Thursday, 18 May 2017

Up Hill and Down Dale; or There and Back Again…

It was always ‘The Hill’ – or even ‘My Hill’ – never given its given name. Not that such mattered. When I was trialling my resurrected skill of perambulation, it was my habituation – requiring a destination that stretched and tautened my ill-used muscles frequently, as a baker will confront his callow dough. And not just those slack sinews of leg and arm; but a locus which tantalized my cognitive tendons, too – for, if the place bore no intrigue, it bore no reward.

It was only My Hill because my excursions were timed for those hours when the dog-walkers, kite-fliers, and recalcitrant children would likely be elsewhere: awarding me a selfish kingdom of solitude; but one where I could practice my eccentricities without fear of shame or chagrin; where I could talk to those whose names were fixed, in memoriam, to benches; or to the grazing, scrubbing cattle… – or simply myself. It was only The Hill because it was the only hill: a quarry-shocked crag; a two-hundred-and-eight-metre climb above the grey flatness of urbanity to the Cotswold Way – a deterrent, a border almost, most effective to the majority of those level-pegged inhabitants of uniformity.

As my limbs gained strength, as my lungs blew open, as the observance of this refound skill shrank in my consciousness to grow, in the main, innate once more, those metres flew as naturally as rhymes: my ascendancy rendered flesh. Thus this was My Hill: because my pain, persistence, and practice had overpowered it. It was my domain by domination, as well as desire.

Ten years on – a decade of deficiency, disability, deepening depression, the attainment and bestriding of disparate peaks – I stood anew atop my arduously-attained pinnacle: permitting the encircling southerly blusters to pierce my belted brain; its masochistic pelt punctured by their pointed prongs; their tongues bestirring my memory and mind afresh. But my perfidious powers of recall, it seemed, had not retained – or their seams of precious remembrance lay too deep for such probing – the pathways once painted broad and bright upon their surface: mirroring the man-made craquelure etched sharp into The Hill’s veneer. It was as if I had sought my reassuring reflection in a preternaturally still puddle, only to fleetingly find another’s fledgling façade burrowing back into mine: its phantom physiognomy rapidly metamorphosing into grains of russet mud ruffled by the blunt wind’s fraudulent fingers. No historic hypsography to be fathomed, all I should do would be… all I would do should be… to wander: yearning for some volunteered landmark to illuminate my way.

And so it was, that, jigsaw-like, hesitant stride by hesitant stride, the fragments of my memorized demesne assembled: willing members of the flock convening ploddingly to my pastoral care. Their faces sought pleadingly for names, yet – my conviction growing that they too would congregate. I just did not know how.

It was the sighting of the custard-coloured trigonometrical point which catalysed – as one should – the lie of my land. Now, the gusts commingled the molecules of memory: the clouded plashet tranquil once more; the evil eye vanquished by purpose of divination – a pool for scrying situation and substance. This was my crystalline epiphany: shutters vanquished from my senses, sudden as a slap.

With a fresh amalgam of instinct and insight, the scent of former footslogs regained, I turned for the topograph: my mental map as sharply steeled as its bold-etched bearings. The elaborate plain below me – from the mauve Malvern hills, through terracotta brick and tile, sun-bleached stucco, golden stone, sky-touched slate, and now green fields – expanded in depth and detail as I approached: welcoming my return with a familiar embrace. Even the storm-clouds gave ground. This was all I craved, all I coveted, all I called for, to complete my orientation; and presently, destination and aspiration fused with the rust-red tracks beneath me.

Light lingered through the lace of fledging trees; painted the pea-flowering gorse gold as the pollen which budgeted the backs of bees quizzing its beneficence; warmed my wind-blown neck; removed my redundant fleece; spurred me on – its star-spun energy so readily absorbed. Somewhere, deep in my thoughts, a stray photon sparked against the flint of a notion, an emotion… a hunch.

I pivoted away from the precipitous path hard on my heels, as I would a cresting sea, and glowered through the ragged, wind-knuckled copse to my right.

There it was: the gate I had forgotten – the entrance to a landscape which many passed by, never, in truth, to memorize. Beyond it – inland, it felt – a track less trodden, straight as an old billiard cue, pale from overgrowth, pointing towards the farm, the woods, past the springs, to that I sought. My route fast-forwarded behind my eyes, resonant with allure, cajoling me to trace it in deed, not just in mind. How, on earth, could I gainstrive such a provocation?

Ten wooden steps, and my hand held open the portal more mundane than my recall of it. But beyond, truly there was magic to be espoused: commencing with wide-open fields that hugged me hard within their expansive stone boundaries. I was drawn in, engulfed, assimilated; and I drank from the altered air: toasted so still, now, as to be alien.

