Those old ghostly intuitions that have tied sinew and soul together for millennia had taken over… making me feel uncomfortable in bright sunlight, uneasy on the wrong side of a ridge.” – Helen McDonald, H is for Hawk
I left Perry Barr promptly at 1pm. The sun dappled the damp pavement, strewn with trampled leaves and cakes of fusty cardboard. There were two sodden shoes beyond a hatched fence. They were not a pair. I boarded the 11 bus, swinging from its slimy bars, salt and vinegar stinging my nostrils. The sputtering engine shook the backseat. Someone offered a lady in a pink hat a tissue in the sticky silence following her sneeze. The bus passed the Stop ‘n’ Drive and the flat, headless trees. I admired the fissured railway bridge, peeling teal and amber. Having never heard a train rattle this narrow flyover, I perceive it with a calm dilution. Struck by the high spoke fence, lancing the sky, I watched its parade of lines disappear to expose the canal. The Tame winds fast, the willow overhangs this stretch, and the scrub hid a long wire in the water. Discreet inlets seem to stem directly from giant grey boxes behind the willow, with bright signs ‘Summerdale Truck Bodies’ and ‘Thomas’s Vehicle Solutions’. Moss darkened the bus stop below, cloaking the frame, reaching to the fence. From the foot of Brookvale Road, nearing Marsh Hill, pylons line the wasteland. I gazed at the giant steel legs until the shadow of the M6 consumed the bus. Emerging, the sudden noon sunlight left dizzy white shapes over my view of Tameside Drive. Perpendicular to the hulking columns of the M6 lies the red brick wall of The Ridgeway, reaching to the hillcrest. Beyond the obeliscal columns of the motorway and an abandoned shopping trolley, there is a gabled gate. The obscured entrance, walled in ahead of a small timber framed house, sits at the foot of The Ridgeway, shielded in murky shade. I sat quite bemused, fidgeting with the packet of oat biscuits in my left pocket. The 11 approached the next stop, groaning to a halt beneath a yew tree. I felt immediately compelled to disembark. I longed to chase The Ridgeway wall to its dank, brambled foot. I longed to push the soft pine of the gate.
Stumbling from the bus in a flustered haze, I was surprised by the depth of the dense leaves and peat on the desolate pavement. A buttery sycamore leaf tickled my ankle. I looked back at the bus as it pulled, rasping, away. A pale, blank expression was warped by the glass, reflecting the face of a stranger. A thin, wet worm clung to the shining plastic toe of my plimsoll. It was quiet. The wall of the cemetery was taller than I had anticipated, climbing with the trees. It took some time for me to reach the gate. Rows of windows twitched in the houses opposite. A dustbin bag rolled over, crackling with broken glass. I was careful not to slip in the mulch and litter that was deeply set along the ground, umber humus staining my shoes. As I turned the corner at the foot of the hill, at the M6’s columns, I stuck closely to the brick to avoid slurry puddles.
The gate swung open to reveal a sleeping Labrador, lackadaisically guarding the house. The timber was wearing grey, the beams dilapidated. The dog did not stir as I passed, despite the obtrusive crunch of the gravel path. Rows of fir trees border the graves, creating a circular route from the road. I strayed from the path, wandering through the firs across cushioned ground, the shaggy needles tickling my shoulders. The sun was masked by whipped white clouds, casting the graveyard in slanted light. A crusted silver birch was cut deeply with lenticels, the low rays highlighted its green relief. I re-joined the artificial trail of pebbles, the tiny stones clinging to the soles of my soggy feet. The birch concealed the first row of headstones, ‘Esther Fox’ , ‘Milligent Mary’. I was saddened and strangely fascinated by the beauty of their names. Leprose lichen has eaten into the stone, consuming the words in vivid yellow dust. A crow perched atop Esther’s grave, askance, wary.
An ink cap peered over the embankment by the wall, its shaggy flesh deliquescing to black. Running towards it, I was alarmed by the steep instability of the ground, and I slipped into the drop behind the trees. I was close to the wall now, using its solid height to stabilise myself as I progressed toward the mushroom. The peat of the leaves in this trench was adorned with artificial roses, disused watering cans and escaped cards of remembrance. I studied the slope and the ink cap, the soft soil shifting underfoot. There was a fir tree with a low cleft branch, whose rough limbs would be strong enough to hold me if I pulled myself out. I trudged past its reaching leaves. I felt curiously comfortable in the tenebrous rut. I followed a spectral compulsion, an ethereal drive to drag my fingertips along the wall, adhered to it.
Eventually, I reached the most easterly point of the cemetery, cramped awkwardly in the corner clogged with roots. I could not go on; my shoes were sucked into the mire with each cautious step. I stretched my legs, my calves tense and tremulous, to glance over the acclivity. A cluster of boletes had begun to rot, bruising a pale azure. I dug my hands into the loam of the knoll, clutching at buried roots, clambering the slope. I struggled at its peak, suddenly aware of the busy road once more; the wall muffled the traffic to an indistinguishable purr. As I moved toward the boletes, I noticed several fairy rings across the mournful sod. In the stream of warm light, the caps shone with viscidity. I bowed to squeeze the foam of their blue flesh between my muddied fingers.
