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My Mother Believes in Giants

J

ust after dawn, on the first day of March, Gerry brings us a stone on the back of his tractor. It’s been scored white in three parallel scrapes by steel prongs – where his spring ploughing struck it and dragged it from the awakening earth – but otherwise it’s a huge lump of blood-red sandstone that my mother greatly favours.

It’s the stuff of giants, she says.

Mother hurries to throw open the great doors on our converted coaching house, white and empty for tourists, so that Gerry can get the tractor and cargo into her workshop. She tells him to mind her ‘exhibits': the row upon row of sword hilts, helms, cups and flails, in the same red stone. They are huge in scale, lined up on the slate floor, each as tall as a man or even larger; each chiselled new and red into similarly massive fragments, though carved to be curiously aged or broken as my mother’s whimsy overtook her.

There is the beeping of the tractor reversing, and the hollow bang and scrape of the hydraulic bucket dropping its load. My mother is ecstatic, still in her dressing gown, running and hopping around this new stone, from corner to corner, brushing, tapping, a hand resting here or there, sighting along her thin fingers, as if already cutting to the heart of it.

When Gerry steps down from the plate, engine idling, my mother flings her arms around his neck and kisses him soundly and wetly on the cheek.

“Oh, Gerry, it’s wonderful. Wonderful!”

He stares at her bare feet, taps his cap, and says “Well then, Mrs… good luck.” Then to me a nod of good day, and “Alios.” There is a burst of diesel smoke and the tractor lurches its way back down the track, retreating politely but swiftly, rattling chains and kicking up mud as it goes.

“I can see it,” she says. “The crown. It’s here, Alios, it’s finally here,” and my mother dances around and around with both my hand in hers, smiling widely, feet scuffing across the slate, while I clump round in my wellies, revolving, somewhat miserably, on the spot.

The legends of the crown – of crowns – is as old as the hills around here, and it’s not something to be found in a boulder. Arthur’s Crown, or the Crown of Alba, or even the Crown of Thorns, they say, lost in a mound, in a pool, in a tree. Somewhere out on the landscape.

Older, still, my mother says – they remember something far older – to the shifting ice across the continents, the one continent, and the giants roaming tall as houses, waging war from their glaciers, irrevocably changing the landscape; great in their capacity to carve and erode the stone. As hard and uncaring, as they were industrious and magnificent.

But no one believes in giants now.

“Can’t you see, Alios? The circle on Blaeberry Hill is theirs.”

(I have seen only a rude stone circle encroached on by brambles, though the stones are vast.)

“The scarp is covered in their creations: their tables, and chairs, and tools and larger things – temples, or living quarters; perhaps other things locked in the landscape, yet to be freed.”

(And while the hill behind her workshop is amazing, covered with the fantastical works of hard and soft stone, carved by the slow drip of nature, it’s still something for the tourists, who come to photograph the unlikely stacks of boulder-upon-boulder, or undulating nodules of sandstone hanging out over the tall cliffs; or leave their children to clamber through the eroded crawls. Eroded by wind and rain, not giants, Mother!)

Sweating, we have winched the stone into place upon a stout wooden table, spinning an endless loop of chain in low gear. My mother already holds a mason’s mallet, and a long spike of tungsten-carbide-tipped steel. I am here, but not really here, because she’s already addressing the stone; Pre-Raphaelite hands bringing forth tools in benediction.

“You have never understood what sculpture can be, Alios. I so wish you could. Is there only imagination, like you think? Or is there something already there? Waiting to be released; pared away from fragments?” And then whispered, lips brushing the stone, eyes staring into a sandy glass box, “I see you. I see you, and you are magnificent.”

I see, as I’ve always seen, a boulder, and a week or two of mania and microwave meals, along with bad hair, body odour and tantrums. If you knew my mother, you’d know she often talks this way, in her artistic moods, and so I leave her to the workshop.

In the days that follow, I have myself some peaceful walks amongst the trees and stones; wander the brook and its muddy mat of winter-rotted leaves, and take a camera and photograph the stones, while the weather is chilled, the sky is crushingly blue, and the tourists have yet to appear by the bus-load. A man is walking his dog one day; I see a field mouse in the snarly grass, another, but that is it.

When the crown is done, it is the size of a cartwheel and weighs around one and a half tonnes. Unusually for my mother, it is whole and perfect, and even I am impressed by the luck she has had with the stones that seem to adorn it as jewels – dull, brown pebbles in some old ocean sediment, now exposed as riches on the circlet. It is a simple gathering of spires and angled tines, carved to a meaty red, while blocks of chisel marks, first one way and then the next, have pared it back, to where it sits on a presentational plinth of the original stone. She holds out her hands in a sort of ‘Ta-da, what do you think?’ grinning at her creation, and then at me, shaking with exhaustion.

