How am I supposed to chart you a map or paint you a picture in words of something that I can’t get a clear sight of even while looking at it? Even though I live here and have lived here most of my life, even though I will live here for God knows how long and walk around the town taking varying routes every single day, it’s always different, it changes every time I look at it, then look away, then look again. New old houses rear their heads over the tiered steppes of browned Victorian terraces that bank the hillside up to and over the purple-heathered, boulder-studded valley crest. Hedges, footpaths, snickets, alleys, gennels, lanes multiply and shrink away; now more in number, now less, like mycelium that blooms and withers, waxes and wanes with the sunlight and the seasons. Suddenly everything is glazed over with an evening’s mauve inkwash. Dimensions expand and contract. Roads steepen then flatten. Gnarled pines wait for me to finally notice them after passing them unawares for years on end.
Picture this: great vista from a high bedroom window, snowy night, whitened valleyside in darkness, everything drenched in the glow of orange streetlights strung out horizontally, orange streetlights frozen splintered stars, black strip of water below the black dead trees, whitening reeds in the bog, a few flakes still falling, and only on this night of the year (Christmas Eve): total silence. No cars on the bypass at all.
Roe, imagining themselves hunted, chase each other between mossed and lichened boulders in dense pine country at the base of the wooded cliffs, way below the silver birch that grows up on the top by Druid’s Altar, the flat-topped rocky outcrop where sacrificial bonfires burned all night, visible for miles around, on autumn equinoxes in the pagan days before Christianity, before the Saxons, the Norsemen, before even the Romans. Herons ghost from the reeds and pass silent through shadow and electric orange light above the oily black canal in the night. Bats cut and dive through dense, cyclonic midge-clouds from way up under the gables of Victorian semis along rocky, potholed dirt roads where no one ever walks, being accustomed to the comfort of their four-by-fours. Along with all the streets in the evening and the night, the same egg blue emanates from uncurtained windows and picks out half-formed faces in its ambiguous, undulating glow. All these streets to myself, the company of one, the town’s whole shifting framework entirely my own. The bypass’s steady shush. Now and then a pair of headlights approaches and goes past.
Trying to describe these things to you is like trying to hold water in my hands.
The mills, strung out along the canal, are everything and nothing. Black spires everywhere you look; we don’t even notice them, but come to think if they’re something you don’t see elsewhere, tall, slender black chimneys that don’t do anything at all, belch no smoke to enrich the stone town’s already carbon-darkened hue. Pre-eminently visible and yet barely registered, they’re nothing like watchtowers or sentinels or landmarks or monuments, they don’t signify anything at all. Everything around us is a relic of the wool industry.
Houses for workers, houses for owners. The wool tycoons cooped their workers up like hens, housed them, fed them, taught them, reared them as decent, hardworking serfs to keep the money rolling in. Now it’s a UNESCO world heritage site, populated by Leeds-commuting yuppies with southern accents and kids called Thomas and Emily who run riot and throw screaming tantrums everywhere they go in their indulged, undisciplined freedom.
We’re not getting anywhere because this world is so small and self-contained. Nothing up there in front or up behind us but a blank space of moors. We’re marooned.
Isn’t it lovely, being nestled in this cozy valley? Everything’s demarcated. No horizons to stretch on forever. No infinite rolling curvature of the earth. My first brush with terror was looking up at the clouds in the sky and feeling the enormity of the blue abyss above. Films and photos of space and planets nauseate me until I look away. Fear of lasting forever. Fear of breaking loose of the boundaries of the body, of stretching in all directions. Meditation brings only unease. Dissociatives provoke utter panic. Here we’re hidden, protected, by great mounds of earth either side. One clear route east, one west. To other towns similarly walled, hemmed in. In the flat landscape, I’m lost.
Picture this: you are fourteen. You didn’t go to school today, you kept walking right on past the bypass bridge and are heading out Saltaire way along the greyed-out misty towpath where it leaves town and fields with cows replace it, and the sewage works lie opposite. You have no purpose or destination, just a feeling like you can’t really work it anymore. Something’s not working anymore.
You can’t go home before three because your mum’s there and she’ll know you didn’t go to school.
You are in an immediate landscape of dark browns, dark greys, dark greens, the sky a grey, low, seamless, poreless sky, from which comes down to you the softest of white lights, and therein lies the beauty of a day like this – the light, not harsh sun-and-shadow, but far more sheltering, more safe. Not exposed, even in part, to any abyssal stretches of blue. You always felt that no thought could be more terrifying than eternity than lasting, moving, stretching on forever in space or time. Better sealed in with a blanket overhead. What pointless words. Through your soles, you feel the ground cold and hard. When you look around at the dark green leaves in the clear grey light, you guess that soon every leaf on every tree will drown itself and be at the end. What happens to last year’s leaves down there on the bottom of the canal? Does it get shallower every year with each layer of compacted sludge? So you’re standing at the edge of the brown water looking at what, looking at the brown water where all the leaves go, from the trees above, the little stone bridge growing green with moss on the large blocks curling over the water like a cradling limb. Listen to the background bypass hum of cars moving through the valley past the sewage works, feel that where you’re standing is in memory, opaque, but that there’s quiet music that creeps by in the quiet of the brown water.
