Letters from Lancaster 3
1 A flock of seagulls on the fast-flowing river. A hundred yards of gulls bobbing fast downstream in the sun glitter. Except the flock does not move; for when the lead gulls reach a certain point, they lift off on sharp wings, breasts flashing white, arc over the flock and land at the back, floating demure as bath ducks. This keeps happening. So that although each gull is being swept along at three miles an hour, the flock does not move. What is going on? There seems to be no purpose to it. It is hard not to see, in the arcing up and landing, in the churn, in the flurries within the flock, the exuberance and excited repetition of a game, a round, like giddy children on a slide.
2 A bright spring day, my first day following the river from its source. The last of the cherry blossom – in a breath of wind it falls like confetti at a wedding – the first of the hawthorn. There are bluebells and cowslips, primrose and orchids. A heron heaves up from the stream, then a pair of whirring synchronised mallard. A hare! Tall, alert, and then gone. There are sheep and lambs everywhere, heads up, stock still as I pass, lambs’ propeller ears twitching. I am quickly in Pre-Raphaelite allegories. This lamb, in the midst of sheep, commanding beyond its age, is Christ among the Doctors. That one, alone and blindingly white, is an image of the Transfiguration. There are lambs with tiny horns, like the satyrs in Botticelli’s ‘Venus and Mars’. A large brown horse with large shaggy hooves, as if it is wearing lamp shades. Two lapwing fly across, black, white. The path leads into a farmyard. The young farmer is holding the skinned body of a lamb, thin as a rabbit, guts hanging out, as he tussles to wrap the skin around a larger lamb, tying it on. He smears the thin body, blood and guts, onto the tied-on skin. The lamb bounds away. ‘Lost it this morning. Messy job, but it’s got to be done.’ I’ve read about it many times, never seen it. Fell farming. I walk on.
3 A black and white photograph, brown with age, ‘Mum and Dad in our street after Vets meeting 30.3.58’. They are on the tandem. ‘Vets’ is Veterans’ Cycling Club, for over-forties. They have just pulled up outside our shop. They are smiling. The street is empty. It is Sunday. Behind them are the Golden Ball and the Boar’s Head, the step up to the Unitarian Chapel, beyond that a street of shops, indistinct. ‘Our street’ is St Nicholas Street, one of the oldest in Lancaster. Gone now. If I had taken the photo from across the road, in front of Gorrills the drapers, our shop would have been in the picture. There are no photographs of our shop, our house. The only archive photograph is of the hoardings in front of the demolished buildings. The street disappeared under ‘St Nicholas Arcade’. Now, ‘St Nic’s’. I have lived in dozens of houses, with no interest in revisiting or reentering. But this building, 25 St Nicholas Street, I obsessively visualise, see myself walking into the shop, through to our living room, down into the cellar, up to the sitting room, up again to my bedroom, out into the yard, up the back. And having returned here after 56 years, I see myself going into Poundland, saying, ‘don’t mind me’, walking down steps, not into the underground car park but into our house, and finding the street there, all the buildings, and going into the shops and up to the flats and along alleys and into yards, and walking and walking, until …