On reading a short story by Anthony Doerr

This reading adventure began in A Corner of Cornwall, with Sandra, who said that although she wasn’t usually a reader of short stories, she’d found Anthony Doerr’s collection, The Shell Collector, ‘exquisite’. That’s the kind of recommendation that makes me seek out the nearest copy. In this case, luckily, at our local library.

I’ve met quite a few people who don’t read short stories.

‘Why not?’ I ask, preparing to pounce, to convert them. I will say, without modesty, that I’m quite good at that.

That claim is, of course, not entirely true. The people who’ve become converts to short forms of fiction because of me, have arrived in my short-story-appreciation-classes, so they must, at some level, have been prepared to be converted. I didn’t go out onto any street and convince anyone.

The truth is that winning people over is a matter of finding the right kind of story, and helping them to find the key, or perhaps I should say, ‘keys’. I do like fiction that can be peeled back in layers. Sometimes they’re simple seeming plots, like the third story in this collection, So Many Chances.

Dorotea San Juan, a fourteen year old in a brown cardigan.The Janitor’s daughter.Walks with her head down, wears cheap sneakers, never lipstick. Picks at salads during lunch. Tacks maps to her bedroom walls. Holds her breath when she gets nervous. Years of being the janitor’s daughter teach her to blend in, look down, be nobody. Who’s that? Nobody.

That’s a nice opening, a quick glance: a neatly summed up characterisation that says to me ‘event on the horizon’.

After all, one of the main rules for a story beginning is that we are at a moment of significant change. A character is about to shift from static to active. All my instincts tell me that Dorotea is about to go from nobody, from blending in, to… well, something. That title, So Many Chances, has to mean something.

It does. Dorotea’s father is about to swop jobs. He’s taking his wife and daughter away from Youngstown, Ohio, to a new opportunity in shipbuilding, in Harpswell, Maine.

That’s exactly what I need, I’m reading on, absorbing the doubts and anxieties of Dorotea and her mother, but all the same, I’m already anticipating a new school. I’m leaping ahead to this opportunity for Dorotea to be noticed. She’ll be able to recreate herself, be somebody.

Doerr’s writing carries me along, he’s so precise that even the most simple moves are elegantly presented.

Dorotea tells nobody and nobody asks. They leave on the last day of school. that afternoon. Like sneaking out of town.

Though there is one that defeats me.

Her mother sits stern and sleepless behind tracking wipers, lips curled above her chin like two rain-drowned earthworms, her small frame tensed as if bound in a hundred iron bands.

I’m still failing to visualise a mouth shaped like two rain-drowned earthworms. But that’s such a minor flaw, when there are so many other beautiful sentences to enjoy. As the journey progresses, and they move closer to the ocean, ‘Dorotea fidgets in her seat. The energy of a cagged fourteen-year-old piling up like marbles on a dinner plate.

I could keep quoting.This story is so beautifully written that there are a lot of moments I’d like you to share. If you’ve wondered how realism can be made to resonate, then this story is worth a look.

Be warned, other stories in The Shell Collector are not so firmly grounded. They have their own, different kind of beauty, that I also loved. To sum them up, I repeat Sandra’s assessment of this collection, and say, ‘exquisite’.

There are two more thing to say about my reading of So Many Chances. I’ve resisted the temptation to place before you stepping stones of incidents that will lead you through the events. I don’t want to risk spoiling what is a beautifully paced read, should you also decide to enter Dorotea’s life.

My final comment is about the finish, which I think is beautiful. Once I got there, the closing scene was obvious, it was the only one that made sense. But until that moment, I wasn’t sure how Doerr would, could or should draw the threads together.

Observation and isolation.

Have we become more observant since lockdown?

That’s one of the claims I keep hearing in the media. The evidence offered is that many of us have been getting a lot closer to the natural environment. In Britain, it is said, more people are going for walks, cycling and gardening than ever before.

The sudden loss of mechanical noises certainly allowed nature’s voice to be heard more clearly, and like many people, I’ve been fascinated to see the range of creatures reclaiming spaces they are usually pushed out of by crowds of humans. Internationally, my favourite photo, so far, has been a dolphin swimming into pristine waters in Venice. True or not, that image is now embedded in my mind. But the wonder of what’s on our own doorstep is not easily dismissed.

