Saturday 3 March 2007

Behind Me, The Lights of the City

Behind me the lights of the city: (story)

Behind me the lights of the city: before me the brooding blue-grey shape of the Little Sugarloaf. In a way I was trapped.

Once out of the sprawling metropolis, away from the outlying industrial estates and brutal housing schemes, the mega-malls and cinema-complexes, as the road begins to wind and climb, a spiral path of enchantment into forests older than the oldest cobble on the Trinity quad – there am I in my innocence, climbing into the hills; clawing my way from the grey and the concrete, my own county fading behind me to a carpet of fallen stars. And before me in my mind a soft verdant country lush in it’s welcoming. But how to get to this soft green heart: untrammelled by the grey ribbon, the thread of mundanity binding me to the daylight.

Hurry! Dusk is falling, twilight dying, night approaching. What do I do, where do I go? If I stay on this road I hit Stepaside next, out of the county and on to Enniskerry. Next stop Sally’s Gap. Sally’s Gap is a wilderness too far for me tonight. The endless rolling hills and the far-reaching vista across the great plain of Ireland holds no charms when coupled with a dark night and a road barely wide enough for one car.

No, I want to stop: I want to get off this damn road. I want to walk in a forest at dusk smelling the wild garlic and Star-of-David. I want to listen to the last flight of the rooks, towards their nests, that evening transgression warning the innocent and the pure to retreat before the wild and free. I turn in a daze only half realizing the sign “ Coille” – forest. The car crunches over gravel, tires making a satisfying and definite bite into the earth. The deserted car park, all woodchip and faux rustic fence complete with stile fashioned from barbed wire, a wound in still green wood that oozes as it bears your weight, was too still, too much part of the world of man. I park in haste, and before common sense and memories of serial killer warnings could rear their ugly head.

I climb the ugly stile acutely aware of my ungainly lack of agility, feeling the earthen pull of my body, a lack of grace adding to every other woe. The path is woodchip with undertones of mud, but there is a smell of wild garlic. The air is cool and damp but the day has been just warm enough for it to have the true freshness of summer. Some to my left the rooks set off their harsh song immeasurably comforting in the near complete gloom. The midges are biting just a little and the pine trees – the whole face of Wicklow is bearded with pine forests – sway and rustle. I become acutely aware of the undergrowth. Majestic swirls of fern studded with heather: and plants so wild they cannot be flowers any more, they have to be herbs. The foxglove, hand in hand with ground ivy- and all of it home to the small defenceless creatures the rest of the animal world call lunch. All of it alive and stirring and growing and living and dying, with or without my attention.

On impulse I plunge off the track, like a diver parting dark waters with my arms. It is a mistake, I think frantically, after a very few minutes. Tree trunk on elbow, thorn on bare skin, insect in nostril, eyes blurring with tears, but still I push. Push frantically as midwife to my own progress. Anger rises as I struggle, tears of frustration now, hands stinging from a thousand tiny daggers; every plant in the forest having a dig.
My arms ache now, really ache. I begin to feel suffocated, that little voice of sanity in my head screaming “why are you here? This is insane!” My suffering soul makes a mental note to track down that voice and strangle it. There seems no end to this tangle of tree and bracken, and no way even of telling where I was going. I would have to turn around fight my way back. There was no point continuing, it was a failure. I had plunged, hoping that something would happen. I had closed my eyes, opened my mouth and waited to see what the gods would send me. A mouthful of midges it seemed. I would go back. I’d be better off in front of the telly with a large vodka than this.

What did you expect, the little voice of sanity chided. You’re in the middle of nowhere, plunging through undergrowth fighting with a forest. If your car isn’t on bricks in the car park by the time you get back you can count yourself lucky.

I stop and steady myself against a rough trunk, my face sweating and my breath ragged. My hair had long before escaped and made the most of its contact with nature. Shards of pine palm and baby conifers added unwonted volume while steady backcombing against a succession of branches had created a Byzantine intricacy of form. My clothes are stuck to me, stained and an odour of sweat and endeavour punctured the mask of deodorant and anti-perspirant I wear like a second skin. Being smelly ahs always been a fear of mine, body odours reviled like hairy armpits or stubby nails.

The tree trunk was strong and broad and I lay against it my legs shaking with tiredness. The darkness was almost complete now especially this far into the forest away from the track. The smells rise from the forest floor. I close my eyes but my eyelids feel like gossamer curtains: I can still see through them, see the dark greenness the shifting branches. I hear the very turning of a blade of grass. I am reaching out of my self, I feel the darkest softest caress, the world is spinning and I am laying giddy watching infinity and space whirl past. There is no sense of claustrophobia now, the warm press of the forest, the sense of being burrowed into the heart of a nest is comforting, encompassing. I realize just how far deep in I have wormed, like a child trying to return to womb. This reminds me of my grief but it is a detached thought, it is a question, it is a whisper and it is answered.

I come back to myself, blinking in surprise. Have I fallen asleep? Every knot on the rough bark is digging a separate hole in my back, I feel wring out, flattened, but not unpleasantly so: I feel the way I felt as a child after a day of adventure and play, tired to the bone but satisfied. I find my way out of the dense forest growth, not the way I came in incidentally – the forest has already closed around the traces of my battling progress inwards. It opens itself easily to me now I want to leave, and I push through to the path with relative ease.

The car is still on four wheels, the engine turns over, there is no sign of the serial killer urban legend warns haunts these mountains. I drive around for a while stopping when I see the lights of more than one house and turning away from the lights. In the end this pattern brings me to the motorway and I find myself speeding back towards the lights, down into the carpet of stars.


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