Caught by the River

Returning to the Land

12th January 2019

Terri White considers the dark and foreboding countryside where she took root versus the noise and light of the city

It’s where I went to when I ran, where I’d head to hide. I’d set off running: out of the front door, bumping over the uneven garden path, down the road that ran around the green, and then faster, faster, down the steep, grassy hill. The wind whipped my cheeks pink, lashed the knots from my hair: the sound, the sensation, of nearing refuge.

At the bottom, an uneven line of trees, beyond which lay two fields and a densely wooded park. A lake torn through its middle, anglers dotted the bank, an occasional lash and ripple betraying the trout that bit and balked beneath the surface.

I chose the same tree each time – the third one in from the left – leaves shrouding the branches on which I’d soon squat in welcome-darkness. But first, the climb. Four-foot-something and six-stone-nothing, I stood to my full size, knobbly wooden arms cradling me in shadow. I studied the path ahead to the canopy, though it never changed, and reached up for the first branch. My right hand circled, held tight, my left foot jabbed, jabbed at the welcoming cavity, my left hand on the side of the trunk. I felt the rub and the sting of bark breaking against my palm as I pulled my fingers towards my wrist. The first pull and hoist forced a puff and a groan. Then up, right foot circling in air as it sought a place to briefly rest. A pause, a beat, and then it began: the choreographed pull, stretch and step; arms reaching up and out, legs strained straight.

I don’t look up again to where I’m headed. To the very top branch or the one I really seek, below it. To the sky. My head is turned, looking over my left shoulder, hairs on my neck tall. I’m running from something but when I look back, there’s never anything there to see.

My nana’s back garden and the beginning of the woods touched – a fence of tangled branches the attempt at a boundary. The line of defence against the animals, the men that I dreamed of in violet; leaves cracking under their weight as they stared in through the webbed wood.

I sometimes slept in the small bedroom overlooking the garden that touched the woods. When I did, I’d pull back the curtains and watch the trees in the darkness; their thin, twisted arms reaching out to pull me into their middle. I could hear them, calling my name, singing my stories back to me. The safety of nana’s trimmed lawn, her straight hedge-tops, would only protect me for so long, until they they came.

We became the hunters when the daylight arrived, storming into the woods, a plastic bucket swinging in each hand. Down at the pond, knees in wet mud, we’d take our fill of the thick gloopy liquid speckled with wriggling black. Plunging my balled fist until it hit hard bottom, I’d open my fingers, scooping them up as they swam and slid into the deep lines of my palms. As they swam for their life, they learnt the length of mine.

I took my bucket home, two-thirds full, and carefully poured its contents out onto the dry grey path by the back door. They bucked and twitched in the liquid white as I placed my finger and thumb inside, feeling their lungs fill.

Our back garden was overlooked on all sides by houses. A fifty-foot by twenty-foot square of green. One summer we took shovels and stones and built a rockery in the middle, just to the left. Mum had met a lorry driver who wanted us to live properly, so we were going to build a patch of bright beauty in the brittle grass. But no matter what fell onto it, no matter what fell into it, the earth remained hostile.

Autumn came and our dog Sweep was in labour. We made up a basket in the dining room, lined with pages from The Sun. She paced and whined and writhed for hours, Page-3 stunners stuck to her swollen, distorted belly.

She pushed puppy after puppy from her body, each dressed in a translucent white coat she licked off roughly and wore on her teeth. Then one slid out limp and grey and silent. The runt. A girl. Sweep heaved her body up and lay heavily over muffled squeals of suffocation. When there was just silence, she heaved back off her last-born.

We scooped her up, put her in a small Spar bag – the ones they used for mince – and buried her in the rockery. I’d look out of my bedroom window and think of her rotting under the stones. She was alone, unwanted, her flesh and fur sinking slowly into the soil.

One day, after the sky darkened, I walked downstairs, through the front room, the kitchen, out into the back garden and across the grass in socked feet. I had to see that she was still there; tell her she wasn’t forgotten. I removed the rocks one by one and scooped off the beige clumps of mud until I felt the rustle of thin plastic at the ends of my fingers. I opened the bag and there in the bottom were a few scraps of what felt like fur. Some bone. Nothing resembling the runt we’d put into the earth some months before. The grief took my knees and I lay on my side in the grass, perfectly still.

I was born in Chesterfield, a market town in North East Derbyshire. I can’t tell you whether it was warm or unseasonably cold, whether the sun was rising or setting when I came into the world – no one involved that day or nine months prior can remember – but I can tell you that it was the nineteenth day of June in 1979. It was a Tuesday.

