When I was a child, I was terrified of the moors; those grassy expanses that pooled at the feet of the mountains and lapped the northern edge of our town. I was terrified of them, and in love with them; in love with the fragrance of fresh growth, of green, green grass and tiny wild flowers in Spring; in love with the crackling of caramel smelling grass, the flooding blood splatters of poppies and the purple flush of heather in the Summer; in love with their misty, muddy, mysteries in the Autumn and their frozen wastes in winter, when snow and ice lay over them in crusty deception. The Moors were an everchanging wonderland to me.
But my elder cousin Ellen, who knew everything about the world, warned me against them. “That’s where the fairies live, Gill,” she said. “Little people… pixies… who will steal you away. They’ll give you fairy gold and take you to fairyland for a hundred years and then, when they let you go again, everything will have changed and everyone you ever knew will be gone.”
I used to lie awake at night, thinking about those fairies, wondering what they looked like, whether they were beautiful, or ugly, like demons, whether they hid in the bells of the flowers, or transformed themselves into rocks and toads so I wouldn’t see them. I didn’t want to go to Fairyland, not if you gave me all the gold in the world! I wanted to stay here, at home, with my parents and my friends. I wanted to live my life in the embrace of the mountains, watching the march of the seasons across their rocky slopes.
As I grew older, I realised that there was no such thing as fairies of course, but I never lost the feeling that there was something special about the moors. Something magical. Often, when my friends wanted to hang out at the bowling alley, or ride their bikes around town, I would escape alone to the moors, to spend long hours lying in the grass, reading, or wandering, or just sitting, gazing around at the view, the mountains beyond, thinking. I took my first heartbreaks to the moors, my first joys.
When my friends started to complain about living in this place, so far from any big city, that there was nothing to do here, that the town was boring, I could never understand them. I didn’t care that we lived in a small village far from any fashionable metropolis. I didn’t care that a night out on the town consisted of drinks at the Red Lion, followed by darts at The Plough, followed by more drinks at the Red Lion. I would even take my homework to the moors, finding it easier to concentrate whilst sitting on the grass, surrounded by fresh air and birdsong, than sitting at my desk in my tiny room at home with the gurgle of the boiler and the smell of stale cooking drifting up the stairs. Even as a teenager, I was still content to spend the rest of my life here, breathing the scents of the moors and the mountains, watching their every mood change. But not even Sian, my best friend, could understand how I felt. I took her to the moors once, on a day in summer when sharp rays of golden sunlight were battling with the deep shadows of thunderclouds. I made her sit down and look around at the wild flowers sprinkled through the grass and at the view of the mountains, their flanks shining with glowing gorse, their tips black and menacing with the shadows of the rain clouds.
“How can you not love this?” I asked her.
But she just shrugged. “Okay, it’s quite pretty, but there’s nothing to do here.” She twisted a pink flower from the grass and picked at the petals, delicate as a butterfly’s wing. “The way you talk, you’d think this place was magic.”
I looked at her and sighed. I could see now, that the moors would never capture her heart as they had mine. I couldn’t understand it.
It seemed that all those hours doing my homework in the quiet of the moors had stood me in good stead. When I finished school, I was offered a place at a good university and so I was sent off, with much celebration from my parents and friends, to a crowded city full of fun and laughter. But there was little beauty and even less peace and I missed my moors and my mountains and couldn’t wait to get back to them. Every holiday, I fled back home and spent as much time as I could wandering the moors, under the vast, open skies.
When I finally finished my studies, I headed home with a sigh of relief, ready to settle back into small town life.
But reality came to call. Jobs were scant in such a small town and I couldn’t live with my parents forever. Otherwise, I’d never even have considered the job I was offered in the Middle East, though my friends all thought it was a wonderful opportunity.
“You’d be crazy not to go!” Sian said when I first voiced my doubts. “It’s not like you’re going forever. You only need go for a year. Just think of the money!”
“You’ll come back home all tanned and dripping in gold. With a rich boyfriend!” put in Sheila.
“Or you’ll meet some gorgeous guy and end up living in California,” Emma said.
“Or New York.”
