Monday, train there, walk back.
Bag packed and ready, call goodbye and see you later. Opening the door to cool, damp bird song is one of the best ways to start the day. Leaving behind breakfast banter and bad puns, porridge, toast, tea, daily paper. The morning is wet from overnight rain and the path still damp enough for snails. A slipping morning, a gliding morning. The wreckage from last night’s footsteps litters the pavement, the horrid crunch squelch as leather meets mollusc and the mollusc looses. Ants scavenge in the aftermath, valuable to them, moving it along the food chains; the evidence will be gone on my return.
The bird song is the familiar mix of the native and the introduced. Blackbirds, Myna Birds, Britain and India in Australia. Wattle birds, real Australians, flash from bush to bush in search of nectar, driving off other males, fighting with anything that moves. Most savage on their own kind, but hardly less so with others. But the Blackbirds dominate and as I walk through the now I am taken back.
(I tried to make a parabolic reflector with a dustbin lid once, so that I could record the birds. It worked, sort of, but was not much better than a naked microphone. I recorded the dawn chorus, with the microphone wedged in my bedroom window. Woodland birds from Carters Wood, wrens in the back yard, pigeons in the ivy. The click of milk bottles from the dairy next door and the whir of electric milk floats brought it to an end. I tried to do it again the next morning, but slept in!)
The trees are in full leaf – if they ever lost them – and the spring flowers are fading. A dozen shades of green now mark the turning of the season. Green upon green. Layer upon layer. The crab apple blossom in our garden, seemingly magnificent only yesterday, has faded to ginger snap brown over night. The seasons are a figment we try to hang on to, they are never fixed. The world moves without rest and the seasons follow. We can chase them, but if we stand still they pass us by. The bees have moved on and so have the dragon flies. They know the truth. The world turns. The first seeds of the year are drifting in the wind – dandelion heads. One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, gone. Up by the roundabout the Horse Chestnut has lost its pink candle flowers of a week ago, their remains slump between the fingered leaves. If they have done their job there will be fruit – conkers – this autumn, but I suspect they will be overlooked, wasted, misunderstood.
(We would drive to collect them, or walk miles to secret trees, for they were an autumn treasure, an annual pleasure. Well worth the effort. Collected in bags and taken home. My bag was torn, behind me my brother was collecting all that fell, leaving me poorer. At home they were holed and strung with care, they were autumn’s play-ground ritual. Two weeks of battles and pride. Losses and deep disappointments. Adding up the lives, claiming your victims. A clean hit you could deal with, but there were other ways, worse ways to lose. The string pulled from your fingers. Stamping on a loose conker barely acceptable, beyond the pale really. No better than chucking, or diving in the penalty box. Cheating.)
The train station is lifeless and busy. A strand of wood, woven in the wire fence, cut off and abandoned, the last memory of a plant long gone. Commuters hug the shelter of the buildings. I am there too. Pigeons gather in sheltered spots as well, puffy from the over-night chill, huddled for warmth. You can hear the beak clattering of the wattle birds as they display and call. Parrots streak over head. Rainbows formed without sun and rain. Pied Currawongs calls from behind the station, a suburban pirate in black and white, with an impressive bill, seeking chicks or so the story goes. The Blackbirds protest. An announcement of the wild, a call of the free. “The next train from platform 1 will be the 8.09 …………….” I board the train, window seat, facing forward if possible. Not backwards, not without a view.
The journey is through the leafy suburbs, back gardens extended to the track edge. Wild by the rail’s edge, planned around the house. An ecotone, a transition zone, a contested zone. An unplanned extension of the new bush, neither native nor foreign, but more natural than the gardens and less alien than the ballast strip. A multi-cultural vegetation taking what it can, holding on where it may.
The line takes me to Surrey Hills – but not to The Oval – through Chatham – although the dockyards are strangely still – and on to Canterbury – where the cathedral must be just behind those trees – and finally to Camberwell. Glimpses through the window, old graffiti, new tags, hopeful slogans. More sleeping pigeons.
But the most interesting viewing is often on-board, travelling with me, not flashing by. Waves of Stephanie Meyer, walls of Stieg Larrson – “The tattooed girl who bit the vampire hornet dragon nests” anybody? The private in public – loud phone calls, the fall out of breakfast time stress, deals so important that the whole train needs to know, delicate makeup in a small mirror, lip gloss by feel. And the public is made private by an iPod world. No conversation, embarrassed eye-contact at best. Interview nerves, test preparation, revision, overdue reading - Truman Capote.
