Monday, October 23, 2006
sitting on the beach wrapped in a blanket. Huddled behind raised knees, listening to the waves, listening to the crash and grumble of a million smooth stones tumble and jumble with each inward and outward motion of the sea.
The slate grey sky is indistinguishable, inseparable from the sea. Distance is a tunnel, a funnel, a grinding machine into which all the colour of the world has been poured and washed and abraded to a gun metal base.
The wind carries spray and dirty wisps of spume beyond the reach of the retreating tide, further up the beach, to where I sit, wrapped in a blanket, huddled behind raised knees...sheltering from the cold stiff breeze and the threat of rain in the leaden air.
But I am not cold. Not a bit of it, I'm basking in the summer sun, as bright and cheerful a day as ever was. There on the top of the hill, staring down the lane, beyond the great oak to where the hill steepens and falls a half mile of helter skelter, pell mell, catch me if you can. The sun is warm, but more warming still is my bright blue pedal car and the anticipation of streaking down the hill away from the haunted house-not-home on the hill.
In my mind's eye I can see me. It is the summer holiday and the boy that I am watching is eleven years old. The summer stretches into the distance, for ever, beyond imagination. The sky is the bluest blue, somnolent, serene, the grass was never greener, long stalks of barley sway, susurrate softly whispering secrets to one another with each breath of air.
He is a creature of the outdoors, a town boy relocated into the Scottish countryside. Every day is an adventure teeming with discovery. Walking in the tall pine woods on an endless bed of fir needles, up to the ancient standing stones on the top of the hill, or down by the river across the shallow salmon run into the fields beyond where there is a lake, sunken, hidden from view by a ring of holly.
Anywhere other than indoors. From the moment that breakfast is finished until tea time and then straight out again until night fall, avoiding the musty gloom and great thick walls of the house on the hill, and the child within that cries “mummy”, but not from need, from dread. (We (my family) share a space with this tiny terrified phantom, but not a place in time. His dread and far too audible laments are somehow locked in the walls of the house like a recording on tape which is occasionally triggered by who knows what so that we can all relive his anguish. Or at least I think 'we' do for my parents will not discuss it).
On the beach the sun is setting. An unlikely skein of geese honk forlornly and bustle along the beach, easterly towards the first evening stars. Out at sea clouds appear like purple loaves, flat bottomed, I see reclining knights on the tomb lid of the horizon finally marking the division between sea and sky.
In the barn the boy has heard, amongst last years hay, mewling and shuffling - in the far corner behind great discarded, rusting farm implements whose purpose is not obvious. A brindle cat with kittens, five noses, ten closed eyes and twenty tiny paws in a single ball of fur, black, white, black and white, she looks back contented with her pale amber eyes and flexes her claws in and out against the surrounding straw as the kittens snuggle and suckle.
She is lying in a comfortable bowl of hay on the seat of a tiny, blue, pedal race car. I have not the heart to move her and her family, but my mother will, she’ll bring her inside and find her a place that’s warm and dark and safe in the pantry and give her milk and kitchen scraps. It’s deceitful of me I know, she was happy where she was, but I wanted that car.
The car is tiny, the wheels which were once solid metal discs with white rubber rims are chipped and freckled with rust, there is a small white steering wheel, everything else is blue, powder blue. It must be very old, an antique perhaps, like no ‘modern’ race car, but shaped like a sausage with a long bonnet with the seat forming the rear and only with some pushing can the boy squeeze his bottom down onto it. There’s no room inside the car for legs so they poke out in front, or more comfortably crossed over the bonnet beyond the steering wheel.
It’s strange (is it strange?) that sound takes on a different quality at night. Is it the diminution of one sense that heightens another? Or is it simply that the tide has turned, have I been here that long? But the mutter of the sea rolled stones seems more brittle now, and I feel cold, the damp chill has begun to seep through the warm folds of my blanket.
But still, with my eyes closed I can see a summer’s day. I can remember the other me carrying the car across the cobbled yard to the top of the hill. It’s nearly half a mile starting between the house wall and the corner of the great outhouse on the edge of the courtyard. Nearly half a mile of hedge lined lane with no other purpose, no end other than the farm house, not a home, perched on the hill at the edge of the forest.
I am (he is, we are at that moment) eleven years old. There is no doubt what I will do, not a moments hesitation. I sit the car down on the very brow of the hill and tuck my feet up, crossed, on to the bonnet. Down the hill the great oak beckons, swallows swoop and dive above the barley, butterflies dance in the briar and as I look up a dragon fly zig zags across the lane like a sparkling green automaton. For these last few seconds I am the only thing in my world that cannot fly. But not for long.
The car is so small that I can reach the ground with the palms of my hands and I press backwards, rolling us forward on to the first gentle slope.
Slowly, ever so slowly at first, we begin to roll. There’s a rasping, grating, rusty exhalation from long unused bearings and we are off. Yard by yard, picking up speed, faster and faster, a sideways glance confirms that the hedges that are now rushing by are beginning to blur. Faster and faster. There is a sound of wind and rush and hurry now.
We are only half way down the first relatively gentle segment of the hill, beyond the oak it angles down. Faster and faster. I can see over the false horizon of the half-hill now, the lane disappears, but I can see the fields below beyond the road that the lane will intersect, beyond that the gravel track leading to the stone hump back bridge across the railway.
Faster and faster. I can steer but tears are streaming from my eyes. Under the branches of the great oak we flash, we are a blue streak now, there is no car, I have wheels. Screaming half laughter half terror, faster even faster, the world is a blur, no stopping, no brakes, nerveless fingers and a rictus grin, crying, laughing and howling like a loon.
No tractor or caravan on the road pleeeease today. However did I think that I would stop this tiny blue juggernaut? We shoot out of the lane, the embodiment of coruscating, sparkling blue glee, across the road in a flash and onto the gravel path opposite. Showered with stones, holding hard, gripping the steering wheel with every ounce of petrified strength, up the incline of the bridge to an eventual halt in the grassy bank on the other side. Slowly unclenching numb fingers and face, unbuckling legs and backside to unfold into a wobbly, unsteady upright to look back up the hill and begin to unravel the sheer idiocy of it.
I cannot see the house.
And there is one other thing I know, immediately, I will do it again. And when at night I lie in bed and strain not to hear that child’s torment, I will cover my head with my pillow and think about the blue car.
On the beach I stand up. My bottom and knees are stiff, fingers crack open from unconscious balled fists. With the blanket draped across my shoulders I stoop to pick up a stone to fling into the sea and wipe my eyes.
I remember the blue car. But I don’t remember him at all. It should feel like me, but the memory I have is….the memory of a character I have read in a book, or the memory of a film. It should be me, we should be me, the same, he should be vivid like the car but somehow he's not, we became...separated.
But it was our blue car.