Moira is irritable and late. Being late makes her more irritable. Being irritable makes her forgetful and clumsy, which impedes her progress and makes her – yep – later still.
She's rummaging through her chest of drawers, looking for a particular blue cardigan that goes with the little blue top she's just pulled on. She thinks about pulling it off again, but brings herself up short.
“Moi, what in the world makes you think that it matters?!” she says, incredulously. Through her open window under the eaves, an ethereal singing drifts on the evening air. Celeste has begun.
Moira bangs out of her door and runs towards the Wixagon, the Spanners' name for the hexagonal, living-willow structure which serves as their summer meeting place. That's what you get for letting kids pick a name!
From the corner of her eye, as she careers around a rabbit run, Moira sees Jasmine emerging from her door further up the Hearth. Phew. At least one later than me, then! Not that anyone gives a flying frock what time we start!
Moira's been at Heartspan three years, but she still gets echoes of that nurse's nagging pressure – the feeling that there's something else that urgently needs attending to, in spite of the importance of whatever she's doing right now.
She plunges into the cool, green world of the Wixagon. It's like going through a portal, you cannot help but be transformed. Each of the six sides comprises eight slender willow trees, their lateral branches woven into each other and their highest fronds leaning inward, meeting in the centre to form a loose, shimmering shelter. The sweet atmosphere calms and soothes.
In the centre is a scene from some fantastical otherworld. Three impressive women are making an extraordinary sound. They're all tall, but in every other way they're as different as can be. Resplendent in a rouched, violet party dress, like something off the red carpet on Oscar's night, sways the deep-voiced woman leading the singing. Her crazy, crinkly hair is barely contained by a wide, purple scarf. She has almond-shaped, golden eyes and high cheek bones, wide nose and full lips. Her smooth skin is the colour of oak. She's well-rounded, large-breasted, big-hipped. Majestic in her maturity. This is Celeste, Heartspan's very pulse.
Behind her twirls a much younger woman, not yet thirty, with raven hair down her back. Her huge, dark eyes are almost black, her brows wide and dense. She has a strong face, prominent, hawkish nose. Her skin is darker than Celeste's, snaking arms and dancing legs walnut in the evening light. She's curvy, sinuous. This is Zoe, the newest female recruit. Moira realises with a little shock, but she's been here a couple of years, already!
Taimi, the tall, ash-blonde Finn, is warbling around Celeste's deep chanting, while Zoe harmonises somewhere in-between. There are no words, anything goes. Sometimes it momentarily grates. Mostly they produce a unique song of haunting beauty that amazes them all.
Taimi has picked up Moira's bodhran and is tapping it inexpertly with her fingers. Moira pushes down a fleeting annoyance – then lets it rise again. She tries to see it floating away like a little bubble, and laughs inwardly at herself. We all share here. And if I want to get to choose my instrument, I need to get up in the morning! She pats the special pouch, made for her by Hannah, where her tin whistle is stowed; hers alone. Any bod can bang on a drum. Only Moi can whistle up the devil and all his children!
She knows this isn't entirely true. The bodhran is more difficult to play proficiently, and Moira has been trying to master it for years. While everyone else tells her she is phenomenal, she's not entirely satisfied herself. If only she had a master to learn from. Well, that's not going to happen in rural Norfolk. But, like many Irish children, she's played the whistle since she was tiny. And she knows she's good.
Off to one side, Hannah sways gently, exchanging quiet words with a wiry, flat-faced, squarish woman with short, mousey hair. This is Lottie, Cherry's mother.
Moira winks at Hannah. “Ready for the Great Unburdening?”
Hannah winces. “Not really. I was just saying to Lottie, I don't know if it's going to help me this time.”
“Well,” says Moira, “you don't have to be doing it, if you don't want to, right enough.” Moira has her own doubts about the benefits of Hannah digging, yet again, through her pain. “Let sleeping dogs lie -”
Hannah snorts with down-curved mouth. “The dog ain't sleepin', exactly. I've been feeling really shitty for two days.”
