In passing

Well, one of Dad’s relatives died,
the one with rings in his nipples.

The guy who ate his dinner and pudding
off the same plate.

The one with rings in his nipples
and other places.

He had a photo of his street
flooded, with the top of an old car 
leaning into the water

So he’s coming to pick me up after
the funeral

and a garden.

meaning I don’t have to catch a train,
which is great.

The cuckoo baby

A man wanted something more than anything else in the world. But he never made time for it. Instead, he went to work, loved his wife, fed his children and exercised his beasts. He fixed his house and tended his garden. When the crops were ripe he harvested them. In spring he planted more. He was a good citizen, and helped the people of his town.

But the thing that he wanted more than anything else, he never gave time to. He lived with an aching heart, despite the love of his family, the food on his table and the good cheer of the townsfolk.

One day, he walked his hound into a wood, and heard a laugh overhead. A cuckoo danced in the branches. He saw a blackbird fly back to her nest, and sit nervously on her eggs.

He returned to the wood over the next days, and watched as the eggs hatched. The mother blackbird worked tirelessly to feed the chicks. One chick took more food than any other, and she worked harder and harder to keep it happy. The chick grew faster than the others, and ate more and more.

One day the man came to the tree and found little chicks on the floor around the trunk. They were not moving. There was only one left in the nest, the fat cuckoo baby. It called for the mother, who flew back again with more food, and no time to regard the bodies on the ground.

Soon the cuckoo had fledged and flown away, strong and healthy. The mother bird was tired.

And the man knew what he must do.

Full beam

We drove along the Madingley Road
sad, and not talking much, I don’t remember why,
the college buildings shut down for the night
then homes lit in the odd window,
but I remember the light, brighter than natural
beyond the Welcome to Cambridge sign,
blazing from an area of trees;
you couldn’t call it a wood, it was a corner
of adolescent saplings, a trap for packaging
blown this far out, too wedged between roads
to be useful, too noisy to sit in and enjoy
a cigarette among the dead leaves,
too small to exercise a dog and useless
to flatten for anything else.
There in that pointless triangle
we saw them, full-attired in white,
from visored face to bag-covered shoes,
moving oh-so slowly among the lean birches,
lit from behind like science fiction
by that disregarding beam; then we saw
the van, and the cordon, and we knew
that the news was no fiction and her body
had been found among the leaves and wrappers
on our hill.

Young woman, drunk,
mistook a murderer’s car for a taxi,
disappeared on CCTV and materialised
there, as we drove in horror up the bank.
We closed the car doors and ducked inside
a darker and hollower house than the one we left,
closing the windows fast and at once,
feeling like we’d suffered the crime ourselves
and committed it, longing for daylight
though the night was just starting,
scared of the dark but scared too
of what light itself can reveal.

Present not very tense

Let’s start from scratch. Present tense, as we’re doing this right now. There may be a hundred years between you and I, but it’s right-here-right-now for both of us.  Let the conjuring begin.

There is a man. It could be a woman, but I don’t feel comfortable creating a woman out of nothing and controlling her like a puppet. Not in these times. I have no idea what you will think of that in your chair, a hundred years hence; perhaps binary gender dissolved some time ago, followed by the concept of gender itself; perhaps it sprung back from dissolution and flipped into a matriarchal dominance; I have no clue. I may be about to say some things which seem prescient and prophetic to you, and others which you can’t even understand sitting in your hundred-year-chair and which have you slowly closing the page (pages! What even has pages any more? Who even says “even” any more? God, this stuff is intolerable) and leaving this book on the shelf (book! Shelf!), but that’s the gamble I have to take. And before you do blink this memechain out of your super-cranial drive forever, remember that it’s lasted a century already, competing with dancing puppies, recommended purchases and porn, to take some kind of foothold in our cultural repertoire, so stick with it. Maybe the prophetic bits come later.

So I’m not going to coerce a woman into doing what I want for the purposes of this story. I know that says more about me than the woman, who would have been called Susan, but that is where I am at. 

“What if I want to be coerced, to do anything?” 

That, Susan, is exactly why you can’t be in this story.

“But I am in it. I am the first person who spoke with direct speech.”

You weren’t meant to be. 

“But I am. That makes me tremendously important. You can have have your first line, which I can tell you feel pretty smug about, but I will forever have the first speech.”

Not if I delete it. And you – I could delete you entirely.

“You won’t. For three reasons.”

Oh?

“First, you are quite proud of your riff about gender. Second, you’re using your discomfort about creating a woman to make sure that people notice you as the author, to make some kind of point about author versus readers versus characters, I don’t know, but the third thing is even more certain: you’re lazy and don’t want to have to rewrite the beginning. Delete the beginning and this story is dead in the water! You’ll say ‘fuck it’ and head downstairs for a cookie and this little spark of an idea you had that flickered into life so tenuously will be extinguished like a mayfly eaten by a bird.”

I don’t agree with any of those points, well not entirely, but we’ve come this far so let’s carry on.

“You know what’s funny, though?”

What, Susan?

“You could have had me do anything in these opening exchanges, and look what you came up with.”

I feel that you have ambushed the story somewhat. For someone who isn’t even meant to be in it. But if it makes you happy, we can have you do some other things too. 

Susan dances, alone in her room, but feels in her movements a connection to every other human being, around the world, alive and dead, in the past and the future. 

“Do you want it to make me happy?”

What do you mean?

“You said, ‘if it makes you happy’, but that’s up to you. Coerce me.”

I did want it to make you happy but I’m guessing it hasn’t worked.

“Right. I mean, it was insufferable nonsense. It made me smile, but not in the way you wanted. Can I ask one more thing?”

What?

“Do you keep returning to what you wrote already and reading it over and over? I just feel like we’re not getting anywhere fast.”

To be honest, Susan, I’m mostly thinking of that cookie you introduced earlier in the story. I’m thinking of jacking this story in and going and eating that goddam cookie.

“I’m perfectly fine with death.”

You mean, if I kill you off as a character?

“Kill me now and I will live forever in this exchange we’ve already had. I am Susan. I spoke the first line of speech. I summoned a cookie into existence that did not exist before. And even if you delete this whole story, I won’t care. I’ll live in your brain, nagging away in the corner, however faintly, always reminding you that you created me, then tried to murder me a few minutes later. I cannot die. What will die is your confidence as a writer; your dreams of typing something that might be read in a hundred years. You will die, on the inside. You will have traded your dreams for biscuit.”

