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Spinning a yarn at the edge of the world

After winning a fellowship to work on a novel anywhere in the world, Nell Stevens seeks out a place free of distractions. Her choice: Bleaker Island in the Falklands – a destination so remote it requires her to pack enough food to survive her stay. ‘Over the course of my stay, I will consume a total of 44,485 calories, and convert them into one 90,000-word novel,’ she writes in this excerpt from Bleaker House. ‘I will be a Book Machine’

Bleaker Island is eight square miles of rock and mud off the south-east coast of an area of the Falklands called Lafonia. The land is owned by a farming couple called George and Alison, who divide their time between Bleaker and Stanley. Sometimes, then, the population of the island will be three, including myself, and sometimes it will be one, including myself. There are also sea lions, a thousand sheep, a small herd of cows, and a colony of gentoo penguins. There is no road. There are no trees.

The settlement in which I live is built on the narrowest strip of the island. This consists of George and Alison’s house, large, positioned on the crest of a small incline, looking down on the other buildings, and a cottage that belongs to the farm manager and his wife, who are both away in England for the duration of my stay. There are two guest houses, which in the summer months will be full of groups on organized wildlife tours of the Falklands, but while I am here both are empty. I stay in the larger, more modern of the two: it has several bedrooms with the same geometric-patterned bed linen and curtains, a kitchen, a living room and the large sunroom, which is where I will write. Also in the settlement: a shearing shed, two other huts that serve unspecified agricultural purposes, and a wind turbine. This is the extent of civilization on the island.

For hours, I sit in the sunroom, staring at the view from the house: bald hillocks and the pattern of cloud-shadows sliding over them. When the wind drops, there are brief moments of unsettling quiet. Then a storm sets in, pelting hail and rain and snow against the glass roof, and I have the feeling that I am sitting inside the weather itself.

At night, it feels too dark to sleep. There’s no phone service. The Internet connection comes and goes, sluggish and unreliable. I play music that doesn’t fill the silence so much as sit on top of it.

I am regimented: I wake early and work my way through Canadian Air Force exercises – sit-ups, push-ups, ridiculous on-the-spot running – from a tattered old pamphlet I found in my parents’ house before I left. I have the idea that the exercises will inspire in me a discipline that will last for the rest of the day, that a kind of military determination might enter me through the dusty pages of the pamphlet.

From my writing station in the sunroom – carefully disarranged laptop and notebooks, blue pen, black pen, pencil, Bleak House – with a view of the bay and the red-roofed shearing shed beyond it, I drink my whole day’s ration of black instant coffee and make calculations. If a first novel should be 90,000 words (I read this somewhere on the Internet once, and cling to it as absolute, indisputable fact) then after my false starts and archive-digging days in Stanley, which produced only 10,000, I have 80,000 words to go. I am on the island for forty-one days, and will need to leave some time at the end for revisions – a week or so should be enough for that, surely? – so say that leaves me with thirty-two writing days: 80,000 ÷ 32 = 2,500. I will write 2,500 words each day, and by the time I leave Bleaker, I will have drafted and revised a whole novel.

The figures scribbled down in the notebook are dry, unemotional. They look remarkably similar to the calorie calculations I made on the previous page: the total number of almonds and raisins in the extra-large bags brought from London, divided by the number of days on Bleaker. I am conducting a simple transaction. Over the course of my stay, I will consume a total of 44,485 calories, and convert them into one 90,000-word novel. I will be a Book Machine.

The less comforting realization following this exercise is that the number of words I am planning to write daily is more than double the number of calories I have budgeted to eat. The conversion that on one level seems so reassuring also appears unsustainable. Is it possible for a Book Machine to operate quite this efficiently? Will I run out of fuel? Will I come to a grinding, spluttering halt out here, alone, in the middle of the South Atlantic, with no hope of repair or rescue?

Mid-morning, I hear the sound of an engine thrumming alongside the whirr of the wind. Moments later the car appears in front of the house. George is behind the wheel, red-faced, hearty, and like everything else on the island, somewhat windswept. Even though I have only met him once, the day before, when he collected me from the airstrip and drove me to the house, the sight of a familiar face makes me feel jubilant with relief. He waves.

