Small, seem­ingly in­signif­i­cant re­marks ig­nite cre­ative sparks

Sunday Express - S - - CONTENTS - Story by Is­abel Ash­down

A story by au­thor Is­abel Ash­down

The moment the words “I want to write a novel” left my mouth, I saw a sub­tle smirk form­ing on John Mel­ton’s face and I in­stantly re­gret­ted my can­dour. It was late and a third glass of white wine at the au­tumn of­fice party had got the bet­ter of me, mak­ing me un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally loose-lipped.

“Re­ally?” he asked, tongue pushed firmly into his cheek as he glanced around my col­leagues. He was only ju­nior, but he’d been mak­ing lit­tle digs at me ever since he joined the es­tate agents where I worked six months ear­lier. “I’ve got a few sto­ries I could tell you – my mates are al­ways say­ing I should write a book.” He paused, sipped, smirked again. “What’s yours about?”

The oth­ers, Sam and Becky and Jude, all nod­ded en­cour­ag­ingly, which only made me feel worse. Was it pity or em­bar­rass­ment

I saw in their eyes? I blus­tered some­thing about not re­ally having got very far with it and went home that evening more cer­tain than ever that my writ­ing am­bi­tions were fool­ish at best. John might be a prize id­iot, but he was right; I’d never done any­thing of note. I was a sin­gle woman on the brink of turn­ing 40 and as far as the rest of the world was con­cerned, I’d led a small, quiet life. Who could pos­si­bly be in­ter­ested in what I had to say?

I woke sweat soaked in the early hours, wine-fu­elled anx­i­ety pinch­ing my in­sides, an­gry at my­self and too pre­oc­cu­pied to sleep. What was I think­ing, open­ing up like that? Leav­ing my crum­pled bed, to make co­coa in the kitchen, I stoked the wood burner and found my mind re­turn­ing to the Nor­we­gian au­tumns of my youth.

The first time my par­ents sent me to Nor­way for the school hol­i­days, it was to stay with grand­par­ents who un­til then had been vir­tual strangers to me.

I was 12, a shy and shel­tered only child, and the ap­pre­hen­sion

I’d felt as my cab ar­rived out­side their wood­land home was al­most crip­pling. But when the old cou­ple ap­peared in the door­way, look­ing ev­ery bit as though they’d stepped out of a fairy tale, my fears faded. Mor-isla was a tiny bright-eyed woman in a plain dress, hair rolled in neat white coils; Paps-mag­nus a heav­ily bearded woods­man with deeply tanned skin and sil­ver waves tied low in a pony­tail.

At their lit­tle cabin in the heart of the fjords, ev­ery­thing was un­like my life back home in Eng­land and for the first time ever, I imag­ined my mother having lived an­other life, be­fore me. On that first evening, af­ter a hearty sup­per, Mor-isla con­jured up three lit­tle bags of choco­late bears for me and my Nor­we­gian cousins Eric and Anja, and as our grand­par­ents cleared the dishes we sat be­side the open fire, talk­ing in quiet, care­ful English, shar­ing snip­pets from our dif­fer­ent lives in dif­fer­ent places.

Just as I’d be­gun to won­der when we might go to bed, Paps strode in from his work­shop, an oil lantern in his hand. “Want to check out the night lake?” he asked, his eyes sparkling. With whoops of ex­cite­ment, we donned sweaters and boots against the cool au­tumn evening, trip-trap­ping from the cabin in a stomp of good cheer, leav­ing Isla with her knit­ting, promis­ing co­coa on our return. With only the soft light of Paps’ lantern to guide us, we headed into the woods, stum­bling in the dark­ness, hold­ing on to one an­other for bal­ance.

“They say there are for­est folk out here,” our grand­fa­ther told us as we fol­lowed in the wake of his shadow. He swung the lantern be­neath his face, cast­ing his eyes wide. “Lit­tle people, so they say, over and un­der the for­est floor.

And some of ’em eat chil­dren!”

Anja and Eric gig­gled, ac­cus­tomed to Paps’ tales of folk­lore and fairies, and I shiv­ered as my eyes roamed about in the dark, the cold seep­ing into my skin. “No-one ever finds ’em again,” he said, “be­cause the earth goes down and down and down, and be­fore long the bones are snarled up be­neath sapling roots and bindweed, sucked from the land of the liv­ing, to grow into some­thing new.”

Anja tugged my sleeve and rolled her eyes, and even though I knew Paps was pulling our legs, I was glad of her re­as­sur­ance.

Deeper into the dense black for­est he led us and for a while si­lence hung in the air, un­til he halted abruptly, stamp­ing his boot on the ground with a roar and caus­ing us to shriek. His laugh­ter rum­bled be­neath the wood­land canopy, as we kids grasped for each other, our screams mor­ph­ing into hope­less gig­gles. “Heard of the Nøkken, kids?” he asked, press­ing on once more through the woods.

Anja and Eric nod­ded. “No,” I whis­pered. “It lives in the lake,” he said, solemnly. “But if the fire­flies are out, we’ll be safe.”

I shud­dered, hook­ing an arm through Anja’s. “It ap­pears in many forms,” Paps con­tin­ued. “Some­times it’s a horse, swept off course from the sea. Other times it’s a handsome young man, come to lure some young maiden to her wa­tery grave.”

As the trees sep­a­rated and the lake’s edge ap­peared, Paps low­ered his lamp and we looked on, lost for words. Around the lake, 1,000 fire­flies glim­mered, il­lu­mi­nat­ing the black for­est and re­flect­ing a blaze of warm light over the wa­ter’s sur­face, over Paps’ bright and smil­ing face.

Back home at my kitchen hearth, I dropped an­other log on the fire. “I’ve got sto­ries too, John Mel­ton,” I said aloud. And open­ing up my note­book, I wrote down the first words of my novel: Paps-mag­nus was a mas­ter sto­ry­teller…

Is­abel Ash­down’s new novel, Lake Child (Trapeze, £7.99), is out now. See Express Book­shop on page 77.

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