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Honouring the legacy of GMB

by James Robertson

Born in Stromness in October 1921 and living there for much of the time until his death in 1996, George Mackay Brown is the pre-eminent 20th century Orcadian writer of poetry and fiction. There have been many different projects and publications to mark his centennial year. These include new editions of his work, celebratory anthologies such as Gousters, Glims and Veerie-orums and Beyond the Swelkie, a special edition of The Dark Horse and several initiatives through the George Mackay Brown Fellowship. In his role as the current GMB Fellow, James Robertson gave the George Mackay Brown Memorial Lecture in September. We are grateful to both the Fellowship and James for the opportunity to publish the text of this lecture in full here, as a resource for Northwords Now readers and as a further way of raising a glass to the memory and abiding legacy of Hamnavoe’s most famous son.

 

 

‘All time was gathered up…’

Brief life and the everlasting in George Mackay Brown’s novels

 

The George Mackay Brown Memorial Lecture, given by James Robertson on 22nd September 2021

 

First of all, it is a great honour to be asked to give this lecture. It would be an honour in any year, but in this centenary year it feels especially weighty, and I thank the directors of the George Mackay Brown Fellowship for the invitation, and especially I thank Yvonne Gray for liaising with me over the summer as we wondered what form the lecture might take and whether it would even be possible for me to be in Orkney to give it. As it turns out, I am here, but the lecture is online. It is great to be back in Orkney after a gap of several years, and particularly in the wake of what we have all been through these last eighteen months. Although, of course, we may not be in the wake. Only time will tell.

That last phrase - only time will tell - relates to what I would like to talk about this evening, which is the concept of time in George Mackay Brown’s fiction. From the perspective of the author looking at his work from a slight distance, it was a pretty simple concept: he believed that only time could separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of literary reputation. ‘Booker prize - Nobel prize - what a song and dance about such baubles!’ he wrote in 1983. ‘What does it matter, the opinion of a few contemporary judges, compared to the near-infallible verdict that time sends down its long corridors.’ (Quoted by Dennis O’Driscoll in Poetry Review in 1997.) He was absolutely right, in my view. A quarter of a century has passed since his death, and he has become an ancient, born a century ago; but his books are still in print, his words are still read, he goes on surprising and enthralling new readers; so we may say that his reputation is secure for now. As to how future ages may read his work, that is beyond our knowledge or control.

But if we forget about literary reputation and dig down into the work itself, we find an author looking at time as something of greater complexity.

Over the last few months I’ve reread - or in some cases read for the first time - all five of his novels and two long stories that might qualify as novellas. The novels, in order of publication, are Greenvoe (1972), Magnus (1973), Time in a Red Coat (1984), Vinland (1992), and Beside the Ocean of Time (1994), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The novellas, The Golden Bird and The Life and Death of John Voe, were published together in 1987 and won their author the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Obviously George Mackay Brown’s oeuvre is much larger than these six books - a huge body of poetry, plays, short stories, journalism, books for children, autobiography and essays published over some forty years - but for my purpose tonight I’m going to concentrate on the long fiction.

I have greatly enjoyed my voyage through these books. They contain much variety. They are full of  beautiful sentences, big ideas, mischievous comedy, powerful tragedy and, again and again, simple observations that make you pause and say, yes, that’s it, that’s how it is. I cannot deny that there are aspects of George Mackay Brown’s fiction that irk me: I sometimes baulk at his depiction of women, or the subservient or mainly reproductive role he seems to accord women, and - related to this - I sometimes find him too hidebound by tradition or too thrawn in his attitude to social change. But then, I remind myself, he was of his time and family circumstances and upbringing: is there any writer, dead or alive, with whom one would never disagree? And furthermore it is always important to distinguish between a writer’s opinions and those of his characters or narrators. More than this, a novel is a two-way experience: the writer begins it, and brings to it his or her personality; and then readers respond, bringing to the text whoever they are. It’s in the meeting of the mind of the writer with the minds of not just one but many readers that any novel comes alive and says whatever it has to say. George Mackay Brown’s fiction lives and speaks in this way and does not apologise for doing so, and it is up to me, the reader, to close the book if it says nothing of interest or importance to me. I may be discomforted, I may be puzzled, I may feel an argument coming on, but those are not reasons to close a book. They are reasons to keep reading. I have never felt remotely like putting down one of George’s novels thinking, ‘No, this is saying nothing to me.’ (I feel somehow it is appropriate to call him ‘George’ from now on, even though I did not know him personally; it seems friendlier than trotting out his three names over and over, or referring to him as ‘Brown.’)

