A great title brought to you by my pal storyteller Ken Johnston, who coined it for the Scriptorium launch. One of those strange words which conjures up all kinds of giddiness! We Angus Writers are, if not exactly giddy, very excited to be starting on a bold new venture- a month-long Angus Writers’ Circle Residency at the New Scriptorium based in the grounds of Arbroath Abbey. What a wonderful, inspirational setting! The Scriptorium has been designed by artist Bobby Niven and commemorates the acclaimed work of the Benedictine monks who once copied and illuminated world-renowned manuscripts on this very site. The project has been made possible by Hospitalfield, Historic Environment Scotland, the 2020+1 committee and many more.
It was a real privilege to be there this week with my writing buddies Dawn, Elizabeth and Gillian. We had coffee and flapjacks to add to the creative vibe and it was interesting to imagine what life might have been like for the Benedictine brothers in their scriptorium of old. One of the interpretive boards at the Abbey describes the ‘architecture of solitude’, a cloistered existence which would be alien to modern-day writers. We are free to listen to a playlist, eat biscuits, surf the ‘net. Maybe we even enjoy the constant backdrop of traffic noise and hubbub of voices. Life must have been very different for those who had taken vows of poverty and silence, working under a strict regime, with no distractions. Perhaps that’s the secret of producing such gorgeous, transcendental art!
June is the perfect to time to look back and take stock of the year so far (and also to feel guilty for not updating this blog!). It’s hard to stay positive with everything that’s going on globally and at home, but good things do happen, so time to give a few of them an airing…
In March I was incredibly lucky to have been selected for an international residency at beautiful Moniack Mhor. I’d always wanted to visit, and to do so in that context, in the company of such lovely humans, was a high point in my life. So, a big shout out to Efe Paul Azino, Titilope Sonuga, Nadine Aisha Jassat, Sunnah Khan, Puja Changoiwala, Carly Brown, T.J.Benson and of course amazing Debris Stevenson, the Jessie Kesson Fellow and Translator Extraordinaire, Gemma Rovira Ortego.
Aided and abetted by Rachel and her amazing team, we quickly became like family- eating together, laughing together, chasing spiders, drinking wine, walking, talking and writing. What could be better?!
Here are some favourite moments:
Many a writing nook and the neighbours were wild…
So many beautiful views, and a few late nights…
We got out and about…
Read some books and enjoyed the odd glass of wine or two when the writing was done!
Thank you, Moniack Mhor- it was an amazing experience!
I love a fascinating fact, and here is one I uncovered at the end of last year. I’d been delivering a four-week Writing For Wellbeing course, and as I was scouring Yuletide folklore for some lovely writing prompts, I though why not skip ahead to the New Year and take a closer look at our old friend Janus! I remember hearing his story at school, that he’d leant his name to January, with one of his faces looking into the year just gone, the other into the coming year.
As a god of time and transitions, Janus didn’t have a “face for the present” because the present IS a place of transition, which is something to think about when you feel ‘stuck’, either physically or mentally. The Romans didn’t view the present as a time in and of itself – just as something of a passing place between past and future.
That really resonates with me. We are always being encouraged to be ‘fully present in the moment’, which I actually find quite difficult. My brain is always speeding ahead! But what if the ‘present’, as the Romans believed, is merely a drifting boat, bearing you gently to the next exciting destination?
May all your destinations be exciting this year! If you would like to join me for four weeks of looking at the world in a slightly different way (and writing about it!), my next Writing Just For You course begins on January 24th. Here is the programme:
WRITING JUST FOR YOU #3
Each week, we will have a chat about the theme of the week, a mini-meditation or moment of mindfulness to get you in the creative groove and 20 minutes of free writing to a themed prompt. I will also suggest an Artist’s Play Date for you to try at home.
Week 1: Ice. (24/1/22)
This week’s theme is ‘cold snap’. How do you feel when the temperature drops?!
Week 2: Light. (31/1/22)
Candlemas falls on Feb 2nd, and has many interesting customs associated with ‘bringing in the light’. How can you bring light to your own life?
Week 3: Fire (7/1/22)
‘Warming the cockles of your heart.’ This idiom derives from the belief that the heart was shaped like a cockleshell, implying it is soft on the inside with a tough shell! What makes your heart melt?