The silence is shattered only by teenagers trying to shock, trying to be adult in a blazer, trying to hide their school bag. Boys in distant circles hover round the candle beauty of the girls from the school next door, drawn, moth like, to the candles glow. Rehearsed disinterest from the girls, over reacting to last night’s news, sending shocked SMS’s to the carriage next door. Is sharing ear-phones a new stage in romance? A public show of affection? Train travel most days. Eight minutes if all is well. It often isn’t.
(A train journey to Sunderland. A degree for free, a freedom of its own. The longest journey I had ever made, a home-body. Door to door it took an even 12 hours. Through counties that were just cricket teams, through towns that were only football teams. Through some I had never heard of at all. Heading north and east. Gloucester, Birmingham, York, Newcastle, Sunderland. It may as well have been another country – and in many ways it was. I left home that day, most of my world in two bags, and I never really came back. From then on I was a visitor on the way to somewhere else. Just passing through. I missed spring for 3 years – it had not arrived when I left for the term break, and 12 hours south and west it was already over, and it would be over again when I returned. It would be a while before I stayed still long enough to let the seasons catch up to me. It would be another 3 years before I set foot in a foreign land and almost 10 before I left Europe. A home-body with nowhere to call home.)
The last few steps to work take me under trees in new leaf. They cannot be lime green for they are elms. The leaves flow over the leaf-stalk on one side, giving their name away if you care to look. Translucent, fragile, probably misplaced, but beautiful none the less. Elms were taken away from me once, but now they are back. Street trees, garden trees, path side trees.
(In 1967 – a few years after I was born – the elms started to die. Over the next few years 25 million would die. Killed by a fungus that was spread by bark beetles. Constables landscape would die with them. There were out of season bon-fires in more fields than you could count. They burnt day and night, but there was no celebration, this was no carnival event. Fireworks did not flare in their unsteady light. The landscape was being reduced by flames, by a fungus. In our back-yard I removed the bark from fire-wood logs, a coal supplement for the long winter nights. There were spreading, many fingered galleries under the bark. The pattern of a beetles spread, the shape of an elms death. They made our fire bright, but the countryside had lost some of its light and shape. It did not recover. The elms never came back into the light of the countryside as trees, they remained hidden as hedgerows bushes, dwarfs, and died if they grew too big.)
I leave work under the same elms, but walk away from the train station, and follow the rail line itself. Side streets and footpaths, a winding way, serpentine now and then, although I do not see the sakes that must be there. The pigeons, warmed by their own fires, flock and display. Males puff out their chests and run in circles, and yet again there seems to be rehearsed disinterest from the females. It really is the same show. Parrots feed in Bottle Brush plants, trashing the flowers in search of nectar. Feathery tongues strip away the precious fluid. But they transport pollen in return, unknowingly doing the job the sweet bribe was made for. The ground beneath the plants bleeds red with scattered flowers, with shattered petals.
The extended gardens have stolen some of the paths, annexed public space for private gain. I retreat to the road. A few small lizards, skinks, flash away from their sunny spots, on stone, or metal or concrete. One pauses, looking back. Who is watching who? Walking home is a familiar journey.
(I would walk home from school to save the bus fare. A friend pushed his bike as I walked. A gesture of friendship that I never acknowledged, but always appreciated. He is still out there, and he may even read this.)
Along the edge of one dead end path the concrete slabs of the railways edge are covered with stencil graffiti, normally annoying, here it seemed to do no harm. One was of a bird, it looks like a pardalote. A wonderful bird of colour and character which the picture only hints at. A flock of thornbills flashes over head. Thorn billed indeed they probe and search with their needle beaks, seeking food, sneaking smacks. The flock zings with contact calls as they move from bush to bush. Just staying in touch. Avian SMS. Real Tweets. Just proving they are alive. A Butcher Bird calls but remains hidden, panic seems to sweep through the Thornbills. The flock retreats from danger, seeking sanctuary in the bushes.
On the nature strips the daisies are out. The days-eyes had not opened on the way to work. Rosette form plants give themselves both an advantage and a prize by spreading out. Shading out their competitors, literally growing over them. Humans are not the only ones to annex property.
As the suburbs become more spacious gum trees stud the gardens and paths edge. In darker spots, where the sunshine does not linger, the bark is still damp, showing off its colours. Magpies stalk, threatening violence. In gardens, pipes weave their way from laundries to bushes, trees, flower beds and veggie patches. Grey water keeping the suburbs green. Local recycling for a global problem, taking action, working at the problem.
More observant on the way home I notice seeds in the Japanese Maple, probably unplanted, unplanned, living next door. Another set of seeds ready for their own adventure. The final steps take me past a Ginkgo, a real stranger from a distant land and a distant time, making me feel far less of a stranger here. I walk through my own front door, home. A work day over and the second half of a family day about to start. Evening all.
Here, there and back again.