-Reviewed by Elinor Walpole-
Pickin’s Remains is a tale of a walker (and a very particular type of walker at that- the protagonist is keen not to be associated with the middle class ‘Walking Business’) who, to his shame, loses his way. Opening with the warning from the third person narrator ‘He had set out too late, and now the light was dying’ the tone is neatly set for the rest of the story as the protagonist faces the challenge of finding his way back to the holiday cottage where he is meeting his friends.
Distinguishing himself from others is important to our protagonist, and his failure to return at a sensible hour is ‘a deviation from his self-image as a seasoned traveller’. The friends to whom he is meant to be returning he met on a gap year, but again he is keen to self-justify that his gap year hadn’t been the cliché of overprivileged students ‘windsurfing, white-water rafting, and bungee jumping with a few days of slumming it watching other people work in the host country’. Rather ‘He had chosen to do something real, something that called for hard graft but was satisfying… that would be of lasting benefit to his own country’.
With the initial rational challenges of a rough and tricky-to-navigate terrain providing a sense of hard-won achievement for our protagonist, as his discomfort grows – he feels the ‘rhythmic nip of a blister’ and has set out without gloves as it is ‘not meant to be gloves weather’. The tone is introspective as our protagonist walks and reflects, his daydreaming the cause of his late return journey. He takes delight in playing out fantasies, channelling the spirit of a long-gone organist as he attempts ‘Music for a Found Harmonium’ on a broken instrument discovered at a ruin of a church and its surrounding hamlet, and ruminates on the roles of the past inhabitants, feeling the pastoral history.
The sense connection to nature comes out in the writing as it sensuously describes the elements and increasingly personifies the surroundings as our narrator becomes less aware of his position in relation to civilisation. The wind speaks in ‘chinese whispers’ that become ‘malicious gossip’ escalating to ‘plotting…a secret that concerned him’. The threatening mood is implied from the first page’s mention of ‘the day’s demise’ and as our traveller becomes more disoriented the narrative becomes punctuated with short, dramatic, statements such as ‘the torch went out’. Our protagonist tries to find comfort from reasoning through possibilities of finding his way back to the others in the dark, fighting his physical reactions to the fear that is setting in, and we shiver along with the narrator as his confidence starts to fail. The ruins he has taken pleasure in earlier become the eponymous ‘Remains’, left behind by the dead.
Pickin’s tale is an atmospheric, sensuous and eerie tale with a touch of tongue-in-cheek humour that doesn’t prevent you from being drawn into the panic as our protagonist’s rationality becomes distorted as the landscape that he has taken such pleasure from turns cruel.
[Remains, by G. A. Pickin, is a chapbook published by Nightjar Press, who produce limited edition, signed copies of works. This one was released at the same time as Sullom Hill, by Chrisopher Kenworthy, which we've reviewed here]