Very happy to say I’ve got a piece in the new Winter anthology from Elliot and Thompson – part of the ‘Seasons’ series, edited by the fab Melissa Harrison. It’s bizarre being in the same book as Coleridge, Robert Louis Stevenson, Gilbert White and Kathleen Jamie but I’ll take it. Buy ten copies! Or one.
The forest; a spot just off the road.
Aside from the odd distant car, it’s quiet, still.
The green is deep and various: moss, wild tussocky grass,
the trees in their last flush, the skirts of ferns.
On the heaths and moors, there is a breeze,
but here, sheltered, nothing moves, save for the odd blush
sighing in the oak crowns.
A nuthatch calls. Robins tick and scold.
In the middle distance, I think I hear a willow warbler –
my first of the year – homing for the warm south.
The last of the land’s held heat is dissipating;
the air bears the first rumours of the coming winter edges.
In my muggy oak-held hollow, I think of fires,
I think of night heavy against the windows,
and how days such as these are about gathering –
gathering light and the spaces in-between:
a store, a bulwark against the plight of lengthening dark.
In the tree tops, scurrying armies too gather,
too feel the pull of the north, the coming cold,
the pale backward glances of retreating summer.
It’s in these rifts, these seasonal interstices,
We feel fullest the passage of the flailing hours.
But there is always this forest, these trees;
The resolve that this will pass, will come again.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve not known a March like this one past, cruel and bitter under a pall of grey skies. The month started with a promise of spring. We walked in slanting sunlight across the top of Hockley viaduct, hooting, miming trains. Beneath the arching brickwork the Itchen had burst its banks. The water meadows, green and sharp, brimmed with pools of sunbright water. We parted for shrieking cyclists and R tumbled with flat hands on the cold concrete. On an old siding, under a stand of fruiting hazels busy with flitting goldcrests, we saw a discarded hub cap, home to a colony of snails. There came two days of bright sun, the air bearing the first slight signs of the spring thickening – birdsong, pollen song. We waited. Then came the whispers of returning winter. Cold air from the east, bearing snow and arctic temperatures.
The cold came in overnight, a giant storm from the north east swirling across northern Europe and up across the channel islands. The air was raw and metallic, dawnlight bringing with it a purple glow that fanned out across the underside of the roof of clouds – a roof that was to stay with us for pretty much the rest of the month, yielding little, if any, rain. That day it snowed for a good 3 or 4 hours, the air thick with it. Sheltering under a canopy of arching oaks, I could almost feel the ground contracting, the newgrowth shrinking back into itself. The birds had fallen silent.
That night the storm roared around the house. I came up from sleep, dimly aware of a muffled banging. I mentally travelled the hanging air from corner to corner of the house, but couldn’t make sense of where it was coming from. I came down the stairs feeling unmoored. It was as if the interior air itself were disturbed, displaced by the ferocity outside. I opened the back door and I felt the house gather itself around me as the night, blackly malevolent, seemed to force its way in. I waded out into the liquid dark and secured the door with a bag of cement dust that, disturbed by the whipping wind, puffed motes into the air that were sucked away into the darkness.
This air from the east stayed for the rest of the month and on into April. It brought with it ghostly remnants of its provenance, a taiga-born density of cold, a breath of ice. The brute cold settled into the heart of things; objects carried a new kind of weight, as if they’d been penetrated to a molecular level. As such, the usual spring signifiers remained resolutely enfolded, the hedges and banks dull of colour, the woods silent, arenas of felt absence. Everything felt held in abeyance, waiting, waiting. In the middle of the month, I was in the Cotswolds and the weather broke for a single day. It was as if the earth threw off a layer. Huge flocks of fieldfares and redwings broke cover, driven by a frantic impulse to begin their homeward journeys; the sky was a holding-pattern of hungry red kites, all monitoring their territories for carrion; usually elusive jays dropped from the bare oaks and pecked at the raw ground. The following morning it snowed again, and the earth re-enfolded itself.
At the beginning of April, finally there came a day warm enough to stand still. I headed into the woods with the boy on his scooter. We were looking for the bluebells, usually ‘up’ by now, washing the beechwood floor with their smudges of purple. The air had lost some of its edges, and a thick greyish haze hung over the fields and distant stands of trees. We wondered together if it was pollen, or if the heat had stirred up clouds of sleeping insects? As if in answer, we saw a solitary housemartin, the first of spring. The beechwood was cool and clear, and free of the nodding bluebells. The floor, though, was carpeted with the glossy green leaves. The bluebells would come, but like everything else held in the cold paralysis, they would come late. No matter. A ragged silver-birch, multi-trunked and choked with ivy, showed signs of fresh excavations in its hollowed out base. We sat and ate jaffa cakes idly wondering if the culprit might show itself. The sky purpled above us. It quickly became grippingly cold. We headed home across a bone-hard field, out, out of the mineral wind.
Each year the emptying of winter seems to reach an unbearable pitch, only to broken by the return of birdsong.