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WELCOME TO FROM THE LIGHTHOUSE, DURHAM UNIVERSITY ENGLISH SOCIETY’S ONLINE LITERARY MAGAZINE.

Durham University has always offered a lot to its students, in terms of sports, the extra-curricular, and the academic. Its literary scene, however, is in its infancy. Societies such as the Poetry Society, the Creative Writing Society, as well as various publications like The Bubble and The Palatinate are all doing good work to bring out and foster Durham’s hidden talent.

In 2014, the English Society wanted to join in. From the Lighthouse is a permanent literary space for Durham students, free and open to all kinds of writing, and attached to the English Society so that it won’t fade away at graduation.

In addition to our annual competition, open for poetry, short fiction and flash fiction entries, we accept submissions on a rolling basis, and publish at the end of Michaelmas, Epiphany and Easter terms, in December, March and June. We’re looking for all sorts of writing, be it poetry, fiction, drama, essay or translation. Send us pieces that will make us think, feel, or just feel overwhelmed. Send us work that is offbeat, truthful, intelligent, subtle, fearless, perceptive and concise. Send us something that comes from that lighthouse in Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse, where it symbolises something more eternal than just us.

We can’t wait to read it. And we hope you can’t wait to write.

Dunelm War, by Justin Lau (First Place – Short Fiction)

This short story was awarded first place in the Short Fiction section of our 2014 Inaugural Writing Competition.

* * *

Tim, a third year anthropologist, pushed Old Man John over the side of Elvet Bridge into the river. For the locals of Durham, this proved to be the final straw; there remained only one path, and that was the one to war.

The students didn’t take it seriously until four pissed engineers staggering to Klute Nightclub on a Wednesday night were ambushed by fifteen burly men who grabbed their flailing limbs, lugged them to the Market Place and roped the helpless quartet under the 3rd Marquees of Londonderry. At dawn, their hung-over mates discovered them barely conscious, severely hypothermic, teeth chattering incessantly, drenched in their own vomit and urine. As a result, undoubtedly empowered by the spirit of Charles William Vane with whom they had been intimate till the break of day, and on behalf of the entire student body of Durham University, they declared war against their co-residing townsfolk who had overstepped the boundaries and dared to threaten their pride.

Barricades were set up within twenty-four hours. Non-combatants were urged to stay at home and out of harm’s way. White chalk lines were drawn on the knobbly cobbles to demarcate their respective territories. The locals (referred to as the Durhamites) cordoned off Gilesgate and Claypath, and set up their headquarters at the Gala Theatre, while the students (Durhamnus) established theirs at the Bill Bryson Library, and claimed the Hill and Elvet. The Viaduct remained the central field of much direct conflict, soon characterised by significant pandemonium, with the Durhamnus blaring their music to exasperate and the Durhamites clamouring for them to shut the hell up.

And it was amicably settled upon that the Market Place, faithful to its name, was to be the centre of trade, of blows and words, of ostensibly peaceful treaties and negotiations. So were the enduring bridges—Kingsgate and Elvet—and the Bailey determined to be mutual territory in which, as much as humanly possible, peace should reign. Durham Cathedral declared itself an asylum for the blessed peacemakers fleeing from such violent activities. No one dared dispute its holiness and both sides consented not to involve any higher power for righteous fear of divine retribution. ‘Keep the Lord Almighty out of this,’ remarked Mrs Potts at a town council meeting and was duly met with a resounding, ‘Amen!’ unlike any heard in all of the churches on a Sunday morning.

The historians studied the origins of the Dunelm War—aptly designated after Durham’s Latin name—tracing it back to the commonplace interactions of raucous drunks, with their name-calling (‘Chavs!’ ‘Little shits!’ ‘Fat bastards!’ ‘Twits!’) and the occasional brawl, nothing unusual in a city shared by those of town and gown. But then, roughly four months ago, encounters began to escalate in a wholly rash manner. Bellowing matches took place on the streets, the Bailey college students screaming insults and obscenities as they descended the slope, and the locals coming up from the Market Place jeering and throwing bottles. Not long after, several students started pelting locals from the Durham Castle towers with expired potatoes, shouting, ‘Peasants! Peasants!’ In retaliation, the locals persuaded Subway to bar access to students. When several attempted to force their way in, they were assaulted with spicy cheese, cold meatballs and broken tills. Still, the students viewed these incidents as a pastime, the locals as a petty nuisance. With Tim’s shove, things became official.

