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A car comes down the high street and swoops around in the road at the junction that leads you either past the church and around the dale or down past the tennis courts towards the pub and train station. As it drives back on itself, towards me, the driver smiles and waves. A male driver with a wide smile, all other features blurred by the speed and windscreen. I have no idea who it is but manage to return a feeble smile; arms remain at my side.
At what point do you start to acknowledge another walker whose path you are about to cross? There must be a point at which you seem too eager, but then again, there must also be a point when it appears too late. That quick good morning! or hello! can easily come across as curt if left until the last minute. When walking on the moors the awkwardness sets in early as I can often spot a fellow walker coming in my direction while they are still a good way off. The openness of the landscape leaves you vulnerable - you're quickly spotted in the distance and need to start preparing greetings. Don't look now I tell myself pay attention to the dog until they're just steps away then it's a quick look up, smile and morning!
I have a poor car memory.
Everyone in this village knows whose car is whose, making it easy to know who to wave to. They all have various makes, models and registration numbers etched onto their brains. I can only recognise cars by colours, but even then I still fail to match car to owner.
Maybe one day I'll develop this skill of auto recognition and will know exactly each driver passing me by. Until then I'll stay on the grassy verge, eyes fixed on the ground, oblivious to every passing wave and smile.
I'm glad there are no cars up on the moor; at least walkers are infrequent.
8pm on a late August day and there's a soft neon glow clinging to Redcar's seafront. The dwindling sun melts into the sea while bright reds and purples emitted from the arcades create a cacophony of colours. This all adds a woozy feel to the final hours of day as the final few families pour coppers into one-armed bandits. Candy floss fizzes on children's tongues, dissolving onto sticky lips. The silhouettes of dog walkers float across the sand as a solo photographer takes aim at the vintage helter-skelter.
Parallel to the seafront, the tired high street is empty. Shuttered windows hide closed shops: those that will reopen tomorrow and those that have now closed for good. A blue signpost – aimed at the non-existent crowds of tourists – offers up five choices. I dart off in the direction of the public toilets, only to be faced with boarded up doors.
It's warm back in the car, parked next to screaming neon overlooking the sea with yesterday's grease-covered paper covering my knee. Too hot for fish and chips, really. Too hot to have taken the drive to this jaded seaside town for fish and chips. But as night replaces dusk, and the attractions continue to chime and sing, the British seaside is at its best: a gauche illumination of nostalgic glory.
After spending some time in Middlesbrough’s Dorman Museum, we stroll through Albert Park, bracing ourselves against the chilly winds, hopping in between the sunny patches on the concrete ground.
Marble plaques stand surrounded by poppies, posies and other colourful flowers in pristine gardens along one side of the path by the main entrance to the park. Dates, names and quotes have been carefully etched into the marble to commemorate wars, regiments and soldiers.
We reach a fork in the path and carry on straight ahead towards the bright white fountain, spurting water from its gilded spouts. Two toddlers wobble by on their trikes, following the curve of the fountain’s base precariously, managing to teeter away from the water.
Down at the bottom end of the park, families mill around with ice creams despite the cold air. Workers clean off swan-shaped pedalos ready for the summer – if the summer ever comes – and fishermen huddle in tents erected on wooden jetties, trying not to disturb nesting swans. Ducks and empty cans of Foster’s bob along the water.
As we come almost full circle and begin walking back towards the entrance, three people come into view, walking towards us tugging a large black and white dog. Hound at heel, oblivious to the trickle of families walking past them, they hurl abuse at a cyclist on the other side of the fence, slowly tottering along the pavement outside the park, carefully balancing on the saddle so that he is in full view to the other three individuals, returning their effing and jeffing in full force. Fuck off yer daft cunts.
After we pass them, B. turns to me and expresses his surprise that one had a southern accent. ‘Parks are great; you’ll find all walks of life in them’ he beams.
During fine weather the air hangs low and stillness weighs heavy, but at the drop of a hat the storm clouds congregate and empty their rain onto the island. Like a foul mood, the weather bucks and brays. Wind screams and the sky bleeds black. But the field remains.
Even in the bleary heat of summer, little changes. Soil becomes crisper; grass withers; the rabbits multiply. But the four parameters still stand, robust, holding up the field’s existence.
In their most basic form, fields are just containers.
We’ve cookie-cut the land and now the countryside is mostly set to a blueprint that was decided during the dark days of feudalism. Boxed-off plots, once ploughed by serfs for landowners, have been left over from the Middle Ages as a blanket pattern over the country’s surface. Fences and walls keep livestock or crops within boundaries to bring order to the land. Commodities shared out in geography.
The fallow field is left to its own devices: grasses and weeds flourish; soil enrichens; the cold wind blows through unnoticed. These empty, often forgotten plots, are fields at their best: overgrown and studded with molehills and rabbit holes; intertwined weeds and grasses built up around the trunks of trees; a sense of emptiness regardless of this dense micro-environment. There’s beauty in the disarray held within this once organised section of land.
Nature can’t damage the field. The elements can batter all they want, but no rain or snow will weather the arrangement printed into the land. Roads may erode; buildings crumble. But fire can rage through a field; large pools of stagnant water can swamp in corners; yet while the borders still stand around the area of grass – regardless of the chaos held within – the field is still a field.
Even holes in walls do little to damage the structure. Simple repairs can fix a wooden fence or dry-stone wall, and, even in the meantime, a makeshift barrier will do just as well. Unless a field is repurposed – built on, walls purposefully pulled down – then it continues as it is, as it ever was, existing to fulfill its one purpose: to divide up ownership and bring order to the land.
