oh, well, whatever . . .

white heather and the widow’s life plan

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The Widow Middlemiss has gone to Derby to stay with her brother for a while. She left on the day before I returned from Fort William. While the Widow is undoubtedly old and vulnerable,  somewhat isolated, and doesn’t have a good support network, the received narrative around her departure identifies the stress of the Citadel construction process as the key precipitating factor in her decision to go.  A number of interventions were deployed to try to avert this eventuality. Unfortunately none of these succeeded in making life tolerable for the Widow. Margaret says the outcome is “an absolute crying shame”.

The weather hasn’t been dry but there have been no further floods. Although there were no further sightings nor sounds of slimy google-eyed harbingers of the apocalypse, Maureen assured the Widow that they would still be there. It was a sign of the kind that surely should not be ignored. The Widow may be old but she’s no fool. Once she’d recovered her poise she remembered that frogs can vanish as quickly as they come and that their appearance isn’t always a portent of the Final Days. It was nevertheless clear to Margaret that the Widow’s predicament was dire and that she would benefit from expert support. She asked Brenda if she’d be prepared to see the Widow and offer some advice on a life coaching basis. Brenda agreed and in due course the Widow went south. I would have done the same, I think.

My holiday continued after my return. I’ve done some walking and painting. One day I drove to Kielder village and from there walked up Deadwater Fell and over to Peel Fell and from there along the border line to the Kielder Stone. The air was benign and close, clammy, flavoured with the soft, elusive, feminine scent of ling. It was a dull day and I saw only one other person between leaving the car park and returning. The Stone stood like an impenetrable, silent temple, a geological installation among the remote acres of purple heather. It’s said that in the days of border conflict and strife the stone was a sort of post box and reivers would leave messages for one another there. Those were the days when these were the so-called Debatable Lands. It hadn’t yet been settled whether they were part of Scotland or part of England. The ambiguity intrigues me and gives these moors a very particular atmosphere. Borderlands are in any case always psychologically interesting. The liminality is almost palpable. It seems to haunt the place and to somehow permeate your flesh. It’s as if you’re being watched in a place where you’re certain there is no another living person but you. It’s as if the earth and weather are the eternal wardens of this place. It’s as if you’re being X-rayed by history. Leaving messages at the Kielder Stone must have been like sending a message up the chimney to Santa, I thought. It seemed to me that it must have been an almost metaphysical gesture, although no doubt this perception reflects a radical failure in my historical imagination.

It was as I was descending that I met the only other person on those hills that day. I was crossing the heather on Ravenshill Moor. He was a middle-aged man with an old-fashioned look about him. He wasn’t wearing modern walking gear like me – North Face shorts, Berghaus technical top, lightweight walking boots, sunglasses, rucksack, floppy khaki sun hat. He wore corduroy trousers, stout shoes, a tweed jacket and a flat cap. He had two well-behaved black labradors with him. He stood to one side as I approached him. We had the usual conversation about the weather and I stroked his dogs as they checked me out. I commented to him how quiet it was up there that day and how the heather was so beautiful this year.

‘People don’t know what they’re missing out on, do they?’ I said.

‘Have you ever seen white heather up here?’ He asked me.

‘Up here?’ I replied, looking around at the sea of purple and shaking my head. ‘No, never.’ I assumed that he was guy who’d come looking for it and was about to suggest that his search was futile, when from inside his jacket he produced a bunch of white heather.

‘Did you find that up here?’ I asked, a little amazed.

‘Oh aye,’ he said. ‘I came across this clump of it last year and I wondered if it was still here. It was.’

The man then broke off a couple of sprigs and gave them to me.

‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘I’ll put the lottery on tonight. If I win I’ll share my winnings with you!’

I wandered off down the hill and back towards the forest, grasping my sprig of white heather. I began to think about what I might want to come out of any good luck that came my way. I was already spending my lottery winnings, metaphorically speaking. I wondered how someone who puts as little credence as I do in such irrational beliefs could find himself doing this. It’s said of the Kielder Stone  that those who think they are unlucky should walk around it three times against the sun and that this will improve their fortune.  I hadn’t done that, of course, but I suddenly began to wonder if I shouldn’t be making my way back up there. A man’s luck is something he needs to work at assiduously.  White heather is probably one of those things that is considered lucky just because it’s so unusual to find it. The lucky part is that you should find it at all. There is inevitably a legend to account for its powers too, of course, and it’s one I remembered vaguely as I went down into the sharp scented conifers. Later I checked it out on the internet. 

