In the summer the sky is most times blue. A blue so pure and bright that it hurts to look into it. A blue so deep that if you tip your head back and lose the land from the edges of your vision then you become dizzy and have to hold something to steady yourself, for fear of slipping and falling in. The light which pours from out of this blueness sears everything it reaches, grants beauty where there was none. Anonymous fields of wheat become crowds of ears of grain, stagnant canals and drains become millions of glittering waterdrops, tarmac roads become shattered diamonds placed gently into soft black felt. In the summer, the sky is blue and lifted high, transforming the landscape and the actions of the people who live in it, a shimmering blue silence from which there is no hiding place save beneath the surface of the land.
In the autumn the sky is most times white, a ragged dirty white, and you wonder how this could be the same sky but it is. As the earth turns thick and hard beneath it, the sky seems to be struggling to remain unbroken. Cutting winds come from beyond the horizon, slicing across the land, ripping the sheeted clouds which protect the sky. Slashes of light emerge through these tears, running across the fields like searchlights before vanishing over the horizon and leaving the land as sullen as before. The colours of the earth change, and both landscape and lives turn faces away from the sky in preparation for the cold to come. Fields and ditches prepare coats of fallen leaves for themselves, rivers swell. People who grew up in other places claim they can smell the changing of the seasons, but that means nothing here. All we can smell is the richness of the earth. We know the seasons are changing only by the shape and the colour of the sky, stretched over us from horizon to horizon, the length and breadth of a day.
In the winter the sky is most times grey. A dark and bruising grey. The days shorten, the distance between the horizons shrivels, and what little light seeps down is thick and lifeless. There is no danger of falling into the sky at these times, our bodies and our lives anchored to the ground by the weight of the colour of the light. The earth hides secrets at these times, and the land is silent, save for the shriek of winds which the old people will tell you come all the way from Siberia. Sometimes the drains and the canals will freeze, and be covered in snow, and sometimes these snows will come fast in the night and block the roads so that the landscape is nothing but whiteness, all lines and textures concealed. At times it seems as though the land is giving back light to the sky, begging it to lessen the weight of its greyness and trying to hold off the load.
In the spring the sky is all of these colours, and more. Spring comes gradually here, clusters of bright flowers breaking through the surface of the soil and buds of palest green squeezing out of dry branches while the sky fades to light grey, then white, and finally a faint blue. The air cleanses itself then, with a warm wind from the south and sudden bursts of fresh sparkling rain. The sky lifts away from the ground, the horizons drawing apart to stretch it taut and let space and light flood back into our lives. This is the time when change is a daily force, woodlands smeared green overnight, fields purpled with lavender behind your back. This is the time when the floods come, and the ditches and the barriers have to be built a little deeper and a little higher, and the crops have to be replanted. But still, with all this life bursting up towards the sky, still the earth holds secrets. And still the sky watches.
People who grow up in other places talk about the hills having eyes, but that means nothing here. The land is level here and all we have watching over us is the sky, the ever-present, the always watching. People who grow up having hills to climb and valleys to shelter in think of the sky as neutral, as an emptiness sometimes covered over by clouds, but here the sky is all, arching over our lives.
Iwas seventeen the first time I kissed a girl. She had long dark hair and she took my face in her hands and pushed her mouth on to mine. She seemed to know what she was doing; I certainly didn’t. She drew away just as I was beginning to understand what it was that I had been missing, and told me that she would like to see me again in the evening. That we should go somewhere, do something. She vanished inside her house, leaving me to walk away with the taste of her on my wind-cracked lips.
The bus from March, where she lived then, to my father’s house in Upwell, where he still lives today, passes down through Wimblington and then swings around to follow the B1098 parallel to Sixteen Foot Drain. It was a journey I made every day, from the school where I was studying for A levels, to my father’s house where I helped on the farm in the evenings. The road beside the Sixteen Foot is perfectly straight and lifted above the level of the fields, and looking out of the window on that newly kissed afternoon I felt like we were passing through the sky.
By the time the day had faded to black my father was asleep and ready for another early morning of work. With the taste of her on my lips and the spark she had put in my belly still dancing there, I slipped the car keys from the hook on the wall and took his car. I had driven before, pulling trailers of straw and silage along farm tracks, but I had no licence to be on the road and I knew my father would never give me permission. But she had said she wanted to see me, to go somewhere and do something, and I wasn’t about to stay at home with those words in my head and wipe the salt taste of her away. Perhaps, now, I would. But I was seventeen then and things were different.
The drive to her house was easy enough, uneventful. The roads were empty and straight, and the sky was letting in enough moonlight to steer by. But the drive to her house was filled with my questions and her voice and my mouth and her hands and her face and her hair all at once in my head, one after the other, all at once. What had she meant when she said we should go somewhere? And why, when I’d been circling her for months, had she waited until now to show her interest? I didn’t understand, but I had her taste and I wanted more.
