Barbara

Shopping centre; just after midday. A cafe, half in bleached atrium light, half given to damp shadows and sodium striplighting. The kids sagged, but now, fed on hot chocolate and shortbread are gone to distant corners, their bouncing birdsong shrieks returning from improbable angles. Under the blanket buzz, couples sit in phone-glows and amiable silence. Children tic, burble, eructate. Then there are those in solitude: well sitters, silent sharers. I think to peer in, but am afraid the solitude is sacred, not oppressive. Next to me, quilted and perfumed, sits an older lady, nursing an iced coffee, her head shaking almost imperceptibly. What would I say? What would I ask? What troubles you?

She chuckles; a learned laugh of masking and coping.
“Troubles? Ach. I’m waiting for my daughter. Fifteen minutes late!”
Her left hand is tight on her bag, pincered at the silvered clasp.
“She’s been to the doctor’s. I probably shouldn’t say, but I think she’s going to have to have a hysterectomy. Only 46. The whole lot out. Like emptying a suitcase.”
Her hands, free of her bag now, don’t shake. She rubs them together, the skin ridged like lines on wind-ruffled sand dunes. She blows on them, her head shakes increasing to a noticeable wobble.

“Do you notice it?” I say “if it’s not too rude to ask?”
“What’s that?” she replies.
“Your head, I mean. Sorry – I’ve always wanted to ask.”
“Oh, that. No, not really. It used to make me nauseous at first, when it started. It came on really slowly. I thought it was vertigo or something – like stepping off a long flight and still feeling like your flying. I used to feel sick. But there’s a pill for that.”
She smiles and twinkles, reaching into her bag. She rummages and pulls out what looks like a trapped white ladder, about a foot long. It’s bulk is separated into seven compartments, each bearing a day of the week. She shakes it next to her ear, the contents rattling.
“Pills for everything.”
“I’ve seen into your bag, but I don’t even know your name!” I say. She’s peering beyond me, looking, searching.
“Barbara. Thank you.”
“Matt”, I give back.
“I don’t know why I came over. Sorry. It’s becoming a bit of a habit.”
“Oh, I think it’s nice” Barbara says. “People are so worried about intruding. I think we should wear badges ‘happy to be spoken to!’ something like that.”
“Does it happen at night?” I ask.
“The head thing? I don’t know. Most things do.”

I wonder if it’s re-enactment; a passion play of the nervous system. That carnival of hours, inscribed, strung along the neural pathways, returning, relived. Maybe it’s an exorcism.

R returns, following a crumb-line of peals and squawks.
“We’re in WH Smiths, looking at pens. Then we’re going to Claire’s Accessories. We need things.”
“This is Barbara” I say.
R mutters a hello and body-mutters a kind of curtsy. Then she looks up, obeying unheard instruction, and is off.

Barbara is beaming. Solicitous.
“They’re either breaking your arm, or breaking your heart.”
The light above has shifted, blue sky flooding through the smeared, beshittened atrium glass. Barbara’s glasses have lightened, too, and I see her eyes for the first time, milky with cataract ghosts. I gaze upward and think I should probably go.

“Twenty minutes late now. I hope everything is OK.”
She extends her neck, the tremors increasing in pitch, and peers over my head. A small boy is hacking, emphysematic to our right, his mum wiping his nose, proffering a drink. I hear R’s babble. The birds are calling.
“Whatever happens, I hope everything works out” I offer, moronically.
“Thank you, Matt. Look after those little ones.”

Above, the clouds have blocked in the sky once more. A chair is dragged, braying. I take a final slurp of tea, but it’s cold. I glance at Barbara and she’s rising in her seat, her eyes gone to the middle distance. I can’t read her face but follow her eyes to her approaching daughter, bustling in pink. I wade from the cafe and hear R giggling. Like water, like falling rain.

Solstice

We go out late, drawn on by the promise of light.

A farm’s edge: we stand transfixed by the pale blaze of evening, the rolling land, the caged thunder of pigs; skylarks hang in the middle air, dancing, dancing above the stiffened spires of green wheat. We climb a hill, hands brushing chamomile, brushing the new flush of borage. At crest, we watch the wind press the barley; a bristling song of inconceivable patterns. A hare, massive in its hind quarters, quivers, plays, circling beneath the squat bulk of a grain silo. I catch you in the corner of my eye, rippling in your skin, alive in the growing arc of your consciousness.

We crouch in a lane of wet shadows, tracking the wheezing hum of yellowhammer song. We pull ourselves along, reeling them in. There: crisscrossing, conflagrant in the choirs of an ash crown.

The day closes, the solstice sun at the cease of its long, long falling. Trees gather in half-night. We strain against silence, hoping for owls. As we break for home, a deer coughs breathsmoke at the soaring moon.

Boo

The first time I came to you, newly free
of that warm, wet dark,
I flew towards the eye of the never-setting sun;
A half-moon hung over
The pink dustings of a cloud rippling sea.

