Writer's retreat

Writer's retreat

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Holly and the Ivy Part 2

The public bar of the The Plough was quiet when Granny entered. Two travellers ate bar meals in front of the large TV. Granny nodded towards the Landlord, who was washing glasses behind the bar as she made her way to the back room where Anvil’s Wood Folk were holding their weekly gathering.

She opened the door, a fog of sound enveloping her. Thirty men of various ages ranging from gangly teenagers to white haired grandfathers were lustily singing an ancient carol to the accompaniment of a melodeon, fiddle and two guitars.

Granny did not stand still for longer than it took her to open and close the door. She wove in between singers like an exotic dancer, greeting some with a touch to the hand, but most with a kiss. By the end of the last verse she reached the front of the room and the small space where the musicians sat. A loud roar of approval for their playing rose up as the song ended. Granny kissed the melodeon player on the cheek, then went to kiss the fiddle player, a tall, thin youth in jeans and a thick cotton shirt. He blushed as her lips touched his, then grinned.

“Don’t I get a kiss from my own wife?” asked Zeb as he replaced his guitar on its stand.

“Not this year, love. I need you for other things.”

“And we all know what those are,” came a deep voice behind her as Anvil appeared from the middle of the crowd.

Granny was serious for a moment. “You took note of those I kissed?”

Anvil nodded. “Fewer this year, I reckon. There’ll be some long faces tonight.”

“And sighs of relief from others. It’s not me who picks, Anvil, nor will I do the choosing. You know that.”

Anvil clapped his huge hands together twice and the buzz of conversation slowly died.

“It’s that time of year again, lads. We need to gather holly from the copse to make wreaths for all the front doors in the village. We’ve booked the village hall for Saturday afternoon, but we can’t go in until the tap class finishes at 3 o’clock.

“The women are bringing ivy and dried fruit for us to use, but I need volunteers from amongst those of you who aren’t seeking holly to cut some withy fronds from Fletcher’s Brook – we’ll need at least fifty if we’re to cover the new estate as well as the rest of the village. We’ll also need bracken from the bridle path near Cooper’s Way. It would be best if we can all meet at the forge on Saturday morning. Will ten o’clock suit everyone?”

There was a general murmur of agreement.

“Now don’t forget to bring your knives. They have to be your own. I can’t lend you a knife and anyone who tries to use secuteurs will be sent home. Does anyone have any questions?”

“What if we don’t have a knife?” A slight young man standing at the back of the room looked at Anvil with a somewhat defiant gaze.

“Then you’ll have to use your hands, won’t you, Colin. Maybe you’d like to think again about making your own. The forge door is always open.”

“How are we supposed to get enough bracken back to the hall? Fifty wreaths are going to take a helluva lot, Anvil.” The speaker was a middle aged man sitting to one side of the room.

“You can take Robin’s pony with you, Andy. I finished making the panniers last week. They should hold enough and you won’t have to carry anything.”

“I’ll cut the withies, “ Zeb offered. “Paul and Martin will go with me. “

“Thanks, Zeb. Leave them at the vicarage. Andrea will take them across when she goes.”

“She can’t carry them, “ Zeb protested, “It’s as much as she can do to carry herself these days.”

“Maggie and I will be with her and I dare say the Vicar will lend a hand. “ Granny’s tone brooked no dissention and the room grew eerily quiet. When she spoke again, her voice was so soft, anyone would have thought she talked only to the person next to her, yet every man felt she spoke to him alone, her words piercing their way into his heart.

“It’s a special year, this year. I feel it and I know Anvil does too. The new Madron bears a solstice child. The Lady Well has a new Keeper, old enough to know the traditions, yet young enough to ensure they are kept throughout the village. These changes don’t go unnoticed. There have been ripples in the women’s side; Anvil senses something approaching for you too.

“Some of you are disappointed not to be kissed tonight. This is not a game where you can win or lose. Only one of the gatherers will be chosen on Saturday. Only one of you will go before the Holly when snow falls and fall it will this year. Anvil says we have two weeks. It’s not long. Every one of you should think what you can do to support both the gatherers and the chosen. He may act alone, but he acts for us all.”

No-one spoke as Granny turned to kiss Anvil on the cheek, then made her way through the crowd and left the room. Zeb picked up his guitar, tuned it thoughtfully for a few moments, then began to sing the Battle of the Holly and the Ivy. Before long, others joined in and soon the room was alive with song once more.

Nay, Ivy, nay, it shall not be, I wis,
Let Holly have the mastery as the manner is.

Holly standeth in the hall fair to behold,
Ivy stands without the door; she is full sore a cold.
Nay, Ivy, nay, &c.

Holly and his merry men, they dancen1 and they sing;
Ivy and her maidens, they weepen1 and they wring.
Nay, Ivy, nay, &c.

Ivy hath a lybe, she caught it with the cold,
So may they all have, that with Ivy hold.
Nay, Ivy, nay, &c.

Holly hath berries, as red as any rose,
The foresters, the hunters, keep them from the does.
Nay, Ivy, nay, &c.

