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I’ve been thinking about skills lately for The Witch Ways, my new series of books. I’ve been working out what skills each of the Way sisters will have and as a consequence I’ve been assessing what my own skills might be and reliving the horror of all those terrible jobsearch terms like ‘transferable skills’ and ‘skillset’.

Skillset? Do you have one? Depends, I suppose, on your definition of skillset? I mean some might require an ability to pull off a recordbreaking amount of keepy uppys; others might treasure data projection or horse husbandry.

If you’re after coding and data analysis then I’m probably not your person (equal opportunities apply). I’m afraid that my skillset tends to have a more well, historical bent.

I could, if you like, and subject to the relevant planning permissions, help you with the construction of a wattle and daub dwelling. I can do the wattling bit and the daubing bit. I am a dab foot with a bucket of water and a pile of chalk chunks. This is a skill learnt from my time as a volunteer with the Education Team at Stonehenge.  As part of the training I also learnt to grind grain, make a Neolithic pitta and lay a fire.  The other skill I learnt was how to make rope out of reed and bramble stalks. This, I have to warn you is a seriously addictive skill. On one afternoon I managed to make enough cordage to tow a small barge.

I doubt these skills will feature on my CV anytime soon as no one really appreciates them in this particular timezone. I feel my skillset is only transferable within a timetravelling framework.

So, should I ever trip over and tumble down a wormhole I do have some usable skills. I imagine finding myself in a castle in this scenario, or possibly, a bit further back, a hill fort and I foresee that I will be able to fit in and be useful.

I can bake bread and cook food using raw ingredients and simple implements called pans and fire, so I am made for the kitchens and bakery in this castle. If pushed I could probably tell a tale or two by a crackling fire, oh, and I can knit. A bit. A lot actually, I tend to get carried away. That is how all the medieval knights ended up with all that chain mail. Big needles, later used for jousting.

You might have noticed that my time travel fantasies don’t run to a galaxy far far away. If I am catapulted forwards I will be lost. I can’t erect flat pack furniture. I can’t operate a satnav unless Brian Blessed is shouting instructions to me and I do not look good in one piece lycra jumpsuiting. I think the sound of a microwave pinging is the most dismal sound on earth.

In our household I am considered the impractical one, head in the clouds as I make stuff up for a living, hands in the clouds of flour as I bake stuff up for eating. I hold the opinion that I’m actually very practical; as an example; One of my husband’s colleagues had a ‘contact’ at a Scottish salmon fishery and said he’d bring us a lovely bit of salmon. When this ‘lovely bit of salmon’ arrived it was about a foot and a half in length and weighed 14 pounds.  Undaunted I scaled and gutted the beast with help from a library book and a set of Sabatier knives I had as a wedding present while my then infant son boinged up and down gleefully in his doorframe baby bouncer.

Today’s skills, the ones my offspring are so hot to trot about, are rather more ethereal than magic. Texting with your thumbs for example and the frightening fact that information is stored, like dreams, in clouds. Hackers aren’t anything to do with coppicing a wood, instead they are cyber wizards intent upon storming data strongholds. People create codes to make machines think but I warn you that what machines chiefly need is electricity.

So should an apocalypse occur ( I’m imagining a minor Ragnarok here, where Fenrir doesn’t actually eat the sun and kill Odin, rather he just runs around a bit and unplugs stuff. The lights go out, the power goes off, the internet is down) I will be in the back garden. I will be raking out my woodfired oven and checking the proving of my dough. While the bread bakes I’ll knit you a jumper from ivy tangles. See you there. Chain mail optional.

Crooked Daylight, the first in the Witch Ways series is out now.  Find out more

 

I twisted my knee a while ago. You might think that I did it whilst engaging in my other secret career as an international cat burglar.  Perhaps, dressed in my black onesie and mask, I fell off a guttering after leaving the Embassy in Paris through an atelier window. Oh, zut alors, a loose slate (the roof, not mine) a missed step and voila! Un kilometre de downpipe later and knee knotted up good and proper.

Or there is the other scenario where I twist it as part of my rhythmic gymnastic routine going for Olympic gold. That length of silk ribbon was just a tad too long, coiling like a magical serpent around my unsuspecting and powerful thigh and, 9.5, my knee is knackered.

I could have twisted it on that really craggy bit of the Eiger near the top. The one on the North east bit where you have to turn left at the St Bernard dog. Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton were having a quick Kit-Kat ahead of our ascent and, after getting some silver paper in my eye, I stood up, stumbling about and got my foot tangled in the rope. I headed down. The knee headed up. Ping. Snap. And Bob is your cartilage.

