I reached the road which would lead me to Ashby, but on such a beautiful day, knowing my parents would be out for a while longer, I turned right instead and drove off intent on returning to Osgathorpe – the fields, roads, trees and bridges of a small village, which still furnish the inner recesses of my mind, if I allow it to wander long enough for it to come into view.
I followed the familiar route back, smoothly following the narrow country lanes, tracing old footsteps, anticipating each divot and blind bend.
The sun brought the road to life, dancing in the remnants of the pools of rain gathered along the edges. The tall trees, the same trees I would gaze up at when I was ten, swayed their branches in greeting as I passed them by and approached the old lands of home. The iridescent greens glowed and gleamed in the light awakening to each tender touch of the sun’s gentle caresses.
The road opened out, and there, either side of me, stretching far into the horizon lay the ripe, green fields. Fields I knew well from my journey to and from primary school. They seemed fuller, greener, fresher. I rounded the final bend in the road and saw the familiar sign for Osgathorpe. I had arrived.
Turning right on to Main Street I was flooded with memories; snippets of conversations had long ago; the tragedies of village life – the suicides, the adultery, the unintended deaths; the joys of suburban life – the walks I’d take with friends through the barley fields, the hay bails we’d clamber upon, the bike rides that were had in the heat of the scorching sun, the houses and families I used to be welcomed into… I drove down the steep hill and remembered the accident my Mum and Daddy Alex nearly had one Christmas when ice had poisonously laced the road with danger, making breaking nigh impossible.
It was quiet. So quiet. Apart from the cheerful song of birds, which punctuated the warm breeze, there was complete stillness. I saw no one.
I drove past the thatched cottages, the little houses embraced with ivy; their powdery pink façades partially obscured. They reminded me of the crackling fires shining like beacons through their wintery windows in years gone by, the horses I would greet each day on my way to the school bus, the swing in the quaint garden of one of the village pubs where I got chewing gum stuck in my hair.
I passed the brook as I drove over the stone bridge and turned left. Those thick, full hedges, which lined the road had not lost their lustre. They spilled over their boundaries, a mixture of beauty and prickly threat.
It was there. It was there where he died.
Seventeen years ago. Seventeen. A number that is as vacuous as it is meaningful.
One… two… three… four… I counted, trying to wrap my mind around the length of time that has since lapsed… five… six… seven… eight… nine… ten… eleven… years full of life had since… twelve… thirteen… fourteen… fifteen… sixteen… seventeen… Seventeen.
I returned with confidence, emboldened by the light of the sun and the still tranquillity of my former home. I came to the end of the road and turned right onto Church Lane. I passed the Town Hall on the left – a place rippling with laughter on Friday evenings where I would gather with friends and we’d play games, have our own discos and, sometimes, be taken away for water sports. A small village youth club unlike any other.
I carried on driving and saw the home of my best friend when I was growing up. I remembered the guinea pigs and rabbits we’d look after and play with in the garden, the big tree we used to climb and play games in, the wall we’d scramble onto and then jump off of, savouring the brief sensation of flight before we would land on the lawn and pretend to be secret agents in pursuit of our target: ‘Quick – run!!’
Opposite their home was the Church. The Little Parish Church. It felt massive when I was younger; an imposing building set back from the road and sectioned off from the life of the village by those black, iron gates. A private place no one ventured into but noted each day. I remember how I would stand in front of the gates peering down the path and up to the church only to be ushered away by family friends: ‘We don’t go in there.’
I parked the car and walked up to those same gates and peered in and along the very same way I used to, holding the bars in my hands; only this time, I pushed them forward and out.
I hopped up the crumbling steps to the church yard and on to the lawn. For many years my Mum and I would bring flowers on each anniversary, but the last time we did that was probably five years ago. I saw the memorial stones of others, people we used to know who had since died, the flowers, the crisp edges of each plot carefully manicured by families tending to their relative’s memory. But, I couldn’t find it.
I couldn’t find it…
I looked and read them all. It wasn’t where I had remembered crying and thinking my world had ended. It wasn’t in the place where emotion had given way to a hollow emptiness; a nothing where something once was.
Where is it? Where was the marker of the life that had impacted mine so dramatically?
They couldn’t have moved it; it had to be somewhere. I gently started to nudge the turf in the area I thought it had been ensconced by the creeping grass. It wasn’t.
I looked up and saw the bench. The memorial bench my Mum had installed with a plaque dedicated to my ‘Fun Daddy’. The bench had weathered with time, the wooden structure looking thirsty and dry. They were going to polish it and look after it, but these promises once uttered with such conviction were never fulfilled. Shame. At least the bench is still there.
I sat down on it and closed my eyes.
I was jolted by a jogger struggling for breath as he forced himself on and beyond The Church, sweat pouring down his face. I thought I recognised him as an old family friend, but I wasn’t sure. He had passed too quickly for me to know.
