It is winter time. I venture a chilly walk. This is my freedom.
My eyes follow the snaky twists and turns. A heavy fog blankets the water obscuring the dark entrance to the century old brick tunnel. This is as far as the footway goes, I would have to go by boat from here. There is a small abandoned wooden sloop without sails tied up next to me but I do not take it even though I am tempted. No doubt it would serve me well, but the tunnel is long , pitch black and frequented by longboats that would easily break the tiny vessel apart. I will save my rowing adventure for another day.
When I recall my canal walks, the smell is the first thing that enters my mind. A distinctive odour of diesel fuel and thick smoke combined with the organic aroma of algae, wet soil and the rain sodden weeds that line the footpath. A pungent whiff of damp clings to my clothes and hair; the scent is lingering. Even days later, I carry the canal on my person.
The world has a grey blue filter pulled over it. The air is icy. The tips of my fingers are numb and I rub my hands together to combat the cold. The wind blows through me and I pull my jacket tight around my body, I should have worn a scarf. My chest feels heavy from the cold, or perhaps it is melancholy, but that is not a new sensation. The dry leaves left on the trees rustle in the breeze. On occasion you can hear the squawk of a crow somewhere in the distance. Children eagerly feed swans and ducks at the water’s edge. I observe them as they excitedly throw large lumps of white bread at the expectant birds. The parents in these scenes always appear anxious to leave, uttering encouraging phrases such as “alright then, last piece” or “come along, I think that’s enough now”.
I envy the people in boats who do not have to negotiate the amblers and the cyclists; I often wish them to disappear entirely. The canal being man-made means the scenery is less naturalistic and far more industrial. The old brick and wrought iron warehouses that line the opposite side of the water give the distinct feeling of being in a Victorian novel or Penny Dreadful. On a misty twilight you wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Jack the Ripper emerge from the shadows. How quickly the eerie scene can shift when the fog clears and the orange sun sets on the horizon. Suddenly the buildings are silhouetted into mere shapes; artistically reflected off the water’s mirror-like surface.
I often forget myself and walk for several hours. Eventually I have to turn around, reluctantly retrieving my steps towards home. The comforting smell of burning wood billows from moored boats; I am suddenly impatient for a pair of warm socks and hot tea. “Until tomorrow,” I think. The water laps gently against several hulls and I know it is saying: I’ll be here.
Has it really been a year? The days slipped away like cascading sand but my chest carried the weight of decades gone by. If I recount the last 365 days I can only muster a few dream like images: the smell of the canal in summer, a hot breeze rustling through dry leaves. The perpetual feeling of longing, trying to hold on to something real. Everyone will have their own version, stories of private epiphanies that changed them forever. The sense of waiting stalks me like a shadow. I’m hurtling on a bus that I cannot jump from. Perhaps that is not the right analogy. I’m standing on a platform at a station that only has a few trains but I refuse to buy a ticket.
I stood outside golden houses watching, pleading for my senses to be dulled so I could block out the colourful sounds and smiling faces. I had been locked out of the palace, left outside and forgotten. The ivy had started to cover me as it took root and slowly pulled me down. There was no forward, neither could I go back – the only way was down, or up. The ground invited me with it’s warm and safe surroundings. I was promised my own hiding place, a way to escape. I would dig deep, they could never hope to find me… But I could feel the sun, her rays stroking my skin. She quenched my thirst with rain, she sent birds to sing me to sleep. The ground pulled and pulled, but I stretched up and up, higher and higher until I could no longer see the ground. I can still feel it, I know it is there. Sometimes I wish to go back, but it is too late now. Occasionally the heavy rains will fall and I feel them drowning my foundations. That is when the ground pulls once more, and buries my roots all the deeper.
When did my life start to resemble an airport bar? A revolving door that I cannot exit, no matter how many times I go round. Do you ever have those dreams, the ones when you are desperately searching but you can never find your way back to where you started? You cannot help but keep trying, even though you know that whatever magic is holding you in place is completely beyond your own power.