Facing Fear With The Silent Eye, Part 2 – Pestilence

I recently attended a workshop, with The Silent Eye, about Facing Our Fears, an extraordinary weekend spent among the hills and grey stone villages of the Peak District. It’s taken me a little while, as it usually does, to process everything that happened. Once again there was history and mystery, good company and tasty food, old friends greeted and new friends made. And, as always, revelations.This is part two of my account, part one can be found here

‘Go and have a look around. We’ve got a bit of time yet before the others get here.’

I can’t move.

We were standing in a courtyard, once the stable yard of the nearby manor house. The buildings had been converted into shops and restaurants, jewellery, homewares, tea and scones all set out for visitors. It was a gorgeous place, sun shining on golden-grey stone, pretty tables, green trees.

I can’t move.

Waves were battering her from all sides, sorrow overwhelming. But they were toxic, polluted, like water disturbed in a stagnant pond. It was difficult to breathe.

I should have known when my body started to tingle as we crossed the boundary into the village. But this was… intense. I took a couple of photos but, even though Sue suggested once more that I have a look around, I still couldn’t move, feeling assailed on all sides. The air seemed filled with floating flecks of gold. It was a very, very strange place.

The rest of the group arrived, greetings and introductions breaking me out of my strange immobility. It was lovely to see familiar faces, and to meet a new face, too. Thus assembled, our group of six left the old stable yard and headed out into the village. We took a moment on the nearby green to talk about the history of the village, Sue and Stu filling the rest of the party in on the dark history of the place. Sue has written an excellent post about it – however, the short version is this:

In 1665, plague came to Eyam. It was already raging down south, and, when a local tailor ordered a bolt of cloth from London, it arrived teeming with harbingers of death. Infected fleas on the cloth were released when it was unfolded, with the tailor and his assistant the first victims. But, as plague moved through the village, the inhabitants made an extraordinary decision. Encouraged by their reverend, the charismatic Mompesson, they decided to quarantine themselves from the surrounding area – nothing, and no one, were to leave the village until the plague had burned itself out. Eventually it did so, but took as much as two thirds of the population with it, a horrifying toll in a place with a population of only a few hundred souls. Many people lost their entire extended family, and had to bury their own dead. Parents, children, siblings, spouses. Small wonder, then, that this was a place bound in sorrow and the fear of loss.

After the introduction we headed along a road that was chocolate-box perfect in its prettiness, past ancient stone cottages garlanded in roses, gleaming golden in the afternoon sun. Yet dark history hid behind the stone walls, as plaques in the gardens attested, telling us the names of those who lived there during the plague, and those who died. Eyam is a place that makes its living from death, the sad history of the place drawing tourism from far and wide. But is it healthy to constantly relive such an episode? Places hold the energy of events that happen there – such as the warmth experienced in a happy home, or the sombre cold at sites of torture and death. Despite all the doubtless peaceful years that Eyam experienced, both before and after the plague, it has allowed itself to be defined by the events of that awful time and, while of course it’s important to remember and honour the deeds of the villagers who sacrificed everything for the sake of the larger community, the relentless focus on that time makes it difficult for the energy surrounding it to dissipate. I took few photos, and none of the plaques in the gardens with their grisly records of death.

As we neared the old church I was finding it difficult to breathe, a weight on my chest. Another member of the group felt the same way – there seemed to be no explanation for it. I was struggling against surging emotion, like being at the centre of a storm, despite the bright sunshine.

‘Did you say you’ve never been here before?’

‘Yes.’

‘You sure about that?’

We entered the churchyard, sun gilding the deep green yew trees, the ancient stones. There is a Saxon cross in the churchyard, relic of an even older time, one side carved with angels, the other with serpents, coiled around themselves.

… she remembered a wedding, being a bride in a bright gown, garlanded in flowers, laughing with her lover on another sunny day, as though the village wanted to remind her of happier times…

Churchyards are home to memory, to loved ones lost, a community of spirit. We wandered among the gravestones for a little while before heading inside the church. It was still difficult to breathe, but I felt less inundated than before.

…give me space…

Inside, the church was charming. Very old, and similar to several I’d visited before with the group. Usually such places are filled with years of calm, that concentrated energy of a place given over to love and prayer. In this church, however, death danced overhead, the spectre of that terrible time seeming to permeate the place. It did not feel peaceful at all.

Embedded in one of the walls was a stone cross, a cross of St Helen, and there was a beautiful window dedicated to her as well, but even the presence of my namesake saint didn’t do much to ease my discomfort. There was also an illustrated history of the church and the village, and another stained-glass window telling the story of the plague.

When we left the church even the sky felt spiked and heavy, vapour trails intersecting it like the slashes of a knife. And then, a rainbow, faintly coloured, a reminder that, even after the darkest storms, there is light and colour to be found again. It was fitting that it showed up as we prepared to leave the village, heading back past the cottages with their dark histories, past the manor and green.

As we reached the car park, I knew where we were going next. And I was concerned as to whether I’d be able to deal with it, after what I’d already experienced in Eyam. This weekend, however, was about facing our fears. And there was no turning back now…


Enjoyed this post? Want to read more? Find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, Under Stone (Ambeth Chronicles #4), is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.

