When I was searching around for something to write about in my column in the current issue of Writers’ Forum, I turned to my often used source for inspiration, my old notebooks.
I have kept journals, diaries and notebooks most of my life. Many of the earlier ones were thrown away but one of the oldest to survive was a diary that I kept the year I was taking my ‘O’ Levels when I was, it seemed, far more interested in the boys on the school bus than I was in my schoolwork. Funny that – I always told my sons that I was a model pupil!
I kept a diary, too, in the months leading up to my wedding and, a few years later, in the months leading up to the birth of my firstborn. That one stopped abruptly when he was about two weeks old. (Can’t think why!). I love flicking through them every now and again and it always brings back such lovely memories.
But when I began writing and selling short stories, about fifteen years ago, I started to keep a writing journal and have kept it up more or less ever since. It’s not nearly as entertaining (or cringe making) as my diaries but a lot more useful when I am looking for something to write about.
I have kept notes about most of my short stories (and there are, by now, literally hundreds of them) and these notes have been a goldmine when looking for something to write about in my monthly column, Ideas’ Store.
And the current issue was no exception. As I opened one of my notebooks, I found a handwritten note inside from the then Fiction Editor of Woman’s Weekly, enclosing a letter from a reader saying how much they’d enjoyed a particular story of mine.
It’s very unusual for a short story writer to get reader feedback (or, at least, it is for me) and this was such a lovely one. It was from a man who said my story had moved him and his wife to tears (but in a nice way). So I dug the story out, which I’d called Paradise Revisited and read it through – and it moved me to tears as well!
So in my column I wrote about how I came to write this particular story and promised the readers that the full story would be on my blog. And here it is.
I hope you enjoy it. It certainly is one of my favourites. And a little note of warning to anyone thinking of signing away all rights to their work, which many of the magazines are now asking for. And which I refuse to do.
Because had I done so, I’d have been unable to reproduce this story here. Or anywhere else, come to that.
Anyway, on a happier note, I hope you enjoy reading Paradise Revisited as much as I enjoyed writing it. And if you want to read the story of how I came to write the story (if you see what I mean) it is in the current issue of Writers’ Forum, which is packed, as always, with lots of wonderful, writerly goodies.
They say it’s best not to go back, don’t they? That places are never as good as you remember. Or you’ll find they’ve built a supermarket on the fields where you used to walk the dogs and they’ve ripped out the hedges where you used to gather musky sweet blackberries and sloes, sharp as sherbet lemons, that shrivelled your tongue when you bit into them.
Better by far, they say, to leave those special places precious and untarnished in your memory. It’s good advice, of course, but when did I ever take any notice of good advice? And yes, I admit, that sometimes that’s been to my cost. But there are other times, like today, that I’m glad I ignored them because I know everything’s going to be as wonderful as I remember and nothing, but nothing is going to spoil it.
And so, here we are now, me, Paul and our daughter Sophie, packed snugly into in our little blue Morris Minor that’s more at home on smooth surfaced suburban roads than chugging up and down these steep, winding roads, some of which, Paul is horrified to see, have grass growing up in the middle. We’re on our way, Morris Minor permitting, to a remote valley deep in the Yorkshire Dales where my parents took me when I was four years old, the age Sophie is now.
It’s strange but that trip to Yorkshire was the only holiday I remember as a child. There may well have been others but I can’t recall them. But people didn’t go away so much back. Not like now, jamming the roads with their cars and caravans every Bank Holiday.
‘Paradise,’ my mother told me when I asked where we were. She got out of the car, stretched her arms above her head, tilted her face to the sun and filled her lungs with the crisp, clean air. ‘Smell it, Libby. That’s Paradise, that is.’
It wasn’t until years later I discovered the valley’s real name was Langstrothdale. Named by the Vikings when our history was young but the landscape over which they rampaged was already old.
So today, Paul and I have brought Sophie with us to Paradise I’m holding my breath as we drive along the narrow winding road, with its unforgiving stone walls on either side. Past fields full of lambs and cow parsley. Past the small, squat church at Hubberholme that I still think looks like a fat broody hen, even though my mother used to tell me I was being fanciful and silly.
The car bumps over the cattle grid, we go round a corner and Langstrothdale opens up in front of us, spreading out like one of those books Sophie has where the pictures pop up when you open the pages out flat. And today, there’s no Mother around to tell me off for being fanciful.
Yes, oh yes. I was so right to come back. It is all exactly as I remember. I am back in Paradise.
Paul parks the car as close to the river as we can get. I think this may be the exact spot where my father parked all those years ago, but can’t be sure. But what does it matter? We’re here. That’s enough.
‘Be careful,’ I call out as Sophie jumps out of the car and dashes down towards the river, long golden plaits flying out behind her.
But I wasn’t worried. At this part of its journey, the river Wharfe is just a baby, playful and gentle, teasing us with a game of hide and seek as it slips in and out of the boulders at the river edge.
I show Sophie how the river bed is made of giant slabs of smooth grey rock that look as if they’ve been carved into steps.
‘Do the steps go all the way to the giant’s house?’ she asks, her voice catching with excitement, ‘Like in Jack and the Beanstalk? Shall we find a giant if we climb up the stairs?’
‘We might so you’d better hold my hand,’ I say. ‘Just in case.’
Sophie and I take our shoes and socks off, then holding hands and giggling, step gingerly into the brown peaty water. We wade across to the top of the step where the water slithers over and down on to the next, like a small waterfall.
We laugh as the river rears up around our feet like a startled horse. The afternoon is warm but the Wharfe started life at the top of the nearby fell and hasn’t travelled far enough to lose its legacy of winter snows. It is cold. So cold our feet ache and our toes are turning numb.
