The Long Delirious Burning Blue
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Cat Munro’s safe, carefully-controlled world as a corporate lawyer in Phoenix is disintegrating, and she is diagnosed with panic disorder just before her fortieth birthday. In a last-ditch attempt to regain control of her life, she faces up to her greatest fear of all: she decides to learn to fly. As she struggles to let go of old memories and the anxieties that have always held her back, Cat faces a choice: should she try to piece her old life back together again, or should she give in to the increasingly urgent compulsion to throw it all away?
Several thousand miles away in Scotland, Cat’s mother Laura faces retirement and a growing sense of failure and futility. Alone for the first time in her life, she is forced to face the memories of her violent and abusive marriage, the alcoholism that followed, and her resulting fragile relationship with Cat. But then she joins the local storytelling circle. And as she becomes attuned to the mythical, watery landscape around her, she begins to reconstruct the story of her own life…
From the excoriating heat of the Arizona desert to the misty flow of a north-west Highland sea-loch, Sharon Blackie’s first novel presents us with landscape in all its transformative power. An honest and moving exploration of the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, The Long Delirious Burning Blue is above all a story of courage, endurance and redemption.
ISBN 978-0-993541-50-6; RRP £9.99; Riverwitch Press
‘It is that rarity, a first novel that smacks of not merely confidence, but authority, a sense that the story is true and clearly envisioned, with the technique to make it seem seamless, dynamic and written with verve and a care for the English language … The ending is powerful (reminiscent of The English Patient), filmic, and achieving the kind of symmetry that novels often aspire to, but rarely reach.’ Tom Adair, The Scotsman
‘Hugely potent. A tribute to the art of storytelling that is itself an affecting and inspiring story.’ The Independent on Sunday
‘A cleverly-woven presentation of how violence and lies within a family work down the generations.’ Scottish Review of Books
‘Sharon Blackie writes with a real sense of truth and emotional depth about relationships between individuals, and between individuals and their environment. Her characters are figures in a landscape brought vividly, vibrantly to life.’ Nicholas Royle
‘An inspirational literary début; empathetic and mature.’ Margaret Graham
‘It’s almost impossible to believe that The Long Delirious Burning Blue, published by Two Ravens Press, is a first novel. Sharon Blackie’s spare but elegant prose style seems to belong to a far more experienced writer. She evokes both the seared beauty of the desert landscapes and the rain-soaked mystery of the Scottish mountains with equal skill, weaving them into the fabric of the story … The psychological and emotional journeys of both women are observed and told with an unsentimental but sympathetic accuracy which makes The Long Delirious Burning Blue compulsively readable … This is an astoundingly accomplished novel which will live on in your mind long after you’ve read the final paragraph.’ Vulpes Libris http://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2008/03/07/the-long-delirious-burning-blue-by-sharon-blackie/
See also a review on Lizzy Siddal’s blog: http://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/2008/02/14/the-long-delirious-burning-blue-sharon-blackie/
Recommended read by Vulpes Libris blogger Moira Briggs on The Book Depository website: ‘A simply superb debut novel, beautifully and intelligently written with a terrific sense of place and a clutch of engaging, believable characters.’ http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/WEBSITE/WWW/WEBPAGES/listarticle.php?type=blogarticle
For a review on the Diving Deeper blog, click here: http://www.sulisminerva.org/2011/04/sharon-blackie.html
‘The past clings to you, like a skin.’
That’s what you told me, in that last letter you wrote. You remember: the one that arrived just before the news came. The news that forced me into this final pilgrimage across the ocean, from the deserts of Arizona to this water-logged land where you chose to make your home. Where you came with my father as a newly-married woman, ablaze with your hopes and your dreams.
But I have my own take on skins. It’s a simple one: they’re there to be shed. Like the desert rattlesnake, which sheds its skin two or three times a year. To enable it to grow; to remove parasites. It’s a process of renewal, you see. It rubs its nose along the ground until it pushes the skin up over its head – and then it just crawls right on out of it. And leaves it there: a ghostly, inside-out skin. There are millions of them, all over the desert.
