Category Archives: Stories from Unnamed Places

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

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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