I examined the ground close to the adjoining wall, assessing the variety of bracken and debris. A red ribbon and tea light foil shone out from the dun decline. There was a single, shining brown bottle here, its yellow label crinkled and peeling miserably. A little way ahead, a plastic chair was perched on a knot of roots. Its feet had sunk deeply in the leaf litter. I turned back to the chair as I passed, and searched for footprints. I cut a winding path across an unmarked strip of the cemetery, stopping to admire the modest milk caps and extravagant hordes of sulphur tufts. I walked head down, until my toes began to throb.
The sky seemed to ripen to pink prematurely. The light softened as I progressed, glinting in the windows of the subdued chapel. Here, the yews arch closer to the chapel walls, as though contributing to its architecture. Their thin branches make dull taps on the stone. I could see the line of pylons from here, arranged like pallbearers on the horizon. I circled the building, stroking the fractured bark of the yew, crushing its berries in the sparse grass. There are four heavy wooden doors to the chapel, none of which were open. As I tried the last door, I suddenly intuited its neglect and isolation. The stained windows let through no light, only glowed with occasional tones of navy and maroon. I wiped my soiled hands in damp, shaded blades, gazing up at the rough stonework.
Dusk was falling rapidly; an orange blush silhouetted the gravestones. Leaving the chapel behind, I walked towards a square of benches surrounding a mass of wilting pansies. Trinkets, stained soft toys and sun-bleached ornaments punctuated the flowerbed. Edging the disturbed ground of the plot, scabered stipes of parasols jostled together. Their pendant rings dropped, the caps fell upon one another in a sweet spoor. Feeling the silk of their gills, my hand was covered with treacle coloured dust. I sat on an engraved bench, dedicated to a man named George and his dog, Skip. I watched sundown ebb over the poplar, its fine leaves candescent. The path broadened here, reaching out in three unknown stretches. Soft churring and the crunch of pebbles broke the gloaming silence. A heavily loaded Land Rover rolled slowly between the gravestones, the engine humming with oscillation. A round-faced man with sunglasses smiled weakly from the driver’s window. He looked briefly at the mushrooms crowding my feet. I stood and walked away from the vehicle, breathing in the yew.
Stooping to pass under gnarled branches, I ambled back towards the caps, glancing at the lichen which fleeced every surface. Quite alone in one grassy area, an ancient headstone has been bleached and almost entirely consumed by new life. The carved letters are now pregnant holes, crawling with mites. The stone is stained with complex sheets of cells, lemon, emerald and bottle green. Reminded dreamily of iridescent scarabs, I left the stone to the thrips. The owl light was breaking in thick lines, cadmium cut through with cobalt. Opalescent pollution veiled the sky, skimming the clutching fingers of the trees. I walked an aimless line back to the wall. A single magpie cried through the air, its corvid rattle echoing “mag mag”. With a final caw, it beat the glossy indigo of its wings, soaring to join the murder in the copse.
Umbras stretched, the bark of the yews met the ground seamlessly. The grass thinned, revealing moist, rough soil. A tiny snail with a strong black streak through its shell clung to a mossy stump. Woodlice creaked through the flaked holes in the perforated bark. I was close to the wall again, teetering over the gradient. I had not acknowledged the crowd of trunks here, bordering the curved ridge. Beneath the pine trees, barely visible amongst the decaying needles and woody cones, there were three earth stars. Their coriaceous flesh was swollen; taupe bulbs lifted from the ground by mature, curling segments. Their pointed beaks were dark and alluring. With my toe, I nudged one of the pale sacs, which collapsed and immediately reinflated. The shot moved like squid ink in murky brine, lingering and spreading through the air its ochre bolt. Depressing another star, I watched as the smoke of spores evanesced. I coughed musty air.
Clouds swallowed the remains of the day, crowding the depleting sun. The final rays cast branched shadows over my legs. I sprang into a trot across the needled ground. Twilight came. In the sudden blue light, I struggled to find the boletes, relying on their inky hue to for orientation. The turf sank softly underfoot, viridian dissolving into darkness. A mist of rain swept from the north, lacquering my cheeks as I strode beside the pitchy shadow of the wall. I heard the shift of pebbles, catching their glint in the moon rays as they slipped from their loose foundation. I checked the reflective face of my watch, tentatively turning it to the eager, swelling moon. The hands had stopped at 1.26pm. I strained my eyes to catch the fine metal tremble over the minutes, listening to the stirring within. In the cool lunar glow, bats spattered the evening. Their tiny chirps clicked from tree to tree. I craned to trace their chatter, searching for fleeting wings. Following the artificial shingle trail, I saw the glistening path led towards a curtained light back at the timber framed house. Floundering in the creeping night, my soles ached with the pressure of stones. The trees washed into one another, an indistinct mass of branches, clacking in the faltering wind.
sharp the corner to Gipsy Lane
where whispers catch
hushed nooks between yew
drags a stick along the ridgeway
her feet deeply set
in cider leaves
~ Jo Packwood