#15 May Hill

I had thought my precious things were kept in a trunk in my bedroom: the photos, old books of my poems, small carvings, penknives, binoculars. They are not. Within the span of a day, many of these things left the trunk and were hurled into the unknown for God-knows-who to pick up from a roadside and vanish. But they are not my precious things.

J is working on a film this week and wanted props for a scene: writer’s things, notes, effects from boyhood. I have these sorts of things. I packed a selection in my tail-pack, strapped it to the motorbike and headed into a beautiful afternoon. I had caught a glimpse of May Hill the previous weekend as I drove down Tog-Hill (on the edge of the Lansdown Hills behind Bath). Its pine-crested top was quite distinct at almost fifty miles. The ride up was good, though the hill was not signposted at all, so I followed my nose once I’d found Newent. May Hill belongs to the National Trust and is reached over a cattle-grid and a cemented track which leads to a car-park, an easy 25 minute walk from the top.

I parked, and then set about the business of taking off my leathers and assembling my kit. Between the tail-pack, my rucksack, leathers and helmet, I carried around 25kg with me up the hill. It was a steady climb and didn’t take long. From the top, the views seemed unending.

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I stripped to the waist, laid my kit around me and settled down for a kip.

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Around twenty minutes later, I woke, ate a sandwich and began to write what came to mind:

Facing south west, looking towards Symonds Yat where I was conceived on a January day in 1974. The thought that it would have been cold, so the chance that it was in the back of a car is quite high.

And so. Nothing is perfect; beautiful, purposeful beings are born from small, imperfect beginnings.

Then west, to Gloucester where I came into the world and passed from hand to hand until I came to be in Cornwall with Margaret and Colin, my adoptive mum and dad. They came from a terraced street of brick houses by the railway line in St Austell that held many unspeakable things, and from a likely loveless semi-detached in Sutton Coldfield.

Why did I want to see J’s school?

Because: I want to know her in the past as well as now. The feeling that loving her completely is made more so by following paths she walked as an innocent, inquiring girl, beautiful, free.

The pledge I made I am re-avowing- I want to be complete, the understanding that I am not yet. That, for many reasons too well-known to list, I doubt myself, feel ungrounded, unsure and unsteady often.

Just as I had no control over being born, passed over, raised, sent away, so the need to feel certain about how others feel about me is wasteful, a negative leak of energy. There are things that can’t be known. For every one of us, the mind of another is a vast landscape through which it is a privilege and an adventure to travel.

I love J.

I love her the way otters move in water- the delight, the pleasure of immersion in a medium that lifts and soothes, urges and sustains.

The noise of an animal interrupted my writing. I looked up into the pines that crest the hill, and saw a lone cow loping through the trees. I ran over to see.

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Soon, she was joined by others.

IMG_0442They moved smoothly through the glade, the established tenants, then diminished down the westward slope.

I hadn’t much time, as I was to meet J at her mum’s in Cheltenham for dinner and then go to a gig. As I had carried so many unlikely objects with me, I took a few daft shots,

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IMG_0431then headed down.

I changed in the woods, surrounded by wild ponies and a few foals. I put the tail-pack on the bike, the rucksack on my back and left the hill behind me. Re-entering Newent, I noticed J’s school which I had cast about for on the way in. It has a clear southward view to the hill. I cruised through the town and, when I joined the B4215, pulled back on the throttle to make up for any lateness. Ten minutes later, I glanced back in my mirror and saw that the tail-pack was gone.

It contained:

  • A book of my own poems from between 1989 and 1997
  • The plaster of paris cast of a sculpture of Joseph’s grandfather (above)
  • A framed photograph of White Horse Hill
  • Notes for my screen-play
  • A glass J paper-weight
  • My Opinel knife
  • Binoculars
  • Two large photos of me from the 70s
  • Camper shoes
  • G-star jeans
  • All Saints shirt
  • A carved Native Indian head

I think I grimaced, said No, and turned around.

A motorbike may possibly be the worst vehicle to have when thrown into an anxious rage, it allows for absolute expression of mind-state through speed, adrenaline channeled through the throttle like a nitro add-on kit. I scoured every inch of the hedgerows all the way back to May Hill. I knew that anyone who saw the pack would want it. The Kriega US-20 is a beautifully made, expensive piece of gadget luggage and this one was brimful of surreal treasures.

At the car-park on May Hill, not a sign. A gentleman in his car informed me of the non-emergency 101 number. As I sped back into Newent, I caught sight of a man at the side of the road, his wife lying on the pavement. Something moved me to stop and ask for help. Steve had just returned from winning an amateur rugby match at Twickenham and had drunk a lot of pints, his wife was too pissed to move. Steve reassured me that he had seen my pack a few hundred yards back and, if it wasn’t there, that it would be in Newent Circle Club. I was incredulous, this wonderful, drunk giant of a man had the answer. We embraced, his height emphasised by being on the kerb, me in the road. I felt like a child. After another emphatic handshake, I mounted the bike and rode into town.

There was no sign of the pack, so I called in to the Circle Club. No pack. No-one knew anything and, moreover, it was now apparent that everyone was extremely drunk. I left my number and began to walk the main street. In the chinese, several casualties said they’d seen nothing. In the Co-op, a girl called for her manager who didn’t show. In The Red Lion, the bar-man took my number, as did the lad in The George which was crammed with eighteen year olds leering and drinking and shouting and swearing. In CostCutters, the woman at the till and a drunk customer both said that it’s a terrible place here, they’ll take anything. This was Newent on a Bank Holiday Sunday.

I was late and felt I had done everything possible within the limits of my diminishing power. I headed for Cheltenham. Still pulsing with fury and loss, I found my driving became more daring. I now know that I am able to lean and take a corner at 70 and I also know exactly what speed I am willing to take my bike to on an empty dual carriage-way between Gloucester and Cheltenham. I think I made the journey in about twenty five minutes.

I arrived and gave J’s mum the white saxifrage I’d brought in my rucksack for her birthday. I chalked MANY HAPPY RETURNS X X X on the pot with a piece of chalk from White Horse Hill. It made me feel slightly better. I was too late for dinner and J’s mum was not well, so I set out to catch up with J en route to the gig. A railway crossing lowered in front of me. I stopped, turned the engine off, dismounted and leaned with my chin on the crossing gates. The train was headed north, bound for Birmingham New Street. It was a train I had been on many times as a child between school and home. I felt many former selves passing before me. The gates raised and, as I accelerated across a junction, I heard a faint shout and, at the same time, knew and saw in the periphery that it was J. I turned around as she ran up the street, pulled over and cast my helmet, glasses and gloves down on the pavement and we wrapped ourselves in our arms. She was crying, I tasted the tears and kissed them. It’s not your fault.

We didn’t go to the gig. We were overcome. There was too much to feel, too much to say without the words. We found many precious things in the course of the night, none more true than how we find each other. We lay against a tall pine opposite the marquee and heard the singer’s voice rumble the fabric. I tasted the lovage in the picnic J’s mum had sent with her. I lay my head in her lap and breathed the air.

My lost things, our lost loves, the lives we once had are now and forever gone, yet somehow still with us. They made us.

We went out then, into the deepening indigo, away from the show and the people. J showed me the caryatids beneath the flat she shared with her first love. Above, a pair of attic windows were flung open to the sky, and I imagined the lovers inside, drifting into the night as ghosts.

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