The Hour of the Book

The day is drawing in and I'm rushing to finish translating a page.  I need to look up a word and that slows me down.  I don't like to stop mid-page but if I don't leave now I'll be late.  Do I really want to go there tonight with all the work I have to do? And it's so cold out there.  I dither out loud.

"Go," H. says. "You know you always enjoy it once you're there."

I quickly tap cmd + s to save my work, pull on my boots, grab coat, scarf, gloves.  Where did I put my notepad? H. is standing by the door, waiting to lock it behind me.

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As usual, I'm cutting it fine, but after a brisk walk I push open the glass door and walk into the bookshop.  The Book Hive is a local institution.  "Eclectic, thoughtful, and tempting - a must for book lovers visiting Norwich", Margaret Atwood said.  A quirky-looking, three-storey building on a street corner that holds a wide range of hand-picked, quality titles on just about every topic you can imagine, many translated from other languages. A setting with so much personality, it's crying out to feature in a short story or a play, with its three levels, getting narrower the higher you go.  A place I sometimes walk into just for the pleasure of a chat with Joe, Megan, Henry, or whoever happens to be behind the counter that day, although it's hard to then walk back out without succumbing to the temptation of a book you never knew existed but then decide you simply have to have.

But I am not going to buy a book this evening, or chat with the bookseller.  This evening, just like all the other people there, I am going to spend an hour being quiet.

It's the weekly Page Against the Machine hour, when you can bring your book and round up the day by just sitting and reading.  Behind the counter, Joe has already lined up the glasses and offers you red wine.  He's put on some music, just loud enough to create a confidently relaxed atmosphere, and soft enough not to butt in between you and your page.  Often piano music, always wordless.

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There are already people scattered on all three floors of the shop, sitting wherever they've found a seat, sipping wine, absorbed in their book.  This time, I head for the wicker armchair in the corner by the small sash window.  There is a stuffed duck on the sill.  I call it the nature corner.  The low table and shelves carry books about seasons, the elements, birds, animals, trees, travel logs, landscapes.  I pull out my notepad.  I have an hour to do nothing but write.  Write.  Not translate other people's writing but actually scribble my own.  Luxury.  When I first discovered the Wednesday Page Against the Machine, I asked Joe if he'd mind my coming to write instead of read.  "Absolutely," he said.  "I can even clear you some space at one of the tables, if you like."  I don't go as often as I would like to; more often that not, work takes the upper hand.  But on those Wednesdays when I do manage to slam the laptop lid down on it in time to get to The Book Hive by 5.30 p.m., that hour feels like a capsule of therapeutic release.  A whole hour when I am free to write my own stuff, uninterrupted.  Luxury.

I lean down to pick up my glass of water on the low table and catch sight of a small 

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hardback.  Snow, by Marcus Sedgwick. Gosh, somebody thought of writing a book about snow.  What does he say about it? Does he talk about its softness as it muffles the city sounds or describe the unique, geometrical pattern of its flakes? I reach out to pick it up but resist the temptation.  No, I'm here to write. My eyes drift back to the black ink curls and swirls in my lined notebook, like untidy notes forming a daisy chain on a stave.  I turn my head to the side to stretch my stiff shoulder muscle and see How to Read Water in plain capital letters down a lilac-white spine.  I take off my long-sight glasses to focus on the author's name.  Tristan Gooley.  What an intriguing title.  How do you read water? What kind of water? River water? Tap water? The water content of our bodies? 

Enough with distraction.  I uncross my legs and cross them the other way, and take the chrome cap off my fountain pen again.  I manage to scribble two more sides of A4 without looking up.  More swirls and curls that make words.  I am writing a story about languages, about when two or three or even four words mean the same thing – and yet not quite.  About when two or three or even four individuals have the same concept in their language, but not the same feeling.

I take another sip of water.  My attention is drawn to a highly atmospheric picture of a tree, its wind-chiselled branches reaching out to a lead-grey sky charged with thunder.  Hawthorn, by Bill Vaughan.  I think of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Of reading The Scarlet Letterin my teens, The House of the Seven Gablesmany years later.  The old film adaptation with Vincent Price playing a goodie.  I look again at the picture of the tree.  At its branches, gnarled and twisted by the wind, and yet still standing in defiance of the elements.  It's just after 6.  I can probably fill a couple more sides of A4.  I am writing about a family that has been equally wrought by the gales that make up human life on earth.  I wonder if anyone will ever want to read it.  If one day, it will be bound into a hardback book, with a quote from another writer on the front cover.  What would the illustration on the dust jacket be? If it's the picture of a tree, then I hope it's an oak.  Tall, sturdy and wise.  An oak with centuries of stories to tell.

"It's 6.30," Joe says softly. patm_poster_A4 (1)

The shop stirs, as people lazily close their books, drink the last sip of wine from their glasses and slowly leave their seats.  It's time to leave the oasis.  Time, which paused for an hour, has resumed its course.

I put my empty glass on the counter on my way out.  "I hope I can come again next week," I say, the temporarily suspended awareness of my overwhelming workload rushing back into my relaxed brain.

I hope I can come again next week, I think as I pull open the glass door and step out into the street.  I wonder if I can organise my work so I can come every week.  Luxury.

Scribe Doll

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The Jesus of Silver Spring

In my novel The Island of Always, Lena (my protagonist) compares her ex-husband to Jesus—in that he loves everyone, just no one in particular (meaning her).

