Coming up roses

Late in the evening of the longest day of the year I was slumbering in my lounge watching the shadow chase the light of the setting sun up the tile roof of the neighbouring house. I mused in passing how in the winter I watched the same chase in mid-afternoon. The wheels turned slowly but I did finally question why I was horizontal on the sofa when I could have been outdoors taking advantage of the lingering midsummer light.

Since Easter I have barely had time for anything but work. I get up early, go to work, come home, put my feet up for a couple of hours after dinner and invariably zonk out without having done anything else with my day. On my scattered days off I wash my uniform and try to clean the house a bit, and then invariably zonk out without having done anything else with my day, only to get up early the next morning to go back to work. Now, this is all good news, but being stuck in a routine explains why summer solstice was nearly over before I realised I had two days off in a row and could well live a little, and sleep in the next morning. I peeled myself off the sofa, put some shoes on and went wandering about the village.

The cooling air wrapped itself around my bare arms as I weaved past the cottages. Crail really was looking lovely. A cat or two patrolled the wynds, and flower pots guarded the closed doors. The tide was in, gentle waves hugged the rocks with soft sighs, and the cloudless sky was turning pink and purple over the calm sea. The calls of herring gulls mixed with the screeches of the barn swallows swooping above the chimneys. I walked past the castle wall and turned onto the path that follows the shoreline. There was a sweet scent in the air, and I realised the tangled and thorny shrubs by the path were roses just coming into their best bloom. I stopped, stuck my nose into the nearest petals and inhaled. Yup, that was definitely where the flowery whiff was coming from.

Then it struck me. Guys: I had literally stopped to smell the roses.

Life was good.

Rose

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Wool babies in the village

So. Sheep. I don’t know what it is about sheep but they have rather endeared themselves to me. They make me smile, and it could be because sheep have obvious comedy value, what with having the appearance of round floof missiles that zoom about on four knitting needles. It could also be because they are simply very cuddly-looking, except in the winter when the long-suffering flocks dredge the fields dripping with water and mud. Now that it is May, however, watching sheep graze is delightful: from the bus window they remind me of scattered cumulus clouds sailing across a green sky. Some pastures had lambs too earlier in the year, and I don’t know if it is possible to feel anything but elated when watching a new-born animal skip and bounce. Additionally, I suspect I like sheep because they are associated with socks, mittens and other hand-made knitwear, and hand-made knitwear, as we know, is love in palpable form.

Anyone who counts sheep among their favourite things will find a steady supply of happiness in the East Neuk. We are not skimping on sheep in these parts: Crail even has a flock right in the middle of the village. Our village sheep, however, mostly mind their own business, so I have never made closer acquaintance with any of them until today.

Lambs

When I approached their dyke, four little lambs clambered onto their feet, stretched, and jogged over to the gate where they readily submitted themselves to my pats and tickles. New sheep friends! Oh, happy day! A dog walking his human also stopped by, captivated by the fearless wool babies that pressed their little noses right against his.

Lambs

I cuddled every lamb I could get my hand on through the bars of the gate until they thought their time would be better spent eating something, and they drifted off.

Lambs

Bye, wool babies!

Perhaps next time when I walk by my wool babies have already turned into aloof teenagers who no longer give me the time of day. If so, then I will just go back into smiling at floof missiles zooming about and cumulus clouds on a green sky. That’s not so bad either.

Encounter with an ass

This past weekend I had half an hour to spare in Edinburgh between a thing and another, so I wandered through the National Gallery. Knowing I couldn’t stay long I wasn’t able to concentrate on viewing anything specific, and I wondered whether I should bother at all. But then I headed for the gothic and renaissance room. There is, you see, always time for all things medieval.

Truth be told, though: medieval paintings are not quite my number one passion. The religious subjects get tiring after a while, and there is something alien about the fantastical disregard for perspective. But I still find telling aspects of the medieval mind to interest me, or details of clothing to peruse in the works of art.

I stopped to look at an Italian triptych from the 14th century. There was the crucifixion in the middle, there were saints and bright colours and the whole shebang shone in gold and all-round opulence like nobody’s business. The nativity scene in the side panel depicted the usual suspects: adoring Mary, some sharp-winged, travel-sized angels and the baby Jesus opting for a nautical-themed swaddle. However. However! The entire scene was stolen by a donkey and an ox observing the proceedings from behind the manger in what looked like curious, half-sitting positions.

Something’s going on with those two. Sh*t is about to go down. I mean, will you just look at them!