I mumble through some congratulations.

Secretly I think she could have decorated it more, added more detail – it seems plain as an act of sculpture – but my mother says that’s ‘just the way she found it’.

Thank God it’s all over.

With one last lingering look, my mother snaps off the lights, before bolting the door and we go back to the house for the first decent meal in weeks. She asks me what I’ve been doing. I don’t show her photos of the stones, of course, because then the lectures begin, but I do tell her loosely about some of my wanderings. Then wine to follow, dark chocolate, cards, a warm hug, and bed.

But my mother lies; she does not go to sleep. Instead, she marches up the hill in bare feet and dressing gown, carrying her steel carton of dynamite.

I smooth the shutter closed and throw myself onto the bed, teary-eyed.

I will not sleep.

“Get up Ailios. Get up. We have to go.”

White light so bright, my eyelids buckle. My shoulder shaken roughly.

“Mum?”

“Throw on anything you’ve got. Quickly. Old jeans will do. That top.”

“What…? What is it?”

“You have to see this.” Her eyes glitter with excitement.

And in the distance I can hear what sounds like ice cracking mixed with sound of earth and scree avalanching from the Craich. Then dull booms, that make the bedsprings vibrate, and the glass of water on my bedside cabinet huzz and buzz along.

“What’s that? You’re scaring me.”

“The builders are down from the mountain. The Table has fallen into the Craich. They’ll be coming to mend it. I… I blew it up. But they’ll be here first. For the crown. Do you understand?”

I do, of course. My mother has gone mental.

I huff and tut and pull my pyjamas to myself and look for my rabbit slippers. I wave away the top she’s trying to throw over me like a sack.

“Forget those stupid rabbits, Alios, it’s boots you need. And trousers. Honestly, get your head together.”

There is a crash of trees, closer.

“Get dressed,” my mother hisses. “There is no time.”

It’s three am and snow is falling in a ghostly curtain. Snow has no business in spring – it’s as if we’ve gone back in time; winding back the winter clock. Up on the cliff, I can hear the soft breath of it on our umbrella.

Entirely at my mother’s doing, the Giant’s Table has fallen – slipped right into the gorge; the red stone staining the snow and river below, ivy clinging to it like claws. Black water boils up through the rubble in foamy sprays. I stare at the wanton vandalism.

Behind us there is crash of glass, wood and stone, as if a mountain is smashing its way through our home. The twinkling lights, just visible through the woods, go out.

Darkness.

As I watch, a massive shadow detaches itself from the hillside, swaying branches; spilling trees. There is the explosive sound of rock popping and the crackle of dry bramble stems. Then a grinding, clattering, rumble, inter-spaced with the squeals of stone rubbing together. A massive foot falls into the landscape, spreading into the grass and gullies. Rocks and pebbles clatter and bounce, rustling through the undergrowth like meteors, as a whole heap of moss-covered stone lurches forwards; a gigantic body at the end of that gigantic stride. The huge misshapen mass towers up over the landscape, fifty, sixty, a hundred feet high, now clearing the shadow of the hill.

It – for it is an ‘it’ – is wearing my mother’s crown. Its head is overgrown with a long beard and hair of bracken and bramble sprays, forced through by gnarled horns of oak branches, deeply rooted in the sentient cliff. Moss and lichen grows like skin, and the massive face is built in the image of mountains: rugged, vast, uncaring; its eyes stony crevices in the sedimentary rock.

What are those channels and grooves? Almost weathered to nothing.

And then… and then I realise, of course, that this is a thing that has slept through history itself. It bears the soft erosion of cultures long dead: its arms, legs, head are carved in the looping whorls of bison and ibex, struck through to angled strokes of cuneiform, to regimented lines of ogham with their branching cuts, then circle diagrams, that show, perhaps, the track of the stars in the heavens, or the endless passing of sun across stone, to Roman capitals incised with imperialistic serifs, to a garish daub or two of the present day: neon spray-paint, pink and poisonous.

Earth rattles down.

The giant groans with every movement of an arm, every look, every slow step that booms down onto the landscape, shaking the air as much as the ground. Then hauling itself below, exploding the river water, bending to the remnants of the Table with a moan.

“The king has returned,” my mother says, clapping her flat palms together, fingers spread like arrows pointing to possibilities.

I can only stare at what the world has become.

 

March 12, 2011   14 Comments

Fitcher’s Curve

K

arly has a pair of bolt cutters as long as her arm, and so heavy she has to drag them up to the fence; there’s a trail of kicked-up stones behind her. Clipping the links takes a few grunts and heaves, but once she gets the hang of it, the blades press down firmly, smoothing themselves into the steel that cuts with a little ‘click’, like soft fingernails. Sections of wire slinky down the fence.

