Caught by the River


Hayley Flynn | 25th February 2018

Hayley Flynn muses on the perma-light of a communal garden

The are three dazzling street lights, migraine-white, that, from this perspective in my ground floor flat, teeter like War of the World martians, gripping the paving stones as they loom in on me. An all-encompassing blaze.

If I’m sat on the armchair or the sofa, or if I’m knelt down on the rug (picking toddler detritus; peas, rice, stickers from its shag-pile mane) then the light’s angle broadcasts a kaleidoscopic collision of thumbprints across my window. The sticky prints bump and spin into each other, overlapping in a wide belt before flaring outwards as high as a child can possibly reach. Whilst entrenched in the shag pile I think of the word ‘kaleidoscope’ and try to make sense of it. I’m certain it’s Germanic and I’d happily bet that it’s something boisterously Victorian: ‘Collision Vision’, but I check the dictionary and find its origin to be Greek. It means “observer of beautiful forms’, and I suppose that when my mood is right the besmirched window is beautiful. The greasy tracks; memories of days that bump and spin into each other, too fast.

Just beyond my stained glass windows are sparse flowerbeds that orbit the block of flats; a stomping ground for cats, any number of which want in at all times. I’ve encountered many sprawled across my sofa on the warm nights I’ve left a window open wide, and I’ve brushed up shards of plant pots and the soil within that’s mushroomed on impact as they’ve slinked onto the windowsill oblivious. In the early darkness of winter I look outside to see their lithe silhouettes seemingly vacuumed into the light of open windows as they pass. Peter and Dudley sucked into flat 19, a black and white kitten sucked into number 56. The cats in the upper floor windows only stare out helplessly, suspended in the dust bag.

At the corner of the garden is what I knew for most of my life as a monkey tree. Its younger branches are covered in a down like that of a baby monkey, and growing up the kids from primary school would come to our front garden opposite the school gates to stroke these branches. I not only remember the summer glow of its mousey hairs and how its warm, rain-showered fur would appear sprinkled with caster sugar, but I remember the fingers of all the children who would crouch under its canopy and tickle its coat, such is the intensity of experience for a child in nature.

This childhood tree had vivid green palmate leaves which would astonish with crimson come September. It was always sunny besides the tree, the grass beneath dappled with light, the brick driveways parallel to it always warm to the touch. The staghorn sumac is a forager’s tree, amongst them it’s known as the lemonade tree. I create a memory of drying the blossom on paper towels along the kitchen window-sill, anticipating the time when it can sour the freshly-boiled sugar-water in a jug on the counter. In reality I never even noticed it flower. Nothing mattered beyond its pelt.

In the grips of winter, twenty-five years later, the same tree but a different garden, its naked branches wear gothic, once-red horns. These panicles are made up of small furry drupes which attract air pollution like a cigarette filter. The coughed-up lungs of the city vacuum wrap themselves around the burgundy-black drupes and these morbid cones refuse to shed. They cling to the monkey limbs even now in the death throes of January.

The position of the sumac tree is on the very periphery of the communal garden, and at night it is soaked with that angry white glare of streetlight. Bone white branches. Step beyond the tree and that is when you step into the real darkness; those sour horns have absorbed the awaiting blackness like litmus. When the wind ravages the clawed boughs sway in unison, tipping their panicles to the inner garden – nodding you towards the light.

I can’t reconcile that tree with the one the children were riveted beneath, and I cross the garden to this night-watchman and raise up on tiptoes to reach the thinnest branch above the hedge. I stroke the pelt to try to reignite the life of it but it denies me. The monkey tree was evergreen, but the sumac is barren.

As I move back inside and into the rear bedroom the thick woodland edges beyond it are obscured by the perma-light which now comes from the security lights docked above the communal doorways. Sometimes a fox steers into the glare but all other life is beyond what I can see, out in the dense gloom twenty metres from here. I am separated from the darkness by an intensity of light, and I sleep furiously in envy of the people on the third floor who, as payoff for climbing the stairs, live above the flame.