The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell

Historical Fiction, Extract, For Adult Readers, Quick Read
Dyslexia Font
Sandra Arnold

Nov 08   ●  5 min read   ●  Mākaro Press

Losing her daughter to the Christchurch earthquake sends Lily back to her childhood village in Northern England to scatter Charlie’s ashes. It’s a place of ghosts for Lily after the mysterious drowning of a school friend at the old village well – a tragedy somehow linked to the death of a local woman accused of witchcraft three hundred years earlier. Now Lily’s back, she wants to find out what happened at the well and the truth behind the swift departure of her friend Israel. The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell spans three centuries and three countries, exploring the love and history that makes a community, and the hate and secrets that can destroy it.



Christchurch, July 2011

Lily is standing on her verandah in Governor’s Bay looking out to sea. She’s replaying Charlie’s childhood in her head. Her bright red hair. Her tears whenever she saw a dead animal on the road. Her relief that the frog didn’t get squashed. The holiday in Golden Bay when Charlie was ten.
They were in the car when they heard on the radio that there was a whale stranding on Farewell Spit and more volunteers were needed.
“Let’s go, Mummy,” Charlie pleaded.
On the beach hundreds of pilot whales were lying on the sand. Some were already dead, others were still breathing. Charlie started to cry.
“There’s no time for that,” said Lily. “There’ll be plenty of time to cry later. Right now we have to do what we can.”
Charlie sniffed back her tears and ran to the sea to fill the bucket a volunteer handed her. She joined a group pouring water over sheets the volunteers had spread over the whales’ backs to keep them cool and wet. Lily looked into the eye of the whale she was helping. It gave a low whistling sound. A calf lying nearby answered. Lily glanced up. A chain of people were in the sea trying to stop the re-floated whales coming back to shore.
“They won’t leave their babies,” someone said. “Even when their babies are dead.”
The beach filled with the saddest sounds Lily had ever heard.
Standing on her verandah, she hears again the whales’ keening. It reverberates through her gut, blood, bone and brain. It splits her heart. It tears her out of her skin, leaving her ragged with pain.




It’s a year since the earthquake. Seven months since Lily remembered the whales.  Today shoppers drift in and out of the brightly painted shipping containers that are temporary replacements for the demolished shops. They stop for a coffee and something to eat at one of the container cafés. They take photographs of cracked buildings and the cordoned off Bridge of Remembrance at the west end of Cashel Street.
Lily looks at the sky and wonders how it can be so blue and how the clouds can drift like that as if what happened here had never really happened. She stops to listen to a young woman busking on the pavement, her voice like rich dark chocolate. She is singing Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. Two blocks away, a digger sinks its jaws into yet another high-rise building, its noisy crunching not quite loud enough to kill the song.
A bent figure in a black cloak and a tall pointed hat strolls past, pushing a bell on a cart. The Wizard is on his way to Cathedral Square to protest against the cathedral’s demolition. A group of people follow him wanting to sign his petition. A man argues that there’s no point in restoring the cathedral. “It has no relevance in today’s society. The earthquake has given the city a chance to start again. Building a city for the future is the way forward, not harking back to the past.” A woman tells him that restoration of the city’s heritage buildings will help it to heal. She signs the petition. The man shrugs and walks away.
As the singer’s song ends, her small audience claps its appreciation. People come forward and drop money in her straw sunhat upended on the ground. They talk to her and smile, then drift away.
A woman asks Lily if she is going to the first anniversary memorial service in Hagley Park. It begins in a hour. Lily shakes her head.
“John Key will be there,” the woman says. “I read in the Press this morning that someone will blow a conch shell to mark the time it happened. A group of children will release one hundred and eighty five monarch butterflies, one for each soul who died. There’ll be a message from Prince Charles. Nice, eh? My neighbour’s son died in the CTV building, so I thought I’d go along to pay my respects. That’s the thing with Christchurch; everyone knows someone who was affected. Still hard to believe.” She walks away towards the river.
Lily tells the singer she has a beautiful voice. The girl’s face dimples and she says she practises here every day and hopes for a professional singing career. Lily touches her arm and wishes her all the luck in the world.
“Thank you so much!” the girl says and gets ready to sing again.
Lily wanders over to a café and buys a cup of coffee. She sits, drinking it, listening to the girl.
By 12.50pm the container mall is all but deserted. Lily supposes people have gone to the service. She’s standing in the gravelled car park where the bakery used to be. She’s standing where she and Charlie lay under concrete slabs.
At 12.51pm her lungs lock. She can’t move. She can’t breathe.
A blackbird hits a plate glass window. A loud bang, then feathers float and settle. The bird lies on the grass, one wing fluttering.
“Poor bird,” says a woman leaning over the balcony of the container café.
“Yeah! Poor little bugger!” says a man behind her. “They’re always doin’ that. They try to fly into the light.”
Lily breathes. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out.
The singer begins a new song.




In his office, Dr McIlrae asks, “Are you sure you can cope with a twenty-hour flight? It’s still early days.”
“There’s nothing to keep me here now,” Lily tells him. “Zugunruhe.”
He raises his eyebrows.
“The tug homeward felt by migratory birds.”
“Ah. I see. How long do you think you’ll stay in the UK?”
“I don’t know.”
Dr McIlrae nods. “Well, if you’re sure you’re ready.”

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