Written jointly in a 15 minute exercise in Iona on Angela Locke’s May 2019 Writers Retreat. Denis is named after David’s childhood cricket hero, Denis Compton (Middlesex and England) and Len after Charles’, Len Hutton (Yorkshire and England)
Selection Committee, Haltwhistle
Denis knocks on Len’s door
Denis: Morning, Len.
Len: Morning, Denis. I have put the kettle on.
Denis sits at kitchen table. Len makes pot of tea.
Len: We’ve got a real problem here, Denis. Saturday approaches and we still don’t have a team.
Denis: That’s right, Len, and Haydon Bridge are top of league.
Men ponder and drink more tea.
Len: You don’t think they’d lend us a couple of players?
Denis splutters and nearly spills tea.
Denis: Haydon Bridge! Them beggars wouldn’t give you time of day even if stood by church clock.
Len: Aye, you’re right. So what are we going to do?
Men ponder and drink more tea.
Denis: Haltwhistle isn’t just up to much this season. But we could reach out a bit. What about asking help up at Alston and then over at Brampton?
Len: It’s a bit of a stretch but why not? I’ll ring Steve in the Post Office at Alston.
Denis: And I’ll ring Bert at the grocers at Brampton. Then we’ll see what we can do.
Denis and Len sit back and enjoy rest of tea.
Denis: You know, Len, Haydon Bridge won’t know what’s hit ‘em. They’ll be stuffed.
Solid stone steps lead down to fields and flower beds,
Before this ancient house, a green lawn spreads.
But turn your head, look back towards the door
An anguished couple stand, as sun drops lower.
And what of the lad who’s saying good-bye?
His gaze looking past Shepherds Crag,
Is he riding away with a sword at his side?
Or wearing a khaki cap?
Is he trying to smile, and promise his mum
That one day, very soon, he’ll be back.
Can he see how the bees make the petals expand?
Hear the fountain that plays in the pond?
Will he care if the trees are cut down when he’s gone?
Does he feel any sort of a bond?
The house must have known many similar scenes
It’s stood on this brink for so long.
But the strength of the love when your boy takes the place
Of failed politicians, in war,
Is something beyond what we know of as love,
It’s not better than love,
It’s just more.
Crete is the largest of the Greek islands and strategically separates Europe from Africa. Here on the southern edge of Europe King Minos once ruled; the legendary Minotaur roamed deep in the labyrinth of Knossos and Zeus is claimed to have been born in a cave in the Lefka Ori mountains which form the backbone of the island. To walk along sections of the south west coast of Crete is to travel back in time. In places, where the limestone cliffs fall vertically into the sea, the old sea level is clearly visible. Seismic activity has violently tilted the land upwards until it is three metres higher than in ages past. As well as a journey through geological timescales there are also events which occurred in more recent times. Shortly after leaving Chora Sfakion, where over 20,000 British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers were evacuated when the Germans occupied Crete during World War II, a walker travelling west comes to the steep descent down the cliff face to the long sweep of Sweetwater Beach. So named for the freshwater springs which emerge here after percolating from high in the limestone mountains. St. Paul landed here as the ship he was travelling on collected fresh water. Two kilometres further west from Sweetwater one comes across the tiny church of Aghios Stavros perched above a semi-circular bay. On a hot day a swim here in the silky waters of the Libyan Sea is refreshing before continuing the walk along the oleander fringed path to Loutro, five kilometres further on. Half way round Loutro Bay is the Blue House restaurant and their fish soup makes a perfect first course followed by tender artichoke hearts in lemon sauce. Take your time at the Blue House if you are waiting for the 5.00pm ferry back to Sfakia but be warned, as Loutro may work its magic on you and you decide to find a room here for a night or two.
Oh, the disappointment that comes upon a happy wanderer when awoken from a dream! She was there, so vividly, where house martins had added mud nests and their carefree joy to the aged splendour of coffee coloured stucco, beneath the solemn tolling of the Euphrasian Basilica’s bells, and the notes of choir practice spilling over the polished cobbled paving beneath the Sacristy window.
She saw and heard the returning of the colourful fishing boats and the ancient, creaking shutters bleached silver, dishevelled on rusty hinges, rendering their seeming-permanence miraculous.
And – just as it had been since 1951 – the battered blue bicycle leant against the wall, no longer going places, basket now bright with garden flowers, energetic pedalling having given way years ago to sunlit evenings making embroidered shawls on the doorstep, geraniums glowing as buttercups might at her chin, beneath a deeply wrinkled concentration.
Clear too in this reverie was the small glass of something or other beside a basket of chocolate brown bread and olive oil on the little outdoor table, and needles in the orange pin cushion. Yes: in tonight’s gentle evening breeze this quiet, embroidering, sometime cyclist was recognised again as mistress of her universe.
But the heat? 32 degrees, perhaps. One didn’t feel heat like this in dreams. Heavens – and she meant ‘thank heavens’ – this was no dream! Wide awake, our chief travel writer Becky Buckley was actually, here and now, standing right in front of her old Croatian friend – who, in familiar broken-English, looked up from her craft-work and called to Becky – as she may to you – ‘welcome back to Poreč.’
Every year, when the air becomes sweet and warm with Spring’s green promise, and trees burden themselves with blossom and birdsong, my mother would take us on the pilgrimage. Sandwiches packed, the youngest crammed into the pushchair, we’d set off on the 5 mile round journey.
Stopping only once along the way we entered the municipal cemetery, and my mother would begin to unravel Time. Pointing to this or that headstone we learned our lineage and paid homage to ancestral bones.
Leaving the Joshuas, Jeremiahs and Sarah Annes to enjoy their eternal rest we headed west, through the council estate. And every year my mother pursed her lips and grumbled at the litter and told us in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t like this in her day, when fields stretched as far as the eye can see.
So it was with a sense of relief when we finally reached the track to the Hall and the green pasture of the farm. Surrounded by the familiar She would settle into the tale. This was where she had spent her childhood, an arm waved vaguely in the direction of the Hall giving us a false sense of ownership. Passing by the wall that separated the Hall from the farm, she pointed to the ivy covering virually every brick.
“I remember that being planted,” she’d say.
Awed by our mother’s great age we barely took in the row of cottages opposite where my mother and her sister spent the first years of their lives. And then, at last, the woods green and beautiful and effervescent in a bluebell haze.
Sitting by the beck she kicked off her shoes to rest weary feet on a flowery cushion and the stories would begin.
“Look, over there, that’s where Grandad found us the day we ran away because we’d lost half a crown on the way to the shop.”
Two little girls dabble sticks in the brown water, wrapped in a dream. And again we see them scooped up into their father’s arms, hugged close and carried home, their arms curled around his neck.
Passing Snotty Hill where She and her sister go shrieking down on a home made sledge we stop by the ruins of two tumbledown buildings. And another story, this time of the Victorian skirted grandmother who lived in one of the once-upon-a-time cottages. I gape as Little Red Riding Hood comes to life.
When, at last, we reach the path which runs through the centre of the wood, there is one final story. She and my father join other couples to walk out, arm in arm on a Sunday evening. Once more we see the girls in their Sunday best arm in arm with their uniformed beaus – for this is war time – heads close in happy conspiracy.
The last time my mother came here she was in her eighties. But as soon as she stood under the trees a younger self emerged. Spinning round on her heel, arms spread out she smiled up at the trees.
If she haunts any place, it is here in Judy Woods where on a windy day the trees sigh her name: She-Shee-She-lagh.