Ah, climate change, my favourite band-wagon. ‘Surely,’ hope says, ‘now that we’ve seen how quickly the damage we cause can be turned around, we’re going to make some changes.’ That was certainly the supposition of the interviewee on a radio programme, early in the week.

Meanwhile, this talk of our improved powers of observation has set me thinking. Some of my favourite pieces of poetry and prose depend on an adept use of detail.

Take Wuthering Heights, for instance. Emily Bronte conveys setting and climate in a sentence.

Pure bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.

Later, when Cathy is raving, she pulls feathers from her pillow and identifies the birds they came from: turkeys ducks, pigeons, moorcocks and lapwings. These are what are called ‘telling’ detail. They not only demonstrate the state of Cathy’s mind, they provide a glimpse back to her childhood. They link to a specific moment when she and Heathcliff were roaming the moors together.

Emily Bronte, I feel confident in asserting, didn’t just take note of her environment, she thought about it. We know that she, too, spent a lot of time walking.

You might say that she practiced isolation. How did that work? I think it provided thinking time, and that’s the other way I read this statement about our powers of observation. Many of us have been forced to stop rushing after a busy schedule, and maybe for the first time, have given extra time to noticing our home environment.

In Emily Bronte’s case, doing this resulted in a piece of fiction that has endured for one hundred and seventy two years. No pressure, of course, but I do like to think there will be more than one positive outcome from this strange moment we’re living through.

Re-booting my creativity #writingworkshop, #Dahliabooks, #Homeby10.

The temperature here dropped a few degrees in the last week of August, a reminder (or warning) that autumn is just around the corner. This time of year Ray, Rusty and I would normally be taking a week away somewhere. Since that’s out of the question, my thoughts have turned to classes (not my own, those plans are already shaping up nicely). I’ve been looking at what else is available.

Most years I spend a lot of time browsing lit-fest brochures, highlighting things that I know I won’t get to. Travel, time and accommodation always defeat me equally.

Not any more. The upside of the continuing restrictions on public meetings is that many events have moved on-line. It has finally dawned on me that I can go anywhere in this virtual country.

Saturday morning I found Short Story September organised by Farhana Shaikh of Dahlia Books, in Leicester. I’d missed the first session, but there was a masterclass on Imagery and Structure in Short Fiction with Farhana Khalique & Anita Goveas that afternoon. A few clicks later and I was booked on it.

From ten-to-three we began to gather in our virtual classroom. Introductions were made, a few ground-rules laid, and then we were off, reading samples of stories, thinking about them, and trying out ideas of our own. Ink flowed. We broke away into small groups and compared notes, then got back together and wrote more.

Both tutors bubbled with infectious enthusiasm. That’s energizing. They delivered an hour-long session each, which provided contrasting and complementary approaches to the subject.

At the finish, I had rough drafts for several stories. This is the physical evidence of a good writing session.

As after any well-designed workout, I realised I was tired, but not drained. I’d been encouraged to stretch, but not strain, my creativity.

Later, having drawn breath and reflected, I felt freshened. I love seeing the literary world through the prism of another writer’s viewpoint. In addition to that, I’d been introduced to some stories I might not have discovered on my own, and I had five pages of new story ideas. That’s what I call a useful session.

Why Robertson Davies?

This week I thought I’d join in the Robertson Davies reading Weekend organised by Lory, over at The Emerald City. I’d planned to think about some of his essays, as I recently bought the collection, The Merry Heart. The first one is actually a lecture, from 1980, called A Rake at Reading. It begins: “ ‘People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.’ Did I say that? No, Logan Pearsall Smith said it, but I have thought it so many times that sometimes I mistake it for my own.

…and that was all I needed to remind me that Robertson Davies wrote just for me.

I’ll allow that some of you may feel something similar, but I can assure you, that I was, and am, his ideal reader.

My first Robertson Davies novel was borrowed from the local library, a couple of decades ago. I hadn’t heard of him then, but there was a book with a jester on the cover, and I’m drawn to the motley. Amorality in life is to be avoided, but in fiction? It’s exciting.

My choice wasn’t only based on that cover. The book was a doorstep, and in those days, that mattered.

I weighed my reading from the library. The building wasn’t on any of my usual routes, so borrowing books meant a special journey and that effort needed to result in two bags at bursting point.