Writer Nell Stevens on Bleaker Island. Stevens set out to write 2,500 words a day over the course of a few weeks on the island.

The passenger door opens and Alison, who is trim and impeccably put together, emerges. She wears make-up. She accessorizes. Her glamour strikes a dissonant note against the backdrop of the storm as she trots up the front steps and stamps crusts of mud from her boots. Her accent is distinctly plummy, with no trace of the Falklands’ Somerset-Ireland-Australia twang when she pokes her head into the sunroom and says, ‘Hello there!’

‘Hi,’ I say.

‘Got a spare minute?’ she asks.

I look down at the notebook in my lap, the scribbled numbers, the days stretching ahead and the task that is supposed to fill them. ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Definitely.’

‘Great.’ Alison gestures with her head to the jeep behind her. ‘Come on then.’

The wind hits me like a punch when I step outside.

Alison holds open the car door against the weather’s buffeting and shouts, ‘Hop in! We’re going to spin some yarn!’

Unsure if she means this figuratively or literally, I slide into the back seat of the car and the three of us bounce across the uneven ground around the bay towards the shearing shed. Inside, it is dark and echoey and smells of wood and petrol and animals. In one corner are the materials and apparatus for spinning: sacks of lumpy, yellow-grey wool, still pungent, and a wheel that looks like an instrument of torture. Staring at it, I feel a kind of stage fright. This is the sort of straightforward, practical task that seems mysterious and difficult to me, but obvious and easy to people like George and Alison.

I take the role with the least potential for disaster: positioned beside a sack, I pull knots from the wool, removing twigs and lumps of mud. I pass the de-clumped wool to George at the carder, a contraption that looks like two round-headed hairbrushes side by side. It churns out fluffy, clean fibres like candyfloss. Alison feeds these into the pedal-powered wheel and produces thin strands of wool, ready to be balled and knitted. We work in silence. The machine whirrs. Outside, the wind is howling.

After several hours of de-clumping, a layer of grease has built up on my palms. Soap and hot water don’t shift it. Back in the house that afternoon my hands still smell of sheep.

To spin a yarn. To tell a story. You take something amorphous and lumpy and you order it. You twist it into something with a purpose.

It’s encouraging to think of this as I sit down to commence my 2,500 daily words. It is easy to be a Book Machine, I tell myself. It is easy to be a spinning wheel. I am simply converting the things I have consumed – food, yes, but more importantly the stories I have read, dreams I’ve had, people I’ve met and conversations I’ve overheard – into a different form. My lanolin-coated fingers begin to type a sentence, then another.

It surprises me, that first day, to find the words coming so easily. It feels painless to put them down on the page. With nothing but the weather happening around me, Ollie and his adventures seem more vibrant and absorbing. From the sunroom, the grey view of the bay and muddy fields makes the story I am telling seem brighter in my mind. In less than two hours I check the word count and discover that I’ve already met my goal. I am a strange combination of exhausted and, perversely, a little disappointed. I have done military exercises, devised a master plan for my island time, spun wool with George and Alison and written 2,500 words, and it is only mid-afternoon.

My stomach rumbles suddenly and painfully. The rations I have set out for the rest of the day will at best take the edge off the hunger, rather than satisfy it. In less than a week, George and Alison will be leaving for Stanley and I will be truly and utterly alone.

There is a lot of time ahead of me and perhaps not much to fill it.

Bleaker is not large, but feels that way as I struggle against the wind. I have been trying to get my bearings. The northernmost and southernmost points are hard to reach by foot, so my early explorations cover the middle section, where the landmarks have reassuringly literal, solid names: Big Pond, Rocky Gulch, Pebbly Bay. I learn the route between my house and the beach where the aquamarine water looks, in rare glimmers of sunshine, discordantly tropical. As I cross the white sand, my footprints are the only ones. It is like walking on fresh snow. Bright sunlight followed by dark cloud-shadows. Wind. Bleached pieces of bone underfoot.

At the far end of the beach, a penguin colony is forming. The birds cluster together facing the ocean, from which others emerge in threes and fours. When I get too close to them they slide onto their stomachs, waggle their heads from side to side and gargle distractedly; if I keep my distance, though, they seem happy to ignore me, and continue to gaze out to sea unfazed.