I twisted it pushing a trolley at the library. Trowbridge Library to be precise. No. Seriously, this is the true one. The trolleys, similar to an Ikea wardrobe but on dolls pram wheels, are, shall we say, a little recalcitrant when it comes to moving across the wipe clean carpetting. I was at the end of a longish shelving stint and the trolley, tired of its burden of diesel engine manuals and the Encyclopedia of Crochet, took its revenge. The trolley went in one direction, an unexpected one and, there you have it.  Should my foot be that way round? I thought the toes should point forwards?

Knees are very useful, a thing you don’t fully appreciate until you lose 10degrees from your ROM. That’s medical for ‘Range of Movement’. My knee is slightly crooked at the minute and it has been difficult to walk. A bout of physiotherapy helped considerably. I use the word ‘bout’ advisedly. Essentially you pay a visit to the ex-Heavyweight Champion of Mixed Martial Arts and you lie on their couch. They twist the leg into several increasingly obtuse angles and when you start crying they rub some unguents on it and massage the muscles that they have managed to free up.

Anyway, now everyone has had a go at bending and shaping it and realised that it is ‘hard-locked’ as they say, I was sent for an MRI to see what bit of it has been pranged. My husband suggested looking on this experience from the perspective of a science-fiction film. He suggested ‘Time Tunnel’ as a possible option. Of course, being a bit of a sci-fi geek, he was in his element. The Force strong in this one is.

“When you come out you’ll be Captain America” he laughed over his morning toast. The banter continued. Beam me up, Scottie. And Hulk of course, although you already wouldn’t like me when I’m angry. You get the 3D picture.

An x-ray is like a Victorian photographer igniting their magnesium flash powder at you by comparison with the total Sci-fi that is a 21st century MRI scanner. Even the MRI unit I was probed by, which was in a mobile van in the hospital car park, smacked of ‘Prometheus’.

I had removed all metalwork from my body and was asked if I had any false limbs that I might have forgotten about or, more worryingly, any shrapnel or bullets lodged anywhere? There was that fistfight in the supermarket last week, had that involved gunfire? I thought not, it was mostly courgettes. The Civil War re-enactment the previous weekend was very lifelike. Where did that rogue cannon ball go?

Then, in my stocking feet, I was taken to meet Hal. The door to the Scanning room had a sort of mansize catflap in it that said ‘ESCAPE HATCH’ so I was already at DefCon 1 mentally. As with all medical equipment it was plasticky and intimidating, a vast curved swathe of  matte textured hard white plastic, a punched grille above and slippy leatherette bench before. My dodgy knee was pinned into a clamp of sorts and there were red and green lights flashing. I was given a rubber squeeze thing ‘in case you need us’ and then, with the technicians safely stowed in another cabin I slid into the, well, contraption doesn’t cover it. Space ship? Shuttle? Probe?

“Are you going to be alright?” the technician asked and I lied ‘Yes’.  It’s basically a not very spacious high tech tube and I was already working out my strategy for countering claustrophobia. Time tunnel, Time tunnel, Time tunnel was my mantra. I would have crossed my fingers but they were gripping the rubber squeeze alarm too tightly.  Fortunately, due to the location of the defective knee, I didn’t have to slide all the way in, my head was sticking out. I was reminded of another sci-fi classic ‘Demon Seed’ starring Julie Christie.

I had been given the chance to bring my own CD. I’d chosen carefully and in light of the technological surroundings I opted for ‘Bjork – Medulla’. This, it turns out, is an excellent choice. This album is made entirely with voices, layered and harmonised but only voices, every sound is a guttural growl or throat vibration to create a sound tapestry. It goes perfectly with the mad mayhem of MRI. Pings and whirrs, insane hammering sounds, loud, repetitive strains of metallic origin. And that was before the MRI machine began its peregrinations.

All I can say is I’ve never heard anything like it that wasn’t aboard the Millenium Falcon. I pictured the magnetic thingummajig as the Force itself and, there was a strange music to it. It was otherworldly. I travelled to another planet or two in the fifteen or so minutes it took. Bjork was the music of the spheres. All the fear (at least a skipful) was moved away and I drifted through space and time.

I felt fine afterwards except as I put my trainers back on (footwear of choice apres knee injury) I did notice that my knickers were on over my tights now and of course, there was that slight road rage incident on the way home when those massive adamantine blades shot out of my hands.

Other than that, I’m fine.

 

“Do not underestimate the power of Mother Nature.”  This is the first and clearly, most important instruction in the manual that accompanied our new kayak. Yes, we bought a kayak. An inflatable one. I know, it makes you imagine a vast yellow banana of a vessel or something shaped like a crocodile or dolphin. I assure you, it is a boat, a kayak shaped plastic boat.  We’ve wanted one ever since we watched a middle-aged couple skim past Cadgwith harbour some five or six years ago and finally we got around to actually buying one. We’ve got a paddle each and a pair of lifejackets. Oh, no sorry, you don’t call them that, you call them a ‘buoyancy aid’. I decided to call mine Bob.

