The valley

The sea’s so far behind now, I can’t even see it. I’m in a little green valley, like a bowl, sheltered and warm. Its sides are thick with bracken, and the bottom is filled with fluttering yellow irises and rushes like porcupine quills – sure signs of boggy ground

The road crosses on a series of split logs, streaked with black from the moisture, but still sound. Beyond the ground slopes upward and the wetland plants give way to grass. As the road curves up and out of the valley, it passes the ruin of a little grey church.

It’s a simple building, four walls with no roof, the near gable rising into a little pointed tower where the bell still hangs. Surrounding the churchyard is an old dry-stane wall, broken to rubble in several places. The grass around the graves is cropped tight by sheep.

I ignore the rubbly gaps and push open a little iron gate that still clings to its hinges, closing it carefully behind me. I wander the churchyard for a while, gazing at the stones, mottled with lichen and weathered into blankness. The whole place – church, churchyard, valley – has a sense of stillness which draws me in. The tug of the road is less insistent here.

The windows of the church are tall and pointed, empty of glass. The walls, no doubt once harled and painted white, are innocent of any covering but the lichen, which spatters them like paint. On the gable, the stones are weathered into a filigree of tiny caves, each one filled with fine pink sand – the true colour of the unlichened stone.

The doorway is blocked, not with rubble, but with a door, freshly painted in bright white, and closed. It’s strange. I circle to one of the tall windows and lean inside, expecting tall grass and lush weeds where the sheep can’t reach them.

But inside it is a garden. The sanctuary is filled with grass, not close-cropped by sheep but neatly mown, vibrant green and pillowy with moss. The walls hang with four-petalled clematis, and around the edge are fuzzy mounds of blue geranium and the sudden spikes of red-hot-pokers. in the very centre is a pool ringed with irises, not just yellow but lilac and indigo too.

Suddenly the place seems strange and I feel ill-at-ease. Whose garden is it? Part of me wishes I could get in there – the stillness of it draws me in – but I don’t dare try the door. What if it’s not for me?

A cloud crosses the sun. The empty valley seems eerie to me now.

I hurry back to the road and climb out of the valley with a steady stride. Not until I’m over the ridge and well out onto the empty moor beyond do I realise that I forgot to close the little gate.


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