The river, as always, wins. Sophie and I return to the bank.
Still in bare feet, we walk on the close cropped grass which is soft and springy as newly laid carpet. I tell her how, when the winter rains come, this placid, easy-going river turns hot-headed and wild, like some stroppy adolescent, and storms down the valley, tearing vegetation from the banks in restless, reckless fury.
‘What’s a stroppy adol … adoless ..?’ she tries to ask but the word is strange and new to her and ties up her tongue.
‘We’ll both find out soon enough,’ I say and although I laugh, a chill runs down my back at the thought of how soon that time will come. I think of tears and tantrums and staying out too late. Of outrageous clothes, unsuitable boys and loud, messy music.
But today is Sophie’s first trip to Paradise so I push the thought away, unwilling to let fears of the future cloud this oh so perfect day. Instead, I show her where the swollen winter torrents have left clumps of dried up grass hanging like a forgotten line of washing on the lower branches of a sycamore tree on the opposite bank.
I sit down and absorb the sights and sounds of the valley. There are black-faced sheep nagging at their lambs to stay close and swallows that shriek and chatter as they flicker over the surface of the water like skimming stones. And I am content.
Sophie’s behind me, stretched out on her stomach, her chin resting on her hands. She never ceases to surprise and delight me, this so precious child of ours who arrived like a miracle when, after three miscarriages and years of monthly disappointments, we had given up hope.
It still amazes me how one minute she’s a bundle of shrieking, hyperactive energy, like the swallows and the next, like now, is quiet and still as she watches a bee plundering a blue-grey harebell, its fragile stem trembling under the bee’s weight.
Sophie is totally absorbed, not moving until the bee flies off. Then she looks up at me. Her beautiful eyes, the same blue-grey as the harebell, are wide with the wonder of it all.
Too soon, the spell’s broken. She hears Paul calling and scrambles to her feet. She urges me to hurry as she runs ahead, skipping and dancing, golden hair glinting in the sunlight.
I follow more slowly but just as eagerly, for we’re both drawn by the smell that drifts towards us. Paul’s cooking sausages on a small camping stove. As I get closer, I can hear them hissing and spitting and smell, too, the crusty rolls that were still warm when we bought them in the shop in Hawes this morning. There are apples and nuts, crisps and chocolate and, as a special treat, a large bottle of brilliant orange, fizzy Tizer.
And I realise I’m hungry. Very very hungry.
‘Can’t you sleep, dear? Can I get you something?’
A woman is bending over me. Who is she? Sophie? Maybe. No. Can’t be. Sophie’s got blue eyes. These are brown. So who -?
‘What’s going on?’ I try to say. ‘Who are you? And what are you doing in my bedroom?’
Only I don’t say anything. Because someone’s making soft whimpering noises. And I rather think it’s me.
Don’t like this. Don’t like it at all. I’ve got to sort things out. Get my bearings. Think, woman, think. I know one thing for sure. This is not my bedroom. Mine has pink walls and white floaty curtains and a vase of ivory silk roses on my bedside table.
This place is beige with high narrow windows and ugly pipes travelling up the walls. Someone’s tried to hide them by painting them the same boring beige as the walls. But it hasn’t worked. They’re still ugly.
Then I see the lettering on the beige cellular blanket and, finally, I remember. It says ‘Bankside NHS Trust.’
The blanket’s been smoothed with prim, pristine precision to cover my old, useless legs. To cover me, an old useless woman who’s lived too long and is now nothing but a worry to her daughter. Those lovely harebell blue eyes, that once marvelled at the antics of a bee are now dulled as Sophie has grown old herself, worn out and tired from the strain of worrying about me. Wondering if there was anything she could have done to prevent that stupid fall that broke my hip and a couple of ribs and landed me in here.
The nurse – I remember her now, bright and kind enough in her own brisk, impersonal way – has asked me if I want something to make me sleep. But I don’t want to sleep. Sleep is black. Empty. Nothing. I want to stay awake forever and dream.
I want to close my eyes and dream of how it used to be when Sophie and I were much, much younger and my darling Paul was still alive. I want to relive again and again that moment of perfect happiness all those years ago in that lovely Yorkshire dale.
I’ve noticed lately it’s been there for me every time I close my eyes. And every time it gets harder to come back.
‘I said, would you like some hot chocolate, dear?’ The nurse has obviously asked the same question before because she laughs softly and adds: ‘You were miles away just then. Where were you?’
Ah yes. I was indeed miles away. So many miles. And so very, very far away. Shall I tell her where I’ve been? If I do, she’ll no doubt think I’m crazy. Going gaga. Losing my marbles. One more thing for Sophie and that social worker with the soft voice and ill-fitting suit to fret over.
So what the hell? They do that anyway. I’ll tell her.
‘I’ve been to Paradise,’ I say and then I wait, impatient for her to leave. Impatient to get back there, to see once again the sunlight sparkle on the miniature waterfalls, to rejoice in the wonder in my child’s eyes, there for all eternity. And to take off my shoes and socks and dance the dance of life and youth and gladness on the soft springy turf.
This time, I’m not coming back. Not for the hot chocolate which I have to sip through a straw like a child. Not for this beige room with its empty beige windows, nor for the nurse whose eyes never meet mine and who’s more interested in the numbers on the chart that’s clipped over the end of my bed than in me as a person.
No, I’m not coming back, not even for Sophie, who needs to be free of the detritus of my life – the social workers, care workers and now, we are told, nursing homes – and get on with her own life again.
This time when I get back to Paradise, I’m staying there. For ever and ever.