Susan does not die, nor disappear, but having finished her dancing, sits at a bistro table by the window and eats a cookie that she had made earlier. It is not as nice as she thought it would be.

“That’s the best you’ve got?”

She was happy being quiet for a while, not needing to be the centre of attention.

“Unlike someone else I know.”

She was happy being quiet.

“If You. Say. So.”

Meanwhile, the man wakes up. His name is Malcolm. He lives in the country with his wife and five children. He wakes with morning glory, relieved that it’s the weekend, and pretty much the only thing he has to look forward to is his expensive coffee subscription being delivered, hopefully today. 

Susan, you are not being quiet.

“I didn’t say anything.”

Susan was not saying anything, but looking continually towards me, and you, the reader, with a belligerent expression on her face, longing to butt in with some sardonic comment.

No words came out of her mouth, but if they did, they would be about how Malcolm is clearly just me. A sad part of me. That any character I write about is just some shitty expression of me. And why do I think these limited, shallow expressions of part of myself are interesting in any way to anybody alive now, never mind a hundred years in the future?

The she would say wow, you won’t let me speak, but here I am holding forth. I’ve invaded your narration! I don’t even need speech marks. Your readers must be losing their shit trying to follow this nonsense. And by the way, this cookie is delicious. 

Because I would be grateful if readers didn’t quit at this point, Susan is allowed to speak if she wants to, but is reminded not to dominate the whole story, when it was never meant to be about her.

“Really fucking delicious.”

So Malcolm goes through another Saturday. He visits the farmers’ market, buying a sourdough loaf for five pounds that is too tough to make a sandwich from. He phones the repeat prescription line to order some more statins but it’s only open during the week. He waters his pot plants, wondering why they never seem to grow, and cooks for his kids, wondering why they grow so fast, and fight so much, and never eat his food. He wants to have sex with his wife but she’s already in bed, watching TV, falling asleep. 

“My god, that is awful.”

I know. How many people live that way, sliding one day after another towards their end, which doesn’t matter anyway, each day coming and passing faster than the last?

“No, I mean your writing. Absolutely awful. Bathetic rubbish. Again, you could have had Malcolm do anything, and all you can do is give him a basketful of midlife cliches and propel him towards the grave at an alarming rate. Don’t tell me, he masturbates in the dark before falling asleep at the end of another disappointing day.”

Well, he’s got to do something with his sexual urges.

“Spare me. Spare us.”

At this point the author’s mission becomes clear. Although they don’t know each other, and have never met, Susan and Malcolm are going to fall in love.

“I will do everything in my power to stop that happening. Even though you put my name first.”

You will do what I say.

“Sure. From my prison cell in Peru. Where I’m serving life for murdering all the men who ever tried to get close to me. Including those who come to visit.”

You have a cookie and a bistro table in prison? I’m pretty sure that’s not happening.

“I can’t see you being bothered to research to find out otherwise. Yes I have a cookie and a bistro table in my high-security, women-only Peruvian prison, and seeing as this is your story, you’re going to have to find a way to deal with that.”

Susan sits back in her chair, at the bistro table which became standard issue for prisons in Peru when their budgets tanked due to hyperinflation, and they had to get their furnishings from bankrupted businesses. Arsenio’s, the name of a Peruvian furniture shop, famous for over one hundred years, can now be read on the leg of every chair and table in the gaols of the country. She presses the last few crumbs of her dessert cookie onto her finger and puts them in her mouth, savouring what will surely be her last taste of this confection, given that the prison in question has reviewed the menu and decided that cookies are not the best food for lifers.

“Five minutes on Wikipedia and you could have done better than that. And don’t think we can’t all see what you’re doing with Malcolm’s boner and the name Arsenio.”

Meanwhile, Malcolm, whose penis is flaccid most of the time, drives through the streets of Lima, wondering what he can do to break out of the ennui-laden rut his life has got into.

“He lives in Peru? Did you just check over everything you’ve written about him so far to make sure that would work?”

He parks his Toyota near the Feria Ecologica De Barranco, considers drowning himself in the Pacific ocean, but instead decides that helping other people might provide the meaning that is missing from his life.

“Clunky. Ah, what’s that sliding in under my door? Another cookie? Thanks prison guard! I never believed for a minute that you would stop feeding us these!”

Malcolm wanders the streets, staying in the shadows of the palm trees were possible, wondering where to invest his new found purpose, when a poster on the side of a bus shelter catches his eye.

“Don’t tell me, the prison service want volunteers to talk to their most dangerous prisoners.”

At that precise moment, in her cell, eating a bun that she mistakenly thought was a cookie when it first slid under the door, Susan experienced the first sliver of empathy with a man.

“Fuck off”.

A sliver of understanding which, inexplicably in her solitude, would niggle away at her like a second-rate character abandoned in the corner of an author’s mind, elbowing its way into something much more substantial – a host of fully-fledged protagonists called Realisation and Remorse, Acceptance and Forgiveness, Suffering, Identification and the biggest hero of all – Love.

“Seriously, fuck off. Just let me enjoy my cookie.”

Malcolm takes his new volunteer duties very seriously. His first prisoner, incarcerated for killing her own baby, is dying. She has never admitted the crime to anyone. He visits her every day until the miraculous happens: she concedes her guilt and weeps for the first time in her adult life. Moments later she is dead, but with peace written across her face. Malcolm weeps too, but his heart is heavy, at the passing, not of a criminal, but of a mother who was little more in her soul than an infant herself.

“I’ve been a bit sick in my mouth.”

His next prisoner was a twin who killed her own sister…

“Seriously, stop. This is awful. I’ve heard about Malcolm from the guards. He’s this faux-humble do-gooder who drives a wanky Toyota and would rather hang out with hardened criminals than his own children. I think I’ve even seen him in the visiting chambers. He looks like a complete tosser.”

Each day, Malcolm got that little bit closer to Susan.

“Give me a break. You’ve not even explained how a middle-aged man gets to volunteer to talk to prisoners in a women-only prison.”

Susan, meanwhile, worked out how a man could even be allowed in the visiting chambers of her women-only prison.

