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The Unnatural History Museum at No Miracle Bay

by Fiona Stirling and Jane Swanson

Elizabeth Bishop, Questions of Travel,  

What happens if I bind two places together?
  a sky that tastes of salt
      the click of heels on a marble floor, echoing voices
    water lapping in rhythm with the breeze
  a white statue of a Greek god
    jellyfish with flailing tentacles, flitting fish, boats bobbing on water
      a light sculpture by Nathan Coley, ‘There Will Be No Miracles Here’

A paradox. A juxtaposition.

Writing an imagined space that sounds like a description of the lost world of Atlantis, a place forged by fire and earthquakes, a city that disappeared beneath the ocean, never to be seen again. A sunken world.

Waves can wash away islands; can waves wash up the unknown? This imagined space is a surprising creation, a space for floating ideas. Will there be miracles here?
A new world bubbling beneath the water, ready to be found.

I’m waiting for a miracle, I think.  Right now.  I’m waiting for the upside down to be upright again. Or am I the one that is upside down? It doesn’t feel strange to write like this.  Be like this.  Is it strange that it is not strange? I think I have always been more excited by the unknown than afraid of it. I am not afraid to be writing with you. 

Maybe that’s because growing up the ‘known’ was never safe anyway. Mystery Door Number One was always preferable to Good-Chance-of-a-Kicking Door Number Two.

It’s taken me by surprise writing that.  I didn’t expect to journey to that place today, but here I am.

Here we are.

I feel compelled to name the ‘here’ we are creating because names give shape and texture to the simmering uncertain waves of the world. No Miracle Bay. It sounds like one of those quaint American towns that the infamous amateur detective Jessica Fletcher would arrive in at the start of a Murder She Wrote episode, a rendezvous with an old acquaintance or distant relative that would inevitably end in murder.

I used to love that show, watching cross-legged from the floor on a Saturday afternoon at my grans house, swatting away my brother during the adverts to prevent losing control of the all-powerful TV remote. My gran, also a Jessica and also grey-haired but not a detective. She would float in and out of the room with juice and biscuits and quiet affection. Every Saturday. Until she was gone.

I don’t know who lives in her house now. I don’t know if the living room still smells of rich tea biscuits and medicines I can’t name. I don’t know if red stalks of sour rhubarb still sway at the garden edges, waiting to be picked.

Good old Jessica though, she would always know. Using her uncanny crime-writer genius she’d unravel the mystery, return calm to the troubled town. Now I’m older I can’t help but consider how suspicious it was that her arrival consistently precipitated death. It’s funny what a change in perspective can bring.

Nathan Coley was inspired by too many miracles, an echo of a royal proclamation in seventeenth century France at a time when the village of Modseine was rife with the things.

The King of France ordered an end to the miracles. Miraculously they ceased.

But to say There Will be No Miracles Here, suggests miracles happen elsewhere.

My grandma often spoke about her miracle. 

Matilda was born into a mining family in Monkwearmouth, near Sunderland, one of thirteen children, she left home at thirteen and went into service in Yorkshire. When she was eleven, she was invited to a friend’s birthday party, Florence was the mine manager’s daughter. Matilda had nothing to wear to the party. I remember, Nanny Tilly, as I called her, telling me that as a child she only had one set of clothes.

Matilda prayed for a miracle.

Walking home one evening across Wearmouth Bridge she found a brown paper parcel tied with string.  She took it home – inside was a length of soft, lustrous white satin.  Matilda asked everyone she knew if they had lost a parcel, she ran all over town and enquired at all the drapers and the haberdashers. No one claimed the parcel, only then did her parents allow her to keep it. An aunt with a sewing machine made the satin into a dress and she went to the party.


My father kept a black and white photo of his mother by his bedside. The photo is blurred, the satin dress floats over Matilda’s body, the corners of her mouth are smoky, enigmatic, and unresolved. Matilda’s long dark hair is tied back with a wide bow, the dress is high-necked, long-sleeved, with a full skirt and cinched at the waist with a wide sash.

Matilda has never had her photo taken before – no smiling says the photographer –  the camera has a slow shutter – keep still or he’ll fetch her mother to stand behind her and hold her by the waist – he will - he’ll disguise her mother under a black cloth and put a plant on her head – he will – Matilda says her mother is short – very well – he’ll disguise her as a chair under a decorative throw – he’s done it before –  her mother will be vexed if he has to send for her – straight back – he disappears under a black cloth hood – eyes on the birdie – a mechanical brass bird opens its beaks and chirps – no smiling –  my mam pretending to be a chair! – Matilda’s chin wobbles, her eyelids crease, her cheeks lift at the corners as her lips crinkle with laughter  – the shutter snaps shut.

If miracles happen elsewhere perhaps elsewhere can be found not in the spaces or places, we know and remember, but in the ones we imagine into being by writing, thinking, feeling together.

I began by writing about a jellyfish laden beach in the Argyll I visited last summer. You began by writing about a trip to an art gallery. Together they became an essay of an impossible elsewhere. Our Unnatural History Museum at No Miracle Bay. And the museum is growing each time we write. The memories of our grandmothers are filling hungry glass cases with decorative throws, lost and found white satin, forgotten rhubarb, and old televisions. Objects to collect and examine, to prompt the jump to the next elsewhere.

And I can imagine it, this new place. Feel the water snapping at my shins as I stride deeper into the blue of the bay, pushing my way to the heavy wooden undersea doors of our collaborative museum. To enter means full immersion, means pushing under the cold current and trusting there will be a way to keep breathing. It means floating into the bubbling silence, eyes adjusting to the damp light of flickering neon ghosts that point the way to forgotten exhibits. It means obeying the low, strange voice that urges movement forward with a single word: Swim. 

Crash, dive in, think back to being a child - to a time filled with magic and shapeshifting. To when beds and bedsheets became galleons with genoa sails! When jam jars filled with rainbows and rose petals became potions and perfumes! When a blanket tossed over a coffee table became the entrance to whole other worlds

–    this is what this new place,
this elsewhere is like  –

hallway doors opening onto deep ocean troughs, echoing voices erupting from hydrothermal vents, and miraculous laughter lapping with the rhythm of the breeze.  In this water the deep flowing currents are hidden from detection, silently washing up both the familiar and the unknown as we breathe, together, the pure bubbling silent air.

'Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places not, just stay at home?’

The Board and Editor of Northwords Now acknowledge support from Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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