My short story Pond Life is featured as a guest post on Helen Day’s fascinating Old Ladybird Books blog. Helen has made great use of the illustrations from the Ladybird book of the same title, but I will confine myself below to the cover, after which you can read the full text of the story.
I couldn’t say how many childhood hours I spent on my stretch of the Cromford Canal in Ambergate. Probably fewer than I remember, but as time passes the important experiences seem to choose themselves, and they’re hardly ever the ones that took the longest. According to my memory, most afternoons I could be found under one of the two bridges nearest to Chase Road where my parents lived, or somewhere between the far one and the end of the canal, messing with nets and jars, looking for water snails and caddis fly larvae or fascinated with a ram’s horn snail. The Ladybird Book of Pond Life was my guide in this important work, and with the willow tree’s shade on my bedroom window I would study the text and illustrations, checking off the plants and animals I had seen, staring into the pictures of those I hadn’t. Oh, to have found a hydra, that spindly green freshwater anemone near the back of the book! I thought I could find anything in the canal, it being just a long narrow pond, bigger than any other. Everything ought to be in there somewhere, surely. There were lots of dragonflies, but although they must have been there I never found a dragonfly nymph down in the water, such a scary thing it looked in the book. There were innumerable frogs and toads, plenty of spawn in spring, a few newts, whirligig beetles and hover flies, as well as some good-sized beetles in the pastures along the banks, but they were in a different book from Series 536. Those were my favourites.
Some of the local boys went fishing, but I didn’t like the dark Amber water or the eddies where it joined the Derwent. I suppose I was younger than my years, as well as shorter. When I started to go there on the bus, the lads at school in Belper were interested in music, in clothes and girls and football more than all the dreamy pleasures I would take in my surroundings, the beautiful valley. I couldn’t see it then, that I was different and rural, but now it’s all over my memories of Belper and school. So instead I think of the countryside, the holidays, the sunshine and the herby smell of hay from the fields around our house. After the Chase Road bridge over the canal you can walk for a little way along the towpath, looking over the broken walls and fields to the River Amber and the viaduct. Then you reach the place where the water just pours away, or at least what overflows does, the canal itself isn’t flowing at all. You can walk around it, the path carries on but the canal’s gone. They cut it all away for the gas plant, my dad said. That was where they used to put the smell in the stuff. Nobody ever believes me when I tell them that. Halfway there a black metal bridge over the water carries a great thick pipe from which a big drip would fall every few seconds, washing the towpath back to its pebbled stone. As a lad I ran under it, or waited for the drip and timed my walk. I think the pipe takes water from the underground reservoir up beside the woods.
The other way, northwards, the dry gritstone walls run low, waist-high to me now, between the towpath and the farm, with the railway embankment behind it. Then on the right, over the canal, the woods begin, looming over the water most of the way to Whatstandwell, the next station up the line. At the same time the wall becomes taller and mortared with the big house hidden behind, ivy curling around the ever-closed door set into the stonework, so that here, before the next bridge which marked the extent of my young towpath, the water had its own dark valley, sheltered and quiet. Like me. We haven’t had so many restoration attempts on this bottom end of the Cromford Canal. You might call it a backwater, if canals have those. I’ve always been concerned about the effect on the wildlife of dredging out all the mud and reeds and habitat, just so people could chug their way down here and back in boats. I needn’t have worried. Every few years we hear it’s all going to be opened again, dredged and made ready for the tourists. That’s what I like about this place: nothing ever changes very much, or at least not very quickly.
Two men would walk past along the canal some afternoons. They parked near the substation on Chase Road and came up by the bridge under which I would lie on the towpath, chin over the stones of the canal’s edge, the arch shading the water from the sky, skimming the light from its surface, letting me see to the bottom where no plants grew. The surface still worked, I learned. It was still gathered tense against the air above, glid across by waterskaters, and water boatmen clung at the underside. Crickets sounded from the parched grass by the drystone walls behind me. All this insect life! Those two men knew about wildlife and the countryside, especially the older one. They would stop to ask what I had found, what I was looking for, then they went walking in the woods. I was afraid to go up there alone, and scared to ask if I might go with them. I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers.
