolutions or transparent narratives. He uses a style
often pared down towards the cryptic and ambiva lent, creating tautly written emotional
power and complex characters, and a finally unresolved authoria l attitude to the
possession of the present by the past. He evokes both the past as an energy th a t transforms
but never vanishes, and paradoxically, the agency of h is protagonists to make their own
choices. For Garner, recurrence and return are compulsively fascinating tropes, and he uses
them with in the conventions of time fantasy to form original and sophisticated fictions.
Methodology and Scope
There has never been a scholar who really, as such, deals with phantoms. A traditional scholar
does not believe in phantoms…
Jacques Derrida 22
Th is exegesis is an exploration of one particular, if crucia l, aspect of time fantasy: the roles
of recurrence and return. I began research ing this exegesis looking to comprehend the frisson
I had experienced in reading time fantasy novels as a child. Th is frisson evidently
emanated from the mysterious sense th a t time was not the strict plodding in a line th a t we
usually imagine, but someth ing th at could resound and echo and open up mysterious
21
22
Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
Jacques Derrida, from Spectres of Marx, quoted in (277) Royle, N. (2003). The Uncanny. Manchester, Manchester
University Press.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
possibilities. The ways in which time fantasy authors accessed th is sense of the profound
amplitude (and amplif ication) of time, and the consequent implications for identity and
meaning, stayed with me from childhood and preoccupied me enough to want to write a
novel in th is sub-genre.
Exploring the implications and prerogatives of time fantasy’s project took me into many
fascinating areas. Only a fraction of what I researched is presented in the final form of
Breaking Bread with the Dead, but all of my reading informed the piece as it stands. My
research process incorporated investigation into: the criticism and history of the
conventions and history of children’s literature; time fantasy literature; children’s fantasy
literature; h istorica l fiction; fantasy literature and the fantastic; horror and Goth ic
literature; the supernatural and its expression in litera ture; lieux de mémoire and sites of
memory; heritage and museology; nostalgia studies; post-colonia l nosta lgia; Austra lian
studies; concepts of time and history; myth ic time and the work of Mircea Eliade; the
Eternal Return and recurrence; repetition in narratology, in post-Freudian theory of the
morbid and the uncanny; Freud’s work; criticism of the work of Alan Garner; and a general
background of modern literary theory.
W here possible I have used original quotations from my sources, rather th an paraphrases.
Any misinterpreta tion or mis-application of critics’ work is my own responsibility. The
Bibliography includes further references consulted but not directly used in the body of th is
work.
Time fantasy literature, a multiva lent form of fiction, touches upon all of the areas listed
above. It is a rare, powerful sub-genre which expresses explicitly in its narratives and
implicitly in its associations much of the anxiety and fascination modern culture has with
what we th ink of as ‘the past’: a place which is not simple, but which shapes much about
the present. It is important to acknowledge th is truth in literature, and to cherish the
intimations of endless return. As Boris Pasternak put it in Doctor Zhivago,
… now tha t the winter has killed everyth ing and the living no longer conceal the
dead, the past can be seen more clearly in snowy outline. 23
23
(251) Pasternak, B. (1958). Doctor Zhivago. New York, Pantheon Books.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Review of Resources and Terms
‘Remember’ is emotionally the antonym of ‘dismember’.
Alan Garner 24
Innumerable novelists have written on the subject of time.25 Similarly, the literatures of the
supernatural and of fantasy are vast. In relation to modern fiction written explicitly using
time and recurrence as main subjects, I suggest th at wha t seems like a minor sub-genre in its
most evident form, time fantasy, is in fact more diffuse th an is often recognised.
The range of critical work on the diverse issues included in this exegesis is of course
immense. Here I will briefly identify some of the dominant elements examined in th is
exegesis, acknowledge some of their key theorists, and note my use of important terms.
TIME FANTASY. A sub-genre of children’s fantasy literature, capacious in its inclusion of
everyth ing from time-travel stories to those featuring supernatural resurrections of the
past, and narratives such as Garner’s which suggest myth ic return. The limits of the subgenre are debated, fall ing as it does between the positions of ‘fantasy’, ‘ghost story’, and
science fiction ‘time-travel’ (some critics prefer ‘time-slip’ to specif ica lly denote those
works in which a character apparently moves—usually backwards—in time to another era;
I support th is distinction, but will not be examining any ‘time-slip’ novels in th is exegesis,
and so use only the term ‘time fantasy’). It had its most significant period of development
from around 1950-1980, but, since the recent resurgence of interest in children’s fantasy, has
revived in popularity, and many older classic novels such as Garner’s have been reissued.
In children’s literature, the development of the sub-genre called time fantasy has given an
important platform for explicit questionings about time, history and the supernatural.
However, time fantasy has been largely overlooked in serious literary criticism: when it
features it is usually briefly, as an addendum to fantasy, itself frequently viewed as a niche
genre with in the body of children’s literature, while adult works in th is sub-genre of time
24
Alan Garner, in a preface to the TV script of his libretto ‘Potter Thompson’; quoted in (125) Philip, N. (1981). A
Fine Anger: A critical introduction to the work of Alan Garner. London, Collins.
25
I would cite, for example, authors such as Peter Ackroyd, Graham Swift, A. S. Byatt, Maureen Duffy and Adam
Thorpe as some of Britain’s keenest novelists consciously presenting the problematics of time in their work. A. S.
Byatt, herself a novelist who has used time and history as motifs in her work such as Possession, offers the following
partial list of modern novelists who have also featured time as a major element in their works “for complex aesthetic
and intellectual reasons: Golding, Burgess, Barnes, Carter, Swift, Coetzee, Calvino, Ransmayr, Winterson, Unsworth,
Roberts, Warner, Caryl Phillips, Mo, Ackroyd, Carey, Feinstein, Fitzgerald, and Morrison. ”. (p. 93) Byatt, A. S. (2000).
On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. London, Vintage.
In Australia, many writers including Gary Crew, Alexis Wright, Brian Castro, Antoni Jach and Gerald
Murnane have deliberately ‘played’ with time in their work.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
fantasy are almost entirely unreviewed in this light. There are a few books about children’s
fantasy literature which feature a chapter on time fantasy: severa l essays and articles, for
example in the Children’s Literature in Education journal; and the more deta iled work of a
very few authors (see below). I am not aware of any substantia l critica l works on adult
novels of time fantasy. It may be th at as adult literature, rather th an the more commonly
categorisable children’s literature, they are considered generally ‘literary’ rather th an
‘genre’.
Ch ildren’s literature in general has its own gallery of recognised experts, such as
Humphrey Carpenter, Eleanor Cameron and Colin Manlove. In the small body of critica l
work on time fantasy, Tess Cosslett, Va lerie Krips and Ann Lawson Lucas provide useful
analyses of the h istory, conventions and behaviour of the sub-genre, while David Rees,
Kevin McCarron and others examine specif ic time fantasy authors such as Penelope Lively
and Robert Westa ll. Others such as Gary Westfa h l examine rela ted topics such as the
paradoxes of time in science fiction and fantasy literature. Criticism of the sub-genre of time
fantasy, however, still lacks a master theorist.
Alan Garner’s work has attracted a surprising amount of critical attention, considering tha t
he has worked substantia l ly (if controversia lly) in th e arena of young adult fantasy fiction.
In criticism around Garner’s fiction, Neil Ph ilip is the pre-eminent author, having written
the only full- length work, while Kath Filmer-Davies and Charles Butler have written in
deta il about Garner in the context of severa l other time fantasy authors. In particular,
Robyn McCallum has produced a deta iled examination of time and subjectivity in Garner’s
novel Red Shift, and Maria Nikolajeva has written on Garner’s use of time, apply ing
theories by Domenic LaCapra and Mikh a i l Ba hk tin. Other critics such as Carol Hellings,
Brian Attebery, Tony Watkins and Robin Wa lsh h ave examined the significance of myth in
h is work. Garner himself has published The Voice that Thunders, a book of his essays and
lectures.
REPETITION, RECURRENCE, RETURN. ‘Repetition’ and ‘recurrence’ are used, often as a
coupled phrase, frequently in th is exegesis. They are virtually synonymous, but I perceive
‘repetition’ as someth ing more complicatedly associated not only with recurrence (a regular
reiteration) but with the implications of duplication, displacement and compulsion, as is
discussed in Chapter 1.
‘Return’ brings with it evocations of someth ing tha t has been absent, rather th an
continuously present, and which now re-appears. It is most obviously associated in th is
work with the theory of the Eternal Return (see below).
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Ricoeur, Paul de Man, J. Hill is Miller and Giles Deleuze, among
others, have written now-canonical texts on repetition and time. It a lso figures as a dynamic
in discussions of the Uncanny and the spectral.
THE UNCANNY. A term largely associated with the Goth ic and the fantastic literature
th a t emerged in the 18th century and has since evolved into a literary tradition. It is also
used more broadly by theory in terms of cultural apprehension. The uncanny is a species of
the ‘unnatural’ with in the ‘natural’, but in his famous essay on the subject Freud variously
identif ies the crucia l aspect of the uncanny as the appearance of someth ing hidden which
becomes visible, someth ing tha t is frightening, or someth ing tha t should be familiar, but is
become strange.
Jacques Derrida and Frederic Jameson have examined the spectre in modern culture. Freud
contributed a short but very influentia l essay on the subject of the uncanny, discussed by
Nicholas Royle and others, while Nicolas Abrah am and Maria Torok have further
significantly developed the psychoanalytics of the spectral.
THE FANTASTIC. A specific branch of the literature of fantasy, though its definition,
aptly perhaps, evades empirica l statement. Structuralists Vladimir Propp and Tsvetan
Todorov took an important step towards defining the fantastic, opening the way for critics
of fantasy literature such as Rosemary Jackson, Christine Brooke-Rose, and Sheila Egoff.
THE PAST. By th is term I mean ‘time which has passed’, both in the sense of th at wh ich
h as previously occurred, and time past as it is understood as ‘history’. Theories
interrogating these two parsings of the term are too complex to enter into in th is exegesis.
NOSTALGIA. A term tha t usually signifies a wistful yearning for, and evocation of, the
past. Theorists of nosta lgia point out th at th is yearning is often for an imagined or
manufactured ‘past’ as much as for the ‘rea l’ past. David Lowenth a l, Anthony Kemp and
Charles Maier are major critics on the subject of nostalgia.
ETERNAL RETURN. Th is is a term used most famously perhaps by Nietzsche, and later
expounded by Mircea Eliade in his discussions of prehistoric religious cosmogonies and
teleologies. It suggests th a t there is a powerful constant in the nature of time, one usually
associated with myth ic or religious ‘sacred’ time as opposed to earth ly, ‘secular’ time,
which is conceived of as linear and progressive. The theory of the Eternal Return proposes
th a t time may recur in the service of reiterating the divine. It is variously regarded as
positive and numinous, or over-determining and oppressive.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
CHAPTER 1
REPETITION AND HAUNTING: THE OWL SERVICE
1.1 Introduction
The dead were and are not. Their place knows them no more and is ours today [...] The poetry of
history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once on this earth, once on this familiar spot of ground,
walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by
their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we
ourselves shall shortly be gone, like ghosts at cockcrow.
G. M. Trevelyan 26
Time fantasy has at its heart the idea th a t time is permeable, or elastic, and th is idea
raises important questions about the cultural psychology in which imagination desires
events to occur not once, but again. This drive to the consolations (however ambiva lent) of
repetition is, as we sha ll see, a movement th a t runs th rough the phenomena of nosta lgia,
mourning, and religious ritual, and finds expression in narratives of myth ic and
supernatural return.
In th is chapter I will be discussing the nosta lgic response of time fantasy literature and
introducing psychoanalytic theories of recuperation of the lost. I will examine Freud’s
theory of the uncanny and the signif icance for him of repetition and recurrence (wh ich by
implication are present in literature of the fantastic such as time fantasy), and further
theories of repression and haunting. I sha ll be using these Freudian analytica l frames to
offer a reading of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service.
26
Trevelyan, G. M. ‘Autobiography of an Historian’, An Autobiography and Other Essays. London: Longmans, Green,
1949. Page reference unrecorded.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
1.2 Haunting the present
The Greek word for 'return' is 'nostos.' 'Algos' means 'suffering.' So nostalgia is the suffering
caused by an unappeased yearning to return.
Milan Kundera 27
W h a t kinds of anxieties produce a sense of haunting? British culture has long felt itself
rich ly endowed—or burdened—with the volume of its past. 28 Many works of 20th and 21st
century British literature manifest a persistent discussion of what it means to live in an age
of apparent modern amnesia; to lay modern Brita in, with its new housing estates and selfconscious heritage industry, upon the “ancient fields”. 29 Time fantasy is itself generated by
a cultural impulse to ‘go back’, even as its narratives are concerned specifica lly with the
sometimes dangerous consequences of doing so.
1.2.1 Haunting in literature
What’s unfinished haunts one; what’s unhealed haunts one.
Elizabeth Bowen 30
In a sense, time fantasy novels may be conceived as one of critic Pierre Nora’s lieux de
mémoire (vessels of memory), sites where memory itself can be displayed and examined,
conserved and reverenced (or la id to rest). 31 In what Nora called “memory’s persistence and
27
(5) Kundera, M. (2000). Ignorance. London, Faber and Faber.
28
This is not a modern (nor, of course, exclusively British) phenomenon: Edmund Spenser’s Britain-as-Faerie and
William Blake’s Albion-as-Jerusalem fantasies covet, as well as beware, the mythopoeic dimensions of British history.
See (30) Butler, C. (2006). Four British Fantasists: Place and culture in the children’s fantasies of Penelope Lively,
Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper. Lanham, Maryland, Children’s Literature Association and The
Scarecrow Press, Inc.
29
Charles Maier suggests that in the past hundred years changes to historiographical modes, a sense of the dispersal
of agency and a “metastasis of discourse” have given remembrance a new authority: “memory, we can claim, has
become the discourse that replaces history.” (142) Maier, C. S. (1993). "A Surfeit of Memory? Reflections on history,
melancholy and denial." History and Memory: Studies in representations of the past 5: pp. 136-151.
“[T]he surfeit of memory,” he goes on to warn, “is a sign not of historical confidence but of a retreat from
transformative politics. It testifies to the loss of a future orientation, of progress toward civic enfranchisement and
growing equality.” (142) Ibid.
Pierre Nora echoes this, though more positively, in a distinction between history and memory in the late
20t h century: history re-enacts what is gone, while memory is ‘life’. (18) Krips, V. (2000). The Presence of the Past:
Memory, heritage, and childhood in postwar Britain. New York & London, Garland Publishing.
30
From The Heat of the Day, quoted in (135) Royle, N. and A. Bennett (2004). An Introduction to Literature, Criticism
and Theory. Harlow, Pearson Education Limited.
31
Nora: “lieux de mémoire thrive only because of their capacity to change, their ability to resurrect old meanings and
generate new ones along with new and unforeseeable connections (that is what makes them exciting).” Quoted in
(64) Krips, V. (2000). The Presence of the Past: Memory, heritage, and childhood in postwar Britain. New York &
London, Garland Publishing.
As Krips observes, “The children’s book should be understood as both a trace of and metaphor for the past;
like all lieux de mémoire, it combines materiality with symbolic power.”31 (33) Krips, V. (2000). The Presence of the
Past: Memory, heritage, and childhood in postwar Britain. New York & London, Garland Publishing.
See also David Lowenthal’s writing and that of Charles Maier for further comments on nostalgia.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
[…] its failure,” 32 we often see in modern literature the ceaseless fingering of prosopopoeia—
the speak ing of the absent. Glennis Byron and David Punter describe the manifestation of
prosopopoeia as it works in literature as “governed by the desire to make the absent, the
dead, the abstract present and palpable.” 33
Ch ildren’s time fantasy literature, as we sha ll see, enacts over and over again an attempt
to speak with the past; or to counsel warnings about how to do so; or to allay anxieties.
In The Owl Service, the force of a secluded Welsh valley and its ancestra l beliefs comes up
against the modern and the oblivious. School-leaver Gwyn returns with h is mother to the
Welsh va lley in which she grew up. There he is thrown together with two other teenagers:
Alison, the daughter of the wea lt hy English family th a t h as engaged Gwyn’s mother
Nancy as a housekeeper, and her step-brother Roger. Alison and Gwyn discover a service of
dinner plates with a curious design: Alison perceives it as owls rather th an the possible
flowers, and quickly becomes fascinated. From the outset of the narrative, it is suggested
th a t an ancient legend is being played out, and superna tural events ensue, apparently in
accordance with an ancient legend of the magica l maiden Blodeuwedd. This woman was
‘made’ from flowers by a wizard; conflict ensued between her husband Lleu Llaw Gyffes and
her lover Gronw Pebyr—forming a love-triangle wh ich it appears Gwyn, Alison and
Alison’s step-brother Roger may repeat. Th is recurring constella tion of behaviour, it is
implied by the locals, especia lly a man called Huw Ha lfbacon, extends back past memory. 34
Each one of the protagonists has a different response to th is intimation. Alison is
anguishedly ‘possessed’; Roger is sceptica l; Gwyn seems to accept it. At one point, Alison
asks,
‘[…] why wasn’t it finished with long ago?’
32
Quoted in (31) Krips, V. (2000). The Presence of the Past: Memory, heritage, and childhood in postwar Britain.
New York & London, Garland Publishing.
33
(162) Byron, G. and D. Punter, Eds. (1999). Spectral Readings: Towards a Gothic Geography. Houndsmills and
London, Macmillan Press.
Prosopopoeia was parsed in its more macabre sense by Pierre Fontanier, writing in 1821, as “staging […] the
absent, the dead, supernatural beings […] to make them act, speak, respond; or at least to take them for confidants,
witnesses, guarantors, accusers, avengers, judges.” 33 Quoted by Eric Savoy, ‘Spectres of abjection: The queer subject
of James’s ‘The Jolly Corner’’ in (169) Byron, G. and D. Punter, Eds. (1999). Spectral Readings: Towards a Gothic
Geography. Houndsmills and London, Macmillan Press.
Savoy goes on to note that “If, in the paranoid Gothic, the ghost is the prosopopaeial allegorisation of the
split subject, then Paul de Man’s assertion that ‘prosopopoeia is hallucinatory, [for] to make the invisible visible is
uncanny’ (De Man, 1986: 49) suggests not only that prosopopoeia is always already a Gothicised trope, but also that
this trope is imbricated in a complex psychoanalytic of melancholia’s need to figure forth the haunting other.” (170)
Ibid.
34
There is a scene of local women in the grocery store:
‘Is it to be the three of them again, Mrs Lewis-Jones?’
‘Yes. There’s the girl, too. Mister Huw says she’s made it owls.’
‘We must bear it,’ said Mrs Richards.
(55) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
‘I don’t think it can be finished,’ said Gwyn. ‘I think this valley really is a kind of
reservoir. The house, look, smack in the middle, with the mountains all round, shutting it in, guarding the
house. I think the power is always there and always will be. It builds up and builds up until it has to be let
loose—like filling and emptying a dam. And it works through people. I said to Roger that I thought the
plates were batteries and you were the wires.’
‘If the force is in the pla tes,’ said Alison, ‘I’ve let it out, and everyth ing’s
right aga in. Oh, Gwyn, is it?’
‘No. That’s what frightens me. It’s not as quick as th a t. The force was in the
plates, and in the painting, but it’s in us now. That’s where the pattern’s gone.’35
For Garner in th is novel, the past is energy—figured with the metaphor of electricity—and
while ‘the past’ itself does not repeat, its structure and determination does. In th is way a
‘simulation’ (Gwyn, Alison, Roger) takes the place of the previous simulation (their
parents’ generation: Huw, Bertram, Nancy). The original legend is a story from The
Mabinogion; it is the modern-world situation tha t is most rea l, but seems in danger of being
displaced by metempsychosis (recollection of previous lives). 36 The place and the pattern
remain the same, and the magica l power, but the past itself is being constantly displaced by
its duplication (not replication) in the present. Garner, unlike many other time fantasy
authors, is not interested in transportation to the past by time-travel; it is the way the past
informs the present, even through apparent simultaneity, th a t is his most powerful concern:
its haunting.
1.2.2 The claustrophobia of the past
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
F. Scott Fitzgera ld 37
Dea ling with the hidden, uneasily ly ing corpse of the past can be claustrophobic: “The
revenge of the past is the memory of it,” says Dana Del George in her study of the
supernatural in short fiction. 38 A superfluity of history, or in Charles Maier’s phrase, a
35
(142) Ibid.
36
Garner claims dryly in his essay ‘Inner Time’ that the novel “is an expression of the myth found in the Welsh Math
vab Mathonwy, and is only incidentally concerned with the plight of first-generation educated illegitimate Welsh
males. I labour the point because I am forced to accept that some readers will not differentiate between form and
content. It is almost as if they are afraid to see.” However, the emphasis on realist immediacy forces focus on more
than merely the repetition of myth. (110) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London,
Harvill Press.
37
38
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. (1950). The Great Gatsby. London, Penguin Books.
(115) Del George, D. (2001). The Supernatural in Short Fiction of the Americas: The Other World in the New
World. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
“surfeit of memory”, may become a malign smothering. Maier ra ises “the question as to
whether there might be someth ing inauthentic and unhea lthy about the canonization of
memory […][someth ing] neurasthenic and disabling,” 39 while Charles Butler notes in a study
of four British ch ildren’s fantasy authors th a t
the weight of tradition, both literary and historica l, may be felt as oppressive […]
while a focus on Brita in as a history-saturated land may tend to corral fantasy
writers into a restricted set of all- too-familiar themes and forms, or to render the
country a place of mere spectacle and imaginative tourism.40
Th is is not simply the common contemporary ‘literature of exhaustion’ but one ‘haunted’, in
the case of children’s fantasy literature, by its own conventions and antecedents. (Garner
struggled in his early works to free himself of trite plot devices and self-consciousness.) 41
So prosopopoeia—being haunted—is both a consoling reflex response and an ambiguous,
uneasy negotia tion with a past th a t threatens to overwhelm. The ways in which the
device of return and repetition are applied to fictions of the uncanny and the mythopoeic
will be examined in greater deta il below. It is worth remembering, as Deborah Esch puts it,
th a t “in giving a face (prosopon) or the semblance of one […] to an entity th at lacks a litera l
visage, prosopopoeia serves as a guarantor of its existence.”42
1.3. The return of the dead in psychoanalytic thought
Tha t terrible th ing th at is there in every photograph: the return of the dead.
Roland Barthes
43
39
(41) Maier, C. S. (1993). "A Surfeit of Memory? Reflections on history, melancholy and denial." History and
Memory: Studies in representations of the past 5: pp. 136-151.
40
(43) Butler, C. (2006). Four British Fantasists: Place and culture in the children’s fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan
Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper. Lanham, Maryland, Children’s Literature Association and The
Scarecrow Press, Inc.
41
Nevertheless, time fantasy author Robert Westall sees the potential for a fruitful dialogue between the past and
the present in children’s literature: “On the whole children don’t read historical novels anymore. They don’t seem to
want to know what the seventeenth century said to the seventeenth, but they become quite interested in what the
twentieth century might have to say to the seventeenth. I feel able, with research, to let the twentieth century talk
to the seventeenth, and to see the seventeenth as an observer.” (65)c.f. http://www.norham.n-tynesidesch.uk/westall/index.htm, 14/04/00 McCarron, K. (2001). ‘Robert Westall’s Frightening Fictions’. Frightening Fiction
in Contemporary Classics of Children’s Literature series. K. Reynolds, G. Brenna and K. McCarron. London,
Continuum: pp. 53-91.
42
Quoted by Eric Savoy, ‘Spectres of abjection: the queer subject of James’s ‘The Jolly Corner’’ (169) in Byron, G. and
D. Punter, Eds. (1999). Spectral Readings: Towards a Gothic Geography. Houndsmills and London, Macmillan Press.
43
(9) Barthes, R. (1982). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, transl. Richard Howard. New York, Hill and Wang.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
W h a t is beh ind an author’s—or a culture’s—impulse to summon tha t which h as passed?
The passed, or past, beckons to us, and we return its wave again and again. Psychoanalytic
criticism has suggested some reasons for why we call up the dead.
In a 20th century preoccupied with reinvention, anxiety, ontological and epistemological
crises, and scientific revela tions about the pliability of time and the prospect of tota l
global destruction, the temptation to regret the vanished past transcended cultural
conservatism and became a pervasive refra in. 44 Charles Maier argues tha t
[i]n the la te twentieth century […] memory, or so it might be argued, has become a
strategy for surviva l, not for seduction. More precisely, memory has become a
strategy to come to terms with surviva l. 45
1.3.1 Nostalgia and melancholic recuperation
Those arts which sustain anguish and the recovery from anguish within us, are the heirs of religion.
Georges Bata il le 46
Perh aps nostalgia’s yearning for what is passed and gone has its roots in neurosis. As
Laurence Lerner observes in his study of The Uses of Nostalgia, “[c]ertainly the poetry of
nosta lgia is like mourning.” 47 Before publish ing ‘The Uncanny’ in 1919, Freud posited his
theory of Melancholia (1917), wh ich comes from an inability to resolve ambiva lence to a
lost object, thus casting a ‘shadow’ and producing the abject. Freud invoked a process of
grieving, which if not properly pursued, can skew into morbid recuperation and replication
of the lost object. 48 He asserted th a t a ll love objects are loved ultimately because they
44
For a useful survey of the development of consciousness of historicity, see also Newman, K., J. Clayton, et al.
(2002). Time and the Literary. London, Routledge.
45
(139) Maier, C. S. (1993). "A Surfeit of Memory? Reflections on history, melancholy and denial." History and
Memory: Studies in representations of the past 5: pp. 136-151.
46
From Literature and Evil (1957), quoted in (18) Jackson, R. (1981). Fantasy: The literature of subversion. London and
New York, Methuen.
47
48
(59) Lerner, L. (1972). The Uses of Nostalgia: Studies in Pastoral Poetry. London, Chatto & Windus.
(136) Freud, S. (1984). Mourning and Melancholia. On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis.
Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Pelican Freud Library. 11.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
evoke a previous loss.49 As we sha ll see below, the doubling, or repetition of the loved/lost
one is a powerful trope in literature of the uncanny and supernatural.
The paradox at the heart of Freud’s Melancholia makes for an ambiva lent interior attitude
to the lost (e.g. the loss of the past). One part of the ego, Freud holds, mourns the lost;
another ha tes the other part which h as become abject in its powerless mourning, “abusing
it, debasing it, making it suffer and deriving sadistic sa tisfaction from its suffering.” 50
“‘She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls. You must not compla in, then, if she goes
hunting,’” says the wizard-figure Huw of the recurrent female figure in The Owl Service. 51
Ra ising the past—in th is case, a resurgent myth ic force—invites a paradox, and a process
th a t may hea l or harm. 52
As I sha ll discuss in Chapter 2, the ethnographer of religion Mircea Eliade suggests th a t
for preh istoric cultures, repetition by mimesis was a crucia l function in a cosmological model
th a t allowed individuals to access the divine (and thus legitimise their actions). Classical
culture moved to develop a sophisticated application of religious propitia tion, still often
involving ritual and working with in an economy of perpetual universa l cycles and thus a
consoling image of repetition. Mimesis, resemblance (for example, in the development of
ta lismans which, by representing a feared demon, protect aga inst it) and copying of ‘divine’
gestures were incorporated into culture, in a move th a t anticipates Jean Baudrillard’s
dictum by legitimising reproduction and its object. 53
Fear of death, as Freud and generations of biologists observe, powerfully motiva tes the urge
for reproduction. For Freud, citing his colleague Otto Rank, the figure of the Double is an
49
See also (103) Goodwin, S. W. and E. Bronfen, Eds. (1993). Death and Representation. Baltimore and
London, The Johns Hopkins University Press.
50
Freud, quoted in (162) Byron, G. and D. Punter, Eds. (1999). Spectral Readings: Towards a Gothic Geography.
Houndsmills and London, Macmillan Press.
51
(101) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
52
In The Owl Service Garner applies this same kind of ambivalence to the workings of magic itself:
‘Suppose,’ said Gwyn. ‘Just suppose, a long time back, hundreds and hundreds of years, someone,
somehow, did something in this valley. Suppose he found a way to control some power, or force, and used it to make
a woman out of flowers. And suppose it went wrong—got out of hand—I don’t know. It got out of hand because it
wasn’t neutral anymore. There was a brain behind it. Do you follow? Neutral like a battery, I mean. You can use it to
explode a bomb or fry an egg: it depends on you.’
‘What is the power?’ said Alison.
‘I can’t explain,’ said Gwyn. ‘I once saw a nettle growing in an old garage floor in Aber. A pale
little thing it was. It had split the concrete floor.’ (142) Ibid.
53
Baudrillard posits that the definition of the real has become “that of which it is possible to give an equivalent
reproduction.” [System of Objects, p.97] (113) Quoted in Krips, V. (2000). The Presence of the Past: Memory, heritage,
and childhood in postwar Britain. New York & London, Garland Publishing.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
insurance against mortality, wh ile the death drive involves repetition of an original
identity to avoid a fata l short-circuit; a gambit which is both narcissistic, and, in fact,
desirous of death. 54 This dual strategy is possible if one considers th a t repetition creates a
critica l displacement: the original is replaced, oblitera ted. Th is accords with nosta lgia
theorist David Lowentha l’s observation th at
[a]s quickly as we have destroyed the past’s power in one way, however, we have
reinstituted it in another. We preserve the idea of the past by making it ubiquitous,
and, in the process, we reify it. […] Our preservation of th is past enta ils its
persistent production.55
Is it possible to invoke the past at all? Or can we only summon its spectre? Baudrillard, in
h is studies of cultural production and reproduction, notes th at wh ile postmodern culture
possesses the ability to bring into sight those shadows previously on the margins, the
search for the ineffable results merely in an endless series of simulations, perpetually
deferring the possibility of grasping the elusive lost, until the simulacrum in fact takes the
place of (is more real th an) the rea l. 56 If th is is so, then the ‘production’ of the past is
compromised not only by its ultimate evasion, but by the manufacture of simulacra wh ich
obscure any potentia l for ever finding the ‘rea l’ past, in what Byron and Punter call the
“melancholy h istoriography” of our times. 57
Relinquish ing time as it passes constitutes a kind of loss, which in some ways is akin to
death; a response is required. In psychoanalytic terms, healthy progression is movement
from mourning to remembrance or commemoration—th us freeing libidinal energies from the
first lost object by reinvesting in a surrogate object, which may resemble the first. In other
words, mourning is performed through a process of reproduction and repetition.58 It may be,
as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkhe imer argue in their essay ‘On the Theory of Ghosts’,
th a t ghosts (and other kinds of spectres from the past, such as repeating myths) must be
acknowledged as evidence of the “wounds of civilisati on”, and apprehension must be
transformed: “Only the conscious horror of destruction creates the correct rela tionship with
54
See Beyond the Pleasure Principle, cited in (104) Goodwin, S. W. and E. Bronfen, Eds. (1993). Death and
Representation. Baltimore and London, The Johns Hopkins University Press.
55
Quoted in (9) Krips, V. (2000). The Presence of the Past: Memory, heritage, and childhood in postwar Britain.
New York & London, Garland Publishing.
56
57
(6) Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and Simulacrum. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press.
(163) Byron, G. and D. Punter, Eds. (1999). Spectral Readings: Towards a Gothic Geography. Houndsmills and
London, Macmillan Press.
.
58
(106-7) Goodwin, S. W. and E. Bronfen, Eds. (1993). Death and Representation. Baltimore and London, The Johns
Hopkins University Press.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
the dead: unity with them because we, like them, are the victims of the same condition and
the same disappointed hope.” 59
Time fantasy often concerns the ‘putting to right’ of an old wrong, the adjustment of
repetition and the redress of culpability, in a kind of compulsive desire to undo the
consequences of time and judgement. In The Owl Service, Huw Halfbacon finally expla ins his
understanding of the recurring tragic pattern to Gwyn as redemption for a trespass against
natural law, not by himself but his antecedent (wh ich for Huw is effectively the same
th ing):
‘Here: in th is va lley: now. That is how the power is spent. Through us, with in us,
the three who suffer every time.’
‘But why, Huw?’
‘Because we gave th is power a th inking mind. We must bear th a t mind,
leash it, yet set it free, through us, in us, so tha t no one else may suffer. […] She will
be the worse for my fault, and my uncle’s fault and my grandfather’s fault, who
tried to stop what can’t be stopped—him with the painting, him with the plates.
We built the dyke of sand, and won a little space.’
‘So we’re in this mess because you ducked it.’
‘Yes.’
‘How?’
‘Oh, it is a story, and we have suffered for it no less th an if we had faced
our time.’ 60
Nicolas Abrah am and Maria Torok, in the ir psychoana lytic work on repression,
acknowledge the timeless belief th a t spirits may return from the dead, and note the
apprehensive fear th a t usually accompanies the idea of a ghost. The dead do not commonly
rejoin the living, but try to draw the living towards dea th: “To be sure, all the departed
may return, but some are destined to haunt”. In his ‘Notes on the Phantom: A Complement to
Freud’s Metapsychology’, Abrah am agrees with Freud th a t ghosts are products of the
living psyche, meant to objectify and exemplify some concealment in a living person’s life
causing “the gaps left with in us by the secrets of others. […] Wh a t comes back to haunt are
the tombs of others.” 61 It is the denial of the dead, who “cannot enjoy, even in death, a state
59
The essay is an addendum to The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). Quoted in (19) Gordon, A. F. (1997). Ghostly
Matters: Haunting and the sociological imagination. Minneapolis and London, University of Minnesota Press.
60
61
(193) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
Unlike Freud, Abraham and Torok see this development not as a result of unsuccessful mourning, as it is not
related to the loss itself; that would be result of melancholia or “those who carry a tomb within themselves.” Rather,
it is an unnerving summoned out of the environment. (171) Abraham, N. and M. Torok (1994). The Shell and the
Kernel: Renewals of Psychoanalysis Vol I Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
of authenticity,” not the dead themselves, or our mourning for them, th at ra ises them. So
ghosts—and one may read ghosts as simply the most explicitly literalised manifestation of
‘the past’—may be individual pathologies, or emanate from a broader socia l context. 62
Garner himself has struggled with bipolar disorder and depression, and in fact suffered a
nervous breakdown while observing the filming of The Owl Service. In his interviews he has
discussed his belief in ‘engrams’, “a memory-trace, a permanent impression made by a
stimulus or experience” (literally scarred into neural tissue). 63 Garner seems to believe th a t
these engrams can be passed through generations, an inheritance of psychic injury. For him,
engrammatic memory creates a sense of “inner time”, which is “one-dimensional; or
infinite”—a kind of memory bank which accesses the collective unconscious (and generates
an intuition for myth). 64 It is out of his own psychologica l truths th at he creates h is
mythopoeia. 65
The process of mourning (and lay ing to rest) a loved object—or in Garner’s conception,
releasing the power of an engram—is complex, and not always benign. The frightening
implications of repetition are noted by Derrida when he observes in a study of Freud tha t
“repetition has the characteristics of the demonic.” 66 For the psychoanalyst Sch lomith
Rimmon-Kenan, repetition is in fact “the first presence, the first ‘performance’ of the
absence [of the lost object].” 67 “Repetition is, then,” say Sara h Goodwin and Elizabeth
Bronfen who quote Rimmon-Kenan, “a duplicitous rhetorica l strategy, for what it enacts
lies in the past.” 68 Goodwin and Bronfen, drawing on psychoanalytic theory, extend
62
Carl Jung, observing that American spiritualism coincided with growth of scientific materialism in mid-19 t h
century, suggested that “[s]piritualism in all its forms therefore has a compensatory significance.” Quoted in (95) Del
George, D. (2001). The Supernatural in Short Fiction of the Americas: The Other World in the New World. Westport,
Connecticut, Greenwood Press.
63
Quoted in (103) Philip, N. (1981). A Fine Anger: A critical introduction to the work of Alan Garner. London,
Collins.
Garner devotes much of his essay ‘Inner Time’ to a discussion of engrams, saying, “in neuro-physiology, an
engram is the term for a hypothetical change in the protoplasm of the neural tissue which is thought by some to
account for the working of memory. It is a memory-trace, a permanent impression made by a stimulus or
experience.” This theory of neuropsychology/neurophysiology has recently been largely superceded but has had
great influence. Garner additionally firmly distinguishes this understanding of engrams from that of Jungian or
Scientological belief. (113) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
64
(150) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
65
Garner says all his characters are himself, through time and maturity: “All the characters that have any vitality in
them are archetypes.” Quoted in (66) Hellings, C. (1979). "Alan Garner: His use of mythology and dimensions in
time." Orana: Journal of School & Children’s Librarianship 15(2): pp. 66-73.
In Neil Philip’s interpretation (in the only major critical text on Garner’s work), myth is seen “as the
accumulation of man’s psychic traumas”, interpreted through the individual, in a process of exorcising emotional
pain through writing—by passing on the energy. (103) Philip, N. (1981). A Fine Anger: A critical introduction to the
work of Alan Garner. London, Collins.
66
(47) Derrida, from The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, 1987, quoted in Byron, G. and D. Punter, Eds.
(1999). Spectral Readings: Towards a Gothic Geography. Houndsmills and London, Macmillan Press.
67
Quoted in (105) Goodwin, S. W. and E. Bronfen, Eds. (1993). Death and Representation. Baltimore and London,
The Johns Hopkins University Press.
68
(105) Ibid.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
Abrah am’s suggestion in noting tha t the interest of mourners is, in fact, either to kill the
dead a second time as quickly as possible, or to preserve them for as long as possible in the
rea lm between living and dead. 69 It is possible th at th i s, too, is a motive of time fantasy: to
enclose the past safely between the covers of a book; or for the novels’ protagonists, to
‘manage’ the past, resolve it in some sense, and push it behind them forevermore. In any
case, whether a positive, organic multiplication or a frightening proliferation of threats,
the eternal process of recurrence both subdues the past and arouses it anew.
1.3.2 The uncanny, repetition and Doctor Freud
To make the invisible visible is uncanny.
Paul de Man
70
Written in 1919 as one of Freud’s works on cultural theory, and following a piece by Ernst
Jentsch, ‘The Uncanny’ is a short piece, much of which is taken up by, first, a
lexicograph ica l analysis of unheimlich (litera lly, ‘unhomely’), the German word commonly
translated as ‘the uncanny’, and second, a reading of E. T. A. Hoffman’s short story ‘The
Sandman’. 71 Following these two hermeneutic moments he discusses some aspects of the
uncanny, and lays out his model of it as representing the return of the repressed. 72 He
ascribes much to th is dynamic, and regression to infantile psychological states of fear and
desire—a primitive set of instincts and reactions th at, by virtue of the ir very
primordia lity, evoke feelings of uneasiness—indeed, feelings of the uncanny (the
‘unhomely’, th a t is, the uncivilised) and of terror and apprehension. 73
69
(106) Ibid.
70
Quoted in (108) Royle, N. (2003). The Uncanny. Manchester, Manchester University Press.
71
Freud works through the etymology and lexicographical variations of unheimlich, adroitly showing that ‘unheimlich’
is in fact ultimately almost a synonym for its apparent antonym, heimlich. For further explanation see Freud’s essay.
72
The essay itself, Freud mentions, emerges from an instance of return, when he dug an old paper out his desk. (xliii)
Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
It is worth noting that the topic of the uncanny features in the work of Marx, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein,
Heidegger, Lacan and Derrida, among others, and goes back to the Enlightenment and the Gothic, when as Nicholas
Royle mentions in his critique of Freud’s essay, “[t]he uncanny is a crisis of the proper […] a crisis of the natural”. (1)
Royle, N. (2003). The Uncanny. Manchester, Manchester University Press.
73
The uncanny, according to Freud, “belongs to the realm of the frightening, of what evokes fear and dread.” (121)
Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
It is only on the 23rd page of this essay that Freud cites Schelling’s definition of the uncanny as “something
that should have remained hidden and has come into the open.” 148) Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London,
Penguin Books.
Yet this is crucial to his thesis, and is reiterated several times. For Freud, the uncanny is difficult to define.
He imposes rather oddly narrow limitations upon it, saying ingenuously towards the end of his essay that, “having
considered animism, magic, sorcery, the omnipotence of thoughts, unintended repetition and the castration
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
At the heart of the uncanny is the compulsion to return or revisit. As Royle says in his study
of ‘The Uncanny’,
[r]epetition is a key aspect of the uncanny, as Freud’s essay makes clear. The
uncanny […] involves a kind of duplicity (both doubling and deception) with in the
familiar. 74
Freud associates repetition with the death drive, an aspect of his thought not mentioned
directly in ‘The Uncanny’ (as it first appeared in Beyond the Pleasure Principle the following
year) but which h aunts it silently. Repetition itself is not necessarily alarming (in fact we
sha ll see th a t it can be positive), but among many th i ngs tha t are “frightening,” he says,
there must be one group in which it can be shown tha t the frightening element is
something that is repressed and now returns. Th is species of the frightening would then
constitute the uncanny, and it would be immateria l whether it was itself originally
frightening or arose from another effect. [My ita lics] 75
The Owl Service offers genuinely frightening episodes: the book fly ing viciously at Gwyn;
Lleu’s spear flying towards Roger by the riverbank; columns of flame threatening Gwyn in
the night-time woods and the sheep dogs herding him back into the va lley. These events
are not merely macabre but raise a frisson by the ir intimation tha t someth ing has returned,
and with malignity.
In addition to the fear of the primitive, we have also, according to Freud, a fear of
automatism and of compulsion. Again, the impression of supernatural possession in The Owl
complex, we have covered virtually all the factors that turn the frightening into the uncanny.” (149) Freud, S.
(2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
In a work on Freud’s essay Nicholas Royle lists several of the phenomena commonly associated with the
uncanny. The list includes, foremost, repetition (e.g. déjà vu, and the doppelganger); also coincidence (a sense of
fatefulness), animism (lifeless things becoming alive), anthropomorphism (confusion about what is human),
automatism (the fear that humans are merely animated mechanisms, or subject to trance and madness), radical
uncertainty about sexual identity (ambiguity), fear of being buried alive (claustrophobia, abandonment), silence
(death), telepathy (invasion of privacy), and death (familiar and also terribly strange). (38) Royle, N. and A. Bennett
(2004). An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. Harlow, Pearson Education Limited.
However, Freud decides, with “special emphasis,” that “an uncanny effect often arises when the
boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred, when we are faced with the reality of something that we have
until now considered imaginary, when a symbol takes on the full function and significance of what it symbolizes, and so
forth.” [My italics] (150) Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
74
(40) Royle, N. and A. Bennett (2004). An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. Harlow, Pearson
Education Limited.
75
(147) Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
For Freud, apparently, it is a defining characteristic of the uncanny to frighten (although he also notes that
the common association of the uncanny with “death, dead bodies, revenants, spirits and ghosts” means that “here
the uncanny is too much mixed up with the gruesome and partly overlaid by it.”) (148) Freud, S. (2003). The
Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
Service: Alison, wearing sunglasses to hide her eyes, suddenly denies knowledge of the
dinner plates and, when cha l lenged by Gwyn, reacts with uncharacteristic threat, causing
her copy of The Mabinogion to attack Gwyn:
Gwyn lashed out with h is foot and kicked the book from Alison’s hands. It landed
yards away, splayed on the grass.
No one moved. There was silence. Then, ‘You shouldn’t have done tha t,’
Alison said.
‘You shouldn’t have done tha t.’ Her knuckles were white on the edge of the
deck cha ir. Her neck was thrust forward. ‘You shouldn’t h ave done tha t.’ 76
Yet we are persistently compelled to repeat the invoking of phantoms and of frisson. “In the
unconscious mind,” says Freud,
we can recognize the dominance of a compulsion to repeat, which proceeds from
instinctual impulses. Th is compulsion probably depends on the essentia l nature of
the drives themselves. It is strong enough to override the pleasure principle and
lend a demonic character to certain aspects of menta l life […] anything that can
remind us of this inner compulsion to repeat is perceived as uncanny. [My ita lics] 77
It is not so surprising, Freud says, “th at the primitive fear of the dead is still so potent in us
and ready to manifest itself if given any encouragement.” 78 It is out of a deep ancestral
behaviour th a t we make our spectres. This recurrence of ancient instincts is itself a
reiteration of our fear of repetition, and our compulsion to perform it, a lways lay ing our
dead to rest. So it is the unwitting, repetitious, instinctual and atavistic impulse to summon
the past th a t disturbs us.79 The presence of the dead among the living is, for Freud, an
indication tha t someth ing has gone awry. And th is, for Freud, is part of the generation of
art. 80
76
(60) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
77
(145) Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
Freud also notes that “In another set of experiences we have no difficulty in recognizing that it is only the
factor of unintended repetition that transforms what would otherwise seem quite harmless into something uncanny
and forces us to entertain the idea of the fateful and the inescapable, when we should normally speak of ‘chance’.
(144)
78
(149) Ibid.
79
This relates to Freud’s theory of Mourning and Melancholia. If the process of mourning, according to Freud, is one
of laying to rest (finally killing off) the dead, then the pathological perversion of this process becomes one of constant
deferred interment of the dead; in fact, the iteration of their resurrection within ourselves or as hysterically
summoned spectres.
80
Garner, in his discussion of engrams and psychic hurt, comments on how he came to perceive the links between
his characters’ emotional injuries in The Owl Service, and his own psyche. “My experience does show,” he says, “that
a writer of fiction, willy-nilly, plants encapsulated engrams in his characters, and that disorientation, leading to
symptoms that resemble madness, can be induced when the engram is made present simultaneously in inner and
outer time. “(115) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
It is also, for all the apprehension and unease attached to it, part of the generation of
recurrence and continuity:
Our conclusion could then be stated as follows: the uncanny element we know from
experience arises either when repressed childhood complexes are revived by some
impression, or when primitive beliefs th a t h ave been surmounted appear to be once
again confirmed. 81
Garner claims all h is novels are about myths: not stuffy “retellings” but “reanimations”,
and he himself is “a transmitter, not an archivist”. 82 He turned to myth, says Neil Ph ilip,
“because of a concern, central to his writing, with the patterning of life, and with the
rela tionship of the present to the past.” Garner’s themes have, in Philip’s words, “the need
to recreate and recapture the past, not out of any feeling of nostalgia but to valida te and
define the present, and to make possible a rooted, not a rootless, future.” 83
1.3.3 Recurrence and multiplication
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
Wi l liam Faulkner84
In their work on mourning processes, critics Goodwin and Bronfen suggest th a t repetition
does not just imply a return to a previous point, in the sense of retrieving someth ing
lost, reiterating or relating a past event. Repetition also implies a plurality of
events, a sequence of actions tha t rela te to each other through resemblance. […] The
repeated event, action, or term always contradicts its predecessor because, though
similar, they are never identica l; and though recalling the unique, singular, and
original quality of the former event, the second emphasizes th at it is more than one,
a multiple duplicate, occurring at more th an one site. Repetition describes a longing
for identity between two terms even as it stages the impossibility of litera l
81
(155) Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
82
(66) Hellings, C. (1979). "Alan Garner: His use of mythology and dimensions in time." Orana: Journal of School &
Children’s Librarianship 15(2): pp. 66-73.
83
(152 and 156) Philip, N. (1981). A Fine Anger: A critical introduction to the work of Alan Garner. London, Collins.
84
Act I, Scene III, Faulkner, William. Requiem for a Nun. London: Vintage, 1975.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
identity. […] Repetition not merely imita tes but also reproduces someth ing new out
of an earlier body. 85
Thus proliferation (and perhaps) its association with lack of control is a haunting
consequence of reproduction, evoking the many selves th a t are ava ilable to us, the many
rea lities we experience, and the spectra l traces of all of these made inevitably manifest
even as we seek to lay them out of sight, and as they displace themselves.
For Garner in The Owl Service, proliferation is both a mark of the endurance of the past (as
the ancient pattern plays out with trio after trio of lovers, generation after generation), and
a sign of th ings behaving against nature. The plates wh ich Alison and Gwyn find, and from
which she traces her model owls (rather th an the more benign possible flower motif), are
diff icult to keep track of, and eventually sha tter spontaneously into fragments. A copy of
The Mabinogion, the Welsh myth compendium which conta ins the relevant legend, attacks
Gwyn supernaturally and its pages explode over his fleeing body (“Not only had the leaves
disintegrated, but the paper itself was in shreds.” 86). And, in the final lines of the novel’s
crisis, the abundance of feathers th a t seems a sign of Alison’s capitulation to a tragic
destiny becomes a rain of flowers:
Someth ing touched Roger’s hand. He started to brush it away, but there were too
many. He looked up.
‘Hello, Ali.’
And the room was full of peta ls from skylight and rafters, and all about
them a fragrance, and peta ls, flowers fa lling, broom, meadowsweet, fa lling,
flowers of the oak. 87
In the nature of th is re-appearance is the crucial aspect of the return; in the return,
there is a specif ic form of proliferation: doubling. If for Freud the experience of walking
down a street in Ita ly and then, to his perplexity, finding himself shortly afterwards
walk ing down the same street, was an experience of th e uncanny, then it is natural th a t h is
thought in th is essay extends to discussion of the Double and his colleague Otto Rank’s work
on the subject. 88 Freud explains th a t “[t]he double was originally an insurance against the
extinction of the self or, as Rank puts it, ‘an energetic denia l of the power of death’, and it
85
(103) Goodwin, S. W. and E. Bronfen, Eds. (1993). Death and Representation. Baltimore and London, The Johns
Hopkins University Press.
86
(61) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
87
(224) Ibid.
88
(144) Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
seems likely th at the ‘immortal’ soul was the first double of the body.” When the
‘infantile’ phase of doubling changes, “having once been an assurance of immorta lity, it
[doubling] becomes the uncanny harbinger of death.” 89
‘Well, when I picked up the top plate, I came over all queer. A sort of tingling in my
h ands, and everyth ing went muzzy—you know how at the pictures it sometimes
goes out of focus on the screen and then comes back? It was like th at: only when I
could see stra ight again, it was different somehow. Someth ing had changed.’ [said
Gwyn]
‘Like when you’re watch ing a person who’s asleep, and they wake up,’ said
Roger. ‘They don’t move, noth ing happens, but you know they’re awake.’
‘He slipped when he touched the pla te, and he went a ll shadowy. Just for a second
it didn’t look like Gwyn.’ [said Alison]
‘It’s the darkest part of the loft,’ said Roger. 90
Freud goes on to say th at
a person may identify h imself with another and so become unsure of h is true self; or
he may substitute the other’s self for his own. The self may thus be duplicated,
divided and interchanged. Finally there is the constant recurrence of the same thing,
the repetition of the same facia l features, the same ch aracters, the same destinies,
the same misdeeds, even the same names, through successive generations. [My
ita l ics]91
This approaches a prescient description of the metempsychotic precept
of The Owl Service, which possesses a powerful sense of the uncanny and the
disturbing, not least through its intimation of the proliferation of selves. Each
of the three protagonists multiplies in identity, so that Gwyn is also his father
Huw, and the mythical Lleu Llaw Gyffes (and, somehow, also a fourth figure
from the legend, the wizard Gwydion): “it comes to the same thing”;92 Alison
is Nancy and also Blodeuwedd; Roger the lover Bertram, and Gronw. While
their physical features may differ, they may also combine, so that the
89
(142) Ibid.
90
(18 and 27) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
91
(142) Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
92
(142) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
mysterious figure in Roger’s enlarged photograph previously evoked as Lleu,
is identified by Alison as Gwyn. Gwyn himself confuses Alison with a female
body glimpsed at night in the wood. And Alison, succumbing to the
enchantment of the legend, gazes at her apparent reflection in an improbably
distant water surface:
I’m up here, and down there, thought Alison. Wh ich is me? Am I the reflection in
the window of me down there? 93
Rank’s work “explores the connections th at link the double with mirror-images, shadows,
guardian spirits, the doctrine of the soul and the fear of death.” 94 At the heart of our fear is
th a t of both estrangement from ourselves, and of the object (the dead)—worse, these fears
combined with ourselves as dead object. 95 The particular attraction of the uncanny to the
doubling or repeated leads Maurice Blanchot to draw an analogy between ‘corpse’ and
‘image’: both are ‘uncanny’ in tha t
they suspend stable categories of reference and position in time and space. […] The
cadaverous presence is such th at it simultaneously occupies two places, the here and
the nowhere. Neither of th is world nor entirely absent from it, the cadaver thus
mediates between these two incompatible positions. Uncanniness emerges because
the corpse, resembling itself, is in a sense its own double. It has no relation to the
world it appears in except th at of an image. Thus the chiasmic rela tion: the corpse
as uncanny image/the image uncannily as corpse. 96
‘The water was glittery,’ said Alison, ‘but I could tell it was me—my colour of ha ir,
and face, and—well, it just was.’
‘You saw a blonde reflected in the water,’ said Gwyn. ‘Her ha ir came down
on either side of her face and she was fa ir-skinned. Th a t’s all you can be sure of.’
‘You’re confusing me,’ said Alison. ‘I was trying to tell you about feeling
h appy, and you go and make it a ll ordinary with your angles and mirrors. […] No,
93
(119) Ibid.
94
(142) Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
95
While the reader’s sympathetic identification is directed towards Gwyn, whose perspective dominates the
narrative, there are moments in which he is observed from the point of view of other characters, and becomes
unsettlingly opaque to the reader.
96
Quoted in (12) Goodwin, S. W. and E. Bronfen, Eds. (1993). Death and Representation. Baltimore and London,
The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
no, no, no, no, no, no, no—’ Alison turned her face to the rocks of the cairn. ‘Don’t talk
like th a t. […] Help me, Gwyn.’97
Th is uncanny repetition of ourselves, as eidolons (images or phantoms of a person), or in the
form of an estranged other self, is a fundamental aspect of the recurrence dynamic. 98
1.3.4 Escaping the past
Truly Time is a vast Denful of Horrour, round about which a Serpent winds and in the winding
bites itself by the Tail. Now, now is the Hour, every Hour, every part of an Hour, every Moment,
which in its end does begin again and never ceases to end: a beginning continuing, always ending.
