Memoir: There’s a Volcano Outside my Front Door

 

There’s a volcano outside my front door. I stand on the threshold and there it rises, a perfect cone, decapitated by its own fury. It’s winter, and the euphorbias cling on, smatterings of green against the cinder black. To my right is the volcano’s big sister, La Corona, a monolith, its fractured crest evidence of a day five-thousand years ago, when lava spewed and gushed and tumbled, razing the land.

Back then, there were no human witnesses. Now homo sapiens ramble all over the rock. I’m visiting the island of my memories, my former home, Lanzarote, desert dry and riddled with volcanoes, their offerings of cinder and lava meeting the eye in all directions. An island as commonplace as a tea towel to the British tourist, a place no one has heard of in Australia, where I live now.

I’m a woman in her fifties staring back into her twenties, living on an island continent straddling the Indian and Pacific Oceans, while my soul is shackled to this Atlantic rock.

A benevolent wind whistles through the shutters. Behind me, moving from room to room, Michelle is preparing for the day. We’re staying in an ancient farmhouse with metre-thick stone walls. It’s the northernmost dwelling in Máguez, a tiny village of whitewashed, flat-roofed farmhouses hugging narrow streets, nestling in an elevated valley on a tongue of land about five kilometres wide.

It’s a fine day. Streaks of cloud occupy the sky. I trace an attentive eye along the western ridge, taking in the folds of the mountains, aware that on the other side of their crest, is the cliff. I stare and stare, my soul hungry for what I saw before, as though I could re-capture my past and erase the years between.

There’s a culture of rare ingenuity on this island where it scarcely rains, dry-land farming. Without it, the people could not have existed. For millennia, the farmers have used the cinders for mulch. They call it picón and it renders the fields basalt black. Up here, away from the resorts, the old ways are still lived, evidenced in the small field of maize across the street, in the old farmer bent double, weeding. The farmers make use of the rock too, for wind protection. The result is a tidy arrangement of cinder fields and dry-stone walls.

Our car, a small and white rental, waits beside a small patio. I eye it with trepidation. Michelle is doing the driving. We’ve been all over the island, coursing every major road. We’ve passed low stone walls framing fields of black, where single grape vines or fig trees nestle in neat rows in cinder pits protected by stone wall arcs. We’ve passed low stone walls fronting every terrace rising up the mountain slopes. We’ve passed low stone walls framing every single field, right up to the roadside.

I haven’t seen much beyond those low stone walls. Michelle, a native of Australia’s capital, Canberra, is transfixed by the primordial terrain. I envy her. I have scarcely been able to take it all in. I want to, badly, but when we’re in the car, I can’t seem to peel my eyes from the roadside. It’s a reflex. She finds it hard to centre the car. I’m a reluctant driver turned apprehensive passenger and it’s all I can do not to grip the seat. I don’t think my fear is unfounded. We’ve shaved some roadside weeds and knocked a side vision mirror or two.

Lanzarote, or Titeroyugatra as it is traditionally named, has a colourful history. One of the Fortunate Islands known to Pliny the Elder, the island was given its European name after a Genoese sailor, Lancelotto Malocello, who landed in the 14th century.

By the 15th century, knowledge of the island had grown. There was much to be gained from the lichen and the cochineal, both prized fabric dyes. The island was the subject of numerous piratical attacks, servicing the north African slave trade. Then in 1402, Norman nobleman Jean Béthencourt and his sidekick Gadifer de la Salle conquered Lanzarote, subduing the local tribe, capturing their king, Guadarfía, and securing assistance from King Henry III of Castile.

With conquest came Catholicism, the islanders forced to convert. Up sprung churches, monasteries, convents. Forts were built to protect the island from further attack.

The forts now house art galleries and museums.

From his base on Lanzarote, Béthencourt set off to conquer the rest of the Canary Islands in battle after bloody battle spanning much of the fifteenth century. The islands proved geographically strategic, ocean-faring caravels able to take advantage of the Canary current that made for plain sailing to the Americas. In the centuries that followed, Lanzarote suffered many incursions, its capital razed, all its records destroyed. Once, nine-hundred locals hid in a lava tube in the island’s north, a tube created by La Corona. They were discovered, captured, shipped to the slave markets in Algiers and held to ransom. The then King of Castile paid up and the captives were returned to the island.