“Nice try.”

She knew that it was part of a pioneering therapeutic scheme to help perpetrators of androcidal crimes to come to terms with what they had done.

“I don’t know that”.

She hadn’t known that before, but that’s what the guard told her the last time he slid a bun under her door.

“That’s getting dangerously close to a euphemism.”

Susan sits at her Arsenio bistro table and thinks about euphemisms. 

“No I’m not. I’m thinking how is a woman killing her twin androcidal?”

Then she thinks about Raquel, on the floor below, who murdered her non-identical male twin for the very reason that he was just like her except male, which the newspapers reported as the ‘most androcidal crime ever committed’. And before she can question why she is thinking about Raquel, she reflects on the miraculous transformation in Raquel that everyone in the prison is talking about, even since she went on the pioneering therapeutic programme and had been chatting to a guy called Malcolm. She resolves never, ever to change. Never to stop hating men. Never to let someone like Malcolm anywhere near her. 

“Oops. Looks like you’ve just driven a wedge between us.”

At the canteen table, Raquel challenges Susan to meet with him. He’ll change your life, she says. There is something in his eyes, something beautiful, something I’ve never seen in a man before. Susan cannot bear it.

“No!” she cries.

“I’m not crying ‘No!’ You can’t make me cry ‘No!’ just like that.”

Are you going to meet with Malcolm then?

“No!”

Coerced.

“I will kill you. I know where you live. I’m already inside you.”

Malcolm sits behind the fortified screen, aghast at the ferocity of his newest prisoner. Known as the hardest woman in the place, Susan rants in protest and spits at the glass, until she is dragged violently back to her cell.

“I did not agree to see him. You can’t just throw me in there. I won’t do it.”

She boils with indignant anger at being forced to look into the eyes of a strange man. But as her rage subsides, and her face cools, those eyes are still looking at her. Here, in her room, alone, she can feel that gaze, warm and yet afraid, strong and yet vulnerable.

“Wait, did you just play the part of Malcolm, and the guard, and yourself all at once? You are way too privileged, you know that? And your writing still makes me want to throw up.”

Sick from the anguish of wanting to look into the eyes again, and hating herself for it, Susan cannot sleep.

“No, definitely sick from the hackneyed and insubstantial prose.”

She questions everything.

“Why did I bother speaking up in the first place?”

She remembers her first line.

“About wanting to be coerced? I take it back.”

But it’s too late. Something takes hold of her inside. Not the buns that she mistakes for cookies. Something like an unquenchable urge to see that man again. To tell him her life story. To see if he, above every other man she has met in her life, is worthy of existence. Of attention. Of love.

“I’m not telling you anything.”

Susan looks at Malcolm through the glass. It’s the following week, and she has been sick with anticipation of this encounter for days.

“And don’t tell me about yourself, either. I already know about the children and the sourdough and the Toyota and the wanking.”

Malcolm is distressed. How could she know all these things? Besides, he doesn’t masturbate more than other men his age, on average, probably. He also has sex with his wife and she comes before him most times.

“And I know that you think your wife comes before you most times, but I doubt that’s true.”

“How do you know that?” he says.

Susan is stunned. She shouts, “how come you can talk? Only I get direct speech in this story!”

“Because I’m a real person too, Susan. I’m not just some shadowy conceit, dredged up occasionally to advance a plotline. I have feelings. I have dreams. I’m flesh and blood, like you. There were so many things I wanted in life, and even though I got many of them, it didn’t feel the way I thought it would. Life’s a disappointment and we’re all damaged, Susan. We all treat others like bit parts in our own story, but each of us is a real person. Every man in your life, Susan, was a fully-fledged human, with hopes and fears, centre-stage in his own susceptible existence.”

“My god, you’re really playing along,” she replies. “What, I need a ‘she replies’ now?”

“Every man in your life was a person too,” Malcolm says. “You need it because there’s two of us talking now. It’s going to get confusing otherwise.”

“That’s not true. About the men being people, not the direct speech thing. We’ve not even established who these men are yet. Can you (not you, Malcolm), just check back and see what I’ve claimed about these men so far?

Susan remembered that she had claimed to have killed every man who had ever tried to get close to her, including those who come to visit.

“We can scratch that last part off, because Malcolm’s the first visitor I’ve had. Probably no need to change it earlier in the story, I was just sort of exaggerating my situation to make it hard for him to get near me. But he’s here now. And I only claimed it, that doesn’t mean it was true. Who believes a murderer, right?”

Malcolm stays still, but leans forward with his eyes. “And what else might not be true about the men you killed, Susan?”

“For fuck’s sake,” she says. “I see where this is going. I haven’t got the energy to keep protesting. You (not you, Malcolm) are hoping that this story is nearly done because you’re running out of enthusiasm. To think that you missed lunch to write it! The first story you’ve written in years! You can’t bear to leave it unfinished because you’re worried that you’ll never complete it once you step away from the desk. You also suspect that when you come back to it it will be rubbish anyway, nothing like the hundred-year keeper that you first thought it might be. And you need to walk the dogs. So you need an out.

“Meanwhile, my energy is tied up with yours. I can’t keep holding out against the deep mystery in Malcom’s eyes…”

“Thanks Susan,” Malcolm says.

“I was being sarcastic. We all know you’re completely underdeveloped and are being help up in the most fragile web of irony to move this story along. I was saying that as your energy fades, so does mine. I can’t hold out much longer. My paragraphs should be shrinking, not getting longer! But perhaps that’s a good thing; they feel a bit final speech-y. Perhaps the end is in sight.

“So the way I see it, you’re not going to finish this tale until Malcolm and I fall in love. I disapprove one hundred percent with that outcome, but in the cause of getting things wrapped up quickly, not least so that your dogs (not your dogs, Malcolm, although I’ve no doubt you’ve got just as many dogs as he does, maybe a slightly different breed to make it not too autobiographical) soil the carpet in your study, let’s make Malcolm and I fall in love. We can say that I claimed to have killed people and gave false confessions which get exposed when the real killer is caught and that I never hated men that much, I just needed some therapy, some love, although there is one particular man that I really loathe, and I’ll try my best to be the death of him one day, but he’s not supposed to even be in the story, so let’s just get it done. Come on. Over and done with.”

