Sitting on the window ledge in my bedroom is a piece of driftwood. It comes from Rossnowlagh beach, Donegal. One raw November when my mother and father were walking the seastrand, they came across ‘her’ – a driftwood mermaid. Long hair flows down her scaly flank, her head is turning, listening. In brindled beauty she had been thrown up from the sea like a selkie. They placed her before the hearth, where at night with the fire lit she sang a siren song.
My father knew about wood. In the Fermanagh farm of Aughey where he was brought up and which we regularly visited, there was a huge fireplace that heated the whole house; laying the fire was a ritual that he loved. He told me how each wood had a character all of its own. Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) is the best wood for a blaze, giving out lots of heat. If you burn Cherry (Prunus avium) it evokes a ripe fruit scent. Old Oak (Quercus) is a slow and mellow smoulderer. The Hawthorn (Crataegus) flares slowly but strongly. Pine (Pinus sylvestris) is full of a spicy resin and gives off a vivid flame but you must beware of its spits!
I remember the long woodshed with its earthy odour, packed to the rafters with neat log rows in separate compartments. There was a kindling section full of twiggy fingers, a mix of all sorts – fallen branchlets, bark strips, broken canes and fence posts. Then there were the smaller logs of ash, their grey skins gleaming as though polished, or the pinky-brown fine-grained hawthorn. Next came the ‘Big Hunks’ those chunkier logs cut from trees that had fallen to the weather or had been culled as a danger. All of these sheltered together in the creaking shed and there was a strict protocol involved in selecting wood. You had to make sure and use the most seasoned logs first, and I remember well seizing the nearest logs on a wild wet day, only to be sent back out in the rain to select from the correct pile!
My father and often my mother would build careful fire-nests out of wood. Firstly, lightly scrunched newspaper in wee rolls on top of the grate. Secondly, a thick layer of kindling evenly spread. Thirdly, the small logs – a smattering of ash perhaps and finally, the ‘big boys’, those fat hulks of soft and hard wood. That scent of wood-smoke and longing still takes me back through the years to a room low lit by gas-lamp, rain beating on the window and a fire throwing tongues of purple flame.
Here in Swansea I write at my long oak desk in a room that looks straight into the flailing arms of a Scots Pine. This tree started life as a Christmas tree, but twenty-five years ago Bob, the cottage’s previous owner was reluctant to discard its still fresh green. So it stands here with its burnt orange trunk and jade needle leaves like a swaying Big Top in the breeze. The whole tree, from its loped tip down to its mossed ankles, is a circus performer’s paradise.
Blue tit acrobats, face-painted black and white, tumble through the foliage in their fetching yellow and blue costumes. A pinstriped troupe of long-tailed tits juggle in from above giving me the pink shoulder. The diminutive coal tits are fearless in the air, flitting left to right, up and down. The great tits strut along, their distinctive black-striped yellow vests gleaming like breastplates. But the star performer is the nuthatch on the tightrope.
Watch me in my blush peach and slate-grey silk. I have painted my eyes like Cleopatra. Look on me as I hang head down. Admire my shapely sleekness.
The big birds join in this circus. My favourite – the jackdaws – are an audience’s delight. They hang from the seed trapeze like those high-wire artistes who dangle precariously from ropes that wrap around one leg. I feel the pierce of their steel eyes fixing on me from the revolving perch, daring me to contemplate a hitch in their routine. Even the shy jays put in a jewelled presentation, all flashy turquoise and pretty pink, but their act is over in seconds.
In the ring below another performance takes place. Padded woodpigeons do security work, swaggering like clowns in the sawdust. Marauding magpies, as if slung from a catapult, join in with a whoosh of iridescent wing. There could be nothing in the West End more captivating than this regular display.
I can hear a rustling downstairs and I know without looking that my husband David will be laying the fire in these almost winter evenings; his back will be bent, just as my father and mother stooped before the hearth altar all those years ago. Wood- gatherers. Fire-layers. I know the ceremony, the careful placement of wood. One match catch and then the curl of flame – pale flickers to bright, chill softens to warm. I will again be captured just as R.S. Thomas writes:
In front of the fire
With you, the folk song
Of the wind in the chimney and the sparks’
Embroidery of the soot – eternity
Is here in this small room…