In memory of Auntie Shirley

I’m in the back seat of dad’s car on the way to school. Mum is in the front passenger seat, and to my left, in the back, a blue biro slowly and meticulously draws a simple flower on the plain page of a notebook. A round centre grows a series of identical ovoid petals. 

It seemed odd, a grown-up doing this childish thing (I would now say childlike – a huge and significant difference). Later, discovering that Auntie Shirley did yoga, I realised that she must have been practising what we would now called mindfulness, long before the shops filled with colouring books for adults, and smartphones put meditation in our pockets. These simple flowers were mandalas, I suppose. While she was slowly drawing those flowers, Auntie Shirley wasn’t smiling. Her absorption seemed too intense for any signal of feeling directed outwards. I think, though, that these morning journeys on her way to the playgroup that mum ran with Auntie Shirley were the only times that I recall her without a smile on her face. It was a smile that seemed largely oblivious to things that make most of us smile, coming from within, rather than triggered by outside stimulus. Most of us smile when we see, or think of something that makes us happy, contented, loved. Auntie Shirley’s unwavering smile expressed her resolute facing towards happiness, contentment, love and making those things happen in the lives of those she was caring for. Whatever strong serenity she drew from her  yoga and meditation, and from her Christian prayer and worship, she carried into her work and relationships. I recall a strident preacher in the days of my evangelical fervour once describe yoga as ‘a landing pad for satan.’ What nonsense. Too many people have been wounded and made to despise faith by that kind of exclusionary dogma. Auntie Shirley, like mum, saw, I believe, the best in everyone and every thing, and gently drew that best out even from places where it was determined to remain hidden. She had the kind of faith that gently, undemonstratively, embraces those who can’t embrace it for themselves. 

52233472Picture from Pendle Today (

Auntie Shirley was not my ‘real’ auntie. As was common back then, any adult friends of mum and dad were ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’, and Auntie Shirley and Uncle Doug might as well have been family for the part they played in my life. Auntie Shirley was a central and much loved part of my upbringing in the little playgroup in grandad’s old terraced house in Barlick, where she was half of such a marvellous partnership with mum. She continued to be a loving and interested part of my life as I moved through school, away to university, marriage and family. Christmas cards continued to come every year, shamefully unreciprocated, until eventually one change of address too many meant they eventually no longer arrived (though it wouldn’t surprise me if they were still being sent). On increasingly rare visits home, when I saw Auntie Shirley at church events and then the funerals of mum and, much later, dad, that full-faced smile was always there. People age, of course, and die, but somehow real smiles, the ones from within, born of love, stay the same so Auntie Shirley, even though she has now gone to her rest, has always seemed somehow ageless to me. That smile, shining with love, and hope, and faith, and care will be carried by all of us who were fortunate to have been known by her, and passed on to those we care for in our turn.



End of a sensing

Rain lashed at the window then changed its mind. Stillness fell into the nothing happening moments where we are just waiting for the things we have to do. Hours can be filled with talk when they are leading to more hours. When they about a parting, it’s all about, if anything, what’s the combination for the key safe, what time’s your onward train, yes, I’ve got my passport.

Food we thought we’d want but didn’t sits on the table with one of us eating some of it, but not much. How did you sleep? Not bad. Off and on. (Rubbish, really – same effect as the night before we came, different cause: anticipation has home advantage for me.)

At the bus stop, I see my first Icelandic police officer. An American is being invited to stay some extra time, in prison, if he likes. He explains, patiently, as if to an uncomprehending idiot, that he just got into an argument with his friends and laid one of them out. ‘It was like that’ – he bangs one fist into the other palm’ – ‘you can ask anyone here’, he gestures to the crowd pretending not to pay attention.

Iceland offers its brief farewell of lashing hail in the few yards from bus to terminal doors. The rest is the international language of airports: (even more) overpriced coffee, made-in-China fluffy-toy nods to where you’ve been. I buy a puffin and a lamb with an Iceland-flag foot for the girls. Then the liturgy of queuing, people watching, and nodding back to your phone if you accidentally catch someone’s glance.

Then the smallest part of the journey. That insignificant distance over an ocean, strapped to a hurtling chair.


In Hólavallagarður the snow-covered graves have a curious air of comfort where I’d expected only melancholy. Everything is rounded and mounded. A double tomb looks like a settee, its occupants, Þorbjörg and Snorri, reclining in comfortable oblivion behind an orange glowstick cross. A pair of birds tweet in the white laden branches. Fairy lights twinkle in a miniature glasshouse. The no longer living are more present here than their people among whom they rest, scrunching past in their buses, swatting snow from their cars, buying their breakfast bakery.

We had set off in a snowstorm for the Catholic Cathedral, skirting hidden pavement to tread in Wenceslas tyre tracks. I hammered the bell in the yard, padded steaming into the narthex then kneeling before the crib said a prayer I tried to believe, hoping it might be so.

After the graveyard, coffee in an old theatre, three languid cups, laced with comfort; coats hats gloves swaling on radiators.

Heading out again, the day has turned, the magic of snow given way to the low trickery of slush and sleet. Feet planted in remaining snow find ice, rain runs fast in tyre-track rivers, and rolling tyres spew arcs of spray. We stoop, rain leg sodden, up Skólavörðustígur, wind threatening our footing, to Hallgrimskirkja. There, we are drenched in delight: a choir of wool-sweatered teenagers fill the slender grey-blue vault with a beauty as strong as its delicacy.

We know, I think, not to expect more. The slither down to Harpa’s glass and light is less conjunction than annotation. Good work, it says. You chose well. That’s enough.

