Emotional Geology - Extract
Prologue & Chapter 1 (extract)
A view of Harris hills from Berneray,
a small island off North Uist,
I talk to the island. I don't speak, but my thoughts are directed towards it. Sometimes it replies. Never in words of course.
I miss trees. You don't notice at first that there are hardly any trees here, just that the landscape is very flat, as if God had taken away all the hills and mountains and dumped them on neighbouring Skye. But eventually you realise it's trees that you miss.
Trees talk back.
In the hospital grounds there was a special place where I used to stand, where I went to feel safe. It was my magic circle, my fairy ring. There were three slender pine trees in a triangular formation, only a few feet apart. I used to stand within that space, sheltered, flanked by my trees, like a small child peering out at the world from behind grown-up legs.
Once, when the air was very still and a brilliant blue sky mocked my misery, I stood between my trees, head bowed, not even able to weep. I placed my palms round two of the tree trunks, grasping the rough bark. I begged for strength, support, a sign. Anything.
My trees moved in answer. Quite distinctly, I felt them move. As my palms gripped them they shifted, as the muscles in a man's thigh might shift before he actually moved. The movement was so slight it was almost imperceptible, as if their trunks were flexing from within.
I knew then that the doctors were right, I was indeed mad. I threw up my head and cried out. Above me a light breeze played in the treetops, a breeze I had been unaware of on the ground. It tugged at the branches with a sudden gust and I felt the trunks flex again, bending to the will of the wind.
I wasn't mad.
At least, not then.
A woman alone in a light, white room. A glowing stove, a scrubbed pine table. No mirror, no clock, no photographs. A sewing-box lies open on the bare wooden floor. On a window-sill a still-life: driftwood, shells and a sheep's skull. The woman - not old, not young - lays down her pen and shifts her weight in the chair. The screech of wood on wood shatters the silence. She folds sheets of paper with great care, pushing them into the envelope with hands that tremble slightly.
January 11th 2000
My dear Megan,
The days are very short, very dark and the wind is almost constant. My new home - my doll's house! - is small, but I like it that way. (For a start there is very little to keep clean.) I have a sitting room and a workroom downstairs, a minute kitchen extension out the back and a bedroom and bathroom upstairs, all of a monastic simplicity. I can see the sea from the sitting room and from my bedroom. The holiday-home buyers didn't want this one because it's too close to the sea, or so my neighbour Shona McAskill says. (Dear Shona, fount of all wisdom and a great many outrageous Gaelic proverbs. There seems to be one for every occasion – all of them gloomy.) If there's a freak high tide I shall have seawater round my ankles apparently, so I haven't bothered with a carpet. The floorboards are bare and I have put my oldest, most faded quilts over the furniture to hide the suddenly-garish colours I've imported from my former life. (I like the idea of having a Former Life. It makes me sound intriguing and romantic, doesn't it? Or does it make me sound reformed, like a criminal? Perhaps I shall tell the locals that I have moved here in an attempt to go straight. In a way, I have.)
I try to go for a walk every day, whatever the weather - that is if the wind allows me to stay perpendicular. I see very few people on my walks. There are no tourists at this time of year and the locals are sensibly installed by their firesides, watching daytime tv. (Not an option for me as I don't have one.) The radio has been my constant companion and the shipping forecast has taken on a new meaning. I don't pretend to understand it but I am beginning to get the gist. The prognostications for 'Mallin, Hebrides, Minches' always sound vague but dire. (Rather like Shona's proverbs.)
Today I walked very fast to get warm, then I sat on some rocks to watch gannets dive, which made me cry. I can never watch gannets without thinking of how they go blind in old age and die of starvation. They hit the water at God knows what speed with their eyes open, looking for food. How can their eyeballs withstand the impact? And how do ornithologists know gannets don't sneakily shut their eyes at the last minute? (Maybe gannets don't have eyelids? I will ask Shona. I am sure she will know.)
The silence and the long expanses of uninterrupted time are Heaven. ("When God made time, He made plenty of it." The Gospel According to Shona.) I think it's affecting my work already. I seem to be using less colour and more texture and when I do use colour it tends to be colours from the natural world. I think this place will be good for my work, good for me. I hope so.
Apart from the fact that they have made it clear that they think I am a) mad and b) unlikely to last six months, the locals have been kindness itself. I am sure they regard it as their Christian duty, although I doubt that duty prevents them from repeating (and probably embellishing) every snippet of personal information that I am foolish enough to let fall. But I don't mind - I didn't come here expecting privacy. I realise I am an event. I am what passes for entertainment on an under-populated Hebridean island. I am an anomaly - a woman alone, too young to be widowed and too old to be looking for a mate. I occupy that no man's land - no woman's land - between youth and old age.
Write soon, darling, or phone if you can. I'm not at all lonely but would love to hear your news.
P.S. I am keeping very well - no nightmares and I have not had to increase my dosage so far. You do not need to worry about me at all!
She seals the envelope with a sigh and picks up her pen again. Gazing down at the blank white space, her memory shuffles, deals another blank white space. The pen hovers, dashes off a name, then skids across the envelope. She concedes defeat, replaces the cap on her pen and walks to the window where she rests her head against the cold glass.
The comfort of glass. The attraction, the seduction of breaking glass and the quietus it will bring. No effort, just push, push until it cracks, breaks, then peels back your skin, letting the blood, letting the pulsing blood flow, cleansing your body, emptying your mind, letting life ebb away like the tide, leaving the beach clean, flat, blank.
No-one will ever know you were here.
I lie in my bed, the bed I used to share with Gavin. Tiny pieces of fabric are flying round the room, a flurry of multi-coloured snowflakes, a rainbow blizzard. They cascade down until the floor is covered, inches deep in brilliant fragments, and still they fall. I watch the pieces flutter round the room, see them settle on the duvet, settle on me, piling up until I am buried like the Babes in the Wood by a mountain of multi-coloured leaves. And still they fall. My face is covered and I cannot breathe. I call out to Gavin but my mouth fills with pieces of cloth...
I wake, sobbing, sweating, the duvet over my head, my mouth full of hair. In the dark I turn to Gavin's side of the bed and reach across, terrified.
He isn't there of course. He hasn't been there for five years.
But still I reach.
One of the poems from EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY
Elgol, Isle of Skye, Scotland
(Photo: Adam Burton)
Sleeping with the sea
on the sea
rising and falling with the waves
I'm carried far out into the darkness
sheltered in the broad hollow of his back.
I am wrecked
to a spar
clasping the hull of his ribs as they rise and fall
with the surge of the sea
the swell of his breath.
The sea snarls hungry at my door.
Beyond the slap and spatter of wind-flung spray
a gale groans at my window
The sea rolls him over, belly-up
an arm flails
heavy, like a piece of timber
pinning me against the mattress.
take his bony hand
touch rough fingertips scoured by mountainsides
pillow my aching head on the indolent, undulating muscle of his arm.
Silk slides and rasps against my cheek.
a susurration of seething foam as the waves retreat.
A muffled, rhythmic thud
Both perhaps, in unison.
I am safe.
For one night at least.
Safe, moored to this man.
Pobull Fhinn, "Finn's People",
the stone circle at Langass, North Uist,