Week 4: Love (14/1/22)
February 14th is, of course, St Valentine’s Day! We’ll be looking at the folklore surrounding ‘Valentines.’
Interested? Just drop me a line and I’ll save you a place. The course fee is £55. Payment details and Zoom link will be sent the week before.
As some of you know, I love to draw and paint, and I’ve developed a love for Chinese Brush Painting. I don’t know much about it yet, but I’m learning! The Chinese refer to such paintings as ‘writing a picture’, in other words, capturing the essence of scene and story in the simplest of terms, which kind of reflects my writing. It’s all about the imagery. Here are a couple of my early attempts. The first ‘Heron’ is firmly rooted in the Chinese brush technique and the second ‘Seagull’ is more my own take on it!
I’m a day late, but hope you’ll enjoy the final part of Scrapefoot! It’s been really exciting to write this story in serial form and thank you for your lovely comments. If you’ve liked what you’ve read, do check out my books- dark and twisty with a glimpse of the mythical past!
I told him he could stay. He wasn’t doing any harm, and he seemed to know more about the house, about my mother and about me than I did. He was clever. I left quietly by the front door. It had been snowing again, and the path wore a new, glistening blanket of white. I was at the gate before I came to my senses. What had I done? Given the green light to a complete stranger, a squatter, a vagrant. How had he tricked me into that? Scrapefoot, indeed!
As I turned to march back to the front door and give him a piece of my mind, I noticed that my footsteps were absent. Even heavy snow could not have obliterated them so soon. What was going on? Slipping and sliding, I made my way back to the house and flung open the door. The fire was still blazing merrily, but there was no sign of the man. I checked the sitting room and the bedrooms. even the bathroom and the back garden, in case he was chopping more wood, but Scrapefoot had vanished. I twirled slowly in the middle of the sitting room. Something was not right. I could smell that sharp musky scent I’d noticed before. There on the new cushion, in my mother’s favourite chair, lay curled a white fox.
“How did you get in?”
It surveyed me steadily. It’s eyes were a sharp, icy blue. Something stirred in my head- words- although from whence they came I really couldn’t say.
“I’ll stay until your mother comes home, and then I’ll be gone.”
Was it a promise, or a threat?
This time when I turned and left. I didn’t go back.
“Mum, I’ve been doing some thinking.” I held my mum’s tired hand. It was 3 pm and the tea trolley was on it’s way. I could smell a fresh brew and custard creams. A nurse was rearranging the medicine trolley, checking items against her clipboard. “How would you like to go home?”
“Go home?” The words were tremulous, sweetly hopeful. “Home to my own house?”
“Yes. I think we could manage. If I relocate and work from home- your home- we could manage well enough. What do you think?”
“Oh Rebecca!” My mother’s grip tightened. “It’s what I’ve been dreaming of, but I couldn’t tell you. You have your own life to live.”
“Let’s just say I had a sudden inspiration. Experienced a guiding light, so to speak.”
“It would be like old times!” Her eyes were bright and a little bit teary.
“Steady on. I am a grown-up now, you know. I’m too old for stories!”
“Even the one I used to tell you about Scrapefoot?”
A peculiar feeling twisted inside me; part fear, part joy. “That is a story best left for another day. Wait until we get you home and I’ll tell you everything…”
Scrapefoot is a traditional folktale, said to be the inspiration behind Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In this story, Goldilocks is a wily fox!
This is the penultimate part! No artwork this week, as I’ve been prepping for some of my classes, so I’ll leave you with a rather nice photo instead!
He wandered away and I followed him. It was like he owned the place and I felt silenced. There were many things I wanted to say, but my tongue was stubbornly mute.
We arrived at my mother’s bedroom. This was not a good idea, my inner voice warned. This wasn’t where you should be going, but he flung open the door and my mother’s room was just as she left it, with the bed made and the dressing table tidied. The faint smell of the powder she always used at bathtime made me so sad, tears sprang to my eyes.
“See what I’ve done here,” the man said. He flipped open the quilt. “This mattress was terribly lumpy, so I got one of those toppers. Your ma will think she’s sleeping on a cloud from now on.”