Lottie cuts in, all sense and no sensibility, “Just do it quickly, get it out of the way. Celeste thinks it'll do you good. She's usually right.”
“Look at them,” Moira gives a head-flick in the direction of the wailing women. “They should enter the Song for United Nations as the Banoffee Banshees!”
Hannah sputters, but Lottie just frowns, puzzled, and possibly a tad disapproving. Moira doesn't try to explain, Lottie's propensity for propriety simply amuses her. Moira's propensities lie in quite another direction.
Moira wonders, not for the first time, that someone as fair and fey as Cherry could have come from the union of Tom and Lottie, both totally plain, down-to-earth and practical. Solid. Excellent qualities in permaculturalists, to be sure. But where could Cherry have sprung from?
“Keeping Kelsey out of the way!” says Lottie, emphatically. “We'll bring her into the Circle next time. Didn't think tonight would be appropriate.”
Moira and Hannah raise eyebrows at each other, then Hannah says, “Actually, yeah, thanks. I hadn't thought about it, but I would've felt uncomfortable.”
“Hopefully she'll stay out of Cloud's way as well,” says Lottie. “They really have started very badly. I thought he was going to punch her -”
“Oh, the big girl's blouse that he is,” cuts in Moira, with a little rush of irritation. “He needs some serious work to do, to use that pent up energy -”
“Kelsey really seems to enjoy winding him up -” Hannah begins.
Moira dives in again. She spots herself doing it, but hasn't yet mastered her impulse to interrupt. “Because he's a loose canon. She can just light the fuse and stand back to watch the show. It's his own fault. He's an easy target. You'd think after all those ashrams he'd have a bit more control.”
“He's perfectly serene when Kelsey's not about,” says Lottie.
Moira snorts. “You think? You must be getting his best side!” And she feels just the teensiest poke of guilt, knowing she's perfectly capable of getting a rise out of Cloud herself, whenever she wants the entertainment.
Then Jasmine wafts into the Wixagon, smelling of summer flowers, floaty dress swirling, butterflies in her soft yellow hair.
Now they are seven. Celeste sees and brings the wordless song to a close.
They move to the centre and hold hands in a circle. Celeste begins a chant and they all join in.
“We all come from the goddess, and to her we shall return, like a drop of rain, flowing to the ocean ...”
They sing a few rounds, then fall silent. Just standing, holding hands, relaxed. Soon they are all smiling. Even Moira is feeling the peace settle, then the joy begins to well up from within her. Christ, she never expected anything like this exquisite sense of well-being, this intense joy in connection, when she reluctantly fled here from Manchester. She thought she'd come to live with a bunch of crazy, extreme-gardening, new-wave hippies. It was not her first choice, but she had to get away from a bad situation, and her cousin Connor offered her sanctuary.
Ah, Connor, the big man himself. It still seems so strange that a big eejit Irishman ends up extreme-gardening in Norfolk. Celeste is the reason, of course. She's the heavenly body around which his world orbits, the goddess he worships. And, thinks Moira, who can blame him?! She's the most majestic, magnetic woman Moira has ever encountered. Now in her fifties, she's retired from a long, moderately successful but low-key career singing jazz, soul and blues.
So they're standing there, calm and easy, holding hands. Kind of half-meditating. Allowing the joy that is the fundamental energy of the universe to flow through them. Allowing, it sometimes seems, a blending of their very souls.
Hannah's hand feels big in hers. Moira is petite, like Jasmine on her other side. But, whereas Jasmine is all soft and oval, Moira is tight and angular. She knows she's pretty, and she's never had too much trouble attracting a man. Still, she looks at these other women and, with the exception of Lottie, poor soul, they all seem so much more womanly in their various ways. Even stocky Hannah, bless her flowery T-shirts, could seem more feminine than Moira.
She's pulled out of her un-meditative comparisons as Celeste speaks. “Today is Daniel's birthday. He is seventeen. We all send him our love.”
There are murmurs of agreement. Moira feels Hannah's hand pull a little.