Peter Ackroyd 99
Doubling has implications for the doctrine of independent will. As Freud observes,
embodied in the figure of the double […] in addition there are all the possibilities
which, had they been realized, might have shaped our destiny, and to which our
imagination clings, all the strivings of the ego tha t were frustrated by adverse
circumstances, all the suppressed acts of volition th at fostered the illusion of free
will. 100
Th is opening up of possibilities in the double rela tes also to the capacity of myth to
close off possibilities with its over-determining force. Gwyn’s mother is haunted by events
in her youth: events th a t seemed predestined as a recurrence of the ancient myth. For
Gwyn’s mother Nancy, to angrily deny the existence of her once-lover Huw, her long-dead
suitor Bertram, and to forbid her son to engage with th e fata l pattern is a willing amnesia;
97
(135) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
98
Two ominous examples from literary biography, indeed, are poets Gerard de Nerval who, just prior to his suicide,
reported meeting his double; and Shelley, whose double allegedly appeared to him in a vision just before his death by
drowning, asking ‘How long do you mean to be happy?’ Sightings of the Double are often linked in folklore to
imminent death.
99
From Hawksmoor (1985), quoted in (44) Byatt, A. S. (2000). On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. London,
Vintage.
100
(143) Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
Avery Gordon mirrors this, indeed, noting that “the ghost is primarily a symptom of what is missing. It
gives notice not only to itself but also to what it represents. What it represents is usually a loss, sometimes of life,
sometimes of a path not taken. From a certain vantage point the ghost also simultaneously represents a future
possibility, a hope.” (63) Gordon, A. F. (1997). Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the sociological imagination.
Minneapolis and London, University of Minnesota Press.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
but she cannot relinquish her memories, even to enable surviva l; and she has returned to the
va lley. As Gwyn says,
‘My Mam hates the place, but she can’t get rid of it, see? It feels like every night of
my life’s been spent listening to Mam in th at back street in Aber, her going on and on about
the va lley.’ 101
S he is damaged by the past. And when we last see her, as she ultimately abandons her son
to h is ‘fate’, she erases herself as she leaves the vall ey:
S he turned but did not stop. She walked backwards up the road, shouting, and the
rain washed the air clean of her words and dissolved her haunted face, broke the dark line
of her into webs tha t left no sta in, and Gwyn watched for a wh ile the unmarked place
where she had been, then climbed over the gate. 102
Nancy leaves; Gwyn stays, but only after, claustrophobic at the thought of repeating
h istory and confronted with the identity of h is father Huw, he rebels against h is mother
and the ‘pattern’ set for him.
‘My Dad ran away,’ said Gwyn. ‘I shan’t. I don’t want to end up like him—or you.’103
Gwyn wants to change his destiny: a working class youth, he is struggling to obtain an
education and achieve independence. He is quick, however, to perceive the myth ica l
pattern in which he feels bound, and apparently is al most ela ted at times, even as he warns
the others of the implications. In the end, in fact, it is Gwyn’s inability to overcome past
hurts th a t renders him helpless to save Alison and escape h is role. Huw, too, has struggled
and capitulated:
‘We are not free,’ said Huw. ‘We have tried too many times to be free. No lord is
free. My grandfather tried, my uncle tried, and I have tried to end it, but it has no
end.’ 104
And yet, at the conclusion of the novel, it is Roger the conservative sceptic who is able to
transform the myth for the first time even as Huw despairs:
101
(71) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
102
(212) Ibid.
103
(206) Ibid.
104
(101) Ibid.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
‘He is hurt too much she wants to be flowers and you make her owls and she is at the
hunting—’
‘Is th a t it?’ said Roger. ‘Is th at all it is? As easy as th a t?’
‘—and so without end without end without end—’
‘Hey, Ali, did you hear?’ Roger brushed the feathers aside. ‘You’ve got it
back to front, you silly gubbins. She’s not owls. She’s flowers. Flowers. Flowers,
Ali.’ 105
The consequences of th is transformation are left unstated; with the appearance of flowers
and Alison’s redemption the novel ends.
If the hidden—or the myth—returns, replicating itself in the presence (or in the very body)
of the living, then the uncanny is beginning to inhabit us; it is, finally, becoming not the
eldritch wh istle in the wilderness, but ‘homely’.
[…] the sky dropped lower, hiding the barren distances, crowding the hil ls with
ghosts, then lifting, and [Gwyn] looked again. Noth ing.106
105
(223) Ibid.
106
(176) Ibid.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
CHAPTER 2
REPETITION AND MYTH: THE OWL SERVICE
2.1. Introduction
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead)
…so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
T. S. Eliot 107
Time fantasy in general, and Alan Garner’s work in particular, often draws deeply on
Brita in’s myth ical heritage. Myth presents the opportunity to employ classic narrative
structures (for example, the tragic love-triangle); to evoke the profundity of h istory; to
reference a powerfully resonant signifier of the past; and to imply a dimension of
timelessness. Garner, who might echo Nietzsche’s yearning for “a horizon ringed about
with myths,” 108 frequently acknowledges his fascination with the dynamic potentia l of
myth, including its potentia l to ‘recur’ in the form of anakuklosis, ‘Eternal Return’. Th is
concept, made famous by Nietzsche and later by ethnographer Mircea Eliade, suggests th a t
time, in the sacred or myth ical dimension, is not linear as secular time is, but elastic,
cyclica l, or diffuse. At the heart of it is the mechanism of repetition and recurrence: what
h appens once, in sacred time, happens always.
Having discussed some of the psychoanalytic models for recuperation and recurrence, in this
chapter I sha ll be examining the significance of myth in British time fantasy, repetition in
myth and concepts of myth ic time, and looking at the ir special implications in The Owl
Service.
107
108
The Waste Land (1922), reprinted in Eliot, T. S. (1969). Complete Poems and Plays. London, Faber and Faber.
(147) Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, XXIII, quoted in Byatt, A. S. (2000). On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays.
London, Vintage.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
2.2 Myth redivivus
The lover of myths, which are a compound of wonders, is, by his being in tha t very state, a
lover of wisdom.
Aristotle 109
“I should like to define ‘myth’,” says Alan Garner, “as the dream-th inking of the people.
Dream. And th inking.”
Once you are involved with the culture of dreaming, then you are also involved
with time. And that results […] in considering learning to be a process of
remembering. It was the same for the Ancient Greeks, who as usual had a word for
it: ‘anamnesis’. 110
If remembering and forgetting are productive engines of modern culture, then the form of
remembering enacted in mythopoeic writing is one of the more powerful ava ilable to us as it
accesses both the global and the timeless. Literature of the modern era has confronted new
unease about the loss or sacrif ice of the past, and the advantages and prerogatives of
turning away from it, versus the loss of the succour of memory. Myth possesses the privileges
of spaceless eternity; it is always ava ilable, whether re-enacted, re-formed or revived in
modern guise. It is commonplace to declare th at modern life, vacuous and amnesiac, hungers
for master narratives and ancestor-knowledge. Nietzsche made the point in his The Birth of
Tragedy:
Man today, stripped of myth, stands famished among a ll h is pasts and must dig
frantica lly for roots, be it among the most remote antiquities. Wh a t does our great
h istorica l hunger signify, our clutch ing about us (Umsichammeln) of countless other
cultures, our consuming desire for knowledge, if not the loss of myth, of a myth ic
home, the myth ic womb?111
109
Quoted by Alan Garner, (28) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill
Press.
110
(150) Ibid.
Amamnesis is usually translated as remembering (recollection) rather than creating. However, it is
distinguished fron mnemne, memory.
111
Quoted in (218) Newman, K., J. Clayton, et al. (2002). Time and the Literary. London, Routledge.
See also Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1993) for a profound discussion of the
modern relevance of myth.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
The British heritage of myth draws most profoundly upon its Celtic legacy: parables,
fables and narratives which have survived in oral tradition and in documents such as the
Welsh Mabinogion. Celtic myth, wh ile apparently particular to the British Isles and
northern Europe, possesses the universa l resonance of myths everywhere. Wh ile it is
infused with a sense of magic and supernatural, it is also often grounded in very human
stories, and possesses an apparently inexhaustible reservoir of literary potentia l.
2.2.1 Alan Garner and myth
We have to find parables; we have to tell stories to unriddle the world.
Alan Garner
112
In what sounds like an interpreta tion of collective unconscious, Garner describes myth as “a
recycling of energy […] It has passed through unknown individual subconsciousnesses, until it
h as become almost pure energy.” 113 So forms of the supernatural or myth ic have irrigated
channels of literature up to the present day, bringing readers to “the point at which,” in
Ita lo Calvino’s words, “someth ing not yet said, someth ing as yet only darkly felt by
presentiment, suddenly appears and seizes us and tears us to pieces, like the fangs of a maneating witch.” 114 The enduring popularity of the horror genre and the renaissance of interest
in the supernatural and mythology confirm, as Garner comments on his own creative
inspiration, “the need to recreate and recapture the past, not out of any feeling of nosta lgia
but to va lidate and define the present, and to make possible a rooted, not a rootless,
future.” 115
In an essay titled ‘The Death of Myth’ Garner suggests th at myth (used generica lly, with
subdivisions into fantasy, folklore and fa iry ta le) may be handled in three ways:
112
1.
The writer may translate existing texts and materia l.
2.
The writer may retell and rebuild using translations.
3.
The writer may reabsorb and transmute the elements of the myth.
(27) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
113
(66) Hellings, C. (1979). "Alan Garner: His use of mythology and dimensions in time." Orana: Journal of School &
Children’s Librarianship 15(2): pp. 66-73.
114
Calvino, ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’ reprinted in The Literature Machine, Picador 1989, quoted in (147) Byatt, A. S.
(2000). On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. London, Vintage.
115
(156) Philip, N. (1981). A Fine Anger: A critical introduction to the work of Alan Garner. London, Collins.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
Garner asserts th at he chooses the th ird, “wh ich is th e hardest.” 116 He further asserts th at
while h is novels are all about myths, they are not ‘retellings’, wh ich he says are “stuffed
troph ies on the wall”, but “reanimations”. The myths, he says in fact, are not selected by
h im, but rather “choose” him. 117 The writer of mythopoeics, according to Garner, produces
“distil led and violent truth”, “spiritual gelignite,” working with myth wh ich “conta ins
crysta ll ised human experience and very powerful imagery.” 118 For him, myth is natural
energy, directed and carefully handled by a writer (in fact, he uses the image of a trapped
electrical charge as a metaphor for pent-up power across time in The Owl Service, and, in
another novel, Elidor, as a means for magic to be transmitted).
Neil Ph ilip’s critical study of the works of Alan Garner notes th at “[m]yth is the crucible in
which Garner’s th inking about time has been fired. […] Once the connection had been made
strongly enough, a Stone Age axe or a painted hand were sufficient to reactivate it. 119 In
Garner’s work, myth and its rela tion to the present ‘secular’ age have been two of its most
defining elements. He has a reverentia l and yet ambiva lent rela tionship with myth. Much
of h is work is set in his native Chesh ire, a place where his family has lived for many
generations, and he is preoccupied with the significance of continuity, its power over people
and the ways in which its patterns recur (and transform).120
Garner found in Eliade’s theory of the Eternal Return a framework to develop fiction “in
which sequentia l, causal, ‘h istorica l’ time is set against and enlarged by a ‘mythological’
concept of time as elastic, cyclic, recoverable.” 121 It is th e conflict between the static (or
stable) and the fluid (or perilous), and negotia tion with time th at pervades Garner’s work.
116
(56) Garner, A. (1970). "The Death of Myth." New Statesman.
117
(111) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
118
Quoted in (31) Walsh, R. (1977). "Alan Garner: A Study." Orana: Journal of School & Children’s Librarianship
13(2): pp. 31-9.
119
(150) Philip, N. (1981). A Fine Anger: A critical introduction to the work of Alan Garner. London, Collins.
120
Garner observes, in an essay concerning the importance of the Alderley Edge area in Cheshire, where he has
always lived and closely researched its history and geology, that “[a]s a result of gained knowledge, for me the Edge
both stopped, and melted, time.” (13) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London,
Harvill Press.
Garner’s early novels, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, were in the tradition of High
Fantasy for young readers, combining knowledge of Celtic and Scandinavian mythology with the conventions of
‘magic portals’ and adventurous child protagonists in what is often described as Tolkien-esque, rather self-conscious
children’s fantasy. With subsequent novels, such as Elidor and The Owl Service, Garner concentrated his narratives
more closely upon the intersection between myth and life, and depicted progressively older protagonists.
121
(150) Philip, N. (1981). A Fine Anger: A critical introduction to the work of Alan Garner. London, Collins.
Philip gives as an example of this, the Eve of Gomrath, in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, “one of the four
nights of the year when Time and Forever mingle.”
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
In Garner’s words, “the form of myth is concrete”: it is most satisfy ingly rea lised through
embodiment in a rea l story. 122 Butler quotes Garner on the amplif ication of secular
experience through access to an enlargening mythopoeia: “the story can ach ieve universa l
rather th an particular significance only insofar as it partakes of the myth.” 123 Garner states
th a t the most difficult task is to make the reader absorb myth in order to make it relevant.
“Th is absorption, if it works,” he says,
is the most positive form for the myth to take, because the life of the myth is
h anded forward. It doesn’t matter if the story changes, since what we take to be the
original story is no more th an the earliest form tha t we have. When it works, the
writer is a transmitter, not an arch ivist. 124
“Are we, then, lost: condemned to feed our imaginations with only the most secular level of
myth, nailed to linearity?” Garner asks. “We are not. Can we write the world? We can; if
we are willing to pay.” 125 He sees the power th at remains in the modern; his characters
iterate the undiminished potency of old patterns. He presents the violence, pitilessness and
ambiguity of myth; at the same time he dissects the anguish of modern experience and
identity, using myth as a diagnostic tool to examine contemporary ailments. In the bleaker
of h is works, such as The Owl Service and Red Shift, neither the old world nor the new is a
restful, stable place. It is meanness of experience tha t he excoriates above all. A kind of
poetry is h is solution: one tha t resonates with the echoes of time.
Ph ilip observes th a t a lthough Garner’s use of myth has evolved throughout his career, “it
h as a lways been used to sharpen our perception of emotional, intellectual or spiritual
potentia ls which are either crushed or ignored in a ma teria listic, vicarious society.”
Garner turned to myth because of a concern, centra l to h is writing, with the
patterning of life, and with the rela tionship of the present to the past. Gradually,
the myth receded, as he found stories which would hold the charge which in the
first two books is supplied by the folk lore, not the cha racters […] As his career has
122
“I am using the word ‘myth’ not as meaning ‘fiction’ or ‘unhistorical’ but as a complex of story that, for various
reasons, human beings see as demonstrations of the inner cause of the universe and of human life. Myth is quite
different from philosophy in the sense of abstract concepts. The form of myth is concrete always, yet it holds those
qualities that demand of the human mind that it recognise a revelation of the function behind the world.” (27)
Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
123
(86) Butler, C. (2006). Four British Fantasists: Place and culture in the children’s fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan
Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper. Lanham, Maryland, Children’s Literature Association and The
Scarecrow Press, Inc.
124
Quoted in (66) Hellings, C. (1979). "Alan Garner: His use of mythology and dimensions in time." Orana: Journal of
School & Children’s Librarianship 15(2): pp. 66-73.
125
(155) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
proceeded he has concentrated more and more on the centra l pattern, approaching
h is themes directly rather th an obliquely through th e mediation of myth. 126
For Garner, writing is a muscular, diff icult conflict, as is well documented in his interviews.
Carol Hellings describes how “in transforming a myth , or distorting dimensions in time, he
brings himself a lmost to the point of menta l collapse in his attempts to free himself to a
point where he can ‘tap energy’.” 127 Garner himself observes th a t, “although I have no
specific religious belief, working it out is a religious experience, almost an act of
forgiveness.” 128
Ultimately, for Garner, myth is a profound dynamic wh ich has everyth ing to do with
contemporary identity and place. “Myth,” he says, “is not enterta inment, but rather the
crysta ll isation of experience”; further, “[m]yth encapsulates the nearest approach to
absolute truth th at words can speak.” 129
126
(152) Philip, N. (1981). A Fine Anger: A critical introduction to the work of Alan Garner. London, Collins.
127
(67) Hellings, C. (1979). "Alan Garner: His use of mythology and dimensions in time." Orana: Journal of School &
Children’s Librarianship 15(2): pp. 66-73.
128
Quoted in (67) Ibid.
129
(62 and 28) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
2.3 Mythic time
Now these th ings [myths] never happened, but always are.
Sallustius
130
There is a long tradition of cultures, going back to the most primordia l, which h ave
understood th a t time as it applies to myth ic or religious consciousness is not like the time
experienced by quotidian mortal rea lity. In his book on the myth of the Eternal Return,
Mircea Eliade discusses the ways in which ancient (primarily Indo-European) cultures
formulated a double concept of time: linear, secular chronology; and a more diffuse, infinite
‘singularity’ of sacred time, which may be entered at any point, for they are all the same.
Repetition is the core of th is access: and repetition ensures tha t comprehension or belief in
cyclica l time is at the heart of myth.
Two types of time are commonly delineated in most cultures with a strong socio-religious
consciousness: sacred and secular time. These are not always, but very often identifiable
with the Greek terms kairos and chronos. Greek thought includes a double understanding of
time: linear time is chronos; eternal, myth ic time, with its cycles and tota lity, is kairos.
(Crucially, kairos is reversible, an aspect wh ich has relevance for literature preoccupied
with putting the dead to rest and confronting the Uncanny. The dead can be unslain—or
disinterred. 131)
Plato, in his Politicus, expla ins th a t time, as it moves the celestia l spheres and measures
their revolutions, is “the moving image of unmoving eternity.” Thus in Greek thought, with
both myth ic kairos and linear chronos at work, noth ing is ever lost or gained in the universe;
no event is unique but has occurred countless times and will go on occurring forever; and thus
the essence of perfection, the still point of these ceaseless cycles, is immobility and
immutability themselves. 132 The implication of th is metacosmesis (periodic renewal of the
world) is th a t everyth ing will come around again; and so as long as the mechanisms are
mainta ined and the balance kept, all will be well in th is fata listic paradigm.133 Celtic
130
4t h century, translation by Gilbert Murray in Five Stages of Greek Religion. New York: Columbia University Press,
1925, p. 179.
131
The myth of a returning god or hero is the most universal: death followed by resurrection. See the legends of Jesus
Christ and King Arthur, and also fairy tales like Snow White.
132
133
Plato, Politicus, quoted in (88) Eliade, M. (1954). The Myth of the Eternal Return. New York, Pantheon Books.
How are we to escape the circles of habit and inevitability and make a new world—one which enables individual
agency—without any possibility of breaking out of historicity and without breaking history itself? Nietzsche warned
of a distorting historical fever—that history could become an excuse not to act and not to accept the fullness of life.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
culture, upon which much time fantasy relies, has a similar appreciation of godly time and
the possibility of eclipsing linear time. In Eliade’s words, for the ancients “[t]he past is but
a prefiguration of the future.” 134 This construction is echoed by Alan Garner when he says
“[f]rom with in us, from our past, we find the future answered and the boundary met.” 135
Myth ic time can be not only a diffuse, embracing golden age, but also a prison of
determination. (Th is is an implication tha t Garner works seriously in his fiction, as I sha ll
discuss below.) This troubling of paradise recalls the ambivalence of the uncanny, with its
simultaneous yearning to recover the lost, and its apprehension of the spectre. Texts which
enact the turning of myth ic time into ‘adult’, linear time evoke through their realistic tone
a more psychologically complex landscape, encompassing conflict, ambiguity and
disappointment—the loss of enchantment. Ch ildren’s fantasy literature often features
protagonists in puberty who are reluctant to mature and lose the ir childhood grace. The
stories thus frequently portray rites of passage. Th is movement, notes Joseph, a lso draws us
through ‘adulthood’ towards death. 136 If death is usually considered the close of a story,
then in works th a t summon any aspect of the uncanny, its return of the dead, and the
possibility th a t in myth ic time death is not the end, we see two opposing dynamics at work.
It is out of th is tension that some of the most effective children’s fantasy literature obta ins
its impact.
Cited in (140) Maier, C. S. (1993). "A Surfeit of Memory? Reflections on history, melancholy and denial." History and
Memory: Studies in representations of the past 5: pp. 136-151.
134
(89) Eliade, M. (1954). The Myth of the Eternal Return. New York, Pantheon Books.
135
(108) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
He acknowledges Eliade’s influence on his thought, and refers in one lecture to “the late Professor Mircea
Eliade, in whose precision of discourse I have often found my instincts to be defined.” (55) Garner, A. (1997). The
Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
136
(224) Joseph, M. (2002). 'Worlds Enough—and Time’, review of Maria Nikolajeva’s From Mythic to Linear: Time
in Children’s Literature (2000). Children’s Literature: Annual of The Modern Language Association Division on
Children’s Literature and The Children’s Literature Association. E. L. Keyser and J. Pfeiffer. New Haven and
London, Yale University Press. 30: pp. 221-28.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
2.3.1 Mythic time and narrative
Among countless stones, one stone becomes sacred.
Mircea Eliade 137
Fiction, including time fantasy, is story-tell ing: tales which may be read again and again:
in illo tempore, ‘once a upon a time’ is how many ta les start. Maria Nikolajeva observes th at
story-telling itself is a ritual act, “a re-enacting of recurrent myth ica l events,” 138 echoing
Garner’s comment th a t
in the telling of a specia l truth, we are entering a different time, a different space,
an eternity th a t, by the telling, is perpetually being created here and now. The
clock may be ticking, but we, while listening to the story, are in sacred time. 139
Eliade too makes the observation tha t
[m]ore strongly th an any of the other arts, we feel in literature a revolt against
h istorica l time, the desire to atta in to other temporal rhythms th an th a t in which
we are condemned to live and work. One wonders whether the day will come when
th is desire to transcend one’s own time—personal, historical time—and be
submerged in a ‘strange’ time, whether ecstatic or imaginary, will be completely
rooted out. As long as it persists, we can say th at modern man preserves at least
some residues of ‘mythological behaviour’. 140
We know myth best, these days, through text. Myth ic narratives, however, continue to
permeate our paradigms, and our compulsion to retell myth seems never to abate. Myth’s
ability to transcend time does not lessen, nor its narrative tense become more ‘perfect’; in
fact, as we move away from its origins, th is quality only becomes more potent and the tense
remains ‘present continous’.
137
(4) Eliade, M. (1954). The Myth of the Eternal Return. New York, Pantheon Books.
138
Quoted in (228) Joseph, M. (2002). 'Worlds Enough—and Time’, review of Maria Nikolajeva’s From Mythic to
Linear: Time in Children’s Literature (2000). Children’s Literature: Annual of The Modern Language Association
Division on Children’s Literature and The Children’s Literature Association. E. L. Keyser and J. Pfeiffer. New Haven
and London, Yale University Press. 30: pp. 221-28.
Garner observes his belief that “[b]y reciting a myth, the storyteller remembers a creation, and, by
remembering, is a part of that creating.” (155) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures.
London, Harvill Press.
139
(152) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
140
(192) Eliade, M. (1964). Myth and Reality. London, George Allen & Unwin.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
2.3.2 Childhood time
The child lives in a mythical, paradisal time.
Mircea Eliade 141
“The circular character of narrative time in archa ic thought,” suggests Nikolajeva, “has
been reflected in children’s novels because the Arcadian time of individual ch ildhood is
similar to the myth ica l time of the childhood of humankind.” 142 For children, time is not
yet fully paced out; for very small children, as perha ps for archa ic (especia lly for preh istoric) humans, there is little concept of linear time. It is appropria te th a t children’s
and adolescents’ literature forms one of the most evident platforms for examining the
workings of myth, since it is in the dreamy, apparently eternal introversion of childhood
th a t time has its most plasticity. For Valerie Krips, in the economy of time fantasy
literature
[r]esurrection implies change: the ch ild of the second golden age, rising from the
ashes of the first, will remake what is to be remembered of childhood, refiguring
the site of memory. 143
But more ominously Freud perceives th a t (in Hugh Haughton’s words),
141
(77) Ibid.
142
(10) Nikolajeva, M. (2000). From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature. Lanham, Md., & London, The
Children’s Literature Association and The Scarecrow Press.
Noting that it is critical for the purposes of her study “that contemporary Western children’s fiction is
written from a philosophical viewpoint based on linear time, which has a beginning and an end, and recognizes
every event in history as unique”, she divides all children’s literature into 3 categories, according to their
representation of temporal structure:
1.
An irreversible, linear flow (Collapse)
2.
A recurrent, reproducible pattern (Utopia)
3.
Something in between (Carnival).
(38) Nikolajeva, M. (2000). From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature. Lanham, Md., & London, The
Children’s Literature Association and The Scarecrow Press.
This identification of recurrent, that is, mythic time as Utopian derives for Nikolajeva from the Arcadian
dreaminess of both childhood and primordial experience. In a review of Nikolajeva’s book, Michael Joseph
summarises one implication of these models, in relation to what they suggest about fate or individual place in history:
“In Arcadian literature, personal development is inconceivable; in Carnival literature, it becomes a tantalizing
possibility; and in Collapse, it figures as the preeminent element, the purpose or consolation of suffering.” (222)
Joseph, M. (2002). 'Worlds Enough—and Time’, review of Maria Nikolajeva’s From Mythic to Linear: Time in
Children’s Literature (2000). Children’s Literature: Annual of The Modern Language Association Division on
Children’s Literature and The Children’s Literature Association. E. L. Keyser and J. Pfeiffer. New Haven and
London, Yale University Press. 30: pp. 221-28.
The Owl Service, with its recurrent, reproducible pattern, seems to fit into Nikolajeva’s Utopian model. A
character like Gwyn strains towards change but ultimately is unable to totally achieve it; his anguish forms an
important element of the novel. Yet at least one of the protagonists appears to profoundly change at the book’s
climax. Roger’s apparent change of heart was criticised by some reviewers as implausible, but one might argue that it
is his germane affection for Alison that triumphs, rather than Roger undergoing a fundamental development.
Charles Butler comments that Roger must change himself, not just Alison’s vision, through sacrifice and pity, into
someone who can see flowers instead of owls. (74) Butler, C. (2006). Four British Fantasists: Place and culture in the
children’s fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper. Lanham, Maryland,
Children’s Literature Association and The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
143
(65) Krips, V. (2000). The Presence of the Past: Memory, heritage, and childhood in postwar Britain. New York &
London, Garland Publishing.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
childhood is where the repressed, archa ic pre-Enligh tenment world of primitive
religion, returns in perpetually re-invented home-made forms, forcing us in some
sense to repeat or recapitulate such primal myths as those of Oedipus or Moses, and
such beliefs as animism and ‘the omnipotence of though ts’. 144
2.3.3
Novelistic time and synchrony
I th ink th a t the fact th at we have in some sense been forbidden to th ink about history is one
reason why so many novelists have taken to it.
A. S. Byatt 145
In her book on subjectivity in adolescent fiction, Robyn McCallum reviews the ideas of
Domenick LaCapra, who in his work on novelistic time, and drawing on antecedents in
Structuralist thought such as Gérard Genette , distinguishes ‘diachronic’ and ‘synchronic’
dimensions of time. As McCallum expla ins it, “[diachrony] designates movement over time
involving change; synchrony ‘stops’ time at a given moment and displays its ‘sameness’ or
‘nowness’.” 146
Diachrony and synchrony are two ways in which to experience time imaginatively. Myth,
and its recurrence, is one way to inhabit both simultaneously. 147 Novelistic time is another
interaction between these two dimensions. Synchrony is, as McCallum points out, the
dominant mode of modernist literature, with its focus on multiple viewpoints of the same
event, and recurrence with change.148 And th is adeptness with multiples and alternatives is
144
(xlix) Introduction by Hugh Haughton to Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
145
(11) Byatt, A. S. (2000). On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. London, Vintage.
146
(133) McCallum, R. (1999). Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction: The didactic construction of subjectivity.
New York and London, Garland Publishing, Inc. .
147
Kairos can be integrated with chronos through rituals, rites and festivals—as repetition. In contemporary
literature, it is also sometimes used for carnivalesque or parodic purposes. (5) Nikolajeva, M. (2000). From Mythic to
Linear: Time in children’s literature. Lanham, Md., & London, The Children’s Literature Association and The
Scarecrow Press.
148
(133) McCallum, R. (1999). Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction: The didactic construction of subjectivity.
New York and London, Garland Publishing, Inc. .
McCallum observes that the prevailing tradition in literature at least up to the early 20t h century was that
of diachrony, with a linear narrative structure depicting consequent events. (This exegesis is not the place to deeply
investigate theories about narrative time. See, inter alia, the works of Paul de Man and Paul Ricoeur.)
McCallum further relates synchrony/diachrony to Mikhail Bahktin’s theory of the chronotope: a term
which represents “the intrinsic interconnectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically
expressed in literature.” Quoted in (184) McCallum, R. (1999). Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction: The
didactic construction of subjectivity. New York and London, Garland Publishing, Inc. .
Nikolajeva, according to McCallum, is the only critic to apply chronotope theory to children’s literature.
Like Bahktin, she uses it mostly to differentiate between genres, seeing a historical shift in children’s literature from
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
only heightened in post-WWII literature. Alan Garner is preoccupied in his fiction and
criticism with the points at which the two types of time intersect. Myth, for him, following
Eliade, is out of time, “sacred time” or “inner time”; myth ic time is “where everyth ing is
simultaneously present.” 149
As McCallum says in discussion of Garner’s Red Shift and a novel by Jill Paton Wa lsh,
The use of narrative and discursive repetitions in novels such as Unleaving and Red
Shift disrupts linear and teleological concepts of time associated with diachronic
dimensions of time, and implies instead cyclica l concepts of time. These are linked
in Unleaving with personal memory and in Red Shift with myth ic or collective
memories. 150
In Garner’s The Owl Service both Gwyn and Roger experience someth ing at the same time
(Gwyn ‘flickers’ as he picks up the owl service plates; Roger senses a spear being thrown at
h im), though these episodes are presented separate ly in the narrative, and each from the
protagonist’s (th ird-person) perspective.
Someth ing flew past [Roger], a blink of dark on the leaves. It was heavy, and fast,
and struck hard. He felt the vibration through the rock, and he heard a scream.
‘And you came stra ight up from the river,’ said Gwyn. ‘Didn’t you? Work it out,
man. We both felt someth ing, and it must have been near enough at the same
time.’ 151
For Jean Baudrillard,
The tense of the mythologica l object is perfect: it is th a t wh ich occurs in the present
as having occurred in a former time, hence th at wh ich is founded upon itself, th a t
which is ‘authentic.’ The antique is always, in the strongest sense of the term, a
‘family portra it’: the immemoria lization, in the concrete form of an object, of a
simple, logical chronology structures towards “sophisticated” (i. e. polyphonic) texts with complex chronotope. This
is given also a gendered interpretation. For Nikolajeva, ‘male’ texts are often dominatingly linear in their treatment of
time, and space is open; ‘female’ texts see time as circular and space as closed and confined. (98) Nikolajeva, M.
(2000). From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature. Lanham, Md., & London, The Children’s Literature
Association and The Scarecrow Press.
I would argue that Garner, a male writer, resists this interpretation.
149
(152 and 205) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
150
(133) McCallum, R. (1999). Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction: The didactic construction of subjectivity.
New York and London, Garland Publishing, Inc. .
151
(15 and 45) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
former being—a procedure equiva lent, in the register of the imaginary, to a
suppression of time. 152
In other words, myth ic time performs what a fictional work also attempts, retrospectively
compressing, elasticising and fracturing time as it is portrayed in a narrative. In his study of
the mythopoeic, Eleazar Meletinksy notes th a t
in the modern novel, mythological time has come to substitute h istorica l or
‘objective’ time, since action and events, no matter how specif ica lly they are grounded in
time, are presented as manifestations of eternal prototypes. The universa l time of h istory is
thus metamorphosed into myth ica l a h istoric time. 153
“Time,” suggests Neil Phil ip, “is Garner’s most consistent theme, and at the root of all h is
th inking about it lies the idea th a t wha t is important of human life endures, and does not
decay.” 154 In The Owl Service Alison, becoming ‘possessed’ by the spirit of Blodeuwedd, tries
to describe her disorientation to Gwyn:
‘Nothing’s safe any more. I don’t know where I am. “Yesterday”,
“today”, “tomorrow”—they don’t mean anything. I feel they’re here at the
same time: waiting.’
‘How long have you felt th is?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Since yesterday?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know what “yesterday” was.’
‘And that’s what’s frightening you?’
‘Not just th a t,’ sa id Alison. ‘All of me’s confused the same way. I keep
wanting to laugh and cry.’
‘Sounds dead metaphysica l to me,’ said Gwyn.155
But Gwyn himself has become aware of time’s plasticity:
And Gwyn began to play with time, splitting a second into minutes, and then into
hours—or tak ing an hour and compressing it to an instant. No hurry.
152
Quoted in (109) Krips, V. (2000). The Presence of the Past: Memory, heritage, and childhood in postwar Britain.
New York & London, Garland Publishing.
153
(275-6) Meletinsky, E. M. (1998). The Poetics of Myth. New York and London, Garland Publishing, Inc.
154
(16) Philip, N. (1981). A Fine Anger: A critical introduction to the work of Alan Garner. London, Collins.
155
(96) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
His concentration was broken once, when he was alarmed by the quick
drumming of hoofs, but the next moment he grinned as a motorcycle swept along the
road. Its headlamp spun shadows in his face.
K ick start! 156
And he comes to suggest to Roger th a t the events play ing out are not diachronic but
synchronic.
‘Not haunted,’ said Gwyn after a while. ‘More like—still happening?’
Later, Alison, alone on the mountainside, also comes to sense th is:
Stil l: noth ing changes here. Rocks and bracken. It could be a thousand years ago.157
Th is sense of timelessness is both invigorating and vertiginous:
‘How long has th is been happening?’ said Gwyn. He held the rusted fragments of a
dagger in its sheath .
‘There’s no saying. But we of the blood must meet it in our time, and we bring
here what we have.’
‘I didn’t understand,’ said Gwyn. ‘I’m all numb inside.’
‘I know.’158
Above all, according to his own cla ims, in his writing Garner is interested in pursuing the
possibilities of “the revela tion of a truth in a dimension of timelessness.”159
2.4 Myth and repetition
Falling towards nothing
Again and again and again and again and again and again…
The Cure, ‘A Forest’
156
(85) Ibid.
The sound of the motorbike, it is implied, is that of Bertram’s fatal ride after Huw had sabotaged his
vehicle years before. The noise recurs throughout the novel. The sound of hoofs suggests Lleu Llaw Gyffe’s own fatal
ride to kill his rival by the riverbank.
157
(73 and 128) Ibid.
158
(193) Ibid.
159
(152) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
Eleazar Meletinsky reflects on the implication for repetition in a narrative of myth ic time
in which noth ing happens ‘once’, but ‘always’:
Besides myth if ication as an instrument by which narra tives are structured, other
elementary structures are used – repetition, for example. […] the leitmotif, the
repeated quoting of phrases, the expla ining of a motif through entire scenes, and
the contrapunta l link th a t exists between these motifs. 160
Repetition, of course, is a device deeply associated with epic and archa ic literary forms.
Maria Nikolajeva has followed Garner’s interest in Eliade’s treatment of preh istoric time
and its plasticity in her study of myth ic time in fantasy. Like Meletinsky, she notes th at
one of most interesting narrative devices in texts concerning myth ical time is their
‘iterative frequency’: telling once about an event which h as taken place several times; as
opposed to singular, or retelling a single event again and again, sometimes from different
perspectives. 161 As with h is subsequent novel, the even more explicit Red Shift, Garner uses
The Owl Service to create a powerful narrative frisson out of just th is phenomenon: the
apparent intersection of (at least) three periodic re-enactments of the ‘same’ event.
One of Garner’s centra l concerns, in Neil Ph ilip’s words, is “with patterning, with
repetitive cycles of experience, which he has explored by structuring his stories around
myths and legends.” 162 Garner’s employment of repetition (narratologica l and thematic)
comes not only from his increasingly stylised means of expression, but from his deep concern
with the economies of myth. “The story,” Garner himself asserts, “is the medium through
which the writer interprets the reality; but it is not the reality itself. The story is a
symbol, which makes a unity of the elements, hitherto seen as separate, th a t combine
uniquely in the writer’s vision.” 163
Charles Butler also comments:
[p]erhaps the simplest way to consider the intersection of linear and myth ical time
in Garner’s fiction is through h is regular use of the trope of repetition. […] In each
case, the books deal with situations, actions, and perceptions th at occur at separate
160
(276) Meletinsky, E. M. (1998). The Poetics of Myth. New York and London, Garland Publishing, Inc.
161
(8) Nikolajeva, M. (2000). From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature. Lanham, Md., & London, The
Children’s Literature Association and The Scarecrow Press.
162
(21) Philip, N. (1981). A Fine Anger: A critical introduction to the work of Alan Garner. London, Collins.
163
(41) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
points in time but th a t share a myth ic identity th a t obliterates time’s distance. As
the repeated refra in of Red Shift has it: ‘The distance is gone from between us!’ 164
The Owl Service, as already observed, has at its heart the apparent repetition of a
particular pattern, and while tropes, motifs and characterisations are evidently presented
as repetitions, so too are some phrases and images. Alison’s reflection in the water is
interpreted as the face of Blodeuwedd; a silhouette glimpsed in Roger’s photo of the
riverbank where Lleu Llaw Gyffes is suggested to have stood in previous photos is
identif ied by Alison as Gwyn. Phrases such as “I don’t know” appear repeatedly. 165 Gwyn,
on comprehending what Huw tells h im of the timeless pattern, says, “‘I felt I could blow
th a t house up just by looking at it’”; Roger, a few pages later and perhaps at the same
moment in time, says, “‘Th is house: I feel I could put a bomb under it.’” 166
Repetition implies continuity, and in the novel th is is presented as either consoling, or
prescriptive:
‘Have you noticed how you can hear the river, even though it’s so far off?’ said
Gwyn. ‘And the motorbike going up the pass? Sound rises. Listen to th at river. It’s what
lasts. Wherever you go you can th ink of th at noise, and you know what you hear in your
head is in the valley at the same moment. It never stops. It never stopped since it began. It
was the last sound Lleu Llaw Gyffes heard before he was killed. Gronw heard it in his turn.
We hear it now.’
‘Gwyn—’
‘S h h. Don’t be frightened. Listen.’
‘Don’t you people round here ta lk about anyth ing else?’ said Roger. ‘You’d th ink it
was the only th ing tha t’s ever happened in this va lley.’
W h irr [went h is camera].
‘Th at is right,’ said Huw.
Click.
‘Finished,’ said Roger. 167
164
(85) Butler, C. (2006). Four British Fantasists: Place and culture in the children’s fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan
Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper. Lanham, Maryland, Children’s Literature Association and The
Scarecrow Press, Inc.
165
For example, ‘She is the lady,’ said Huw.
‘So?’
‘And she has come.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘I don’t know.’ (100) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
166
(196 and 198) Ibid.
167
(140 and 75) Ibid.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
For many critics, including Jungians, and Structuralist theorists such as Vladimir Propp,
myths are universa l structures, which in Terry Eagleton’s words “have a quasi-objective
collective existence, unfold the ir own ‘concrete logic’ with supreme disregard for the
vagaries of individual thought, and reduce any particular consciousness to a mere function of
themselves.” 168
In his fiction Garner examines the burden of myth’s endless reiteration, and its overdetermining disabling of free will. Th is echoes Nietzsche’s development of thought on the
Eternal Return in The Gay Science and Thus Spake Zarathustra. “And must we not return and run
in th at other lane out before us,” he asks, “th at long weird lane—must we not eternally
return?” 169 Nietzsche calls the idea of Eternal Return “horrify ing and para lyzing,” and says
th a t its burden is the “heaviest weight” imaginable.
Certa inly, Garner is cognisant of the oppressive potentia l of the past, as well as the very
human ways in which th is impulsion may also console, define and propel its subjects. One
possible reading of The Owl Service is as a cautionary ta le, illustrating the dangers of
credence in the past’s influence, or of the wrong interpretation of it. Not only does Alison
‘choose’ to see a pattern in the first place, but she sees malign owls instead of flowers in the
plates’ design:
‘It’s dead clever the way she traces the patterns out so it fits together,’ [said
Roger].170
Gwyn, pursuing Alison through night-time woods, is beset by apparently spectra l flames,
and in panic remembers what Huw has told h im:
Th is is where Huw’s old feller went mad. Get me out of here. Get me out of here. 171
The flames are revea led to be marsh-gas, but Gwyn’s sensitised imagination has figured
them as supernatural, malevolent avatars of the legendary past herding him against h is
will. On the other hand, Roger’s father, the glib and parvenu Clive, too easily dismisses
the past:
168
(90) Eagleton, T. (1996). Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford, Blackwell Publishers.
Eagleton cites Vladimir Propp’s canonical work on the seven main narratives of folk tale.
169
Nietzsche, F. Thus Spake Zarathustra, part 3, passage 46, < http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1998> accessed
19/2/2008
170
(50) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
171
(88) Ibid.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
‘Why did he stand there and let it happen?’ said Roger.
‘Because he killed the husband the same way earlier to take the
wife.’
‘Tit for tat,’ sa id Clive. ‘These old yarns, eh? Well, I must be off.’ 172
And Gwyn’s mother Nancy combats the force of the past, first by denying or silencing her
memories of it, and then physically, if impotently, by attacking an artefact of it (the
stuffed owl shot by her lover Bertram):
Nancy lashed about her at the paper models which winged in the air around the
leaping woman and the dead bird th a t filled the room and stuck to her wet cloth ing
and even to her skin and to her ha ir. […] Nancy was fighting the swirled dust. 173
Of The Owl Service, Charles Butler remarks:
To ignore the past leads to willful ignorance and charla tanism, both apparent in
the attitudes of Roger and Clive [Roger’s father]; to see it as wholly determinant of
the present may lead to a helpless fata lism, increasingly evident in Huw and even
Gwyn. In The Owl Service, as in many of Garner’s books, we find a complex
negotiation taking place between the desire for autonomy, on the one hand, and the
shaping power of parents, environment, and place, on the other.” 174
Neverthe less, Garner seems to present the force of the past as someth ing th at cannot be
denied. Gwyn’s resistance to completing the ‘pattern’, and his refusal to offer Alison
forgiveness (or to finally attack Roger as Lleu once attacked Gronw) at the conclusion of the
novel leaves h im excluded from the novel’s final moments.
‘You are the three. You have made this together,’ said Huw.
‘I’m not doing anyth ing for them. I’ve finished.’ 175
As noted, the phrase ‘I’ve finished’ recurs in varia tions throughout the novel from Gwyn,
Roger and Huw.176 And yet neither Gwyn nor Huw is able to finish h is part in the drama.
172
(44) Ibid.
173
(203) Ibid.
174
(75) Butler, C. (2006). Four British Fantasists: Place and culture in the children’s fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan
Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper. Lanham, Maryland, Children’s Literature Association and The
Scarecrow Press, Inc.
175
176
(220) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
In his essay ‘Philately & The Postman’ Garner parses Christ’s last word, tetelestai, usually translated as ‘It is
finished’. Interestingly, he suggests that implicit in the word is also a sense of ‘Now I can begin again.’ (138) Garner,
A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
Garner’s ambiva lent message seems to be th at one must cha llenge the dictates of the past,
but they must be also acknowledged.
For Garner, myth, with its eternal truths, lies at the heart of his vocation to speak the
truth:
The story th a t the writer must reveal is no less th an the truth. And by ‘truth’ I
mean the fabrication through wh ich rea lity may be the more clearly defined. […]
The job of the storyteller is to speak the truth; but wha t we feel most deeply cannot
be spoken in words. At th is level only images connect. And so story becomes symbol;
and symbol is myth. 177
Towards the novel’s conclusion Garner offers an acute image of the natural force of pattern,
in the marks left in a dusty room by Alison’s paper model owls, which h ave eerily clustered
around the stuffed owl Bertram shot during his courting of Nancy. Roger at first th inks th a t
Alison has put the paper owls there, but then he sees th a t the dusty floor is undisturbed but
for trails left by the owls’ supernatural passage:
“it was a pattern tha t had the balance and precision of iron filings in the field of a
magnet or of peta ls in a flower, and the magnet or the heart of the flower, from
which a ll lines started and to which a ll lines came.” 178
In the present continuous tense of myth, the paradigms of the past have enormous force.
Their terribilità is compelling; the ir timelessness may make evasion through even modern
fa ith in individual agency impossible. They threaten, in Garner’s work, to coerce the
present. And yet myth’s endurance and pervasiveness is also a consolation, a framework to
remind us tha t even in an age of apparent obliterating amnesia we are profoundly connected
to our ancestors, th a t individual anguish is not singular, and tha t human experience is, after
a ll, a great truth th a t may sing through millennia in resonant refrain.
177
(27) Ibid.
178
(202) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Conclusions
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Conclusions
CONCLUSIONS
Through art, we are able to break bread with the dead, and without communion with the
dead a fully human life is impossible.
W. H. Auden 179
The main research question posed by Breaking Bread with the Dead concerned the possible roles
in time fantasy of recurrence and return. Their signif icance proves to be multiva lent. These
elements can signify consoling or claustrophobic inevitability, either supporting us in the
modern era with cognisance of our antecedents and linking us to an overarch ing humanity, or
coercing the present into a compulsive re-enactment of past pathologies. They can provide a
frame upon which to pin a particular narrative, using the common time fantasy conceit th a t
there are para lle ls between past and present events (awareness of which may propel a
protagonist into maturity), or be fundamenta lly integra ted into the form of the narrative
itself, as repetitions and reiterations serve a deliberate and reinforcing stylistic purpose.
They can intimate vastness (a numinous sense of time’s infinity) or be applied to the
particular in a specific narrative focus. In time fantasy, recurrence and repetition function as
morbid restorations, mechanisms of myth ic eternity, and ceaseless reminders th a t no single
event exists in isolation.
“Melancholy too is fugal or double-tracked; it involves an experience and the experiencing
of experience,” remarks Charles Maier in an essay on the surfeit of memory. 180 One way to
experience and re-experience melancholy, loss and nosta lgia is through literature, th a t
prism of rea lity. In time fantasy literature we see ambiva lence to the past; wariness and
apprehension of the past; nostalgic yearning for the past; and, above all, reverence of the
power of the past and its endurance. The melancholy a ttendant on reviving someth ing lost
and passed is enacted in time fantasy, but so is the eternal attempt to learn from history,
esteem the present, and ground ourselves for the future.
It is possible to see in time fantasy a ratif ication of nosta lgia, a groping backwards into a
contrived version of the past to draw it more comfortably into the present. This may be a
recuperative gesture, a pathological response to post-War loss and historica l anxiety. Or it
may be a sophisticated negotia tion of modern ambivalence to heritage, one tha t
179
180
Interview with The New York Times, 7 Aug 1971.
(138) Maier, C. S. (1993). "A Surfeit of Memory? Reflections on history, melancholy and denial." History and
Memory: Studies in representations of the past 5: pp. 136-151.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Conclusions
acknowledges the evasiveness of ‘the past’ (or ‘pasts’) and displays the problematics of
approach ing it. Wh a t is drawn out of the past in late time fantasy is, more often than not, a
disruptive shadow, not an arcadian idyll.
For psychoanalytic theorists such as Freud and Nicolas Abrah am, the summoning of
spectres comes from a compulsion to return—whether to complete a process of mourning or to
act out primitive, repressed childhood anxieties. The sense in much time fantasy of a past
which presses claustrophobica lly upon the present suggests th at th is is very much an oeuvre
of haunting. The past may visit unbidden, in the form of a ghost, a disorder of present-day
life, or a reiterated, forceful pattern of behaviour. Protagonists of these fictions must
confront the ir own ambivalence, the ir own sense of identity or will, and the ir own place in
h istory. For the characters in The Owl Service, the legend of Blodeuwedd may determine
their destinies, but they are shaped equally by their own histories, and more th an one type
of mysterious force must be allayed before they are free. Haunting can be a troubling and
destructive experience, even if the spectres are ultimately la id to rest, but it may be
necessary. As Avery Gordon points out, for any protagonist (or reader), “the ghost is noth ing
without you.”181
Return and recurrence are a fundamenta l engine of haunting. The dead who lie quietly in
their graves can provide no narrative. But return is also a redemptive, transcendent
dynamic in the world of myth. The hero who overcomes death is saved—and a saviour. In
the world of myth ic time, noth ing is ever “finished” or lost; an over-arch ing dimension of
sacred (or “myth ic” or “inner”) time allows us to elude mortality and find, again and again,
a world, in Mircea Eliade’s words, “uncontaminated by time and becoming.”182 In The Owl
Service myth is a threat, but it is also a great truth, and its power to return is not only
undeniable but illuminating. For Gwyn, Alison and Roger, as well as the reader, its touch is
th a t of the numinous, the vast, and the eternal. It is both inhuman, and very much a tribute
to the endurance of humanity.
In The Owl Service, recurrence and return form the main premise of the novel, even as it
apparently portrays a modern realist scenario of young adults grappling with personal
tensions. The novel successfully evokes a Welsh myth to suggest, first, th a t the
rela tionships and conflicts between Gwyn, Alison and Roger embody a timeless human
pattern: the love triangle. Its allusion that such a pattern is profoundly ancient offers the
possibility of a capitulation to inevitability, yet the narrative consistently presents
181
(179) Gordon, A. F. (1997). Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the sociological imagination. Minneapolis and London,
University of Minnesota Press.
182
(89) Eliade, M. (1954). The Myth of the Eternal Return. New York, Pantheon Books.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Conclusions
opportunities for the protagonists to cha llenge th is idea. Garner uses repetition of phrases,
images of doubling and confusion of identity to emphasise his concern with the power of
reiteration. In the conclusion of the novel, however, it is individual decision th at provides
the agency for overcoming the engine of recurrence. Garner believes deeply in the continuity
of the past with in the present; he speaks of it as a “truth”, but he seems to conceive of
repetition as a form tha t, a lthough it may appear to mechanica lly and endlessly reproduce
itself, in fact may transfigure with every replication towards a new edition of “truth”.
There are, time fantasy suggests, no single moments. W h a t was yesterday’s legend may be
today’s haunting; what is today’s decision may be drawn backwards in time to become
yesterday’s history; wha t is performed today may be tomorrow’s spectre. Time is an
element in which we swim, not walk. So return and recurrence are not only pathology, but an
immutable aspect of human experience. As avatar of the past, the returning myth or ghost
may be a threat, but it is also a consolation. As eternal form, the myth or ghost may be a
crushing presence, but in time fantasy it is also a parable about human truth, one from
which we may learn much. In Alan Garner’s words,
Literature exists at every level of experience. It is inclusive, not exclusive. It
embraces; it does not reduce, however simply it is expressed. […] We have to find parables;
we have to tell stories to unriddle the world. 183
183
(27) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Conclusions
169
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Conclusions
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177
Darkness Visible: An
exploration of recurrence
Part B
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Time
fantasy, recurrence and The Owl
Service
An exegesis submitted in (partial) fulfilment of the requirements
for the degree of Master of Arts (Creative Writing)
Kate Holden
(BA Hons)
School of Creative Media
Design and Social Context Portfolio
RMIT University
August 2008
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
DECLARATION
I certify th a t except where due acknowledgement has been made, the work is th a t of the
author alone; the work has not been submitted previously, in whole or in part, to qualify for
any other academic award; the content of the exegesis is the result of work which has been
carried out since the officia l commencement date of th e approved research program; and,
any editoria l work, paid or unpaid, carried out by a th ird party is acknowledged.
Ka te Holden
6 August 2008
2
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I would like to th ank the RMIT Masters of Creative Writing by Research group 2005-8, for
a ll the ir support, feedback and collegia lity. In particular I am grateful to Craig Garrett for
h is consistently thoughtful and intelligent critiques of drafts of th is project. I would also
like to especia lly th ank my primary supervisor, Antoni Jach, for his enormous generosity
with criticism, discussion and encouragement.
In addition I extend thanks to Varuna—the Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains and Peter
Bishop, its director; and especia l gratitude to Matt Pritch ard and Margot Holden, for their
critica l suggestions and copy-editing of the exegesis.
3
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.
W. H. Auden
4
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Breaking Bread with the Dead
TABLE OF CONTENTS
DECLARATION
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION…………………………………………………………………………………...…1
Introduction………………………………………………………………………………………..1
The novel and the exegesis……………………………………………………………………….4
The wherefores of time fantasy…………………………………………………………………..5
A taxonomy of time fantasy……………………………………………………………………...8
The Owl Service……………………………………………………………………………………..9
Methodology and scope…………………………………………………………………………10
Review of resources and terms…………………………………………..……………………..12
Comments on terms……………………………………………………………………..……….14
CHAPTER 1: Repetition and haunting: The Owl Service………………………………………….17
1.1 Introduction…………………………………………………………………………………..17
1.2 Haunting the Present………………………………………………………………………...18
1.2.1 Haunting in literature……………………………………………………...……...…18
1.2.2 The claustrophobia of the past………………………………………………………21
1.3 The return of the dead in psychoanalytic thought………………………………………..22
2.1 1.3.1 Nostalgia and melancholic recuperation…………………………………………..23
Myth redivivus………………………………………………………………………………40
1.3.2 The uncanny, repetition and Doctor Freud……………………………………......28
1.3.3 Recurrence and multiplication………………………………………………………32
1.3.4 Escaping the past…………………………………………………………………......36
CHAPTER 2: Repetition and myth: The Owl Service…………………………………………...….39
2.2 Introduction………………………………………………………………………………….39
2.2.1 Alan Garner and myth………………………………………………………………..41
2.3 Myth ic time……………………………………………………………………….………….45
2.3.1 Myth ic time and narrative…………………………………………..………………..47
2.3.2 Ch ildhood time………………………………………………………………………..48
2.3.3 Novelistic time and synchrony………………………………………………………49
2.4 Myth and repeti tion………………………………………………………………...………53
CONCLUSIONS……………………………………………………………………………………....61
BI BLIOGRAPHY……………………………………………………………………………………...65
5
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
…What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
T. S. Eliot
1
1
‘Burnt Norton’, from ‘Four Quartets’, Eliot, T. S. (1969). Complete Poems and Plays. London, Faber and Faber.
6
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
INTRODUCTION
Il mondo invecchia
et invecchiando intristrice.
The world grows old; and as it grows old it grows sad.
Torquato Tasso 2
We have an ambiva lent attitude to les temps perdu—sometimes acknowledging, fetish ising
or celebrating it; sometimes placating, obliterating or rewriting it. A vast body of literature
and criticism speaks for the pervasiveness of feeling about the continuing presence of the
past. In this exegesis I will focus on a small but powerful sub-genre of fiction: time fantasy.