30 Day Writing Challenge – Day Fifteen – Witness

IMG_1084It’s day fifteen, half way through the 30 Day Writing Challenge, and today’s prompt is: Witness

I’d had a little flicker of an Ambeth story running through my mind and it seemed to work with this prompt, the idea of the trees as silent witnesses being quite insistent. If you’ve read the books, you may recognise the incident described here – it was mentioned at the start of book three, though without much detail. But I felt it an important part of the story, nonetheless. Even though I’ve written Ambeth in third person, this story came to me in first person, as though Alma wanted me to tell it through her voice.

Tangled Woods

Walking through the park I pulled my scarf closer around my neck, hunching my shoulders against the cold. The wind flicked at my hair, red strands dancing in front of my eyes. I blinked, putting my head down as I kept going, the cold of the path coming through the soles of my sneakers.

My backpack was light but I felt it like a weight upon my back, similar to the one in my chest, an ever-present mass of loss and guilt and sorrow. As I passed two oak trees I flinched, moving further away and almost treading on a small dog who had somehow managed to get underfoot. ‘Sorry,’ I mumbled, stepping over it as it danced and leapt at my legs, paws sliding on my jeans.

Taking another path I headed through the centre of the park past a small café built of grey stone, a few hardy customers still sitting outside at the tables despite the chill in the air. The light was fading, the trees stretching leafless to a sullen purpling sky. It suited me, this weather. There was no light left in me anymore, warm days in sunlit woods and on golden beaches now distant memories too painful to revisit.

At the other side of the park a tall hedge bounded tangled woodland, beyond which the road ran. There were big houses hidden among the trees further along, but this little piece of wild wood was still part of the park. Not many people went in, choosing instead to stick to the well-marked paths and ornamental gardens, or the wide green expanses of grass. But I knew it well, my friends and I playing there when we were younger, emerging dusted with sweet-smelling hawthorn in spring, muddy and damp in autumn. But I was not there to play today.

At a gap in the hedge I turned, taking a muddy path into the woods. Pushing through branches I stepped over brambles, thorns catching at my jacket and hands, leaving faint red marks. I pushed away the memory of when I’d last been in a wood, choking down the terror that accompanied it. There was nothing that could harm me here except my own thoughts. Eventually the path ended in a small natural clearing sheltered by a beech tree. I knelt down, not caring about the mud, and unslung my pack from my back. Then I started digging.

My hands scraped through leaf mulch and soil, the damp grit of it catching beneath my nails as I scrabbled at the cold earth. Finally the hole was big enough. I sat back, wiping my hands on my jeans and leaving muddy streaks. My breath was starting to hitch in my chest, my vision to blur, but I had to do this. Unzipping my pack I took out a small bundle of cream coloured paper, rough edged, and another smaller silk bundle that jangled faintly in the darkening wood. I held them for a moment, then put them into the hole, dark crumbs of soil staining the cream paper, clotting on the coloured silk. All at once I became angry, red fury in me as I pushed and smashed at the dirt, wanting to cover the bundles beyond all finding. Then they were gone. I sobbed, my throat raw, tears dropping hot onto the cold leaves and tumbled earth as I rubbed at my wrist with my other hand, a small patch of red roughened skin a permanent reminder of all that I’d lost.

Eventually I stood, wiping my face, running hands through my hair. I was covered with mud but didn’t care. I just wanted to go home, to leave the trees that stood as silent witness to my pain. There were too many memories, still, in the woods. I wanted no more of them.

Pushing through the trees once more I found the path and started for home. Though my pack was now lighter, the weight was still the same. Perhaps it always would be.


If you enjoyed this post, you can find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJ,  Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, A Thousand Rooms, is now available on Amazon.

City Of Dreams

IMG_0219Last night I visited the city again.

A city without a name, yet one which I visit often and know well. Where a river runs through to the ocean and killer whales beach themselves on the shore, where a walk can leave you hanging at the edge of a perilous drop, and the only way forward is to let go. Where familiar streets from other cities join together into a strange new whole, where I know the way but am often lost.

This time was no different. I had a job, and on the way home the subway did the thing it does so often, the track peeling away to turn along an unfamiliar route, leaving me stranded far from where I wanted to be. I knew how to get back, so my faceless companion and I took the walkway through the Asian market, past scented wood and spice and flowers, to end up dangling above city streets before letting go, fear and exhilaration screaming through us as we sailed down to the streets below.

I woke to the yowl of a cat in the street outside, the familiar humped shape of my husband warm comfort as I shuddered with the aftermath of the dream. Then I went to find sleep again. And I was back in my city, though this time twenty five stories up in a building that may or may not have been burning, with people who, for some unfathomable reason, wouldn’t take the stairs with me.

I woke once more, this time to my alarm.

It’s a strange place, my city of dreams, and yet I know it well. I know if I am driving that the road will be endlessly circuitous and choked with cars, never getting me to my destination. That the buildings are a mix of ancient and modern, that whales call in the blue water nearby, salt spray dashing against the stone walls and railings. If I go out of the city to the nearby mountains, another town awaits. One of stone and twisting streets, castellated walls and golden lit windows, shops filled with gleaming merchandise.

It is a place of fear and beauty, my city of dreams.


If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more, you can find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, A Thousand Rooms, is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.