Friday 10th November 2017 Stromness
It is time to go. I shower and dress before descending but something in the bay outside my bedroom window catches my eye. I watch, unsure, until a tail pops out and I see both ends of an otter, holding his fish up in front of him, as if for inspection, a feeding pose with which I am now familiar. I watch until he disappears and know too that it is time for me to go.
Life writing, you say. You ask me to speak about my earliest memories! I will not do as you say. You asked me this twelve moons ago. You, but not you. I will not play today. I hold my piece of driftwood, my ‘I becomes I’, discover its smoothness, its secrets. For just a moment I become lost in just being.
Really? My earliest memories may have framed my life? Oh…. I begin to listen, intrigued, I could explore that, I reconnect, begin to write avariciously, seeking aspects that may relate back to early aloneness. Yet even as that thought reveals itself, I realise that in this very moment, by the act of saying no, I have isolated myself into an aloneness, have withdrawn, become a ‘not included’ by my own exclusion. Is that the way it was?
I feel comfort in the lullaby intonations that surround me and settle to my task in the warm hum. I put down my piece of driftwood, my ‘I becomes I’, that I have carried since the beginning. It is safe, it is secure, and so it is that I may begin.
I sit against a wall on a cold, hard floor. Joints of floor tiles ridge into my body and a protruding wall edge pains the length of my back. Knees up, hugging my chest with arms holding, wrapping, enveloping me. My teeth press down and bite into my kneecaps. I am alone in a blackened world, before me is something fearsome that I cannot see. I am in a void, I have been blinded. Neither can I hear, yet the sound of fear is so loud that it drowns out my life.
My ice age began soon after my third birthday, when my world froze and I buried myself in layers of bog, earth and sand to be internally twisted and torn, weathered and hardened.
I will be an archaeologist, try to uncover shattered bones and find broken layers of a soul. I will search for the person I might have been or try to love the person I am. I have been here before. Occasional volcanic eruptions held me anxious and dumb until a teenage glacial melt shed tons of moraine but brought cataclysmic earthquakes. Piece by piece I will elicit those fragments from the earth and seek to discover a whole where I might breathe and be free. Where i might love, laugh and feel full of abandon.
How far down have I dug? Have I reached Neanderthal or Neolithic, Viking or Victorian? Am I still wandering nomadic plains, in the desert or on the tundra? Where was it I became lost? How many times must I recreate myself before I find home?
A ferry plies the water in front of me, taking the shorter inner Skerry route for the second day in a row. There is no otter today. Behind me a pair of red kites circle and soar whilst a ferry sails a route I am not used to seeing, it is a smaller craft, with lifeboat on top, headed further to the left than I am used to. Where do you go?
From otter watching at Vasa Point, I reach towards Galtness, the reinforced concrete battery. Galtness at Salt Ness not yet explored yet my time on the island is running out, so today, I will explore.
Galtness battery you are more than I thought. From a coastal view all I have seen is your gun tower but from my new, inland perspective, you stretch out for a mile in front of me, bunkers, reinforced Nissan huts, underground structures, gun housings and concrete scars in the grass. Your coastal gun tower was but a tip of your iceberg.
Sometimes the things I am afraid of are not those I need fear at all. Other things that frighten come unexpectedly. Exploring your desolation carries a sense of mortality and does not come easy, I had not expected to be afraid but feel fear. My fears are hard to pinpoint, things might spring out on me, I am anxious I may be trespassing, have a general heightened sense of not knowing, who died, who was here and just what was your story? How many of you are here now?
I quiet my minds chattering anxieties and try to imagine war time, being stationed here. Long quiet days, even maybe joyful during summer but hard now, to picture long sunny summer days as we approach winter and your bunkers are waist deep in menacing brackish water. How did your soldiers fare? The surrounding pasture is soft and boggy, your bunkers are submerged in shallow pits. Has the ground level risen with years of drift, your heavy structures sunk or do you carry drainage systems that no longer work?
I do not like leaving the path but cannot explore you fully unless I do, I must walk through hummocky mire, that challenges my knees and I notice it sports fresh cow pats. The possibility of meeting a local herd of bullocks alarms me but I have crossed neither gate, stile nor fence. I still have a good way to go. I hate these feelings of fear when exploring unknown places, living in a heightened state of anxiety.
The distance is further than it appeared from the car when the gun tower was clear in sight. I am only just beginning my journey but my car is no longer visible. The track zig zags, taking a line, fixed no doubt when Lord Balfour claimed and divided villagers land, reapportioned it into ten acre fields. Divide and rule.
The wind is brisk with gale force gusts, I feel isolated by its wildness and threatening sky. There has been nothing that would have stopped me driving thus far and I want to retreat and return safe in my own metal reinforcement. I walk on. In places, the track has been repaired with chippings and where these exist, there is relief, less danger of sinking into unseen bog or stumbling through submerged rubble.
I leave your marooned bunkers and scan for animal movement as I approach a crudely fenced Nissan hut but it turns out to be pigeons not bullocks, that startle me. They erupt, perhaps more than fifty of them, clumsily tumbling bodies, wrestling for space as they fly, first towards me and beyond.
The structure itself holds rusting machinery and sports holes in the roof. Original corrugated sheets are rusting and peeling away, leaving a concrete shell. Sheets of rusting metal swing, creak and clatter with the wind and I wonder how long before it all might collapse and fall. Straggling pigeons continue to plummet as if catapulted from their roost before they rise again and head into the sky.
