Saturday, 12 December 2009

The Hill of the Red Kites

When on the news they say, 'Motorway closed due to accident' - what do they mean by 'closed'? There's nothing stopping you getting on to it and the only warning of possible trouble ahead is a flashing 50 sign. What there should be is a gantry on the slip road reading ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE - YOUR DAY/JOURNEY/LIFE IS F****D.

So we sailed on to the M40 at 11am, a wee bit late for our family reunion in Mill Hill, but nothing a few hugs and apologies wouldn't smooth over, and I'd phoned to say it might happen. Here's all the things I didn't do: charge the mobile phone; have the telephone number of our hosts; check the travel news; put a bottle of water and bag of emergency nibbles in the car; replace the empty boiled sweet box; install satnav (although that was apparently useless in the event); take up knitting and have my kit with me; put a really good book in my handbag.

In subsection 2 of Sod's Law it states that traffic jams always begin around the bend from the last possible exit. And so it was. We spent two hours inching towards the Lewknor Junction. Now, take away the anxiety, the disappointment, the worrying about what had happened to some poor person (he died, apparently, EIGHT HOURS previously, but then forensics move in), the horrified speculation of how much that person in the taxi is going to have to pay, and is he on his way to Heathrow? Take all that away, and the mounting desire for something to eat or drink as hubby munches his way through various no-no's, and it's a beautiful day. I have never seen Wheatley to Lewknor in such exquisite detail. Sheep as big as ponies in lush fields, opal clouds on duck egg skies, filigree trees and distant horizons. Villages we have sped past so often - we now begin to wonder what they might be called (Tetsbury and Postcombe). And then there are the red kites. Re-introduced about twenty years ago and originally a rare site, now they are common. You no longer say, 'There's a red kite' - you just start counting. I've managed seven as a top total so far. They soar, they glide, they take your mind off earthly matters. But this traffic jam is something else. . .

Sometimes I go trance like and cannot think where we are, or on which side of the chalk cutting. Then I spot the Stokenchurch radio mast on the top of the ridge before us and get my bearings. David has tried the mobile phone and found the battery is low. He calls 118 118 but it cuts out. We're jiggered. An elderly man in the next lane gets out of his car and opens the boot. It is stuffed with Christmas presents. He unwraps one and takes out a mobile phone. I feel tempted to go and mug him, but the only getaway is the hard shoulder and that's blocked by the cars of people taking a pee on the embankment. Still, I can see Stokenchurch ahead. All will be well. As the hours pass, Stokenchurch takes on the ethereal air of the ever-unobtainable goal. But we inch forwards, the land begins to rise, we are approaching the Chilterns escarpment.

Suddenly everything changes at once. David tries the phone again and gets through, gets the number off 118 118 and phones Stephen. Simultaneously, the traffic begins to move - it's all over. David decides with Stephen that we will press on, even though it's now 2 o'clock. Simultaneously I decide to come off at the Lewknor junction, because I'm no longer thirsty but parched to the point of running a temperature. We swing off the motorway and up a hill, looking for a garage. What we found was another traffic jam. At this point, I go on a wobbly. David calls it hysteria, I call it a momentary lapse into tearful self-pity. I have never been this thirsty. We turn back and decide to swap places. 'There was a turning just down here - a little factory or something.' There it is and we turn in. I put the car in neutral and got out, leaving the engine running. We were only swapping places. But David said, 'Do you want to stretch and walk about?' and believe me I did. 'Turn the engine off,' I said. And like a very good hubby he did exactly what he'd been told. I reckon what happened next was due to mutual negligence but apparently the fault's all mine. He turned the engine off and the car, in neutral, began to slide forwards. David tried to jump into the driving seat and missed. Half hanging out of the car, he began to whizz towards the factory wall, right into the corner. I stood with face in hands watching this disaster unfold in a state of suspended belief. This could not be happening. I'd wake up in a minute and find that the day hasn't begun yet. This is not my life. I watched what could be the maiming or crippling or death of David, and the end of Smudger, the car. But David managed to turn the wheel, even though he was hanging on to it. Smudge missed the factory by a whisker and turned into a neatly stacked row of pallets. The whole thing ended with a mild thud, a dented bonnet, and my rush to hug husband being repelled by his rage.

'Listen,' I said, after the lecture on where hysteria gets you, 'all I want is water, and I will knock at the next door to get it.'

The next door was a woodworking showroom a little further down the hill. We turned in. I got out. A plaintive call was coming from the tall beeches on the hill behind this little estate. This is where the red kites live, this is where they live and nest. I looked in the showroom, which seemed empty, and went towards the bungalow. A man came out. By now, barely able to speak for lack of saliva, I asked for water. 'Toilet?' he said. 'It's in there.' Everywhere on the veranda, in flower pots or on the walls, were messages saying 'Welcome'. It turns out that this family is very used to people off the motorway coming for help. 'Water?' said the sprightly lady inside. 'Have a cup of tea. And you must be hungry. Ryvita and cheese?' The son, who is the woodworker, helped David find something called a 'text' (OK I know what it is, just don't use it) on the mobile so that we could call Stephen for a longer talk/explanation from a landline, and to say that we were turning for home.