*

The first week bristled with guerrilla operations, each side familiarising themselves with their territories. The objective was to carry out reconnaissance missions to gather intelligence on their surroundings. The Durhamites’ knowledge of hidden paths through the woods and by the rivers proved indispensable, while the Durhamnus felt rather despondent at their meagre knowledge of the city, habitually confined as they were to the lecture halls and classrooms. Morale was raised when the boats were brought out and began cruising up and down the river, the coxes emphatically shouting instructions in a not-so-discreet manner. Every so often, minor public clashes occurred, but both parties viewed themselves in a deadlock in which proper conflict had not yet begun. Preparation first, war later.

Geography students studied contour lines, perusing historic maps sold each year as expensive luxury gifts. Business management students drew large blueprints outlining transportation means and devised strategies for other logistical matters. A group of officers and soldiers were assembled to form the DAF, aka Durhamnus Armed Forces, an impressive worldwide collaboration, composed of members of the Singapore Armed Forces, Finnish Defence Forces, Republic of Korea Armed Forces, Turkish Armed Forces, etc. There were also those currently enlisted in Britain’s RAF or RN, forming a most formidable congregation of soldiers.

Each army officer prepared a rousing speech ‘to fight and die for freedom’ (first sending it to the English students for editing, then liaising with theatre nerds to perfect emphases of certain words), though they ran into the problematic situation of being unable to use the rather restricting word: ‘country’. Using the ambiguous term ‘global’ to unite the multiplicity of identities under one common branch solved this problem: ‘For our global liberty and sovereignty!’ Furthermore, ‘We band of brothers and sisters!’ was thrown in to please the Shakespeare-loving English students and ardent feminists.

Three rounds of negotiations were held at the Town Hall over the next month, all resulting in abysmal failure due to the students not understanding a word being said to them. ‘Speak English, you stupid commoner’ was met with ‘You posh twats, take yer fookin’ posh fookin’ talk and piss off’ and both parties had to flock off before a deadly punch-up. The students scoured the language department for those who could somewhat understand and interpret what the locals were saying in order to prevent further miscommunication.

The line in contention was this: ‘Alreet lads, I’m ganin tuh myek this fair on yee,’ (simultaneously, language students flipped through pages of lexicon graphs and tables with impressive speed, translating: ‘Now I’d like this to be a fair fight and we won’t relent…’—with the now-enlightened students nodding and both parties thoroughly relieved), ‘but divvint be bringing me family intee this kakky.’ (‘…but we do have families, wives and kids to think about, so make sure you don’t bring them into this ugly affair.’)—following which the students applauded, the locals too; and the Durhamnus commended the Durhamites for their respectable proposition, which received quick and gracious acceptance.

*

While this was taking place, other groups were dealing with their own unique set of problems. Here is an overview of all external parties not directly involved in the war but nevertheless affected by it:

Most cafés and teashops went on hiatus, though Vennels Café continued serving tea, remarking: ‘Aye, well we’ve been through worse n’ this, like. Y’kna, back when th’ English Civil War was gannin’ on. We was bled dry 374 years back by those bliddy Jocks. But through it all, business just went on. Didn’t stop for nee fooker. This 16th century block still stands well proud.’ The pubs too operated as usual, not necessarily picking a side but rousing up appropriate banter according to their customers. On request, the Swan & Three Cygnets drafted a schedule: Monday, Wednesday, Friday for students; Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday for locals; and Sunday was a ‘free for all, jest divvint gan brekking any glasses, mind.’ Ultimately, victory speeches went all round for whichever side gave them the most business.

The neighbouring town of Darlington became a refuge for the students-turned-residents who disappeared into hiding out of fear of being lynched by both parties for failing to pledge allegiance to either side. Likewise, other residents not originally from Durham chose to lock themselves in. Postgraduates were content to hide away at Ustinov College, a good thirty minutes’ walk from the Market Place, knowing it was much too far for anyone to bother with. The PhD candidates remained undisturbed, the Durhamnus viewing their work as extremely respectable, and the Durhamites fearing the irrational wrath of those rudely interrupted. These students, who had dedicated most of their lives to analysing one minute aspect of a generally unknown topic, were rumoured to be rather on edge, and all were wisely advised to leave them alone.

The Asians, who made up the majority of international students, got down to business before affairs reached a violent pinnacle. They assembled their intimidating force in numbers, plus Eastern European reinforcements, and began protesting the whopping £14,000 they had to pay in spite of lectures and tutorials missed because of the impending war. It was an historic day for the internationals when after seriously threatening to bring in home countries and governments as backup, the university agreed to settle this dispute by promising a reimbursement.

