I am eight years old and at the art class I go to every Saturday morning. In front of me is an enormous piece of paper. Starting in the top left-hand corner, two parallel lines wobble their way across it, before turning a right angle and continuing down the middle of the sheet. There are a few other things sketched in – squares for buildings, clouds for trees.
I am trying to draw a map of the journey I make to the class each week, which starts down a lane just outside the village of New Bolingbroke at the house where I’ve lived since I was two years old and finishes here in the market town of Boston, Lincolnshire, just inland from The Wash. The most striking feature of the route is its straightness as it heads almost directly south through vast tracts of iron-flat arable land and alongside a couple of the area’s major drains, which prevent the ground, most of it only a metre or so above sea level, from returning to its naturally water-logged state.
I know the journey really well: it’s the same one my brothers and I make in the back of a Volvo estate travelling to and from school. It’s about ten miles long and takes fifteen minutes or so by car. The longest, straightest part of the route is a section of the B1183 that’s known locally as the seven mile straight. The road has a mythical, almost magical status for my brothers and me. Is it really a whole seven miles long? Is it really completely straight? We can hardly believe that that it might be endowed with such a rare combination of properties.
I am frowning at the piece of paper, my pencil hovering in my hand. Something about the length and straightness of the roads, the flatness of the fields and the hugeness of the sky seem to make the journey impossible to draw, and I have no idea how to continue.
How long is the long straight road?
It is as long as the old crow flies
How straight is the long straight road?
It is as straight as the sky is wide
I am forty-two years old and it’s a vividly hot afternoon early in September 2021. I am at the junction where the B1183 leaves the banks of the West Fen Drain at Frithville and forks right, heading almost directly north towards the villages of Carrington, Medlam, New Bolingbroke and Revesby. This is the start of the seven mile straight.
I’ve never actually walked along this road before. Now, though, the pandemic having thrown much of what I thought I knew up into the air and wondering where it’ll all land, I’ve decided that I want to take myself along this improbably long, straight road, through this unrelentingly flat part of the country, back to the house where I grew up. I have a notion that I want to slow down time, to make it go so slowly that it stands still, starts going backwards and returns to where it began, in the hope that this might reveal something of where I am right now and where I might be going.
What is the long straight road?
It is a question that promises an answer
What is the long straight road?
It is a question that doesn’t have an answer, but which keeps being asked anyway
What is the long straight road?
It is both the question and the answer all at once and all the time
The B1183 is not a road people generally walk along. It doesn’t have a pavement and, apart from the odd stretch where it passes in front of houses, the verge is rough and weedy and reaches to my knees. In amongst the dusty coronets of thistles and tatters of nettles, there’s rubble from the fields, discarded plastic packaging, and bits of metal that have probably fallen off the great rattling pieces of agricultural machinery that thunder past at disconcertingly high speeds.
I imagine my brothers and me buckled into the backseat of an approaching car. What do we see? A thin, tall-ish woman in a straw hat with a rucksack on her back, walking steadily towards us. As we get closer, she takes a few steps off the road and on to the verge, where she stands still and angled slightly away from us as we pass. Craning round to look over our shoulders and out of the rear window, we might see her set off again. Or we might not; she may already be too faint a thing in the distance.
On the long straight road, there’s no need for a map
You can see where you’re going
You can see what’s coming
You can see where you’ve been
As far as you can see
As far as you can see
As far as you can see
Buckled into the backseat of the car, we watched a flickering film of field after field after field in the wide open frame of the car window. Smells wafted in on the air – the heady, pollen-rich reek of oilseed rape, the bitter whiff of cabbages and sprouts, manure’s nose-crinkling pong. Sometimes we’d pass a whole field of straw burned down to a black mess, still smouldering, smoke gently probing the sky, and its acrid tang would snag in our throats. And sometimes Shut the windows now, you lot – they’re spraying and the sound of a light aircraft flying low, releasing a fine mist of chemicals over the land, whose smell, when I just caught the edge of it, made me think of smooth, white surfaces.
Now I am walking alongside a field of straw rinsed beige by the sun and crackling like static in the late summer heat. In the distance, a combine harvester trundles back and forth along the horizon, pursued by a billowing cloud of chaff. Elsewhere, the ground bristles with stubble and bales are stacked as high and wide as office blocks against the sky. One field has already been ploughed up again and telegraph poles stalk through crumbling ridges of earth the colour of milk chocolate. Another is an excavation site heaped with tumuli of rubble, the road alongside it chalky with a fan of wide tyre tracks, as cables are laid that will distribute Norwegian hydroelectricity around the country.
Memory does not travel as the crow flies
It has no wings, no bill, no eyes
Memory travels as the flow cries
In floods and trickles, songs and sighs
On the long straight road, things change slowly and steadily. My progress through time and space feels consistent, measured, as if I am one moving part of an elaborate mechanism, in which fields pivot smoothly about their ditches, buildings swivel neatly on their foundations, and the horizon rotates evenly around me. One thing will come after another, says the long straight road.
On the long straight road, suddenly everything changes in an instant. All at once, right now, I find I am passing by this barn, under this tree, crossing this junction. Now the flaming quiff of a cockerel strutting around in front of the big white house. Now a hedgerow brightly beaded with elderberries. Now a chapel printed piebald with the shadow play of leaves. And they may have everything or nothing to do with each other, probably both.
On the long straight road, there’s always the sky, the sky, the sky.
