If I were to calculate with the accuracy of a watch maker the geometrical epicentre of the small English town of Woodstock, it would be where two roads converge at a point, like the apex of a slim gothic arch laid on its back. From this singularity, as I stand there, I can see the quaint post office with its traditional hanging sign looking like a small airborne casket of ashes. En face, a wall covered in wisteria provides the backdrop for a large pub sign. On it a bear stands upright like a village parson, snarling somewhat at a bothersome dog, advertising one of the finest country inn hotels in the merry land of England. Have you stayed at the Bear? Why yes, 25 years ago when the Marquis married and we stayed overnight. Why yes, we stayed for a night when visiting the Colonel at his new care home. Why yes, what a delight it was to get some country air after the frightful claustrophobia of Knightsbridge. Immediately behind me is a well-proportioned classical building serving as the town hall, with heraldic arms plastered on the yellow coloured stone wall, and surrounded by cobbled paths that cause Health & Safety officers palpitations. But my main preoccupation is the parish church of St Mary Magdalene, set back from the road frontage occupied by the illustrious Bear, with its Wrenish square tower sitting at the church’s west end. A blustery wind rises and creates a vortex of small leaves near my feet. I look up, and the tower looks back as it surveys this very English scene beneath the lightly weeping clouds of Woodstock.
Under the Wrenish tower of St Mary Magdalene, 40-year distant recollections of maps, the Tube, long walks and short walks along avenues, across parks and through squares intruded into my thoughts. The Ford Cortina was deposited in an underground car park close to Hyde Park. Two young and inseparable boys braved together the dangers and excitements of London with a patient father, who sat as we drew the architectural details of churches that sprang up after the desolation of the Great Fire. We eagerly entered the churches, collecting information sheets that were later stored for posterity in cardboard folders, and with second-hand cameras we took endless pictures of arches, porticos, steeples and vaulting. Why we did this is not clear. The folders have mostly been mislaid, whereas the 35 mm slides still sit neatly arranged and perfectly catalogued in small cases, written by a young hand whose penmanship spoke of pride and nerdish interest. Something about the new beginnings after devastation and the beauty of the geometric lines must have caught their quiet souls. It rattled in the emptiness of their consciousness, and reverberated against the narrowness, poverty and emotional narrowness of their lives. Himself a child of the Victorian poverty of a crowded tenement building in Chelsea, broken by the effects of war and the failed aspirations following it, who was this man who took his sons to explore the Wren churches of London, and who listened to Joan Sutherland on the HiFi he had himself made? We shall never know, least of all these two frail young boys, since their father died before an adult conversation could be held. Such were my thoughts as I stood at the epicentre of a very English scene beneath the lightly weeping clouds of Woodstock, weeping lightly over the 900 year old town and its inhabitants as one of them wept lightly beneath his expressionless exterior.
A stone’s throw down the High Street stands a butcher’s shop that appears in ancient sepia images taken by equally ancient cameras. Nothing seems to have changed since those days, especially when braces of pheasants hang from big hooks above the front windows, or when queuing in the biting cold on Christmas Eve for a previously ordered turkey. On entering this establishment, a stable door activates a bell, which makes one think one has stepped over a threshold of time, like the wardrobe at the entrance to Narnia. The butcher men have plenty of jokes and varied witticisms, which they try out on every new customer. If a customer, unaccustomed to the traditions of the Woodstock butcher, were to ask if the chickens are free range, he or she would be told ‘no’ but that they were ‘happy chickens’, which is generally followed by a sigh of relief by the customer and a smirk by the butcher man. What is surprising is the delight of each and every customer to receive this never-ending stream of wit, and even more surprising is the constant joviality of its originators, despite having to concentrate on slapping raw meat about with their bare hands. I don’t suppose it’s much different with orthopaedic surgeons. On this occasion, there were no braces of pheasants and no queue for turkeys. The door rang the bell as I left, stepping from a thick sandstone flagstone worn down in the middle by feet, as one often sees in an old cathedral or monastery. I was holding a plastic bag with a pound or two of garlic sausages as I crossed back over the threshold of time into the main thoroughfare of this small town alongside a not so small royal palace. The wind had strengthened. I stood below the flagstone, struggled with the buttons of my coat, turned and with the wind at my back, proceeded in the same direction as the lightly weeping clouds of Woodstock.
