The island has changed little in the twenty years since Mum and I piled the last of our stuff aboard the ferry and left. Standing on the deck now, I try to catch sight of my father amongst the people gathered on the quayside, wondering whether I will recognise him, whether he’ll know me. Surely I’m the more changed of the two of us.
Yet it’s him who steps forward to greet me, and me who almost flinches away in alarm before spotting the man he once was beneath the scraggly white beard, behind the age- and wind-wrinkled skin.
“Lucy,” he says, embracing me gently. I remember that about him, that rare, powerful tenderness. Then, “Lucy? Your hair...” as his fingers find the cropped ends at my jawline.
My hair has been short for so many years I’ve all but forgotten he’s never seen it like this. He must have been expecting it to be long, possibly still in braids.
Throughout my journey I’d struggled to reconcile my few broken memories of this man with the creature who aroused such dread and anger in Mum whenever I tried to speak of him, to ask her what really happened.
My own memories are muddled in with dreams, impossible to rationalise.
He’d been a wolf of a man when he was young: large and daring and loyal. Mum was more deer-like–timid in many ways, yet with an underlying fierceness. I’ve always had the sense she would give up her life to protect me.
I grimace at my own arrogance. Why should he even have thought of me once I’d abandoned him?
But other than that all I have are snapshots, or, rather, snapsmells: the tang of whisky on his breath, the scent of soot mornings after nights of storytelling when flames leapt in his eyes and made his teeth glint.
Mum calls it his obsession: a love of the island’s rich mythology that once so tainted his awareness, the stories indistinguishable to him from everyday life. His insistence that I keep my hair long was just one of the warning signs. It seems almost laughable now but I can still picture the fear in my mother’s expression as we packed up and crept away.
“What would you like to do first?” Dad asks as he takes me to a battered Morris Minor and swings my case into a trunk strewn with shells, rocks and battered tin cans.
“Are you hungry? Tired?”
“Neither,” I say. “Can we dump my stuff at the house then go for a hike into the hills? The old trail?” I’m desperate to see the island – I have an uneasy feeling I’ve romanticised it beyond all recognition.
“The Wolf Walk,” he says softly, eyes flashing with surprise. “You remember that? All right, let’s do it. But first you should know that after you and your mother... I rather downsized.” Downsized turns out to mean a small rusting caravan that lists slightly to one side on a strip of balding, cow-trampled ground.
“It’s not much, but it’s home.” He leads me inside, swinging my bag onto a narrow kitchen table. A sleepy bumblebee fusses in the thin curtains – out from hibernation a touch too early. Dad unlatches a window, ushers it outside, watches it disappear into the sky.
“Is there a bedroom?” I wonder what I’ll do if he says no. Insist on staying at the island’s one hotel? Mum had wanted me to do that anyway, her doe-eyes dilated with concern as she watched me pack.
“Of course there is, silly!” Suddenly he resembles the dad I’d known, laughter rushing out of his mouth in a howl. I grin, simultaneously unnerved and reassured. “You can have it. I’ll sleep in here.”
“On the table?”
“It turns into a bed. Have you never stayed in a caravan before?”
I try to think back, but our family holidays are snarled up amongst his retellings of the island myths. Did we stay in a cave at some point? It seems unlikely, but not impossible. “If we take the long route into the hills we won’t be back by nightfall anyway,” he says. “How do you feel about camping out? I have a couple of sleeping bags.”
A couple? I look at him and he shrugs. “I always hoped, you know, that you...” He opens a cupboard, drags out two neatly parcelled Four Season bags. I inhale their faint mustiness but stop myself commenting on it. He’s been waiting for this far longer than I’d realised.
“How do you get by, Dad?” I ask tentatively.
“Get by?” he exclaims, filling a backpack with provisions. “I don’t ‘get by’, young Lucy. I live!”
“How do you live, then?”
“Like a king!”
“And this cruddy caravan is your palace?” I’m more irritated that I mean to be, a shiver of guilt adding bite to my words.