I soon discovered that she didn’t want to go somewhere at all, just to sit beside me in the car and drive through the flatness of the landscape, looking down across the fields from the raised-up road. We drove through Westry, over Twenty Foot Drain, past Whittlesey (and as we passed through Pondersbridge she put her hand on my thigh and kissed my ear). We crossed the Forty Foot Bridge, drove through Ticks and West Moor, the windows open to the damp rich smell of a summer night in the fens (and beside West Moor I put my hand into the length of her hair). We crossed Old Bedford and New Bedford rivers, drove through Ten Mile Bank, Salters Lode and Outwell (and on the edge of Friday Bridge she asked me to stop the car and we kissed for a very long time).
When we finally stopped we looked out across the fields and talked, about the things people talk about when they suddenly come together in that way. Home, and family, and dreams, and awkward silences. Then she turned to me and lifted my thin woollen jumper over my head, the wool snagging against my tingling skin and giving me tiny electric shocks. Starting from a point beneath my belly button she traced a line with her finger, around the edge of my ribcage and over my nipple, down under my chest cavity and up over my other nipple, around the other edge of my ribcage and back down to my belly button—a glorious heart shape burned on to my body by her fingernail. Sometimes, now, I redraw that shape myself, hoping to regain that moment. Sometimes, now, I think of her hair and wonder why I can no longer remember the way it smelled that night.
I remember the way she watched me as I undid the buttons of her shirt and looked at her breasts. I couldn’t bring myself to touch them, not then, not so soon, and eventually she took my fingers and placed them there herself. I drew tiny heart shapes around the dark patches around her nipples, and then pulled her close to kiss her again, electrified by her skin on my skin. I can remember the touch of her whisper on my face as we told each other things we had never spoken before and asked for extravagant promises we believed we could keep. And I can remember the way she looked in the rear-view mirror of my father’s car when I drove away from her house, knowing that life would be different now and terrified that it would be taken away from me. But I can’t remember the way her hair smelled that night, it no longer smells that way.
This place that I have grown up in is a landscape of straight lines, a field of vision dominated by the parallel and the perpendicular. The straightest line of all is the hard blur of the horizon, a single unbending line which encircles the day. When I was a child I used to spin round with my eyes on the horizon, trying to spot the places where the line curved or turned or bent; but I never could, and the mystery of the encircling straight line stayed with me, troubled me, comforted me.
All other lines find their way to the horizon line, sooner or later. The high lines, the connecting lines: the railway tracks, telegraph wires, canals and drains and rivers, all banked and lifted up above the level of the fields and houses. Years ago, playing in the field while my father worked, I looked up to see a line of boats processing grandly through the sky. I think they must have been barges navigating the Sixteen Foot to Lynn, but at the time all I knew was these boats way above my head.
The other lines are the boundary lines, the low lines. There are no hedges between fields here, only ditches. Ditches mark boundaries, and suck the water off the fields, serve as the barriers which stop the sea coming back to reclaim what it rightfully owns; and you can never go far before you find somebody re-cutting the ditches of their land, making them a little deeper, a little wider, one eye on the sky, always wondering when the rains will come and swell the rivers by those few inches too far.
Floods. Sometimes the lines of this place are obliterated, and all that is left is flatness from horizon to horizon. This obliteration is always an act of nature, weather come from the sky to erase the man-made geometry and restore a resemblance to the sunken sea this place once was. Sometimes it will be rain, swelling the rivers until they break out of the embankments and sandbags and rush over the fields, ignoring the prayers of the farmers and settling across hundreds of acres for weeks at a time so that the sky can be seen from below as well as above, clouds and seabirds gliding across the land. Sometimes it will be snow, covering everything, blocking drains and roads, muffling sound as well as vision until mothers forbid children to leave their houses for fear of them losing their way.
I don’t remember my mother telling me not to go out, but I suppose I would have been too young.
Sometimes it will be fog which obliterates our geometry, hiding even the horizon, veiling the sky. Sometimes the fog will come in with the floods, and our world will be utterly alien, unmappable, precarious.
The same floods that obliterate also bring life to the land, make our soil the richest in the country. At ploughing time the smell of the earth’s nutrients seems to hang in the air, a smell like apple bruises and horse chestnut shells, a smell of pure energy. Sometimes, as a child, I would put my ear to the clodded ground and believe I could hear the richness of the soil, a richness my father claimed would grow five-pound notes if you planted a shilling. I suppose it must have been a similar sound to that which children hear when they listen to shells and hear the sea, but I didn’t know that at the time. I had never been to the ocean. The sea regularly came to us, after all, since we lived on land which belonged to the sea.
Flatness, straight lines, a man-made geometry; this is the landscape I grew up in, a landscape encircled by the unbroken straight line of the horizon.