The professors were torn. Some felt obliged to side with their prodigies, their cherished pseudo-progenies; others felt it a duty to maintain social justice and defend the rights of those whose brave ancestors first occupied this land thousands of years ago. One English professor opted to write a poem about the whole ordeal (it was entitled ‘The Durham Land’ in much-too-obvious admiration for a certain Eliot poet). Others acted upon this new enthusiasm and began writing academic papers tracing the fascinating course of civil conflicts in British parishes and counties, scrambling in excitement upon discovering they were witnessing the first of its kind, desperately racing against each other to be the first to break new ground.

The police was comprised of a group of flustered men in neatly kept uniforms, honestly rather lost about what to do. Protect the people, that was certain; ‘but, howay, how much can we knack the people we’re tryna protect when it’s fo’ their own good, like?Sergeant Patsy organised the ground forces to set up barricades, while Officer Knomly scoured YouTube for global leadership summit videos with politicians debating similarly complex issues, hoping to find the key to their vexing question. After a mere five minutes, he came to the conclusion that even world leaders were just as, if not more, confused as they were.

Churches simply bemoaned current proceedings that attempted to overturn years and years of reconciliatory efforts. Not wanting to crumble without a fight (they had a solid Cornerstone after all), they intensified the frequency of monthly Sunday afternoon lunches meant for the intimate bonding of residents and students, transforming them into weekly lunches. Soon, they had added Monday afternoon teas, Tuesday morning brunches, and so on and so forth. A most peaceful, loving defiance.

Finally, Bill Bryson, ex-chancellor and the eponym of the university’s purple library, was chased down and asked about the inevitable war: ’Bill, we’d like your opinion on the situation in Durham. Some students are allegedly fighting the “good fight” in your name.’ Predictably, Bill refused to comment and vanished, his publicity manager announcing he had begun to write his next travel book. (A few days later, Peruvians reported spotting a big American man with a big American beard dressed in traditional clothing and riding a llama through the Andes.)

*

Time was ticking. Many were content to sit back and wait, but there were a few who were itching to get their dirty hands involved in some action. Several preliminary rounds of aggravated conflict occurred during the first few months of negotiations. Traces of border skirmishes were left on Kingsgate Bridge in the form of a pasty mixture of coagulated blood, mucus and tartar sauce. Fire trucks wailed loudly into the night as they doused several burning boathouses. Hospitals were filling up with locals who had being gashed by the swords and rapiers that usually adorned the walls of the Hogwartsian dining hall of Durham Castle. Things were quickly brewing out of hand.

Soon, a date was given for the great clash. It was to be in a week’s time, exactly three months after Tim versus John. Passions had been roused so vehemently, tensions on a high, that many wondered if the Dunelm War would in fact begin sooner. The majority of Durhamites were plagued by insomnia, anxiously awaiting the fate of their beloved home. The Durhamnus fared slightly better, accustomed to many a sleepless night in the library. So the historic city of Durham waited in both heightened anticipation and dread for total, all-out war.

News of the imminent Dunelm War spread far and wide. Newspapers reported that the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne was dismissing it as ‘some remarkably ludicrous antics only to be expected from our daft neighbours.’ The people of Durham were swift to react, students and locals joining forces, plotting their next move hand-in-hand against those bastard imbeciles. And soon enough, someone observed Tim downing a pint or two with Old Man John at the Swan & Three, and knew everything was going to be all right.

‘The Tower’ by Isobel Buckingham (First Place – Poetry)

This poem was awarded first place in the Poetry section of our 2014 Inaugural Writing Competition.

* * *

William’s head grew heavier the higher he climbed.

He used to find, on Earth, and almost close

To other minds, not quite unlike his own,

His heart for every chime would find a rhyme.

They led him gowned, and fitted with a frown.

When first the morning tolls half-thrilled his soul,

William in his pilgrim haze did vow

To write a passing ballad for the town.

‘Bad luck,’ they’d said, ‘to reach the top before your time.’

But William knew (he hadn’t bought the books)

That words weren’t sold to those who’d sooner cite

Than fall. So banking on his pen he climbed.

William sang a swift old lover for the rain,

And summoned miner boys from unmarked graves

To dance among the river stars; his verse

Released the dawn from cracks in spangled panes.

Then came the thing that William won’t explain.

Then poetry became a pain – he’d often take

A line from ‘Sonnet 29’; a rhyme

Or three from ‘Annabel Lee’… and did prophetic see

The fall of Blake for prose’s sake.

William bartered half his head away

And didn’t mind – he said he’d found a trade

In rousing drowsy tongues. Thus William scaled

The piers, and made a mask of still decay.

One day they held a ball in William’s name.

