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

Late April

The hail was a surprise after so many weeks of sunshine. It clattered off sprung metal and peppered the ground, raising welts in the clayey topsoil. A walk at lunch along the track beneath the pylons. These are working woods and where the logging path leads to a substation, the ground is churned and carved by wheels. Muddy pools gather where for weeks there has been brute tidal sculptures of sand and clay. Here and there the standing water has a meniscus of oil and sun-caught light. The nightingales have arrived, perhaps a week earlier than usual. It’s nice to think they were tempted into coming early by a warm tunnel of wind above their west African coastal forests, a tunnel stretching northwards, northwards; but who knows what abstruse commands they obey? I’ve heard a couple, but it may just be one bird. It scrabbles in the brambles and gorse, frantic and garrulous, like a touretter let loose with a ray gun.

Deeper into the woods, away from the crackle and fizz of the pylons, the path sweats and seethes; the river, which has gasped in its steep-sided canyon these last six weeks, is tumbling with purpose. Dock fronds fill the ridings alongside reefs of soft rush. The first umbellifers unwind. Somehow, maybe it’s a trick of the light, the rain has generated a new cholorphyllic intensity, as if the very fabric of things has thickened. You pinch parcels of air between thumb and forefinger, invisible information riding the whorls and ridges.

Later. A bench. The wind has dropped and the sky is a violence of blue. I think of other wide skies and what you might be dreaming about. I lie back and fall softly into the shadow place and as I softly fall the skies merge and there you are, closer now, faces upturned, blinking into the same curtain of light.

Little Gidding

St John's, Little Gidding

St John’s, Little Gidding

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

TS Eliot, The Four Quartets: Little Gidding

I was near the A1, close enough to feel its drag, the traffic undertow. I was returning from a flying visit to the wilds of Oakham and Rutland Water, departing the warm belly of a friend’s new country house. I’d managed to get myself lost, maybe expectantly. I knew I was in the vicinity of Little Gidding, one of TS Eliot’s high Anglican bolt holes, one of the places he’d knelt before forces he couldn’t comprehend, forces he seemed determined to surrender to. He’d gone there in 1936, pulled in by different undertows: the magnetism of accreted faith, the allure of a tiny monkish community surviving the ravages of the centuries; hiding place of the fallen king – Charles, going underground after the defeat at Naseby in 1646. Little Gidding was the perfect fit for his timeless present, his need for a kind of messianic time – always present, always everywhere, always just out of reach. It affected Eliot enough for him to use the community’s name for the final part of the Four Quartets, the epic four-part poem published in 1943. Like all of his places, in print and in the mind, it becomes elevated, mythic – unreachable; you only gesture toward them, looking for traces. I stopped to check a map. ‘The Giddings’. It was in touching distance – more plant fibre than road, coming to a stop in a white expanse. A dead end. I swung the car.

Roaring summer. Wheat fields, barley fields, bright with gold. Cloud banks cast cold shadows. The land is parched; particles of exhaled dust drift on rising thermals; the fabric of the air vibrates in overlapping layers. The wet winter seems long ago – a watery echo in the margins of memory. On through scattered villages, unpeopled. Unverged roads flow directly into wheat fields. Occasionally there is a green break in the field pattern, topped with hovering purple. Stopping later it’s quickly clear these are borage fields, grown for their rich omega oils, each field with its own travelling colony of bees housed in neat boxy blue hives. Then a sign: Steeple Gidding; 200 yards beyond that, a small waymarker, and a pull to the left: Little Gidding.

It comes to this: the old Ferrar manor house, bone white in the sun; a car park. Through the trees is the church – weathered oolite limestone and grubby red brick. By now I’m on borrowed time, feeling the tug of my own undertow: family and the sub-molecular gravitational pull of home. I pitch across grass to the entrance, passing inside for the briefest of visitations. Dust roils in caught air, disturbed by new motion. The eye passes from nave to chancel, not much more than 30 feet in total. Beyond the chancel the smallest of private prayer rooms, austere and cool. The floor is uneven. I imagine centuries of knelt prayers, offered to the great invisibility beyond. I have nothing to add; instead I turn and leave, back out into the golden expanse of country, the middle of England, the middle of nowhere.