A long time ago in Scotland  there was a famous poet called Ossian and he had a daughter called Malvina. It is said she was truly beautiful and had a sweet nature. A strong and handsome warrior called Oscar fell in love with her. They planned to marry, but before they did Oscar went off in search of fame and fortune, as any man would in those days. Malvina longed night and day for his return and often talked to her father about how much she loved her brave husband to be. One fine day in late August Ossian and Malvina were sitting together on the mountainside when a ragged messenger staggered towards them. He brought the sad news that Oscar had been killed in battle. The messenger was carrying a spray of purple heather. He said it was a last gift from her beloved. The ragged messenger told her that Oscar had died whispering her name and swearing his love for her. Distraught with grief Malvina ran out over the hillside, weeping inconsolably. Where Malvina’s tears fell the purple heather turned pure white. When she saw this, or so the story goes, she said “May this white heather forever bring good fortune to all those who find it”. White heather marks a place where the tears of the poet’s daughter fell. White heather is a sign of a special felicity, a place where nature and human narrative coalesce into simple poetic remembrance.

When I got home I let De Kooning have a sniff of my sprig of white heather and then put it to stand in a glass of clear water. I could see De Kooning was already wishing for prawns. As it happened he was about to get lucky too, because that was exactly what I had for him in the fridge.

A couple of days later Margaret was cooking a big pan of onions for herself. I was sitting in the conservatory reading and drinking a cappuccino. As I was ‘doing nothing’ in Margaret’s terms she asked me to take a box of slippers to Brenda’s.

I drove along the beach road and up through Seaton Sluice. At the Delaval Arms at the top of the hill a group of cyclists were sitting out in the hazy sun. The Delaval Arms is a large white iconic building at the border of Northumberland and North Tyneside. It enjoys excellent views. Inevitably some property developer has got his hands on it and wants to knock it down and replace it with yet more housing. It may be what Gordon wants, but Seaton Sluice will be a good deal less interesting and attractive if the Delaval Arms is lost. It announces the village – and the county – from the south and gives the place a lot of its character. The landscape and the place will be a lot poorer if this building is lost.

Brenda opened her door and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

‘Ooh!’ she said. ‘Is this a little pressie for me? Is this what you’ve brought me back from Scotland?!’

I laughed half-heartedly. ‘You should be so lucky,’ I said, staggered into her hall with the large cardboard box and put it down. She asked me if I would like a coffee, but I said I’d just had one.

‘How’s your neighbour?’ Brenda said. ‘Very sad case.’

‘Mrs Middlemiss? She’s still in Derby, I think,’ I replied.

‘Things happen for a reason, you know. I truly believe that. I did a piece of work with that lady, you know. A consultation. The crisis in her life brought us together. And you know, it was clear to me almost immediately that here was a lady who really had no clear life plan at all. I knew I could help her.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘she is about eighty years old? I guess it’s probably okay not to have a life plan at that age. She probably just takes each day as it comes.’

‘No.’ Brenda corrected me, abruptly. ‘It isn’t. Our happiness depends upon a life plan. No life plan and unhappiness is virtually unavoidable. We must each one of us have a life plan for as long as we are on this earth. A life plan is the true foundation of our well being.’

I nodded. ‘Yes, I know,’ I said. ‘I guess I’m just a miserable sod, eh, Brenda?’

‘By the way, did Margaret tell you that we are expanding the range of products we will offer on eBay? We felt that the slipper market was perhaps a little too seasonal.’

‘Oh?’ I said. ‘So what else are you going to sell?’


‘Good idea,’ I said. ‘So what are you going to call yourselves now – Slippers and Shades?’

‘No. No, that wouldn’t hit the right note. No, Margaret and I have given this a good deal of thought and we’ve decided that henceforth we will trade as The Slippers and Sunglasses Shop.’

‘Yes, that’s good,’ I said. ‘Best not to confuse the customers, eh? How’s Tristan, by the way?’

‘Tristan? Tristan’s fine. He’s fitting an en-suite today for a lady in Tynemouth. A lovely big house on Percy Park, he tells me.’

‘Give him my regards,’ I said. Brenda said she would and I left. I drove back along slowly, listening to Radio Four.

Later that day I began a painting of the Kielder Stone. I’m doing it in acrylics on a big square canvas. I’ve placed the stone fairly low in the canvas. I want to make it seem massive and inscrutable and to evoke in it a feeling of stoicism and isolation. I want it to sit beneath a huge omnipotent sky, restless, full of movement and power. I want to explore the emotional possibilities of this landscape. I’m not very interested in making the scene immediately recognisable. A painting isn’t a postcard.

I worked quickly with a big brush, trying to find for the sky a rhythm of the kind that might mesmerise or enchant a stone like this, as if enchantment was perhaps the cause of it massive stillness, its inexplicable composure. I underpainted the sky roughly with oranges and browns and then slapped various blues, greys and whites over them in free choppy strokes, the lemon yellow smear of a misshapen sun. The more movement I put into the sky the more the stone seemed to be fixed and immovable. At the same time it just seemed to become blacker and blacker. Around the stone with a smaller flat brush I dabbed in the clumpy moor. I painted it in pinks at first. I wanted to avoid the obvious purple. And then I added a new layer: titanium white. The painting is veering towards the monochromatic. But I like it. And I like the idea that the stone stands in the middle of a whole moor of white heather. I mean, I ask you: what are the chances of that?


Written by yammering

August 31, 2008 at 8:13 pm

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