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Bright Floodplain Lights 10. The War Memorial

I was the last to leave the dorm, as far as I knew. I turned off the blinking lights on the little Christmas tree; I’d felt that I disliked the other people in the dorm until I came back from the day’s classes and saw that tree there and then I’d felt a bit sorry.

There was a bus stop just outside the halls, though I usually went down to the station to take the quicker bus home it was an icy day and I had been afraid of ice ever since slipping badly on my way into school when I was twelve years old and after being sent home I heard the news of a massacre of infants in a nearby town that had happened just after I fell.

It never really got light at this time of year, at most there would be a few hours of watery light but on most days the afternoon was a gloomy twilight and so it was today. The old bus passed through the north of the city, the quarter of concrete towers, huge industrial parks and the great iron gasometers that loomed over the ancient gasworks. On my first trip alone to the city two years before I had looked up at the windows of the tower blocks as the bus passed far beneath and felt for the second time in my life the absolute sense of all-consuming love.

The Northern Necropolis, one of the cities great cemeteries lay white and empty, locked up, as it always seemed to be. A jumble of buildings that had so far escaped the town planners, a few more tower blocks, the road north and east and we had left the city behind; the red ghosts of other towers marching north. There had been a little town here distinct from the city though only the old town hall survived, Rowan trees grew up from the building’s roof, now bare branched and stark. The tunnels and overpasses, the interminable commuter villages and at last the white hills stretching away east and west.

The bus crawled along the hill’s feet where sheep cropped at the short frost blue grass. The road wound on an ancient course, through half a dozen hamlets and beneath the ill-fated railway bridge, along the canal and into the village. Though this was the same village I had grown up in this part seemed strange and unwelcoming. The south of the village beneath the railway line had a bad name and was the butt of local jokes the same way the wider village was the butt of jokes in the surrounding towns. The locals were aware of this and it lent a hint of paranoia to the place.

The few people who got on the bus here had a distinct look about them, an ill-favoured squint to the eye that didn’t elicit any sentiment. We passed through the tunnel and down the hill, past the school and the chapel and over the canal. I got off at the community centre, by the new library and across the road from the site of the old one. It was still more than a mile to the house but this was the closest this service would run.

Around the corner was the village’s high street, a double row of shops where a tollgate had once been. The light and heat of the chip shop shining in the cold dark street was too inviting to pass by, I bought some chips and crossed the rod to the flower gardens. One enters through a wrought iron arch that bore the names of the men from the village who had died in the second world war, the path led up past benches and what would be flowerbeds again in spring and ended at the stone obelisk that bore many more names than the iron arch.

Such a memorial can be found in every town and city but the ones of the small villages impress particularly with how many names are written there and this one, as far as I knew was the only one that bore the name of a man I was related to. I had often sat with my back to it before I learned that and so did I sit with my back to it now. The village’s few Christmas lights were strung in the bare branched trees, out of sight the river ran beneath the little iron bridge, the heat of the chips burned in my hand. I sat for a while after I’d finished till it was too cold to stay still, I headed home.

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