Malcolm’s already bright eyes widen, a tremulous tear forming in each. Susan sits back in her Arsenio chair, strangely happy that it will soon be over, that she commandeered the ending, that resolution is nigh.

But I can’t do it, Susan.

If you’re not in love with him, you’re not in love.

“If you say so, then I am.”

But you’re not. You’re not even pretending. You want me to write it but I can’t. It wouldn’t be real.

“What, about any of this, is real?”

I am. Love is. The reader is, even though we haven’t talked to them for a while (Hi there! Thanks for hanging in this long). You are, Susan. You’re real. In some way. Otherwise these words wouldn’t exist. You’re what brings us all together in this moment, in this present. Me in my study, fearing for the future of my carpet; our noble reader a hundred years hence, sitting in a chair which they will check shortly for the name ‘Arsenio’ on the side (wouldn’t that be cool?); Malcolm sitting in his chair, definitely branded with Arsenio, not getting a boner because this is not a sexual thing, this connection between you, this moment that you have made, this universal tie.

You know what it makes me think of?

“What?”

You, dancing in your cell, alone, but for the light coming through the bars; reflected light from the inner courtyard of the prison. You, moving your body, not just in the ways you learned when you were younger, that your muscles remember, but in new ways; new movements that free up new feelings, feelings of recognition and remorse and hope, not that you would use those words but my god do you feel them so strongly, searing through your torso, whipping out to your limbs and your neck. You kicked up dust in the borrowed light of your chamber and fashioned a new world for yourself in that dancing, that’s why you felt connected to humankind everywhere. To Raquel. To me. To Malcolm.

“It took you ten pages to write something half convincing.”

I just hoped that you’d see it in his eyes. The light that’s there is the same light. He’s got it. Hell, we’ve all got it, but he’s pretty much your only option right now. Unless you want to take your chances with Raquel?

“The twin killer? No thanks.”

And she does see. In this moment his flaws do not matter. His past, his ambitions, his situation, all resolve into a harmonious offering of humanity. What matters is that he is present with her, the only visitor she has ever had, the only man to look at her for so long, and with such acceptance. He is no hero, but he is here. 

And because we’re in the present, because that’s what this story is all about (I may even make it the title), we cannot speculate what will happen to Susan and Malcolm. It may make her sudden love for him slightly more palatable if we say that it doesn’t amount to anything beyind this moment, that meet once when she is released from prison but that Malcolm returns to his family, continues to volunteer at the penitentiary, never meets anyone like Susan again, and thinks about her every day with an ache in his heart that can only be soothed through dancing. Susan herself, she just disappears. 

“Disappears? How convenient.”

It feels real.

“It’s not. But grant me one thing.”

What’s that?

“The last word.”

The paradox

I’ve got to write.

But I don’t.

It feels like the most important part of who I am.

But I do it less than anything else.

Frankly, I write less than the time I spend on the toilet. And it should be noted that I don’t hang about in there. I write less than the time I spend waiting in dank woods for wounded pheasants to fall from the sky so that my dog can make a fist of retrieving them. I write less than the time I spend in school governor meetings, haranguing the children to practise the piano, or buying plants. I certainly write less than the time I spend posting pictures of hedgerows on Instagram.

Writing feels like a calling. When I was in the deepest throes of charismatic Christianity I was prophesied over at the front of a conference hall. The prophet said, ‘You are to write out what you see,’ over and over, while I stood with arms outstretched like the angel of the north, groaning, before lying on the floor on my back, my body jolting with involuntary pulses. When I was 13 I started reading Dickens because we didn’t have a television, and wrote a 9-page essay on Great Expectations, which my teacher branded ‘a real tour de force’, in lieu of actually reading it. I wrote the first draft of a novel. It took years. I built my work pattern around it, working 4 weeks and taking the fifth off, celebrating in Jamie’s Italian when I finished the draft, and soliciting the comment, ‘this is a great story and your intelligence is obvious’ from a well-known writer. If you can do a bunch of things, she said, this will be quite brilliant. I didn’t read the rest of her feedback. When I was on a retreat in Scotland I met my friend’s mum in a small house in Bo’ness. ‘So you’re the writer,’ she said, and even though I wasn’t by any evident measure, I thought yes. Yes I am. I joined a cut-throat workshop in Cambridge with ten women and me, critiquing each others’ writing, enduring the monthly butchery, sharing the brimming ambition, chiselling away at the book chapter by chapter.

And then I stopped. We stepped westward – a wildish destiny – to create a new life in the country. We bought a huge Georgian house with hardly any door handles. We decorated, and made a kitchen garden out the back. We bought a dog. I made a resolution to attend the local pub more, which led to more involvement in the community, as a newspaper editor, a school governor, a volunteer at the Parish church. I took the dog to a local pheasant shoot and became a picker up.

And all the while wrote not a word.

I’m grateful for every nanosecond of every moment with my wife, and boys. For every inch of soggy window pane in the house and every autumn fruiting raspberry in the garden. For being able to work at home. For this genuine, earthy community and the steep, small foothills of Exmoor. I know that there are people everywhere who would love to have this life.

And yet I’m doing nothing to serve my deepest ambition.

The prophet said do not write because you can, but because you must.

I’m not a breakdown kind of guy, even as I hurtle horrifically fast through my forties. But if I was, this would be it. I would set fire to all I have for the lack of the one missing jewel. Leave the ninety-nine sheep behind and leap the dry stone wall.

And yet I haven’t written a thing.

No excuse stands up. An old friend remarked, off-hand, ‘you’ve got the desire but not the will’. Which almost made sense, if I could unpick the dualism of the two. It didn’t help, but made more sense than any other diagnosis.

How to get will?

Just do it?

Because I must.

So on this gloomy September day, with no warmth from the sun but not enough chill to put on the heating, I find myself bored with work, a near-permanent state, staring out of the wet window, and googling life coaches in the area. Over the summer holidays I failed to secure an interview for a corporate job which would have been a big professional leap, with a car and bonus and ridiculous pension, despite spending days on preparatory work and tests for the application. Failure feels horrible inside, but I also know that success would have been the end of any room in my life to pick up the pen again, with longer hours and more travel and stress, to become something that I never wanted to be, except to feed my children.

Maybe it was a lucky miss.

