Mareld

trees

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.

boat

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.

Looking now at weather-beaten trees through a window in late October, I remember that the playground of the primary school I attended stands empty at night in autumn. I imagine the poplar trees swaying and the familiar cold shimmer of leaves shaken towards the end of their lives by a breeze they amplify and which will tear them from their branches. I imagine the tarmac playground wet, black and oily, lit by the phosphorus glow of one or two lampposts that refuse to cut out.

The school grounds are empty at night because they are not a public space. Once the doors are locked each night the grounds are apparently patrolled by the security company whose logo is prominently displayed on the board fixed to the grill of the gates. As a result, I have not returned to the school since my early teens. A curious result of this is that by passing by the school on occasional visits to my parents I am unsettled by seeing from the outside, with the eyes of an adult, a place I still understand vaguely from the inside as an eleven-year old boy. I sense that were I to climb over the fence I would revert to a form I thought I had outgrown and navigate the grounds with ease, without thought, though in covering my tracks lose them forever.

On some summer afternoons after school I would sit on my own under an oak tree that stood between the school gates and the car park, where I waited for my mother to collect me. After one September I was for good reason no longer allowed to wait on that side of the gate and had, instead, to occupy myself in the deserted playground, only a metre or so from where I had hung around before. I would walk through the designated ‘quiet area’, now the equal of the rest of the school, down to the dip in the playground. In an area cleared of tarmac and fenced by low green pickets, unforgettably tall poplar trees grew either side of a wooden bridge that spanned the clearing from one side of tarmac to the other. One day, bored of these explorations, I brought a tube of superglue into school and glued a twenty-pence piece to a bench. I would return at lunchtime for days after to see boys try, and fail, to remove the coin from the wood with stones or pieces of wood. Eventually my friend Tom brought a screwdriver to school and rent the coin from the by then battered wood.

Towards the close of the summer term the school would hold an end of year celebration named Friday Frolics which saw, for an evening, the grounds changed entirely. The main playground was fitted out with tables and chairs and parents would come to watch a band play. They drank beer and wine served to them by teachers. They ate burgers and hotdogs cooked on a vast grill built in to one corner of the playground, though it stood unused for the rest of the year. The children were given loose change and left to explore the school in its transformed state. The classrooms had been made into grottos housing games that offered sweets as prizes and cost only ten pence to play. The books in the library were cordoned, either for protection or to cover any trace of learning, by vast sheets of corrugated cardboard such that to walk through the room was to penetrate the length of a solemn, grey, silent tunnel. The music room hosted a karaoke machine. When I think now of that room I cannot recall the faces of the adults who filled it, their reason for singing as obscure to me now as ever, as my lack of interest then guaranteed. The lower playground before the poplars was dedicated to the tombola, smack the rat, quoits and similar activities. Elsewhere one could buy candyfloss and toffee apples, cheap Panda cola and lemonade. The school hall became a disco. My favourite attraction, though, was the field train. The field train was a car made up to look like a train which drew behind it several carriages. The train circled the school field, with which every child was intensely familiar, and cost fifty pence a ride. I would try to ride the field train as often as I could, spending a large portion of the night on this objectively dull tour, though it held me captivated.

A few years after I left the school the Frolics were shut down. The children who had once enjoyed everything that that night could offer had since left for secondary school and become teenagers. With an unexamined compulsion pulling them back to their old playground they would somehow acquire tickets, normally reserved for the families of current students only, and attempt to buy alcohol from the stalls that had once served their parents. Disheartened at their lack of success in procuring what they were after from the people who had, not four years before, been their teachers, they began to bring their own beer. They would take their drinks and sit in the dip of the school field under the shadow of the trees around which they used to play and silently, heavily fail to understand what had happened to them. Inevitably, the teenagers would eventually come in from the cold, inebriated, and disrupt whatever was going on in the school, scaring the children and angering the parents. In order to deal with this nuisance a security company was hired, though not to much success; the number of returning teenagers seemed to grow year on year and the school became stubbornly unaccommodating. One year it was decided that the school building was to be locked up and that only the outside stalls would remain. The next year the alcohol was no longer served. The year after that the parents stayed home.

The year I returned to school for the Frolics was a year in which the decline had already set in. I brought a friend who had attended another school. She was mocked for her clothes by two other girls, both our age. The teachers whom I remember as having been glad to serve me as a child now observed my movements on edge, at distance, evidently tired of having to guard against the hysteresis of those children they thought had left, they thought, for good.

It is to thoughts like these that I am drawn when the sheer, transparent present seems, for all that, of no depth at all, when my foresight seems myopic and the future correspondingly flat. Though I can touch the chestnut and the birch outside the window and though the light smell of their rotting leaves is right there for me, at times they leave me colder, more dislocated and cut off, than the thought of my school’s poplars swaying for no one to see, shut up.