Light breaks across rock in sharp shadows, is turned in spills and cracks. It is visceral; moving by its impact. Here the distance is diminished. Small houses, feathery trees, bluffs of rock above a line of track scored in the crack of mountain that contains the river. The river is deep down, the houses and the villages on the top of the cleft are overshadowed and made small by the enormous heft of rock above them. The Himalayas fold. Like origami sometimes they open into recognisable space; sometimes they just endlessly unroll, unroll up to the sky.
Across the river stretch wires; sometimes there is a box attached, the Himalayan equivalent of homemade go-carts or swing boats. Sometimes there are boards laid down between the two sides and the jeep can cross, up and down, planks shifting as the road reaches out to the other side.
The higher up we are the narrower the river’s span seems to be. Once or twice we walk across the river gorge. It is scary the way the bridge moves and the water appears and disappears through the cracks. The wire handrails are insubstantial – like clinging on to a slender twig to help in climbing a steep bank.
Where the bridge meets solid land it is cemented into great lumps of rock and stone. It is hard to negotiate a way down and by this time the altitude has produced breathlessness and chest pain and the steep rocky path up from the bridge end seems much too difficult. Bushes and small trees meet overhead and the tunnel winds up until solid walls start to appear and now and then the flat, log roof above the wall and a shy child or woman with scarf across their face peer through the half opened wooden gate.
At last the land opens out and the school is revealed. New and sharp edged. Its concrete dimensions cutting into the blue sky. All the men and boys of the village are waiting, seated on blankets in an open space of yellow grass surrounded by trees. It is harvest time and fruit is brought. In the distance women and girls have gathered in doorways. I am the only woman in this sea of brown faced, wrinkled men. We stretch out tentative hands to make connection.
Later I remember this and want to write about it. The way it works itself into a poem is surprising. It links with a very early childhood memory of being evacuated to the countryside and going on the milk round with an old milkman and his shaggy horse pulling a cart with a tall silvery churn, as big as me. He dips a ladle into the churn and the creamy milk streams out into jugs and containers as we go through the village. I am about four years old and it is my first experience of countryside, milk outside the bottle, apple trees and orchards. Later, as I discover art, I love the Carnation Lily, Lily Rose painting that the mother also loves in ‘The Family from One End Street’ and that she calls one of her children after.
These are two stanzas from the poem Unreliable Narrations.
That moment crossing the river
to a slope of yellowed grass,
bearded elders sitting on blankets
offer nuts and apples.
One places a special peach
in my open hand.
Or the moment when I found myself
the smell of milk, apples,
an old horse standing patient.
A white dress
I have a sudden realisation that the full poem needs to be linked in some way more clearly – field, the mountains and child in the orchard, Family from One End Street and the Sargent painting Carnation Lily, Lily Rose and my own love of drawing little figures. Work to do!
The social milieu of the Ruggles’ family was unfamiliar to a child growing up in a new, bland suburbia but it was the childhood space in which my father grew up, he being an Elephant and Castle child. Later at school I went to The Settlement at Peckham on Friday afternoons and some holiday times and fell deeply in love with that working class, inner city community. It was the seed place of my future life and career.
This was the first book that I had which had such wonderful drawings as illustrations. I copied them endlessly and learned the ‘how to’ of figure drawing.
Thank you Eve Garnett.