The Curve of the Land £14
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Set in 1980s Britain against the backdrop of ecological crisis,The Curve of the Land is a circumspect novel about our modern relationship with the Earth, which in this case is represented by the landscapes of western Britain. Jessica, an ardent but unfulfilled activist, joins a tour of megalithic sites hoping to find renewal from relationship burn-out and a sterile work environment. The characters on the tour are a good cross-section of the way ‘new age’, occult and mystical threads got grafted on to the more intellectual or ‘respectable’ British stock, throwing up eccentric cameos of people and comic situations. The mysterious atmosphere of the stones and her growing attraction for the charismatic tour leader builds to a final shamanic climax in the wilds of West Penwith, Cornwall.
Author of The Return of King Arthur: Completing the Quest for Wholeness, Diana Durham explores eco-shamanism, sex magic, goddess and ‘Gaia’ consciousness, as well as emerging archaeological and scientiﬁc ﬁndings pertaining to the sacred sites of Britain. Strongly influenced by Jungian psychologist Sylvia Brinton Perera’s Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women, The Curve of the Land follows the journey of a woman in contemporary society seeking to reconnect to an ancient land and share in its spiritual topography.
Available now from Skylight Press, UK
and on Amazon USA and UK
"Diana Durham's thoughtful, passionate, and sometimes edgy novel The Curve of the Land is a love story, a coming
of (middle) age novel, a search for identity and community, a meditation on the environment, and a philosophical inquiry into the relevance of ancient beliefs to our own time and sensibility."
Ernest Hebert, author 'The Dogs of March',
Professor of English, Dartmouth College
Jessica could not take her eyes off the goddess. She had not expected this from a workshop, even one entitled 'Descent to the Goddess: Shamanism for Women'. The bare wooden floor of the Hampstead church hall was draughty but Jessica, clad in leotard and track suit pants, did not notice. She had never seen such a metamorphosis. Jessica did not consider herself much of a workshop enthusiast: her normal reluctance was due not so much to conservatism as to a horror of pretence. One or two previous experiences had made her very wary of workshop leaders and attendees who seemed content to wax lyrically effusive about faked experience. What Jessica craved was authenticity and here it was staring her in the face. The woman was in her late 40s, with cropped white hair, strong, dark eyebrows and a large mouth. Her eyes were closed in concentration, her mouth open as she inhaled and exhaled making a terrifying noise like the death rattle. Dressed in a black leotard and loose skirt, she was kneeling on the floor, her arms back supporting her leaning body. She was a big woman, tall, full-bodied yet graceful. Slowly, as if no longer under her control, the woman's neck arched back and up, her head dropped, her legs moved sinuously under her and she gradually twisted over and around onto her front. All the time uttering the strange breathing noises. She had embodied the dark goddess: not good, not bad, not lovely, not ugly, just completely disruptive.
The atmosphere in the dimly lit hall was charged. An extreme discomfort had taken hold of the half dozen or so other women who were watching along with Jessica. To witness such complete abandon seemed taboo, as if one were present at the Eleusinian mysteries themselves. Yet it was impossible not to look, and in watching to be drawn deeper into the necessity of participating, because to observe and not to be immersed oneself would indeed be a profanity. However, the growing realization that they were soon going to be asked to do the same was an appalling thought. The movements, the sound were so 'other', they fitted into no familiar context. Jessica had done exercise routines before - aerobics, pilates, yoga - but it had all been from the mind, controlled. This was all or nothing, it could not be faked, came from another place altogether, one that had been banished a long time ago. As they sat there transfixed, helpless, flashes of differing emotions shot through the group from incredulity to anger.
After what seemed an age, the woman stopped her strange breathing, opened her eyes and slowly untangled herself from the position she had landed up in.
'Phew,' she shook her head, rubbed her eyes and smiled at her motionless students. 'That's what I call the dark goddess energy. We need to contact that.' Cora was hugely impressive, Jessica realized, not only because of her ability to move as she had, but also in the way she could nullify the reactions that smouldered like lit fuses in her workshop participants. 'Come on, you start moving, listen to your blood stream, listen to your neurons - they want to do new things.' She spoke with a Californian accent. This was no English woman. Awkwardly, the others tried to do the same. They were self-conscious, frightened even. 'Close your eyes, don't worry about anyone else - we're all here in love, we're all here to become naked...'