“You shouldn’t have done that,” I said weakly.” It’s not your place.”
An evil little voice said no, it was your place to do all those things, but you never did. You were always too busy. The man is still speaking. He looks ridiculously pleased with himself.
“I tried the other beds. The spare was way too hard and that little sofa bed in the box room was so soft and saggy it would ruin your back. Now this one_” he waved a hand. “Is just right.”
I gathered my wits. All I want to do is thank him, but I could not. He was a home invader!
“Look, Mr- I don’t even know your name.”
He grinned. His teeth were white and sharp. “Scrapefoot.”
“Mr Scrapefoot. You cannot stay here.”
“But it’s empty, and I have nowhere to go.”
When he didn’t answer, I sighed impatiently. “That’s as maybe, but this is not your house, and there are charities which deal with- all that.”
“You forgot about the star.”
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake. What about the star?”
“It’s a sign of hospitality and compassion.”
“In what way?”
“Think about that family, the homeless family, who lived in the stable all those years ago.”
“Are you talking about…Bethlehem? That’s got absolutely nothing to do with this, and anyway I’m not religious or even remotely spiritual. As far as I’m concerned, that’s just a story.”
“Like a folktale?”
“Yes, if you like.”
“A bit like the ones your mother used to tell you? The Artic Fox and the Northern Lights, and what was that other one? The very old one that eventually became Goldilocks and the Three Bears. What was the name of that one again?”
My blood ran so cold, I felt like I’d been standing out in the garden for an hour or two. Had I told him about those stories? That my mother used to tell them to me by the light of the fire? I don’t think I had. They’d popped into my head, certainly, after seeing that white fox, and the animal tracks and the flames licking at the chimney. But if I hadn’t told him, how on earth did he know?”
“Have you remembered the name of the story yet?” He asked again.
Hello! Hope you are doing fine. Thanks for dropping by to catch up with Part 4 of Scrapefoot. I thought it would only be four parts, but this story has other ideas! Thanks so much for reading.
This week, who exactly has broken in to Rebecca’s mum’s house?
For the first time in my adult life, I felt a bit blindsided. How on earth was I going to get him out?
“If you don’t leave immediately, I’m definitely going to call the police and have you done for breaking and entering.”
“I didn’t break anything,” he said. “I fix things.”
He nodded towards the table leg. He was crafty.
“How exactly did you get in?”
He laid a finger aside his long, elegant nose and tapped it. “Ways and means, ways and means.”
“What? Look, this is my mother’s home and-”
“But she isn’t, is she?”
“She’s in a home. Look, this is really none of your business.”
He put another log on the fire as if the words coming out of my mouth meant nothing to him.
“I’ve cut some logs for her, out the back.” He dusted his hands together.
“But-but she doesn’t need logs. She’s in a home, where she is being looked after.”
“Looked after.” He repeated. “After. Doesn’t that word mean behind? Like something left behind, or a second thought?”
I was so angry I couldn’t reply. I glanced at my phone screen. Was calling 999 an overreaction? He didn’t seem dangerous, just…odd. I was just trying to remember the non-emergency police number when he stalked past me. I caught that sharp whiff again, the foxy, musky smell. I’d forgotten about the fox. Had it gone into the other room? That’s where he seemed to be going, the strange man, crossing the floor with long loping strides. Into the sitting room he went, and I followed him. He sat down in the big easy chair where Mum used to relax to watch Coronation Street and do her crossword. The memory made something go chink inside me, like a bit of ice breaking off. The man gave a couple of experimental bounces.
“This is better, isn’t it?” He jumped up so quickly I backed away, but he came after me, took my arm gently, the way a spaniel picks up a feathery game bird. “Come on- you try it. Remember how this chair was really lumpy?”
“No I don’t. This was my mother’s chair. I’m not in the habit of sitting in it and she never complained”
Reluctantly, I let him guide me to the chair and I sat down. The cushion moulded to my shape. Even though every sinew in my body was knotted with tension, I let myself imagine how wonderful it would be to let the softness of the cushion lure me into complete relaxation. Horrified, I sat bolt upright.
