It was four in the morning and Nergal, our cat, was wailing like a dawn chorus of birds. No, wait a minute, that was an actual dawn chorus of birds, and it was more of a whistling tootling sound than wailing. “Hi Nergal”, I blurmumbled and stumbled out of bed. I knew it was too early, but Nergal was cleverly mixing her meowing with bird sounds, so it created a pied-piper effect and made me follow her wagging tail into the kitchen, put some cat food into a saucer, and set it down on the floor. She decided to ignore the food, so I followed her in a trance to the front door, where she stretched up on her hind legs, her paws scrabbling pathetically against the door, imploring me to let her out. I opened the door and out she ran down the stone stairs. Clearly – she was desperate to join her whistling tootling friends outside.
Downstairs, I opened the heavy back door and stepped out into a dreamworld of garden and sky. No- wait a minute- it was an actual garden and sky. In moments, Nergal ran away across the grass towards the trees and bushes at the back of the garden.
I stood for a while, in a dream that wasn’t a dream. The grass was greener than I had ever seen it- lit from inside, in a way I couldn’t explain and was far too sleepy to try. I looked up at the high leafy trees. They were full of loud but invisible birds- all competing in the Eurotootling Song Contest. The songs circled the garden and the sky, and I heard bits of the songs repeated by birds in the distance, and then one bird would add a new riff, and another bird joined in with its own variation. Song thrushes? Nightingales? No, I decided these were ‘Nergal birds’, and by now, she had vanished into the trees to join them.
The sky was a vast turquoise dazzle, with one long pink cloud.
Later, I sat in a café, in the middle of a shopping centre, wondering if I should write about gardens or cafés. The reason I thought of cafés wasn’t just because I was in one; I had written some notes about my impressions in another café the day before:
In any café, you can watch ‘now’ as it is and as it disappears into another and another moment. You might become aware of people at other tables having conversations- some mumbling, or whispering, or a group of friends suddenly laugh together, and it makes you think of giant bubbles erupting in deep water and floating up to the sunlight. And maybe- there’s jazz music, playing softly in the café where you sit. Or you notice that special pattern of sounds: clattering, hissing, and short stretches of expectant silence which only café kitchens seem to make.
So, I thought about cafés and I thought about Nergal vanishing into the trees and bushes at the back of the garden, and I wondered – could I write about both? It felt like a good idea, but I couldn’t really connect the garden and the Nergal birds with cafés. Then, just to make it trickier, I remembered that I’d forgotten the best bit about being in the garden early that morning: the blackbird.
In the moment before Nergal charged out into the garden, a blackbird flew directly towards me, in a weird kind of long slow motion. I am not sure if it was me that made it seem that way, or if it was a special blackbird with special powers. Anyway, it seemed to fly towards me for ages, and I was able to watch each slowed-down beat of its’ black wings and see its’ bright orange beak spearing its way through the air towards me. Then, the blackbird suddenly speeded up and swerved to one side, landing elegantly on the top of a metal clothes pole. The bird stared at me triumphantly. Then, it flew off across the garden wall and was gone. I remember glancing down at Nergal, to see if she was as impressed with the blackbird as I was, but she just shrugged and ran off to the back of the garden.
Was there some connection now between writing about the blackbird in the garden and writing about a café? Nope. Not a single, twittering tootle of a connection. The memory of the blackbird was like a memory from a different world.
Aw, come on, I whined inside my head. It’s my 30th RAINSHINE. I want to write something vaguely interesting, or at least joined up in some way. I can’t just plonk down stuff about 4 am in a garden and stuff about coffee clatter and expect it all to gel together.
Whenever I get this whiny, there’s always a second me who talks back. This time, it said: “Why not just plonk words down and expect them to gel? If it leads somewhere, then it’s as good a method for writing as any. Right?”
I did not feel like pointing out to my second self that – my writing did not seem to be leading anywhere, so – why was that such a great method? I left the café and went to a few charity shops, including one giant charity shop, which reminded me of a similar shop in Skelleftea, the town in Sweden where my son Michael and his family live. The Swedish shop has a huge book section, including English language books, but the big old book I bought was in Swedish – a history of the printing industry. It did not seem to matter that I couldn’t read Swedish. The book had lots of pictures in it. If I’d been able to carry more things home, I would have also bought a massive second-hand winter coat, although I didn’t need it. I just felt that it would feel like Sweden. And I could get sort of lost in the huge coat and pretend I was a moose.
After the distraction of the charity shops and thinking about Sweden, I thought – I can connect anything to anything, unless I’m trying to. I walked home, via a recycling warehouse, where I looked at bookcases which were too big to fit through our front door, and then I wandered along streets which had been grey and cold for months but were now glowing in the heatwave, and I strolled through Dudhope Park, which has its own hordes of twitterers and tootlers in its’ massive trees, and once I nearly walked into a bush because I was so engrossed in reading a book called ‘About Writing’ by Samuel R Delany, and I suddenly realised- I don’t need to try so hard to find connections between things I write about. Things are always making their own connections.
I love gardens and cafes and cats and my family here in Dundee and in Sweden; I don’t usually love getting up 4 am but I love it when I can see a turquoise sky and grass so green it glows; I love sitting in cafés wondering about cafés and about gardens and cats and blackbirds and about stuff I’ve read – like a bit in an essay by Samuel R Delany, when he wrote: ‘Description… without story to support it risks becoming interminable. Story without description becomes insufferably thin.”
And I felt a bit sad, because it could be months before I get back to writing RAINSHINE again. But for now, I need to spend more time writing books and stories for magazines. Then, perhaps next year, I’ll wake up one morning at 4 am, go out into the glowing garden and say to Nergal: “Hey, this is cool. Maybe I should write about it. I’ll let it connect to whatever it wants to, later – when I’m in a café.”