“I am not getting into a kayak with you.” my daughter said, determined, she is a very determined young woman. “Because there is 100% chance of man overboard. You.”

My Pagan heart tells me I should confess at this point that despite being a Pisces I am hopeless in water. I have the buoyancy of granite and granite that has a lot of iron ore in it at that. In olden times I would have been stowed for ballast on many a creaky vessel. I didn’t learn to swim until I was eleven. This was because my parents didn’t swim much either as this was the 70s (there you go!) and exercise was frowned upon unless you were Daley Thompson. He didn’t do much swimming either to be fair.

So. With the kayak still in its cardboard box my husband and I began scouting for local launch sites. We decided on Bradford on Avon for our first voyage. It must be said that I was so nervous I had Bob the buoyancy aid zipped on before I got in the car.

We parked up and with our trusty stirrup pump the kayak was all puffed up and ready to go in about fifteen minutes.  The Queen was unavailable for this launch and so we were seen off at the Tithe Barn by some bemused French tourists.

Within moments they were wondering how Britain ever got a reputation as a seafaring nation as our little vessel zig-zagged and swirled its way onto the Avon.  We looked, with our dodgy steering and flapping paddles, like a hippopotamus attempting a synchronised swimming routine.

It took a few minutes but we got into the dip, dip and swing of it. As we scudded along a kingfisher flashed, blue and copper, from a bankside tree and, my Pagan heart decided, the augurs were good.

It’s a very different view of the river in a kayak. You’re quite low down in the water, unlike on a pleasure cruiser say or even the relative luxury of a rowing boat. We could see, as we paddled, the shoals, and I mean shoals, of fish in the reed, graded downwards from tiny fry at the sunkissed surface to the flitting teenagers in the midline and then, deeper still the spooky twists and glides of the parent fish. A heron sat in the highest branches of a tree, willows bowed into the water.

It was bliss. The sun baking down making the water glisten gold and silver. A family of buzzards tacking into thermals above the private woodland. (Alert, Alert, 70s reference approaching at speed) It was all very Hammy the Hamster and Tales of the Riverbank.

And then we heard the splashing sounds, getting louder and definitely nearer.  A glance to the bend showed us the Armada of the rowing club in knife thin sculls, their spike thin oars pounding their way through the water. There were shouts and the buzzing fury of a small motor boat that seemed to be heading straight for us. A voice barked orders from a loudhailer. The rowers, with a nonchalant twist of their oars, steered around us as we paddled for our very lives, digging in and diving for cover by a tangled willow as the boats whipped by, their wake tossing our little ship like a cork.

Another bend brought us to the sailing club where, as we approached a vibrant orange buoy, a small dinghy roared towards us with a shout  of ‘Stay away from me!’ just as the prow of his boat clipped us, as they say in the sea shanties, a broadside amidships. We all ducked for the jib as his sail whipped around and in a gust of wind he was gone, his keel rising at a steep angle. We watched as his boat rose out of the water and roused a flock of Canada Geese as it grazed along the banking for about a hundred yards before toppling back into the water and whizzing off, the wind cracking in the tall white sail. With his weatherbeaten face and his flimsy old t-shirt and safari shorts, he was clearly a seasoned sailor.

Onwards we floated, paddles digging deep so that I could feel my bingo wings tightening with every stroke. The world curved and turned, lapped and splashed. It was a very different perspective on where we live, a secret snickelway of water hidden from our everyday routes around town. Well, secret if you don’t count the rowing club and the sailing club of course. I thought of Bronze Age tribes in their dugout log canoes and was connected to the past by the simple tool of a paddle.

We stopped at the weir, taking a few minutes to ease our muscles and take in the grandstand view; A heron fished on a small pebble bank. A cormorant flew in over our heads to rest in the high branches of the trees. Fish slid and shimmied beneath us but the most astonishing spectacle was the dragonflies, they were legion, small blue, giant bronze, wings of black and flashed with gold, flitting and frittering around the reeds in an elegant dance, attracted in a flurry to the warm heat radiated from the stones of the old mill.

Do not underestimate the power of Mother Nature, the manual had said. How right that instruction was. We lost track of the number of kingfishers we saw en route.

Next weekend, we’re hoping we might see an otter. But probably not a killer whale. Not on the Avon at any rate.

 

 

 
 

‘a highly original talent’ – Beryl Bainbridge

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