“Is this a new cushion? What the hell are you playing at?”
The pale stranger plonked himself down on the sofa, did another couple of experimental bounces, and then moved to the wing chair by the window, the one that had been my grandmother’s. That chair, I recalled, was evil. It seemed to have springs pinging from its soul.
“This chair is dreadful,” he said. “So hard and uncomfortable.”
“Yes, you’re right. I’ve never liked that chair.”
“And the couch- well, that is too soft.”
I tipped my head in consideration. “I always quite liked the couch. I used to curl up there to do my homework.”
“ Bad for your back. I bet you have a bad back.”
“ I have sciatica, but that’s neither here nor-”
“ So I found that cushion in the skip and now your mother’s chair is just right. She’ll be so happy when she comes home.”
He looks so pleased with himself, like a smiley collie dog, that I don’t have the heart to tell him she will never be coming home.
Thank you for reading!
While you’re here, please take a look at my novels and writing courses. I love to blend a little folklore into my novels, and from my interactions with readers, I know you like it too! If you can, please leave a review on Amazon and Goodreads. With book shops closed, it would really help. Thank you in advance!
It’s Sunday again! I can’t believe it. For people who are confined to barracks, we’re fairly rattling through the weeks and months! Let’s hope time is propelling us towards a bright spot on the horizon. Anyway, I hope you are keeping safe and well and have a few moments to spare for the third instalment of Scrapefoot. Who is behind the brightly-lit windows of a seemingly empty cottage? Enjoy…
My heart must have stalled, because it suddenly started up again, rattling in my chest like a freight train. This time I did fumble for my phone, not to access the flashlight, but to have 999 at the ready. Squatters. That was the only explanation. Eel Beck Cottage was an ex-forestry worker’s dwelling. It had its own modest patch of land, with a vegetable plot at the back and a front garden over which, despite some heavy-duty wire netting, my mother had fought a long running battle with the deer. This was not a house you’d stumble upon. There were no passers-by in the wood, no ramblers, or tourists or opportunists. Whoever was behind those warm amber windows had chosen to be here. Had been led here. I glanced up at that bright star.
How dare they? Mustering all my courage, and mentally rolling up my sleeves, I started up the garden path. I was not afraid of confrontation. Most people, be they board members or gnarly trespassers, could be viewed as naughty children. They just needed the error of their ways pointing out to them in no uncertain terms. I had only taken a handful of steps when I realised I was not the first to mark this pristine blanket of snow. There were tracks, a single animal, leading right up to the front door. Animal prints. Fox prints. I stopped dead. Despite the cold and the dark, the front door was slightly ajar.
I faltered. Icicles, like crystal drops, had formed on the stone lintel and now they were melting, drip, drip ,drip. Someone had lit a fire in house. I could smell woodsmoke and the snow which had been banked up against the bottom of the door caved in like a child’s sandcastle. The amber light around the door seemed to grow brighter. For a second, the idea of a dirty, smelly fox slipping into my mother’s home outraged me more that the notion of a vagrant take-over. I could smell fox; that sharp, musky whiff. The same scent that greeted me in London when I went out to my car in the early mornings. The scent of something waiting and watching, anticipating my next move.
Giving the door a shove, I stepped over the threshold of snow. A rich, dark heat hit me: smouldering timber, winter apples, spice. It propelled me forcibly back to childhood, to my mother’s far-fetched tales, fleecy pyjamas, hot chocolate before bed. I had to swallow something hard that lodged in my throat and when I called out, my voice had lost its usual authority.
“Hello? Who’s there? You shouldn’t be in here, you know.”
I let my gaze roam around the walls. The place was filled with candles in jars. On every surface they sat, little flames dancing like fireflies. I’d been imagining a crime scene, the place burglarised, upturned drawers and scattered paper and desecration. But none of that was evident. The place looked broadly as we had left it twelve months ago, when the paramedics had skilfully manoeuvred my mother over the same threshold. She’d looked back once, and I’d had to avert my eyes from the deep well of sorrow in hers.
No the place looked undisturbed. I said it again- hello -in a much firmer voice. A head popped up from behind the table, quickly followed by the rest of the man who’d been crouching there. There is a strange man in my mother’s kitchen. That’s all my brain would come up with. There is a strange man in my mother’s kitchen.