Ivy hath berries as black as any sloe,
There come the owl and eat them as she go.
Nay, Ivy, nay, &c.

Holly hath birds a full fair flock,
The nightingale, the poppinjay, the gentle laverock.
Nay, Ivy, nay, &c.

Good Ivy, [good Ivy,] what birds hast thou,
None but the owlet that cries How! How!
Nay, Ivy, nay, &c.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The Holly and the Ivy Part 1

An ivy stem flapped against the parlour window.

“Wind’s strong tonight,” said Maggie, placing another block on the fire.

Granny nodded but did not look up from the stitches she was counting. A complex woollen lace creation tumbled over her lap from sturdy needles.

“Mull some cider, will you, Maggie? He’ll be here soon.”

The younger woman got up to place the poker into the flames, then fetched a bottle of cider from the pantry, returning with three tankards which she placed beside the hearth.

As she set them down, they both heard the knocker sound.

“Strange he should use the front door, “ Maggie murmured as she went to welcome the visitor.

Granny rolled up her knitting. “Formal business warrants formal entry. Don’t you know anything, girl?”

Opposite her rocking chair, in the ancient, brick-backed fireplace, flames flickered in the draught caused by the open front door. Granny heard a medley of voices;

Maggie’s soft soprano compared with Anvil’s rumbling bass and another greeting from the kitchen where Granny’s husband was keeping himself busy. Then she heard the clump of heavy boots along the thinly carpeted hallway and sudden shadow as he entered the parlour.

Granny stood to greet him.

“Good evening, Granny.”

“Good evening, Anvil.”

The tall man fixed his gaze on the bright, birdlike eyes of the woman in front of him.

“I went to the woods today and the holly berries are ripe.”

“Many berries this year?”

“The most I’ve seen this twelveyear.”

“So there’ll be snow.”

“I reckon so.”


He shook his head. “The wind still smells of rain rather than frost. Three weeks maybe.”

Granny nodded, resuming her seat and gesturing he should take the comfortable chair in front of the fire. When both were seated, Maggie hastened to pour cider and spices into the tankards. She felt them watch her as she grabbed a padded cloth to wrap around the poker before pulling it out of the fire, shaking it free from ash before she plunged it into each drink in turn.

The cider hissed and sizzled in response to the intense heat. Carefully, Maggie returned the ironwork to the stand before she picked up two tankards, presenting the first to Granny and the second to Anvil. Grasping the third, she slid back into her cushioned seat on the inglenook settle, breathing in the heady spiced fumes before she dared to try her first sip.

“You’ll check on the chapel tomorrow.” Granny’s words were more statement than question. Anvil swallowed a mouthful of hot cider before nodding. “Take the pony to carry spare thatching. We don’t want wheel tracks on Bowsen Path if we can help it. Wouldn’t do for strangers to visit there until it’s all over.”

“One of the shutters is loose on the far window,” Maggie said, “and we’ll need more wood for the brazier and full lamps. I don’t really want to take blankets up there beforehand if they’ll only get cold and damp.”

Anvil grasped his flagon in both hands, his thick fingers locked together as if drawing comfort from the warmth.

“There weren’t enough length in Upper Barn ground straw this year after the drought. Not for thatching. Rob Taylor and his nipper went off for a long weekend to the Broads at Michaelmass. He said there were enough reed beds to thatch the whole village, so he traded some rabbit skins to bring back reeds for the chapel. He said we might not need them this year, but it were best to be on the safe side, just in case.”

Granny unrolled her knitting and picked up the pattern where she’d left off before Anvil’s arrival. The tension in the room began to dissipate as her needles clicked in time with the fire’s quiet crackles.

“Rob’s turning out to be a real forward thinker since he was chosen.”

Anvil smiled. “It does that to a man, being chosen. Good to have the chapel sound, just in case. Do you need anything else done, Maggie?”

The younger woman thought for a moment. “I don’t think so. We cleaned out the well just a week ago. I had to wait until the Rowan’s leaves were all dropped. She was late this year. Lots of berries though, just like the holly.”

“You made any rowan jelly? I’ll drop you and Tom a pheasant next time I’m passing. We took a good dozen last Saturday when we walked Badger Drift.”

Maggie held out a small jar to him and he stuffed it into his jacket pocket. “That’s from the first batch. It’s from the Guardian Rowan, so it’s really bitter. I’ll be making some more with berries from the copse together with our windfalls this week. You’re welcome to some of that too. Granny said you liked the bitter jelly.”

“I do when bitter’s called for.” His face creased into his usual smile. “There’s times for sweetness too.”

Anvil drained his tankard and stood up. “I’d best be going before the rain sets in. You’ll be there Tuesday night, Granny?”

“You still meeting upstairs at The Plough?”

“No, Old George moved us to the back room last week. Seems the Bridge Club needs more space these days. Four more couples from Edgecombe Close have joined including Samantha Brierley.”