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

TS Eliot, The Four Quartets: Little Gidding

 

St John's, Little Gidding

St John’s, Little Gidding

Rain

It’s February. It’s still raining. For most of November and early December we sat under a grey ceiling of high pressure and the skies stayed sane – little rain fell; there was hardly any wind. It meant for a beautiful, extended autumn, the trees holding onto their sprays of fire for what seemed like weeks on end. We watched the slow blaze of the limes and silver birches, the bright gold of field maples and aspens; as late as the 10th December, we stood beneath  a mesh of hazel poles, still in leaf, and inhaled the late copper flush in the oak woods. Then came several days of storms, storms which ripped the remaining leaves from the trees, dashing them against the windows, piling them in ragged roadside barriers. It was the start of things.

Since then, we’ve been deluged – there’s no other word for it. Depression after depression has swirled in from the Atlantic, bringing lowering, cinerous skies, gravid with water. Out in the world you can feel the weight of all that has fallen – it pulls at the horizon: garden grass sucks at feet, water brimming around the soles of shoes, as if depressing a sponge; field margins tip roadwards or disappear altogether; woodlands hover and double – ankle deep in gathered rainwater they reflect themselves, the eye deceived by the thresh of new limbs; tracks and roads seem in a constant state of movement with new streams and waterways coursing in pulsing v-shapes; answering the pull of gravity these ephemeral brooks seek out natural dells and declivities, forming murky pools.

All this has meant a new kind of water-awareness, a water-consciousness, flickering in the periphery like light glare off a standing shoal. The river that wends through the woods, generally unnoticed,  has a sudden new voice; from the watershed – up on the chalk and clayland heights – it brings a new secret cargo – a cargo of storm damage on gritty, scented water: twig-meal, fern outriders, unexploded plastic. On concurrent nights after a walk along the groaning banks of the lower reaches, the boy and I dreamed of charting the river’s course, seeking out the occulted mainspring and following it underground into the chalk chambers of its origins. We await a clear day…

Wind

This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet

Till day rose; then under an orange sky
The hills had new places, and wind wielded
Blade-light, luminous black and emerald,
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.

At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as
The coal-house door. Once I looked up –
Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes
The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope,

The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap;
The wind flung a magpie away and a black-
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house

Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it. Now deep
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,

Or each other. We watch the fire blazing,
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,
Seeing the window tremble to come in,
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons

Ted Hughes

Evening, autumn

Whoever you are, go out into the evening – Rilke

There is a quiet magic about at this time of year. It’s something to do with the lessening of the light, and the closing in of the evenings. The hours between, say, 5 and 7pm, take on a new aspect, and you become acutely aware of the fall of darkness, the texture of it. It’s probably just the fact that dusk is simply closer in proximity to the functions of the day but there is something like an adaptive purpose to this noticing, an acclimatising before the winding of the clocks and the heavier darknesses of winter.

I didn’t actually make it out of the house until gone six. The sun had set and what clouds there were had brushed pink undersides while in the east the sky had taken on a deepening mauve colour. It had been a filthy day, a day of squalls and low cloud, the air cross-hatched with drifting ribbons of rain. The ground was sodden and murky; the paths held their first puddles for what seemed like months, and the roadside gullies were frantic with onrushing streams. I approached the woods from the south, where the entrance is through a stand of unruly oaks and hazels, the trees’ lower branches clutching at the ground. The trees only form a thin barrier really, quickly giving way to a blasted patch of recently felled woodland, but by now the entrance-way was dark, dark enough that the clusters of acorns the trees still held onto had a peculiar kind of luminescence about them. I briefly contemplated going back.

