"...stories birling through my mind..."
A literary journey
"...stories birling through my mind..."
I waited my whole life to go to Manderley.
At least, I was vaguely aware of its greatness for half my life.
As I trudged, strangely willingly, through the literary shell-shock of existentialism, communism and fascism in the French department at university, I often wondered what literary delights that period of the “interwar years” bestowed upon the students of the English department a few doors up. Were they as knee deep in la condition humaine as us? Were there to be men on the march of a red tide, all contemplating deep and meaningful isms? And Freud, let’s not forget him. Always there in the background with his dreams.
What of Rebecca? Was this the thinking woman’s novel of the 1930s? A white azalea in a path of blood red rhododendrons?
Rebecca is, on the surface, a feminine novel that has us squirming with discomfort as du Maurier tells the world our innermost thoughts and our most terrible weaknesses. We find ourselves protesting as we read: do we wish to be represented by a heroine who is weak and afraid and who stammers ‘little’ in almost every paragraph? Is our heroine betraying us by revealing our rambling dreamscapes and the winding paths of our imaginations that heave with monstrous plants and our own looming deficiencies?
You peek your upturned nose through the letterbox, inhale the smothering scent of wee buns, and holler, ‘Naaaan!’
The birds are pecking at the bird box, the drizzle is dripping from the roses and the concrete steps shimmer like marble.
You see a face at the window with hollow cheeks. It’s not quite your Aunt Nan, but she opens the door, puts her teeth back in, smiles and you feel rich.
It’s Tuesday. The twin tubs are swivelling their hips — one for washing, one for rinsing. The buns are ready and Nan lifts them onto a cooling rack. She has eyes on the back of her head.
Tut tut and a tap on the hand.
A French fisherman, an island off France and a spring tide: the perfect remedy to cast off the shadows of a grey January day! This scene from on the Île-de-Bréhat is one of my favourites in Snugville Street. Enjoy!!
The Île-de-Bréhat was a carnival of colour and fragrance, and it was filled with people searching out the wonders of the early July spring tide. Hannah inhaled the scent of eucalyptus, smiled at the sight of pink geraniums drooped over old stone walls, and tiptoed carefully over the craggy stones in rugged rock pools where she paddled among children and their nets. As puffins kissed on the pink rocks, Hannah relished the start of summer; she was almost nineteen, school was over and she was in France with Gildas.
Gildas, who’d been the first to contact Hannah upon her arrival in Paimpol, spent much of the time describing the tides to her. Hannah checked her pocket dictionary for a translation of ‘la grande marée’, such was its prominence in the discussion they were having. She’d never heard of a spring tide, but realised that it involved the sea parting from the land in an extended farewell.
They were kneeling and picking mussels when Hannah asked, ‘What exactly is a spring tide?’
Gildas’ eyes came to life and he explained carefully, ‘When you have a tide, it is caused by the force of the moon and the force of the earth.’ He formed planets with his fists.
Hannah’s head moved up and down.
‘The sea is pulled by the gravity of the moon...’
Hannah disguised her scientific deficiencies with a continual nod.
The rotational force of the earth, she heard. The sea bulges, she heard. The rest of his words fell through the gaps in her intelligence.
Hannah flicked the small swirls of worm-shaped sand and tried not to look Gildas in the eye. One of the first sentences she’d ever learned in French came mechanically to mind. Je ne comprends pas.
Gildas laughed, as though attuned to her thoughts.
He placed three shells on his arm in a vertical line. ‘Look, when we have the earth, the sun and the moon all in a line, we have spring tide. It happens when there is a new moon or a full moon. Today we have a new moon.’
‘And I take it that means the tide is very low,’ Hannah said, her eyes narrowing to a distant horizon of water.
‘Or very high,’ he added. ‘When the moon is closest to the earth, you get the biggest tide of all.’
‘I wonder why it’s called spring tide,’ Hannah said, her head cocked to the side. Jean was suddenly infiltrating her thoughts. Listen to your man, she was saying. Is this the language of love? Hannah smiled, straightened her neck, and removed the hand that had found itself resting involuntarily on her left hip. ‘It doesn’t just happen in spring,’ she observed.
‘No, twice a lunar month.’
‘A lunar month,’ she repeated. Why hadn’t she thought to listen in geography?
Or was it physics?
‘Yes, you know...the moon.’ Gildas was laughing. ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘This must be very boring. You measure your day in degrees celsius and I measure mine in the tidal coefficient. Your head is in the clouds and mine is in the moon,’ he smiled.
‘I don’t know if that’s reassuring for me or not! You’re in charge of the boat home,’ she said, overlooking the tidal coefficient for fear of an explanation.
Hannah turned to Gildas and spoke slowly, certain that there must be a seductrice kindling within her. She just needed a little help stirring the flame.
'What kind of things happen at spring tide when there is a new moon?’ she asked, almost gasping.
‘All types of mysteries of nature,’ smiled Gildas.
Hannah’s face reddened.
‘It’s a ripe time for planting seeds.’
Hannah wanted to kiss him.
‘The body and the mind also change with the moon’s orbit.’
Hannah stopped breathing. Gildas’ body.
‘Things feel different when there is a full moon or a new moon.’
Was he still talking about the moon?
‘I know people have recorded the increase in violent crime...’
