Monday, May 07, 2007

gospel oak.

I sat overlooking the city.
My eyes moved over the weave of buildings and rows of houses.
I saw the heath slope down to playing fields, to ponds and then rise again. Features darkened, details blurring until the maze of office blocks and towers, the tooth-like shapes of high-rises, the lost spires became one; became a line and shimmered in the winter light.
The sky was pale, thin, and curlicues of cloud stretched across it. They lost their whiteness where they met the haze, turned cinnamon and lavender in the smog.
I stretched my legs in front if me. I folded my arms across my chest. The seat was hard. An old couple, their muffled and scarved heads bobbing up, called to their dog, a sleepy looking retriever. Branches of trees were thin and wired into the blue and haze.
Around mid-day I had taken the train to the city. Putting my hands deep into the pockets of my coat, pulling my scarf up against my mouth. Then the sun was high, its ivory-yellow cascading down on the platform of the station. It caught the rails and burned the lines of sleepers out. In the train, the rows of backs of houses, the weed lined brickwork of Forest Gate and Manor Park gave way to the first buildings of the city. Stratford with its collapsing junction and Dockland connection and then the rattle into the high sooty walls of Liverpool Street.
In the station I sat and drank a coffee. All the time my eyes followed the weave-like dance of commuters; the appearing and disappearing of a face before me, the small events, a meeting, a dropped wallet, a mislaid ticket, the dash for a platform.

It was in this station I had stood with her. In the queue before the ticket office. Holding her suitcase. A winter night with the street lights yellowing and the stars shining their way through the heavy air. A voice announcing arrivals and departures above our heads.
She had fingered the notes in her hand nervously and I had looked at her, her tall, slender shape, her hair falling against the side of her face and her eyes avoiding mine. And when she had asked me to take her scarf and I had heard the catch in her voice I had wanted to hold her, tell her how lovely she was but she had turned away, stepped forward in the queue.

I took the underground to Hampstead. The dark, sway of the Northern line. Pushing up through Camden and toward Edgeware. Wooden floors somehow an anomaly against the screech of steel and the rush of tunnel air through the carriage air-vents. A woman sat over from me, her two children fidgeting on the edge of the seat.

It was in the station that night as I walked her to the platform, I understood. She was fragile. Not helpless or incapable. Gentle. Her dreams were straight, her affections easily dented, easily broken on another's diffidence, another's conceits. I surprised himself as we walked the length of the platform by understanding it. A part of her was like some delicate creature, emerging cocoon-like, unfolding it wings and though I wanted so much to reach out and hold her, I could also crush her. Maybe I had to let her fly, let go. And my want was absolutely mixed with this desire not to hurt her, to give her what she needed.

Around the back of the heath I found the path. Winding through tall, exposed trees, oak and sycamore. Between the interweaving of their branches the sun shone, pale in the thin blue. The dry, hard clay of the path scuffed up under my feet.
I crossed a bridge over a silted and green edged pond. A duck fluttered from under a branch, disturbing the brown stillness in a flurry of ripples. Down through the tight walkways of the wood, the sharp smell of decayed leaves sharpened my senses. The rustle of branches, the scurry of a squirrel brushed off my hearing. Beneath my feet, the ground became soft, black and slipped away from me. Mud stuck to the sides of my boots and my breath deepened, bringing a flush to my cheeks. And it shot through my mind. The waking dream. Darted through my consciousness as a scattering of light. How I had woken late and it had lain on me as a hand. Pressing down into me, pushing me back into the bed as a body falling through an endlessness of space. That I had been thinking of her before I slept
It filtered through my half-open eyes. In snatches. Coming and going. The tree.
I dreamt I saw the world and it was tiny. A tiny sphere in an endlessness of worlds. Around it grew an enormous tree. Stretching up from some great depth and into a some far-off distance. A great tree with bark, silvery and deeply ridged. Its trunk wide and from it myriad branches. Breaking into other branches.
I saw each life, each love as a leaf on one of the many branches of this tree. Unfolding, growing, and then fading away. Yet drawing itself from the tree and always returning to the tree. So that the leaf was always at once both the leaf and the tree. The tree and the leaf. Each life, each love was at once both a new life, a new love and yet timeless. A variation, an expression of the tree and yet itself. And this tree was both heavy and light. It was as if I reached out and touched it, I would penetrate it, would go through it. I would not hold it, yet it was real, its energy touched me. The tree was made of light and in my dream light was not simply an energy, a force that made the world visible, but was itself a reality. The tree was also a great stream of light and energy. Flowing around the world and the infinity of other worlds. A tree of light and colour.

