Where Something Else Was

Today these places have changed again. The ice has gone, and the mud is deep and churned at least three times the width of where the path once was by feet trying to cross without sinking too deep. The margins have become the throughway, and the throughway is a pitted mire between them, part black riches, part woodchips, put down last summer when the tree council team radically pollarded and re-shaped the older willows. One lies now in three parts, split along the fleshy rotten centre of its wide trunk by the hard freeze after damp, now unstuck by the thaw. Last time I passed, a young woman was sitting on that fallen segment; today the ground is too soft to reach it.

At the far end, the open ground is constrained by the flats and the river, its path echoing its boundaries, circles thistles, nettles, brambles and long grasses, with the odd hawthorn taking root among them. Last time I walked this way there were three tents. One large, rubbery surfaced and grey, a hemisphere, tucked under a weeping willow on the riverbank. The ground rose well above the flood level, then flattened, he had chosen a good pitch. He spoke well of his tent, and in the five or six months he lived here, that tree became his roof and garden, the river his neighbour.

He was open to talking, as he varnished his turned wood sculptures of fungal clumps, and his solar panel charged his mobile. And many of us did talk, over these months. The place his tent has been seems so softly flattened, like pine needles all made to lie in the same direction.

Further up the path, still by the river, where the other tents had been and gone there was a new one. A young woman was coming out backwards, a phone in her jean pocket meeting the warming sky, some feet still within, that she was talking to. She raised her head and smiled, as if to say that she too, would not stay long here, just needed a change of scene.

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