Visions and revisions

17 Nov 2001

I stopped at the gate, one hand on the dry wood. The church stood, calmly observing me even as I frowned at it. Unable to push the gate open, I merely applied some of my weight to it. It creaked, sounding tired. Whereas the church felt like some sort of sentinel (although stood at-ease) on my immediate horizon, the gate was happy just to wait, for my decision to push or not to push, to wait for its eventual retirement and decay.

All of this comparison, this invocation of metaphor from my environment, was prevarication, I knew. I still could not open the gate. From a distance I looked around at the gravestones, but remained myself outside the churchyard wall. I put my hands in my pockets and waited like the gate, wondering what I might be able to force myself to do next.

I passed through the village. It looked healthy in the dry Autumn. Leaves swelled and puffed in one final attempt to photosynthesise before their daddy trees gave up on them, cut them off from their inheritance. Houses exploded with jagged, unevenly-cut bricks, a stopped explosion with mortar padded into the cracks. The main road forked in a gentle "Y" and the lesser route headed up to the church and its churchyard. Up this road I walked, and stopped at the gate. Without a word, knowing that I was not particularly wanted there. I let myself be pulled back the way I came, away from the church and the graves, by a weight of indifference.

I resolved to go up there, had been meaning to for some time. The village was beyond the eastern outskirts of the city. There is no space any more for graveyards in the centre. The only dead we have time for is those that are still moving around. A wheezy bus went to the village and back once an hour. By the time it reached the "please drive carefully" sign, two girls were my only company in an echoey bus. They talked about nothing at all and stayed on when I got off at my stop, which was in the centre of the village near the monument. For all I know they stayed on all the way back, for want of something to do.

Looking round, I swayed a little as I tried to get my bearings. I had seen the church from the A-road, and tried to find it again. It had no spire, though, was neither modern enough nor old enough to have one. After half an hour, I had made enough mistakes to know where I was going. There was a gentle gradient, and I hadn't realised the church was on a hill.

I pushed open the complaining gate and strode purposefully on the gravel, and turned off onto the grass near the newer graves. It didn't take long to find his name, and I laid a few flowers on the stone. I paused for a few moments, trying to think myself into solemnity.

I hadn't mentioned the flowers before. I had to be carrying flowers. I heard only a few days ago that he had died. From a mutual friend. It's strange how these things touch you. I hadn't really thought about him for years. Even when we were at school, he wasn't really part of my social group. No, that's not true. In my class for a year or two, he was: I remember. I remember because I can picture Gail, only fourteen then, turning her acidic wit on him. She etched him to the bone and I laughed.

And now he has become the first in my generation to die. First of those I knew, of course. People die every day, and if they all made us stop and think then we'd get no killing done. That's what I did, though - I stopped to think. I had the sensation of the world turning under me for a brief time, as his life, the edited highlights of it that impacted on me, passed before my eyes. When I got back onto the world, I found it had turned just slightly too far without me. I wasn't in the same place I had been.

That's what drove me to buy those flowers, catch that bus, forget to sneer at the girls' empty conversation. I wanted to get my mind back to where it had been, to the right time zone. And all the way there I had to formulate my plan, how I would walk through the village and look at the church and.... It needed to be planned: my first grave visit as an adult. I wanted to set it in the story of my life. It was all selfishness, of course, and I knew as I approached the dry gate that all the planning was useless. Only now would I be able to see what I was going to do.