Triptych by Bernardo Daddi (detail from a photo by the National Galleries of Scotland)

Detail from a photo by the National Galleries of Scotland

See? They are definitely up to something. It is safe to assume the artist was not thinking ahead to 21st century twitter fodder, but never have I ever seen an ass and an ox so ready to be memes. In person they look even more unimpressed as they do in the photo.

I emitted an involuntary ‘Ha!’ standing in front of the painting, and then resisted the urge to glance around to see if anyone had noticed. Art from 679 years ago still has the capacity to surprise.

I did wonder whether Bernardo Daddi would have minded that I laughed at his work. And I did wonder how many human faces the ass and the ox had seen staring at them over the years.

The magic of ordinary north

If I were ever to write fantasy, the story would be set in a world similar to how ours was some 800 years ago. The story would start in the northern forests and it would start in the winter, because boreal winter is already quite otherworldly as it is. All land, water and living things seem to be asleep under snow and ice. Snow makes the landscape cold but also soft and quiet, pure and sparkling. Winter light in the north is like nowhere else in the world. Sunlight is clear and bright, if meagre and rare, and it immerses everything in palest blues, pinks and yellows. Moonlight, when reflected from the snow, is intense and leaves all things suspended in shadows and glow. It isn’t hard to imagine events taking a magical turn from there.

Northern winter has sounds too that cannot be heard anywhere else. When temperatures drop to -20˚C and below, the expanding ice on the lakes howls at night. The sound is a deep and hollow, booming wail. Trees will also spontaneously split and crack with the sound of a ghostly axe hitting the trunks in the forest. If the air is calm, every twig and branch and all grasses reaching above the snow will get a perfect layer of frosting. When a gentle puff of wind shakes the frost off the canopies of silver birches, the falling crystals chink and tingle softly like tiny, tiny falling bells. It isn’t hard to believe that some spell is at work there.

Falling frost

Some cats of the block

Cats, I believe, are an essential source of happiness. One day I will have a cat. The day will come. In the meantime, however, whilst my life is still woefully incompatible with furry roommates, I rarely pass a neighbourhood cat without stopping and trying to win their approval.

My next-door cat, Bottlebrush, approved of my front garden before she approved of me. Bottlebrush is a wee tortoiseshell female with a fine, long fur that makes her tail look like a flimsy bottlebrush, hence my name for her. Bottlebrush liked to sit in the shade of my Hebe bush before I pruned it down so much she can no longer find a cat-sized cavity under its branches. Bottlebrush has a bit of a temper, or at least she pretends to have one just to make clear that she decides how much she wants to be cuddled, thank you very much. Bottlebrush was slow to make friends, and although she did want to greet me and to be stroked, she also made sure to take a swipe at me and hiss the first few times we met. She is much more relaxed now, and I can also read her moods and only give her a short tickle when she’s on my side of the patch just for a quick hello.

Ginger from across the courtyard, on the other hand, is hungry for attention. He found me before I found him: when I had first started to renovate the front garden, and was pottering with my tubs and trowels, he appeared behind me so quietly I nearly jumped when he head-butted my hand. Ginger really likes his head-butts. And under-chin scratches. And, oh, anything, really.

Ginger

Ginger

The two cats directly opposite I haven’t named because they keep themselves to themselves. One is black-and-white and the other grey, and I only ever see them when they sit on the window ledge waiting to be let in.

The house on the other side of the road belongs to Shy Cat on the Wall. She is wary of strangers, and the few times I have seen her surveying the neighbourhood from the highest point of the stone wall surrounding an abandoned garden, I have had no success in winning her over. She doesn’t even let me get close to her.

But if I continue down the lane from Shy Cat on the Wall’s patch and then turn left, I will often meet the friendliest cat in the burgh, and the only one whose real name I know. Panther is a grey boy who likes everybody. He often sits on a window ledge, stone wall or a bin along a four-house stretch of his street, but he may also follow me to the bus stop if he hasn’t quite finished cuddling yet. If I squat down and put my shopping bags aside, he will climb onto my knee and purr away like an engine. I have witnessed other people do what I do, and put down their shopping or coffee mug just to spend some time with Panther.

Ginger Tripod shares the same stretch of street with Panther. He was much slower to come around and he still approaches me carefully and rolls on the pavement nearby until he remembers we are friends now. He comes and gets one passing head-scratch that extends to a long stroke ending at the tip of his tail as he walks on. Then he turns around and does the same from the other direction. Although Ginger Tripod’s approach is circumspect compared to Panther’s, he often follows me past a few houses, hobbling along his tail up in the air after I’ve said ‘bye’ to him and started walking on.

