The Silver Chalice

A slip of silver,

A glint of light,

Dancing under ferns and shadows,

Flowing water bright.

I hear its murmur,

A passing whisper of times gone by,

Halcyon days of sunshine and meadow dew,

Music amongst the grasses high.

Nevermore will the magic fall

In darkling woods and hidden dells

As steel and concrete cover all,

Only my longing heart will tell…

…the wonders that were lost.

© Sophie E Tallis   2012

New Zealand Odyssey Part VIII – Capital Blues and the Gateway to the South.

With a heavy heart, I dragged myself away from magical Lake Taupo and the wonders of the Tongariro National Park.

Leaving my rental car and the majesty of New Zealand’s active volcanoes behind, I grabbed a cheap bus ride and headed south towards the country’s capital, Wellington, the southernmost capital in the world!

Known as ‘Windy Wellington’, it certainly lived up to its name! Situated in the latitudes of the ‘Roaring Forties’ and perched on a range of steep-sided hills that run down to the harbour and the sea beyond, Wellington is also particularly exposed to the coastal gusts that blow through the Cook Strait. The city also lies on an active geological fault line and has a high degree of seismic activity as a result, with several small earthquakes occurring every year, and was the sight of New Zealand’s most powerful recently recorded earthquake, in 1855, reaching a massive 8.2 magnitude.

Arriving, somewhat weighed down by my now massively heavy backpack, I got a room in a small B&B then set out to explore the wonders of Wellington.

I wandered amongst the harbour and quayside, a picture of city tranquility and civic pride. None of the dirt, litter and graffiti so prevalent in our own capital. Public sculptures and fountains jostled amongst neatly clipped lawns and perfectly manicured flowerbeds. Only the unpredictability of the sea reminded you of the wildness beyond the city fringes.

I took the cable car and drank in the breathtaking views over the city as I passed Kelburn cricket grounds and headed up the hillside to the botanical gardens above and the Carter Observatory and Planetarium. Seeing the stars of the Southern Cross for the first time and a different night sky to one you’ve always known, is strange and thrilling.

The next few days whirled by in haze of sightseeing, but there was always something dogging my tracks, like a whisper on the wind, a feeling of melancholia that I couldn’t shake…

Rarely in life do we realise that we are having the time of our lives while we are actually having them! Yet I was all too aware, as I reached the mid-point of my four-month odyssey, that I had never felt happier, freer and more contented, and that the experiences and memories I was making, would stay with me for a life-time and shape my life in ways I could never have predicted.

Booking my ferry ticket, I posted home some of the encumbering weight of my backpack, before bordering the Interislander Cook Strait Ferry and saying farewell to New Zealand’s North Island!

93km and 3 hours later, for what has been deservedly described as ‘one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world’, I saw the stunning inlets and channels of the South Island’s Marlborough Sounds. A 4000km2 maze of coastal ‘sea-drowned valleys’, of heavily wooded hills and sparsely populated quiet bays at the far north of the South Island, which evoke the best of ancient Scandinavian legends. A heady mixture of mystery, Maori mythology, spectacular landscapes and sweet solitude. Nature at her best!

I arrived at the sheltered harbour of Picton, gateway to the South Island. Grabbing another cheap bus, I headed west through the glorious rolling hills and vineyards of Marlborough’s famous wine region to the bohemian city of Nelson, the geographical centre of New Zealand. A small but wonderfully artsy feeling place, full of galleries, indie record shops and festivals, Nelson became my base for the next week.

Bathed in the highest amount of sunshine per year, making it the ‘Sunshine Capital’ of New Zealand, you can understand why it’s cerulean skies and dry heat are so perfect for making fine wines. And so, despite sadly not being a lover of wines myself (my immature palate makes them taste as disgustingly sour, as when I tried sipping them at age 13), I found myself getting lost down empty country tracks, picking grapes and macadamia nuts from the roadside! Bliss.

After happy days soaking up the sunshine and culture of friendly Nelson, I took my rental car and headed west, as I found myself aching once more for wild places. Branching off from the State Highway, I took the picturesque coastal road past Motueka and onto the pretty little town of Kaiteriteri with its sandy beaches and cafes…But still the wild beckoned me.

