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Wandering

I was born in a small fishing port, at the mouth of a river which gave its name to a moor – a wild place. Dartmoor is a lofty range of misty valleys and veiled heights, of bracken and bogs and heather-clad slopes – a haven once for brigands and thieves, untamed men who served in Drake’s navy and pirated the seven seas.

No longer. Though some who perch on Dartmoor’s windswept fells might insist the wild Dartmoor_pony_foal_1men are still with us, the only manifestation of their criminality is likely to be car theft. The spirit of the moor, though undefeated, is buried deep, awaiting the next turn of history.

The River Dart retains some fame as host to Dartmouth Naval College, which ensures that our smattering of gun-boats is jealously manned, while Dartmouth itself, town of my birth, retains no fame at all, even though Thomas Newcomen was born there, a few centuries ago. Thomas who? Thomas made the first workable atmospheric engine, progenitor of the steam engine. His beam pumps were used everywhere a mine needed drying out, back in heady eighteenth century times. Dartmouth is the site where a ferry crossing once linked the main arterial road from the Devon coast to the rest of the peninsula.

Once, not now. The old ferry remains. The queues for it are as torturous as ever, but its users are there for the tourist experience, rather than an urgent need to reach Plymouth, or Truro, or St, Ives. The spider of communication has spun her web across these traditional routes, keeping them cocooned while she sucks their juices. Is this a bad thing? I don’t know. It is progress, and one should never question progress.

Although I have returned there now and then I have no early memories of Dartmouth. Nor do I recall those of my infant years which were spent in Paignton, a neighboring Devon coastal town. My first childhood memories are of Exeter, Devon’s capital city, and from there my life’s journey led me through different episodes across the southern breadth of this land – Somerset, Dorset, Hampshire, Sussex, Essex, London. I have been, in short, something of a gypsy. And in all my years I never kept a friend or found a home.

Instead, a peculiar thing has happened, something that I know I find inspirational and perhaps inspires the writer in all of us. I have made a home in me. My imagination is my caravan, my mind is my world. I rarely dwell upon the past. I will not share it like a poet over a pint of beer or belabor it as a fellow traveler upon a bus journey of tedious reminiscence. I commit it to paper instead. I do not lack for company, for whenever I need a friend I can find one on a white sheet of A4. If I want a memory to share I can find that too, simply by turning another corner in my brain.

Yet the worm will return to eat its own tail in the end. Somewhere in my psyche there must be a predilection for those open moors and wind-chilled heights that were my near neighbors in infancy. Certainly I am never happy in the confinement of a city – I hate the taste of traffic in my air. This may be why I live where I do, at the place where the caravan stopped; where the wheels finally fell off, if you will. But it may also be true there are stories in Weardale’s wild fells, and a voice that cries to be heard.

37Wherever margins exist tales lie beyond. In this crowded land the taint of man adventures in high places at his peril. Where he dares go, there the wild wind and the scoured clay will whisper secrets to him in the night, will scare him with demons in the cold snow, murmur the quiet suggestions that can turn his mind. These things are the province of real men; men with some pirate still in their flinted souls, who grow up to talk with close mouths and see with narrowed eyes; who dress with no obedience to season, are slow to speak and quick to judge. Their intimacy with the land is absolute and harsh, a relationship some might consider abusive.

Although Dartmoor still harbors a few such men, there is no place for me, no home to which I would want to return. City dwellers have driven Devon men from their land, inflating house prices and bludgeoning a hole in the natural environment, squatting in triple glazed pods defiant of nature. Wherever these people reside, the spirit of the moor is a recluse that is only rarely seen. Not that Weardale can lay claim to status as the last wild place, or presume to Dartmoor’s natural beauty. As our land becomes more crowded wealth spreads across it like a disease, but the worst effects of skin rash have not reached Weardale – not yet.

So that jaded virginity, or accident of chaos, or fate, has led me to settle here, amid the ghosts of a millennium and more. For near to twenty years now it has been my home. I have put down roots; strange to me, in the soil of so much history I may never have time to tell it all. Once and again, though, I may risk boring you with Weardale tales, and I hope you will tolerate my slavish devotion to this place.

Firefly

Firefly 2Once there was a world of bright air and conversation; once there was a house, its rooms filled with laughter. There was a woman whose arms were soft and consolation swift; a melee of children, a barking of dogs, a cat that would lay across his knees, singing to him.

Once there was a bed where he might wile away hours in sleep and dreaming.   He no longer sleeps.  The mist that has closed upon his mind has drawn a veil across his memories – all are faded, all gone; wilted like the last rose until only the naked briar is left.  There is a cold wind in the briar.