Jessica closed her eyes and leaned back. The doubts and inhibitions that would normally have filled her seemed to have been moved out away from her, as if the goddess had been able to blast a clearing within her psyche. The woman was moving slowly, still half-dancing, round the room touching the others here and there, guiding, encouraging. 'Let go here - that's it. Suzanne, you're doing it but you're not really doing it are you?' She put her hand on the pelvis of a woman with dark glossy hair cut into an immaculate bob and a frown on her face.
'Cora, I'm not sure I've got this right,' said a red-haired woman in her early 40s, who also sounded American. Cora walked over. 'There's no wrong or right, just relax, think of your breath as a wind, blowing through the cave of your mouth, your body, shaping stone. We're talking micro-movements, letting your body move. You can't do it wrong.'
The sound of breathing intensified. Cora turned the lights down and put on some music. She continued to move round the room, talking, almost chanting. 'We are descending down into the realm of Ereshkigal. We are Inanna, all the loveliness of earth, of light, of woman, going down into the darkness, through stone and earth, before time, deep into the body of the mother; stripped down, facing the eyes of death, hung on a meat hook to rot.'
Jessica was only half listening. In the dim light, with her eyes shut and her body on the cool bare floor, she lay peaceful, still. She wanted to stay like that, a secret pool of water unrippled; but obediently, if reluctantly, she tried allowing her abdomen to move in little, fluttering spasms. She dropped her jaw and let out air, a gasping, rattling breath against her throat, she inhaled deeply, and let the air out again.
'We must die to ourselves. This death is deep healing, it goes beyond all those things that fracture us into pieces - time, schedules, housework, relationships, our jobs, our names, where we came from - all these things are meaningless in this realm ... '
Jessica allowed her arms to slide out to the side and over her head. She tried her thigh, the thigh bone and the buttock, letting them arch and roll over. Her breathing became more rhythmic; the room was full with the sound of hoarse breathing and bodies slithering in slow motion across the floor.
'This is what we must look at, this is what we must reconnect with, that invisible and dark flow of ourselves, our source of being, the great mother energy, the mystery of earth and birth, from where we had our beginnings. We must face Ereshkigal's wrath for our forgetfulness, we must own her again, include her, love the side of ourselves that is always her. And this is how we regain our power ...'
Her eyes now fast closed, Jessica felt as if she were being pressed through stone, claustrophobically crushed into small passageways, she began to be frightened that her breath would have no more room to move and she would die but then the pressure eased and she was suspended in black space, sprinkled with tiny points of flashing light, the energy nuclei of her body. A black streaming wind pushed through gently across her chest, a silver breeze fanned down through her face and neck, a small eddy formed in her stomach. She had no idea how or how long she had been moving when Cora's voice was heard over the swishing and gasping sounds.
'OK, when you feel ready, open your eyes, and come to a sitting position. Slowly, slowly, take your time.' The music faded and was cut.
Jessica opened her eyes. She felt wonderful, renewed, Cora came and sat with them, folding her long, big legs under her. She smiled: 'Any words?'
But there weren't many.
'Few words, but we had an experience?' They all nodded.
'Very good, well thank you, dear ones, perhaps it's time.'
Their clothes were strewn on the chairs that lined the old church hall. As they got dressed Jessica approached Cora. 'Cora, that was great, I've never done anything like that before.'
'Well, it's not something that I bring in immediately.'
'I had an amazing experience. I was surprised, I thought I'd have to have done it for longer or something. How many more sessions will you be able to give?'
'I need to get my dates sorted out, I think my tour starts in a few weeks - isn't that right girls?' Cora looked over at the other American woman, who Jessica now realized was one of a pair, both overweight, both red-haired, both wearing turquoise T-shirts. They nodded in unison.
'Yes, so we've got some more time yet.'
'Oh good.' Jessica looked across at the dark-haired girl who'd been frowning. 'She's going on an amazing tour - of ancient sites, isn't it Cora? With some guy who lectures about them and strange lights and things?'
'Earth lights, yes.'
'Oh?', Suzanne did not seem very enthusiastic. Watching her, Jessica suddenly had an idea. 'I know Cora, you must come to dinner when Paul gets back. Suzanne and Steve are coming and you can tell us about it then.'
Jessica and Suzanne walked down the traffic-choked Hampstead Hill to the tube station.
'What d'you think of it?' asked Suzanne, 'I mean I'm not sure how much is imagination.' Jessica tilted her head to hear against the noise of engines running in neutral.
'I think it's very subtle, but if you get it, it's really releasing.'