The clearing looked unkempt in the slack light and several blackbirds railed against the closing day, scolding incessantly at some unseen assailant. At the centre of the clearing there stood rows and rows of deer-proof plastic cases, each about 4 feet high, and each protecting a young sapling. These were mostly sweet chestnuts, planted to replace those cut down for timber and pulp the year before – they were nearing the top of the opaque green tubing, the topmost leaves furled in on themselves, cramped in their reaching for the light. Every sixth tube or so contained a young oak, way down inside the ribbed plastic and only about a foot off the ground, growing at about a quarter of the pace of the burgeoning chestnuts; but even at this depth, the leaves held a strong lustrous weight. Between the poles the ground was choked with clumps of tussocky grass and low creeping brambles, punctuated with the odd straggly extrusions of dead dock, stiff and rain-blackened.

Into the wood proper and the darkness was heavy, almost complete. The air had that fibrous, textile-like quality, gritty and pixellated. I became unsure of my balance and my vision swam. The magic hour, the time of visions: in the onrush of night, shapes lose their definition, edges blur and morph; root balls become crouching figures, discarded seed casings like tiny open mouths. The land fell away to my left and I could hear the chatter of a woodland stream. In the windless gloom it was like an aural place marker. I fixed my vision on a patch of light in the distance, using that as a guide.

Earlier in the day, I’d gone with R to the garden centre. She had a voucher for a small craft shop there and we’d picked through trays of sequins, and held up to the light other opaque tubes, these stuffed with tiny beaches of glitter. The day had closed around the small wooden building and later, in the cafe, as we fished in our drinks for tiny marshamallows and rain thrashed against the roof, a robin appeared, hopping between feet and tables looking for cake crumbs. Now, as I emerged from the wooded gloom, a robin dropped to the path, silhouetted against the last of the dusklight. It ducked and pecked in that signature see-saw motion, a guardian of the threshold. I had no cake to offer, but murmured my thanks as I passed.

Southampton drift

Poor old Southampton. She’s a wreck, really. Toyed with over the centuries by flighty dilettantes, eager for salty cures, or quick ways to get somewhere else, somewhere further away; bombed insensible in the war and rebuilt by a team of men in blindfolds; ongoing building works by arse that seem to have no sense of size or shape or of what elbow is doing on the other side of the city. Her roads are like clogged capillaries. Nowhere seems to lead to anywhere else. Everything feels molecular, isolated. A series of traffic lights with the odd island of interest, that you only happen upon by chance. If you’re into bad analogies, you might describe it as like a shit website: unnavigable, lurid, shot through with hard to digest information, the loudest parts getting the most (false) attention. And yet.

The trick, as usual, is to walk. Start at the common, which lays across the north end of the city like a giant green lung. Pick between the strange silences of the old cemetery. Wander across the university campus and gag with vertigo beneath Basil Spence’s Faraday building and the concrete calliper of Stoneham Tower (and the allegedly Hawksmoor designed Stoneham House next door). On a match day drift with the crowds across the railway to the New Dell and beyond to the Itchen Bridge (don’t jump). Walk the 14th century walls; take in the pubs of the old town. Stand at the docks and watch the cranes knitting the sky. The ships as miniature cities, the containers suburbs, exurbs. Stand on the prow of Wyndham Court, a vast stone cruiser, lost in the centre of town. Pitch out onto Town Quay where the eye blanches under seashone light, bouncing off rolled metal, cruise ships, Fawley belching smoke in the middle distance; opposite, Marchwood and Dibden shores ripple, low slung and malarial.

Most of all just look: the eye eventually makes sense of the plurality, or more likely just falls into acceptance of the ragged layers of history and modernity clinging together, afraid to let go lest the whole thing fall into the unimaginable depths of Southampton Water. I walked one Saturday, from the station through the old town, along the shorefront, over the Itchen Bridge, along Weston Shore, through Royal Victoria Country Park and on to Hamble with its ridiculous clamour of wealth and clanging yacht poles. It was the close of summer; a day as much about the sky as anything – high, and fierce with blue and storms that never broke. I took some photos on my phone. Excuse the blur; it was that kind of day.