The term time fantasy refers to works, usually categorised with in children’s fantasy
literature, which h ave as their major narrative gambit a suggestion that time is not linear
and progressive but elastic or cyclica l, and th a t people, patterns, events or objects may
travel both forward and backward through it.
Time fantasy includes narratives of time-travel, time-doubling, visitations of the
supernatural in the form of ghosts, and, often, the suggestion th at events th at h ave occurred
in the past reta in a power strong enough to be repeated in the present. Time fantasy should
perh aps be distinguished from fantasy, and children’s fantasy in particular. 3 Fantasy
itself is a broad church of writing for both adults and ch ildren. Ch ildren’s fantasy has often
manifested as either High Fantasy, wh ich involves a complete secondary speculative
world (for example, Tolkien’s Middle Earth) or another type of fantasy, in which a rea l2
From Aminta (1580), quoted in (61) Lerner, L. (1972). The Uses of Nostalgia: Studies in Pastoral Poetry. London,
Chatto & Windus.
3
In a useful work on time fantasy, Maria Nikolajeva briefly examines some differences between ‘time fantasy’ and
‘secondary world fantasy’, which usually involves a more magical, exotic world. She notes “[a] close investigation of
the narrative structure of various texts reveals that the principal feature of time fantasy, time distortion, most often
expressed narratively by paralepsis (primary time standing still), is also present in the secondary world fantasy, as we
have seen in the Narnia novels. On the other hand, what is believed to be the principal pattern of the secondary
world fantasy, the passage between worlds, is most tangible in time fantasy.” She prefers to speak of primary and
secondary chronotype (timespace), instead of difference between the types of literature. (133) Nikolajeva, M. (2000).
From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature. Lanham, Md., & London, The Children’s Literature Association
and The Scarecrow Press.
Additionally, Sheila Egoff comments that “[d]espite its concentration on the troubles of its chief
characters, this subgenre of fantasy has remained quite stable and conventional and indeed meshes with much of
earlier fantasy in general. […] the young go ‘there and back again.’ However, their journeys are more difficult and
dangerous than in the past; there are roads from innocence to experience, and so they leave their childhood behind
them.” (289) Egoff, S. A. (1988). Worlds Within: Children’s fantasy from the Middle Ages to today. Chicago and
London, American Library Association.
Ann Lawson Lucas points out that High Fantasy appeared in British fiction not long after time fantasy;
while science fiction reacted against the past by looking far to the future, High Fantasy, often drawing on Deep
England and Arthurian legend, enshrined and reified the past. Thus time fantasy literature was one of the few
speculative fantasy forms which maintained an association with modern realist fiction set in the contemporary
world. (xix) Lucas, A. L., Ed. (2003). The Presence of the Past in Children’s Literature. Westport, Connecticut,
Praeger Publishers.
7
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
world protagonist is transported by magical means into a secondary world. Time fantasy is
perh aps best understood as a sub-set of th is second type, but instead of a secondary,
fantastical world, the protagonist visits another epoch by some manipulation of time; or a
past time erupts into the present, et cetera. A strongly rea list background for the primary
world is often a characteristic feature. Th is sub-genre can also incorporate elements of the
ghost story, realism, h istorical fiction, myth, speculative writing and horror. 4
Time fantasy exemplif ies a preoccupation with h aunting, featuring recurrence and
repetition in both its concerns and its narratologica l structure. I will be specif ica lly looking
a t a major work of the sub-genre, Alan Garner’s 1967 novel for young adults, The Owl Service,
(awarded both the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Award for children's fiction) which
suggests th a t an ancient myth may recur to impose its patterns on present-day protagonists. 5
Theorists and critics have long analysed the supernatural and myth as products of human
psychology. Sigmund Freud’s short but influentia l essay ‘The Uncanny’ was one of the first
to establish an analytics of haunting and the spectral as the return of the repressed, a figure
directly related to the process of mourning. Subsequent critics have cha llenged or expanded
Freud’s ideas. In Chapter 1, I will explore the poetics of haunting as a prelude to describing
the ways in which they may be at work in time fantasy, and will proceed to a reading
through Freud of The Owl Service as a specific example of the way time fantasy fiction
embodies cultural and psychological anxieties about recurrence. Using Freud and postFreudian criticism as a basis, I will suggest th a t time fantasy’s main devices (myth, timetravel and haunting) are allegories for the unease of human grief, uncerta inty about the
past, fear of death and ambiva lence towards identity.
I will also examine myth and mythopoeics, their rela tion to time fantasy, and the
particular significance of myth in The Owl Service. Chapter 2 discusses th is phenomenon and
reads Garner’s novel as an example of myth ic recurrence. ‘Myth ic time’ is often understood
as ‘timeless’ or cyclical, and th is attribute of temporality has implications for repetition
and reiteration in ways different to th at seen in a psychoanalytic model.
It is my view th a t time fantasy is a significant literary form, established now for over a
century and still popular, featuring high ly ta lented authors, and enacting a diverse range
of negotia tions with wha t are surely two of literature’s over-riding concerns: the effect of
the past on the present, and its implications for identity and determination of behaviour.6
4
See this Introduction for a more detailed taxonomy of the sub-genre as a whole.
5
Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
6
According to critic Tess Cosslett, time fantasy novels negotiate against ‘heritage’ as time fantasy “offers an openness
to ‘other’ histories, rather than the potentially nationalistic search for roots; it problematizes the simple access to the
8
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Although American, Canadian and Austra lian authors have contributed much to the subgenre in the English-speak ing world, British time fantasy remains dominant, and its
tradition of drawing closely upon the myths and history of Brita in makes it exemplary in
its concerns, anxieties and strategies for invoking the symbiosis between past and present. 7
The intelligence with wh ich authors of British ch ildren’s time fantasy, such as Alan
Garner, Penelope Lively, Will iam Mayne, Robert Westa ll, Penelope Farmer, Susan Cooper
and Nancy Bond, among others, have interrogated the cultural rhetoric of ‘the past’ with
imaginative narratives suggests th a t for such writers, conservative mythologising of
national h istory is less interesting than confronting th e anxieties, ambiguities and multiple
narratives of what may in fact be anyth ing but a coherent past.
past promised by the heritage site; it critiques empty reconstructions of the past; and because of the way it
constructs childhood, it evades the dangers of nostalgia.” (244) Cosslett, T. (2002). "“History from Below”: Time-Slip
Narratives and National Identity." The Lion and the Unicorn 26(2): 244-251.
7
Australian children’s fantasy that falls within this sub-genre includes Playing Beatie Bow (1980) by Ruth Park; The
Nargun and the Stars (1980) by Patricia Wrightson, and Gary Crew’s Strange Objects (1991).
9
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
The novel and the exegesis
The object is the thing with which we construct our mourning.
Jean Baudrillard 8
Th is exegesis, Breaking Bread with the Dead, is a complement to my own novel The Sacrifice9
a lthough not a discussion of it. In both works I am interested in examining the power of the
past to ‘repeat’ in the present, both in terms of human psychology and in the figurative
sense of myth ic return. Though I will not use my own novel as the primary text of the
exegesis, a brief description will demonstrate how the academic part of my submission
rela tes generica lly to the creative part.
In The Sacrifice two young Austra lian sisters go to stay in England in a rich ly h istoric coasta l
area. The elder, married sister, Rebecca, soon becomes engulfed in grief after her husband
leaves them. The younger, Joss, is an impressionable teenager who becomes enthra lled in
fantasies of local h istory after meeting a strange young boy, Flick. S he becomes convinced
th a t he embodies the violent past of the area, and th a t the act of sacrifice is part of an
ancient pattern th at must be enacted. Through engagement with the landscape and
remnants of history in the region, each sister comes to terms with loss and finds th a t even
when someth ing has been given up, someth ing else may take its place. For Joss, the belief
th a t h istory can compel the present is a comfort, even as it leads her towards disturbing
experiences; for Rebecca, the past is an uncomfortable h aunting from which she wishes to
free herself. The novel is an attempt to narrate the enduring sense th a t the past pervades
the present, in both benign and malign ways.
The novel is also both a homage to, and negotiation of, the conventions of the time fantasy
sub-genre. In writing it I struggled to overcome ‘knowingness’ about the conventions and
clichés of the sub-genre, and so made Joss self-conscious about her susceptibility to
fantasising along such lines. The novel is intended as a cha llenge to such romanticising of
British h istory, with an Austra lian protagonist who, though she fits many of the
requirements of a time fantasy heroine, is led astray by the very constructions her reading
h as placed upon her experience of British folklore and landscape.
8
Quoted in Krips, V. (2000). The Presence of the Past: Memory, heritage, and childhood in postwar Britain. New
York & London, Garland Publishing.
9
See Part A of this submission.
10
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
In my exegesis, Breaking Bread with the Dead, my main research questions are: What are some
possible roles in time fantasy literature of recurrence and repetition? And what do they imply in
terms of a narrative such as The Owl Service?
Th is inquiry naturally developed several minor research questions, as I sought frames
through wh ich to answer the question. The two chapters of my exegesis reflect these
subsidiary queries: if I looked at the project of time fantasy and its apparent ‘nostalgic’
desire to revisit the past, wha t ideas did psychoanalytic theorists such as Sigmund Freud
offer concerning repetition and recurrence? Wh at would result if I applied these ideas to a
particular text? And if I then looked towards the temporal dimension of time fantasy,
finding theories of myth ic time, wha t did the concept of cyclica l time and Eternal Return
imply about repetition and recurrence? And again, how might I apply th a t idea
specifically to Garner’s novel?
W h a t I offer in th is exegesis is a sketch of some possibil ities for understanding the
significance of recurrence and repetition in time fantasy fiction. A questioning of the
fundamenta l significance of repetition throws light not only on the work of Alan Garner, but
casts glints onto many other important aspects of modern cultural consciousness, anxiety, and
aspiration.
The wherefores of time fantasy
This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living.
Don Delillo 10
Einstein’s discovery of the Specia l Theory of Relativi ty, the cultural disorientation
following World War I, the birth of Modernism in art, and the inconceivable destruction of
the Second World War and horror of the Holocaust all contributed to “a sadder, more
doubting”11 as well as more energetic, complex, and ambiva lent 20th century attitude to the
past, and its relationship with the present.
At the same time as fantasy proper was gaining popularity as a modern literary genre, time
fantasy carved out a conjunctive niche in British ch ildren’s literature. From roots in fairy
ta les such as Rip Van Winkle, Goth ic fiction, fantasies such as H. G. Wells’s speculative
10
From White Noise (1985), quoted in (14) Gordon, A. F. (1997). Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the sociological
imagination. Minneapolis and London, University of Minnesota Press.
11
(xix) Lucas, A. L., Ed. (2003). The Presence of the Past in Children’s Literature. Westport, Connecticut, Praeger
Publishers.
11
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
fiction and Victorian and Edwardian magical ta les for children, it developed most strongly
in the years following World War II. 12 The literary sub-genre of time fantasy has
developed alongside modern consciousness of time and h istoricity, and took on its fa irly
well defined major forms in children’s literature since the mid-20 th century. These forms in
many ways successfully articulate many of the apprehensions th at pervade our era.
The Blitz in England left a destroyed landscape which was rapidly overbuilt, apparently
erasing swathes of ‘Old England’ and arousing anxiety tha t ancient th ings were being
disturbed, destroyed, or brought to light. Classics from th is period include Philippa
Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden and Lucy M. Boston’s Green Knowe novels, which both
conta in a haunting sense of nosta lgia. Humphrey Carpenter, in his study of the sub-genre,
observes of the period between the 1950s and 1970s, th a t “the greater part of children’s
fiction produced in th is period has the same theme: the discovery or rediscovery of the
past.” 13 A frequent emphasis in many time fantasy novels is, for example, on the contiguity
of past and present landscapes.
A development in the 1970s saw works in which the psychologica l dimensions of the story
began to take the foreground.14 Wh ile conservative time fantasy (using many of the
established tropes) is still being written today, the sub-genre has become, since the 1970s,
more sophisticated and, in these works, more troubled by its own project. 15 Simple
transportation into another time has become an enmesh ing in the implications of history; in
many novels, including Alan Garner’s, rather th an an isolated individual passing
backwards in time, the past itself threatens to engulf the present, and the comforting
12
The sub-genre parameters Rudyard Kipling established with Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), in which children are
visited by ‘ghosts’ of previous spirits and inhabitants of a Sussex site, were enhanced by Edith Nesbit in 1908 when,
according to Ann Lawson Lucas, she invented the conventional time-slip novel as such in House of Arden, by adding
a country house to the Deep England landscape, and maintaining the trope of children with connection to their
antecedents (153) Ibid.
Nesbit was followed in this by several authors, notably by Lucy M. Boston with her Green Knowe books
(1954-1976). In Alison Uttley’s classic A Traveller in Time (1939) the form was nuanced by having an outsider as
protagonist, a visitor to an ancestral home who is transported back in time in order to further appreciate the history
of the place. See also, for example, Philippa Pearce’s Children of Charlecote (1989) and Penelope Lively’s The House in
Norham Gardens (1974) which both feature children exploring the history of old houses, a trope which continues to
be used in contemporary time fantasy fiction.
13
(217) Carpenter, H. (1985). Secret Gardens: A study of the Golden Age of children’s literature. Boston, Houghton
Mifflin Company.
Carpenter identifies three common ways in which this functions: (a) The past enables a child to realise
that time cannot be halted, the child must grow up. (b) The past allows child to better understand or endure the
present. (c) The past represents idyllic lost or imagined Britain and provides nostalgic escape from postwar austerity.
(160) Cited in Lucas, A. L., Ed. (2003). The Presence of the Past in Children’s Literature. Westport, Connecticut,
Praeger Publishers.
14
Major examples include works by William Mayne such as Earthfasts (1966) and The Battlefield (1971), Lucy M.
Boston’s Green Knowe series, Tom’s Midnight Garden by Pearce, Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes (1987),
Garner’s novels The Owl Service (1967) and Red Shift (1973), many of Penelope Lively’s novels for children including
The Driftway(1972) and Astercote (1970), and Robert Westall’s The Wind Eye (1976).
15
See Gary Crew’s Strange Objects for a post-modern example of ambivalence towards history and identity which
deliberately plays with the ‘reliability’ of historical documentation and the conceit of return to the past. Crew, G.
(1991). Strange Objects. Melbourne, Mammoth Australia.
12
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
endurance of the past becomes a claustrophobic prescription. In th is gambit the fantasy
element is used more and more as a mechanism to allegorise or reflect real-world issues so
th a t, for Alan Garner, increasingly “it is the psychological tensions of the protagonists th at
create the supernatural events.” 16
Typica lly, time fantasy novels feature some kind of slippage of ‘normal’, linear time—
hence the often-used term ‘time-slip’ to describe works with an element of time-travel.
Carpenter defines the most common model of post-war time fantasy novel: it is one tha t is
like ly to concern one or two children who stumble across some feature of history or
mythology which concerns their own family or the place where they are living or
stay ing […] the children become drawn to it, usually at their own peril, and in
consequence achieve some kind of spiritual, moral or intellectual growth. 17
A taxonomy of time fantasy
A likely impossibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility.
Aristotle 18
Though it is a rela tively small body of work, probably numbering in the low hundreds of
titles, time fantasy moves through severa l conventiona l strategies, often retreading
familiar scenarios. I offer a brief taxonomy of time fantasy as follows:
1.
A person from the modern era travels back in time before returning to the present,
h aving undergone some kind of revela tion or maturing
16
Quoted in (303) Egoff, S. A. (1988). Worlds Within: Children’s fantasy from the Middle Ages to today. Chicago
and London, American Library Association.
Another time fantasy author, Penelope Farmer, for example, draws a distinction between ‘extrovert’ and
‘introvert’ fantasy literature. I would infer that for Farmer, time fantasy often manifests a greater preoccupation
with psychological and individual issues as opposed to High Fantasy’s “surface mechanics”. (238) Cited by Egoff,
Ibid.
17
From Secret Gardens, quoted in (52) Krips, V. (2000). The Presence of the Past: Memory, heritage, and childhood in
postwar Britain. New York & London, Garland Publishing.
Tess Cosslet, in a study of time fantasy literature, also offers a summary of the sub-genre’s common tropes:
“a deracinated child comes to stay in a new locality; a special place, often in conjunction with a special object,
provides access to the past; an empathetic bond is formed with a child in the past; a connection is made between
the past experience and the memory of someone still living; names, inscriptions and their decoding are important;
the history that is accessed is the everyday life of an ordinary child; the subjectivity of the present-day child is an
important element in the story; this child does some form of archival research to establish the truth of his or her
experience of the past; the experience of the past becomes part of them of moving on, growing, accepting change,
death and loss.” (245) Cosslett, T. (2002). "“History from Below”: Time-Slip Narratives and National Identity." The
Lion and the Unicorn 26(2): 244-251.
18
From Poetics, quoted by Susan Cooper, in (22) ‘Escaping into ourselves’ in Hearne, B. and M. Kaye, Eds. (1981).
Celebrating Children’s Books: Essays on children’s literature in honor of Zena Sutherland. New York, Lothrop, Lee &
Shepard Books.
13
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
(a) through occupying the same place as a past person, or passing through a
‘magica l porta l’, by, for example, entering a wood or an abandoned place
(b) through the discovery of a ‘magica l totem’, such as an ancient artefact;
often the disturbance of a long-buried item is the precipita ting narrative
device.
2.
A person from the past appears in the present
(a) as a ghost
(b) as a time-traveller.
3.
Some powerful force or ‘pattern’ of behaviour or relati onships from the past, often
malign, and threatening the stability or coherence of the present, appears in the
present, via
(a) an old story, for example a myth or a sequence of historica l events, enacted
in the modern era.
(b) some kind of magica l force.
4.
A person in the modern era is made aware (often supernaturally) of someth ing in
the past th a t must be la id to rest or ‘put right’.
5.
More th an one time period exists simultaneously, the similarities or continuities
becoming increasingly apparent.
Th is is a crude breakdown of possible scenarios, and as may be seen, these categories are not
a ltogether exclusive—and in the work of many authors, are given many variations and
elaborations. Mine is simply a suggested categorisation of conventions. Eleanor Cameron, by
contrast, simplif ies her taxonomy of time fantasy as follows:
1.
the kind th at incorporates legend in an intrinsic as opposed to incidental way, for
example, The Owl Service.
2.
the kind th at explores the past, bringing history into the reader’s mind.
3.
the kind th at sits ha lfway between pure fantasy and science fiction, for example,
Garner’s novel Elidor (1965), and Will iam Mayne’s Earthfasts (1966). 19
The Owl Service
Writing and archaeology have a great deal in common.
Alan Garner20
19
(170-72) Cameron, E. (1993). The Seed and the Vision: On the writing and appreciation of children’s books. New
York, Dutton Children’s Books.
20
Quoted in Renner, B. (Date unknown). Interview with Alan Garner. elimae (Online journal).
14
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, which I sha l l be using as my key case study, uses several of
the above devices, such as the potency of place, but falls primarily into category 3 (a). 21
Three teenagers, Alison, her step-brother Roger, and a servant’s son, Gwyn, have arrived in
a remote Welsh va lley for the summer with the ir parents. They discover a forgotten service
of dinner plates, with a design tha t may be owls or flowers. Alison becomes apparently
possessed by the magic held in the pla tes, while Gwyn, whose mother was originally from
th is va lley, perceives th at the three of them are re-enacting a tragic love-triangle
established first in an ancient Welsh myth and then repeated through time by, among
others, his mother and two other men. Pragmatic Roger resists th is interpretation until he
comes to recognise th a t the others’ belief in it, if not the reality, is the crucial issue. Class
tension and male riva lry between Gwyn and Roger form the background for what seems in
inexorable capitulation to the force of a leth a l pattern. Whether the fundamenta l reality
of the sequence of events is ultimately psychological or supernatural, Garner places the
idea of recurrence in centre-focus, and examines its consequences and command.
Garner has never settled for simple resolutions or transparent narratives. He uses a style
often pared down towards the cryptic and ambiva lent, creating tautly written emotional
power and complex characters, and a finally unresolved authoria l attitude to the
possession of the present by the past. He evokes both the past as an energy th a t transforms
but never vanishes, and paradoxically, the agency of h is protagonists to make their own
choices. For Garner, recurrence and return are compulsively fascinating tropes, and he uses
them with in the conventions of time fantasy to form original and sophisticated fictions.
Methodology and Scope
There has never been a scholar who really, as such, deals with phantoms. A traditional scholar
does not believe in phantoms…
Jacques Derrida 22
Th is exegesis is an exploration of one particular, if crucia l, aspect of time fantasy: the roles
of recurrence and return. I began research ing this exegesis looking to comprehend the frisson
I had experienced in reading time fantasy novels as a child. Th is frisson evidently
emanated from the mysterious sense th a t time was not the strict plodding in a line th a t we
usually imagine, but someth ing th at could resound and echo and open up mysterious
21
Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
22
Jacques Derrida, from Spectres of Marx, quoted in (277) Royle, N. (2003). The Uncanny. Manchester, Manchester
University Press.
15
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
possibilities. The ways in which time fantasy authors accessed th is sense of the profound
amplitude (and amplif ication) of time, and the consequent implications for identity and
meaning, stayed with me from childhood and preoccupied me enough to want to write a
novel in th is sub-genre.
Exploring the implications and prerogatives of time fantasy’s project took me into many
fascinating areas. Only a fraction of what I researched is presented in the final form of
Breaking Bread with the Dead, but all of my reading informed the piece as it stands. My
research process incorporated investigation into: the criticism and history of the
conventions and history of children’s literature; time fantasy literature; children’s fantasy
literature; h istorica l fiction; fantasy literature and the fantastic; horror and Goth ic
literature; the supernatural and its expression in litera ture; lieux de mémoire and sites of
memory; heritage and museology; nostalgia studies; post-colonia l nosta lgia; Austra lian
studies; concepts of time and history; myth ic time and the work of Mircea Eliade; the
Eternal Return and recurrence; repetition in narratology, in post-Freudian theory of the
morbid and the uncanny; Freud’s work; criticism of the work of Alan Garner; and a general
background of modern literary theory.
W here possible I have used original quotations from my sources, rather th an paraphrases.
Any misinterpreta tion or mis-application of critics’ work is my own responsibility. The
Bibliography includes further references consulted but not directly used in the body of th is
work.
Time fantasy literature, a multiva lent form of fiction, touches upon all of the areas listed
above. It is a rare, powerful sub-genre which expresses explicitly in its narratives and
implicitly in its associations much of the anxiety and fascination modern culture has with
what we th ink of as ‘the past’: a place which is not simple, but which shapes much about
the present. It is important to acknowledge th is truth in literature, and to cherish the
intimations of endless return. As Boris Pasternak put it in Doctor Zhivago,
… now tha t the winter has killed everyth ing and the living no longer conceal the
dead, the past can be seen more clearly in snowy outline. 23
23
(251) Pasternak, B. (1958). Doctor Zhivago. New York, Pantheon Books.
16
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Review of Resources and Terms
‘Remember’ is emotionally the antonym of ‘dismember’.
Alan Garner 24
Innumerable novelists have written on the subject of time.25 Similarly, the literatures of the
supernatural and of fantasy are vast. In relation to modern fiction written explicitly using
time and recurrence as main subjects, I suggest th at wha t seems like a minor sub-genre in its
most evident form, time fantasy, is in fact more diffuse th an is often recognised.
The range of critical work on the diverse issues included in this exegesis is of course
immense. Here I will briefly identify some of the dominant elements examined in th is
exegesis, acknowledge some of their key theorists, and note my use of important terms.
TIME FANTASY. A sub-genre of children’s fantasy literature, capacious in its inclusion of
everyth ing from time-travel stories to those featuring supernatural resurrections of the
past, and narratives such as Garner’s which suggest myth ic return. The limits of the subgenre are debated, fall ing as it does between the positions of ‘fantasy’, ‘ghost story’, and
science fiction ‘time-travel’ (some critics prefer ‘time-slip’ to specif ica lly denote those
works in which a character apparently moves—usually backwards—in time to another era;
I support th is distinction, but will not be examining any ‘time-slip’ novels in th is exegesis,
and so use only the term ‘time fantasy’). It had its most significant period of development
from around 1950-1980, but, since the recent resurgence of interest in children’s fantasy, has
revived in popularity, and many older classic novels such as Garner’s have been reissued.
In children’s literature, the development of the sub-genre called time fantasy has given an
important platform for explicit questionings about time, history and the supernatural.
However, time fantasy has been largely overlooked in serious literary criticism: when it
features it is usually briefly, as an addendum to fantasy, itself frequently viewed as a niche
genre with in the body of children’s literature, while adult works in th is sub-genre of time
fantasy are almost entirely unreviewed in this light. There are a few books about children’s
24
Alan Garner, in a preface to the TV script of his libretto ‘Potter Thompson’; quoted in (125) Philip, N. (1981). A
Fine Anger: A critical introduction to the work of Alan Garner. London, Collins.
25
I would cite, for example, authors such as Peter Ackroyd, Graham Swift, A. S. Byatt, Maureen Duffy and Adam
Thorpe as some of Britain’s keenest novelists consciously presenting the problematics of time in their work. A. S.
Byatt, herself a novelist who has used time and history as motifs in her work such as Possession, offers the following
partial list of modern novelists who have also featured time as a major element in their works “for complex aesthetic
and intellectual reasons: Golding, Burgess, Barnes, Carter, Swift, Coetzee, Calvino, Ransmayr, Winterson, Unsworth,
Roberts, Warner, Caryl Phillips, Mo, Ackroyd, Carey, Feinstein, Fitzgerald, and Morrison. ”. (p. 93) Byatt, A. S. (2000).
On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. London, Vintage.
In Australia, many writers including Gary Crew, Alexis Wright, Brian Castro, Antoni Jach and Gerald
Murnane have deliberately ‘played’ with time in their work.
17
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
fantasy literature which feature a chapter on time fantasy: severa l essays and articles, for
example in the Children’s Literature in Education journal; and the more deta iled work of a
very few authors (see below). I am not aware of any substantia l critica l works on adult
novels of time fantasy. It may be th at as adult literature, rather th an the more commonly
categorisable children’s literature, they are considered generally ‘literary’ rather th an
‘genre’.
Ch ildren’s literature in general has its own gallery of recognised experts, such as
Humphrey Carpenter, Eleanor Cameron and Colin Manlove. In the small body of critica l
work on time fantasy, Tess Cosslett, Va lerie Krips and Ann Lawson Lucas provide useful
analyses of the h istory, conventions and behaviour of the sub-genre, while David Rees,
Kevin McCarron and others examine specif ic time fantasy authors such as Penelope Lively
and Robert Westa ll. Others such as Gary Westfa h l examine rela ted topics such as the
paradoxes of time in science fiction and fantasy literature. Criticism of the sub-genre of time
fantasy, however, still lacks a master theorist.
Alan Garner’s work has attracted a surprising amount of critical attention, considering tha t
he has worked substantia l ly (if controversia lly) in th e arena of young adult fantasy fiction.
In criticism around Garner’s fiction, Neil Ph ilip is the pre-eminent author, having written
the only full- length work, while Kath Filmer-Davies and Charles Butler have written in
deta il about Garner in the context of severa l other time fantasy authors. In particular,
Robyn McCallum has produced a deta iled examination of time and subjectivity in Garner’s
novel Red Shift, and Maria Nikolajeva has written on Garner’s use of time, apply ing
theories by Domenic LaCapra and Mikh a i l Ba hk tin. Other critics such as Carol Hellings,
Brian Attebery, Tony Watkins and Robin Wa lsh h ave examined the significance of myth in
h is work. Garner himself has published The Voice that Thunders, a book of his essays and
lectures.
REPETITION, RECURRENCE, RETURN. ‘Repetition’ and ‘recurrence’ are used, often as a
coupled phrase, frequently in th is exegesis. They are virtually synonymous, but I perceive
‘repetition’ as someth ing more complicatedly associated not only with recurrence (a regular
reiteration) but with the implications of duplication, displacement and compulsion, as is
discussed in Chapter 1.
‘Return’ brings with it evocations of someth ing tha t has been absent, rather th an
continuously present, and which now re-appears. It is most obviously associated in th is
work with the theory of the Eternal Return (see below).
18
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Introduction
Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Ricoeur, Paul de Man, J. Hill is Miller and Giles Deleuze, among
others, have written now-canonical texts on repetition and time. It a lso figures as a dynamic
in discussions of the Uncanny and the spectral.
THE UNCANNY. A term largely associated with the Goth ic and the fantastic literature
th a t emerged in the 18th century and has since evolved into a literary tradition. It is also
used more broadly by theory in terms of cultural apprehension. The uncanny is a species of
the ‘unnatural’ with in the ‘natural’, but in his famous essay on the subject Freud variously
identif ies the crucia l aspect of the uncanny as the appearance of someth ing hidden which
becomes visible, someth ing tha t is frightening, or someth ing tha t should be familiar, but is
become strange.
Jacques Derrida and Frederic Jameson have examined the spectre in modern culture. Freud
contributed a short but very influentia l essay on the subject of the uncanny, discussed by
Nicholas Royle and others, while Nicolas Abrah am and Maria Torok have further
significantly developed the psychoanalytics of the spectral.
THE FANTASTIC. A specific branch of the literature of fantasy, though its definition,
aptly perhaps, evades empirica l statement. Structuralists Vladimir Propp and Tsvetan
Todorov took an important step towards defining the fantastic, opening the way for critics
of fantasy literature such as Rosemary Jackson, Christine Brooke-Rose, and Sheila Egoff.
THE PAST. By th is term I mean ‘time which has passed’, both in the sense of th at wh ich
h as previously occurred, and time past as it is understood as ‘history’. Theories
interrogating these two parsings of the term are too complex to enter into in th is exegesis.
NOSTALGIA. A term tha t usually signifies a wistful yearning for, and evocation of, the
past. Theorists of nosta lgia point out th at th is yearning is often for an imagined or
manufactured ‘past’ as much as for the ‘rea l’ past. David Lowenth a l, Anthony Kemp and
Charles Maier are major critics on the subject of nostalgia.
ETERNAL RETURN. Th is is a term used most famously perhaps by Nietzsche, and later
expounded by Mircea Eliade in his discussions of prehistoric religious cosmogonies and
teleologies. It suggests th a t there is a powerful constant in the nature of time, one usually
associated with myth ic or religious ‘sacred’ time as opposed to earthly, ‘secular’ time,
which is conceived of as linear and progressive. The theory of the Eternal Return proposes
th a t time may recur in the service of reiterating the divine. It is variously regarded as
positive and numinous, or over-determining and oppressive.
19
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
20
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
CHAPTER 1
REPETITION AND HAUNTING: THE OWL SERVICE
1.1 Introduction
The dead were and are not. Their place knows them no more and is ours today [...] The poetry of
history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once on this earth, once on this familiar spot of ground,
walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by
their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we
ourselves shall shortly be gone, like ghosts at cockcrow.
G. M. Trevelyan 26
Time fantasy has at its heart the idea th a t time is permeable, or elastic, and th is idea
raises important questions about the cultural psychology in which imagination desires
events to occur not once, but again. This drive to the consolations (however ambiva lent) of
repetition is, as we sha ll see, a movement th a t runs th rough the phenomena of nosta lgia,
mourning, and religious ritual, and finds expression in narratives of myth ic and
supernatural return.
In th is chapter I will be discussing the nosta lgic response of time fantasy literature and
introducing psychoanalytic theories of recuperation of the lost. I will examine Freud’s
theory of the uncanny and the signif icance for him of repetition and recurrence (wh ich by
implication are present in literature of the fantastic such as time fantasy), and further
theories of repression and haunting. I sha ll be using these Freudian analytica l frames to
offer a reading of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service.
26
Trevelyan, G. M. ‘Autobiography of an Historian’, An Autobiography and Other Essays. London: Longmans, Green,
1949. Page reference unrecorded.
21
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
1.2 Haunting the present
The Greek word for 'return' is 'nostos.' 'Algos' means 'suffering.' So nostalgia is the suffering
caused by an unappeased yearning to return.
Milan Kundera 27
W h a t kinds of anxieties produce a sense of haunting? British culture has long felt itself
rich ly endowed—or burdened—with the volume of its past. 28 Many works of 20th and 21st
century British literature manifest a persistent discussion of what it means to live in an age
of apparent modern amnesia; to lay modern Brita in, with its new housing estates and selfconscious heritage industry, upon the “ancient fields”. 29 Time fantasy is itself generated by
a cultural impulse to ‘go back’, even as its narratives are concerned specifica lly with the
sometimes dangerous consequences of doing so.
1.2.1 Haunting in literature
What’s unfinished haunts one; what’s unhealed haunts one.
Elizabeth Bowen 30
In a sense, time fantasy novels may be conceived as one of critic Pierre Nora’s lieux de
mémoire (vessels of memory), sites where memory itself can be displayed and examined,
conserved and reverenced (or la id to rest). 31 In what Nora called “memory’s persistence and
27
(5) Kundera, M. (2000). Ignorance. London, Faber and Faber.
28
This is not a modern (nor, of course, exclusively British) phenomenon: Edmund Spenser’s Britain-as-Faerie and
William Blake’s Albion-as-Jerusalem fantasies covet, as well as beware, the mythopoeic dimensions of British history.
See (30) Butler, C. (2006). Four British Fantasists: Place and culture in the children’s fantasies of Penelope Lively,
Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper. Lanham, Maryland, Children’s Literature Association and The
Scarecrow Press, Inc.
29
Charles Maier suggests that in the past hundred years changes to historiographical modes, a sense of the dispersal
of agency and a “metastasis of discourse” have given remembrance a new authority: “memory, we can claim, has
become the discourse that replaces history.” (142) Maier, C. S. (1993). "A Surfeit of Memory? Reflections on history,
melancholy and denial." History and Memory: Studies in representations of the past 5: pp. 136-151.
“[T]he surfeit of memory,” he goes on to warn, “is a sign not of historical confidence but of a retreat from
transformative politics. It testifies to the loss of a future orientation, of progress toward civic enfranchisement and
growing equality.” (142) Ibid.
Pierre Nora echoes this, though more positively, in a distinction between history and memory in the late
20t h century: history re-enacts what is gone, while memory is ‘life’. (18) Krips, V. (2000). The Presence of the Past:
Memory, heritage, and childhood in postwar Britain. New York & London, Garland Publishing.
30
From The Heat of the Day, quoted in (135) Royle, N. and A. Bennett (2004). An Introduction to Literature, Criticism
and Theory. Harlow, Pearson Education Limited.
31
Nora: “lieux de mémoire thrive only because of their capacity to change, their ability to resurrect old meanings and
generate new ones along with new and unforeseeable connections (that is what makes them exciting).” Quoted in
(64) Krips, V. (2000). The Presence of the Past: Memory, heritage, and childhood in postwar Britain. New York &
London, Garland Publishing.
As Krips observes, “The children’s book should be understood as both a trace of and metaphor for the past;
like all lieux de mémoire, it combines materiality with symbolic power.”31 (33) Krips, V. (2000). The Presence of the
Past: Memory, heritage, and childhood in postwar Britain. New York & London, Garland Publishing.
See also David Lowenthal’s writing and that of Charles Maier for further comments on nostalgia.
22
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
[…] its failure,” 32 we often see in modern literature the ceaseless fingering of prosopopoeia—
the speak ing of the absent. Glennis Byron and David Punter describe the manifestation of
prosopopoeia as it works in literature as “governed by the desire to make the absent, the
dead, the abstract present and palpable.” 33
Ch ildren’s time fantasy literature, as we sha ll see, enacts over and over again an attempt
to speak with the past; or to counsel warnings about how to do so; or to allay anxieties.
In The Owl Service, the force of a secluded Welsh valley and its ancestra l beliefs comes up
against the modern and the oblivious. School-leaver Gwyn returns with h is mother to the
Welsh va lley in which she grew up. There he is thrown together with two other teenagers:
Alison, the daughter of the wea lt hy English family th a t h as engaged Gwyn’s mother
Nancy as a housekeeper, and her step-brother Roger. Alison and Gwyn discover a service of
dinner plates with a curious design: Alison perceives it as owls rather th an the possible
flowers, and quickly becomes fascinated. From the outset of the narrative, it is suggested
th a t an ancient legend is being played out, and superna tural events ensue, apparently in
accordance with an ancient legend of the magica l maiden Blodeuwedd. This woman was
‘made’ from flowers by a wizard; conflict ensued between her husband Lleu Llaw Gyffes and
her lover Gronw Pebyr—forming a love-triangle wh ich it appears Gwyn, Alison and
Alison’s step-brother Roger may repeat. Th is recurring constella tion of behaviour, it is
implied by the locals, especia lly a man called Huw Ha lfbacon, extends back past memory. 34
Each one of the protagonists has a different response to th is intimation. Alison is
anguishedly ‘possessed’; Roger is sceptica l; Gwyn seems to accept it. At one point, Alison
asks,
‘[…] why wasn’t it finished with long ago?’
32
Quoted in (31) Krips, V. (2000). The Presence of the Past: Memory, heritage, and childhood in postwar Britain.
New York & London, Garland Publishing.
33
(162) Byron, G. and D. Punter, Eds. (1999). Spectral Readings: Towards a Gothic Geography. Houndsmills and
London, Macmillan Press.
Prosopopoeia was parsed in its more macabre sense by Pierre Fontanier, writing in 1821, as “staging […] the
absent, the dead, supernatural beings […] to make them act, speak, respond; or at least to take them for confidants,
witnesses, guarantors, accusers, avengers, judges.” 33 Quoted by Eric Savoy, ‘Spectres of abjection: The queer subject
of James’s ‘The Jolly Corner’’ in (169) Byron, G. and D. Punter, Eds. (1999). Spectral Readings: Towards a Gothic
Geography. Houndsmills and London, Macmillan Press.
Savoy goes on to note that “If, in the paranoid Gothic, the ghost is the prosopopaeial allegorisation of the
split subject, then Paul de Man’s assertion that ‘prosopopoeia is hallucinatory, [for] to make the invisible visible is
uncanny’ (De Man, 1986: 49) suggests not only that prosopopoeia is always already a Gothicised trope, but also that
this trope is imbricated in a complex psychoanalytic of melancholia’s need to figure forth the haunting other.” (170)
Ibid.
34
There is a scene of local women in the grocery store:
‘Is it to be the three of them again, Mrs Lewis-Jones?’
‘Yes. There’s the girl, too. Mister Huw says she’s made it owls.’
‘We must bear it,’ said Mrs Richards.
(55) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
23
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
‘I don’t th ink it can be finished,’ said Gwyn. ‘I th ink th is valley really is a
kind of reservoir. The house, look, smack in the middle, with the mountains all
round, shutting it in, guarding the house. I th ink the power is always there and
a lways will be. It builds up and builds up until it has to be let loose—like fill ing
and emptying a dam. And it works through people. I sa id to Roger th a t I thought
the plates were batteries and you were the wires.’
‘If the force is in the pla tes,’ said Alison, ‘I’ve let it out, and everyth ing’s
right aga in. Oh, Gwyn, is it?’
‘No. That’s what frightens me. It’s not as quick as th a t. The force was in the
plates, and in the painting, but it’s in us now. That’s where the pattern’s gone.’35
For Garner in th is novel, the past is energy—figured with the metaphor of electricity—and
while ‘the past’ itself does not repeat, its structure and determination does. In th is way a
‘simulation’ (Gwyn, Alison, Roger) takes the place of the previous simulation (their
parents’ generation: Huw, Bertram, Nancy). The original legend is a story from The
Mabinogion; it is the modern-world situation tha t is most rea l, but seems in danger of being
displaced by metempsychosis (recollection of previous lives). 36 The place and the pattern
remain the same, and the magica l power, but the past itself is being constantly displaced by
its duplication (not replication) in the present. Garner, unlike many other time fantasy
authors, is not interested in transportation to the past by time-travel; it is the way the past
informs the present, even through apparent simultaneity, th a t is his most powerful concern:
its haunting.
1.2.2 The claustrophobia of the past
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
F. Scott Fitzgera ld 37
Dea ling with the hidden, uneasily ly ing corpse of the past can be claustrophobic: “The
revenge of the past is the memory of it,” says Dana Del George in her study of the
35
(142) Ibid.
36
Garner claims dryly in his essay ‘Inner Time’ that the novel “is an expression of the myth found in the Welsh Math
vab Mathonwy, and is only incidentally concerned with the plight of first-generation educated illegitimate Welsh
males. I labour the point because I am forced to accept that some readers will not differentiate between form and
content. It is almost as if they are afraid to see.” However, the emphasis on realist immediacy forces focus on more
than merely the repetition of myth. (110) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London,
Harvill Press.
37
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. (1950). The Great Gatsby. London, Penguin Books.
24
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
supernatural in short fiction. 38 A superfluity of history, or in Charles Maier’s phrase, a
“surfeit of memory”, may become a malign smothering. Maier ra ises “the question as to
whether there might be someth ing inauthentic and unhea lthy about the canonization of
memory […][someth ing] neurasthenic and disabling,” 39 while Charles Butler notes in a study
of four British ch ildren’s fantasy authors th a t
the weight of tradition, both literary and historica l, may be felt as oppressive […]
while a focus on Brita in as a history-saturated land may tend to corral fantasy
writers into a restricted set of all- too-familiar themes and forms, or to render the
country a place of mere spectacle and imaginative tourism.40
Th is is not simply the common contemporary ‘literature of exhaustion’ but one ‘haunted’, in
the case of children’s fantasy literature, by its own conventions and antecedents. (Garner
struggled in his early works to free himself of trite plot devices and self-consciousness.) 41
So prosopopoeia—being haunted—is both a consoling reflex response and an ambiguous,
uneasy negotia tion with a past th a t threatens to overwhelm. The ways in which the
device of return and repetition are applied to fictions of the uncanny and the mythopoeic
will be examined in greater deta il below. It is worth remembering, as Deborah Esch puts it,
th a t “in giving a face (prosopon) or the semblance of one […] to an entity th at lacks a litera l
visage, prosopopoeia serves as a guarantor of its existence.”42
1.3. The return of the dead in psychoanalytic thought
That terrible thing that is there in every photograph: the return of the dead.
38
(115) Del George, D. (2001). The Supernatural in Short Fiction of the Americas: The Other World in the New
World. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press.
39
(41) Maier, C. S. (1993). "A Surfeit of Memory? Reflections on history, melancholy and denial." History and
Memory: Studies in representations of the past 5: pp. 136-151.
40
(43) Butler, C. (2006). Four British Fantasists: Place and culture in the children’s fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan
Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper. Lanham, Maryland, Children’s Literature Association and The
Scarecrow Press, Inc.
41
Nevertheless, time fantasy author Robert Westall sees the potential for a fruitful dialogue between the past and
the present in children’s literature: “On the whole children don’t read historical novels anymore. They don’t seem to
want to know what the seventeenth century said to the seventeenth, but they become quite interested in what the
twentieth century might have to say to the seventeenth. I feel able, with research, to let the twentieth century talk
to the seventeenth, and to see the seventeenth as an observer.” (65)c.f. http://www.norham.n-tynesidesch.uk/westall/index.htm, 14/04/00 McCarron, K. (2001). ‘Robert Westall’s Frightening Fictions’. Frightening Fiction
in Contemporary Classics of Children’s Literature series. K. Reynolds, G. Brenna and K. McCarron. London,
Continuum: pp. 53-91.
42
Quoted by Eric Savoy, ‘Spectres of abjection: the queer subject of James’s ‘The Jolly Corner’’ (169) in Byron, G. and
D. Punter, Eds. (1999). Spectral Readings: Towards a Gothic Geography. Houndsmills and London, Macmillan Press.
25
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
Roland Barthes 43
W h a t is beh ind an author’s—or a culture’s—impulse to summon tha t which h as passed?
The passed, or past, beckons to us, and we return its wave again and again. Psychoanalytic
criticism has suggested some reasons for why we call up the dead.
In a 20th century preoccupied with reinvention, anxiety, ontological and epistemological
crises, and scientific revela tions about the pliability of time and the prospect of tota l
global destruction, the temptation to regret the vanished past transcended cultural
conservatism and became a pervasive refra in. 44 Charles Maier argues tha t
[i]n the la te twentieth century […] memory, or so it might be argued, has become a
strategy for surviva l, not for seduction. More precisely, memory has become a
strategy to come to terms with surviva l. 45
1.3.1 Nostalgia and melancholic recuperation
Those arts which sustain anguish and the recovery from anguish within us, are the heirs of religion.
Georges Bata il le 46
Perh aps nostalgia’s yearning for what is passed and gone has its roots in neurosis. As
Laurence Lerner observes in his study of The Uses of Nostalgia, “[c]ertainly the poetry of
nosta lgia is like mourning.” 47 Before publish ing ‘The Uncanny’ in 1919, Freud posited his
theory of Melancholia (1917), wh ich comes from an inability to resolve ambiva lence to a
lost object, thus casting a ‘shadow’ and producing the abject. Freud invoked a process of
grieving, which if not properly pursued, can skew into morbid recuperation and replication
of the lost object. 48 He asserted th a t a ll love objects are loved ultimately because they
43
(9) Barthes, R. (1982). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, transl. Richard Howard. New York, Hill and
Wang.
44
For a useful survey of the development of consciousness of historicity, see also Newman, K., J. Clayton, et al.
(2002). Time and the Literary. London, Routledge.
45
(139) Maier, C. S. (1993). "A Surfeit of Memory? Reflections on history, melancholy and denial." History and
Memory: Studies in representations of the past 5: pp. 136-151.
46
From Literature and Evil (1957), quoted in (18) Jackson, R. (1981). Fantasy: The literature of subversion. London and
New York, Methuen.
47
(59) Lerner, L. (1972). The Uses of Nostalgia: Studies in Pastoral Poetry. London, Chatto & Windus.
48
(136) Freud, S. (1984). Mourning and Melancholia. On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis.
Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Pelican Freud Library. 11.
26
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
evoke a previous loss.49 As we sha ll see below, the doubling, or repetition of the loved/lost
one is a powerful trope in literature of the uncanny and supernatural.
The paradox at the heart of Freud’s Melancholia makes for an ambiva lent interior attitude
to the lost (e.g. the loss of the past). One part of the ego, Freud holds, mourns the lost;
another ha tes the other part which h as become abject in its powerless mourning, “abusing
it, debasing it, making it suffer and deriving sadistic sa tisfaction from its suffering.” 50
“‘She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls. You must not compla in, then, if she goes
hunting,’” says the wizard-figure Huw of the recurrent female figure in The Owl Service. 51
Ra ising the past—in th is case, a resurgent myth ic force—invites a paradox, and a process
th a t may hea l or harm. 52
As I sha ll discuss in Chapter 2, the ethnographer of religion Mircea Eliade suggests th a t
for preh istoric cultures, repetition by mimesis was a crucia l function in a cosmological model
th a t allowed individuals to access the divine (and thus legitimise their actions). Classical
culture moved to develop a sophisticated application of religious propitia tion, still often
involving ritual and working with in an economy of perpetual universa l cycles and thus a
consoling image of repetition. Mimesis, resemblance (for example, in the development of
ta lismans which, by representing a feared demon, protect aga inst it) and copying of ‘divine’
gestures were incorporated into culture, in a move th a t anticipates Jean Baudrillard’s
dictum by legitimising reproduction and its object. 53
Fear of death, as Freud and generations of biologists observe, powerfully motiva tes the urge
for reproduction. For Freud, citing his colleague Otto Rank, the figure of the Double is an
insurance against mortality, wh ile the death drive involves repetition of an original
identity to avoid a fata l short-circuit; a gambit which is both narcissistic, and, in fact,
49
See also (103) Goodwin, S. W. and E. Bronfen, Eds. (1993). Death and Representation. Baltimore and London, The
Johns Hopkins University Press.
50
Freud, quoted in (162) Byron, G. and D. Punter, Eds. (1999). Spectral Readings: Towards a Gothic Geography.
Houndsmills and London, Macmillan Press.
51
(101) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
52
In The Owl Service Garner applies this same kind of ambivalence to the workings of magic itself:
‘Suppose,’ said Gwyn. ‘Just suppose, a long time back, hundreds and hundreds of years, someone,
somehow, did something in this valley. Suppose he found a way to control some power, or force, and used
it to make a woman out of flowers. And suppose it went wrong—got out of hand—I don’t know. It got out
of hand because it wasn’t neutral anymore. There was a brain behind it. Do you follow? Neutral like a
battery, I mean. You can use it to explode a bomb or fry an egg: it depends on you.’
‘What is the power?’ said Alison.
‘I can’t explain,’ said Gwyn. ‘I once saw a nettle growing in an old garage floor in Aber. A pale
little thing it was. It had split the concrete floor.’ (142) Ibid.
53
Baudrillard posits that the definition of the real has become “that of which it is possible to give an equivalent
reproduction.” [System of Objects, p.97] (113) Quoted in Krips, V. (2000). The Presence of the Past: Memory, heritage,
and childhood in postwar Britain. New York & London, Garland Publishing.
27
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
desirous of death. 54 This dual strategy is possible if one considers th a t repetition creates a
critica l displacement: the original is replaced, oblitera ted. Th is accords with nosta lgia
theorist David Lowentha l’s observation th at
[a]s quickly as we have destroyed the past’s power in one way, however, we have
reinstituted it in another. We preserve the idea of the past by making it ubiquitous,
and, in the process, we reify it. […] Our preservation of th is past enta ils its
persistent production.55
Is it possible to invoke the past at all? Or can we only summon its spectre? Baudrillard, in
h is studies of cultural production and reproduction, notes th at wh ile postmodern culture
possesses the ability to bring into sight those shadows previously on the margins, the
search for the ineffable results merely in an endless series of simulations, perpetually
deferring the possibility of grasping the elusive lost, until the simulacrum in fact takes the
place of (is more real th an) the rea l. 56 If th is is so, then the ‘production’ of the past is
compromised not only by its ultimate evasion, but by the manufacture of simulacra wh ich
obscure any potentia l for ever finding the ‘rea l’ past, in what Byron and Punter call the
“melancholy h istoriography” of our times. 57
Relinquish ing time as it passes constitutes a kind of loss, which in some ways is akin to
death; a response is required. In psychoanalytic terms, healthy progression is movement
from mourning to remembrance or commemoration—th us freeing libidinal energies from the
first lost object by reinvesting in a surrogate object, which may resemble the first. In other
words, mourning is performed through a process of reproduction and repetition.58 It may be,
as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkhe imer argue in their essay ‘On the Theory of Ghosts’,
th a t ghosts (and other kinds of spectres from the past, such as repeating myths) must be
acknowledged as evidence of the “wounds of civilisati on”, and apprehension must be
transformed: “Only the conscious horror of destruction creates the correct rela tionship with
54
See Beyond the Pleasure Principle, cited in (104) Goodwin, S. W. and E. Bronfen, Eds. (1993). Death and
Representation. Baltimore and London, The Johns Hopkins University Press.
55
Quoted in (9) Krips, V. (2000). The Presence of the Past: Memory, heritage, and childhood in postwar Britain.
New York & London, Garland Publishing.
56
(6) Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and Simulacrum. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press.
57
(163) Byron, G. and D. Punter, Eds. (1999). Spectral Readings: Towards a Gothic Geography. Houndsmills and
London, Macmillan Press.
.
58
(106-7) Goodwin, S. W. and E. Bronfen, Eds. (1993). Death and Representation. Baltimore and London, The Johns
Hopkins University Press.
28
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
the dead: unity with them because we, like them, are the victims of the same condition and
the same disappointed hope.” 59
Time fantasy often concerns the ‘putting to right’ of an old wrong, the adjustment of
repetition and the redress of culpability, in a kind of compulsive desire to undo the
consequences of time and judgement. In The Owl Service, Huw Halfbacon finally expla ins his
understanding of the recurring tragic pattern to Gwyn as redemption for a trespass against
natural law, not by himself but his antecedent (wh ich for Huw is effectively the same
th ing):
‘Here: in th is va lley: now. That is how the power is spent. Through us, with in us,
the three who suffer every time.’
‘But why, Huw?’
‘Because we gave th is power a th inking mind. We must bear th a t mind,
leash it, yet set it free, through us, in us, so tha t no one else may suffer. […] She will
be the worse for my fault, and my uncle’s fault and my grandfather’s fault, who
tried to stop what can’t be stopped—him with the painting, him with the plates.
We built the dyke of sand, and won a little space.’
‘So we’re in this mess because you ducked it.’
‘Yes.’
‘How?’
‘Oh, it is a story, and we have suffered for it no less th an if we had faced
our time.’ 60
Nicolas Abrah am and Maria Torok, in the ir psychoana lytic work on repression,
acknowledge the timeless belief th a t spirits may return from the dead, and note the
apprehensive fear th a t usually accompanies the idea of a ghost. The dead do not commonly
rejoin the living, but try to draw the living towards dea th: “To be sure, all the departed
may return, but some are destined to haunt”. In his ‘Notes on the Phantom: A Complement to
Freud’s Metapsychology’, Abrah am agrees with Freud th a t ghosts are products of the
living psyche, meant to objectify and exemplify some concealment in a living person’s life
causing “the gaps left with in us by the secrets of others. […] Wh a t comes back to haunt are
the tombs of others.” 61 It is the denial of the dead, who “cannot enjoy, even in death, a state
59
The essay is an addendum to The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). Quoted in (19) Gordon, A. F. (1997). Ghostly
Matters: Haunting and the sociological imagination. Minneapolis and London, University of Minnesota Press.
60
(193) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
61
Unlike Freud, Abraham and Torok see this development not as a result of unsuccessful mourning, as it is not
related to the loss itself; that would be result of melancholia or “those who carry a tomb within themselves.” Rather,
it is an unnerving summoned out of the environment. (171) Abraham, N. and M. Torok (1994). The Shell and the
Kernel: Renewals of Psychoanalysis Vol I Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press.