At the kiosk outside the tube station Suzanne bought some chewing gum while Jessica hesitated over a glossy magazine and bought a newspaper instead. The lift arrived while they were buying their tickets and they ran through the barrier as the doors were just starting to close. There was no one else down on the dimly-lit, stuffy platform and their words echoed in whispers through the curved space.
'So how long's Paul been away now?' asked Suzanne.
'God, it seems like ages, six weeks. I'm feeling quite odd about it really,' Jessica replied.
'Seeing him again.' Jessica was aware that her brief phrases reflected her reluctance to examine more closely the multiple issues which had arisen in her while Paul had been away. But she also realized that Paul's imminent arrival would soon force her to confront both him and her complex feelings.
The electronic notice board blinked the yellow message that a train was approaching.
'He's due back soon?'
'The end of this week, that's what I heard last anyway.'
The train pulled into the station and they moved towards the nearest set of opening doors. The carriage was full, and they had to stand, hanging on from the handcords.
'How often have you heard from him?' Suzanne went on. Jessica found her unusually persistent. Jealous of her own privacy, Suzanne rarely pried into others' lives.
'Well when he's in a town, he phones quite often, but out in the more remote areas, you know, its difficult.'
'So you have been in touch.'
'Oh yeah, he rings me to find out if his car is OK.'
'Oh come on - '
'I'm serious, he does.'
'You mean that's all he asks about, he isn't interested in how you are?'
'No, but he does always ask me about the bloody car.'
Suzanne giggled delightedly. 'But you have missed him?'
'At first I did a lot.'
'But then it feels good to be on your own again, I understand that.'
Suzanne had to change at Camden Town. She started to fight her way out of the carriage. 'See you soon.'
Just how good it had felt to be on her own was in fact a source of some anxiety to Jessica. It was true that she had missed Paul, but only for the first two days. After that, she had experienced a growing exhilaration at a newly claimed - or reclaimed, she wasn't sure which - sense of freedom. She felt parts of herself spring back into shape, parts she did not realize she had pressed out of her shape. She began to discover ways in which she had allowed herself to grow dependent on Paul by suppressing sides of herself that subconsciously she did not think he would recognize or understand. It was a subtle form of self-censorship, but potent for being so subtle. She had tried to mold herself into his world, with his values, and neglected her own.
Paul's immaculate, poppy-scarlet, fuel-injected Golf GTI, reluctantly left in Jessica's care while he was away, now symbolized for her the conflict between them. For Jessica learning to drive had been an important achievement. Tasks that grounded her in the physical world were both assuring and challenging. Driving never became second nature for her, it was always exciting, and a bit frightening. She had been dismayed to discover how much better she drove when Paul was not in the car with her, tense with apprehension, barking out abrupt commands and criticisms. When he was there, her confidence ebbed away, she became infected by his anxiety and unable to think clearly or respond competently. On her own she drove faster, reversed accurately into tight spaces, not out of skill so much as intuition, and felt sharply aware of everything around her on the road as she played Mozart's operas (which she could not play when Paul was in the car as he loathed them) at full blast. She was amazed that she could have been so adversely affected by Paul, and was furious when he phoned from faraway places and asked: Was the paintwork intact? Had she scraped the hub caps?
Now she was starting to feel an almost intoxicating desire to get back to something in herself: an intuitive, mystical hinterland of vision which she had almost ceased to include in her life. As a result she had grown steadily more depressed and dependent on Paul for motivation. While he had been away, she had felt stronger, old vital energies that had been sapped returned. She recognized that none of this was Paul's fault: it had been her own doing. Nevertheless, despite this rational understanding she carried a minor current of resentment towards him and his limitations, which had also become clearer to her. She now felt equivocal about his return. She did not want to go back to her former, censored and inert self.
Jessica got out at Kings Cross and walked through the bustling passageways to the Metropolitan line. This time the train was not so crowded and she got a seat. She pulled the newspaper out of her bag and glanced across the headlines. A new report on weed killer in London's drinking water, Chernobyl revisited. The dismal news only returned her thoughts again to the problem of Paul.
When Jessica had first met Paul she had fallen madly in love with him. He was good-looking, dynamic and kind. He was a successful fashion photographer but he also wanted to use his talents to help expose, and prevent, the growing ecological crisis. His concern had grown until it seemed all consuming. He had met Jessica when she was upgrading from a temporary to a full-time job at Friends of the Earth. Jessica knew that if he'd wanted to Paul could have had a lot of different women in his life, and was flattered that he wanted to be with her. Now she recognized that it was Paul's fastidious nature as much as his fondness for her that kept him monogamous. He did not like messy situations. He did not like hysterical women. He did not like ecological breakdown. He was obsessively meticulous with all his equipment: his camera gear, his car, while at the same time he disliked home-making, and was thoughtlessly untidy in the flat. But the real source of Jessica's new unease with their relationship lay deeper, beyond conscious articulation. She was hungry for something which Paul could not give. She did not want rationality and worthy causes, she wanted poetry; she did not want to be controlled, she did not want mentorship, she wanted soul and ecstasy.