The old, mouldering workers’ cottage, melding with the organic, had mislaid more wall-stones in my absence, had gained more vegetation: the emergent chartreuse canopies of invading trees, rooted where furniture once stood, beginning to form new shelter for rustling inhabitants mostly sensed but not seen. Why the young cony, ’til then hidden deep under cow parsley, profuse and crisply keen from the morning’s rainstorms, leapt out, exposed, along the trackway yet to be followed, I could not comprehend. Once, it halted, turned, as if to interrogate my obtrusive presence (still perched, mid-motion, caught clambering clumsily over a too-tall stile), sniffed, front paws raised, before a realization that the green wall of spring wheat to its side was easy refuge: a zagged, waning link of vibrating blade-tips marking its passage as bubbles will the otter’s.

I dismounted, as the slow breeze, now heavy with intimations of summer, grazed the crop, tickling it into motion once more: a languorous, scythe-shaped Mexican wave fading as if reaching some shadowy shore. Following its lead, I resumed my quest: crossing the deserted farmyard with the reverence such neatness deserves; my hard steps on the iron ground resonating in the large metal shed I passed housing the army of machinery necessary for modern agriculture – including an immaculate combine, slumbering yet… – reminding me that rain would soon be required to warrant its eventual usage.

The large ashlar-built farmhouse, and its connected collection of matching barns and stables, shone grey under the clearing sky; another burgeoning ruin – dirt-brown and lovelorn with age; but roofed still: even with its far wall splintering away, a crevice growing from the doorway wide enough to reach through – demonstrating its only hint of dilapidation. The land was cherished, though; as were the labelled ways – although the plentiful stiles (planks impregnated with thick staples to facilitate the passage of those mud-soled) showed little sign of use nor repair; and, further on, low in a deep valley (a typical, timeless, Gloucestershire ‘bottom’; and a place I found I still had at heart), past the silent pump-house, paths evaporated: uneven, lightly-trampled grass, the only directional trace between clear signs.

The only person I had ever chanced upon in this sunken sanctuary was the farmer, tanned as the land she toiled: surrounded by squabbling collies eager for exercise and sheep; the eldest artfully dozing on the back of her green, soil-spattered quad, retirement well-earned. But, generally, apart from the whicker of lamb and ewe, the surrounding, steep woodland seemed to suck all sound from the motionless atmosphere: rendering it more Samuel Palmer dreamscape than corporeality.

And yet it was balm to the soul; and I lingered, slowly easing my tread around lambs sleeping, snuffling, sunbathing (lying, indeed, as if they had just fallen there) on their sides: ensuring, too, that their overwrought mothers had no true cause for their bleated concerns. Of course, encountering sheep sharing reveries of sweeter, greener pastures, piled like pillows at your feet, as you climbed another field boundary, provoked only indignant disruption: mothers butting interlopers eager for a calming feed. But there was no avoidance of such; no alternate right of passage. A hundred steps later, I turned… – and there they were: jostling for privilege, once more, come back against the cornered hedges; sheltering from the May sun.

Once clear of the bluebell-littered trees, the track lowered me gently to a swarming road-crossing I had wiped from my mind. With sparse visibility – and as much momentum as my walking stick could muster – I launched my crippled body across: relying chiefly on my heightened hearing for judgement. Impulsive – or imprudent – is the creature which follows in my tracks. Even in the darkest hours, traffic materializes with excess haste and a deficiency of regard.

On the other side, an inquisitive, espresso-coloured calf greeted me phlegmatically; and the land continued to stoop – respite for the last stretch leading to the compact village of my aspiration. But I could not rest for long – not even on the bench (‘My Bench’; my true objective) handily placed for such succour on the tiny, triangular green. Finally reaching for the OS map I carried with me, I stood – gestalting all in sight; memorizing the present, merging with its past… – and shifted once again.

I hankered for a different return: and such I found, ginneling between cottages above spring-driven, stream-chained, sky-washed ponds; then passing through the only farm at the hamlet’s end; ascending by a forgotten footpath more directly to the once-turnpiked highway; clambering away from the seemingly bygone, beneath perfect parting altocumulus.

This way was safer: my range of vision vaster than before. Yet I hurried, still: my pulse racing in my ears.

Up, up, towards My Hill, anew, guided by a straight edge of stratocumulus, and a sky underscored with the viscous xanthous of oilseed rape; my body permeated with pain; my mind ascendant. Thus I smiled simply at the few – ovine and human beings – I finally encountered: my achievement ingraining every cell – no better anodyne than success; no better analgesic than belief. Endorphins – only released upon completion – finally rushed through every artery; and I accepted them eagerly: devoured them as rapaciously as the cooled water patiently biding my coming-back.

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