I wrote a short story yesterday. Only the second I’ve written in my adult life. Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that it’s about a selkie, a myth I have written about time and again. What is it about that particular myth that draws me back, like a moth taptapping at a lightbulb, or singeing its wings at the flame? The romance of salt and sea, of light falling in long slants through deepening water. The idea that you can split the skin between two worlds, and live – however differently – in each.
Writing has been my light more than ever in these last weeks. Through the terror attack in the city where I live, and the terrible events in London. Sometimes the world feels like a frightening place, and all I want to do is close myself away from it, keep myself safe with books, and sweet tea, and the comforting glow of a small lamp. Writing reminds me of how wide and beautiful it is, and how wonderfully, marvellously magic. That there is more out there to love and be glad for than there is to dread.
The weekend after the attack in Manchester, C and I went out to the country to camp, needing the peace and the clean air, to be out from under the weight of fear. Just before I dawn, I woke up needing to pee. I got up and left the tent, leaving the front door-flap open. When I came back from the toilet block,, C was awake and startled, propped on an elbow. “What’s the matter?” asked him. “A robin!” he said. “A robin flew in and landed on my shoulder. I felt his little birdfeet, and when I woke up he sat and looked and me for a moment and I could see myself reflected in his eyes – they were so black! And then he fluffed himself up and flew back out”. I eyed him sceptically, thinking he’d been dreaming. But sure enough, when I settled back down on the blow-up bed, there it was: a pat of birdshit, small and round as a coin.
That this can happen in the same world, and the same week, as a man belted in to an explosive vest kills children with hatred and nails. A timely reminder. That storms can flood a street of houses, then link them with a rainbow’s thread. That for every lamb who opens under the fox’s teeth, a dozen others sweeten their fields with play . There is this, always, after the worst has happened. Always the beauty, always the gifts. It’s how life sells itself, and how we are sold on the world, and all its terrifying eggshell loveliness.
I launched my book last month – at Waterstones in Manchester, where I have spent so many happy hours over the years, and so many of my paycheques. I got to hold my book for the first time – its beautiful cover, all pearly froth and swirl, and my name in neat letters on the front. I will never forget it. The warmth and joy of that room, with its high windows and stacked books – which people bought, and which I signed, afterwards, in looping script. The glass of wine I sipped throughout. The sounds of traffic like surf on the street, and the sounds of glasses clinking, and laughter, and good wishes. How lucky I am to have had that night: how blessed I felt.
And I am truly lucky, I know this. But also there is the awareness, now, that luck takes work, at least in part. That the world will conspire to help if you let it, but you need to be open to opportunity. You need to be open to everything. The older I get, the more passionate I am about shaping my life, rather than letting it simply collect like a shawl around my neck. I am thirty six, and I have a book in the world, and someone who loves me. And sometimes terrible things will happen, but dammit if I won’t keep looking for the beauty that comes after. Which always comes after. Always the rainbow after the rain, the robin after a city hit by violence. Always the smile for a faltering spirit. Life will keep on giving its gifts, if we give it chance. And I for one intend to give it. And give it. And give it.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.