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Monday, October 25, 2021

 

Short story: The Pond


I'm sorry to have to announce that the publication date of In The Heart of Hidden Things has been moved from March to June 2022. This is nothing to do with the book or with Jo Fletcher Books; it's simply that Britain is facing shortages in pretty much everything at the moment, and for the publishing industry, that includes paper. 

Well, I'll try to be amusing in the meantime. We play a game on my Facebook page: people post pictures in the comments, and I write little sketches inspired by them. When I say 'inspired', I mean that in the loosest sense; I usually wander pretty far away from the original picture within a few sentences. 

Some of these sketches are short, but sometimes they turn into little short stories too long for the Facebook format. When that happens, I'm going to post them here. That happened with this picture (source), so here we go. Feel free to join in the game and post pictures on the Facebook!

One small note before we begin this one which might be helpful. In Hidden Things, the characters are 'fairy-smiths' - that is to say, blacksmiths who specialise in the kind of iron that repels fairies, also known as the Good Neighbours, the kind friends, and, most often in my world, the People. While writing, I noticed something immensely pleasing: if you can call a mill-worker a miller, you could call a fairy-worker a farrier, couldn't you? Farrier work is a real profession; these days it's a specialist in horses' feet, so something between a blacksmith and a vet. I just nicked the word because nobody stopped me. Hence, when I say, in some of these stories, 'farriography', don't upset yourself trying to find it on the Internet; it's just a silly word I made up to pretend that the study of fairy-smithing was a real academic discipline. Hidden Things doesn't take place in an academic world; this tale is one of several that involve imaginary modern scholars of an imaginary time and place long past. 

And, with that, let's go!


IMPORTANT NOTICE
From the Bath Institute of Farriography


We feel it's important to put to rest certain rumours that have been circulating of late: to wit, that the pond found in the ornamental gardens of Loathbury House is a sigil, and capable of philosophies.

We do not expect our members to accept a flat contradiction without question, so for the sake of ending the spate of vandalistic landscaping that has been taking place in recent weeks, we are prepared to disclose the following facts:

The layout does have a certain formality of design, and arithmychologists of recent years have spent a lot of time and ink analysings the proportions. Most notable among these has been Master Tommy Faber-Morris, late of the Cornwall Centre for Farriographical Preservation. No doubt members will all join us in sprinkling salt for his rapid recovery.

Members of his clan report that the problem was that he grew, over the years, increasingly preoccupied with numerology. This is a discipline the BIF does not advise the study of except under the supervision of an elder farrier of applied farriography, preferably one of at least two-score years and ten, and the fate of Master Tommy is a case in point. While it is not within our holdings to research or assign blame, it is evident that he was not adequately supervised. His researches took their own course, eventually resulting in the theory that the diameter of the human pupil, relative to the straightness of the eyelash, was a reliable predictor of the fate that awaited the soul after death.

It is not in the nature of farriographic institutes or working forges to discourage robust dispute, and we do not condemn Master Elizabeth Favre for her challenge to his views. The fact that she is not expected to emerge from her isolation until seven seasons have elapsed, beginning with the summer of this year, is an act of voluntary self-shunning, in order to express compuntion for any role she may have played in Master Faber-Morris's decline. We will welcome her back, and wish her fair fortune with her studies in the meantime.

What Master Favre did was only to point out, colleague to colleague, that while Master Faber-Morris's knowledge of numerology was unquestioned, his grasp on anatomy was a little shaky. This was, in fact, the case: in specific, he had failed to remember that the pupil of the eye varies in diameter moment to moment, depending not only on the amount of light - a fact Master Faber-Morris had acknowledged, and developed an elaborate system of sundials and sextants to adjust for - but also on the emotions of the eye's owner.

Master Faber-Morris, reluctant to abandon his theory, was heard to make many remarks on the connection between the eyes as windows of the soul, and the deadly sins, all of which, he argued, should be understood as emotional states rather than acts. 

So much would have been mere theology, except that he became, over time, a subscriber to the defunct Kovalenkan heresy that the People should be considered, not a class of being exempt from common doctrine, but a form of physical-spiritual dislocation - that is, souls without bodies, or bodies without souls.

At first, Master Faber-Morris attempted to publisher papers conflating fairies with ghosts, but, finding these rejected from peer-reviewed journals, he eventually moved on to a still-more eccentric position. To wit, he contended that certain states of emotion were so deadly in their sinfulness that they caused the pupil of the eye to distend to what he called 'the sulphuric ratio' - in other words, a ratio between eye diameter and eyelash length so diabolical that it caused the soul to escape the body entirely and join the fey, leaving the body prone to shapeshifting without a soul to keep it in order, and the soul a creator of illusions, marshlights and other such disreputable antics.

Had Master Faber-Morris been at home when he came up with this theory, it is likely that his clan might have assisted him to a better state of mind, but unfortunately, he was cataloguing some recently-discovered relics in the estate of Loathbury House, discovered when a drunken docent got into an argument with a floorboard in the stable building, on the grounds that the knots in the wood were giving him disrespectful looks and attempting to 'upskirt' a certain young lady visitor of whom he had hopes, and kicked in the board, revealing a hidden cache of talismanic implements below, evidently of old Faber worksmanship and of great historical and practical interest.

