Early evening and I’m on the move again. Fields slip past the train window, grassy and buttercup filled. I see families of rabbits, little brown stains moving in the grass. A grey horse, leaping and bucking, wild, with the joy of life springing from its youthful muscles. Clouds on the horizon, morphing and swelling, tearing out of their neat shapes into the anvil-like form of cumulonimbus. Cloud nine. I feel like I could be up there, rising above the sky, feeling a strange joy as the train rushes forward, its motion smooth and constant, always moving forwards leaving behind the sheep and the crows, the cows, the sudden shimmer of water, the trees, the pigeons, the tumbledown farmhouses, the horses, the homes, the powerlines, the towns and villages, the giant warehouses. Am I moving away or moving towards? It is never clear to me. I am heading for something yet leaving something behind and this is always true but never, perhaps, so obvious as when I am on a train. I head into the unknown, I do not know what the next moment will bring. I never know. I have never seen this sky before, nor this field, nor this train carriage nor these words. However familiar they seem, they are entirely and utterly new.
It is grey and damp and there is a steady drizzle of rain falling, making the view from my window look like static on a TV screen. The cat sits on my knee. She curls herself into a ball and suckles for a while, scratching her claws lovingly along my arm. The skin lifts, tears a little, it’s like an itch but more painful than that. Not painful enough to make me move my arm away. She falls asleep that way, her head curled against her chest, and she snores lightly, meowing now and again when I move my hand and it wakes her. A little, sad meow. She is warm against my stomach, her fur is like velvet in places and rough in others. If you stroke her back leg she retrieves it, moves it away from your hand. Other paws you can hold in your hand and she won’t move at all. She is black and white, her colouring reminds me, at times, of an orca whale and I think this would have made a good name though it isn’t the one we chose. It is like having a toddler, her warm body curled sleepily on my lap and me trapped here, waiting for her to wake.
I have been working in the garden today, digging a new border in which I will plant climbing plants: honeysuckle, jasmine, grape vines. The border runs alongside the rabbit run, what will be our ‘secret garden’ hidden behind the shed once the bushes I’ve planted are grown. The work is hard. Running beneath the ground is a network of thick roots from the eucalyptus tree, they run along everywhere almost immediately beneath the grassy surface, and deeper I imagine. The spade cuts into the earth and stops, and you know you have hit another root and a certain degree of force will be needed to dislodge it. I dig and sweat and dig some more. Gradually the earth is revealed and with it various worms and grubs, unhappy to be disturbed. A bee lands on the fence, a honeybee I believe though I’m not really too sure. It is small and it has a little patch of orangey fuzz on its back, almost an afterthought, and I watch it for a moment and then dig on. I get stuck on mossy patches and then more roots, and then a patch of grass that was once a border which I’ve allowed, through indifference and laziness, to grow wild. Here, as I tear the clinging grass away, I uncover a colony of snails. They are gathered around the base of the buddleia bush and they are all different sizes and range in colour from earthy brown to green. I tear the grass more carefully here so as not to disturb them. Here too I reveal a new kind of beetle, at least that’s what I’ve decided it is. It is tawny in colour, almost the colour of Lucozade but deeper than that, and it has an elongated body which has a brazen sheen to it. I watch it walk up the back of the fence and I think about the treasury of riches I have uncovered here, just digging sweatily in the garden for an hour in the early evening.
The day started bright and humid, the air thick with suspended water, and it wasn’t long until the clouds formed, dark and menacing and with such promise. The crackle of thunder, but no lightning. Fat drops of rain, and then more, and more until the water was like a curtain falling over the landscape, draping everything in its white haze. It didn’t last long but it changed everything. It released the hot scent of damp tarmac, the fresh smell of sodden earth. The air lifted; the temperature dropped a full ten degrees and the wind rose lifting the dripping fronds of tree leaves like washing on a line. The birds thrilled the air with their song.
It is bakingly hot, it has been bakingly hot for a few days now. The air is thick with humidity. The recently turned earth in my garden is turning lighter and lighter brown, though the plants still thrive and the eucalyptus had generated a new, shaggy coat which casts shade over the bottom of the garden. My children are out in the garden; my son is teaching my daughter how to fence. They are chattering and giggling; I catch only a few words: lunge, attack, recover but the words themselves are less important than the way they express them. They are having fun. The cat is sitting in the middle of the grass cleaning herself and the way she sits there so comfortably makes me think of the coolness of the grass, its dampness under bare feet and I think I will go out and join them in a minute. But for now it is pleasant to merely sit here, cool in the path of a breeze, listening to the happy sounds flowing through my open window.
It has been difficult garnering my thoughts the past couple of days; I have found it hard to focus my attention on anything other than the news, a situation which is the exact opposite of where I want to be. But I cannot hide myself, I cannot shield myself from everything and some things deny shielding. Some things require us to look.
Two years ago I took my daughter to see Ariana Grande at the MEN Arena. It was one of the best days of my daughter’s life. Such a wonderful experience to be reminded what it looks like to encounter an idol through the eyes of a child, the nakedness of her joy. Its vulnerability.
So I can place myself there. I can place my daughter there. I can place myself in the mind of a parent, a loved one, someone standing in the foyer waiting for their excited child to emerge. I can imagine myself waiting and then hearing something and, maybe, not seeing my daughter again. I can imagine how feelings of joy, elation, could so quickly turn to inconsolable grief.
One of the victims was studying at the same college as my son.
I remember 20 years ago being in the car park at B&Q and hearing a sound that was like something heavy being thrown in a skip. A large, echoing sound. Hours later, after my frantic mother contacted me, I recall my husband mentioning the smoke he had seen as he made his way back to the car. Neither of us mentioned what we’d encountered and we didn’t connect our stories until later.