I hadn’t checked the blurb of What’s Bred in the Bone. I did my usual test, and read a couple of random paragraphs. I’d no idea I was taking the middle volume of a trilogy.

In the course of my life there have been several significant novels I’ve looked forward to discovering for myself: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Orlando. These and others I heard about long before I was old enough to get hold of copies. Many have proved to be trusted friends.

What those novels gave me was the theory of fate. In fiction, it’s a tricky thing to pull off effectively. But, I can give you chapter and verse on how it’s shaped my life, and particularly my reading.

I knew, within a few lines of What’s Bred in The Bone, that it was a novel I was meant to discover. I read it at every daylight moment when I wasn’t working, at breakfast, lunch and tea, and until past midnight.

The world of Robertson Davies was wicked: not just in the modern slang sense, but in a deliciously dangerous way. There were twists and turns that kept me guessing, and laughing. Reading it was an audacious adventure, something that was different to anything I’d read before, and yet I knew that it was what I’d been working my way towards all of my literate life.

His characters entranced me even when I was appalled by them. His Canada was visceral. It smelled of wet tweeds, freshly baked bread and cool, deep water.

I’ve no idea whether any of those things featured in that Davies story. What I retain is a memory, because rereading this novel is a treat that’s always before me. I’m looking back at impressions, in the same way that I recall details of a wedding attended around the same time. That also is, I know, true to me only.

Reading this novel left me with a landscape that was endless, spacious and welcoming. I was never going to visit any of it in real life, because that would be asking for disappointment all I wanted was to move on to another of those worlds. Reading it, was to recognise that although I hadn’t realised it until that moment, his was a world I’d always hoped existed.

ROBERTSON DAVIES, UNDATED. © WALTER CURTIN/LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA

This week, in his essay, A Rake at Reading, there was so many things about which I could say, ‘Yes, that’s it, that’s it exactly,’ and sometimes I said it with envy, other times with a smile, because really, when you look at the argument from that angle, it actually is rather funny.

…”A Rake at Reading.” The phrase comes from a letter written to a friend by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: “I have been a rake at reading,” she says. The word rake, in the middle of the eighteenth century when Lady Mary make her confession to the Countess of Bute, still meant to roam or stray, but I think she also meant to have a hint of what was dissolute and irresponsible. So – I confess I have been a rake at reading. I have read those things which I ought not to have read, and I have not read those things which I ought to have read… I can only protest, like all rakes in their shameful senescence, that I have had a good time.

Something for the four children who made stories, just for us.

It’s been five and a half months since we’ve seen some of the family. For various reasons, Ray and I are still shielding, and they’re a hundred miles away. So last week we had a Zoom slot with some of the grandchildren.

It was lovely to see them all together, rather than taking it in turns on the phone. Charlie, Alfie, Sasha and Kelsey told us about the arts and crafts projects they’d done through the summer, and Charlie said that he was writing a book.

‘Wow,’ we said. ‘What a great idea. Who else likes making stories?’

They all did, excitedly taking it in turn to give us summaries of things they had written, and ideas of what they would write next. The inspirations, all different, were influenced by books and films. ‘That’s exactly what writers do,’ we told them.

‘I’ve just had an idea,’ Ray said. ‘You can write stories to read to us on Zoom.’

There was a chorus of enthusiastic yeses.

‘And,’ said Ray, ‘we’ll send each of you a special notebook and lots of pens.’

So, yesterday, we were treated to an exclusive private reading by four authors. It was brilliant.

What would they write next, we wondered. Ray thought they might create a story together. I thought I might join in. Perhaps, I could start them off.

So, this is for our story-tellers, who might, perhaps, decide what happens next…

There were once four children who could sit quite still, if they had to. They were called, Charlie, Aflie, Sasha and Kelsie, or maybe, they were called Kelsie, Sasha, Alfie and Charlie. They may even have been called, Ashas, Lafie, Larchie and Selkie. It’s tricky to tell when your Zoom connection isn’t quite stable.

Stables are where horses live. Lots of children long to own a horse. Sometimes, if they’re very, very lucky, they might get to ride on one.

Most people would say that one of the things no one can do, is promise to post you a horse. Well, not a real, live, breathing horse. But that’s what Aunty Cath decided she would do, when she woke up one Monday morning.

It wouldn’t be easy. It would need some very special skills.