Master Faber-Morris's work on cataloguing this find was diligent, although unfortunately not useable for practical purposes given his tendency to digress upon the subject of whether the look given by the 'eyes of the wood' (the knotholes to which the docent had taken such unnecessary exception) should be considered within the sulphuric ratio. The more preoccupied with this he became, the more unsettled he became in his spirits, but it was the kindly-meant remark of a groundskeeper (name withheld for the man's privacy), who remarked that Master Faber-Morris looked tired and must be 'reading his eyes square', that truly deranged his methods.

Master Faber-Morris was fond of swimming, and had for some time been dipping his feet in the formal pond on the Loathbury grounds by way of refreshment. It was unfortunate that the shape of the pond was a combination of rounded and quandrangular; while Master Faber-Morris does not note this as an influence, he was observed, for several days in a row, attempting to douse his head within its water.

A groundskeeper approached and reasoned with him pointing out that the practice was not hygienic. Master Faber-Morris replied that he was attempting to 'keep body and soul together', and that his feelings were so disordered of late that he could never be certain that his pupils and lashes were in proper alignment. This somewhat confused the groundskeeper, who was aware that the cosmeticians of the local village had been finding Master Faber-Morris something of a nuisance, but, intending to be helpful, said that you'd need to be a newt to see comfortably below those waters, and Master Faber-Morris should take care of his health.

At this, Master Faber-Morris was heard to exclaim, 'Eye of newt!', and dived into the pond - in which, it should be added, a colony of crested newts did reside.

The groundkeeper reports that Master Faber-Morris made a creditable effort to stuff the first newt he found into his own eye socket; unfortunately, however, the pond was only three feet deep, which is not a depth at which diving is advisable.

Master Faber-Morris's concussion did not prove fatal, and his clan report that he is recovering well. He was somewhat disoriented, and apparently under the impression that smell of the pondwater was a contradiction to his theories of the sulphuric ratio, on the academically shaky grounds that the pond smelled cold and damp, and sulphur smells hot and dry. However, since the groundskeeper's remarks on 'reading his eyes square' and 'eye of newt' seemed to have had so deranging an effect on him, he was fortunately referred to Master Jennet Mackem, whose reputation in diagnostic farriography needs no elaboration here.

Upon examination, Master Mackem was able to diagnose Master Faber-Morris with, among other disorders, a hypersensitivity to proverbs. She therefore counselled him that he no longer believed in his wild theories, for the pond had 'knocked some sense into him.' 

Master Faber-Morris appears to have accepted this prescription and holds, for the moment, to entirely conventional views.

We are disclosing Master Faber-Morris's proverb sensitivity in the hopes that members of the community will make kindly accommodation when in his company, and also to put to rest any silly notions that the pond itself was responsible, either for the curing of disordered ideas, or the suppression of artistic temperament - both of which we have heard proposed in recent weeks, chosen apparently according to the preconceptions of the ranter. 

These are unstable times, and should any members of your own clan appear to be succumbing to excessive preoccupation along these lines, Master Jennet Mackem requests me to say that she is open for appointments, which may be booked through the address below.

There is nothing further to add, except that we counsel all members of our community to touch iron, remember their common sense, and also to please spare the pond any further interference. It is, as mentioned, home to a colony of crested newts, which are declining in numbers within these isles, and do not benefit from farriers up to silliness in their breeding waters. Have some respect, we charge you.


Friday, October 15, 2021

 

Hello again

 


 (Available for pre-order here.)

 

Well, I promised you a hiatus, and boy did I deliver. What happened there?

Well, at the time I stopped blogging, there were two things going on:

First: I was dealing with an undiagnosed case of PTSD. It didn't get diagnosed until later that year, by which time it had been going on for four years, which is a lot of time I just didn't have it together to write, and honestly only hazily remember at all. My mental health was pretty much all to cock. It was postnatal PTSD; ironically enough, I got the news that my last book had been shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award the day before my son's induction was scheduled – and after that induction, for a long time, there wasn’t enough left of me to do anything about the career that seemed to be going pretty well. After I got diagnosed, I got some treatment, and it was only after that I was able to write anything, and for a long time it was just little bits of stuff. Before that, the inside of my head wasn't a pretty sight.

Second: the point at which I vanished from the Internet was the month my son’s diagnosis of autism was confirmed. He was three years old, bright and beautiful and full of joy, and everyone adored him. They still do; he’s eleven now, and it was just before his eleventh birthday that he was also diagnosed with ADHD. (It's not uncommon for these to go together; along with dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, epilepsy and all sorts of other neurodivergences; they often crop up in the same people and/or the same families.) 

So there I was, with a perfect son, but we were looking at a double-black-diamond kind of perfect while most other parents were coasting down the bunny slope. A lot needed to be sorted out to get him supported, which meant wrestling with an education system not at all set up to work well for kids with special needs, and dealing with an outside world of prejudice and bureaucracy, as well as needing to learn a whole ton of specialised parenting skills quick smart. Everything else had to go on hold.