“Let's sit down,” says Celeste. She hands Hannah a palm-sized, pink, heart-shaped stone. Moira feels annoyed. Perhaps someone else might have spoken first, to make it easier for Hannah.
They sit in a fairly close circle. Zoe brings a tray with glasses and jug with cool drink, pours, leaves them in the centre.
Hannah sits cross legged, head down, turning the rose-quartz heart over and over in her hands.
Moira is getting ready to suggest she'll start, in spite of Hannah having the speaking stone, but her friend begins, in a very low voice.
“It was -” she falters, clears her throat, starts again. Her voice is flat, dull.
“It seemed like an ordinary enough day. I - I got Daniel to school on time. He had an acorn for some project or other, he'd forgotten it so we had to back-track. Anyway, we got there just in time. Then I went on to work. I was an assistant at the middle school. He'd probably have been coming there the following year. I was thinking how great that would be, going the whole way together. We had great chats in the mornings when we got away from Joe's moods. I don't remember much about work. Normal day, I suppose.”
She stops, turning the stone. Moira waits, hardly breathing, wondering again why her friend has to put herself through this. But some deep part of her heart knows. It's like lancing a boil, she supposes. The other women are leaning in a little. Listening. Silently supportive.
“It was a Wednesday. On Wednesdays Joe collected Daniel from school, because I worked a bit later. So he – they should -” Hannah pauses again, tears welling, and Moira's heart wants to burst.
“It's so weird because I know everything was normal until I got to the gate. The gate was open and something in me came unstuck. The gate was often open, but there was something about it … Anyway, I felt really strange, like I was going into a trance. I discounted it, of course, for all the time it took me to open the door and walk through the house. The unreality was stronger inside, but there was nothing much about the downstairs that was different. It was upstairs. Our bedroom had been ransacked. Half the clothes gone, hard to see, such a mess. And even my bathroom stuff! I couldn't get it. Daniel's room. Door open. Ransacked too. The duvet was gone from his bed! And his Captain Ted.”
Moira tries to imagine the devastation inside Hannah at that moment.
“I told myself we'd been burgled and tried to phone Joe. His phone was switched off. I just wanted to find Joe and Daniel. So I went to Dan's school. Everyone was gone, of course. I phoned the emergency number. The Deputy Head came and got me; she came home with me.” Hannah's voice was small again. “Just as well. I was useless. Joe had taken Dan out of class in the morning. Said it was a family bereavement. They had no good reason to doubt him.”
Hannah makes a big sigh.
“I pushed the police for weeks, annoyed them for months. I tried all our contacts in the Freedom movement again and again for ye-” It's too much for Hannah, she can't finish. Tears are spilling onto her hands. She drops the stone. It lies on the grass, glistening. None of the women reach for it.
Celeste leans across to put a hand on Hannah's knee. Taimi is reaching over too. Hannah looks up briefly, then staggers to her feet. “I'm sorry,” she sniffles, and runs for her pad.
Moira leaps after her, as if attached by a rope.
She catches up with Hannah by her door.
“It’s OK Moira,” Hannah snuffles into a tissue. “I really-really just need to sit this out on my own. Just get through today and into tomorrow and away from his birthday. It’s just too much of a marker.”
Moira puts a hand on her arm. Hannah is not looking up.
“Goodness, yes, of course you do. I wish there was something more useful I could do. But I don’t know what. I’ll be here for you tomorrow, and all the other tomorrows. Look, let’s go into Norwich tomorrow. There’s bound to be stuff that peeps want and you can finally introduce me to your friend Tiffany.”
Hannah nods and moves inside.
“We love you, girl,” says Moira.
Moira moves slowly back up the path from Hannah's. She needs to unwind a little before turning in, so she carries on strolling around the Hearth. The light is low, it's deep dusk. Jack, craggy lines touchingly softened, is outside his house with his young owl and Jasper. He's allowing Jasper gently to stroke Wol's head. In this light, Jasper's pale face is strangely luminous. Casper-Jasper, thinks Moira.
