Wednesday, July 28, 2010

7 The glittering arch

Monday July 26, 2010:

“Harrumph,” huffs my companion, clinking slowly towards me at Kentish town Station. She is burdened by two enormous shopping bags crammed full with jam jars, lanterns and the like.

Days earlier, we excitedly plan a circle of flames under an arch of fire, set amongst the dark trees of Hamstead heath. What we temporarily forget is the practical aspect of making that happen. Thirty glimmering candles means thirty heavy jam jars or similar wind proof containers. Thirty jam jars means two big heavy bags of the kind that are at this moment currently a-hanging and a-banging about my poor companion’s knees, not to mention the assorted fragile and breakable candle holding receptacles that I carry somewhat precariously upon my own back.

“Sometimes, I think the pagan lifestyle is incompatible to middle aged, slightly dilapidated pedestrians,” I mutter as I trail after Ms Grumpy.

“And it’s beginning to rain”, moans my companion, dragging me across several busy roads to the bus stop, “oh and we’ve just missed the bus!” she adds in exasperation.

But this is London and the bus service here is really quite good. Before long, another bus deposits us upon the path leading to the Heath behind William Ellis School.

We march forth. A stranger’s dog, hopeful that the bulging bags contain food, single-mindedly attempts to round us up in pursuit of dinner. Shaking him off, we turn up another path and begin to toil up hill.

We talk of where we want to work but both being vague of how the wooded opportunities of the heath connect, we wander on. After further discussion, we settle for a tree with a suitable branch for an arch, which we find just off the lower path somewhere in the Parliament Hill vicinity.

It is in fact a grove of three trees, stretching straight limbs out across a space of tufted grass and dried mud. We set to work to transform it into a glittering grotto in which to admire the ring fire I am bent on worshipping for this festival.

“Have you got a light?” a bloke says, straying into our circle and kicking over some jam jars. He comments on my visual impairment, suggests ways in which I, though being blind, might see more than he, who is “blind” for other reasons. Pollyannaish I don’t disabuse him of this notion and suggests that he might find it helpful to go hug a tree.

“I talk to the trees,” I say cheerfully, not caring if he thinks I’m barking –‘cause then we might be matched in the mad department. Anyway, I know that it is the best way to get him to go away, which he soon does.

Dusk has fallen upon the heath. That heavy thickness of night air leans its damp cheek coolly upon our exposed sweat-filmed arms.

“Nningggg”, whines a mosquito dive-bombing my companion. Flapping her hands irritably at the pesky beasts, she begins to set out a circle of jars and candle holders. Meanwhile, I tie lanterns to the obliging branch that is to frame our arch of fire.

“It’s going to take hours to light this lot,” declares ’She Who Must Be Mollified’. Sweetly I offer mitigation for the task and seize the second box of matches and set to work lighting the lanterns. The air soon grows thick with the smell of extinguished flames as the imperceptible wind puffs out our matches and the candles that do light lick our fingers seeringly. In the end, we agree to just do the arch and not bother with the candles on the ground.

“Ah,”says my companion with satisfaction in her voice, “it’s lovely!” She takes my hand and leads me under the branch and out beyond our grotto. It’s amazing how a few sparkling candles cheer the old girl up! We have to enter with purpose for the space between the trees feels very different from the rest of the heath.

Carefully, we duck under the arch of fire and enter into a still quiet and gentle world beyond the arch. I pull out a tin whistle and begin to play a merry tune. I hop about a bit before thinking better of this, not wanting to risk knocking out a tooth or two if I dance and play at the same time. Suddenly, the six year old, tootling on her recorder and skipping down the stairs is there before me, just at the point before she tumbles head down. I sit down safely on the ground and continue playing, remembering how proud the little girl was of her wonderful black eye (the result of her unplanned head-first ascent down the stairs, mid recorder serenade).

My now happy companion hands me a lit sparkler and I twirl it about my head, still playing the whistle with one hand. Merrily I make rings of fire as I continue to play.

Beyond our grotto, a child’s voice complains to another about something that I can’t hear. My companion tells me that nearby benches are occupied by mildly curious courting couples who break away from their own pursuits to peer at the two figures sitting on the ground beyond the glittering arch of swinging lanterns. The gospel Oak train chunters along in the distance behind the quiet hissing of the wind in the tree tops. Inside our space, all grows quiet.

I sit, legs stretched out, feeling the dry hard earth beneath me. My fingers trail amongst the long grass tufts. The gnats hum just within the edge of my hearing.

“How nice it would be to sleep under this arch,” I say, feeling myself relax. I twist the tin whistle in my fingers and raise it once more to my lips. I blow softly, gentling the notes out, allowing them to float upon the stillness and then stop, for the waiting silence behind the humming gnats, the rustling trees, the querulous child, the rattling train, calls me to go to another place. I sink into peaceful stillness, my eyes grow heavy, my head droops, and my breathing slows and deepens.

Time moves on. I feel the restfulness settle inside me. I want to stayhere for ever, sitting on the ground under our arch of lights, here in this safe place. The heath beyond our grotto does not exist, even as it is swallowed up in the darkness of nightfall. I drop into the soft stillness.

But we can’t stay here all night, much as I fantasise about doing so. I think about how I can do this again in a place where it is safe to be out all night. There will come another time, sooner or later, but right now, it’s time to go.

We take down our arch and say goodbye to the grotto and all who are within. The heath has emptied with the arrival of dark night.

That’s the kind of place you fall asleep in and wake up again a hundred years later,” I say as we clink and clatter our way down the path, heading for the bustle of Gospel Oak. My companion toils beside me silently and I think again how fortunate I am to have such an obliging soul as she to come on such daft adventures. She may moan, but always enters into the spirit of the Endeavour with a focused absorption which is a delight to experience. Not for the first time, I reflect upon my good fortune in knowing her.

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