A Defiant Fact

“You survived”, he said. And for the first time in three and a half hundred days, we touched at the hands. The floods which had fallen upon us were going, and we compared his half-mile of flattened fence against a length of my lane which simply washed away. In order to be the first foot across my threshold, he’d picked his way across that gap in his wellies. I saw him walking towards the house ten minutes before he arrived. In a downstream field, the cows stared at the shape of him and snuffed the remains of my road which have made a shingle beach on their grass.

We had coffee, and I told him how, when the floods were at their peak, water had rolled over the bonnet of my truck as I drove. He tried to describe the experience of pushing cattle to swim between knowes in the rain-lashed darkness, fetching them home onto higher ground. If you’re in the habit of solitude, it can be a surprise when the time comes to explain yourself- to hear your own voice translate unspoken action into language. Until I told it, I didn’t know that I had been afraid. And he had not realised what danger there’d been in wading up to the height of his oxters. Cigarette smoke turned in the draft from the door. We stared at the unexpected gap between what was seen and what was afterwards said to describe it.

Words can help to organise an experience, but if you don’t tell a moment in the warmth of itself, it cools. Things which might have become stories are lost or housed elsewhere, like the tale my grandfather told of the shepherd who was snowed into his house on the hill for three weeks, enduring the deaths of thirty lambs he’d hoped to save by bringing them into his kitchen. When they finally dug him out and found him ankle deep in filth with all those corpses rolled in newspaper by the back door, he didn’t even try to explain what had happened. The moment had passed, and he only wanted to know if they’d played at darts without him.

Birds have shoaled to the pools and the sunken summer meadows. Lapwings toil in the weak light, and geese came wailing to the water this evening as I cut sticks for the fire. They were loud and boisterous, bragging to the wet grass and the sunken hedges. It’s only an inch from a greylag’s eye to the root of its horny tongue. Unlike humans, geese can’t help but say what they see on the spur of the moment, and the sound of the skeins is a Live Feed interrogation of the world. Experience flows around them without eddies, dams or shared reflection, so abandon any attempt to decipher the raucous vocabulary of honks and gabbling. It all amounts to the expression of one defiant fact, with no awareness of a past and no hope for what’s to come. They simply say “We’re alive”.

We had another coffee. It turns out that my First Foot finds little to excite him in the coming year. Our talk was more often linked to the past and what’s happened until now. I can understand why; it will take plenty of work to get us back to where we were three days ago, and still more to understand it. But if there’s anything to take from Hogmanay, what better start than “You survived”?


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