And this is the journey that I never forget. It’s a journey I make often, driving into town, but it’s this journey I never forget, the night I returned to my father’s house from hers, the night when I knew that things were going to be different.
I drove with my hand on my chest, feeling the burn of her finger there still, and I drove along the straight road with the moonlight shining off the Sixteen Foot. She had told me many things I thought I’d never hear, talking about us and we and our as if something had already been decided. Driving along that road I realized that something already had, that I would not after all be able to endure a life of solitude as my father had learned to do. I considered it to be an awakening, a welcoming to adulthood, and it felt right that it should take place out on the road with the sky taking up most of my field of vision and the land flat and dark on all sides.
It was sudden, it was so sudden.
First I was driving along the empty road thinking about her, and then there was a man in the road looking over his shoulder at me and I was driving into him. I don’t know where he came from, I don’t know why I didn’t see him sooner. He was not there and then he was there and I didn’t have time to do anything. I didn’t have time to flinch, or to throw my hands up to my face, or to shout. I didn’t even have time to take my fingers from inside my jumper, and as the car hit him I was flung forwards and crushed my hand against the steering wheel. As the car hit him his arms lifted up to the sky and his back arched over the bonnet and his legs slid under one of the wheels and his whole body was dragged down to the road and out of sight.
His arms lifted up to the sky, his arching back.
The sound his body made when my father’s car struck him, it was too loud, too firm, it sounded as though I had driven into a fence rather than a man, it was a thump, it was a smack. And the sound he made, a sound which is always in the back of my throat now, a muffled split-second of a scream.
His arms lifted up to the sky, even his fingers pointing upwards, as if there was something he could reach up there to pull himself clear. His back arching over the bonnet of my father’s car before being dragged down. The last I saw before my head hit my chest. The jolt and the lurch as he was lost beneath the wheels. His lifted arms, the sound he made, the lurch of the car, my hand crushed between my chest and the steering wheel.
Then stillness and quiet and me turning the engine off and my heart rattling inside me.
He lay on his back with his legs underneath him, looking up at the night. His legs were so far underneath him that I supposed they were most probably broken. I stood by the car looking at him for a long time before I moved towards him. He made no sound, there was no sound anywhere, the night was quiet and the moon bright and the air still and there was a man lying dead in the road a few yards from me. It didn’t feel real, and there are times, now, when I wonder whether it really did happen at all; but then I remember the way his neck felt when I touched my fingers against the vein there. Not cold, but not warm either, not warm enough, the temperature of a stillborn calf. There was no pulse to feel, the man’s eyes were seeing nothing. I looked at him some more, at his broken body on the tarmac, his eyes, his open mouth.
He was wearing a white shirt, and a red V-necked jumper, and a frayed tweed jacket. His arms were up beside his head, and his fists were tightly clenched. A broken half bottle of whisky was hanging from the pocket of his jacket. There didn’t seem to be any blood anywhere; there were dirty black bruises on his face, but no blood. His clothes were ripped across the chest, but there was no blood. I didn’t understand how a man could be dragged under the wheels of a car and not bleed. I didn’t understand how he could not bleed and die so quickly.
The whites of his eyes looked yellow under the moonlight.
I didn’t understand who he was, why he had been on the road in the middle of the night, how I had not seen him, why he was dead. I didn’t know what to do. I knelt beside him, looking out across the fields, up at the sky, at my father’s car, at my shaking hands, up to the sky.
The words we’ve been given by our ancestors to name these places have no poetry. There’s no elegance or grandeur in our geographical vocabulary. Our waterways are called drains; not rivers or streams or becks or burns, but drains. And even then they are marked not by old legends but by civil engineering. The Thirty Foot Drain. The Sixteen Foot Drain. The closest our ancestors could bring themselves to come to grandeur was in the naming of the Hundred Foot Drain. Our farms are not named for fancy, but anonymity. Lower Field Farm. Middle Field Farm. Sixteen Foot Farm. Names that give no clue to map readers, outsiders. Names that will never find their way on to tourist maps or guidebooks. People don’t come here because they’ve been drawn by the romantic sound of the place; people don’t come here much at all, and so the landscape remains mostly empty and retains its beauty. The poetry of this place is not in the names but in the shapes, the flatness, the bigness, the completeness of the landscape. Only what is beneath the surface of the earth is hidden, everything else between you and the horizon is visible.
The poetry is in the hidden also. In the unseen movements taking place beneath the surface. The cycles of growth and decay which take place in these fields, the nitrates and minerals and salts which come from the sea and crackle life into the roots of the crops. It’s the quietness of these hidden processes which so enthrals me, the stateliness of such magical things. This is not poetry which can be named, or fitted on to a picture postcard, this is non-poetry. A secret kept from all except those who have stood and watched the changing of the fields, the colours of the sky, the patterns of the land.
