Sunday, 7 October 2012

TONIGHT - a powerful and evocative short story about growing up in the Fens. This was written by Alex Mitchell, and is reproduced here with his permission.


I liked living out in the Fen, near Christchurch, well enough whilst I was still a kid – not that I had anything to compare it with – but I became bored with it in my teens, about that age when you start to find girls more interesting than tractors. The worst thing about being down our drove-road was the difficulty you had meeting other people your own age, what with the distances and there being no late bus service from Wisbech or March. There wasn’t much choice of mates, girlfriends or future partners, not if you didn’t want to end up as Joe and Doris Normal. We all kick against what we are, where we came from, what we are headed for. Some kids’ parents had moved to the Fens to protect them from the evil influences of the big city. The upshot was that we became absolute suckers for every evil influence we could get our hands on, probably more so than city kids themselves.

There didn’t seem to be a great deal to look forward to; no proper jobs, not for we lads, anyway; no real prospect of getting a place of your own unless you settled for being trailer-trash, stuck in a freezing cold caravan in some farmer’s cowfield. The Fen villages were just fading away. The smaller ones always had a kind of half-hearted or make-do appearance, like temporary staging posts in some dead-loss location in the Wild West of America. But now you could draw up a check-list and watch one thing disappear after another; High St. shops, family businesses from way back, the train service into town, the railway station itself, the late bus, then all the buses, the secondary school, the primary school, the cottage hospital, the doctor’s surgery, the public library, the banks, the police station, the vicar, then the church itself, the Post Office and then, the last thing of all to go, the pubs.

We all knew of local lads, older brothers, whatever, who had moved to the city, Peterborough or further away, to find a job and a place of their own. They had a hard time finding work as a country boy with no local contacts, nobody to pull strings or put in a word for them. You had to live in a bedsit or whatever for years before they’d even put you on the waiting list for a council place, and even then, the best you could hope for was a flat on the worst crime & drugs-infested high-density estate on the outer edge of the city. So there we all were, stuck, with no way out, or round, or through. Whether you moved or stayed, there wasn’t much to get enthusiastic about.

In mid-life, most of us have learned to settle for things; to make some kind of accomodation with life; we are less inclined to waste time and energy kicking against the pricks. We look for compensations, accentuate the positive, or try to. Visitors to this region tend to see the Fen during the oppressive heat and drought of the East Anglian summer, when the landscape is flat, boring and monotonous. In winter, the same territory, between and around the Old and New Bedford rivers, serves as a flood-plain and becomes hauntingly, if austerely, beautiful and mysterious. The view southwards from the bridge at Welney, just along the road from here, is of the dead-straight, man-made river stretching out far ahead to its eventual conjunction with the blurred, misty-watery horizon between land and sky and the great red-gold ball of the setting sun. Immense curtains of mist glide vertically off the rivers and come rolling in from the water-meadows and fields. 

At these times, the rivers, the fields and the great dome of sky, mist and cloud merge and coalesce, the one into the other; at first pink streaked with gold, then gold streaked with silver, then silver fading into misty mauve, blue, grey, brown and, finally, ink-black, all of it mirrored throughout in the great flat infinity of slow-moving, near-static water, such that the fields and riverbanks seem to be floating in suspension between water and sky in a shifting, evanescent mass of refracted sunlight, mist, colour, cloud, river and sea. Areas of higher land and clumps of trees are seen in the distance only as sinister black islands. As day fades to night, a solitary individual - perhaps myself - stands on the bridge, poised between water, mist and sky; no longer a creature of terra firma, more a throwback to those pre-historic times when our earliest ancestors, the first and most inquisitive of the amphibious fish-things, flopped and slithered its way out of the water, through the mud and up on to the land.

What is it that draws us back to the water, again and again? Why do we feel such a sense of peace and tranquility here, and nowhere else but here? Is this where the ancestral fish-thing in each of us feels most at home? Or are there still fishy things deep in there now, calling us home?

The Fen villages stand on what used to be islands of higher ground, surrounded until quite recently by marsh and fen. They were isolated communities, cut off from the outside world by the surrounding marshland and water. In the past, the Fens were a place of refuge for fugitives, outlaws and persecuted religious groups. The Fen people were nicknamed “yellow-bellies” on the basis of their aquatic way of life and because their ancestors were supposed to have interbred with the water-dwelling local wildlife of frogs, newts and toads. More to the point, the isolated character of the Fen villages, and the difficulty of travel
ling from one village to another, meant that the Fen communities were prone to in-breeding. This problem was eventually diminished by the draining of the Fens for purposes of agriculture and, as in other rural areas, by the advent of the bicycle, which allowed eager young lads access to girls in more distant communities and to distribute their genetic inheritance more widely in the process; but people still say that babies in the remoter villages are born with webbed feet.

We young lads all lived for the weekends. Come Friday night, the lads from the village and round about would get beered up at the Seven Stars, then piled into their Ford saloons and Morris vans and set off for the dance-halls in March or Wisbech, or perhaps Downham or Ely; wherever they had a late licence. Most nights, you knew who would be there. There might be one really lovely girl you and all the other lads dreamed about getting off with, and there would be the others, honest, plain-faced country girls built for endurance rather than style, broad of beam and sharp of tongue; too much like your best pal’s mother to be taken seriously as girlfriend material.