A sea of shed skins.
It’s just like your selkies, don’t you see? – your mythical seal-women. Shrugging off their skin for one night each month, they become another creature entirely. Seal becomes woman; woman becomes seal.
You and your fairy stories.
The truth is that we humans are so much less efficient. We shed our skins piece by piece, flake by flake. Slowly, over time; slowly enough that we never even notice that it’s happening. Did you know that we shed and re-grow the outer cells of our skin every twenty-seven days? I’m talking facts now – did you notice? I’ve always been more comfortable with facts. And I did some research, after that last letter you sent: by the age of seventy an average person will have lost one hundred and five pounds of skin. Seas and seas of shed skin.
‘Golf Delta Charlie, cleared for takeoff.’
The voice in my ear startles me. The sounds and smells of the cockpit leap back into my consciousness; once again I’m aware of your presence beside me. You’re unusually silent. Are you ready to go? I can’t see your face but I can picture it clearly – that same old small smile, one thin dark eyebrow tilted in amusement. Judging me. Testing. Come on, Cat – jump. Let’s see what you’re made of. Look – the other children can do it. Why can’t you? But you needn’t worry, Mother – I’m really not going to lose my nerve.
‘Cleared for takeoff, Golf Delta Charlie.’ My voice cracks and my mouth is dry, but this time it’s not from fear. I know you don’t quite believe it yet, but I’ve mostly dealt with the fear.
A firm push of the throttle and the engine begins to roar. We’re moving forward quite slowly now; we cross the line at the beginning of the runway and we are in a place of transition. But once we reach takeoff speed, throttle fully open – once I pull the yoke towards me and lift up the nose – well, then we’re committed. There is no turning back: we are quite out of choices. We move on and move upwards – or we crash, and the chances are that we die.
And there it goes again: that same old flutter in my stomach as the small Cessna lifts herself gently from the runway. Yes, we’re leaving the ground now – and do you see how it is? How all that’s familiar – all that’s known and understood – falls away there beneath as we hurl ourselves recklessly into this clear blue void. The earth recasts itself beneath us, it pitches and lists as we bank to the south and turn out of the airport traffic pattern. But it’s no longer the earth that concerns us here: it’s the cold crisp blue of the sky. We’ve transformed ourselves now: we’re creatures of air, and we’ll swoop and we’ll wheel and we’ll soar.
‘Golf Delta Charlie, clearing the zone en route.’
‘Golf Delta Charlie, roger. Have a good flight.’
Communication ends with a decisive click. We’re on our own now; we’re heading out west and there’s no-one out there to talk to even if we wanted to.
We were on our own for so long, you and I. You and me against the world, you used to sing. In the days before it became you and me against each other. And so here we are again – here, just the two of us; so very tightly strapped into the confined world of this tiny cockpit. Together again – now, when I finally get to show you that I’ve learned how to fly.
Such a perfect day. Do you see the firth down there below us? The water strangely becalmed after the night’s wind and rain; sea in the distance merging with sky. Everything so very still. And you – you’re so quiet over there; you seem quite relaxed. It’s a morning worth relaxing into: on a blue-sky day like this you can see clear into forever. The mountains shimmer in the morning sun, hovering in the distance like a mirage. Currents of air rush by, tumbling around the propeller, slipping under and over the wings, constantly shifting, ever-changing. For a little while longer there’s nothing to be done; nothing that will stop me from basking in the healing solitude of these high places.
You always loved planes, didn’t you? Sunday afternoons watching the old war movies on TV – The Battle of Britain; The Dambusters. They were your heroes, you always said. Pilots! Think how much courage they must have, Cat. To hover all the way up there, in those tiny, flimsy machines. Can you imagine how much courage it must take to fly like that? Taking their lives into their own hands?
