Mmmm! Such a delicious, rich, savoury scent of thyme. Breathe it, breathe it in, breathe it in deep. Feel that sweet sun on bare skin: warming eyelids, cheeks, arms. As yet it's a gentle sun, early one English summer.
There's an industrious buzzing all around, at ear level. Hundreds of honeybees are worshipping the thyme, blessing bloom after tiny bloom. Tirelessly. Humming, droning. Pulsing. Incessant.
Hannah lies sprawled on her back, glorying in the sensations, scents and sounds. Listening. Breathing. Breathing. The herby smell soothes her. The bees' whirr is a lullaby. A good lunch digests happily in her stomach, sending waves of sleepiness through her whole body. She's very relaxed.
This is a fairly new disposition for Hannah. 'Relaxed' is not a state she's had much practice in. Until the last year or so, she's had no real idea what it meant.
'Safe' is also a new concept. And 'belonging'. That's still fresh and particularly lovely. Belonging. Part of a community of people who trust and value her, a community of people who she values and trusts. Amazing.
She smiles and takes another delicious, deep breath. She's lying on a clover path in the centre of a huge swathe of thyme, the heart of a large herb and flower garden, surrounded by beehives. This is the Thyme Bomb, and it's exploded into flower. The bees adore it. Hannah can already taste the honey, it's going to be so good.
She wonders guiltily if she's come too far away for the kids to find her. It's her turn to have the little ones for the afternoon. At the communal lunch she'd felt a surge of mischief, and told them that they would have to search for her. Then she went running off before they'd finished eating. Jasper and Tommy are only 6 and 7, but Emma is 9. Emma will no doubt make sure they stay together and find her alright. And it won't be that hard for them to guess where she might be. Everyone knows her favourite spot.
She loves those kids. They astonish her every day. None of them have ever been to a school. Their parents are determined they will have an education, not an indoctrination. They're allowed to develop whatever areas fascinate them. Of course, at that age, just about everything does, so they certainly aren't limited in any way. And they all have an enormous amount of fun.
A piping of tiny voices warns that the kids aren't far away. Better shake a leg and show myself, I suppose.
She opens her eyes to the huge, brilliant-blue Norfolk sky. Just a few fluffy clouds hang around the periphery. Before she has the chance to prop herself up, there are squeals of excitement and giggles as two small boys fall on her in a rush.
Emma stands to one side, an odd silhouette, smiling sedately. Her hair has been plaited tightly across the scalp, leading to many long plaits sprouting at crazy angles. From this vantage her head looks strangely lumpy, and the plaits could be alive. She looks like a mini-Medusa.
“We knew you'd be here!” she says, perhaps just a tad smugly.
The boys are trying to tickle Hannah. It feels more like being mauled by a troupe of monkeys. My own fault, she thinks, displacing them at last so she can stand up.
Emma says, “We thought it might be nice to look at the bees. Can we look in the hives?”
Tommy jumps up and down shouting, “Bees, bees, bees!”
Emma has her hands over her ears. “Shhh!” she says, “You'll scare all the bees away!”
The bees, however, are intent on the thyme, the other flowers, and the flowering crops all around. Not a single one pays any attention to the kids.
“Well, bees don't like sudden movements if they think it might be a threat to the hive,” says Hannah, “but they don't hear like we do, they don't have anything like an ear.”
“Why do they buzz all the time, then?” asks Jasper. His blue eyes are wide, framed with white lashes. His white hair is shoulder length and totally straight.
“That's their wings vibrating, stupid!” says Emma.
“Questions are never stupid, Emma,” says Hannah. “Only people who never ask questions are stupid!”
“Sorry, Jasp,” Emma gasps. She bites her lip and twirls a brown plait.
Hannah gives her a little sideways hug. “Bees detect vibrations in the hairs on their legs and all over their bodies. When they're in the hive, they receive messages that way, through the vibrations on the combs. They also have an incredibly sophisticated sense of smell. They don't have a nose though. They smell through their antennae, those tiny arms on their heads, which they also use to touch and measure things.”
