The first of two passages from Next Year In Jerusalem
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Snow fell unexpectedly in my hopeful seventh spring. It made shadows of the bare boughs. It sent shivers down the spindly spine of young birch. It found out the eroded pointing in the brickwork. With a gentle insistence it gathered along the window-ledges, made portholes of the panes and silenced the astonished birds. Flake by flake, it settled upon the lawns Simms had already mown twice that season, and obliterated the paths as though it meant business. Soon it had created a ghostly monochrome world. A child’s world.
No one guessed it was coming. The weather forecast had been promising. It came without warning, this taste of winter in May; a thief in the night.
Mrs Simms, housekeeper at St. Mary’s declared: “Well, well, I never! That’s put paid to the picnic, then. Nipped our plans right in the bud, that has, dear.” She liked things to be orderly, predictable.
“Never mind, I suspect the children won’t be too disappointed,” Sister Joseph said in a pleasant rallying tone. “They’ll be just as happy making snowmen as picking cowslips. You can’t order the weather, I’m afraid.”
She was right. We whooped with delight and scrambled on to the sills to watch the sky come tumbling down to earth at last. We had longed for snow and felt cheated. Unlike its predecessor, the winter had been a sequence of lethargic days, of damp pavements and mild winds that never got off the ground. There was no cutting edge to it. No blade-bright December or January to sting colour into your cheeks and pinch your toes. Spring came unheralded, robbed of its magic. Even the snowdrops flowered unremarked.
But the advent of snow put a new complexion on things. It lent poignancy to the frail evidence of rebirth.
Throughout lunch that day, which included mortifying wads of bread-and-butter pudding I shall never forget, we agitated to be let loose on the sugar-frosted landscape and, as soon as it was over, crowded the exit noisily. We rolled in the snow, scooped it up and stuffed it by the fistful into our mouths, tobogganed in the dell where the oaks were strung with rubber tyres. Long earthen scars appeared upon its slopes. The air was thick with shrieks of glee and icy missiles exploding on ducked backs. Some built a fortress in the shrubbery, irrigating its mote with a length of hose burgled from Simms’ shed, until the brindled snow had turned to slush, the towers sank in ruins and the ramparts were no more.
“I know,” cried someone, “let’s dig for buried treasure!”
And as enthusiasm quickened among us, we fell to seeking our fortune in the swede patch Simms had painstakingly prepared for the new crop. The primary colours of our spades struck a contrast with the snow and with the cheerless garments thrust upon us in those years of rationing after another fullscale war. The world had not entirely awakened to its own survival.
Fortunately, Simms had gone into town on an errand for Matron, and was not around to see his beloved domain turned inside out, soil and snow and clods of clay flying from the trench. The going was tough. The purposeful were soon singled out from those in search of aimless distraction.
“The ground is hard,” complained the whey-faced Polish boy Matron fed with iron pills and spoons of loathsome fish-oil he spat out at her. “I try somewhere else.”
A groan went up from the rest of us. We knew him of old.
“Novak’s chickened out before we’ve started,” sniffed Thomas in disgust, a good-natured elderly boy of eleven who took command of all our enterprises.
“It’s all right for you, my spade’s too blunt,” the quarrelsome Lucy told him.
“Mine’s broken,” wailed little Humphrey, and the corners of his mouth curved down and the beads of moisture in the corners of his eyes filled out.
“Have mine, then,” I said. I was dizzy and my chest felt sore.
“You’re my best friend,” he beamed up at me. “You can have my pudding tomorrow. Unless it’s treacle tart!”
"Old Beaky says she's got a dicky ticker," Thomas informed them, mopping his overheated brow upon his sleeve. "Reckon he could be right. She's always out of breath."
Next Year In Jerusalem was originally published by Robert Hale Limited (now The Crowood Press) in 1980
My train home wasn't due for another half hour and I strolled up the platform, looking for something to snack on. There wasn't anything particularly appetising left at that time of the afternoon at the small town station, and I was suddenly tempted by a bag of cheese and onion crisps. Crisps in general are my guilty pleasure, although I prefer plain ones, and I probably hadn't had cheese and onion ones since my student days. College food was so genuinely revolting that, more frequently than I care to remember, all it would take was one mouthful to consign the contents of the entire tray to the rubbish before heading to the tuck shop, buying four packets of crisps, and then dining on them in my room.