So does it make you happy now, to be flying with me? Did I finally make you happy? I never was too skilled at that. Perhaps a better daughter might have succeeded, but I never could seem to do enough for you. So many ways I found to disappoint you. For heaven’s sake, Cat – smile, can’t you? Oh, Cat – don’t you have any emotions at all? Why won’t you play, like normal children? And sometimes I would think about the children you lost – all those babies that never were born. And find myself wondering if, somewhere among those lost children, there might have been the daughter you wanted.
I know what you’re thinking – that I’m talking crazy. But you were the crazy one; I was the rock. You – ah, but you had no fear. You threw back your head and your red shoes glittered and you laughed and you swung and you danced. You danced, and it seemed that you would never stop. You’re so wooden, Cat. Relax, why can’t you? Just close your eyes and let go.
Let go. Time after time, you said it. You said it that day when you were teaching me to swim: when I slipped off the platform and gashed my face on the side of the diving board. But I wouldn’t cry. Not once. Not once on the journey to the hospital; not once as the doctor put the stitches into my cheek. Let go, you said, your face flushed and hectic, eyes brimming with anger. For God’s sake, Cat – just let go now, and cry.
But I knew what happened when you let go.
The past clings to you, like a skin. The trick is to learn how to shed it.
Down by the lochside in the expectant stillness of this early evening, the landscape seems re-cast in silver. Coarse shingle gleams wetly in several shades of grey; jagged rock juts into the water like polished gunmetal. Tree limbs fallen during last winter’s storms lie stranded on the shore like the ribcages of beached whales. Autumn is over now; the leaves are all fallen, the trees bare as skeletons. A buzzard circles overhead, its questing shadow reflected in the quick-silvered stillness of the loch.
Laura has become so very aware of the elements on this remote and rocky Highland shore. You live with them and you work with them and they forge you and they shape you. You join them, Meg says, in the age-old dance around the wheel of the year. Meg says that everyone has their element: the element to which they are drawn, to which they are bound. And she has no doubt that Laura’s is water. And perhaps it is true, Laura thinks; there is a pull that is almost gravitational, and a sense of loss when she is away from it. She was born by the sea and she grew up by the sea. And here she is now by the sea again, surrounded by water in all its forms. The chattering burns that tear their swift way down to the shore, and mark out the boundaries from field to field. The ‘broom’ or drizzly rain that lasts sometimes for days, that brings a misty softness to the land and blurs the transition from sea to sky. And above all, the sea loch that dominates the landscape, reinventing and transforming itself from season to season, from day to day, from morning to evening. Changing with the weather and the light. It has always seemed to Laura that shorelines are magical places: anything can happen here in this border land between water and earth – this fluid border that shifts with the tides, in perpetual motion and flow.
The tangy salt smell of seaweed fills her nostrils; she takes a last deep breath of it and turns back to the rusty farm gate that leads to the field and beyond that to the house. Startled, she steps back. Meg stands quiet and still as an apparition among the trees at the edge of the shallow trickling burn; she is wreathed in shadows like the Washer at the Ford.
But it isn’t the ivory shroud of some soon-to-be-dead soul that Meg holds in her hand: it’s a crumpled white plastic carrier bag. ‘Tide’s still out,’ she says, ‘though it’s on the turn.’
Laura nods, smiling at her over-active imagination.
‘And plenty of seaweed left behind.’ Meg steps out of the shadows, shakes out the carrier bag with fingers that poke haphazardly out of woollen gloves frayed with wear. ‘Which is what I’m after. A wee bagful to set to soaking for a while. Makes a good feed for the indoor plants at this time of year. Sees them through the winter.’ The old gate creaks on salt-corroded hinges as she pushes it open and steps through. ‘Years ago we used to carry it up the fields in baskets on our backs, to fertilise the potato patch.’
‘Aye, it was that. Heavy work, too, when it was wet.’ She points to the shingle down below. ‘See how it forms a kind of a barrier there, stretched out along the beach? That place beyond the seaweed, down to the water there, we used to call it “the Black Shore.”’