This is a very long story. I'll cut the middle. Michael and Ady made us so welcome. Within an hour or two we had more or less swapped life stories. We talked cats and heard the story of the rescued kitten who came to be called Florence. 'Our cat is called Florence,' we said. We learned of their misfortunes, which had led to the loss of house and pension and put them here, in a mobile home which now, clad with wood, has curiously taken root into the landscape. We told them what we did, and they seemed genuinely interested and asked questions. Now I wouldn't expect a woodworker of the Chilterns (who is, after all, an incarnation of the Wycombe bodger) to be interested in the Italian Renaissance. Well, that's assumptions for you. David went and got our box of books from the car. I presented Michael with A Tabernacle for the Sun in thanks for all that they'd done for us. He glanced at the book, his eyes went wide, he clasped the book to his breast. 'What is it?' we all asked. Ady crossed to him and prised the book away. She gasped. 'I'm a Proud,' she said, 'and I've never met anyone else with that name.'

She held the book and seemed to want to ask it a question. Out of that I learned that she was a spiritual healer. 'I've been looking for one of those,' I said. And so it went on, this extraordinary, out-of-time meeting with like minds and same souls.

When David was doing his death-defying stunt act, I was thinking, 'This cannot get worse - this is horror - this is not real.' When I was sitting on Michael and Ady's sofa drinking tea, I thought, 'This is real life. This is the life I know.' Somewhere between 11am and 2pm we went through a rent into a horrible world many people consider to be normal. Not for us it isn't. Normal life is magical, serendipitous and utterly unpredictable. Before we left, we visited the mysterious showroom. It was dark, strangely uninviting, just a shed really with a poker-worked sign saying 'showroom.' What we walked into was a vision of polished wood, mostly oak, yew and elm, great slabs of tree whose shape has dictated what they become - mostly tables - and your heart near burst from the beauty. When we finally drew ourselves away, we stood looking up at a circling, wheeling multitude of red kites, young males, apparently. They were just having a glide around in the air before bed time. It was their passagiata - the evening 'stroll' - a time to be seen, a time to stretch the wings and perfect the glide.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Down in the ole bayou

It's not ash at all, it's fine bonemeal that's pouring through my fingers, strangely light, strangely heavy all at once. This is my mother. . . 'Decay is where life begins,' says Rob cheerfully, sending the spade down into the muddy hole to churn in the bonemeal. The water rushes up to greet it. Nearby stands the tree in its pot, a taxodium or swamp cypress.

'Are you sure?' Rob had asked after he had briefed us on arrival, saying that this was a deciduous conifer being planted in a flooded river bank. 'Conifer? How seventies,' I thought. 'Only I'm very excited about this tree. There aren't many trees you can plant in water-logged land.' 'Is it nice and frondy or is it the Bald Cypress?' I asked. 'Oh, it's nice and frondy, but deciduous you understand. The thing is, in order to breathe, it sends up roots called knees which have air vents at the top. It pushes the environmental boundaries does this tree. I'm very excited about it. It will be a centre-piece of the new developement of the gardens. People will come specifically to visit it; it will be included on study tours. It will really stand out, your mother's tree.' I sought desperately in all this to find anything related to Sybil. Yes, she loved Waterperry Gardens, but she also loved primulas and apple trees in blossom, that kind of thing. A swamp cypress? I don't think so. As we walked to the site, I imagined her with us in livelier days (though she wouldn't have got far over that terrain with her wheeler), and her face has that look when she's determined to appear interested even when she hasn't a clue what you're talking about. All she wants is a cup of tea. . .

We arrive on site. 'Here we are,' says Rob breezily, 'the swamp cypress, and all around it will be snowdrops in spring for your mum.' This clinches it. Location, location, location. It is a foggy December day. The trees are dripping, the ground squelching, the river flowing. The site is near the pond I have long loved but never seen from this side. We plant the tree in mud. Afterwards Rob and Julian took us on a tour of the riverbank they are opening up. In his work there, Rob has entered the mind of the 18th century gentleman who designed it, putting a bridge here and a bridge there, each giving a different view, whether into the formal gardens or the natural, willow-lined landscape, and we started to get glimpses of how it had been and how it would be, a great Romantic vision of man in harmony with landscape. The ground is being cleared and the riverside walk restored. Soon there will be a Palladian bridge made of wood crossing the stream. So the taxodium will be bordered by little bridges and a pond, inhabiting its own patch with all its knobbly knees protruding. Well, Mum, it's a bit strange as trees go, but what a great place for a picnic!