Tuesday, September 9

Nonancourt

THE ROUTE BACK from Cambridge: I was looking out of the window and thinking that it was my birthday in less than two days. Also, some plans we had made for the evening had fallen through. The evening was unpredictable summer, when one minute it is dark and one minute it is bright and the air is warm and there is rain in its gut. The trick, I found, with my birthday, was to keep my mind occupied. I looked out of the window. Some parts of the landscape I would recognise: a water-tower or a particular roundabout or some battered pub at the side of the road. I measured distance in the things I could remember. A curve of the pavement around the corner of a building, no more than a foot, the kerb is worn away, angled, close to tumbling down; from its mouth sprouts a weed or is it not a weed? I look at my mother’s shoulder. Soon I notice that we are coming through—‘There’s Castle Hedingham.’ The landmark crows over the skyline ominously; its straight walls are a punch up into the jaw of the sky. Thick trees pack around its base. The roads through England are winding and thin, green enough to sleep within and the whole of it spread out like a quilt. The car doesn’t move through a village but brushes against it. Straightening on the seat, I stretch my neck and catch a glimpse, asking—‘Was that…?’ and struggle to think of the name of the village. It is an aroma of a place, a fragrance; not a real location but a tease of something. People live here. They are the ones who draw the curtains every night. One person strolling with their hand woven through the handles of a plastic bag looks at me – I at them – a fragrance of a person, not a real being, shuffling over a round mound of grass that is dryly crumbling into the road. We enter Halstead down its shoulder. Unfortunately we enter through one of its least known routes – at least to me – and there is nothing much to be recounted or remembered. If we had come in from the northeast (we actually arrived from the northwest) I could have seen my friend’s house where my brothers and I spent many summer days because the house was so big and he had no one to play with anyway, his mother always sunbathing with her aged, brown breasts out and the bus depot next door that provided all the school routes in the area. Or if we had come in through the south, we could have passed a cinema (written about by me many times) and I could have wet my eyes just to see the steps again – because, god, the venue has become something of legend to me. I would have let my chin quiver at that road. But, no, we came in through the northwest and I saw nothing. I saw my old church; raised catholic and brutal and now done away with and – of all the nonsense – the church did stir something in me. Even St. Francis above the door (surrounded by adoring animals as he adored) winked at our automobile and shifted his smock. We remarked on the sacraments we had celebrated within, with all the well-dressed children and bells pealing. Then on and on we went. The car ducks down in to a river and comes out shining. By the right there is a floodplain where willows grow professionally, cultivated, financially managed; cricket bats, among other things, the sign is bolted with lamps that are well past being replaced. The willows blow in the wind their pale green lips. Farther up, in a lay-by, is an old fifties bus that has been converted into a cafĂ©. For as long as I can remember the bus has been there, serving ghosts and surviving rust. The owners survive, too. I gasp at the thing still standing. It is red and white by the board at its side advertising beverages and simple hot meals to any travelers who couldn’t find what they wanted in the redolence of villages along the way. It was strange how the road kept on, and stranger still how I firmly it ran in my memory; for all the years I had been absent I could remember every detail, but to tell strangers about the numbers of lives a particular bend in the road has claimed would be superfluous, but the degree to which one is inclined to lean when the bend is taken is far more interesting. My brothers and I leaned into that curve to and from church on a Sunday. As we go on through the villages – now in the one I was raised from two to fourteen years – my mother and I discuss the who’s and the whose on the main road which runs through the village like a sexual organ.
This is it, now:
The village I grew up in (while growing-up is a biological series of complicated chemical reactions occurring at the relish of physics as it abides some unswerving mathematical joke). The rec’ land is swollen full and its green grass is manicured to perfection; under an oak the mower sits and waits, oil on its bones. Stand near enough to it (say, my friend Joe’s house, behind a shaded lane) and you smell the oil and the throat stench of petrol. Even the support actors are recalled – picking out the house! the exact one with the door painted a different colour. The support actors have their place in a village. Everything is familiar as everyone is repeated. Of course the village didn’t exist until we arrived, stuck in a white Vauxhall and the removal van some way before us: Barking men all suited for the occasion. We painted the village on to a map. It was just a road back then with an ironworks in the middle of it like a uterus. We arrived and people knew it. There is a square of bungalows dedicated to the elderly, where they frame about in circles around pruned rosebushes. Mysteriously the buildings lie there without uttering a word, ever. The windows are painted red meat. Outside is the finger of a village green with the wooden sign erect. Down that road – there! – was the route to our house. We passed it two days before my birthday. A lot of cars crashed there (it took many lives but it was opposite the office-hours police station so the incidents were always well attended by the local heroes, all of whom were recognised and saluted by the villagers; you knew their children at school, their wife fingering lettuces in the Co-op, ‘I see PC Spink has got a new car’). They’ve given the Lion a new paint job, macaroon. The views come fast. I am tempted to request that my father slow down but the road is overly straight (one of my friends died on this road when his bike took a fall and a speeder pushed him away and cast his body sixty feet away from where his eyes first closed). The Indian is still there, peered at by its optometrist neighbour. My birthday is in two days time. I didn’t realise that on that particular day we would be going through where I grew up. All the years I had to grow a thick skin and my tender nostalgia leaves me weeping as we pass the school. The play equipment is gone, replaced, far grander. Down the hill toward the water pump: the only roundabout in the village. Memories stick out at every yard. I am rolling. There is no junction and even at the roundabout the car does not slow down, not once below twenty miles an hour and the visions reflected in the water of my eyes. Too fast. I wish he would slow down. I am scanning through radio frequencies; as we leave the village’s edge the music fades out, crackles, spits, grows weary for a bit, then disappears. There is nothing left to write about. It was over so quickly, too quickly. One last sign thanks us for driving carefully. In its unimpressionable straight black letters it tells us the name of a twinned village in France, a footnote to stem the bewildered sadness.

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