Tommy buries his hands in his brown curls and makes a loud raspberry noise.
“Can we look in the hives, please?” he asks.
“Well, I don't have a good reason to disturb them today, Tommy, but I'll tell you what we'll do. Next time I'm opening them up, we can all put on nets and take a look. How's that?”
Tommy looks a little disappointed, but perks as Jasper says, “Putting on nets, and bee hats, and everything?”
Emma wrinkles her nose and sniffs. Hannah is ambushed by a sharp stab of pain – not again. Her ribs tighten, adrenalin sends a wave of pins and needles outwards, all the way to her fingers, her toes. This nose-wrinkling habit in Emma is new; but it's just the way Daniel used to do it. Emma's now the age that Daniel was the last time Hannah saw him. The old heaviness presses at her. Tomorrow is Daniel's birthday. Seventeen. Eight long years. Unbelievable.
Hannah is learning to sort of lean into the pain for a moment, to breathe into it. Acknowledge the hurt. Then let it go. She's learning, at last, to feel less guilty for letting it go. But sometimes it's just too hard.
Emma snorts. Jasper is trying to cuddle her, with a look of pure love that turns his pale face angelic. Emma is tolerating it rather than loving it. Tommy's giggling. Thank goodness for the kids. They pull Hannah back into the now, give her the focus she needs. The immediacy.
She takes a theatrical, very deep breath. “Can anyone smell anything?” she asks.
They all dutifully take deep breaths, going “Mmmmmm” afterwards. She loves that, when they all respond enthusiastically like that. It gives her great surges of pleasure, of well-being. Of connection.
“I can smell thyme,” Jasper says, as Tommy suddenly shouts, “Thyme!”
“Yes, isn't it delicious? Bees love the thyme flowers, and thyme flower honey is very good for humans -”
“Is it good for bees?” asks Emma, beginning to come out of herself again.
“Yes, it's very good for bees too!” says Hannah. “Now, how about we all sit down on the clover and watch the bees on the flowers?”
They all sit down, Jasper leaning against Hannah's leg. “Tell the rest of us anything you see that you didn't expect, or didn't know about before.”
The kids begin happily to relate whatever surprises or interests them in the behaviour of the bees, the flowers, and other insects they see around the thyme. Hannah adds bits of information when she can, and pulls out a notebook to list anything they want to look up online or in the library later on. When she's thoughtful, she rubs at her sizeable chin. Not a pretty woman, Hannah, by conventional measures; the green eyes are a little close together and the jaw's quite square, but she has a radiance when she smiles. Her shoulder-length, brown hair is haphazardly held back by a scrunchy, bits escaping to fall around her ears. She's wearing tattered jeans and an orange T-shirt with a huge daisy printed on the front.
They pass a happy, half hour or so, absorbed, then set off to do a similar exercise by the ponds. There's a great deal of activity there, so that passes another hour, then they begin to make their way, slowly and with lots of interruptions, back to the Hearth.
Seen from the air, the settlement they call the Hearth is almost entirely green. Four long rectangular buildings follow the contours of one side of a heart, mirrored by four more on the other side of a large open space of grass, flowers and young trees. The roofs of the dwellings are green and red with turf, sedum and tiny wild flowers. Each roof supports a few solar panels. Green pathways draw a heart-shape circuit outside the dwellings, from which sprout little paths into circular beds, bursting with food plants in colourful mixtures. Another heart-path creates a circuit inside, with more paths criss-crossing the central area like arteries.
All lead to a large hexagonal group of trees in the very centre. From the ground, you can see it's a shelter made from living willow, the long slender strands woven together as they grew to give a stunning summer meeting place. Two large hexagonal buildings, joined by a covered walkway, sit near the top of the heart. These are the catering and indoor meeting areas.
A few cages containing several rabbits each are dotted randomly on the grass – the lawn mowers.
