Sunday, January 18, 2009

The circle of quiet men

Saturday January 17, 2009:



It is two years to the hour since my father died. I move slowly into the garden, aware of my sore belly and stand next to the recently condemned hornbeam.

I heard the rain early in the morning. Now the sun is beaming palely down upon the wet foliage. I lean my warm cheek against the hornbeam’s cool damp ivy clad trunk and breathe in the perfume of the wet garden. “I will mourn you later” I whisper to the silent tree and turn to move along the gravel path.

Parting the shining wet leaves of the caster oil plant, abundant and vigorous after the rain, I sit down opposite the holly tree and the ancestor alter I made on my father’s 86th birthday. As I lean to the right to pick up my cup of tea, pain bites into my side, I gasp and straighten. I reach again, and once more the pain reminds me that there are holes not yet healed and I remember the gallbladder operation I have just survived.

I am here to mark the passing of my father, to honour his life and his gifts to me. Nearly forty years ago my father had his gallbladder out. Only in those days it was a great slash under the ribs, three weeks in hospital and six more in convalescence by the sea. Inheritance is not always kind, I muse, getting slowly up and retrieving my cup of tea.


“Droo-droo, Droo-droo” coos a wood pigeon nearby, his song low and rasping, sounding somehow rather debauched as though the result of much whisky and cigarettes! Scirring, his wings beat against the branches of the tangle of trees in my wild hedgerow as he rises into the morning sky.

The square spreads out all around me, grey and empty. Busy London traffic circles beyond.

“Droo-droo, Droo-droo” calls a grey and navy pigeon bobbing and bowing at my feet. I ducked my head in automatic greeting and feel my wings unfurl as he spreads his and soars up into the sky.

Momentarily, I admire the toning of his colour with the pale grey blue of the winter sky. Then I am with him and we are rising above the spinning square below us.

Below us London turns, spreading out as far as the eye could see; its grey and brown buildings, its green patches all edged by black tarmac roads. And there below lies the great river, a silvery blue serpent snaking across the great city. Beyond it, the suburban railway creeps spider-like to the rolling green hills in the south. London, my London, the city of my birth, of my father’s birth lies beneath us in all its beauty, its crowded unkemptness.

We fly on, over the hills, across the woods and fields, the neat towns and cities of the south, heading for the glittering sea and a cliff top cemetery where a tree stands watch over the remains of an old man, nearly two years in his grave. And at last we come to rest beneath the shade of that tree, upon the rich meadow-grass and wild flowers of my father’s last resting place.

Sadness comes to me, creeping quietly into the pit of my belly. Something cool and wet touches my hand and I look up to see an old honey-coloured Labrador standing near. I stroke her velvety old head as she turns as though to lead me on.

Down through the undergrowth we move, through the thin forest of silver birches into an untidier thicket, the ground chalky white and sparsely vegetated, treacherous by merit of the rolling rocks that pebble our way.

Now the thicket opens up into a small untidy clearing. A group of men, ageless and generationless sit around the greying white ashes of a dead fire; they are sunken into apathetic muteness. The dog and I climb under a tree’s hanging branches nearby to watch and wait.

I study the men. Dressed scruffily in grey or brown baggy clothes that give no clue to their era, they sit sometimes speaking, often silent, gazing with dull eyes at the cold ashes before them. Each man somehow recognisable, the paternal features etched in a variety of ways upon their faces and yet all individuals. I know they are my father’s people. Sadness overwhelms me and I weep.

Beneath my hands, the old dog stirs. And I understand the Burdon that my father carries. This overwhelming inertia, the never getting round to things is the outward manifestation of a depression deep within the bloodline. Is this my inheritance too?

I look again at the circle of men and see each have a dog at their feet. Each has a hand upon their canine companion who sits quietly by their side. Beneath my hand, my dog moves. I feel the warmth of her filling my heart with love. Across the world, across the generations and the eras, dogs and humans give companionship to each other. The thought comforts me now.

She gets up. I climb to my feet and follow her, leaving the quiet circle of men behind. As we move across the hills and valleys, dogs and humans appear, quiet and contemplative, boisterous and happy, still and silent. Companions, connected in unconditional love.

I think of my father at the end of his life, angry and disappointed, silent and depressed. For all the difficult things that he was, he had always unconditionally loved me as he had also unconditionally loved anything canine that came into our family.

We walk on westwards to the land of mountains and valleys, edged by the glittering grey sea. A busy little river rushes headlong through a gouged ravine. Where it opens on a gentle slope is a small pebbled beach. A man and his amber coloured dog play in the fizzing waters, their barks and laughter mingling with the rush of the torrent against the smoothe pebbles.

“Maybe I’ll have a dog one day,” I muse as I turn to walk back. We cross the country stopping to briefly watch the circle of quiet men and dogs before climbing up a chalky rocky path to the cliff top cemetery.

And with the shake of a bush, the dog is gone. I am alone.

“Droo-droo, Droo-droo” coos the pidgin in the tree above the grave. With a scirring and a beating of wings against the fragile lacy twigs, he takes to the sky with me close behind. The cliff top, the tree and the grave spin below us as we soar into the sky and across the rolling countryside back to the great city in the north.

“Yowl—sssssththth!” spat the shaking ivy before me as next door’s cat met something invading her territory.

“eeyoonne-eeyoonne-eeyoonne” peopned a sea-gull high overhead. Was he coming to me from the sea perhaps, even the cliff tops of Hastings?

My father’s bloodline is part of me. But I have a mother’s bloodline too. He dances in the place of sombre depression, the darkness that gives shape to the brilliance of my mother’s bloodline legacy, the glittering optimism witch lights up each day. Balance is about having both, I think as I rise and then stoop to place pieces of chocolate upon all the garden alters. For fathers, dogs and garden spirits all like chocolate, and so do I.

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