Hagstones – Stories from Unnamed Places No.05

Ever since they discovered the town, J. had liked to walk on the beach. He would cross the sands from the pier to sit on the rocks and watch the fishermen, or to press on, following the sweep of the bay round to the north, where the sands gave way to pebbles and stones and the forest came down to meet them, and where it was possible to search for amber and the hagstones his wife collected. He came for peace and quiet, for ideas and inspiration, but it rarely came. There was no poetry, he knew, in the white cliffs and the flapping sails of the boats in the harbour. That was for the cards in the bookshop by the pier, once printed on cheap, flimsy cardboard. Nowadays they were more substantial, but the trite verses remained the same. No, there was no value in that scene, except for the freedom he had once felt, down on the rocks.

It was on the beach that it began. Not in the city, where he might have thought the danger would be, but there, at his sanctuary, tucked away by the promontory where the trees of the forest circled around in a dense, shadowy embrace. Had the man been waiting for him? It was hard to remember, hard to piece it all together. That first time.

The sea was calm, that much remained clear all those years later. The man had known him, known his name. He addressed him at the top of the pebble beach beyond the sands, where it was possible to sit on the old concrete slabs of long-abandoned flood defences. The first thing J. noticed was the suit. Cheap polyester, but still more expensive than anything in the ordinary shops. It gave him away, and made J. defensive from the beginning. In contrast, the man remained calm throughout, even when J. had met the softly delivered request, the whole point of the conversation, with an angry shout. The man had stayed still when J. stalked away, at ease with his hands in his pockets. When J. reached the path up from the beach onto the promenade, he looked back and the man was still standing there, watching him go, confident that there was no need to chase.

At home J. told his wife what had happened, and her response surprised him. It could be useful, she had said, carefully. You could help him. Not much, of course. Nothing important. But just enough… Just enough to make things… easier.

It was as if she had known the man would back, a few days later, waiting on the beach. He was sitting on one of the concrete slabs, turning a small stone over in his hand. And so it began, and so she proved to be right. A larger apartment became available. The waiting list for a car evaporated. A collection of stories he had written,  long blocked by the publishers on account of a mysterious paper shortage, was finally released. Most surprising of all was he was granted a visa to travel, to give readings at festivals and to attend a conference in the north.

It was that last trip that he remembered most. Before he went, J. had met the man down on the beach one last time. The visa had been approved, the man said, his voice as gentle as it had always been. J. asked about his wife. This time he had also asked for his wife. He sensed that both the man and J. himself knew what this meant. The man nodded. Farewell, then.

Once they were there, out of the country, his wife surprised him again. On the last evening, over coffee and chocolate cake, he brought up the prospect of staying put. Of not going back. His wife sighed and ordered another glass of wine, before painting a picture of their life in exile. A poky apartment. No status. A token job. What would we have there? Who will read your work? Who will you even be? It was a point, he conceded. At the end of the glass of wine they were in agreement. They would catch the plane home.

After dinner they went for a walk. Down to the waterfront, the way out to open waters blocked by a hundred islands.They did not talk any more about the decision. Later, he could not remember what it was they talked about. They found a bar and he had a beer. She smoked cigarettes and watched him drink. When the bartender heard them talking in their own language, he asked them if they had heard the news. It was only when they got back to the hotel, that the details became clear.

Revolution. They had decided to return to a country that, by the time the plane touched down, no longer existed in the way it had just a few days before. In the beginning it was okay. He’d been a dissident poet. He had always been on the right side. There was a spike in sales and the offer of a university post. In term-time they lived in the city, and in the holidays they returned to their old apartment in the town by the sea. There, things were changing as well. New hotels and guesthouses filled the gaps along the seafront. New shops and restaurants along the pedestrianised street running down to the pier. The concrete slabs were removed and the dunes were fenced off. When J. went down to the beach, there were more people there, lounging on the sands or stepping carefully across the pebbles, searching with poles for amber or the small stones with neat little holes.