The whole place is lush, beautiful, abundant. Just beyond the little gardens around the outside edge, a series of fruit-cages follows the curve on each side. Some contain vegetation in various stages of growth, in others chickens scratch and peck contentedly. On the left, or west, the cage-snake ends earlier, capped by the glory of Bee Town with its mass of flowers and the Thyme Bomb in the centre.
Beyond the cage-gardens, more than a dozen ponds, joined by an oft-invisible snaking stream, surround the settlement entirely. Some large, some small, some deep, some shallow; all glint and sparkle like jewels in the June sunshine. This is a major natural resource for the settlement, creating a rich bounty - yet still the water leaves their land cleaner than it enters.
At the point of the heart, trees cluster around a broad path leading into a short avenue which opens into a wide space, then thins again through more trees. A little public road, cracked and full of holes, marks the southern boundary to Heartspan. By the open space, a large rectangular building, with a glass front, blends seamlessly into the landscape behind. This is the Toolshare, where the people of Heartspan, or the Spanners, as they're known locally, keep all the kit that they don't use every day. Residents of the two nearby villages, West Turning and Slope, can borrow tools from there. Indeed, quite a number have deposited seldom-used tools, to make space in their sheds. A rapidly-rising young copse, of willow and hazel, will soon mask the settlement completely from casual passers by. Not that there are so many of those, these days.
Hannah has lost the boys to the excitement of helping harvest what's needed for supper from the fruit-cages. She and Emma stroll companionably into the Hearth from the north, or the top of the heart. Moments before they would have caught a relaxed summer scene with adults and kids sitting around on the grass in the sunshine. Now it's bedlam.
A tall, skinny, teenage girl, with short, ginger hair ablaze and flapping, is racing away towards the trees at the opposite end, giggling as she runs.
After her, lumbering by comparison, runs a chunky teenage boy in bare feet. His wild sandy hair qualifies him as a scarecrow. He is bellowing like a stag at rut. This is Cloud. Hannah has never heard him make such a sound.
The girl has a pair of trainers, with the laces tied together, and is holding one high while the other whirls provocatively around her head.
In front of the second building a group of people who were sitting on the grass have all just got to their feet. A petite, blonde woman is beginning to jog uncertainly after the teenagers, shouting “Cloud! Cloud!” repeatedly. This is Jasmine, Cloud's mother.
Back and forth and under all their heels races a little grey livewire, jumping and barking merrily. This is Cracker, the border terrier, and he's loving it.
A wiry man, with a mass of red dreads greying at the temples, cups his mouth and shouts, “What on earth are you doing?” but Hannah can't tell to whom. This is Drummond, commonly known as Drum: Jasmine's man, Cracker's owner and father to Kelsey, expected from Scotland – who, Hannah realises, the girl with the stolen trainers must be.
With Drum are Taimi, a Finnish ash-blonde of Amazonian proportions who is mother to Jasper, and the baby Crystal she's clutching to her hip, and Cherry, teenage sister of Tommy. The girl is holding the hand of a cherubim three year-old with a round face, framed by gingery whisps. This is Lotus, daughter of Drum and Jasmine.
Hannah takes in this scene with an incredulous sweep. Kelsey approaches the trees at the far end and skips round like a champion discus thrower. The trainers whip into the air, dancing around each other in a crazy waltz, arcing high into the trees. Out of sight they can hear a crash and a crackling. They've stuck. Five wood pigeons flap up and away in alarm.
Giggling hysterically, Kelsey overshoots and stands some distance off, watching Cloud as he peers up to see where they've landed and assess whether he can get to them. Suddenly he rushes at Kelsey, roaring, “What did you do that for?”
She laughs and races nimbly out of the way. She's wild, she's skinny and she's fast.
“My only goddam trainers!”
“Cloud!” Jasmine is running up. “No cursing! Please!”
He turns, spitting phlegm, “Well I'm not likely to get another pair, am I?”