Her thoughts made Jessica frown as she walked unseeing down the car-lined street and up to her massive panelled front door. She walked up the stairs still prickling with anger and turned the key in the lock. A shock went through her: she could hear the TV, and a familiar shabby Billingtons bag lay dumped on the floor, spilling out lens wipes and film cannisters onto the newly vacuumed hall carpet. Paul was back, earlier than expected.
'Is that you love?' A fear touched inside her: would he be a stranger now? Her face was quizzical as she pushed her back against the door to close it and put down her bags. He was kind, his smell familiar but newly sensed as he hugged her. He didn't seem to notice her hesitancy; tired and happy he hugged her again. 'How are you then? Have you missed me?'
'I'm fine, I'm fine. Of course, did you miss me! How was your trip?'
'Allright I suppose. Tiring, depressing.' She sat down next to him. 'You're back early.'
'Yeah, I've been here a couple of hours, I've even started going through my slides. I've got some great shots for the talk.' Paul was due to give one of a series of lectures on different ecological themes that Jessica was organizing under the banner of Friends of the Earth.
'Yeah.' There was a pause. 'Did you have to work late?'
'No, no it's my workshop night.'
'What workshop's that?'
'I thought I told you about it, it's that one about shamanism.'
'Oh right, dark goddesses and all that. You still enjoying it?'
'Yes, it's amazing.'
'So how are you Jessie, it's good to see you, it's good to be back.'
'I'm fine -'
'Is the car OK? I couldn't see where it was parked.'
'The car is fine too. I had to park it round the corner. Hey why don't I run you a hot bath and make you a whisky and lemon.'
'That sounds great.' Paul stretched out and looked at his watch. 'Let me just watch the news.'
'OK, I'll go start the bath -'
'No, stay for a minute.' Paul put his arms round her and pulled her into him. Jessica felt more reassured. The sweet warmth of their closeness allayed her fears. Perhaps it would be OK after all between them. She stayed for a moment in this thought, then realized she was uninterested in the news as she had heard most of it already. She undid Paul's fingers and got up. 'I've seen this, I'll go start the bath.' She went into the bathroom, rinsed out the bath tub and turned on the hotwater tap. In the kitchen she filled the kettle and started squeezing lemons.
Paul lowered himself into the steaming water while Jessica, wrapped up in a large yellow towelling robe, sprinkled in essential oil of sandalwood. She handed him a glass of hot whisky and lemon and sat down in the white Lloyd Loom chair which she had so gleefully snapped up from the second hand furniture shop on the corner by the main street. She loved their bathroom precisely because it had just enough room for a chair. She also liked its plain tiled whiteness, now smudged by the steam.
'Aren't you coming in?'
'You enjoy it on your own for a bit.' Paul lay staring at his glass, his face suddenly lined with fatigue. Jessica looked at him with a half-smile.
'Is that nice?' She liked indulging him in the pleasures she enjoyed herself.
'It's great. It's the first bath I've had in six weeks.'
'Oh no, really?'
Paul took another sip of his drink. His eyelids were almost closing. Jessica put her empty glass down on the window ledge. The alcohol, the hot steam, Paul's drowsiness all helped calm her. She took off her robe and stepped into the tap end of the bath.
'You're falling asleep.'
'Yeah,' said Paul, moving his legs apart to give her shorter ones room. 'Is it nice to have me back?' he said sleepily.
'Of course,' said Jessica.
Paul was still asleep when Jessica got up the next morning, but her patter from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen and back again, switching lights on, running taps, gradually woke him. He lay in the half-light, watching Jessica in her robe, in underwear, in clothes, opening drawers, examining her face, brushing her hair. A cloud of depression seemed to have invaded him on waking up. It hadn't been there in his dreams, coloured fragments of which were rapidly receding from recall.
'Do I smell coffee?' he mumbled. Jessica turned to look at him.
'You 'wake? Yes, d'you want some?'
She brought two mugs in and sat down on the edge of the bed, angled towards him. 'How are you feeling?'
