There are some days when being a short, middle-aged Northern woman does not cut it. At certain times, a stressful hour, a strained moment, you need to take action to save yourself.
I shape shift. I wish I meant that literally, that I had been taught, by Merlin himself, to soar above Findhorn bay as an osprey but sadly, no. This is instead a small self-help software system I have installed in my head.
I am not alone in suffering occasional panic attacks. I tried the whole ‘tell it to stop’ scenario and found it didn’t always listen. On a couple of heart-battering occasions the mental effort of reaching for the word ‘STOP’ was too much and instead I became a mouse. I shrank down into small bones, brown fur and curled myself into the cast and angled edge of a steel railway sleeper as the vast and steaming Panic Express thundered over my head. It was a moment of mental magic, it took not a thought, but a breath. Go. Here. Be safe. Whiskers. Beady eyes reflecting clouds scudding over the sky and the great bellowing steam train of dread rattled on its way. Now, if I feel the panic might be leaving the station I sprout mental whiskers and The Panic Express finds it is cancelled and replaced by a bus heading in the opposite direction.
Other situations require different transformations. I have, on occasion, worked as a relief assistant in the library service. This means I fill in for absence. Things have been a little slack on the stacks front recently as my local council struggle to regroup and keep free books and community spaces going. They are, currently, rootling about down the back of the sofa for any spare change or a Minto that might assist in this. An unfortunate aspect of this line of Information Services work is the verbal abuse that you are sometimes subject to.
A couple of months ago I got a blasting from a man who was frustrated with the library computer, its protocols and, I feel I can surmise, life’s general unfairness. This man decided he had had enough. In his view, and these are the words I can print, I was stupid, old, cruel and mean, incompetent, technologically retarded and an idiot.
I was also a moth. Brindled. Bronzed. Soft winged and fluttering towards the light to get away from the darkness this man had brought. There are sometimes people like this and they are drawn to the library space because it is quiet and does not demand anything of them. They come through the door and you can see the darkness dragging along behind them. Your heart wants you to hide under the counter in the lost property shoe box or lock yourself in the workroom but you must not. These kinds of people have, quite literally, nowhere else to take their darkness. The library, with its collection of beanbags, grubby crime books and dodgy automatic doors is their place of last resort. You slap on a smile, ask ‘Can I help you?’ and then the lights go out.
This is the moment when you open out your moth wings so that the darkness spatters against them and the black bile of it makes the patterns upon them that bit more speckled and intriguing. Up, up you go to the tiny skylight in your head and you are glad to flutter there because at least you have that skylight.
A few bleak words, some flashing blades of nastiness and with the slam of a coffee table cookery book the darkness is whisked away to lick its greasy fur behind the stacks. You flutter back to the counter and to stop your hands shaking, because shape-shifting will do that to you, you opt to trot over to the trolley and lose yourself in the alphabetising of books.
Later, much later, you will be allowed ten minutes to reach for a restorative cup of tea.
It must be nearly Halloween, what with all the pumpkins and of course, the mice. You don’t have mice? I do. One just scuttled past my son’s foot as he tapped at his computer. You’d think my son’s foot, bare and somewhat unwashed, would put them off their game but, no. He thought it looked cute. As a joke, and to annoy me, he has named it ‘Nibble’. The mouse, not his own foot.
It appears to be a cold spell that brings them in. We had some earlier in the spring, oh, spring, yes, the sound the trap makes as its jaws open.
Mice are not a pretty business. After the number of mice I’ve had to dispose of this year I am beginning to feel more sympathy with Tom than Jerry. They look cute and furry with their big old beady eyes but, the reality is, they leave smelly and unhygienic piles of poo wherever they wander. They have to be er, clutches at euphemism, dealt with. Are you imagining me now in a swivelly chair stroking a white cat? I wish I was. The white cat might help.
That said. all my neighbours have cats who feel free to come into my garden and butcher a goldfinch or a starling but who leave the mice and, takes deep breath – the rats, to it. Is there a UN embargo on the feline catching of rodents? My current theory is that the reason my house is being scurried to is BECAUSE of all the cats. The outside is a war zone for anything small and savoury. Ooh, look, the little blood-filled kind! Crunchy. Yum.
I don’t have a cat and therefore my house is a safe haven for the whiskery fugitives. I am not keen on cats which is, I appreciate, a sentence that shouldn’t really be written out loud. It is a truth however, having watched my neighbour’s white cat ‘play’ with a blackbird once. Remember the Orca ‘playing’ with the seal? Like that but on dry land.
I don’t know if it is proper science or urban myth that informs us that we are never more than two feet away from a rat. A few years ago we were even closer when we had an infestation of rats in our house. It came about because of the double whammy of a particularly cold winter and a nearby property that had been left empty for two or three years suddenly got a new buyer and a revamp and the rats had to find new digs.
It began, like many a horror story, with scratchings in the walls and then it became the full on nightmare of sitting in the kitchen and seeing something move from the corner of your eye as a rat squeezed itself up through the floorboards under the skirting, scuttled across the floor and out through…where? Where did it go? It vanished?
