Wednesday, 10 October 2012
BACK TO THE FEN - Conclusion
by ALEX MITCHELL
Helen was in hospital for weeks after the accident and her schooling was set back the best part of a year. She never got over an irrational sense of guilt regarding Susan’s death, and suffered nightmares and flashbacks for years afterwards. She became a much more subdued person, staying in nights working for her A-Levels with a view to studying medicine; her way out. She married a young doctor she met whilst at Durham University. She was the only one of our crowd who got away and stayed away; she never came back, except for her father’s funeral.
Andy never got over losing Helen; as so often, we take what we’ve got for granted, and only realise what we had once we’ve lost it for ever. He spent more and more time in the pub, between spells in and out of work in a rapid career descent from Barclay’s Bank in Peterborough to door-to-door insurance salesman in Lynn to garage mechanic in Denver to odd-job man back home in Christchurch. Andy was killed in a motor accident shortly after his 23rd birthday, when his car went off the Ramsey Forty-Foot road in the middle of the afternoon; no other vehicle was involved, but none of us was greatly surprised.
The Friday night dances were a cruel lesson in the realities of life and about where you stood in the pecking-order. Lads fought and competed over the lovely Helen Atkins, who wanted no-one but Andy, who in turn was inseparable from his drinking-mates down at the Seven Stars. Nice, plain-faced girls went home alone while the local lads drank themselves into a coma or got into fights with lads from neighbouring villages and towns. Nobody got what they wanted. As youngsters, we aimed high, stars in our eyes. Most of us learned to lower our sights and settled for the kind of life that was available to the likes of us, something on our level, somebody of our own class. We spent our salad days chasing rainbows, in pursuit of the lovely Helen, or others like her; but we mostly ended up marrying and settling down with one of those plump, plain-faced local girls, for better or worse. Some of us went away for a time, but we all came back sooner or later, because here is where we belong.
The back road between the Old and New Bedford rivers, my road home, is on a slightly lower level than the surrounding fields and water-meadows. Floodwater begins to spill off the fields and starts to trickle over the lowest section of the road ahead. Time to be getting back. This is what it will feel like when the world ends. This is what it will feel like for the last man left alive, as tidal waves cascade over the last remaining hillock of dry land.
Walking back in the near-darkness, I feel a sense of awe at the force and power of the huge expanse of water pressing up against the roadside; then sudden fear as it starts to pour through the grass verges on to the road in front of me. Each winter, the black water and the slimy fish-things try to reclaim the Fens; the really major floodings which used to occur every couple of decades now occur almost annually. There is a distant rhythmic swooshing noise as a skein of Brent geese come flying straight at me, returning to their favoured waterbank. I am invisible to them and they go slicing past, ten or so feet above me. I trudge along the grass verge as the road surface disappears beneath the water. I had thought the water to be static, but it is, in fact, flowing quite fast through the gaps in the verge and it is a real effort to splash through it. This is the worst part, the lowest dip in the road, midway between the two bridges. I should have come back earlier – ten or fifteen minutes would have made all the difference. I am having to make a conscious effort not to panic. The gaps in the verge are wider here and I have to leap over fast-running water. I am terrified that I might slip and fall into the swirling, inky blackness. I have an atavistic horror of the loathsome fish-things lying in wait down there, all pop-eyes and fins and teeth. I suddenly hear myself praying.
But the worst is behind me now. The road rises steeply to the bridge across the Old River and the lights of the Lamb & Flag. So good to see the road surface again, and to feel dry land under my boots. Safe on the bridge, I look back at the opaque watery blackness and shiver. I escaped, this time. But I know I will go back to the fen, and will keep going back, until such time as I escape no longer.