“Don’t be daft,” I replied. “I’ll be back all right. I’ll miss you all and I’ll miss this place. It’s my home and the Middle East will be so different.”
Sian shook her head and raised an eyebrow. “Talk about daft. Here you are with this amazing opportunity to get away from this dump and you’re already talking about coming back!”
I laughed at myself, along with everybody else, though my heart wasn’t in it. If I could have stayed I’d have gladly forgone the gold and the tan and the rich boyfriend. What was a year? It would go quickly enough. I would miss watching the changing of the seasons on the flanks of the mountains, I would miss being able to escape to the moors when I needed to think, or to clear my mind, but it was only for a year and the money was good and maybe I would have enough to buy my very own house near the moors when it was over. It was just for a year.
It’s only for a year, I told myself when I stepped off the plane into the white hot heat that sucked the moisture straight from my skin. Just think of the money.
It’s only for a year, I told myself as I sat in the back of a taxi, gasping for breath in the thick, perfumed air, clinging to the velveteen seats, as it swerved between lanes of gleaming Mercedes and battered pick up trucks.
It’s only for a year, I told myself when I first donned the black nylon abayah that I had to wear, a garment that prickled with electricity whenever I got in or out of a car; a garment that swallowed my femininity and my identity, a garment that attracted and held the heat.
It’s only for a year, I thought, when I was invited to my first ex-patriot party; when I saw the mix of people, all drinking, dancing, laughing with a desperate eagerness. All these people, so far away from their real homes. Were they all here for the money?
Only a year and then I’d have my own house by the moors, I told myself.
Is it really only for a year? I asked myself, when I made my first trip to the desert and felt the deep, empty silence seep into my bones; when I saw the trickling of the wadi-bed, widening out into a secret valley of weird, distorted rock formations and ancient coral beds; when I looked out to see purple shadows on burnt orange sun-baked rock and inhaled the smell of dust and wind and thorn trees.
Is it really only a year that I have here? I asked myself, as I explored the glittering alleyways of the golden souks, wove my way through the clouds of blue incense and fingered the red, emerald and sapphire silks of the carpets.
Is it really almost a year? I asked myself, as I sat with friends, sharing stories and laughter over a dinner of lamb and rice, flavoured with cardamom, cumin, rosewater and onions.
Is the year really coming to an end? I thought, as I lay out under a desert sky beside a glowing camp fire and looked up into the deep black of infinity, bejewelled and bedazzled with stars.
Does it have to be just a year? I wondered. If I stayed for another year, would it make much difference?
So when I returned home, it was just for a holiday. One more year in the Middle East and then that would be it.
I had been away for only a year, and yet, it seemed, I had forgotten so much. Or misremembered so much. I had not remembered the air being so wet, or cold or sharp. I had not remembered how green the grass was. I had not remembered how narrow the roads were, how small the houses, how dark they were inside.
I had not remembered the full beauty of the moors, the majesty of the sweeping landscapes with the thick rolling clouds advancing from the mountains.
I had not remembered how busy all my friends were, with their own lives.
Still, Sian managed to find the time to come on a house hunt for me, though the task was not as I had imagined it would be.
We had planned it together before I had left. Sian was to be my tenant and we were to decorate the house together, go shopping together, cook meals together, have parties, sit and cry over the same films together on a Friday night.
But now it seemed that Sian’s memory was not that good either.
“When Dave and I are married, we’ll have a house with a bigger garden,” she said when we looked at the first house. “Dave always says he wants a house with a lot of light,” she said when we looked at the second. “Dave prefers two storey houses,” when we looked at the third. She had met Dave six months beforehand, when he moved into town. He was shy with me and not inclined to talk, but Sian was in love with this strange man I didn’t know.
I didn’t need to buy a house now, did I? I could wait another year.
The next year, I returned home for Sian’s wedding. As chief bridesmaid, I was responsible for organising the hen night. Drinks at the Red Lion, darts at The Plough and then drinks at the Red Lion again. I wasn’t to know that a new Sharkey’s had opened up out of town, in a huge, bright complex, filled with cinemas and pizza places and bowling alleys and car parks.