And then, one day, when they were up on the coast there was a knock on the door. An old friend. They walked together, down on the beach. The sea was not calm that day. There had been a storm the night before, and it remained unsettled, crashing against the rocks at the promontory and the legs of the pier, leading out from the beach. Against the wind, they talked and his friend told him what he knew. About the man and the meetings. About the car and the apartment, and the trips overseas. He knew and soon others would too. He wanted to give his old friend fair warning of what was about to come, even though he wasn’t really sure if J. deserved it.

They never returned to the city. The town by the sea continued to change, but their small apartment remained the same. To top up their pensions, J. worked selling lottery tickets at the zoo two towns over. His wife worked summer shifts in the bakery. She continued to search the shoreline for hagstones with which to decorate the mantelpiece, but it seemed as if nowadays there were less to be found. J. rarely went with her, preferring to walk on the beach alone. Sometimes he stood where the concrete slabs had once rested, so solid and sure, as if they would always be there. He would look out across the water and try to picture the sea as it had been in those other times. The calm and the storm. Both brought their dangers, and  for J., as he stood there, he knew that there was no longer any sanctuary to be found on that beach. Not on the sands and not among the stones. Not anymore.

Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig

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Edgeland – Stories from Unnamed Places No.04

She hadn’t been there for twenty years but when she reached the end of the row of houses she found she still knew the way. There it was, the footpath; a narrow strip of concrete between two high garden fences. It led down to a bridge over the motorway, and from there into the next estate, the next collection of boxy houses and neat gardens, built around a confusing network of curving streets that, if you did not know your way around, always seemed to come to a dead end.

Before the bridge, between the motorway and the back fence of the gardens, there was a strip of woodland, left when the estate was built to act as a barrier to the sound of lorries and cars moving in and out of the city. When she was young the fence between the path and the woodland was wire, and it was their way into the woods. However often someone was dispatched to reinforce it, new holes would soon appear, so that anyone who wanted to could crouch down, step through the fence, and disappear beneath the canopy of trees into the undergrowth of ferns and bushes, trying to avoid the sudden sharp prick of the brambles that lurked within.

It was there, between the gardens and the tall sound wall of motorway, spray-painted with personalised declarations of love, hate, and crude messages of loyalty to football teams, that she spent her summer evenings during those last years before she left home for good. What could she remember now? Warm beer and fumbling fingers. The smell of badly rolled joints and the tang of blackberries, still too sour to be picked from the bush. If you followed the long-cleared path through the woods it would lead you to the back of a supermarket car park. Beer and wine from the aisles, running the gauntlet of the checkout queue and the knowing look of a friend’s older sister who worked the Saturday shift. Across the car park and once more into the bushes.

It was their place. Two distinct groups used the scrap of woodland between the pathway and the supermarket in her time, from different schools but with little animosity between them. Later, as the end approached, relationships developed across this divide, and those who had been left behind coalesced into one group, sitting together in the small clearing against motorway sound wall, a small bonfire burning in front of them as they felt the vibrations of the long distance lorries rising up from the ground and through their backs.

As she returned now, she thought about that time in a way she had not for years. It couldn’t have been more than a couple of summers. A collection of long evenings, the sun speckled on the forest floor, broken up by the branches of the leaves and trees above. It can only have been a couple of summers, but it was more than enough. There were plenty of firsts in what they called their forest, plenty of reasons to remember.

Now she walked down the path between the houses, the tarmac beneath her feet uneven from the tree roots that had stretched out in the years since she had lived away. Beyond the back garden and the old wire fence had been replaced with a concrete structure, but there were tell-tale signs that this was still a boundary easily breached. A seemingly discarded collection of breeze blocks, piled up alongside a nobbly tree, just before the path lifted up onto the motorway bridge. Muddy ground at the front, on the edge of the path, dried hard in the summer sun.

She could see her way. Step. Reach. Grab. Pull. She was over and down in a second, and with no need to hide in the undergrowth.

The path, worn by decades, led her through the trees. Her feet felt more roots, bits of brick and glass and whatever else had been discarded. It was clear as soon as she entered the half-lit, shaded space, that when they had left all those years before they had soon been replaced. And in turn, the woodland was used by others, for a summer or two, before being handed over, unspoken, to those who came next. At the clearing she stopped, holding her hand to the motorway sound wall to feel for the lorries as she read the latest declarations of love and hate, trying to remember the intensity of such emotions as she had felt them back then.

