Two unusually warm days, the start of October, almost everyone I meet saying that autumn is their favourite season. It’s friendly to me too but for different reasons from the misty colours, the reds and golds, the berries and conkers, those soft sunsets. For me it signals the beginning of the end of the stuck season of late summer, when looking forward has gone back to school, and a suspended air of not very much happening hangs over each shorter day by day. It’s the time when I know that with a little more patience we’ll be out of it, that between the afternoon and the night there’ll just be a sudden falling of darkness. It means that soon we’ll have cold winter and human warmth will come into the foreground again.
I had two afternoons free, wanted to walk out, to get away as much as anything from the tension of the flats where a couple of days ago one neighbour attacked another with a hammer. I went out on the Monday and let the way find me and lead me. It led me three miles to the cemetry, an ultimate shortcut. I remember reading once that in the middle of the nineteenth century a stranger knocked at the door of the poet Emily Dickinson asking the whereabouts of somebody’s house. She gave him directions to the graveyard saying that if he waited a while the person he was looking for would soon be home.
It’s the way I think, or the way I see, not seeing but glimpsing and then spinning off from what’s in front of my eyes to the whirls and labyrinths inside me of memory. Thought worms, like those tunes you can’t get out of your head. Trying to concentrate on something, something simple like what’s in front of you, but your mind being led away. Like, I suppose, how I was led to the cemetry. Unfortunate to have thought worms squirming between my eyes and my mind, but that’s how it is and if it is, that’s how it is, and that much at least is simple enough.
Enjoyed being in the cemetry. The clouds were dappled and moving quite fast across a blue sky so the ground was dappled with moving shadows from the trees, still green leaved most of them, and the way the light was changing all the time, moment to moment, that I liked. There was a very old man all the time I was there, about an hour, walking between just maybe 20 graves, his head down and some little talking to himself now and then. For much time I was there, I was a quite old man wandering among graves but I didn’t talk except to the guy with the dog who asked me if he could have a rollie, and also whether I’d just got up because he thought I was asleep on the bench in the morning when he was through with the dog. He is there three times in a day, he said. Usually.
I did have a funny half hour there, sort of influenced over much by the white clouds moving, not quite sure whether or not at the back of my mind, or possibly underneath it, maybe at the base of it was a sort of white smoke full of dream images. You must have had that, when there is a feeling of sleepy dreamtime all mixed up with what is actually awake around you, this I mean when you are wandering with no fixed purpose or distractions such as laughing with mates, reading, descaling toilet bowls or shopping in Asda, which, coincidentally is right next to the cemetry. I suppose I got some insight into what eventaually becomes normal for someone who spends a lot of the day purposelessly wandering around graveyards. So in a way, I thought as I began to come back into focus, the old man and myself were two omens of the same thing, although I’m not sure what that same thing is.
I looked at some of the graves. Some were very grand and old, of rich people. Quite a few were broken like rotted tooth stumps, and on many the lettering had worn away with the weather, with time. From those very grand tombs, ornately sculpted memorials of the wealthy I suppose the simplest word would be down. Every gravestone from the wealthy ones down told stories, and most of these would be heartbreakingly meaningful to many people such as the family, including an elderly lady in a wheelchair, around a beautifully kept grave that was as colourful as a flower garden. But I saw other stories too, impersonal ones you could say. The graves that nobody had visited for many years, derelict graves, deserted graves, all the mourners maybe dead and gone or scattered around the world. But most heartbreaking to me were the graves that were empty except for an official record card pinned to a stick. Some of these had been there for two years. One or two had a single withered bunch of flowers.
Well I don’t know if I was being morbid, or whether it’s particularly weird in what seems to me to be an extremely weird world anyway to spend time mooching around cemetries. But I do go and visit my friend’s ashes frequently in a different cemetry. I just sit on the bench and watch and wait quietly. It seems to make sense.
The next afternoon too I walked out to see where the way would lead me. It brought me here to the centre of the park, where the statue of Anteros flies with bow and arrow over the circular troughs and ornate sculptures that glisten with the plashings of a fountain. Most call him Eros but some think he is Peter Pan. My feeling is that he is whoever people agree he is. He’s an ‘it’ in any case, a reproduction of the original which is too badly corroded to be out in the weather so is on display in the Conservation Centre. How do I know this? Because there is a notice board telling me the facts.
Facts. I sit on a bench and look at the white clouds, a reverie watching them drift on the high wind over the blue reflection of the planet’s seas. Only when I lower my gaze and Anteros comes into view silhouetted against the sky does time begin again. Time with the shaped solidity of facts, this reproduction of a 1932 statue one of the first English sculptures made from aluminium.
There are five broad ways that lead from this place with the statue and the café and park rangers centre.
One goes to the Lane, miniature strip of restuarants, wine bars, food stores, pubs and magnet for young trendies, professional footballers, bohemians, and visitors to its craft fairs or faermers’ markets. It’s also thickened with an older indigenous population, has its share of bookies and from the roads around the petty thieves, the long-term residents of mental health nursing homes and homes for the aged. Students flow through in thousands every year. I lived there for 15 years, grew older as its promise grew worn and shabby, became ever more conscious of the infinite varieties of human agony that wander its pavements each day as the young and healthy or rich and successful rise obvlivious high above them.
A second way leads to a mansion now long demolished where once I had a free flat in return for caretaking and gardening duties. I was so young then, so fit and pulsing with life. The park was where I sprinted, jogged and trained because such exercise was a need as great as sex. All the world seemed clean and benevolent, like it could absorb any insult without effect, like I could act as if my body would never come to collect its rent. Now the park seems weary and sad despite its recent makeover, and my body’s swollen with pouches of fat supported by wrinkled stretches of shrunken skin.
The way I’ve come leads back through the ten years wilderness period, the sickness and drinking, drugs and fighting, hospitals, mental nurses, shames of agony and isolation. Places where these horrors were punctuated regularly, sometimes weeks on end, with other lost souls, by ‘good times’, where the grotesque is good, intense violence is comradeship and the world has been lost as if forever. I believe the word ‘carnival’ means ‘farewell to the flesh’, and those years were carnivalesque. That way leading through those years leads to the place from where I’ve walked out today.
The fourth way is straight on from the third, towards dismal sex, drinking dens and park benches. Remembered most is those tawdry sexual affairs, bloated bodies in lonely beds where the distance between people is never greater than when they sink into each other’s flesh. Against such decay, fighting was always clean, seemed sometimes like the last vestige of health and purity.
The last way leads me out. It’s a way I’ve only ever used for getting to somewhere else, except to my left as I walk, in one of the big houses was the flat of the girl I spent 17 years with. I’d only met her once when we’d gone back there in a group the week before after the pub. The second time, one night I knocked on her door, said I’d sprained my ankle while running, and could she give me a lift home. I always was a liar.
When I think about it, and there’s no point thinking if you don’t think about what you’re thinking, I wonder about a couple of things. Is the way always going to lead me back to where I walked before, take me down crevices worn into my brain which are flooded with strong currents of memory? And are these memories behind me? Or are they underneath me, the ground of my being if you like? Or are they hanging over me like a phantasmagrical sky?
Then, when I consider the five ways from the centre, I wonder about choice. I don’t mean choices like what to have for tea or even important choices such as whether to move away from the city. I mean immense choices that involve the possibility of changing every part of my way of seeing, way of being.