Sunday, February 16, 2014

Shrewsbury Park, early 1990s

This story is from way back in the mists of time, when my hair was blond and my clothes brightly coloured. The memory has been swirled around like a piece of sea glass, smoothed and softened by the action of numerous forgettings. These days it's little more than the smell of leaf-mould and wet autumn woodland, a few still images, and a sense of something lost.

There was an area of half-forested parkland near the house where I grew up. I'm not sure whether it was laid out intentionally, or if it was just a patch of the hill that was too steep and unstable to build on. It had Victorian iron railings along the side near my house and half a rather grand gateway. By the time of my childhood the left-hand gatepost was long gone, along with most of the rest of the railing --  lost to vandals I suppose, or weather, or a wartime scrap-metal drive.  Elsewhere, nature had quietly and patiently undone the carefully imposed Victorian order of the place. Tree roots snaked across stone paths and entwined themselves around long-extinguished gaslamps, tufts of grass levered apart paving slabs, and fallen leaves buried what remained. In the winter small streams ran down the hill and where they scoured away the earth you could see the layers than underpinned the crumbling pathways -- tarmac over concrete over bricks and logs and gravel.

The downhill side of the park was, curiously, home to feral cabbages and wild turnips, remnants of a wartime victory garden that had fallen into disuse. The uphill side comprised two open fields, where children played lopsided games of football against the steep slopes and the hilltop winds. Between these two areas was a small patch of woodland, probably less than an acre in size. This was my favourite part of the park growing up, a place where enormous puddles sucked the bright red wellingtons right off my feet and squirrels watched me from bizarre angles, crouched halfway up a tree trunk or on the underside of a branch.

I'm sure that every square inch of that little park was trodden by dozens of dog-walkers, bored teenagers and curious children every week, but to me it was somewhere exotic and unexplored. I can remember squeezing through gaps in the dense undergrowth to find odd little clearings and gullies, convinced that I was the first person to set foot there in decades, perhaps ever. The fact that I was never more than 10 metres from the footpath where my mother stood waiting didn't affect my enjoyment one bit. I remember one summer, coming across a sort of natural dome of holly under a great big willow tree deep in the bushes away from the paths. Inside there was a collection of plastic garden chairs around the remains of a small campfire, a sodden futon, and a load of empty beer cans. To me, it was like finding some kind of lost city deep in the jungle.

On the day that sticks in my memory, I was following one of the old fences that wound through the woodland, tracing the route of some long-forgotten footpath. For most of its length the fence was no more than a line of rotten wooden staves held together with baling wire -- I expect that if you were to go back there today there would be nothing left expect for a few strands of rusted metal half-buried in the earth.  There was one point, however, where the fence was interrupted by a large metal gate, the kind people use to close off car-parks and private roads. I have no idea how long it had been there -- the path it spanned was barely wide enough for two people to walk down side-by-side -- but it was still in good condition. On either end of the gate was a box-steel post, hollow and open at the top.

As a approached this gate, I heard a faint squeaking noise, and then a tiny brown bird darted out and disappeared into the trees. Holding my breath and thinking in whispers, I tiptoed up to the post and looked down into it. At about the height that the mounting bolts for the gate went through the box-steel, there was a little birds nest, made from twigs and bits of carrier bags. The nest held three miniscule birds, just big mouths really, bundled together in a little ball.

I knew that disturbing a bird's nest was a naughty thing to do, so I darted back from the post and hid behind a tree. I waited for what felt like ages to my hyperactive and impatient little-boy-brain in the hope that the mother bird would come back to the nest, but she didn't show. I became worried that perhaps I'd scared her off and ran back to my mum.

I don't recall if I told her what I had seen or not, I probably did. I was really excited. Baby birds! Like on the wildlife shows! We tramped around the park for a little longer before heading home for lunch.
I didn't get to go back to the park for another week. When the weekend finally rolled around, I pestered my mum to take me out for a walk. I picked way way along the paths, looking for the rotting fence. It was late spring, and the plants were getting thicker and greener by the day, it took me quite a long time to find it.

Once again, I walked gingerly up to the gatepost, expecting to be dive-bombed by an angry mother-bird at any moment. She didn't seem to be around this time, and the nest was oddly quiet. I couldn't hear the twittering. I stood up on tiptoes and looked down into the post.

It took me a few seconds to realise what I was looking at. I glanced around, checking to make sure this was the right spot. It definitely was. Where the nest had been -- where the nest still was -- there was a brick. It was one of the mouldering, broken ones from the path nearby. Someone had shoved it into the hollow post, crushing the little nest and its tiny inhabitants.

I backed away slowly, making a sort of whimpering sound. Oddly, for a child prone to theatrical extremes of emotion, I didn't cry. This was, I figured, my fault somehow. It seemed inevitable, just like the way that the bigger boys at school were always breaking my lego castles or scribbling on my drawings. I'd gotten too excited, and the bigger boys had ruined everything.