Her thoughts turned to the final evening. She had known it was the final evening even as they had hurried back down the path to the fence, ducking through the path, the normal fears long extinguished as they knocked on the first of the doors on the street, asking to use their phone. No mobiles then.

She was looked down at the debris resting in the centre of a blackened fire circle when the figures emerged from the gloom to stand in front of her in the clearing. Two girls and a boy. Aged anywhere between twelve and eighteen. At what point had she lost the ability to tell? They were shocked to see her, smiles turning to frowns turning to scowls.

‘Are you lost?’ one of them asked, unmistakable hostility in his voice.

She shook her head.

‘No,’ she replied, and made her way towards the edge of the clearing. ‘I know exactly where we are.’

When she was enough steps down the well-trodden path that she knew would lead her to the supermarket car park, she heard the sound of their voices. The moment was over for all of them. Laughter. Beers would be opened. Cigarettes smoked. They would have forgotten her already, safe once more in the place that was theirs, and would stay that way, for a little while longer yet.

Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig

Overheard – Stories from Unnamed Places No.03

‘I’ve made a note in my journal,’ the blonde woman said, as the tram rattled around the corner to follow the embankment above the river. ‘It’s a countdown. Four years and thirty-six days. And then I’m leaving.’

She spoke to her friend as if no-one else on the tram could understand what she was saying, and it seemed like a reasonable assumption. They were a long way from home, a long way from that small corner of her country where her language was spoken, and even there only by a minority of those living in the mountains and along the coast. She seemed to feel a safety in her mother tongue, confident in its impenetrability as she discussed the many and varied faults of a man she wished she had never married. Her fellow passengers did not flinch as she discussed her miserable sex life or the quiet despair of long evenings in a dreary living room, with only the television to break the silence. She could speak freely, confident that even if they heard her, they did not understand.

T. understood. His ears had picked up the sound of a familiar language over the rattle of the tram and the tinny, recorded announcements of the next stop. He was as surprised to hear the language of his grandmother as the blonde woman would have been to discover that there was another person on that tram who could also speak it, however imperfectly or inexpertly.

T.’s father had never learned. As a family, their language was that of the plains and the big cities. There seemed little point back then in teaching a young boy the words spoken by only a few thousand others. How could it possibly help? So his father had grown up speaking to T.’s grandmother in a language she herself had only learned in later life. Even when T.’s grandfather died, lost to a long illness that seemed to accelerate and thus was not long enough, mother and son continued to speak in her adopted tongue. By then there was no-one left in the family capable of reading the books she read, or her diary, which she continued to write in the language of her childhood, the language of her thoughts and dreams.

Why had T. decided to learn his grandmother’s language? The diary was part of it. She had left it to him, delivered via her lawyer in a large packing box. Sixty-seven volumes in all, covering nearly seven decades, from her late teens to her final month. There was something else too, some romantic notion he developed as he headed off to university, as he left the mountains for the big city, that there was a part of his past that he could not reach, that he would be unable to reach, until he learned to speak and read the language of his grandmother. On this, he would be disappointed. There was no great spiritual awakening to be had once he understood the language of his grandmother and his great-grandparents. He felt no extra sense of belonging or ownership on that first journey back to the mountains, now that he could speak to some of his old neighbours in their old tongue. For their part, they found it amusing, although they professed to be pleased that he had, unlike many of the younger generation, made an effort.

There may have been no great awakening, but he could read now read his grandmother’s diary. And he knew that if he could go back in time to speak with her, he would have been better able to know her as she expressed those thoughts and dreams in words that instead she had transcribed onto the page in her neat handwriting. There was something else, too. He noticed that his own thoughts and ways of expressing himself changed, now that there was a second language in his head. The new one influenced the old one in all kinds of ways. There were some words, expressing feelings or ways of understanding the world, that existed in his grandmother’s language but which were unsatisfactorily translated into his own mother tongue. He loaned one language words and idioms from the other, if only in his thoughts, and he felt subtle shifts in sentence structure, as one language made gentle suggestions to the other.