He heard a practiced voice, as from the grave,

Asking whence he’d plucked his theme. He beamed:

‘Somewhere in your Cambridge Guide to Crane.’

See how the sky makes smog of William’s mind.

See how he wanes before the shallow moon.

The highest spire will denounce his weary crime

When William’s heart declines, declines, declines.

‘The Chinese Grand Prix’ by William Huntley (First Place – Flash Fiction)

This piece was awarded first place in the Flash Fiction section of our 2014 Inaugural Writing Competition.

* * *

Long ago, the Jade Emperor, Ecclestone, challenged some animals to race across the river. The rat was disqualified for pushing the cat into the river after the cat demanded a stewards’ enquiry, having been rescued by a crane. The dragon created some rain for the others but this necessitated a safety duck. The snake was forced to complete a penalty lap of the pond for hitchhiking on the horse’s leg, the boar went into a pit to refuel and the rabbit only made it over by jumping onto an advertising hoarding. Eventually, the race was abandoned for breaching safety regulations.

‘Upon an Actual Death’ by Cecilia Villacis (Second Place – Poetry)

This poem was awarded second place in  the Poetry section of out 2014 Inaugural Writing Competition.

* * *

Watchers of the mourner,

What do you wish of me?

That in time of loss I cry?
That I let you pat me soft and murmur ‘All that live do die?’

 

Oh, but what follows? That then should glee

Overwhelm me in gratitude for flying free

Of the burden of love’s exhausting chains?

That I should cease my sighing refrains,

For understanding had murmured that phrase,

And so my vain sorrow should swiftly be erased?

 

Oh, you do not think me shallow,

But I care not of shadows

And I care not for your thoughts

Of wisdom born out of the mockery gallows.

Think not you know, you unfeeling lot,

The stillness between what is having and lost,

The shame of smiling, of colorful smock,

Of lively ambition, of bantering talk

When she, who I have not six years seen,

Known but in distant suffering’s tale,

She whose face bathed in pork sweat steam,

Monstrously large, yet monstrously frail,

Swollen legs tended to no avail,

But on she ate pork skin, riotous and fat,

Gesturing with her hand like a queen,

Laughing at her mad dog on the balcony,

Jumping, wagging his tail as she sat,

Rambling and smiling, smiling and happy –

When she is dead, leaving but that sketch

Like a Christmas card, showing only the best,

And I to see her in a month,

But she is gone; then, is a weeping enough?

 

Reason as you will; I scorn at reason.

Let my emotions reign

Sovereign leader until time may ease in

An assurance from the all-hearing God once again.

But oh, to cry in my room unseen.

Leave me not, my friends, but leave me.

I do not know. I do not know.

I’m sorry. I do not know.

I know you know, by Alex Gough (Second Place – Short Fiction)

This short story was awarded second place in the Short Fiction section of our 2014 Inaugural Writing Competition.

* * *

‘So…’ you say.

‘Pathetic, isn’t it?’ I mumble, hunched over, staring into the bottom of my tumbler. Maybe if I stay in this position long enough the rest of the world will disappear. Except for you. You can stay. There comes a point when you’ve known someone for so long that the regular rules don’t apply to them.

‘It happens,’ you reply. What are you replying to? I can’t remember.

‘What did I say?’

‘Doesn’t matter.’ You shrug. If I was watching you properly I would be able to determine if you were shrugging because it really doesn’t matter, or because you were trying to make it seem like it didn’t, so that I wouldn’t have to think about it…

‘It didn’t work.’

‘Sorry?’

‘You can’t fool me. You have very eloquent shoulders when I can see them.’

I can hear you staring at me. Sorry… see you staring at me… But that’s not true either. I’m not looking at you, because I’m still trying to get to the hope at the bottom of this whisky… But I still know that you’re staring, and that’s the point.

‘You need to go to bed.’ Probably.

‘Don’t want to.’ I don’t need to tell you that it’s because a new room will just remind me of her absence.

‘Still. Better to get some sleep. Come on, I’ll help you.’

‘I’m not drunk,’ I slur.

You shrug that shrug which means you disagree but can’t be bothered to fight about it.

‘You staying the night?’

‘’Course.’

‘Top and tailing, obviously… I’m not that messed up by the whole thing.’ That sounds a bit like me. Like the normal me. But the normal me isn’t ready to come back yet.

‘’Course,’ you say again. You understand. ‘I have to leave early for work, though.’

‘Can I come?’  You’re only a rugby coach. The office has given me compassionate leave. No one will mind. No one will care.

‘Are you likely to be up at six?’