'Did you wonder where you were?'
'No - no I don't think so.'
Jessica looked anxiously at Paul.
'By the way,' he said, rubbing his eyes, 'I talked to Steve yesterday. He and Suzanne are coming over on Saturday.'
'Oh yes, I want Cora to come as well.'
'The workshop leader -'
'Why not? She's great, and I think Steve will find her very interesting -'
'I don't want a bloody dark goddess coming to dinner.'
'Well, it's too late now, I've asked her.'
'Why the hell didn't you ask me first?'
'She's my friend, I don't have to ask permission do I?' Jessica's voice was no longer soft.
'I'd just like a quiet evening, I don't want to have to deal with some maniacal Californian woman -'
'God why are you always so negative?' Stung into anger by Paul's ill temper, Jessica was now almost shouting. 'Why can't you be a little bit more open? I'll tell you, I haven't missed you - I've found it very freeing to operate on my own, not to be undermined all the time -'
'Don't be so dramatic.'
'I'm not being dramatic, I'm being realistic. This is what I experience from you. I've realized a lot of things while you've been gone. The way you censor things, pour cold water on everything, never really talk about what's going on in you -'
'Oh God, here we go.'
'Yes, and there you go. Suppressing things again, ridiculing me. You want me to keep a certain shape so that you don't get impinged upon, threatened -'
'I suppose this is what you call a warm home-coming, lecturing me on all my vices -'
'Don't you try that, emotional blackmail. Anyway I think you've been more concerned about your bloody car than me, that's all you ever seemed to ask about on those expensive long distance calls.'
'What's your problem Jessica?'
'I've started to see that I've been undervaluing a whole side of myself by being with you, and that's not healthy -'
'Well no one's forcing you to stay here - if this Cora woman has shown you just how badly done by you are -'
'Don't patronize me. The fact is Cora is a friend and she's not frightened of her emotions. She doesn't suppress what she's feeling like you do. I can talk to her, which is just as well because I can't talk to you!'
Fury and a sense of failure stung tears into Jessica's eyes as her voice got higher and more out of control. She slammed out of the room feeling exhausted and unwilling to pick up the pieces.
Paul heard the front door slam and the flat fall silent. Jessica's anger had taken him aback, but he knew his mood had infected the situation and he dismissed what she'd said as part of a new fad. He lay inert in the bed, no longer able to sleep. The thought of getting up and doing things - unpacking, sorting through and sending off his slides, making phone calls - seemed to loom above him like a great mountain peak of effort, impossible to reach. He tried to find a little chink of pleasure in the day ahead to motivate him. The enjoyment he used to have from looking through his pictures was marred now by the pain of their content. It was irritating to him that Jessica seemed so uninterested in his trip. He wondered if she wasn't rather selfish: caught up in her own projects, forgetting about him and his world. These thoughts wandered through his mind in a familiar order. He wasn't sure about them. Without realizing it, he was still registering the impact of what he had seen on his trip. The enormity of the destruction, the horror of it. Up until now, his exposure had been in small doses. Jessica's apparent disinterest in his work stirred more than just irritation: it was somehow threatening, as if it undermined the partnership they shared in such important work. How could he do it all on his own? Paul leaned forward and pulled at the corner of the curtain, drawing out a thin rectangle of light. He lay back again, staring up at a pale grey sky, bright above rooftops. A few birds swooped past in formation. A jet droned across in the opposite direction, slow and clumsy on its long descent into Heathrow. Paul curled over on his side, blinked his eyes a few times and then closed them.
Distracted by their row and the image of Paul's face that she carried with her down the stairs, Jessica was unable to make up her mind whether to take her bike or go by underground to work. She preferred to ride and it was quicker, what's more, she hadn't ridden yesterday because of the workshop, but the sky threatened rain, and even though by now she was pressed for time, she felt the need to just sit impassively on the tube and recollect herself. After fifteen minutes or so, and several stops, of rather fruitless and blank thought, she decided she ought to read the newspaper she had bought the evening before. Dutifully she ran her eyes over the centre page feature on the longterm damage of Chernobyl, with pictures of desperate peasant women, maps and graphs showing the extent of radiation. In the bottom corner of an inside page a small square of print caught her eye with the title '"Close Encounter" Lights Frighten Farmhand'. It was a report of a sighting of a strange white light over a dolmen near a farm in the Lands End region of Cornwall. Jessica struggled to find a pen in the far corner of her bag and ringed the article. I must remember to show Cora, she thought.