“Cruddy?’ he repeats softly. “I suppose it is. All right then, not like a king, but like a wolf. I eat when I want to eat, sleep when I want to sleep. Walk and think whenever I want to. That’s a kind of wealth, isn’t it?”
He tells me a few of the practicalities then, how the lady at the village shop lets him have dented tins for just a few pence, how in summer and autumn he forages and hunts rabbits, and on long winter nights his storytelling comes back to the fore, earning him the best spot at the pub’s fireside.
“It’s been hard for you, since we left.” I’m not sure whether I’m asking a question or making a statement.
“No more than I deserved,” he shrugs.
I stare at him. I’d always assumed from the little Mum said that he hadn’t understood what he’d done wrong. If he’s known all along that makes it worse somehow.
The Wolf Walk cuts into the nearby forest, where the ground is springy with slowly disintegrating pine needles. The air here is soft and fragrant, the earth starred with last autumn’s fallen leaves and the occasional clutch of primroses. A breeze begins to gather strength as we hike, making slender branches whistle and clatter together, foliage swelling outwards and drawing back in with each gust. It cups my ears coldly, reminding me how it felt to have long hair, to have it whipping around me like something alive.
Despite his age, Dad is definitely the fitter of us, striding along and pointing out things that catch his attention: badger scat packed with elderberry seeds and fragile bones, bluebell bulbs unearthed and chewed by some small rodent, the faint inverted heart-shapes of deer tracks... Every time he spots something new his eyes ignite and I’m shot back in time. Those are the eyes I recall from my childhood, reflecting the sky, clouds scudding over the irises.
I was six when we left, but it’s as though a wall of smoke has stood between me and my earlier memories, revealing only fractions at a time. We’d lived on the island since I was a toddler, since Dad secured the role of local storyteller, keeping the myths from being forgotten. But telling the tales again and again made them seep into his consciousness – a perception-altering drug.
“You’re the one,” he used to whisper to me. “You, my Lucy, you’re going to be the one.”
I didn’t know what that meant, but the pride shining in his eyes convinced me it was something good, something to treasure.
Rain begins to patter around us, bringing me back to the present. A fresh smell of damp bark rises from the trees. I give myself a small shake. The island is more than matching up to my expectations. Mum always said it was Dad who made it seem like magic, infecting us with his delusions. But I understand now that the magic is all the island’s own doing. Dad reaches into the backpack and pulls out two tightly rolled waterproofs. He passes a bright purple one to me. “It was your mum’s.”
I tug it on, reaching into the pockets. My right hand closes over something smooth and curved, tapered sharply at one end.
“What’s this?” I hold out the pale, polished object. “Dragon’s tooth,” Dad says, grinning as he takes it from me. I look at him sharply, and he laughs, tapping his head lightly. “Or maybe just a bit of coral or shell. I found it washed up on the beach below the headland. Can’t believe it’s been in her pocket all that time.”
“You used to tell a story about a dragon,” I say, thinking hard.
The smile drops out of his eyes. “Lucy.”
“I can’t quite remember, but that’s right, isn’t it? Something about a fearsome dragon terrorising the islanders. It lived in a cave on the cliff top.”
“A fisherman saved us,” Dad says softly. “He tempted it to fly over the sea so it fell in love with its reflection, dived into the waves and was extinguished.”
“Dad,” I gasp. “You said us...”
He blinks, frowning. “Just getting my words mixed. Don’t look so scared, I’ve been taking the pills, I promise. I wouldn’t have let you come ifI hadn’t.” He reaches out towards me, but I flinch back despite myself, not even certain what’s making me afraid. His face crumples and remorse tears into me.
“Sorry, this was a mistake. We should go back to the cara- van. I got this wrong. I’m so sorry.”
“Dad, don’t. It’s fine, please, let’s keep going.” I make myself touch his shoulder, feeling like I’m trying to comfort a small boy. “We’ve been waiting twenty years for this.”
