Solitude. I had no idea what I was going to write for this prompt from KL Caley at New2writing.com. After I set up the post I finished reading one book and started on Femina, which I’m reviewing at the end of the month. And suddenly everything came together. It’s just over 1400 words, which must be the longest I’ve written for some time.
Have you read about these medieval women who wrote brilliantly, but were ignored by their peers, and whose works were destroyed by the men of the Reformation? No? I have.
I always wondered, especially about Julian of Norwich, what it would be like to write when closeted away. Was removing all stimuli a good thing? Did it make for creativity?
Or did solitude drive you mad?
You’d think I’d had enough of lockdown to have tested the theory on myself. I hadn’t been creative, that’s for sure. I’d been active, finishing lots of projects, ticking off a few I’d intended to do for years. But that’s not like locking yourself away from the world. Zoom meetings keep you in touch. Radio news, even if you avoid television. And the political rows.
I was idly flicking through the cottages available locally, thinking about a holiday. Sleeps one, sea view, then I added ‘no wifi.’ Plenty came up. But the castle in the loch grabbed my attention. It had no enticing views of cosy log fires, or sea pink dancing against a background of blue waves. It was stark and grim.
Walking along the road to look at it while the boatman got his things sorted, I wondered if I’d gone mad. I had food for a month, and a primus stove to heat water. I could absolutely not go without at least a coffee to relieve the austerity.
“I’ll return in four weeks, then,” the boatman said as he helped me unload the last of the stores onto the stone ledge. “Hang a towel out of yon window if there’s an emergency and ye need me sooner.”
I thanked him, good plan, and dragged my stuff up the path and inside before the drizzle turned to drech.
The first week was fun. I explored the castle. It looked extensive from the outside, but the wall hid a bare rocky centre, timber structures fallen into ruin inside it. On dry days I ferreted through the remains, wondering what purpose they’d had. Stores, boat repair, workshops of other kinds, maybe even some lodgings, I guessed. It got my imagination going, anyway.
Inside the tower were several small rooms on the ground floor, leading to a first floor room that took the whole of the area. The wind whistled through it from whatever direction it was coming. Incessant. Why on earth had the laird, or whoever had built it, created such an inhospitable main room? I decanted upstairs, to rooms with slits for windows, but sheltered and relatively warm.
I thought there might be bats in the roof, but no sign of them.
The second week my journal took a turn towards introspection. Once I’d been around the castle five times I was getting bored with it. Staring at the hills gave me thoughts of deer on the moors, chieftains leading their clans against the English invaders, and stories started wending through my brain and into notes for the future.
The third Sunday (I’d arrived on a Thursday), the storm got up. It raged for a day and night, wind and rain battering the sides, all sides at once it seemed, and I rolled myself up in my sleeping bag, pulled a cagoule over the top, and tried to sleep it out.
That was the first night of bad dreams. Not that bad, just an upsetting argument with an old friend, which turned a bit erotic, to tell the truth. I woke up in darkness, needing a wee, and wondered why I was worrying about a relationship with someone who died twenty years ago. I made a brief note of it, thinking how graphic it had been, wondering if that was relevant.
And still the wind howled.
I heard a crash from lower down, and went to investigate. The wind had blown my primus off the crate I’d stood it on, and the goods around it as well. I put them back and wondered where the matches had gone. Not finding them, and not wanting to waste battery power, I returned to bed.
The next dream was filled with fire and smoke. I woke in a panic, smelling burning. I rushed down, to find everything calm. The storm had passed. I checked everywhere for a fire, but the smell remained in my memory, not my nose.
I went to make breakfast. No sign of the matches. After a while I found them. In a pool of water. No matter, the spares were in my rucksack. The waterbottle had leaked into the plastic bag holding the spare matchboxes. Both of them. Okay. A couple of days with no hot food. Show the matches some sun to dry them out.
The rain continued, straight down for days.
Why was I here, anyway? To find out what solitude did to me. No coffee was not a disaster. I made cold coffee, and drank it, alongside a bowl of cereal. That was damp even before I added the milk. I needed to ration the milk if I didn’t want to resort to powdered.
No coffee was a disaster.
No, the mould on the rest of my stores was a disaster. I was down to tins. Eight tins of baked beans and four tins of tomato soup. Okay. I had seven days to go. It was not a disaster.
I sat in the middle of the main room, looking in each direction as I ate my cold beans with a spoon. After a while I realised I was having conversations with the beans. I stopped myself, put the rest of the tin aside for later.
Walked around the yard outside.
What would Julian of Norwich do? She didn’t even have a yard to walk around. Holed up in a room for thirty years. Did she eat? Did people put food through one of those turning doors for her? I kept thinking I saw rats in the store rooms, but every time I checked, there were no signs, and nothing for a rat to eat if it was there.
That night I saw a light dancing along the ceiling, such as it was—rafters and beams, with hardly a cobweb. At first I thought it was a ghost visiting me. I got out and started following. Surely this was a message from Julian herself? It drew me up the rickety stairs to the point where a flagpole still stood. I gazed through the unglazed skylight to see a star, flashing at me. The light had left me. I stared at the star, I felt its message seep into me; I absorbed it as you would a message in a language you had fluently. Be strong, follow your ancestors, leap into the void and be one with us.
I was climbing up the flagpole as the sun broke through the clouds low in the east. Dazzled, I stopped. My hands clenched the metal rod, my feet slipped, and I was dangling above slate roofs and stone walls. Oh my… what was I doing here?
I wrapped my legs around the pole and managed to slide down, hand over hand, not quite skinning my palms. I quivered myself back inside and lay on the parapet, waiting for the jelly to set.
Five days to go. Was I safe? Was I safe from myself?
A buzzing noise flew over the loch. I looked out to see a speedboat, passing on its way down to the settlement. Signs of life. A life outside the castle.
It grounded me, for an hour.
Then I started writing.
I wrote for twentyfour hours. I didn’t know I could write for that long. My hand cramped, but I stretched it out, considered my thoughts, and went on. Then I slept. Then I started again.
I only stopped when someone came in.
The boatman had brought two others with him. I protested. I hadn’t called them. It wasn’t time. I was writing important things. I couldn’t stop now.
They wouldn’t listen. They packed up my things, carefully stowing my writings, cleaning up the mess I’d made around the food store, tins of beans open and poured on the floor. Water spilt everywhere.
They carried me into the boat and put me ashore, into the train, and explained to the porter to make sure I got off with my things in Glasgow.
Maybe I owe them my life.
I don’t owe them anything else. The writing is nonsense.
© J M Pett 2022