Delays on the journey meant that she reached her destination awash with the gritty discomfort of being late. She couldn't find her ticket, dropped the paper that she had held but not read and debated in a manic way as she emerged at last into daylight whether she really had time to buy a coffee. She nevertheless hurried over to the narrow Italian sandwich bar, the sole redeeming feature of the traffic-washed wastes of Old Street. Inside, the gurgling roar of the large espresso machine dominated like a comforting promise, vindicating her decision. The father and son team processed the queue's requests with a speed born of expertise and enthusiasm and she was soon walking swiftly back along the street clutching a white paper bag and a polystyrene cup. She felt uneasy about the cup though, made as it was by one of the most polluting methods of production, and from one of the most difficult to break down materials. Many within FOE argued that take-away food of any kind was unacceptable. There were different levels of extremists, some were vegans and disapproved of leather shoes and belts.
Buffeted by the onslaught of heavy traffic on City Road, it seemed to take an age to reach Shepherdess Walk and its equally inaptly named tributaries, Nile and Underwood Streets. These were both very narrow and overhung by old, mainly empty warehouses of dirty, grey-blue bricks and stained, opaque windows. The mustard yellow corner building with its tree green door and plant-filled window stood out from the general gloom. She pulled open the large door and slotted the 'In' sign next to her name on the notice board, then ran up the three flights of stairs to her office. Like the rest of the building, the walls and surfaces of her office were painted a now grubby white. A few FOE posters adorned the walls, and there were one or two pot plants on desks and window sills, but the overall effect was strictly utilitarian.
The desk opposite was empty. 'Is Bill still away?' Jessica asked. A girl in sneakers and leggings who was photocopying in the corner looked up and glanced at the polystyrene cup. 'Yes' she said. Bill was the Researcher for their campaign. He was one of the vegans. He was also a Buddhist and spent his weekends and most of his evenings running workshops and retreats. So busy had he been that he had requested sick leave due to stress. 'God how much longer is he away for?'
'Don't know,' said the girl whose name was Tracey. She was American, a temporary Campaign Assistant, who regarded Jessica, the Assistant Campaigner, as jaded and unprofessional. Jessica was aware of Tracey's attitude toward her, partly because Tracey did little to hide it. When the girl had first come to work in their department Jessica had found it unsettling and hurtful to be so readily judged and dismissed. However, latterly she had grown immune to such feelings, realizing that Tracey, filled with the same enthusiasm she herself had begun her job with two years before, was in part right. Jessica sighed impatiently. She felt scratchy from her row with Paul. Against her better judgment she said out loud 'What's the use of spirituality if you can't cope with your job.' Tracey didn't answer. Jessica registered irritation. Surely it was more important to turn up for work, albeit late, and drink coffee out of polystyrene cups than to stay pure and not show up at all.
With her thick, honey-coloured hair and soft brown eyes, Jessica was a pretty woman - pretty, and a little self-indulgent. Her sharp, peripheral vision of awareness occasionally glimpsed this weakness and tried to correct it. She wanted to be worthy, to make a contribution to the embattled planet and not simply while away her life in feminine self-absorption but increasingly, she was no longer sure how to do this. She was intrigued by the maxim, first put forward over ten years ago by Theodore Roszak and now seminal to a million self-help and spiritual growth approaches, of personal responsibility, that changes in the world reflect changes in individuals. This idea excited and stirred her. She turned it over in her mind like a smooth, hard pebble in her pocket. Intuitively she felt the rightness of it, but with her customary anxious self-examination, wondered what exactly it meant. The flyer for Cora's workshop, pinned to the notice board by the tea and coffee urns, had intrigued Jessica when it claimed that deep inner change was its aim. A large number of women who worked at FOE were feminists, and there were many politically slanted lectures or workshops to do with women getting equal, assertive, positive and usually slightly Marxist. To Jessica's mind there was something dirge-like about them, a litany of complaint about women's lot, to which she was not sure she subscribed. But there was another brand of women for whom the Earth was Mother Earth and they were working to save her from the onslaught of the male patriarchy. One of their number, whose opinion Jessica valued, had recommended the workshop to her, so she had gone along, hoping that this might be one way to start finding out how to effect changes in herself, and thus in her world.
