Deciduous Hymnbook

‘We’re going to visit—’ In the midst of lockdown, people – such as the sister-in-law – were, rightly or wrongly, searching for loopholes in the rules that permitted them to meet up with extended family, a mutual trust between all parties of cleanliness and negativity, so to speak. The venue was relayed via mobile phone over bowls of boiled eggs and brown toast, the grandfather and grandmother hunched over, listening in; and then rushing away to examine the rules, hold them up the light, question them, and then find the answers that best suited them – a kind of ‘O! what are you doing here?’. The private estate is set at the end of a deep dirt road in the countryside near to where, from two till fourteen, I played and grew. At the very mention of its name, there was a rush of memories upon me, and my mind was made up. Leaping from the sofa where I had reclined from my unsettled sleep, drugging myself on coffee and lazily watching football, the car would leave in forty-five minutes and I had better be ready. Outside it was a good day; the sun was shining bright autumn cold and the fracture of blue and orange, the aftershave of decay, crowds of dew on the pavement. Excitement in the shower as I tried to remember where I had stashed my XA. ‘—Do you want to come with us?’
    For one who is always compelled to sleep in a moving vehicle, as if drugged or exhausted, there are some journeys in which I cannot sleep for anticipation! Listening to music, I stared out the window. There passed the strawberry patch my mother would take us to during the summer holidays; children are weighed on the way in and the way out, the difference added to the bill; the mass of perspiration from rushing up & down aisles of red-pricked greenery is encouraged by the mother who hurries with her hand; the lips and fingers stained from that most delicious member of the rose family. The car bounced, shook bounced over the puddles and divots, potholes toward the black ironmongery of the estate and gravel car park where parents steadied on the edge of open boots, trading trainers for wellingtons, lithe legs with taught muscles. Stretching up and my spine snapping into place, the cold cloudy scent of trees. My parents and I passed through a series of gates until an old woman behind a closed window took our money, indicated a series of maps, and told us to take a sticker. We waited for my brother and his family who were expectedly late. Behind the gate, we waited for them to pass through. As they were all paid for, my youngest niece spotted my mother through gate and rushed in, squealing—‘Nana! Nana!’ and then on the other side, noticed that I was on the bridge, inhaling the last of my cigarette lest she see it, before she immediately changed tack and headed at me, colliding with my legs and wrapping her arms around them amid cries of—‘Riz! Riz! Riz!’ I laughed breathlessly in what psychologists might describe as ‘unusual and unfamiliar emotion.’ It is essential – through accident, fortune or effort – to find things that can still make one feel something indescribably wonderful. I put my lips to the parting in her hair where the most suitable of fringes breaks from the top of her skull, and planted a kiss. ‘Hello, darling, how are you?’ She babbled, and then I showed her the river where the weeds separated to exhibit the sparkling grey scales of curving fish.
    Choosing our course over the folded map, mindful of little legs, we set out. The arboretum boasting its collection of deciduous trees, each one tagged in English and in Latin, like an old hymnbook. My parents, brother and sister-in-law caught up as I took photographs and escorted my nieces from tree to tree, where they, with podgy fingers, traced ladybirds in winding circles on the bark. The sun was lowering, piercing such a beautiful halo through the leaves and the grass. They ran up the hill, already crystallised in eager dew and glimmering underneath the angled light. Their wellies thopped in the mud. My sister-in-law was complaining about her eldest, who I had just chased from the pine – saying—‘O, she was such a little shit. She did—’ this and she did that. Upon spotting the precocious child approaching in the corner of her eye, she changed the subject and pointed, saying—‘Look! there’re swans over there!’ My niece gasped—‘I loveswans… and I heared you talking about me.’ I turned away, concealing my laughter. Fallen leaves held up by the grass crackled underfoot. 
