Inspiration comes from the strangest places.
When I was growing up in Glasgow – all grey, soot-stained tenements, gangs, and spit on the sidewalks – my mother sometimes reminisced about her stay in “the sanitarium”. This was an isolation hospital specifically for those suffering from tuberculosis. When she was sixteen, she and her fiancé, George Robinson, were walking up a hill with their bicycles one day. By the time my mother got to the top, she collapsed, unable to breathe and coughing up blood.
George got her to his cottage, which was not much further, and when George’s father found out what had happened, he insisted on driving her to the hospital straight away—something not done in those days (most people didn’t even have a car). She was tested, diagnosed with TB, and sent off, south, to a sanitarium surrounded by a forest of pine trees: A complete and sudden life change, ripped away from family, friends and fiancé.
My mother was there for a full year, and did exactly what she was told – after seeing one girl who flouted all the rules suddenly get worse and die, “trying to climb up the walls for air”. At the end of a year, my mother was declared cured, and sent home. For the rest of her life, Xrays would reveal a shadow on her lung, which actually delayed her emigration to Canada for twelve years: But she did get to Canada, her promised land, and lived well into old age, none the worse for having only one lung (the Sanitarium doctors collapsed the other) and enduring decades of chain-smoking. (She quit in her fifties, cold turkey, after another sudden loss-of-breath episode).
“The most beautiful prison you could imagine”
What captivated me in her stories about this traumatic year of her life, however, was not the horrors of TB but her description of the sanitarium itself: A large building high up on a hill, “nothing to see but pine forest”. The front wall of each large room was designed to be completely open to the elements in the belief that fresh air and the aroma of the pines would help heal the TB sufferer. She spoke of falling asleep with the magical, comforting scent of pines covered in snow; of special heated comforters, so that even if the air was freezing, patients toasted comfortably in their beds. “I could have lain there forever and just watched the trees. It was the most beautiful prison you could imagine.”
Even then, I could always extract the magic from the horror. Living on the edge of the Gorbals, with drunks rolling home from the football matches underneath the front room window (where me, my brother and sister all slept), living in a lonely pine forest with no bedroom wall separating me from the trees sounded like heaven.
Fast-forward to now. I’m about to release “Tales of Mist and Magic”, a flash fiction anthology featuring characters and locations from my upcoming Dragonish series. I’m in revision with Book One of the series, “Under the Splintered Mountain”, and well under way simultaneously writing all three books of the trilogy that follows Book One.
“What immediately hit my sense was the peculiarly sour smell of damp earth and ice-cold stone”
This morning I sat down with a cup of tea, shut my eyes and re-visited a scene in the Tower of Souls. What immediately hit my senses was the peculiarly sour smell of damp earth and ice-cold stone – a flashback of an abandoned World War II fox hut hidden high in a forest on a particular hill above Bishopton, Renfrewshire. My sister and I used to play in this old fox hut, the air of desolation and abandonment only adding to the excitement as we concocted ominous stories to act out.
Remembering the fox hut brought a flashback of my mother’s stories about the pine trees and the sanitarium, and I suddenly realized that this was where my Tarn dwellings had come from. The Tarn in my story are an immortal race who live in the great forests covering the four Garths of the Isle of Dragonish. No matter if a Tarn family lives in a cave-carved dwelling or a wooden hall, the living chambers often have walls open to the forest, contained only by a small balcony and heated by “shields” from Tarn cauls – translated: energy fields emanating from their souls, which are less contained within the body than ours are.
The Tarn spend much of their leisure time sitting on their balconies, immersed in the quiet of the forest; the women engaged in household tasks like weaving or sewing and the males generating the shields that are sometimes misused to keep high-born women prisoners in their homes.
What surprises me is that until today, I had no idea where the smell of the Tower of Souls came from, or why the living arrangements of the Tarn produced feelings of imprisonment mingled with magical joy.
Now I know.
Thanks, Ma …