Bleaker Island is home to a variety of animals, including shy penguins, roaring seal lions and sunbathing fur seals.

On these early expeditions, I reach places that, for the remainder of my stay, I never find again: a dark, slimy cave half hidden in the cliff face; a patch of coastline off which a huge pillar of rock stands upright in the ocean, waves frothing at its base. Later, I spend days searching for these spots with no success. They begin to take on a mythic quality in my mind. I plough through mud and hail, certain that if I cover enough ground I will surely come across them again, but I never do. Instead I find animals: a sea lion whose disturbed roar sends me scurrying backwards, stumbling over my own feet and mounds of tussac, heart pounding; fur seals sprawled like sunbathers on the rocks; giant wheeling birds above me.

Alison creates a phrase for my writing process. She calls it ‘doing my words.’ She pulls up outside the house each day around eleven and cheerfully calls over the roar of the wind, ‘Have you done your words today, Nell? Do you want to come for a drive?’ I respond, ‘Yes, I’ve done my words,’ or ‘No, I haven’t done my words yet.’

You’d better stay in and do your words.

Get your words done so you can go for your walk before the storm hits.

Pop over for a biscuit when you’ve finished doing your words.

There are several days, early on, when the process does not go as smoothly as it did on my first attempt. Sometimes it takes me an hour, two hours, to settle on a single sentence. I am stuck on the outside of the story, blindly guessing what its real author would write. On those occasions it feels as though I am dragging the pages out of myself, letter by letter, and that each one is flat and dry and dead and weighty.

In these episodes of uncertainty, I cling to Alison’s idea of ‘doing words’ like a life raft, even after she and George have left the island, taking off in a little red plane that wobbles over the settlement before it disappears. ‘Doing words’ is a much less daunting activity than writing. It feels matter-of-fact, as though each word is a small, inevitable, finite, quotidian task. I do sit-ups and push-ups from the Royal Canadian Air Force Exercise Plan. I do my daily walk to the beach and back. I do my words.

Penguin chicks huddle together on the coast of Bleaker Island.

A dream: You are in a place that looks like England. You are with your friends. They say, Come to a party with us! And you say you’ll go. And then you look around and realize that you are in fact 8,000 miles away from them, and completely by yourself.

Breakfast: a sachet of instant porridge made with water. A glass of gelatinous fibre drink. Instant coffee (no milk). This is the best meal of the day, and I eat it at the window, looking out to sea.

Eleven o’clock: Twenty-five raisins and ten almonds. I count them out deliberately, obsessively, knowing that if I accidentally take more, I risk hungry days later on.

Lunch: powdered soup, a granola bar, instant coffee.

Four o’clock: twenty-five raisins, ten almonds. Sometimes in the afternoons I forage for extra supplies in the house: half a bag of pasta at the back of a cupboard, a tin of peach slices, a jar of chutney.

Dinner: powdered soup.

Just before bed: a single Ferrero Rocher, which I eat so slowly that it lasts a full hour. I lick the chocolate shell as though it were ice cream and nibble at the wafer beneath. It is the pinnacle of luxury, a reward for making it through another day. It is a nightly celebration that my return to civilization, to warmth and conversations and company and a variety of views from a variety of windows, is inching closer. In my notebook, I muse on confectionery: ‘You never really want the hazelnut – but imagine how it would taste without it and the whole project of the Ferrero Rocher would fall flat. It would be bland and empty. It simply has to have the nut.’

The day that George and Alison left for the mainland, Alison came to the house and gave me a potato. ‘I had one spare,’ she said, as she held it out to me. In my hands, it was weighty, earthy, large – the opposite of powdered soups and fibre gel and painstakingly counted raisins. I took it to the kitchen and placed it, like a kind of trophy, on the counter.

It is still there. I am saving it for an emergency. It squats by the kettle, full of promise and reassurance, waiting to be called upon, and I spend a lot of time staring at it. I try to imagine the moment in the coming days or weeks when I will be so desolate and lonely that I will make the decision to eat it. What will have changed by then? Who will I be when I turn on the oven, pierce the brown skin, and bake the potato?

Excerpted with permission from Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World by Nell Stevens (Knopf Canada, March 2017).

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