I look up into the sky and it is the purest azure blue. It is also empty. Not empty of birds and cloud, but planes, and the vapour trails so beloved of conspiracy theorists.
These strange shape-shifting time-shifting days, such people – and I know a fair number – have other things on crazed over-active imaginative but otherwise perfectly reasonable and accurate minds.
What is actually going on behind the scenes of pandemic and economic collapse, they ask.
Who is making all the money, stashing all the cash in off-shore accounts, while poorly paid medics and other so-called front-line workers (to use the military terminology beloved of certain politicians and media oligarchs) work all hours of the night and day to save our lives?
Who is really in charge?
And what kind of world is being created for our children and future generations?
But let me get back to birds – fly into the realms of be-feathered fancy and distraction. Because what can any of us do, we sigh, especially being in lockdown. Or shall we be suspicious of that too? Have ‘they’ got the masses (that’s theoretically you, and me, by the way) exactly where they want us: out of the way, too scared to put unmasked faces out of the door for fear… We are being educated to be afraid, and so we mostly are: anxious, distressed, fear-full.
For us, here in the lush countryside of Perthshire where the air is clear and roads have lain silent for two and a half months, life is not so changed. We find ourselves immensely fortunate to no longer live in a city, or to have to share living space with others. The very thought of a single mum with two small children isolated on the tenth floor of a converted office block somewhere in England – the government’s solution to the housing problem – is, as they say up here, beyond my ken.
Time has changed though. Those days when it was sliced up into even quite large segments – but still called a schedule – are long gone. Now it is elastic, and stretches… Stretches in all directions, somehow – imaginatively, creatively, philosophically – while staying anchored in the same spot.
I have remained in my seat, in my lovely working space with the best feng shui this side of Asia, seeing a book to bed. True I have to trek back and forth across the garden, and in all weathers too, including hail in late April. But while giving my eyes a rest from the computer screen, I have seen branches break into green, wild cherry blossom flurry free on windy days, and now, the lawn – more moss than grass – spattering yellow, white and blue, with dandelions, daisies, buttercups and speedwell.
And the book? A piece of fiction – a fable – inspired by something that happened here, and which I started writing in Japan, it was completed in 2018 and then tinkered with through last year, so has some provenance. Why I did not push for publication for Christmas 2019 is a bit of a mystery to me. After all I had found the illustrator for the cover in October, and she had pulled out all the stops to get it done. Why had I not matched her enthusiastic response and energetic professionalism?
The answer I realize now is that I was not well. I was angry, despairing, being dragged down. So much so that we had no Christmas, or New Year; I just did not have the energy, could not be bothered. It was the build – the dragging build – that did it. An extension to the cottage that was supposed (on the basis of a handshake) to take three months maximum, but which was still not finished in February.
It was then I took matters into my own hands and in a state of desperate ignorance hired a team of cowboys to slate the roof. (Yes, we had been left to live through a Scottish winter without a roof or functioning electrics.) The day they left, it felt like a mountain being lifted from my shoulders. It has taken rather longer to smile again, especially since I have had come to see and accept that a botch job was done and it will have to be done again, but back in February life was slowly returning to that state of mind and being we called normal.
Then came the virus.
Now we have another normal. Staying local. Social distancing. Washing hands. Wearing masks. Shopping for needs, not wants.
What will the normal be next week? No idea. There is no normal any more; we need to learn to live in new and different ways, many of which may prove to be initially challenging but – let’s choose to believe – ultimately for the individual and collective planetary good. Those unconscious beings who insist to returning to their old ways may, I’m afraid, suffer alarming consequences.
My normal last week was an interview with the local paper about the book, published on May 1st. The photo-journalist and I sat outside in the sunshine, several metres apart, and Akii made us mint tea, which he left under a tree for us to help ourselves in our own time. A rather lovely afternoon if the truth be told.
My normal today? After an early shop to beat the queues, package up some books for posting out for promo purposes. Oh, and that drawing of a cat in a frame that I’d like to go to my daughter in Toronto. Also dig up some compost for putting in plants rooted over the winter. And stake an apple tree shaken free in a recent gale. Small things, but harmless and all useful in their own sweet ways. I get up, I do things, this and that, and then it’s time to go to bed.