As I got older, I would go up the path through the woods with other village kids at the weekend or on holidays, took a picnic lunch up there sometimes and ate it in one of the fields between the trees. That must sound like something from another world, long gone, now. That’s how it sounds to me. But it’s all still there, and not very different. It just took a while for me to see how unchanged it remained, after I went there with Shaun and Mark. They came on the bus from Belper and we set off from my house along the towpath to the second bridge, up onto the road and over it, through the field to the stile at the top end and into the woods, up the long steep path. I loved the woods, the smell and sound and sight of them. It was like stepping into another of my Ladybird books, or something by Enid Blyton; at least that’s how they were to me, not to those two. The way they spoke made me think they would have preferred to be alone, so I felt I was tagging along, an inconvenient younger brother, despite being their age. Clearly they knew it too, because we had barely reached the top of the woods when they left me, and I had to go back home on my own. I was hurt and ashamed. They hid, or just walked off when I was looking at something. There was a lot more to see in the woods, especially if you could be quiet and watch. They wouldn’t do that, had to be breaking sticks and throwing stones. It was the wrong way to behave in the countryside. I would have been fine, but after looking for them and before I set off down the sandy path again I shouted, ‘Shaun! Mark!’ and listened for them, called again, listened. Nothing, just the sound of the woods in the wind, pressing close around me. It was worse than being alone. I felt cold danger poisoning the air. By the time I got back down to my canal I had been running most of the way, all sweaty wet, hot and bothered. I should have stayed under the bridge to look for fish instead. There were pike in there, pencil-thin ones. I waited, my breathing slower shaded in the cool, until I heard the other two coming down the field, not laughing at me, nor careless, but concerned I was still up there, that I’d been following them. Above the bridge I heard Mark say ‘He might have seen!’ I thought they’d find me there, come down onto the towpath, but instead they took the road and when their stonekicking steps had gone there was just me in the shade under the bridge, sitting with my head against the stone and my bottom in the dust, level with the water. ‘I might have seen,’ I said to myself, a little later, and my words buzzed round in the arch of space. The stirring water rippled in reflection on the stone. I hadn’t seen. But I thought about it for a long time, although I never asked, and nor did they.
We grew apart as we got older, but we still saw one another at school and I used to have the odd drink with them for a few years afterwards. They didn’t stay on in the Sixth Form. I don’t even think they took any ‘O’ Levels. Living in the town they could get to pubs easier than me and their parents didn’t ask so many questions, weren’t as protective as mine. I used to resent that, but now I’m here again in their old house I know it was better for me. If only Mark’s parents had been the same, or Shaun’s. It was terrible, what happened to him. He always had an unhappy look about him as a boy, but the last time I saw him, stumbling across King Street from the old laundrette, he didn’t recognise me, his face was just…nothing. No expression, no feelings. He was already gone.
I went out with them one final time before I went off to the Poly. They came on the bus to Ambergate and we went in the Hurt Arms, then the White House where they started an argument over a game of pool and got us thrown out. I didn’t even play pool myself, I liked to sit in the other side of the pub. So we walked to the Fisherman’s Rest and Mark saw someone he used to go out with, which put him in a terrible mood and started him drinking really hard, as hard as Shaun. I was a long way out of my depth with those two, and I didn’t want to learn how to stay afloat in that much drink.
I met Suzanne at the Poly, where she was doing Art. She lived in Nottingham and seemed impossibly worldly to me. I couldn’t believe she wanted anything to do with me, but I’m very happy that she did. Those days seem a long time ago now, but they made a difference, made me confident enough to get through life pretty well, and I’ve been working at County Offices for twenty years now. Sometimes I let myself imagine what retirement might be like. I’m nowhere near wanting to stop work yet, I just like to know it’s all in order.
Living back here feels right, although I waited until Mum was on her last legs before suggesting it to Suzanne. But it was what she wanted too. The picture I’d painted of growing up in this countryside, by the canal, had been so fond and rich that she’d started to feel as I did, missing something she’d never had. Now she paints it herself and sells a lot of her work. It’s better than I ever dreamed, and I only wish our children had been able to grow up here. I’m happy that Andrew and Rebecca didn’t resent us being the same with them as my parents were, keeping them in at night, making sure they did their homework, giving them hopes and aspirations. They should do a lot better than either of us now, both got good jobs and opportunities ahead of them. One of the Directors at Dyer’s seems to have taken Andrew under his wing. You need to work hard to achieve your aims in life, but at the same time you can’t underestimate the value of luck.
Rebecca and her husband Martin live in Sheffield and we see them often. Martin likes to walk, always wants to set off on one when they’re here. I’m glad to go, but he’s not like me, which is presumably what Rebecca sees in him. He’s not so interested in the details, more in landscape as a spectacle. He goes rock-climbing, canoeing, sees the countryside as a thing to be overcome, not something of which he’s a part. I bet he never leaned over the stones at the edge of a towpath to look for water snails. But I’d happily spend the afternoon doing just that, even more so now. I’m here again, the canal’s still here, and we’ll both be waiting for any grandchildren who might come along. Perhaps one of them will be like me, a quiet little thing interested in the margins and what goes on away from the crash and clatter. Between us, we might even find that hydra.