Nearly everything he wrote is located in Orkney, or at least somehow anchored to it, even if sometimes by a very long chain - I’m thinking of Time in a Red Coat, which moves over several centuries from Asia across most of Europe before finally reaching the village of Ottervoe - and yet his work is insular only in the literal sense of that word. It is of the islands, but it is universal: ‘There are stories in the air here,’ he told his biographer Maggie Fergusson in an interview. ‘If I lived to be five hundred there would still be things I wanted to write.’

It is true, of course, as Seamus Heaney put it in a review of An Orkney Tapestry in The Listener, in 1969, that George could ‘transform everything by passing it through the eye of the needle of Orkney’. But I think it is also the case that he looked at life through a prism that simultaneously showed the immensity and the brevity of time.

It is sometimes said that novelists write the same book over and over again: it is more accurate to say that they are likely to be driven by the obsessions, curiosities and mysteries that started them writing in the first place. Writing is a continuous exploration, and it is only when a writer has nothing left to explore that the well dries up. Time - how its passage affects individuals and communities, and how the past and present interact with and exert influence on each other - has been a recurring theme in my own fiction. People sometimes tell me that all my books are different, but in many ways I feel they are all the same, they are just in different disguises. Reading George’s fiction, I come to the same conclusion: his books are all the same; they are all quite different.

Anyway, back to time. Let me give you quotations from two other Scottish writers, both of the generation or so before his, and try to use them to home in on George’s sense of time, which is bound up with his sense of place. And, by the way, despite the obvious Orcadian-ness of both the man and his writings, I think it is also right to include him in the tribe of Scottish writers. He began an essay of 1988 (in Part 12 of the 52-part Sunday Mail Story of Scotland of that year) by saying, ‘To be Scottish and yet not Scottish is to be strangely situated’, but went on, ‘That we are as much a part of Scotland as Galloway or Buchan is beyond doubt’. And this despite the poor treatment of Orkney by predatory Scots over several centuries, of which he was very well aware.

The first quotation comes from John Buchan, born in 1875, the same year as George’s father. It appears in the posthumously published Memory-Hold-the-Door (1941). Buchan is writing of his own fiction: ‘I was especially fascinated by the notion of hurried journeys…We live our lives under the twin categories of time and space, and when the two come together we get the great moment. Whether failure or success is the result, life is sharpened, intensified, idealised.’

The second quotation is from Neil Gunn, who was born in 1891 and was the same age as George’s Gaelic-speaking mother, and who came to give a talk at Newbattle Abbey in the early 1950s when George was a student there. In The Atom of Delight (1956), what his biographers called a ‘sort of spiritual autobiography’, Gunn describes himself as a boy sitting on a boulder in a river, cracking nuts: ‘Then the next thing happened, and happened, so far as I can remember, for the first time. I have tried hard but can find no simpler way of expressing what happened than by saying: I came upon myself sitting there.’

Buchan’s twin categories of time and space and the tension between them, and Gunn’s concentrated moment of self-awareness, seeing one’s self from another perspective as if seeing a stranger: somewhere between these, I think, we can locate George Mackay Brown’s take on the world and the clock ticking somewhere out of sight. On the one hand, he has an unerring eye for the details of everyday life - the smells, sounds, colours and noises of land and sea, the faces and hands and speech of people, the materials of which boats, creels, clothes, teapots and houses are made, the physical world we inhabit. On the other hand, he seems repeatedly astonished to be in such a world, to have been given the ability to witness and record it - to be the bard of his people. He cannot quite believe that he is here at all, or that here is all around wherever and whoever he is; and yet the evidence is overwhelming.