From the other side, Cherry and Kelsey are approaching along the path. “Wow!” says Kelsey. “Is he tame?”
“He's pretty tame,” says Jack, cautiously, “but he doesn't like sudden -”
As Kelsey gets close, she flaps her arms and shouts, “Toowit toowoo!”
The little owl rises up on Jack's glove, screeching, wings flapping, flopping back and forth because he's tethered.
“Jesus!” cries Jack, “You idiot!”
The abrasive giggle is cut short by Cherry pulling at Kelsey's shoulder. Moira hurries to get closer.
“That was really dreadful, Kelsey,” Cherry is saying. “Jack's been trying to settle the bird around people and you've just set him back, maybe weeks! And the poor bird was really scared!”
“He'll get over it!” says Kelsey, chin jutting.
“You little minx,” Moira says, as she gets near. She wants to reach out and slap her.
“It'll take ages,” Cherry says. Moira has never heard her sound so cross.
Jack is still trying to quieten the bird, which is twitching in agitation, occasionally calling and flapping again.
“I think it would be better for the bird if you went on with your walk,” he says. “Don't do anything like that again. No-one here deliberately harms an animal.”
Kelsey hisses incredulously. “Eesh! He's not harmed. What a fuss!”
Jasper, who's watched the whole process in amazement, squares up to Kelsey now. “Only the toddlers have to be told to be gentle with animals. Everyone else knows.”
Kelsey snorts. “No-one around here can take a joke!”
“Not funny, Kelsey,” Moira says, struggling to find words.
Cherry takes the girl by the elbow and pushes her down the path. A few paces on, Kelsey shakes her off.
Moira decides she's going to talk to Drum about Kelsey's behaviour. Teasing Cloud is one thing. That was just nasty.
…. And so Kelsey drops like a stone into the calm waters of Heartspan. Tiny waves ripple outwards, unsettling. The universe notices, and gears up for a substantial change of mood ...
Norwich is a small City which always had a town-like feel to it, despite its two cathedrals and chunky central castle. It used to use the tagline “a fine city" but these days it is better known as “the edible city". The Green party has overrun the council here for many years, an oasis within a rural county dominated by right wing farmers.
In spite of being at Heartspan for three years, Moira has not been back into Norwich since she arrived all that time ago by train. She's all but forgotten how astonishing it is to see the streets lined with fruit trees, underplanted with tomatoes and salad plants, clusters of herbs and sprouting broccoli, and bright little companion flowers.
Their bashed up old motorbike only runs on alcohol that they make themselves at Heartspan, but fuel-powered vehicles are not allowed within the inner ring road of the city - it’s a no-fumes zone. So the women park up in an outer street and jump on an electric shuttle bus to take them the rest of the way in.
The huge marketplace with its brightly coloured, stripe-roofed stalls spread out between the ancient buildings, looks pretty much as it has for 1000 years, all bustle and hubbub.
Hannah gives Moira a wide-eyed look, Moira winks reassuringly, and they plunge in, list at the ready. Nearly an hour later, they emerge, with bags bulging, bright-eyed and stimulated after chats and laughs with a few of the stall-holders.
“Gads!” says Moira, “I love the Spanners, sure I do, but it’s fair good to encounter some fresh faces, don’t you think?”
She’s rewarded with a grin from Hannah and thanks the stars and any nearby angels for the inspiration to come to Norwich today.
Hannah says, “We don’t have so much to carry, and it’s such lovely day, do you wanna walk down to the river? It’s just about 20 minutes to get to Tiffany’s and it’s a great walk. Bit of nostalgia!”
Hannah smiles and Moira nods, a little frisson under her ribs warning that this may trigger unsettling meomories for Hannah. But she seems reasonably at peace as they walk, cutting through the cathedral grounds where ornamental cherry trees and lawns have been replaced by apples, pears, hazelnuts and delightful arrangements of vegetables with companion flowers.
People are out, strolling along the riverside and eating picnic lunches.
Moira suddenly touches her friend’s arm.
“It’s easy to forget there are all these people here, doing their thing. Sometimes it’s as if Heartspan is the only place on Earth,” she says.
