My first memory of the sea was more of a sparkle than a colour. Apparently my mother swam all the year round in the benign waters of the Devon coast – our garden sloped down to one of its red sandy beaches. She told me I’d nearly been a marine birth, but not quite, as she made it back to her bedroom just in time.
A friend asked me recently if he could record some of my stories, and remarked afterwards how the colour blue often recurred in these short, unresolved tales. I realised how the elusive sea colour fascinates me. It’s frequently impossible to pin down its shifting tones, though now it often flashes a startling turquoise in my mind’s eye, the colour of the sea in St Ives in Cornwall. St Ives painter and recluse Alfred Wallis was asked why he rarely painted the sea blue, and is recorded as saying (probably scornfully): “The artist always paints it blue, but when you put it in a glass you can see it isn’t.”
My first school uniform was blue, my magic painting books could miraculously turn water into the most delicate azure, and another childhood memory is of my grandmother standing in front of a mirror and carefully putting on a hat of periwinkle blue feathers. Made from dead budgies, I was convinced.
In 2000, while working as a travel writer, I was sent to Elf School in Iceland by London’s Evening Standard. It took two years of my negotiating with Magnus, the school’s elusive headmaster, to set up the visit, and when I eventually arrived, none of the other participants turned up apart from Magnus’ step-daughter and a black dog, both of whom quickly fell asleep. Although I received a certificate at the end of session, and (almost) learned how to recognise an elf – they frequently float a few inches off the ground and wear 1980s clothes apparently – the Elf class wasn’t as illuminating as I’d hoped.
I made an appointment to meet Erla, professional mediator between the Hidden Folk and everyday industrial enterprises, to find out more. Earlier, on a visit to the Ellidaar hydro-electric power station, I’d glimpsed a special map with annotations by Erla hanging on its walls amongst high-tech diagrams. If Elves aren’t consulted and their rocky habitats are disturbed, mysterious accidents happen, workers fall ill and machinery breaks down, so it’s important to negotiate with them first.
The steps to Erla’s apartment were lined with pots of pansies, her tall cello-playing son made tea for us, and translated Erla’s thoughts about the Huldufolk and other psychic phenomena. She was a gentle, shy woman with an urchin haircut, wearing panne velvet trousers. I noticed her feet were firmly on the ground. After a while she was silent and suddenly reached for a box of crayons. Her son explained Erla wanted to draw my aura. A sudden anxiety gripped me. Suppose it was brown or – horror of horrors, beige? But I needn’t have worried. As soon as she’d finished her drawing I saw I was surrounded by a pleasant turquoise glow.