These quite different perspectives on being alive are connected by George’s very acute awareness of the passage of time. But time is fickle, hard to grasp: it is both huge and endless - the ocean of time - and brief and finite - the span of a day or a season or a human life. George, like John Buchan, understands the race of the fishing-boat against the coming storm; he feels the drama of the destination that must be reached, the decision that must be taken or the deed that must be done before it is too late. But he also knows that there are timescales that may be just as crucial to men and women: if the harvest is in before the weather turns, or the house is finished before the bairn comes, or if a feud will last three weeks or three generations. And, beyond these important matters, like Neil Gunn George knows what matters much less: the times-tables or dates the bored schoolboy fails to learn, the routine task a man puts off in favour of a dram or two, society’s expectations of good behaviour - are these not trivialities when compared with the crystal-clear occasions of self-knowledge, the moments of stillness and strangeness that are never to be forgotten? I came upon myself sitting there: this is surely one of George’s dreamers peering into a rockpool or watching a thrush or a seal going about its business.

It could be argued that an interest in these two kinds of time are not particularly unusual in a writer of fiction. Just the other day, I found this sentence in the crime writer Ngaio Marsh’s first novel A Man Lay Dead (1935): ‘To the members of the house-party at Frantock the days before the inquest seemed to have avoided the dimensions of time and slipped into eternity.’ Or again, there is the ‘postscript which should have been a preface’ in Walter Scott’s first novel, Waverley (1814), where he describes political and economic change and says that such change, ‘though steadily and rapidly progressive, has nevertheless been gradual; and, like those who drift down the stream of a deep and smooth river, we are not aware of the progress we have made until we fix our eye on the now distant point from which we have been drifted.’ The distinction between two speeds of time - operating simultaneously yet also somehow independently - is not identical in these examples; but clearly both authors are conscious of a loose, faulty connection between time’s passing and our perception of its passing. George, I believe, repeatedly attempted not so much to repair as to describe this faulty connection, and perhaps to conclude that it was not faulty at all.

In Time in a Red Coat, he - or the narrator if it is not George - plays with clichés only to discard them, whilst conceding that they may yet contain truths:

 

It is a worn metaphor, surely, that sees life as a river issuing from high mountain snows, with cataracts and torrents, down to a fertile plain and then, with many windings and turnings, finding its way to the vastness of the sea.

And yet, when it was new-minted, the metaphor must have seemed beautiful and true.

 

The central figure of the novel, a girl moving through hundreds of years of human history, is then described as being on a ferry ‘afloat on the river of time’. But is the girl herself, who wears a coat sometimes red from flames and blood, sometimes white though usually torn and filthy, not Time? George’s own metaphors seem confused and inconsistent. In the next chapter life is an ‘inn’ - another worn metaphor with which the narrator is dissatisfied. And in the chapter after that, we are in Dante’s dark wood:

 

Time is a dark wood, in which men and animals and birds and worms live and have their being; the creatures with immediacy and innocence, the men and women questioning all that they experience, leaf and branch and trunk, birdsong, the animals’ circuits of hunger and renewal and death. Men feel themselves to be kin to the branches that blossom and wither, and to the animals that have their hour of brutishness and beauty and then die. But men question: ‘What are we here for? What or where is a meaning? What are they, birth and love and death?’

 

‘Good try, Dante,’ George seems to be saying. ‘Your metaphor is also somewhat worn, but I am with you. I want to explore further into and beyond the wood. I want to get as close to the edge of mortality as possible - and then come back.’

And indeed this is what happens, in the beautifully crafted chapter entitled ‘The Longest Journey’. We follow the soul of a soldier, the Orcadian Simon Thorfinnson, wounded in a battle in the Napoleonic Wars, right to the door of an inn - the Inn of Death now, not of life. At the last possible moment, the soul turns, summoned back to life by a woman’s voice (the voice of Maurya, the girl wandering through time). In this sequence, time is squeezed almost, but not quite, to irrelevance by the contest between life and death for the soul of one man.

George had made a previous attempt to push his imagination to the very moment of extinction of a human life in Greenvoe. In that novel, the deeply religious fisherman Samuel Whaness very nearly drowns when lifting his creels in a heavy sea; he, or his soul, sets off on a pilgrim’s progress that takes him through a strange fair full of drinkers, thieves and other sinners, then through a countryside emptied of people. The City of God is Sam’s desired destination, and like the soldier at the inn’s door he comes close to the gate before his body is pulled from the sea by another fisherman, the man he believes has been stealing his lobsters:

 

‘So you’re alive,’ said Bert Kerston above him. ‘By God, Whaness, you nearly had it today. The sea nearly got you. You’ll never be closer.’