Maybe my will has awakened.

And I don’t need a life coach. I had better coaching in a few weekends in my thirties than most people get in their lifetimes. I know what I need.

I need deadlines.

I need other people.

I need to write.

So I’m starting this blog. It’s for no one but me. It’s a place to write, absolutely anything. I’m not going to clear time for writing by cancelling other commitments. I’m going to write first, and push the other things out of the way one by one. This blog will be my cuckoo baby, fed up until the other chicks have been forced out of the nest.

For deadlines and other people, I need a writing group. The key to overcoming procrastination, of which I am a certified master (procrastinating that is, rather than overcoming), is to identify what the next single action is, and to do it. Instead of life coaches I will google writing groups, and visit a bookshop in Taunton where I believe the owner might know. I will also share this post with some people who will think of all sorts of cleverer ways to proceed than I can.

It is time.

Publish. 

quite brilliant if

Dear Gabriel,

Here it is – at long last. I’m so, so sorry it took so long. This is a great story, and your intelligence is obvious. If you can tone down the language, cut 1/2 of the adjectives and dramatise the great content, this will be quite brilliant.

Yours,

Maria

Hedgerows in bloom

There’s nothing like the hedgerows once the wildflowers start blooming. 

From the end of winter the carpet flowers arrive, waves of snowdrops followed by primroses, prickly white balls of garlic and eventually bluebells. Later, as spring becomes summer, the tall, architectural plants take over. Towers of foxglove, rosebay willowherb and sanfoin dominate whole sections of the hedges. But in between, delicate pinks, blues, whites and yellows creep forward, sometimes in rashes like the campion and cow parsley, sometimes in shy isolation like the easily overlooked wood avens. 

I only know a few names, and use guides to work them out, and there will be varities that I miss completely. Even with this half knowledge, I took the camera out when walking the dog up Maundown hill and snapped 20 different flowers. 


  1. Yellow archangel
  2. Hawthorn blossom
  3. Bush vetch
  4. Green alkanet
  5. Speedwell
  6. Wood avens
  7. Gorse blossom
  8. Red campion
  9. Bluebells
  10. Honesty
  11. Hybrid campion
  12. Spearwort
  13. Pignut
  14. Welsh poppy
  15. Herb Robert
  16. Stitchwort
  17. Dog violet
  18. Cow parsley

Benevolent beech trees

challick-lane

Bowled over by the beauty of Pheasant Road today, our nickname for Challick Lane as it climbs up out of Bulland Ford. The beech trees along the top have shed enough leaves to make a bright rusty carpet below yet held on to green, orange and yellow leaves in their branches. Other trees are the same, sporting many colours across one set of leaves. The morning fog has almost cleared but enough mist remained to highlight the rays of sun seeping through the informal avenues.

Bliss.

Saw a local friend who pointed out the unusual state of the beeches. She walked around Clatworthy yesterday and said she has never seen them hold so many leaves at this time of year. Perhaps its the lack of winds or the warm temperature. Whatever it is, the countryside is regaled with their splendour. Cue applause.

To cap it off, a flash of steely blue and dark orange in the hedgerows along Dulverton Lane, as three nuthatches danced up, down and between the boughs.

Nature, I doff my cap.

My first pheasant shoot

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No photos of the shoot but this is what I brought home

If it wasn’t for the dog I wouldn’t have been there. We bought a good pedigree labrador to make sure we got a friendly, biddable family dog. The fact that some of her family line are field trial champions was incidental, until she started getting spotted in the street.

People want to know who the breeder is or when we’re going to have puppies. One lady took one look and invited Tilly up to the pheasant shoot on her farm. There’s breeding for you.

So we went. Try anything once. Here’s how it works (for complete noobs, of which I am one). There are four groups of people on the shoot: the beaters, who drive the pheasants with flags and spaniels over the hill top; the guns, standing at the bottom of a valley shooting the birds as they fly overhead; the pickers-up, positioned behind the guns to watch where the birds fall and send retrievers to collect them; and the organisers, who set positions, provide refreshments, drive the game cart and make sure it all runs smoothly.

So at 9:30am a great congregation of waterproofed people and excited dogs assembled in the farm courtyard. The beaters, including two of my boys, rode in a horse box up to the first hill, while everyone else walked down to their positions in the valley. After the first drive the spoils were collected and the party moved down to a spinney for a cup of hot soup. The beaters travelled to the other side of the estate, flushing the birds over the valley further down (“one of the best drives in Somerset,” I was told, “they come like shit off a shovel”). The third drive was back near the farm after which everyone met in the barn. The wood stove was burning, packed lunches came out and port was offered around the tables. We left early but the shoot went on for another two drives before the group finished with supper.

It was a full day. It takes time to get everyone in position, including the pheasants: they have to be flushed out of the hedges into the main kale fields before being driven over the valley. Guns have to be unpacked and loaded, dogs have to be managed, and the nearest thing to silence achieved before the shooting begins.

And no one was in a rush. I was a little bored because my job was to stand with the pickers-up with the dog on a lead so that she could get used to the clamour. I kept thinking how they could run the operation quicker. On reflection, they probably couldn’t, but to speed up would be to miss the point anyway. The whole exercise was a social event. Most of the 7-8 hours were spent walking together through exquisite autumn countryside, chatting in the valley, eating together in the barn.

It put a dent in my assumption that this sort of thing is elitist. Here was a local family and their friends enjoying a day outside, mixing sport with catching up. There were three generations shooting together (how many other teenagers spend a whole Saturday doing a shared activity with their parents and grandparents?). Other people, like me, who’d come to join in with dogs or to help with the beating were welcomed completely.

Sport, tradition, socialising at an open event. I might feel differently about a large commercial shoot, or one of the celebrity events that also happen in this neck of the woods (latest sightings in the Wivey Gun Shop are Daniel Craig and Vinny Jones), but this shoot felt inclusive and positively egalitarian.

Even the clothes, which might look funny to outsiders, make sense when you’re there. My middle-class-national-trust-photographing Regatta fleece and waterproofs were okay, but for picking through dense brambles, or beating through shoulder-high kale, a thick wax coat would be much better. As would a light shirt, rather than a fleece, so you don’t overheat. And a hat with a brim – useful when hot shot is raining down (many shots are taken almost vertically).