The girl I’d made my journey to that night taught me the words I now use about this place that I love. I think that is why I felt so strongly about her; that, and the promise she held in her fingertips. She talked about the land and the sky in a way that made what I’d always felt make sense. She told me that on a clear day the horizon is about ten miles away and that since the average adult can walk twice that in a day then our landscape is the size of the time from dawn until dusk. She said that ours is the only place so unceasingly flat for this to hold true and that this was a gift. She told me that the flood times are echoes of a past when our land was under salt water and that they’re a reminder that we only remain here by the grace of the sea and the sky. She said we should always remember this.
She told me, and I can’t remember her exact words because I had her breast pressing against my mouth at the time, but she told me that our sky was so much greater than in other places that it was our reference point in ways that other people could never understand. They say the hills have eyes she said, but we have no hills here and she smiled and I understood.
She said lots of things like this, and I was instantly in love with her language, with the connection she felt with this place, with the way she touched my skin. She made me love this place, and she made me realize why I loved this place, and she made me realize why people from other places do not.
People don’t often come here to visit, because they don’t understand all this; outsiders don’t make their homes here by choice. And people who do stray into these flatlands often get lost, floundering along the roads and tracks from one side of the day to the other without ever reaching the place they’re looking for.
(He was an outsider, the man I met that night. I can remember looking at him, into his face, thinking I don’t know you, I don’t know who you are, I’ve not seen your face before, you’re not from this place, you don’t belong here. And that almost took the edge off it, made what I’d done seem a little less terrible. I don’t know this man I kept thinking, I don’t owe him anything. If he hadn’t been dead I think I would have been demanding an apology from him for spoiling my evening. What had he been doing, walking down this road, my road, half-drunk, not looking where he was going? Why should I feel bad for his stupidity? I remember I got it into my head that he was probably from Nazeby, and I remembered my father saying that nothing of worth could ever come out of Nazeby. And so although I felt bad that I had killed a man, and although it is something which keeps me awake in the dark hours, I didn’t feel bad that it was this man. And I had my reasons for not doing the right thing that night, on that journey, for doing what I did.)
I had my reasons. Although I’ve often regretted it, and although I’ve often thought perhaps my reasons were not enough, I know I would do the same again. I was young then, and scared, and the sky hung so high over me that I couldn’t look up until it was done. If I’d been older when I made that journey then perhaps I would have been stronger, perhaps my thoughts would have been clearer. But I was seventeen, and I had never knelt beside a dead man before. So I drove away. I stood up, and turned away from the man, and walked back to my father’s car, and drove away. I didn’t look in the rear-view mirror, and I didn’t turn around when I slowed for the junction. I suppose it was at that stage that I began to realize what had happened, what I had done. I had driven my father’s car into a man, and then over him, and now he was dead. I felt a sort of sickness in me, a watery dread, starting somewhere down in my guts and rising to the back of my throat. My hands were locked on the wheel, I couldn’t blink.
I knew before I reached my father’s house that I would have to return to the man. The man, the body, the victim, the corpse, the man; whichever word I used made me flinch. But I knew I had to return, that I couldn’t leave him laid out on the road like that with his legs neatly folded under his back. I knew that when he was found then somehow I would be found too, and the girl who’d drawn upon my bare chest would not even look me in the eye, and I knew that I couldn’t let that happen.
So I fetched a spade from a shed at my father’s farm and drove back to where I had hit the man. It sounds so terrible now, so mercenary, cowardly. Absurd. But it’s what I did, and I had my reasons. I took the spade, and I walked down the embankment to the field below the road and I took off my thin jumper and began to dig.
I was used to digging. I knew how to strike an angle, break and shift, break and shift, pile the soil neatly so it can be replaced. The field had only recently been harvested, and the stubble was still in the ground. I laid sections of topsoil to one side. I was thinking clearly, working quickly but properly, ignoring the purpose of the hole I was digging. Once, when I was knee-deep in the ground, I looked up the bank and realized what I was doing. But I couldn’t see the man, so I managed to swallow the sickness and dig some more. And all this time, the sound of metal on soil, the sky over me.
I dug a hole in the earth until I was in it up to my waist, breaking and shifting, breaking and shifting, metal on soil and soil on metal. My shoes and my trousers became heavy and dark with it, my face and my arms and my chest creased with sweat and dirt. And all the while the sickness rising in my throat, the dead man on the road, the sound of metal on soil, the sky above me.
It was deep enough, it was done. So long as it was further into the ground than the blades of ploughs could reach then it was deep enough, most probably. I walked up the embankment to the road, wanting to hurry and get it done, but holding back from what I had to do. He was still there, he would always be still there, me stood over him under the sky, him lying still on the road, broken.
To touch him.