Jasmine is speaking in normal tones now, Hannah and the rest can't hear what she's saying. Hannah feels for Cloud. Trainers are hard to come by these days, certainly too expensive for Jasmine to buy new, and, with Cloud's enormous feet, second hand ones to fit him are a rare find. Most people these days patch them up and wear them until they fall apart, anyway. He's not much into any sort of teen culture, isolated as they are, but he was really pleased when Drum had found those trainers for him. Drum never had said where he'd got them.
Kelsey has circled the Hearth and plonked herself back with Drum and the others, hardly panting.
Drum says, “That wasn't as funny for everyone else, Kels. You may have to adjust your sense of humour a bit while you're here.”
Hannah looks at Kelsey's pressed lips and jutting jaw and thinks, I'm not sure that's sufficient emphasis, Drum, old chum. But out loud she says, “Well, welcome to Heartspan, Kelsey. Hope you're going to enjoy yourself. Are you here for the summer?”
“Suppose,” Kelsey says, her accent all tartan and shortbread. “Mum bought me a one-way ticket.” She's staring at Drum defensively, who flicks a glance her way, then goes back to scratching Cracker behind the ears. The little border terrier gives a contented rumble, almost like a purr.
“Great! Gosh -” Hannah inwardly cringes, did I really say 'gosh'? “- there's so much you can get your teeth into. You're welcome to come and watch when I open up the beehives, probably next week. Emma, Jasper and Tommy are all coming.”
“Aye, great!” Kelsey exaggerates her rolled 'r'. “Back to school, Kelsey, eh? I'll jump in and start lessons with the wee ones. I guess that's about my level, is it?”
Hannah tries to fathom if that was sarcasm, low self-esteem, or both.
Cherry says, “Please can I be there? I'd love to see how they're all doing!”
Hannah smiles; good old Cherry, smoother, harmoniser. Magical Cherry, now almost 15. She'd just been ten when Hannah came to Heartspan. Cherry's mid-brown hair flows over her shoulders and down her back in big waves. In the sunlight, deep chestnut tones shimmer here and there. It's quite a contrast to Kelsey's asymetric, copper mop, with a half-fringe flopping over one eye.
“We'd better get to making some extra beekeeper nets,” says Hannah, with injected cheeriness.
Cloud lopes back, pointedly ignoring Kelsey. “Drum, please could you help me with a ladder?” They head off towards the Toolshare beyond the trees, Cracker racing and jumping again, unable to believe his luck at how much excitement he's having.
Cherry looks directly at Kelsey. “Shall we go for a walk, Kelsey? I'll show you around until supper. There's been few changes since you were here last year.” The two girls walk between the houses and are gone.
Jasmine is back, flopping to the grass with a big sigh. She's all filmy scarves and floaty skirts. She always, thinks Hannah, smells amazing.
“What am I gunna do about that?” groans Jasmine, in a Somerset burr. Lotus runs over to jump in her lap.
Taimi chortles. “Teenagers can't be controlled, Jasmine,” she says, her voice melodic and deep, “only the messes cleared up afterwards. They have far too much of the energy.” She tickles baby Crystal under the chin. “Thank goodness I have a while to gather my strength and make my plans for Crystal-domination, haha!”
Jasmine snorts. “You've got plenty in store just around the corner, believe me!”
Hannah is about to agree, but stops herself, feeling the familiar stab of pain. Suddenly she wonders how Daniel would react in a situation like that. Feel the pain. Acknowledge the thought. Breathe, breathe. Let the thought go.
Hannah gets through the noisy, chaotic communal supper in a bit of a daze. She excuses herself from washing up for a change and heads back to her pad. She thinks of her place as her 'pad', because the whole of Heartspan is 'home' to her. She helped build all of the buildings, she's spent happy times in and out of everyone's houses, and all three Hexagons. She helped create the gardens, and the landscaping for the ponds. Bee Town and the Thyme Bomb are her inspiration.
She's been deeply involved in the making of the place, and she knows that's been the making of her.