The workshop had begun while Paul was away and both it and Paul's absence had heightened her awareness of changes that had already occurred in herself, without, it seemed, any conscious effort. Apart from her other concerns with their relationship, Jessica had realized that without Paul's enthusiasm for her job, she was able to get more in touch with her feelings of exhaustion and futility. Friends of the Earth's campaigns and lobbying tactics seemed to gain inches of ground, while whole continents were going down the drain. Her anger at the destruction had slowly been replaced by a kind of numbed perplexity. Why was the human race so hell bent on laying waste the planet? Sometimes she even started to worry that the more the green movements protested and tried to put the brakes on, the faster the killing machine went. She wasn't sure if her doubts and growing reluctance to throw all her energies into protest were due to a change in attitude in herself or just to the burn-out that most staff experienced after about two or three years of intensive campaigning. Her sense that there must be some strange flaw line running through the human race to cause them to behave, collectively, so irresponsibly, was intensified by the presence of the usual office politics and personality clashes within Friends of the Earth itself, which she found disproportionately distressing. She recognized that this was nothing unusual or outstandingly heinous: human beings everywhere, in large and small groupings, could not get on together. This was obviously not a new or original perception, nevertheless Jessica's realization, emerging as it did out of incoherent and unprejudiced experience, was painfully new to her. Why were conflict and destruction apparently inevitable. Was it a function of an evolutionary 'law of the jungle', survival of the fittest at the expense of everything else? Was it natural for people to try, with varying degrees of subtlety and grossness, to destroy the environment and one another? Her thoughts trailed off into a mire of speculation. Jessica's mind retreated from the mire, but kept the question Why always on alert, like a pilot light, ready at any flash of new perception to ignite manifold and more powerful jets of thought.
Jessica's annoyance at Bill's absence was tinged with an anxiety to know about the status of a planning application in the southern part of West Penwith in Cornwall where a local businessman was pushing to cut down an ancient piece of woodland, including a large number of centuries old oak trees, in order to develop an out-of-town superstore. The Cornish planning authorities were notoriously weak and ineffective, and the businessman was ambitious and contemptuous of what he saw as sentimental attitudes towards the environment which hampered progress and in particular the progress of his life's achievements. Bill had undertaken to report in detail to her. He was difficult to get hold of by phone, and she could not find any information about it in his files. To phone or write herself ran the risk of covering the same ground and prejudicing the planning authority against FOE. Not even a weak authority likes to feel that it is being pushed around by a third party outside interest. Jessica had a personal investment in the case: as a child brought up in a suburban enclave of a provincial town, her imagination had been opened up and nourished by holidays in Cornwall. Steeped in vivid memories of what had been literally magical places to her, the seas, cliffs and caves, the moors, with strange craggy stones on them, and the softer southern curves of fields and woodland, Cornwall still felt like sacred ground to her adult consciousness. Through all her growing up, she dreamed of living there, but had to make do with a small semi-wild wooded area not far from her home, where she frequently walked with her parents or played with friends. The trees in this small wood became her friends and her love of nature led much later to a fascination with the Celts and their traditions of magic, and ultimately to a history degree with a thesis on the Celtic reverence for the oak and mistletoe. Evanescent memories, intimations of magic and academic research all now coalesced in the clear conviction that to cut down ancient woodland to build a supermarket was sacrilegious, and must be prevented.
'Tracey, did Bill .. Do you know anything about a planning application in Cornwall - Erm, it's a Mr Pascoe ?'
This time Tracey merely shook her head. Jessica glared at her back. She should have done the work herself, she thought, as she rifled helplessly through the papers on Bill's desk.
Jessica gave up on her search and started to go through the post on her desk instead. There were several lengthy, impersonal letters from the Department of the Environment replying to some of her queries. Covering their tracks with long sentences, she thought.
'Is Peter in meetings this morning?' Tracey nodded.
Peter Mason was the Campaigner. He was dedicated and hard working, but unable to deal with people. He would not fire Bill, but hinted that he would like Jessica to do it, and he put up with unco-operative insolence from Tracey. He was zealous however in defending his campaign territory, and as there was considerable overlap with the Water, Wastes and Toxics, Transport and Rainforests campaigns, there was also plenty of confusion and conflict between him and the other Campaigners. Jessica pushed the letters to one side and applied herself to the report she was writing on the proposed sell off by the Secretary of State for the Environment of key National Nature Reserves, and threats to other wildlife habitats, including ancient woodlands. She was hoping to get it finished in good time before she went away. She and Paul had planned a holiday in Cornwall soon after he had been due to return. Quite apart from her annual longing to return to the sea drenched peninsula, Jessica now attributed new importance to their plans: hopeful that the time away might give them space to review themselves and their relationship. However her pending absence added to her anxiety about the threatened woodland near Penzance: with Bill away as well she was worried that any restraining action on the developer would come too late. Furthermore, she would not be able to include any definitive outcome in her report. Jessica emptied her cup. As the dregs of the cappucchino drained across its bottom, they threw into relief a message: 'No CFCs: Ozone Friendly'.
