New boy

I’m organising my things, in a ramshackle, desultory fashion – trying with habitual lack of skill to make sense of new space and old stuff. The blandness of over-worn, promiscuous student accommodation – thin synthetic carpet and tired emulsion paint with just a hint of grease. Through the open, low threshold ground floor window, a girl swings her legs through and sits. “Hi! I’m just trying to get this done. Is it OK?” She busies with her iPad, frowning slightly.

“Sure,” I say. I place the postcard from Angela on the desk, then find myself struggling to pick up the cheap multivitamin tab from the floor near the girl’s feet. I glance, up, mildly flustered. She must find me somewhat off balance. The blasted thing is in bits and powder – broken when I pushed it through the foil of the blister package. Fragments cling to the slight sweat of my fingers as I transfer the dregs to the egg cup on the desk.

She looks up, apparently satisfied. “Sorry – just sorting my new timetable. Pfff…”

“What are you studying?”

“Vulcanology.”

“Wow, interesting!”

“Yes – my friends all say so, but then ask what use it will actually be. But the whole history of how the earth has formed and changed, I love it.”

I’m no longer on my knees, but stand awkwardly, charmed yet discomfited by this casually uninvited guest. “Um, so you’re not in first year?”

“Oh no – fourth. It’s going to be busy”

“I can imagine. This is my first. First day, actually.” I feel vaguely annoyed with myself at revealing my ‘new boy’ status.

Battleship

It stands by the forest trail, quite near the shore, porous to all sides. Incongruous red clay pipes line its perforations – modern additions to the grey whinstone and white mortar of the walls. On either side of the door, and occasionally on the other walls, tall, narrow arrowslit windows. I can only imagine this ruin bristling with guns. Were the locals holed up in here, awaiting the Vikings or the Germans? Doesn’t feel right. There’s not even a view of the shore – a ridge of land obscures the sea. And how even to reach those vents high up in the gables?

Vents. OK – perhaps ventilation – but for what? Did they dry or smoke fish here? Was this the storehouse supplying the fort high above on the hill? Perhaps grain from Kilmartin farms was landed below and stored here, guarded from every angle by musketeers.

On return, we scour the internet and find a few photos of this very one, and some similar. A threshing barn. The grain harvest piled up here and stored until winter. Arrowslit windows to allow air circulation and deter mould. Often, a larger, high window to admit owls, to control vermin – and sometimes a lower entrance for cats. At threshing time, the grain flailed and thrown into the air, where the strong through-draft winnowed away the chaff, and goodness fell centrally to the floor, piling up, and held in place by a couple of boards across the door opening – the threshold.

Amersham meandering

Walking over pitted concrete, between red brick houses in the bare winter air. Along the trellised walls, winter jasmine in flower. I stumble over a time warp. What was that? Just a scent, or a birdsong sound, or the chill? Remembering – even transported – into some childhood world. It’s like a brief Narnia moment.

These are books, childhood books, aren’t they? I can’t imagine such a uniquely felt world arising from TV or film. It’s a Secret Garden I once inhabited, unlocked through some barely perceived, unpindownable stimulus.

Somehow then the phone in my pocket – looking-glass into globalised culture-on-demand – seems irrelevant, even toxic.

On Amersham main street, I dodge Costa bitterness, heading for Nero smooth. However, I’m intercepted by the locals. Harris+Hoole? Never heard of them. On a hen-speckled brown saucer, I’m served toffee-tinged latte.

Stacking cups clink like cowbells. Blondie sings Heart of Glass. Saucers stack. Handsome English women sit chatting by the window on mini wing chairs with spindly wooden legs. Milk steamer hisses. Businessmen with confident accents exchange technical vows centre-stage. When one leaves, a laptop-wielding blonde emerges from the shadows to take his place. Girlfriend? Next client? Unsure.

“You busy this week, then?” he begins, as she settles into the easy chair opposite. Client, then, I think. Some kind of coffee house micro-dealing.

The initially solitary couple by the window seem to be acquiring more children by the minute.  I guess school’s out, then. As son number one begins to expound on some Important Fact, Dad’s eyes are introvertedly unfocused, and Mum’s the sole audience. Dad engages briefly then begins thumbing his phone, head down-turned. The dog stands bored under the table as Mum pulls out her phone too, bidding the boys farewell and arranging a rendezvous in the park. Thumbs tapping, they half-attentively converse over the empty cups and crumpled napkins. By the till, the barista briefly shoulder-massages his colleague.

At the window, the chatty women stand, tapping a next meet into electronic diaries. Except cable-knit cardigan woman. She seems to have a brain.

Elderflower wine

I’m running, flying, up the back track in the dark after Erica. My head’s spinning like the stars. The trees are just dark giants laughing down on us in our crazy, drunken escapade. I don’t know where we’re heading, or even if we’re together. I know she’s not fleeing from me, but neither is she with me.

The wine wasn’t ready, really. Some house kid stole it from her mum, still in the carboy, and donated it to the dorm full of teens. Among those pert-breasted girls, adolescent hippy dudes and alternative oddities, I too drank my fill. The sediment churned in the glass as I sat on the mattressed floor and made vain efforts to be included.

In the morning, it’s a scene of vomit. Buckets and washing-up bowls and ice cream tubs litter the floor, like boulders in a maze.

June steps into the room, a wry and patient smile of fond tolerance on her lips and in her eyes. “Let’s get this cleaned up,” is all she says. No reproach.

“June… June… I really like you,” is all I can manage. The alcohol still has its hold.

It’s true. Perhaps more than any of my cohort, my peers, I prefer one who’s one of their mothers. Hers would be the arms to hold me.

I’m just a child. This adult striving isn’t yet for my world. Perhaps just a mother to hold me.