I came to a cross in the pathway. Now the ground under my feet was hard, turned to asphalt. To my left, set back on the grass, was a drinking fountain. It trickled up in the afternoon cold. The sound of it strange and reminiscent of summer. As if it trickled to remind of summer. Always was there, trickling for each passer-by.
I had come down through a thicket of bush and onto an opening over a stile to get here. In front of me the ground curved. Figures in winter clothing, some in brightly coloured coats and scarves, walked or sat on thin, wooden benches. This was a place I knew well. A point where the path rose and gave way to a view of the city. Here, the grass was thicker and its green deepened against the arc of the sky, the cobalt haze.
If the dream persisted it was not because I held it consciously in my mind. Not because I applied my thought to it. It was an energy within me. And this I could not explain.
Somehow the dream carried with it a strength, a charge that made it more than simply a collection of thoughts, a randomness of images or recollections. It was in me.
Since I had put my feet on the floor of the bedroom after waking, it had become part of my day. When I had opened the tap, the water in the bathroom had run out with a tinkle, a cool rush that touched something in me, stirred some longing. I had wanted to put my hands to it, wanted to scoop it up and put my face in it, not as matter of course but as a gesture. As if the water and the dream were the same.
In the kitchen I had stopped and felt the silence. Looked out over the grounds of the apartment. Over the gray, empty branches of the peony, the gnarled retreating shape of an apple tree, the litter in the half-empty car park.
It was this, the sensation of touching some deeper level of my person that prompted me to come to the heath. As I had done before. Walking and somehow losing myself in the twists and turns. In the interweave of branches, the aroma of earth, the pocket of silence in the thunder of the city.
Coming up over the hill I considered it. Perhaps, dream, imagination were stronger than reality. Reality itself just another form of dream. Though I did not like to see it that way. An over emphasis on dream gave rise to the spectre of insanity. People who tried to impose their fantasy worlds on reality were generally considered unbalanced.
Or perhaps there was a quality of fantasy, dream. Perhaps the fantasies, the dreams of those who became unbalanced were the product of a mind already in some way out of balance. A mind somehow damaged. The mind was the conduit, the medium through which dream perpetuated itself. If the conduit, the medium was damaged would not the message be damaged. Dream, then, was something that could not perpetuate itself. It fragmented living. It was like a river unable to fully flow.
I thought of the endless hospitable wards full of those crushed by living. The breach between wanting life one way and finding it another. The freezing of the mind in the face of choices too difficult. These places were like scars on a society's face. Wounds, abrasions, scratches like those caused by pushing through a thicket of bramble. In the pale green and white wards were people whose only illness was that their dreams were stymied, were cut off from expression. In their dreams the conductor no longer conducted. The first cello led, or the violin imposed its melody endlessly on those around it.
I could not escape the feeling, the intuition that dream or imagination was itself a driving force of life. Dream, those half-understood whispers, images, feelings looped out beyond the reduction of living. Touched on the deeper roots of existence, of experience. They were the matrix, the framework of living. Were life to living as breath is to breathing.
I thought of this reaching the crest of the hill. Below me was the city and to my left, the gentle green of the heath sloping up to Highgate.
I thought that humankind had made only the tiniest of scratches on the surface of existence. To assume that experience, understanding had some threshold, some point where it all fell into place, where it could be understood in its entirety, was foolish. Dream may only be the mind exploring itself, reaching itself out into levels of existence the mind had not yet the language for.
If this dream remained with me, if this image stayed with me, perhaps it was because it spoke to some part of me, touched on some level of experience, understanding that was beyond the normal expression of daily living.

The light was falling. I picked out the dome of St Pauls, the Post Office tower, the steel and glass of Bishopsgate and Eastcheap. The city line shook and shimmered in the winter light.
I thought of my tree. An image both reassuring and unnerving. Nothing ended as such. Everything returned and yet went on. A dream of which I was a reality. Or a reality of which I was only the briefest of dreams. All the things, the little points of personality were that, and yet were not that, would fade and leave me with some other point of personality that I could only guess at.
Below me buildings sparkled. Lights coming on as the evening spread.
Over the roofs of West Hampstead, the sun flared. A bronze disc in the sky. Framed by the branches of bare trees. It visibly sunk. Turning crimson as it did, enlarging until it filled the space between the trees, etched itself into their vein-like tips, burned itself into the skyline.
hts of Gospel Oak.
The couple, walking their dog, moved away and I, unable to remain seated, my feet and fingertips feeling the cold, stood to go.
For a moment I looked down over the playing fields, lit now with floodlights, the ponds flashing back into the gathering dark. Platform lights glowed, spinning up from Gospel Oak. My eyes caught the movement of a train. Slowly and silently entering the station. Its tallow windows spilling out into the winter twilight.
The curve of the rail line, the noiseless sway caught me. She was sitting there as I had left her that night. One leg crossed over the other, her long winter coat open, her hands with a tremble. And her brown eyes that earlier lit for me, were turned away.
I turned and looked for the path down through the tangle of trees.
I thought of my dream, the tree and its branches, an infinity of possible worlds. Underneath the lavender dwindling sky.
My feet cracked off scattered dry leaves. The sharp sound shot up through me. A night breeze whispered over the cooling earth. And fire from the setting sun curled itself into my very breath and blood.

Then, I thought, I would take the train. I would wait quietly and patiently in the glow of the platform light.

Copyright (C) Peter Millngton. London. November 2002