Sunday, 17 July 2016

Quiet Contemplation

Quite a personal one from me this week. About four years ago, I was having a really difficult time at work. I'd just moved schools to a promoted position and nothing was as it had been presented at the interview and tour. It was less like trying to buy a car and being sold a lemon, as buying a car and finding it on a driveway up on bricks with the tyres stolen and the engine out on the road, on fire. Lord only knows what the management team thought putting someone with zero experience in charge would accomplish. Anyway, after killing myself for a few years, I quit and was immeasurably happier for it.

This story came out of that nightmare experience, towards the end once I'd handed my notice in. I had a sudden moment of clarity about how miserable I'd been (God bless Lyn for her strength in putting up with me!) and how work had consumed every waking thought. The place described below is real. There is a coda at the end if you read on.

The Hollow

When I drive home from work, I pass a sunken hollow in the woodland through which a babbling brook flows. My steep approach along the road means that I only see it for an instant and I never remember that it’s there until it’s gone, but one day I will stop and paddle in the cool inviting waters.

By the stream, I’ve spied the stump of a felled tree and I will sit on it while I unlace my smart work shoes, rest them on the soft mossy soil and tuck my ironed socks carefully into them. The cool temperature of the water will be a shock at first, but I will become accustomed to it. There may be fish in the water or there may not be. All will be still while I placidly investigate the flat stones on its bed with my curled toes.

I first saw the hollow with the stream in the spring. I had finished my first day at my new job and my stretched nerves were stuffed full of lightning. My little car hurtled its way up and down valleys: for a moment I saw it and thought of stopping and stepping into the shallow water. Then I was gone and my thoughts drifted to microwavable dinners and tomorrow’s meeting. As days sped by, I gradually developed a picture of the hollow through these brief still pictures. I saw snowdrops and bluebells surging upwards through the damp soil, adding splashes of colour to the monotone green palette. I watch a flick book: skeletal dark branches suddenly sprout tight green buds which unfurl into glorious leaves. Sometimes there would be birds, other times not: they flicker in and out of the sequence like friendly sprites.

There was no time to stop, though. The gutter on my house needs repairing and there are promotions at work that need chasing. I need to put the washing on and put the bin out before it gets dark. Perhaps I’ll stop next week when the pace has slowed.

It is summer now. I am promoted and I am wealthy, but the extra responsibility makes me tired and stressed. Some days, I go home and fall asleep in front of the television's predictable burble of bad news. I have a new car, which is much faster than the old one, but I still make the effort to slow for a moment when I pass the hollow. That surging vitality I saw in spring has matured into the lush strength of summer. Although the bluebells and snowdrops are gone now, they have been replaced with all manner of vibrant plant life: a tangle of wild roses, ranks of daisies and eruptions of flowering grasses. Sometimes, as I hurtle by, I see little specks of colour hovering above the water – I imagine they are dragonflies, busily darting this way and that. The days are hot, so I roll down the window of my car and allow the smell of the meadow to waft in. On the days when I do this, the smell of warm grass replaces the artificial lemon funk of my air freshener.

Autumn arrives. I have succeeded at my job and I am proud of what I have achieved, although precisely what my achievements are is difficult to remember. I play golf regularly with my boss, although I dislike his company and I detest the sport. It is important to make him like me, so I often drive directly from work to his home so that he can enjoy talking to me about lawn care and classic car maintenance. To my delight, the route is similar to my drive home: I still see the hollow when I drive there. I often think of stopping there: the water will be less pleasant and the weather will be colder, but it will still be my hollow and I can still paddle my toes in the river. The hollow looks more barren now. The summer plant life is thinning away, and although much of it is replaced by an impressive spread of blackberry-heavy brambles, the black earth beneath is starting to poke through. The thought of snacking on those blackberries while I paddle beneath the trees’ riotous red foliage is appealing, but unfortunately, I can’t today – I have to eat dry pork chops with my boss and his humourless wife. Or tomorrow either – the kitchen needs repainting. I definitely shouldn’t go there while I’m this tired as I won’t enjoy it. It’s important that I choose my moment carefully.

When the year slips quietly into winter, the hollow slips quietly into a palette of greys and whites. Much of the exuberant growth has died away and the rich black loam is speckled and then covered with white frost. The slow freezing of the hollow is inexorable and gradual: days then weeks pass as the birds and insects flee, the mud around the brook freezes solid and a hostile wind funnels down along the river’s valley. I am tired, as I am much of the time. I have lost interest in my job, but I do it anyway. There are payments to make on my car and my house, so I do my hours and go home. I have more time to sit beside my river, but it gets dark earlier now and the river has frozen solid. It’d probably be too difficult to find somewhere to park my car and pick my way down the slope. I feel I’ve missed my chance.

But this has not happened yet. Snowdrops and bluebells still carpet the ground near the tree stump; birds still flit skittishly from branch to bush to water. Today, I will paddle in the water.

I stop driving.


Now, some years later, I have finally stopped at the hollow to paddle. Unfortunately, it is private properties, and I'm not allowed near it. This is probably a metaphor, although I'm lost as what it is!

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