‘If you get up I’ll wake up. I just don’t want to be…’ I don’t want to say alone. Because then it’ll be out in the open and it’ll be true and I can’t let it be just yet. Better to keep it in.

‘We’ll have to take the car.’

‘It’s alright… You know, that’s the weird thing about it. The one thing that hasn’t changed since the…’ I don’t have to say “crash”. ‘I think I can still drive.’

‘Not after that whisky,’ you say, with that quick grin. The one that appears and disappears in a flash but which always makes me feel like everything’s sort of alright, even when it isn’t. Even when I’ve lost her and nothing will ever be alright again. ‘Don’t even know why I let you have it. Not on your meds, with your lung the way it is…’

‘I’ve got a spare,’ I say, my smile cut short by the memories of twisted metal and broken glass and bolts of pain piercing my chest. They crash down on my brain and fill up my consciousness and try to drown me.

Your arm is around me. ‘I know. I know. I’ve got you.’

Am I crying again? It’s hard to tell.  It gets to a point where your face can’t get any wetter. Maybe I’ve been crying the whole time. Doesn’t matter. It’s all numb from the whisky anyway.

‘I’ve got you, mate.’

‘Sorry.’ I choke, collapsing at the base of the staircase.

You pull me up again, suddenly, but not roughly, and throw my arm around your shoulders so that you can carry me up the stairs. ‘If you apologize again,’ you grunt, ‘I swear I’ll throw you down the fucking stairs and be done with it.’

‘I wish you would.’

‘Shut up.’ It’s how we end a lot of our conversations nowadays. You’re not being unkind. You just know that if I keep talking it will all be out there and I won’t be able to take it back. If I say that I want to be thrown down the stairs, or that I don’t want to live anymore, I might end up believing it, trying to do something about it.

I trudge to the bedroom. I start to clear things off the bed, but I’m so exhausted that I can barely tell what belongs on it, what’s a pillow and what’s a shirt, what’s a book, what’s my pyjamas, what’s mine, what was hers.

‘Sorry… haven’t really left the living room since I came back from the hospital. Slept here the first night, then…’ It comes out so coherent that your head snaps up.

‘What did I tell you about apologizing?’

‘Sorr-’ You grab my shoulders and shake me, hard. It hurts, but I know you’re capable of worse. I know because I’ve seen it. You lean close, yanking what little hair I have left on the back of my head so I look you in the eye.

‘Never. Apologize. ‘Right?’ You let me go.

‘Right. Remember that time at the pub?’ I ask. You know the time I mean. That was the time when I saw that you were capable of worse. One against three, and you came out without a scratch. My best mate.

‘Only ‘cause I can’t forget it. Don’t bring it up. Unless you think it’ll help,’ you add as an afterthought, remembering that I’m meant to be the wreck here.

‘No. It won’t.’

‘Thought not. Heads or tails?’ While I’ve been standing, swaying on unsteady legs, you’ve been making the bed. I’m sorry that I didn’t notice, but you probably already know I’m sorry.

‘Tails. And let me sleep on the right.’ Wrong end, wrong side. I’ll be disorientated, but at least that way I’ll remember everything as soon as I wake up. The first night back from the hospital I slept on my usual side, and when I woke up it took me a full five minutes to remember why she wasn’t lying there next to me. I decamped to the living room after that. I’d rather have the shock straight away than the torture of five half-asleep minutes when I can almost touch a different reality.

‘Right,’ you say.

You don’t have your pyjamas with you. I’d lend you a pair but they’d be too small, and we both know it. You take off your jeans and shirt and I watch the muscles in your eloquent shoulders bunch under the skin. I dimly remember games lessons at school, when we had to get changed next to each other. I remember watching you, awash in feelings of adolescent inadequacy. I never quite grew out of it until I met her. And now I’ve lost her, and you’re back looking out for me as if we were back at school with bullies lurking around every corner.

‘Funny, if you think about it… that she went for me, out of the two of us.’

You shrug and get under the covers. Now, that shrug means that you can’t be bothered to think about it. ‘Someone was bound to eventually, I s’pose.’

I turn off the light and take the pillow to the other end of the bed, lying on top of the covers, welcoming the cool air even as it makes my head throb. ‘Did you think about asking her out, when we first saw her?’ Same pub, different night.

‘Only for the five seconds before I figured out that she was looking at you. After that I never looked at her.’

‘You’re using your lying voice.’

‘Shut up. We both need to sleep.’ You roll onto your side. The bed frame squeaks.

‘Either way, thanks.’ Whether you fancied her or not, thanks for giving me the chance, for letting me win the girl.

‘Shut up.’

‘I mean it.’

