The Searching Glance (Salt Modern Fiction)

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9781844714414: The Searching Glance (Salt Modern Fiction)
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‘The Searching Glance’ is the long-awaited second collection from one of Scotland’s leading short story writers. The worlds inhabited by the characters in these stories are diverse – a hill walker is unknowingly watched over as he lies dying on a Highland hill; a Glasgow party-goer searches years later for a woman who may have mistaken him for a monster; a mysterious prize is sought in the perpetual daylight of midsummer Orkney. Whether it is in a suburban garden or on the stark skyline of a Borders hill, the landscape and seasonal extremes provoke and unsettle.

Linda Cracknell’s stories are multi-layered and brooding with longing and loss, allowing the reader a ‘searching glance’ at characters’ lives. With touches of the surreal and hard strokes of reality, these stories will linger in the mind.

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Review:

Linda Cracknell's attention to detail is impressive: she writes as a painter in oils might paint, using a palette rich in both colour and texture, and the people she brings to life seem at once both part of and alienated from the landscapes in which they move. These are quiet yet passionate stories, subtle and striking in their effect. (James Robertson )

Synopsis:

"The Weight of the Earth and the Lightness of the Human Heart": There's a body on the hill. It's not dead yet, but lying very still. I might have taken it for a victim of your cold blast, your deathly grasp. But on the eve of Beltane, your powers are sunk too low to squeeze with your bony fingers at a human neck. Now the body's on so obscure a heathery ledge that your ice-sharp eyes won't pick at it, not without my help. Even the herons that creak along behind you will miss it in this smear of fog and night. There's something strange about its position, one arm splayed awkwardly above its head. The man refuses to move, even to curl himself into the plastic survival bag he has carried for half a lifetime. At the bottom of his rucksack, the bag is rolled against a sediment of oat cake crumbs. Their gradations enumerate his hill walking years - last season's gravel rattles amongst earlier deposits, now ground to a fine sand. But he refuses to move.And so the rucksack pushes up his shoulder blades, thrusting his chest in a barrel to the sky, increasing the elegant curve of that arm that sinks back into the dripping moss. He seems to await the end.

I watched his progress - how the body was slowed to fumbling by lack of food, and the whisky that burned from flask to empty belly. How he slipped on the rocks of the ridge and allowed himself to slither and then pitch, thwacking rocks on the descent. Perhaps you heard, whilst wheeling this season's last circles on the wings of my winds? The weight carried him down with no resistance. He fell like the massive exhalation of a sigh, perhaps with a grain of surprise at the power with which the Earth pulled him down to it, reclaiming him. 'Take me, then', he said, and fell, easily, to obscurity. The man remains inside the body, but he teeters between clinging on and escape. He sinks into the bog, its dark juices oozing around him.Each groan releases him deeper under the mantle of night. He is slipping into oblivion. Shriek with your dying laughter if you must, but if we took a hammer and chisel to this man, you might understand the weight of human cares. We would reveal the hidden landscape, the hardness which dictates his crust. Come look, put down your staff.

Chip down through the strata of sadnesses and see here, in this black seam, as if laid down by a melting glacier, the friend recently buried by liver cancer. There's the soft-eared terrier, his walking companion, crushed under a Salvesen truck. Go deeper and find the lover left behind in Turkey when he was a young man; the father who died in his second year. This layering of pains, these strata, are what make up the man. Like the Earth, he is created from the inside. Notice now (come closer, you're not so weak yet) how this final addition, like the topmost weighty stone placed carelessly on a cairn, threatens to topple the order of the rest.Bearable pains cease to be so. His sadnesses, which have seemed individual, some not even realised, now connect underground like mycelium, fastening together into a cloak which wraps the man, not warming him, but immobilising his limbs and paralysing his heart. This is what has brought the man here, for you to claim if you will, in your last glacial gasp. And this one addition to his pains? The woman, Marion, has gone from him. Strange, how he allows the memory of a smell to haunt him.I followed him back through the years to discover something she sprayed to glisten her arms.

