The sky was the colour of gravestones. A light rain was falling, the kind that is imperceptibly fine but leaves you wet through. I had neither a hood nor an umbrella but nevertheless was committed; it was too late to turn back.
My journey takes me past an old stone church with a small graveyard. I always intend to get closer to better inspect and take photos of the medieval building but alas! my shyness restricts me. It feels wrong, intrusive, disrespectful somehow. People wander in and out of the building whilst I stand observing like a curious specter; concealed and tucked out of the way.
I float around the graveyard, taking note of how neatly the stones are placed and how meticulously the grounds are kept; an enormous amount of care and precision has been given to the maintenance of the headstones and flowers.
My friend recently took me to a cemetery in North East London for my birthday. The permanent residence of many a rebel, thinker and atheist; the final resting place of those the church scorned and deemed unholy. The scenery perfectly reflected how I imagined these people to have been in life; wild and overgrown. The stubborn roots had pushed their way above ground had knocked over and cracked many headstones; nature seamlessly integrating itself and bringing new life to death.
A bright green parakeet was perched on a branch next to a weather eroded statue of an angel. In the blue grey light of winter the bird looked very much at home and blissfully unaware of its unsuitable environment. I observed it for quite some time whilst it delicately preened its beautiful plumage, occasionally ruffling its feathers and making gentle chirruping sounds. It was surreal to hear the song of a tropical bird instead of the cry of a lone crow. In front of the statue grew a single red rose in full bloom. The contrast to its austere backdrop made it stand out like a bloodstain.
A very energetic squirrel dug in the loose soil near where we stood, occasionally glancing over in our direction. The animal would turn out to be our guide for the remainder of our mysterious excursion, hopping happily in front of us as we made our way around the labyrinth of knotted roots, twisted trunks, cracked stones and parakeets.
It was easy to forget that we were still in a major city surrounded by noise and activity. It was almost impossible to believe that just outside those crumbling walls and iron railings was a busy road complete with high-street retailers, restaurants and a herd of bustling people going about their day. Our shoes now sodden and our frilly socks splattered with mud, we made our way through the maze, following overgrown paths and mossy paving slabs in attempt to return to the world of the living. Our squirrel friend still accompanying us and guiding our impatient steps. “Would anyone think to look for us here?” I pondered, suddenly anxious that we might never escape.
Eventually we reached the familiar wrought iron gates that we had entered through. We bid our furry friend a fond farewell. He considered us for a moment before turning and hopping away; disappearing into the tangle of knotty branches and weeds. We were suddenly struck by the bitter cold, as though our bodies had only just become apparent. Our extremities now numb we believed the very blood in our veins to be frozen solid. A nearby coffee shop was a welcome refuge as we celebrated life with hot chocolate and laughter.
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.
…resemble an airport bar…
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.