Now there is just a chair and a room, and beyond it there is silence.  Through the watches of the night he sits nursing his pain as he has done for countless nights, contemplating the chasm beyond the walls.    Somewhere out in the ether sits a firefly of change, but it will not dance yet, not until a darkness deep enough to glorify its light has descended.  As dawn smolders into the flame of morning it withdraws once more, waiting.

He also waits, knowing (or is it hoping?) it is there.  Hoping it will come to him as it did the summer he died, five years ago.  When his heart gave notice, that warm green afternoon, it danced for him, and though he felt welcomed by its light, he could not follow where it led.  Jolted back to existence, he was prevented.

When he asked the man with shining skin and smiling stare why he should be made to stay the man spoke of a higher plateau where the hibiscus of his youth would grow again and the sweetness of forgotten scents, the smell of woman and the cry of wheeling rooks was eternal.  The open path where he walked once, that person said, was waiting, but he might only earn his place there through suffering.

Are you suffering, shining man?  Do you really know what suffering is?

The window curtains are grey with morning.  Soon ‘Twice Daily’ will come to draw them, to wash the humiliation from a body which although attached to him is no longer his.  There will be food and pills and she will leave.  For the hours until another night his rebellious heart will keep beating.    He will struggle to catch each fleeting breath, reaching within himself to tear out the gossamer strands that clog his lungs, his instinct for survival denying him the final rest his head cries out for. 

But oblivion will not come to him – not for another day, and then another, and so many more; while all the time the firefly hovers just beyond his grasp, patiently waiting.

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Just recently a lady I knew well ceased to breathe.  I could not grieve for her passing because to me, to all of us who knew her, she died four years ago.   She died the night her heart surrendered.  She was eighty-two.

Once, upon what some would say was a less civilized time, she might have lingered a few hours, or perhaps a few days, then passed with her family around her.  Everyone would remember her for the light that shone from her before she was stricken, and the world would move on.   Once.

Instead, those who loved her cried for help.  Instead, she was revived.   Her chest was cut open, a pig’s valve was sewn into her heart and the tubes that had been clogged with the years of living were replaced.   Her body was returned to life, and life became her prison.

Did she live longer?  Certainly, yes.   Was the time valuable to her, an active, practical woman who loved to go out, to tend her garden, to keep house, to walk?   When she could no longer do any of these things, did she live longer?  

I cannot say that any but the very best of intentions brought her back from the precipice, or that we should not stand in awe of all that medical science has achieved and can do.  I would be wrong to question the motives of any who strove to save her and give her those few extra years; but I do wonder whether we fully understand a cliche we use too freely and too often:  ‘the quality of life’.

Somewhere along the way, in our ardor to progress, to make advances in medical science, something has gone wrong.  A balance has failed, we have tipped over an edge of reason into an abyss of our own creation.  It is time to step back and look again.

It is time to consider, since we now have power over life and death, how we should use it.

They Talk of Cars……

They sit and talk of cars.

After long years without sight or word or picture – without any knowing – he seems unchanged.  Older, of course, his neat, short hair trimmed with grey:  wiser?  Perhaps.  Confident?  Certainly.   That nervous laugh is quietened now, no more than an eddy in the torrent of his words.

 He talks of cars.

“It is a nice car,” his father tells him.  “You should be proud to own such a car.”

He does not ask the question:  he does not say ‘I cannot love you’ or ask if there is love in his son for him?  Or try to explain why he could never really love him as a father should love his son.

It is a Mercedes, the car.  It is new.  The son has come from afar and the father knows all those miles were for the enjoyment of the drive, for the impression it would make, for his approval. 

 ‘Yes’, the son agrees.  “I have done well.’

There is business to speak of – the properties the son now owns, the achievements of time – time they both have lost.  He listens, the father, his ears filled with his boy’s success, his mind filled with his guilt.  He remembers a little childhood song the boy once sang for him, and counts off each of his betrayals, every one.  All the ways he let him down; all the absence, the vanities, the anger.  And he hopes in the spaces, in the brief moments of silence his son will hear his sorrow for them spoken, though he cannot say the words.

The son glances at his watch.  He should know the father better than to expect such a gesture to be missed; but of course he doesn’t know him.  He is half a stranger now. 

And it is time to part.  The father’s interview is finished, though he may have said rather less than a fistful of words.  The son has visited his father and now he has another appointment.  It is time.

The smiles of parting, the platitudes:  they do not touch. 

 So much that is needed is left unsaid; for the father is old now, in the December of his life.   There is no room left for more lost years, and the son will be too busy to cross the miles – ever to meet with him again.  

But he will be able to recall their last meeting, and how they spoke of cars.