He moved on from his grandmother’s diary to her small library of books. Works of poetry and fiction, natural history and geography. He saw how his grandmother’s language had given names and places to mountains and streams, valleys and waterfalls. He had always thought the names had sounded so lyrical, but now he realised how prosaic they were. The Rocky Cliff. The Red Mountain. The High Falls. The Valley above the Woods.

And now, a long way from home, he could understand the women on the tram.

It struck T. as almost absurd, that he could follow their conversation in all of its intimate, melancholy detail, and yet he could not even read, let alone understand, the signs and the advertising hoardings that the tram passed as it moved along the river. The women did not know it, but they shared something, just as he now shared something with his grandmother, even if she too would be aware of it.

What he had realised, once the language had begun to stick and he began to be able to read his grandmother’s diaries, was that what he shared with her, and now with these women on the tram, had nothing to do with heritage or birth. There was no deeper connection to the mountains, the valleys and the cliffs through lineage or blood. What they shared now was a language, and all that flowed from it. Music, culture, poetry and the uninspired names of summits and ridges. And as far as he understood it, you were not born with language. It was not passed down along the bloodline. It was taught. It was learned. And thus, it was open to anyone.

As the tram reached his stop he caught the blonde woman’s eye as he waited for the door to open. He smiled and she hesitated, pausing in her conversation for just a second. Calculating the odds. It was unlikely, he could almost see her think. A tiny shake of her head as her gaze returned to her friend sitting opposite. ‘He does have nice eyes,’ she said, her voice weary now. ‘That much hasn’t changed.’

Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig

Summer Rain – Stories from Unnamed Places No.02

It was after a summer storm that he most enjoyed his walks in the forest. He would head out from his flat overlooking the main market square and follow the street north where, within minutes, he reached the last of the houses with their neat gardens and the point where the road became a track, engulfed by the trees on the lower slopes of the mountain. After the storm a light mist would hang between the trees and the air was thick with moisture, the scent of pine and moss, and the sound of the thunder still rolling around the next valley. He would follow the trail as the beads of water continued to drip from the branches, until he reached the treeline, where moss and ferns gave way to scree and chalky  rock, and the path began to snake up the side of the steepening slope, until it hit the ridge above.

For most of the walkers who came to stay in the town, sleeping in one of the hotels, holiday apartments or at the youth hostel down by the river, the forest was something to be got through before the real fun began, but he rarely ventured above the treeline. He was not interested in the summits or the ridges, but the discoveries of the forest floor. The traces of the animals who lived there but rarely showed themselves. The spent cartridges of the hunters who tracked them. The hardy flowers and other plants that somehow survived in the permanent shade beneath the thick canopy.

When he had been a teacher, he had often brought his class into the forest. The children were wary at first, their heads full of fairy tales and other gruesome stories about what lurked in the shadows. Lower to the ground than he was, they would often spot things he had missed, and he enjoyed observing them as they crouched down to watch ants crossing the trail or a solitary beetle as it made steady progress with little concern for the heavy boots that might at any moment come crashing down from above.

He used to walk there with his wife. And with his friends, who came to the town to stay and to walk the forests and the mountains around. When he was younger, he offered tours to groups staying at the youth hostel. When he walked, he used to say, he liked to have company, and although in later years he was known throughout the town for his solitary wanderings, this was more necessity than choice. He had never understood those who saw walking as a solitary activity. For him it was social. When he and his wife had something to discuss, or a decision to be made, or simply in order to get some time together, they went for a walk. No distractions, she would say, and they would head out together, holding hands until the end.

Not long after she died, they announced the school was closing. It was not a surprise. The number of families living in the town had decreased as more and more properties switched to holiday lets. He was offered a position in the next town, but he decided not to take it. There were only a few years until he was due to retire, and the district made him a good offer. Sometimes he did supply work; a few days in one school, a week in another. But it wasn’t the same.

After his wife died, he also realised how little he now saw their friends. She had always been the one to keep in touch, and many of them were busy now, busier than they had ever been in their working life, filling up their days with grandchildren and extravagant holidays. The weekend visits that once seemed to fill up all the the summer months faded to nothing. And so he walked alone, following the street from the main square to the forest five or six times a week, and never more joyfully than after the summer rain.