Following a twisting road, which can only be described as a single gravel track hardly wide enough for a car, with sheer drops inches from my wheels, I gingerly skirted the forested hills and cliffs towards my destination, Marahau, hoping against hope not to met a car coming in the opposite direction!

Crossing the Otuwhero Inlet, I was immediately amazed by the startling azure of the Tasman Bay and the Pacific beyond and the almost ethereal white of the beaches. Sheer paradise. Marahau, a tiny inaccessible village, gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park and outpost for laid back beach bums, surfers, hikers, adventurers and those wishing to get lost, had the most magical feel to it. Artisan and bohemian in the extreme, with only one way in or out, its solitary grocery shop, cafe, post box and the few dotted roads, houses, caravans, water taxis and kayaks, invited you to stay a while…and so I did.

THIS was a place to live and breathe and write! Hemingway, Greene, Kerouac…if they knew this place existed, they would have packed their cigars, white shirts and shades and headed here on the first plane. Du Maurier too…but maybe without the cigars!

I splashed out, booking myself into the rather posh, Ocean View Chalets, self-contained wooden chalets perched on stilts and overlooking the sea. The view from my balcony was nothing short of spectacular. This was the stuff of dreams. If you couldn’t be inspired here, then you couldn’t be inspired anywhere.

Wishing every minute would stretch itself and every hour would become a day, I spent the next three glorious weeks in a heightened state of happy delirium. No drugs needed, just utterly intoxicated on life.

Taking the Abel Tasman walkway and coastal track deep into the rainforest, I was astonished to see a passing group of little wild blue penguins casually crossing the path in front of me, as a cacophony of exotic birds cooed in the canopy above.

Abandoning shoes, I spent most of my days walking barefoot, hanging out on the beach as if it were a religion, beach combing, sketching and horse riding along the surf…yes, as clichéd as it is, there is nothing like it! Writing for hours and hours as the sun hovered overhead, a guiding light for my imagination. Watching the sunset blaze into the ocean, or the drifting embers of a bonfire on the beach, sharing gentle conversation with strangers, all as blissfully happy as me.

Days were meant to be like this…

Post World Book Day – Hobbits and other wonders!

Okay, so World Book Day was the 1st March, so I’m a few days behind, the rigours of work I’m afraid. I celebrated the day, by getting the children I teach to show and talk about their favourite books. It was fantastic to see the huge range of books that really captivate the children’s imaginations, including a couple of wonderful non-fiction books on animals and the natural world, a far more prevalent subject nowadays than when I was a child.

It really highlighted the importance that stories and books in general have on us all, and just how vital they are for a child’s growing imagination. It also got me thinking about the books that I loved as a child and how our tastes change or remain.

For me, as a very young child it was the books of Richard Scarry, with his finely detailed and labelled illustrations and his wonderful anthropomorphic animals. I still fondly remember ‘The Busy Busy World’, and the hours I spent looking at each page. Then it was a staple diet of Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton, Frances Hodgson Burnett and Lewis Carroll among others and the wonderful ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ stories of the early 80’s, interactive fiction books where you became the protagonist and actually choose from two or three options at the bottom of each page, deciding where the story goes. Amazing for developing storytelling!

Then…when I was 8, I read The Hobbit!

What a revelation it was! My first foray into the world of dragons and dwarves and great deeds to be done! I was hooked. Magic, adventure, epic storytelling and my first glimpse of a hobbit! That was it. Seeing Star Wars at the cinema (my very first film) when I was four years old, had had a HUGE impact on me and started my life-long love of science-fiction…but that was nothing compared to the ignition button that went off in my imagination at reading, The Hobbit! I devoured it, re-reading it again and again, then more Tolkien and any other fantasy I could get my hands on! My dreams were filled with wyverns and warriors, escapism of the most wondrous kind.

So…now I’m all grown up, do the same books hold the same power for me? Do we ever get over our first book love affair? Probably not, like most things we really love, they always have a profoundly special place in our hearts. So, though I won’t be picking up a beloved Richard Scarry or Beatrix Potter anytime soon, I’ll let them stay snuggled up in my literary past, my love of fantasy is a part of me now and as such I shall always love pioneers like Tolkien and C.S Lewis and all the other fantasy luminaries that followed.