29
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
of authenticity,” not the dead themselves, or our mourning for them, th at ra ises them. So
ghosts—and one may read ghosts as simply the most explicitly literalised manifestation of
‘the past’—may be individual pathologies, or emanate from a broader socia l context. 62
Garner himself has struggled with bipolar disorder and depression, and in fact suffered a
nervous breakdown while observing the filming of The Owl Service. In his interviews he has
discussed his belief in ‘engrams’, “a memory-trace, a permanent impression made by a
stimulus or experience” (literally scarred into neural tissue). 63 Garner seems to believe th a t
these engrams can be passed through generations, an inheritance of psychic injury. For him,
engrammatic memory creates a sense of “inner time”, which is “one-dimensional; or
infinite”—a kind of memory bank which accesses the collective unconscious (and generates
an intuition for myth). 64 It is out of his own psychologica l truths th at he creates h is
mythopoeia. 65
The process of mourning (and lay ing to rest) a loved object—or in Garner’s conception,
releasing the power of an engram—is complex, and not always benign. The frightening
implications of repetition are noted by Derrida when he observes in a study of Freud tha t
“repetition has the characteristics of the demonic.” 66 For the psychoanalyst Sch lomith
Rimmon-Kenan, repetition is in fact “the first presence, the first ‘performance’ of the
absence [of the lost object].” 67 “Repetition is, then,” say Sara h Goodwin and Elizabeth
Bronfen who quote Rimmon-Kenan, “a duplicitous rhetorica l strategy, for what it enacts
lies in the past.” 68 Goodwin and Bronfen, drawing on psychoanalytic theory, extend
62
Carl Jung, observing that American spiritualism coincided with growth of scientific materialism in mid-19 t h
century, suggested that “[s]piritualism in all its forms therefore has a compensatory significance.” Quoted in (95) Del
George, D. (2001). The Supernatural in Short Fiction of the Americas: The Other World in the New World. Westport,
Connecticut, Greenwood Press.
63
Quoted in (103) Philip, N. (1981). A Fine Anger: A critical introduction to the work of Alan Garner. London,
Collins.
Garner devotes much of his essay ‘Inner Time’ to a discussion of engrams, saying, “in neuro-physiology, an
engram is the term for a hypothetical change in the protoplasm of the neural tissue which is thought by some to
account for the working of memory. It is a memory-trace, a permanent impression made by a stimulus or
experience.” This theory of neuropsychology/neurophysiology has recently been largely superceded but has had
great influence. Garner additionally firmly distinguishes this understanding of engrams from that of Jungian or
Scientological belief. (113) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
64
(150) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
65
Garner says all his characters are himself, through time and maturity: “All the characters that have any vitality in
them are archetypes.” Quoted in (66) Hellings, C. (1979). "Alan Garner: His use of mythology and dimensions in
time." Orana: Journal of School & Children’s Librarianship 15(2): pp. 66-73.
In Neil Philip’s interpretation (in the only major critical text on Garner’s work), myth is seen “as the
accumulation of man’s psychic traumas”, interpreted through the individual, in a process of exorcising emotional
pain through writing—by passing on the energy. (103) Philip, N. (1981). A Fine Anger: A critical introduction to the
work of Alan Garner. London, Collins.
66
(47) Derrida, from The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, 1987, quoted in Byron, G. and D. Punter, Eds.
(1999). Spectral Readings: Towards a Gothic Geography. Houndsmills and London, Macmillan Press.
67
Quoted in (105) Goodwin, S. W. and E. Bronfen, Eds. (1993). Death and Representation. Baltimore and London,
The Johns Hopkins University Press.
68
(105) Ibid.
30
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
Abrah am’s suggestion in noting tha t the interest of mourners is, in fact, either to kill the
dead a second time as quickly as possible, or to preserve them for as long as possible in the
rea lm between living and dead. 69 It is possible th at th i s, too, is a motive of time fantasy: to
enclose the past safely between the covers of a book; or for the novels’ protagonists, to
‘manage’ the past, resolve it in some sense, and push it behind them forevermore. In any
case, whether a positive, organic multiplication or a frightening proliferation of threats,
the eternal process of recurrence both subdues the past and arouses it anew.
1.3.2 The uncanny, repetition and Doctor Freud
To make the invisible visible is uncanny.
Paul de Man 70
Written in 1919 as one of Freud’s works on cultural theory, and following a piece by Ernst
Jentsch, ‘The Uncanny’ is a short piece, much of which is taken up by, first, a
lexicograph ica l analysis of unheimlich (litera lly, ‘unhomely’), the German word commonly
translated as ‘the uncanny’, and second, a reading of E. T. A. Hoffman’s short story ‘The
Sandman’. 71 Following these two hermeneutic moments he discusses some aspects of the
uncanny, and lays out his model of it as representing the return of the repressed. 72 He
ascribes much to th is dynamic, and regression to infantile psychological states of fear and
desire—a primitive set of instincts and reactions th at, by virtue of the ir very
primordia lity, evoke feelings of uneasiness—indeed, feelings of the uncanny (the
‘unhomely’, th a t is, the uncivilised) and of terror and apprehension. 73
69
(106) Ibid.
70
Quoted in (108) Royle, N. (2003). The Uncanny. Manchester, Manchester University Press.
71
Freud works through the etymology and lexicographical variations of unheimlich, adroitly showing that ‘unheimlich’
is in fact ultimately almost a synonym for its apparent antonym, heimlich. For further explanation see Freud’s essay.
72
The essay itself, Freud mentions, emerges from an instance of return, when he dug an old paper out his desk. (xliii)
Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
It is worth noting that the topic of the uncanny features in the work of Marx, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein,
Heidegger, Lacan and Derrida, among others, and goes back to the Enlightenment and the Gothic, when as Nicholas
Royle mentions in his critique of Freud’s essay, “[t]he uncanny is a crisis of the proper […] a crisis of the natural”. (1)
Royle, N. (2003). The Uncanny. Manchester, Manchester University Press.
73
The uncanny, according to Freud, “belongs to the realm of the frightening, of what evokes fear and dread.” (121)
Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
It is only on the 23rd page of this essay that Freud cites Schelling’s definition of the uncanny as “something
that should have remained hidden and has come into the open.” 148) Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London,
Penguin Books.
Yet this is crucial to his thesis, and is reiterated several times. For Freud, the uncanny is difficult to define.
He imposes rather oddly narrow limitations upon it, saying ingenuously towards the end of his essay that, “having
considered animism, magic, sorcery, the omnipotence of thoughts, unintended repetition and the castration
complex, we have covered virtually all the factors that turn the frightening into the uncanny.” (149) Freud, S.
(2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
In a work on Freud’s essay Nicholas Royle lists several of the phenomena commonly associated with the
uncanny. The list includes, foremost, repetition (e.g. déjà vu, and the doppelganger); also coincidence (a sense of
fatefulness), animism (lifeless things becoming alive), anthropomorphism (confusion about what is human),
31
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
At the heart of the uncanny is the compulsion to return or revisit. As Royle says in his study
of ‘The Uncanny’,
[r]epetition is a key aspect of the uncanny, as Freud’s essay makes clear. The
uncanny […] involves a kind of duplicity (both doubling and deception) with in the
familiar. 74
Freud associates repetition with the death drive, an aspect of his thought not mentioned
directly in ‘The Uncanny’ (as it first appeared in Beyond the Pleasure Principle the following
year) but which h aunts it silently. Repetition itself is not necessarily alarming (in fact we
sha ll see th a t it can be positive), but among many th i ngs tha t are “frightening,” he says,
there must be one group in which it can be shown tha t the frightening element is
something that is repressed and now returns. Th is species of the frightening would then
constitute the uncanny, and it would be immateria l whether it was itself originally
frightening or arose from another effect. [My ita lics] 75
The Owl Service offers genuinely frightening episodes: the book fly ing viciously at Gwyn;
Lleu’s spear flying towards Roger by the riverbank; columns of flame threatening Gwyn in
the night-time woods and the sheep dogs herding him back into the va lley. These events
are not merely macabre but raise a frisson by the ir intimation tha t someth ing has returned,
and with malignity.
In addition to the fear of the primitive, we have also, according to Freud, a fear of
automatism and of compulsion. Again, the impression of supernatural possession in The Owl
Service: Alison, wearing sunglasses to hide her eyes, suddenly denies knowledge of the
dinner plates and, when cha llenged by Gwyn, reacts with uncharacteristic threat, causing
her copy of The Mabinogion to attack Gwyn:
automatism (the fear that humans are merely animated mechanisms, or subject to trance and madness), radical
uncertainty about sexual identity (ambiguity), fear of being buried alive (claustrophobia, abandonment), silence
(death), telepathy (invasion of privacy), and death (familiar and also terribly strange). (38) Royle, N. and A. Bennett
(2004). An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. Harlow, Pearson Education Limited.
However, Freud decides, with “special emphasis,” that “an uncanny effect often arises when the
boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred, when we are faced with the reality of something that we have
until now considered imaginary, when a symbol takes on the full function and significance of what it symbolizes, and so
forth.” [My italics] (150) Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
74
(40) Royle, N. and A. Bennett (2004). An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. Harlow, Pearson
Education Limited.
75
(147) Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
For Freud, apparently, it is a defining characteristic of the uncanny to frighten (although he also notes that
the common association of the uncanny with “death, dead bodies, revenants, spirits and ghosts” means that “here
the uncanny is too much mixed up with the gruesome and partly overlaid by it.”) (148) Freud, S. (2003). The
Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
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Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
Gwyn lashed out with h is foot and kicked the book from Alison’s hands. It landed
yards away, splayed on the grass.
No one moved. There was silence. Then, ‘You shouldn’t have done tha t,’
Alison said.
‘You shouldn’t have done tha t.’ Her knuckles were white on the edge of the
deck cha ir. Her neck was thrust forward. ‘You shouldn’t h ave done tha t.’ 76
Yet we are persistently compelled to repeat the invoking of phantoms and of frisson. “In the
unconscious mind,” says Freud,
we can recognize the dominance of a compulsion to repeat, which proceeds from
instinctual impulses. Th is compulsion probably depends on the essentia l nature of
the drives themselves. It is strong enough to override the pleasure principle and
lend a demonic character to certain aspects of menta l life […] anything that can
remind us of this inner compulsion to repeat is perceived as uncanny. [My ita lics] 77
It is not so surprising, Freud says, “th at the primitive fear of the dead is still so potent in us
and ready to manifest itself if given any encouragement.” 78 It is out of a deep ancestral
behaviour th a t we make our spectres. This recurrence of ancient instincts is itself a
reiteration of our fear of repetition, and our compulsion to perform it, a lways lay ing our
dead to rest. So it is the unwitting, repetitious, instinctual and atavistic impulse to summon
the past th a t disturbs us.79 The presence of the dead among the living is, for Freud, an
indication tha t someth ing has gone awry. And th is, for Freud, is part of the generation of
art. 80
76
(60) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
77
(145) Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
Freud also notes that “In another set of experiences we have no difficulty in recognizing that it is only the
factor of unintended repetition that transforms what would otherwise seem quite harmless into something uncanny
and forces us to entertain the idea of the fateful and the inescapable, when we should normally speak of ‘chance’.
(144)
78
(149) Ibid.
79
This relates to Freud’s theory of Mourning and Melancholia. If the process of mourning, according to Freud, is one
of laying to rest (finally killing off) the dead, then the pathological perversion of this process becomes one of constant
deferred interment of the dead; in fact, the iteration of their resurrection within ourselves or as hysterically
summoned spectres.
80
Garner, in his discussion of engrams and psychic hurt, comments on how he came to perceive the links between
his characters’ emotional injuries in The Owl Service, and his own psyche. “My experience does show,” he says, “that
a writer of fiction, willy-nilly, plants encapsulated engrams in his characters, and that disorientation, leading to
symptoms that resemble madness, can be induced when the engram is made present simultaneously in inner and
outer time. “(115) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
33
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
It is also, for all the apprehension and unease attached to it, part of the generation of
recurrence and continuity:
Our conclusion could then be stated as follows: the uncanny element we know from
experience arises either when repressed childhood complexes are revived by some
impression, or when primitive beliefs th a t h ave been surmounted appear to be once
again confirmed. 81
Garner claims all h is novels are about myths: not stuffy “retellings” but “reanimations”,
and he himself is “a transmitter, not an archivist”. 82 He turned to myth, says Neil Ph ilip,
“because of a concern, central to his writing, with the patterning of life, and with the
rela tionship of the present to the past.” Garner’s themes have, in Philip’s words, “the need
to recreate and recapture the past, not out of any feeling of nostalgia but to valida te and
define the present, and to make possible a rooted, not a rootless, future.” 83
1.3.3 Recurrence and multiplication
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
Wi l liam Faulkner84
In their work on mourning processes, critics Goodwin and Bronfen suggest th a t repetition
does not just imply a return to a previous point, in the sense of retrieving someth ing
lost, reiterating or relating a past event. Repetition also implies a plurality of
events, a sequence of actions tha t rela te to each other through resemblance. […] The
repeated event, action, or term always contradicts its predecessor because, though
similar, they are never identica l; and though recalling the unique, singular, and
original quality of the former event, the second emphasizes th at it is more than one,
a multiple duplicate, occurring at more th an one site. Repetition describes a longing
for identity between two terms even as it stages the impossibility of litera l
81
(155) Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
82
(66) Hellings, C. (1979). "Alan Garner: His use of mythology and dimensions in time." Orana: Journal of School &
Children’s Librarianship 15(2): pp. 66-73.
83
(152 and 156) Philip, N. (1981). A Fine Anger: A critical introduction to the work of Alan Garner. London, Collins.
84
Act I, Scene III, Faulkner, William. Requiem for a Nun. London: Vintage, 1975.
34
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
identity. […] Repetition not merely imita tes but also reproduces someth ing new out
of an earlier body. 85
Thus proliferation (and perhaps) its association with lack of control is a haunting
consequence of reproduction, evoking the many selves th a t are ava ilable to us, the many
rea lities we experience, and the spectra l traces of all of these made inevitably manifest
even as we seek to lay them out of sight, and as they displace themselves.
For Garner in The Owl Service, proliferation is both a mark of the endurance of the past (as
the ancient pattern plays out with trio after trio of lovers, generation after generation), and
a sign of th ings behaving against nature. The plates wh ich Alison and Gwyn find, and from
which she traces her model owls (rather th an the more benign possible flower motif), are
diff icult to keep track of, and eventually sha tter spontaneously into fragments. A copy of
The Mabinogion, the Welsh myth compendium which conta ins the relevant legend, attacks
Gwyn supernaturally and its pages explode over his fleeing body (“Not only had the leaves
disintegrated, but the paper itself was in shreds.” 86). And, in the final lines of the novel’s
crisis, the abundance of feathers th a t seems a sign of Alison’s capitulation to a tragic
destiny becomes a rain of flowers:
Someth ing touched Roger’s hand. He started to brush it away, but there were too
many. He looked up.
‘Hello, Ali.’
And the room was full of peta ls from skylight and rafters, and all about
them a fragrance, and peta ls, flowers fa lling, broom, meadowsweet, fa lling,
flowers of the oak. 87
In the nature of th is re-appearance is the crucial aspect of the return; in the return, there is
a specific form of proliferation: doubling. If for Freud the experience of walk ing down a
street in Ita ly and then, to his perplexity, finding himself shortly afterwards walk ing
down the same street, was an experience of the uncanny, then it is natural th at h is thought
in th is essay extends to discussion of the Double and his colleague Otto Rank’s work on the
subject. 88 Freud explains th a t “[t]he double was originally an insurance against the
extinction of the self or, as Rank puts it, ‘an energetic denia l of the power of death’, and it
85
(103) Goodwin, S. W. and E. Bronfen, Eds. (1993). Death and Representation. Baltimore and London, The Johns
Hopkins University Press.
86
(61) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
87
(224) Ibid.
88
(144) Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
35
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
seems likely th at the ‘immortal’ soul was the first double of the body.” When the
‘infantile’ phase of doubling changes, “having once been an assurance of immorta lity, it
[doubling] becomes the uncanny harbinger of death.” 89
‘Well, when I picked up the top plate, I came over all queer. A sort of tingling in my
h ands, and everyth ing went muzzy—you know how at the pictures it sometimes
goes out of focus on the screen and then comes back? It was like th at: only when I
could see stra ight again, it was different somehow. Someth ing had changed.’ [said
Gwyn]
‘Like when you’re watch ing a person who’s asleep, and they wake up,’ said
Roger. ‘They don’t move, noth ing happens, but you know they’re awake.’
‘He slipped when he touched the pla te, and he went a ll shadowy. Just for a second
it didn’t look like Gwyn.’ [said Alison]
‘It’s the darkest part of the loft,’ said Roger. 90
Freud goes on to say th at
a person may identify h imself with another and so become unsure of h is true self; or
he may substitute the other’s self for his own. The self may thus be duplicated,
divided and interchanged. Finally there is the constant recurrence of the same thing,
the repetition of the same facia l features, the same ch aracters, the same destinies,
the same misdeeds, even the same names, through successive generations. [My
ita l ics]91
Th is approaches a prescient description of the metempsychotic precept of The Owl Service,
which possesses a powerful sense of the uncanny and the disturbing, not least through its
intimation of the proliferation of selves. Each of the three protagonists multiplies in
identity, so th at Gwyn is also his father Huw, and the myth ical Lleu Llaw Gyffes (and,
somehow, also a fourth figure from the legend, the wizard Gwydion): “it comes to the same
th ing”;92 Alison is Nancy and also Blodeuwedd; Roger the lover Bertram, and Gronw.
W h ile the ir physica l features may differ, they may a lso combine, so tha t the mysterious
figure in Roger’s enlarged photograph previously evoked as Lleu, is identif ied by Alison as
Gwyn. Gwyn himself confuses Alison with a female body glimpsed at night in the wood.
89
(142) Ibid.
90
(18 and 27) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
91
(142) Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
92
(142) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
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Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
And Alison, succumbing to the enchantment of the legend, gazes at her apparent reflection
in an improbably distant water surface:
I’m up here, and down there, thought Alison. Wh ich is me? Am I the reflection in
the window of me down there? 93
Rank’s work “explores the connections th at link the double with mirror-images, shadows,
guardian spirits, the doctrine of the soul and the fear of death.” 94 At the heart of our fear is
th a t of both estrangement from ourselves, and of the object (the dead)—worse, these fears
combined with ourselves as dead object. 95 The particular attraction of the uncanny to the
doubling or repeated leads Maurice Blanchot to draw an analogy between ‘corpse’ and
‘image’: both are ‘uncanny’ in tha t
they suspend stable categories of reference and position in time and space. […] The
cadaverous presence is such th at it simultaneously occupies two places, the here and
the nowhere. Neither of th is world nor entirely absent from it, the cadaver thus
mediates between these two incompatible positions. Uncanniness emerges because
the corpse, resembling itself, is in a sense its own double. It has no relation to the
world it appears in except th at of an image. Thus the chiasmic rela tion: the corpse
as uncanny image/the image uncannily as corpse. 96
‘The water was glittery,’ said Alison, ‘but I could tell it was me—my colour of ha ir,
and face, and—well, it just was.’
‘You saw a blonde reflected in the water,’ said Gwyn. ‘Her ha ir came down
on either side of her face and she was fa ir-skinned. Th a t’s all you can be sure of.’
‘You’re confusing me,’ said Alison. ‘I was trying to tell you about feeling
h appy, and you go and make it a ll ordinary with your angles and mirrors. […] No,
no, no, no, no, no, no, no—’ Alison turned her face to the rocks of the cairn. ‘Don’t talk
like th a t. […] Help me, Gwyn.’97
93
(119) Ibid.
94
(142) Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
95
While the reader’s sympathetic identification is directed towards Gwyn, whose perspective dominates the
narrative, there are moments in which he is observed from the point of view of other characters, and becomes
unsettlingly opaque to the reader.
96
Quoted in (12) Goodwin, S. W. and E. Bronfen, Eds. (1993). Death and Representation. Baltimore and London,
The Johns Hopkins University Press.
97
(135) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
37
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
Th is uncanny repetition of ourselves, as eidolons (images or phantoms of a person), or in the
form of an estranged other self, is a fundamental aspect of the recurrence dynamic. 98
1.3.4 Escaping the past
Truly Time is a vast Denful of Horrour, round about which a Serpent winds and in the winding
bites itself by the Tail. Now, now is the Hour, every Hour, every part of an Hour, every Moment,
which in its end does begin again and never ceases to end: a beginning continuing, always ending.
Peter Ackroyd 99
Doubling has implications for the doctrine of independent will. As Freud observes,
embodied in the figure of the double […] in addition there are all the possibilities
which, had they been realized, might have shaped our destiny, and to which our
imagination clings, all the strivings of the ego tha t were frustrated by adverse
circumstances, all the suppressed acts of volition th at fostered the illusion of free
will. 100
Th is opening up of possibilities in the double rela tes also to the capacity of myth to close
off possibilities with its over-determining force. Gwyn’s mother is haunted by events in her
youth: events th a t seemed predestined as a recurrence of the ancient myth. For Gwyn’s
mother Nancy, to angrily deny the existence of her once-lover Huw, her long-dead suitor
Bertram, and to forbid her son to engage with the fata l pattern is a willing amnesia; but she
cannot relinquish her memories, even to enable surviva l; and she has returned to the va lley.
As Gwyn says,
‘My Mam hates the place, but she can’t get rid of it, see? It feels like every night of
my life’s been spent listening to Mam in th at back street in Aber, her going on and on
about the va lley.’ 101
98
Two ominous examples from literary biography, indeed, are poets Gerard de Nerval who, just prior to his suicide,
reported meeting his double; and Shelley, whose double allegedly appeared to him in a vision just before his death by
drowning, asking ‘How long do you mean to be happy?’ Sightings of the Double are often linked in folklore to
imminent death.
99
From Hawksmoor (1985), quoted in (44) Byatt, A. S. (2000). On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. London,
Vintage.
100
(143) Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
Avery Gordon mirrors this, indeed, noting that “the ghost is primarily a symptom of what is missing. It
gives notice not only to itself but also to what it represents. What it represents is usually a loss, sometimes of life,
sometimes of a path not taken. From a certain vantage point the ghost also simultaneously represents a future
possibility, a hope.” (63) Gordon, A. F. (1997). Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the sociological imagination.
Minneapolis and London, University of Minnesota Press.
101
(71) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
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Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
S he is damaged by the past. And when we last see her, as she ultimately abandons her son
to h is ‘fate’, she erases herself as she leaves the vall ey:
S he turned but did not stop. She walked backwards up the road, shouting, and the
rain washed the air clean of her words and dissolved her haunted face, broke the
dark line of her into webs tha t left no stain, and Gwyn watched for a while the
unmarked place where she had been, then climbed over the gate. 102
Nancy leaves; Gwyn stays, but only after, claustrophobic at the thought of repeating
h istory and confronted with the identity of h is father Huw, he rebels against h is mother
and the ‘pattern’ set for him.
‘My Dad ran away,’ said Gwyn. ‘I shan’t. I don’t want to end up like him—or you.’103
Gwyn wants to change his destiny: a working class youth, he is struggling to obtain an
education and achieve independence. He is quick, however, to perceive the myth ica l
pattern in which he feels bound, and apparently is almost ela ted at times, even as he warns
the others of the implications. In the end, in fact, it is Gwyn’s inability to overcome past
hurts th a t renders him helpless to save Alison and escape h is role. Huw, too, has struggled
and capitulated:
‘We are not free,’ said Huw. ‘We have tried too many times to be free. No lord is
free. My grandfather tried, my uncle tried, and I have tried to end it, but it has no
end.’ 104
And yet, at the conclusion of the novel, it is Roger the conservative sceptic who is able to
transform the myth for the first time even as Huw despairs:
‘He is hurt too much she wants to be flowers and you make her owls and she is at the
hunting—’
‘Is th a t it?’ said Roger. ‘Is th at all it is? As easy as th a t?’
‘—and so without end without end without end—’
102
(212) Ibid.
103
(206) Ibid.
104
(101) Ibid.
39
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 1
‘Hey, Ali, did you hear?’ Roger brushed the feathers aside. ‘You’ve got it
back to front, you silly gubbins. She’s not owls. She’s flowers. Flowers. Flowers,
Ali.’ 105
The consequences of th is transformation are left unstated; with the appearance of flowers
and Alison’s redemption the novel ends.
If the hidden—or the myth—returns, replicating itself in the presence (or in the very body)
of the living, then the uncanny is beginning to inhabit us; it is, finally, becoming not the
eldritch wh istle in the wilderness, but ‘homely’.
[…] the sky dropped lower, hiding the barren distances, crowding the hil ls with
ghosts, then lifting, and [Gwyn] looked again. Noth ing.106
105
(223) Ibid.
106
(176) Ibid.
40
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
CHAPTER 2
REPETITION AND MYTH: THE OWL SERVICE
2.1. Introduction
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead)
…so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
T. S. Eliot 107
Time fantasy in general, and Alan Garner’s work in particular, often draws deeply on
Brita in’s myth ical heritage. Myth presents the opportunity to employ classic narrative
structures (for example, the tragic love-triangle); to evoke the profundity of h istory; to
reference a powerfully resonant signifier of the past; and to imply a dimension of
timelessness. Garner, who might echo Nietzsche’s yearning for “a horizon ringed about
with myths,” 108 frequently acknowledges his fascination with the dynamic potentia l of
myth, including its potentia l to ‘recur’ in the form of anakuklosis, ‘Eternal Return’. Th is
concept, made famous by Nietzsche and later by ethnographer Mircea Eliade, suggests th a t
time, in the sacred or myth ical dimension, is not linear as secular time is, but elastic,
cyclica l, or diffuse. At the heart of it is the mechanism of repetition and recurrence: what
h appens once, in sacred time, happens always.
Having discussed some of the psychoanalytic models for recuperation and recurrence, in this
chapter I sha ll be examining the significance of myth in British time fantasy, repetition in
myth and concepts of myth ic time, and looking at the ir special implications in The Owl
Service.
107
The Waste Land (1922), reprinted in Eliot, T. S. (1969). Complete Poems and Plays. London, Faber and Faber.
108
(147) Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, XXIII, quoted in Byatt, A. S. (2000). On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays.
London, Vintage.
41
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
2.2 Myth redivivus
The lover of myths, which are a compound of wonders, is, by his being in that very state, a lover of
wisdom.
Aristotle 109
“I should like to define ‘myth’,” says Alan Garner, “as the dream-th inking of the people.
Dream. And th inking.”
Once you are involved with the culture of dreaming, then you are also involved
with time. And that results […] in considering learning to be a process of
remembering. It was the same for the Ancient Greeks, who as usual had a word for
it: ‘anamnesis’. 110
If remembering and forgetting are productive engines of modern culture, then the form of
remembering enacted in mythopoeic writing is one of the more powerful ava ilable to us as it
accesses both the global and the timeless. Literature of the modern era has confronted new
unease about the loss or sacrif ice of the past, and the advantages and prerogatives of
turning away from it, versus the loss of the succour of memory. Myth possesses the privileges
of spaceless eternity; it is always ava ilable, whether re-enacted, re-formed or revived in
modern guise. It is commonplace to declare th at modern life, vacuous and amnesiac, hungers
for master narratives and ancestor-knowledge. Nietzsche made the point in his The Birth of
Tragedy:
Man today, stripped of myth, stands famished among a ll h is pasts and must dig
frantica lly for roots, be it among the most remote antiquities. Wh a t does our great
h istorica l hunger signify, our clutch ing about us (Umsichammeln) of countless other
cultures, our consuming desire for knowledge, if not the loss of myth, of a myth ic
home, the myth ic womb?111
The British heritage of myth draws most profoundly upon its Celtic legacy: parables,
fables and narratives which have survived in oral tradition and in documents such as the
109
Quoted by Alan Garner, (28) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill
Press.
110
(150) Ibid.
Amamnesis is usually translated as remembering (recollection) rather than creating. However, it is
distinguished fron mnemne, memory.
111
Quoted in (218) Newman, K., J. Clayton, et al. (2002). Time and the Literary. London, Routledge.
See also Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1993) for a profound discussion of the
modern relevance of myth.
42
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
Welsh Mabinogion. Celtic myth, wh ile apparently particular to the British Isles and
northern Europe, possesses the universa l resonance of myths everywhere. Wh ile it is
infused with a sense of magic and supernatural, it is also often grounded in very human
stories, and possesses an apparently inexhaustible reservoir of literary potentia l.
2.2.1 Alan Garner and myth
We have to find parables; we have to tell stories to unriddle the world.
Alan Garner 112
In what sounds like an interpreta tion of collective unconscious, Garner describes myth as “a
recycling of energy […] It has passed through unknown individual subconsciousnesses, until it
h as become almost pure energy.” 113 So forms of the supernatural or myth ic have irrigated
channels of literature up to the present day, bringing readers to “the point at which,” in
Ita lo Calvino’s words, “someth ing not yet said, someth ing as yet only darkly felt by
presentiment, suddenly appears and seizes us and tears us to pieces, like the fangs of a maneating witch.” 114 The enduring popularity of the horror genre and the renaissance of interest
in the supernatural and mythology confirm, as Garner comments on his own creative
inspiration, “the need to recreate and recapture the past, not out of any feeling of nosta lgia
but to va lidate and define the present, and to make possible a rooted, not a rootless,
future.” 115
In an essay titled ‘The Death of Myth’ Garner suggests th at myth (used generica lly, with
subdivisions into fantasy, folklore and fa iry ta le) may be handled in three ways:
1.
The writer may translate existing texts and materia l.
2.
The writer may retell and rebuild using translations.
3.
The writer may reabsorb and transmute the elements of the myth.
Garner asserts th at he chooses the th ird, “wh ich is th e hardest.” 116 He further asserts th at
while h is novels are all about myths, they are not ‘retellings’, wh ich he says are “stuffed
112
(27) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
113
(66) Hellings, C. (1979). "Alan Garner: His use of mythology and dimensions in time." Orana: Journal of School &
Children’s Librarianship 15(2): pp. 66-73.
114
Calvino, ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’ reprinted in The Literature Machine, Picador 1989, quoted in (147) Byatt, A. S.
(2000). On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. London, Vintage.
115
(156) Philip, N. (1981). A Fine Anger: A critical introduction to the work of Alan Garner. London, Collins.
116
(56) Garner, A. (1970). "The Death of Myth." New Statesman.
43
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
troph ies on the wall”, but “reanimations”. The myths, he says in fact, are not selected by
h im, but rather “choose” him. 117 The writer of mythopoeics, according to Garner, produces
“distil led and violent truth”, “spiritual gelignite,” working with myth wh ich “conta ins
crysta ll ised human experience and very powerful imagery.” 118 For him, myth is natural
energy, directed and carefully handled by a writer (in fact, he uses the image of a trapped
electrical charge as a metaphor for pent-up power across time in The Owl Service, and, in
another novel, Elidor, as a means for magic to be transmitted).
Neil Ph ilip’s critical study of the works of Alan Garner notes th at “[m]yth is the crucible in
which Garner’s th inking about time has been fired. […] Once the connection had been made
strongly enough, a Stone Age axe or a painted hand were sufficient to reactivate it. 119 In
Garner’s work, myth and its rela tion to the present ‘secular’ age have been two of its most
defining elements. He has a reverentia l and yet ambiva lent rela tionship with myth. Much
of h is work is set in his native Chesh ire, a place where his family has lived for many
generations, and he is preoccupied with the significance of continuity, its power over people
and the ways in which its patterns recur (and transform).120
Garner found in Eliade’s theory of the Eternal Return a framework to develop fiction “in
which sequentia l, causal, ‘h istorica l’ time is set against and enlarged by a ‘mythological’
concept of time as elastic, cyclic, recoverable.” 121 It is th e conflict between the static (or
stable) and the fluid (or perilous), and negotia tion with time th at pervades Garner’s work.
In Garner’s words, “the form of myth is concrete”: it is most satisfy ingly rea lised through
embodiment in a rea l story. 122 Butler quotes Garner on the amplif ication of secular
117
(111) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
118
Quoted in (31) Walsh, R. (1977). "Alan Garner: A Study." Orana: Journal of School & Children’s Librarianship
13(2): pp. 31-9.
119
(150) Philip, N. (1981). A Fine Anger: A critical introduction to the work of Alan Garner. London, Collins.
120
Garner observes, in an essay concerning the importance of the Alderley Edge area in Cheshire, where he has
always lived and closely researched its history and geology, that “[a]s a result of gained knowledge, for me the Edge
both stopped, and melted, time.” (13) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London,
Harvill Press.
Garner’s early novels, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, were in the tradition of High
Fantasy for young readers, combining knowledge of Celtic and Scandinavian mythology with the conventions of
‘magic portals’ and adventurous child protagonists in what is often described as Tolkien-esque, rather self-conscious
children’s fantasy. With subsequent novels, such as Elidor and The Owl Service, Garner concentrated his narratives
more closely upon the intersection between myth and life, and depicted progressively older protagonists.
121
(150) Philip, N. (1981). A Fine Anger: A critical introduction to the work of Alan Garner. London, Collins.
Philip gives as an example of this, the Eve of Gomrath, in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, “one of the four
nights of the year when Time and Forever mingle.”
122
“I am using the word ‘myth’ not as meaning ‘fiction’ or ‘unhistorical’ but as a complex of story that, for various
reasons, human beings see as demonstrations of the inner cause of the universe and of human life. Myth is quite
different from philosophy in the sense of abstract concepts. The form of myth is concrete always, yet it holds those
qualities that demand of the human mind that it recognise a revelation of the function behind the world.” (27)
Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
44
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
experience through access to an enlargening mythopoeia: “the story can ach ieve universa l
rather th an particular significance only insofar as it partakes of the myth.” 123 Garner states
th a t the most difficult task is to make the reader absorb myth in order to make it relevant.
“Th is absorption, if it works,” he says,
is the most positive form for the myth to take, because the life of the myth is
h anded forward. It doesn’t matter if the story changes, since what we take to be the
original story is no more th an the earliest form tha t we have. When it works, the
writer is a transmitter, not an arch ivist. 124
“Are we, then, lost: condemned to feed our imaginations with only the most secular level of
myth, nailed to linearity?” Garner asks. “We are not. Can we write the world? We can; if
we are willing to pay.” 125 He sees the power th at remains in the modern; his characters
iterate the undiminished potency of old patterns. He presents the violence, pitilessness and
ambiguity of myth; at the same time he dissects the anguish of modern experience and
identity, using myth as a diagnostic tool to examine contemporary ailments. In the bleaker
of h is works, such as The Owl Service and Red Shift, neither the old world nor the new is a
restful, stable place. It is meanness of experience tha t he excoriates above all. A kind of
poetry is h is solution: one tha t resonates with the echoes of time.
Ph ilip observes th a t a lthough Garner’s use of myth has evolved throughout his career, “it
h as a lways been used to sharpen our perception of emotional, intellectual or spiritual
potentia ls which are either crushed or ignored in a ma teria listic, vicarious society.”
Garner turned to myth because of a concern, centra l to h is writing, with the
patterning of life, and with the rela tionship of the present to the past. Gradually,
the myth receded, as he found stories which would hold the charge which in the
first two books is supplied by the folk lore, not the cha racters […] As his career has
proceeded he has concentrated more and more on the centra l pattern, approaching
h is themes directly rather th an obliquely through th e mediation of myth. 126
123
(86) Butler, C. (2006). Four British Fantasists: Place and culture in the children’s fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan
Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper. Lanham, Maryland, Children’s Literature Association and The
Scarecrow Press, Inc.
124
Quoted in (66) Hellings, C. (1979). "Alan Garner: His use of mythology and dimensions in time." Orana: Journal of
School & Children’s Librarianship 15(2): pp. 66-73.
125
(155) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
126
(152) Philip, N. (1981). A Fine Anger: A critical introduction to the work of Alan Garner. London, Collins.
45
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
For Garner, writing is a muscular, diff icult conflict, as is well documented in his interviews.
Carol Hellings describes how “in transforming a myth , or distorting dimensions in time, he
brings himself a lmost to the point of menta l collapse in his attempts to free himself to a
point where he can ‘tap energy’.” 127 Garner himself observes th a t, “although I have no
specific religious belief, working it out is a religious experience, almost an act of
forgiveness.” 128
Ultimately, for Garner, myth is a profound dynamic wh ich has everyth ing to do with
contemporary identity and place. “Myth,” he says, “is not enterta inment, but rather the
crysta ll isation of experience”; further, “[m]yth encapsulates the nearest approach to
absolute truth th at words can speak.” 129
127
(67) Hellings, C. (1979). "Alan Garner: His use of mythology and dimensions in time." Orana: Journal of School &
Children’s Librarianship 15(2): pp. 66-73.
128
Quoted in (67) Ibid.
129
(62 and 28) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
46
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
2.3 Mythic time
Now these things [myths] never happened, but always are.
Sa llustius 130
There is a long tradition of cultures, going back to the most primordia l, which h ave
understood th a t time as it applies to myth ic or religious consciousness is not like the time
experienced by quotidian mortal rea lity. In his book on the myth of the Eternal Return,
Mircea Eliade discusses the ways in which ancient (primarily Indo-European) cultures
formulated a double concept of time: linear, secular chronology; and a more diffuse, infinite
‘singularity’ of sacred time, which may be entered at any point, for they are all the same.
Repetition is the core of th is access: and repetition ensures tha t comprehension or belief in
cyclica l time is at the heart of myth.
Two types of time are commonly delineated in most cultures with a strong socio-religious
consciousness: sacred and secular time. These are not always, but very often identifiable
with the Greek terms kairos and chronos. Greek thought includes a double understanding of
time: linear time is chronos; eternal, myth ic time, with its cycles and tota lity, is kairos.
(Crucially, kairos is reversible, an aspect wh ich has relevance for literature preoccupied
with putting the dead to rest and confronting the Uncanny. The dead can be unslain—or
disinterred. 131)
Plato, in his Politicus, expla ins th a t time, as it moves the celestia l spheres and measures
their revolutions, is “the moving image of unmoving eternity.” Thus in Greek thought, with
both myth ic kairos and linear chronos at work, noth ing is ever lost or gained in the universe;
no event is unique but has occurred countless times and will go on occurring forever; and thus
the essence of perfection, the still point of these ceaseless cycles, is immobility and
immutability themselves. 132 The implication of th is metacosmesis (periodic renewal of the
world) is th a t everyth ing will come around again; and so as long as the mechanisms are
mainta ined and the balance kept, all will be well in th is fata listic paradigm.133 Celtic
culture, upon which much time fantasy relies, has a similar appreciation of godly time and
130
4t h century, translation by Gilbert Murray in Five Stages of Greek Religion. New York: Columbia University Press,
1925, p. 179.
131
The myth of a returning god or hero is the most universal: death followed by resurrection. See the legends of Jesus
Christ and King Arthur, and also fairy tales like Snow White.
132
Plato, Politicus, quoted in (88) Eliade, M. (1954). The Myth of the Eternal Return. New York, Pantheon Books.
133
How are we to escape the circles of habit and inevitability and make a new world—one which enables individual
agency—without any possibility of breaking out of historicity and without breaking history itself? Nietzsche warned
of a distorting historical fever—that history could become an excuse not to act and not to accept the fullness of life.
Cited in (140) Maier, C. S. (1993). "A Surfeit of Memory? Reflections on history, melancholy and denial." History and
Memory: Studies in representations of the past 5: pp. 136-151.
47
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
the possibility of eclipsing linear time. In Eliade’s words, for the ancients “[t]he past is but
a prefiguration of the future.” 134 This construction is echoed by Alan Garner when he says
“[f]rom with in us, from our past, we find the future answered and the boundary met.” 135
Myth ic time can be not only a diffuse, embracing golden age, but also a prison of
determination. (Th is is an implication tha t Garner works seriously in his fiction, as I sha ll
discuss below.) This troubling of paradise recalls the ambivalence of the uncanny, with its
simultaneous yearning to recover the lost, and its apprehension of the spectre. Texts which
enact the turning of myth ic time into ‘adult’, linear time evoke through their realistic tone
a more psychologically complex landscape, encompassing conflict, ambiguity and
disappointment—the loss of enchantment. Ch ildren’s fantasy literature often features
protagonists in puberty who are reluctant to mature and lose the ir childhood grace. The
stories thus frequently portray rites of passage. Th is movement, notes Joseph, a lso draws us
through ‘adulthood’ towards death. 136 If death is usually considered the close of a story,
then in works th a t summon any aspect of the uncanny, its return of the dead, and the
possibility th a t in myth ic time death is not the end, we see two opposing dynamics at work.
It is out of th is tension that some of the most effective children’s fantasy literature obta ins
its impact.
134
(89) Eliade, M. (1954). The Myth of the Eternal Return. New York, Pantheon Books.
135
(108) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
He acknowledges Eliade’s influence on his thought, and refers in one lecture to “the late Professor Mircea
Eliade, in whose precision of discourse I have often found my instincts to be defined.” (55) Garner, A. (1997). The
Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
136
(224) Joseph, M. (2002). 'Worlds Enough—and Time’, review of Maria Nikolajeva’s From Mythic to Linear: Time
in Children’s Literature (2000). Children’s Literature: Annual of The Modern Language Association Division on
Children’s Literature and The Children’s Literature Association. E. L. Keyser and J. Pfeiffer. New Haven and
London, Yale University Press. 30: pp. 221-28.
48
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
2.3.1 Mythic time and narrative
Among countless stones, one stone becomes sacred.
Mircea Eliade 137
Fiction, including time fantasy, is story-tell ing: tales which may be read again and again:
in illo tempore, ‘once a upon a time’ is how many ta les start. Maria Nikolajeva observes th at
story-telling itself is a ritual act, “a re-enacting of recurrent myth ica l events,” 138 echoing
Garner’s comment th a t
in the telling of a specia l truth, we are entering a different time, a different space,
an eternity th a t, by the telling, is perpetually being created here and now. The
clock may be ticking, but we, while listening to the story, are in sacred time. 139
Eliade too makes the observation tha t
[m]ore strongly th an any of the other arts, we feel in literature a revolt against
h istorica l time, the desire to atta in to other temporal rhythms th an th a t in which
we are condemned to live and work. One wonders whether the day will come when
th is desire to transcend one’s own time—personal, historical time—and be
submerged in a ‘strange’ time, whether ecstatic or imaginary, will be completely
rooted out. As long as it persists, we can say th at modern man preserves at least
some residues of ‘mythological behaviour’. 140
We know myth best, these days, through text. Myth ic narratives, however, continue to
permeate our paradigms, and our compulsion to retell myth seems never to abate. Myth’s
ability to transcend time does not lessen, nor its narrative tense become more ‘perfect’; in
fact, as we move away from its origins, th is quality only becomes more potent and the tense
remains ‘present continous’.
137
(4) Eliade, M. (1954). The Myth of the Eternal Return. New York, Pantheon Books.
138
Quoted in (228) Joseph, M. (2002). 'Worlds Enough—and Time’, review of Maria Nikolajeva’s From Mythic to
Linear: Time in Children’s Literature (2000). Children’s Literature: Annual of The Modern Language Association
Division on Children’s Literature and The Children’s Literature Association. E. L. Keyser and J. Pfeiffer. New Haven
and London, Yale University Press. 30: pp. 221-28.
Garner observes his belief that “[b]y reciting a myth, the storyteller remembers a creation, and, by
remembering, is a part of that creating.” (155) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures.
London, Harvill Press.
139
(152) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
140
(192) Eliade, M. (1964). Myth and Reality. London, George Allen & Unwin.
49
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
2.3.2 Childhood time
The child lives in a mythical, paradisal time.
Mircea Eliade 141
“The circular character of narrative time in archa ic thought,” suggests Nikolajeva, “has
been reflected in children’s novels because the Arcadian time of individual ch ildhood is
similar to the myth ica l time of the childhood of humankind.” 142 For children, time is not
yet fully paced out; for very small children, as perha ps for archa ic (especia lly for preh istoric) humans, there is little concept of linear time. It is appropria te th a t children’s
and adolescents’ literature forms one of the most evident platforms for examining the
workings of myth, since it is in the dreamy, apparently eternal introversion of childhood
th a t time has its most plasticity. For Valerie Krips, in the economy of time fantasy
literature
[r]esurrection implies change: the ch ild of the second golden age, rising from the
ashes of the first, will remake what is to be remembered of childhood, refiguring
the site of memory. 143
But more ominously Freud perceives th a t (in Hugh Haughton’s words),
141
(77) Ibid.
142
(10) Nikolajeva, M. (2000). From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature. Lanham, Md., & London, The
Children’s Literature Association and The Scarecrow Press.
Noting that it is critical for the purposes of her study “that contemporary Western children’s fiction is
written from a philosophical viewpoint based on linear time, which has a beginning and an end, and recognizes
every event in history as unique”, she divides all children’s literature into 3 categories, according to their
representation of temporal structure:
1.
An irreversible, linear flow (Collapse)
2.
A recurrent, reproducible pattern (Utopia)
3.
Something in between (Carnival).
(38) Nikolajeva, M. (2000). From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature. Lanham, Md., & London, The
Children’s Literature Association and The Scarecrow Press.
This identification of recurrent, that is, mythic time as Utopian derives for Nikolajeva from the Arcadian
dreaminess of both childhood and primordial experience. In a review of Nikolajeva’s book, Michael Joseph
summarises one implication of these models, in relation to what they suggest about fate or individual place in history:
“In Arcadian literature, personal development is inconceivable; in Carnival literature, it becomes a tantalizing
possibility; and in Collapse, it figures as the preeminent element, the purpose or consolation of suffering.” (222)
Joseph, M. (2002). 'Worlds Enough—and Time’, review of Maria Nikolajeva’s From Mythic to Linear: Time in
Children’s Literature (2000). Children’s Literature: Annual of The Modern Language Association Division on
Children’s Literature and The Children’s Literature Association. E. L. Keyser and J. Pfeiffer. New Haven and
London, Yale University Press. 30: pp. 221-28.
The Owl Service, with its recurrent, reproducible pattern, seems to fit into Nikolajeva’s Utopian model. A
character like Gwyn strains towards change but ultimately is unable to totally achieve it; his anguish forms an
important element of the novel. Yet at least one of the protagonists appears to profoundly change at the book’s
climax. Roger’s apparent change of heart was criticised by some reviewers as implausible, but one might argue that it
is his germane affection for Alison that triumphs, rather than Roger undergoing a fundamental development.
Charles Butler comments that Roger must change himself, not just Alison’s vision, through sacrifice and pity, into
someone who can see flowers instead of owls. (74) Butler, C. (2006). Four British Fantasists: Place and culture in the
children’s fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper. Lanham, Maryland,
Children’s Literature Association and The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
143
(65) Krips, V. (2000). The Presence of the Past: Memory, heritage, and childhood in postwar Britain. New York &
London, Garland Publishing.
50
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
childhood is where the repressed, archa ic pre-Enligh tenment world of primitive
religion, returns in perpetually re-invented home-made forms, forcing us in some
sense to repeat or recapitulate such primal myths as those of Oedipus or Moses, and
such beliefs as animism and ‘the omnipotence of though ts’. 144
2.3.3
Novelistic time and synchrony
I think that the fact that we have in some sense been forbidden to think about history is one reason
why so many novelists have taken to it.
A. S. Bya tt
145
In her book on subjectivity in adolescent fiction, Robyn McCallum reviews the ideas of
Domenick LaCapra, who in his work on novelistic time, and drawing on antecedents in
Structuralist thought such as Gérard Genette , distinguishes ‘diachronic’ and ‘synchronic’
dimensions of time. As McCallum expla ins it, “[diachrony] designates movement over time
involving change; synchrony ‘stops’ time at a given moment and displays its ‘sameness’ or
‘nowness’.” 146
Diachrony and synchrony are two ways in which to experience time imaginatively. Myth,
and its recurrence, is one way to inhabit both simultaneously. 147 Novelistic time is another
interaction between these two dimensions. Synchrony is, as McCallum points out, the
dominant mode of modernist literature, with its focus on multiple viewpoints of the same
event, and recurrence with change.148 And th is adeptness with multiples and alternatives is
144
(xlix) Introduction by Hugh Haughton to Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London, Penguin Books.
145
(11) Byatt, A. S. (2000). On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. London, Vintage.
146
(133) McCallum, R. (1999). Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction: The didactic construction of subjectivity.
New York and London, Garland Publishing, Inc. .
147
Kairos can be integrated with chronos through rituals, rites and festivals—as repetition. In contemporary
literature, it is also sometimes used for carnivalesque or parodic purposes. (5) Nikolajeva, M. (2000). From Mythic to
Linear: Time in children’s literature. Lanham, Md., & London, The Children’s Literature Association and The
Scarecrow Press.
148
(133) McCallum, R. (1999). Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction: The didactic construction of subjectivity.
New York and London, Garland Publishing, Inc. .
McCallum observes that the prevailing tradition in literature at least up to the early 20t h century was that
of diachrony, with a linear narrative structure depicting consequent events. (This exegesis is not the place to deeply
investigate theories about narrative time. See, inter alia, the works of Paul de Man and Paul Ricoeur.)
McCallum further relates synchrony/diachrony to Mikhail Bahktin’s theory of the chronotope: a term
which represents “the intrinsic interconnectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically
expressed in literature.” Quoted in (184) McCallum, R. (1999). Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction: The
didactic construction of subjectivity. New York and London, Garland Publishing, Inc. .
Nikolajeva, according to McCallum, is the only critic to apply chronotope theory to children’s literature.
Like Bahktin, she uses it mostly to differentiate between genres, seeing a historical shift in children’s literature from
simple, logical chronology structures towards “sophisticated” (i. e. polyphonic) texts with complex chronotope. This
is given also a gendered interpretation. For Nikolajeva, ‘male’ texts are often dominatingly linear in their treatment of
time, and space is open; ‘female’ texts see time as circular and space as closed and confined. (98) Nikolajeva, M.
(2000). From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature. Lanham, Md., & London, The Children’s Literature
Association and The Scarecrow Press.
51
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
only heightened in post-WWII literature. Alan Garner is preoccupied in his fiction and
criticism with the points at which the two types of time intersect. Myth, for him, following
Eliade, is out of time, “sacred time” or “inner time”; myth ic time is “where everyth ing is
simultaneously present.” 149
As McCallum says in discussion of Garner’s Red Shift and a novel by Jill Paton Wa lsh,
The use of narrative and discursive repetitions in novels such as Unleaving and Red
Shift disrupts linear and teleological concepts of time associated with diachronic
dimensions of time, and implies instead cyclica l concepts of time. These are linked
in Unleaving with personal memory and in Red Shift with myth ic or collective
memories. 150
In Garner’s The Owl Service both Gwyn and Roger experience someth ing at the same time
(Gwyn ‘flickers’ as he picks up the owl service plates; Roger senses a spear being thrown at
h im), though these episodes are presented separate ly in the narrative, and each from the
protagonist’s (th ird-person) perspective.
Someth ing flew past [Roger], a blink of dark on the leaves. It was heavy, and fast,
and struck hard. He felt the vibration through the rock, and he heard a scream.
‘And you came stra ight up from the river,’ said Gwyn. ‘Didn’t you? Work it out,
man. We both felt someth ing, and it must have been near enough at the same
time.’ 151
For Jean Baudrillard,
The tense of the mythologica l object is perfect: it is th a t wh ich occurs in the present
as having occurred in a former time, hence th at wh ich is founded upon itself, th a t
which is ‘authentic.’ The antique is always, in the strongest sense of the term, a
‘family portra it’: the immemoria lization, in the concrete form of an object, of a
I would argue that Garner, a male writer, resists this interpretation.
149
(152 and 205) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
150
(133) McCallum, R. (1999). Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction: The didactic construction of subjectivity.
New York and London, Garland Publishing, Inc. .
151
(15 and 45) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
52
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
former being—a procedure equiva lent, in the register of the imaginary, to a
suppression of time. 152
In other words, myth ic time performs what a fictional work also attempts, retrospectively
compressing, elasticising and fracturing time as it is portrayed in a narrative. In his study of
the mythopoeic, Eleazar Meletinksy notes th a t
in the modern novel, mythological time has come to substitute h istorica l or
‘objective’ time, since action and events, no matter how specif ica lly they are
grounded in time, are presented as manifestations of eternal prototypes. The
universal time of history is thus metamorphosed into myth ica l a h istoric time. 153
“Time,” suggests Neil Phil ip, “is Garner’s most consistent theme, and at the root of all h is
th inking about it lies the idea th a t wha t is important of human life endures, and does not
decay.” 154 In The Owl Service Alison, becoming ‘possessed’ by the spirit of Blodeuwedd, tries
to describe her disorientation to Gwyn:
‘Noth ing’s safe any more. I don’t know where I am. “Yesterday”, “today”,
“tomorrow”—they don’t mean anyth ing. I feel they’re here at the same time:
waiting.’
‘How long have you felt th is?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Since yesterday?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know what “yesterday” was.’
‘And that’s what’s frightening you?’
‘Not just th a t,’ sa id Alison. ‘All of me’s confused the same way. I keep
wanting to laugh and cry.’
‘Sounds dead metaphysica l to me,’ said Gwyn.155
But Gwyn himself has become aware of time’s plasticity:
And Gwyn began to play with time, splitting a second into minutes, and then into
hours—or tak ing an hour and compressing it to an instant. No hurry.
152
Quoted in (109) Krips, V. (2000). The Presence of the Past: Memory, heritage, and childhood in postwar Britain.
New York & London, Garland Publishing.
153
(275-6) Meletinsky, E. M. (1998). The Poetics of Myth. New York and London, Garland Publishing, Inc.
154
(16) Philip, N. (1981). A Fine Anger: A critical introduction to the work of Alan Garner. London, Collins.
155
(96) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
53
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
His concentration was broken once, when he was alarmed by the quick
drumming of hoofs, but the next moment he grinned as a motorcycle swept along the
road. Its headlamp spun shadows in his face.
K ick start! 156
And he comes to suggest to Roger th a t the events play ing out are not diachronic but
synchronic.
‘Not haunted,’ said Gwyn after a while. ‘More like—still h appening?’
Later, Alison, alone on the mountainside, also comes to sense th is:
Stil l: noth ing changes here. Rocks and bracken. It could be a thousand years ago.157
Th is sense of timelessness is both invigorating and vertiginous:
‘How long has th is been happening?’ said Gwyn. He held the rusted fragments of a
dagger in its sheath .
‘There’s no saying. But we of the blood must meet it in our time, and we bring
here what we have.’
‘I didn’t understand,’ said Gwyn. ‘I’m all numb inside.’
‘I know.’158
Above all, according to his own cla ims, in his writing Garner is interested in pursuing the
possibilities of “the revela tion of a truth in a dimension of timelessness.”159
2.4 Myth and repetition
Falling towards nothing
Again and again and again and again and again and again…
The Cure, ‘A Forest’
156
(85) Ibid.