Above the khaki wastes of Greenland,
An isthmus lapped at the ocean;
Its names – Angmagssalik, Sermersooq, Mittivakkat –
Were like throaty Hebraic glossolalia;
Echoes of the earth’s first voicings.

Beneath us, the cloud drew itself out.
I imagined beyond the horizon a dragon hung,
Benign and silvering in the half-formed night;
It’s hot breath a weightless, buoyant cloudstream
Keeping us aloft, drawing us onwards.

And in that great bloom of thickening white,
Now a blanket, now a downy swaddling,
I slept and dreamed of you waiting,
Held in an awhiawhi of grateful arms,
A mile-high miracle of quivering sleep.

Now we wait for you to come,
Come across the same wide rippling abundance.
And we sleep to dream that hanging dragon,
Hung beyond all our horizons,
And we ask that he keep you safe.

Bovine hades

I came upon them in the cavity of dusk –
A mass of huddled damp gravity,
Stertorous in the grip of their great ongoing labour.

The thought came, as it often does in their docile presence:
What goes on in that occluded brain?
What gilds the soft furnishings suspended above the churn of that ruminating mouth?

In my darker hours I have wondered,
Wondered what it would be like to be trapped there.
Pressed up against a great wet eye, unable to attend.

Even on an evening such as this,
Cool and copper, at the cusp of the season’s turning,
It is a hell too fresh to dwell upon too long.

Outstanding

Belched out of school’s hot throat into Spring’s amber dome. Late afternoon. Levitating with tiredness. I haunt the high street awhile, looking for an answer, a line of force. Aimless, I follow the familiar tip of gravity to the river.

Standing under the sign of the mill: ‘1243’ – a dictat from history: no fishing. The river is a bedlam of froth and roil; the land yipping and yawing. I think to take a photo, without really knowing why.

‘It’s not the original sign, you know’.

I turn to take in the voice, accept the presence; the self lazily processing, redrawing the job body consciousness has already mastered. His eyes are the first thing I notice – watery, red-rimmed: the revealing of unexpected flesh.

‘You must be a visitor?’ he says, nodding at my phone.

I stumble an explanation about having been down here before, but for whatever reason had never thought to take a photo. He looks mischievous, like he might not believe me. I tell him I work at the school; tell him it might as well be an island for how often we row back to the mainland, connect ourselves to the community. The kids, ferried in great buses, come as one, and leave as one – they might as well come in balloons. He frowns and I take in his age. 70? His posture suggests less, but those eyes. They fill again.

‘Ah. The school! Are you walking into town?’

We shuffle and talk. He tells me about the town, the old myth of the alder, the fire, the eel house he helped renovate (‘a wreck – like it had been ransacked by the land’), his cottage. He says the school remains something of a mystery – oddly out of bounds, an occulted presence in the edgelands, swelling with bodies and noise seven hours a day and then emptying again: an absence, conspicuous by its silence.

‘That’s pretty much exactly how I feel’. I tell him I’m still learning the process of disgorging it all at the end of the day – mastering that task of emptying myself enough so I don’t rage and boil at night.
‘It’s no way to dream.’

The river is brick-banked where it meets the uncertain reaches of the town. Toddlers shriek at ducks, throw entire slices of bread; brooms of wisteria hover above the doors of homes and small businesses: saddleries, a brewery, a solicitors. We join the pavement and I hear a squeezed history: school in Surrey; Cambridge, with Dudley Moore up the hall (‘his room was never, ah, empty shall we say? He liked a party.’); training as a fighter pilot, cut short by asthma and glaucoma; IBM, selling computers (‘computers the size of that house there, for simple calculations’). He tells me he was at Cambridge in the early 50s; he’s 82. The shock of age.

‘I’m on my own now, but that’s OK. 8 years.’

I find myself asking, before I can check myself, ‘is it – OK, I mean?’

‘Well, not really. It’s too quiet.’ He stops and sighs.
‘I don’t have any complaints. But, you know.’

It’s not regret exactly, it’s something larger. The enormous inexpressibility of a life lived and no longer shared. He looks along the wide high street and I steal another look at his eyes. Language may fail us when we need it most, but, like it or not, we have our mute vessels, these expressive bodies with their lustres of freighted silence. He huffs back who knows what, and he tells me about his cottage again. Tells me the door is always open.

‘Give me a knock. I’ll show you the town.’

I can’t gather my intentions, can’t press the words into the right shapes. I want to take a knot of respectful silence and pass that over – an amulet, a talisman. We settle for something simple and shake hands.

‘Mike’, he says.

The sun has fallen beneath the roofline and the shadows are cold. As I walk back into the memory heat of the school grounds I notice the towering oaks, raw against the paling day. The rooks are nesting high this year, the rooks are nesting high.

Thrall

Ranging in twilight’s palsied silver, at the summit of autumn’s blaze.
Acorn litter, balled under arches –
Demosthenean props, rolled around the woods’ bronzed gape.
Beyond this, nothing is said.
Instead, we go undeceived, suspended in the updrafts of the old silence.

