"Not so Zen any more, Mr Dervan..."
'So what's with the white stone?' I have been asked.
Well, I call this beautiful hunk of rock my 'Serenity Stone'. It sits atop a hill, only a few hundred yards from the farm house that belonged to the Dervan family for generations. It commands a panoramic view of five counties; on a clear day Offaly, Tipperary, Claire, Galway and Roscommon unfold beneath it like a vast patchwork quilt. Legend has it that it was a fertility stone, and when I started writing Serenity Song, I regularly clambered up the hill to wrap my arms around this lonely menhir, hoping to absorb some of its potency. I imagined invisible tendrils of Iron Age energy flowing in through my every pore, fertilising my imagination. (I made a point of not trudging up the hill on a wet day - for some reason, driving rain and cement-like mud somewhat impaired the transcendental nature of the whole experience...)
A couple of weeks ago, I was home in Ireland and, knowing my novel was on the verge of publication, decided to pay my respects to the stone. All those hugs had paid off; I had finished something that I'd started almost two years earlier. In that time, my life had been turned on its head - financially, professionally and emotionally. I felt a sense of poignant wistfulness as I followed winding country lanes to the field in which the stone stood. It was a sunny day - rare for the West of Ireland - and I was sporting faded red jeans and a bright blue shirt. Pausing at the farmer's gate as I always did, I checked to see if there was anybody about: I was perfectly alone with just the fields and breeze about me. Of course I was aware that every time I strode through the long grass, I was technically trespassing; but I convinced myself there must be some age-old Irish by-law giving wanderers the right to tramp across private property as long as they embraced the grey fingers of granite that sprouted from the hilltops. If there wasn't - there really should be.
So, as the sun beat down, I made my way towards the solitary stone, my brightly coloured clothes incongruous against a backdrop of a thousand subtle shades of green. Standing at the summit, I surveyed the rolling fields below, the silver lakes and blue mountains in the distance. I rested for a while in its shade. It had been a tough couple of months for me and I suddenly felt quite weepy. Pressing my forehead against the cool rock, I whispered a silent prayer to the moss-covered menhir. I prayed for a better future. I gave thanks for a novel completed. Noticing a ladybird on the back of my hand, I tumbled into a deep reverie on the nature of transience: This stone was standing here thousands of years before the first Christian missionaries arrived on the island. It was standing here when Cromwell unleashed his Puritan rage on the city of Drogheda. It watched millions die or emigrate during the Great Hunger. It was witness to revolution and Civil War and it would still be here thousands of years after my own bones had turned to dust. My wretched year was infinitesimal in comparison to the spectrum of pain and anguish this stone had witnessed. The poor ladybird wouldn't even be here to see the snow powder the hilltops the coming winter.
All things have their time; all things must end.
Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by a sense of utter calm - and for the first time since I had saved the final draft of my novel - a deep serenity.
I almost floated back down the hill, trance-like, keen to share my spiritual experience with the good friend who'd come to stay at Dervan House with me. I was OK. Everything would be alright. I was at peace.
And then I heard the digger.
Consumptive coughs of gasoline and old engine hacked from behind a hedge. What was worse - they were getting louder. Clouds of coal black exhaust started to seep from the foliage to my left and to my horror, I saw a farmer chugging towards me on caterpillar tracks.
Now, what I should have done in my newly discovered state of tranquillity and self-acceptance was wave nonchalantly and continue my mindful stroll to the gate. But the 25% of my DNA that is thoroughly English collapsed into a state of cringeworthy mortification at the thought of being caught trespassing. So I hit the ground like a sack of spuds. Straight into a semi-solid cow pat as it happened. Swearing under my breath, I began to crawl to the dry-stone wall that led to the gate. Peering through crooked cracks between the stones, I could see that the farmer was working on digging an irrigation channel and his line of sight meant that getting to the gate without being seen was virtually impossible.
But I might make it if I just kept very low to the ground.
I began to edge forwards, following the wall; painfully aware that as far as camouflage went, I was as conspicuous as a British Redcoat passing a pyramid. On top of this, the cows who'd lived in this field were obviously very fond of the view on the other side of the wall if the amount of their crap I was crawling through was anything to go by. I was only metres from salvation when I came across a section of wall that had tumbled. Rusty barbed wire was stapled into two weather-worn posts that slumped against the stones. For an agonising ten minutes, I just crouched; waiting for the farmer to move on, or turn the digger uphill so I could make a run for the gate and vault it.
He was nothing if not methodical - this farmer was going to be here all afternoon.
I waited some more.
Cramp began to set in. I was hot. I smelt of cow arse. And I certainly couldn't stand up now. That would be worse! To suddenly appear on the other side of a hip-high wall from nowhere would be utterly weird. There was nothing else for it but to slither towards the gate on my stomach. Which I did.
Reaching the gate, smeared in every form of field, I found it padlocked. I peeked back to see whether I could be seen if I climbed over it. I could. I really could. Bugger.
I tried to squeeze through the very lowest bars of the lopsided iron-work. I could just about fit my head between them, but there was no way I was going to get the rest of my body through. I was trapped: clearly I was going to have to wait until night fall.
Unless I headed back, skirted the edge of the field using the wall as cover all the way to the far side, and then I could use the curve of hill to hide my escape some other way. And so, snakelike, then crablike, then chimplike I returned the way I'd come. I gave the standing stone a rueful smile as I passed. 'Not so Zen any more, Mr Dervan,' it replied silently.
The sounds of spluttering engine receding, I shuffled awkwardly down the other side of the hill, still terrified that I would be seen. An embankment defended by gorse, topped by another stone wall that in turn was crowned with more barbed wire, was all that stood between me and my freedom: I pushed through the sharp gorse, tearing my shirt in a hundred different places; my forearms more scarified than the most emotionally unstable teen. And then the wobbly ascent of the wall. The ungainly swing of leg over barbed wire. The pain as a barb honed in on testicle and caught firm to the crotch of my trousers. By now I had nothing to lose; I heard underwear and jeans rip as I lunged over the wall, arms outstretched to break the fall. Crashing onto the country lane, my knee smacked painfully against a tree stump as I rolled to a standstill. Dazed; my forehead grazed, my palms bloodied and punctured by gravel, I heard behind me the sound of a gate swing shut and the digger trundle its way down the road back towards the farm.
I hobbled home; sweaty, smelly, aching and bleeding. And to think that only an hour earlier, I'd felt as one with the world as the Dalai Lama. The nascent Buddhist in me baulked at whole farce, but the storyteller just smiled, knowing he had a better tale to tell.
In time I came to understand the wisdom of the stone; it taught me that you must first discover humility before you can hope to attain serenity.
Still work in progress for me, but I'm on the right path. X