Crime? Hadn’t he sensed her femme fatale?
‘But it’s not possible to record the beauty, the positive energy that occurs.’
Hannah laughed aloud. She was on unfamiliar ground. Gildas stopped what he was saying and smiled.
‘We should walk back to the boat now,’ he said, pulling Hannah to her feet.
She stood up. He was still holding her hand. She walked by his side, the faculty of speech and her sense of reality anchored in the sand.
‘Did you enjoy the island? Gildas asked softly.
‘Did. Yes. Thank you,’ she said in English, her linguistic processes in disarray. There were words but there was nothing linking them together.
He helped her onto the boat and then kissed her gently as she stood on the step. Eucalyptus, geraniums, puffins, rock pools. He was kissing her. He stopped.
The boat started to drift from the shore and Hannah’s French floated behind it in the rippling current. She could only summon one sentence. Je ne comprends pas. Over and over. Je ne comprends pas.
He kissed her again as they approached his coastal home. She tasted the salt from his lips and wanted to place her hands over his body, but Gildas moved away silently and steered the boat to the dock at the end of his garden.
‘We are home.’ he said.
The beauty of the French language had now parted company from Hannah in an extended farewell like an unscheduled spring tide.
‘Let’s get you back to your dorm.’
Gildas reached out for Hannah’s hand in the car as they drove through the winding country roads. He kissed her goodbye at the dormitories.
She slept soundly, with the sea tangled in her hair, sand clinging to her arms and legs and the taste of salt on her lips.
The morning didn’t begin where night ended, but stretched lazily into the afternoon. She stood up eventually, looked in the mirror in the ensuite bathroom and saw that the pale girl with blue skin who had left Ireland only two days before, was infused with soft pink. She touched her face and moved her head to the side, her eyes still concentrated on the mirror, blue eyes that were large and instilled with life.
Her body was as petite as it had always been, but it felt fuller. Her breasts seemed to bulge through her skin. The sea bulging. Or was it the moon? Which planet was rotating? She turned to the side and looked back over her shoulder at the slope of her back. She shivered as she became aware of a swell deep in her body.
Hannah wouldn’t see Gildas again until Wednesday. She would have to enjoy the noise of Nicolas and the challenge of teaching English to teenage boys and girls for three long days.
Her legs weakened.
Subject, object, verb, came the echo of Miss Walker’s voice. Tu me manques. You me miss. You are missed, Gildas.
Hannah stood up straight again.
Hannah, Hannah, always so serious.
She walked back to her bed again and surveyed the sparse room with its plate cooker set on top of the fridge. Her eyes closed on an island and the soft laughter of Gildas as she recollected the past, the present or the future tense, and fell in love with French all over again. Je t’aime. Subject, object, verb. I you love.
Angeline King is the author of A Belfast Tale and Snugville Street. Click the links below to learn more:
A Belfast Tale: Troubles and misplaced passions course through rivers and oceans in this beautiful transatlantic story and uniquely Belfast Tale.
Snugville Street: A tapestry of love and loss is woven through humour and heart-ache as we move from Belfast to Brittany on a journey of shame and redemption.
In 1996, a crack commando unit was sent away from a photographer for a crime of fashion. The unit promptly escaped from the flashing lights and made its way to a restaurant in Carrickfergus. Today, still wanted by the Photography Perfection Police, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help...then you know what to do ...that’s if you were a kid in the 1980s!
It is my mum and dad’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and we are all going out for dinner. You wonder half the time why families put themselves through it. We proceed in false hope of warm smiles and familial bonding and risk our sanity and axe any surplus income in order to go to a restaurant. And just to make it really special, we’ll have a family portrait done en route.
I love it when a plan comes together.
A girl with blond pigtails clings to her mammy’s skirt; another cries manically when her mother departs; a boy wets himself in the commotion; and I watch and take in the foreignness of it all.
It’s September 1980, and right at the centre of my table are fat yummy pencils. I want to lift them and draw, and perhaps even nibble away their ends. I see easels draped with crisp, fresh sheets of paper, and I imagine touching the paper and painting a yellow sun. And then there are the counters and the beads at the side of the room, neatly arranged in boxes like a five year-old girl’s paradise. It’s my first day at school and there’s a lady with black hair. She’s the teacher and she’s new. The sound of her voice is new. It’s a lilting voice that rises like piano keys, the small black keys on the right that make the chirpy sounds. It’s a teacher voice that says things like, ‘Now, children.’
Scene from Snugville Street
The Wedding Wisp
82 Waterloo Road
The Teacher Voice
The Children of Latharna
The Band Stick
The Bully up the Brae
History & folklore
Language Blog I
Language Blog II
Language Blog III
Language Blog IV
The linguist behind Ulster Scots.
Kailyard & Dusty Bluebells
Jean Park of Ballygally
Fiddles and Melodeons
Martha Taylor's diary
Jean McCullagh at 104
Ballymena & the McConnells
Arms in Irish Dancing
Catholics & Protestants in Irish dancing
Irish Dancing: The Festival Story
The Protestant in Irish Fiction.
The Protestant in Irish fiction II
Ulster-Scots in Irish Fiction
An author in Wonderland
Dancing in Victorian Ulster
Learning the Irish Language.
John Hewitt Summer School
Lesley Allen & Helen Nicholl