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Itís a cool, steel grey morning in the capital. The bright red glow of train signals further down the track emerge in sharp relief from the muted monotone backdrop of buildings and track stretching away into the distance. Here on the train people bury themselves in newspapers and paperbacks or listen to their iPods, wrapped up a little more securely than in recent months. The cold weather isnít upon us just yet but the misty damp day is a reminder that it wonít be long before weíll all be making our early sojourns to work under the cover of darkness.
It catches me by surprise. Iím walking down the street when I think I see him. Itís a momentary illusion but it serves to remind me of his absence. Itís odd the way the mind plays games with the dead. Odd too is the thought that I could go to the four corners of the globe in search of him and never find him, for the simple reason that he no longer exists. Even his body has been reduced to ash and scattered to the wind. Only in the misty realms of memory am I able to visit him still.
It began as one of those days where I couldnít see the wood for the trees, yet by the end of it I walked away with a level of satisfaction that has taken me by surprise. Having secured a positive financial outcome for a young person in great need I also managed to negotiate a doubling of time allowance to focus on the special needs area of my work, which increasingly demands more and more of my time and attention. Consequently, Iím now in a position to be more thorough and, more to the point, a whole lot more effective.
The officer clearly wasnít prepared for what she saw. After seeing photos of the damage left by his destructive rampage and hearing the stories about how irretrievable he can become when enraged or simply ďin the zoneĒ, in he walked, all four foot something of him, looking vaguely awkward while his grandmother sat, arms folded tightly across her chest, all too familiar with what was unfolding before her. Perhaps she was expecting a monster. Instead she saw was a confused and mixed up teenage boy who is completely compromised by the failure of the education system to meet his needs.
Where are they going, all these passengers sitting on the train lost in their own thoughts? Who are they? What kind of lives do they lead? Each one has a story, a life, a set of priorities and concerns. Some are young, other not so young, each at a particular age and stage of life. Some are regulars. I see them every day. Their faces are as familiar to me as some of the people I work with. Yet we never speak or even make eye contact. We simply notice each other, strangers passing on the busy stage of life.
There are days when I have very mixed feelings about living in London. Whether itís just media hype or whether itís real, there are times when it seems like an incredibly violent city. I read things in the paper or see things on the telly that really come at me left of field, and I find myself asking, is this new or has it always been this way? Weíre told that certain crimes are down by whatever percentages but I canít help wondering why so many kids are killing each other and why, for some, life has become so cheap.
Iím wondering, should I go down to the island or should I stay in London? On the one hand the quiet solitude of books and country strolls is appealing. So is immersing myself in the city. It occurs to me that Iíve never really had a holiday as such in London. It could be fun to spend time exploring the city rather than simply taking it for granted. Itís so easy to let a week slide by without doing much but this time Iím determined to do something worthwhile. It could be fun being a tourist in my own city.
Itís dark at the moment. Along the river I can see the dome of St. Paulís Cathedral lit up against the pre-dawn sky while next to it rises one of the many new arrivals on the ever-changing London skyline. It too is brightly lit though as yet unfinished. True, Iím setting out a little earlier than I usually do. I have a few matters to attend to before the students arrive today. Iím kicking off a new project on Matisse and I have a report I need to fax off by 5:00pm. But itís clear, nonetheless: autumn has finally arrived.
There are five pigeons perched high on the corner of the building across from my window. After a day of heavy rain the cloud is clearing and bright sunshine is washing down along the wet street. The figures of busy shoppers are reflected on the shiny grey tarmac while drivers turn off their windscreen wipers for the first time in many hours. The late afternoon sunshine, combined with colours intensified by the rain, serves to transform a usually mundane street scene into something beautiful and reflective and, after a long hard day translates it into living poetry before my eyes.
The train is moving slowly today. A polite and very formal pre-recoded apology has just been announced over the public address system, citing slippery tracks as the reason. Typical. A little bit of fog and the entire transport network is thrown into disarray. One wonders how they manage in places like Siberia. As is to be expected, it just happens to be one of those mornings when I have a lot of setting up to do at work, setting up that probably wonít get done now. Ah well, I guess running by the seat of my pants is nothing new.