Forget a single day…Happy World Book Year! 😀

The Wishing Tree

The Wishing Tree

Evan sat on the branch, swinging her legs as she had done a thousand times before, as she had done since she was a child. The Wishing Tree continued to whisper to her, soothing, caressing, each tender shoot and leaf urging her onwards. The pounding rain lost its power here. Nothing ugly could touch her in this magical place. Shards of moonlight poked intrusively from between the swaying canopy. She sighed. She could lose herself here, utterly. If happiness was a place, something tangible you could grasp or just be in, this was it.

She was vaguely aware of the acidic glow of the streetlights from the top of Hillrise and the distant hum of cars on the motorway. For so many people, this small neglected wood was no more than a dumping ground. Fly-tipping mounds, the cliché of broken shopping trolleys, used condoms, porno mags, beer cans and dog shit littered its dells and grassy knolls…but it was still beautiful.

From an early age Evan had been drawn to the Wishing Tree, though she never knew why. Only she was able to climb its awkward gnarled branches. Only she had ever been brave enough to reach its fingers stretching ever skyward, then dangle like a deranged monkey while her friends screamed and cackled below. She had been invincible. But age tears down such possibilities, age tells you to tread carefully…age puts the fear in you.

Evan watched the breeze catch the leaves around her, as they danced in the broken starlight. She closed her eyes and raised her arms in the air. She thought of the huge condors of South America, gliding on the thermals with their monstrous wings. The feel of the warm air under them, forcing them up. Only her balance could stop her from falling now. She looked into the gloom beneath her feet. At this height and with the rusty railings below, she knew if she fell she would kill herself.

The tree continued to whisper. She felt the soft wind pushing against her and the dappled light shifting over her eyelids. She had the overwhelming desire to let go.

That afternoon had passed in a haze. As always, Evan had trudged up the street to the bend in the road where she could see her house, sitting proudly at the end, and could see which cars were parked in front of it. An old rambling cottage, it sat on the corner of Wolfridge Street and the lane that led up to The Square. Its overgrown brambled garden, lined with old trees, stretched down the road toward her. She looked at the cars outside. Her father was still in and her mum hadn’t come back from work yet.

Evan stood for a moment, deciding what to do.

School had finished at 3:30, it was now 5:39. She couldn’t spend any more time wandering about, in case her mum phoned. She walked briskly, passing the overhanging holly and the three cars which had been left rotting in the garden for as long as she could remember. The radio was blaring in the kitchen as normal. She lifted the latch of the gate, hoping to avoid the usual squeak, but left it ajar in case she had to run. She stopped by the back door. Silence. She couldn’t hear him, no fridge door clattering open and shut, no screeching of chair legs on the quarry tiled floor. Evan turned her key in the lock, she’d perfected how to do this with no sound at all. She stood in the small lobby listening through the stable doors.

It was deathly quiet.

She closed the back door behind her. She’d chance it. With any luck he’d be kipped out on the couch in the living room glued to whatever sport was on, or he’d be upstairs sleeping it off and snoring.

The kitchen was empty. The dog didn’t greet her. He must be in the living room with it. She instinctively looked in the bin to count how many empty cans there were. Ten or twelve by her count.

Suddenly she heard a noise. Shit he’s awake, he’s coming! Evan grabbed her bag and as quickly and silently as she could, crept up the old cobbler stairs and along to her bedroom. If she was quiet enough he wouldn’t realise that she’d come home yet and he might piss on off to work or whatever.

She closed her bedroom door and sat on the edge of the bed, listening, perfectly still. The fridge door went again. The radio was highered. She could hear the muffled voice of her father probably speaking to Fluff their dog, or someone on the phone. Yes, now the back door was opening and he was calling Fluff to go out to toilet before he left. She waited. Eventually the dog came in. She waited for the shuffling he always did, trying to eventually sort himself out for work. She knew she was safe as long as he didn’t come upstairs. If he came upstairs he’d walk along to her room to check if she was in. He was in a hurry today. The back door slammed. Evan relaxed. She was safe. She waited for the gate to go then the predicted heavy footsteps back up to the door because he’d forgotten something. The keys in the door again, scraping chairs in the kitchen, heavy footsteps up the other stairs and the thud of him in her parents’ bedroom. Shit, please go down, don’t come along! Good, good…the steps were going down again.