He smiles, and we hike onwards through the worsening storm, along a path that’s rapidly becoming a stream. Part of me wants to change my mind, beg to go back to the shelter of the caravan, but the happiness on his face holds me back. This is his idea of heaven, I realise, hiking the Wolf Walk in the wildest weather with his daughter beside him.
I wonder how many times he’s imagined something like this, whether he’s turned it into one of his fireside tales, then I grimace at my own arrogance. Why should he even have thought of me once I’d abandoned him?
But the sleeping bags suggest he must have, and I still hear the words he whispered to me as he tucked me in at night: “You’re the one, Lucy. You, my Lucy, you’re going to be the one.”
My hiking boots are heavy with mud, and I can barely see Dad trudging ahead. The purple waterproof is giving up the fight, allowing icy water to creep in. After a while, dusk contributes to the poor visibility.
“Dad, night’s coming,” I shout over the rain. “What shall we do?”
He looks wary, uncertain. “We can’t camp out here, the weather’s too bad. But the cave’s nearby. Could you bear it? It’s mostly dry even in this weather, and there’s that natural chimney in the rock so we can light a fire.”
I stare at him, heart thudding. “A cave?”
“Yes, this way. We’re nearly there.”
I follow him through the trees to a rock face where he disappears into a narrow fissure. Rain lashes down on me as I stand there, unable to make myself go inside. My mind is shrieking. I think I’ve been here a thousand times in dreams, in the darkness, all alone.
He reappears and walks over to me, taking my hands in his. “Lucy, I’m sorry, I wouldn’t have brought you here, but there’s nowhere else. I wasn’t lying when I said I’ve been taking the pills. You’re safe.”
I look away, then back, force a smile. He leads me into the cave, more of a cavern really, where a flickering fire is already casting outlandish shadows on the rock walls.
. . . First by the smell of food and then being mesmerised by the beauty of his own fractured reflection.
“You ok?” he asks, and I nod, huddling into myself by the fire. Whatever it was that he did, this cave, this actual cave, was part of it.
He takes two dented tins of baked beans from his back- pack, opens them and hands one to me. “It’s not much, but it’ll keep your belly from rumbling. And I brought something special for afters.”
I chew a spoonful of beans. They taste slimy, cold. I put the tin to one side, deciding I’m not really hungry anyway.
“See, I brought marshmallows!” he says, revealing them with a flourish. “You love marshmallows, don’t you? We can toast them over the flames.”
I haven’t eaten marshmallows in years. He hands me the packet of pink and white pillows and I recall the sticky, smoky flavour, of being eight years old, in this cave, braids hanging all the way down my back.
“This is the dragon’s cave.” It feels like there’s something sharp in my throat.
“No, it’s not,” he says, “There was no dragon, I made it up.”
“But I believed you,” I retort, forcing the sharpness down, past my sudden anger.
“Yes, but you were a kid,” he says sadly. “You were sup- posed to believe in fairy tales.”
“Dad, you believed in it too, and that made it real. We toasted marshmallows but I ate most of them. You said it was to make me taste sweet. Dragons like sweet food.”
I stand up, knocking over the tin of baked beans so it clatters across the hard floor.
I see the stalagmite near the back of the cave where moisture is dripping. It seems taller than it was. “Is that the one?”
“I wasn’t in my right mind,” he mutters, “Come back by the fire, Lucy, you’re shivering.”
“I was shivering then, too. After you left. I was so cold. The fire went out and then it was so dark all I could see were the things I imagined. It came for me, you know that? I must have been hallucinating, but I felt its hot stinking breath on my face, saw myself reflected, inverted in its eyes.”
“That’s why you were screaming,” Dad says softly. “Good thing too or your mother would never have found you.” His face is fierce with regret and yearning. I cross the cave back to the fire, sit down on the cold floor beside him.
“I don’t remember it all,” I say, running my fingers over the gnarled, scarred back of his hand, looking him in the eye. “Mum would never say, only that you endangered me, but that it was because you were ill. Please, will you tell me what happened?”