‘Doesn’t mean you have to say it.’ A pause. ‘It doesn’t change anything.’

‘I know.’

‘I know you know.’

‘If you know then why did you say it?’

‘For the same reason you said thanks.’

‘I don’t know why I said thanks.’

‘Neither do I. But knowing you it’s probably the same reason.’ There comes a point when you’ve known someone for so long that your conversations don’t have to make sense.

‘Have you set the alarm?’

‘It’s on my phone. You don’t have to come, you know.

‘No, I do. I need to get out of the house.’

‘Right. Night.’

‘You didn’t come to the funeral.’ I pause. You’ve stopped breathing. ‘I know your lying voice when I hear it.’

‘Shut up and go to sleep. You’ll wear yourself out.’

‘I’m already worn out.’

‘I know.’ You pat my ankle, vaguely. ‘I know.’

‘I know you know.’ I lie there for a while but I can’t sleep. ‘If she’d gone for you…’

‘Don’t you dare.’

‘That night. If it’d been your date night and not ours…’

‘Don’t you fucking dare, Mike.’

‘She would still be alive.’

Silence, except for the shattering of a sacred, ancient, unwritten rule. You sit up, and in the crack of light from the door I can see your shoulders hunched and shaking, your back turned to me. As if it matters. I’ve known you for decades; do you really think that I can’t tell your expression as well from the back as the front?

‘So now it’s my fault?’

‘No. No, mate. It was always mine. Always. I was driving, remember?’

Soft, snuffling noises.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘I told you not to apologize.’

‘Not for me. For you. I’m sorry.’ Because you’re grieving too, and I didn’t even notice. I find your shoulder in the darkness.

You shrug me off.

‘I-’

‘Shut up.’ Never waste words on things that don’t need saying. We both settle down again.

‘Right. Night.’

‘I’ll see you in the morning.’

‘I know.’

‘I know you know.’

‘I know you know I know.’

‘Shut up, you idiot,’ you say, and I do.

‘Bus to Hartlepool’ by James Gunn (Third Place – Flash Fiction)

This piece was awarded second place in the Flash Fiction section of our 2014 Inaugural Writing Competition.

* * *

Adorned in warmth, the not-yet day’s cold couldn’t touch her. At the liminal hour of not-quite awake and half-asleep, she marched alone amongst houses, watching her breath, numb. Up the hill, far-off lights shone skywards, down the hill they disappeared: replaced by staring shop windows and blinking cars. Hidden faces, far and few, passed her by, listening only to sounds intended for the hour. Winding past the two-for-ones and the everything-must-gos, past the disowned clothes and never-eaten food, she stopped. I saw her there squinting, bathed in my light. “Fifty pence please”, and she joined us to Hartlepool.

Water and Weeds, by Katja Garson (Third Place – Short Fiction)

This short story was awarded third place in the Short Fiction section of our 2014 Inaugural Writing Competition.

* * *

It began with water and weeds.

Water. Murky, turquoise-grey Northern water that rushed over the weir like a hundred galloping horses, streaming tails and glinting hooves all thundering down, cacophonous. I hadn’t really considered water like that before, but it must have been the morning sunlight that drew my eye. The whipped surface was fleetingly, feverishly gold-polished as it went, before slipping over the edge into a dark, silky, swirling sea-bound mass. I knew that it was headed to Sunderland, then out to the North Sea, out to holy Lindisfarne and beyond, to join the deepest depths.

The second incident was only a few days later. It came in the form of a little cluster of weeds, delicately anchored in the angle between wall and pavement, sharing the narrow space with decaying sycamore seeds and a sweet wrapper. I was walking to catch the train when I saw them, quivering, lace-like and fragile in the shadow of the Cathedral. Somehow, they spoke to me. I crouched down to get a better look, to feel them, to smell them, to memorise and account for their existence. There were no flowers to smell, but instead, fresh organic earth and soft, zesty, greenery all scattered with perfect mercury morning rain drops. People must have wondered what I was doing, huddled on the pavement like that, but I couldn’t see myself explaining to them that I was smelling life, and, although I only realised this later, the first few hints of the future. I also missed my train.

I read some books, thought about the water and the weeds, met Harry and left my job.

Liberation.

I suppose I’d been waiting for those moments, this series of events, without realising for a long time. I can’t explain it properly because it was so extraordinary, but since then I haven’t looked back. I’ve kept on walking, alive to the world.

I spoke to Clara a couple of weeks ago, I think it was. Or was it months? I don’t know, time isn’t really an issue for me now. She was adamant, though, really quite angry, even, and her dark, outlined eyes flashed at me across the café table.

