So as you may already know, due to recent developments I’ve no publisher and for all intents and purposes I’m riding by the seat of my pants. But I want to let you in on a secret, just a small one – I quite like this situation. I like to do things my own way and under my own steam. And steaming ahead is exactly what I’ve been doing folks! In fact I’ve more than one new book on the way and the old books will be revised and republished just as soon as I can get round to it.
So here’s a little about my new novel; a historical fiction from the Glens of Antrim. It’s based on the life story of certain Thomas McCartney, a 19th century hedgerow teacher who taught in the picturesque town of Whitehead and the surrounding areas. I’ve painted the front cover myself in acrylic on canvas. So you may find that and the first unedited chapter below. Don’t be shy in giving me feedback. I’d love to hear from you no matter who you are. So be brave and fill in that contact form won’t you? Best wishes to you all. Sam x
Time is hard to measure in dreams. It could have been several hours or several days since we had first gone down to the Misty Burn to mess about as children do near the old fir tree locals call The Sentry. The wise old evergreen watched us, nodding and shedding its pine needles quietly. In front of it we built our dam using stones and other debris we wrested from the river.
Many years have passed since I dreamt that dream but when I think on it Martha I can still feel the water lapping at my ankles like a multitude of kitten’s tongues supping eagerly at a saucer of milk, only much colder than that. It felt real. It feels real; even though it’s just a memory of a dream dusted off and brought out into the light.
I can see it as clear as day in fact…
In that far off world my mind created, dappled sunlight filtered through the quivering leaves, beaming down on our mud caked shoes lying forgotten on the bank. Inside them, were the socks our mother made on the long winter nights, her needles gleaming in the firelight as they moved faster and faster beneath our somnolent gaze.
“It’s more than they deserve,” our stepfather Lyle would say on such nights, his eyes flitting fractiously between our mother and our outstretched forms playing marbles on the rug. I can see his face now, ruddy, robust and rather striking but always there was something implacable in his eyes, something that told me we would always be found wanting.
He had many unfortunate sayings. The one I personally hated most was,
“Bold boys have no need of kindness, Kaitlin. What they need is discipline and a firm hand.” It was meant to sound authoritative, fatherly even but when it fell upon my ears it filled me with the knowledge that we were but a grain of sand lodged within the cold shell of him, an irritation that could never be purged; an annoyance beyond all imagining. That feeling was mutual. We were locked in our endless battles day and night, year upon year, with no way to escape. We confused each other, wasted so much time. For instance, he had no understanding of what it meant when we used the socks Mother made us to catch tadpoles and turned them into mits when making snowballs. Our ‘naughtiness’ offended him. Later it would enrage him. But for now this story is about the dream I had then and those endlessly darned socks…the rest will make its own way I believe, if we let it.
So down by the Burn I had started to feel that we were soon going to have need of those socks since it was mid afternoon and the air already had a distinctly chilly edge to it. My brother Robert did not seem to pay it any mind though. On slippery bedrock his smaller feet were splayed out in confidence. In his left hand he held a dripping rock and with the other he gestured animatedly at whatever it was that had caught his attention somewhere at the top of the Sentry. It turned out to be a Jay.
As he stared I watched his fascination grow, his long dark lashes fluttering rapidly, the colour growing high in his cheeks like twin sunsets in an autumn sky. In low whispers we speculated about the Passerine and where it had stumbled upon the acorn protruding either side of its beak. We guessed it had to be somewhere near the sheep bridge where the oak trees shivered and brambles grew and the stones roundabout were covered in a thick green velvet moss. Squirrels often stockpiled them there for such times when food was scarce but the odd one was sometimes forgotten or lost in which case it usually became a baby oak or a meal for some other favoured creature. The latter must have happened in this case.
The bird was proud of its prize. He took it to his untidy nest of roots, horse hair and fibres, built in the most precarious of places where his mate waited patiently for her champions return with eyes of shining black. But Robert could not content himself with just this fleeting glimpse of her. He wanted far more than that. He stumbled forward hoping for a better view, then slipped, twisting sideways, dropping the heavy flint beside his chalk white feet sending splinters of it far and wide. Most flew into the rushing water to become precursors of what would one day be sand. The remainder rolled a few feet more gathering momentum till it crashed and demolished a small portion of our afternoon work. With the dam thus compromised the river did the rest.
“Ye daft ejit,” I cried, hurrying over to him. I helped him up and tilted his chin roughly this way and that to check for damage. “Ye almost smashed ye heid in. An’ luk at the state of the dam.”
Water was pouring through the gaps, making wider and wider holes. Logs were dislodged and sticks floated away. He ignored my rebukes and inspected a flapping hole in his trousers. They were beyond repair. We would catch it for that. I told him so.
“Faither ul have ye beat,” I warned.
“He’s nae faither o’ mine,” he snapped.
I decided to say nothing. I could see he was vexed. His jaw still throbbed as he splashed his way over to the trees crinkled girth and looked up sharply no doubt thinking that the bird must be gone by now. But he was wrong.
“There! Do ye see it?” he whispered to me. “The cock bird jus went in an’ fed her agaen. I’ll wager she’s sittin’ on a clutch of eggs.”
