I’m looking for some kind of liberation, a lightness of being, a return to innocence.
I am restless. Sitting down, I pick up a book. A page or two on and I replace it on the table. There is something else more urgent I need to do, I think.
Movement is what I seek, something fluid, walking maybe? Untethered. To be in-between places and on the go. Not belonging, not restrained. Just a moment. Thinking about this longing is a shackle in itself; the unresolved desire creates an anxiety that only adds further to a sense of unease and confinement.
At my desk staring at a screen, I glance at my diary open on this week’s page, checking for something, I’m not sure what; my eyes skip to scanning my bookshelves instead, aimlessly counting those titles I’ve read, those I haven’t; a reassuring tally of accomplishment. I take a sip of coffee, fidget with a pencil, slip my shoes off then on again. I have only just sat down but surely my time would be better spent outside? I could be more productive in my thinking, more focused overall, with the garden around me and the space open to the sky, limitless. I convince myself. Too many distractions just here, too many walls.
My head is filled with words, useless bloody words, unattached utterances, expressing outpourings but not offering solutions. They won’t fall in to place. Oh yes, I see you. Lurking, tantalising with the promise of answers. I turn away.
It’s hot, so I seek a cool place. I pick up my glasses, looping the necklace thread around my neck but, rendering it redundant, I prop the specs on top of my head regardless. I pick up the glasses case, my phone, my sunglasses, a mug of coffee, I drape a superfluous cardigan over one arm. This small collection of things, a scout-pack of items in order to ‘be prepared’ perversely, for indecision, seems to accompany me wherever I go however short the journey: from kitchen to the patio a step outside the back door, from there to my desk upstairs in my son’s old room, back outside again to the table and chairs at the bottom of the garden, retracing my steps. Round and round I go. A few minutes here, a restless moment there. Procrastinating.
I twitch. I scroll. I put my phone down and turn to my laptop screen for ease of reading. My head is sucked into content. A voice inside reprimands and I shut the computer down.
Chocolate. I need a bite of something sweet. I reach inside the kitchen cupboard.
A late summer robin.
A mellifluous song, uplifting and reassuring.
A chiffchaff on its return south, just stopping by. Reminding me of spring.
A solitary buzzard wheels higher and higher, riding the spiralling heat. Its mate calls and joins together the vast lofty space between them with its mewing. A flowing web of house martins and the last of the season’s swallows dart and glide together busily in the mid-sky; white abdomens flashing a code in reflected sunlight. They chatter to one another, exchanging twittering remarks as they pass to and fro; something joyful and something concurrently pragmatic in their messaging. I follow their carefree arabesques and flips, the gift of aerodynamics, the enchantment of a life aloft.
The sound of a light aircraft reaches me before I triangulate its position in the clear blue and then I watch it, crossing the space with a predictable linear intent, lumbering and cumbersome; the pace-keeper to the small birds’ alternative improvised, darting, dancing riff. A second plane brings a deeper drone. I don’t bother to locate it in the sky but its engines shred a ribbon of granulated air in its wake, the rhythm of which reaches one ear and incrementally moves across to the other. An inference of migration.
My calf muscles twitch as synapses spark in my brain, pre-empting a rise from my garden chair, but something else intervenes, a not quite conscious thought, a metaphorical lifting of a hand to signify a halt. I remain seated.
It’s the discontent, apprehension and fear that pervades all thought, all space, all activity. It becomes deeply personal but it is of course, universal, existential. To contemplate a search for freedom from this anxiety-inducing oppression feels ridiculous: obtaining it, impossible. The weight of responsibility is too great. To find that place of peace would be to deny the awful truth, wouldn’t it? What naive romanticism am I harbouring here? How dare I?
Oh! how I want to bury my head: in a soft down pillow covered in cotton while sunlight sifts through the daytime-drawn curtain, in a field of cover-crop red clover or in the calming earthy chamomile of a dusty farm track, between the pages of a well-told story, in indulgent glimpses of my innocent rural childhood landscape. Or perhaps there is a little white pill to remove the constant ache, much like those I have for migraines? I want to pretend for a moment that there is no disaster.
Is it wrong to forget, for a moment?
A slight breeze does nothing to ease the pulsing heat. Another change of scene is required. I follow the afternoon sunshine back towards the house and rest in the lee of the tall hedge. There is shade at its base, a deep green shade, and the cool mint of aromatic velveteen-leaved pelargoniums in large pots. Brambles writhe over the hedge-top and through the twiggy mass; the fecund whips, the seekers, stretch and grow with unbelievable speed and with a magician’s ‘now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t’ vibe, albeit reversed. Other strands offer compensation after the cruelty of thorns, with generous bunches of blackberries, thick and luscious this year; a wet summer, overall. No wildfires here, but no extreme inundation either. We can be thankful for that, at least.
