Meet Ozric, my lovely lurcher – puppy photos on the right, handsome 2 year old now on the left. I wanted to share the prose piece below (first published in Brittle Star earlier this year). It’s a winter piece, which seems at odds with the beautiful sunshine outside today, but I thought if I put some pictures of Ozric on the blog I could justify it. Hopefully it gives you an insight into the place my writing comes from.
So Faint We Could Be Ghosts
5.30 in the morning, walking along the Trans Pennine Trail, my headtorch casting an indifferent beam, the covering of snow just enough to bolster the torchlight. I always walk with my dog, a 15 month old lurcher named Ozric, who’s curious but not brave and will bolt at the slightest noise, like an idea you believe in but don’t have time to write down.
Frost crunches underfoot like cinders and it reminds me of ash from the hearth at Bank House, how we used to tip it into a bucket then empty it onto the path when it was icy.
Sometimes I try to imagine what that house must be like now, inside – it’s 40 years since I sat in the kitchen, the warmth of the pale blue Aga, a kitten called Young Tom clambering over the Alsatian dog, the air hazy with smoke from hot lard spluttering in the frying pan, the sour smell of goat’s milk. My friend Steph lived there, and her mother used to say there were ghosts, that when she was on the phone, she could smell perfume, distinctly, as if another woman was standing beside her. She didn’t know who’d lived there before, but it was a manner of haunting that’s quite common round here, like rooms which have a cold end where the dead are said to sit.
Other houses have similar stories. There’s a place up near the Flouch where ornaments are flung off the mantlepiece by an invisible spiteful hand, and there’s a ghost that sits in the Dog and Partridge where locals have seen the empty rocking chair going to and fro.
I carry these stories with me when I walk, as I cut off the trail and into the horse field. There haven’t been horses here for years, but we still call it the horse field. I’m not scared of the dark, and I don’t mind walking alone. I could conjure up the horses if I wanted to, two grey cobs breathing into the cold, so docile they don’t move when we approach.
In truth there’s no one about except Harry Benson cutting cabbages, the swipe of his sickle working to cut and trim, cut and trim, the smell of cabbages hanging in the air, his trailer already stacked with enough veg to turn a profit, and if he has a weakness for drink it doesn’t show at this time of day. His face is tanned even in winter and his eyes are narrow, focused on the job. Sometimes he raises his arm and shouts mornin’, other times he prefers to carry on with his work. Either way, he doesn’t straighten his back.
Towards the stream the path is uneven, rutted with boot prints frozen into the mud. An aeroplane passes low, heading for Manchester, its orange lights twitching. Ozric puts his ears back, then lowers his head to sniff the frozen grass. It’s a confidential act, entirely between him and the ground, a moment I’m excluded from. He loses himself in the scent, in the half dark, in the space between the black sky and white snow-sheen.
When we reach the stream, the collapsed stones, which were once part of the boundary, are glassy. For a minute I’m filled with a sense of responsibility, for myself and for the dog. If I fall no one will find me for at least another hour because no one walks here at this time in the morning. There’s the dog too, young and slightly inept. He’s fine-legged, a sighthound cross, bred for speed, not clambering over icy stones. I pull him to heel before we continue. The stream is partially frozen and the thin ice gives under his weight. He bounds on the spot in surprise and his legs splay like a foal trying to find its balance in a world that is utterly new.
Perhaps because I’m a poet, I want to condense this landscape into words, but of course it can’t be contained like that. Language can outline it, but not replicate it. Between here and Manchester there’s nothing except heather and peat bog, the ruins of forgotten farms and cottages, the crumbling walls of a pub that used to stand on the salt route from Cheshire, a route which holds its own ghosts. There are a few trees, mainly hawthorn and elder, but they thin away to nothing. I can see the red warning lights on the masts at Holme Moss and Emley Moor, and the tail lights of cars just starting out on the early commute over the Woodhead Pass.
I’m walking up the last hill now. The pull of the slope on my calf muscles slows me down and the cold makes my cheeks burn. I’m swapping open country for the faint shiver of streetlights, the skatepark’s sculptured curves, a limp innertube hung over a security light. The thin moon is held in place by a couple of stars. Other than that, the sky is still so dark it seems as if daylight will never erase it. To anyone waking up now and looking out of their window, I’m a lonely figure trudging home, the dog beside me, alert, excited by the snow. We’re so small we’re almost nothing, so faint we could be ghosts.