I wanted to be writing, but I was firefighting instead. And that went on for years.

Well, I still have PTSD – I always will, trauma kicks open a door in your head that never really closes – but I’m about as on top of it as I’m going to get. And my lovely boy is thriving; there are always going to be new fires to put out, but we know the drills now, and we’re about as much on top of it as SEN parents ever really are. (Special Educational Needs, that is. And the answer to how on top of it we ever get is, ‘About as much as any imperfect human being is ever on top of their parenting.’)

You live that life, though, and after a while it starts you thinking along different paths.

One day I was watching CBeebies with my son – and by ‘watching’, I mean the television was on, he was racketing around the room and occasionally glancing at it, and I was hoping he might see something he liked, maybe add something to the short list of things he enjoyed. Something came on – an episode of Tweenies, I think – in which a character visited a ruined church on the Isle of Man.

People had started to build it, she said, but during the night, the fairies ripped the roof off it. The builders had another go, but the next night, the fairies weren’t having it: off came the roof again. They tried over and over, day and night, build and destroy, and in the end, they gave up. Now all that stands are the walls of a church the fairies wouldn’t allow them to finish.

No one knows, she said, why the fairies didn't want a roof on the church, but clearly they didn’t.

‘What do you mean no one knows?’ I thought. ‘Isn't it obvious? The first time the fairies saw the church, it didn’t have a roof on it. So clearly it wasn’t supposed to have a roof, because if it was meant to have a roof, it would have had a roof. But it didn’t have a roof, so it shouldn’t have a roof. What’s so hard to understand?’

And thus, from a mind honed upon many thundering dramas over such apocalyptic issues as The Door Is Closed When It Should Be Open, You Took Off Your Glasses And They’re Supposed To Go On Your Face, and The Toothpaste Is On The Wrong Side Of The Sink, a certain . . . whim . . . started to emerge.

It took a long time. I’d forgotten how to write novels; I began with scraps of stories about the same people, watching them do this and that, playing with imaginary friends to cheer myself up on the difficult days. The stories started to get longer; the work started to hold me together.

I wasn’t writing any literal depiction of neurodivergence; I don’t have ADHD and I don’t think I’m autistic, so I can’t speak from the inside. Or not entirely; I did have a neurodivergent baby, after all, and while he gets some of that from his dad, I’m the one who fell in love with that dad. I a few traits that often go with autism - in particular, I have sensory sensitivities and special interests. A neurodivergence coach once looked at a form I'd filled in for someone else and asked that someone, 'Have you considered you might have dyspraxia? I'm just looking at the handwriting . . .' And I'm certainly clumsy, which goes with dyspraxia (and that does run in my family): put me at the top of a staircase with no rail, and wander off; I’ll probably still be there when you come back. I probably have, as I like to put it, 'a little spice in my sauce.' 

But the idea of feyness – not the Victorian frilly wings, but the old folk tales of cold-weather, intransigent, flint-willed creatures of the land – had thoroughly caught my attention.

The thing is, neurodivergence and feyness have a long history together. Contemporary ND people often relate to the myth of the changeling. And the old stories of the changelings – some of which are horrible, horrible accounts of child abuse – do sometimes describe children who nowadays would be referred for a paediatric assessment. More than that, though, there’s the simple fact of the fairies: they seem irrational, but they aren’t lawless. Instead, they have rules of their own, which they hold to implacably, but which a normal person may not understand at all – until they cross them.

I was living in a home with more than one kind of person in it, living by more than one set of laws. I got that.

And we all play in our own ways. Finally, I felt like playing again.

The book I wrote, In The Heart Of Hidden Things, is not meant to speak for anyone except myself. It came from a place of learning to enjoy quirks, of fighting through a world that truly doesn’t care if your beautiful child is hurt and demeaned, of knowing what it is to worry about your children, of having fiery energy that couldn’t be let out anywhere else, of wanting to go home. A lot of my childhood was spent in the countryside, and my son’s needs meant that for years we couldn’t leave London, and like many books, I think it came from homesickness and needing to create a place where I could go. 

 People talk about fantasy as being ‘escapist’, but I don’t think I believe that. What this book was, for me, would be better called ‘respite-ist’: you go away and take a respite break, and then you have to come back and deal with the things and people that need caring for. I’m with Jeanette Winterson: ‘Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.’ So I wrote to grow places in my imagination that life had been breaking; I wrote to make myself laugh again. I’d been a hidden thing for a long time, but I felt able, at least, to stop hiding from myself.

All of which are my own reasons, of course. I could cheerfully suggest everyone read the book because it would please me, but I don’t expect that would get me very far. What I would say is that I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.

The title of the book is taken from a wonderful poem by Charlotte Mew, herself no stranger to the worry that goes with family members whose brains aren’t the way the world expects them to be. I’ll finish quoting the part I used for an epigraph:

 

Sometimes I wouldn’t speak, you see, 

Or answer when you spoke to me, 

Because in the long, still dusks of Spring 

You can hear the whole world whispering . . . 

Everything there is to hear 

In the heart of hidden things.


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