We hear the sirens first, and then the first police car slides into position diagonally across the road to stem the flow of traffic, quickly followed by another with sirens howling deafeningly. Next, two heavily armoured prison vehicles carrying would-be martyrs roar around the corner and down towards Woolwich Crown Court with two additional cars picking up the rear. Before we realise what weíve witnessed the moment has passed, but I canít help thinking thereís something chilling and disconcerting about being in such close proximity to those who would happily have us blown to smithereens in the name of religion.
The Tate Modern is a very different place on a Friday evening. While most people are out drinking and partying on after work, its cavernous spaces are relatively quiet and reflective. After enjoying a few drinks myself with a friend at London Bridge I wandered along the river and stood in awe beneath Louise Bourgeoisís giant spider outside the front of the Tate and then wandered the length of the Turbine Hall completely engrossed in Doris Salcedoís Shibboleth. It was good to wander through this great building unhindered by the throng of inquisitive tourists and free to reflect in peace.
Iíve decided Iíll go down to the island. Iím not going to tell anyone there Iím going. I just want to slip in quietly and spend a few days on my own. I need that. I need the quiet, the absence of communication with others; I need the time to go inwards. My trips back to Australia donít allow for that; thereís too much else to be going on with, and thatís fine. Now however, all I want to do is sit quietly and read, gaze out at the sea and dine alone at the little pub down the hill.
Iím feeling unsettled. I know what the source of the feeling is and I know what I need to do to address it, but having crept up on me from behind itís going to take a little while before it dissipates. In the meantime itís important to take note and listen to what this unsettled feeling is trying to tell me. Thereís little point in trying to deny or ignore it; better to look at it fair and square, acknowledge whatís actually troubling me, commit to addressing the issue, address it and move on.
Easily said. Not so easily done.
It took his mother took so long to die that some people began to suspect it wouldnít happen. Once gone, he became even more withdrawn and quiet until the day it all came to a head in one explosive outburst that left both he and the rest of the staff in floods of tears. Seeing him today in the newly created nurture unit, all smiles and bright eyes, was a real treat. We sat chatting together and he told me he was well, that things were getting better, and it felt heartening to see him smiling again, and meaning it.
I canít recall a time when I was desperately hanging out to go down to the Island. Itís constantly there in the back of my mind. I seem to have a pressing desire and need to be there. Things here in London are gong well at the moment. Iíve just become Acting Head of the Centre; my home life is fine. Indeed, life in general is good. Nonetheless, parallel to all of this I feel my internal world is sorely in need of some reassessment and right now that can only take place in the quiet solitude of the Island.
I still donít understand why after so many years of friendship you suddenly chose to shut the door. Itís something we always vowed would never happen. Curiously, when I stumbled upon you in my dream last night your first response was shock. So was mine, aware as I was of the fact that you had been avoiding me. When I asked if we were okay you hesitated and then, as if reconnecting with our younger selves, whatever was troubling you melted away and in its place was the deep love that we always shared. Wishful thinking? Only time will tell.
I suggested a couple of weeks ago that we all gather at the pub to round off the half term and take the opportunity to get together as a whole, which is what we all did today after work. And it was really enjoyable, although I am perhaps a little worse for wear after five pints of cider and the long hike home. Itís all too easy for each of us to remain in our separate pockets of the building and never really interact, and that is frankly ridiculous given what an interesting and diverse group of people we are.
You were there again last night. It would appear Iíve not been able to shake you from my mind, which is hardly surprising. Few people have mattered to me more. I suppose Iím still at a loss as to why you chose to turn your back on so many years of friendship. There was no warning; no foreshadowing of what was to come. You simply chose to close the door and I still donít know whether youíve since bricked it up or whether one day you might choose to open it again. All I know is that I miss you.
The thought of not having to engage meaningfully with anyone about my job for a few days is indeed a welcome one. Today was spent on domestic pursuits and preparing for Bronwen and Francois coming for dinner tomorrow. Itís been a beautiful autumnís day and the forecast for next week is so far good. Mind you, Iím not really worried about the weather. Simply being down on the Island will be enough. I have some books I want to read, some writing I want to do and a lot of sitting and gazing out to sea to catch up on.
It took me many years to get used to the fact that Bronwen has an opinion on absolutely everything. It took even longer to stop resenting her for it. Ironically, the older I get the more I have come to appreciate and value her honesty and forthright manner. The fact of the matter is that over the 25 years or more that we have been friends she has only ever had my best interests at heart. I donít always agree with her assessments and nor do I have to but there can be no denying her honesty, insight and integrity.