 

Earlier in Greenvoe, though, somebody does die: the old sailor, Ben Budge. What happens when somebody does go through the gate? For those left on this side of mortality, an answer to that question is denied. For the living, as the narrator says in Time in a Red Coat, ‘the dark forest itself, that is all we know for sure’. (60) But at the moment of Ben’s death, time again performs its double-act: it shifts not just for him but for his sister Bella too, as she decides to lay his body out herself, without the assistance of the other village women:

 

She had comforted Ben when he was a peedie boy - he was five years younger than Bella - the times he fell and cut his knees on the road, or had toothache, or his pigeon flew away. So she alone would give him this last comfort.

She bent over the shape in the bed.

Ben had been five years younger than Bella but now this very ancient wisdom was graven on his face; she felt like a girl in the presence of a stone idol. Ben lay there very old, very remote, very strange.

 

Bella remembers his gaping, five-year-old fascination with a showman whose tongue licked a white-hot poker as if it were sugar. ‘Now he looked into a much greater mystery.’

 

‘That’s enough, Ben,’ said Bella. She pressed his eyes shut. She bound up his jaw with a strip of flannel. Then Ben seemed to be more at ease with his new state.

 

The implication is that the mystery may be revealed to Ben, now that he is away, as it almost was to the soldier and the fisherman who came back from the brink. It is the empty, sightless shell of Ben’s body which remains mystified. And Bella, too. She is shutting not just Ben’s eyes but her own against the unknowable mystery beyond life.

And so at the root of George Mackay Brown’s conceptualisation of time is his infatuation with the two inseparable yet distinct sides of existence: life and death.

In Vinland, a novel rich with the influence of the sagas, especially Orkneyinga Saga which had so profoundly affected George as a young man, he comes at these difficult ideas from another angle. The hero, Ranald Sigmundson, now living a life of peaceful retirement in Orkney after adventures that have taken him to North America with Leif Ericson, to Norway, and to Ireland where he takes part in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, talks to his friend Peter the abbot, and the abbot tells him a story:

 

Imagine, my friend, a great grim keep, in which we wake up and are told, ‘This is the House of Life - here you must do what you are given to do, told to do, for the time that is allotted to you… Even as the animals out there pursue inexorable ways, so must you, but you are creatures of intelligence and memory and foresight, and so your pleasure in the chase and the kill, so to speak, will be much the more vivid and heightened. Obey the rules of the House, and you will learn acceptance and a kind of peace. Seize the opportunities the House allows, and you may get fame and wealth and power. Now be stirring, man, there are many things for you to do, you will come soon enough to the last dark door…’

 

One day, going about his daily duties in the endless corridors and staircases of the castle, the man sees through a casement window a garden of great beauty and delight. He was never told about this garden, but he realises it is not a dream: it is part of, enclosed by, the House of Life. There is a door, unfettered unlike the hundreds of other locked doors he passes daily, and he goes through it into the garden and takes a flower from a tree and goes back to his cell. From that moment on, long after the flower has withered, he remembers the garden; other than this memory he has no evidence of its existence and others, when he mentions it, don’t know what he is talking about; but occasionally he catches a scent of the garden as he goes about his chores, and sometimes he passes somebody and the other person’s coat gives off ‘the enchanting subtleties of tall grass, dew, rose blossom and honeycombs’. ‘Ranald Sigmundson,’ the abbot concludes, ‘we monks have a faith and a hope that the garden exists all right, and we think that we can go out among the birdsong and the blossoms more often, perhaps, than other men - though we belong like all others to the House of Life, and are thirled until we die to its laws and rules.’

That briefly but acutely sensed garden, that memory of absolute clarity in the fog of daily routine, seems closely to resemble Neil Gunn’s moment of self-awareness: I came upon myself sitting there. Such moments may be what keep us going through the fog and drudgery. Or is the garden a glimpse of some other, otherworldly haven or heavenly place? Something else is at play here and that is George’s Catholic faith, and especially the concentration of time into the, as it were, eternal moment of the Mass. It is way beyond my capacity to deconstruct either George’s faith or the meaning of the Mass, so I am not going to try. Nor am I going to compare this essentially metaphysical explanation of what time is with the Einsteinian theory that time is relative, that the rate at which it passes depends on your frame of reference - although, in some respects, based though they are on completely different forms of reasoning, their conclusions may not be so different. Instead, I want to look at George’s novel Magnus, where we get a very powerful description of the interaction of brief time with the eternal, when Magnus sits anonymously in the kirk in Egilsay as the priest goes through the ritual of Mass:

 

The Mass was not an event that takes place in ordinary time, like eating a fine dinner in some hall, or sailing in a boat between two islands, or sharpening an axe…it takes place both in time, wherein time’s conditions obtain, and also wholly outside time; or rather, it is time’s purest essence, a concentration of the unimaginably complex events of time into the ritual words and movements of a half-hour…

The end and the beginning. All time was gathered up into that ritual half-hour, the entire history of mankind, as well the events that have not yet happened as the things recorded in chronicles and sagas. That is to say, history both repeats and does not repeat itself.

 

Here, the crystal-clear moment of stillness intersects with John Buchan’s ‘great moment’ of action: ‘Whether failure or success is the result, life is sharpened, intensified, idealised.’ Because when Magnus, still at this point only a man, not yet a saint, steps out of the kirk into the new day, he will have made the decision to meet with his cousin Hakon, knowing he will be killed, sacrificing himself for the sake of peace. And, to demonstrate that this is history both repeating and not repeating itself, that this is all human history, George does not show us that murder, but - as Maggie Fergusson puts it - he ‘swings the narrative from twelfth-century Orkney to Nazi Germany, and the hanging of a Lutheran pastor from a meat hook in a concentration camp.’

That is a bold leap, both of location and time, in a bold and unconventional novel. And, as if the horrors of Nazism do not need to be shown in the late 20th century, we do not see either of these killings in a chapter that is called ‘The Killing’. Lifolf the camp butcher, the narrator in this section, does not remember the execution he is forced to perform - or, at least, he claims not to remember it. George simply takes the name of Hakon’s cook in Orkneyinga Saga and confers it on the hangman in 1945, in a fictionalised version of the murder of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at Flossenbürg concentration camp. For all his seeming traditionalism, he was never afraid to break the bounds of novelistic convention. Perhaps the sheer innocence of his approach to writing - ‘All a writer needs is a cheap pad and a 10-penny biro’ - freed him to take risks where another writer might have hesitated.

In his last novel, Beside the Ocean of Time, he transports his protagonist Thorfinn Ragnarson back and forth across human history; and while he uses the plot-device of Thorfinn’s daydreams to place him at the Battle of Bannockburn or in the reign of George III, it is also evident that Thorfinn is a ‘stumbler into time’ and that there is a Thorfinn Ragnarson in every age. Towards the end of the novel he is a prisoner-of-war in Germany during the Second World War: this episode does not appear to be another dream, but reality, yet it is no less dreamlike or more real than the other episodes. It is a feature of this strange, short, flawed yet mesmerising novel that the reader is never quite sure what is dream and what reality.

When Beside the Ocean of Time was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994, George declined to attend the ceremony in London but had to endure the judges discussing his novel on television. I quote, again, from Maggie Fergusson’s excellent biography:

 

A.S. Byatt, while paying tribute to some of George’s earlier work, felt that this time the ‘imaginative effort’ had not been ‘fully realised’. Germaine Greer had felt unhappy about the book even before she opened it: what was the ‘ocean of time’ and how could one walk beside it? Sarah Dunant, chairing the discussion, had found the novel instantly forgettable.

 

How painful and awkward this must have been for the watcher in Mayburn Court, especially as he had company! But then, Fergusson continues,

 

The poet, Tom Paulin, speaking last, silenced them all with praise and passion. This was a ‘wonderful’ novel, he said, displaying to the full George Mackay Brown’s ‘sacral, primitive, highly sophisticated and at the same time deeply naïve view of the world’.

 

The novel had left Paulin ‘joyous’. But what of Germaine Greer’s unhappiness? Does the novel answer her questions? Yes, it does, but not by giving a ‘right’ or single answer. Like the tide, George keeps approaching and retreating from a definition of the ocean of time, in a sequence of statements threaded through the novel, of which the following are just a sample:

 

The life of a man, thought Thorfinn, is a brief voyage, with the ocean of eternity, the many-voiced sea, all around.

 

Such a short day is the life of man - brief labour and love and laughter between dawn light and the first star in the west. Round Norday island, the great ocean music goes on and on, everlastingly.