If I were to go out and gather a horde of berries for a crumble, could I pretend for a while and indulge in blissful forgetting? There is cream in the fridge. I could take the dog out when it’s cooler and visit the hedgerows where the picking is easier. All little actions like this can be compared to how it used to be. How there used to be mile upon mile of ancient hedgerows, how these boundaries would be managed in harmony with nature, how the farmer wouldn’t think to slay them before January or February, retaining instead, winter food and shelter for wildlife. How, as a child in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we could wander the English fields without a care, without a worry for the loss: of the birds, of the insects, of the flora and fauna, of the soil, of the water. Our relationship with nature could be innocent. This is what nurtured the deep love.
But in fact, it was of course all disappearing from under our noses. Our childhoods were a lie I now see, our memories, skewed. And therein lies the problem. Too many days have passed by and now it is too late.
An end of the day calm soothes the fret of an over-heated mind and the body slips gratefully into a slower pulse. A resolve, a focus, an attainable goal. Gone the indecision. No harm inflicted, no avoidance of the ugly truth; instead, an acknowledgement, with acquiescence on hold.
The dog trots on ahead of me, tongue lolling, a rhythmic pant. We are under the shade of trees and it is pleasantly temperate. An expectant tupperware pot carried alone in a lightweight bag on my back, sways and bangs gently against my shoulder blades. Footfall, breath, a metronome of layered timings. Stepping through the treeline into the big field and I instinctively look up. In early summer from just here, my eye was caught by a pinprick flash of bright white up high, high. Then gone. Then again. Dissolved, realised. One spark of whiteness was joined by a second. Such a clear white. So clean, so pure. A glider, then another and another. Silent and in easy, effortless motion. A third and a fourth. Spiralling, circling, a fifth and a sixth. One would vaporise into the blue as if never there, then reappear as its angle caught the sun again. A tip of a wing and it was totally invisible. Tip the other way in the circle and there it was, back. Seven, eight, nine.
The white underbellies told of their presence in a smooth, fluid series of illuminated dots and dashes, tracing their movement, their trajectories. A carefully choreographed dawdling compared to the swallows and martins but mimicking their social interaction in slow-mo. Perhaps more akin to the buzzards: using the air to sit upon rather than being propelled by it?
As I pick blackberries I wonder about these inhabitants of the sky, I wonder about the detachment of the observer, the instinctual activities of birds and the self-conscious overlays of the human. The brambles attach to my trouser legs and my thoughts snag back to the task. A few berries for the pot, one or two for the dog. Then she picks her own with careful teeth, her soft retriever mouth. Momentarily, my mind is at peace. I can hear insect buzz, the air is still, the earth envelopes me and my dog in its warmth. All is well.
I don’t notice how the juice has stained my fingertips and seeped into my cuticles until much later, as I scrub with a nailbrush that which refuses to wash off. A spot remains, a reminder. I carry this.
This is how it was as a child: the desiccating, tired heat of the end of a late summer’s day sitting on the skin, a sense of fulfilment, when all one has done all day is read, loafed about in the hammock in the apple orchard, roamed down the lane flicking bracken with a hazel switch. The mind at a wander: bouncing off the immediate stimuli of bird-call and the scuff of stones, the sight of a branch fallen fresh off a familiar tree, the sudden approach of a train along the distant rail track, the play-opportunities of a field of haybales. The totality of a child’s healthy exhaustion from a day lived through the imagination. Free. Unencumbered and unconcerned. The future: simply stepping out of clothes sticky with the day’s sweat and pulling on a pair of fresh, cool pyjamas. Believing that tomorrow would be the same. That all tomorrows would surely always be the same. Sleeping well with your head on a cotton pillowcase and remembering the rub of chamomile that filled the air as your carefree footfall crackled across the stubble fields.
Julia Brigdale lives in Hampshire, a stone’s throw from the river Test and a village away from the county boundary with Wiltshire. She worked there as a gardener for many years and latterly ran her own, small flower farm. For a decade Julia wrote a regular column for Salisbury Life magazine on gardening. Her writing now focuses on her relationship with the natural world and she is working on a series of short pieces that blend her observations of landscape and nature with memory.
Photograph by the author.