The lava tube, Cuevos de los Verdes, is now a tourist site. We visited the caves last week. Down in those caves, imagining close to a thousand terrified souls in amongst all that rock, I was moved by the trauma the islanders have endured.

The car yelps and Michelle is behind me, her sandaled feet crunching on the gravel drive. In the car, she fiddles with the GoPro before slinging the gear stick into reverse for the five-point turn.

The GoPro forces us both into silence. After weeks of site-seeing, we’re heading north for a short excursion round La Corona, the volcano that gave birth to the world’s longest lava tube.

This time, I’m determined to take in my surroundings. It’s nonsensical to travel halfway round the world only to stare down at the nose of the car and a single white line. Besides, my companion’s driving is improving every day. Nice pep talk, but I’ve become so nervous all I can do is glimpse snatches, while the better part of me lives out its terror.

I manage to look for long enough to notice nothing appears the same as it did before, despite the fact that it is exactly as it was and my mind the distorter. Lacking depth of field, my imagination has flattened the landscape, memories reduced to a Google maps’ street view version of what I am beholding.

We pass through the village of Yé and the farmed fields give way to the lava, a violent tumble of basalt, shards like standing stones, the whole blanketed in euphorbias and lichens, at this time of year a patchwork of whites, greens and oranges.

Michelle pulls up at the intersection. I point to my right. Left is the cliff road, which might possibly be fine on the way to the lookout, but on the way back the sheer drop to the ocean would be on my side. I hadn’t realised my fear of heights was so intense until I found myself back in this barren landscape.

I’ve become phobic and I’m not happy about it. Even on the relatively tame road that curves round the base of La Corona, I’m on fire, my palms hot and damp.

The land descends to the ocean. We corner a bend and then another. There’s a low stone wall beside the road. Eyeing the speedometer, I find we’re doing sixty.

‘Slow down.’

‘Why?’ she says, taking no notice.

‘It must have been right here,’ I murmur to myself.

Things look different in the dark. Twenty-six years ago, that wall would have been exactly that height. No one had come along and removed the stones. The road is narrow too, with little space between the tarmac and the wall.

I couldn’t have been driving any faster than Michelle. I couldn’t have been hurtling headlong into that wall, as memory tells me I had. I would have been coming at the wall at a glancing angle.

Another driver would have steered and braked her way to safety.

I blacked out.

Two in the morning on a lonely stretch of road, and when I came to the engine was still running and I was upside down with petrol dripping on me. My first thought was, I’ve woken up to die.

Vivid as yesterday, I scramble from the car. I’ve no torch and there’s no moon to light my way. I head back to the village of Yé. I walk up and down the streets pounding on one door then another, calling for help. For what feels like hours I try.

I discover, later, the villagers were as frightened as me, terrified if they opened the door I’d barrel in with a gang of marauding no-gooders in tow. It has me thinking traumatic memories are stored in our genes.

At last a door opens. Inside, I see my student. I sit in a chair in the centre of a bare room with her family hovering around me. Someone hands me brandy. I drink it down, welcoming the burn in my throat. It does nothing to quell the shaking.

That was no ordinary car accident. The setting alone was and is extraordinary.

I left the island for Australia soon after and over the years that accident has taken on gargantuan proportions, crippling my confidence, filling my life with fears. All that time lost to an inner vice-like grip.

The road snakes along and I see a road sign.

‘Make a left up ahead.’

The road down to the small fishing village of Órzola and the island’s northern tip is little more than a lane carved into the lava. We crawl along. Cars approach and we have to squeeze by each other.

I leave that manoeuvre to my companion and look at the landscape. For me, the decision isn’t easy. Every cell of my being is on high alert. But some other part of me takes control. After all, there is nowhere on the planet to compare to here.

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Sorting Things Out – a short story in lit mag Fictive Dream

Photograph by Mathyas Kurmann

‘Sorting Things Out’ is a short story set in a small country town in New South Wales. It contains two kinds of truth. Firstly, I did sort mail at a country post office. I also used to do a mail run. I’ve never heard of Snake Road though, and all the characters are fictitious.