“Evan? Evan? Are you in?” came the voice suddenly, calling up the old stairs.

She kept silent. Shit, shit! He was coming up. Panicked, she looked for somewhere to hide. Suddenly the stable door clattered shut and the back door slammed again. Keys locking it now then the gate, then his car. Wait, wait for the car to start and watch it leave. Wait…wait.

The street lights glowed red as Evan peered out of her window, keeping herself low, and watched as her father drove off.

Great! Relax. He’s gone.

She closed her eyes, the Wishing Tree was talking to her again, soothing and calming her. The Wishing Tree was always there for her, whispering the answers to her English test, telling her what to say to the bullies at school, warning her of danger. Oh, how she loved it…

She had relied on it more and more over the past few months, as the world around her seemed to slip away. Only she knew the secrets of the Wishing Tree, only she had been lucky enough, special enough, to be chosen. Every wish she had wished, had come true, every one! She only had one more wish to ask…

The evening came and the lights of the village glittered in the cold night. Mum’s voice echoed over the answer machine. Staying overnight for a 2-day conference, Evan had forgotten.

“…We’re going to go down for dinner in a minute.”

“Oh right. How’s the room?”

“You know, basic, it’s alright. Is Dad there?”

“Uh…no…He’s popped out to Tesco’s to get some more milk,” Evan lied. “D’you want me to get him to phone when he’s back?”

“No, don’t worry, we’ll probably be at dinner then. You’ve seen the dinner in the fridge?”

“Yes, thanks.”

“And there’s salad to go with it if you want.”

“Thanks.”

“Are you alright? You’re quiet tonight.”

“Yeah I’m fine.”

“How was school?”

“It was fine, Mum…honestly, everything’s fine.”

The phone went dead for a moment.

“Okay, well, I’ll be back tomorrow, it’ll probably be around 6 or 7 though. I’ll phone you if it’s later.”

“Okay, have a nice dinner.”

“I love you sweetheart.”

“I love you too, I’ll tell Dad you phoned…Have a good day tomorrow…I love you Mum.”

“I love you too, god bless, sweet dreams darling.”

“Love you…bye Mum…”

“Sweet dreams.” The phoned clicked off.

“I love you,” whispered Evan.

She held the receiver in her hand and pressed it against her forehead.

She could hear the tick of the grandfather clock in the kitchen and the hum of the fridge. She went downstairs and switched off the noise of the radio. She loved listening to the sounds of the house, the familiar creaks and groans she’d grown up with, in a home that she had loved and feared in equal amounts.

She glided the bolts of the back door across and turned the key. Double locked. Safe. He would have to use the conservatory now. This old house held so many memories, so many secrets, such magical joy and nostalgic happiness and such terror. Evan stood, her back pressed against the stable doors, taking in the view. The cracked quarry tiles, the pine cupboards that never quite fitted together. The solemn stretch of the Victorian sideboard, its dark smooth wood and the brass handles of its heavy drawers.

In summers past, her mother would stand by the window watching her children play in the garden, chasing each other between runner bean canes and past tended borders full of pansies, sweet peas and love-in-the-mist. She remembered the constant wail of the radio and the shrill beating of the electric mixer. Her mum was always baking. The oven was always on. The wire racks loaded with hot jam tarts or cooling sponges, dishes half full with icing or buttercream, flour on counter tops, broken egg shells next to the sink…and always water splashed on the floor.

“Mother’s been in the kitchen!” They’d joke.

Evan touched the mixer, wiping her finger across the rim of the bowl, feeling a thin layer of dust under her skin.

Things change.

She didn’t understand why, but she knew they did.