Southampton old town walls

Southampton old town walls

Palimpsest

Palimpsest

Migration

Migration

Westgate

Westgate

Albert Road South

Albert Road South

Itchen Bridge one

Itchen Bridge, one

Itchen Bridge two

Itchen Bridge, two

Itchen Bridge three

Itchen Bridge, three

Weston Shore one

Weston Shore, one

Weston Shore, two

Weston Shore, two

Oak, salt marsh, Fawley Oil Refinery

Oak, salt marsh, Fawley oil refinery

Dead Scots Pine, Fawley Oil Refinery

Dead Scots Pine, Fawley oil refinery

Netley Castle

Netley Castle

Beachfall

Beachfall, Netley Abbey

Cowes, this way

Fawley, this way

Old Netley Military Hospital

Old Netley Military Hospital

Encounter, two

May climbed cold into June. Grey skies abounded; thin drizzle fell. Then came a period of sun, warm enough to coax us outside. Yet the overarching chill remained, like a vaulted roof high over everything else. In the shade silver birch catkins trembled; people shivered and clutched themselves, looking awkwardly at the skies.

I parked on Peak Lane, abandoning the car on a field margin, hoping nobody would mind. The land rose sharp and wide before me, cresting into a beech wood still dense with anemones and the flattening stalks of late-flowering bluebells. Beyond the wood was a series of interlocking fields, bordered by tall blossoming cherry trees in the canopies of which jackdaws squabbled and bombed. The air hummed.

In one of the fields, hidden from sight, there’s a great hollow in the ground – like an eye socket in the skull of the earth. Its origin is uncertain. This area was quarried extensively for London clay in the latter part of the 19th and first half of the 20th century, so perhaps this isolated spot was rich in clay and abandoned once the supply had been exhausted. It does have the feel of an excavation. Or perhaps it’s a naturally occurring phenomena, an arena for unknown forces, unknown geological pressures.

During the colder months, when the surrounding meadows are balding and brittle, the cavity puffs cold air, drawing warm bodies to it. You stand in the updraught at the southern brow, the hole yawning beneath you; to the west it falls further away, ending in a great beech and hazel clothed bank, choked with flint; to the east there is a gradual incline upwards, the earth rising to meet the level of the fields around it. It’s probably no more than a 100 metres long but has the impact, due to its incongruity, of something much larger. I keep coming back.

Ramsons

Ramsons

Now, on the first warm day of the young summer, I had to wade to the site, through meadows that were thigh high with grasses and dandelions. The southern lip was dense with spring growth, barring entry. I found a gap at the eastern end, and entered into an impassably dense nettle den, amongst which flashed small stands of yellow archangel. To the north of me, through the low forest of nettles, were great washes of flattened ramsons stalks, as if they’d been trodden down by some lumbering mylodon; but here and there patches remained in flower giving the sense of a hovering blanket of mist. And then there was the smell – over everything, contained and intense, hung a pall of garlic, the air raw with it. I backed out of the tangle and headed along the eastern lacrimal wall of the socket, spying a desire path cutting through the grasses in front of me. The path led into the cool interior again, but now I was beyond the forest of nettles and into a clearer space, dominated by a rising bank out of which rose an oak and two massive ash trees. Around the base of these lay strewn the remains of the ramsons carpet. The stench was, if anything, even more over-powering here, scouring the back of my nasal cavity and reaching into the pit of my stomach. The silence was total, punctuated by the what seemed incredibly loud drumming of a woodpecker and the soft flutey trills of a greenfinch, high in the branches of one of the ashes. I sat in a cradle of exposed roots and waited. And waited.