The sound of the motorbike, it is implied, is that of Bertram’s fatal ride after Huw had sabotaged his
vehicle years before. The noise recurs throughout the novel. The sound of hoofs suggests Lleu Llaw Gyffe’s own fatal
ride to kill his rival by the riverbank.
157
(73 and 128) Ibid.
158
(193) Ibid.
159
(152) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
54
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
Eleazar Meletinsky reflects on the implication for repetition in a narrative of myth ic time
in which noth ing happens ‘once’, but ‘always’:
Besides myth if ication as an instrument by which narra tives are structured, other
elementary structures are used – repetition, for example. […] the leitmotif, the
repeated quoting of phrases, the expla ining of a motif through entire scenes, and
the contrapunta l link th a t exists between these motifs. 160
Repetition, of course, is a device deeply associated with epic and archa ic literary forms.
Maria Nikolajeva has followed Garner’s interest in Eliade’s treatment of preh istoric time
and its plasticity in her study of myth ic time in fantasy. Like Meletinsky, she notes th at
one of most interesting narrative devices in texts concerning myth ical time is their
‘iterative frequency’: telling once about an event which h as taken place several times; as
opposed to singular, or retelling a single event again and again, sometimes from different
perspectives. 161 As with h is subsequent novel, the even more explicit Red Shift, Garner uses
The Owl Service to create a powerful narrative frisson out of just th is phenomenon: the
apparent intersection of (at least) three periodic re-enactments of the ‘same’ event.
One of Garner’s centra l concerns, in Neil Ph ilip’s words, is “with patterning, with
repetitive cycles of experience, which he has explored by structuring his stories around
myths and legends.” 162 Garner’s employment of repetition (narratologica l and thematic)
comes not only from his increasingly stylised means of expression, but from his deep concern
with the economies of myth. “The story,” Garner himself asserts, “is the medium through
which the writer interprets the reality; but it is not the reality itself. The story is a
symbol, which makes a unity of the elements, hitherto seen as separate, th a t combine
uniquely in the writer’s vision.” 163
Charles Butler also comments:
[p]erhaps the simplest way to consider the intersection of linear and myth ical time
in Garner’s fiction is through h is regular use of the trope of repetition. […] In each
case, the books deal with situations, actions, and perceptions th at occur at separate
160
(276) Meletinsky, E. M. (1998). The Poetics of Myth. New York and London, Garland Publishing, Inc.
161
(8) Nikolajeva, M. (2000). From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature. Lanham, Md., & London, The
Children’s Literature Association and The Scarecrow Press.
162
(21) Philip, N. (1981). A Fine Anger: A critical introduction to the work of Alan Garner. London, Collins.
163
(41) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
55
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
points in time but th a t share a myth ic identity th a t obliterates time’s distance. As
the repeated refra in of Red Shift has it: ‘The distance is gone from between us!’ 164
The Owl Service, as already observed, has at its heart the apparent repetition of a
particular pattern, and while tropes, motifs and characterisations are evidently presented
as repetitions, so too are some phrases and images. Alison’s reflection in the water is
interpreted as the face of Blodeuwedd; a silhouette glimpsed in Roger’s photo of the
riverbank where Lleu Llaw Gyffes is suggested to have stood in previous photos is
identif ied by Alison as Gwyn. Phrases such as “I don’t know” appear repeatedly. 165 Gwyn,
on comprehending what Huw tells h im of the timeless pattern, says, “‘I felt I could blow
th a t house up just by looking at it’”; Roger, a few pages later and perhaps at the same
moment in time, says, “‘Th is house: I feel I could put a bomb under it.’” 166
Repetition implies continuity, and in the novel th is is presented as either consoling, or
prescriptive:
‘Have you noticed how you can hear the river, even though it’s so far off?’ said
Gwyn. ‘And the motorbike going up the pass? Sound rises. Listen to th at river. It’s
what lasts. Wherever you go you can think of th a t noise, and you know what you
hear in your head is in the va lley at the same moment. It never stops. It never
stopped since it began. It was the last sound Lleu Llaw Gyffes heard before he was
killed. Gronw heard it in his turn. We hear it now.’
‘Gwyn—’
‘S h h. Don’t be frightened. Listen.’
‘Don’t you people round here ta lk about anyth ing else?’ said Roger. ‘You’d th ink it
was the only th ing tha t’s ever happened in this va lley.’
W h irr [went h is camera].
‘Th at is right,’ said Huw.
Click.
‘Finished,’ said Roger. 167
164
(85) Butler, C. (2006). Four British Fantasists: Place and culture in the children’s fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan
Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper. Lanham, Maryland, Children’s Literature Association and The
Scarecrow Press, Inc.
165
For example, ‘She is the lady,’ said Huw.
‘So?’
‘And she has come.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘I don’t know.’ (100) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
166
(196 and 198) Ibid.
167
(140 and 75) Ibid.
56
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
For many critics, including Jungians, and Structuralist theorists such as Vladimir Propp,
myths are universa l structures, which in Terry Eagleton’s words “have a quasi-objective
collective existence, unfold the ir own ‘concrete logic’ with supreme disregard for the
vagaries of individual thought, and reduce any particular consciousness to a mere function of
themselves.” 168
In his fiction Garner examines the burden of myth’s endless reiteration, and its overdetermining disabling of free will. Th is echoes Nietzsche’s development of thought on the
Eternal Return in The Gay Science and Thus Spake Zarathustra. “And must we not return and run
in th at other lane out before us,” he asks, “th at long weird lane—must we not eternally
return?” 169 Nietzsche calls the idea of Eternal Return “horrify ing and para lyzing,” and says
th a t its burden is the “heaviest weight” imaginable.
Certa inly, Garner is cognisant of the oppressive potentia l of the past, as well as the very
human ways in which th is impulsion may also console, define and propel its subjects. One
possible reading of The Owl Service is as a cautionary ta le, illustrating the dangers of
credence in the past’s influence, or of the wrong interpretation of it. Not only does Alison
‘choose’ to see a pattern in the first place, but she sees malign owls instead of flowers in the
plates’ design:
‘It’s dead clever the way she traces the patterns out so it fits together,’ [said
Roger].170
Gwyn, pursuing Alison through night-time woods, is beset by apparently spectra l flames,
and in panic remembers what Huw has told h im:
Th is is where Huw’s old feller went mad. Get me out of here. Get me out of here. 171
The flames are revea led to be marsh-gas, but Gwyn’s sensitised imagination has figured
them as supernatural, malevolent avatars of the legendary past herding him against h is
will. On the other hand, Roger’s father, the glib and parvenu Clive, too easily dismisses
the past:
168
(90) Eagleton, T. (1996). Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford, Blackwell Publishers.
Eagleton cites Vladimir Propp’s canonical work on the seven main narratives of folk tale.
169
Nietzsche, F. Thus Spake Zarathustra, part 3, passage 46, < http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1998> accessed
19/2/2008
170
(50) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
171
(88) Ibid.
57
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
‘Why did he stand there and let it h appen?’ said Roger.
‘Because he killed the husband the same way earlier to take the wife.’
‘Tit for tat,’ sa id Clive. ‘These old yarns, eh? Well, I must be off.’ 172
And Gwyn’s mother Nancy combats the force of the past, first by denying or silencing her
memories of it, and then physically, if impotently, by attacking an artefact of it (the
stuffed owl shot by her lover Bertram):
Nancy lashed about her at the paper models which winged in the air around the
leaping woman and the dead bird th a t filled the room and stuck to her wet cloth ing
and even to her skin and to her ha ir. […] Nancy was fighting the swirled dust. 173
Of The Owl Service, Charles Butler remarks:
To ignore the past leads to willful ignorance and charla tanism, both apparent in
the attitudes of Roger and Clive [Roger’s father]; to see it as wholly determinant of
the present may lead to a helpless fata lism, increasingly evident in Huw and even
Gwyn. In The Owl Service, as in many of Garner’s books, we find a complex
negotiation taking place between the desire for autonomy, on the one hand, and the
shaping power of parents, environment, and place, on the other.” 174
Neverthe less, Garner seems to present the force of the past as someth ing th at cannot be
denied. Gwyn’s resistance to completing the ‘pattern’, and his refusal to offer Alison
forgiveness (or to finally attack Roger as Lleu once attacked Gronw) at the conclusion of the
novel leaves h im excluded from the novel’s final moments.
‘You are the three. You have made th is together,’ said Huw.
‘I’m not doing anyth ing for them. I’ve finished.’ 175
As noted, the phrase ‘I’ve finished’ recurs in varia tions throughout the novel from Gwyn,
Roger and Huw.176 And yet neither Gwyn nor Huw is able to finish h is part in the drama.
Garner’s ambiva lent message seems to be th at one must cha llenge the dictates of the past,
but they must be also acknowledged.
172
(44) Ibid.
173
(203) Ibid.
174
(75) Butler, C. (2006). Four British Fantasists: Place and culture in the children’s fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan
Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper. Lanham, Maryland, Children’s Literature Association and The
Scarecrow Press, Inc.
175
(220) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
176
In his essay ‘Philately & The Postman’ Garner parses Christ’s last word, tetelestai, usually translated as ‘It is
finished’. Interestingly, he suggests that implicit in the word is also a sense of ‘Now I can begin again.’ (138) Garner,
A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
58
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Chapter 2
For Garner, myth, with its eternal truths, lies at the heart of his vocation to speak the
truth:
The story th a t the writer must reveal is no less th an the truth. And by ‘truth’ I
mean the fabrication through wh ich rea lity may be the more clearly defined. […]
The job of the storyteller is to speak the truth; but wha t we feel most deeply cannot
be spoken in words. At th is level only images connect. And so story becomes symbol;
and symbol is myth. 177
Towards the novel’s conclusion Garner offers an acute image of the natural force of pattern,
in the marks left in a dusty room by Alison’s paper model owls, which h ave eerily clustered
around the stuffed owl Bertram shot during his courting of Nancy. Roger at first th inks th a t
Alison has put the paper owls there, but then he sees th a t the dusty floor is undisturbed but
for trails left by the owls’ supernatural passage:
“it was a pattern tha t had the balance and precision of iron filings in the field of a
magnet or of peta ls in a flower, and the magnet or the heart of the flower, from
which a ll lines started and to which a ll lines came.” 178
In the present continuous tense of myth, the paradigms of the past have enormous force.
Their terribilità is compelling; the ir timelessness may make evasion through even modern
fa ith in individual agency impossible. They threaten, in Garner’s work, to coerce the
present. And yet myth’s endurance and pervasiveness is also a consolation, a framework to
remind us tha t even in an age of apparent obliterating amnesia we are profoundly connected
to our ancestors, th a t individual anguish is not singular, and tha t human experience is, after
a ll, a great truth th a t may sing through millennia in resonant refrain.
177
(27) Ibid.
178
(202) Garner, A. (1967). The Owl Service. London, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd.
59
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Conclusions
60
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Conclusions
CONCLUSIONS
Through art, we are able to break bread with the dead, and without communion with the dead a fully
human life is impossible.
W. H. Auden 179
The main research question posed by Breaking Bread with the Dead concerned the possible roles
in time fantasy of recurrence and return. Their signif icance proves to be multiva lent. These
elements can signify consoling or claustrophobic inevitability, either supporting us in the
modern era with cognisance of our antecedents and linking us to an overarch ing humanity, or
coercing the present into a compulsive re-enactment of past pathologies. They can provide a
frame upon which to pin a particular narrative, using the common time fantasy conceit th a t
there are para lle ls between past and present events (awareness of which may propel a
protagonist into maturity), or be fundamenta lly integra ted into the form of the narrative
itself, as repetitions and reiterations serve a deliberate and reinforcing stylistic purpose.
They can intimate vastness (a numinous sense of time’s infinity) or be applied to the
particular in a specific narrative focus. In time fantasy, recurrence and repetition function as
morbid restorations, mechanisms of myth ic eternity, and ceaseless reminders th a t no single
event exists in isolation.
“Melancholy too is fugal or double-tracked; it involves an experience and the experiencing
of experience,” remarks Charles Maier in an essay on the surfeit of memory. 180 One way to
experience and re-experience melancholy, loss and nosta lgia is through literature, th a t
prism of rea lity. In time fantasy literature we see ambiva lence to the past; wariness and
apprehension of the past; nostalgic yearning for the past; and, above all, reverence of the
power of the past and its endurance. The melancholy a ttendant on reviving someth ing lost
and passed is enacted in time fantasy, but so is the eternal attempt to learn from history,
esteem the present, and ground ourselves for the future.
It is possible to see in time fantasy a ratif ication of nosta lgia, a groping backwards into a
contrived version of the past to draw it more comfortably into the present. This may be a
recuperative gesture, a pathological response to post-War loss and historica l anxiety. Or it
may be a sophisticated negotia tion of modern ambivalence to heritage, one tha t
acknowledges the evasiveness of ‘the past’ (or ‘pasts’) and displays the problematics of
179
Interview with The New York Times, 7 Aug 1971.
180
(138) Maier, C. S. (1993). "A Surfeit of Memory? Reflections on history, melancholy and denial." History and
Memory: Studies in representations of the past 5: pp. 136-151.
61
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Conclusions
approach ing it. Wh a t is drawn out of the past in late time fantasy is, more often than not, a
disruptive shadow, not an arcadian idyll.
For psychoanalytic theorists such as Freud and Nicolas Abrah am, the summoning of
spectres comes from a compulsion to return—whether to complete a process of mourning or to
act out primitive, repressed childhood anxieties. The sense in much time fantasy of a past
which presses claustrophobica lly upon the present suggests th at th is is very much an oeuvre
of haunting. The past may visit unbidden, in the form of a ghost, a disorder of present-day
life, or a reiterated, forceful pattern of behaviour. Protagonists of these fictions must
confront the ir own ambivalence, the ir own sense of identity or will, and the ir own place in
h istory. For the characters in The Owl Service, the legend of Blodeuwedd may determine
their destinies, but they are shaped equally by their own histories, and more th an one type
of mysterious force must be allayed before they are free. Haunting can be a troubling and
destructive experience, even if the spectres are ultimately la id to rest, but it may be
necessary. As Avery Gordon points out, for any protagonist (or reader), “the ghost is noth ing
without you.”181
Return and recurrence are a fundamenta l engine of haunting. The dead who lie quietly in
their graves can provide no narrative. But return is also a redemptive, transcendent
dynamic in the world of myth. The hero who overcomes death is saved—and a saviour. In
the world of myth ic time, noth ing is ever “finished” or lost; an over-arch ing dimension of
sacred (or “myth ic” or “inner”) time allows us to elude mortality and find, again and again,
a world, in Mircea Eliade’s words, “uncontaminated by time and becoming.”182 In The Owl
Service myth is a threat, but it is also a great truth, and its power to return is not only
undeniable but illuminating. For Gwyn, Alison and Roger, as well as the reader, its touch is
th a t of the numinous, the vast, and the eternal. It is both inhuman, and very much a tribute
to the endurance of humanity.
In The Owl Service, recurrence and return form the main premise of the novel, even as it
apparently portrays a modern realist scenario of young adults grappling with personal
tensions. The novel successfully evokes a Welsh myth to suggest, first, th a t the
rela tionships and conflicts between Gwyn, Alison and Roger embody a timeless human
pattern: the love triangle. Its allusion that such a pattern is profoundly ancient offers the
possibility of a capitulation to inevitability, yet the narrative consistently presents
opportunities for the protagonists to cha llenge th is idea. Garner uses repetition of phrases,
181
(179) Gordon, A. F. (1997). Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the sociological imagination. Minneapolis and London,
University of Minnesota Press.
182
(89) Eliade, M. (1954). The Myth of the Eternal Return. New York, Pantheon Books.
62
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Conclusions
images of doubling and confusion of identity to emphasise his concern with the power of
reiteration. In the conclusion of the novel, however, it is individual decision th at provides
the agency for overcoming the engine of recurrence. Garner believes deeply in the continuity
of the past with in the present; he speaks of it as a “truth”, but he seems to conceive of
repetition as a form tha t, a lthough it may appear to mechanica lly and endlessly reproduce
itself, in fact may transfigure with every replication towards a new edition of “truth”.
There are, time fantasy suggests, no single moments. W h a t was yesterday’s legend may be
today’s haunting; what is today’s decision may be drawn backwards in time to become
yesterday’s history; wha t is performed today may be tomorrow’s spectre. Time is an
element in which we swim, not walk. So return and recurrence are not only pathology, but an
immutable aspect of human experience. As avatar of the past, the returning myth or ghost
may be a threat, but it is also a consolation. As eternal form, the myth or ghost may be a
crushing presence, but in time fantasy it is also a parable about human truth, one from
which we may learn much. In Alan Garner’s words,
Literature exists at every level of experience. It is inclusive, not exclusive. It
embraces; it does not reduce, however simply it is expressed. […] We have to find
parables; we have to tell stories to unriddle the world. 183
183
(27) Garner, A. (1997). The Voice that Thunders: Essays and lectures. London, Harvill Press.
63
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Bibliography
64
Breaking Bread with the Dead: Bibliography
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72
Darkness Visible: An
exploration of recurrence
Part A
The Sacrifice
A novel submitted in (partial) fulfilment of the requirements for the
degree of Master of Arts (Creative Writing)
Kate Holden
(BA Hons)
School of Creative Media
Design and Social Context Portfolio
RMIT University
August 2008
DECLARATION
I certify th a t except where due acknowledgement has been made, the work is th a t of the author
a lone; the work has not been submitted previously, in whole or in part, to qualify for any other
academic award; the content of the exegesis is the result of work which has been carried out
since the officia l commencement date of the approved research program; and, any editoria l
work, paid or unpaid, carried out by a th ird party is acknowledged.
Ka te Holden
6 August 2008
THE SACRIFICE
© Kate Holden 2008
2
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I would like to th ank the RMIT Masters of Creative Writing by Research group 2005-8, for all
their support, feedback and collegia lity. In particular I am grateful to Craig Garrett for his
consistently thoughtful and intelligent critiques of drafts of th is project. I would also like to
especia lly th ank my primary supervisor, Antoni Jach, for his enormous generosity with
criticism, discussion and encouragement.
In addition I extend thanks to Varuna—the Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains and Peter
Bishop, its director; and especia l gratitude to Matt Pritch ard and Margot Holden, for their
critica l suggestions and copy-editing of the exegesis.
THE SACRIFICE
© Kate Holden 2008
3
AUTHOR’S NOTE
Th is novel is entirely imaginary, but I have based the historica l and folkloric references on
materia l found in the wonderful local history section in the library of Dea l, on the east coast of
Kent in the UK, and in the local h istory museum of nearby Sandwich. I extend my th anks to the
anonymous volunteer custodian of the museum. The village of the novel is an imagined
combination of Dea l and Sandwich. Old Soar is the rea l name of a nearby village.
I have consulted more history books, documentaries and folklore collections than I can list, but
one crucia l text was Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return (1954). I learned much of
Celtic religion and history from books such as The Celtic Realms (2000) by Myles Dillon and
Nora Ch adwick, and Celtic Myths (1993) by Miranda Green. The quote on p. 30, ‘Grief is stronger
th an the sea…’ is taken from ‘Exiles of the Sons of Uisliu’, an early Irish saga, found in Dillon
and Chadwick’s book. I was also inspired by many time fantasy novels, particularly Penelope
Lively’s Astercote (1970), Nancy Bond’s Country of Broken Stone (1984), and Alan Garner’s The
Owl Service (1967).
Several wonderfully generous friends and colleagues read drafts and offered
invaluable criticism: Tegan Bennett Daylight, Mandy Brett, Laurie Clancy,
Christine Darcas, Michael Heyward, and my mother, Margot Holden, who
copy-edited the manuscript for me.
I would like to th ank my supervisor Antoni Jach for h is unflagging support, and my colleagues in
the RMIT Masters of Creative Writing by Research group 2005-8 for their feedback on the
manuscript and general helpful encouragement; Varuna—the Writers’ House in the Blue
Mountains and Peter Bishop, its director; the Copyrigh t Agency Limited fellowsh ip committee,
for offering me the Second Book Fellowsh ip at Varuna in which to develop th is novel; and
Nicholas Ranshaw, for very kindly a llowing me to stay in his house in Kent and have the
le isure to explore the beautiful, uncanny and haunting landscapes of history there.
The story of the flint in the tree may seem like a novelist’s excessive fancy, but if one goes to the
churchyard at Ringwould, Kent, one may see a yew tree estimated at over th irteen hundred
years old, split and hollowed as the tree in my book is, and in the lintel of the bark, a very old
and mysterious stone embedded there. Long may it reside and keep its secrets.
THE SACRIFICE
© Kate Holden 2008
4
Dedicated to my sister, Jenny Holden.
A sacrifice, for example, not only exactly reproduces the initial sacrifice revealed by a god
ab origine, at the beginning of time, it also takes place at that same primordial mythical
moment; in other words, every sacrifice repeats the initial sacrifice and coincides with it.
All sacrifices are preformed at the same mythical instant of the beginning; through the
paradox of rite, profane time and duration are suspended. […] there is an implicit
abolition of profane time, of duration, of “history”; and he who reproduces the exemplary
gesture thus finds himself transported into the mythical epoch in which its revelation
took place.
Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return
THE SACRIFICE
© Kate Holden 2008
5
PROLOGUE
There are rivers in England that call to passers-by. They want a drowning. Every
year, three years, seven years. Someone must come and be lost. It’s time.
The hour is come but not the man.
A wailing, a mewing; a shriek, a sob. The river’s voice. A man might stop,
stare, listen. His friends will notice, or perhaps he’s alone. A woman, on her way to
bring her man’s dinner in the field; a drunk on his way home from the pub; a child
listening to the moan.
The hour is come but not the man.
The river is not one to spill its banks and grab. The victim must come
willingly. He must step, deliberately, nearer. Down to the bank, down to the shining
water. Or, better, if he runs. Into the shallows, deeper into the current, the chill
around his knees, his waist. His organs shrinking from the cold, his heart hot, mouth
open.
Deeper still.
Then the water will rush down, fast, singing, and take him. Holy, offered,
precious, gone.
There was once a man who stood frozen beside the river and when his
friends urged him to walk on with them, did not shake his head or laugh or come,
but remained standing, watching the river with a strange smile. And when his
friends shook him he began to run. He rushed to the water—but his friends seized
him, and took him to a church, to prevent him taking to the depths, and left him
there locked inside, to come to no harm. And when they opened the church door in
the morning there he was, on the floor beneath the holy water font, all the holy
water all over his face, his lips wet and his breath gone.
The hour is come but not the man.
How the river calls, calls, calls.
THE SACRIFICE
© Kate Holden 2008
6
Part One
THE SACRIFICE
© Kate Holden 2008
7
Joss lies in bed early in the morning. She’s always wanted an upstairs room; the breathy
delight of looking out of an open window, looking down. At home in Australia, living
with her older sister Rebecca and Rebecca’s husband Mark in their rented house, she’d
been stuck out the back in a little room next to the laundry.
This new room of hers, now, is emptier than she’s ever known. She had to leave
most of her books in Australia, crammed into a storage cubicle. We’ll send for them,
Rebecca had said. Her little mattress on the floor. Briefly she misses her collection of
books with a mental pain like a hunger cramp.
But there’s a grace in emptiness too. A kind of clarity. Perhaps she’ll never fill
this room.
The light of the early morning creeps across the mattress on the floor. It’s only
five thirty. Jet-lag. She’s awoken as instantly, vividly, as if someone had touched her and
spoken her name. The first thing she is aware of thinking is Yes.
The house is quiet but she can hear the trees, and seagulls flourishing themselves
in the clean air. The building hides in its little cowl of land. Joss imagines the rooms
below, empty since Mark’s ex-wife Diana went to hospital to die, their stillness, the sun
and light washing in and out of them, the doors unopened, the window-frames settling
more snugly in their sills. Perhaps the house was surprised when Joss and Rebecca and
Mark arrived last night. Perhaps it was sleeping. The house doesn’t feel hostile. Perhaps
this morning it too awoke and said Yes.
In Australia Joss never knew when someone would walk past her door. Now she
writhes slowly against her sheets and ploughs a hand down to between her thighs.
It’s new, this secret. It took her a long time to master it. At first she’d felt like a fool,
sweating and grimacing and fiddling away in search of something she’d only heard
about. Don’t you do it? the girls at school asked her. Of course, she’d said. The first few
times it didn’t work. But her fingers have learnt their tricks. The first time it was like
being drenched in water, the surprise of it. Every muscle rigid with shock, and then a
relaxation more profound than she’d ever known. Oh yes, she’d thought, and made it
happen again.
She’s not especially pretty, thin, or fit. Her pants are tight in the seat and thighs,
her arms are from time to time speckled with spots. She doesn’t get a lot of attention
from boys, but that’s fine with her. The boys she knew at school stank. In class the room
was loud with the sound of mouth-breathing from slack jaws. Touching any of those
boys would be like sitting in dirty bath-water.
THE SACRIFICE
© Kate Holden 2008
8
Though there was Sam in her class. He hid his face beneath dark hair, his berry
cheeks and bright eye. He’d talk to her, peeping up sideways through his hair, droll and
clever. She’d liked Sam. But his hand, when he’d taken hers on the night of the school
concert, was damp, and she’d smelt something different on him, a sharp, body-ish smell,
dark and unexpected: not-Sam. There was a moment when she knew she was meant to
kiss him, and she’d felt her heart cramming her ribs, had faltered, and let those
tremendous seconds pass. The next morning the feeling she’d had was, most of all, relief.
Then it was too late.
She brings Sam’s smile to mind, but it won’t adhere, it sags away. Her fingertip
circles, slowly, luxuriously. The thing that fascinates her is the images that do flush up in
her mind’s eye. A cavern scooped from her, a well dropping. An arched bow of thin
wood, as she rises on the backs of her heels, her belly tight now, the bed hard beneath
her shoulders as her head thrusts backwards and her thighs tense rigid. Her fingers work
and work at her flesh, tiring; she concentrates on finding the thread of tension, stringing
it through every tendon. She sees an opened mouth, she sees water, a glimmering, a
bared throat, a head tipped back, her own face, she sees herself engulfed. More and
more urgently, almost with panic, she jabs her fingers at herself—a hot hand of blood is
laid across her brow—something collapses inside her, she thinks she will plunge through
the bed; she bucks and coils, holding her breath, holding her breath; she’s drowning.
She lets go. All over her, sweat and relief.
Has she made a sound? Is that a footstep?
It’s nothing. The house composes itself around her once more. Joss lies there,
giggling silently, smoothing her clever hands down her hips.
Anything is possible here.
::
Mark has gone out, to buy milk and bread and some basic groceries so they won’t starve.
He got up early, when Rebecca was still floundering in sleep, and went into town. She
heard him say, ‘I’m sure I remember where everything is.’ Then she had plunged back into
sleep so dark it bruised.
Being alone in the new house is good. It’s still morning, but Joss isn’t up; how
quiet it is here. Rebecca runs her fingers along the windowsill of the bedroom, looks at
the old lock on the sash. The wood beneath the paint is soft with age.
THE SACRIFICE
© Kate Holden 2008
9
She’s weary. They’ve come across the world, switching time-zones and seasons,
all that long ploughed way over the seas, picking up the car at Heathrow, the long
dreamlike drive to the house as dusk stained out the daylight.
Joss walks down the hall to the bathroom and shuts the door in Rebecca’s face
and Rebecca just stands there a moment in the passageway. Her younger sister is not a
precious teenager in general, but she can emit resistance like a fume. It’s hard to know
what will set her off. Joss seems to hold her head one muscle more tightly since she
turned fifteen. Within the bathroom the shower turns on, full. The water-tank clanks and
hisses. Rebecca goes to the front door, opens it, pauses on the threshold.
The house is in a declivity, about a hundred metres wide; around it the land
rises, so the house seems half-sunk in the earth. Rebecca has asked Mark for the reason
for this strange hunkering, but he didn’t know. ‘It was Diana’s house,’ he said. ‘It suited
her, to be a bit hidden away.’
It faces the road, shaded by a tunnel of trees where the road turns in front of the
gate. Beyond that, to the right, is a thicket of trees and past that, further around, above
the rising of the ground, Rebecca can see the gold of a field.
A seagull strays across the sky. They are near the sea, but not in sight of it. It’s
very quiet. There’s a burger wrapper lying by the verge. The road-sign, black letters on
white, points in one direction to the village and a windmill, and, to the other in green
and white, to Canterbury. On the way in, the other evening, she saw another sign
labelling this a Pilgrim’s Way.
Rebecca looks out on it all now in a kind of amazement. Then she shuts the door
and goes upstairs.
The bags lie, bulked with clothing, on the bedroom floor. Some of Diana’s
furniture is still here; she had spent the last months of her life in hospital, and her family
has removed the personal belongings and cleaned the dust from the sills, but the bed
remains, a dresser and some tables and chairs. For now, Joss is sleeping on a mattress on
the floor in her room at the end of the hall. Not quite like a furnished house: but there’s
still the sense of Diana in the way the bed is tucked into an awkward corner of the
room, the dresser of beautiful teak balancing it across the room. Rebecca sits on the bed.
That’s enough, she says, and stands to begin unpacking. Outside, through the
window, she can see the field baking gold, and the line of dark trees edging it at the
horizon. The shapes are so mild here, the horizon is close.
::
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Mark returns with milk and bread and a look of exhilaration on his face.
‘I can’t believe how little the place has changed,’ he says, placing the plastic bag
on the table and pulling out a newspaper and a map of the town. ‘I got you this, so you
can see where everything is, but I’ll show you around. Oh god, it’s strange being back.
Ten years! It feels like no time.’ When they all arrived at the house the other night,
Rebecca had seen Mark’s lips tighten and still with each room they entered. Once these
were his rooms, too.
Mark’s work as a geo-physicist involves scanning the earth with electronic
equipment that takes mysterious signals of depth and density from below the surface.
Each stratum, or buried object, is revealed to his equipment as a stain or wriggle on a
white screen. Clusters, blurs and concentrations of substance. As a younger man in
Britain he’d used this in the archaeological field, helping to decipher remnants of old
settlements submerged below grassy fields, but in Australia, he turned his work towards
surveying for property development on vacant lots. He can see at a glance when there is
a blockage to be cleared, an unsuspected flow of water, or a hidden dump of things left
behind to get in the way of the bulldozers.
He married Rebecca two years ago. She hadn’t expected it of herself, to be a
bride for crying out loud, and to this man with his hair in a dark cowl around his skull
and his slightly dry skin. But he had put his lean hand on her arm, and stood very close,
and she felt a tremor of relief that ran through her and out again before she had a chance
to turn her feminist glare on it, and she said, smiling gently, ‘You’re ridiculous, marrying
a stringy chick like me.’ And then it was done. Besides, she’d felt, at thirty, more like a
middle-aged woman. It was eight years since her parents died in a car crash; she’d
proved that she could survive, could take care of things. She was tired of being alone.
And there was her little sister Joss, needing a second kind-of parent, to think of. She
hadn’t expected that either but there she’d been, since twenty-two, mother to her own
sister, struggling alone. And five years before all of that, she’d been an only child. She
wasn’t sure, at times, whether the feeling that still spread amply in her belly was shock,
dismay, or pride.
After some toast Mark is poking about upstairs and Rebecca opens the back
door to find a walled garden, soft pink bricks holding a cup of warmth and light. It is
calm and quiet here, sprung with ivy and flowering weeds, more weeds feathery all over
the beds within. In one corner an old fruit tree is espaliered against the wall, its brittle
dark branches puffing out thick white blossom. The over-grown grass is still wet with
dew even so late in the morning and in the clean morning light it glitters like tinsel. The
sun is frail on her face. In Australia such a direct sun on the face would prickle and burn,
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she’d be looking for shade, she’d be making sure Joss had a hat. Here the sun only
warms, it doesn’t penetrate. Her bones feel light as pumice.
There is no one to see and for comfort Rebecca slips a finger inside her
underpants and lays her hand on her belly. Like a young child does. The sweet comfort
is good. She just rests her hand there, quietly. The morning is like a breath exhaled.
A tickle, a shock; Joss is teasing her face with a frond. Rebecca damps down the
sudden smack of panic, pulls her hand out of her pants and smiles. ‘All right there?’ She
scratches her nose.
Joss is ignoring the hand. ‘It’s amazing.’
‘I’m glad you’re here,’ Rebecca says, rubbing where the tickle remains on her
cheek. The sight of her sister seems inordinately reassuring here. She had drifted into
feeling quite strange. ‘I’m really glad you came.’
‘I had no choice!’ But Joss is smiling. ‘There was a horrible boy at school who was
always asking me out, I had to escape. It was either that, or stab him and flee anyway.’
‘All the way to England. Can you believe we’re in England?’
Joss sits, balancing on a stray fallen brick, looking up at the pale blue sky. ‘The
sky seems lower.’ She looks around at the garden, the unfamiliar wildflowers. ‘It’s like a
book.’
‘Ridiculous,’ Rebecca agrees. ‘Nearly revolting.’
‘It’s like walking into some kind of dream. All the times I’ve seen England on TV,
and here it is. I was expecting football hooligans and everyone whining; you know, rain.
This is great.’
‘It’s hot,’ Rebecca says, ‘who’d have thought?’ The skin on her arms is flushed.
‘Well.’ Joss dusts her bottom free of brick-dust. ‘Think I’ll leave you in peace.’ She
strides off.
In some places the vegetation is as high as a girl, but there are still faint seams in
the chaos, where a planting bed is limned with bricks.
It was like a plot in a children’s book when Mark returned from the lawyers two
months ago. Back in her childhood Rebecca had read many a tale of children sent away
to houses in the English countryside, or irresponsible parents buying old tumbledown
castles, where secrets lay and adventures awaited. As a child she’d yearned for such a
thing to happen, but now it dismays her. Rebecca had not known what to say when
Mark told her Diana had left him the house. His hands, pulling the cap off a pen,
pushing it back on, pulling it off, as he faced her across the living room, the sound of the
seven o’clock news starting on the television.
‘Didn’t she have anyone else to leave it to?’
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‘It was ours. It was all in her name, after the divorce, but—it was ours once. She
knew I’d want it back.’
A pause.
‘Do you?’
Mark twirled the hard end of the pen into his palm. ‘It’s there.’
‘So far away,’ Rebecca murmured.
‘Australia was far away to me once. And if I’d never come here, I wouldn’t have
met you.’
‘Can we think about it?’
‘I still can’t believe she’s dead.’
‘I said, can we think about it.’
His hands seemed raw and aged, the knuckles red. He rubbed a finger into his
eye. ‘It’s there. You know we should go.’
It wasn’t as if it was hard to give up the cramped house she and Mark and Joss
shared in Melbourne but every day as she boxed up her belongings for storage, put
another part of herself away, judged what little she’d need, it had seemed unreal. It’s
true that Mark would be happier. She’d picked up homesickness in him from time to
time over the years—as his mother back in England grew older, as he began to grow
older himself. He’s had ten years in Australia and it’s only fair to turn about. She
remembers the surprise of the first time he had reminded her of all he’d given up to be in
Melbourne.
‘But you love it here! You always say you’re glad not to be back in grisly old
England.’
‘Yes. It’s just… Sometimes you have to go back. It’s not right, not to go back.’
She hopes she’ll find a new way of living—find a job, find a school for Joss. It
seems enormous, starting up a whole new life. ‘Choice is sacrifice,’ she remembered her
father telling her once. ‘For everything you gain, you’ve let something else go.’ She
swallows down the gulp of anxiety. The sun is warm on her teeth. She presses the back
of one hand to the wall behind her, the rough scrape of it against knuckle, and waits. It
is just stone. But Rebecca feels that it is real, and that’s enough for now. Maybe soon
she’ll feel real too.
The silence is like glass. She thinks that surely it isn’t possible to be so alone here.
There’s always someone watching her, or it has always felt like it. She moves carefully,
always, because of that. A certain selfconscious set to her mouth. Now, apart from Joss,
singing to herself somewhere in the weeds and Mark, upstairs, there is no one. Rebecca
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wonders how long it will take, in this isolated place, before she relaxes. She shuts her
mouth and closes her eyes again, just in case someone sees.
There’s the sound of weeds brushing stone, hushed as hair, someone breathing
out, and then no more sound.
::
This coast is one long, gently wavering strip of shingle and marsh, where reeds grow
sparsely among pebbles almost down to the water, where the land appears as flat as the
sea beside it. Marsh flattens the contours of the land, and banks of shingle have shoved
up beneath the rich green grass of this lip of England. It is a very old place, and in the
way the sea has deposited more land over centuries, also a new one.
The house is on the outskirts of an old town jammed up against the eastern
shore. It was once a handsome town, renowned for its port and pride: kings and queens
embarked here, houses were snug with imported luxuries, and the wharf was bright with
gilded poops. It is still pretty, still proud, but the river silted up and the sea withdrew
its custom long ago. Now it is sleepy, a quaint old village really, where tourists wander
in little quiet groups and its young people walk resentfully through the little medieval
streets, banging their hands idly against the old lurching timbers and squealing loudly,
for the echo.
Mark takes them for a walk around town. It’s the first day. He leads them
through the little streets, past the river thick with reeds and the battered little fishing
boats idling at the quay, past pubs called The King’s Head and The Greene Man. Joss
stops to marvel at a wooden gargoyle craning out from a corner. Her sister smiles at her
curiosity and Joss walks on quickly.
The shops of the high street are mostly plain Georgian with blank brick walls and
small doorways, or cake-icing Victorian. A greeting card store, the usual chain outlets,
Woolworth’s, an old-fashioned bakery and butcher’s, another pub. There are baskets
hanging from many of the windows, filled with bright flowers. Joss squeals when she
sees a thatched roof and a tile scratched with the house’s date.
‘1590! Look at how old that is!’ She stares at it in wonder.
Mark walks ahead, with the ostentatiously casual pace of the guide. Rebecca and
Joss linger to look in the shop windows, as if they’d never seen hardware supplies,
cheap women’s clothing, ugly lampshades before.
‘The village church,’ says Rebecca. ‘Oh what a cliché.’ It looks just like the dark
stone churches at home, with a severe dark pointed steeple and thick stone lintels, but in
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Melbourne they’re no more than a hundred years old, pastiches of the real thing in
England. This might be hundreds. It is cobbled all over with lumps of dark rock like
growths.
‘There’s a better one near our place.’ Mark takes her arm. The footpath is narrow
and it’s hard to walk together. A car goes past, very fast and loud, with a shavenheaded young man at the wheel. He turns a raw face to stare as the car plunges past.
‘There’s your next boyfriend,’ Rebecca tells Joss.
‘Oh, shut up.’
They have coffee at a table outside a pub, watching the locals. The street is busy,
the people utterly ordinary. Joss keeps chanting examples of the flat, sing-song accent
under her breath to amuse the others. ‘They all sound so wistful,’ Rebecca says. ‘As if
they expect to be slapped.’ No one takes any notice of the new citizens. Mark points out
that there are no Asians or black people to be seen.
The village is called Soar. ‘Funny word for a place, isn’t it,’ he says to Joss. ‘It’s
an old Norman word. Means something like “grief”, but that’s just the countryside being
poetic for you.’
They walk out of the village again, taking the long way home through some of the
outer roads. For all its flatness, the land seems to change constantly. There are, after all,
little shallow hummocks and grooves. To one side of the road, towards the coast, the
land drops a little where the sea has slowly deposited silt and shingle to make a soft
fertile strand between the old shoreline and the new. Lines of dark trees hem the
meadows and roads, fresh green in these early days of summer. The fields are pale, the
crops already ripening in vast neon blankets of yellow. There are hedgerows everywhere,
springy with wildflowers and stalks. Three massive concrete cooling towers of the power
station, pale as dust and smoothly shaped, rise out of the horizon not far away, almost
beautiful in their sculpted simplicity, serene and pale as if shaped from clouds. The sky
above is vast and flattened, as if caught in a panoramic photograph, its clouds skewed
sideways.
‘It’s so much greener than home,’ Rebecca says. She’s thinking of the parched
straw on the nature strips, even during the autumn they’ve just left.
She has an unsettled feeling, as if her thoughts are floating like a dish on top of
water. Not quite stabilised. This is the first time she’s been out of Australia and it seems
impossible, implausible, that reality can be so concrete in a place she’s never been. She
would rather like to be back in their little bedroom in Melbourne, where everything was
where she’d put it, the very paint on the walls smelt like her. That room, where she lived
for two years: she can see it so vividly in her mind but already framed, like a painting. A
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still life, because that room is now dismantled and everything packed away or given
away or thrown away, and now she herself is away, far. The house they’ve come to live
in is bigger, and charming, with its jumble of rooms and softer light in the windows, and
she knows she’s lucky, but that morning she had awoken for the first time in the new
place and all she could think was: I’ve never slept in an upstairs room before, there’s too
much air beneath my bed. Like a tree house, but without the close cage of branches
around her.
‘The Roman fort,’ Mark says, pointing across to the towers. ‘Just in front of that.
The first proper fort they made, and the last one they sailed from centuries later.’
‘How Famous Five,’ Rebecca says absently. ‘Joss, you’ll have to go and have a
‘scramble’ around there with your ‘chums’.’
‘Picnics, lashing of ginger beer, smugglers, spies…’ Joss says, trailing a hand along
a hedgerow.
‘Actually Soar was a real smuggling town,’ Mark says. ‘And there was a huge
depot here in the First World War. Sending supplies to Flanders, bringing the bodies
back.’
‘I guess it’s so close,’ Rebecca says.
‘St Augustine landed just next to those towers, and the Vikings.’
‘I should hope so.’
‘Henry the Eighth built the castle…’
‘Least he could do.’ The corners of her mouth are turning up mischievously.
Mark perseveres. ‘Famous shipwrecks, secret stuff going on in the second war,
Lord Nelson, all the battle ships just off the coast…’
‘Sounds just like home.’
They unlock the front door and walk into the house with the unfamiliar smell.
‘Time for a cuppa,’ says Mark, and his voice is already more English than ever.
::
Mark sits in one of the stiff-backed wooden chairs in the lounge room. Rebecca next to
him, hands in her lap, cup of tea on the floor. The movement of the trees outside keeps
catching her eye; she pulls the rings off her fingers, nervously, twirls them around and
around in her fingertips.
The room is oddly half-furnished: a table, two dining chairs, an old wire
magazine rack. Nothing else, dust hanging in the air. Diana’s relatives have plundered
the house of all the comfortable items.
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Joss is sitting on the table, where she has been writing her diary. Face fierce and
intent, she writes from time to time: clearly their advent to England has provoked an
entry. Perhaps she’s taking notes from what Mark is saying, as he gives another of his
awkward little lectures.
The pre-historic settlers came here, he says. He went to the museum in London,
years and years ago, and he still remembers how simple were the oldest things. ‘Flint
tools. And wood. Big branches of yew that they found in the bogs. You could still make
a table from them. Just those two things, so simple and durable.’
‘There are things just as old in Australia,’ Rebecca observes.
‘Not quite!’ Mark is amused. ‘Aborigines arrived in your country 50,000 years
ago, more or less. A long time, I know. But imagine. This place—this very spot where
your chair is—has been inhabited for many times that, an inconceivable number of
years…’ Rebecca wants to say something about Australia, Mark can’t simply make these
sweeping statements, and anyway, he’s wrong; but he talks on. ‘The Celts were here,
too. Later.’
Joss looks up. All her life she’s read mythology, history books. To her, ‘Celtic’
means Stonehenge, druids, mistletoe, mysterious rites at dawn. ‘The Saxons, the
Normans, the rest,’ Mark goes on.
‘Tell me Celtic stuff.’
‘They were pretty frightening,’ Mark says. ‘Mysterious, very poetic. Obsessed
with sacrifice. I remember reading something gruesome about it once. They’d cut the
heads off children and hung them from hooks, a whole ghastly row of them. They put
the heads of their enemies in the trees.’
Rebecca raises an eyebrow. She’s been gazing absently at the trees outside the
house, their softness, solidity, the felted darkness of them massed around the building.
She has been feeling something for these trees she doesn’t know, a kindliness. They’re
animals to her, animals with quiet memories, sitting there, moving and immoveable.
‘…or they murdered young men and left them in the bogs and the wells. And god,
they were vicious. They didn’t just kill a man; they drugged him, hit him with a stone
axe, strangled him, cut his throat and pushed him in the water.’
‘Why?’ Joss is fascinated.
‘They were very careful about nature, I suppose. They wanted to propitiate the
gods. Keep the balance right. Nature gods are the most powerful, you know. These Celts
were here in a dark place. It was all forest around here then. All forest, right down to the
sea. A huge carpet of trees, it would have been terribly dark and scary. You’d think all
sorts of things in a place like that. I’d have been putting things at the foot of trees too, if
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they’d only not crush me. The Romans called it Silva Anderida, “the wood where no one
lives”.’
‘I love that,’ Joss says. ‘I like the big ones. Oaks? With the leaves like hands?’
Mark smiles. ‘Quercus. Isn’t that a wonderful word? Quercus. I looked it up, when
I was planting the garden with—’ That quick check to his emotions. ‘The trees weren’t all
native, of course. They came over from Europe too. Migrants, like everything else. That
idea that England has always been ‘England’ is just bullshit. And they still come, you
know. There are trees here, now, that people brought back from Japan, Russia, America.
Even Australia. There are gum trees here.
‘People, maybe people in Australia think of England as always being British,
these goodly blond stout people, at least until the last forty years. My gran used to hate
the idea of outsiders. But the country’s always been a mix, people coming and going.
And this part, this has been the starting-place for so much of Britain. It was on the coast
just here that Julius Caesar turned up’
‘He might have walked right past this house,’ Joss says.
Rebecca is listening, but she’s not really engaged. It’s a long time since she thought
of history, except her own. In Australia, she’s heard, it’s said that the indigenous people
go into the future with their faces pointing at the past. She doesn’t know quite what that
means. The future has always been unreal to her: a haze barely worth peering at. But the
past is no clearer, or more enticing. Really, she sometimes thinks in cranky moments, the
past is all best swept away. What’s that quote? History is a lie agreed upon. In
Australia, it’s complicated, thinking about history. Whose history, who can tell it, and
all the really old, ancient history of the country tied up in land and memories and stories
that she doesn’t even know, or know who to ask. She has no Aboriginal friends to ask.
And it seems wrong to learn their stories out of books. They’re not book stories, after all.
‘Don’t you think, Rebecca?’
Her thoughts are with the trees now, how they hem the house, how they make her
feel safe. Joss is leaning forward, though, rapt. Mark talks on.
‘This road—did you see the sign? It’s a very old one. The freeway we took down
here from London: part of that is Watling Street, the old Roman highway. A lot of the
roads around here were used by the Saxons, and they followed the old Roman ‘ways’.
God knows if they were used even before then. A road is a road. If it’s a good way,
people will always use it.’
‘We’re sitting on history,’ Joss says.
‘We certainly are.’
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‘In Australia… I know it’s a very old place. But it always feels like, like there was
no one there before. I don’t mean that ‘terra nullius’ stuff we did at school. I don’t mean
that it doesn’t count, what went on before the whites. More just… There’s nothing to say
there were people living where our house is. I know they were there, but…’ Joss says. She
flaps her hands. ‘I can’t wait to see something really old.’
Mark laughs. He’s pleased that someone is interested. All this history he has in
this place, this country, and he’s never spoken of it. All the facts and stories inside him.
In Australia he’d usually confined himself to appreciating the modern lifestyle and
mocking the nation’s ignorance. He glances over to Rebecca. ‘And you? Are we going to
find you prettily decorating the trees with heads?’
‘I’ll find something,’ she says. ‘Just watch me.’ She looks at him steadily.
Mark turns away and Joss goes back to her diary, writing furiously now, and
Rebecca watches Mark thinking of the past, his face motionless, as she crams her rings
on and off her fingers.
::
When she was a little girl, Joss sat in her backyard and dug for treasure. Maybe the local
tribes had walked across this land; maybe lived right here. But there was no trace in the
buffalo grass. All that was unimaginable, in that pale suburb where the gum trees grew in
straight lines along roadsides. She dug up broken glass and tattered plastic; in the dusk
she put her child’s fingers in the soft black earth and felt the hollow scoop of something
small and hard, something with sharp edges; a bird’s skull, she thought. Or, with a
terrible thrill, that of a human? But when she pulled it out, gleaming like bone in the
twilight, it was only a crushed old piece of plastic. There was no point in digging further.
This was only a back garden in a suburb that had sprung up fifty years earlier. Anything
older had left no trace.
She had hidden in the school library, and held soft old paperbacks in her little
hands, held them right up close to her face, absorbing the scent of the doughy paper, the
ink illustrations, the quaint chapter titles. She walked home from school through the
blasted heat of a summer afternoon, the gum trees rasping with their bark hanging limp
like peeled wallpaper, and she tugged at the bark, but when it came away there was no
message written there, no secret door behind. In the low-ceilinged, yellow brick cottage
she shared with Rebecca and Mark, she dreamed of attics and towers. She wanted a
horse’s skull, a magic portal, a stone circle in which to stand and be transformed. The
bare boards of the backyard fence were not standing stones.
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Imagination glosses everything if you try hard enough, a gloss that can set like
varnish.
::
Once the meagre unpacking has been done, and the house canvassed, and the village
visited, there is an uncertain pause. The second day, Mark, Rebecca and Joss sit in the
kitchen.
‘Well, I should show you the sights,’ Mark says. He sounds a little apprehensive,
as if he’s just realised that having brought the women all this way, he’s somewhat
responsible. He looks the part of a capable pater familias, with his crisp mouth and
straight spine, but in reality he has always hung back from taking too much on himself.
‘There’s a castle,’ he offers now. ‘And the Roman fort. And there’s a little
museum in the village.’
‘No?’ Rebecca says. ‘Gosh!’
He gives her a sharp, hurt look. ‘You don’t have to come. I only thought it might
be nice. Joss will like it.’
‘I think it’s going to rain.’
Mark makes a face at Joss, and she rolls her eyes, but they keep sipping their tea
and Rebecca turns a page of the newspaper.
‘I’ll come, of course. Though as you see I’m flat-out busy.’ She tries to make it into
a joke.
‘Where’s the castle?’ Joss asks.
‘Down the coast a bit. There are a few of them. Some of them are in better state
than others. Dover Castle is the really spectacular one, so that’s where we’ll go.’
‘The White Cliffs of…?’ Joss asks.
‘No singing,’ puts in Rebecca. ‘No singing allowed.’ Joss pokes her tongue at her.
She has a weakness for old songs.
They drive down the coast, on a curving road that seems to pass no other
villages, only near-identical fields, bright yellow and green. The road rises and then dips
just before they get to Dover and there, on a high promontory against the horizon, is the
castle. Its flags flutter, its stern grey battlements look neat as Lego.
‘Is it real?’ Joss queries.
‘Very.’
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They park, pay the large fee for entrance, and walk in through the massive stone
gate. The walls are terrifyingly thick and high, studded, like the village church they’d
seen, with black eggs of flint. They are informed that the tea room will close at four.
‘What did you think?’ Mark asks two hours later as they tramp back down the
drive to the car park.
‘It’s huge,’ Rebecca says, stretching her back.
‘Pretty cool,’ Joss offers. She had insisted on exploring every nook, every
oubliette and dank hole and staircase. ‘It’s like a toy, though. All those little fancy
painted signs: ‘The Keep’, ‘The King’s Room’. And it’s so perfect, it doesn’t seem like it
had ever been used.’
‘It’s just amazingly well preserved. You think things are only historic if they’re
damaged?’
‘No…’ She pauses for thought. ‘But it’s good to see something to show that
people have been there. If it’s too clean, you know: it looks like a display home. None of
the taps actually run water.’
They have lunch in Dover, a grim, stained town plastered along the base of the
cliffs which are, to Joss’s approval, actually white, and topped with bright green grass.
The town is cluttered on one side by the immense docks, and on the other it is squeezed
against implacable rock. This, Mark tells them, is the edge of the great chalk downs that
make up the geology of the county.
‘Did you know,’ says Joss, bright with knowledge, ‘that chalk is made of dead
things?’
‘I did not know that,’ says Rebecca. ‘How macabre.’
‘Millions of them, all packed down and mineralised.’ She glances at Mark to see
that she’s got the right term. ‘It was all under water once, you know. Now we’re sitting
on a bed of a zillion tiny little dead bugs.’
There is a little museum in the town, and Mark, deciding to deliver the best of
local history all at once, chivvies the other two in there.
Among the cases of old railway tickets, lumpy flint knives, scraps of Roman
armour and Civil War paraphernalia, the thing that captivates Joss is a small, crudely
made terracotta oil lamp. Rebecca finds her staring at it through the glass. The case isn’t
well lit, and Joss is crouched to see better.
‘Something you’d like to take home?’
‘Look at that.’ Joss points. ‘See how it’s black where the flame was? Someone
actually lit that. Like, two thousand years ago.’
‘Not a model-home oil lamp, then.’
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Joss scowls. ‘No.’
‘I wasn’t having a go at you!’ Rebecca calls, but Joss has already moved on stiffly
to the next room where a grinning mannequin is modelling some rigid fabric, a Saxon
costume.
‘Had enough?’ Mark says, coming up a while later to where Rebecca is dully
staring at a collection of Second World War evacuation posters.
‘Evacuate me from here,’ she says, putting her arm around his waist. ‘I can’t take
too much of this all in one go. I end up feeling old.’
‘It’s important to get a feel for the place.’
‘I know. But it’s just as Heritage to want a good old cup of tea, right?’
He hesitates; kisses the top of her head. ‘Poor thing. We’ll take you home.’
Joss wanders up, looking cheerier. ‘Cool stuff,’ she says.
Mark pushes the door open for them to leave. ‘We English are obsessed with
oldness. Obsessed! I looked in the newsagents in town. There are three magazines of
local history. You’re going to have more history here than you know what to do with.
You should go to the library.’
Joss really is enthralled by all this talk of history. Rebecca wishes she could be as
happy to be here, that she too had something to be looking forward to. Australia hovers
in her mind, a bright-lit kite, an airiness, the colour yellow and the burning blue of the
sky. She has left what she knows and she doesn’t yet know what she has gained
instead.
‘Since you’d be in school in Melbourne, and here you are at a loss until next term
starts—why don’t you make that a project? Find something about the history down
here, and write it up for me. It’ll be interesting, sweetie.’
‘That’ll keep me off the streets,’ Joss remarks. ‘You’ll be glad of that.’
‘Find one thing,’ Mark suggests. ‘Do some reading, find one thing that gets you
going, and trace it all the way through. Find the continuity. There’s got to be something
you can use.’