I would have to touch him. I would have to pick him up and carry him down the embankment and into the hole I had made in the ground. I could hardly bring myself to look at him, and I would have to touch him. Put him in the hole in the ground, the hole I had made, the death I had made in the hole I had made in the earth. I bent down to take his arms. I could smell whisky on his face. I stopped, unwilling to touch him, unwilling to follow my reasons. They were good reasons, but perhaps they were not enough. But then I remembered her skin on my skin and her eyes and I knew I could do anything not to lose that and gripped his elbows and lifted them up to my waist. I backed away towards the embankment and his legs unfolded from beneath him, his head rolling down into his armpit, his half bottle of whisky falling from his pocket and breaking on the road. I didn’t stop, I kept dragging him away, away from the road, down the bank, into the field.
I laid him down, this man, beside the hole in the earth which I had made for him, and I rolled him over into it. He fell face down, and I felt bad about that, about his face in the mud.
I returned to the place on the road and picked up the pieces of glass, caught in the moonlight, and threw them down on to his back and then I took the spade and began to pile the earth on to him. This man.
I threw soil upon him until he was gone, until the soil pressed so hard on him that he was no longer a man or a body or a victim or an anything. Just an absence, hidden under the ground. It was only then that I looked up at the sky, dark and silent over me, the moon now hidden by a cloud. I clenched my eyes shut and bit my lip until it bled. And when I returned to my father’s house, I showered for hours, long after the hot water tank had emptied and I was left standing beneath a trickle of icy water.
When the dawn comes, when the first light slides in from the east, the sky is the colour of marbles. Thinnest grey, glass, frozen. Behind you, everything is dark still, silhouettes and shadows clinging to the last of the night-time, but as you look to the eastern edge of the horizon there is light.
The sky first, unveiling its shape for the day, cloud formations, texture; then giving that first thin light down to the lines of the land. And if you have the time to stand and watch, you can trace the movement of the light into the morning, the lines of fields and roads creeping towards you and then away to the west until the whole geometry of the day is revealed and the water in the drains begins to steam and shine. And gradually, you will notice the workers arriving, stepping from minibuses and spreading out in long lines across the fields, shadows, crouching, shuffling along the crop lines.
When the mid-morning comes, the sky is the colour of flowering linseed, a pale-blue hint of the full colour to come. Sometimes there will be clouds, joining together to form arches from horizon to horizon, stretching, tearing, scattering patterns across the fields.
Sometimes these clouds bring rain, puddles falling from the air and sinking into the earth, and the sky will darken for a moment. But then the rain will pass and the sky will be brighter. Cleaner. And now the workers are more visible, returning to their trays and boxes after the rain, lifting food from the ground, sorting, trimming, laying down and moving along the line. Occasionally one will stand, stretching an aching back, arching his spine and lifting cramped arms to the sky before returning to the soil.
When lunch time comes, when there is a moment of stillness and silence, the sky is the colour of the summer noon. This blue has no comparison, it is just the pure deep blue of the summer noon in this place. There are no clouds, there is no movement, and you hold your breath and turn around and follow the circle of the unbending horizon line. The workers eat their lunch in silence, gathered beside the road, looking out across the fields the way fishermen watch the sea. The workers spend their days lifting food from the soil; celery, spring onions, leeks, lettuces, fragile growth which would be ruined by machinery. But at noon they pause, and the sky stares down at the earth as if challenging it to reveal its secrets, and gravity seems to be reversed for a moment.
When the late afternoon comes, when the light is only beginning to fade from the day, the sky is the colour of a freshly forming bruise. The workers are slowing their pace, pausing more frequently to savour the warmth of the soil in their hands, aware now of the slight chill in the air, waiting for the word that the day is over. It was at a moment like this, sitting here as a child and watching the work of harvest, that an old farmer once told me the story about the whale. His father had discovered it, while leading the horses in ploughing; a whale’s skeleton, with the jawbone intact and the entire ribcage in place. It was in such good condition, because of the peat in the soil, that they used it in place of timber when they built Upwell’s church—the jaws for the door frame and the ribs for the beams in the roof. I’m not sure now if the story was true, but at the time the ghost of that great lost whale haunted my sleep, and kept me away from the church.
When the evening comes, before the embers of the closing of the day, the sky is the colour of my father’s eyes. A darkening, muddied blue, hiding shadows and gradually turning away. Awake still, alive, just, but going. Going gently. The workers have left the field and collected their pay, measured by the weight of the food they have gathered, and the marks of their footprints are fading, dusted over with soil blown by a wind from the sea.
I married the first girl I kissed. Some people said that was the wrong thing to do, that I should have gone with other girls, that everyone falls in love with the first girl but that doesn’t mean you should marry her. But they were wrong. Some people said they were jealous of us, of our romance, of our reckless commitment, but they were wrong as well. I was in love with her, and I think I still am, but I have never been convinced that she was The One or anything as dramatic as that. I was simply terrified that she would leave and I would never find another girl to draw shapes on my chest and kiss me in the dark hours. So I married her, and ever since I’ve been terrified that she would find out what I did that night, on my journey back from her house. Why I flinch at the sound of metal on soil, why I drive so slowly at night. She still doesn’t know.
