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

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