They get back to the car. Mark and Joss talk about the castle and the artefacts all
the way home. Joss is satisfactorily impressed, and Mark animated with pride. Rebecca
sits and looks out the window; the best bit of the day, she thinks, is driving past the
fields, the horizon steady, the green flickering from dark to light, from yellow to blue, a
subtle peace out there as the car moves her through it, heading towards the sea.
::
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‘Have you seen the cups? They’ve all disappeared!’ Rebecca calls up the stairs.
‘There were only two anyway,’ Mark replies from the bedroom. ‘Plastic ones
under the sink.’
Life in this house really is like camping out. ‘I can’t find anything,’ she mutters.
She drinks her tea out of a glass jar she finds in the pantry.
Mark comes down. ‘Where’s our miss?’
‘Around somewhere.’ She sips awkwardly from the jar, the thread for the lid
unfamiliar against her lips. ‘I hope she’s all right here. She seems happy so far. It’s just
such a huge jolt, this new world. I’m still trying to catch up myself.’
‘What have we done, that’s what you’re thinking?’ He leans against the table.
‘Where on earth have we come to? How are we going to eat? Will we have to hunt in the
woods? Come on mate, it’s early days yet.’
She flicks him a glance. ‘We’ll have to find her a school. Some other kids to meet.
She was pretty brave about there being no internet, but you know how she lives online.
We didn’t even set up her phone to work here. I know she’s a loner, but I don’t want her
to feel completely shut off.’
He looks at her, something hovering behind his firm mouth. ‘She’ll be fine.’
‘She couldn’t even bring her guitar. Her books. Most of her clothes…’
‘Listen.’ He doesn’t move to comfort her, but his voice lowers. She knows to pay
attention to this voice. It’s a voice that promises to take care of things. Sometimes she
wishes the assumption hadn’t been made that things needed taking care of for her. She
thought when they married that Mark would be a support, but it looks like she found a
father-figure instead. How trite, how weak. Her friends might have been correct to watch
her bridal walk with the sceptical smiles she suspected they’d hidden from her. How
easy it is for her to play the child, even after all these years of growing. But how good it
is to be looked after.
‘Joss is busy finding out about the place where she lives now. She’ll find things to
do instead of talking to all those pathetic people online. She’ll have to go out into the
real world now. She might learn something new.’ Mark comes over now, and touches her
shoulder. She doesn’t move closer, or shrug him off. A faintness of despair comes over
her. She wanted things to be different here, but now they’re just strange.
He moves away again.
‘Brave new world,’ she says. ‘I’m sure you’re right.’
::
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In the library in town, old men belch over newspapers, a young Slav man talks quietly,
urgently into a mobile phone, there are young mothers with prams at the bank of
computers devoted to internet use. A truck passes outside; someone is surreptitiously
eating crisps, the smell of onion and cheese sour in the artificial air of the building.
Joss is here to get more books for the endless reading at night. She’d said she’d
learn about the area, and, dutiful girl, she is doing so. There’s a lot to read; Mark wasn’t
joking when he said the people here were obsessed with the past. Although when Joss
had asked at the library counter for local history and, trying to be friendly, said to the
librarian, ‘You live in a really interesting place,’ the woman had gazed at her, pebbleeyed, and said only that she was from Nottingham and didn’t really know anything
about history.
Joss is very young and she doesn’t know much about time but she understands
that she feels more secure when she can find her place in it. This year is so different to
last year at school; whoever she was when she was twelve feels remote as a ghost. For
her, the wide valleys of ‘history’ have always been a landscape, marked out with
recognisable moments like strata, like the layers of soil and rock that Mark had shown
her on his scans, the deposits and wrinkles where cultures have folded themselves over
and over, like a man turning earth. The richest loam for her is the very distant,
mysterious past: myths, legends: stories which take her somewhere on the line between
knowing and not-knowing, the places where, secretly, ‘maybe’ becomes ‘might be’. Now
she is here, it’s as if she’s been given a shovel and invited to dig.
::
Bound on three sides by water, this corner of Britain is claustrophobic with itself. The
past violence of the place can’t be denied, but it is well hidden. What are now miles of
peaceful fields, bland and identical beneath their crop of yellow rape and barley, have
been battlefields, roads, places where people lived and passed. There are the usual
ghost stories, and tales of murder, tales of smuggling and shipwreck and piracy. There’s
a ring of beech trees, built on the ruins of a Roman temple; the legend tells Joss that the
Devil appears if you run around the circle seven times on a dark night. There are the
Countless Stones, another circle, which cannot be numbered no matter how often one
tries. The area is jammed with stories, with histories silting up on each other. Used to a
room in suburban Melbourne, Joss looks up from her book and realises that the
Countless Stones are only an hour’s bus-ride away. The church down the road from
Mark’s house was built by the first Normans; the sky above the house was reamed by
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German fighter planes. It’s all a little hard to believe. A kind of vertigo of the
imagination.
So, summoning her courage, on her way home she walks past the house and
keeps going. A ridiculous thought crosses her mind that, like some kind of Huckleberry
Finn, she should have some bread and cheese tied up in a handkerchief; she giggles. To
be honest, she’s a little apprehensive of going out into the countryside alone. All she’s
known is suburbia, and the occasional bushwalk in the hills outside Melbourne organised
by her school. Mark and Rebecca weren’t ones to go far afield; they prefer cafés and
markets. Joss wonders if she should take a map with her, but after all, she’s not going
far. This is just an exploratory wander. It’s not like the bush, where you can get hurt.
It’s bright out here, bright and quiet.
She swings quickly down the road, her footsteps loud on the asphalt, a different
sound on the rough gravel or untidy grass of the verge. A profusion of vegetation,
feathered and fronded with blossoms and thick tangled stems blocks her view on either
side; the only thing is to follow the road wherever it leads. She knows that eventually it
connects with a big road towards Canterbury, but that’s a long way away. She’s
certainly not going to walk to Canterbury; whatever 40 miles is, it’s probably a very long
way. Though, she thinks, in a way she feels like a pilgrim. A pilgrim to the places she’s
yearned for in her imagination. Wherever they actually are. Judging from the
impenetrable hedgerows, Olde Englande is going to be forever blocked off from her.
She’s just about to give up and turn back when the hedgerows relent and there’s
a gap; beyond, a field and above her head, a sign pointing into the field, saying Footway.
She’s not sure what this means, but she thinks Mark’s mentioned the old footpaths that
cross the countryside regardless of roads. ‘Old ways’ he’d say. ‘No one can quite wipe
them out.’ Looking, she can see a thin seam in the crop, a delicate low feathery stuff.
She walks in, feeling conspicuous and prepared at any moment for an irate
farmer to charge out of the hedgerow shouting at her. But there is no one, and she walks
cautiously along the seam, which is a kind of path, feeling rather Biblical as she stands
amid what looks like some kind of corn. Alien corn? she thinks. Something to do with
exile? How appropriate.
On the other side of the field there’s a stand of trees. She reaches it, and rests a
moment under the shade. So, she thinks. I’ve made it in.
Now what? It’s not like old Enid Blyton or whatever, some wizard isn’t going to
come down from the tree and tell her something. It feels weirdly like that might happen,
though.
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Pale clouds cover the hot sky. She stands and squints through a hedgerow,
wandering her hand through the soft grass and honeysuckle tendrils, to see the field on
the other side, some kind of different crop this time, burnt yellow. There’s a big
windbreak of trees on the other side.
A crack of thunder comes over. Joss looks up. The sky is shadowed, with big
sultry clouds barging into the light grey. Wind shuffles the hedgerows. She stands there,
looking at the field. A weird brightness; thunder crushes again.
A drop of water hits her face. A drop. A drop. Then the rain shouts down.
She stands there, thrilled. Water in the creases of her closed eyelids, running
down her face, soaking her hair. Water thrashes on the ground.
Joss opens her eyes, grinning against the streaming rain. On the other side of the
hedgerow she sees a movement. A boy, cream and gold, flickering past the high fronds of
vegetation, the delicate flowers. He’s running across her vision on the other side of the
field, fast, fast—he runs to one side and she can’t see him anymore.
The rain is overwhelming, and there’s another flare of lightning. I should get to
shelter, she tells herself, and stands there still, looking to the right to where her house is,
the direction the boy ran. The country is all hers and she stands there, marvelling at how
empty air can be so full.
::
‘So these,’ Mark says, ‘are the grand ladies.’
He and Rebecca walk that evening under the shade of the huge trees that cloak
the entrance to the house. The trunks remind Rebecca of thighs, smoothly muscled;
above, the leaves are large, a lustrous fluttering green.
‘I suppose they were a lot smaller when you were here,’ she says.
‘Well, only because I was a giant of a man back then,’ he says, smiling. ‘No. They
were just the same. Just the same. Aren’t they lovely?’ The leaves cast myriad shadows
on the still-damp road, shifting like water, in patterns of gold and bronze. ‘As Gerald
Manley Hopkins said, God bless dappled things.’
They’re strolling out, after an early dinner. Mark promised to take her for a
perfectly safe walk, ‘No boring monuments, no scary social challenges…’ Rebecca threw
him a look. ‘We’ll just walk around a bit. Then you can teach Joss how to recognise a
yew, and other useful things.’
‘We do have trees in Australia, you remember. Even some of these.’
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‘Yes. But these are trees.’
They walk towards the village, down towards the sea. They do not hold hands,
but they walk in step, from habit.
Rebecca pushes her hair off her face. ‘We’ll have to get the place set up soon. I
feel naked without all my junk. I must be more materialistic than I thought. When you
lived here the house was full of stuff, I suppose.’ She hesitates, but Mark’s hand hasn’t
tightened on hers, or removed itself. ‘Does it feel weird, being back here?’ she goes on. ‘I
suppose it’s like you’ve never been away?’
‘Mmm. Yes.’ He looks at the road just ahead of him, as he always does when
he’s walking. ‘It’s as if time has tucked around itself, in a way. Have you ever gone back
to a place you knew well before? It’s the most uncanny thing. You, who you are now;
you almost feel like… a ghost or something. The house is the same, the countryside’s the
same—though I lived here before they started planting this horrible rapeseed everywhere,
that bright yellow stuff you see. And I feel like I should be different, after all this time,
but I’m not. Or I am and I can’t see it? Sometimes I feel like I’m going to walk into the
room and see Diana there. Because I wasn’t here when she died, she’s more real to me
alive, than dead. And then it’s you, instead.’
‘I can see why that would be a nasty shock.’ She’s trying for joking, but it comes
out a little sour.
Mark doesn’t notice. ‘Perhaps there’s two of me now, the one from before, and
the one now, superimposed.’
‘Hmm.’ Mark’s not usually this fanciful.
‘It’s an odd feeling.’
The light, at nine in the evening, is simply darkness bleached pale. The road rises
a little, rounds a corner, passes the service station and the pub, takes them between
more fields and then between houses. The village, at this hour, is almost entirely quiet.
Televisions can be heard in the lounge rooms that stand right on the high street. Rebecca
isn’t used to walking down a street and peering in a window to someone’s living room.
A car comes along, but takes a corner and disappears. There are a few middle aged
couples at a table outside one of the old pubs, but they’re mostly musing silently on their
pints. Rebecca doesn’t suggest they stop for a drink. All the shops are closed. They walk
on.
‘Did you love it here, before?’
‘I did.’ He’s walking steadily, with a rangy, loping stride, a walk that will take
him far and fast. She always loved Mark for walking as fast as she. ‘I thought this place
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had a real atmosphere. It meant something, to be where things had started. Even to me,
coming from the Midlands, it seemed old.’
‘I don’t feel that. It’s just a place to me. It has fields and houses and trees, but I
don’t feel any—’
‘—We’re very proud of oldness, the English.’
‘—echoes. Echoes!’ She laughs. ‘And I used to be really romantic, believe in
ghosts, all that. If there were something, I’d like to think I’d notice. I just don’t feel it
here. Maybe it hasn’t been long enough.’
He looks at her. They’ve neared the beach, and the wind comes up against their
faces as they pass down the last narrow street before the broadness of sea and sky.
‘I don’t believe in ghosts,’ he says. ‘I think things have a spirit of place, though. I
do. I can feel it all around me here.’ He points at a plaque screwed into the side of a
bench along the promenade. ‘Look at this.’
From this place generations of sea-men launched the lifeboats which brought Soar the gratitude of many.
In the memory of all souls lost at sea, and with the heartfelt prayers of those saved. 1936.
‘But that’s what I mean,’ he goes on. ‘Because you can read as much as you like about
this place, for example, even every plaque on every wall in this town, and you still won’t
get the feeling of—what is it, resonance?—that I can feel walking in the fields—that
understanding that someone else has walked here long ago; as strongly as if they stood
beside me. Some things persist.’
‘I just don’t get it. Do you think it’s because I’m Australian?’
‘Do you?’
‘I hope not. I have ancestry, I have an understanding of time as much as anyone
from Europe—I think. But I must say, I don’t feel as if I’m walking in anyone’s footsteps.
I’ve spent most of my life trying to get over the past.’
‘But look at me. I thought I could, and now…’
They are trudging down onto the shingle. Ahead the beach is soaked in shadow,
and the water comes slowly, the tide going out little by little. The pebbles on which they
walk are shiny and dark with water still.
‘Maybe, what you’re talking about, it’s a bit like the Dreamtime. Aborigines don’t
feel that it’s history. To them, it’s all happening right now, because the land endures,
and the stories endure, and it’s all still Dreamtime, to the old ones at least. If you believe
it, time can disappear. I wish I had that, sometimes. Mum and dad could still be alive,
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even though they’d also be dead. I could be the person I used to be, as well as who I am
now. If you could have everything at once...’ She grimaces.
‘But perhaps that’s too much for a person to take on alone. That’s what I’m
saying, I guess.’
A seagull comes idling overhead, holds its position on an invisible breaker of air.
‘I hope you can come to love this place,’ Mark says.
She stands and looks out over the water. It’s beautiful, but the loneliness of the
expanse disturbs her a little. All the lines between sea and sky are collapsing. She’s glad
she’s got Mark to break the force of the fresh breeze, and she moves further into the
shelter of his body. She wipes hair out of her eyes.
‘I’m sure I will. It’s hard for me, this thing about Diana—’
‘Don’t think about her.’
‘Well, you do. I know you do.’
‘Let the dead rest,’ Mark says, looking out to the horizon. ‘Let the dead bury the
dead.’
::
Joss opens up her laptop. As soon as the screen flashes into light she relaxes. It was a
blow to find that there was no internet connection here. For a moment she panicked.
What would she do with all her time? Normally at home Joss lived online. She was a bit
of a gamer, and had a blog, the usual stuff. All of that is snatched away here; the idea of
a house without a connection is shocking. But she’s brought her files, and she brings up
one of the landscapes she was working on before they left. At fifteen, she is expert
enough with a visual editing program to be employable. Hours, she’s put into this:
composing an imaginary terrain of mountains and valleys, haunted by a foggy sun and
sheened with a kind of supernatural glow, the obscured turrets of a castle in the
distance. She stares at the landscape, which she had invented to suit a certain mood—a
kind of wistfulness, a kind of wishing. It’s beautiful, and she knows that back in
Australia it meant the world to her. But here she has hopes of finding something like
this, for real.
She gets up and goes back to her pile of library books. She’s a good student, she
makes notes, and is working through chronologically. There are things familiar to her
from all the fantasy books she’s read back in Australia: special stone knives, magical
wells and springs, groves of trees. There are wonderful quotes from old poems. ‘Grief is
stronger than the sea, if you could understand it,’ says one. Water is a big thing. Water
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was special. They were very careful to respect it, and to give to it. Archaeologists have
found all sorts of things at the bottom of rivers and wells: swords, jewellery, flint tools
and even bones. Joss likes rituals. She likes the idea of this.
She reads about how just near the village there is a field where there was a manor
house, formerly a castle, and before that there was a Saxon church, which was built in
the ruins of a Roman temple, which was apparently put on top of a Celtic shrine. It was
a shrine to a god called Teutates, who liked cutting throats. Joss draws her lips back. It
seems that cutting throats was a big thing. All those bog bodies strangled, sliced and
drowned.
She reads on, about the Celtic love of shape-shifting, and immortality, that souls
can travel from one body to another, and how dogs are the symbols of death and the
underworld. The old people paid a lot of attention to things that moved between the
two. Perhaps that was why water was so important: it came out of the deep of the
earth, it moved. It couldn’t be held tight.
That old world enthrals her. It sounds strange, a little sinister, very organised.
You knew that they had understood something, some deep dark truth. In a frightening
world, it was important to keep the balance right.
::
Mark’s thigh lies heavy against hers and Rebecca is aware of his groin cushioned soft
behind her buttocks. He is so heavy with sleep and she is tight and awake. His breath
goes on, one long exhale and another. She is awake. Sweat sticks them together; she longs
to shift and be released, to disturb her husband, to make something happen. She thinks
of him inside her, and her belly tenses. The night is so densely silent, except for his
breathing. Her own throat makes no sound but it is open with restlessness. The room
doesn’t have enough air.
There’s a hotness in her, a child’s petulant confusion. This was Mark and
Diana’s bedroom, was she lithe and lovely here? Diana, with her quick blonde hair and
her English refinement and this house, all hers. Diana would have stared at this ceiling,
past Mark’s face, with an expression of ecstasy. Diana would have had a younger,
stronger Mark. His neck uncreased, his mouth supple. Grief twists inside Rebecca. She
would like to curl up and cry.
It’s been a mistake to come here, she’s a fool. Mark, too, is thinking these days of
Diana, she is sure. A hot memory.
She whimpers aloud. Hold me, comfort me, wake.
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Abruptly she writhes and turns. Mark stirs and then places his hand over her
shoulder, sleepily pushing her away as he rolls to the other side. Now he curls away
from her, and she presses up again, fitting to the snug of his spine, the front of her thighs
against the back of his. Her arm falls around his ribs, the hand flattens against his belly.
She appears to be sleeping but she’s not, her hand presses, senses. Lowers to where
Mark’s penis waits, takes it in her palm.
Her fingers are clever, her whole body is aware; invisibly, as she softly teases the
hot sticky flesh, the muscles of her legs flex and quiver. If he would just wake, and turn.
He breathes.
She massages more firmly, vehemently, until there’s stiffness and her palm is full
of a hard thing, she’s using her whole hand now, it’s incredible that he doesn’t wake. Her
breath comes more hoarsely against the ball of his shoulder, she can feel it on her face.
She is getting wet.
‘What are you doing?’ A whisper. Her hand falls still.
‘Is that okay?’
His hips don’t move. He sighs.
She keeps massaging him, half-furtive, half-provocative. She lets him feel her
open-mouthed breathing, her hips pulsing slowly against his thigh.
Mark’s hand pushes at her shoulder. He’s telling her to turn on her side, the other
side. Obedient, she goes. He pulls at her leg, raises it in the air. A shameful flush of
gratification heats her face, turned to the door. Mark’s face is in her hair, a hand grasps
her shoulder, pulls her taut. He fumbles with fingers within her cleft, puts himself at her
entrance. She moans, gladly, into the pillow.
But when he’s inside, her body arced between his prick and his hand, it’s just
flesh, not what she wanted after all. Her body feels inert as mud. She keeps her head
turned, and she knows Mark has his eyes closed. He slumps back to sleep after, and she
lies there, her head thrown back, eyes open, not thinking anything at all except, ashamed.
::
Mark holds his hand out, the next morning, as Joss is dumping toast crusts in the bin. He
has his rucksack on, is heading out. ‘Coming?’
‘What?’
‘Not ‘what?’— ‘pardon’.’ He cocks his head at her. ‘I’m going for a walk. Do you
want to come along for a bit?’
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She is a little shy. In Melbourne she had usually avoided being alone with Mark—
not unwilling, exactly, but there was a freight of caution. She was always afraid of being
too young, too foolish and mute with him. He is a smart man, and Joss wants to be a
smart girl, but on the occasions back home when he’d driven her to the dentist, or
Rebecca was out with her friends and the two of them had had an evening together, talk
was a little clumsy, swung heavily with a weight of awkwardness. They spoke shyly, not
quite looking straight at each other. They spoke of schoolwork, books, history; safe
things. Matters on which it didn’t matter if their gazes skittered, if words stumbled a
little, if there were pauses.
Joss blinks, pleased now. ‘Sure.’
The road outside is gilt with morning sunshine. A fresh cool breeze stirs the trees,
but the countryside is quiet. Joss inhales, settles into a steady pace next to Mark’s. They
walk in silence for a little while, away from the sea, along the curve of the road.
Joss finds herself relaxing. The air is so light, her legs feel young and strong. Birds
call out from the trees, calls she’s never heard before.
‘I know it’s a bit of a wrench,’ Mark says. ‘We’ve just abducted you from
school—I suppose you’ll be missing your friends.’
‘I don’t really have many friends there.’ She trails her fingers through the fronds
of a hedgerow. ‘I’m a sad loner.’
‘Me too.’ He pauses. ‘To be honest, I’m glad to escape.’ He inhales, lets it out.
‘Are you?’
‘I’m not really the convivial type. Happiest with a field on either side, the sky
above. Real man of the land.’ He pats his chest, laughs at himself. Joss giggles.
‘The kind that sits in the corner of a pub, making faces at everyone?’
‘That’s it. Cap pulled down low, pipe in the corner of my mouth.’ His smile
grows. ‘People say I killed my brother, but they never found the body, out there in the
bog.’
‘You wear nothing but old woolly stuff.’
‘I smell like dogs.’
Joss is giggling. ‘But you have a passionate affair with the barmaid. It’s a tale of
forbidden romance, and no one knows, but she’s young, with firey red hair, and you love
her—’ She stops.
He glances at her, amused. ‘Yes, a secret love.’
She walks on, a little unsure. ‘Yeah.’
The road seems to just go on ahead of them; she can see it appearing at the rise
of a hill beyond.
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‘Joss?’ She looks at him. ‘Have you got a boyfriend?’
She doesn’t reply.
‘Bit early for you?’
‘Boys are rubbish.’
Mark laughs. ‘Indeed. You’re probably right to leave them alone. Horrible beasts.
Not anyone on your blog?’
‘That’s all girls.’
‘I remember when I was fifteen. Terrified of girls. My parents had given me the
idea that if I slept with a girl, I had to marry her. And they were so vicious! The girls I
knew—and I went to a boys’ school, so I didn’t get to see them often—they were so tall
and perfect and looked like they’d have your head off with a hockey-stick as soon as
look at you.’ He chuckles. Joss wishes he’d stop talking about this. ‘The first girl I kissed
tasted of orange juice. She didn’t even like me, she only felt sorry for me, I think. Her
name was Madeleine, though, and I thought that was the most romantic thing in the
world. Madeleine, in a pink dress, her beautiful knees.’ He smiles at the road in front of
him. Then at Joss. She doesn’t know what to say.
‘Have you kissed anyone, Joss?’
She shakes her head.
‘Would you like to?’
Her steps faster on the road, she feels for a moment the relief that they’ll be there
soon, and then she remembers that they’re still walking away from the house.
‘Kissing’s not so bad,’ he says from somewhere far away.
There’s a terrible sensation in her chest, as if something is flaking and shedding.
‘It isn’t, you know.’
They are passing under trees, the shade is cool. Her face feels wrong.
‘Well.’ He puts his hands in his pockets.
She must make herself say it; she coughs, slows, doesn’t look at him. ‘Can we go
back?’
Mark swivels where he stands. ‘Of course.’
They walk back to the house, not speaking. Joss is aware that on her face is a
small half-smile, of nervousness and also, a terrible kind of satisfaction.
::
In Melbourne there was a rhythm to things: they would eat out once a week, watch
television most evenings, or have friends over for dinner: routines that swept them
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through year after year, rarely at a loss. Even when Mark entered their lives, not much
changed. Joss had her homework, her online friendships, and whatever fad of interest
she was going through, like the guitar she sporadically played.
Here the evenings are stiff things, and they all feel in a rush to have them over
with. The light, in early summer, lingers on and on. It is not even quite dark when they
clear the table from dinner and go to their rooms to read. Reading is the only thing to do,
and each of them sits, isolated by a sheath of lamplight, in their bedrooms, disappearing
into worlds other than this.
Dinner is late, and the house is still light, with the pale grey haze of the day’s
fading outside. Rebecca goes to the garden for a cigarette afterwards. The birds scream
in the trees. All the flowers are closing up.
‘It’s so peaceful here.’ she says to Mark, who’s come to lean against the doorway
behind her.
There’s silence.
‘It’s very pretty.’
Her belly is tight, she hates it when he forces banality from her like this. She lets
out a stream of smoke.
‘I’m buggered. I think I’ll go to bed.’ A hand rests on her shoulder briefly, and
then is lifted away.
‘See you in there, love,’ she says, as the door snaps shut. He always keeps the
doors shut, and the windows, even in summer when she wants to throw them open.
What’s the point of summer if the windows are closed? Freshers and fuggers, someone
had told her. Men all seemed to be fuggers.
How long has she been nervous of him?
::
In the bath, Joss sticks her legs out of the water. In the uncanny silence of the bathroom,
every time she raises a hand to wipe her hair from her face, the noisy trickle echoes and
then deadens. Her heartbeat is slow and heavy under the hot water. She’s reading about
prehistoric people, and their careful placating, their diligent care of their gods.
The ancient people, according to this book, saw the world divided into two: the
holy, and the other. Normal time, normal experiences could enter holiness by repeating
the acts of the gods. In a sense everything was holy: eating, fighting, sex, birth, death.
But only if it were done conscientiously, with the deliberation due to something sacred.
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To eat was to consume the world as the gods had; to fight was to enact an epic conflict
between hosts of primordial deities. Without sanctification, cosmos was merely chaos.
There’s something about this shadowy macabre which makes sense to her. Ritual
and reason, the mad logic of the ancients. A sense of balance and equity. Up and down,
to and fro: the constant comforting of fretful gods, the fearful, cynical offerings. To life,
the people brought death. For death, they spoke to themselves of eternal life. Always the
offering, the sacrifice. Joss wonders. Are they the same thing?
She had practised her own made-up little rites once: the careful placing of stones
in a gutter to make a shrine; always the biggest stone last, the key. The hoarding of
detritus, for fear of losing the one piece of scrap paper which might reveal the magic
map. The furtive pouring out of a glass of Mark’s wine in the back garden, for deities on
the other side of the world. Always leaving something on her plate, as she’d read in a
fable, against bad luck inflicted for greed. Never watching someone pass out of sight.
That would mean you’d never see them again. Superstitions she barely noticed, though
she enacted some of them still.
And for the old people, to imitate the gods was to reanimate them. Spirits of the
trees, spirits of water, spirits of a shrine, they were present and living in the moments
when humans did again the things that the gods did: ‘did’ become ‘does’ and time itself
was vanquished. For when an act was made sacred, then again the god performed it;
holy time was no-time, and the instant became eternal. Space and history didn’t exist;
only the recurrence, only the endless now, with each birth, each death, each sacrifice. All
of them pressing together: the momentless folding in of time.
Joss is struggling with this. The steam has made her sleepy; she heaves her other
leg out of the water and lets it rest on the side of the green enamelled bath. The idea of
no-time radiates in her at this moment: she feels unreal, as if she has always been in this
enclosed, silent room with the candlelight wavering on water made metal by shadows;
the Joss who went to high school in Melbourne, who walked those streets, saw those
people, is gone, as a dream; this is a dream, here; every morning she awakes and
bemusedly, contentedly agrees to it. She knows she passes from moment to moment,
along with the world, but for her there is only the instant, and that, too, baffles her.
::
Rebecca stands outside the kitchen door in the walled garden, after getting up for a pee.
She is too alert to go back to the bedroom where Mark has just dropped off to sleep. She
thinks she might have a cigarette and look out at the darkness. But outside it is very
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black, blacker than she is used to in the street-lit nights of suburbia in Melbourne, and
the body of darkness that stands beyond the door makes her halt still on the doorstep.
The kitchen light is on, and a curve of illumination paves the steps before her. Past that,
however, the whole world has disappeared. No pale outlines, nothing. The sounds are
more vivid than she likes. A night-bird chuckles, there is a strange repetitive clanging
somewhere in the distance, a creature rattles twigs, the trees make a noise like the sea,
always coming closer, never arriving. Stupid superstitious fears about sudden grabbing
hands and looming faces come to her, as if she were a child. Smoking more and more
quickly, she finds herself retreating. She looks out into the darkness, because to not look
at it is more disturbing. The curious thing about light, she thinks, is that the stronger it is,
the more it creates its own fugitives in shadows. Then she finishes the cigarette and
shuts the door, turns the light off and walks quickly through the shadowed house, where
the shadows are deep enough to be, in fact, the world.
::
It’s muggy today, close, as if someone has hands pressed over her cheeks, and the
window glass is so cool against her hot face. She opens her eyes, and there’s something
there. Outside. There’s a person in the front garden below. He’s small, standing just
inside the wall, looking up at her. A blond, thin boy, tanned dark as honey, a little
younger than she is. She can tell from the skinniness of his limbs, the size of his elbows.
Wearing khaki pants and a green shirt. He’s smiling at her.
Joss moves back from the window. He waves. She comes nearer again, a hesitant
smile on her face, though surely he can’t see her expression hidden in the dark of the
house. He’s still smiling, with his lips closed, looking steadily at her from across the
yard. Joss waves, a little wave, her fingers closing again quickly over her palm.
Then he turns and hops easily over the wall. Joss watches as he walks to the
shade of the trees in the road outside and vanishes.
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Part Two
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They’ve been in the house for over a week. The early summer air moves around them so
lightly they barely feel it. Joss has already stopped remarking every day ‘It’s only three
days since we left Australia, it’s only five days…’
Mark goes out every day, walking. Suddenly he seems terribly British and
competent. Rebecca thinks there’s something fuddy-duddy about his earnestness. He
comes home in the early evenings and collapses. ‘Did you take any photos?’ she asks.
He hasn’t asked her to go with him. She hasn’t invited herself.
‘Just notes.’ He stands up wearily to put his boots outside. ‘I’m having a beer.’
He seems intent on getting out of the house where he’d lived once with Diana; but
he brought them here. He wants to speak of her, but keeps his memories private. It is as
if, nostalgic for the past, he finds the reality of what remains more alarming than
comforting. He looks like a man who is feeling things, but cannot begin to utter them.
There’s a forbidding distance about him these days. The more she tries to reach
him, the cooler his politeness seems. The kitchen is where they meet most often, since
they barely speak in bed these days; they exchange their terse pleasantries, they eat,
with Joss, they cast glances at each other when the other is staring into a bowl of food.
When he speaks, it’s in a low voice, tiredly, as if Rebecca has asked him to recall some
trivial detail of an old life. ‘I suppose so,’ is a phrase he uses too often. It makes Rebecca
want to mock him. But she doesn’t speak this new terse language, she cannot find the
steadiness in it from which to tell him what his distance is doing to her.
His memories of Diana taint the house invisibly, a fug.
‘Love you,’ she says, in bed at night, smiling. Trying yet again. She curls towards
him.
‘I’m very fond of you,’ he says, but he rolls away and goes to sleep.
She’s settling in, she supposes. Rising late in the morning, drinking her tea slowly
in that lovely quiet garden. Watching the sky, and the trees heaving in the breeze. The
weather’s warming into June, pure and fresh; there are more and more wildflowers
growing in the weeds. Occasionally she bends and yanks out some fronds, in a gesture
towards gardening, but she likes the rough profusion of it, the garden is a good place to
hide.
This morning she ambles up the path to one of the old sheds that sag at the back
of the garden. Crooked slate tiles teetering towards the edge of a sloped roof; peeling
paint walls. The door is wooden and opens with a tug: no lock. The scent inside is of
rotten wood and stone dust, hot air captured in a small place, musty and familiar. It
smells like her father’s shed, when she was a child. Oh, Dad. She remembers him for a
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moment. How she misses him and her mother. They lay light hands on her shoulders and
are gone again.
In the shed there is the usual jumble of cast-off household stuff. A radiator, a
broken deck chair, some tins of paint and a shower curtain, cracked and brittle with age,
over something larger. Rebecca pulls it off. A bike.
Years since she’s ridden a bike. She drags it out, tosses one thigh over the saddle.
The tires are a little slack but otherwise seem fine. It’s a little too low for her, and she
places her feet on the pedals, pushes one forward cautiously. In the long grass the
traction is good. Weeds hiss at the spokes of the bike as she trundles it out the front
gate.
This a freedom Rebecca hasn’t expected. One hesitant push with her foot and
she spins off down the road. Lightness and ease rush through her. One long thigh shoves
down on the pedal, then the other, and she’s amongst the fields. Down the slight hill she
goes and goes.
It is an oddly comforting feeling, to be following Mark into this land, seeing the
things he’s been seeing. If she can’t do it with him, she can come after him. It makes her
feel closer, as if she’s seeing through his eyes; as if he’s somehow inside her.
She could ride forever, like this, past the blank bright fields. Past a thatched-roof
cottage, past an old coaching-inn; a dog barks from a garden. There are no people to be
seen. One after the other junctions appear and random turns are taken: it all looks the
same, whichever direction she goes but there are signposts, she’ll find her way back.
Suddenly it doesn’t seem to matter after all. She sings to the cows as she passes them
and they look up with their calm intelligent eyes. The sun is blazing and she’s sweating,
but there’s no overwhelming heat. She’s proud of the wet under her arms, damp on her
back. ‘One of these mornings,’ and she inhales, ‘you’re going to rise up singing…’ In the
tunnels of trees through which the road passes, the air is cool and green.
She stops the bike on long stretches, when it takes her up high, and across the rim
of trees she can see the sea and closer, the fields. They are all full of that crop she
doesn’t recognise; of course, she wouldn’t recognise any at home, either. Stalks a couple
of feet high, fringed with pale yellow fronds on either side. The field looks soft, like a
thick carpet. This is a kind of corn or barley perhaps. There’s a plume of cloud on the
horizon that might be smoke. Imagine if it were smoke, a settlement burning. For a
moment she forgets to concentrate and there it is, a possibility of imagination. Someone
has stepped here, in this field, people have walked and died here. It’s calm. Thoughts
flush away.
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The trees, close and far, are her great delight. They are markers here, she orients
by them, pays attention. The endless twisted silhouettes of them: she’s never seen this
kind of beauty before. Laced about with ivy, filigree leaves, a hundred shades of green
and grey, they are so different to the ghostly eucalypts of Australia and even to the
staid European trees she’s known at home.
Rebecca is one of those people who loves the bush in Australia, but never goes to
it. Somehow there was never time to go camping, or for more than one jaunt to the hills a
year. Absurd, really, when being in the tangled cocoon of vegetation has always soothed
her. An odd kind of soothing, because it seemed a consolation despite itself. There was
something alien about the bush; it belonged to other people. She always felt like an
intruder; bush walking, those few times, she had often taken the position at the rear of
the line of walkers, so she could sometimes pause and look behind, at where the trees
were carefully ignoring her passage, lowering their eyes before the hikers disappeared out
of sight and the bush could ease again. She respected its privacy, that was what was
consoling about it; it respected hers.
Here the trees range along hill-tops, wreathing their perfect dark limbs against
each other, substantial and still delicate, grave and beautiful. A harmony of forms which
holds her rapt. As she passes the hedgerows she thinks hawthorn, birch, lime, chestnut,
oak. The names come to her from memories wrapped up in comfort and the cosiness of a
childhood bed.
Coming up a hill on the way home, panting, the bike heavy in her arms as she
stands on the pedals, there’s field enclosed within a hem of trees, dark, fir-like, cool. She
thinks she’ll pull in there, sit in the gully between the barley and the trees. As she yanks
the bike through the opening she notices flies.
Feathers under the tires. Ripped, a wing-bone, dirty grey and white, a dank
smell. Where she was planning to rest there is a mess of bird carcasses, smashed and
torn, matted, crushed. There are dozens of small white and dirty bodies and a rank
smell.
She wheels out again in revulsion.
The day is bright like a glass of wine. She can leave the dead place far behind in
only a minute.
But at the top of the next hill, heading back towards the coast and home, she
pauses, sweaty and breathless now, and looking to one side sees a meadow, like any
other, except that Mark is in it, standing there in the middle of the long grass. He has his
head in his hands. His shoulders are bent.
She is about to call out when she sees how he shakes.
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He seems a stranger, this man crying alone in a field. Very quietly, she puts a foot
on a pedal and pushes off.
::
While he talks, she looks at the details of his face. It’s a good face, firm and
characteristic: the neat nose, slightly veined now with age, the dark brows, the thin firm
lips, the elegant planes of his cheeks. The kind of face one might see in a regimental
portrait, or a university don’s hall. Rebecca remembers, vaguely, loving the tender
plateaux of young men’s cheeks, the little creases beside their soft mouths, the fragile
skin at the corner of their eyes. But to her, this is what beauty has come to look like.
And love is looking closely, and never flinching; only, ever, looking more closely,
less and less afraid.
He turns the side of his face to her now because he cannot seem to address her
directly. She has the sudden urge to tell him not to be ridiculous, not to be so fucking
British and stiff. Oh Mark, she says inside, You really are turning into—what would you
call it? A chump.
But then he turns to her and she can only notice how frail his skin has become,
how the light catches in his eyelashes, as he says, ‘It’s a long way.’
She hasn’t been listening closely. He was talking about his mother, up in the
middle of the country, and how ill she’s been, it’s been so many years and how she might
not be around for much longer, she’s over 80 now. They’re not close, Mark and his
family, and after ten years overseas he’s become simply a name to his mother, a voice on
the phone and a collection of old school-books in her house. But he has begun talking
about her since they arrived, and obviously it was only a matter of time before they all
trooped up to some godforsaken industrial town and paid their respects. It might be
good to get out of this place. Her whole body feels stiff, as if all she’s done is lie in bed.
‘Okay,’ she says. ‘When’ll we go? Next week? Joss has to start school soon.’
He looks at her and almost without thought she realises: he hates me.
‘I don’t think so,’ he says, very distinctly. ‘I know you’re not stupid. But you’re
not listening.’
‘What?’
‘I’m trying to tell you.’ He makes to take one of her hands; pulls his hand back.
His voice is formal, with a note of caution that is only patronising. ‘I’ll say it slowly.
Rebecca. I do care for you. You know I do. But I’m going to have to go away. For a while.
I don’t know when I’ll be back. I…’
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She sits very still. Something flushes through her, a rinse of shock. And the
immediate wash, following, of familiarity. Oh, she knew it. Just as when her parents
died suddenly, and she thought, most of all: How stupid I was to think I would avoid
that.
‘You’re going away on your own?’
‘It’s being here. I am sorry. I thought I could stick it. This house, it’s just too much.
I’ve got to get away for a bit. And…’
She stares at him.
‘And you. I need some time alone.’
Her pulse, slowing, is the only thing that moves her. She can feel herself, swaying
minutely in her chair, once a second, with the rhythm of her heart.
‘You arsehole.’
‘What?’
‘You—’ She fights for control, to breathe. ‘You’re going to leave? You’re just
picking up and moving on now? What do you mean, you have to go away for a bit? Are
you coming back? What do you mean, ‘and you’?’ She slaps his arm, messily. It comes
out a weaker blow than she meant. She slaps him again, harder. ‘Fuck!’
‘Rebecca…’
‘Jesus Christ.’ She’s trembling.
Mark is clenched tight with resentment. ‘I knew you’d make it difficult. Get
hysterical. I just need some time for myself. This is hard.’
‘Go fuck yourself.’
‘Fine. Fine.’
They sit there for a few moments. Rebecca cannot make herself look at him.
Breath is a bubble in her throat, caught and painful. She has no idea what expression her
face is making.
‘Look, I didn’t want to upset you. But I have to do what’s best for me. You
demand a lot, you know. At this point, I just don’t know if I can give it anymore.’
Rebecca speaks quietly. ‘I thought maybe… maybe we might try again. Mark?’
She doesn’t know where this thought has come from but suddenly it opens in her: a cup
of light.
Now he stares. ‘What on earth are you talking about?’
‘I know I wasn’t ready last year. We decided together, but I know really it was
me who wanted to get rid of it. But now I’m thinking, and it could be really great, you
know—you, and me and Joss, and a little baby…’
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‘I’m going tomorrow,’ Mark says. ‘I’m sorry. I’ll keep in touch. Don’t fall apart,
Rebecca. For Christ’s sake.’
He gets up, awkwardly, from the little narrow old chair, and Rebecca watches as
he walks out of the room. His footsteps are loud on the stairs. She sits in her seat for a
minute before she begins to breathe hard, pressing her fists against her sternum, beating
her fist against the heart.
::
Joss is out, and Mark has gone. When he put his arms around Rebecca in farewell this
morning before driving off, she felt every inch of space that he carefully held between
them. A formal embrace. She could barely look at him, but as the car disappeared
around the corner she watched it out of sight, found herself leaning forward.
Now Rebecca flinches through the rooms of the house. Outside the sun is shining,
inside the house is chill. Her bare feet don’t seem to meet the floor surely. She finds she
is walking with her head meekly held forward, penitent. Under her heart, right there
beneath her breastbone, is pain. It feels as if an anvil is swinging, straining the muscles
from which it hangs. It aches and aches.
She puts on her boots, jams a packet of cigarettes in her pocket, and walks out
the door.
The day’s brightness blasts her. There’s the sound of birdsong, and the trees
against the house whisper. Everything in the world has been going on out here without
her again.
She takes the path from the front gate, turns, and follows the outside of the
garden wall to a nest of trees, wrapped in ivy, trying not to put her hand against any
trunk or drape of leaves. There are spider webs, but only tiny delicate ones. She can’t see
a path through the thickness of vegetation, but on the other side of it is the big field that
lies behind the house. Rebecca wants to be in it. The crop has been shorn and the large
pale yellow space is empty enough for Rebecca’s yearning. With an Australian’s fear of
snakes and spiders, she gingerly picks her way over the rumpled ground, its lumps of
ivy-covered stone and tussocks.
In the shadows on the other side of the glade, Rebecca pauses. Is she allowed to
walk on the stubble? She feels watched. ‘For god’s sake, you fucking idiot.’ She strides
out.
Underfoot the ground is clumpy with the drying crop stumps, and the scent of it
is dusty and fresh. There are patches where stones—are they flints?—have been
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ploughed up and some broken. Most of them are intact, however, lumpy and chalkwhite as bones. Her boots make a loud sound as they crunch in the runnels of cleared
ground. The sky is hazing with clouds, darkest to the east, but the sun is still shining.
It’s the middle of the field and she lies down suddenly. Flat on her back. There is
the sound of stalks under her hair. The sky a great blue skin above. ‘So,’ she says aloud.
Her mouth makes the shape Mark’s does, when he’s holding something in. She
can feel his expression on hers. It’s a comforting ghost. But all her words when she
mumbles them in her mouth like a pebble taste only of water.
The sun is prickly hot. She can smell her own skin, feel the glossy heat covering
her hair like a cap.
Back out onto the quiet road, and there are the signs: St Crispin’s. The white
arrow points to her right. Rebecca hesitates, then swings down it with quick, cross steps.
There is no one around; only one more house, on the corner, and no flicker of life behind
the lace curtains there.
At a junction with a smaller road to the right there is another sign. This road is
lined with aspens and they sough as she passes beneath their kind feathery shade. Five
minutes’ walk around the base of a shallow hill and there’s the chunky steeple of the
church, rising above a thick of greenery. She slows.
They’re almost all Norman around here, Mark had said. Churches. The Normans
arrived on the south coast, not so far away, and they put up castles and churches.
Sometimes they were shoved on top of older Saxon ones. The Normans wanted to put
their stamp on things. And god, but they knew how to build. All made of the same stuff,
see? And he’d gestured at the thick flint walls and square towers. Castles, churches,
they all look the same. Indestructible.
This one is benign with quietness. It’s surrounded by a low flint wall; she runs her
fingers along the chunky stone as she walks, until the tips go numb. There is a little
wooden portal opening in the low wall, a structure on poles like the kind of roof put
over a wishing well in children’s stories. Rebecca bends to read the faded yellow tourist
information plaque by its side. The lych gate dates from the 1760s and forms the entrance to
the Path of the Dead, along which bodies were borne for burial.
She steps through the gate.
There is grass and ivy everywhere, soft and forgiving, massed around the halfsunken gravestones that sprinkle the grounds. Clusters of them nearer the church itself.
Inscriptions in old, elegant script like Book Antiqua on Rebecca’s laptop. Here lieth Sarah
Wooton, relict of Samuel Wooton, who departed this life on y 20 Jan 1756. Rebecca notices
some strange graves, with stone bodies, it seems, lying above the earth. Rounded
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mummies, with a ball for a head and a tapering tube for a body, as if in their shrouds.
There are two or three miniatures, the size of children.
She strolls, slowly, narrowing her eyes at the tombstones as she tries to decipher
the eroded scripts. There are precious few she can read. No matter how grand the stone,
how large and carefully inscribed, most of them have not endured two or three hundred
years in legibility.
She nears the church itself, its flint-studded foundations warped to the uneven
ground. The steeple rises, stiff and square, like a watchtower, square at the top, clad in
ivy all over one side. Halfway up the façade of the church is a crumbling carved rosette
with a round, projecting nub at the top. Looking lower, as the clouds topple the tower
towards her, she notices more nubs, on either side of the door’s lintels. They are heads,
she sees, almost life-size. The one on her left is a woman, wearing a cowl, her face
smeared with time but still recognizable. She is smiling. Her companion on the other side
is also a woman, also hooded, but her mouth is chipped out of shape, and her eyes have
a sadder aspect. Rebecca stares at the two of them. They make her feel as if she’s
welcome here. Three women, gazing peacefully at each other.
She wonders, briefly, where Diana is buried. This place looks as if no one’s come
to worship here for years. Diana is probably in a modern cemetery, lined up alongside
all the other shiny black marble bookmarks. Perhaps Mark has been to see; he didn’t
say.
Rebecca has not been to a church service since her parents’ funerals ten years ago.
And they were awful, stiff affairs. The priest got her mother’s name wrong, she
remembers. Margaret, instead of Marguerite. And there were flowers everywhere, prissy
arrangements, all the wrong colours. White and orange. She didn’t like the bare modern
chapel, with its pale pine fittings and blank white ceiling. There was nothing grand or
eloquent there. Only awkward people and too much space around her body, so she’d
pulled little Joss closer to her, feeling the trembly warmth of her sister’s body, hating
everything, wishing only for somewhere dark and small.
There are notices pinned up in the porch of the church, and on either side, an ageshiny wooden bench. The porch is stone, and it smells damp and old. On the sill of the
inner door are scratches in the pale stone; little fine crosses. Another tiny label on the
board draws visitors’ attention to them. Crusader Crosses, it says. It is believed that
Crusaders, on their return to England, would blunt their swords on the lintel of the first church
they saw, in thanksgiving for a safe homecoming. Rebecca draws her fingertip along one of
the frail lines. What did they do when they departed in the first place, she thinks. Was
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there a sharpening of swords? She likes the idea of marking an arrival. Perhaps she
should do the same, somehow. Here I am.
She wouldn’t put it past Joss to have some little ritual. She’s good at things like
that. After the funeral Joss, aged only five, had insisted that Rebecca and she stand in
the back garden. Stand, said Joss. Here. Next to me. The two of them stood, in the
buttery late light of the evening. Now bow, said Joss. This way. She turned to the left.
And this way. Rebecca followed. They did a circle, bowing in every direction. Joss
pointed up at the sky, to where two clouds were being tugged slowly towards the
sunset. Now mum and dad know we’re sorry.
Maybe Joss has made her obeisance to this place already. She’s taking hold of
England in a way Rebecca is resisting. Rebecca lays her palm on the cold yellow stone.
Maybe she should try harder. Anything’s better than this mewling and listlessness. The
wet cement in her heart. But oh, she thinks. How hard it is to give up that sweet grief
too.
The dense wooden door to the church is locked. Well. She goes back out into the
sunshine. There is a huge thick tree near the door, scrubby-looking, with tiny little dark
leaves like needles. Its branches extend in every direction, long, twisted and fringed with
smaller twigs. It’s grotesque, almost sinister; under the boughs, as she wanders closer
and ducks her head to reach beyond where the branches curtsey right to the ground. The
shade is cold, colder than the other air. It’s a messy tree, haphazard, not pretty, with
stiff dead twigs bristling out in a chaos of shapes. But she sees the trunk and comes up
to touch it. The bark is contorted, corrugated and dark, harsh as asphalt, but sheened as
if with skin where the sun catches it. The little needle leaves make a fluttering, rushed
sound.
Knotted and ridged, with columns of bark twining against each other; the trunk
has split at one point. There is a hollow inside, and the bark edges there are glossy and
round, like leather. Rebecca peers in. Cobwebs, a dry dusty scent. The hollow is big
enough to sit in, if one weren’t afraid of spiders.
There is something about this tree that makes her feel good. It’s ugly but safe as
its boughs drape down all around her. Yew trees, Mark had said. They’re for both life and
death. Very common in churchyards, even when they’re older than the church itself. That tells
you something. Some of them are more than a thousand years old. They live so long and they’re
always green, people associated them with eternal life, that’s why they’re in graveyards. But
they’re also poisonous. So, death. Very tidy symbols, aren’t they?
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Something hard presses on Rebecca’s palm as she leans in to peer into the
hollow. Wedged into one side of the wooden lip is a stone. A flint. Like a blade, like a
handle. Strange. She tugs at it, but it feels stuck tight as a rivet. A knife in a tree.
Abruptly a little rotten wood crumbles away under her fingers. The flint loosens
a little. Sunk so deep for so long, unchanging within a living, growing thing, like a chunk
of time itself. She lets it go, sorry to have disturbed it.
She walks on, and out through the church gate again, feeling almost as if she’s
trespassed. But she would like someday to come back. The weather is turning.
::
Joss spends the afternoon reading in bed, in her bright eyrie of a room, all the windows
open and the hot smell of grass coming in.
Mark’s gone to visit his mother: Rebecca seems devastated, but Joss doesn’t
really understand what’s happened. She figures she’ll be upset later, if that’s required;
but for now, she’s feeling almost relieved. So she writhes into a more comfortable
position on the bed and fingers the edges of the pages of a history book.
Below, in the house, there’s a distant sound, as if Rebecca is moving something,
dragging some furniture around. Joss twirls her hair and takes another bite of her apple.
She doesn’t, she realises, actually like sour apples, though she always chooses them.
::
He is there as she’s walking home a couple of hours later. Stiff from lying on her hot bed,
Joss had walked a way down the road just to get some air, and then turned to go home.
More fields, more road, more trees. Twilight, the birds loud in the trees across the fields,
the hedgerows a pale spume on either side of her. Singing under her breath, swinging her
arms. Hastening a little, not wanting to be caught in the dark. Joss is not used to being in
a place without street lights, she wonders just how dark it will be out here in the fields.
It would be blacker than anything she’s ever known. She starts to hurry.
The boy comes towards her in the gloom, down the road. He might not know her.
But he’d waved, that time. A stranger on a road. He comes right up to her now, smiling.
There is something about the way he walks, an odd little jerk: he limps.
He stops. She stops too. He grins at her.
‘Hi.’
He smiles more broadly.
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They stand there, in the thick gloom, the sky streaked with grey and silver, huge
clouds lazily taking up the world.
He cocks his head. He is only a boy, younger than she is, she thinks. ‘Do you live
around here?’
He takes a hand out of his pocket and shakes it out by his side in a strange
gesture, still smiling. Then he points across the field to her right, where there is a slight
hillock crowned with trees.
‘Over there?’
He nods, thoughtfully.
‘You’re kind of quiet. You don’t talk much, do you.’
He laughs, and walks on. As he rolls away with his lopsided gait, he turns and
smiles at her: a smile so fresh and knowing and fond, as if they are old friends, that she
too grins and waves.
He is strolling away with his strange tight lurch, further down the road to the
dark horizon, his hands in his pockets. Everything in the air is gathering in. She walks
home quickly, smiling.
::
Already the smell of Mark in the sheets is vanishing. But Rebecca carefully covers the
sheet with the doona every morning when she gets up, like tucking a child into bed. She
doesn’t want his scent to go. She knows it’s ridiculous—morbid—but she snuffles her
face into his pillow at night, damps down the scent with wet eyes.
This is why he’s left, it’s her, it’s the shame of her, she was weak and stupid. She
showed him everything. And he’s left, because how could anyone love her, so naked and
hoping?
She knuckles herself into the bed. The trees are blowing against the house, in the
dark. She hears Joss’s footsteps, going down the stairs to the bathroom.
Something about sex always simultaneously frightened and amused her: the
frantic bucking, the absurd fleshiness of it all. Men so urgent and intent, their faces
transformed and swollen with blood and their single-minded clambering, their eyes
staring beyond her. As if they were trying to squeeze themselves through a tiny hole,
invisible, somewhere in the air behind her head. She’d often had to fight the urge to
laugh; once, she began to giggle helplessly, and the young man she was with had stopped
dead, and glared at her. Rebecca’s own body had embarrassed her, with its ungainly
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reaching, the way it fought her as she, too, tried to swim through that narrow aperture of
pleasure into bliss.
For years she has known only Mark’s body, and the revelations of her own under
his touch. She has, for a long time, missed the moments when his gaze became hot as he
bent his face to hers.
Then, after sex one night last year, she had realised she’d forgotten to put in her
diaphragm. ‘Well,’ said Mark. ‘Perhaps you didn’t really forget.’ It wasn’t as if he asked
for a child. But Rebecca, at thirty-one, was at the age where she might consider one. And
when she had found she was pregnant, Mark waited for her to say ‘Oh, god, this is
awful’ before he said, ‘I guess it is.’
The termination hadn’t been so ghastly; what had seeped unhappily at Rebecca
as she lay in the recovery room was the knowledge that Mark, in the waiting room, was
mourning the loss of a child he had wanted. ‘Choice is sacrifice,’ she repeated
apprehensively to him later. He had simply smiled sadly, and taken her hand out from
under the pillow of their bed where they lay, and lain there, his face still and his eyes
closed, while Rebecca tried to see in the dimness whether there were really tears beneath
his lashes.
::
Joss corners Rebecca in the bathroom. ‘When am I going to get a real bed?’
‘Oh, shit.’
‘I know you think I like being a total rat, and I don’t really mind sleeping on the
mattress, but it’s a bit yucky.’