‘This writing, this tramping around the countryside, talking to strangers and whatever else you get up to, it does no good’, she said. ‘The money can’t be great. How often do you get paid, anyway? How will you cope? It’s not normal… In a few years, I bet… You know, you can’t do this forever; you need something more reliable to live on. Do you understand?’

Well, I was surprised. I thought she might be happy to see me after so long, but it turns out I’m just a vagrant in her eyes; a second class citizen. I pulled at my sleeve and twisted my hair as I tried to find the words and the hand shapes to explain it all to her, but whatever I ended up saying just didn’t seem to get through. We parted again.

I don’t mind though, because I don’t want what she has and I daresay I never will. I’ve known her for long enough to realise that nothing she ever says can really touch me. I don’t envy her sharp click-clack heels or her sleek, smart hairstyle, or the days she spends in the office, or her cocktails or her fancy micro-green salads. I certainly don’t envy her city, her hustle-and-bustle, her smog-choked streets or her red tail lights, stretching ahead as far as the eye can see. These could be interesting I suppose, thrilling perhaps for a day or two, but I know that she never notices things, and that’s where I have the upper hand.

So, living in a dream as I do, or as she says I do (‘You’re probably more on the ball when you’re asleep, ha, ha, ha!’), I have more or less forgotten about her again and woken up to my own, vibrant world.

How I was oblivious to this world for so many years I don’t quite understand. Or maybe I do, and perhaps the reality of what happened is shameful to me. You could say I’m embarrassed that I fell into the trap. I studied, got a job and somewhere to live, like people usually do. It was ok for a while, but work started getting tedious. No one knew, because I always met the deadlines and I always produced to order. I was always smiling, and never put a foot wrong. But inspiration was lacking and the monochrome days began to blur into one, a constant stream of boxes to be ticked, numbers to be dialled and people to be pleased. The water and the weeds changed all that.

Now that we’re back on the topic, there are lovely weeds on the coast. And lovely water, too, of course. I went there yesterday to get some ideas. As I looked out across that vast sea, oystercatchers streaked across the grey sky, their wild, trilling whistles drawing piped trails behind each black and white bird. A handful of seagulls cast wheeling shapes at my feet. From where I stood, rough, serrated vegetation in muted greens and blues gradually gave way to tumbled rocks and sand. I took some photographs of the marram grass and sea cabbage and smiled, bittersweet, as I was reminded of Ellen. I knew that she would have recognised my newfound happiness in the pictures; in the way that I focussed on the edge of a curled leaf and on the stiff blue fishing rope twined around a stem. I remember that the last time I spoke to her, she sounded glad that I was stepping forward. Maybe she had recognised in me all along the things that I had been blind to.

Ellen and I were always close – some people said we fitted like a jigsaw. She was the calm, quiet voice to my fiery, impassioned one. She saw things the way that I did, we had the same views, but she found her way earlier on in life. That was lucky for her. Never overambitious, she took things at her own pace, did what she loved doing and had an extraordinary effect on a handful of people, myself included. Now was my chance to do the same, in my own way.

So, yesterday, I began walking along the beach, following the ragged line between dry and damp, where the North Sea had washed up some time before, smoothing and pressing the sand into a rough, rust-coloured, flecked firmness. It was reassuring to walk here – my feet did not sink in like they did into the sand higher up, and the soles of my shoes were wiped clean by the salty wetness of the sea, new grains of crystalline sand replacing the old ones with every step. Shallow footprints trailed behind me, marking out the way I had come. There was some driftwood about thirty steps along the line, tossed down by the hands of a wave. It was lightweight, bleached and weathered like an old piece of bone, fashioned into something new and mysterious. I wondered where it had come from. Scandinavia? Or perhaps just up the river? I put a small piece in my pocket, where it joined the handful of sea-glass that I had already collected.

I want to examine my little hoard of sea-glass for a moment, because the stuff fascinates me. It was created by man in a furnace, probably in a factory, for human use. No doubt about that. But go beyond that, and you can start imagining, writing a story. Usually, because the glass has been in the sea for so long, buffeted and shaped by the currents and surges, it is almost impossible to trace the exact metamorphosis that it has been through. However, I take pleasure in guessing. Let’s say it was a bottle once. Where was that bottle first opened? Who drank the liquid that flowed from the bottle? Did they share it? Did they get drunk? Perhaps it was just lemonade, or ginger beer. But if it was a dark green bottle then I think it might have been wine. I know it was wine. Then, maybe, sometime around six years ago, somewhere a little south of here, perhaps bad things happened, and then the bottle was dropped, broken, smashed into a thousand tense little pieces and scattered spinning across the pavement. Voices were raised, dark eyes became bitter. The shards glinted angrily on the double yellow lines. Then, when it was quieter and there was only one soft light left glowing out from the house, some of the glass fragments were swept up, made their way into a drain, were channelled beneath pavements, cities, fields and hedges and out into the sea. So began a new chapter. But if it wasn’t a wine bottle, what then? Simply a different story. Every single pebble-like morsel of glass has seen a transformation, its cutting angularity caressed and made beautiful by the waves. Stories like this are the fabric of our world, and it matters to be aware of these beginnings (in my tales there are never any endings).

