The homecoming

Thomas Hardy’s dead. I know, ok? The people he described were charicatures, quaint yokels. A bucolic garden chorus behind the main characters who were all basically Thomas Hardy, including the women. And yes, I know the real locals didn’t think much of him because one of them spoke to a friend of mine. Actually, my very best friend of all.

In one of life’s circularities, one Hardy might like, I’m doing a job a friend did a long time ago, straight from university via working in a pub. In the way you could then, she bought a little stone house about fifteen miles from where she was working. It was and is magical, despite or perhaps especially as it’s somewhat problematically infested with owls.

Haunted too, the ghost seen walking by my friend’s straight-down-the-line brother, who thought for a second as the woman stood next to his bed, that my friend was bringing a cup of tea, then decided that the best thing he could do was to put the covers over his head. The house had been a school in a tiny village down ancient sunken lanes in Dorset, the school Thomas Hardy’s sister had been headmistress of.

The place, all of it, was part of our own dreamscape, “half-real, half dreamed” as Hardy himself wrote of what I came to call Wessex, a place that stretches from Lyme Regis past Weymouth, north to past Bath, possibly even to Oxford if Jude The Obscure can be trusted. Possibly it can’t; it’s a very long time since I read it. But it’s still ours.

Before we left school we’d started exploring the place where we live in a way I’m not certain most people do. We’d borrow a car and drive to Stratford on Avon, us crazy, wild, rebellious kids. We had a cup of tea in a cafe high on a hill on frosty day outside Shaftesbury, the walls lined with posters advertising the surreal selection of Stax soul bands this place on the edge of nowhere attracted. Unless they just collected posters, but that seemed somehow more unlikely.

I can’t even vaguely remember why we were anywhere near Shaftesbury, except that it was our land, our country. And still is. Not in the way we’re all supposed to say “our country” now, meaning “and you keep out of it.” The idea would have been laughable.

Our country meaning this is where we belong. Where we go in dreams. Where we’re from. Heartlands. This once and future thing.

I got back there just after Christmas. It was cold, damp and there were patches of freezing fog making driving unpredictable. My friend was there, with some of her children and another friend I met again after an unknown absence of decades. There weren’t enough beds and we had to keep going outside, putting on shoes, finding a torch, stumbling around in the dark to get wet logs for the fire without trashing our clothes before we gingerly, discretely, appraisingly assessed who we were going to be sleeping on the next sofa over from. It was absolutely perfect.

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