I recall visiting Manchester city centre a couple of days later and standing outside the cordon and seeing the skeletal, battered remains of the building I worked in and knowing I would never set foot inside that building again. No one was killed that day, though many were injured. It was devastating all the same.
I can’t help thinking about the people who lost their loved ones, those who have suffered terrible injuries. Those people, they deserve my compassion and my empathy and they have it. I, too, can’t help thinking about people hiding in the bombed out remains of their village in Syria or Yemen and hearing the sound of gunfire or the approach of a jet engine or drone and knowing they too can do nothing to protect their children from what is to come. They too deserve my compassion and my empathy, and they have it. The powerlessness of both of these groups of people, their defencelessness, is palpable. I have shed tears for them all.
What difference does it make? My tears are useless. Bombs are destructive wherever they fall and whoever triggers them. There must be some better way than this endless war.
Today I have been digging in the garden. I am digging a new border, there are plants already in the zone and I’m having to dig around them. Digging around existing plants is complicated, I have to dig carefully so as not to damage anything. The ground is soft, the spade cuts into it easily. I lift the grass in its cradle of dirt, revealing a crop of worms, chunks of brick and stone, the roots of other plants. I scrape away the dirt, chopping carefully to avoid the worms. I don’t want to kill anything. I say this knowing that the grass I dig up will not survive, that there are other plants and perhaps some other creatures I cannot see that I will inadvertently end. And for what? A pretty border, for plants of my own choosing? It is arbitrary and mad; when I think about it I feel like I should stop, like I should just let the plants be even though the grass strangles other plants, the birds will eat the worms and some insects will destroy others, but in those things I am only an observer not an agent. It is when I act as an agent, deciding what lives and what dies, that I am responsible.
The sun is hot on my neck. My shoulder is aching. I lean with all my weight on the spade thinking how someone, far in the distant past, must have discovered the power of weaving from attempting to dig through matted grass. I am connected to all of those people. I am an ant in the grass, the worms wriggling under the soil, I am the same as all of those things. Only my human story, the story I tell myself, the story my culture spins around me unknowingly, that makes me think I am exceptional. There is no hierarchy of beings. There is just being. I try to remember this as I press my spade into the grass, as I gently loosen the worms from the packed earth and place them back under the ground.
I am sitting in the shed and for the first time I am writing here. There’s a stern breeze and the usual twitter of birds in the trees nearby and I can see a little bit of dandelion fluff caught on the cover of the barbeque and it is interesting to watch it move and twist in the breeze. I am tempted to free it, but it is more interesting sitting here watching it being bent to and fro. Perhaps it will free itself. The sound of the breeze is so similar to the sound of waves washing up on a beach, it is only the lack of distinct regularity which distinguishes it. I wonder if that is just a quirk of human hearing; if a dog hears it quite distinctly, or a cat, or a gull. It has such a fluid sound to it, the leaves rustling are like the shifting of sand or pebbles. Then it stops. Then it begins again and I think about what it might be like to be sitting here writing with the open sea viewable through my window instead of my meagre flowers, the grass, the nettles and dandelions in the corner which I’m loathe to dig up but I probably will at some point anyway. I think about how colour can make us feel cold or warm, how a grey sea churning with white swell would make me feel cosy from the safety of my little shed, especially if I couldn’t hear the roar of the water, because the darkness and the wildness of it I would imagine in contrast to my warmth and comfort. I feel safe, protected, even here with the stable door open and a breeze running through the shed and the buzz of car engines and the occasional voice from people making use of their back gardens. It is quiet in a way I have desired, quiet and anonymous. I can sit and observe and think and if I want to I can close all the doors and slip down under the counter and no one, not a single person besides me, will know I am here.
It is an ordinary Saturday: food shopping, laundry, a trip to the library, cooking, eating, watching a movie, sleep. I pick up a copy of Aldo Leopold’s book A Sand Country Almanac from the library and stick it on my shelf. I read a little, not Leopold but something else. I read around 20 pages and move on to the next thing. It is then that I realise how I parcel up time, how I allow a little bit of time for this and a little bit of time for that, just a little maybe 20 or 30 minutes a task then move on. The only activity I don’t parcel is walking, walking is somehow beyond time but I parcel it in a different way by only doing it at specific times: a day off, Sunday after dinner. If I walked on the everyday it might be all that I do.
I realise that all the books I read, everything I’m attracted to, is about immersion. I read about Dillard immersing herself in nature, Thoreau immersing himself in the self-sufficient life; I read about Davidson immersing herself in the desert and her camels, I read about Tesson immersing himself in the forest. I read about Maitland immersing herself in silence and I think about the desert fathers and how they immersed themselves in the desert and silence and God and I am jealous in a way I can’t describe. I read about immersion, but I cannot immerse myself. Maybe I read about it because I cannot immerse myself, but why can’t I? Nothing compels me to do this and that and the other things. Nothing prevents me from spending an entire day reading, or lying in the grass or staring at the stars; nothing prevents me from staying awake all night just to experience it, to feel how it is to breathe the cold night air and watch the stars turn and see the Milky Way in its living glory or spend the night counting meteors. Nothing prevents me from spending day upon day writing; sure there are practical considerations – bills must be paid, food prepared and eaten, the children must go to school though only because the state compels it, things need to be cleaned and maintenance needs to be done. But these things do not have to be all. These things do not define us, however much they try. Their claim is only as much as we allow it.
Perhaps, in my reading, I am learning how not to allow it.
The cat is sleeping on the floor by her tunnel. She is pressed against the floor in what looks to be the most uncomfortable position and yet she is so cozy and replete that I wish I could lie down next to her and snooze as abandonedly as she does.