Skokholm Syndrome

The Best Story I Never Published

I spent a week on a tiny isolated island called Skokholm (Welsh: Ynys Sgogwm), a bird sanctuary just a few kilometres off of the coast of Pembrokeshire, in Wales. The only structures are a lighthouse, bird hides and a collection of 18th century farm buildings which were rebuilt in 1927 by Welsh naturalist Ronald Lockley using timber from a shipwreck. Now the cottage and the cowshed (renovated into five comfortable bedrooms) are available for weekly stays. There’s a shared toilet, no shower. The communal kitchen is powered by bottled gas. Lights and refrigeration rely on solar power: in the Welsh weather, there’s a constant risk of being left without power. There’s no wifi, no central heating. Guests bring their own sheets, logs for the fire and enough food to last a fortnight in case the Dale Princess, a 10-metre open-decked boat, can’t make the weekly journey to the island.

It was an amazing experience, both the solitude and the community. At the end of the week, as we were waiting for the Dale Princess to come and rescue us, one of the researchers asked me for the recipe for the brownies that I had made earlier in the week. It was a spur of the moment decision to bake, based on the odd collection of food to be found in the island stores, and I was struck on just how impossible it would be to explain that as a recipe.

Once I was back in civilisation, back to my normal life, doing my normal things, I kept thinking about this recipe. Finally, I tried to write down exactly what someone would need in order to bake the brownies that I had impulsively shared that afternoon. I wrote a recipe for that week in my life.

First, you need an island. Start with a small Welsh one made of old red sandstone, one mile long and half a mile wide. Sprinkle the edges liberally with sea campion and thrift.

Populate with birds. Add Vikings. Add Normans with rabbits. Allow to settle before adding a farm and drystone walls. Build one lighthouse with the help of a donkey, a pony, a tractor. Add a home, built from a shipwreck. Maintain ornithologists in a steady stream over decades, despite the rough landings and island hardships. Finally, add modern renovations: a gas-powered kitchen, running water, solar power. Now the island is ready for you to arrive.

I tried to sell this as a story but it was not mainstream, not speculative, not sensible like a story should be. It made no sense to anyone. Why would you need an island to make brownies?

I was lucky enough to get another week on the island, a personal retreat to another world which I had already come to love. The researcher who wanted the recipe wasn’t on the island anymore. Still, I wanted to share this story-shaped thing that I had written. I brought a print-out with me to give to the wardens of the island. They might understand it… or at least appreciate the influence that the single week on Skokholm had had on me.

I didn’t have the nerve to hand it over. I left it on the rickety bedside table by my door waiting for the perfect moment which never arrived.

An island tradition is to meet up every evening for the “bird log” and to discuss the day. The others were very kind and asked me every evening how my writing went. They mostly knew each other, all British, all knowledgeable bird watchers and all regular visitors to Skokholm. I wasn’t doing very well at bluffing my way through their world. That day I’d spotted a swallow flying by the rafters of the cow barn and pointed it out. But somehow I got confused. “Is that a sparrow?”

One of the old hands, Chris, rolled his eyes. “Yes, that’s a sparrow,” he said.

I was mortified. “No, no, swallow. I meant swallow, honestly!but he just walked away, shaking his head.

I didn’t really fit in.

There’s a bird hide on the east side of the island where you can pick up intermittant 3G from the mainland, so I would hole up in there once a day or so to check my mail. Towards the end of my stay, I discovered that Skokholm Brownies had been rejected again. I wasn’t even sure why I was still sending it out, except that that is what one does with stories. Somehow, I still believed that the way I’d told the story of the island was right. Right for the island, if not right for the rest of the world. I sat out on the sloped cliff full of unoccupied puffin burrows and read the recipe aloud to the seals.

Run away from home and take a small boat across a narrow sound. When the tide is right and the wind is calm, dock at a small concrete jetty with an old rusted loop. The residents (all five of them) will be standing on the dirt track, waiting for you.

Wander along the narrow paths, pausing often to watch the sea and the cliffs and the salt marsh. Mind the pair of Oystercatchers screeching their unhappiness with your presence near their nests (with your very existence). Photograph the gulls and the seals and of course the puffins a hundred times or maybe two. Push away thoughts of your windowless office and the report due on Thursday week. Follow every white-rocked trail, stepping over the Manx Shearwater corpses strewn along the path like fallen angels. Fall in love with every little thing on the island. Build up an appetite.

Note: If from the corner of your eye, you see a furry black creature bound away, don’t look too closely. This is the dream island of Watership Down and you will not survive an encounter with the Black Rabbit of Inlé. Keep walking.

It was the last day of my retreat when I decided that I was being an idiot, the typical too-stupid-to-live heroine stuck in her own plot. Why hadn’t I shown the story to anyone? Why was I reading it to the mammals on the island least likely to share my enthusiasm?

I have done readings at workshops and corporate offices and even in a dusty half-abandoned room in the back of a conference hall, filled with rickety chairs. Here I was, with two dozen people here who loved the island even more than I did and who were interested in what I’ve been doing all week. I should at least ask.

I summoned all my courage and went straight to the woman in charge of the volunteers and asked her opinion, begging her to tell me no if she thought I was being self-indulgent. She loved the idea and recommended that I ask the wardens if I could do the reading before the evening meeting.

Now that I knew she would say something if I didn’t, I found the courage to ask the warden. He was enthusiastic and told me to do it at the meeting, not before, so that everyone would definitely hear it.

I almost backed out. Now people didn’t have a choice but to have my reading inflicted on them. I timed the piece: ten minutes. That seemed like a long time to force a captive audience to listen. I arrived that evening early and sat in the common room staring at my feet while everyone gathered. It was all I could do to keep my breathing steady.