She’d got the idea while watching the children, who were a hundred miles away, on the other end of a Zoom call, eating some really delicious looking sandwiches. Those sandwiches looked so wonderful, perhaps the best she’d ever seen, that she could almost taste them.

She’d said, ‘I’d love one of those. I wish there was a way you could send one to me through the internet, right now. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could put one in a slot on your computer, press a button, and have it arrive at ours, right away? One of you ought to invent a way to do that.’

They had laughed, as if their silly aunt was making another joke. But when Aunty Cath woke up the next morning she knew exactly how to do it, and she wasn’t just going to send food, she would send something alive, something exciting, that could be an adventure.

She had had a dream, not just about how to send a sandwich. No, the thing to deliver, was a horse. A magic horse.

Aunty Cath could remember exactly how her dream horse had looked. All she had to do, was draw it.

That was the difficult part: the trickiest thing she would have to do. Aunty Cath was rubbish at drawing. She much preferred writing descriptions. But, would words come to life?

What a question! Of course they did, all the time. That was the magic of stories, after all.

On the page, to someone who couldn’t read, stories could look like a lot of squiggles. But if you understood them, if you read them, like the four children had yesterday, then whole other worlds could come to life.

Print by Alberto Manrique

It was just what happened when Charlie told Coco’s story. Aunty Cath had run with him, when he was chased by a bully, and followed him into the shopping Mall and the hotel, and it had been lovely. Then, just when she’d thought Coco’s story was finished, another special thing happened: he made friends with a peanut, and how that had made her, and everyone else, laugh.

Next Alfie introduced her to Artemis Fowl Junior, and Dr Doom, and she’d had a very exciting time, going into big battles and mixing with fairies.

After that Kelsey told her about Tom Gates. He’d had to find ways to keep calm when Covid meant he couldn’t play with his friends, and Aunty Cath had been really relieved when he found a way to have a lovely special birthday party.

Then Sasha had described Matilda The Second, who was four years old, and super clever, but had mean parents who didn’t want her to go to school. Aunty Cath had been really worried about that, wondering who could save the little girl. What a surprise when Matilda cleverly tricked her parents into understanding that really, school was a good place for little girls to spend time.

Yes, that was it, all she needed to do was write a true description of the magic horse. She would start with his name, which was Starlight, because he glowed so brightly white.

He was not too tall, but he was strong, with a long glossy tail, and a shiny mane that flicked up softly when he galloped. What he loved sometimes, was to run along a beach when the sea was stormy, stamping through the frothy waves flicking spray up around him.

Other times he liked to walk quietly through long grass, feeling the stems tickle against his long white legs. He was good at stretching his neck and reaching high in the branches of a fruit tree to find apples.

Starlight was a gentle horse. If you were brave, and held your hand out flat, with a piece of carrot on the centre, and shut your eyes, you wouldn’t know Starlight had taken the treat until you heard him munching.

When he was happy, Starlight whinnied, gently, as if chuckling. He loved to have the soft skin under his chin stroked, and the hard bump of his forehead scratched. That always made his ears twitch.

Well, there he was: Starlight was on the page. Was he clear enough? Would it work?

What would the children do if they each received a horse, by email? Would they take him into their yard at the back, and keep him cosy and happy? Would they climb up on his back and see where he would take them?

There really were such a lot of questions that could be answered.

This is one thing I did this week, and where it took me.

I celebrated. It was a modest event, no popping corks, or bubbles.

There was, however, a jubilant, ‘Yes’, as I completed that task I signed up to with Cleo, on Classical Carousel, four months ago. You know, the marathon that seemed hardly possible. Surely you remember my mentioning that I intended reading Ann Radcliffe’s, The Mysteries of Udolpho? Well, I’ve finished. And I’m three weeks ahead of the reading schedule.

You’d be right in thinking that last statement is a surprise development. Just like Emily, I could never be quite sure that things would work out for the best. Well, I turned an unexpected corner.

It happened this way. I’d been avoiding even looking at the hefty tome for several days. It had been hot, I was lethargic, and the story seemed to be lagging. I had a list of jobs needing attention. It was a classic set-up for displacement activity-itous.

I started with taking on boring, mundane chores, that no one but me would notice. I became focused on crossing jobs off.

Days passed. I wrote course proposals, bringing fresh papers and books to the corner of the table that has become a temporary office.

