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.

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