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


Amy Sackville
Saturday 23 February 2013 01:00 GMT

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

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