    Visiting the park again brought back many memories. Things that had lain dormant in the recesses of my brain for decades, as though they might never be needed ever again, were brought back to life. Like cicadas, they burst out the soil of my childhood! How did this synaptic muddle, I asked myself, this mysterious blanc mange, hide away such vivid recollections for over twenty years, only for them – in the blink of an eye – to be projected over the current scenery? My infant self could be seen running in the distance, in clothes paled by prints stored in the loft. I recognised the bridge, the lake, the manor. We walked on, giving way and taking priority over oncoming families also enjoying their Saturday afternoon stroll. The nieces stopped & started, examining, peering, questioning, rushing then lingering. We rounded the rear of the Gardener’s Cottage, behind which the sun was setting. There were a series of bunkers around this part of the arboretum, corrugated steel poking like buckteeth out of mounds of ferns and soil; drawing the curiosity of my eldest niece who asked what the large black letters KEEP OUT meant—‘What does it say?’ her gesture pulled from chasing ladybirds to pointing at the darkness that quickly sunk beneath weedy eyelashes. Inwards she gazed with my father explaining to her the purpose of these surreptitious structures, careful not to mention death because she is both obsessed with and terrified by death.
    My brother encourages his daughters through a large puddle that slimes over the path in turmoil and flat, but the youngest pauses halfway through in her wellies. She was so sure, until she raises her hands and waits for a parent to save her, wobbling. At the back of the cottage, through a hole in the wall, there is a peacock posing most regally upon a bench. He ruffles his own feathers and coos as we all look on, and again the youngest is lifted so that she might admire the first peacock of her life. Another young family walks by, the parents ignoring each other, silent, they dote over the babes, who, too, are exploring. The mother’s ankles are exposed above the trainer, below the fabric; the nook between tendon and bone, the throb of muscle pushing the pram. I do not know why but I stare at the hairless colour she keeps there, aroused, unable to withdraw my eye, but its rhythm is erotic to me, its shape and movement. She pushes the pram up the path of broken seashell, up to where the edge of the forest looms, her husband far away, and I perve, almost ashamed of myself and my acute state of arousal. We are back down by the lake. The fish are jumping. Geese take off from the bank of grazed grass and flap in unison, V’s of threes over the still water, pushing themselves away from their reflections, velocity flaps velocity over the length of the lake until they make height and fly into the light. A photographer stands arms folded behind his camera and his tripod, both pointed at the setting sun; a shutter like the heartbeat of a bird. How long has he waited for the sun – so perfect – to be at that angle, all the mist blooming from the earth and curling in midair? His wife, stroking her hands over where the fish gathered at the water’s edge, drank from a thermos.
    My youngest niece held my brother’s hand and walked like a brute. When I smiled at her, she grabbed at me, made dinosaur noises. ‘What sound does a dog make, Margot?’ She made a dog noise. ‘What noise does a bird make? She made a bird noise. ‘What noise does a cat make?’ She made a cat noise. I walked sideways, facing her like paparazzi. She ran at me. I dodged and she reached, held on as I began to roll a cigarette. My sister-in-law took a photograph with her new camera. She had been clicking away the whole walk. I fingered the nametag of a tree as it hung precariously from the thinnest of branches; engraved letters in English, in Latin. How tall had the trees grown since I last visited? If I had grown, then surely the trees had, too, but me with four seasons and them only two. As their tips lifted away from me, so my bones had projected me closer but not close enough. Which trees had grown and which had died? Some of them out by the bunkers had been chosen, presumably for the axe or the saw; marked in fluorescent paint, makeup for their last night on earth. Which trees had died while I had been allowed, through fortune, to survive? I wondered if any had been planted on the last day I visited, and had I passed them by so unaware? Everything that had happened to me during our time apart and how I had changed, because between now & then they had witnessed every day in detail, every moment and every second, acquiring knowledge of the stars and doves, that first breath of the morning sun and every animal that sheltered beneath their arms. Yet here I stood! ‘Come on, Margot!’ It was already dusk and soon there would be too little light to see. As we started up back along the small road out of there, our star hid behind the clouds, its circle defined and visible. My father took a route home through the village I grew from two till fourteen, and all the memories rushing past, my tired eyes too awake to sleep, the scenery too old to die.
Me & Margot