You will come to know all the rat-runs through the tangled thickets of the neglected and overgrown Prince of Wales Park up on the hillside above your side of town. When you are seventeen you will see a summer uncoil, stretch itself upwards and dissipate against a mauve-tinged evening sky like a runaway plume of smoke escaped from the corners of your compressed but smiling lips as you struggle to contain smoke and laughter, Elliot trying his best to make you give. Refilling the chillum and perfecting your technique, hands cupped around your mouth to form the seal that lets you draw the thick tufts of smoke that scorch your lungs. Evenings walking through the sun-warmed verdant park with an ounce and a bong in a satchel, a few tins of lager for good measure, Elliot always with his T-shirt pulled up over his face to block out the few disinterested bugs that hardly try to bother you at all. You’ll come to see with eyes closed every path and trail, the huge face of rock up in the meadow atop which two pines twist, wrench themselves over into a stoop, contorting themselves in this way so that they may grow into each other’s needled embrace. String the pins and needles out on lullabies, and you’ll write one day. The tiered structure of the park as it scales the steep incline of the valley crest; green-mossed stones scattered here and there in hidden flowerbeds, remnants of now-crumbled drystone walls lost to time in the green overspill of forgetting, of things forgotten. Of things, you will forget. The things you won’t: the stands of bamboo in the park’s shady lower reaches, arranged along the narrow path above the streams where stone lanterns and birdbaths stand in leaf-clogged pools, evidence of a Victorian fashion for Orientalism. The defunct stone fountain near the bottom entrance with its inscription immortalizing the motto of the long-disbanded local temperance society (another Victorian fad), the Total Abstainers of Bingley: Pure Water Be Mine. The trickling stream that inches past it into a grated drain.
In the dense, sultry chaos of high summer, you remove yourself from a family photograph that’s fading anyway. As caffling flies buzz by the panes of bay windows in high-ceilinged living rooms. As you watch smoke rise from the pipe and sweep itself up the steep garlic-ridden banks the sound of the stream seems to mimic itself, to multiply around you, but refracted, skewed somehow. You step out of time, out of squinting on a canal towpath in sunlight, out of long-shadowed, reddening sunset streets, and now you’ve done it, we can have this conversation; the ripples flow both ways.
You spent a lot of the time outside that autumn and winter, and you remember always being cold, either walking around trying to get stuff off people or walking around finding somewhere to smoke a joint out of sight of people or at best sitting in the garage through the night stoned or wired or codeined up. That was when you got to know the whole town really well inside and out, all the back ways and back lanes and all the corners and snickets and alleyways and things like that. That was when you started to suspect that the town is always shifting in form or guise, that new snickets are birthed each midnight, whilst others sink away, back lanes go unseen for years, and then present themselves, or are seen in one layout, then seen a short time later suddenly cast in shadow by a wall of firs that you could have sworn weren’t there before, like fingers of a hand once shut, now open. You’d never really know the whole place inside out like it seemed you did. That there would be something new you’d notice every time you walked around, a house looming up behind another on the hillside, a little cobbled gennel between streets, bulrushes and hazels and rows and rows of blackening brown terraced stone houses ranged along the valleyside like ridges of bone, ribs of a great fossilised beast beneath the surface, clear on up to the strip of purple-brown moorland and the signal masts on top where the boulders are. Like it changed slightly overnight, like it was always going to grow another offshoot, maybe like a net that grew links and got finer until there was no gap at all to slip through till you were the same as the carp they pulled out of the canal in the early mornings when the mist went rolling past the locks and through the cowfields and the marsh.
Remember those greengage summers when the trees shrugged off their loads of soft, bursting fruit that you gathered up in fistfuls and pelted at the windows of the neighbourhood? You also slung dogshit off of sticks. Sometimes you think back to being nine or ten and how on those long evenings, running down the rocky street as the first bats dislodged from the ivy, somewhere around then time must have stopped forever. After calling for one another, you’d all sit on someone’s low garden wall – it didn’t matter whose, in a sense the street was yours – and decide on what to play, almost always opting for Relievo, the simplest and the best. Who introduced that game that was a daily fixture of your lives for all those years? They probably don’t play it anymore. You’d do a dip to see who was ‘it,’ or usually do several dips to see who wasn’t ‘it,’ and the kid that fate chose would go to the middle lamppost and close their eyes and count to one hundred. Everyone else would run and hide; when the person who was ‘it’ spotted someone hiding, they had to race to the lamppost, often with the spotted hider fast on their heels, or even overtaking depending on how old and fast they were, then they had to put a hand on the lamppost and shout one two three Jimmy, or whatever their name was, unless the hider got there first, in which case he also had to touch the lamppost but shout ‘Relievo’, and he was safe. Games would go on and on as the hiding became more elaborate, the depths, the nooks and crannies of the neighbourhood plunged and explored and squeezed inside, that’s how you came to know it all so well, it’s then when you first got a taste of how this town shifts and divides and changes shape in a million little ways every night. Your friend who was a couple of years older would often just climb up onto the seven-foot wall by the lamppost and walk along it, right over the head of the person who was ‘it,’ who had only to look up to see them there, but almost never did. But if this is a place where time stopped all those years ago, who is standing at the lamppost with their eyes closed counting ninety-three, ninety-four, and who stands atop the wall ready to reach out?
Heaven is a state of being that exists only in retrospect. And that’s where I see you now. Along the water’s edge where the canal crosses the river on the aqueduct and down there on the pebble beach where herons float past in silence and now and then something like a far-off voice trails down through the trees and, on some days, sunlight sometimes reaches down to play with its broken-glass reflection glinting on the surface. This happens some days, but not today.