And he was indeed strange.
He was very…pale. Like a faded painting. Hair the colour of ash and a wispy beard to match, an Arran jumper unravelling at the hem, and those camouflage pants that soldiers wear in the desert. He was barely there, yet somehow he seemed to merge with the kitchen and all its neutral shades; whitewash, stone, limed oak. When he looked straight at me, his eyes reflected the amber glow of the candlelight.
“Hello,” he said, as if I was the visitor, the intruder.
“What do you think you’re doing?” My voice was gaining ground, becoming more confident.
He glanced at the floor tiles. “I was fixing that table leg. It’s wobbly, the table.”
“It’s always been wobbly, but-”
“No problem. You’re welcome.” He moved over to the hearth where a healthy blaze was spitting and crackling. Sparks detached themselves and floated up the chimney. As a child, I used to rush outside to see if I could spot them emerge, little specks of fairy dust against the night sky. I shook the notion away.
“My mother hasn’t used that fireplace for years. There’s central heating and light.” I marched over to the wall and clicked a switch. The kitchen was flooded with a harsh artificial glow, making the stranger wince. I could see him clearly now. My first thought was that he was much younger than I’d first thought. Maybe he’d gone prematurely grey, like Philip Scofield. His skin was still young and taut, and his facial hair looked a bit tentative, like a teenager’s. It was hard to work out his age.
“I like the dark,” he complained, rubbing at his eyes.
I immediately clicked off the switch and we reverted to candlelight. What the hell was I doing?
“Look- who are you? I’m going to call the police.”
He laughed at that, one of those seen-it-all-before laughs. “I wouldn’t bother. They’d never be able to find this place. It took me all my time.”
“So how did you find it?” I was feeling frustrated, angry and my legs were tired. I wanted to sit down, but I had to get this person out of the house first.
“The star, of course.” He jerked his head towards the low ceiling. My thoughts travelled upwards, through the rafters and the attic, up into the sky to the Great Conjunction. I brought them back down to earth and rearranged them. I had to get this CRAZY person out of the house. Something else occurred to me.
“That fox- is it yours? A pet or something? It came in here, I saw the prints in the snow. You need to get out and take it with you.” I suddenly moved from the spot where I’d planted myself, looking under the table and between the legs of chairs. “They’re unhygienic.”
“The white fox?” His voice sounded amused.
“Is it a dog?” I straightened up. That would make more sense. “Is it your dog? Look, seriously, you and your dog need to sling your hook. Get out now. This is my mother’s house. I don’t even know how you got in.”
I glance around wildly but there is no sign of a forced entry. Everything is untouched apart from the addition of a warm fire and soft lighting- and a fixed table leg.
“No, No, it’s not a dog,” he said eventually, but he didn’t elaborate.
Thank you for reading! See you next week for Scrapefoot #4
Thanks for joining me on the blog! As promised, here is part 2 of Scrapefoot. Rebecca has simply gone to check on her mother’s empty cottage in the woods- but what will she find? Check back next week for part 3. Enjoy!
Now, in the wood at Eel Beck, something strange occurred. I felt a little disorientated, giddy. It was like being hit by that first sip of glühwein when the air is cold and your stomach is empty. It wasn’t unpleasant, just a shifting of things, as if the cottage I was heading towards was no longer where I might expect to find it. The wood was white and alien and when I paused a moment to look back, my footsteps had been obliterated. Or maybe they had never been there. Where had that voice come from? It had broken into my thoughts, low and insistent. Catching my breath, I glanced at the tree beside me. It was a holly bush, grown to such a point that it could safely be called a tree. The snow had slipped from its razor leaves, leaving green, glossy spikes and berries the colour of blood. In this faded-out world, the red hurt my eyes. It looked positively gaudy, a distraction.
In my peripheral vision, I saw something else- a slash of silver, a black eye, a slender paw. I gasped, but the more I looked for the creature, the more I saw only absence; twirling snow, ragged roots. It had been a fox, a white fox!
