Five-Minute Memoir: Creature comforts in a remote Orkney cottage

 

I reach into the dark grate, meaning to reshuffle the coals, and my fingers touch something soft, something silky, delicate: definitely not coal. Something so soft that in other circumstances, I might like to stroke it, to brush it against the back of my hand, my cheek; but context is all. Instead I quickly withdraw my hand with a shudder and a loud gasp which makes me realise how many hours it's been since I heard anyone's voice, even my own.

The unnoticed silence within is now loud with the sound of the wind, maybe the waves, outside. I start talking to myself, telling myself it's all probably fine, fetching my camera and congratulating myself on my ingenuity. The flash-lit photo shows a sooty, dark-feathered bird perched on the piled coals, dusty and rigid and weirdly upright as if just alighted. I scoop it out with the coalscuttle, apologising. I don't know where to put you, I tell it. It's dark outside, and cold.

I take her out – I am not sure it is helpful to have assigned the bird a gender, but I'm fairly sure she's a she, small and brown rather than black despite the soot. I tip her out on the other side of the low wall that runs alongside the old crofter's cottage, my home on Westray for the week. It is my first night here. I have come here to be alone, to write. There are no other buildings within sight of the cottage, no lights I can see on land or sea. Only the warm lamplight of my own window, which like a stranger's home in a strange place looks both homely and lonely from the outside. No stars or moon, all hidden by low clouds which have begun to drizzle.

I shiver in my jumper and socks and hurry back in and half-heartedly try again to build a fire, but am thwarted by a lingering sorrow and revulsion, and my own incompetence. The cottage has underfloor heating anyway. It's a comfortable, warm, single room in which I will sleep, eat, read, work. I look over George Mackay Brown until I feel cosy and tired, and replace the board that stops drafts from the chimney and climb into the box-bed in the wall on the far side of the room and lie in the dark, and the quiet. No sirens, no cars, no shouting in the street. No street. GMB (as I call him in my notebooks) says that the poet's work is "the interrogation of silence", and I lie there thinking about this, thinking about the quiet, thinking about the nature of a writer's work; thinking about the long journey from London and the roll of the boat beneath me; trying not to think about the softness of her feathers under my fingers and the fragile bones I think I felt beneath.

In a dream I forget upon waking, something is knocking. Orkney folklore is full of stories of suitors from the sea; beautiful, charming, gentle Selkie men, seeking shelter from a storm; a stranger, come to the door in the night to seduce me? I can't be sure if I was dreaming of this or only thought of it half-awake; I can be sure, as I come fully round, that something is still knocking. And that it's still dark. I want to check the time on my phone but don't want to put my arm out of the drape that pulls across the recess, don't want to reach my hand out into the night. I lie and listen. I know I've left the curtains open. I tend to do this when staying somewhere new, alone, so that I can look out at wherever I am if I wake in the night. I came here to watch the sea, and the sky, and thought I might catch the sun rising.

Later in the week I will watch from this window as the wind blows waterfalls backwards up the cliffs; as the gulls wheel against a brilliant high blue, the sea glittering; I will sit and watch and drink red wine that I buy from the knitwear shop as a purple storm stirs the water and the water fills the sky. I came here to be alone and that is certainly what I feel now, and I have no intention of looking out into the dark, dreading some face peering in, some gaunt-faced merman out of the sea, or someone more earthly and terrible, or the ghost of a bird flinging itself at the glass. Thinking of the bird, I work it out – it is irregular, this knocking sound, not really like someone knocking at all. The wind is pushing and sucking at the board in the fireplace, and when it blows out and sticks, it thuds, and when it pulls back, it bangs. I steel myself, slide myself out between the drapes on to the lovely warm stone floor, and pull the board out, and go back to bed listening to the wind, sleeping sometimes.

Later in the night, and for the rest of the week, I hear birds scuffling and chittering in their nest in the chimney. I grow used to being alone, I begin to take pleasure in it, the sea and the sky changing and the sudden scuffling in the silence. Sometimes I talk to them, to pretend I'm not talking to myself; I ask if they'd mind being quiet. They ignore me. I make no further attempts to build a fire.

'Orkney' by Amy Sackville is published by Granta Books at £12.99

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links