Dad always said that taking the right tools is half the battle.

Through onto the waste ground, she contemplates the massive ramp. It rolls up out of the landscape like a big ol’ dragon, running up and around – all smoothed-out concrete and tarmac that goes nowhere. But this is the place, alright. Everyone knows Fitcher’s Curve.

It’s four am and a white mist rolls across the fireweed, piled stones, and rusting coils of wire. It’s as flat as a table, high as her waist, finding the hollows.

She’s seventeen tomorrow – today, even – and if there was one thing she wanted to find out before this day had come, it was where Dad had got to.

Despite what they said on the stair, he wasn’t ‘that type’. Just wasn’t. He wouldn’t just vanish off and leave a three-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter, now would he? Though with Mum, she’s beginning to wonder.

After all this time, Mum and her friends have the knife well-and-truly wedged between Dad’s shoulder-blades, but now that Karly’s older – been around the playground – it feels like a bitchy need for shared troubles, rather than the truth. None-the-less, his disappearance is not so much water under the bridge as acid rain burning its way down a steel culvert.

She starts to climb.

Along at the Akenside Working Man’s Club, they say Dad was the salt-of-the-earth. They probably mean he was totally normal: a dedicated man, who built roads and bridges all his life; Old-man McBride.

So it made it all the stranger, that one day, working on the bypass, Bill McBride and the rest of the men downed tools, came down and told the damned project planner, ‘where to stick it’. They weren’t going to work the Curve no more; not for any money.

Dad said no one should ever work up there. That Fitcher’s Curve was a bad lot; one of the worst projects the city ever started. Ran over budget, ran out of time. But, most of all, it just plain freaked him out; like when they saw the dancing men.

He was sitting on the end of her bed, smelling of tar and ground metal and it’s still weird to think that metal can burn. “The things I’ve seen, Karly.” And he gave a little shudder. “Worst thing is, it makes you question everything. If that’s true, then what else is true?” Though he never said what ‘that’ was. It gave her the impression that some things were better left unknown. And yet… he went back; perhaps to investigate his theories about what they were doing to the landscape.

Now I’m on Fitcher’s Curve.

The railing is chilled beneath her hand, wearing its patchwork of anodized zinc like stippled splots from a kid’s paintbrush. Weeds grow between the cast-lines in the concrete. As she curves up, starting to breathe a little heavy in her Nikes, the journey feels like some sort of fairground ride, cranking up and up into the cold morning air. The anticipation is the same.

Over the side, she can see reinforced embankments, built up with hexagonal bricks – showing handfuls of tousled grass – and the mounds of construction, and piled stones dragged from the ground, running out amongst the failed machinery. As the pigeon’s-eye-view develops, the heaps and troughs become huge earthworks; something akin to an ancient iron-age defense.

And then she’s here; at the summit. The slip has risen up two hundred feet and stopped. There’s just a workman’s hut, covered in graffiti, and the tangled mess of rusted, steel reinforcement sticking out where the road ends. As far as the eye can see, there’s city; one of the great views, perhaps. And a few hundred yards over, the finished bypass that left the Curve behind like a discarded tributary.

For an hour she waits, standing on that frozen wave, contemplating the edge; imagining Dad working up here; wondering what Mum will say if she doesn’t get down in time for school and presents. Mostly she wonders what she thought she’d find. Some unpleasant thoughts come, like, Maybe just a pile of folded clothes, which really hadn’t occurred before.

But it’s only when she picks up the broken half of a stone-mason’s chisel, kicking it free from where it had rusted to the road, and begins to scrape at the railing – the beginnings of a despondent ‘Karly Woz Here’ – that the world shifts.

The head of the chisel buzzes on the metal. She steps back, eyes wide. A chilly breath of wind stirs the fine hairs on her cheek.

The sound is muffled, but grows. She hears the sounds of drums, softly beating out across the landscape and feels their resonance in her guts. There’s an acrid smell of burning animal – fatty animal – curling around in the haze, blue trails, and sooty, black threads. And then the chants: back of the throat and nose, a guttural a-tonal, tone, that mumbles on and on in one breath of a multitude, to the clatter of bone, and bare feet whipping through the undergrowth.

And now she knows what he meant about the painted men dancing up here. But it can’t be ghosts – there’s nothing old here, only the Curve.

But then she remembers something else he said: that there’s power in things that rise up out of the landscape – the old knock hills;  a bend in a river; the boughs of a great, gnarled tree; a circle of stones dragged to a summit – and those were nothing on the scale of Fitcher’s Curve.

She can smell blood, and sweat, and cured leather, and charred herbs, blowing as ash on the wind.