Evan switched off the light and left the kitchen in darkness. It was raining. She could hear it clearly now, pounding on the roof of the conservatory. Even in light rain, the sound was so loud the cat would be too frightened to go in. Now, it was thumping down, hitting the PVC like so many fists. Evan found rain to be cleansing, a way of freeing oneself from worries. But rain like this, the sheer violence of it half frightened and half excited her. Standing in the midst of such an onslaught had a way of forcibly emptying any thoughts, filling the head and body with only the pounding noise.

She smiled.

She was glad it was raining. Like tears she thought…tears for me? She walked into the living room, the womb of the house. This, the smallest of rooms and the oldest in the cottage, with its low uneven ceiling and castle-width walls, was dominated by a fireplace far too large for the room, but somehow it worked. The leather sofa, now over 30 years old, bore more creases and lines, but had the warm steady comfort of something lived in, something that had seen and witnessed the best and worst of life and had still survived.

The Wishing Tree whispered again.

“Yes, I know. A fire, that’s what we need.”

A fire had already been laid in the hearth. Evan lit the paper sticks watching carefully as the embers spread until she was sure the fire was lit and well on its way. She didn’t know why, but wanted the house to be warm. With any luck, when father returned, at 2 or 3 in the morning, pissed as a newt, he would come in here and just pass out on the couch. She knew he wouldn’t check upstairs, so she had plenty of time now.

The smoke curled its way up the black chimney as flickers of flame caught light. The fire was blazing. Evan sat for a moment in its warm glow. The rain had stopped.

She glanced out of the window, it was still light, only just though.

The Wishing Tree was waiting…and the promise of yet more adventures. She wanted to reach it before dark. She quickly kissed the cat and dog then opened the conservatory door. She could smell the chimney smoke mixed with the fresh smell of rain. She closed and locked the door behind her. The house was warm and safe.

The sky was black now and amidst the rustling tree branches she could hear rain coming once more, perfect…Magic Time!

Climbing higher in the tree, Evan smiled, swinging her legs again. She had never felt so happy, so light. The Wishing Tree was calling her, calling her to its branches, to its loving embrace. She placed the heavy rope around her neck. 

It was time to go.

Sophie E Tallis © 2012

New Zealand odyssey part III – heading north…

Hiring an old car, and with no destination in mind, my rucksack and I left the wonderful city of Auckland.

Letting the road take me where it would, I happened to go north.

Leaving the suburbs behind, I drove leisurely through beautifully changing landscapes, at once exotic yet somehow familiar – that hint of Englishness perhaps, in the rolling hills and little rivers, but not amongst the wild ferns and mighty kauri trees.

Lunch time beckoned as I drove into the magical Waipoua Forest, a place I shall never forget. Leaving the car, I initially followed the trail that wound its way through the forest, often rising several feet above the forest floor. New Zealand’s beautiful and ancient kauri trees rose up majestically, as if planted by the gods. The oldest of these trees, Te Matua Ngahere, ‘Father of the Forest’, seemed to beckon to me through the tree ferns and undergrowth. At an estimated 2,000 years old, this colossal living organism had the ability to both instantly humble and fill one with awe.

This was truly a place of tree magic…

The Maori believe in tree spirits and so do I. The ancient Greeks called them the Dryad. Whatever the name…this was a place of inspiration, a place to ignite the imagination!

My first novel, White Mountain, was still in its infancy at the time, and although I knew one of my characters, Wendya, would have to live in a colder climate, her home, ‘The Grey Forest’, was born…

Snow today, gone tomorrow…

Well, the snow has receded leaving the cold behind.

Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

There is something so magical about snow, something that touches us in such a profound manner, that taps not only into our childhood but our memories of fairy tales, of snowy landscapes where great deeds are done or monsters lurk…

I always remember reading passages from The Snow Queen (see my illustration), or the ‘ever Winter’ of Narnia.

Even the snowy scenes at the beginning of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (the best of the Star Wars films in my opinion). There is such a potency to snow and harsh wintry landscapes, that wonderful mix of magic, menace and mystery…the purity of white, covering…who knows? what hidden dangers lurk beneath it? Beauty and the harsh realities of survival. Air, so crisp and arctic, it takes your breath away. It’s all a heady mix for the senses.

So, if we are to have this deep freeze, this cold, then let us have the snow as well and not this soggy drabness!

😀