I walk between Wivenhoe and the university most weekdays and then home again at night. Often as I walk towards campus the sky is grey and heavy. The clouds draw in early after the sun has risen, though they hardly ever lead to rain. I tend to think of them as an advancing army, driven through a town in which they have no interest, passing so as to deplete themselves elsewhere. After the mist has risen to combine with the gathering clouds and the sky is overcast it is difficult not to respond in some way or other to the sheer weight and uniformity of the grey. Under this pressure I, for one, find it difficult to concentrate or follow a single line of thought. The effort reminds me of rescuing an insect from a pool of water, of the frustration of approaching a target that when almost grasped will suddenly rush away, tracing mad patterns across the surface and leading one about drunkenly. On such days the evening walk back home offers some respite from the load as the mass of clouds is broken, its weight lifted and the new textures are flushed with ageing sunlight before finally dispersing. Once the clouds have rolled back and the sky’s blue is as deep as ink, you can stand at the height of the valley, stare upwards and, on some nights, make out a silent, sparse array of helicopter lights tracing clandestine paths over the sky. I suppose that the helicopters belong to the parachute regiment that is based nearby and that on these nights they are out training, the landscape serving as a suitable proxy for some hostile foreign land. These lights often anticipate mornings peppered by the mechanical rattle of gunfire. That sound regularly breezes across the meadows that skirt the Colne, as if the most natural thing in the world, from the firing range tucked away behind Fingringhoe marsh. Occasionally, the cracks of rifles from the south-west are met at the river by the occasional thuds of ammunition employed, I suppose, on farmland to drive flocks of birds from the fields. On hearing these sounds I often feel like I am caught between two hidden armies whose casualties, wreckage and environmental carnage are invisible to me, as if the noise were an echo of an alternate history encroaching into our own.
The path I follow treads the thin line between the railway and the bank of the Colne before it forks in two, heads across the tracks and passes through a band of woods to campus. There is always a lot to see on this walk, if only for the river’s significant tidal range. In a day the waters can swell to the height of the path before being so strung out by the drag of the sea as to seem not more than a stream at the base of a deep scar. The tides have left the riverbed covered by a thick layer of silt that has been allowed to accumulate in the years since Colchester ceased to be an attraction to vessels with deeper hulls. It is guttered by small rivulets that chase the mainstream out at low tide, the footprints of wading birds, and by the vast drainage pipes that pour whatever’s been bled from the land into the departing waters. If you take the trail at mid to low tide you will eventually come across the rotting shell of a small motorboat moored to the stumps of an embankment. I believe the boat used to lie on the riverbank in Wivenhoe outside the Rose and Crown, having been abandoned there some years before. Two summers ago a notice was posted on its boarded-up windscreen by some disgruntled local body, irritated by its dilapidation. The notice issued the threat of imminent destruction to its departed owners, should they not, whoever they might be, return immediately to claim the boat themselves. Inevitably, no rightful owner emerged and so it was taken away. I imagine it was tugged maybe a mile up-river before its new custodians abandoned it on the opposite riverbank, perhaps annoyed at the difficulty of the task of dragging a half-wrecked vessel against the tide. I feel a pang of melancholy whenever I look at this boat. It is difficult to resist the thought that it was once owned, that what now lies in irreversible decay was once a site of possibility. Something of that past life hangs around it still. It is left without care to slowly erode into the river and mud, to be broken apart minutely and as such finally taken out to sea. Seen from across the river, separated by the mud, one can sense its history clinging to the air around it like a scent of decomposition, entirely unrecoverable.
One morning last week as I turned from the boat and the river and walked through the woods, my presence on the path sent a flock of pigeons flying from their perches high in the trees. They flew as a group in terror, though only a little further down the path, to take flight again once I had caught up with them. The flock seemed vastly exaggerated in size, as if I were driving an endless cloud of birds before me, as if I, some twenty feet below and laughably minute in comparison, posed a threat to the entire species that it could only unclearly perceive but which it could not bear. At this thought I noticed with alarm that every animal I came across would scurry away in terror, that I could not approach one living thing without plunging it into mad panic. For an awful moment it seemed as if I drove all life before me, pushing it out of reach. The thought was still with me as I walked across the squares through campus. Under a mood of mild paranoia I walked in some discomfort to my office where I took my seat and stared at the birches outside. I stared at the last remaining, fluttering leaves at the bases of the trunks, the red buds held from blossoming by the exceptionally cold spring, and the students that passed behind them all as they walked half-asleep to class.