But you know what? As she stands here, listening, smelling, wondering, at this otherworld rolling through the mist, she sees what the builders were scared of; terrified of. It’s not a horror, but something that is wild and passionate; primal, but not primitive. It’s not behind but parallel, and there is a sense of lost secrets that are worth knowing.

As the sun begins to rise, turning the sky to orange and purple and red, in great swathes of fire, she knows her father has more to answer for than she thought – in the choice that he made – but now she, too, wonders whether to walk back down the Curve, or stay forever.

February 25, 2011   10 Comments

The Old Woman Who Eats Kids

OldWomanPicture The Old Woman Who Eats Kids

I

started a myth today. I told my friend Elwood about the old house you can find if you walk up the hill and out of our town and keep walking for a few miles, where, on the right-hand side, along a line of trees, you’ll see an old house next to an overgrown orchard. If you walk there, you find a lake amongst the trees, with a sluice that is nothing but corroded machinery, and the house itself which has empty windows, and doors, and is full of tumbled plaster; and the orchard, where damsons grow, yellow and sweet, if you care to harvest them as summer turns to autumn.

I drew the house – it was similar to one I discovered next to my own home village – and I gave Elwood the picture.

He asked, “Who is the old woman in the window?”

I pretended to be surprised, and said, “Eh? What woman?”

Of course, he pointed, and we both looked together – both, it would seem to him, for the first time.

There is a definite old woman in the far window. She is a blue smear, but she is there.

Elwood is thrilled by this ghost in the picture, and shivers. “That’s amazing! That old woman just appeared in your picture! We should give it to a museum or call Ghost Busters or something.”

I downplay this, a little, saying that there is a curse attached to the old place, and maybe that applies to the picture. “You aren’t supposed to go there, and you’re not supposed to take photographs.”

“But your picture is drawn in crayons,” points out Elwood.

“Yes, but, the old woman is there, isn’t she – in the picture.”

This circular logic is self evident and Elwood agrees to keep the mysterious apparition quiet; just between us. We don’t want to annoy the old lady; make her curse us. That would be really, really bad, we decide.

The next day, Laura asks me about the picture. Her best friend, Clara, was talking to Rachel, who got it from Neil, that Elwood said I had a haunted picture.

I sigh dramatically, and say I cannot show her the picture on account of the curse.

“Curse?” she says, eyes wide, nervously – but excitedly – turning the ball in her hands.

I tell her what I say Elwood told me. “At first, I didn’t believe it either.”

“Oh,” she says, looking around nervously, head bobbing, as if the old lady will come to school right there and then and take her away.

I am intrigued by this idea, so I tell her this happened at another school with a similar picture of the house: that a kid who looked at it – just like her – got kidnapped by the old lady.

Laura is too scared now to look at the picture. Faced with my theatrical fumbling at my satchel to find it, she screams and runs away.

She comes back five minutes later.

“Who drew it?” she asks, her head touching mine, as she examines the picture I have reluctantly produced – having had it ready all morning, waiting impatiently for someone to ask.

“I don’t know. Some boy I think; from another school.”

“The one who disappeared? The one who got taken by the old woman?”

“Maybe. That’s probably right.” I shake my head and bite my lip. “It would make sense.”

There is a picture, which, if you look at it, an old woman will come and take you away. The fruit in her garden is children’s heads – those are in the picture too.

My yellow damsons look a little like heads, I guess. Because that is what Laura tells Clara.

Some bigger boys come to ask me about the picture in the afternoon break, saying they think I made it all up; that stupid, magic pictures with ghosts in them don’t really exist. But they are furtive and keen to look.

I realize these older boys won’t believe the story if they see the picture. It is not powerful enough.

I tell them that the picture has vanished. I mean that I lost it. This is greeted with derision. One of them wants to search my bag, another to punch my face in, so I offer to tell them the story instead; of the old woman, as it was told to me by another boy. Not me.

This is met with immediate interest. I tell them they can’t tell anyone. They have to promise. They solemnly swear this, crossing hearts and hoping to die.

There is a woman who lives in an old house, on the outside of town, who has a garden of children’s heads and whenever one is ripe, she plucks it and eats it. And that same day, a boy or girl will be taken from school – kidnapped – but not one of the younger kids; one of the older ones, if they are naughty or punch faces.

“Kids just like you have already vanished,” I say. “Nobody knows where. She’s a cannibal…”

A boy one year down from me left to go to another school, but some kids think it was the old woman.

There is no picture now; she doesn’t need a picture.

Five kids came up to me today and said, they heard this story which is totally true about this old woman who comes to schools and takes children away and has a garden with kid’s heads in it, and she eats them! “We even found her house!”

When a new girl – Trinny – starts the same afternoon, she confirms this, saying that it totally happened at her old school, and two kids have already gone missing. “All they found were wet footprints – from the lake.”

December 3, 2010   20 Comments