25.4.18 Field by the nature reserve
The women sat on the grass on the horizon and their three shapes made a skyline. I lay a little way down the slope, failing to read my book in the sun. Voices made gravelly with nicotine, thin hair scraped back into low ponytails, vest tops and tracksuit bottoms in black and grey, one football shirt a blazing red tulip in the grass. Lager cans in one hand, cigarettes in the other; shoulders hunched defensively, voices loud. They talked of their evictions, their probation officers, of Tommy and Mick and Gav, and played out long, complex confrontations in a torrent of "he said" and "I said". The words came and went like a tide with the wind, the odd, raised, "I fucking told him" carrying like plastic flotsam.
I was happy to be there with them, at first, nearby and nodding in the dandelions over my remembered blanket. I was glad they were enjoying the sunshine - glad we all were. I had walked fifteen steps from my mobility scooter, left beside the footpath, calculated to leave it behind me but not so far I'd be marooned after an hour of stiffening. They had looked, of course, but not a second time. Apart from another woman asleep on her back nearer the lake, we were all alone.
Their pale skin was mottled. They all looked like broken glass, like abandoned industrial lots, and I worried for them and wondered for them, how it was the three of them had met, bunched around these cauldrons of their fraught and complicated lives. They were maybe 40, 45, or looked it, at least. I could know from a dozen metres away that their lives had been hard and cruel, with unkindness received and inevitably cascading from them in turn at times, because how could it not. When it's pressed into you enough, that's what often leaks from your edges. And even knowing this, I begin to stiffen with it, lying there, so much spite and harshness pouring from them. They were a skyline more and more, all sharp corners and unlit places, all torn up pavement, all dug up roads. The chaos of them was like a traffic roar. It was overwhelming, especially here in this place of soft, shifting grass and blue sky and gentler birdsong than their own, although I didn't begrudge them it, it was theirs too. It just jarred.
Engine noise, for real now. We all turned, for we were at the far edge of a stretch of land that holds a graveyard in its middle, with not a road nearby. A car was driving over the short verge, around the graves and the trees, over the grass that borders them, and it turned in a wide circle, flattening daisies, revving its engine and filling the air with fumes. And the women stood and whooped and laughed and smacked their knees as it stopped beside them. A sticker in the back window proclaimed "TOP HUNTER" and I shivered. A man got out and bowed to his prizes as they too bent double with the glee of it and he handed over a packet of weed, or something sharper. I do not know if he was Tommy or Mick or Gav, but he added his own chaos for a while and then left with another wheel-spinning circle on the grass, to thread his way back through the dead to the road, leaving the women to laugh again and declare what a legend he was, what a solid bloke, and I wondered, I wondered.
Soon, two men had joined them, the kind whose smiles don't reach their eyes and whose fists are all hard gristle. The woman no longer asleep by the lake roused and left, face hard.
I could feel it. That hardness had formed inside me too by then. I felt the instinctive shutter of it. There had been a turning away in me. A distancing. Like cutting a rope and watching something drop. I thought about leaving too but the beauty of this place, so rarely visited, made me hold my seat. "I'll leave if there's trouble," I thought, and those fifteen steps to my scooter felt like too many.
But there was none. The only one with spikes bared was me and as I sat, rigid and unfocused, they lay at ease with each other and the day until, like geese shifting towards flight, they all roused at once to leave.
The wind dropped suddenly and the final exchange of them arrived like another quiet package pressed into my own hands, just a different kind.
"Have you got all your rubbish? I'm not having you fucking littering." The tallest woman. Hair like a faded rabbit-hutch, straps loose against thin shoulders. "I tell you, I hate it. It fucks me right off when people do that."
The others laugh, uncomfortable and look away but she continues, unabashed, gathering the detritus of them all into the carrier bag they bought the beer in.
"When I was a kid, in Bristol," she says, "we lived by this common, right, all grass and stuff, and one Saturday me and me sister, we robbed some bin bags and picked up all the litter. Took all day, it did. I'll never forget it."
The others are helping too now, halfheartedly, and I watch them, my complicated wombles, their quieter words lost from me again until they have slouched to the path without another look at me.
I think I made a noise like a sob, but it was lost in the wind and the grass and blackbird in the hedgerow.
How much I still have to learn, about prejudice, about tenderness, about faithfulness and the secret goodness of people, where it's found and how to stay open to it, how not to miss it.
I need to keep trying.