We married before we got the chance to go to university. I had to take over my father’s farm, and it seemed to make sense for her to move in and help me, to become farmers and turn the soil of the fields where we grew up. My father could no longer work because he had a heart attack that summer. I heard the dogs barking at the tractor in the yard and went outside to see him clutching his chest and turning blue, so I dragged him from the cab into the mud and began to hammer on his chest. I was determined that he wouldn’t be lost to the land as well, and I beat his heart with my fists and forced air into his lungs until the blue faded from his skin.
When I remember it now, it’s always from a height, me kneeling over my father in the mud of the yard, as if I can see it the way the sky saw it, the dogs circling and barking and me shouting at my father until he could hear me again.
Now my father, the giant man who could pull down trees with his bare hands, the magician who could breathe life into a handful of seeds, now he sits in an armchair clutching a hot-water bottle and watching the sky change colour outside. He refuses to watch television, choosing instead to listen to the radio while he keeps his vigil on the land and sky. Sometimes when I take him his evening meal he will tell me something he’s heard on the radio, a concert recording, a weather forecast, a news report, and I’m scared that one day he’ll hear my secret coming from the radio.
But he never has done, yet. Often I just sit with him and listen to his short creaking breaths, thankful that he is not yet ready to lay beneath the ground.
My wife doesn’t sit with us at these times. She reads, or does the accounts, waiting for me to reassure myself that my father is still well. We do most things together, planting the crops, harvesting, ploughing the soil, and when there is no work to be done we walk the paths beside the drains and talk and look at the sky fading. The evening is when the fields beside the drain smell richest, the warmth of the day evaporating from the soil into the air and bringing with it the smell of the fertility which produces such rich harvests year after year. We walk, and we look at our fields, and we watch the sky, and we hold each other.
We never had children, and although this is sad for us both it has meant that we have spent our evenings growing closer, talking our way into each other or resting in silences. We’ve moved together the way rail tracks move together as they approach the horizon, and I’m very glad I took my father’s car that night and let her draw upon my body.
And yet that same night, that same journey I made which took me to her is the same journey which keeps us from ever being one, for we are not so close at all; the secret I hid in the ground is as much between us as if he were lying in our bed.
Sometimes I’ve tried to tell her, convinced myself that she would understand, that she could forgive me. I imagine myself saying that I have to tell her something very important, that she might be shocked or upset but that she should try and understand. And I imagine her stopping what she is doing and turning to me, joining her small hands in the hollow of my back and saying I can tell her anything. In my head I’m then able to say that a long time ago I drove into a man and killed him and that because I was scared and because I didn’t know what to do I dug a hole and buried him. And in my head she kisses my tears away. And in my head she throws cups and saucers at my feet and tells me to leave. I’m ashamed that I don’t know her well enough to know how she would react; but I don’t and so I’ve always stopped on the edge of speaking. I know what a danger my secret is and I think it is safer where it remains, buried.
One time I saw a man metal-detecting in the field where my secret is buried. I was driving past and I saw his car parked up on the verge and a faint line of footprints leading out across the soil. The light was clear and strong behind him and he was no more than a silhouette, his shadow rippled across the plough furrows. I sat in my car watching him, the sweeps of his scanner like a pendulum, moving towards the place. Twice I saw him stoop to the ground and dig with a small shovel. Twice I saw him stand and kick the earth back into place and continue his steady sweeping. I wanted to go and tell him to stop, but I couldn’t think of a good way of doing so, it wasn’t my land, I had no right. He would surely have asked permission, and anyway he was doing no damage so soon after ploughing. He was moving towards the near edge of the field. He must have walked out to the middle and begun there. I don’t know what he thought he’d find in these fields, there’s no history here, not the sort which gets into museums anyway. There have never been dramatic finds of Saxon villages here, no burial mounds or hidden treasures. The only artefacts our ploughs have ever dragged up are rusted iron anchors from when this flatness was the sea.
The effects of ploughing on the soil can be unpredictable. There are the intended effects, the ripping up of hardened ground, the replenishing of nutrients, the breaking of the soil to strengthen it like scar tissue, always in perfect lines. We pride ourselves on the absolute straightness of our plough lines, fixing our eyes with perfect concentration upon distant points for as long as the blade is in the earth. But you can never tell what happens to the earth beneath these lines. Those rusted anchors sometimes found, they’ve been sunk in this soil ever since it was drained, and sometimes the turning of the earth will bring them closer to the surface and sometimes it will send them further down.