Udolpho and my original list got buried, along with the top of the table. I found some new lines of research and began a fresh list. When that one disappeared, I started another. At some later point the table began to groan under the stacks of ideas.

One morning I walked into the kitchen and found an old envelope on my laptop. Written on the back of it, in large black letters were the words, ‘tidy notes.’ It was the reminder of a dream that I had woken from in the middle of the night. There had been an Alice-in-Wonderland like moment when page after page of a story had rained down upon me, and I had seen, clearly, some perfectly formed and irresistible narrative.

Tenniel’s ‘Alice’

Unfortunately, the form and shape of it had evaporated with the sunrise, as they usually do, even after making notes. But, looking at our mountainous table, I saw some other sense in those two terse words.

Dismantling a paper heap of that size is no simple matter. Things must be re-read, decisions need to be taken on what to save, where to tidy them to, and whether they’re safe to discard. I found several books I’d forgotten about before I resurrected Ann Radcliffe.

I did not pull back in horror, tattered as the cover is, though I may have sighed, a little, as I recalled that neglected schedule. Surely, I thought, I was so far behind by now it would need a marathon to catch up.

Could I have missed the finish date all together? I hunted around for the reading schedule, and perhaps I was half hoping that I might be able to add it to my must-finish-that-one-one-of-these-days shelf. I could not. I put the book back on the emptied table.

So imagine my surprise, later that morning, when I took it up to re-establish my ten-minutes-a-day reading policy, and a moment later realised that I had been reading for over an hour. More astounding still, I was reluctant to leave Emily and make lunch.

I don’t think it was just that I realised the end was in sight, and the pages I’d read far out-weighed those ahead of me. It was that at some point, about half-way through Volume Three, the story took me over.

Perhaps, I was better adjusted to the mindsets of the characters, and the author. It seemed to me that they had all become brighter, and more active. Strands of plot were coming together in interesting and unexpected ways. New characters appeared, and took me to fresh scenes.

There were some things about the plotting that seemed a little conveniently coincidental, but I was enjoying the journey. It seems that, when the writing works, we readers can accept it.

Maybe, the old saying about ‘truth being stranger than fiction’, could be said to apply when the writing doesn’t persuade us to suspend our sense of disbelief. Could it be that because most of us do experience odd coincidences, we’ll accept fictional truths so long as the characters and their world are believable?

Some thoughts on, things found in small packages…

Forgive me my title. I do believe that cliches, used with care, can save a lot of ink. Is that statement an apology, or a quick means of opening up a conversation about three of the good things I’ve been reading in The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry?

I leave that for you to decide. I have, after all, steeped myself in brevity, this week. Surely I’ve absorbed something in the process.

Short as they’ve been, my readings have been resonant. Sometimes a title caught my eye.

Linda Black’s, My mother is locked in a jar of ginger, was one. I prepared to smile. I like quirky.

This prose poem is very short: a paragraph. It might, perhaps, be a joke. The four and a half lines begin, ‘I hear her battling with the lid‘. I anticipate what must be coming. I begin to smile.

It suits me not to let her out‘ the narrator says, and shifts the story so that it becomes something darker, and deeper, an exploration of a relationship, perhaps. Two characters are sketched out. It is a line drawing, no more. By the end of that fifth line I’ve filled in the colours of this mother and daughter, I can see them clearly.

In, Mowing, Liz Bahs states that she, ‘cannot write about mowing the lawn while I mow it.’ This is a longer prose poem, more than half a page which describes frustration, and consequences.

It’s driven by a series of repetitions that might mirror, ‘the rhythm of the blades over the deep field of grass‘, or the turning back and forth as she mows. This neglected lawn is ‘calf-deep and soaked from autumn rain‘. Mowing it is about bodily discomforts, and ‘the growl and shear as they [the blades] slice stones and muddy earth‘. Again and again, though, we return to that earlier complaint, ‘I cannot write...’

These disparate activities are described with precision, and juxtaposed in such a way that I had no idea how such a feeling of frustration might turn, in the final line, and become something bright. This is the best kind of twist-in-the-tail. I’m lead to reread it again and again, envious of its truth.

All You Need to Know, summarises the contents of several chapters from a murder mystery novel. But are the chosen details vital clues of a crime, or a series of interesting observations? Cliff Yates may be parodying the way cosy crime fictions focus on minute details, or celebrating it. Perhaps, the clue lies in his title. Is it a cliche?