Rebecca’s hair is such a pale brown in the mirror that she looks, literally, washed
out. There are shadows, almost yellow, beneath her eyes. She’s lost weight from her face
so fast: Joss thinks she looks like a little kid, and at the same time, so much older than
she really is. Thirty-two looks like hell, she thinks.
‘Can we at least go and buy me a kind of bed?’
‘You just want to go into town and email your friends about what a revolting
time you’re having,’ says Rebecca. She goes back to plucking her eyebrows, but she gives
Joss quick, not unsympathetic glances in the reflection. ‘I don’t know what we’re doing,
mate. I know this is bullshit. But we’re here now, at least for the time being.’
‘Can we afford to make the place a bit more—’
‘Sure.’ Rebecca plucks at a hair. ‘Sure we can. Anyway,’ she says, frowning at her
reflection, ‘We’re grown women. We can fend.’
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::
They go into the village, get a bus to Canterbury, and find some furniture. A fold-out bed
for Joss, a desk for Rebecca, a couch, a television; some other small things to make life
civilised. After a few weeks in the small realm of the house and its surroundings, the
bigger town feels almost overwhelming: the stores pumping music, the young people in
their bright clothes, the acerbic glares of the elderly. They spend an hour at a café simply
gazing at passers-by. The consensus is that the mass of humanity is not, after all, worth
pining for.
A van comes the next day and delivers everything. For a morning, Joss and
Rebecca are invigorated, flushed with the pride of making the house theirs. ‘Fuck Mark,’
pants Rebecca, as she pulls the couch into place below a window. ‘This is what happens
when he leaves me.’
Joss doesn’t say anything, but shoves the couch against the wall and wipes her
cheek.
The most exciting moment is when they connect the television and the mellow
tones of a BBC newsreader tell them that there was a massive traffic jam on the A25.
‘Lamps,’ Rebecca observes. ‘We forgot lamps. I hate overhead lights.’
But Joss has a stash of candles.
‘You are a little boho.’
‘Hobo, more like.’
‘I like this, you know,’ Joss says, later. ‘It’s kind of like camping. Like we’re an
outpost of Australian civilisation in the wilds of savage Britain.’
‘Kind of like a reverse First Fleet?’
‘That’s it. They don’t realise it yet, these people, but we’re going to violate their
women, steal their land, and make ourselves boss. They’ll be lucky if they get to keep
their ancestral Jaffa Cakes.’ Joss takes another one.
‘You know, really, we’re like the ghosts of the colonies, come back to haunt the
place.’
‘We must have had family here once. Do we know anyone?’
‘Well, we don’t have anyone here now. Not that I know of. But I remember mum
telling me once that we’d come from convicts sent to Tasmania, and that they were
smugglers. I wonder if they came from around here? Mark said something about
smugglers, didn’t he?’
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‘That would be typical. I always thought you had a sly, kind of criminal look
about you, Beck.’
‘A rough tough cream puff, that’s me. A nasty pasty.’
‘Yeah. All that bad-ass pastry stuff.’
But after a last cup of tea, Rebecca becomes silent again, and smokes a cigarette
out in the garden with her lips pressed tight against tears. Joss says goodnight, but
Rebecca doesn’t answer, and her sister goes to bed abruptly irritated, for what good is a
sister if she’s not paying attention?
::
From her bed, Joss can smell cigarette smoke and hear Rebecca in the garden. She’s
talking to Mark.
‘And you, you never, god, you never tell me anything, you just make me sit and
wait and wait like a fucking… You’re so stiff and righteous, keeping all your secrets, like
Diana, what the hell was she like, you made it all sound so perfect and… Shit. I wanted
you, I loved you so much, you bring me and Joss all this way and then you leave, you
leave…’
::
Rebecca is growing accustomed to waking with her legs stretched across the bed.
Luxuriously, they scissor back and forth in the warm cavern of sheets. Sleep rises off her
like steam. And then she is awake, and she lies there very still for a moment, aloneness
thudding in her throat.
Joss has been wandering, a new child it seems. Free and unafraid in the new
country. Rebecca doesn’t know where she goes. ‘Oh, out,’ Joss says carelessly. She’s
pulling her boots on in the kitchen when Rebecca sleepily walks in. ‘I just like it.’ Joss
gives a short tug to the laces. She gets up, straightens her shorts, and leaves with a quick
smile.
There on the kitchen dresser, forgotten, is one of Mark’s Ordnance Survey maps.
Rebecca opens it. It all looks quite complicated, until she peers closer and realises that it
simply represents everything in the countryside. Bridleways, manor houses, copses of
trees, golf-courses, hamlets of a few houses. All are shown in tiny pictographs. There’s
St Crispin’s, the church. Rebecca hadn’t realised the road outside curved so; nor that a
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river was so close, and the Roman fort. Not far away is a small plot marked out in
dotted lines, with the label ‘Disused dump.’
There is nothing to do today, except for sitting in the garden, fondling fronds;
except for the washing; except for waiting for Mark. She has resolved to push the
thought of him out of her brain whenever it comes, with its taste of vinegar in her mouth.
After a moment’s thought, Rebecca grabs an apple, the keys, the map, and leaves
the house.
::
There’s her sister, far ahead on the straight of the road before it curves off again like a
blade into the distance. Joss swings down the road quickly. Rebecca ambles more slowly,
hovering by the hedgerows, ready to push herself furtively into their cover should Joss
turn around. It’s not that she’s following her, but she feels a bit foolish walking behind.
The white broderie flowers of Queen Anne’s Lace brush her face. The scent from the
hedges is sweet and powdery. She snatches a handful of daisies and valerian, rolls the
stalks in her fingers as she walks.
The road curves, there is a grove of trees—oaks, their stiff sturdy trunks and
friendly big leaves—and Joss is on a diagonal across the verge when Rebecca sees her.
Against the dry grass verge there is planted a windbreak of poplars shivering white in
the breeze, and beyond them a field. Joss, who always in her Australian life walked on
the footpath, superstitious of stepping on the cracks, is climbing the white wooden stile
of someone’s meadow and striding through the barley. Rebecca, hesitating as she
approaches, notices a sign: Footway. It points into the field. Perhaps she’ll follow Joss a
little, after all.
Once she has swung over the gate, she notices that the crop of barley is run
through with a track that bends the stems in a smooth line to the horizon. More trees up
there on the little hill. Out in the open, wary of being noticed, Rebecca pulls back, lingers
against the poplar trunks. The many leaves make a smooth susurration in the breeze.
Joss has reached the stand of trees on the hill They are bent low, more wrenched
and thick than the serene poplars. Rebecca sees her bend, take off her little satchel, plop
down and cross her legs. A silhouette dark against the bright day, pale against the dark
trees. Which is it? Rebecca squeezes her eyes shut, opens them. Joss sits, facing the field.
Rebecca shrinks back. Joss’s head is tilted, her legs spread carelessly.
She plaits her fingers, stretches them; then pulls weakly at one ankle—her sloppy
socks, thinks Rebecca.
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Rebecca creeps around until she’s behind the poplars. This is like spying on
herself, in the moments when, idle, she presses her blood-warm lips to the cool thick
paint of the kitchen door frame, or finds herself absently swinging her hip against the hip
of the table, just for the movement of it, the easy sway. Lonesome things. Joss is
lonesome too. Not once has Rebecca asked how she feels about Mark leaving. Joss is all
alone here. The realisation recalls the vinegar of hurt to Rebecca’s mouth.
She has been staring at the bark of the poplar and forgetting Joss, the field, the
hill and the trees up there where her sister is sitting. This is mad. What’s wrong with
her? She heaves off the tree’s support and turns back to the road.
::
Joss scratches her ankle and eases her spine. The fields below her lookout are shivering
with yellow heat.
There’s a footstep behind her.
She jumps. Her heart a silly bird. Flush under the sweat on her face.
His face is brown, with clear skin over dark freckles, summer’s flush beneath.
Black irises in hooded eyes. Joss thinks of the broken flints she saw at the church in
town, eggs of stone embedded in the walls, broken off roughly, each surface bevelled a
dozen different ways, each angle glossy as black water. His knuckles are torn, patches
where the sunburned skin has rubbed off, pink against brown. He smells dankly of
sweat. Like an animal. Joss breathes him in.
There is a flex inside her that is like the sweet panic of touching herself. She lets it
wriggle inside her, voluptuously. She too is damp.
The boy looks right at her, smiling a little, his sharp teeth crooked at one corner.
He squats, crosses his arms over his long thighs. His forearms are smooth and brown,
but flawed here and there with small shiny scars. Joss stares at the fine blond hairs
there, the thin sinews of his hands.
A boy. He is so beautiful she thinks she will burn.
She looks out over the field below their little eyrie, the dry green trees dissolving
in the thick air into the distance. ‘It’s so pretty around here.’ Is it stupid to call this place
pretty? He’s watching her. ‘I live over there.’ She points to the right.
He nods.
‘My sister’s husband got the house. We’ve just arrived. It’s, um, it’s really cool.’
Just how stupid is she making herself seem? She is stupid, stupid, stupid. ‘Where do you
live exactly?’
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He points to the left, towards a deep thick of trees that runs down and out of
sight, and beyond, where the land melts towards the sea. They can’t quite make out the
water from here, the horizon is too hazed, but it’s there, a pale rim.
‘You live with your parents?’
The corn-coloured hair over his forehead is spiky with sweat. He runs thin fingers
through it, pushes it back. There is a long scar on his temple, pale seam puckering the
skin, Joss is entranced.
She’s wet under the arms, pink in the face. It’s getting even hotter, but the sky has
clouded, cataract on a blue iris.
The boy is looking at her steadily, with his black eyes, simply staring. Then he
takes her hand and wrenches her to her feet. The bright world tunnels black for a
moment and then swerves back into focus. She feels trembly. He stands there and looks
at her, smiling, with serious eyes, intent.
‘What’s your name, anyway?’
He makes that odd gesture again, shaking his fingers out. ‘You don’t talk, do
you.’ she says. ‘I’m going to just call you Flick. You kind of flicker.’ He still has her
fingers loosely held in his. ‘I’m Joss.’
He looks at her in silence. He clamps her fingers more tightly and tugs her hand,
as if wishing to lead her somewhere.
The wind comes up and all the trees around them flex towards the ground.
Leaves shake and shake.
‘Come on then. Show me.’
::
The woods are cool and damp after the sun. Thin young trees close around as she
follows Flick’s footsteps, his careful treading over mulch and twigs. She thinks they are
heading towards the sea, but she can’t be sure. He’s taken her, sometimes holding her
hand, sometimes walking ahead but always turning back with a secretive, conspiratorial
smile, encouraging her as they walk across fields, alongside windbreaks. The land
around had seemed flat, but Joss feels that she’s walking downhill. Everything is getting
dimmer and deeper and her hands are clammy as she follows Flick between the still,
silent trees. She can hear birds, distant, then one flusters out of a tree just ahead of
them, shrieking. The chinks of sky are white through the pale green millions of leaves
above. They walk in quiet.
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Ivy cloaks many of the trees, where they are not scaly with lichen and moss.
Small flowers spill in pools where the ground is clear: delicate white cups of silk, bulbs
of dark indigo. The air smells of growth. There is no track, and they crunch through ferns
and brambles. Joss accidentally brushes a craggy stalk of green with one finger; the sharp
pain startles her. A nettle. She’s read about nettles.
There’s the sound of water somewhere nearby. Joss is thirsty. Flick is going
ahead, his small, straight back, blond hair metallic in this gloom. Joss’s boots stumble.
She stops.
‘Flick?’
He turns. There is a strangeness in his face. So fine and smooth, his child’s
features, the polished planes of his cheeks, the silken skin of his lips. In the light beneath
the trees he is gleaming like gold.
‘Flick? Where are we going?’ She is embarrassed to be faltering. Not brave
enough, bookish girl, city girl, foreigner. Mark would scorn her. Perhaps she’s not ready
for this adventure. Her finger is stinging sharply from the nettle. It’s getting late in the
afternoon. She gives Flick a tentative smile. ‘Are we nearly there?’
He takes three steps back towards her. It’s strange how nervous she is of him, a
boy younger than she is. She wishes he’d say something; what’s wrong with him? He
stares into her eyes.
‘Yes, yes, I’m coming. I’m fine. It’s just—it’s just, I reckon I should be getting
home—’
The trees hiss in a little breeze. How dark the irises of his eyes are. He takes her
hand.
The way he yanks her forward, startles her. His small hand is very strong. Is he
taller than she’d thought? She lurches ahead, finds her pace again. The scent of sweat
from him is strong, bitter. He leads her to the side, towards the sound of water.
There is a little creek there, water running in glossy roundels over rocks. Joss
steps forward, peers into the water. The light here is dim, shaded, and the trees are thick
on the other side of the bank. The water is loud, running past, there’s no other sound
now. Among the weeds trailing the banks is a clump of something, ragged and tattered.
She glances up to Flick. He stands, looking into the water, smiling with pride.
‘Beautiful.’ Joss doesn’t know if this is it, if this is the place they’ve arrived. It’s a
creek, where she hadn’t known there was one, but she doesn’t know anything about this
country, should she be impressed? ‘Lovely.’
He gestures at the water.
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She looks more closely at the round thing there. The water is curling around it,
easing past, relentless. It seems the current is growing stronger, the sound of the water’s
passage is becoming loud. The shape in the creek is fabric, a cowl of fabric torn at the
top, and inside there is something leathery, pale. Something sinewed.
‘Oh, god!’ Joss jerks back.
The drowned dogs are like wood, stained and polished by the water. Their
muzzles are lean, their flanks, where the skin appears over the smooth rippling surface,
spongelike. The eyes of the dogs have pearled white.
Flick laughs.
Joss looks at him in horror.
‘Yours?’ He shrugs. She can’t stop staring at them. Their snouts all pushed
together, a rope tied cruelly around the thin stiff legs.
She feels as if snails are crawling over her. ‘I don’t know why you—’ She bites off
the words. He seems very strange now and Joss wishes she were home. This country is
all wrong. Where are the spells and the fables? Where’s the magic? The creek stinks, she
realises. Small bugs are festering around the dead animals, swarming in the water.
‘I have to go now.’ Her voice is shrill. She will just get home. She’ll find the way.
‘Thanks. Thanks for the walk.’
His hand is on her arm again. His hands seem bigger, the fingers reach all the way
around her upper arm. He is taller than she is, surely he was not so large before? Not a
child, a young man. His gleaming face comes near, she can smell his breath. She prickles
all over.
His eyes close and he leans in, his other hand at the back of her head, he pulls
her face forward, and his tongue is squirming at her lips, slithers between. Joss grunts.
Her teeth part, her head goes back, she is kissing, she is kissing a boy, he tastes of metal
and he’s right inside her mouth, he’s swallowing her. The world is a mouth.
He breaks the kiss and steps away.
Joss’s face is warm and wet and there is a cool smear of saliva on her chin. A
loose smile on her face. She doesn’t know what to say, she is frightened. Her lips are
cold.
He looks at her; walks away. Turns. A smile, perhaps scornful.
He turns again and ambles off through the quiet trees, further into the woods,
towards the sea.
Joss stands and stands, and she doesn’t know what to do, which way to go,
except back.
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::
Joss wakes the next morning, and, slipping a hand along her upper arm as she rolls
slowly into wakefulness, she finds a soft pain beneath her fingers. She throws back the
light summer coverlet and sits up.
Four small bruises, the colour of moths, in a curved row along her bicep. Flick.
Her mouth wets.
A kiss, her first kiss. She wasn’t expecting it, and it scared her. But now with her
limbs loose and soft from sleep, a new feeling sits high in her throat as she looks down
at the length of her smooth young body in the creamed morning light, she thinks that she
isn’t really sorry; she will, instead, open her mouth for more.
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Part Three
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But when she sees him the next day the sight of him fills her veins with cold water. Joss
pulls back into the hedgerow, out of sight of the boy coming towards her far ahead on
the curving road. The twigs crunch and rasp loudly near her ears as she pushes into the
prickled growth, but she can only hear her heart thumping. She cranes her head forward
a little, peeps around the bend.
He has stopped. He knows she’s there. Joss flinches back into the hedge. This is
ridiculous, but she knows only that she can’t see him, she cannot move towards him, will
not meet the gaze she knows he’s casting back down the road. Something terribly
frightened beats in her chest.
Why is she so fearful? There’s just something about him. Something hard and
cold, for all his golden heat. There’s something in the way he was coming down the road,
how he’s not coming any closer, but just standing there invisibly, his black eyes, his smell
in her nostrils even from a distance.
She waits and then, more carefully, she peers again. He has gone. The hedge is a
spring; it pushes her back out into the road. She hurries back to the house.
::
‘Huh?’ Rebecca says absently.
Joss is stirring coffee on the kitchen counter. Her sister has been staring at the
Ordnance Survey map.
‘I…’
‘Quiet, I mean,’ says Joss. ‘Should I be going to school?’
The days seem too open around them, without corners.
Rebecca says, ‘You seem busy.’ She’s still staring at the map, its busy green road
lines and firm circles for towns.
‘Not really.’ Joss sits down, jogs her foot up and down.
They’ll have to enrol her in the local school, it should have been done ages ago.
What a mess. It’s the long holiday now, but soon—will Rebecca and Joss still be here?
What if Mark’s not coming back? What should they do? Inside her, Rebecca feels embers
wearily flickering out.
‘Met any friends?’ Rebecca knows she sounds stupid. In Melbourne she and Joss
could talk easily, about things going on, Joss’s homework, Rebecca’s friends who were all
like aunties to Joss, laughing and lively; weekend afternoons in cafes, joints smoked by
the adults under rattling gum trees in the back garden.
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‘No.’
‘I’m sorry.’
Joss shakes her head, quickly.
The morning, outside, is flashy with sunshine. Joss tips up her mug, drains her
coffee. Rebecca goes to the open kitchen door, lights a cigarette.
‘Wonder what Mark’s doing,’ Joss says.
Rebecca inhales, smoke hot in her throat. ‘I couldn’t care less.’
::
They watch television together, eating off plates on their lap. Fried eggs and bacon and
huge mugs of tea. The Wimbledon tennis is on: a posh-sounding commentator is lustily
quoting Dylan Thomas. ‘Do not go gentle into that good night,’ he admonishes a failing
player. Joss snorts and changes channel.
There’s a documentary, about Britain before the Romans. Footage of meadows
and Stone Age monuments is saturated to bring out the resonance of colours, with
unearthly greens; fields aflame with crimson poppies, bruised vast skies. Eerie Irish
music plays. A historian with excited gestures and a scholarly little ginger moustache
wades up coastal paths and down hillsides, explaining about how, in the twelve days
between Christmas and Epiphany, the dead could return to the living world. It was the
time when time stood still, or turned about: the apparition of the horse with its funeral
associations, and the ritual combats and the mad sexual frenzies to assert the power of
life and fertility in those black frozen days when the year turned on its pivot, and
almost stopped.
‘Wow,’ says Joss. ‘I imagine it’s pretty exciting around here at Christmas time,
then.’
‘Oh yeah,’ Rebecca says, reaching for a biscuit. ‘They block the whole high street
off for the sexual frenzy.’
They sit and watch more. The historian visits an old church, blackened and stern.
He tells them that enclosed within this Norman church is an older Saxon one, and below
that, the foundations of a Roman temple, where, thrillingly, the skeleton of a child was
found. And below everything, a prehistoric sarsen stone, blank and implacable as a
giant tooth.
‘Now that’s cool.’
‘It looks a lot more fun on telly than real life. But you really love this stuff, don’t
you? You can get hold of it,’ Rebecca dares say. There’s no knowing what will make Joss
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prickle, of course; she’s got all the secrecy and perverse pride of a small child. Remarking
on her predilections and obsessions has had doors slammed in Rebecca’s face before.
But Joss is sleepy and comfortable, her legs resting across Rebecca’s lap.
‘Yeah, I guess. I like it. It’s like some safe world, some place I can just go, in my
head.’
‘Do you have much feeling for… I don’t know. For the amount of time that’s
passed here?’
‘I’m fifteen. I don’t even know what it’s like to be sixteen.’
They sit in silence. The news comes on, a brief update, and then a talent show.
Everyone in the audience is pinkly sunburnt. The contestants are garish with fake tan.
‘It’s strange here. The stories aren’t really just stories anymore. They’re more real.’
Joss shifts sleepily.
‘I don’t know about that. It was all a long time ago, whatever that means. And
you know, I keep thinking of that joke, about the American tourist arriving at Heathrow
and asking a policeman, “Excuse me, could you direct me to your nearest pageantry?”’
Joss giggles. ‘I know, it’s a bit much sometimes. Good old Olde Englande. I’m
such a sucker for it.’
‘Have you been reading much?’ Rebecca asks. Christ, she’d forgotten to ask.
‘Of course. I wouldn’t want to disappoint you when you’re going to hassle me all
the time.’ It’s clear from Joss’s look that she’s noticed her sister’s entire lack of interest.
‘You’ll have to show me.’
‘Just old stuff. Just lots and lots of old stuff.’
‘I found something the other day,’ Rebecca says, shifting Joss’s legs a little. ‘A
beautiful old tree in the churchyard, with a stone stuck in it. Some kind of old knife. It
looked like something out of your old books.’
‘You’ve been to church?’
‘Mm. I thought I might get Born Again. In the love of Jesus.’
‘Uh-huh.’
‘You’ll have to come and be baptised with me in the well. It’s a long drop, but
they said it’s quite safe. You look like you could do with a wash, anyway.’
Joss is watching the television. It’s showing a picture of an up-ended ancient tree,
its trunk buried in a marsh, its roots spread out to the air. ‘What?’
Rebecca pats her hand. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, I’m too much of a poor sinner to be
let into a church. There was no one there. But the yard is nice. All those wonderful trees,
witchy trees, it’s so peaceful there. I don’t hate everything, you know. Contrary to
appearances.’
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‘You’ll become some kind of mysterious woman of the wood,’ Joss says, standing
and stretching. She reaches for their empty cups. ‘I’m going to turn into some Celtic
princess and you’ll be the wise witch. I guess we could see that coming, couldn’t we.’
::
He comes to her again, in the road outside the house, as she’s on her way out. He stands
on the other side of the low stone wall, where she saw him once through the window.
Nervous, Joss doesn’t know where to look.
His hands in his pockets, his dirty hair blown sideways. He seems so small, his
knobby elbows, his pure skin. Freckles dark beneath the tan across his nose. He jerks a
shoulder back, raises his eyebrows. Come with me. There is metal in her mouth, but she
says yes.
Down the shaded road, into the fields, across a pathway. Joss hesitates as they
near a darkness of trees. The weather is brackish, murky. More thunderclouds on the
horizon, the blue of the sky paling above. ‘I don’t want to go in there.’ She stops, well
clear of the grove.
Flick watches her. Then he sits down and beckons her to do the same.
They sit in a runnel between barley stalks, where a footway passes through the
crops. Already Joss is used to these; the old rights-of-way, across private farms and
crossing highways. They’re marked with signs from time to time, but not always clear.
His darkness is gone; he’s easy with the day’s warmth. Joss will not speak of the
kiss.
She waits, staring warily at him and then at her own bare knees, the dried barley
stalks beneath. He does nothing, doesn’t attack her. Then their gazes drift off to the
horizon, they sit in silence, and she lies back, and the sky pearls more, and she’s
enormously aware of him sitting just beside her.
The crops blow and tick their dry leaves together in the warm breeze. Flick
breathes; shifts occasionally, settles. Minutes and minutes dissolve. Joss is almost
asleep. The air has grown damp and the sun has gone. Under her head the dried barley
tatters rustle until she stops moving, and she lies there, concentrating on that silence,
that stillness. The trees have quietened.
She has her eyes closed, she can’t even hear him breathing. Behind her eyelids she
sees his face, so fine and clear, the burnt skin and the brown. The thought of him just
near to her comes like a surge across her body, exciting as fear. Now that he’s here, she
has to respond to him; this is real. What she feels, more than anything, is want. Then
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again, she wishes nothing need happen; that there be no next moment, that they could lie
like this forever, caught out of time.
He’s only a child, she reminds herself. But his grip was so hard, in the wood, his
mouth so fierce. She imagines his skin hot, how hot he would be if only she could move
and he would move and touch her. He has nakedness beneath his clothes.
Something shivers across her skin.
She opens her eyes a little and squints up at him kneeling over her. He is looking
at her mouth, with a hard, adult gaze. He doesn’t move at all.
‘Flick?’
Heat is coming from him in a haze, or is it just the thick afternoon air? She twists
awkwardly to rise, and his eyes are huge, staring at her now, his face has firmed, he is
the only golden thing in this pale field, he is the only colour against the blank heavy sky.
His hair is bright gold and the scar on his temple is crimson.
She kneels and she puts her hand on his arm. They look at each other. His gaze is
almost fearful.
Joss lowers her head, and watches her hand stroking his arm. Her heart is beating
so fast she think she is going blind. A plane passes somewhere lost in the hazy sky,
sounding large as thunder.
When she lifts her head once more it is closer to his. She can see the fine hairs of
his brows, the spangled iris of his dark eye, his chapped lips. She can taste his breath.
She has a sensation that the air itself is pushing the two of them close together.
He murmurs, but too low to hear. She puts her mouth to his.
Lips meet, press.
Then he clamps her hard with his hand. Resistance becomes give, give becomes
want.
A kiss like a fight, clumsy, scrambling. Their bodies push together in haste.
Hands grasping, grabbing, restless, hungry. Joss barely knows what she’s doing, she
pursues him, she grunts and flattens against him as he arches against her, both of them
straining to climb each other, falling away and clambering harder. Her body has never
made these movements before. Her throat has never made these sounds.
It is as if there’s water in her ears, she is drowning in this boy. Under her he
writhes, twisting her, legs tough beneath hers, and something else hard, thin and hard
against his belly. The fulcrum of her body pushes onto it, pushes onto it deliciously
again. Her breath stops with need, her flesh empties. She’s nearing something, something
frightening, wonderful.
There is distraction in the distance. A voice.
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Joss?
The boy clasping her. Joss tunnelling into him, silent and animal.
Her hearing clears, she is sweating, she lifts her head.
Rebecca, calling her. Joss opens her eyes.
Her sister is coming, looking for her, and Joss scrambles backwards, blinks away
heat, scrubs her hair from her eyes, looks around.
There’s Rebecca, on the other side of a windbreak, a small figure. Joss gulps
down her fright and looks at Flick.
He is gone. She is alone in a tunnel of pale reeds. There’s only Rebecca, coming
closer, a dozen feet away, smiling.
‘What do you want? What do you want?’ Joss says. The words jerk out of her,
she’s not aware, her face is flushed. She feels as if the humid air has lightened and her
body is floating. It’s not possible that he could have gone like that.
Rebecca halts. Her face, confused, is loathsome at this moment. ‘What are you
doing?’
Joss is hollow as a stalk. She gets up from the ground. ‘Nothing. Nothing!’
They walk home, Rebecca cautiously silent, Joss staring at the road. There is more
space between them than there might be.
::
It takes two days for the new bruises to appear. Three fingerprints along the side of her
throat. They rise on her skin, welts of memory. Joss hides them with her hair, rubs at
them gently, with closed eyes.
::
The next day, Rebecca wakes thinking of taking the bike out again, but then she feels
tired, and doesn’t. She’s been waiting for Mark to ring. The courage it’s taken, to wait, is
enormous. All day every day, in fact, days and weeks, she has waited, and thought of
him thinking of her, and how soon he’ll give in and call to say I was wrong, I’m coming
home. But he doesn’t and doesn’t, and she’s so disappointed that sitting up in bed,
simply imagining herself sitting up in bed alone, unwanted, she curdles into tears. It is
early afternoon before she rises, leaden.
‘Jesus,’ she says when she walks into the kitchen. ‘What the fuck’s this?’
Joss, eating a boiled egg at the table covered in newspapers, looks at her. ‘What?’
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‘I suppose you haven’t gone out to get milk, either.’
Joss stares.
‘I’m really not in the mood for this,’ Rebecca says, yanking out a chair and sitting
at the table.
Joss is silent, but edges her book away from Rebecca, pretends to read.
‘I can tell you’re not reading.’
The younger girl doesn’t say anything but inches her book even closer to the edge
of the table.
‘Your eyes aren’t moving.’
‘Go away,’ Joss hisses. ‘You’re being a bitch.’
‘Fuck.’ Rebecca gets up and shoves the switch of the kettle on. Joss’s chin
becomes ugly.
‘What’s wrong with you?’
The sisters raise eyebrows at each other. ‘Oh for god’s sake,’ Rebecca says. ‘I’ll
have to put you in the naughty corner.’ She jerks her head towards a nook where the teatowels have been stashed. ‘Fuck!’ she says suddenly. As she sits down again she
clenches her eyes closed. ‘Sorry.’
Her sister scowls at her. ‘You look like shit and you’re being a total, total—’
‘I am a bitch. I am the biggest bitch there ever was.’ She glances at her sister. They
sit in silence for a minute, Joss picking up egg crumbs with a fingertip. ‘I’m sorry, I’ve
been awful.’
‘You’ve been very boring, yes.’ A pause. ‘What’s going on with him?’
Rebecca tilts her head. ‘He hasn’t rung, but I got a postcard yesterday.’ She takes
it from the kitchen counter and hands it to Joss, puts her head down on the table again.
‘Doesn’t say much, does it.’
‘He’s never coming back. I guess.’
Joss gets up, pulls a mug out of the cupboard, puts a teabag in it. ‘Don’t say
that.’
‘I’m afraid it might be true.’
‘Yes.’ Joss switches the kettle on. ‘But don’t say it. Don’t they always come back
in the end?’
Her sister looks up at her. ‘Only in books, my love.’
‘Well, then.’ Joss tilts her head towards her book. She pours boiling water.
There’s no milk and Joss has forgotten the sugar, but Rebecca takes one slow sip
after another. ‘I can’t believe I’m taking advice from a fifteen-year-old.’
‘Shut up! How long are we going to wait?’
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‘Well, we’re here now. Can’t afford to leave. We’ll have to stay until he kicks us
out.’
‘I can’t imagine how you feel, you know. I don’t know anything about—about,
you know, being married.’ Joss thinks she knows something of love. For the first time, she
knows something about love. It’s too precious to talk about.
‘Me neither.’
‘Is it awful? This?’
‘Yes. Yes it is.’
Joss gets up, reaches out her arms, bends awkwardly to hug her sister. It’s the
first time they’ve touched like this in a long time. They press into each other. Rebecca is
warm and small. Flick, thinks Joss. I want his body. Is it wrong, to want him so much?
‘I’m okay.’
They disengage, step back again, embarrassed. Rebecca wipes her eyes. ‘This
place. It makes me claustrophobic. You seem to like it.’
‘That’s because I’m a better person than you.’
‘Shut it.’ Rebecca knocks her sister in the arm.
But now Joss is thinking of Flick again, and says nothing. He’s pressed hard up
inside her throat, and she’s nearly choking. There’s a new kind of loneliness, she is
discovering, not to be caught having a secret.
::
The beach slopes towards the water, ridged in banks where the receding tide has paused
and thought, then dredged down. Her boots crunch firmly on the pebbles: small ones
down the slope, bigger ones at the keel of each hollow.
She’s left all behind except water, stones and sky. Once the light thickens the
fishing boats sit alone with their pennants fluttering. Everything is grey, soft, soft velvet,
a little bluish, exquisite. Far off there’s a ship’s light shining scarlet, and there are a few
lighter clouds still smearing the grey, but all else is peace. The sea withers and worries at
the shore. Giving a little, with each handful of stones cast up; taking it back with long
slow scrapes.
The water makes a low roar, slopping the last of its ebbing tide onto the finer
pebbles along its edge. It has cleaned the basin of its passage and skitters with a kind of
fatigue in long, messy curves, back and over itself, skimming, as if any moment it will
subside altogether and rest. Every now and then, when she’s lulled herself with the
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ceaseless rustle of it, there’s a bigger crunch and a heavier wave slumps down, like a
sleeper throwing out a careless arm.
If she waits until it’s a little darker, she can scrabble up a handful of the stones
and throw them, hard, against the rest by her feet. She can snatch up cold round pebbles
and smash them down; tiny little sparks will jump off. Much of the beach is flint, that
oldest of playthings; it’s hard but brittle, easily chipped if a blow hits it the right way. In
a hundred pebbles there will be ten with their chalky white skins battered to reveal the
glossy dark centre of each stone egg. Flash, flare—the sparks vanish instantly. It’s for the
satisfaction of throwing that she does it, not the useless light.
She’s already left it late to leave on the walk home to the house down the dark
road. Since when did she become so nervous of everything? Rebecca clamps her palm
savagely over a sharp flint of stone until it hurts. Sitting down, she finds a tiny scrap of
charcoal. On one flattened grey pebble, almost unthinking, she writes Here. On another,
There. On a third, Me, and places it between the others.
The beach is dissolving further into a fog of greys and powdery blues, all edges
vanishing. There is hardly any telling where the shore becomes sea. A little way away
she can see the pale orange streetlights of the town. The afterburn of them makes the
soaked blue of the shore even deeper.
So she’s lost her husband, it seems, and that baby that might have been. Her
parents, long ago, and her old home. She sits on the shingle, aware that she, in her dark
clothes, is the only solid object in this haze of grey: marked out, so utterly solitary in all
the space around.
For years she had carried her mother’s laugh within her own, oddly released
when she wasn’t expecting it; her father’s way of jamming his hands in his pockets and
swaying gently from side to side as he talked. Her whole character is, she sometimes
thinks, made up of the memories of those she’s known. One friend’s way with words,
another’s opinions; all absorbed into her, all coming out again when she doesn’t expect
it, when she thought those people long gone. Now that she’s alone, here in this country
where, but for Joss, she knows no one, she wonders who she will be. And without the
glints of others’ lights illuminating her, who’s to say she even exists?
She looks down at her thin hands, the darkness of her clothes; almost obscured
in the growing dusk. Well, she has this. A sense of herself as discrete, whole and
condensed as a glass marble, buried right down deep inside. Her strong hands, her
straight body. The woman she has become, in this place, in this extraordinarily beautiful
moment. Something solid, something true.
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And, biting her lip, smiling, she says to herself, finally says it: I think I might be
pregnant. She lets out a shout.
It’s late enough to see it now. She stoops, gathers a palmful of small flints, and
throws them as hard as she can at the shingle. For one beautiful instant, flecks and
sparks ring out bright. She does it again and again.
::
Flick, Flick. Joy burns inside her. She fancies his scent is still on her, her own breath
smells like his, her skin. He’s coming out through her pores. At night, in the morning, she
twists under the sheet, one hand between her thighs, thinking of his face, his hips, the
way he breathed against her ear, fast and helpless. The way she had undone him. The
pleasure is like a searing, it hurts, makes her body move to meet his phantom touch.
She tries to press bruises into her skin as he has done but her fingers leave no
mark.
::
The packet from the pharmacy is easy to open. Rebecca’s hands are trembling as she
unwraps the little plastic wand. Naked, she sits on the toilet. Outside the sky is just a
haze of palest orange. It’s important to get the result on the day’s first pee; she had
woken, impatient to find out, and now, in the glare of the bathroom fluoro, she urinates
onto the plastic. She puts the wand aside, dries herself, averts her eyes.
If it’s two blue lines, if it’s two blue lines. She tries to envisage what the two lines
will look like, how she will feel. If she could only jump ahead five minutes, and then
scoot back plump with knowledge, but nothing actually irreversible.
In the mirror, as she waits, she anxiously regards her face. It’s too thin, and she
looks older than she should; there are faint seams from nose to lips which have
appeared in the seven weeks since she and Mark last made love, in the weeks since
Mark left. They’ll fade if she’s pregnant, if her body and her face grow round. She
practises a look in the mirror: the happy expectant mother. Slightly too smug. She
practices dismay. In the reflection her eyes are unexpectedly forlorn.
The sky is going pink; it’s going to be hot again. Or does it mean rain? Red sky in
the morning, shepherd’s warning. Her mother told her that; ridiculous. When did her
mother ever care what happened to a shepherd?
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It’s time. Sooner than she expected. She picks up the plastic wand, careful not to
look at the aperture that will show the result. She covers that with her other hand. Looks
at herself in the mirror. One, two three. She uncovers it and looks down.
One, two. Two lines. She is pregnant.
::
One moment she thinks of Flick, and there’s nothing. No feeling. Her body doesn’t cramp
with want, she can’t even remember what he looks like. She blinks. There is a smear of
gold in her mind, where Flick used to be, dissolving away.
She concentrates, remembers his fingers trembling on her shoulders when he
kissed her, the curve of his neck as he walked ahead of her, the way he’d narrowed his
eyes at her. There it is again, that cold flush, the hot pleasurable promise in her. He rises
in her mind’s eye, is present in the angles of her body as she spreads her limbs and then
curls them tight again. She can bring him back, he’s always in her, he’s too precious to let
go now.
It’s been ages, but Joss remembers her landscapes. She borrows Rebecca’s laptop
and lies on her bed on a hot, drowsy afternoon. Opening the program, she flicks through
files she has collected of landscape features, looking for some she can stitch together into
the right dream. She picks out an image of a shaded forest; another of sunlight. This she
makes transparent, so that only glints of light stain the green glade. The trees aren’t quite
right: she elongates them, makes them paler, more spectral. In the midst of the tableau
she runs a river—she takes only the water of the original image, not the rocky banks—so
that it streams through as subtly as light. She darkens the image, to bring out the
shadows; raises the saturation of the green, adjusts the contrast, for drama; uses the
light-casting tool to angle a strange glow from one corner. Lastly, tweaking the levels to
blend it in perfectly, but blurring the outline so that it appears lustrous against the dark
background, she pastes in the image of a naked man—a nude god. His marble body
twists away from her; she warms the tone of his flesh to gild it. Thighs and torso show
young muscle: his form is harmonious, boyish, but deliberately sexual. Joss conjures a
shadow for him. The shadow absorbs the detail from the river glade; it’s soil-coloured,
extended, reaching towards the viewer.
Joss compresses the layers, saves the file. She stares at the picture she has made.
It is something, it’s beautiful, but it’s no longer enough.
::
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A week of weather radiant as joy. The roadsides are splashed with frail scarlet poppies.
Every day is a little hotter, a little more voluptuous than the last. It’s unbearable, alone.
Joss tears at her nails with her little teeth, uses all the hot water, changes channel
restlessly, eats nothing but toast. She complains of the heat, throws the windows open
to let it in, treks dust into the house. Rebecca doesn’t mind the dust—housecleaning is
the last thing on her mind—but she flinches anew at the truculence thrown at her. She’d
thought they were growing closer again. Eating dinner on their laps in front of the
television, gentle goodnights in the passageway between their rooms. A little while of
that, and then Joss’s cheer had suddenly become brittle, she had become impatient with
Rebecca’s mild jokes. Sealing herself up over something. The quick glance of apology
after a sharp remark, the inability to stop herself making it in the first place.
It seems as if, good sisters, they take turns being out of sorts. Turn and turn
about.
Rebecca hasn’t told Joss about the pregnancy test. It is, for the moment, her little
glow of a wonderful secret: flesh-coloured, deeply warm within her. Joss isn’t the only
one feeling disturbed, however. Rebecca has begun already to feel tired, slack and
sloppy, her belly aching and dreary nausea coating her sensations. But Joss isn’t helping.
Her fretfulness is like someone scratching fingernails too lightly on bare skin.
How much does Rebecca remember of being fifteen? She recalls the fluttering joys
of her teenage years with disdain: it had been books, boys, loathing for her unshaped,
pudgy face, pride in her strong body. All of that long since forgotten. Her face is thin
now, her body in her early thirties already beginning to thicken. She does not remember
what she dreamed of half a lifetime ago.
Rebecca wonders whether Joss had a boyfriend in Australia. It would be typical
of her to keep it a secret, in her awkward pride. There’s something virginal still about
her: her clean face, her hair rough and long. She hasn’t that glittering selfconsciousness of
a girl aware of her power. But there is a sheen to her skin, a way she has of smoothing
her palms against her thighs as she sits. Rebecca has woken in the night aware that she is
not the only one awake, and heard a muffled croon from Joss’s room. My darling, she
thinks. When it comes, it will hit you like a bomb.
::
Four long days have passed since the barley field and Joss feels frayed with waiting.
She’s been walking the roads, one alert step at a time under the dappled shade of trees,
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along the endless hedgerows. They’re a mess of foliage, foamy white flowers and
delicate pink ones, sometimes tiny forget-me-nots, orange daisies and a dozen types of
green leaf all crowded together in banks of growth and twigs. She picks flowers and tries
to make them into chains, but the stems split too easily and the chains fall apart in her
fingers. Fretful, she throws the flowers behind her and walks on. Every moment she
expects to see Flick, find his hot hand laid on her arm. The reality of him seems hard to
pin in her mind; he’s become a shadowy thing of hard bones and golden skin, a flashing
skewed smile, the river-light in his black irises. His scent, rich as a body’s secrets. The
sound of him, breathing. Just thinking about his harsh helpless breathing, his body
beneath her, she moans aloud, buckles at the waist in a billow of pleasure. She will do
anything he wants, she will be radiant under his attention. Just let me put my hand on
you, let me flatten against you. Bear me up, swallow me down.
Her mouth tastes of water, bitter and mineral with want. Where is he?
The road is empty, the trees restless as she is. Above, the sun glares and she
realises she is also waiting for thunder, waiting for that sultry oppression in which Flick
comes and sets her alight.
::
The evening is warm and drowsy as Rebecca walks home from the library. A lateafternoon summeriness, such as she remembers from her childhood, a kind of
benevolence in the mildness of the light, the way it melts away on her face. She walks
down the ugly high street with her hands in her pockets, the insides of her arms greeting
the air. Stopping at a shop for a newspaper and milk, she enjoys the cooler air meeting
the warmth of her skin. Outside, as she approaches the fields between the town and the
house, she raises her face to the trees. A matt of trees, stitching sky to land in dense
knots.
Growing always from the same place, in soil that’s been turned again and again
for centuries. A rock in field tossed out of the way by one farmer, tossed again by his
son, by his son, by his son, never moved very far. This field will have a name, an old
name. It is reassuring, this great continuity.
For Aboriginal people, she heard once, trees, like the rest of the landscape, mark
places and what has happened there. They are full of spiritual power, reservoirs of
spirit, ignitable. When someone dies under a tree, he is called after the place. The tree is
special; but when it too dies, its offshoot, perhaps from a seed drifted a little further
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away, is still known by the same name; the dead person’s family might travel away; the
memory of the dead dispersed and diffused, but surviving.
She had thought, when she was a little girl, that Europe was the place for her, not
scant, brittle Australia. She’s changed; she came too late.
But she finds she has grown used to these textures and colours, this soft rustling,
so different to the casuarinas and gums she’s known. It’s not that these trees are more
beautiful. She loves the ragged dry things of the bush. That’s her habitat, not this. Here
she feels foreign, for all that she has the same skin as the locals and perhaps those
smuggler ancestors of hers might have known these same fields. It seems incredible that
she has no family here, and not much of it in Australia either. Small bubbles of DNA,
which have floated far from their origins, that’s her and Joss. Australia, with its own
dizzy cliffs of time, its mystery, is her place. She envies Joss the liberty of her roamings;
she herself feels clamped by this country, its history. Jammed in, choked. Her
imagination can only take her so far; then it’s just an inert stone, the empty fields all
around. No one speaks to her here. The voices are too many, too soft, too dead.
These trees, though: perhaps they’re the only things that call to her. These
friendly beasts.
A tree is endurance. Wearing its breathing skin against all weathers and seasons.
There is a great courage about trees, she thinks as she passes beneath a small glade along
the road. The varieties here have stateliness. Poplars shaking and silvering. Lime trees,
generous and at ease. Others which Rebecca cannot name. She recalls another of her
mother’s sayings, a song about oaks.
Three hundred years growing
Three hundred years standing
Three hundred years dying.
Rebecca walks along, the sun cupping her head in its hot hand. She is smiling at
the trees, brushing her hands against leaves, slowing under their shade. Inside her
something is richly growing. Above her the trees surge and surge and surge in the wind.
::
Here I am, says Flick. Here I am. And he tips his head back, to show the underside of his
sweet throat, the elegant tendons, the golden skin. His brown hands, long and boned like
wings. Don’t be scared, he says. It’s all okay, it’s okay, he whispers. I love you.
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Behind Joss’s closed eyes, everything is golden. Like the bottom of a river in
sunlight. And Flick comes swimming up out of it, towards her, smiling, and again and
again he holds her and pushes her legs apart and the water runs right through her bones.
Lying alone under a tree on the edge of a field, she plays this dream over and
over, drowsily, curling and flexing in half-sleep, smiling too.
::
Rebecca takes the library books to the lounge room. It is sunny in there; the brief minutes
when the sun finds its way in through the thick windows.
She looks through the books: a guide to varieties. She feels stupid, still not to be
able to recognise most of the most basic types. Looking through it quickly, she realises
that she’s barely observed anything of details. She couldn’t say whether a birch tree has
big leaves or small. Honestly, she may as well be blind for all the notice she’s taken.
She’d borrowed a book describing various famous old trees of Britain and
another, of legends associated with trees. She flips through them. Naturally, British treelore is odd. The memory of the sanctity of trees in the pagan days has clearly not quite
faded in the modern era. Rebecca reads of a ‘Wishing Tree,’ situated by the side of an
old highway, its bark encrusted with coins pressed into it by passers-by with wishes for
protection. Some of the coins date only to the Seventies. A huge old tree in the north of
the country is known as the ‘Bleeding Yew’, after it seeped crimson sap and a legend
emerged that a holy man had once been hanged from it; of course, trees were also used
as gibbets.
Rebecca remembers a story one of her friends had told her in Melbourne: ‘A true
story,’ Sarah had said. About driving down a lonely country road at night, past an old
tree once used as a gibbet, and seeing, flaring in the headlights, a pale figure walking
down the middle of the road. ‘It was totally dark, that was the thing,’ she’d said. ‘And
this person was all white, like a mummy. Swaddled in cloth. And when I drove past—
quickly, I’m telling you, because there was something very, very weird about it—the thing
that frightened me the most was that it had no face. No face at all.’
Rebecca is sure there is no shortage of ghost stories around here. There are the
eldritch stories in this book: a yew which, if one stuck a pin in its bark and ran around it
exactly twenty-four times at midnight, would allow a person to peer in through a
window of the nearby church and see a vision of a woman murdering a baby. You can
see that on any episode of a crime drama, thought Rebecca, without running around a
tree like a lunatic.
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The yew, with its resilient wood, was prized as the material out of which to cut
great longbows with which to deal death, but its evergreen branches were also used in
place of palms in religious ceremonies. Boughs of such symbols of eternal life were
placed under bodies, as biers. And the power of trees to restore or repair life was
undisputed. There were Miracle Trees of the Middle Ages, passing under which could
cure disease, and others whose fruit and leaves were taken as an antidote to the Plague.
Perhaps the woods were creatures of life, but they, too, had begun to die. The
woodlands of the county had ebbed and flushed through time. The Silva Anderida of
Roman days was cut back for charcoal; Andreadsweald in the Saxon era had thickened
once more, hollowed out only by settlers. During the Civil War a thousand years later,
the trees burned away as fuel in homestead fires, but then grew again; the threat of
Napoleonic invasion had them forming the keels of a hundred navy ships, holding
cargoes and men safe above far-away waters. The last great woodlands of England were
felled only seventy years ago, in the War, and now, as Rebecca had seen on Mark’s map,
only minute little remnants stand. One of the largest, she reads, is not far from the
house, down by the river. One of these days she will pay it a visit, in tribute.
She should go back to her yew tree in the churchyard. It had bent over her with
such grace and solace, when she had needed grace and solace. No wonder the old
people had worshipped them, and given them tribute. Perhaps, Rebecca thinks, the
stone knife is like that. Someone put it there once, for something. How lovely. It seemed
right, to give up one thing that you loved, to set a balance right.
She should like to give up her sadness. If only she could find some place that
would want it.
::
Again, in the morning. A bruise on her leg, and another, a handspan away. Quiet as
flowers, they are, blooming in the night. Joss smiles. It won’t be long now.
::
Rebecca finds herself picking up the phone. It’s the first time she’s used it; how odd.
There isn’t anyone to call in England, and she’s been shy of confessing the situation to
her friends at home. After the big send-off in Melbourne, it is too humiliating. As far as
the people at home are concerned, she imagines, she’s simply disappeared. Out of sight,
out of mind.
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She’s still not ready to talk to her friends, to breach the silence. But she holds the
phone, the back of her throat hollow with apprehension. In front of her is the number for
Mark’s mother. She dials it, quickly, before she can think about what she’s going to say.
‘Hello?’
‘Hello? Mrs Cole? It’s Rebecca here.’
‘Who?’
‘Rebecca… Is Mark there?’
‘Oh, Rebecca. Yes, he’s here. How nice to hear from you, dear. I’ll fetch him.’
Sound of the phone being put down; mumbling voices; the phone is picked up.
‘Hello? Mark speaking.’
Appallingly, tears spring to Rebecca’s eyes. ‘Hi. It’s me.’
‘Oh. Hello.’
‘I thought I’d see how you’re going.’
‘I’m fine.’ He clears his throat. ‘How are you?’
‘Fine.’
She holds the phone slightly away from her head, she wishes she could just put it
down and walk away quickly. Her voice is coming out thin and nervous.
‘We’re getting on okay. Joss is around somewhere. The house is still standing.’
‘Well, good.’ There is a pause. ‘I’m sorry I haven’t rung.’
‘That’s okay,’ Rebecca finds herself saying. ‘I guess you’ve been busy. How’s your
mother?’
‘She’s well. It’s fantastic to see her. Do you know, she didn’t bat an eyelid when I
turned up? Just told me to go down the street and buy more bread.’ He laughs.
‘That’s mothers for you. Hard to impress.’ If they’re going to have a jolly-jolly
conversation, she’ll keep her end of it up. ‘Did she ask about me?’
‘Of course. I said you were busy getting the house sorted, and she said she’s
looking forward to meeting you one day.’
Rebecca lets that one sit for a moment. ‘It’s nice to hear your voice.’
‘And yours.’ For a moment there, intimacy breathes on her face, she thinks he
might say something, his voice has softened, hasn’t it, he’s eager to talk to her. For God’s
sake, she thinks. But she’s smiling now.
‘Well, I’ll be in touch,’ she hears him say. ‘Say hi to Joss. All the best.’
It’s like a punch in the throat. She gathers herself. ‘You too. You too. Bye, Mark—
’ but he’s already hung up. She puts the phone down, quickly, carefully, as if it’s hurting
her. A moment later she’s in the walled garden, reaching for a cigarette and then
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stopping herself. Her skin is goose-bumped. The baby—she’s glad now, she didn’t
mention it.
She bends, wrenches a small plant out of the earth, and hurls it as hard as she
can against the wall.
::
Joss flexes out of sleep. Fast, as if in fear. Her head is raised from the pillow before she
opens her eyes. Blackness in the room, pewter light at the window. Nearly dawn. She
can smell her own sweat; it lies as heavy on her as the sheet she kicks away.
Her heart is beating fast: has something happened? Outside the trees sough and
rasp. She is naked at the window, her mouth half-open and soft with excitement.
Flick stands in the garden below. His chest is bare, his face dark in shadow. He
raises one arm to her.
Joss yanks on clothes.
It is disturbing, walking in the black house. She misses a step on the way
downstairs; her heart bangs.
Flick takes her hand. His palm is cool, dry; she clenches it between her fingers.
They walk out of the garden.
It’s a land of the underworld, this early morning twilight. There’s no sun at all
yet, just a silkiness to the dark sky which suggests the night is nearly done. Joss can see
the road pale beneath her, and stretching ahead. This old road, like a stream between
tall banks. On either side the hedges are closer than in daylight: their tendrils of white
flowers reach out to caress her as she passes. Flick is silent, holding her tightly by the
hand, walking steadily. His limp is scarcely noticeable. Now it’s Joss who stumbles and
hesitates. The wind is warm as water.
Down the road, around the corners, over the stile, across the field. In the middle
of the field Joss stops for a moment, to tip her head back and look up at the sky. A
sense of rapture comes over her. What a moment; so free. It’s like fever on her face. The
wind brushes luxuriously over the barley around them: one, two, three heaves and then
stillness. Flick strokes her arm, slowly. They smile at each other. She thinks she will melt
when he touches his tongue to hers, soft as the wind.
He is taking her back to the river, of course. As they pass into the woods Joss is
glad. She was startled, the first time, with the dogs and the savage kiss, Flick’s face
strange with intent, the way he had changed. She had thought him a small boy then.
Tonight he is as tall as her, his shoulders wide.
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From him comes a sweet tang, as if he’s been running, the blood as quick in his
skin as it stings hot under hers.
In the woods there are sounds. A crackle behind a tree, skittering above. Such
darkness here where the sky above holds only the potential of light. Joss feels as if her
body is weightless, in this watery dimness, the close air. Her hand reaches out to rest on
slim trunks as they edge further in; the bark is the same temperature as her palm. She is
breathing through her mouth; she tries privately to wet the dryness, thinking of the next
kiss.
The river is noisy, as if the woods were all water. Joss’s hair feels tight on her
scalp, now that the breeze no longer lifts it. Flick takes her by the upper arm; she
squeezes it closer to her body, to let him feel the side of her breast. Now that it’s here,
she is patient with the brimming in her, she lets it shiver at the edges.
They are at the river bank. In the gloom Joss sees only a dim glisten, tiny flares of
light. She stands beside Flick as they stare at the darkness where the river moves.
‘I was hoping you’d—’
He pulls her down suddenly, and they’re on the ground, sprawling. He rakes his
hands down the sides of her arms; she staggers onto her back.
His fingers are skimming her, she can barely feel them. The world has jerked
sideways, she is unprepared. Flick above her feels unreal, is she asleep, who is touching
her? It’s as if she’s lying washed with wind; her throat is a hollow, her head full of
blood.
Flick moves quickly above her, ramming hard hands up beneath it against her
ribs. He squeezes her breast with chapped fingers, it hurts. Still her mouth is stopped; by
his, and then when he pulls it away for a moment, gasping, by an instinct that if she just
keeps quiet, if she waits, he will calm, and—
He jams his tongue into her mouth again. His hands are wrenching at her pants,
he pulls them over her hips, uncaring of how she is squeezed and pinched. How heavy
he is, his weight tilts and slithers over her but never eases. He’s making a guttural noise,
his mouth is messed with saliva; her face is wet from it and if she could just free herself
for a moment, have an instant to adjust, she’ll smile and hold him. She squirms, makes a
sound.