I was thinking about that today as a friend and I were exchanging emails on the subject of being alone later in life (I'm 63, and have been alone or on my own or however you want to put it for some years). My friend and I both agreed that writing (which is what we do, or at least how we think of ourselves) plays a part in that, both as a prerequisite, solitude being implicit in the writing life, and as a proxy, providing the joy and meaning that might otherwise come from companionship. 

Then I thought about Lena's line, and it occurred to me that there might be another alternative: compassion. Or perhaps the more personal counterpart: kindness. Maybe being kind to others, not just to other people, but to all the life around you, generates in you some of the same well-being that partnership might. It’s more spread out, certainly, easier to miss, no doubt. But maybe in aggregation enough to keep the heart alive. 

Perhaps in the end it all comes down to endorphins and complex neurochemical reactions. Or maybe there is a higher accounting, a karma to be built. But I wonder if the choice to engage with your little patch of the world in this way, each day, to smile at a neighbor, give a treat to a dog, or leave bread out for the birds and squirrels, can sustain the heart through the solitary years ahead. 

I hope so.

Hearts are important. 

 

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A Shapeshifter at Play

All the windows are locked.  Curtains closed.  Blinds pulled down all the way to the sills.  Even so, its chilly breath hisses through the tiny gaps and reaches my knees.  There is an occasional tremor in the candle flames on the coffee table.  The nervous awareness of the force outside.  The normally vocal pigeons on our roof are silent.  The shapeshifting dragon is letting rip, giving a spectacle of its histrionic power.  Now it soars into the skies, its tail lashing the dark clouds, sending crackling rain to slam against the window panes.  Now it's a tiger roaring in the night, sending a rumble rippling through the air.  Now a witch slaloming between chimneys on her broomstick, her impish giggle tickling the stars.  Then a gigantic owl, screeching in the roof, its wings whooshing in the air.  Then it swells into a tempestuous sea, foaming lips gnawing at the cliffs, then ebbing away before gathering into waves rising tall, fearless, tossing ships like juggling balls.  All of a sudden it retreats, quietens down, vanishes, like a memory you doubt.  Odd phrases of a tune that haunts you but which you cannot quite remember.  But, just two minutes later, it's a dragon again, spewing flames like a Venetian glassmaker's furnace, the bewitching fire of an Andalusian gypsy – spinning, swirling, lunging, turning raindrops into needles of ice, the supersonic speed of its flight making the windows quiver.  I am king, the dragon says. I am emperorAnd you've seen nothing yet. 

 

"It sounds like everything's about to come crashing down," H. says, looking up at the high ceiling of our living room.

I feel electrified, a thrill stroking my skin, like fingertips running up and down my spine, a sense of excitement and joy swelling inside me.  That and the unwavering sense that the power outside is choosing to keep me safe.

"I love – I've always loved the wind," I say.

 

Scribe Doll

 

 

 

 

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Early Autumn Wedding

"Are you having any readings?"

"No."

"Have you brought some music?"

"No."

"Do you have rings?"

"Yes."

The elderly registrar smiles with a hint of relief.  At least one traditional feature.  She tells those present that photos are not permitted during the actual signing of the register but they can be posed for afterwards.

"Does anyone have any questions?"

"No."

"In that case, shall we begin?"

We all stand in our appointed positions. Just the couple and two witnesses.  "We asked you  because you're the first people we met after we moved here," the bride and groom said. "Also, this way, none of our other friends can possibly be offended at not being asked."

Given these circumstances, H. and I feel deeply privileged to be here.

There are no other guests.  They felt disloyal about inviting friends and leaving out family.  She doesn't want her family's aloofness to sabotage her special day.  He knows his family aren't ready to hear the news.  Too much pain to come to terms with yet, too much forgiveness to be granted.  This marriage is a right built on wrongs.  Inevitable wrongs that had to be righted and could not be righted without some wrongs.  We're only human.  

He wears grey chinos and a blue shirt that brings out the colour of his eyes and the silver of his hair.  She bought a terracotta top for the occasion, as well as a blue-grey skirt.  Something new.  Nothing old or borrowed.  No flowers.  This is a second marriage for both.  A couple of decades ago, both had a day of white lace, speeches, three-tier cakes and pink champagne.  A day to please her husband's family and his wife's tradition.  Today is for them alone. 

The ceremony takes about twenty minutes. The registrar speaks the vows and they repeat after her slowly, meaning every word.   Plain, matching gold bands are slipped on fingers.  A tender kiss exchanged. This is a second wedding.  The youthful trust has grown into firm intention.  The candy-coloured spring blossoms have been replaced with the deeper, earthier hues of early autumn.  Passion with compassion.  

Scribe Doll

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Latest Comments

Katherine Gregor A Few Thoughts About Lent
13 March 2019
Now I didn't know that! Thank you!
Stephen Evans A Few Thoughts About Lent
13 March 2019
The word itself as I understand it comes from the Middle English term for Spring - which fits right ...
Katherine Gregor The Hour of the Book
08 March 2019
Well, that's Europe for you (while it lasts for the UK!) – everything small and close together. Mor...
Katherine Gregor The Hour of the Book
08 March 2019
You're very kind, Rosy. Thank you.
Stephen Evans The Hour of the Book
07 March 2019
How wonderful to have a bookstore you can walk to! They are few and far between in my area. The clos...

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