In that case, how about the events? I probably can connect the baby crying in chapter two with the dog barking three chapters later, but what is the significance of ‘the chief witness’s best friend’s former girl-friend,’ changing a lightbulb, and how does the argument about the paradoxes of time travel fit this?

Perhaps the most significant moment of all is the fourth one. When ‘A neighbour’s cat vomits on the author’s carpet,’ I’m reminded that novels are not always neatly planned, some writer’s are pantsers, drawing inspiration from events we can’t begin to guess.

It’s my turn to give away clues, by taking you to the final sentence: ‘No one notices.’ If the other two prose poems sent me back to read them again, this one resonates without another look, and leaves me with a final question: when is a cliche not a cliche?

‘The Throes of Creation’ by Leonid Pasternak

Opting for an anthology.

I’d been thinking about prose poetry for some time before I bought The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry, back in March. What I mean is, this wasn’t one of those whim-purchases that I generally specialize in. It was a gap in my library that had niggled at my consciousness for some time.

The choices I’d found by trawling the internet were not extensive, but all looked interesting. I whittled my list down by deciding I wasn’t looking for a historical perspective. I’d discovered plenty of well-written articles and essays about that on-line, and then there was a call for submissions for an anthology by The Valley Press. It had a 2018 deadline, but I followed the links and found that the anthology had been published in 2019.

The blurb for it said, Prose poetry is at the cutting edge of contemporary writing, freeing words from the bounds of traditional poetic grammar and bringing the magic of verse to flash fiction.’ That sounded like the writing I was looking for.

Of course, it’s easy to make promises, and I wasn’t so sure about the claim that this volume was ‘ambitious‘ and ‘ground-breaking‘. It felt like a heavy sales pitch, for an anthology promoting brevity.

Maybe prose-poetry needs a harder sell. It is, after all, a hybrid form.

When I mention prose-poetry in classes, many readers haven’t heard of it. Often, those who have aren’t sure what it is. Few have bought any.

If asked, my advice to readers who are looking for adventure, is to try an anthology. That way, we meet lots of different authors, and there are likely to be at least one or two pieces of writing that we will be glad to have read. Single author collections are fine if you’re already familiar with their form, and style, but risky if you’re new to them. Most of my risks are cheap, found in the second hand market.

I thought about that, back in March, when I was dithering over buying this anthology. Do I support writers, as consistently as I do charity shops?

No.

Lately, my buying habit has been so focused on catching up with reading I’ve missed, that I’ve not thought about what’s new. Most of my books are ten years old, or more, and that age-gap is likely to increase as my shelves continue to overflow.

I don’t want my reading to keep up with my book buying. I like slipping across decades and centuries, styles, forms and genres. My bookshelves are also an anthology. They hold enough of a variety that I can dip in at random, choose by purpose, or turn to another title if a first choice doesn’t supply what I’m looking for.

Why else would I want to keep so many books?

Thoughts on how I connect with Ali Smith’s story about stories.

The Universal Story, by Ali Smith was published in her 1996 collection, The Whole Story, but I didn’t retrieve it from my TBR shelf until a couple of weeks ago. That’s me, late again.

But in a way I might claim to be mirroring the opening of this story. Because, here’s another book that I’ve subjected to a series of false starts. Having bought it, I shelved it; forgot it; passed it by on several previous searches for something to read.

Somewhere, in the past month, some mention of it triggered a memory of owning this collection, so I tracked down my copy. Thank you, whoever reminded me. I’m sorry I can’t recall in what context we discussed this. But again, that chain of events seems appropriate to my reading. Here are the opening lines:

There was a man dwelt by a churchyard.

Well, no, okay, it wasn’t always a man; in this particular case it was a woman. There was a woman dwelt by a churchyard.

Though, to be honest, nobody really uses that word nowadays. Everybody says cemetery. And nobody says dwelt any more. In other words:

There was once a woman who lived by a cemetery. Every morning when she woke up she looked out of her back window and saw –

Actually, no. There was once a woman who lived by – no, in – a second-hand bookshop.

Is this a story for writers, more than readers? I wonder, remembering conversations I’ve had with readers who stress the importance of being drawn into a recognisable world. This opening could seem designed to irritate.

