|Something very old indeed.|
Which is how I found myself in a warm room, all wrapped up in a blanket, listening to her soothing tones as she took me through a set of preliminary relaxation exercises. This kind of session involves mild hypnosis, so I know it wouldn’t be for everyone. It also, I suppose, involves a willing suspension of disbelief – something writers find remarkably easy. At no point did I ever feel out of control or even particularly sleepy, although I certainly felt relaxed – with occasional lurches into inexplicable discomfort best described as a sense of falling, a momentary dizziness.
What happens next is a strange mixture of the extraordinary and the commonplace. She begins by asking me to look down at my feet. What do I see? That’s easy. I’m barefoot. I’m looking down at two small bare feet and I feel cold. The floor is chilly. So are my feet. What am I wearing? A white nightdress. Where am I? I’m in a room - it’s dark with the light filtering in. A plain room with whitewashed walls. It is my bedroom and there is a cat, fast asleep on the bed. (I don't have a cat, don't particularly like them, so have no idea what brought a cat into my head.) She tells me to go to the door, open it and go out. What do I see? I'm in a long corridor with wood panelling. But I suddenly know that it only looks long because I’m small. I feel small. I'm a child. This is a plain house, with white walls and dark wood and not much furniture and it’s my home. Plain but by no means poor. It smells like home. It’s morning and I can see the sunlight filtering in and I’m pattering down the corridor on cold bare feet.
We move on. I’m outside. It’s summer. There’s a huge, spreading tree. I’m sitting beneath it, playing. I have a doll or dolls. Made of wood, I think, but with clothes. My mother and father are watching me, my father in a long dark green coat. I’m still small. Yorkshire. I think we live in Yorkshire. What does my father do? ‘Does he work?’ my interrogator says. 'What is his work?' I feel faintly confused. No, he doesn’t work. Not work. In fact ‘work’ seems like the wrong word. He sees to things. He just comes and goes. Has things to do. Tells people what to do. There’s land, a farm. My mother sits and sews. There are ladies who come and sew with her, and then I have to play on my own but I don’t mind. Roses. I can smell roses.
Time shifts. In fact time shifts a bit too quickly. I want the whole thing to go on much longer. I want time and space to explore and contemplate these places and people I can see so clearly. But these sessions seem to have a set length. Maybe they’re afraid we’ll get lost in some hypothetical past! I’m older. What kind of shoes am I wearing? I can see them very clearly: yellow satin, with ribbons and little heels. And they are pinching my feet. They are uncomfortable but beautiful. My dress is very stiff. They stitch me into it I say, casually. I know my full name now. I’m Anne Gilbert, I’m seventeen years old, my mother is dead and I’m still living in this plain stone house with my father. I have no siblings. The house smells of lavender, beeswax and roses. There are a lot of books in the house. But they don’t much interest me. The books are dry, sermons, I say. They are full of sermons and I don’t like them. I can read and write but I don’t want to read them. My voice seems a bit odd to me. Oddly detatched from me if that's possible. If I were to try to pin it down, it would be as though somebody else was speaking. Me and not me at the same time.
I have a friend. That’s why I’m dressed like this, in this dress, in these yellow shoes and this stiff dress. She is richer, lives in a bigger house. I go there to visit her. They are different over there. There are celebrations, visitors. We dance. I love dancing but our house is so quiet. Very quiet. In my head, I can hear the silence of the house. It's not unpleasant at all.
We move on again. I’m twenty and I’m married. I think I must have mentioned my husband’s name but I don’t remember it now. She asks me if I met this man at my friend’s house but I find that quite funny. Oh no, I say. Of course not. He came to our house. He only came to see my father. That’s how we met. He’s a scholar. I distinctly remember the way the word scholar pops into my mind and with it the image of a tall, scholarly husband – not old, but scholarly - with reddish hair. He doesn’t care about his appearance or what he wears, he’s a great ‘thinker’ I say, and I know that I love him dearly. He’s gentle, often distracted. I have to remind him of things. I read to him and I write things down for him. We live ‘in another house’ I say. Not my father’s house but not far away either. Another plain house with a lot of books. I have this image in my head of remote countryside with only a few houses and not much else. We have a little boy. He has red hair too and freckles.
In the next image, I’m forty years old and sad. There's a weight of sadness, of loss. I look down at my feet and see boots. My husband has died and I’m sitting in a chilly stone church – very small, a country church - and I’m sad. For the first time, a date pops into my mind. It is the 17th day of October 1696. (Can that be true? Who knows?) It’s after the funeral. I’ve lost track of time, here in this chilly little church. My son? He’s at sea. In the navy. I miss him. There’s a daughter. Her name is Alice and she’s married. She lives close by. I’m happy for her. But I’m tired. I can feel the sadness and fatigue seeping into me, but it’s not really distressing. I’m too removed from it now. Finally, seven years later, I’m ready to move on. It isn’t painful. I’m just ready to leave. I miss my husband and I’m tired and I slip away. Then, slowly and carefully she brings me back to the reality of the room where I’m still snug under my blanket.
Writing about this now, several years later, I can still see it as vividly as though it really had happened. Especially the wood panelled house, the stiff dress, the yellow shoes. But of course I’m a writer. I can see all kinds of things as clearly as if they had actually happened. That’s what I do. Make things up. And what's more, I often write historical fiction. What both I and my relative found intriguing though, was the very ordinariness of it all – a plain, circumscribed and quietly contented life. I think both of us expected more fireworks. A stronger plot. Fame and fortune. But the reality of day to day living probably was very much as I’ve described for most people, barring war, plague and other terrible eventualities. As you can imagine, I’ve done a bit of googling of Anne Gilbert. I certainly have no Gilbert forebears, to my knowledge. But beyond the fact that Gilbert seems to be a Yorkshire surname, there’s nothing. Nor would you really expect it.
I still don’t know whether it’s all make believe or not. But I would caution anyone thinking of trying it to make sure the person leading you through it knows what he or she is doing. Even with Anne’s quiet life and death, the images conjured are surprisingly powerful. I could imagine under other circumstances that the whole thing might become a bit distressing, that you could have a ‘bad trip’.
Otherwise, well, whether you believe in it or not, it might give you some interesting ideas for fiction.
|The Crusader Rose: one of the oldest in cultivation.|