“I know what you mean!” says Hannah, emphatically.
Moira feels a great surge of warmth for her friend. She always does know what I mean. Thousands wouldn’t. What a star! I’m beyond blessed having a friend like this!
They cross an old stone bridge and turn onto the road alongside the river.
>>Description to come: RIVER FULL AND BURGEONING WITH AQUATIC FOOD CROPS ALONG THE EDGES, LOTS OF NON-MOTORISED BOATIES COMING TO AND FRO. ROAD ITSELF VERY DIFFERENT, CONTRASTING IMAGES.<<
“Come on,” says Hannah, with a touch of excitement. “The Palace is just along here. It's about time you met Tiffany.”
Moira's heard a lot about Hannah's best friend at school. Or mostly not at school, by all accounts. She feels a happy curiosity building. People are so endlessly fascinating.
Hannah heads up the steps of a three-storey, brick terrace opposite the river. It looks like an ex-bed and breakfast place. A crudely painted sign in cerise and purple announces “The Palace” above the door. From the open windows upstairs “I want to break free” by Queen is blaring. Hannah leans on the buzzer and then hammers on the door. Moira wonders how anyone will ever hear them.
The door is opened by a very round teenage girl, wearing leggings and a mini-dress stretched to bursting over her large breasts and hips. There's an orange feather duster in her hand and a tiara perched on her maroon hair.
“Hi, where's Tiffany?” Hannah shouts. “Tell her Hannah's here!”
Leaving the door ajar, the girl lumbers upstairs. Hannah and Moira slip in. They stand in the hallway while a crowd of cheap china miniatures jiggles on a little sideboard. Beside them is a cake-stand full of tiaras, with a sign saying, “please wear a tiara in the house”. Above, banging and cheery shouting pierces the music.
In a silvery frame on the wall is a home-printed pronouncement. Moira reads:
“I am a divine princess. I value this beautiful gift of life. I refuse to devalue this gift with drugs, or by selling my body, or by allowing anyone to abuse me in any way. I am a divine princess. I am light. I am peace. I am love.
We are sisters of the light, bonded in our humanity. We value each other, we support each other. We are divine princesses. We are light. We are peace. We are love.”
Moira tries on a sparkly blue tiara, checking herself out in a mirror by the cake stand. Hannah grins and picks a pink one. It clashes horribly with her lime T shirt. The music dips a little and someone drums rapidly down two flights of stairs.
A woman sweeps down, giving Moira a brief glimpse of a big face with a jaw as deep as Hannah's is wide, then the two of them are hugging and jumping around and shrieking. Her hair is a shaggy, greying mop and she's without make-up. She's wearing an old brown jumper and black trousers belted over a hefty pot belly. And a diamanté tiara.
Moira waits for her friend to remember she's there, wondering why women have to get so high-pitched when they're excited.
Hannah's rubbing Tiffany's hair, astonished. “You're only 33, what's going on?”
“Ugh! It's been grey ages, I just got fed up with the roots so I stopped dyeing it. I have other priorities now. Anyway, council takes me a bit more serious, they think I'm 50!”
Moira notices the marked difference between the gaunt, blonde Tiffany in a couple of photos on the side and this rounder, softer woman before her. The lines on her face seem happier.
“Tiff, this is my good soul-buddy Moira. Moi – Tiff.”
Moira can sense Hannah's pleasure as her two best friends make their first greetings and exchange a quick hug. Tiffany smells of lavender.
“Tracey,” yells Tiff, with lungs to rival the music, “turn that down a bit more, will you?”
The girl who answered the door appears briefly on the stairs, nodding.
Tiff leads the way into the kitchen. “Sorry about the decibels! This is how we blast through the cleaning up, makes it fun.”
At the sink is a slope-shouldered girl in a fairy tutu and fairy wings. She has a tiara stuck at an angle in her curly brown hair. Pink rubber gloves with faux fur trim protect her hands from the washing up water. The effect is startling, coupled with her dark stripy tights and black doc martins.