But still, after five years here, this terrible tug at her heart. Understandably worse, she allows, with his birthday coming up tomorrow.
She makes herself a pot of herb tea in the tiny kitchen. She's loving that she grew and dried the herbs herself. Loving that the water is purified through natural systems the Spanners created together. Loving that all here is in harmony with nature. In balance.
She sits on her little 2-seater sofa, with its bright and crazy floral pattern, sunken on the right where she always sits. And sips. And thinks.
Poor Hannah. There's no feeling of balance in her tonight.
What is it to lose a son when he is only nine? What tearing, wrenching pain? Not just like losing a limb, but like losing a part of your soul. A budding-off of your very own soul, an immature baby-soul, still nourishing itself from yours. What happens to that little soul when it is dragged away from its mother-soul with no further contact? The connection severed way before a natural separation could begin, gently, slowly, safely.
And what happens to a woman who runs out of places to look, of people to hustle? Whose mother-rage no longer has anywhere to direct itself? Whose inability to find and protect her child is a constant gut-clenching ache.
So young, Hannah, when she had this baby. Only just 16. Joe could have been in a lot of trouble if she hadn't been so besotted with him. If she'd named him as the father. He was already 26 then, had been living as a 'non-person' for a while, B&B scamming and sofa-surfing.
When Hannah gathered her courage to tell him she was pregnant, she fully expected him to insist she got rid of it. Instead, to her naive joy, he grinned and said, “Great stuff, little tinker! Now you'll get a flat and benefits. We can have our own place!”
So Daniel provided the roof and an income to set them up. Hannah was 'in the system' while Joe was in avoidance. For a while, they got along OK like that.
The 'happy families' set-up seemed pretty good to a girl whose father had descended into alcholism after her mother ran off with someone else. Her mother was difficult, confrontational and needy, but being suddenly without her at thirteen was a shock for Hannah. She withdrew into herself for a while, then burst out on the rampage with her friend Tiffany. At 14 and 15 they were wild.
So life with Joe and baby Daniel stabilised Hannah. For the first time, she felt she had value, a worthwhile place in the scheme of things.
Now, in this moment, Hannah is feeling that old dislocation. Somewhere, she fiercely hopes, Daniel will be 17 tomorrow. But he's a young man, she's missed half of his childhood, and the landmark date has shredded any semblance of acceptance and balance she'd managed to build over the last couple of years. There's nowhere to direct her impotent rage; nowhere to focus her loss. Except that tomorrow evening is the Women's Circle, and they'll probably invite her to talk about her pain. She's really not sure she wants to do that again.
A rush of affection momentarily sweeps away the numb depression, like a wave washing ugly imprints from the sand. Her dear, beloved soul sisters, in all their miss-fit, messy quirkiness, have given her so much support.
Then the pain washes over again. She gives way to it, and weeps.
Next morning, Hannah's sleepily tucking into a bowl of crunchy cereal and hazel nuts (all home grown and home made, of course), when Cherry shouts at the door and lets herself in.
“Just to let you know,” she says brightly, “Mum and I are organising a picnic in the near orchard for lunch, to welcome Kelsey and give Celeste a break. Shall I count you in?”
Hannah hesitates a split second, which is plenty long enough for the sensitive Cherry to intuit a mountain. “What's up?”
“No, nothing, it's fine, really Cherry, it's fine.” Hannah plasters on a smile. “Just a little early in the morning to be thinking about lunch.” She waves her cereal bowl and spoon in the air.
Cherry stands very still, just looking. Then she suddenly looks mortified. “Oh no, it's Daniel's birthday isn't it. I completely forgot. I'm so sorry, Auntie Hannah, how awful of us -”
Hannah leaps up, protesting. “It's fine, Cherry, really. Of course, I'm feeling a little bit off, but a picnic is perfect, it'll be a very welcome distraction.” She puts down her bowl and spoon and sweeps Cherry into a hug. “Really, I mean it, Cherry, it's fine. And I thought you were going to be dropping the 'Auntie' thing, since you're soon to be 15!”