I called in the Pest Control Officer who gave me a lot of information about rats and their biology, much of which I did not wish to know. He laughed scornfully at my idea of locking any available foodstuff in cake tins or plastic boxes. He had known rats to chew through concrete and steel as an ‘amuse bouche’. They love a Doc Marten by the way and gnawed through one of mine one night.
Poison was put down inside and out and still we heard ‘the rat’. One afternoon as my daughter was doing her homework she heard a scuffly sound in the dresser cupboard built into the side of the old fireplace. Jokingly she opened it saying ‘Ha, is it the rat?’ before screaming and leaping up onto the kitchen table because it was after all, the rat. It was a poor and sorry rat, come to die in my cupboard, its innards a mush of toxic waste. I called in the Pest Control Officer and as he opened up his disposal bucket he said ‘You might want to look away.’ The small corpse was removed and we thought the horrid experience was over.
WRONG. All his relatives came to wreak their revenge. Cupboards, flooring, plaster, wiring were chewed through. The rats scurried and scuttled through every wall space, using the heating pipes as their very own Tube system. I tore out skirting, ripped open boxed in pipework, lifted floorboards. I blocked entryway after entryway as we hunted them down, I left out flour traps to try and find their rat runs and was blindsided each morning by the mass of rodent footprints that danced fandangos over every available workspace. Scrub. Scour. Scrub. Bleach.
I am known as the rat killer in our house. In the end, I had to kill so many rats I lost count. My children, grown up as they are, find it hilarious. It was their own personal Tom and Jerry show. Time and again the vicious traps did not do their appointed task. One morning I came down to the kitchen to find that a rat had gnawed its way in from the roofspace in the kitchen, for the third time. It had chewed yet another hole through the plaster. On this occasion I had, the night before, placed three traps along the top of the cupboards. The first trap was on the floor by the cooker and contained a leg. The second, tripped but still on top of the cupboard, had a tail in it. The third had fallen onto the top of the fridge-freezer with its burden of rat, tailless, three-legged and lifeless. My heart lurched along with my stomach and I reached for my terrible rat killing kit of heavy duty rubber gloves, barbecue tongs and the step ladder. I would have to retrieve this death trap and take care of disposal.
Picture me, early morning, up a step ladder in my pyjamas in black gauntlet rubber gloves, reaching for the dead rat in the trap with the tongs. Picture then, the rat, minus a tail and one leg making a huge leap from the top of my fridge-freezer, the trap clattering as it landed on the tiled floor and then scurrying under the cupboard by the sink, made recently plinthless by my other rat-hunting rat-catching activities.
With a pounding heart and a churning stomach I had to rope in my husband, bleary with sleep. There were mops involved. And shovels. This, as you can imagine, did not end well for any of us. Thankfully, this battle was one of the last.
With the rats banished all the holes and rodent superhighways were blocked up. I took out my kitchen cupboards to clean and scour but revealed the extent of the damage. The base units were chewed through and behind them the high tide of the grease marks that the rats leave on the walls as their waymarkers. Rat droppings were vacuumed and brushed from behind white goods. Scourging and purging took place and it was decided that the kitchen cabinets must be replaced.
And so to the Recent Mice. They, like the rats, don’t go for cheese, Swiss or otherwise, they prefer peanut butter or chocolate spread. We had to kill several in the Spring and my daughter said I was a Barbarian. It’s the big black gloves and the tongs that give me away.
Yesterday I headed out to buy live traps and see if that helps. Instead of death I will dish out relocation. The two traps are ready and baiting by the mousehole and we have a nearby meadow all picked out as a possible release site. Who knows, perhaps our Little Visitor will do sterling service as a footman for Cinderella one of these evenings?
I imagine it will only be but one twilight before the shadow of the owl looms and silence falls. It’s the circle of Life, it is Predator and Prey.
I don’t know if this is true for all writers but, for me, there is a particular place in my head that holds the landscape of my writing. There are certain topographical, geological and natural attributes that fall into place; the streets pave onwards, the gates open here, the land rises to a ridge and as this happens the characters come out of the woods, leave their doors and begin.
My landscape, I can see it clearly, is a broad plain surrounded on three sides by hills and beyond them, bigger hills that might be mountains, in the way of Snowdonia or the Highlands. There is also a coastline. There must always be a wood which often grows outwards and becomes a forest, the trees that bank up against my other thoughts, the reality and the worries.
The houses that my characters occupy are generally old. I love vernacular architecture and my favourite pastime in visiting any town is to wander the streets and have a good old nosey at the houses. I love this one. I adore that one. The house abandoned in Stromness was most affecting. We parked up and I looked up at the most beautiful double-fronted house, sheltered by trees, clearly empty and abandoned. It had a forcefield that drew me. I sneaked in through the rusted gate, picked my way through the meadow of overgrown grass that had once been a front lawn and peeked in at the window. It was a shock, the house was a ghost. There was no-one inside, just the crumbling remains of a life that someone had lived, a newspaper folded on a leather swivelly chair, like something from a James Bond film, beside a more traditional armchair, now a home for mice. Bookcases with broken ornaments, the books fallen and fleabitten. Wallpaper struggled to stay upright. There was a powerful sensation from that house, as if, if you stepped inside, you might end up somewhere else entirely, another time. The house had stopped, held its breath as time whirled on around it.
