January’s end

The tree, still leafless, not lifeless, is billowing. With the full throatless roar of a stag breathing forcefully out through its nose the damp air of the night, the tree makes the wind and, whipping bare branches, now supple and fluid, to waves and cascades, casts shadows and catches the shimmering lights. A Jamesean blooming, buzzing confusion of light and of movement, of shadow and of noise; the cause of the awe of the watcher, who takes in the scene, and who stares at the tree dancing off to his right. Seeing the source of the noise or the cause of the sweeping and waving of trees is a skill we acquire: we call on our rich, well-developed ontology to know whether the hedge or the thrush sings the song. In the cold midnight dark, out of rational daylight, it becomes all too easy to get these things wrong. Knowing the right sorts of answers to look for is the first crucial step when we start to inquire.

The streetlights and the rain give a golden and glittering sheen to the tarmac, the cars wait front to back on the road, but the glow strikes no note of prosperity: cars with faces like animals hunched to the cold, with a resolute air of superior purpose. The streetlights both sharpen and highlight the low temperatures, and manage to be both fire-orange and cold. The cars all seem poised and ready to leap into action if given a moment’s encouragement. The drivers will probably mostly be sleeping, needing more of a jump start to take to the road.

Beneath the breathed roars and the gold of the lighting, a hum intermittently makes itself heard from the power for the fridges in the wall at the Co-Op across the dark car park and slightly uphill. The sound is too quiet to be heard in the daytime but now it insists that it won’t be ignored. It’s bided its time and it’s played second fiddle to delivery vehicles’ reversing alarms and the brakes and the gears of the trains as they come to a halt until driver and guard can swap places; the end of the line will become the beginning: with this one quick reversal they’re Manchester bound. And I am left over the road from the station; the Dark Peak and its gritstone are for me at the start and the end of all journeys. But broadening the mind doesn’t need travel, make the journeys as short as you like, broad minds are a cause as well as a consequence of art.

The clouds have been low today, the hills have been brooding, and the stars are obscured when here, often, it’s dark enough, far enough from the city to see them, but with just a few rainclouds to change the night’s character, to bring the skies down a bit and shield mighty Orion from inquiring eyes, the difference is marked.

Simultaneously with the billowing and shimmering and humming a red Vauxhall Astra drives past. Or, if not an Astra, a Corsa or Vectra, and if not a Vauxhall a Fiat or a Ford; I think it’s a taxi, but I blink and it’s gone. Just one: there isn’t much traffic around to distract from the sounds that all day are obscured by the clattering and talking and living and shopping, the reversing and travelling and commerce and toil. The wind drops, the fan stops, no cars and no voices, the last train goes early on Sunday (it’s Sunday); as I stand still and listen, it’s quiet at last.

A discarded or lost plastic carrier bag finds that it is entwined in the telephone wires as they feed themselves into a house’s front wall two doors down. That’s five pence there of somebody’s cash. Unsightly, of course, but it’s better that it spoils the clean lines of the street than making a splash in a lake or a pond in the park and binding the feet or blocking the throats of the geese or the moorhens, the coots or the swans.

It’s no longer snowing as January finishes; it’s cold, but not so cold that it’s worthy of note. In the 80s it snowed on my birthday once: in April! The chances for this year feel somewhat more remote, but, as we know, predicting the weather is never precise looking so far ahead. It’s much warmer now than four years ago, though, I have photos of standing shin-deep in the snow at town level, never mind up on the hills so I suppose that the message is you never know. But I won’t be retiring the gloves and the hat for the moment, or storing coats out of the way; they’ve more work to do yet, till they go to their seasonal home in the wardrobe or in a drawer under the bed.

Our idea on starting this project was to capture a snapshot of time in significant places. The main guiding thought was that each thousand words paints a picture, preserving a scene for posterity, but time runs away from us all, all too easily, with travelling and talking and shopping and more, and so we came to the last day of January, but no opportunity had come to explore the moors and the hills, despite seeing them each morning as I dash to the train or sit down to work. So I needed a snapshot of time plucked from somewhere, with time running out as February braces itself for its first morning. But constraints are quite interesting, and led me to record the scene that I saw as I looked up the road at two minutes to midnight without ever venturing past my front door.

When I looked closer, in daylight, a couple of weeks later I saw that the bag was in fact a balloon, which is sadder in some ways, but it’s nicer to think that it was lost and not simply and casually dropped onto the floor.

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