The long straight road takes time. My feet ache, my shoulders are sore, and I’m damp with sweat. I look behind me and see the road I’ve already travelled shrivelled to a metallic rind that quivers in the downdraft of speeding cars.
The long straight road takes time, flings it up into the air and waits to see where it lands. It does not land; it swirls about and becomes indistinguishable from the sky.
I look up and see the past: it is a soft blue, dabbed with cloud, where traction engines gather for a rally, their paintwork gleaming through the hissing plumes of steam. It is the barn where the rackety old cakewalk shunts its dusty boards back and forth with us lurching giddily upon them. It is the village hall where we sit cross-legged on the wooden floor, our fists crammed with biscuits, gasping as we watch a magician pull a rabbit from a hat.
I squint into the distance, where the road still to come is whittled to a fine pencil point that glints in the sun’s glare.
I look up and see the future: it is a silver haze, blossoming with dusk, where the pub on the corner is still closing down and the lane’s uneven surface is wet with light. It is the crunch of feet on gravel, the click of a gate and the slam of a car door. It is the house where I used to live and the home I am trying to find.
A house begins with six straight lines
Two straight chimneys, one straight door
A home is made of sky and time
With weather for windows and rivers for walls
On the long straight road, I have the sense of the sky as something that is not just above me, but also all around me, and that if I were to keep going long and far enough in any direction it would be the sky I’d eventually arrive at. On the long straight road and under the all-around sky, the ground feels thin, as if it might only be a few inches thick and possible to roll up, like turf.
I find a fissure in the tarmac, wedge my fingers down into it and carefully start to peel the long straight road up off the ground. Walking slowly backwards, I roll it towards me into a neat, tight coil, like liquorice. When I’m done, I clamber up one towering end of it, jabbing my toes in between the ridges of tarmac, and heave myself up on to its smooth mound.
Now, standing on top of the rolled-up road, I am the highest point for miles around. I see the land portioned up by its network of ditches and dykes, the colour swatches of fields, the squares of buildings, clouds of trees. I gaze down into the channel of water that my handiwork has revealed and see that I am an eight-year-old girl clutching a pencil, her head in the sky.
Now I am approaching the middle section of the road. This is the place where the going forwards and backwards, the moving towards and away from seem to meet and collapse into one another, where straightness dissolves into directionless space. This is the place where, finally, I pause.
Here the road lies in shadow beneath the immense trees that overhang it, jostling out the sky till it’s no more than a violet sliver flowing high overhead. It seems to me that these trees are thick with memory, densely leafed with it, with the capacity of all things to be remembered.
The road is much quieter now and there’s no sign of anything coming from either direction. As such, it seems curiously redundant, a peculiar feature as opposed to a defining characteristic of where I am. Nevertheless, walking across it feels a bit like wading across a fast-flowing river, as if I might at any moment be knocked over and swept along by its invisible current.
Over on the other side, the verge has become slightly wider, with a shallow ditch separating it from the edge of the parkland beyond. I remember that towards the end of winter the ditch’s steep banks are sprinkled with snowdrops and in the spring they’re lit up by constellations of daffodils. Right now, though, they’re lushly green. It used to be possible to catch only fleeting, tantalising glimpses of the parkland through the few gaps in the old trees’ dense foliage. Recently, though, the far side of the ditch has been thinned of some of its established trees and saplings have been planted in their place, so that now I can see straight through to it.
It is late afternoon now and the parkland is suffused with golden light. The grass is gold-green, the hedgerow is gold-black, the air white-gold. The trees – great oaks and horse chestnuts, whose canopies have been cropped level with the ground by the cattle who roam amongst them – are like inverted chandeliers, their leaves pendant with light. There is so much concentrated, distilled light here it’s as if this is where all light has come to gather at the end of the day.
I walk a little further along and see a war memorial I’ve never noticed before squeezed into a tiny plot between the parkland and the playing field next to the village hall, reached by a little bridge over the ditch. I cross the bridge into the enclosure, where the memorial cross stands on top of a stepped base and small plinth. I walk slowly around it, my eyes wandering over the litany of names engraved in its weather-worn stone.
On the other side of the fence a little way off a group of young men are practising striking footballs at a net in the playing field. There are seven or eight of them taking it in turns, circling about in a kind of restless, fluid dance, a loose weave of chat floating amongst them. One of them is on the other side of the fence in the parkland retrieving the over-shoots. Every now and then he bends down into the green-gold grass, scoops up the ball and flings it back with an easy vigour. Bend, scoop, fling. Bend, scoop, fling. I am envious of him over there in the parkland with the trees, sending balls back into play, the world of light about him.
I stand in the memorial’s tiny enclosure, the road back across the little bridge behind me, the parkland and the playing field over the fence beyond. I stand and watch the young men dance.
The road calls me back
The house calls me on
The light says stay, stay, stay
I stand in this edgeless plot of sky, the non-river of the road flowing behind me, watching the light dance. The men are young still, and their names are not written in stone.
The road calls me back
The light’s almost gone
The house calls me on and away
I stand on this enormous piece of paper, the pencil lines making their wobbly dance behind me, and watch myself pause in the space between looking back and moving on, between knowing what’s passed and not knowing what’s to come. The space in the heart of the moment’s light.
The long straight road is a question that promises an answer
That answer is another question
It is a turning
Carrie Rhys-Davies is a writer and researcher based in Devon. She has just started a PhD in Creative Writing at Exeter University, exploring writing and image-making as ways of deepening a relationship with mountains. Her work has previously appeared in Dark Mountain issue 19: Requiem, and she is also a published illustrator.