But I had no interest in any of that. His words had triggered something strange, something I didn’t expect; a memory or perhaps a premonition. I drew a halting breath and held on to it for several seconds before releasing it and following him over to the tree. Beneath its twisted boughs the deep foreboding continued to grow, spreading like the foulest of moulds. Something was going to happen, I knew it. Something far worse than just the hole in Robert’s trousers or the broken dam. The thought of what it could be chilled me. It was hard to move, hard to breathe. My limbs grew stiff and clumsy. Was the cold I felt actually fear? Or was the fear I felt actually cold?
When you’re a child such things can be difficult to tell. I remember asking myself in the midst of the dream why it should have been fear that I was feeling. After all it was no different than all the other times we had collected eggs as far as I could see and we had done so a great many times. From the moment we were old enough to go out and play in the fields of Glenwherry, Robert and I had collected eggs from the surrounding hedgerows and fields. It was a common pastime for country boys and so was the tree climbing that tended to go hand in hand with it. Yet on this occasion my passion had fled for no apparent reason that I could see.
“Let her be Rabbie. We’ve a dam to fix.”
I hoped that he would listen to me but already he was grasping my shoulders in his eagerness to ascend.
“It’ll only taek a minat.”
Desperately I searched for a reason why he shouldn’t go.
“It’s too high. It’s no safe,” I said.
He looked at me curiously and gave a little laugh.
“Come awn then. But see an’ grip taet whaen ye reach the tawp,” I linked my hands for him and braced myself in readiness for his weight.
He scrabbled around and hauled himself up to the lowest branch, puffing and grimacing. From there he planned his advancement to the next.
“Ye look more a feared than me,” he called down.
“See an’ mind what ye’re doin’ instead ae runnin’ off at the mouth like a gulpin,” I retorted.
He laughed at me and bared his lily white bottom.
“Kiss mae erse.”
“Enough of yer cheek! It’ll not be so funny whaen Lyle thrashes it later,” I yelled and threw a handful of sharp gravel with the intention of stinging his buttocks. Hastily he pulled up his breaches and continued his ascent wearing what was admittedly a much happier expression than before.
The climb was challenging enough. But with a little ingenuity and a fair bit of skill (all learnt from me I might add) he reached his destination without incident. At that point I felt all my fears had been for nought. All was safe. Nothing had gone wrong. Then as Robert gently placed the eggs in his cap, I felt something weighty drop into my hands, something unexpected and strangely out of place. For a few seconds I stared dumbly at the axe with its blade curved like a crescent moon. Slowly I turned it around and around. Then I remembered…
Robert was dead or was supposed to be at least. I had killed him twenty years ago.
I called out to him, my voice jagged like the thorns of a sloe bush.
There was a muffled reply but I couldn’t make it out. The ghost child was too busy figuring out how he was going to descend without breaking the eggs.
“I’m sorry Robert.”
“What? Why are ye sorry? What are ye gan’ on aboot doon thar?”
I had no answers for him, only a terrible compunction. The tree had to come down, even though he – Robert, was still in it. That was the way it was supposed to be.
It bit into the wood with ease, splitting the bark from the cambium. Not surprisingly when he realised what was happening, my younger sibling let out a startled shriek.
“Wayit!” he pleaded, doing his best to get down before the tree was felled. The tears were streaming down both our faces. Mine mingled with sweat as I hacked at the lengthy trunk, Robert’s made it harder for him to see and therefore harder to descend. On the fourth branch from the bottom he lost his grip and hung for several seconds by one hand frantically trying to claw his way back up.
“Heyelp Tommy, please!”
But I couldn’t. All I could do was sob and continue my instinctive chopping like it was the only pastime in the world worth living for – even when Robert lost his hold and fell to the ground with a sickening crack. With the last swing I bowed my head, not caring at all if the falling fir wiped me out also. An elongated creak heralded the ensuing crash and then the old Sentry hit the other side of the Misty Burn sending a cloud of dust and frightened birds into the air. All was still except for the blood in my veins. It hurtled at great velocity, surging and pounding through me as I hurried over to face what I had done. Seeing him was excruciating. I scooped him up and held him to me, my head just grazing his chest. My eyes were squeezed painfully shut, from them tears fell heavy as silver. When they were spent I opened my eyes only to discover that the river was now gone and that we were in a house, in a room of green, with tall stems of bamboo scattered across wallpaper and a rickety unmade bed of brass pushed up against the wall. I recognised it as our old room.
“Rabbie, if only I knew then what I know now” I mumbled to the wasted body. “I could have saved you. But it’s too late.”
Then the slap of sea water commanded that I should wake.
I obeyed with a gasp and coughed hard, glancing about me. Where was I? And why was it so dark and cold?
The roar of the elements remained close so I listened in the darkness to them waiting for answers to come to me. Just when I thought my sanity had fled a flash of lightening illuminated my surroundings. I digested what I’d seen in those split seconds, the meaning of the rock all around me, the rain and the thick woollen blanket. So this was home. This was my cave. There were no duck down pillows here or gently glowing embers to keep me warm. But somehow it felt full of belonging. It was all mine, this place of my own. Here, I answered to none.