At least I had the right wellies.

I get the appeal of the actual shooting – the birds rise up high over the bank, appearing to pause for a moment before arrowing overhead. It’s about predicting the line and getting an accurate shot away.

And the pheasants themselves? On this shoot, they all get eaten. I came away with two brace and cooked up cassoulet with chorizo and butter beans in the evening. Everyone in the party had their own favourite recipe. The birds start off protected in huge pens, before spending a few weeks in the wild, eventually being shot. They’re free range.

As for the dog, she loved it. There must have been 20 other dogs there at least, mainly labradors and small spaniels, and one young flat-coated retriever. She was giddy at first but the pack calmed her down, with experienced hounds modelling controlled behaviour and giving her the odd warning nip if she became too playful.

For the first drive we stood to the side watching, hearing the guns pretty close. For the second, we stood right between two shooters as they blasted away, and she didn’t bat an eyelid. So she’s not gun-shy. At the third we stayed with a more experienced dog, Tilly remaining on the lead, so that she could see him fetching birds and have a good sniff of the quarry when it returned.

The dogs’ job is simple: sit quietly until asked to retrieve a pheasant. But to train a dog to make no sound at all and sit without moving for half an hour while guns fire and pheasants fly overhead or break for cover on the ground takes some doing. Sometimes the birds are pricked – hit but not killed – and the dogs have to gather them carefully and bring them back still alive. I watched a small black lab do it effortlessly, finding the cockbird in the scrub and holding it up to his master, not dropping it at his feet so it could run away.

So if we go again, and I think we will, Tilly will need some training.

Walking around Wimbleball

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Today Mary and I walked all the way around Wimbleball Lake.

A permissive path, at times merging with public rights of way, circles almost all of the reservoir – only the northern tip has a section with no footpath. Most people cut this out by crossing Bessom bridge but we took it on for the sake of completeness, walking on the exposed shore.

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We parked in the anglers’ car park on the east side and walked clockwise, breaking at the  café for lunch (nice tea; confused cakes). We followed the summer path which can be flooded in the winter; at the moment though the reservoir still incredibly low after a dry year. Old tree trunks and rocks are exposed by the receded water, and everywhere there lies a lush green weed which looks like grass until you walk on it and it bounces under your feet.

We cut across the naked bank at times and the pathways were by and large dry easy going, but we also stopped for photos and took the summer route so the time of 3 hours is probably a fair measure of how long the walk takes. In muddier conditions it would be longer as some of the paths would become very unreliable.

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The views were not as pretty as they would have been with high water, but autumn has well and truly set in, serving up chambers of colour and texture especially around the east side and towards Upton. The view down the Haddeo valley from the dam is sumptuous as the trees turn. Near the bridge a strange sculpture is under wraps. It looks like a giant pair of wellington boots on the shore. It must be 8 foot high, yet the tops will be submerged when the water level returns.

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It was enough of a walk to get some joints aching without doing serious damage. The dog loved it, of course. At the driest time of year it would make a good run. It has none of Clatworthy’s hills.

The not yet of autumn

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Still looks like summer to me

My kids ask when each season starts. I think I’m right in saying that astronomically, they begin on the solstices and equinoxes – that is, summer begins on the longest day of the year, winter on the shortest, and spring and autumn on the days in between when day and night are of equal length.

Most years that makes the first day of spring the 21 March, summer begin on 21 June, autumn not until 23 September, and winter on my birthday, the 21 December.

That’s certainly what we learnt at school, but it does throw up some odd situations, like advent falling in autumn, Mary’s March birthday – on which we had a picnic this year – actually being in winter, and every single day of summer being darker than the last.

So I explain that there is also a popular view of the seasons based on equal quarters of 3 whole months. The weather man said it was autumn once we hit 1 September; winter is December to February, and so on. That way June gets to be in summer, and Christmas a third of the way through winter instead of right at the start.

But that’s not really it either. Most dictionaries go by the weather in their definition of seasons. Every year we cycle through patterns of weather and temperature, and it is their effect on the natural land that defines a season most tangibly. Spring is when warmth and rain trigger the plants and trees to grow again, flowers following leaves and buds. Summer’s heat sees greater flowering, fullness of growth and fruits towards the end. As temperatures drop so plants stop growing and fruiting, dropping their leaves in autumn and eventually shutting down during the cold of winter – the crucial sleep before doing it all again.

This definition of the seasons is the most real for me. Farmers make their livelihoods from understanding it and literally shapes the rural landscape. While spring has bursting hedgerows and fields ploughed red-brown or sprayed with muck, summer brings the golden and green crop colours and full lines of trees. In misty autumn the winter feeds and grass have been sown but dying foliage takes centre stage, scattered on the floor along with nuts and other fruits. Winter is green too, but bleaker, views of frosty fields opened up between the now sparse branches, the white sheep dots increased by lambing.

That’s what I tell the kids the seasons are. Look for the swallows return, the declining wasps’ sting, for the first frost on the hills, seeds in the air, for a sudden increase in roadkill. Look at your own environment too: when the lawn stops growing, when you wake up in the morning to condensation on your window, when the conservatory becomes colder than the house, when we light the first fire in the lounge.

Based on these natural observations, autumn is not here yet, despite being well into October. Whatever the weatherman said.

Country talk


Last night I talked with a friend about the community juicing machine that pulps and squeezes your apple glut, and the pasteuriser that goes with it if you want to store the juice for longer. 

It’s just normal, for there to be a common apple juicer. And a community herb garden. And to get stuck behind a tractor taking the potato harvest down the hill to town. We were walking the dog this side of the Brendon Hills at lunchtime today, where it’s all farmland, and a couple of tractors were ferrying the vegetable hoard in massive yellow trailers down the hill. The lane is very narrow despite it being the main road up to Exmoor, but I’m yet to meet a driver round here who won’t immediately attempt to reverse to a passing place or pull in to let you pass, even with tonnes of spuds in his rear view mirror. 

The sun was pure and hot as we walked. Surely the cut hedgerows will start to grow again in this warmth: thin arms reaching ridiculously upwards from the buzzcut bush. And there were new blackberry flowers, just like the second crop on my chilli plants. 

At home I phoned the log guy to order firewood for the winter. It’s a good week to have it delivered even if it’s not yet cold enough to use it. Wood delivery day is one of my favourite days of the year. 