Or, it might suggest such confidence on the part of the writer that she can afford to let us see how her mind worries at the details: how much thought goes into getting them right. Or do I mean correct? Actually, the word I’m looking for is, ‘true’.

As you can probably tell, I’m hooked. But I’m guessing this is one of those marmite stories. The way the narrator keeps pausing to work things out will unsettle readers looking for a fixed character to engage with, or a scene to immerse themselves in.

The woman sat in the empty shop. It was late afternoon. It would be dark soon. She watched a fly in the window. It was early in the year for flies. It flew in veering triangles then settled on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald to bask in what late winter sun there was.

Or – no. Wait:

There was once a fly resting briefly on an old paperback book in a second-hand bookshop window.

These changes in tack, shifting of perspectives, seem to me to mirror the way I browse a second-hand bookshop, drifting from one title to another in a random, rather than linear, fashion. Those connections are not predictable, they depend on the shape of words on a spine, or colours, or a promising illustration. Then again, they depend on where the seller has gathered their stock from, and what they’ve chosen, and how they’ve decided to arrange their shelves…

Let’s get back to Ali Smith, I’ve one last thought to add, about character. Wait, though, shouldn’t that have been at the start of my discussion? Don’t I repeatedly claim that character is at the heart of a good story?

How does that work when a story bounces around between several, and not all of them are even human? Brilliantly.

You can either trust me on that (but why would you? We don’t necessarily have the same tastes), or read it for yourself.

Patterns

Our neighbours gardens are bursting with bright flowers, sometimes forming unlikely harmonies: the purple smoke bush fronted by bright yellow evening primroses, or delicate crimson sweet peas next to blowsy orange dahlias. These glorious pallets of colour are a credit to the time and care that have gone into them.

In contrast, we’re still favouring the wild look. Thanks to a few strategic rainstorms between heatwaves, green is still our predominant colour. We are a garden of textures and tones, with only a few dots of colour from the hardiest types of independent blooms. The yellow-hot pokers have been stars, and so are those rampant volunteers, the orange marigolds.

Luckily, the results of this abandonment are not so obvious from a distance, so we’ve not had to deal with comments about harbouring an invasion force. This week though, my conscience was triggered when returning from a trip to collect our clicked groceries.

I didn’t notice them on the way out, because I was concentrating on reversing. We have a tricky gateway.

Driving in, I couldn’t avoid noticing the very tall and vigorous hog weed plant leaning, triffid-like, over the bonnet of the car, heavy with ripening seeds.

Tall as it is, luckily it’s not Giant Hogweed, which is a notifiable weed. Still, I was certain my neighbours wouldn’t be pleased to see it. Something would have to be done.

I’ve a fascination with the patterns of seed-heads. So, once I’d seen one seeding plant, my eye was in for spotting the others.

What is it I like? The symmetry.

Anyone who knows me well would be able to explain how paradoxical that answer is. I am hopeless at mathematics. Show me a number and my brain stalls. At school I failed to understand anything beyond the basic, practical levels.

I can still name a few geometric shapes: isosceles triangle, equilateral triangle, the parallelogram… Could I describe them? Please don’t test me.

Perhaps, if they’d been presented as nature notes I might have made an Archemedian exclamation. Give me maths with a story attached, and things like measuring volume make sense. Eurika!

Stories are patterns. The ones I love best are a puzzle to be unraveled. They can be seen quickly, and enjoyed in passing. Some can be studied, over and over again. Look closely and each time they will reveal a fresh pattern of meaning, of symbols, words or images. Perhaps this is the same principle as someone colouring mandalas in one of those mindfulness books.

To look at a dandelion seed-head before I use it to count time, is to lose time. So imagine my fascination with the salsify seed heads, three times the size of a dandelion. They’ve been popping up in this garden for years. These are the grandfather clocks of nature’s timekeepers. The stems can be up to five foot tall.

Then there are teasels, another of my unconventional garden residents. These have their seeding shape before the flowers are showing. They’re pretty spectacular from a distance, but look down at them and another pattern shows.

Patterns like these lead me to think I might manage to understand the equations behind polyhedrons, or maybe, even, The Golden Ratio. First, though, I’d better find my loppers, and cut down that hogweed, before it scatters its way into the gardens of all my neighbours.