The glass pieces I found on the beach chimed in my pocket in their multitude of colours: indigo, bottle green, soapy blue, mint. Harry would see them along with the driftwood soon. I could already imagine his toothy, weathered face crinkling up in a smile as we worked together to create stories around the collection.

Later on, after my walk on the beach, a calm swell saw me making the short trip to Inner Farne. Stirring this way and that, the water was like an endless billowing blanket of grey above the hidden depths across which the little boat made its laboured way. I watched the surface, mesmerised by the gentle movement. The seals were down there, I knew, twisting and curving through the undulating aquamarine. Through the ribbon-like translucent kelp forests, effortless and graceful they went, turning, spinning and curving up towards the surface, before dipping back down again in a secret and playful dance. I spotted them occasionally, bobbing and peering about across the water, dark liquid eyes and rounded heads, dog-like and inquisitive. I tried to take some photographs but they were too far away. That didn’t matter: sometimes it is better to record things by memory alone, and Harry is constantly asking me not only what I have found, or what I have taken photographs of, but what I can remember and what I have imagined. Nevertheless, my camera was insistent in my hands this time, so I captured the distant horizon, the edge of the ocean a deep slate grey against the ashy tint of the sky. The nearing islands appeared dark, low and rocky against the water. They were dusted with the hovering white specks – birds. It started to rain very lightly and a haze developed, tinkling ever so slightly on the water and blurring the boundary between land, sea and sky. I sensed a softening of the atmosphere. My hands became chilly and I had to get my gloves out. Rather this than a day back in that office, though, I thought.

I know I said I’ve forgotten about her, but Clara briefly appeared in my mind again. After so long you can’t simply let go of someone forever, even if you wish you could. As I was putting on my gloves I wondered what she would make of this boat trip. Most probably she would be silent, grim and moody because of the cold and the bleakness. She wouldn’t be wearing suitable clothes so she’d probably be wet through, mascara smudged. I would point things out to her – the seals, the shapes of the islands and the kittiwakes flying above, and I know that she would nod, maybe even offering a half-hearted smile before finally giving in and saying something sarcastic. I’d reply sharply, digging my nails into my hand, wishing she’d change her tone, longing for kind, gentle Ellen to be there instead. For the rest of the day we would probably exchange few words. I sigh. She can stay where she is – she’ll never let herself enjoy it up here.

I’ve read at length about the monks and the Saints who used to live in the North East, long ago. St Cuthbert himself came to Inner Farne, where he lived in austerity and isolation, seeing few other people. I’ve heard that he gave protection to the seabirds which nest on the open ground of the island, their camouflaged bodies lying low in the rough grass, as well as on its crags and cliffs where they lodge precariously in their hundreds, shrieks and cries rising up in waves. The Saint recognised their importance, their right to the world which they share with humans. St Cuthbert died at Inner Farne, and I walked to his small chapel when I got off the boat along with the others, all of whom were birdwatchers weighed down with equipment. The old unassuming building stood firm and solid on the high ground, its uneven walls looking like a natural extension of the rock it was built on. Terns swooped and dived at me, noisy chattering darts, relentless until I entered the solace of the chapel alone. The air was still and heavy with dusty burnished light, and the stained glass window painted the space with muted hues of red, purple and blue which reflected on the rich oak panelling. As I stood there, I could sense forgotten words and ancient faces echoing around me, enveloping me in a rare moment of communication. The birds continued to call.

Back outside, I breathed in the fresh, vital air and smiled. Those people of long ago knew how to be content, how to notice things, how to remember and how to imagine.

In the evening, on my return journey in the boat, I thought about the salty water rushing at the bows. It’s the same water as the water in the drains, in the river and falling from the sky. More and more I think about how it’s all connected – everything is. I suppose it might sound a bit crazy, but I now know that things really do happen for a reason. Small moments can give birth to magnificent new beginnings, and even if you don’t quite grasp it at first, somehow you’ll find the way.

For me, it began with water and weeds.