When Bronwen described me as being exhausted yesterday I dismissed the notion. Tired yes, I said, but exhausted? Hardly! Yet travelling down to the Island today it occurred to me that sheís probably not far off the mark. Iíve never been particularly adept at pacing myself despite any claims I might make to the contrary. I tend to allow stress to accumulate and then raise my tolerance threshold accordingly. And until I was on the bus this morning watching London recede into the background I hadnít really acknowledged just how strung out I am, and how in need of rest.
Although a social creature at heart, Iím also very much a loner. Thereís no contradiction there. Rather, they are two sides of the same coin. Today I wandered along dapple-lit bridle paths, beside narrow winding streams, through deserted farmyards and past gracious country cottages, then up and over the Downs from where I had sweeping views of farm-studded valleys on one side and the brightly illuminated sea on the other. Laying down in the grassy fields, gazing up into an impossibly blue sky, I listened while the wind swept down through the rustling grasses and washed all my stresses away.
Having spent the day wandering, reading and writing I decided to contact my friends here after all and Iím glad that I did. We shared an enjoyable evening made all the more special perhaps by the short notice of my arrival. ďI knew it,Ē said Andrew. ďI was coming down the stairs last Friday when it suddenly hit me Ė Terryís coming down! I just knew it and it really cheered me up.Ē Needless to say his little anecdote made me smile. Itís nice to share that kind of a bond, not to mention the three bottle of wine we drank.
Ashcliff retains a special place in the memory and folklore of our family. A gracious 3-story Georgian stone structure with sea views set within a beautifully maintained two-tiered garden and sheltered by a 300 foot tree studded cliff, itís where I was born and spent a magical early childhood and where our family enjoyed 15 years of residence. Over the years it has undergone various periods of architectural vandalism, neglect and subsequent partial restoration, but to see it now, fully restored to its former glory, albeit slightly differently to when we owned it, brings a real smile to my face.
I could have happily remained there longer, wandering the shoreline, strolling along the leaf-strewn lanes canopied by the golden foliage of oak and sycamore, climbing to the top of the island and gazing back down and across to the passenger and cargo shipping away out to sea. I think I really got something this time around but I worry that whatever it is will soon recede and fade into a distant memory once Iím back in the my city comfort zone. I guess thatís always the challenge. Sometimes itís all too easy to forget who and what we really are.
If I managed to resolve anything in my mind by going down to the island, it still doesnít feel like it. Iíd thought Iíd be feeling refreshed and ready for action by now, but I donít. Instead, I feel like thereís this cloud hanging over me. I donít even feel particularly relaxed. Maybe itís the thought of the winter months stretching ahead of me or the additional workload of my new position at work, I donít know. All I do know is that Iím feeling uncharacteristically gloomy and melancholy right now and itís not a particularly nice way to feel.
Itís a rainy and grey Sunday afternoon, and with the end of summer daylight time last night, itís a prematurely dark one too. I woke up feeling hungover this morning though without having had the benefit of alcohol last night, and the emergency alarm from the shop downstairs which is placed strategically beneath our bedroom window blaring away for an hour didnít help. The thought of going back to work tomorrow is depressing. Iím not ready. I just want to sleep and shut the world out for a little while longer. Iím still not recharged. I still need more rest.
Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy my job, but sitting here on the train gazing down on the murky Thames at low tide on this cool, drizzly morning is doing little to cheer me. I have a heavy, uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’ve been plagued by weird dreams of late. I find myself waking up in a sweat wondering where the hell
came from! But I do feel a little less fatigued than the last couple of days and no doubt the happy gene will kick in at some point. Well, here’s hoping!
Two days back into the fray and it’s like the week off never happened, although I do feel better for the rest and my knee, the one I feared I might have to resort to microsurgery over, has miraculously cured itself after all the roaming in and around Bonchurch. Despite my initial reservations about returning to work, once there I was like the proverbial duck to water and the happy gene did kick in. I guess the bottom line is, I do enjoy what I do and those around me pick up on that and have a good time too.
There’s something surreal about watching an entire estate be demolished and replaced with a completely new set of roads, buildings, trees, everything! It’s not that what’s replacing the existing infrastructure isn’t a vast improvement; it is. But you have to wonder what it must feel like to those who’ve lived and grown up in it to go back and not even have a street or a street name to connect them to their past. When I go back to the Island it’s all still there, complete and unspoiled. But having nowhere to return to must be, well, sad and disconcerting.
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