It hardly feels like a week since my last blog let alone a month! That’s because it’s been a really busy few weeks since getting the last notes on ‘Fenn Halflin and the Seaborn’ (to be published in July) and school visits for World Book Day, where I’ve been running workshops to help children write their own stories, as well as talking about ‘Fenn Halflin and the Fearzero‘ of course.
But suddenly Spring really feels like it’s arrived and I was desperate to see it. I felt like I’d not been outside for months and really wanted to see Suffolk’s huge horizons again. So after I’d ironed the school shirts, found lost ties, put on the hundreth wash, barked at the kids to get their boots on, stuffed apples and packets of crisps in a rucksack, we drove over to Blythburgh with the new puppy, Didi, to give her-and me-a much needed run!
We started at the beautiful church of Holy Trinity, nicknamed the Cathedral of the Marshes, a magnificent church set high enough on a ridge so that at one perfect moment at sunset it can look as if the church is on fire as the sky blazes crimson through the windows. Taking turns to baby-sit Didi (who refuses be left alone for one second), we cricked our necks admiring the wooden angels flying in the ceilings, wondered what the scratched words on the door might have meant, and talked about how long it took them to build a church this big with stone and flint. Next we clambered up the crumbling stairs into a little priest room and then, while I photographed Jack of the clock, an ancient mechanical figure that once struck the hours, my ten year old daughter carefully wrote her name in the church ledger. It seemed important to her-in this beautiful place- to leave something of herself in the heavy book smelling of damp, full of autographs by people from as far away as Australia. Then we were out in the sunlight again, bumping between the gravestones as our eyes adjusted from the dark of the church to the bright white marsh-light.
We trudged back through the pub car-park, down onto the reed beds flanking the estuary. It was a glorious afternoon, balmy, a lavender-tinted haze hung over the mudflats and at this time of year, the gorse flowers are just starting to prick out. This is a place I’ve always known; this is the same place that when I was seven, we freed a seagull my mum had found with a ripped wing, and brought back from the near-dead. My sisters and I dug up worms for it and nursed it to health until it could be released, as vicious as the day we saved it. This is the place I was thinking of for ‘Fenn Halflin and the Fearzero’ , it’s where I imagined Fenn grows up, and it’s where his tale concludes, so this afternoon it felt like I was standing in my own story – and my made-up story – at exactly the same time. My children even spied a boat, rotting down in the reeds just like Fenn discovers in the second book. I almost imagine the Ionia (a boat that features in the first book) might be behind me, but the truth is the real Ionia lies south of here on Aldeburgh’s marshes, and was burned down long ago to much less than the one dissolving here.
We find a bird hide and bundled in. Didi whimpers at the darkness and has to be carried (I suspect we might have a wimp here) and she’ll only be settled with my daughter’s molly-coddling. I regret we aren’t a family of proper bird watchers and have no idea what we’re doing; we made far too much noise as we took our places on the benches and squinted through the binoculars. Cack-handed, we juggled old technology (a tatty guide book to birds) with the new (iphones for photographing birds when spotted) and when there are no birds to be seen, or those we saw we didn’t recognise, we cheered ourselves up by scoffing crisps and reading the graffiti scratched into the wooden sills: lovers’ names, a love heart, a swear word nearly scrubbed out, and finally a very long, meticulously carved declaration ending with the words ‘I’ll always remember the day with Neal’. (sic). I’m no expert on wood-scratched graffiti but I’m sure it must have taken hours to gouge.
I wonder if Neal knows this love letter exists. I wonder about his story and the story of the person who took so long NOT watching birds so they could carve out this message. Did they come to this hide specifically? Was this hide special to them? Was it a spontaneous carving or had they come equipped; chisels jangling against the binoculars in their bag ? How odd would it be if another Neal comes here and claims the words for himself. What if the real Neal comes here one day and doesn’t realise the words were meant for him? Then it struck me that he surely knew and the graffiti wasn’t really for him anyway; people want to say something, to leave their mark so others know they were there, that they cared, that they remembered a special day. The person who scratched Latin on the church door, the angel carver, my daughter writing her name in the guest book, the flint-knapper building the church porch, even the gravestones. It’s not just writers who tell stories, every mark tells one too. I just think writers look hardest for them, then try to tell them in a new way.