I felt breathless, glorious and yet strangely cheated, as if I’d only been granted certain permissions, and was longing to learn more. How often does anyone get to see a white fox? Are you sure that’s what you saw? That voice again. I glared at the holly tree, but she was giving nothing away. She? Oh, come on! I shook my head at my own foolishness. The landscape was playing with me. The longer I stayed there, the more it would try to outwit me, like an owl waiting to sense the heartbeat of a mouse beneath the ground. Don’t fall for it, I told myself. My mother’s vacant home was only a five minute walk away. Go check on it. Turn on the taps, make sure there are no leaks or broken windows and get the hell out of there.
Before ploughing onwards, I cast a last glance behind me. Despite the ongoing snowfall, the path was crisscrossed with tracks. Not mine, they were still missing, but I recognised the cleft print of deer, the spiky splay of some kind of bird, and paw prints of all kinds, from shrew-sized to dauntingly large. The one that stood out the most was the one I seemed to know by heart. Perhaps as a child, I’d learned to recognise it. This trail threaded back on itself, looping around the rest like a sheepdog or crime scene tape. Bold, self-possessed. Quick-witted. A slender arrow of five pads, with the indents of sharp claws. Fox.
All those random impressions in the snow began to resemble a music score, an offbeat tune that filled my being and made my heart stutter an accompanying bass beat. Pressing my hand there, I tried to swallow my irrational fears and took a deep breath. I hadn’t noticed any of those tracks as I’d passed. I hadn’t noticed them. That didn’t mean they hadn’t been there. It was absurd to think otherwise, that somehow these creatures had manifested behind my back like ghosts, I shook my head and walked on. The light was fading fast and I deliberated whether to activate the flashlight on my phone.
My mother had always been a great one for an uncanny story. She knew all the old tales from this part of Yorkshire; the menacing Gytrash, its eyes like burning coals, Mother Shipton the prophetess, well-dwelling serpents and Scrapefoot the Fox, who gatecrashed a bear’s lair. Sometimes mum would sketch odd things in the evenings, straining her eyes by the light of the fire. As a child, I was fascinated and appalled in equal measure, but later, that turned to contempt. She made me despair. I wasn’t interested in her tales or her drawings and it was the 21st century. We had electricity, for goodness sake! It was as if she wanted to row back to an earlier, eerier time, when the fire played out such tales across the ceiling, the characters like shadow puppets, lurking in the cracks in the plaster. No wonder I was in such a hurry to grow up and leave. My current home is a newbuild; a swish apartment in Highgate, with artic white walls and high-performance lighting controlled by personal software which means I can illuminate the place from my I-phone. I never have to step into a dark room.
I am no longer used to the dark. The trees seemed to be bearing down on me. Above me the sky was like a massive 3-D poster, a luminous chart of all the constellations I had ever known. I could even identify some of them; Orion and his belt, the Big Dipper. And the one that looks like a W. Right overhead was suspended the brightest of stars, or perhaps a planet. On the News, there’d been a story about a Great Conjunction, the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn, but I hadn’t really been paying attention. Apparently, it hadn’t been seen for centuries and they thought (whoever they were) that this might have been the actual Christmas Star.
Another of my mother’s stories flitted into my mind. In Finland, Artic foxes are said to race across the sky, brushing the mountain peaks with their tails. The resulting snowflakes ignite to form the Aurora Borealis. Like all of my mother’s stories, I’d packed it away with a sigh, impatient to move on, but out here, in the dark, below the vast dome of the sky and amid the hush of the snow, it felt like anything was possible.
I tried to shrug off the notion. Any moment now, the cottage would come into view and I could do my duty and return to my car, which was parked on the main road. And then it would be back to my hotel for a warming mulled wine at the bar. By some strange quirk, the Christmas Star, or whatever that bright shiny thing was, seemed to be pinned right above me, above the cottage, like a bauble on some weird cosmic Christmas tree.
And then I noticed two things. That creature, that flash of silver fur I’d spied earlier, whistled past me again and in my mother’s cottage, lights were blazing. Lights which should not be there. Each pane of glass was a little square of flickering gold in the dark wood…
Hope you’ve enjoyed part 2! While you’re here, do read about my writing journey, my books and my creative writing courses- and do drop me a comment. I’d love to hear from you!