After the events I shared in A Fall in Time, I started working on a novel, which then turned into another novel, then a third. I worked hard at these, working even harder at my craft. I thought I was a decent writer then but, as this story grew in scope and meaning, I realised I needed to be a much, much better writer.
Now, more than a decade later, I am at the point where I know I can do this story justice, tease out the threads of language and reweave into something worthy of sharing with the world.
I am currently editing the first of these novels, still tentatively entitled The Care Industry and, for the majority of those pages, set firmly in Orkney.
Orkney is a liminal place of its very own. It exists at a crossroads, holding deeply entrenched, palimpsestual meaning to culture after culture after culture. Here, history and prehistory influence the every day, whether this is noticed, or not, and here, above all, the shaping forces of the waters and winds of the ocean.
In the draft of The Care Industry, the final version before I shelved it for years, this is the opening paragraph:
More than once, and long ago, they were the centre of a world. Guarded by strong tides and raging seas, hidden rocks and powerful winds, beyond the north of Scotland rests the archipelago currently known as Orkney. Wind and water and time have sculpted these islands into low green hills, truncated at their edges—rock fraying into cliff, cave and beach. There are secrets hidden here. Deep secrets.
I think this serves as a fitting introduction to the idea of the coast as a liminal place. The language, of sculpting, of fraying1, truncating, this is the action of the margin, of the taking of land.
In my fantasy novella, Only One Death (serialised here on Substack earlier this year), I also talk of the giving actions of this threshold between sea and land:
Eastsea was no longer on the coast, the dredgers long ago having failed to keep up with the build-up of silt. She now lay five miles from the deep water. Salt-marsh and, subsequently, reed-beds and swamp-woods had filled the miles between. On this occasion, in this place, the ocean gave and the land received, elsewhere and in different times these roles were reversed. A constant war of many battles, never-ending and with no possible winner.
You can begin to see how the coastline is something which reappears in my writing, time and time again. It is not just one character, but a whole family of them. Whether the smooth, warm sand and gentle sloping beaches beloved of holiday makers, rocky pebbles and fractured pools, full of life to entice child and naturalist alike, rugged cliff and echoing cave, mangrove, estuary, saltmarsh, or ice shelf, these are all places where worlds meet, locations full of crossing over; they are the margins and borders of our world, written in water, salt, and land, at times violently scribed by the moon.
Even our own attempts to subdue this constantly-shifting area are liminal still, think of ports and harbours, how they make you feel, each metal ring smoothed by constant story, each boat ready to take you on an adventure.
I can think of no better example of liminality in nature than the coastline and, over the coming weeks, we shall explore different facets of this eclectic whole, the strange magic of science—the sea taking and the sea giving, the constant movement of waters and pull of the moon at our waters breaking on the sands, a luminous body in the heavens, waves crushing shells and pecking away at a rock face, one grain at a time.
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What is your favourite variety of coastline? What is the first thing you think of when someone talks of the coast? Is it the scent, or the sound, for example? Do you love the clifftops, or the wide sandy beaches? How do you feel when you walk in these places, or sit and watch the waves? Have you, or your family, connections with our seas and oceans, perhaps sailors, or ancestors who took ship to a new land, to seek something better, or to flee something worse?
Together, they pulled the boat back further and further, wooden rollers sinking and sticking, men straining silently, with no beat from the drum to keep time. The storm which had forced them to take to the shore drove spray and spume into the dunes, every grain of wind-whipped sand lashed into the face a tiny burst of pain.
Despite this, Einar kept two men on watch atop different mounds, backs to the waves, eyes shielded by hands, heads turning side to side, constantly. It had been weeks since Rognavald had been taken to Valhǫll, but they were almost home and that, he knew from bitter experience, was precisely when they might let their guard down.
Einar could not allow this. There would be no fire tonight in these strange dunes, a double watch, and men sleeping in their mail, weapons close.
To almost be home after such a battle-packed adventure with but a single missing oarsman was lucky, and the men were determined to keep it that way. Songs would be written of their exploits, tales crafted and spread for next winter. Rognavald’s sea chest would quickly be filled by word of their exploits.
Once the boat stood beyond the line of the highest of tides, the sails were tented and the camp set. The storm raged on, pebbles and rocks grinding as the waves pulled and pushed, breakers smashing into the mouth of the small stream, salt encroaching further inland.
These shores were but three days good sailing from Einar’s hall, yet they were not friendly. Some said the people who lived here were not entirely human, that they had bred with other, unnatural, creatures and were ruled over by a powerful witch.
The storm had certainly risen swiftly, from all but clear skies. Einar fingered the talisman around his neck, frowning at wave and dune alike. He did not like magic, there was little he could do to combat it. He muttered a charm and added an extra sentry.
Something did not feel right, something made his beard itch. For the first time since they had sailed, he had a bad feeling. Even when they had launched their raids, even when they had ridden other storms or arrows had fallen as thick as starlings to the reeds, he had known all would be well.
Now, something felt off, and he did not like it.
Glancing back at the churning sea, he wondered if they should have continued, perhaps pushed out further from the shore. He did not like doubt and frowned again, before wiping the expression from his face. It would not do to let the men see he was worried.
He began to walk to his ship when something hissed past his face.
‘Shields!’ He roared, as another, and then a flurry of arrows fell amongst his men.
The wind dropped and he caught the sound of handles on shields, of cries in a tongue he could not speak, from all around in the tall dunes.
As he ran, he felt fate settle on him like a robe of the finest spun wool. He would die here, he knew, but he was determined to first save as many of his men as he could.
The first face he did not recognise had strange markings, teeth filed sharp, and spiked hair thick with grease. It began to snarl, then frowned, puzzled, as he laughed in reply, axe already swinging. The battle-joy was upon him.
It was a good day to die.
Interestingly, a few years after I crafted this paragraph, the nature writer, historian, and adventurer, David Gange, spent a year kayaking the Atlantic coast of the UK, from Shetland down past Orkney, all the way south to Cornwall. He published a book based on this experience in 2019, entitled The Frayed Atlantic Edge. It is on my To Be Read pile, but not until the edits of The Care Industry are complete—taking the warning of his use of the word ‘frayed’, I am aware of the possibility some of his words and thoughts could easily be pushed on swell and wave into my subconscious, re-emerging into my fiction. Best to wait, I think.