And so, in memory of my undergraduate former self, I pulled the packet open and the pungent smell of chemical cheese and lab onion hit my nostrils, bringing back a wave of happy memories. I munched and looked up at the East Anglian sky, especially endless and near in Cambridgeshire. Something stirred on the platform canopy above me. Two rooks were looking down at me. Or perhaps at my crisps.
I glanced around, looking for any signs forbidding the feeding of vagrant birds – you never know these days – then wondered if any of the other passengers waiting for the train would raise any objections. Were I younger, I would not have hesitated for a second. Now that I am middle-aged, I have become a little more wary of displaying my eccentricity in public. After all, a young eccentric woman is seen as endearingly quirky. A middle aged one – sadly – often as mad.
I stared at the birds, hoping that somehow, by a telepathic process, they would understand that if they flew down, they would get some crisps. Then I hesitated. Did I really want to give these innocent, unsuspecting creatures, unhealthy processed food? Oh, go on. I quickly glanced around to check that nobody was watching and threw down one crisp. The rooks spread their wings and swooped down with as much speed as silent grace. One of them, the larger one, landed a few centimetres away from the crisp, while his more timid companion kept her distance despite my attempts to lure her closer.
The large rook walked tentatively towards the crisp then stopped to study me. I was drawn into the beady blackness of his expression that seemed to plunge deeper and deeper into my soul. As though the rook was seeing a part of me no other human could. A feeling of bonding, of acceptance swept over me. Then he strutted to the crisp, held it under his talon, and began pecking at it with precision. I couldn't help but admire his table manners. Such a beautiful rook, with a long, sand-grey beak and glossy black plumage with glints of purple. I wished I could watch him for ever. Once he'd finished his snack, I slowly walked away. He followed me, looking up at me, expecting rather than asking. I dropped another crisp and enjoyed observing him as he secured it once again with his talon and proceeded to take small, delicate pecks at it. Every so often, he would look up at me. Not a furtive, indifferent peek. There was no red robin aloofness about this character. It was a quick but penetrating, intelligent glance. A connection that ran deep and was acknowledged by us both. I know you, it said silently. And at that moment, I didn't care what the humans at the station thought of me.
A few minutes later, I boarded my train feeling a lightness in my heart I seldom experience. A sense of freedom, of unlimited possibilities and peace. Of pure happiness. It had been just a moment on a station platform, sharing a bag of cheese and onion crisps with a rook. And yet it felt like such a special moment.
Like making a new friend. The kind you feel you've known for ever.
I’ve been binge-watching Game of Thrones for the who-knows-how-manyieth time. And in the process, mainly while the credits roll or I’m fast forwarding through the parts that I don’t enjoy as much, I have been wondering why I watch this, why it is so enthralling, and why I can watch it for the who-knows-how-manyieth time and still find it enthralling.
In the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge wrote about the willing suspension of disbelief:
“My endeavours” he wrote, “should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”
But I don’t think that’s it. It’s not a suspension of disbelief. And it is not willing. There is nothing of choice about it. We are enthralled - or we have enthralled ourselves. But it is not magic - it is neurology that captures us.
I believe stories work because of the imperative of belief. Deep down in the animal brain (which, let’s be honest, is almost all of it), there is an inability to understand that stories, whether on the page or on the screen, are not real. In some small part of the brain, we know, but we can’t overcome the other part. Or we forget about it as the story unfolds.
Yet there is a difference between stories and reality, if that exists anymore. There is some understanding that stories, real or not we can’t say, are not happening to us. This gives us the safety to enjoy, to experience the terror and heartbreak and grandeur without the need to run to safety.
One day, far in the future, I imagine, we or our descendants, or the descendants of whatever species are left, will lose this disability, this imperative to believe will disappear. Brains will automatically distinguish between what is real and what is not. Stories, all of them, will fail.
These lucky creatures, unable to see the world other than it is, will not understand the power our stories held over us. And they will wonder in disbelief why we writers spent our lives creating them.