Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Remembering To Remember

A glimpse of a raptor swooping low overhead isn't just for autumn – it's for life. So should be the act of remembering.

Kolly Wobble – toy octopus come to life – is on the road by eight in the morning. She is on her winter bike – a specially adapted Norcross Blue tandem with a single seat – experimenting with a new set of tyres on the damp surfaces. It is one of those classic, bright, autumn Sundays where the sun is unobstructed by clouds and climbs into a huge, blue expanse of sky so typical of Suffolk and heralds the glorious prospect of its light picking out the various hues of the gold and red leaves to best effect.

For only the second time since she has become obsessed with cycling, Kolly has let her spin out into the country be dictated by the direction of the wind. She is solidifying what she wants from cycling – a mixture of exercise during the week and sight-seeing on Sundays –and she so enjoys wherever she happens to find herself in Suffolk, it seems silly not to have the wind on her back on the return leg.

And it is brisk today.

Kolly is heading out in a general North-West direction from Ipswich and the cold, blustery whips of air hit her about the face, causing her to exert herself to cycle down Bishop's Hill in the East of the town. She has recently bought an Enduro jacket and she has already found that not only does it keep the rain out, but it stops the cold cutting her in two. Still, the strength of the wind makes her think about recalculating the distance she thought about completing today, even with the prospect of it helping later. Her stubborn streak forces her on.

There isn't much traffic, but her main concern as she skims the heart of the town is keeping on eye out for broken glass. The Saturday night drunks have powerful urges to smash any empty glasses or bottles they have retained from the clubs and the road seems to attract their attention – the alleys are reserved for urinary impatience. Even so, there are still sufficient zombies out and about in their vehicles to give that extra zing to her ride as the local 4x4s and early/late taxis use a different system of allowance to the one she would prefer as they hurtle past.

And so into Bramford.

The weed-clogged area beneath the weir she witnessed in the summer has become a broad, shimmering expanse of gun-blue that speaks of sharp in-takes of breath if you were to make the mistake of falling in. And when she glances to her left to follow its path downstream as she crosses the bridge, she becomes aware of the village's church steeple looming over the roofs. It is Remembrance Sunday and she has no doubt that later in the morning a service will be held there. Kolly wonders how many people will partake – either by actually going to church; watching the service at the cenotaph on television; or simply pausing for thought.

With what her friend Rex Proctor – toy action figure also come to life – says the government does to monitor its citizens, she also is curious to know how many people would be prepared to risk the ultimate sacrifice these days. The irony that they are able to contemplate telling the State to go stuff itself because so many paid that price in the past is not lost on her. Rex says freedom means being able to say no – and that's worth fighting for.

She decides to keep an eye open for memorials – practically every village seems to have one tucked away somewhere.        

There is also a church steeple rising above the houses in Little Blakenham. It seems that in Suffolk if nine or ten houses were built in reasonably close proximity, then it was obligatory to add a church.  'Silly Suffolk' refers not to the intellectual abilities of its residents (though the number of zombies on the roads might provide a counter argument), but is derived from an Anglo- Saxon word seliger referring to the religious nature of their ancestors. And it used to be the case that if you desired a drink whilst out and about in the county, then all you had to do was head in the direction of the nearest church spire you could see on the horizon as the residents had a habit of building their ale houses right next door.

When she cycles through Willisham – a ribbon-strip of housing that clings to the passage of the road for less than a quarter of a mile – Kolly passes a young couple working in their front garden. Well, the husband/boyfriend/brother/male acquaintance is the one handling the spade and digging the soil, while woman is the one drinking a hot drink and 'supervising' the work. Kolly is tempted to offer some witticism, but the moment is lost as the man glowers at the newly-turned earth and Kolly flashes by, tapping out her usual rhythm, still analysing the permutations of how he might react.  

She rolls into Barking Tye and an immense, open common stretches out on her left and she stops for a cereal bar. As Kolly chews the apple-flavoured concoction, the wind shows no sign of abating and flicks at the surface of her jacket, seeking inside to chill her. Instead, she remains neither hot, nor cold, and the day begins to settle into a state of endorphin-enhancements and the close-cropped area of vivid green grass takes on the apparent surface of a duck-weed coated lake in high summer. There is a smell of slight decay in the air that mixes in with wood smoke and tiled soil and somewhere there is the sound of two rapid shots from a shotgun and the cry of a pheasant.

She carries on. The miles seem easy to cover.

There is hardly anybody in Needham Market. (It is easy to imagine how this little market town must have looked years before the ubiquitous car filled its streets.) The only person of note is a muscular young man in a T shirt swaggering to the local Co-op and looking genuinely unconcerned about the cold. Kolly thinks of similar young men clambering out of the trenches as a whistle blows or plunging down LVT ramps onto Italian and French beaches.

Kolly takes a narrow lane with only a livery stable between her and Creeting St. Mary. The leaves of the silver birch trees rustle gold in the bright light and the smell of autumn decay is strong here.

Seconds later and she is in the half-shadows, climbing a hill to Broad Green via an even narrower lane. The damp tarmac is barely visible underneath gravel washed from the bank verges and thick patches of grass grow down the centre. A teenager on a quad bike – adorned with some unidentifiable farming implement – nearly collides with her and she waves him on. He is the one who appears to be actually working – Kolly can wait. Once again, his youth calls into memory the pictures of the young men heading into war. She wonders if he knows anyone serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.    

She turns for home through Forward Green and Earl Stonham. As Kolly hurtles down the hill on the semi-main, cross-county road to Yoxford, a raptor catches her eye. Seemingly gigantic, it appears only just supported by the tips of its long bowed wings and its presence overhead panics a huge flock of wood pigeons into flight. It glides towards them. Given as how there is a raptor bird sanctuary in Stonham Aspal – the next village on the route – it pleases her to think one may have muscled up to its pen and broken out.

A few miles later and she is travelling into Crowfield along part of an old Roman road. As she has done on the other occasions she has traversed this straight road, she thinks of men marching along it dressed in armour. It seems history can never shake off the violence. 

At Gosbeck – a small hamlet in danger of being swamped by undulating fields – she approaches a pair of young women on horseback. She is reminded of that other reference to the county: Suffolk Fair-Folk. They all wish each other a good day. Life goes on, renewed by youth.

Helmingham, Ashboking, Witnesham – with its wicked hill awaiting the unwary and, finally, a memorial adorned with poppy wreaths and crosses – give way to Westerfield and the northern outskirts of Ipswich. The wind has been on her back with varying degrees of strength for the last hour, but it is only when she turns onto the old inner bypass of the town, that it gives that extra push. The riding becomes ridiculously easy and Kolly begins to dash along. The speed limit is forty miles per hour and the traffic no longer zooms past – she is giving them all a run for their money.

As a church announces that it is eleven o'clock, she says a silent thank-you. Kolly may believe that there are few things worth killing another for, but the decision to risk all to serve for the common good must be respected. She is certain she would not be here, infused with bundles of endorphins and serotonin, if those service personnel had not played their part.

The sun is still bright and the enormous Suffolk sky remains clear.

She cycles home.  


Try not to do the stupid things stupid people do.         

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