I wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago concerning my newest novel ‘The Well of the North Wind’. But I’m aware that I didn’t include anything from it, and this time I want to do so. The strange thing is that the novel started out as a short story, and for a long time nothing more than that first part – the short story – was put onto paper. It was only when I was back in Arctic Norway, working on an entirely different piece of writing, that Fian’s story came back into my head and I realised it was not finished. The conditions in Arctic Norway were perfect. I was staying in a college where I knew nobody, but there were students all around me. I had absolute silence for much of the day; quite a lonely silence that was only broken now and again by the howling of husky dogs outside. There was still almost a metre of snow around the college that April, and often the temperature must have fallen to below minus twenty. But it’s not nearly as miserable a cold as I know here in northern Scotland through the winter: here the cold is damp and biting – in the north of Norway it’s crisp and clear and diamond sharp. Even though it was into spring, on occasion the students would come and tell me the Northern Lights were showing and we would go out and watch them rising and falling, like the spirits of long dead horses. So it was here that the remainder of the novel was written in just four weeks. Stories work best for me like that: they pour out of the pen without undue self-consciousness on my part. The more aware I am of the process and even of the story the more I get in the way. The story wants to be written: it must have nothing getting in the way of reaching the page and coming alive at last.
One night, one spring night, they sang not in the chapel but out on the limestone pavement. They sang there because the stars were falling; on every side there were bright trails of silver, little fires that shone a moment and were gone. A wind blew across the night, clear against their faces, but the beauty of the skies was too much – they had to behold it. It was a night you could see to the edges of the world; Fian turned all round and caught a hundred landfalls, each one of them crested with a sharp edge of snow. Even here on the tableland, a few footfalls above the sea, snow lay in the crevices and the stones were polished with ice.
‘What do you think it means?’ Fian whispered to Lua, looking right up into the blue-black night. A great white tail streaked down the sky.
‘I think we will find out what it means,’ Lua whispered back, bending to Fian’s ear. ‘I think tonight it means the world is special.’
It was almost midnight and still the boy did not feel tired. The dry wind blew around them, fierce, and as he held his head high he felt as though he was no longer standing but rather flying. The stars darted this way and that, and somehow he was among them, he flew with them. The monks sang on and on, their voices did not pause or break, and the words flowed through his head, carried him. He did not want this to end; he did not want to fall to earth again.
‘How would you like to wait up and watch the dawn?’
He was so far away in his thoughts he did not properly hear Innis’ words at first. Nor did he realize that the others were drifting away now, still singing, departing to sleep. There were not so many stars now, just one or two, and they did not seem as bright as before. But still he was tired; never in his life had he felt so awake. He turned and nodded, whispered his yes and looked back at the sky.
‘The night is long,’ Innis said, and the boy heard the edge of a smile in his voice. He said no more than that but led him over to a little knoll, a place to which Marua had always gone to pray. Marua who now could not speak; he who had given so much with his words.
They sat there, facing out west to sea as Marua had done, and still Fian’s face was turned upwards into the sky. He saw the strokes of the falling stars and all at once they made him think of all he drew in the sand, the letters and pictures. It was on his lips to tell Innis and then he stopped: the words froze and he kept them to himself. But it was as though a giant hand was writing on the cloth of the sky. He thought of all the stories he had heard of God and imagined this as another, that once in the crossing of the wilderness they had looked up and read the letters that were drawn in the sky.
From The Well of the North Wind, published in London by SPCK, and available also on Kindle.