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.

Dungeon (II)

Two yellow-Dayglo-clad policemen approach me rapidly, enquiring, essentially, what on earth I’m doing wandering along the hard shoulder of an M road. Pretty soon, it’s apparent why they’re here themselves – the motorway is in lock-down, two officers having been shot a by a driver who’d then abandoned car and legged it. These guys are remarkably un-phased by me, though – presumably I don’t match the description.

Marooned motorists have congregated in the Little Chef, but at the slip road some are being filtered into a diversion towards York. I take up position and try to thumb a lift. Mostly, they drive sceptically by.

Finally, and visibly reluctantly, a white van halts. It’s a Channel 4 news crew who’s been covering the incident.

“OK, we can take you just as far as the next roundabout, to get you out of here.”

Dungeon (I)

The car is stuffy and the couple’s mood sombre as they beckon me in from the verge. I’m relieved to be underway again, and anything’s better than the smell of chickenfeed from my last lorry lift.

“We lost a son to hitching, you know.” says the man. “The car mounted the verge and hit him.”

The journey continues mostly in silence. I’m really tired now – I’ve been up for 24 hours, travelling from Cambridge, unexpectedly out on my ear after Zelda unceremoniously announced the end. A wild, unwashed hippy, horse and carting from Edinburgh doesn’t fit with her gleaming spires? We share stale coffee from their flask, and finally pull over on the hard shoulder.

“There’s no real junction here, but if you walk up to the flyover you can join the main road to York.”

I scramble up the road siding and emerge onto a deserted stretch of dual carriageway. It’s non-obvious where to head, but perhaps there’s a fork near the distant Little Chef?

Natural History Museum at Tring

I

There’s glass between us, and sometimes I must squint past the reflections to see you. But I feel a softly increasing sense of wonder, sadness, bewilderment as I encounter each of seemingly thousands of British birds. Resident. Seasonal migrant. Vagrant. I imagine your calls and the rustlings, flutterings, hissings of your movement. A vast community that co-exists with mine, doubtless exceeds mine, and which somehow I’m daily almost oblivious of. What societies and histories and great sadnesses are part of each of your worlds?

Here’s the Great Northern, oddly chosen star of the eponymous novel. Perhaps Ransome met with you here.

I move on to the photography exhibition and the scent of blood and snow, the red fox with hunted arctic fox dangling from its jaws.

II

Imagining the squelch of mud and the rattling wheels of the zebra-drawn carriage. The odours of peculiar and exotic poos from around the world, concentrated in an English park. The odd spectacle of an elegantly dressed gentleman attempting to ride a giant tortoise.

In the dingy cafe, the what’s-that-called, the chocolate “biscuit” that’s full of cherries and candied peel and raisins, chews sweetly. I have to rip off morsels with my teeth, almost twisting my neck to achieve it – perhaps like an animal gnawing at its prey. The smell of coffee signals a welcome boost to a hungover morning.

Indoors is full of mundane shuffles of museum-goers visiting each exhibit, and fragmentary conversations as adult excessively interprets for child.

I look through the glass into a bewildering, awe-inspiring multitude of British birds, and a quiet disquiet, a gentle sadness, a long sigh, begin to be felt. How is it possible to have lived on these islands so long, without any real meeting, knowledge, appreciation?