“It's habit. But it doesn't matter either way, does it?”
Hannah smiles, shaking her head. “Call me what you like, I've told you before.”
“Are you sure it's OK, about the picnic. I haven't told that many people yet. Well, not absolutely loads …”
“We can make it his secret birthday party, if you like?”
Hannah exhales rapidly. “Secret is good. I'm really not up for a fuss.”
They hug again, then Cherry is gone, and Hannah doesn't quite know what to feel.
Kelsey's high, exaggerated giggling can be heard incessantly throughout the picnic. The kids are clustered around her, rapt. New people always fascinate them, and new young people are very rare.
She appears to be having a lot of fun with them. Hannah is relieved, but notices Cloud, sitting a few yards away with Drum, and Cherry's father Tom, shooting an angry look in Kelsey's direction.
Hannah turns to Jasmine. “How are those two getting on in the house?”
“Cloud and Kelsey?” Jasmine asks, unnecessarily. “Well, not brilliant, to be honest. Cloud's gone into a mammoth sulk. He's had his moods before but this is titanic.”
“She's a livewire, isn't she? Drum made her apologise to Cloud about the trainers. She wasn't that convincing. The ladder wasn't long enough, they're gunna have to wait until there's a cherry picker here for somethin'. By then who knows what state the shoes'll be in. It is a shame. But then, what's he got against hand-made leather or canvas like the rest of us? It's not like he has to win a fashion parade.”
“I guess it's important to him right now,” says Hannah.
“Aye, he'll be laughing about it soon, I'm betting,” came an Irish lilt from behind. “I'm laughing about it now, sure enough!”
The voice belongs to a pretty, sharp-faced woman, with short brown hair, an amused twitch on her lips and a wicked gleam in her brown eyes. This is Moira, Hannah's best friend for the last three years. She's kept Hannah sane by being off the rails herself.
An angry growl drags their attention to where Cloud is once again leaping at Kelsey, this time sending small kids flailing. His face is right up to hers, hands gripping her shoulders. No-one but Kelsey can hear what he's saying. Before anyone recovers from their amazement, he's pushed her backwards and stormed off into the wood. Everyone's looking at each other, eyebrows raised. What just happened? Cloud's never been like this.
Jasmine runs after Cloud.
“What happened, Kelsey?” Drum is moving towards her, arms outwards. She shrugs, very red. “Come with me,” he says. They walk slowly away into the trees, Cracker jumping and circling.
The rest pull faces at each other, then start to pick up all the picnic bits.
Hannah says, “Do you know what made Cloud so angry, Jasp?” as the white-haired boy comes to Taimi for a hug.
He looks at her very frankly. “I think maybe cos Kelsey was pretending to be Auntie Jasmine,” he says. He looks solemnly at Taimi. “It weren't very funny,” he says.
“Wasn't.” Taimi smiles and gives him his hug. “Well, why were you all laughing so much then?” she says, tickling him until he squeals.
Hannah's saying, “I see. Did you hear what Cloud said?”
When Jasper can speak, he looks uncharacteristically uncomfortable. “No, Auntie Hannah,” he says. Then his face cracks into a smile as Taimi tickles him again.
“Thanks, Jasp.” Hannah ruffles his hair while she and Taimi make eye contact. Trouble in paradise, thinks Hannah.
Then she turns to Lotus, abandoned by both parents in their concern for their respective teenagers, and sees Moira making a game with her of the clearing up. Lucky little Lotus Blossom, no whiff of upset has entered her world. Abandonment is not an issue for her; with all of us around her, she's never had a moment to feel unloved. Lucky little love child.
Hannah busies herself collecting up picnic things.
Mmmm! Such a delicious, rich, savoury scent of thyme. Breathe it, breathe it in, breathe it in deep. Feel that sweet sun on bare skin: warming eyelids, cheeks, arms. As yet it's a gentle sun, early one English summer.