Sunday September 26, 2004
“What are you going to do today?” Graham asked over the line from Somerset where he’s helping out in the bar at St Audries for a few days.
“I think I’ll go for a drive,” I said. “Up the road, turn left and see where the lanes take me.”
“Sounds good. Tell me all about it when I ring this evening.”
“Bye. Take care.”
The lanes took me straight to the main Sleaford road. I thought it a good enough idea, and settled down to a fifteen mile drive along increasingly busy roads towards a town I used to know well, but haven’t visited since the early sixties.
Perhaps Sunday isn’t a good day to visit Sleaford. Forty-two years back it was a nice market town, quiet, and carrying a mix of old and new buildings, mostly old, with a contented air, happy in its place and in its time.
Now it’s just a handful of streets, houses and shops isolated, pierced and fractured by a traffic system. I made the mistake of aiming for the churchyard, seeking a bench in a quiet place to rest after my journey. The place which I remembered as being lush with trees and shrubs and with tidy, well-tended graves, is now a tired, worn-out space that has escaped development only by reason of being what it is. Most of the grave stones have been pushed flat and sunk into the earth so that the grass cutters may pass over. The clippings have been left, clothing the stones with a crusty decay.
Not a happy place. I shook myself, and wandered off to see what the town had to offer in the way of lunch. Not a lot. It was mostly closed, leaving the streets empty but not quiet. A street that carries a heavy stream of traffic is seldom quiet. I snapped a couple of shots, seizing the moments when there were no cars in view. There weren’t too many of those moments, I’m afraid.
‘Oh, come on, you silly old fool,’ I told myself. ‘Sleaford then and Sleaford now are two different things and you’re out of place here and in this time.’
So I plodded back to the car, purchasing a pack of sandwiches on the way, and headed homewards, taking a wide detour in the direction of Boston and then turning off to join my familiar country roads. My spirits were equable but not equal to adventure so I pulled in to a lay-by to eat my lunch, listening to a radio programme on Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto. You know the one, all flash and dreams, with overtones of Brief Encounters.
“Hello, Harry,” I said. “It’s good to be home.”
“Mmmph,” he replied, which may be translated loosely as “Feed me!”
Harry and Dolly sat munching their lunch and I huddled up with my coffee mug, watching BBC News 24 as it slavered over coverage of the Olympic Airlines plane that had diverted to Stansted to deal with a suspect bomb. Then to Brighton to pick joyfully over the unhappy, beleagured state of Tony Blair, and on to Irag to show footage of the latest bombings. I shook myself once more, snapped the TV off in disgust, and went toddling off in the direction of my bed, intent on a well-earned afternoon nap.
My dreams were filled with roads, with townscapes and with the sad sounds of Rachmaninov.
As the evening came creeping in over the fields I looked out to see the makings of what promised to be a splendid sunset. Grabbing my camera I stepped out and along the lane to the point where there is a view of the sky unobstructed by houses. Sure enough, the sky grew darker, the sun sank toward the horizon, and banks of low cloud glowed like some classic Disney movie ending.
A distant neighbour of the ‘Good evening’ kind came along just then leading her elderly dog, who plodded patiently along, head down, going through the motions while waiting for God. When she paused for the ritual exchange he sat down in some relief and regarded me through cloudy eyes, seeing no more than shadow and light where once he saw clarity.
“Lovely sunset,” she said before moving on.
“Yes,” I said. “Something of a ‘Follow the yellow brick road’ kind of sunset.”
“Ah,” she said. “But where will it lead us?”
And that’s the question, really. Where indeed.
Follow the yellow brick road