Sunday Express - S
Small, seemingly insignificant remarks ignite creative sparks
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.