A FEW years ago, I went on retreat, looking for a silent and creative space. Having come from a remote hill-farming family in Cumbria, where my family have lived for generations, it was natural for me to return to the fells. I focused on Holy Week in my contemplations.
Later, I realised that what I had written was becoming a novel — one that can be read in many ways: a walk through the north-western fells (from the top of Ard mountain, across Crummock Water to Mellbreak valley); the experience of springtime repeated over many years; a walk through Holy Week to Easter Day.
As was the case in the farms that I grew up alongside, the novel’s Ard Farm has four generations living together. The older generation, born in the late 19th or early 20th century, spoke in local dialect, and led a life centred around religion and local festivals.
Evenings were quiet — spent with family, or perhaps a rare community dance in the church hall with a band cobbled together by local fiddle and harmonium players, like my great-grandfather, Harry. Just like my family, the grandchildren’s generation, however, later expected central heating, television, a phone, access to a car, and holidays further afield than Cumbria.
The matriarch in Towards Mellbreak, Catherine, is like many of the women I knew when I was growing up. She married at 15, and began the farm with her husband, Albert, in the early 20th century. The backbone of the family, a constant presence through times of extraordinarily fast change, her tradition is Anglo-Catholic, probably influenced by Roman Catholic women who came to Cumbria, on the ferry from Belfast or Dublin to Maryport or Whitehaven, looking for work.
The Wesleyan Movement also had an impact, as it swept across the north in the 18th and 19th centuries, bringing a renewed love of hymns and religious meetings. Catherine’s brother, John, becomes a Methodist missionary, and his letters are a consistent companion to her spiritual life.
These three strong religious traditions were taken into the heart of creative folklore and festivals: at Easter time, eggs were boiled with vinegar and brown paper for children to roll down hills, hang on trees, or use for battle, like conkers. Meals at Easter and Christmas were laid with an extra place for a stranger; palms were kept on the mantelpiece for a year; Lazarus Saturday was referred to if there was a bereavement; and Mary was a holy mother and companion, for whom Easter bonnets were made.
When we meet Catherine in 1971, her family is no longer fully living this way, but it is clearly still her foundation and reference point.
From the outside, some might see Catherine as living a simple and repetitive life; a more intimate view, however, shows that, for her, life is a series of events, like objects, to be regularly re-examined, or simply sat with: days out with her son, George, and his wife, Ada; religious rituals when she was a child; her husband, Albert, building a wall in their garden, or tragically dying in a car crash; her grandson Harold becoming a father with the birth of his son, Stephen; Harold’s wife, Esther, bringing a bunch of cow parsley and heath spotted-orchids into the house, are all carried within her, and reconsidered, creating a circular sense of time. Catherine’s annual religious practice is to enter into Holy Week in the same way.
With a refreshingly honest relationship with God, she holds vigil, returning to Gethsemane, painfully challenged to bare her grief and difficulties to Christ and walk towards Calvary with Him. She fights against going through the process, but values the discipline of trying. When later generations provide tea and biscuits at the back of the church to make a vigil more comfortable, she fears that something fiercely important about surviving life may have been lost.
We find Catherine in her small garden just below Ard mountain. For her, this garden is similar to a church: it is returned to for the same rituals and prayers every year, made for many people, past, present, and future. Nature is her companion as she repeats biblical text, punctuating her thoughts and drawing her into the words.
CATHERINE shuffled in her chair and breathed, Bible heavy in her hands. The air had a bite to it. She lifted the black ribbon and carefully spread the thin pages on her lap. A red squirrel scrummaged over the grass, tail poised, dowsing. It tunnelled into the leaves, crackling. The place had become a wilderness after Ada died, earth keeping the mosaic of her movements even when the vegetables had spread into weeds, ground slowly closing; George unable to watch.
Ada had been part of their family long before she married George. She was eleven when she started to help with the butter and baking. George was six. After the war when he could hardly speak, Ada got him looking at maps. It was clever of her because tracing his time in Burma and John’s in China seemed to help him come home. After a few months they were talking by the fire with an atlas, though he spoke rarely in between. But when Harold was born, it was as if George decided to be a father like Albert and joined in the banter. The three men inseparable and all as loud and familiar as a festival.
A gust lifted the thin pages of the Bible. Yes, she’d sat there every year on Maundy Thursday, across from the old oaks, to wash the vanity of Absalom out of her. To remember the dark times with Christ, as if John were behind her, willing her on. “Let it cleanse you, Catherine,” he would say. “Remember the worst you’ve seen and lay it on your back to walk with Him. Then it’s up to Christ to make a new world of it. Easter Sunday’s the only strength able to lift the weight.” She thought of George. He passed peacefully, that’s the word for it, she agreed, watching as if she were back in his old room. His head to the side, tight breaths after the stroke. Harold biting his lip in grief. They’d read John’s letters to him. When she buried the letters with him, as he’d asked, it had been as if she passed him on to John.
And then the field had changed again. New soil. She looked up in surprise. Wasn’t easy for Harold to dig up his mother’s garden for Esther. There’d been grief in him, but he still did it. He was good. Last man standing. And Esther had put her back into the new garden. Digging, mulching and mixing in ashes, manure and roses. Banks of long grasses and reeds. Catherine had wondered what it was all for at the beginning. A year of earth dug over only to plant wild flowers. But then, the next Holy Week she’d sat there with her Bible, she saw it had become a memorial garden. A memorial to the family, though Esther hadn’t known it. Would never tell her so. Even the nettles blossomed, a taste she knew when she was young. Pleased to have it back.
She looked over to the fells. No clouds, just morning as far as she could trace. The leaves needed raking; she was surprised Esther hadn’t cleared them, especially as the crocuses were pushing their green shoots around the snowdrops. Snowdrops, heads tilted with the love of a martyr. A raven landed on the oak tree; two feet together, unnatural, sweeping its wings for support, then silent black in silhouette. Catherine looked at the page. She didn’t like to dwell on things, just get on with the days. She felt pushed into this ritual every year. To remember the hard times. Always uncomfortable to think of the tragedy people went through. It was private. The oak trees looked silent. Isaiah said they gave a crown of beauty instead of ashes . . . a garment of praise for heaviness. He’d not wanted the mourners to be in despair. She straightened herself, come on now Catherine, and read, ‘Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder.’ She closed her eyes for a moment. Betrayer. She shook her head. I never really sit with him. Prefer sleep. And it’s to happen again. She saw the image of crumbs on the Bible. “We’re not worthy but only say the word,” she heard, bowing her head with a tut. John would say even the crumbs from the altar are from Eden. But I’m not brave enough. “Take up your cross,” John would say, “cleave to the Lord. Have your darkest memories beside Him and never alone.” And what wouldn’t she remember for her Albert? She would go to the car with him and Ada and be gashed and worn with them if she could, waiting into the night to be found. She would be with him at his last breath, pray to know if he’d been awake for a while, kept warm, wet moustache, choking, watching the night, thinking of her.
But she’d not be in the garden with Christ, she knew herself. Not tonight when He was to surrender His will, not to surrender her will too. Top of Calvary, waiting for them. Not sure Easter Sunday was beauty enough. Shouldn’t have happened, never. Should be able to see Albert walking here with his great-grandson, such a young silky-haired boy, so quiet, as if he carried their silence. No, she wouldn’t stay in that darkness. It shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Nothing could change that. And she would have no new world without them.
Towards Mellbreak by Marie-Elsa Bragg was published yesterday by Chatto & Windus (£12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70)).