By the time I understood that I was a person and this was a life, my family were in a council house in a small village four and a half miles outside of town. It was one of a cluster of similar villages formed from bursts of homes built for local coal and iron company workers at the turn of the century. Some fifty-plus years later, the bricks of our village were laid.

Around us ran a canal, lay parks, sat fields. Beyond that: bigger fields, higher hills. We knew that greater beauty lay further away – the rocks and heather of the Peak District tucked into the bottom of the town’s coat of arms. Some of the most beautiful parts of the country are right there, right here, people would say. On our doorstep. I looked down and only saw cracks and decay.

Our house was on a crescent that curled around a green. Across the road, over the flat roofs, a row of shops: a Spar, newsagents, the greengrocers, post office, a hairdressers and the chip-shop. Across again, a bus stop, visited by a bus that would either take you left to town, or right, to another village. Within the eyeline of those in the bus shelter, two churches: a Methodist, painted green, and a Church of England shaped like a pyramid. Between them sat the infant and the junior school. And then finally, the point which was considered by some to be the end, and some to be the start of the village: the pub. The connective tissue, a handful of streets and people stitched into swathes of blue and green. I existed within the width of the straight line that ran from the pub to the top of our village: my nana’s house, the woods. The very spot that was the very end of my world.

My world.


But it wasn’t a world I knew.

Every day at 3:50pm, I’d step off the middle doors of the school bus, walk past the chip shop, over the green and to the rhythm of my feet, chant home isn’t here, home isn’t here. These people aren’t my neighbours. I belong elsewhere, I belong to others, They’re waiting for me, sitting patiently in the place where the sky is smaller. Where grey has washed over green. Where trees are naked, branches exposed.

Every few nights, I dream the same dream: I’m running down long straight streets, they’re connected in a grid, an incomprehensible maze. I spin around twice and walls go up, higher and higher, until I can’t see over them. They throb, lurch and close in on all four sides at once until I’m touching them with my arms and legs, head back, screaming as the square of sky shrinks to nothing.

I was 17 when my right foot touched big city concrete. Recognition pulsed through me, reaching right up to the bumpy cartilage at the tip of my ear. It throbbed and burned. My Place. For a moment I could only hear my own breath, shallow and short, and then the cavalcade of noise.

A gavel, a starting horn. Beeping, shouting, roaring, howling. The pavements sizzled and spat beneath me in the most beautiful symphony. I felt comfortable, contained.

I didn’t step foot off the concrete for years. I bought a ticket for a bus that I missed. I bought a ticket for a train that left without me. I had to work. I didn’t have to work. Then, excuses wrung dry, a concession. As we edged closer, clouds coming into view, widening over me in welcome, the panic. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think. I couldn’t be.

I went to cities smaller, cities bigger. Taller, squarer, thinner, tighter, longer. Landscaped by control, carved from hard lines. Each summer, the air closed me in, tight and heavy, a jam-jar lassoed shut. Each winter, winds and blizzards whipped me sideways, downwards, upwards, before returning me – wet and bone-tired – to earth. Leary, lairy swarms of rats strode between my steps; dogs barked at rattling fences, wire snagging in the gaps between their teeth.

It’s October when I take trip out of the city, stretching out onto roads that are open, uneven and wide. I touch the window, fingertips humming, feeling the fields the other side of the glass. The rope loosens and my breathing slows.

We walk, shoes tied tight, in the grass; stare up at the fields that roll and roll and at night, I lay in someone else’s cotton sheets and listen to the trees beyond the glass. They whisper my name, call me back to them. I want to reach out, give them my words. But would I say after all of this time?

I head home to see nana. She’s lying five or so feet below the ground and the earth above her is now wearing grass. I don’t see her to begin with; I walk grave to grave, looking for the names Margaret and Noreen. When I find her, I know that I’m standing on her, not letting her see the sky. I take a step backwards and another, until the insides of my knees are touching the gravestone behind. I think about lying down next to her, just for a moment. To tell her all that I’ve seen.

As I drive away, a slab of sunlight paints the sky; horizontal pipes of swirling light finding a home in the hills, between the trees. This is the beginning of my beginnings. Of beauty. The start of its touch at my neck.

Afterwards, I go to the green and stand at its tip. Not moving a muscle, not even a foot. I shan’t run. I’ll stay perfectly still.


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