I wish I were braver or at understood my fears. There is no one here, there are no livestock here, the crumbling cliff edges have been carefully fenced, the footpath signposted and it is less than a miles walk from the car. I have nothing to fear but fear itself.
I am in no mans land, too far to retreat yet some distance still from my gun tower goal. I look behind to memorise turns and trace the line back to my now hidden car, straightforward, just checking. I look for potential shortcuts across fields should I need them when marauding buffalo come after me but in reality, electric fencing and hidden ditches, which cut unseen across the fields are more of a danger, a shortcut is not an option today.
I cannot adequately describe the conflicting feelings that impede my progress. An inquisitiveness, thirst for knowledge, wanting to see in order to understand yet coupled with a fear of finding something I do not want to find. My confusion both compels me onward yet holds me back as I make my final approach.
Thick mud and long tussocky marsh around the gun tower prove one step too far and I decide to retreat without exploring the tower’s hidden, inner life that I came to see. Confronting my fears whilst on firm but patchy ground was a different matter from trying to escape through quagmire. In truth, the entrance is hidden and demands going around a blind cliff edge corner to find the way in and it is this as much as the mud and marsh that halts my progress. I am pleased to have made it this far, accept my limits and with relief begin to retreat.
But You are not yet done with me. Walking back up the hill, a strange and menacing, jarring sound draws my attention. Just the wind, I tell myself as lingering pigeons reluctantly tumble from their roost in the concrete Nissan huts. I try to match the noise to the sounds of the flapping rusting metal but find no fit and this is too regular, pressing and gravelly to ignore. There is something more I have not yet found.
Looking up, two large birds patrol the sky, circling and I anticipate attack, Messerschmitt! Too black for anything other than crows but too big and aggressive for crows. A pair fly away, circle and return, eyeing me, swoop down at me with ratchety growls. They approach, menacingly, over and over but do not strike. Crows but not crows. I am emotionally exhausted, but it seems I am not a target for them today.
Seeing is believing. I have never learned easily from books alone. I have just stood on the Northern wartime defence line, defending against German and Russian invasion, defending against submarines that patrol trying to attack naval fleets lying in sheltered waters. My fears abate, the home run brings welcome release.
There were no voices around me as a child to balance and bounce, nurture or soothe. I lived in an isolation without recourse to wisdom beyond my own existence. Perhaps I can align my early world with today’s fear and somehow move on from it. I often live in fear. Fear of intruding on others, fear of not belonging, fear of getting it wrong, fear of over thinking, fear of others and fear of no one, fear of too much and fear of lack. There was no beginning and there is no end. My body holds on, holds on to this child, huddled and alone. Years later, I find my fear has become a habit.
I must go down, I hear them again. Fighting. I must hear more, I must go yet am afraid to move, afraid of being caught listening. What is he doing? I sit now on prickly stair carpet, knees huddled to chest. I hold my breath, hold it until I become faint and can suppress it no more, I let out a short, controlled exhale but quickly check it and hold on again. I must make no noise. I must be silent. I must not be heard. My breathing makes a noise so I must not breathe. I cannot breathe for in breathing, I drown out the sound and there might be a moment where I drown out the sound of her dying. If I hold my breath. If I don’t make a sound, perhaps she won’t die today. I breathe so lightly and shallowly that I am like air itself.
You take me on a journey, take me into the blackness of my mind where I find myself walking and happy to follow your words. I do as you say, see the things you describe, I walk. You lead me on my walk to the top of a mountain. The journey is long but the path has a gentle ascent and firm footing. You say there will be someone there when I reach the top. I walk. But when I reach the top there is no one there.
There is no one there, I search and search but there is no one there. You lead me back down the mountain tell me we will find another way up and we do but still there is no one there. Again you bring me down and this time we retrace our steps from the first ascent and you introduce me to a wise old man, your wise old man, you tell me he will be waiting for me and I will find him wizened and stooped with a kindly face. I do, he is there, just as you say.
You say he has a gift for me but I look and he has nothing, he has no gift for me today. You say we must go down and so we do. Again the ascent up the now familiar path and he is there, still waiting, but still has no gift for me. You insist he does have a gift and you tell me to hold out my hands and I do. You tell me the man is cradling a treasured gift, cradling it in his hands and that it is for me, all for me, that he will place it in my hands. I hold out my hands and he does. I feel nothing. You tell me I must look, must open my eyes and look to see the gift I have been given.
I do not know this man. I do not want his gift but I do as you bid. I open my eyes and recoil with distaste, throw down the gift you say I have been given, this is not a gift. I throw it violently, open my eyes and look at you, sneer at you, am angry with you and recoil inside. Later, much later, alone, I am engulfed in tears, tears for the tiny child who sat on my hand with knees huddled to her chest, sat on my hand when I threw her away, threw her away, cast her aside.
We never did go back, you and I, on a journey to to pick up the pieces that were broken so very very long ago. We never did go back to search among the rocks and the weeds for a lost child, all alone. Where did she go? What did she do? How did she feel to be cast adrift? Where did she go, left to wander alone?
I sit in my chair and listen to the hum of the fridge, the tick of the clock, the buzz of the lights and the ringing ringing ringing that sounds in my head. I listen and look, I find her, I see her walking alone with plants and insects, walks to a tree with thick velvety moss. She kneels, reaches down, touches green fruiting pods, brushes them gently back and forth then pushes her hand deep into the spongy carpet, bends to rest her cheek on the softness.
I sit in silence, my breathing is easy and quiet. I watch as she caresses her cheek with the moss and I see she is not alone for she is with me and I become I, and I hold her very close.