November 10th, 2004


Stopping by woods

We're coming to the end of the third day in the new office. My department is now based at Greenwich House, on the University's West Cambridge site.

The building is modern, clean, and utterly soulless. The corridors are all identical, such that if you get distracted at a crossroads you may entirely forget which way you've come and which way you were going, and there are no landmarks to help you out. I would make the standard geek reference to twisty mazes of passages, but they're not even twisty; they're just cool clean lines of fluorescent light and white-with-a-hint-of-blandness paint, pedantically punctuated with identical doors leading off into identical rooms.

The site itself is green and at least moderately pleasant; I've mostly seen it in the rain so far, when it smells of thick damp vegetation and all the paths are an inch thick in sodden, trampled leaves. There are new-looking car parks in front of the main buildings, but they feel more like clearings in a forest; once you get away from the roads and on to the smaller tracks, you're in a different world. Yesterday a squirrel tried to hurl itself under my bicycle wheels, while another sat beside the path, nonchalantly picking its teeth, as I cycled a mere 4 inches from its tail.

The cycle path through the trees is lit by small bollards topped with a diffuse fluorescent light, which grows brighter as the night draws in; by the time I'm leaving work they are balls of unfocused white light, like hovering will-o'-the-wisps, leading me further and further into the woods. There are houses and buildings around, and the patch of trees must be only tiny, but it feels as though it could go on forever. It reminds me of the "woods" at the bottom of the village, where my friend Sylvia and I used to play; in the middle of this scrap of tree-speckled land, with the branches still bowing under the weight of a few days' rain, and the untrodden leaves lush underfoot, and the paths muddied and the small stagnant pools just beginning to be ruffled by wind and weather, you could believe yourself in some prehistoric jungle, some alien country where the ground is treacherous, sucking insistently at your feet, and where even the silence is soaking wet. There were no lights in the woods, but we weren't allowed there after dark, and by the time we disobeyed that rule -- sitting right at the far edge of the woods, embracing the borderlines of space as our adolescence clumsily embraced the borderlines of time, in a patch of scrubland where stray stalks of wheat spilled over from the vast fields of farmland beyond us -- we considered ourselves too old to be scared of the dark, sitting on pallets and sharing our cheap vodka and orange juice, hurling our injokes at absent outcasts as if we were tin cans on a scarecrow, rattling the air of the the empty fields.

Yet somehow I remember there being a source of light. Maybe somebody brought a torch; yes, perhaps one of the older boys -- Rich with his car, or Andy with his motorbike -- brought some kind of solid, heavy torch, something like a weapon. Rich was creepy, but his car gave him instant god-status, which is probably why I let him use his slack lips and sweaty hands, leaning over the gearstick towards me as I looked at the battered dashboard and the torn seat-covers and thought this car is a wreck; does that mean he is poor? and other scattered questions that I lacked the context to answer.

I saw a lot of the insides of cars, long before I could drive: my parents' car was huge and boxy and safe, and while I wanted them to have a proper car like my friends' parents, I also loved the solid square lines of the Volvo's dashboard and the worn plushy grey of the seats; Sylvia's car was like a giant handbag, full of makeup and magazines and Bon Jovi cassettes and shapeless jumpers and creased maps; Tim's black Skoda was all rattles and bare metal and half-finished things, but he was my first serious boyfriend and my first ticket out of the village, the speed so fast I felt like I was drunk, though he never really quite believed that driving fast and furiously didn't impress me. (It didn't.)

I don't, on the whole, drive fast or furiously. I try to drive smoothly, seamlessly; I want the car to be an extension of my body. And when I am driving somebody else, I want the car to be an invisible bubble around the two of us, so that we are not conscious of being in a car, merely of being together, set apart, safe and warm in the dark, with nothing outside but the lights strung out like beads on a necklace, and behind that fragile thread the infinite darkness of the world rushing past us. In front of us there is nothing; time and again the headlights throw their cloak valiantly over a puddle of darkness and create a little solid ground for us, but it's swallowed up instantly by the endless void of the years that we have yet to live. And yet it feels as though there is light in the car; perhaps it is the light in our minds that lets us see our faces even when they are veiled by night. My eyes remember light as my hands remember the touch of fingertips in the darkness.

Hands on the keyboard, I could type with my eyes closed. It's like a party game: draw a map of your heart in the mirror without looking at the blank page in front of you.

The new office is a brittle bubble of light in which we are enclosed like hostages, grudgingly huddling a little closer for warmth, but by unspoken agreement not commenting on the predicament or our need to adapt to it. Through our windows by day I can see the hands of trees waving to me, tiny leaves in a riot of waterlogged colours; the translucent autumn sky with its wash of pale light makes the orange glow of the office seem garish and inconsiderate. By night the windows are squares of blackness pinned like blank posters on the walls; paradoxically, this is when the office lights seem most devastatingly lonely, a tiny voice in the wilderness, the last outpost in a world given over to the dark.

The light piles up inside like shop-windows in November, full of empty Christmas boxes.

But stepping into the night I feel released. The sky is wide, and the trees are whispering with life; and the woods are not, after all, so very far from the main road, with its strings of cars streaming forwards into the future.

Meet my friends

addedentry: mobbsy links to mad musical taxonomy which you (and others!) may appreciate.

sion_a: nja shows us some lovely pictures of ducks. (In fact, mobbsy may want to take note as well: nja is a fount of great photos and philosophical musings.)

taimatsu: bibliogirl has been writing about costume construction for roleplaying stuff.

All you people who say ego-boosting things about my writing (I love you guys! mwah!): acronym gets more mileage out of the planets meme than I do.

Anybody who's interested in the recent US election: a friend of spyinthehaus's points to some fantastic maps and cartograms of the distribution of votes. The distorted maps look like something from the Dream Anatomy site, which I saw ages before it was flagged by coolgov. (I originally found it while looking for this anatomical drawing, which I saw in Marsh's Library in Dublin a couple of years ago.)

Talking of spyinthehaus (we were, weren't we?) ... it's a real shame monkeyhands isn't around to read his innovative exegesis of John Gray's bestselling self-help books.

Keep on blogging, folks. Keep on joining the dots.