And so it is with my secret, buried down there at the edge of the field. When I dream of him, it’s with a sound of the plough metal on soil, the roar of stones and earth as he either tumbles further down or is thrust to the surface. Sometimes I dream that he’s been dragged away from the edge of the field, or turned upright with his arms stretched out towards the sky. When I picture him being found it’s always his hands, open-palmed, that break the flat surface of the land. And whenever I see him in those dark hours, his face is hidden, covered with mud, only the tufts of a still growing beard sticking through the mask.
I was thinking all this when I watched the man swinging his metal detector back and forth that day. And I was thinking all this when I watched him stop, close to the edge of the field, and dig. I felt that this was the moment I’d been fearing, storing up my dreams until now. I hadn’t expected it to happen this way, I’d imagined it differently. Him being dragged into the air by the blades of a plough, scooped into the sky by a ditch-digger, a sudden brutal discovery, not a man with a metal detector easing clods of soil away from his face and hands.
I’ve long been scared watching ploughing, not just in this field but in all the fields around here. You can see from miles away when a farmer is ploughing, because the gulls rise up in a dense white cloud behind the blades, picking out the worms and insects thrown up by the turning earth, and you can follow them as they rise and fall back and forth across the field. Always in a perfectly straight line. Once I had to help the farmer plough this field, dragging the blades across the spot where my secret is hidden, and I was so scared that I thought I might follow my father and have to have my chest beaten in the mud and be left to sit indoors. But nothing was revealed that time.
And this day, as I sat watching the man slowly digging, I realized that I wasn’t scared. My father would disown me, but the truth would be spoken and there would be nothing hidden, everything would be above the surface beneath the sky.
I got out of my car to stand beneath the sky, lifting my arms and staring into the brightest part of it. It felt like an epiphany. The man in the field looked up at me, and I looked down at him, ready for what he was about to say, ready to make my confession at last. But he just looked at me, packed his tools into a bag, and began hurrying back to his car, stumbling slightly across the furrows. I walked over to him as he was putting his equipment into the boot of his car, and he looked at me nervously. Perhaps he hadn’t asked permission from the farmer after all. Did you find anything I asked him, and he said no nothing and got straight into his car and drove away.
I stayed for a while, leaning against my car and looking out across the field, looking at the small pile of earth the man had dug out of the ground. I’d been surprised by my reaction, and I was almost disappointed now. I wondered if that meant the time was right to tell my wife, to sit her down and tell the truth, to hear her reaction and accept her reaction.
I wanted to do this, but I couldn’t.
And now here I am again, driving down the road which flanks that field for the millionth time. And this time is no less anxious than the rest, my hands locked on the wheel, my eyes not blinking.
Except the field’s not there today. The floods have come again, and this road is like a causeway across the sea. The water reaches as far as the horizon, interrupted only by the fixed points of telegraph poles like the masts of sunken boats. The horizon is close today, a vague boundary somewhere between here and the water and the sky, confused by the thick fog which hangs over the flooded fields.
The road is busy today, cars ahead of and behind me, piercing red lights suspended in a long line through the fog. People are driving very slowly, and I wonder if there are roadworks.
And then it happens, and my secret is revealed.
I’m driving, and I’m looking as always at the place where it happened. And I see bright lights and men in white overalls standing knee-deep in the water. The lights cut through the fog and I see police officers standing on the embankment and a small white tent on the verge. There are two police vans in the road, and it’s these that have caused the traffic to slow; a policeman is waving cars past a few at a time, and everyone is looking down to the water where the men in white overalls are doing something with poles and tape. I can hardly breathe, there’s a rushing sound in my ears.
The policeman waves at me to stop, and I think I recognize him. He walks over to my window and asks me to wind it down. He tells me we were at school together and I smile and say oh yes and there’s a moment of silence. A funny do this isn’t it he says then and I say oh yes and I know he’s waiting for me to ask him what has happened but I say nothing. There’s a generator somewhere, I can hear its muffled rattle.
Yes he says, they found a body, well a kind of body, in the water down there, floating, face down. They think it’s been buried down there near twenty years he says, they think the flood water must have disturbed the soil and brought it out. Not much left of it now though he says. I don’t think they’ll find out who it is, and he straightens up and looks at the traffic. Best let you go on he says. How’s the wife, how’s your father he asks and I say fine they’re both fine thanks I’ll be seeing you I say and I press my foot gently down on the accelerator and drive slowly into the fog.
Behind me in my mirror I see him standing looking at the traffic, a line of white lights leading towards him. I see the police vehicles, I see the tent, I see the men wading in the water, and then they’ve faded into the fog and I am almost home.
And what will happen when I reach home? Everything has changed, but nothing has changed. My wife will still meet me in the hallway with a kiss and touch my thinning hair. I’ll still take a meal to my father, and although he might tell me the news of the discovery it will be with a tone no different to what he normally uses. We’ll still sit in silence and listen to his creaking breaths, the dogs will still bark when the daylight fades. My secret has been revealed, but it has not been revealed at all. Even if they find out who he was, they have no reason to connect him to me. And he was no one from here anyway, no one from here has gone missing for a long, long time.