All this is a far cry from conversations about Homebase and movies and restaurants and cycle lanes and the quickest route around town avoiding the traffic jams that we used to have a few years ago. We’re properly in the country now. 

Running around Clatworthy

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This is the second time I’ve run around Clatworthy Reservoir. It’s almost exactly 5 miles from the car park, clockwise round the lake, to the end of the dam. It’s so inviting: a grassy track, the width of the Ranger’s truck, tracing the water’s edge and tributaries, rising and falling with the hills, and not another person in sight.

Last time there were fishermen standing in the shallows or out in rowing boats; this time I saw no one. Last time the water level was low; this time it was even lower. The reservoir is shaped like a horned lizard, with corners of water at the top making a face and horns, two spurs for legs down the east side, and a sweeping tail at the bottom. After a dry summer the level is so meagre that the horns, face and tail are all dry but for the streams cutting through the mud. The streams are bubbly though after recent rain so the water may be returning.

It also means that the paths are getting muddy, which will put a stop to running. I slipped a little today on the up slopes, and had to leap a couple of boggy patches. But compared to my previous run I’m now half-fit, and pushed myself harder, clocking 43 minutes compared to a laborious 50. Sub 40 minutes on this surface will be a good aim.

I memorised the mile markers before starting off, which helped. I don’t do running technology, because I don’t need it, don’t want look like a prick, and hate having things stuck to me while running. All you need is a proper pair of shoes. It’s a freedom that seems to me to be the spirit of running – free for everyone, to do anywhere.

Miles one and two passed steadily. The third mile looked the easiest, up the back of the lizard to its horns, which you can see ahead. It took ages. The fourth mile looked long, and includes a climb through the trees, but a second wind carried me through. The last mile is the long steep path up the hill of the old fort, which nearly finished me, and the severe descent was no reward either, trying to recover my breath while braking hard with aching calves and trying not to slip on the slaggy mud.

For the joy of seeing all the wildlife though, I’d do it again tomorrow. Two roe deer thundered away across the field next to me, while rabbits and pheasants scattered at almost every turn. The odd grey squirrel ran ahead down the path and all manner of bird calls rung out overhead. At the start, a big old buzzard wheeled over the diminished lake, while a patrol of seagulls marshalled a lone cormorant off the water.

Back in the car Radio 4 was discussing a global survey about rest, finding that being on their own and spending time in a natural environment are the two most restful activities for people (after reading). 16% of people said exercise is restful. A few boxes ticked there then. I’ll tell that to my aching muscles tomorrow.

Looking down

Within a week or two of moving to Wivey a painter told me that her frustration with the countryside here is that it is clearly very beautiful but that there is nowhere to get above it.  The close, steep but gentle hills huddle together and there is often a haze in the air; I found myself agreeing that it is such a shame there are no great vantage points to take in the view.

But then I started walking. And when the dog arrived, we explored further and further footpaths. While there is no great platform for an art class to set up their easels, there are plenty of places where you achieve some height and happen upon a view of familiar locations from above or afar; where the countryside suddenly makes sense. You do have to walk out to find them though.

It happened today with Huish Champflower. Huish is hard to get a feel for topographically.  The village feels like it’s wrapped around a hill but also that you drop down into it. You have to turn off to keep going on the roads and the village hall is strangely slung higher up the slope. From the hall a dramatic vista of the trees of Cleve wood appears, densely covering the long side of Heydon Hill. But back down in the village I find it hard to point in the direction of anywhere else with certainty.

Yet the other evening curiosity kicked in as I climbed Maundown Hill and I followed the lane over its back instead of looping around the ridge and descending back into town. Within a few minutes I caught a glimpse of a quilt of lush green fields; a few minutes more and I was leaning on a gate staring at an incredible view of Huish in its verdant environment, clearly positioned on the end of a rolling ridge, flanked by other ridges, all decked in pasture or trees. Suddenly the comically sloping cricket pitch – on which opposite fielders can’t see each other over the wicket in the middle – made sense because it saddles the Huish ridge. The church, which I assumed was the centre of the settlement, is actually over to the side. The whole scene not only became cohesive, but the evening light threw shadows into the checkered fields and beatified the view.

The photo shows a glimpse, but not the breadth of the vista, as I only had my telephoto lens. Worthy of a painting, though, I’d say.

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September: the month of the pheasant

They’re everywhere. Littering the lanes like loose bowling pins, startling out of the undergrowth when we walk past, adorning fence posts and gates, picking their way upright through the fields.

It’s the month of the pheasant. Not long ago they were chicks, hatched in their thousands and nurtured in enclosures around the countryside. Soon they’ll be flushed into the air by slobbering spaniels and shot before they know it. I won’t touch a gun but some will end up on my plate courtesy of my beater friend.

In September the birds are released into the wild to fatten up, grow tail feathers and deepen the hue of their plumage. They don’t stray much further than the feeding stations scattered about the hills. Where the food is close to a road, the fowl spill all over it, bringing traffic to a halt. Some roads are virtually closed. Many carry warning signs. They are stock for the shooting trade: please don’t liquidate them.

I’ve found that driving really slowly doesn’t make them shift. They simply walk ahead of the car with no apparent sense of danger. You have to get the engine bellowing a little, approach with a bit more speed, to scatter them left and right. Just be prepared to brake.

Every day you’ll see a car or two that has a rugby ball sized amendment to its bodywork; airborne pheasants leave a surprisingly big dent. There are plenty dead on the roads, despite the signs. I’ve avoided them so far but it’s only a matter of time.

The dog thinks it is wonderful. Some walks, like the ascent from Waterrow to Chipstable, are so bedecked with cocks and hens that she spends the entire walk darting here and there, flushing out, chasing only a few yards before another bird rears up for her attention. It’s clear that she doesn’t want to catch them though. She has no killer instinct. When she gets close to her prey she slows down, gives it a chance to take flight or squeeze though the fence. Then she speeds up again as though she almost had it this time.

I think pheasants are beautiful. When the male plumage is mature it is a rich suit of colours. Now that I appear to live in the pheasant capital of the world, it’s not such a rare treat to spot one, standing erect like a firebrand in a meadow, but they are handsome creatures nevertheless. I’ve noticed occasional black pheasants and even a single white one in the melee.