The fresh scent trailed after her, wafted by her hands, and he was mesmerised by the bittersweet astringency. It reminded him of hippy oils that coiled around the rooms of adolescent parties. I've seen men intoxicated, numbed by your rimey strokes till they speak slurred nonsense.But this was a human enchantment. 'It's just moisturiser', she told him. 'But it keeps midgies away too. Those boys use it, working on the Skye bridge, with the hard hats and beefy biceps. Nancies, eh?' But far from repelling him, it drew him close. To him, this fractional, human rush of him to her, the miniature violence of their embraces, was a continental waltz. He felt the force of their collision, as one which thrusts the Earth into mountainous buckles and folds. And now. It happens to all of them, once they've accumulated the rocks and boulders of the years. Like this man, they are pulled into the soil by the weight of pain. They reach a balance between life and a dwindling, seeping, letting go. They will return to the bog, a release with nothing but a small show of bubbles. He wasn't like our normal hill walkers, the ones you crackle after, eyeing for opportunity.I saw how the keeper, who opened the gate for him at the start of the walk (to him, another world ago) looked at him with approval.

He noted the corrugated boots, decent gear for the hill, the rucksack suggesting preparedness. He registered the knowing way the man orientated his map and compass. The keeper swatted at a black cloud of midgies around his head as he said, 'The buggers are here already, aye, so early in the season'. He gestured at the damp shroud submerging the tops, and told him how 'they're lurking up there too, waiting'. As the cuckoo called behind them, the keeper watched the man with the map. His finger crossed the lines which spread and angled and lay against each other to describe this rocky place. How foolish of them not to see the slim shard of time it represents. The lines on the map gesture towards past petrifactions, bubblings and foldings. But they give up no trace of the shifts and rifts to happen tomorrow.Then the keeper saw the man put the map away in his pocket, slide the red arrows on his compass to lay one over the other, and march away on zero degrees, not even on the path. I watched him, long after the keeper had turned away to his work on the estate. So you see, my bony-shouldered friend, it was as if I drew him on, sucking him towards me with my strong-muscled cheeks.

The compass was back in his pocket, but he walked on, as if the orientation was hard-wired in his brain, like an arctic tern migrating north in summer, following the daylight to my realm. He waded blaeberry and bog cotton, his boots clattering across your deep-clawed scratches on the limestone pavement. His head was bent to some human pilgrimage of despair that I was unable to interpret. Like the salmon, sniffing its way back up-river to its birthplace through the familiar sequence of reversed smells - pine-perfumed currents, granite flavoured ground-water, soft sediments - he seemed to discern his path.Do not ask me why he came so desperately towards me. No, it's not for me to know everything, not every small thing, my dear. He noticed the puddles lying in moats around moss-lined rocks, and he saw, reflected in the sleek surface, the clouds that scudded across them. This was all the puddles gave him at the beginning. He climbed higher, into the mist, a black speck against white where he crossed the snow pockets still clutched jealously by the wrinkles of the hill, just as you cling to the months of ice.

Then the reflection of the sky was lost to the bog pools, and he looked deeper. It was faint at first to him, just the hinted arc of an eye-socket. He drank whisky from his flask and saw the dull embossed band across the forehead of one, and at the next, the faint shape of rusted shutters across the chest and over the shoulders, protecting the heart. This he knew to be exactly the defence he should have had.I saw him laugh at this thought, slow and stumbling, and his hands flapped at his open coat as if in an attempt to close himself against your parting gusts. A slight shiver shook at him. Head to toe, caged foot to cased elbow, heads butted up against each other, he saw the brotherly warriors waiting under the bog. He saw that the metallic scales would still clink if they rose out of the bog and were shaken, like the terrier sprinkling water from its coat. He walked on with the certainty that the warriors slept with eyes peeled back and ears awaiting the signal to rise. As he looked darker, beyond reflections of the upper world, he recognised in an unblinking pupil, their deeply resigned waiting. It seemed to me that the company brought a strange comfort to his journey.

He shouldered the hill there, ignoring the summit with its scattered decoration of teetering boulders, the conical thrust of it from the hot heart below.He found a route through the castellations sculpted by your frosty shatterings. He stretched up, hands numbly gripped on damp rock, clutching on the hanging honey-bells of heather, persuading his right foot onto a high step. And he was ambushed. Not by you my dear, let's not flatter your fading energy, but by his own mind. He crushed a herb under his palm, close to his face. The smoky scent of bog myrtle caught at a memory, nudged his body out of balance, excavated a huge chasm of breath from him. I pursued his vision - I admit to curiosity in this human mystery. A younger Marion came smiling from a greenhouse into sunshine with a bowl of ripe tomatoes. Her hair fluttered, sweet with the juice of basil leaves she had brushed against. He circled her and the bowl in his arms, inhaling, drawn inevitably close.In mid-stride on this hill, his 20 years of life with her, a barely discernible grain of time, expanded and became (to him, my dear, to him) the heaviest boulder that all us gods could shoulder.

The nudge of heat and smell, added to despair and stupor, was all he needed to topple. The rest you know.

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