I stood up thinking perhaps someone might be in the church building who could help me to find Daddy Alex’s memorial stone. I carefully tip toed down the steps from the memorial garden and on to the path that lead up to the church.
It really was beautiful. I noted the ancient headstones families must have paid a small fortune for a few hundred years ago. But, we do forget. We forget. It had only been seventeen years since Daddy Alex had died and already I couldn’t find his name anywhere.
I strolled up the path and the latch gave way into the porch of the church. The notice board registered the total amount given to the church over this past year and a list of three names and numbers were mounted, should one be in need of help. I tried to open the door to the main building but quickly saw a key was needed for this and instead retreated back out into the sun, the coolness quickly dissolving as I stepped out and latched the door behind me.
I walked back down the path remembering the weddings I’d witnessed here. I took long strides absorbing the sizzling energy of the sun with each step. I felt alive. I felt like the only living inhabitant of This Little Place. I absorbed every soft sound, every electric colour exuding from the happy flowers, every shade of shadow cast by those magisterial head stones and every touch of the breeze as it glided past my cheek and carried the aroma of the garden on by. My skin felt alive, suffused with life. I felt every step.
I twirled at the bottom of the path and made one last attempt at finding the memorial stone. My eyes scanned over the grass trying to find irregularities, differences in texture and shade that may indicate recent growth. It was then that I found it. My feet felt the ground beneath me give way ever so slightly as I tentatively tapped the square foot of ground where stone lay buried in turf. I tried to break it up with my boots, but to no avail. I crouched down and with my hands tried to tear up the grass and soil. Clods of earth came apart, and I kept on ripping. The grass was wet and slippery and trying to grip it to pull it away with the earth was difficult. It took time, but finally I started to get a peak at the name on the stone.
I saw an ‘A’ and then an ‘M’. This is it… 1942 – this is it.
I then separated more of the earth and cleared the stone to reveal the name, ‘MAIR’. The rest of the wet soil and grass had woven so tightly over that I couldn’t break it apart. I knelt down beside it and I pulled and I pulled and I pulled. After five minutes, as I groped my way through the soil, I managed to remove most of it. If only I had a little shovel or just something to neaten up the edges. I’m sorry. This is the best I could do. I looked down and saw his name – ‘ALEX MAIR’. He was as imperial as his full name, ‘Alexander’, my Mum called him ‘Alec’, but he would be committed to the ground as ‘Alex’. Alex Mair.
It has been so long since I have seen a name shared with my own.
I remembered him. I remembered his laugh, deep and fruitful. I remembered his fabulous sense of humour, his mischievous blue eyes that told me were about to go on an adventure. I remembered his presence. I felt so special to be considered his daughter.
But, he isn’t here. I see his name and I feel a tight bond of affinity, a hint of home, of belonging, of identity. But, he isn’t here…
I notice my hands are dirty, mud clogging up my fingernails and grass stains decorating my knees. I notice the earth below. I wipe my hands on the dewy grass trying to clean them, but it’s too late, the dirt has dried on. I sigh and breathe in the air, smelling the browness of the earth I had extricated and tossed into the hedge.
My phone and car keys sit beside me, and as I pick them up and walk out of the churchyard towards my car, my heart feels lighter and fuller.
A hint of home in a graveyard, an anchor and reminder of what was.
I start the engine and place my hands on the steering wheel feeling uncomfortable with how dirty they are. I soon forget as I continue to drive down Church Lane and past our old family home. Number 6 Church Lane. I had been made to memorise it. I remember sitting on the wall outside of the house and watching the frenzied, angry red ants as they frantically ran in and out of the cracks; I remember dancing through the flower beds when Daddy Alex was watering the plants and I’d shriek with laughter and delight as he’d chase me with the hose pipe.
So many memories of life fertilised in this little garden of time.
Life metamorphosed to memory. Memories of life spatially experienced but now archived in my heart. This is someone else’s home, someone else’s life, someone else’s memory.
I drive out of the village and remember the walks I’d take with my Mum on those lazy Summer evenings; I remembered the barn dances at the farm, and running through the vast fields with dogs merrily jogging along beside me, my hands skimming the tips of the tall grass.
I left and joined the main road drinking in the colours and landscape, grateful for such a place, such a connection with the people and earth.
I came back to Ashby startled by the many cars and the manufactured lights of the traffic signals, as though awoken from a blissful dream. I touched a hint of home and it is already falling through my fingers. I transcended time and found a home I once occupied and was marvellously happy in.
These memories are but the frayed threads of a once beautiful, vivid tapestry now sun bleached and drained of vivacity. Yet, for one afternoon they were resurrected in the sun’s light.
As my parents returned to the house in Ashby and I greeted them, I clung close to my Dad, Ian. As he held me and kissed my forehead, he gently said, ‘All will come good in the end, eh?’
It has, and it will.
(A Pilgrimage in Search of Home was originally published here: https://kristimair.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/a-pilgrimage-in-search-of-home/)