The last leg back to the apartment, slush seeping through lace holes and wicking up trouser legs seconds the assessment. Stay in. Being is as good as doing. Enjoying memories is the reward for making them. Remembering them is the price for what passed.

Lying here in bed, rain slaps the rooflight, and somewhere, not far, fireworks keep the year new.

From the unlight

Twilight, gloaming, dusk. All of these seem redolent of evening, and this mid-morning barely light does indeed feel like nightfall. The clock makes it clear it’s getting lighter but my eyes are little convinced. Still, we could do with a word for the light of a morning reluctant to stretch out and shrug off the night.

We woke up into what felt like dead of night. Traffic moving on the ring road and and an advent calendar of lights in the apartments opposite betrayed the time.

On the bus, there is for a time no sky and no land. The brain insists on pale gray clouds and white snow, but much of the time an honest look sees one undifferentiated plane, slowly slowly increasing in luminosity. That word too doesn’t feel right. There is nothing about this light that the word luminous connotes. It is a barely perceptible paring away of darkness to reveal that there is no longer nothing.

Then, some quite sudden realisations. There is a subtle variegation in the clouds. Then a line of clouds doubles itself. Then, the lower line of clouds is the ridge of a fell. The snow plain unfolds into ridges and rills. Shadowing in the snow suggests things beneath: ripples of rock, tufts of turf? It won’t tell us yet. What is small and what is far away?

A bank of cloud pulls back. A stadium roof letting in real light that comes from above rather than the strange non-glow that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.

Then sunrise, and everything in the -8 degree air is in ultra high definition. Orange-pink-plum clouds scatter above low ridges, pockets of spruce, and the flags, frozen lake, cemetery and church of Þingvellir. Fingers exposed to click and swipe warn with rapid pain that soon they won’t work and don’t want to be lost.

Then, those few hours of limpid daylight. Geysers and gulleys floodlit and spotlit simultaneously. A half moon is staking its claim for equality. It will get more than that, but not yet. Yes, it’s a rush from site to site, next Geysir then Gullfos. They’re tourist traps, sure, but then we are tourists, eager to be snared by beauty. Chosen for us, yes, but not without good reason.

At Gamla Laugin, my showered hair freezes within seconds of stepping into the pool’s absurd warmth. After a few minutes I walk round the edge, through bubbling and spitting ponds and the scalding streamlets that feed the pool. It’s -10. My feet feel as alive as they ever have, every nerve receptor alert to danger, my head reassuring them of the return to 37 degree comfort soon. Clouds of sulphur-scented steam are apricotted by the last of sunlight waving from behind the horizon, handing over to the brilliance of the orange lit glasshouses that feed Iceland and gild its darkness with space-age sparkles scattered across valleys on the sleepy drive back to Reykjavik.

To the Land of Ice

3am. On the road, on the motorway, wondering where the light that’s too early for dawn is coming from. Impossible to tell if the clouds are illuminated from below, above or within. The pale ochre eye of Sauron over Swansea. A wash of barely luminous cloud giving way to Blackness above the tunnel of road lighting, clear up close, but snaking to a ribbon of ghostly haze ahead, around the Newport junctions that might have leaked, along with smear of dock and industry to the lowering slabs of sky. A wide flat curve swinging strings of coastal sodium and blue-white led across the horizon below the unblinking red eyes of the second Severn bridge crossing’s piers.

9am. It should be aeroplanes they call ‘the tube’. Slotted in, we cigar the sky, held up by wings that don’t seem joined on enough; that made, before we took off, weird mechanical noises like most vehicles no longer do, scaring a little bit more those fellow passengers who do fear. Occasionally it bumps and jolts. I can’t see out. I can’t feel the forward momentum. Head lolling, eyes closed, I could be on rutted road or unriveted rail but for the rushing off-white noise in the middle of my head, just below the music in my earphones: a minimalist drone by Star Transit – Not quite.

9:50 Landing. Smooth-ish wheels, but wind-swung tail yaws the tube around the landing/gear’s axis. We stop with a clinking of seat-belt clasps. A chill squeezes through the bodies squirming to leave. It grabs my right hip, edging off the seat. Welcome to Iceland, it grins.


10:50 The bus rolls languidly along a road that would be car-strewn and closed back home. The sun is a distant acquaintance of the clouds. It’s morning, the sun hasn’t even risen yet, but it feels as though it’s already been and gone, leaving faint footprints of light that gloam on the wind-dust snow settled on rills over the dunes – or is it moraine and till? I’ll look it up – that hunch against the flat-ironed sea.

A guy next to a van hits the ground repeatedly with some kind of pole. I’ve no idea what he’s doing, and this is not the kind of landscape or climate to invite idle conjecture. Whatever it is, it’s important and nothing to do with me. Every human activity and artefact here looks as though it exists only as the product of intense and earnest planning and effort. Go to hot countries and everything, from gleaming mall to squalid shack to twisting vine and palmm grove looks as though it was, or could have been, just slung together anyhow and it would work, kind of. And if not, it could just crumble or overgrow, and no matter. Here, even the vergeside LED advertising board, which will be the brightest thing I see all day, looks as though it was sternly muscled into place at risk of frostbite and fracture. We will live here like ordinary folk, it says. You came here for geysers and glaciers? Well good for you: get on the bus. Our work is done. We’ll be in Starbucks. In our shirt sleeves, because we can.

In between days

All is liminal in the going-up-midnight under-the-covers space where a looked and longed for break and a broached and breaking deadline interfere.

My mind is full of what I haven’t done instead of embracing what I will.

(Nonetheless, thankfully, I will.