There were few photographs of family in the small terrace house in Bath where the boys grew up, and all but one were hidden in small albums or were left loose in a cake tin serving as a tribute to the young Queen Elizabeth on her coronation. The only photograph I can remember being on show lay behind a glass fronted frame, a young woman bursting with energy, holding two plump young boys with mops of curly hair, one infant in each arm, supported partly by the curve of her hips and partly by the strength of her forearms. A third child with almost white, medium-length hair stands somewhat forlorn at her mother’s side, as if temporarily forgotten. She was in the picture, but not the focus of it. She seems to be offering the camera holder an old tennis ball in her small hand, as if to say ‘I’m here, you know’. A small print from the cake tin shows the same two curly-headed bundles of plumpness sitting either side of their older sister. The boys are identically dressed, with small bow ties and with trousers that came half way up the chest. What had gone unnoticed by me for decades was that the wallpaper behind the three children was badly stained, tired and drab. The picture shows three particular children, circa 1955, but the scene was repeated a million times in the working class terraces of England. No mortgage, no credit card, no bank account, no telephone, no central heating, no dishwasher, no washing machine, and of course no computer, no iPhone. It would be tempting as a literary device to say ‘and no worries’, but it would not be true. There was a certain honesty in that hard-working existence, but there was also something suffocating that propelled the two boys outward like the sparks flying off a Catherine wheel on Guy Fawkes night, away from the stained wallpapered rooms of the terraced streets of Bath, armed with fortitude and self-reliance but unaware that they were ill-equipped in ways that they were yet to discover. And when discovered, it would be too late.
It’s a very peculiar thing that happened to the two inseparable boys with the interest in those Wrenish steeples. The years leading to adulthood were dripping with opportunity and danger in equal measure, though neither were very easy to recognize at the time. They were joined by an invisible chord. I don’t believe that they were really individuals until the chord had dissolved, but once it was gone they were also diminished. The world span into a wild maelstrom of opportunities, and decisions were made whose consequences were to slowly materialize like the sinking of a box of treasures under the ocean. Relieved of the weight but the contents gone, two trajectories flew out across time, with as much chance of intersecting as the arrows shot from two bows into a turbulent sky, but drawn from the same quiver. I reached the entrance to a cottage with the last roses clinging for survival across its porch. Inside the cottage, I was no longer aware of the lightly weeping clouds of Woodstock.
About 45 million years ago, a vast ocean spread from east to west and separated a northern landmass from a southern. At the edges of the ocean were shallow, warm regions, much like the Caribbean is to the Atlantic at the present day. The shallow continental shelves were the home of single celled creatures with calcareous shells, but they were enormous. They look like long grain rice, or pennies, or buttons. Dying in profusion, they accumulated, un-thinking, on the sea-bed as limestones that the Pharoahs would mine to build their pyramids and temples. And I would use to make the kitchen floor. The colour of honey, slabs of ancient sea-bed in a Cotswold kitchen, walked over, a listener of conversations, a frozen capsule of time, oblivious to our victories, agonies and traumas. Multicellular me, with a piece of seabed under my feet in a cottage festooned with the end of the second bloom of roses, preparing for the chill of autumn. Somewhere far away is a genetic copy of multicellular me, with an interest in Wrenish towers and with perfect penmanship. How is it that we were separated by such tectonic power, now living in two parallel universes, unable to understand when and why it began?
The light was fading when I ventured out to collect some dry birch logs for the fire. I noticed that the clouds of Woodstock were no longer weeping. Smoke from the chimney struggled in its upward ascent into a clear sky. The land seemed to fall silent as the sky grew imperceptibly darker. The evening air took on a fragrance. As in a tired child, rubbing its eyes, thoughts subsided. Deeper senses were aroused, senses of regret and grieving and thankfulness. Two silhouetted shapes fluttered across the rooftop, then rose in unison, and were gone.