The houses I love best are Victorian or Georgian, I like dilapidation, what some might call ‘shabby chic’ or ‘distress’ although I prefer the term ‘lived-in’. I love Cob houses and their quirkiness, hence the building of Cob Cottage by Pike Lake in The Witch Ways books. I like a winding stair and a belfast sink.
My characters usually have a garden, always overgrown. Only villains have edged borders. I’ve realised I place my heroes into comfortable homes, higgledy-piggledy places. Others might inhabit dilapidated bungalows, a sixties or seventies house that hasn’t been gutted out or painted over, it might have a serving hatch. There are plants growing in the guttering, the door sticks.
My bad guys live in modern boxes, crisp white houses with no soul and a sleek designer kitchen. I am not the kind of person who keeps their kettle lead in a drawer, and neither should you be. I’m just saying.
Where does it all come from? My theory is that a writer’s landscape is mapped out with all the places that have ever spoken to them and this works two ways. There are the places that coddle your heart, the places where you take your shoes off and you make yourself at home. There are also the other places, with the door that traps your fingers or the barking dog behind the gate. These places are where the protagonist must escape from, is trapped by. These conflict backgrounds are very useful and lend credence to the notion that nothing is wasted on a writer. If I dislike a place, if it gives me a bad feeling I make notes, rich notes, on why this is happening, what is it that I don’t like and how does this feel?
Home is big in my writing. I like to go away and see new places but, for me, the idea of coming home is always a good one. This is a story point too, the conflict of home under attack, of being denied the right to go home. Your home is your castle. Oh yes. I love a castle. Welsh for preference.
The forest and lake aspect of my writing has its origins in the Lake District. When I was a child we had holidays there every year, staying in caravans at first with my parents and my grandparents, travelling there in my grandad’s Ford Cortina estate (ahem, I think I can feel the 1970s coming on). Later, when we had a car, we would head up there for a week, staying in B&B accommodation on farms.
One day we walked from our B&B farmhouse up at Rydal to Grasmere. At Grasmere we hired a rowing boat to go out onto the lake. I wanted to have a go and my dad showed me how and I rowed the boat with the four of us in it. Dad is not a man to do things by halves and so I rowed around the entire lake at Grasmere. I was ten. Lakes and rowing boats are in all my writing.
We spent many an afternoon hunkered down at a lakeside, usually Ullswater, sometimes Coniston or Derwent Water, in the driving rain. My parents would sit in deck chairs and read under whatever makeshift shelter we could cobble together from waterproof sheeting and umbrellas, as my sister and I paddled in the lakewater, tracking minnows. There was always a flask of ‘picnic tea’. My best memories are of rainy days such as these, of a particular boat trip on Ullswater where it lashed down and we stood on the deck of a pleasure cruiser, zipped into our anoraks, a visceral, elemental day. Rain, therefore, is my favoured weather system.
We also walked, although we did not ‘hike’ as people might now. We did not have hiking boots. Most of my Lake District walking was done in sandals and we did not have performance outerwear. My dad had flares (alert, alert 70s approaching) and a casual shirt and jacket, my mum would be wearing her ‘mac’, that is her mackintosh or raincoat. My mum always had a ‘mac’. Myself and my sister would have our poplin macs. Poplin is a cotton fabric and has nothing to do with Goretex. I don’t think Bear Grylls has a poplin mac and I don’t imagine he wears Clarks sandals and knee socks on his expeditions either.
We didn’t have GPS, we had a little paperback book of Lake District walks, not written by Wainwright. This little tome took us, on one particular day, to Shap Abbey. On another we visited a spot called ‘Seldom Seen’.
This walk involved a long stroll through woodland, uphill of course. I remember bracken fronds almost as tall as we were and the forest ranged around us. We looked down through the trees to a farm that clung to the side of the valley. This was the only sign of civilisation. On and on we walked and encountered no one save for a couple of nonchalant sheep. The forest deepened and it seemed that we were away from the world. At that point in time, the 1970s! (fanfare please!), my favourite books were Enid Blyton’s ‘Enchanted Wood’ series. I was never a ‘Secret Seven’ kind of kid, give me Silky and Moonface and the Saucepan Man every time. I loved the Enchanted Wood and that day, heading to Seldom Seen, the idea of my mythical wood took root in my head.
Forty years later and the branches grow strong and leafy, the trunks are gnarled and mossy. In the distance sometimes you can hear the sound of coppicing. Squirrels scurry up and down. The canopy holds roosting owls and raptors. A rookery. Two ravens. Foxes walk in the twilight to their earth. Badgers bustle in their sett in the banking by the stream. Rabbits burrow beneath the blackberries that spill out of the sides of my forest. Always, always, there is a red spotted handkerchief and a piece of cheese, a rosy red apple, cut with my mum’s little fruit knife, in a faux leather case, with a pearl effect handle.
If you’d like to be the first to know more about my Witch Ways series, just tell me where to get in touch (I might send you a book for free too)