“Don’t worry,” Sian said, squeezing my arm. “It’s fun anyway. It’s just like the old days.”
But the next day, I watched her swaying in Dave’s arms and I realised that it would never be like the old days again. The most important person in my best friend’s life was someone I didn’t know.
The next year, I came back for my cousin Ellen’s wedding and for the christening of Sian’s new baby, Jamie.
“One more year in the Middle East,” I told them all, “and then I’ll be back for good.”
But the following year, I went to Montana, skiing with some friends from work so I didn’t get back home at all. We skied in the frozen mountains all day and sat round the fire in the lodge in the evenings and talked about our homes in the real world. I told them all about the moors and the house I would have one day, when my desert adventures came to an end.
The following year, I went to Italy to visit a friend who had recently left the Middle East. I asked Sian to come with me, but she looked at me as though I was mad. “Gill, I’m eight months pregnant. There’s no way I could come. What would I do with Jamie? And what do you think Dave would say?”
Ellen was busy at work, as were Sheila and Emma, and my parents weren’t feeling up to coming. They’d recently moved into a retirement home. So I made a quick trip back to see them, but didn’t even have time to visit the moors, before setting off for Europe. There would be other times for that.
One day, I would go back to England to live; I would marry and have children and raise them in a house by the moors. I would take them for picnics and for walks and I would teach them the names of the wild flowers and we would look for fairies. One day. Not quite yet. If I worked in the Middle East for just another year, I would be able to afford to buy a really nice house outright. Just another year would do it.
The last time I went back home, I knew it was time to buy a house. My parents were not getting any younger and it would be best to be on hand for them.
I wasn’t sure where to start. I went into the closest estate agents and was surprised to see that Sian’s Jamie was working there. I wasn’t sure whether he recognised me or not.
“What size house are you looking for?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Well, there’s only me, so not too big.”
“And what area are you looking in?” he asked.
I didn’t need to think too hard about that. “I’d love to have a place out on the edge of town, somewhere where I can get to the moors easily. Backing onto the moors, if possible?”
“Yes, you know, the moors.”
He frowned at the computer. “Okay, I’ll have a look.” A pause, while he scanned through his pages. In some ways he was so like Sian, with his curly hair and short nose, but he had his father’s shy, serious side, so different to Sian’s.
“I’m afraid we don’t have anything in that area at the moment,” he said after a while. “But we have a very nice house in Woodcrest that’s just come on the market. Would you like to have a look at that?”
I shook my head. “No.” I had dreamed of a house by the moors for a long time now and I had the money to pay for one, so what was the point of settling for anything else? “I’m flying back to the Middle East tomorrow,” I said, “but please keep an eye open for me and let me know if anything comes up near the moors.”
He nodded. “Certainly. Can I have your name?”
So he hadn’t recognised me. Oh well, I couldn’t blame him.
It was a relief to get back to my apartment in the Middle East. I took off my cool silk embroidered abayah and looked around my flat; at the silk and wool cushions, bought from the carpet souk, the intricate woven rugs on the floors, the brass lamps, the bookcases filled with all the books I’d accumulated over the years, the paintings on the walls, the myriad photographs. Photographs of the many friends I’d made over the years, people who’d come and gone; some who’d stayed in the Middle East for a few years, some who’d only been here for a little while, some who had been my lovers. Some I’d come close to marrying, but never did.
I shook my head and picked up a photograph of the moors the last time I’d visited them a few years back, all glowing greens and blues and pinks under a grey sky. I stood for a while, gazing at the photograph. This was home, I thought. I closed my eyes and I could smell the fragrance of sunburnt grasses, of wildflowers and autumn mists and when I opened my eyes again, there were tears running down my cheeks, but I was glad for them. The time had come. This was where I should be.
And then I got back to the task in hand. All of this – the debris of my life – needed to be packed up. Packed up and transported back home, to a house of my own, near the moors.
It took me till the end of that year to finish sorting and packing and saying goodbye to all the people and places that had become so special to me. But whenever I felt regret, I bit my lip and tried to imprint the images on the follicles of my memory, whilst keeping the vision of my own house, by the moors, firmly fixed in my mind. That was where I was headed now.