 

A wave in the Sound…crashed against the round ancient ruin on the shore, and carried away another stone that had stood for twelve centuries. That stone would trundle here and there with the tides, flung back and fore in the mill of ocean for a few decades, growing smaller and ever more spherical, until it was at last a scattering of sand among the oyster grains and the grains of crab and cormorant.

A hundred years on, and a child might be building a sand castle on the edge of the tide, on a summer afternoon.

 

There Thorfinn was, on the far outside wall of the broch, two thousand years lost in time.

 

Thorfinn writes two novels while  he is a prisoner in Stalag 29B. After the war he writes more fiction, has some commercial success, but is finally disenchanted with his work, with Edinburgh where he is living, and with the lifestyle his success brings:

 

 

It was time then to go away, to go home, alone.

To make something of what was left…There were enough fragments to see his time out, folk memories, legends, the seal people, the trows that loved music and lived under the green hill. But to write that kind of novel, a man needs to be a poet, and the stones he had broken up to then showed no least trace of ore.

 

There is a clear nod, in this section, to George’s own writing career, and his dissatisfaction with certain aspects of the literary life away from Orkney, specifically in Edinburgh. As George came home, so Thorfinn returns to the island of Norday, laid waste by its transformation into a military base during the war, and abandoned in the aftermath. All the preceding episodes and encounters of the novel, stretched over many centuries, now seem entangled and overlapping. Thorfinn is not alone on the island: a young woman, Sophie, has also come back, and he resents her presence. He knew her once years ago, before the war, but is she really the same person? There is something uncanny about her, like the selkie woman of an earlier chapter (and also, I think, like Maurya, the time-crossing young woman in Time in a Red Coat). Sophie seems an amalgam of the women in the book, as Thorfinn is an amalgam of its Thorfinns. This sense that they represent man and woman across the ages becomes very strong in the final scene of the novel.

The shifts of time, not just in Beside the Ocean of Time but in all of George’s long fiction, indicate how strongly conscious George was that his time, his period of being alive, was just a passing moment in an infinity of moments; and that his witness to it, through his writings, was also transient and insubstantial. Underpinning that sense of impermanence, there looms in much of his work the threat of devastation, even annihilation. We see it in the ‘Aerodrome’ chapter in this novel. It manifests itself more menacingly in Greenvoe in the shape of Black Star, the military-industrial project that takes over and destroys the island of Hellya. It is there in Vinland too, in the constant cycle of power struggles and appalling violence, and the possibility that mankind might, as Peter the abbot says, make ‘a shambles and a burnt-out ruin of this earth’ (209). It is a constant presence in Time in a Red Coat. Almost always this threat is connected to the false dream of progress: human cleverness is no guarantee against the collapse of civilisation and community, and may even be hastening us towards such an outcome. In The Golden Bird, the schoolmaster John Fiord at first praises social and economic progress as the only way out of ignorance, poverty and superstition, but later comes to believe it to be destructive of wisdom, contentment and truth. ‘All this idle curiosity,’ he tells his pupils, ‘- all this striving towards whatsoever is new… It is vanity and vexation of the spirit. What the spirit of man longs for, truly, is the wisdom and enlightenment that is neither new nor old, being outwith the bounds of time.’

Life, birth, love, death, history, mythology, the certainties of daily existence and of the seasons, the mysteries of faith and whatever comes after death - all these are bound up in George’s relentless questioning of the nature of time in  both its brevity and its immensity. The sum of his questioning is a turning-away from anxiety towards a kind of contentment, a quiet understanding that the questions will remain unanswered this side of mortality, and perhaps on the other side too. And so I come to the final scene Beside the Ocean of Time, and here, because there is nowhere else to go, I will stop.

 

They walked along the island shore in the afternoon. The waves threw glories of light about them. The great fog bank had rolled away westward…

‘I won’t go on much longer with this writing,’ [Thorfinn] said. ‘Till the bread and fish are assured, here I’ll sit every lamplit night, toiling at the unattainable poem. In the end the pages will be food for moth and rust.’

‘I’ll dig my three acres and milk my goat,’ said Sophie. ‘I’ll settle for that. We never find what we set our hearts on. We ought to be glad of that.’

A wave, thrusting higher, washed her feet till they shone.

‘It is our son who will be the poet,’ she said, as on they walked beside the ocean of the end and the beginning.

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