Caught by the River

The severed finger

15th February 2022

An extract from Vron Ware’ s ‘Return of a Native’ — an investigation into the fantasies, prejudices, desires and fears projected onto the complex canvas of rural England.

Now the winter evening settles; there are no approaching headlights and tonight there is no moon. You might think there would be some kind of streetlamp here, especially if this is becoming a designated highway. That really would make it look like Surrey. Once, back in the 1980s, a new neighbour put up a lamppost and it was whispered that they were not “country people”.

I have passed through here so many times that I could get to our village with my eyes closed. It’s downhill all the way, for one thing, and always a bit further than you think. I turn back to the sign one last time. Something’s not right. The finger pointing west isn’t there anymore. It’s as if someone has simply hacked it off. I scour the ground, but I can’t see it. I look back at the mutilated signpost, but there is no doubt about it: it’s gone.

Was it an act of protest, and if so, who was protesting against what? You can’t hide a road by removing the sign, although you might be able to confuse strangers I suppose. Could it be the Surrey fearmonger? Or does it run deeper than local spite? The whole country has not been so divided for decades.

Standing here in the half-light, I have a strong sensation that the damage is irreparable, it can’t be put right. These Hampshire signposts are listed objects, and the truncated finger can never be re-attached. Mr Weeks and his son will have long gone, their family business sold on, sold off and closed down decades ago. It is not just the mutilated metal object. This is evidence of a sullen rage, perhaps neighbour against neighbour or maybe residents venting against some faceless bureaucrat or higher power.

I am suddenly conscious of an air of menace in this forlorn spot. It seemed so placid when I got here: a crossing of byways in a place between places, an archaeological minefield without any visible ruins or walls. Utterly familiar yet empty, unyielding of secrets accumulated during centuries of human traffic. Whole civilisations had come and gone in a serial process that makes your head swim. And here we are again in a civil war, a not-at-all-civil fracture of the country that is as deeply marked here as it is everywhere else. This is a faultline that snakes between dwellings as well as through kitchen and bedroom, and no map will ever dare to show its path.

I remember my mother and the purpose of my visit, and pull myself together. In my pocket I carry a tangle of her hair that I pulled off her hairbrush the last time I was here. If it was spring I would put it out for the birds to make their nests, but it is autumn now and I am unsure what to do with it. It comes as a shock to find it again. I hold the hair fast in a clenched hand; there is not much time. We do not know how much time we have left.


‘Return of a Native’ is out now, published by Repeater Books.