As dark clouds gather, discover a quiet desire for sweet cake brought on by honey-dreams of faeries and selkies. Decide that baking is the only cure for the cold damp and the senseless futility of life. Return to the wheelhouse built from the wreck of the Alice Williams just as the first cold raindrops begin to fall.

I closed my eyes as the warden explained that this evening, we had something very special because Sylvia was going to read to us. I opened my eyes and everyone was staring at me. I apologised to them. It was not a great start.

The story, I said in a quiet voice, was a bit different from normal stories. It was literary, and did not follow traditional story conventions; it didn’t have a hero or a villain or even really a plot. They furrowed their brows and looked very dubious. Somehow, the rational part of my brain managed to stop me from making more excuses: I just had to read the damn thing and get it over with.

Open the solar-powered refrigerator. Resist the temptation to rummage through other people’s baskets. Haul your treasured basket out from underneath, wondering why you keep ending up at the bottom. Consider whether this is an allegory of your life. You have butter and eggs and honey and one over-ripe banana. Return the banana to the basket.

Rummage through the communal stores. You will find corn and tuna and rice and instant mashed potato; they are all useless. There is no sugar. There is one place you haven’t looked: a small white pail in the corner. As if someone predicted you would be here on this island, on this day, desperate for baked goods, hidden in the pail is a 500-gram package of self-raising flour. Claim this for your own along with four European style Mars bars which are US style Milky Ways which are what the UK call their 3 Musketeers which just confuses everyone. It has chocolate and nougat and caramel. It will do.

I felt the tension in the room change. I glanced up from my sheet. They were all still looking at me but no longer with furrowed brows. I saw people smiling and nodding. By the time I described rummaging through the refrigerator, people were laughing out loud. We’d all done it.

Chop up the Mars bars, taking no more than one small piece for yourself. Toss into a small scratched saucepan which has survived decades of hungry birdwatchers. Melt with butter, ignoring the crazed looks of the islanders. Add half of the package of flour and stir, then add precisely one more tablespoon, as if measuring carefully now would make a difference, as if it might change your life. Vow to give up precision, convenience, hyper efficiency. Stare out mournfully at the rain and the wind and the rough grey sea. Decide you should give everything up for a return to the simple life. Become one with nature. Live off the land.

I tried to sneak a look next to me. Chris had sat next to me on the sofa before he knew what was going to happen and I was sure that he was regretting sitting there. He’d been very dour and sarcastic all week and I could only imagine what he thought of my sentimental descriptions. He’d leaned back and I couldn’t see his face. It was probably for the best.

Stealing a gull’s egg would be wildly inappropriate and possibly result in the loss of an eye. Instead, crack open the last two eggs you carefully transported to the island. Add honey. Requisition three large spoonfuls of sugar from the cracked sugar bowl, despite the risk of riots if the English guests discover that you have interfered with their tea-drinking plans.

Pour the Mars-Bar/butter/flour mixture into a buttered casserole dish which looks like it survived both world wars. Consider giving up modern conveniences forever. Light a candle with which to light the oven.

Dash out into the rain, scrambling over muddy trails to the east side of the island, to the small hill with a view of the mainland where you can almost always catch a wisp of 3G, and find out what a Gas Mark Oven is. Find a website which tells you that 350 degrees Fahrenheit is 180 degrees Celsius is Gas Mark 4. Return to the rustic kitchen slightly disillusioned to find someone stealing a spoonful of the batter. Light the oven again and place the dish inside.

The room was full of laughter. I knew I’d won them over. I even felt Chris leaning forward to listen. My voice grew stronger and I began to play with tone, emphasising the poetry and the humour. At one point I had to stop reading completely because everyone was laughing too loud for me to go on.

Bake the brownies for 30 minutes, pacing nervously. Allow to cool, fending off interested parties with a wooden spoon. Cut into four-and-twenty squares, two squares for every person on the island, and serve on an old chipped plate.

The door scraped open. A researcher who had arrived on the island that day walked into the meeting late. She shuffled everyone around as she tried to find a seat, apologising repeatedly.

My words stumbled over each other. The story which had filled me with power just a moment ago somehow stuttered to a stop.

I took a deep breath and then tried again, begging my voice to stay strong for the last line.

Within an hour, they will be a distant memory. Within a week, the island will be too.

On Monday you’ll be home, with your spreadsheets and your utility bills and your laundry. But every now and again, the call of a gull on the wind or the smell of burnt caramel will remind you of this day and you’ll remember again to try to live as if you were shipwrecked, like you are a little in love with every little thing.

The room was silent. My heart pounded so hard, I thought everyone might hear it. I had thought that perhaps there would be a quiet smattering of polite applause at least, or some comments. I chewed my lip and looked up from my print out.

Chris took off his glasses and swiped a handkerchief angrily at his eyes. One of the young bird watchers spoke. “Wow, you broke Chris.”

This broke the silence. Everyone laughed and then suddenly they all started cheering and applauding. People leaned towards me and touched me. “You nailed it,” said one of the researchers. “I think you must have been spying on me,” said the volunteer coordinator. The warden, who had been polite but not particularly interested in my writing during the week, leaned over to catch my attention. “That was fantastic.”

“Not bad,” said Chris, shoving his handkerchief into his pocket. He nodded at me. “Not bad at all.”

The recipe for Skokholm Brownies will never sell as a stand-alone story. It will never be nominated for an award or be chosen for a Best Of. I don’t care anymore. That reading was the most amazing experience that I have ever had as an author.

Maybe I’ll never become a bestselling author. Maybe my writing will never have an impact on the world. But a small group of strangers who shared the small island with me understood what I wrote and told me that it was good.

Or at least, not bad at all.

I’ll settle for that.