She turns and smiles as they come in. She has a sparkly stud in her nose. “Shall I make some tea?” she says, sizing up the visitors.
“You're all right, Pearl,” says Tiff, “just let me fill the kettle.”
So Moira finds a bit of cupboard to lean against while Tiffany clatters about and Hannah gives some Heartspan news. How funny they look together, Moira thinks, the battle of the jaws! Strong-boned women with a sense of humour from the deeps. They must have been some trouble when they were teenagers. And here I am, like a pixie in with the trolls! Better be minding my step, now. Moira feels her mouth twitching at the corners. Hannah catches her eye, gives her a glint, the reassurance that Moira's secret amusements are OK by her. There is trust. Moments like this, so fleeting, are immeasurably precious. Moira thanks her stars to have found Heartspan and Hannah when she did. A thousand, thousand thank-you's.
Tiff is saying, “I've eight other women here now. They're a great bunch and it's working really well. So well, there's a waiting list but no-one wants to move on at the moment.” She smiles over at Moira. “Hannah must've told you we're all ex-prozzies, druggies and alkies, has she?”
Moira nods affirmation, but says, “Hah, she told me you were all retired astronauts.”
Tiff throws out her pointy chin and laughs. “Also true! But I think the correct term is Space Cadets, ha ha!”
“Ah, that must've been it, right enough!”
“So I've ended up on, like, a committee to help set up other community houses like this one, so women can look after each other. We've called it Stepping Stones, but some women may never go on anywhere else. Everyone is different. Actually having a few women in each house who pulled themselves out of the shit years ago is really helpful to the new ones. Steadies them. And we encourage the girls to come back and visit when they get set up elsewhere so the new girls can see what they can work towards, that it's all do-able.”
“You're a hera and an angel,” Hannah says, hugging Tiffany.
“I love it, Han. It's what I'm meant to be doing. It's why I had to go through the shit myself. I'm certain of that now.”
Tracey bursts in to the kitchen. “More visitors,” she says, gruffly. “Better come see.”
Tiff raises eyebrows at Hannah and smiles apologetically at Moira as she goes back into the hall. The women hear kids' high voices and the deeper, urgent tones of a woman.
Hannah pushes out of the kitchen, so Moira follows. It's crowded in the hall. Tracey is standing on the stairs, still holding the feather duster, Tiffany just in front of her. There's a push chair with a moon-faced Buddha-baby strapped in. Two little girls hang on to bits of clothing of a thin woman in skinny jeans and high heels. Her dark hair is scraped back from her face into a slicked pony tail. She's frowning, face all pinched, and her voice keeps catching.
“I know you don't take kids normally, Tiffany, but I got nowhere else. I can't go back. The bastard's dumped on me and they've already threatened to take the kids if I get in trouble again.” She starts to weep. “Please, Tiff, please don't let them take the kids. I know I can pull myself together, I just need a little bit of time, some space. If they take them -” She can't speak.
Moira is alarmed. If she's talking about the kids being taken 'into care' then she understands the woman's fear. Everyone knows plenty of those horror stories these days. Glancing suddenly at Hannah, she feels there's no chance for them to ignore this.
Tiffany is trying to console the woman. “We'll sort something out, Vicky, don't worry.”
Hannah is scratching at her chin with a strange desperation in her eye. She and Moira lock gazes, biting lips. For a long moment.
Then Moira says, “We can take you somewhere out of town.” Hannah's eyes show a leap of hope. Gratitude. Moira takes that as sufficient reward for all the troubles she may be facing with Connor. And the others at Heartspan. Before the arguments play out in her mind, she says, “We can help you.”
Vicky looks up, tissue to nose. She's looking at Moira and Hannah like she's only just realised they're there. Moira suddenly thinks of the tiaras. How incongruous they seem.
“Sorry. Who are you?” Vicky says, through gravelly throat. She clears it, loudly.
“Friends,” says Moira, simply.
Vicky looks at Tiffany, who nods. “Take it from me, sweetheart,” she says. “None safer.”