The rite of Spring came late to Constitution Street. Things had been left unsaid and done in a wintry way. The few trees that line the pavement held their buds tights and their secrets close. Then finally in late April the petals were given up and drifts of frothy pink cherry caught the breeze and began to land all around us once again, even in the grimiest of street gutters, as though confetti for an annual celebration. Blossom, so much a part of Spring that it’s a cliche.
Late April is a time of cathartic release for those that survive the long Scottish winter and chose to stick around to dance in Spring’s joy. Softly, softly, the street and its people unfurl like ferns in a glade. Perhaps the pretty petals that stain the pavement pink are nature’s reminder of the temporal way of things- that nothing, and no one, last forever.
I wasn’t celebrating. Knee-deep in the silt and soil of a scraggly allotment plot, I was flailing my limbs around like a whirling dervish in a dance of grief after my grandmother’s funeral. She had died suddenly and unexpectedly. I was heartbroken. It is not unusual to lose a grandparent at my age but she wasn’t a usual person and she had been a constant and a central figure in my life. The familiar ground on which I had always walked felt raked over. Grief is a wild, wild storm. It howls all round while we keep plodding uphill, stumbling on the scree and grasping for a warm, safe hand that is now out of reach.
And loss is everywhere when you start to see it. Good people do die on beautiful Spring days. The generations in our family had shuffled forward involuntarily. Four became three. The funeral service had gone as smoothly as these things can. There was a eulogy that Gran penned herself- a blistering essay on feminism in the twentieth century- and music from The Beatles’ A Day in the Life with its dystopian crescendos, followed by my Dad on guitar back at the sunny family garden. Sad news that, in places, had to make us laugh, as the song goes. We are a close family. But my main emotion was frustration. I was furious that she had missed the sadness and the laughter of the family day. That someone of the northern hemisphere, who knew all the birds and plants by name, would chose not to wait for the spring cherry blossom to descend did not make sense.
Part of remembrance in grief is going back over the life we knew, searching for signs to explain and accept the recurring mystery of loss. My grandmother and I were very alike in lots of ways but different in one crucial aspect. She was not an indecisive person. In the March of the year, she had sent me a postcard on which she signed off her message PS: I am finally parting with my favourite postcard. On the front was an image of the sculpture at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art called Tourists. Our ever-vigilant street postie, Craig, remarked on the card but I failed to spot the thinly-veiled clues in the familiar handwriting landing on my tenement doormat. Gran and I were regular correspondents and I guessed that she had lots of different favourite postcards, much as I knew she had three other favourite granddaughters who were also penpals.
After the funeral, it seemed natural, essential actually, to get out of my head and into somewhere else. I pulled off my black dress and heels and went to physically exhaust myself digging and sweating in the filth of a beautiful Spring evening at the Community Croft. The symbology of earth to earth wasn’t lost on me. Mud therapy. As though getting dirt under my nails and grass stains on my jeans could cleanse the mulching potency of guilt, regret and anger that comes with a shock bereavement. I tore into the thistle and nettle weeds, uprooting and shaking their thorny, stinging tentacles free. The ringed, sinewy bodies of earthworms became rudely exposed to the light.
I planted brassica saplings in the newly made gaps. Kale and sprouts for the autumn. Streaks of dark brown clay mixed with saline streaked across the backs of my hands and cheekbones. All the meanwhile, my small black dog, Bonnie, whimpered with concern and licked my face with her warm tongue and malty breath. As the air began to cool and the daylight folded its corners inward, Zak arrived at the allotments to find me spent but purged, squatting in the middle of a newly-weeded bed. I had taken back some control of the disordering injustice of loss. Or so it felt like. We watered the fragile saplings together, then Zak drove me the short distance home and I cried my last for the day in the shower.
Several days later and into mid-May, I find myself calm and revived in the nourishing glen of Strathardle. I am staying at Annie Blaber’s studio thanks to freedom of speech charity, Scottish PEN. I was last here six months ago during the first winter blizzard in mid-November when the woodland was muffled by snow. The Constitution Street book project has progressed considerably since then and I have been able to use this week to focus on edits. I have sat working at the long trestle-table desk overlooking the glen, dressed in one of Grandma’s old cashmere sweaters, still with the odd blonde hair attached to the wool and the scent of her Clinique Elixir perfume. Soon, I suppose the sweater will take on my aroma and the two will become indistinguishable.
Most recently on the street, I commissioned neighbour and friend, Morven Jones from no.44, to illustrate a map for the book. I’m excited to see her piece. And I got my eyebrows tinted and threaded by the beauticians in Afreen at no. 181, all in the interests of participatory ethnography.
Now, I am reading and writing under the dappled sunshine of silver birches. Deer, hare, pheasants and a familiar black sheep called Rosie have all come to say hello. I have read the Pocket Guide to British Birds while propped up on white, fluffy pillows watching blue tits and a red squirrel dart from branch to branch. Birdwatching is something I never quite got before. I think I do now, certainly here, in this most luxurious of hydes. There is a stove. I wake at first light and track the movement of the sun all day. I walk barefoot through the clover. It is perfect. And has reinforced the importance of safe, solitary time in the wilds for creativiy. This is especially true for women, I think. I will return to this theme again.
Then this morning, a moral dilema and a matter of life and death. I had set off early to walk a stretch of the Cateran Trail from Kirkmichael. Approaching a shieling at the far edge of a field where I planned to stop and drink from my flask, I heard the violent thrashing of a large crow trapped inside a small wire cage under the midday sun. Crows are not the sweetest of souls. They like to pick out the eyes of newborn lambs.
But, still, there it was, that thing with the feathers (yeah)- all shiny blue-black and beating against the sides of the cage. And there it would have stayed suffering all day, or longer. I couldn’t bare to hear it as I sat sipping my tea. So I took out my housekeys (the key to Penkiln, Gran’s house as it happened) and snapped the cable ties holding down the lid of the cage and opened up the wire mesh. The thrashing stopped. There was a pause as the crow and I looked at one another, both not sure of what would happen next. And then the crow found its way out of the cage. It flew up and away toward the Spittal of Glenshee summits without a backward glance.
Now an angry farmer will want to shoot me and string me up as a gory warning to other interfereing, city hikers/ tourists. To be only human in nature is a conflicted state of being. Did I do the right thing or the wrong thing? I don’t know. Indecision. It still feels weird and confessional. I came back to the cabin this afternoon to begin writing again and pressed shuffle on my phone music. Incredously, Joni Mitchell Black Crow started to play. There is something about this place. That’s got to be right.
The past few weeks I have been reading:
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
The Humans by Matt Haig
Waiting for the Last Bus, reflections on life and death, by Richard Holloway
The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallach
Like by Ali Smith
The Whole Story and Other Stories by Ali Smith
The Courtship of Birds by Hilda Simon.