The second truth concerns the alienation that hits someone when they return to a place after a long spell away, and how relationships change and families grow apart. It takes a lot of effort to let go of closely held prejudices, open the heart, and step into the new.

I’m honoured that Fictive Dream found merit in my story. Doubly honoured that they’ve published it as part of their first anniversary celebrations. You can read the full story here – https://fictivedream.com/2017/05/28/sorting-things-out/

 

All Because of You gets a 5-star badge!

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All Because of You: Eleven tales of refuge and hope received this awesome badge last month!

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“Throughout the collection, Blackthorn utilizes rich descriptions and language to portray vivid images of the women and their lives, both the ones they are living now and the ones that they had escaped…a powerful collection of stories that hits you hard, leaving you contemplating the good and bad of life and looking forward to the future.”

https://readersfavorite.com/book-review/all-because-of-you/1

You can buy from Amazon and all good bookstores.

Writing for Hope

I’m honoured to have been given the opportunity to perform one of my short stories in support of Knox PLEDGE for gender equality.

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The high tea serves to launch a series of creative writing workshops I’ll be giving next year for survivors of family violence.

Storytelling is one of the most powerful mediums we have to convey our truths. I’ve laid to rest many inner demons that way. The short story form lends itself to autobiographical reflections. Above all, the effort of writing our truth in a form fit for other’s eyes leads to personal transformation and empowerment.

2017 is set to be an extraordinary year!

 

All Because of You re-released

It’s been a hectic month of moving house and in amongst it all Odyssey Books re-released my short story collection All Because of You: Eleven tales of refuge and hope. 

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It’s an eclectic collection and they’re mostly semi-autobiographical. Two were written from the point of view of my former partner, the late Alex Legg, who ought to be remembered forever as one of the world’s genius songwriters.

The timing of the release is remarkable. I’ve been invited to run a series of writing workshops for survivors of family violence as part of Knox PLEDGE and to perform one of the stories with my daughter pianist Elizabeth Blackthorn. Details to follow.

I’m indebted to Elizabeth and to Alex for helping me compose and revise each of these stories. And to my publisher Michelle Lovi at Odyssey Books for continuing to believe in my work.

I should have done something sooner

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I should have done something sooner. That’s what my neighbour said. Best nipped in the bud. A good hard slap across the face will shut her up. Said she never had any trouble in the playground after that. But my best friend’s husband was right about me. I’m a coward. And cowards cower. They don’t punch or slap. I found that out about myself in my old school playground. Now I was a teacher with a demon of a boss who had never outgrown the playground thug.

I was working at a new school. The kids were friendly and polite. The principal had vision. And I didn’t mind that my classroom was a leaky old hut that was sinking on its stumps. I had a pleasant view of rolling pasture.  I made friends with the other teachers. Soon it was obvious the principal had taken a shine to me. And that was probably how it all began.

First it was a dismissive wave of her hand. Or a bollocking when I forgot to return the text books. I would swallow my humiliation. She was, after all, my boss.

She drew me into her warped little world, made me her ally and included me in her plots and schemes against her enemies. She even warned me off making friends with the entire geography department who were all loose cannons according to her. I can’t believe I never made a friend in geography. I love geography.

I should have done something when she stormed into class and yelled at me in front of thirty kids. I froze where I stood with the whole class staring until she left, slamming the door behind her. She apologised later but it’s hard to trust an apology when you know she’ll do it again.

I should have done something when my class of year twelves used my lessons to complain about the way she treated them. You should be the head, they’d said. We like you. Which was nice to hear but it didn’t change a thing.

I should have done something when she locked all the resources in the departmental  storeroom and kept the only key. She’s nuts, I thought  at the time and my union rep, who had a key for everywhere, helped me steal paper and exercise books from other departments. He had a weird way of dealing with things.

I did complain to the deputy principal and was told all department heads were the same and to take no notice.

Maybe I should have done something more but only the kids would believe me. Or more likely no-one wanted to hear it.

So I left. I left not before I slapped her – that was never going to happen. I left before she slapped me.

It proved a wise move. She left too, not long after, for slapping my successor across the face.

That slap had my name on it.

The thing my best friend’s husband doesn’t know is that cowards don’t just cower. They also walk away. And that takes courage.