One day he went into the forest and never came back. It took a while for the alarm to be raised. It was a neighbour who first noticed he was missing. After a while, the police also got involved, asking around. It was true, people thought, they hadn’t seem him for at least a week, maybe longer. They thought back, trying to remember the last time they had glimpsed the familiar figure, his red socks poking out from the top of his boots, as he strode across the market square towards the hillside.

Slowly, a day was agreed upon. Forestry workers confirmed they had seen someone similar, high at the treeline, right where the cable car crossed the main forest trail. He had been carrying a stick and greeted them with a smile and a few cheerful words. Now that they thought about it, they remembered him walking away, up towards the mountain path, as the sky darkened and the first distant rumbles of thunder could be heard. When the rain came, they had sheltered in their cab. They remembered joking about the poor walker they had so recently seen. About how he would be soaked to the skin. If he was to return in the next few minutes, they said to each other, they would offer him a ride back down into town.

He never returned.

With this information, the police triggered a mountain rescue search, although everyone was sure that with so much time having elapsed, what they would be looking for was more likely to be a body. Some of the people in the town couldn’t help thinking that they were looking in the wrong place. Why would he have gone up high? He had always preferred to walk in the forest, enclosed by the trees. Especially if he had looked up at the darkening sky and realised another storm was on the way. He would soon be able to walk through those trees after another downpour of summer rain. It was how it liked the forest the best. No, if they were going to find him anywhere, it would be there, resting beneath the branches, among the ants and the beetles, the moss and the ferns.

Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig

Desert – Stories from Unnamed Places No.01

P. had gone to the village because she was told it would be good for her. The desert air. The sea breeze. The walks along the coast or into the hills. The quiet of the nights, far from the city, beneath big skies filled with stars.

That was what she was told. What she found was a village a few kilometres inland from the sea, tucked beneath a series of low hills that had been hollowed out over the decades by a mine that still stood, bare and abandoned, looking down on the cluster of whitewashed houses and sandy-coloured ruins beneath. The village existed because of the mine, but the mine had closed years before and at the north end of the village the ruins of the houses, taverns, shops and social clubs that had once been the focus of life above ground were closed off behind high fences to prevent curious souls from endangering themselves inside the skeleton-frames of the abandoned buildings.

After the mine stopped operations, the village hung on, home to a motley assortment of locals with nowhere to go and a blow-in crowd of alternative types who set up camp in their vans or the few miner’s cottages that had not succumbed to the salty, dry air. The miners themselves had scattered. Some headed north, to the city and the factory floor. Others had crossed an ocean in search of a future above ground in another country.

Over time the village would attract more visitors, who would find accommodation in new buildings at the southern end of the main street. These rows of slender, white houses looked up the hillside towards the new botanical gardens that had been planted on the desert scrubland between the village and the the ruins of the mine. Botanists came for the plants. Artists came for the light. Birdwatchers for the rare species that could be found nowhere else on the continent. And the sick and afflicted came to try and get better.

They always had. On the day P. moved into the small house that looked out across the botanical garden towards the volcanic hills beyond, she found a map of the area on the coffee table. It detailed the towns and villages, the farmhouses and the beaches, as well as the names of the hills and the walking routes that ran between them. One led out from the end of her road, skirting the botanical gardens until it reached a river, which it followed until the path turned once more and crossed a ridge between two hills, dropping down into a high, hanging valley. A solitary building was marked on the map, with a name: Healer’s Cottage.

For the first few days P. did little but sit out on her terrace, listening to the sound of corn buntings hidden in the scrub across the street and watching for the small lizards that liked to dart between gaps in the stone wall outside her house. She would sleep through the hottest part of the day and in the late afternoon walk into the village, to browse in the small shop and grab a bite to eat in the bar on the main square.

In the shop she found a dusty guide to the region that had been published in a language she could understand. It was a decade old, but as she sat outside the bar with a glass of beer and began to read, she realised not much had changed in the intervening years. From the guide she learned more about the Healer’s Cottage, about how the Healer had lived there, impossibly, from before the mine was built until after the last of the miners had left. She read about how people would travel from across the country to the village and then follow the stony path along the river for consultations, and the herbal remedies they would return home with. And how the Healer’s Cottage had been abandoned when, overcome by solitude and too much of one of her own remedies, the Healer finally lost her mind. The story was that she climbed down into the hill, through one of the mine openings, and was never seen again.