So I am safe as I always was, my wife will still want to touch me, I will still wake in the morning and have fields to look out over.
But I’m not safe at all. Each year of holding this secret has eaten away at me, as each flood has carried layers of soil away from the grave I made. And the truth is now barely hidden at all, straining to break out of the thinness of me which holds it in. My wife has come to know something is wrong, and how very wrong it is, and she thinks less of me for it, I know. When she kisses me now she is always first to pull away. When she touches me she is searching, looking for the way in. And her knowledge of my hiding has made her bitter, I know, I can smell it in her hair at night, a worn out smell, a growing old smell.
I drive into the yard and the dogs come barking out to meet me. I sit in my car for a moment, fearful of what I know I must do, too weak to open the door of the car. The lights of my house are clear and warm, spilling into the foggy night. I feel tired, I feel so tired, I want to lie down and sleep and wake when all this has passed. The strength and the relief I felt that day I saw the man metal-detecting, that day I thought my secret would be unearthed to the sky, those feelings have evaporated now, and now all I feel is weak and old. I get out of the car and walk to the house, pushing the dogs away, and meet my wife in the hallway. I look at her, I say nothing. I serve the meal she has prepared for my father and take it through to him. They found a body in a field down the road he says. I know I heard I reply. I can’t think it was anyone from round here he says. No I say, I shouldn’t think so. He eats his food in small mouthfuls and asks if I’m okay and I look out of the window and say yes thanks I’m fine.
In the spring, when the dark fields turn a pale green, it’s possible to watch the new shoots swing from east to west through the day. Later, as the crops become taller and thicker, this movement will become imperceptible; but while the shoots are still small you can watch them following the brightest part of the day. I think this is part of why I feel so old now, why my skin feels thin and grey, because I’ve forgotten to turn through the day, have stooped, wilted.
I’m not a religious man, but I know about sin. I know what it means to carry that load inside you, shielding it from the light of day, straining to hide it behind ever thinning defences. And I know now that eventually the defences must give way, the load break free, the earth give up its secrets to the sky. And I know that time has come. In the dark hours of last night, while my wife slept beside me, I made a discovery. The load inside me, the sin which has been growing with each moment of deceit, is not what I thought it was at all. It’s not that I killed the man, nor even that I dug a hole and buried him face down and told nobody. My sin is in the reasons I had for digging that hole. Fear. Cowardice. But more than these the thinking of him as an outsider, as someone who didn’t belong and so didn’t matter. This is the weight I’ve been carrying, and I’ve not even known until now. Can a man be guilty of something he doesn’t even realize he’s done? Does a seed planted by mistake still grow?
The mists of yesterday have disappeared now, the sky is reflected clearly in the flooded fields. The day is so open and clear that the great ship of Ely Cathedral is just visible across the water, and I wonder whether that might be a place I could go to put down what I’ve been carrying and can carry no more. But it’s like I said, I’m not a religious man.
The air has a chill to it, a dampness; the air tastes salty like I remember her lips tasted that first night. She is walking beside me now, we are walking the road beside what should be the Sixteen Foot Drain, keeping an eye on the flood levels. The dogs are running ahead, their barking crisp, their claws clicking on the tarmac.
I think of my father, watching this sky through the window, listening to the radio, tasting the burn from his weakened heart. I remember how he used to love walking these roads, when he had time, how he would hoist me up on to his shoulders so I could see further across the land than him. Can you see anything he’d say, what’s there, what’s there? And I’d make things up, dragons, castles, so as not to disappoint him or let him know that it was really more of the same, that our landscape just kept going.
It was only later I realized that that was what was magical about it, when the girl who is now my wife told me.
I think of my mother, of the story our family has which is never told, of where she might be now.
And I think of the man with his face turned to me and his arms reaching up into the sky, and I wonder who he was. Whether anyone still wonders where he might be now, whether he’s been one of the missing persons cases they sometimes show after the local news.
I feel a warmth on my back, and I turn my face to the brightest part of the sky. I stop walking, and she stops and looks at me. I look out across the flooded fields towards the hard blur of the horizon, I look at her. I tell her there is something I have to tell her, that she might be upset or angry but that I have to tell her. She moves closer to me, she joins her small hands in the hollow of my back, she asks me to tell her what it is. And I tell her, in a strong clear voice, that the same night I kissed her in my father’s car I drove into a man and killed him and buried him in a hole in these fields. I tell her this, and I tell her my reasons for doing this, and I tell her I am sorry but that I know sorry may not be enough. I speak these words and then I am silent and she looks at me.
And in that flat landscape, under the arch of the pure blue sky, I wait for her to speak.
Photograph © Peter Marlow / Magnum