What draws us back to certain places? I’d found myself thinking about this curious hollow at various times, feeling its pull, its promise. Even now as I sat, plagued by dancing columns of gall midges, there was the sense that something was going to happen. Time passed. Nothing came – nothing beyond the midges, the woodpecker and the distant bubbling conversation of a tawny owl. I decided to leave, but instead of following the desire path I went the other way, and clawed my way up the steep bank and along the northern ridge using exposed roots as handholds. As I approached the western end, the hole now opening deeply beneath me, I heard the muted chaos of what I assumed was a blackbird, rootling in the underbrush for grubs and worms. It was darker now, and as I squinted into the cool gloom I saw there, no more than 20 feet away, a young badger, snuffling in the flattened stems of the ramsons carpet. I can only assume that due to garlic scent blindness, and my position high above him, that he simply didn’t know I was there as he paid me no attention whatsoever. I sat for 15 glorious minutes, watching his progress through the green garlic shagpile. Occasionally he’d stop, either to wolf down a bulb or a grub, or stop for air, sneezing softly, dog-like – but not once did he look up, or give the slightest inkling that he knew I was there. It was like a short period of unexistence, something akin to JA Baker’s wish to blend into the natural world and ‘to let the human taints wash away in emptiness and silence.’ Eventually, obeying some unknowable Delphic patterning of pheromones, he changed his direction and hoovered off in the direction of the eastern shore. I had a vague notion to follow, but preferred the idea of simply sitting for a time and slowly creeping back into existence. The sun had set, and in the shadows it was like sitting inside a cool silvered chamber. The hollow had given up a smattering of its secrets. I’d be back.

Encounter, one

Whiteley Pastures, a Wednesday, mid-afternoon in May. Another week of closed-in skies and chilly easterly winds, like a breath-remnant of what gripped us in March. The woodland rides are slow in their coming-to-life. Sprigs of as yet unopened cow parsley sway above the last of the celandines and anemones; beneath these rises a tentative new carpet of dog violets, herb robert and the emerging purple fingers of bugle. Most of the trees are now in leaf, but it’s still possible to come across near-naked oaks and sweet chestnuts. We have nothing to gauge the lateness, no almanacs to refer to, but there is talk – things feel late, in abeyance. Alongside the long straight logging path there are deep runnels; these have been full with rust-coloured water for over a year since the coming of the rains last spring. They are starting to empty and reveal their depths. The earth beneath is stained, heavy like wine-dark clay.

I stop for a time at a thigh-high pile of birch logs, left over from last year’s felling. The bark is stripped in places, the wood soft and stained; the rest is thinly silver, pocked with black eyelets or furry with lichen. The logs are damp to the touch, but as a whole they form a kind of welcoming rough tabletop. I edge backwards onto it and lie down, listening to the echoing madman-in-his-cell call of a song thrush. I drift off.

I wake befuddled and slowly raise up, noticing a dark smudge out of the corner of my left eye. In one of those odd moments when a second becomes something architectural and we’re able to roam about inside it, leisurely gathering sense impressions, I marshal enough data to realise it’s a snake, a black snake at that, coiled in on itself, its head resting on a the thickest part of its trunk. At the walled end of that second I guess that it must be a grass snake, recently out of hibernation, bloodwarming in what passes as the final days of spring. I notice the lack of neck collar and the near-absence of the repeating diamond scales. Melanistic. It’s a melanistic grass snake. Around this welter of observance is a chamber of something else, something from further back in my brain, something shrieking ‘snake!’ I jerk my leg away, and the snake, reacting to my lumbering frame, hisses (or do I imagine a hiss?) and is gone, gone into the depths of the woodpile.

Needless to say, I’ve been back several times for another sighting. The log pile is crowded in now, beset on all sides by encroaching brambles and sedge grass. It looks oddly dwarfed. If the snake is there, it’s keeping quiet, and I daren’t lay down again. Just in case.