The next morning P. followed the hiking trail out from the end of her road. The path skirted the botanical gardens until it met the river. On the map the river was marked in brilliant blue, but in reality it was dry and stony, and it looked like it had been a long time since any water had flowed over these dusty rocks. P. kept walking, ever higher into the hills. Above her she could see the mine road, carved out of the hillside and wide enough for the ghosts of two articulated lorries to pass with space to spare, but the path to the Healer’s Cottage was narrow and rutted between bushes of prickly pears, and she had to keep her eyes down so as not to trip. Higher she climbed, and as she approached the ridge there were moments she had to use her hands to steady herself, scrambling over thick, red stones.

At the ridge she could look back, across the landscape to where it met the rolling surf of the sea, and forward, down into the hanging valley. The Healer’s Cottage was at the bottom, the track snaking its way down the steep slope to four crumbling walls, none more that three or four bricks high and barely distinguishable from the rocky ground around. Carefully P. made her way down, until she reached the cottage. Now there was no view but the sides of the valley and the blue sky above. No wind could reach her and the air was heavy. She could smell lavender and the constant hum of insects filled her ears.

It has been said that hikers in the hills have heard the sound of a woman’s voice from deep inside the many mine openings to be found on the hillside…

From where she sat on the tumbledown walls of the Healer’s Cottage, P. shouted as loud as she could. What she shouted, she would not remember, but the feeling would stay with her. As she began to climb back up, to the ridge with its view of the rest of the world, she knew it was true what she had been told: this place would be good for her.

Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig

Invisible Borders at WoWFest Liverpool – 15 May 2018

I am really excited to be teaming up with Marcel Krueger again to discuss borders visible and invisible with Dr Andy Davies of the University of Liverpool as part of the fantastic Writing on the Wall Festival in Liverpool on Tuesday 15th May. Both Marcel and I have long had an interest in borders, how they shift and how they shape our perception of place and history. We will be talking not only about our respective books, but also (no doubt) Marcel’s corridor project in Ireland and both our explorations of the Berlin Wall trail here in Berlin.

I can’t wait to get back over to Liverpool, and you can find out more information about the event, including tickets, venue and all the important stuff, here on the Writing on the Wall festival website. And if you are within striking distance of Liverpool, check out the rest of the programme, as there are loads of great events going on.

Notes from a Bohemian village

At the bottom of the garden, outside the half-timbered house on the old village lane, the stream rushes over pebbles worn smooth by centuries of continuous flow. From here it enters the woods, cutting deep gorges through the sandstone landscape and flowing beneath frozen ponds until it joins a bigger stream, and then a river, and then finally the Elbe and its long journey to the North Sea, on that short stretch where one bank is Germany and the other is the Czech Republic. This stream at the bottom of the garden does not look up to much, but it explains the village.

*

Not far from here is an old trade route, for moving salt and grain through the forest between Lausitz, Saxony and Bohemia. Where the old ways crossed the stream, settlements were established. In the village, the business was wood and textiles, and one of the oldest glassworks in Europe, founded in the 14th century. Along the track that followed the path of the stream, houses were built, stretched out in four directions from a central square. Many of the village houses are wooden constructions, dating back to the 1700s. Others are more recent, with the distinctive style of a long lost empire that once stretched from the Balkans to Bohemia. At the start of the twentieth century, over two thousand people called this village home. They worked in the textile industry, and at the glassworks, but next hundred years left their mark. Different flags, different capitals. Ideologies imposed from far beyond the banks of the stream. In the cemetery of the Gothic church, a memorial to the 49 victims of WWI. In the upper village, a memorial to the mass grave of 22 who succumbed to a death march at the end of the next war. Outside the factory, two flags fly. The Czech tricolour and the European stars. The lorries lined up outside a modern-looking warehouse have Danish plates. The population of the village is no longer fixed. It swells and falls, with the season and the days of the week. I wonder what the local phrase for ‘up from Prague’ is, but on a Tuesday morning in February, there’s no-one around to ask.

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