Granny chuckled. “I think her husband will be looking for a new bridge partner soon. She’s agreed to come to the Knitting and Worship Circle next Thursday.”

“I thought she might. Her Granda was a Ravenswick, just like the vicar’s wife. Can’t see her sticking to the four suits when there’s studying and knittin’ to be done. Let me know when you want me to make her a set of needles.”

Maggie accompanied him to the front door. Granny heard her sliding the heavy bolts home after shutting it behind him. When she returned to the parlour, she was already dressed in her coat.

“I’ll be off too, Granny. “ She bent to kiss the older woman’s soft cheek, surprised when Granny grasped her arm firmly.

“No scrying now, Maggie Tulliver. You may be the Keeper of the Well, but it don’t give you the right to see who might come your way.”

“Granny, I wouldn’t!” Maggie’s face was shocked.

“I know you wouldn’t mean to, but I’ve seen your black saucer filled with well water sitting on the windowsill. You might just be tempted. Throw it away when you get home, there’s a good girl.”

“But what if Tom….”

“What ifs butter no parsnips. What will be will be as you know very well.”

“Yes, Granny.”

Maggie wrapped her scarf around her head and left the cottage through the back door. Granny carried on with her knitting.

“You’re too hard on that girl, Amy.” Zeb came in from the kitchen where he’d been mending a long case clock for the vicar.

“She’s got to learn, otherwise there’ll only be heartache.

Zeb settled himself down in the armchair recently vacated by Anvil and picked up the paper. “I seem to remember another young woman scrying for Holly’s chosen one not so many years ago.”

Granny sniffed, “That weren’t scrying, that were just a bit of preparation. Just in case.”

“Granny Blackwell didn’t see it like that.”

Granny cast off six stitches with great concentration. “Me and Granny Blackwell didn’t agree on many things before she died. Doesn’t make it wrong.”

Zeb hid himself behind the open paper so she wouldn’t see him smile.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The walled garden, Trewince Manor, Cornwall

Last week's exercise was to write a monologue or conversation piece regarding a wall. I immediately thought of Willy Russell's wonderful conversations with the wall in Shirley Valentine, but I could not think of a house wall I wished to include in a similar fashion.

Eventually I decided upon a walled garden. One I know well, having visited it almost every year for the past twenty two years, until I made a deliberate decision not to go near it. The deliberate destruction of fertile land always upsets me. Maybe I shouldn't concern myself and concentrate instead on the land I have influence over.

I wasn't able to read this at Solihull Writer's Workshop as I was feeling too ill to attend. So it's being posted here instead.


You might call me, “coward” if you could speak. Twenty years ago I stood outside your bothy washing dishes, lifting my gaze to the pristine gold of cut wheat on the headland. Watching moon rise over the sea and catching glimpses of bats flitting around branches.

You transmuted sound then; happy children’s laughter as they played within your domain, soft murmurs of conversation as parents sat beside you in folding chairs.

Even when the campers left, you still welcomed us. I could sit on green grass, imagining footfalls of Victorian gardeners; the crunch of wooden wheels from wooden barrows rolling up and down paths between beds of vegetables and flowers. Warm sun-ripening fruit on espaliers, grapes turning green and black inside glass enclosures. Sore backs from digging barren beds, adding compost from the farm next door, then planting a second crop of greens before frostfall.

Outside your main gate, white dust wafts with remembered carriage wheels. The Captain taking his daily drive along the lane then down the steep track lined with buddleia and blackberries. Stopping to sip tea in his natural amphitheatre overlooking the estuary below. Only dog walkers follow his steps today or sailors travelling to or from their boats moored in the tiny harbour opposite St Mawes.

They walk beside you ignorant of your past. Your gates and arched doorways are boarded now, your bothy destroyed. Keep Out! Danger! Notices scream at wouldbe trespassers. We are not wanted here. Briars fasten themselves across your openings, denying access.

Many years you have been left to decay, the owners wishing there was no preservation order on your bricks, welcoming their success in gaining permission to build three more wooden houses within your domain. Their only thoughts;the profit to be gained rather than their responsibility in stewarding the land.

I have done nothing to save you; to return your original purpose. I have smiled when your owners talked, unwilling to share my views, my anger, my disgust at their greed. There were so many other possibilities in your future if they had considered partnerships instead of profit.

How little would it cost to restore your original purpose, reinvigorate your soil, offer activities and employment within your garden? One hundred years you produced food for the Windy Farmhouse before being sold as holiday lets. Your vegetables disappeared and you grew caravans and palm trees instead.

It could be so again, but not in my life time. New people will buy a viewless holiday home, relish the peace and quiet and proximity to the sea. Maybe their children will play games and laugh without noticing the sunset, their parents drinking champagne on twisted iron verandahs.

I shall not know or see. I cannot bear to visit you again, to run my fingers over coloured stones marking your age, grieving over what could have been. Even had I screwed my courage to the sticking point and spoken before, my words would have fallen on deaf ears, blind minds and frozen hearts. You will still stand, still enclose, still remember no matter what is done around you.