He strokes my hair lightly, barely touching it. “The anchor chain wasn’t the entire island legend about girls’ hair,” he says slowly. “It was an honour to have your hair chosen to rope the anchor of the fishing boat, but the hair isn’t cut off, it’s what’s left behind. Before the fisherman lured the dragon over the sea the villagers tried one more thing to appease it.” He hesitates, hand wavering in mid-air. “While the beast was out devouring livestock, they took a young girl to the dragon’s cave and tied her to a stalagmite using her own hair as the rope.” The hand becomes a fist, knuckles white with tension. “That’s what was left to fasten the anchor.”
“How did they choose the girl?” I take his hand in mine and feel the fingers unfurl.
He gazes at me, eyes glimmering with tears in the firelight. “It had to count, to really mean something. That’s why they call it sacrifice. Dragons only liked sweet young flesh, so the girl selected had to be the purest, the kindest, the most beloved. You were the one, Lucy, the most beloved.”
“You brought me up here, late in the day,” I murmur, feeling the memory uncoiling, bit by bit. “We were going to have an adventure. You told me I’d meet the dragon, and that it might eat me, but that I’d be saving the lives of everyone on the island. It sounded romantic.”
“I wasn’t well. I really believed it was the right thing to do.”
“You left me here, tied to the stalagmite.” My hair wasn’t even long enough in the end – he had to take the belt from my winter coat, use that instead. I felt like I’d failed him in that moment. I hold that detail in, swallow it down with traces of baked bean juice.
“I thought I was doing the right thing.” He makes an odd sound like he’s choking.
I look at him, worried, then realise he’s sobbing. “When I got home, your mother asked where you were. I said I’d made the supreme sacrifice. She was terrified. She got the neighbours involved, everyone was searching the forest with torches.”
I picture the scene, see the faint flicker of a torch fracturing the blindness of the cave. In my mind, for some reason, it’s not the modern type with batteries — but a strip of reeking wood, aflame.
“After a while I began to think maybe I’d got it wrong. When I mentioned the dragon people looked confused. Why was I the only one who knew about the dragon?”
“You weren’t, I knew about it too,” I say. “You’d told me all about it.”
“They wanted to know where I’d left you, but I was scared to say. They might ruin the plan. We’d be stuck with the dragon forever then.”
“But they found me.”
“Hours later. It was almost morning.” Dad pauses, closing his eyes. His hand curls back into a fist and I imagine the finger-nails biting into his flesh. “Your mother carried you out. You were trembling, practically blue with cold. I knew I’d been wrong. I knew then how wrong I’d been.”
“Is that when we left?”
“When they let you out of hospital. They had to treat you for hypothermia.”
“But you weren’t there, at the house.”
“I was outside. I couldn’t come in. I couldn’t face your mother, or you. The look on her face as she carried you from the cave! I knew she hated me, and I knew she was right to.” “But then you got help, counselling,” I falter. I need a happy ending.
“Yes, psychiatry sessions and medication,” he says, nodding. “But you never got in touch.”
“Neither did you.”
“But you’re my dad!” I exclaim. I glare at him and he looks away, uneasy again.
“I wanted to call you every day, but it wasn’t my right. I’d thrown that away when I put your life at risk.” He lifts his hand to my face, cupping my cheek, wiping away a tear with his thumb. “But, Lucy, the day you phoned me... I’ve never been so glad.”
I lean my face into his hand, letting him wrap his other arm around me and rock me gently as I cry.
The cave is cold when I wake, hearing the miniscule splash of the stalagmite growing. More distantly, there’s a faint roar of waves. Spots of sunlight creep through the cave opening and down from the chimney high overhead. I sit up slowly, seeing I’m alone — the other sleeping bag lies limp and deflated.
“Outside, love,” he calls, and I’m relieved. I follow the sound of his voice. He’s standing at the edge of a cliff I hadn’t noticed in the dark, his face turned to a sky still rosy with dawn.