And so it is. Good night. (With gratitude for today.)
Good morning. (With gratitude for another day.)
I am often asked where my ideas come from, and never more so than with any piece of fiction. What follows are five entries on Facebook that I posted late April into May as leads-ins to publication.
STORIES LEADING TO THE STORY…
No.1. A visual image seeded long ago
This scroll of a pair of mandarin ducks hung in my study in Japan for as long as I can remember. I have no memory of where it came from; was it a gift, did I buy it?
It has hung here in the o-shotei (my work space/study/studio ) since we came to Scotland in late 2012. And I would have liked to photograph it in situ, just across from my desk, but sadly a dark day, with rain clouds gathering to the west. So I hung it outside, and realise that since its job is done – the story told and book on its way – it can maybe find a new home. Right now, mission accomplished, it is blowing in the breeze, almost as if readying for take off. Interesting how these things happen.
STORIES LEADING TO THE STORY…
No.2. Clipped and pinned
It seems I got the arrival date of the scroll wrong. It came as part of a Christmas package, to be described tomorrow.
Today I’m going to take you back to the time I subscribed to the weekly airmail version of The Guardian Newspaper. Being far from home, it was a regular treat and I always read it from headline to yes, even the last word on the last sports page.
In one issue, sometime after the year 2000 and our move to Zushi, I cut out a tiny three-line report that a lone male Mandarin duck had been spotted on a reservoir near Bridgenorth, in Shropshire. Being the county of my ancestral heritage, and knowing the area well, I suppose it resonated; I certainly knew next to nothing about Mandarins.
On a visit back here to see my mother and aunt prior to 2007, the incident occurred locally that sparked the idea for my story, and the subject of that clipping was most probably why ducks became Mandarins in my mindset.
The clipping, which resided for many years on my pinboard in Zushi, disappeared in the move in 2012. But I remember it well.
PS This film was shot in 2010 in Rotterdam, which – another piece of engaging synchronicity – is (in my story) en route…
STORIES LEADING TO THE STORY
No.3. One Mandarin after another
I was Akii who gave me the scroll, and various other duck-related memorambilia, for Christmas four years ago. I had published HOUSEHOLD STORIES/Kateo Monogatari, and was set on my next project, but flagging.
“They are to encourage you,” he explained, as I opened one after another small packages, gleaned from e-Bay and all over.
And so they did. For a while at least.
STORIES LEADING TO THE STORY.
No.4. Knit and stitch, write on
The winter of 2018 was hard. My hands were so cold some days I could not write. Then Cassie came to my rescue.
Passionate about colour, Cassandra is a textile artist living in Brighton (https://cassandrawhitfield.com/) When I first arrived in London in 1962, I and her mother, Judy Whitfield (and two others) shared a flat in NW2, so I have known Cass since she was a baby.
Knowing she was making mittens from recycled fabrics and adding personal notes with applique and stitches, I commissioned a pair to help my Mandarins move forward, and within days, they arrived.
Looking at them now, I am delighted not only by the birds, but the symbols she used, both of which synchronistically appear on the cover of my book. They were on a list I sent the illustrator, Meilo So, who lives on Yell, Shetland.
STORIES LEADING TO THE STORY… No. 5. Moving in the right direction
It was a friend of a friend who put me straight.
“Your ducks”, she said, pointing to three vintage ceramic mallards hung above my door, “are flying in the wrong direction.”
Sally Lemsford was looking around my study after staying the night after a conference in Aberdeen.
“Aren’t they supposed to be flying home to China? Well, they are heading West.”
She was right. As soon as she had left, for the long drive back down south, I took them down and hung them on the wall opposite. Finally, they were heading East.
The very next day I found the Chinese illustrator I had been searching for, and arranged to meet in Aberdeen.
Soon enough, the story was told. The cover illustrated. Production completed.
And so, after five stories, FIVE OF A FEATHER – a fable.