Panther

Panther

If I don’t go down the lane but turn left at Shy Cat’s wall, I will sometimes see Slinky Bathroom Cat or Black Jogger near the school. Slinky Bathroom Cat is not one to care for humans other than his own, and we have not been formally introduced, but I named him because he is so recognisable. He is a very athletic, black-and-white lad whose defining feature is how he gets back into his house from his garden. He jumps onto a wheelie bin and then makes an impressive leap up to a bathroom window that is just ajar enough for him to slink right through it. Black Jogger I have met, and he can be quite friendly if only he can spare the time. He is a young cat always trotting about, busy, busy; across the road, past a fence and through a hedge. Gardens to inspect, alleys to patrol, must jog on!

Mrs Window at the end of the street, however, has the time. The petite, elderly tortie probably spends most of her time indoors as I have only seen her in the summer time when she can conveniently step through an open window straight onto a low stone wall where she can find a nice spot to observe the comings and goings in a composed loaf position. Mrs Window has seen it all and doesn’t mind humouring a passing human who wants some feline love. Not that she’s particularly bothered but she is very experienced in being a cat, so, whatever. Cuddle if you must. Thank you, Mrs Window; most kind! I don’t have a cat of my own, you see.

Not yet.

Apple equation

My neighbours on the other side of the fence have a big apple tree that they never seem to harvest. Some of the fruit falls on the ground and the rest stay dangling on the branches all through the winter. Happily, there are birds in these parts that approve of this arrangement.

My kitchen window looks out to the fence and the tree. Most of the time when I’m facing the tedium of washing up the view doesn’t provide much entertainment, but today I saw a male blackbird digging into one of the forgotten apples. By the time I started filling the sink he had already chomped down the top quarter of the fruit. He ate and ate and ate, and occasionally paused for several minutes standing very still, looking like he was nursing an almighty belch. Then he carried on. An hour later he was still at it, and the apple was down to its bottom quarter. I had washed and dried the dishes and moved onto other chores when I noticed the apple was all gone and the blackbird was sitting on another branch, getting ready to move on.

Here’s my question: how much apple can you fit into just one blackbird? The apple I have in my fridge weighs 158g and doesn’t look at all dissimilar to the ones hanging in my neighbours’ tree. An average blackbird, I am told, weighs around 100g. Something doesn’t add up. There must be variables that balance this equation. Perhaps the bird did not eat every beakful but chucked bits aside when I wasn’t looking? Perhaps there is so much water in apples that some of it just sort of… travels right through? I couldn’t say. But at least pondering about this problem provided a welcome distraction whilst tidying away the evidence of two weeks’ worth of dinners.

Blackbird eating an apple

I know it’s a rubbish photo but give me a break, I had my hands full!

Dirt and bones

There was a damp day in late July when I was sitting in a small, crowded room wearing muddy clothes and wielding a toothbrush. I wasn’t paying an awful lot of attention to what exactly I was doing until I realised I was brushing someone’s rib. A long-dead someone’s. And I thought: “Amazing!”

Between Christmas and Hogmanay, I seem to be in a habit of sitting about in candle light musing and taking stock. The past year did not turn out as planned, and some of it will always remain stained by ill health and utter rubbish. But then there were days that can only be categorised as sheer excellence. The day of brushing a motley collection of animal and human bones, and the previous one I spent kneeling on a field scraping at dirt both qualify by a considerable margin. Partly I am pleased with those days simply because I finally got around to them: volunteering at an archaeological excavation had been in my ‘one of these days’ mental pile for probably a decade, and there is undeniable satisfaction in moving anything to the ‘been there, done that’ heap instead. But I also enjoyed the work itself.

Time passed surprisingly quickly in what I would describe as diverting boredom. On the first morning, I sauntered over to the trench and got handed a trowel, a spade and a bucket. I scraped away at my designated patch of soil occasionally setting aside the odd quartz pebble or bone fragment until suddenly it was lunch time. Then I scraped and hacked away some more, and before I noticed what was happening the afternoon turned into evening and everyone sloped off to the pub.

DirtStill, it wasn’t just the work either that I enjoyed: not any old dirt would top my annual chart of excellence. This was Anglo-Saxon dirt, you see, on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne where a crowdfunded project is tracing the early monastery. I would have preferred Pictish dirt, obviously, but I thought the contemporary layers south of the border were close enough to capture my imagination. And did they ever. I am fascinated by monastic sites:  from their ascetic beginnings they grew to dominate the landscape for centuries only to be erased; a religious life that was once so commonplace seems now completely alien.

But my long-dead, Anglo-Saxon someone was there in the beginning. The next morning when rain had interrupted the scraping and I sat in my corner of the crowded room turning their rib in my hand I thought they were a real person; they saw what is now a distant mystery, and lived through what is now a puzzle to be solved. That was the amazing part.

Bones