Tuesday, September 03, 2013


Three young men walked past another moss-softened ruin, this time not stopping to explore it. This was the third of its kind in an hour. The river beside them ran fast and quiet, beckoning them on downstream.

The three of them had spoken a lot in the previous days' walking. In fact, they had talked non-stop until now. They had had lots of time for talking; they were walking the two hundred mile length of a river – tracing it from the lichen-covered plaque that marked the source all the way to the estuary, where the coastal maw yawned into the sea. It would take two weeks.

Camping along the way and carrying tents and supplies in large backpacks, they had set themselves a task harder than they expected. And now they suffered with the grim grins of those who know they won't regret this suffering. It was no indulgent holiday. It was early April and when the sun sank beneath the skyline the soil-scented air lost its nerve and began to bite with a mean chill. So they lived as they imagined nomads do: getting up and bedding down at the behest of the sun. They would hastily pitch the tent the moment darkness threatened. Then decamp in the morning as soon as the horizon began to glow.

If they'd been rising so early in a building then a familiar workaday grogginess would have besieged their reluctant faces. But this grog was nowhere now. The gloaming is like a pin prick, siphoning sleep from the mind in an instant, sharpening the spirit and charging the muscles with a kind of fearful energy. The cold fuel of daybreak. They would be up, packed and walking towards a fried breakfast in the nearest village by the time that giant yolk was in full view, sizzling in the blue.

But during the short stretch for which we join them now, there is to be no waking or sleeping and no fried breakfasts. Just walking in the mid-afternoon, in quiet thought.


Walking at the front of their single file trio, Jon was calmly guessing at their location on a cloudy mental map; not worried, since the river was right there by their side, following them as they followed it. The water seemed smoother than before and it had a kind of satin ribbon rushing down the centre, as a length of fabric might be hurried along a conveyor belt. Then, reaching a corner, it swerved into bubbles at an obtruding rock and the industrial parallel dissolved in the fizz.

Jon remembered the trickle at the source of the river and ignored for a moment his schooled understanding of rivers so he could indulge a myth of riverine self-conception. This widening waterway, now just too broad to leap, had added to itself from that feeble drip at the source, independently growing on the fuel of its own will. The river blooms itself into biggerness, it swells by force of pride to a bulging deepening selfspace. Memories of geography lessons began to interrupt and scupper the myth-making – rain, the water table, tributaries – but he shook these off and drifted elsewhere in thought.

Coming around a bend they beheld another of these strange ruins. They were squat, cylindrical concrete, and stationed at regular intervals beside the river – perhaps they were bunkers of some kind. On finding the first one, they had walked up to it, touched it, and exchanged guesswork about its possible function. But thereafter, passing by more of the ruins, there was no discussion. No talking at all. Only their steady footfalls spoke, ministering to varied surfaces: grass, gravel, mud and puddle. And to the regular, consistent, presence of these buildings; like giant toads, sunning themselves, wise in the inscrutable manner of an empty building.

Walking just behind Jon, Pete was thinking about a girl. He saw her so clearly in his mind that his eyes were barely seeing the path in front of him. Beyond the bare modicum of sight that would prevent his tripping over, he was Introspection itself. Her name was Hannah, she had been his secondary school sweetheart, but alas, he had not been her sweetheart. These unrequited feelings were still entirely summonable, though they belonged in the past, perhaps nearly a decade ago. She never became a lover but had been a close friend. Though nowadays, they weren't so close anymore. They had ended up going to different universities and now only kept in touch sporadically. Nonetheless, he would still sink into these gleaming memories of her sometimes. The goddess he had imagined her to be was still in him, set apart from the real girl that was now a grown up woman, as a portrait is set apart from the sitter who might leave the studio and never come back. He considered this disparity calmly: the woman nearing thirty, soon to be married, soon to have a child, probably; and the girl of sixteen with golden skin and honey-scented hair, a seraphic tint softened this image to a blur...

Back at school there had been no disparity, no recognition of doubleness. The angel and the real girl had been one and the same. His trembling teenage yearnings had carved an effigy from the rawest materials of hope and desire, and then taken its own carving for the real girl. But maybe we don't ever meet the real girl, he thought, just different carvings.


Walking at the back of the group, Neal was thinking back over the past few days, already with nostalgia - that sweet tug of the heart. He remembered Jon quoting a haiku some days before:

Even in Kyoto,
Hearing the cuckoo's cry,
I long for Kyoto.

Although still only midway through this great walk, Neal was already longing to return to the present as though it were a treasured memory. And, more than that, he was already longing to tell the story of the present: three heroes, three bestubbled adventurers; mucky, scraped and scratched young men on a serious trudge towards some kind of newness. He wanted to be twenty years in the future, telling tales of this moment, but even more he wanted to live this moment again twenty times over. The present was too sweet to be so ephemeral, to die so suddenly and continually.

Having known no war or drastic upheaval, Neal realised, no bodily struggle for existence, they had had to create barriers for themselves to leap over. This long river walk was just such a barrier. And only when they had done it could they call themselves men. But already, half way on his walk – only mezzo del camin – he felt ready to call himself a man. Not in a macho way, he felt, but with a kind of heart-fluttering pride. Men, they were. Not one man alone but men together. Without togetherness they could not be men. It was a camaraderie he'd never known. And the word camaraderie fell miles short of the mark, two hundred miles short. Camaraderie was a cheap plastic souvenir of the fluttering in his chest.

And words themselves were only partial visitors in these thoughts, as they are only partial visitors in any thinking. But some words had jostled into view, tickling the pen in his throat, that pen that writes in spoken sound, as he planned the re-telling of the present. Moments spun into the past on the fluid speed in the clock-heart of the river and Neal felt the urge to catch some and keep them alive, blowing at so many dying embers. The wrong word could be fatal for the moment; like camaraderie. It had a feeble breathing to it, that word – he let that ember shut its red eye for good. What use are even the best ones when all words are poor receipts for what time hath stole away!


Now the three slices of silent reflection, walking in these three men, were interrupted by yet another of the little forts. This one had half crumbled to nothing, even more like a toad. Neal stopped walking for a moment to take in its profile. He wasn't thinking of a toad. He wasn't thinking of the abandoned nature of this erstwhile human structure, the crumbling mortality of it. He wasn't attaining the ecological recognition that he, that they, that we, along with all sentient life, would come to this end, would slouch back into the gullet of vegetation and, like a baby in a mothers arms, become one with our surroundings. In the epiphanic stillness of a moment spent staring at the buddhic structure, Neal may have been doing something like thinking, without quite actually doing it. Something occurring in the skin sack of his organ array, a response to this ruined toad-bunker, to walking, journeys, life; and the silence of three friends in the loud questions that a river endlessly asks.

NB. The Haiku is by Matsuo Basho. John Clare is quoted in italics at the end of the penultimate paragraph.

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