Thursday, March 29, 2012


Reading Nikolai Gogol's novel Dead Souls, I came across this well-known passage: Once, long ago, in the years of my youth, in those beautiful years that rolled so swiftly, I was full of joy, charmed when I arrived for the first time in an unknown place; it might be a farm, a poor little district town, a large village, a small settlement: my eager, childish eyes always found there many interesting objects. Every building, everything that showed an individual touch, enchanted my mind, and left a vivid impression.  The author then goes on to describe such a village in great detail.

I had to take our daughter to the dentist in the nearby town of Battle today and, waiting for her return and inspired by Gogol I wrote the following:

Battle.  Mount Street car park.

The whole area was dry, in the depths of a March drought and the sunlight had a peculiar, unseasonal intensity.  It made strong contrasts on the walls of the 1990s sheltered homes with their mixture of rufous and sardine-coloured bricks, their brown window frames and double glazed panes reflecting the light, white or dark, in angled patterns according to the degree to which they were open.

Cars came and went, some crawling to a halt, others driving quickly to their destination then stopping suddenly.

A woman acquaintance got out of one and we had a brief chat.  It transpired that she had found herself with a spare hour or so and was going to the funeral director's to get her parents-laws-ashes for later scattering in the sea.

To the right, across the minutely textured surface of the dry, grey asphalt access road and behind a low brick wall with similar particoloring  as the houses and with a small yellow sign saying "NO PARKING AT ANY TIME" stood a large horse chestnut tree with its buds fanning into green, slightly brown-tinted, leaves.A young woman with a beige top, faded red skirt and black tights stopped with two children in a double baby buggy under the tree, made a call on her mobile phone, then chanced to encounter a woman friend of similar age in a grey top and bright red tights.

They conversed animatedly for a couple of minutes then strolled off into the twitten leading to the High Street, passing en route a low, rectangular wooden planter strategically positioned by a sandstone wall on the twitten corner which contained primulas, tulips and hyacinths; white, orange and blue with their green leaves beneath trailing slightly over the lip of the planter.

My acquaintance with whom I had chatted earlier strolled back down the grey asphalt holding a smart green carrier bag which held her parents-in-law's ashes.

Immediately before me the scene was much more complex with another even lower brick wall stepped to maintain level topped sections all the way down to the public toilets which were built to look like a 1970s cottage with sloping tiled roofs and windows like unwrapped bars of white chocolate.

Just in front of the stepped wall was an array of street furniture: a CCTV warning sign in waspish black and yellow; a 1066 Country information sign; the menu of charges and conditions for parking; a silver cuboid obelisk for taking one's money in exchange for a ticket for a stay of one, two, four hours of more.  Next a planter made, perhaps, of a cement compound, dark brownish red with spots of white lichen.  Its summit plateau like a bad green haircut with various garden plants and weeds including some white-flowered patches of candytuft.

Next on the left a black rectangular litter bin of some indestructible modern material and lined with a flimsy blue plastic bag folded carefully over the four edges.  Below this, in relief letters of gold, was the single word LITTER.  Moving on down alongside the stepped wall the eye came to a shining, black-painted structure rather like and easel.  There were tapering posts on either side, ringed in gold and terminating in pointed ornaments rather like two upside down golf tees jammed one on top of the other to give a mini-minaret effect.  Subtended between these posts was a flat signboard saying Welcome to Battle in gold and black (this combination seeming to be the corporate colours of the town) over various pictures, a map and a box dispensing guide leaflets.  On the side of this receptacle, shaped rather like a large bird's nest box, was an inexplicably repetitive message: TOWN TOWN TOWN HERE.  Perhaps foreign visitors would think this was some witty use of the language that would be lost on a non-English speaker.

After a short uncharacteristically empty gap there was a small, leafless tree thrusting its branches skywards in front of the toilet wall.  It was encircled by a stout iron cage rising some two metres in the air and built to discourage vandals from attacking the maiden.  The iron cage, consisting of about a dozen thin upright black pillars, was held together by two metal bands and the uprights were  crowned with round tops like giant squash balls.

I was on the points of describing the tall silver pole carrying the CCTV cameras when our daughter arrived back from the dentist and we drove home.

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