‘There’s something special about it, then?’
‘Aye, right enough. It’s a place where you’re protected from evil spirits. See now, they can’t cross boundaries or thresholds. And the Black Shore is an in-between place. The threshold between water and land. So you’re safe.’
‘I like that idea.’ There are so few places in this world that are safe.
‘At places like this you can cross into the Otherworld – or Fairyland, as they call it in some of the stories. Watery places – seashores, rivers, lochs. All of them thresholds between one world and another. Places where all the old Celtic mysteries occur.’
Laura looks out at the glassy surface of the loch. Silence surrounds them, the breathless air pregnant with nightfall. ‘I could believe in any mystery on an evening like this.’
‘Aye.’ Abruptly and with surprising agility Meg begins to pick her way down the rock-strewn grassy bank to the shore. Shrugging, Laura follows. She has nothing better to do; she may as well stay and chat for a while. Taking care not to turn her ankle on the slick uneven pebbles, she follows Meg across the beach. The seaweed changes colour as they approach from undifferentiated darkness to rich brown and orange and all the shades in between. Multi-coloured slicks of water gleam on its surface like spilled oil.
Meg stands for a while, looking out across the loch to the hills beyond. ‘In the islands they say that the hills were made by giant women who fell asleep, and they slept for so long that they turned to stone.’ Laura follows her line of sight and just for a moment in the dim light of evening it seems that she can make out a craggy grey face in profile, the soft swell of a belly, a long stretch of undulating green thigh and the gentle bulge of a kneecap. Meg shakes her head and turns to Laura with a smile. ‘But enough of all that nonsense. How’s it going now, your writing?’
Laura blinks; Meg’s conversations never quite begin where you expect them to.
And what can she say? She’s not used to talking about these times in her life. She’s not even used to thinking about them. And she doesn’t know Meg that well: not really. Does she trust her? Has she ever really trusted other women? A vision of Aunt Lizzie at Meg’s age swims before her, mouth set thin and hard, eyes like small pieces of sea-coal in a face lined with discontent.
But Meg isn’t Aunt Lizzie. Meg is the furthest from Aunt Lizzie that it’s possible to be.
Laura takes a deep breath. Jump, she thinks. You always used to be so good at jumping. Wasn’t that what you always wanted Cat to do? Jump, Cat – for heaven’s sake, just get it over with and jump! Well, take a dose of your own medicine, and remember how to jump now. But make it a calculated leap into the unknown, for once. Something chosen. Not just something that you do to stop yourself thinking.
‘It’s not easy,’ she says, and watches as Meg bends down and swiftly, efficiently tears away a small piece of rusty red seaweed and thrusts it into her carrier bag. ‘They’re not good memories, most of them. And so much that I’d forgotten; so much that I haven’t thought about for years. Haven’t let myself think about.’
‘Aye, well now, looking back is always hard.’
‘You’re not kidding.’ She laughs, a little too loudly. Then remembers that she means to do this differently. Honestly. This time she means to feel it – to really feel it and to see for herself what that feels like. And it strikes her: how many times in her life can she say that she’s honestly let herself feel what was real in that moment? Dear God, how many times has she faked it, covered it up with false laughter or a witty retort? And Cat, seeing through it every time. You’re always such a hypocrite, Mother. Always putting on an act, always putting on a face. Can’t you just be real, for once? And pushing away the desire to scream back at her, But I don’t know how to be real. I don’t know what the real me is. Is there such a thing? Does anyone possess such a thing? Do you? Am I real, Cat? Am I? If I hold on to you, will you make me real?
And Joe: Is there anything real inside you at all, Laura? Any little thing at all?
Swallows. Stutters. Pushes back the image of the hollow woman that hovers in front of her, taunting. There is something in me, she tells herself. I am real. I will make myself real. Write myself real.
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