I was just taping up the last few boxes, when the phone call came to say that my father had had a fatal heart attack.
I had just bought my one way ticket home, when Ellen rang to say that my mother hadn’t woken up that morning. Ellen had moved down South, but she’d been contacted first as the closest next of kin, she explained. She added that she thought Mum had gone because she couldn’t bear to be alone without Dad. Ellen said that Mum had given up on me ever returning.
As the aeroplane juddered its way into the sky, I looked out at the great expanses of desert, the winding of wadi-beds and the waves of the red sand dunes, but I couldn’t take in the loss of my leaving. There were holes being drilled so deep in my chest that saying farewell to this place was more than I could bear. Instead, I closed my eyes and thought of rain-shadowed mountains, the spread of golden gorse and purple heather. That was where I was headed now. That was my home. I was going home at last.
It was nice to see Sian at the funeral, though I almost didn’t recognise her, she had aged so much. I guess that’s what children and a divorce can do to you. I couldn’t bear to go back to Mum and Dad’s place afterwards, so I went back with Sian, to her house for a cup of tea, and she filled me in on the latest news about her children and two grandchildren, telling me of the strange minutiae of lives I knew and cared nothing about. So it was a relief when Jamie came in while we were talking and stood in the doorway looking at me over his glasses.
“Um, I’m sorry if this isn’t a good time,” he said, “but I was going to email you this week. There’s a house come up in Fey Street, backing onto The Moors, just like you wanted.”
He gave me the address and I went to look at the place straight away. I typed the address into the hire-car GPS and followed the directions. I didn’t know my way round town like I used to.
The GPS took me in the right direction, I could tell that by the mountains, but it didn’t seem to be taking me anywhere near the moors. I found myself driving into an area where the housing grew dense instead, where there were narrow houses built on small plots, rows of terraces with tiny front gardens.
Damn this new technology! I pulled over to the side of the road and cancelled the route, then typed the address in again. But it still took me the same way.
Oh well, this was as good a way as any of getting to know the town again. This town was my home after all, I told myself. My life in the Middle East was over. I had given it up. Said goodbye. This was home now and I was sure that when I found the right place – by the moors – it would feel as though it was. Once I’d found my own place, everything would be all right again. I would settle in, be able to begin life afresh.
I stared at the words on the street sign. How could Jamie have got it so wrong? I’d told him I wanted a house backing onto the moors, but this was a short, narrow street of terraced houses built in the shadow of a huge shopping mall with its pool of concrete parking and bright plastic signage. I pulled up beside the house with the For Sale sign and put my head in my hands. I knew I should go back to the estate agents and start all over again, but I just didn’t have the energy, right then.
I sat for a long time, while the shadows lengthened and the day grew cold and then I wiped my eyes and took a deep breath. I needed a coffee before I could do anything else and there was bound to be a coffee shop in the mall somewhere. I started the car and drove down the road to the car park entrance and there was the sign: a big white electric sign with the name of the mall in pink and green lights. The Moors.
I had to laugh. It was a slightly hysterical laugh, but what else could I do? Poor old Jamie. I couldn’t really blame him for making such a mistake. No wonder he’d been so mystified by my wanting to live in this area! I would go back to see him tomorrow and explain and we would laugh and, with any luck, he might have a house on his books that backed onto the real moors.
Parking my car, I got out and walked towards the mall entrance. God, I hated these sorts of places. I could tell that the centre was new and yet it was already looking run down. There was grass growing; forcing its way up the crack between the tarmac and the kerb. I was just stepping over it, when I noticed a flower; a tiny pink flower, with petals as delicate as a butterfly wing, in amongst the green blades and that was when I knew.
My legs gave way and I sat down on the kerb, there in the middle of the car park and stared up and around, at the flanks of the encircling mountains, but I hardly saw them for the grief that was rising in my veins, pouring from my eyes.
For it had all come true. There had been fairies in the Moors, just as my cousin Ellen had told me, and they had done their work.
Lucy Bignall asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work