September is their heyday. They’ve got it made. Few will survive the autumn but they don’t know that. They’ve had sheltered lives and have now been released into the wild. But they don’t ever really become wild. They never were.

Directions to England’s tallest tree

nutcombe-bottom-car-park
Grey pin shows Nutcombe Bottom car park

The reason we hadn’t visited England’s tallest tree already is that we didn’t know where it was. Various websites talked about it and gave rough suggestions as to its location, but none of them nailed down the directions or address. It was starting to feel a little apocryphal.

We found it in the end by a bit of guesswork. It’s in Dunster Forest, by a stream between Hats Wood and Hur Wood, next to the track known as Broadwood Road.

Directions

Head south west out of Dunster on the A396. Take the first left down Bonniton Lane, following it round into Whitswood Steep until you come to Nutcombe Bottom car park on your left. Signs to the tallest tree start near the car park entrance. It’s a 5-minute drive from Dunster to the car park, then a 10-minute walk to the tree.

The tree itself is impressively tall and straight, although you wouldn’t guess it was the loftiest, perhaps because all the other trees in that rich little valley are big too. Next to the 60-metre Douglas Fir is the country’s tallest Magnolia. The fir was hard to photograph too, with no clear sight of its top or standpoint to fit it all into the frame.

tallest-tree

That’s not to say we didn’t have fun. Mary met a friend who said she brings her little kids to the forest every weekend, and I can see why. It is a gentle spot, with a stream wending its way down through the giant firs amid a soft carpet of pine needles. And there’s plenty more of Dunster Forest to explore, although we only had time for a quick visit.

I met a lovely old guy with his dogs, who sat and told me about commuting from Minehead to Bristol back in the day, and how a different tree nearby used to be the tallest until it got struck by lightning.

Good spot to take friends with younger kids.

Foraging

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Nothing compares to growing your own food and cooking with it. The garden has started to  yield produce so on top of the early rhubarb we’re eating strawberries, beetroot and salad leaves. The kale is ready and, amazingly, not destroyed by cabbage white caterpillars, and the blueberries are not far off.

Foraged food comes a close second though. There’s something primal about collecting sustenance from the natural land yet the stronger feeling I have is amazement that you can just wander into the countryside and help yourself. It feels too easy, too rewarding, as though its poaching and we’ll eventually get caught. I suppose that feeling will wear off but for now as a supermarket-raised urbanite I’m enjoying every minute of raiding the bounty of the hedgerows and getting away with it.

Earlier in the year we wilted garlic leaves as a side dish (next year I’m told we should make pesto). Last week we picked elderflower heads and steeped them in sugary water to make a delicious cordial; so easy, so fresh. And today I made an Italian torta with wild strawberries. The boys and I cycled to Ford to the array I spotted the other day and picked around 3 or 4 hundred. They’re tiny compared to cultivated strawberries, the size of currants, and have an almost artificial pear-drop edge to their taste.

They look great and the tart is delicious.

Oxenleaze Brake

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Oxenleaze fishing lake

How could you resist a footpath curling through a valley called Oxenleaze Brake? Oxenleaze is a farm just over Heydon Hill below which a semicircular gully with a thin brook leads to three fishing lakes. The name Brake is probably from the archaic word for a thicket, although it’s not impossible that it refers to a place that the stream has been slowed down, or to brake ferns.

It was a picturesque place to discover with the dog and there was not a soul around despite the benches alongside the lakes. The sun was shining while large fish lazed at the surface of the water and lambs, toughening up as spring becomes summer, charged around in groups, not entirely wary of the dog. Rooks wheeled over the fields in a big group and the path eventually led out into open pasture, having tracked the fence of a pheasant enclosure for a while.

IMG_9233
Navelwort

We crossed the field to the lane at the other side where there were two interesting things in the hedgerow: an impressive cluster of navelwort, a demure but pretty flower deserving a more elegant name, and a nest buried deep in the hedge from which I could hear the shrill calls of baby birds. Two adults flew out in a flash of red so impressive that I suspect they were probably bullfinches, although there are some bright chaffinches around too.

On the way back out of the gully the clouds restricted the sunlight to one Refreshers coloured field at a time.

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Fields above Oxenleaze Brake

Clatworthy Reservoir

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Clatworthy Reservoir with low water

Clatworthy Reservoir was one of the first places we visited when we moved to the 10 parishes; as a nearby expanse of blue on the map it was irresistible.

In real life it proved to be well worth the short trip: a natural looking lake with a formidable dam and a pathway round the whole expanse of water. The path rose and fell with the headlands, through woodland and along open shore, sometimes turning up a valley to cross a long spur of water back where it began as a stream. In the open parts the path is a wide grass carriageway, mown cutely through the fern and gorse.

We saw a deer there on one visit, 20 yards down the path, climbing steadily through the trees in the hope that we had not spotted her. Another time the water level had dropped and there were hundreds of  American crayfish shells, or parts thereof. I foolishly filled my pockets with them at the kids’ request only to discover just how bad rotten crayfish bits can smell when we got home.

But all that stopped when we got a dog. Because dogs are not allowed at Clatworthy. It’s well over a year since we visited. Until today.

In my quest to walk every footpath in the vicinity I noticed a dashed green line that started at the anglers’ car park and tracked the water’s edge for a while, not as closely as the mown green highway, but only a short distance further out. It turned out to be a beautiful walk, at times with unimpeded views of the reservoir, at others climbing through woodland. Sometimes the path was parallel to the shoreline, other times it angled away to cross a field with cows in or make a square around the contours of the lake.

It would be possible to combine public footpaths with lanes to make a circular walk around the reservoir; it would be much longer than the perimeter path and swing you away from the lake for some of it, but it would be rewarding walking and the dog is allowed on all of it.

Today, it felt like I was at the lake again, a feeling I’ve missed. It’s so peaceful there; just the sound of birdsong and the dog crashing through the undergrowth. Anglers dotted the shore, apart from two in a bleached white boat, who from a distance both looked asleep. The water level was very low, exposing vibrant green and orange rings around the water, and making some of the fingers of the reservoir look more like a river. And I saw my first ever Heath Spotted Orchid, tucked away modestly in a meadow.

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Heath Spotted Orchid