When you are in the middle of a field, the world could rage around on the outside, yet you'd still feel a sense of containment. Maybe only the slightest sense of containment as the rain thrashed your cheeks, but the feeling is still there, nonetheless.
Your clothes may be soaked but you’re safe, surrounded by four walls.
I’d been filling my head with Shakespeare’s tales of kings during the week Storm Henry battered the north of England. Royalty had played out their battles in iambic pentametres and metaphors, and now, out on the moors, I was struggling on as Prince Hal's namesake whipped up around me. Onomatopoeic winds beat at the barren landscape as I fought on, trudging through mud, tripping over stalks of burnt heather.
Gales sped over hills and careered through the valleys. Peeping through metal slits, flanked by shields, lances, arrows. On the brink of France. Azincourt. Mud-soaked boots marching onto the field, onwards through forests, closer to the charge. A country mile of peace now between each side. A country mile before metals clash.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
And as quickly as it had drifted, my mind returns to England. Grouse launch up from the heather, catapulting themselves up into the sky. Easy prey for a shotgun sight. Or the trained eye of a longbowman. A common walking soundtrack, their cackles taunt from the path’s edge. Ignorant of the jesting birds, it’s best foot forward – always forward – ascending the moors to their pinnacle, aiming for the advantage of height. Aiming for the end.
Nights of broken sleep meant I wasn’t prepared for the original plan: Beirut in concert, sandwiched between two half days of exploring the city. Arriving into Manchester on a grey afternoon did nothing to lift my fatigue. An unbroken chain of coffee made me jittery.
Beirut are a band who, to me, have only ever existed between the grooves of vinyl, in YouTube videos and in the words of online interviews. It never occurred to me I’d ever have the chance to see them live, their touring schedule restricted to festival slots, or intimate UK shows whenever I was out of the country.
I needed sleep – though part of me was tempted to hide in the cinema until the gig – but against my better judgement I dropped my bag off in my Airbnb and begrudgingly trudged around the city centre. In my irritated state I only saw bricks and mortar; obstacles I had to navigate as I wandered the streets, killing time before the concert. I had to concede. Giving up on the city, I focused on the evening ahead.
I arrived at the Albert Hall for the doors opening at 7pm. Two hours to wait.
Two hours dragged.
And then, they appeared out from backstage. No longer confined to records, YouTube videos and the words of online interviews; they had developed from familiar sounds and stepped out into a fully formed physical presence.
Zach Condon, the band’s main man paced the stage, round faced, thick brown locks, shadowed stubble. The crowd erupted.
Another night of cracked sleep, another few hours of Manchester to force myself through. Again, the thought of giving up and heading to the cinema crossed my mind. I criss-crossed between cafes, fumbling with my camera only once to snap the city’s colourful Chinese gate, before finally giving up and heading to the station. Defeated.
Sunday afternoon: Manchester Piccadilly is a constant stream of bodies, running for trains, missing connections. Forging through the crowd, something made me look up as I brushed past a still figure.
Round face, thick brown locks, shadowed stubble.
Without thinking, I stopped for a double take, surprised by the likeness to last night’s singer. As the Doppelgänger turned to chat to a friend wearing a purple beanie hat – a purple beanie hat I recognised from the previous evening. Condon and a bandmate. A third of Beirut in Manchester Piccadilly’s mass of bodies.
Between the grooves of vinyl, in YouTube videos and in the words of online interviews. That’s all he had ever been. And yet now here he was, less than a metre away.
The previous night Condon had commanded the attention of a packed Albert Hall, centre stage accompanied by flurries of trumpets, trombones and accordion. A gentle orange burned through stained glass windows, bathing him in a soft orange glow. Now, less than 24 hours later, in the sharp light of day, travellers ignored his hunched figure. He sat down on a metal seat, pulled out a magazine.
The serendipity passed. This could have been the making of a meet-cute fit for Hollywood, but it was real life. I went with the flow of the crowd. Another body running for trains. Another missed connection.
“Remembering now all those farewells (fake farewells, worked-up farewells), Irena thinks: a person who messes up her goodbyes shouldn’t expect much from her re-unions.” Milan Kundera, Ignorance
8.45am in St. Mary’s churchyard. A jogger runs laps around the graves as I try not to lose Polaroid exposures to the wind. There are probably more bodies under my feet than are awake in the town right now on this cold December morning. A rare tranquil moment for the churchyard which, during the height of summer, is bombarded with crowds of tourists and goths. I forgot Whitby takes its time to wake up in the winter. As I ran from the train station through town and up the 199 steps to the clifftop abbey – trying to beat the sunrise – the only people stirring were a handful of delivery men on Baxtergate, the closest thing to a high street in the town. The few low-season tourists tucked up in their guest house four-posters wouldn’t be out for another couple of hours.
Whitby’s streets are riddled with ghosts, none of whom I wanted to bump into. Exes, former friends and old work colleagues. These old ties require more effort to fall back into the previous nuances each relationship had, and any conversations between us now inhabit a strange space between strained small-talk and stale in-jokes. The longer I’m away from the town, the more these ties fade, and the streets of Whitby are increasingly haunted with passing faces that stimulate only a haze in my memory. I felt more at ease facing the graveyard and its ghosts.
The film I’d used in my polaroid camera was out of date by a couple of years, and so the results were washed out and over-exposed. A grainy abbey silhouette; a white Royal Hotel behind the unmistakable arch of the whalebone arch; blotchy patterns on grey speckled sand. Barely-there images to match my barely-there ties to town. A strong wind whipped up over the lip of the cliff, I flipped up my collar and descended back down into town, head down, quick step, running from the ghosts.