“Lucy, look at that!” he says, beaming. “Better than any myth, isn’t it?”
I join him and gaze at the sea far below, at the cresting waves carrying the golds and bronzes of sunrise to the shore. I imagine the dragon following the fishing boat filled with silver-sided mackerel, drawn first by the smell of food and then being mesmerised by the beauty of his own fractured reflection. I can understand him believing it was true, diving down into the depths where his flame suffocated and died. In my mind, the dragon has the same cloud-scudded sky eyes as my dad.
“Lucy.” He hands me something cold and tapered – the dragon’s tooth, its curve fitting neatly into my palm.
I smile at him, understanding what he means me to do. Using all my strength, I fling the dragon’s tooth high and hard and far out to sea.
Momentarily it flashes downwards, catching the sun on its way, then it’s gone.
Stalagmite is one of 20 stories in Judy Darley's soon to be published collection, Remember Me to the Bees. Buy the book here.
The Wild Culture Scribbler's Questionnaire
with Judy Darley
1. What is your first memory and what does it tell you about your life at that time?
My first day at school. I walked into the classroom and spotted the Wendy house in the corner. I thought it was wonderful. My new teacher had to force me to come back to say goodbye to my mum.
I suppose that shows how self-contained I was, even then. The imaginary world I’d stepped into in that moment was more absorbing than the real one, where most of the other children were in tears due to being parted from their parents.
2. Can you name a few writers who have influenced you — a handful at the most — who come to mind immediately?
So many. Early on I was entranced by Alison Utterly and Roald Dahl (especially the BFG), and then discovered To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee. A.L. Kennedy continually astounds me, and last year I read Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing — remarkable.
3. Where did you grow up, and did that place and your experience of it help form your sense about place and the environment in general?
I grew up on in a small market town in South Gloucestershire, in an ancient house straddling the countryside and streets. I find myself recreating versions of it in my longer works, but in my short fiction I love to bring in the places I’ve travelled to and their characteristics.
4. If you were going away on a very long journey and you could only take four books — one fiction, one poetry, one non-fiction, one literary criticism — what would they be?
Such a challenging question! For fiction, I’d cheat, I think, and take a massive compendium of short stories by lots of different writers. For poetry, Alice Oswald’s Dart, which I think I could reread a thousand times. For non-fiction, Virginia Woolf’s Selected Diaries, which I am forever dipping into.
Literary Criticism — that’s a hard one. Maybe Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey by Janet Malcolm.
5. What was your most keen interest between the ages of 10 and 12?
Reading – preferably in a tree house.
6. At what point did you discover your ability with fiction?
I discovered my passion for writing stories when I was very young — though my earliest attempts, aged seven or so, were blatant plagiarism.
The older I get the less convinced I am that I actually have any ability with fiction, but the more I feel I gain from the process of writing it, and the closer I come to producing the pieces I set out to create. So that’s nice!
7. Do you have an engine that drives your artistic practice, and if so, can you comment on it?
I have a routine, if that counts. On my writing days I like to start work as soon as I wake, preferably in bed with the laptop while my brain is still drowsy. I think that in-between state is particularly useful to creative writing.
8. If you were to meet a person who seriously wants to write fiction, someone who admires and resonates with the type of work you do, and they clearly have real talent, and they asked you for some general advice, what would that be?
Do it! Write for as long as you enjoy writing, but let the writing be the goal in itself. Oh, and read widely, of course.
9. Do you have a current question or preoccupation that you could share with us?
The idea of writing fearlessly – or simply embracing that fear. It makes me feel a bit drunk when I manage to get to achieve that.
10. What does the term ‘wild culture’ mean to you?
The exhilaration of realising you’re part of it all, from the tiny spider in the wall to the birds streaming past overhead. And accepting that when it rains and the wind blows, you will get wet, no matter what.
11. If you would like to ask yourself a final question, what would it be?
What are you going to do about that chapter you’ll been putting off tackling by answering these questions?