Jessica was swimming into a cloud of bubbles. The swimmer in front of her was not fast enough to put distance between them. There was no room to overtake in the narrow lane in which everyone was instructed to swim in anti-clockwise rectangular circles, and she had to break her pace to stay in the bubble exhaust and not get entangled in the girl's thrashing legs. Strangely enough it was quite enjoyable to be massaged in the stream of bubbling water. She was coming up to her 20th length and could afford to slow down. The pool had been steadily filling up as the number of her lengths mounted, it would be a relief to be finished and no longer have to dodge underwater bodies. When she reached the shallow end again Jessica stood up and pulled off her goggles which stuck so efficiently around her eyes that they left dark circles under them, giving her an owl-like look. She glanced around for Suzanne and saw her still swimming unhurriedly, head floating dry above water, in the 'Any Stroke' slow lane. Jessica waded over, ducking under the dividing ropes. 'I'm finished, see you inside.'
'OK,' smiled Suzanne.
The showers were powerful and hot. Jessica revelled in the sensation of the warm water, her mind in abeyance. It always took her ages to rinse the shampoo out of her thick hair, and by the time she was getting dressed, Suzanne had caught up. 'You got time for coffee?' asked Jessica.
'Ooh yeah,' Suzanne had blow dried her hair back into its perfect bob, and was lining her lips with fuschia lipstick. She and Jessica met quite regularly after work for a swim and a coffee. Suzanne worked as assistant to the Health and Beauty editor of a woman's magazine and had known Paul before he met Jessica through photographic commissions he had done for the magazine's fashion pages. Suzanne had met her boyfriend, Steve, at one of Paul's parties. Steve and Paul were old friends from art college. The two men were very different in their make-up, but shared history and a certain ability to be frank - up to a point - kept them in touch. When Jessica and Suzanne grew to enjoy one another's company this brought the two men together more and bound them all into one of those small and temporary communities that spring up and die down so readily between people who find themselves otherwise strangely isolated by life in a big city.
There was a brasserie around the corner, which, as spring warmed up, had started to open its doors out on to the street. It was early evening, still cool and the two women sat not quite in and not quite outside the doors, benefiting from the warm air of the cafe. The traffic outside and the music from the sound system inside made it difficult to talk. They had to shout at each other.
'You're not rushing back home then?' commented Suzanne.
'No, I feel a bit like I used to when I was a teenager, you know? Trapped, nowhere to go.'
'Oh come on, it can't be that bad.'
'It must be, I don't want to go home.'
'Weren't you pleased to see him at all?'
'Yeah, almost as soon as he gets back, we row.'
'Well, living with some one isn't easy.'
'How would you know, you don't live with Steve.'
'No, and that's why I don't, because it's a pain.'
'Very wise, very wise.'
'I don't know whether it's because I'm wise or because I'm lazy.'
'You mean you're avoiding something?'
'Like all those shirts you don't want to iron.'
'Exactly, exactly.' Their faces creased into smiles as they giggled like teenagers. Suzanne lived in a light airy studio flat in Kentish Town, and worked in Shoreditch. She had fought her way out of an early marriage to a dashing but claustrophobically possessive young police inspector in her home town of Luton. Her main reason for marrying in the first place was to get out of her stifling suburban home. She came to London and temped. One day a spell with a large magazine publishing company led to a permanent job and eventually her current position. She was studiously glamorous, and thoroughly into all the new beauty products and treatments that it was her job to help cover. Her tiny flat was full of furry animals, with whom she seemed much happier to live than any smooth-skinned men.
Suzanne scraped the last milky foam from her cup. 'So what are you going to do?'
'I have to wait a bit and see. We're planning to go to Cornwall for a few days.
'Oh, how do you feel about that, do you still want to go?
'Oh yes, I do, I love going there so much, it's like I become myself, and that always makes things clearer for me and I think it'll give us some space to see where we are.'
Suzanne nodded. 'We're still coming to dinner though?'
'Oh yes, Cora's coming too.'
'Yes, that's what started the row, Paul didn't want Cora there as well.'
'Well she is a bit weird, Jess.'
'She's not weird, it's just that we're all very straight.'
'That's one way of looking at it I suppose.'
© Diana Durham November 2013