He takes her hand, which has been loosely resting on his back, and pushes it
down on the ground above her head.
This is sex, this is how it goes, this is what she’s been burning for, why is it so
ugly?
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She is helpless as a doll. He sits back, then, and pulls his own trousers open. Her
pants are ruched around her ankles, great clumps of cloth awkward there. Impatiently,
he frees one foot, and shoves her knees up. A sharp scent. He is hard against her hip.
The hair on her pubis rasps on his. She dare not look down. Everything is black with
shadows, anyway.
The sensation of another’s flesh inside her. It’s difficult. He pushes, clumsy. She
can hear breath tight between his teeth. It feels as if a blade is parting her inside,
bloodily separating wings of flesh. She has her jaw clenched. Her hands grip his
shoulders, she pulls down, brings her knees up higher, he’s invading her. She fights
through. She did not know she had so much heat in her body, that anything could hurt
so much. Then something slicks and eases inside her; the hard part is done.
Flick’s breath is harsh in her ear, he’s jammed up against her and she pulls him
down, closer still. Her hands claw on his back, down to the curves of his buttocks,
pressing in tightly; her legs rise and crush him in. It’s easier now, the passage of him, and
percussion rings through her body with every thrust.
He squirms, then; writhes and rises, wringing something from her. He holds his
breath, moves his head slowly from side to side against hers, his face is so hot. A
groaning in his throat, echoed in hers, a long strange sigh. His pain almost breaks her
heart, but then she opens her eyes and sees him looking at her calmly, dazed. With the
blood still up in his cheeks his face is very young.
He lays his head down beside hers again and they are quiet.
Is there blood? wonders Joss. Was there blood?
She is very tired now. Flick’s body is heavy on hers, growing heavier, looser. She
opens her eyes again. Above the treetops the sky is a cup upturned, filled with water
that does not fall, glittering black-blue. For long moments she watches a smudge of cloud
move, pale against the darkness, towards the tree above her. When she opens her eyes
the cloud is on the far side of the tree.
Flick stirs and shifts, slumps off her to lie on the ground beside her. His face is
turned to the sky like hers. She fumbles and finds his hand, holds it hot and damp.
‘I,’ she says. Her mouth is dried, her throat coughs. He turns his head,
questioning. She moves her head a little, presses her lips against the softness of his neck
for a moment, lingering. ‘I,’ but her voice fails again. She mouths the words silently into
his throat. Love you.
He stares at the sky again, and shakes his head a little, as if to say, It’s not like
that.
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.
Joss feels a shiver run up her thighs as her skin cools in the air. She reaches out
and finds a piece of her clothing, pulls it across her belly.
He has raised his head, leans on his elbow. He plaits his fingers with hers.
‘We did it together. You’ve given to me, too. Haven’t you?’
He makes a sound of assent. But his face is drawn in a frown.
She hesitates, slides a hand across his chest. All she wants, as the air chills her,
is for his heat around her, an embrace, something to fit her back together again. Her
hand, remote, strokes and pats him.
He makes a hissing noise, stills her hand.
‘Flick?’
He lies there, his eyes closed. Faster and faster come the huffs of breath from his
nostrils.
‘Flick?’
She kisses his face. When she kisses his eyelids there is wetness beneath her lips.
‘Oh, don’t cry,’ she says stupidly.
They curl around each other, two small creatures in the dark.
He shakes his head gently against hers. His eyes press blind against her throat.
She is so satisfied, she realises, to find him needing her like this. He makes a small
animal sound of misery.
Absently, Joss’s fingers paddle between her legs. She raises her hand to see it in
the faint silvery light: the tip of her finger is dark with blood. Softly she runs it down
Flick’s belly.
He says something then, suddenly. Something Joss can’t understand. He’s looking
right into her eyes, intent. Then he pulls away, fast, and rises.
‘Don’t—’ says Joss, clutching for him. But he stands over her, naked and pale as
wax.
Again, he says something. His voice sounds sad.
He runs to the river, and Joss hears a great splash, and then nothing.
In fright she scrambles to her feet. She cannot see the other bank clearly. There is
nothing, not even a ripple in the smooth sluggish water. No shadow, no glimmering limb.
The trees say Hush. The sky comes down a little. Joss stands there, alone once
more, the print of Flick’s skin on hers, too shocked to cry.
How much darker it is now.
::
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Every tree has a million leaves hanging heavy and each leaf scuffles only as she passes
below. This dawn has become edged with unease, a strange stillness at the centre,
disquiet shivering at the rim. Joss’s eyes dart about as she steps uncertainly through the
woods. The sound of the river has gone, the sky has clouded and lowered. Without even
starlight there is no path to follow, without Flick’s hand in hers she cannot walk straight.
The dark is a negative left dazzling on the inside of her eyelids after the brightness
before.
She loses track of time as she walks, setting her narrowed gaze on the next tree,
the next, as their trunks mist up into vision before her. There is no lick of dawn in the
woods. She is the only person awake in miles.
A pressure has been lifted; she’s like a wave which had been poised, travelling
eerily static towards a shore, and now breaks.
Why did he leave her alone here? So solid, so present under her hand, his breath
moist on her mouth. Oh, the sound of him. In the middle of a pace she stops and a cord
snaps tight through her, her eyes water with the phantom of pleasure. It is different to
the sensations she had actually had with him. Was it pleasure she had with him?
But he is always flitting away. It seems no sooner does Joss find him, clutch him
a little harder, than he is gone again. Leading her into landscapes she cannot find her
way home from. She stumbles on a rock buried in the dead leaves and bites her lip.
This darkness is tightening, not loosening.
She raises her face to the sky and holds herself, binds herself in tightly, holds to
the small solidity of herself.
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Part Four
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‘Joss!’
Rebecca opens the kitchen door wider, listens. ‘Joss, that’s you, isn’t it?’
The front door slams, there are two footfalls, then silence. Rebecca can hear
someone breathing hard, rough on the inhale.
‘Where have you been?’ Frowsty with the early hour, she comes down the
hallway. ‘Don’t tell me you got up early for a walk in the bloody dawn! Have you been
out all ni—’
Joss is standing inside the door, her eyelids closed tightly. She has her arms
folded around herself and her hair is frayed with static and tangles.
‘Christ, what is it?’
Joss’s face is cold, Rebecca can feel the chill against her own cheek when she
draws close in the embrace. Joss puts her head down on Rebecca’s shoulder and says
nothing.
‘Come on. Let’s be British and have a rousing cup of tea.’ Rebecca is chemical
with dread. What’s happened? Assault? Rape? Has she seen an accident? Been in one?
As she follows Joss into the kitchen Rebecca watches her sister. She fetches an
old hoodie and puts it around her. The kettle boils, Rebecca pulls a cup down from the
cupboard, turns on the light to banish the early morning bleakness, watches Joss. The
younger girl pulls the hood over her head.
‘Why are you up so early?’ A mumble.
‘Expecting trouble.’ Rebecca’s smile is the brave wry smile of a parent. She had
been restless all night, chewing on her fury with Mark.
‘Trouble?’ Joss’s head comes up, fearful.
‘You. You, you duffer. I didn’t realise I should be worried until I saw you come in,
though. Where’ve you been?’ She pours milk. ‘And are you okay. Tell me. Are you all
right?’
‘Tired. Cold. And—’
‘What?’
‘Lost track. Of time.’
‘And where have you actually been?’ She finds herself feeling the stern mother.
But she’s watching Joss, how small her hands seem, the way she keeps shoving her hair
behind her ear—Joss’s sleeve falls back and there’s a blue bruise and scrape on her
wrist—
‘Jesus. What’s that?’ She snatches Joss’s arm. ‘What the hell is that? Did
someone hurt you?’
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Joss stares up at her, those eyes, the colour of a sky full of water, mumbles a
word. She rubs the bruise thoughtfully. ‘No, no one hurt me.’
Rebecca sits down. ‘Just tell me.’
Joss drinks her tea, and talks. This is the first time Rebecca has heard the boy’s
name but she knew, oh she should have known, there was a boy. Here, though. Out here
in this new place, in the middle of nowhere. Some local kid, with pimples and a shaved
head, his father’s mean jaw and a hoodie and runners. How could she have known?
And Joss, out there in the dark with twigs in her hair and her wrist held tight.
‘Oh my darling.’
Joss flares. ‘He didn’t hurt me! He’s nice. He won’t hurt me. I’m not a child.’
Rebecca sits back.
‘It was just…’ Joss gathers herself. ‘It was just that he was with me, and it was
all, oh, and then he just jumped up and left and I was walking home, I didn’t mind that
he left, I mean, that was cool and I know the way, but it wasn’t the way, the right way—
I think I got lost, and I saw things in the trees and time went all—’
‘Like when you were a kid, and we drove in the country at night and you swore
you saw a man jump out of a tree…’
‘No!’
Rebecca puts her lips to her mug, even though it’s already drained.
‘And time was wrong.’
‘Okay.’ Tiredness, and disorientation, and the imagination of a teenager. Perhaps
it’s been too much, coming here—it’s not like Joss was exactly normal back in Melbourne,
no parents, brought up by her sister… and this place… She’s always lived too much in
her head, that little box of wonders. Rebecca and Mark had even talked about it, a little,
how Joss loved imagination and history, and England would be the perfect place where
she could really dream and be herself. Maybe it’s gone wrong. They are living here, but
not really living; just existing, suspended: no work, no school, in a house on the edge of
a small town on the other side of the word. Abandoned. It’s total madness.
Joss rubs her lips meditatively against the rim of her cup, back and forth.
Rebecca sits back, musing. ‘Did I ever tell you about Julian?’
Joss shakes her head.
‘He was the boy I thought I’d die for when I was your age. I’d never kissed a boy,
never thought anyone liked me. And he was so, so gorgeous.’ He had had the kind of
skin that flushed right up to his cheekbones when he was hot, as if he’d been slapped.
His hands: Rebecca remembers looking at his hands on the one time she’d sat next to
him on the bus, looking at them more closely, more marvellingly than she’d ever looked
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at anything. ‘I saw him being picked on by other boys. That’s how I knew I loved him.
Because he was so clever and bright and the other boys hated him, and I saw his face as
he walked away. All I wanted to do was tell him I understood. So I bought him a candle,
a beautiful round red candle. I took it to school with me every day for a week before I
got the courage to go up to him. I found him alone one day and I said, oh god, I can’t
believe I did it, now—I said, “I bought you this” and rummaged in my bag and pulled
out this damned candle and held it out. I may as well have just yanked up a bleeding
chunk of my heart to offer him. He didn’t know what to do, he just took it and I walked
away. He looked so embarrassed. And that was it. I couldn’t bear to talk to him again.
We never were true loves, I was just an idiot.’
Joss glances up at her. ‘Is this meant to be a comforting story?’
‘Oh.’ Rebecca winces. ‘Well, I suppose so. Because the moral of the story, if
there’s a moral, was that I wasn’t really an idiot. I looked like one and I felt like one at
the time, but now that I think of it—it was a lovely thing I did. That candle, I mean.
There wasn’t anything wrong with giving him a candle. It might have been just what he
wanted. But I didn’t know how to give it, that was the problem. Maybe it just wasn’t the
right time. Or he wasn’t the right person. He didn’t know what to do with it.’
There’s silence. A straying seagull squalls outside the window, briefly, then
shears away disconsolately.
She sits back and sees the grey shadows under Joss’s eyes. ‘Come on. Come on
and let’s get you to bed. Come in with me for once.’
Joss rises, creakily. The hood falls back from her face. ‘I’m tired. But thanks. Nice
parable about the candle.’
Rebecca blinks in apology.
‘I’m joking.’
‘Sorry. Not exactly what you need.’ Rebecca realises she’s nervous. Nervous of
Joss and her trouble and not knowing how to handle it. She puts a hand out towards
Joss’s shoulder, lets it hover, puts it down on the thin bone.
‘I feel like I’m made of water,’ Joss says.
They go upstairs, and Rebecca leads Joss into her bedroom and pulls the covers
back and curls around her. Joss’s bare legs are cold. Rebecca presses up against them, for
warmth. ‘I’ll be here if you’re scared,’ she murmurs, and Joss shifts a shoulder, in
impatience or acknowledgement, she can’t tell. A thick scent comes from Joss’s skin.
Rebecca knows that smell. It’s the smell of touch, and nervous kisses, and a strange boy.
It’s the rich seductive smell of sex. For a moment Rebecca experiences a kind of envy;
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and then once more a low thrum of anxiety, and a great tiredness, and then the warm
rolling of sleep.
::
Later, when Joss wakes up, the bed is empty beside her and the sun comes glaring
through the curtains. She lies there, curls tightly onto her other side, lets her body flex
back into feeling. She runs a finger thoughtfully over her dry cool lips.
So she’s not a virgin anymore. That’s done.
She lies with that thought a while.
Something brims inside her skin: satisfaction. The darker memory moves into her
mind. Joss wishes there weren’t that regret, spooling like cold dark water across her
satisfaction. But there’s something in fear that’s satisfying, too.
It is done. She has had sex. She’s lain with a boy, under that magic of trees and
night and the breathing of the river. Her body has opened and closed around another’s.
Her mouth has tasted the peculiar flavour of desire. It is different to the pleasure she’s
given herself; the way her body clenched and clamped at Flick. She had barely been able
to breathe in the hot flush of it. Not what she expected. She was frightened, after all.
Perhaps it’s always frightening. And it hurt so much. He didn’t care, that he hurt her,
that there was no time for her to feel anything. What does that mean?
Enough that she was there, that she held Flick’s face hard in her hands as he
stared in panic at her and then found the horizon he was looking for; enough that her
skin was alive with feeling. The next time, she will move more slowly, she will kiss him
with every beat of her hips against his, she will be the radiant horizon.
::
There is another card from Mark in the post that morning. Will be here a while longer. Am
thinking of you. Are you all right? Rebecca has a moment of glee; then anger. She thinks of
Mark and she thinks of a heavy hand on her heart. How does he dare? Baggage, comes
the word to her mind. A word for a woman.
It would serve him right if he returned and found the house empty, the milk sour
in the fridge. She should take Joss away, that’s the other thing. This place is doing
something to her; the bruises, the boy. Running wild. That was something she always
wanted to do, herself. It scares her to see it in Joss.
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She puts her shoes on and goes out, leaves a tea-bag in the bottom of a cup for
Joss, the sugar-bowl next to it.
Out the door, into the hot blue and green morning. There’s a dry wind in the
trees, stirring them. She thought of going into town and buy some pastries, a treat for
Joss; but instead the road is brighter in the other direction and on impulse she takes off
that way. Past the wildflowers: rowan, cow parsley, elderflower, hawthorn. She can
name some of them now. White archangel, viper’s bugloss, honeysuckle, fennel. White
and blue and purple and yellow, mixed in with half a dozen types of green, and black
thorn.
She keeps walking where the road is lit with sunshine. And there is the church,
with its wooden lych gate and its soft stone. The building’s closed again; that’s okay.
She doesn’t want to go inside, it’s not that kind of comfort she needs. She just wants a
soft green place.
The big yew tree calls her over. At this time of day the sun hits the trunk low
down, where the branches’ shade gives way, and the bole of the wood billows out in
rough cushions, twisted and grooved over itself. When she lays her hand on it the wood
is warm.
There’s the blade, jammed into the wood. It doesn’t look like it hurts. The tree
has grown a little lip around the black stone, almost as if it’s pulling the flint further in.
Rebecca remembers something she saw in the Dover museum: a note against an ancient
flint axe saying that in medieval times such artefacts were believed to be supernatural.
Tiny old arrowheads were ‘elf arrows’. Perhaps it was in that time that the flint was
bedded here, an amulet, the tree its sheath. Or earlier. And that even in the time before
the Romans, people had believed the much older flints were magical. They had no idea
of history. They had taken skulls and stone axes from ancient graves and used them as
amulets; pierced and hung them. Now they lay under dust in museum cases. Gods in
boxes with clenched closed fists, she thought. The world is full of dead gods locked
away.
Time to go back over the tilt of the world: home.
::
The early afternoon is hot and bright when she gets back to the house. She finds Joss in
the gloomy lounge room. She is hunched up at the end of the couch, staring out the
window where the trees stand in a daze of sunshine.
‘How’re you feeling?’
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‘Okay. I slept too much.’
Rebecca sits. ‘Did you have some tea?’
‘Yep. Thanks for that.’
The room is cold, even though it’s so hot outside.
‘I’ve been for a walk.’
A wan smile. ‘Good for you.’
‘Went back to that church. Have you found it? The one down there—a way
down to the left—’ She waves a hand. Joss shakes her head. ‘That tree I told you
about—with the stone stuck in it. I think it’s an old flint. A knife or something. It’s like
some magic totem or something. Wonderful.’
Joss wraps her arms around her knees. There are breadcrumbs on her lap.
‘Really.’
She looks down, smiling. ‘Well.’
‘Do you think it’s funny place, this?’ Joss speaks into her knees.
‘No. Yes. It’s not what I was expecting. You know, I wasn’t really that sure about
coming, and I’m starting to think, now, that—’
‘Have you met any people around here?’
‘Only people in the village. They’re not very friendly.’
‘No one anywhere once you get out of the village, on this road. Don’t you think
that’s strange?’
‘I guess. I’ve been a hermit.’
‘I don’t even see people walking down the path out here, just driving. All these
fields, you never see any farmers. The whole place is empty.’
Rebecca is nervous of asking, but she must. ‘How did you meet this boy then?’
‘Out there. We met up and he asked me out.’
Rebecca has the feeling that she didn’t handle this morning quite as well as she
might have. Start again. ‘So he’s nice?’
‘Yeah.’
‘But something’s wrong?’
‘No.’ Joss looks out the window. ‘I just don’t know where he is right now.’
That fretfulness to know, that possession. Rebecca remembers that. She
remembers it from a few weeks ago when Mark left. Like a gulp in the throat always
unswallowed.
‘He’ll be back. No?’
‘I guess. There’s something about him. I just don’t know—’
‘What?’
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‘Anything much about him. He’s strange. He’s gorgeous,’ and she blushes. ‘But he
comes and goes.’
Some fuckwit is messing with Joss. Rebecca says, ‘You don’t have to like him. Just
because he’s there.’
Joss stares at her hands. She’s wearing jeans and a hoodie and she’s washed her
hair so it hangs straight and fine over her ears. She looks like such a kid. There is a blur
of down on her smooth cheek where it catches the sunlight. A small pimple beside her
mouth. ‘I miss him.’
Rebecca snorts. ‘You saw him just this morning!’ She sobers. ‘Are you okay,
honey? I mean, really?’ Did it hurt, she wants to ask. Did you want it? Was it slow and
sweet? I don’t think it was.
Joss nods. Not vigorously enough to satisfy Rebecca.
‘Just remember. You don’t have to do anything for him. If he’s not right. You wait.
You have all the time in the world. Now,’ she says, ‘I’m going to read the paper in the
garden and give you some peace. You come and talk if you want. And we can go out
tomorrow, go to Canterbury and buy some crap we don’t need. I think actually we do
need crap. Lots more of it. Definitely.’
She leaves Joss sitting there, pushing her hair behind her ears slowly, with those
small fine fingers, that far-away gaze. In the garden, at the back of the house, she
doesn’t hear the front door open and close.
::
At the library, Joss finds a place next to a dozy young mother with a hectic child.
Thankfully the child rambles away to the children’s corner and the mother heroically
follows. Joss stakes her place, fetches books. Her eyes feel tight and the lids oily. She’s a
little trembly for some reason; her shoulders hunched high.
Rivers. The river is the key, she thinks. Water is magic, of course. In the past
weeks she’s instinctively avoided the river; feeling that it was a place beyond her, where
she wasn’t meant to be. But it’s not the only body of water around.
Floods. The silting up of the bays. This village was on an island once: where the
little river runs now was once a great channel. Water running underground, water
soaking into the land, being engulfed, eroding its way back. Washing around the rim of
this landscape, being forced away again. An infinitely slow violence.
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Up on the shore here sledged the vessels of Romans, Saxons, Vikings, saints,
refugees, invaders; those escaping and those hoping; the fugitive and the proud. This
hem of land has received the first footfalls of many. What has it taken in turn?
Now she reads of the deaths.
Off the eastern shore hundreds of ships have been wrecked and thousands of
men lost; naval battles have taken others; the smugglers, of course; boats lost during the
wars, accidents on the Channel. The rivers of the county are mostly small now, clogged
with silt, but they also once brimmed with activity. And for the profit, there must be
tribute paid. The old people understood: if one death by water is avoided, another must
take its place.
Stories of accidents by water, murder near water, execution by water. In this
town, hundreds of years ago, thieves were put to death: the men buried alive in the
dunes, the women drowned in the river. A young boy senselessly murdered by a young
man on a bare river bank; other children disappearing, while playing near the river; a
young woman slaughtered on the old road along the sand line, where her gravestone is
still to be found, suffocated by weeds. One infamous night, a shipwreck stranded over a
thousand men on the great sandbank off the shore, where they waited, waterlogged and
freezing, for help. But the local men preferred to salvage the wreckage, and let all the
men drown. Curses were put on the town that night.
Joss reads a story about a shipwreck victim washed up on the beach further
along the coast and buried there. The Virgin, in the tale, appears to the parish clerk and
led him to the churchyard, every step of her springing up green with grass. She would not
have the body in her yard, she said. So it was dug up, and put in the river, where it
floated til it reached here. And immediately all miracles ceased in their church, and the
land where the body lay grew perpetually wet, but when they tried to take him out
again, the land would not let him go.
A man drowned in the reeds, and four hundred years later ‘The Rush Sermon’ is
still given in his memory. A drowned island off the coast, reputed to be haunted.
“The druids attach particular importance to the belief that the soul does not
perish but passes after death from one body to another.” Caesar wrote in his Gallic
Wars. He told of clearings with saplings interlaced to keep the sacred boundary, a
supernatural silence without birdsong, a spring bubbling in the glade; the trees were said
to move.
On festival nights the people lit bonfires, and raised stakes around the
fire, topped with severed heads: ghost fences. Not far from the village where she sits,
Joss reads with a shiver, the skulls of fourteen babies had been found, the little frail cups
of bone nestled tenderly between flints.
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This black radiance thrills her more than she would like to admit. She had known
there was something very deep and very nasty here. She’d expected it; she’d felt it,
surely, in the eerie quiet of the roads and meadows?
And above all, she reads, they sacrificed to water. In the watery places the gods
were nearer, and so was danger: reeds caught the clumsy, bright reflections drew the
dreamers down. In those places the Otherworld was luminously close: could you not see
its silver sky, its grey ghostly trees if you bent to the surface of the pool?
And so the old people would tie rags to the trees, or flowers bound with wool, to
adorn those gods who rustled the branches, and cast into the waters the shiniest, the
most precious objects of metal. The swords were ceremoniously blunted, the daggers
broken, the coins bent, before the lowering into water. And then, when silver and bronze
and iron wasn’t enough, when the threat was greater and the air was soaked with divine
terror, they offered not only heads, but whole bodies: the maimed or mumbling, the weak
and the marked and the crippled.
Some were killed in a choreography of violence: stabbed, slashed, throttled,
beaten. The triple death was eased by a final meal, of rye, perhaps, infected with
fungus, enough to make the victim hallucinatory or comatose: visions spangling his gaze,
the drugged limbs barely resisting the tethering; the leather band tied around his arm, the
flint axe bashing his defenceless skull; the garrotte a slow strangling; his head pulled
back and the hard knife gashing soft flesh. Then he was given to the water: a bog, a well,
a river or a pool. Sometimes the victim was stitched to the riverbed by wicker withies
strung through the very flesh of his pierced arms. Or he was simply laid down. Or
pushed, still dying, face-first into the bog. The noose was left around the throat, the
body pinned down with stones and birch-branches; the bindings of ritual death
remained.
They drowned their own to keep the waters bright.
The soul passed from one body to the next, after all: this brief death was only a
pausing, a flicker through shade before the light returned. Unless the victim deserved to
die. Then the water, a place between this world and the other, might keep him forever,
static, neither living nor dead, unplaced, unpassing.
By making their offerings, some kind of balance was restored. And yet the
waters, greedy, held these treasures for millennia, and still took more. And again and
again, a young man meets his death by water. Must meet it.
‘The shelving, slimy river Dun,
Each year a daughter or a son.’
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The dead in this country’s myths are unable to speak. That is how one knows,
even if they walk, that they are still dead. They are sometimes attended by animals of
the hunt, companions of the Otherworld: dogs.
Joss closes the last book, stands up, feels faint.
::
As the afternoon passes the weather is getting heavier. Rebecca notices how the sky is
blurred with clouds, but the sun seems to glare down more hotly through the spaces
between them. To the east, over the sea, there is a shadow, as if the sky itself were
dipped in water and slowly staining. The wind has fluttered closed and the sound of
birds and insects is intensely loud.
The lounge room door is closed and Rebecca guesses Joss is still on the couch. She
must be exhausted. The room is cool and aqueous at this hour and if Joss weren’t in
there Rebecca too would stretch out on the couch and have a nap. Such weight in the air.
It feels as if the membranes of her veins are thinning. She walks up the stairs in the
afternoon hush, quietly so as not to wake her sister, up to her room. She takes off her
boots and jeans, slips under the sheet. Mark’s scent has gone. There’s only a pale
flowery aroma of Joss, and that darker scent, that stranger smell. When she gets up she’ll
change the sheets. It’s been weeks.
::
It is clear what she has to do: what she is a part of. Something huge and shimmering,
bright with meaning, vast and full. Everything feels very certain, as in a dream. Or like
sex.
Joss slips back into the house. Rebecca is asleep when she peeks in through her
bedroom door. There is a breathlessness in her as she gathers what she needs: an old teeshirt, a small water-bottle that she fills with wine, a trowel from the shelf near the back
door, a bag of tea-light candles. Artefacts for a legend, she thinks: hardly the chalice and
the sword, but they will do. She jams them all into a bag and runs out into the early
evening.
::
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The day is darkening early under its low skies and when she wakes Rebecca thinks of
the evening ahead: something good on television, a comfy dinner of sausages and roast
vegetables. The lounge room door is empty: Joss must have gone to her room. The open
windows frame scenes of static, saturated green; outside, in the kitchen garden, every
blade is still. It’s already six o’clock and Rebecca is hungry. She turns on the light in the
kitchen, pours a glass of wine and gets to work.
An hour later, the food is ready and Rebecca calls up the stairs to Joss. Getting
no response, she goes up and taps gently on Joss’s door. ‘Sweetheart? Are you hungry?’
She can tell by the silence that Joss isn’t in her room, either. She is not in the
house at all, Rebecca realises; she must be on one of her walks. Bloody little bitch, says
Rebecca aloud, Can’t she stay put? But she is full of renewed fondness for her sister,
and she turns the oven off, slips the keys in her pocket and steps out the front door.
::
The road outside is green with twilight and feels warmer than ever. The nights this
summer have generally been cool, even on the hottest days, but for the past two days the
atmosphere feels as if the sky has clogged and the day’s heat has only massed. Beneath
the grave, watchful trees the air is thick. Rebecca touches the flank of one as she passes,
as if for reassurance. Then, looking down the road, away from the village, where Joss has
usually headed on her expeditions, she notices that the hedgerows are fluttering with
pale stream-like flowers. Going closer, she sees that they are thin strips of torn cloth
wound roughly around the stems of thorn that prickle out of each hedge; she recognises
the pattern of one of Joss’s t-shirts. Has she gone completely mad? Why on earth would
she be tying bits of clothing to the countryside? Rebecca fingers a scrap, casts a look
around the roadway as if expecting to see Joss crazily strewing her clothes around. But
there is nothing but the hedges clustering the roadsides, absolutely still in the close
evening air, their blossoms closing up, and far ahead, the range of poplars, their leaves,
too, quite motionless.
The rags disturb her. Joss fractures from her; she’s not familiar, she is someone
quite separate, doing something unaccountable. Rebecca walks on, turning her head from
side to side now, searching more urgently. When she gets to the poplars she looks past,
to the hill where she once saw Joss sit, but it is empty, and darkening in the first
moments of twilight. She can’t believe that she’s let this happen; that Joss has been
spending days—weeks—wandering the countryside, without Rebecca knowing or even
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asking where or why. Something has been happening and something has gone wrong.
Mother, she thinks. Oh mum, I never asked for this.
She heads across the field, hoping to catch a glimpse of her sister, but the
expanse is as empty as she has always seen it. Aren’t there farmers to work this land?
Where are the bloody people? She’s sweating as she toils across the lumpy ground.
Under the stand of trees on the hillock’s crown she pauses to check the view. Down to
one side the trees thicken into a wood—that must be the one marked on the map, she
thinks—but last time she came upon Joss it was in a field. She doesn’t think her sensitive
little sister would want to be in a wood at dusk.
Back onto the road. Beside it, spreadeagled upside down, is the body of a fox,
its head crushed, a pink and grey mess. Only a few flies bother it. Rebecca looks away
quickly from the horrible thing, obscurely frightened. Her belly heaves for a moment; she
puts a protective hand against it.
She walks on. There’s the road turning ahead. It was around here, wasn’t it, that
she’d seen Joss lying in the field? That time she was so defensive. She must have been
with the boy, though Rebecca had never caught a glimpse of him. Oh, she’s so sly. Why
didn’t she tell me, Rebecca thinks. Why did it all have to be such a secret?
She knows why, of course. Because at Joss’s age—even at Rebecca’s age, she can
admit it—love and lust are like golden bubbles, held in cupped hands, swallowed down;
they buoy you up and it takes only one brush against reality to threaten puncture, the
bubble to burst, the glorious gold reduced to everyday dross. Because Joss has always
had to make do, and close herself into her head, and because Joss, god bless her,
deserves to be loved.
All the way up that track she strides, the light starting to fade now, to clot and
grain. Rebecca is boiling hot and she wipes her face on her shirt. All the fields look the
same, the same bronze crops of barley, some harvested to stumps and some still
standing, the same hedgerows alongside, the same impassive racks of trees along
skylines…
Joss might be back at the house, perhaps she’s there, impatiently eating baked
pumpkin off the oven tray, glaring at the door, waiting for her ridiculous irresponsible
older sister to come home… Rebecca pauses for breath, and finds herself at a corner of a
low flint wall. There, behind a screen of pine trees, is the church tower. She makes her
way around to the lych gate, eases it open.
She searches the grounds for some kind of water; she’s desperately thirsty. A tap
in a corner relieves the parching of her throat. She presses wet hands against her hot
cheeks, but they only feel clammier a moment later. The churchyard is mad with the
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sound of crickets. The graves hummock the grass. Oh, where the hell is Joss? She thinks
she’ll just go home, and hope to find her there—will ignore the apprehension like a bellyache inside her, will work to the normal, expect it; watch a documentary or maybe a
crime show. The two of them cosy on the couch. Hunger yawps inside her. She would
give anything to be watching the Channel 4 news right now, the lamps on.
The yew tree, as she passes, seems darker and lower than ever, its branches
creeping out above the ground, its tufts of needle-like leaves bristling crazily. A dry green
dusty scent comes from it. For a silly moment Rebecca thinks Joss might be hiding in the
tree’s hollow, that snug hidey-spot; it’s a ridiculous thought, but she ducks beneath the
tree’s fringe of leaves and glances through dense shadows into the dark cavern of wood.
It is empty of course, and Rebecca’s fingers resting on the edge of it find another
emptiness: a narrow slit, sharp with crumbled splinters where something has hacked at
it. The stone is gone.
Absurdly, Rebecca looks on the ground, in case it has simply fallen out. But she
knows better. How cheap, to come and remove this one precious thing. Vandals have no
subtlety. Then she is outraged, and she realises it is on behalf, stupidly, of the tree.
Injured, just for someone’s laugh, or trophy. Something stolen from this grand old relic,
and all that still time disturbed. She finds herself stroking the fractured wood,
smoothing splinters down, rubbing her fingers inside the aperture where the wood is
smooth and silken from its long growth against the flint. A hot sense of sadness comes
up in her throat. But she can’t spend time on a clammy summer’s dusk, consoling a tree.
She has to find Joss; pushing off from the trunk where she has rested her weight, she
wipes her way out through the branches and back out to where the damp sky is now
beginning to obliterate the church tower.
::
The house is empty. She hadn’t left the lights on when she walked out; the rooms are
quiet with shadows. Rebecca walks through quickly, flicking the light-switches, spooked.
She washes her face, pours a glass of wine, takes a long gulp. She has put it down on the
counter when she thinks to commit a trespass she’s never made before. Finally, maybe,
she thinks as she heads up the stairs, cramming a piece of pumpkin in her mouth, I’m
turning into a typical mother. Once more she puts her hand to her belly. If she weren’t so
alert with nerves she’d have laughed.
Up in Joss’s room, she finds her diary.
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::
One thing they never thought to buy for the house is a torch. She’s only halfway across
the field when she realises she already needs to check the map. Her cigarette lighter, left
in her back pocket, is the only thing she’s got. In the stillness of the air, it gives a steady
flame. She’s on the right track, but it wasn’t clear from Joss’s diary which part of the
river in the wood she meant; it meanders around, a thin little thing, more a creek than a
river from the look of it. If she gets across this field, though, she’ll be amongst the trees,
and then she need only follow their line to find the water.
It’s hard going, in the fading light. It’s hotter than ever, she’s sure. The air seems
damp with dusk and warmth, and the trees ahead look darker than anything she’s
entered in her life. What are we doing here, she thinks as she struggles over the weeds at
the field’s edge. How did we get to this empty place? Madness. We don’t belong here.
We don’t know a thing about a place like this.
Dry lightning, soundless, surprises her. Then thunder. Far from here.
It seems cooler once she’s amid the trees, as if she’s walked into, invisible, a clot
of fog. She had thought of ‘woods’ as peaceful plantations, the tame European trees well
spaced with age, a fine bed of leaves beneath. This feels dense as an Australian forest;
branches are broken and fallen, obstructing her path, there are swathes everywhere of
ivy and grass, dry leaves are slippery beneath her feet.
But there, ahead, there are glimmers of white, and when Rebecca reaches it, the
rag is as good as a torch to light the way. Joss has led her, after all.
::
Joss waits a long time. The woods are heavy in the thick weather, the trees seem to blur
when she glances up at every small sound. The silence, however, is almost total. It is
terribly hot in there. What sodden light there is fades around the little cool flares of the
candles.
In the end she is not startled when he comes walking towards her. She stands up.
She is ready.
He stops in front of her, by the bank of the river. He seems to ripple in the air, as
the light ripples over the streaming water.
‘It’s all right,’ she says. ‘It’s all right now, I understand.’
He smiles, and reaches a hand out to take her wrist. His hand seems nothing but
bones: he is so skinny, this flickering boy, and the smell of him is strong. It seems to rest
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on her tongue, bitter. Her tongue still hurts where he had bitten it here last night. She
backs away slowly to avoid his touch.
‘You hurt me,’ she says. ‘Do you know that?’ She bends, picks up the bottle of
wine, and staring at him pours it into the river beside her. ‘Is this right?’
The boy is frowning. Perhaps he’s forgotten the proper way, the right order. First
the gesture, then the real offering. It be hard, of course. It’s nothing, unless you feel the
loss.
He moves for her again: his hand grabs her wrist, yanks it downwards as he
steps against her. She coils, twists awkwardly, shoves back. The resistance has caught
him by surprise; he staggers backwards, almost losing his footing.
Joss steps forward in one quick, sure stride, and with spread hands pushes him
again. She is hot with certainty. He falls, slipping so that he sprawls back on the wet
slimy bank of the water, his hair spreading and darkening as it soaks. She is on him and
thrusting his head beneath the water before his outstretched arms can raise him again. It
is almost dark now.
::
By the time she has worked her way through to the river, the light is going fast. Rebecca
is now more frightened of the dark than of what she might find; the darkness is already
with her, making every inch of advance a fight with apprehension. Only occasionally
does the dry lightning flare—it is more spectral than helpful, making the gloom deeper
after every slice of light. But she is slowly learning that she can move in this strange
place, she can put her hand out to feel her way when the shadows are too dense, the
world doesn’t fall away in fateful cliffs or treacherous ravines. Her hearing sharpens,
and her sense of smell; she feels like an animal, crouching in the safety of her instincts.
From time to time she flicks the lighter on, but it shows only scattered shapes which
don’t make any sense. One footstep after another, further in towards the sound of
water.
When she finds Joss, she’ll kill her.
::
The flint knife is clumsy in her hand. It seems impossible that it’s real; that there is
anything so solid in this world which seems liquid with sound and light, this silvery
shadow-world that makes her blink as she crouches above the boy, with only a hot gold
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flare running up the core of her body and along her arm to where she holds the stone
above his head, the other hand pushing his face away. Flick’s mouth under the water,
gaping, his skin a dulled shine in the gloom: it all seems a mask. She deliberately pushes
down on him with her groin as he bucks upwards, clamps his arm with one hand, twines
her lower legs around his to anchor him down. He’s very strong as he thrashes under her,
but he seems small again; much smaller than she is.
But he is so beautiful.
‘It has to hurt,’ she grunts. ‘You know it, you’ve done this before—it has to hurt
or it doesn’t mean anything—’
She stares at him, and leans back. ‘Does it?’
He looks up at her. She waits for him to lunge up towards her. His mouth opens
in a soundless appeal.
‘Doesn’t it?’
She starts to cry. She’s too tired, suddenly, to rise. But beneath the weight of
tiredness she suddenly feels something lift her.
::
Finally, Rebecca finds herself lurching sideways as she slips on something. She must be
at the bank of the creek now; she can smell wetness and hear the faint wash of moving
water. Next to her are flashing gleams, shifting and passing as she moves her head.
Treading very carefully on the uneven, slimy ground and clinging onto trees, she works
her way along the bank.
When she sees them they seem, for a moment, like spirit lights, those flares of
flaming gas said to hover eerily over marshes. She’s never seen one, but that’s what
comes to mind. It’s with a cool, uncanny sense of familiarity, of already having been
here, that she sees the candle flames set beside the river ahead, and knows that she’s
found her.
The girl raises her head when she hears someone approaching. The look on her
young face, smoky and half-lit by the candles, is a look Rebecca hasn’t seen since Joss
was a little child. One could fall in love with someone from just that gaze, that
supernatural softness, the utter innocence.
For a moment the sound of the river is very loud. Then it quietens.
‘Hello, my love.’ Rebecca steps out from the shadows and into the magic globe of
candlelight. ‘Don’t get a fright. It’s just me.’
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Joss stares at her, the look unchanging on her face but losing all of its wonder.
Then she blinks. Rebecca comes closer, crouches beside where her sister is sitting under a
tree. She puts her hand on the trunk to steady herself. She refuses to think about how
frightened she is.
‘I came to tell you dinner’s ready.’ Rebecca laughs, a little loudly, looking around
at the black and gold trees. A little distance away, a moment later, one of the candles
wavers. “Maybe I should have brought it with me. We could have had a picnic. Isn’t this
just lovely.’
Joss is cross-legged on the ground, her head bent again now. There’s a scent on
her, unfamiliar, sweet and bitter at the same time: her clothes are wet through. She is
holding the stone knife in her two palms. It’s bigger than Rebecca had expected, a handsized lump of black flint, chipped away on two sides to make a corrugated blade. The
edges, where the scoops of stone are very thin, glitter as she turns it from side to side,
glossy as water. The light almost shines through them. There is a smudge of dirt on one
end.
There are forest sounds: something easing through undergrowth a little way
away, the trees whispering, the water knocking and hushing.
‘You must think I’m mad.’ Joss whispers. She stares at the ground between her
thighs.
‘Well.’ Rebecca eases herself down onto the ground. She absently smooths the
dead leaves with her fingers. ‘I was worried.’
A pause. ‘Sorry.’
Joss continues to pass the stone from palm to palm in the soft light. Rebecca
wipes sweat off her face. She looks out at the ring of light. It’s peaceful here, after all.
Somewhere out of time, out of the world, safely enclosed by light. A little bubble of
illumination; it reminds her of the floating flares she sees when she closes her eyes. This
could be any moment in time, or all of them.
‘All this for a boy, huh?’
Joss nods, slowly. Then she shakes her head.
‘Well.’
‘Not just for him.’ She mumbles something.
‘Sorry?’
‘For me.’
The water passes them, unseen.
‘He didn’t come?’
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Joss doesn’t say anything. She just turns the stone. Her hands, holding the heavy
weight, look as young and square as a child’s. There is a stillness about her that Rebecca
hasn’t seen before. A sadness, but something else. It is as if Joss has given something
away, something she wanted; for the first time she has done, or had something done to
her, something that really hurt. Rebecca can feel the tension in Joss, that holding carefully
a cup filled with feeling, the great poise of someone who has just learned something
about herself and needs to carry it a distance away before setting it down.
In the distance there is a loud crack and rustle, as if a tree had lost a branch. Joss
starts. She looks sideways at Rebecca, almost shyly, bites her lip.
‘Ready to go?’ Rebecca says. She puts out her hand.
Joss takes it and together they heave to their feet.
‘We’ll put this back.’ Rebecca touches the flint gently. Joss nods.
‘I didn’t realise it had gotten so dark,’ she says, wonderingly. Rebecca bends and
picks up two of the little candles from the ground near the water, hands them to Joss
and takes two herself.
‘Here. And now, my darling, can you find our way home?’
As they move away from the river, Rebecca following in Joss’s flame-flickering
wake, she nearly wobbles into Joss as the girl stops. Joss looks back at the river. Tears
glaze her eyes. ‘Adciu,’ she says. ‘Adciu.’ Then she turns away.
‘What?’
Joss walks on. Quietly she says, ‘It’s an old word. It means I see.’ Then she
quickens her steps, untroubled by the tangles of ivy and the blackness all around them,
and leads Rebecca out of the wood.
::
The next day they wake to the sound of water. Joss lies in her bed, feeling the rain run
through her body as she stirs, as if every drop is washing her gently, soaking in through
her skin, rinsing her very bones before seeping out again. She rests, unmoving, watching
the water for a long time. She is only eyes looking, lungs breathing, no more: barely even
thinking. When finally she moves her limbs, it feels as if they’ve been newly fitted, as if
she’s never had a body before.
At the other end of the hall, Rebecca, too, lies in her bed and watches the glass
blur and waver. In her sleep she’s dragged a coverlet over her and it rests upon her like a
second skin. There’s a sense of great peace, after the night. Her bed is so warm, the air
fresh and cool as it comes through the half-opened window. Rain spatters from time to
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time on the sill. A soft crush of thunder comes and goes. The air gets greener and greener
and Rebecca imagines a tender mouth kissing hers, and kissing her again, deeply; she
sighs as she thinks this, and cups one breast gently in her hand, a warm handful of
water; she holds it and rolls onto her belly and begins to pulse, dreamily, against herself.
::
When they’ve shut the front door behind them, both of them think to take the lead. Joss
sets off down the road towards the church, aware that this is, after all, really her road—
it’s the path she’s taken more often than she can count, it was the beginning of all the
secrets she discovered. But Rebecca knows that they’re going to her church, and she uses
her long legs to cut just an inch or two into Joss’s head start.
They stride on like this, both of them suddenly and obscurely jealous of the track
they’re taking, until Rebecca says, a little out of breath, ‘Why are we rushing?’ and
slows. She isn’t feeling very well this afternoon. The rain finally pattered to a close, and
the sky is a thinning blue. After the heat, the day is the temperature of blood, barely
discernible.
Joss raises an eyebrow. ‘I wasn’t rushing.’
‘Let’s just take it easy. There’s no hurry.’
They walk on, side by side now, framed in the middle of the empty road by the
hedgerows on either verge.
‘God, it’s pretty here. All this wildness.’ A daisy waggling from Rebecca’s lips.
‘What’s the date?’
‘First of August.’
‘Right.’
‘Why?’
‘No reason. I guess there’s a lot of summer still to go.’
‘Yeah. A lot of summer.’
They walk on, to the turn-off, up the side-road, to the churchyard. There’s a lorry
parked outside the lych gate, as they walk up, and three men standing in the
churchyard. Two of them have on neon orange vests, and the third is wearing a jumper,
shirt and cords.
‘Shit.’
‘We’ll never sneak it back right now.’
They open the gate and wander around the nearest edge of the graveyard,
browsing along the gravestones as if ambling around a gift-shop. They bend and slowly
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read the blurred epitaphs as they wait for the men to go. Joss puts her hand on
Rebecca’s arm. ‘Look at this. John Caleb Kerrick. 1856-1870. Drowned at Soar. He has
outsoared the shadow of this night.
‘That’s sad. Just a young guy. That’s Shelley, isn’t it? From Adonaïs?’ Rebecca
frowns and closes her eyes in concentration. ‘“He has outsoared the shadow of this
night; Envy and calumny and hate and pain Can touch him not, nor torture yet again.
From the contagion of the world’s slow stain He is secure…” I forget the rest of it.’
Joss says nothing, only smiles sadly and moves away. She looks at no more
graves, only trails her fingers against worn stone, the frail fronds of long grass as she
wanders slowly around the yard.
Rebecca makes a slow circuit, still feeling that great sense of comfort from this
place. The sunlight is fragile on the grass and the old grey stones She cranes her head to
look at the church tower, and then glance at her friends, the two stone ladies. They
haven’t changed, they still gaze out, one happy, one sad. She walks over to stroke their
faces with a light finger. Then, following their blind gaze over her shoulder, she turns and
she sees.
The men are gathered around the yew, and now she can see why. The bushy top
of the tree, so broad and etiolated with its long reaching branches that hide the trunk,
looked intact from the gate. But now she can see that its trunk has been wrenched out of
the ground, the whole thing tipped over, devastated, ruined.
The branches now reach out, across the earth. She draws closer.
The roots of the yew are as fearfully convoluted as the branches; a paler brown,
thickly tendrilled and fringed with tinier strands. One half of the root system is bared to
the air where it has risen from the ground. The trunk has sagged and split a little.
One of the men in orange vests notices her. ‘Shocking mess,’ he says.
She stares, nodding.
‘Freak, must have been a complete freak. There was no report of winds in the
village. But maybe one of those, what do they call them? Micro-bursts, innit. Pulled the
whole poor darling right up. The mayor’s here, he’s upset all right. Bloody shame.’
Rebecca takes a step forward, touches a root as she has just touched the stone
face by the door.
‘Over a thousand years old, this. So it’s said. There’s a legend, you know, that
there’s a sword buried right in the heart of it. All sorts of stories for trees like these, of
course. I’m a tree man, I’ve heard them all. Still, she was a beauty.’ He gives a whistle.
The man in cords says something and the tree man winks at Rebecca and moves
away to continue the discussion on the other side of the tree.
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Joss is beside her. Her mouth is open with dismay.
Rebecca lays a hand on the trunk, where it has split. She feels like crying.
‘I’m sorry,’ Joss says. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’
She walks around to the other side, stooping to look at where the hollow in the
tree now gapes towards the ground. The sill of it, where the flint had been stowed, is all
broken away. Bared shards of wood are shockingly raw.
‘I can’t put it back,’ Joss whispers.
From the other side of the huge trunk Rebecca says, ‘I know.’
‘What shall I do?’
Her sister walks around to meet her. Impulsively, Joss puts her arms around her.
They rest against each other, breathe in, and out.
‘We’ll bury it.’ Rebecca speaks into the side of Joss’s neck.
‘Back there.’
Rebecca nods.
‘Will you come with me?’
Rebecca lets go and stands back. She gives her sister a weak smile. ‘Of course. Of
course I will.’
::
As they walk through the field towards the river, Rebecca pauses. ‘Hang on. I’ve got to
stop a minute.’
‘You look a bit pale.’
‘I know.’ She stands, holding her abdomen, her eyes closed, getting her breath.
‘Joss?’
‘Yeah?’
‘There’s something I should tell you.’ She opens her eyes. ‘Should have told you
before, I guess. I know you know that last year I had an—’ she glances away. ‘An
abortion. Well, now I’m going to have a baby.’
Joss’s face is almost as soft with surprise as it was soft with something else last
night. ‘You’re kidding.’
‘No.’ Rebecca laughs. ‘No! I’m going to have a baby! A bloody baby!’ She cackles.
‘You’re insane! That’s wonderful.’ Joss throws her arms around her for the second
time that afternoon and squeezes her tight. She scrubs her sister’s tummy with a rough
hand. Rebecca crouches away, giggling.
‘Careful! I might puke.’
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‘Sorry. But oh my god. You’re going to be a mother. Good grief.’ She makes a face
of mock-horror. ‘No, seriously. I’m really happy for you, Beck. Does Mark—’ she
grimaces. ‘Does Mark know?’
‘He does not. He hasn’t given me a chance.’
‘More fool him. We’ll raise it ourselves. It’ll be great. We’ll call it Godfrey,’ she
starts to chant, ‘and it’ll live in the bathtub, and it’ll eat only boiled eggs and—’
‘Shut it…’
‘It’ll make an honest woman out of you at last.’
Rebecca makes a face. ‘We’ll see about that. Not everything in life is redeemable’
::
The wood, this afternoon, is gilded and lovely. Sunlight catches the edge of every shape,
like gold illumination in a manuscript, a lustre that they walk through. The light makes a
metallic filigree of Joss’s brown hair as she walks beside Rebecca. The ivy that smothers
the place is a soft bedding now; the sound of birds makes the light seem to quiver.
‘I have no idea where we’re going,’ Rebecca whispers. It’s so hushed here. Their
footsteps scuff the leaves below. ‘I don’t know how I found you last night.’
‘I know the way.’ She has grown straighter and more possessed of herself since
they entered the trees. What kind of trees are they? Birch, thinks Rebecca. Birch and
elder. Lovely princesses of the woods. Joss holds herself like a princess here, too. She
seems unafraid.
There they are, at the water’s edge. There are a couple of blackened places where
the candles were left behind. The water purls and slides silently between the banks.
There is a sledged part of the bank, where it looks like something heavy has dragged
across it, but the river mutters only over rocks. There is no sign, now, of the dead
animals Joss was once brought to see. Perhaps they rotted, perhaps they were swept
away, or were taken away and disposed of. It was a long time ago.
‘Where do you want to put it?’ Rebecca says, hoarse from the silence.
Joss hesitates. ‘I know I have to do it. But I hope someone finds it again some
day. I hope it doesn’t get lost. It’s precious.’ She pulls the stone blade from her pocket. In
the look she casts down on it is all the hot hope of her imaginings. She holds this piece of
ancient time, frozen in the shape of a blade, in her small young hands. Then she kneels
by the bank of the river where the soil is soft and bare, and scrapes away at dead leaves
and pebbles. Rebecca kneels and joins her. They dig with their fingers, uncovering grit
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and softened leaves and thick, dark earth. When the hole is about a foot deep, Joss
picks up the stone.
‘Should I say something?’ she says, looking up at Rebecca.
‘What would you want to say?’
‘Goodbye for now,’ Joss says, and lowers her face. She places the axe in its pit,
pauses a moment. ‘Goodbye.’
When it has been covered over, she stands and looks steadily at her sister. ‘I feel
better now,’ she says.
‘Give me another minute.’ From her pocket Rebecca takes a sprig of yew branch.
It wasn’t easy to wrangle a piece off the tree; it was a tough material. She doesn’t know
if it will work; probably not. She was going to take it back to the house, but now she
plants the little sprig in the earth above the stone. Better not just to bury something, she
thinks. Better to let it start again.
She cranks herself upright and looks at the trees, the water, the muddled ground
scattered with leaves and stones and dead twigs, the grainy close air, the golden light.
‘This is a strange place,’ she says. ‘Maybe Mark was right. Maybe you can still
feel things in a place like this.’
Joss offers her a small smile. ‘Maybe.’
They give the river one last look, the bank with its little circle of darker earth and
its twisted flag of green; the haze of condensation that has risen to fog the further trees,
the wonderful stripes of light, the odd grace that has come down through the leaves.
‘We’re leaving soon, aren’t we,’ says Joss as they cross the field towards the
road. In these late hours, every nub and bump of the shorn wheat and bone of chalky
flint seems crowned with a cap of gold. ‘Back to Melbourne?’
Rebecca quirks a look at her. ‘Do you want to?’
‘I guess,’ Joss says, ‘I guess you won’t want to have the baby here. All alone.
You’d want to go back to your friends. They helped you with me, didn’t they.’
‘Yeah, they did. God, they were wonderful.’
‘It’s like you’ve already been a mother, haven’t you? But with me, you didn’t get
any choice. There wasn’t any choice.’
‘No, there wasn’t. But I never minded, Joss. You’re my sister. I love you, and we
were lucky we had each other.’ She puts a hand on Joss’s arm. ‘That’s what mum and
dad would have wanted.’
‘They’d be so happy for you now.’ And Joss finds tears in her eyes. ‘They’d be
really, really happy.’
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‘They’d be proud of us both, my love.’ Rebecca kisses her little sister on the
cheek, swiftly.
‘Oh my god, your hormones are already completely out of control, aren’t they?’
says Joss, bright.
‘Do you want us to go home?’ Rebecca asks, bending to tie her shoelace. It’s not
really coming undone, but she wants to stop. ‘I’ve been afraid that this place has been no
good for you. And I don’t know when Mark’s coming back. It’s rough—’ and she sighs,
‘—but to be honest, even when he does, I’m not sure I want him. Who knows?’
‘I’m sorry. But I’m also glad. Does that make sense?’
‘So we can do whatever you want.’
‘I don’t know what I want. Let’s just go home and have one of your cups of tea
for now.’
‘Jolly good then!’ says Rebecca in an awful English accent, and Joss smiles as they
climb over the stile.
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The water fills his body like a stain. Somewhere above is light and space. Here in
the water everything is substance, everything is dense. It loads him, soaks and
saturates. His skin is softening, his teeth are wet. Water washes in the hollow
channel of his throat. His body is heavier than it has ever been on the earth, and
yet it floats still, a little.
Flesh sinks, drifts like cold air, buckles and wavers, dissolves into darkness. The
river is deep and chill, the current gentle. The drowned man is gentled here. Water
turns in his deaf ears.
In a few days, his skin will be jelly. His hair will rise around his drooping head, and
then, with time, detach. The flesh will loosen and sag around his limbs; the colour
will become waxen, a pastel shade. His lips will shrink back from his teeth, so wet,
his glistening teeth. Water will make him sodden, and yet he will rise. The body’s
buoyancy, like the soul’s, will lift him.
He will rise, and then he must be buried again.
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