Rooks roil westward, lint in the eye of the sun’s liquid falling.
We crouch at a field edge, thick with dewy foreshadows;
you gather chestnut husks, the needles lancing your palms.
Then: a studied tilt, a new pressure behind your eyes, and there
not ten feet away, belly-deep, scrape-hidden, a deer. A deer.

Before, I’d carry you out, out to sleep off the afternoon’s bright daydreams,
and the deer would always come. They were your anxious, peering avatars,
come to see this strange two-fronted stalker abroad in their crucible of beech-caught light.
Once, walking through a pixellated summer night, a deer watched us home,
A distant, timid chaperon of dusk’s rough palisades.

Now, as the woods shrink, as time shrinks, acre by sodden acre, they come less frequently.
But I feel them, a soft presence at the edge of things,
a modest, unspoken rapture.
We gather each other, and for the briefest moment I wonder if you’re going to stay.
Not yet, I think; not just yet.

The big empty

So this was how it was going to go: Culham to Reading, staying overnight in Wallingford. Two days along England’s alimentary canal. Two days running with Eliot’s ‘strong brown god’. Two days of summer dancing.

Culham station was a void. A four-quarters emptiness. Once part of a working network, it now obeyed a dead logic. It was out on its own, unmoored. Nothing moved. Nobody waited. Nobody got off but us. The pub next-door offered bed and breakfast, but who for? For a time we walked in hot circles, trying to find our way out of the station’s magnetic circle. Eventually we walked up and out, into the thick-phallus shadows of Didcot power station, a henge at the centre of the day’s circuit. From the crest of the station’s well we passed along a trunk road, heavy with willowherb and knapweed, down to the Thames and a different emptiness.

We find the river at Culham Lock. This is the heat of the day, the meadows either side of the river parched golden, exhaling hot, dusty breath. The memory holds little; the legs a little more: river and sky, sky and river; golden meadows, golden wheat. Chin-high avenues of teasel, dense thickets of nettles, parsley and hemlock. Distance is measured as time, the sameness of the stretching land refusing purchase. Distance is measured in kite-territories, the birds appearing from tree-crowns, breaking the skin of heat and silence with piercing whistles. Where are we? There is the occasional massive house, set so far back across bright lawns that all scale is lost. Old, monstrous capital: absurd and grotesque. Nothing moves. At Clifton Hampden we enter the second dead pub of the day. This one at least has an attendant. We’re told it’s only open for bed and breakfast. For who? Back at the river, we stand on the Gothic pile of George Gilbert Scott’s bridge. A pike hangs in the river’s breeze. This is England.

We reach Wallingford just after 7. Walled-town-by-the-old-way. History trapped in flood-marked stone. A Waitrose. A fist of pubs: beards, whey-necks, ink. Our pub rooms could be anywhere. Above the bed: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” We join the necks chasing the blackout deep into the early-hours. This too is England.

Rain falls during the night.
The pub sign croaks in the breeze.
We dream of fireworks.

Sunday is ablaze. Wet stone wields blade-light. Figures from the night before hog the supermarket aisles. An improvised church atrium teems, snug between two buildings. Coffee shops. What did we do before coffee? Wallingford tilts riverwards: we obey the close shuffle – back to the water, back to the humming golden welcome of the riparian wilderness. The first five miles are slow. The river widens almost imperceptibly. We pass a knot of islands, wade through stands of geese and goose shit; pass beneath a vast railway bridge, where the brickwork swirls as if turned in a kiln; on an outer buttress, a necklaced ash stump looks for all the world like a beheaded, supplicant Queen. The day becomes a beautiful blur; a river-lit shambles of quiet joy. At Moulsford we feed a hissing swan; at Goring & Streatley we feed ourselves; at Pangbourne we’re surrounded by multitudes, spread out under the sky; beyond Pangbourne we’re alone again, alone with the steady pulse of the water, the steady pulse of the blood.

Then came England.

We were pushed for time. At Purley the path left the water, winding through the hollow roads of a riverside newbuild. On the map, Tilehurst station was within touching distance, but we overshot, decided to push into Reading – one last hurtle, a flushing of the system. But somehow, map-blind, we’d badly miscalculated, setting our sights on Reading West, not Reading Central. The hurtle became a headlong rush. Onward, onward, along the Oxford Road, England roaring in our ears: this is where all the people were, the emptiness of the preceding 24-hours came to this: this tumult, this dreamtime of abundance: a church of the holy brethren, doors open to the street; a minister, gagging on tongues, proclaiming god to the skies, the windows liquid in the heat of it; CHICKEN; a standing wreck of a pub-cum-church pulsing with afrobeat; small brown parcels for money; sunken-eyes at above-shop windows, thrown open, all thrown open, pouring music into the street; POLSKI SKLEP; the ridiculous fleshy over-exuberance of fruit stalls; Bengali tailors; MAMA AFRICA; sandalled feet; heat, heat, heat. Pushing, rushing, thighs burning, the blood thundering, wanting to scream to the heavens: England, this is England, this is ENGLAND.

THIS

IS

ENGLAND