This particular afternoon we went with L to visit M and her husband R who live at K Heights. They’ve lived there for 20 years doing up a house but the house building was still in progress after 2 decades. It was not the nicest day to be visiting anyone. It was grey, miserable and overcast. Mist hung like thin voile, a curtain over the valley. Yet, it was midsummer, the day after the Summer solstice!
We drove from Hebden Bridge, taking the uphill road along Church Lane, climbing the steepest of routes along to Brickshaw and then towards Cross Stone. I wouldn’t want to imagine what it is like in winter to drive across this sheer precipice. Climbing it is one thing but coming back down over ice-covered Tarmac, the wind a squall across the open moorland quite something else altogether. It would be like opting for a dive into the North Sea on Xmas day: very dangerous and foolhardy.
At K Heights we stopped, thinking we were in the right place. A dog bounded across the wall followed shortly by a woman in regulation country wear (green anorak, Wellington, disarranged hair) who disabused us of our erroneous belief. M and R‘s place was next door. Next door in this context meant a drive back out on a gravel road and then a turn into Cross Stone and then the first right into a drive leading towards a gate. Except, the drive had locked gates that when opened led to another more solid gate of solid steel. A very secure habitat of high, very high, dry stonewall!
We were never going to get in. This was as secure as a castle on a promontory guarded by moat, archers, outer and inner walls, and remoteness. And, we stood and marveled at the wall, the gate, the utter seclusion and quiet of the place. We were sure no one was at home. Not a soul seemed to inhabit this medieval castle. Not a stir or murmur. Not even a leaf blew down from the heavens beyond the ironclad impenetrable solidity of the gate. I pressed on the horn twice.
Then to our surprise, a car stopped as we were leaving, and a man got out, a young man in his late 20s, perhaps. And he said “L, Scorpio, from Newcastle? ” This was an unmistakable mystery, a miracle even, how he came to recognize L whom he had never met was as good a puzzle as any. He phoned through to M on his mobile to come to open the gate. He, A, as we soon learnt had been brought back from his saxophone lesson by his teacher. She had baked him a lemon drizzle sponge cake for his birthday. This is the glorious aspect of country life, a sense of community, a ready knowledge of the most mundane of facts, and conviviality in the middle of back of beyond.
First M peeped through the sliver of a gap in the gateway and then R. M had brown hair. She was lean, wiry, with wrinkles and the brown, tan skin of someone used to working outside in the sun. She was also strong, strong from singlehandedly building dry stonewalls.
R was wearing a dirty pair of trousers, an even dirtier, grimy over shirt. He was a small, stocky man, not young, someone’s grandfather, something of a gnome just woken from a long deep sleep. We had arrived in Hobbit county.
They apologized for the state of everything: “The house is not yet completed”, “everything is in chaos”. But the welcome was genuine and there was much laughter and warmth. Long lost cousins rediscovering the shape of the family nose, the smells that define kinship, everything that is stored and locked in memory waiting to be unearthed, rediscovered, examined and breathed in. On the African plains, this would be a welcome stop after hours walking in the sun, solely to greet next of kin.
A was asked how had he come to recognize L. He responded spontaneously without awkwardness, without malice, in innocence, “L, albino, from Newcastle, letters every Xmas that we couldn’t read!” As if somehow this was a description of height, weight, dress and stature.
We were led through a converted container that now stood as a garage for motorbikes, cars in need of restoration. Out through one end of it and down improvised cement block steps into an area of grass and mud with hens and, a caravan standing in one corner. Inside we met a diminutive boy, thin and wiry like his mother. But sick-looking. There was something sallow about the skin, something about the eyes, an introspective quivering of the eyelids. Perhaps, a wilderness trapped in the pupils. Or was it a faraway look that had no smile or laughter only a hardness, almost razor-sharp and uncompromising, was this the indefinable absolute that he wore on his face? Like looking out to sea with a gaze that sought for a pinprick spectacle of fine dust. Or, an otherworldliness: winter in midsummer.
We went through to the sitting room with a sofa for two, a stool by the computer, another by the doorway. Then an afternoon of rediscovering the past in order to preserve the future. Seeing where paths originated and then diverged, when wrinkles replaced smiles and youthful eagerness. How joy and hope coalesced into reality and a foreshortened new future. Children and their achievements spoke of the pathways and cul-de-sacs of life. J had a most serious breakdown. B has moved to London, it would so nice if we saw more of her, except for Xmas that is. And yours, what’s become of them?
Coffee and lemon drizzle cake. Hours of talking about wells, the absence of running water, recycling, the insecurity of the modern world, Hebden Bridge in the 60s, the effrontery of burglars, Islam, China, the USSR, what the future holds for the children, our children. “Are you grandparents yet? I am”.
This was a remarkable afternoon of what the exceptional life holds. Here was an alternative life that revealed what is possible but that was not necessarily promising. It was a memorable, sometimes disturbing afternoon in which words held their meanings with the same fragility as a spider’s web, tenacious but yet liable to snap. Words in the country are garnered and stocked up like animal feed to be dispensed frugally. Never waste what is precious. And speech is just that, rare and precious.
When you reach 60, the tide is going out for you. It makes all the prior choices starker and more like an end rather than a path.
Photos by Jan Oyebode