Icknield Way, day five

Day 5. 5th May 2018, Harlington (on the Toddington alternative route) – Hitchin

A perfect shining spring morning. Soon after leaving the station, I am absorbed. Everything seems so jubilantly itself today; daisies with their particular plucky perkiness, sparrows singing their glad song in the trees over my head, and bushy hedgerows of flowers, matted and glued with cleavers. I am busy – listing flowers, looking up ones I don’t recognise, peeping through gates to the gardens beyond. I cross a field, flat ground, trees arising as if scenery for a stage; birds cross in level flight; my arms outstretch in level flight too.

A blue butterfly stops close by, and closes its wings. It is impossible. Paper, watermarked, standing on its end. Its wings move: a breath. The slightest movement, not even a semi tone shift. An enharmonic movement. An enharmonic butterfly!

The butterfly flies. I walk on, absorbed by the miracle, yet unease grows; I can no longer ignore it, the Way is not as it should be. The path is on the west of the railway instead of the east. There are extra railway bridges, not marked on the map – surely they wouldn’t have been missed off? They don’t look new…it’s all very strange. And then the OS app helpfully shows me on a different map, near St Albans. A moment of horrified realisation. I got off at Harpenden, not Harlington.

I lie down in a field for a while, contemplating this extraordinary fact. What a stupid thing to do; even more so to dream through a good forty minutes of walking before discovering the fact. Dreamy excitement is all very well, but is not, alas, the crisp thinking that gets you off at the right station and sends you in the right direction. I sit up. Right. Back to the station. Start again. Without the error, there would have been no enharmonic butterfly.

One stop on the train, a short brisk walk, and I am on the Way again. I stop to listen to a stream; how rarely I stop just for the ear. I find I have to let my eyes go to get a proper ear full of sound, a soft cushioned chuckle. It is rare to hear water on this walk. I scramble to see it (this irresistible seeing!): a black gleam between the green, flashing diamond in the sun.

Down into an old quarry of cow slips, up and out to fields of smooth green, which for a moment seem an ocean. In the distance, a hill topped with trees, like the head on a mug of beer. Air busy with butterflies and bees, with flies, bumping face, eyes and nose, to-ing and through-ing, or just hanging. A moving, living air!

I remember how the windscreen and bonnet of dad’s car used to be thick with flies after a long journey, two quid to wash them off; a red bucket of hot soapy water and a yellow sponge, soon dotted with black bodies. Now on similar journeys, cars remain clean. A casual chilling reminder of our damage to the world around us, of the difference 30 years can make.

A woman is sitting under a tree outside Streatley church, reading. As I approach she smiles and gets up – would I like a drink of squash? I accept eagerly. It is enormously welcome, as is sitting in the cool church and filling my waterbottle, but mostly her kind greeting of a stranger, and evident regret that she is unable to direct me to the gravestone of the Rackmaster General, who apparently in 1581 stretched a priest ‘a foot longer than God made him’ (which you might think would exclude you from the privilege of a burial on consecrated ground, but heigh ho…).

Two birds on a telegraph wire sing a round jangle song. A rabbit’s ears, orange lit by the late sun. I cross into Herts, which a sign informs me is the county of opportunity.

At Pirton, a pub, tables outside full of people relaxing with pints, and I walk past longing to stop; it is still a little way to Hitchin, where I end this leg of the Way. Through shoulder high cow parsley around the motte and bailey, with all the delight of being submerged. A blackbird flies past at eye level, so I can see the effort of its raised shoulders, the hunch of it.

Into Hitchin, slowing now, tired. A young woman passes me at a run, and I watch her retreating back curiously, for although she is wearing culottes and proper shoes, her run has the regular stride and rhythm of keep fit, not a breathy late for a train haste.

When I reach the station, she is standing outside, waiting for someone. It turns out to be me.

‘How lovely to see you’, she says energetically, catching my eye, and smiling warmly.

I smile weakly, flicking hastily through people I know: is she someone I have met and forgot? She doesn’t seem familiar…I mutter something non committal, and move away; there is something about her that makes me uneasy. I am sitting on a bench on the platform looking back at my photos when she arrives next to me and starts to talk.

Feeling distinctly uncomfortable, I do nothing to encourage our conversation. This does not deter my interrogator; she is more than happy to manage its course, which is an erratic one, her mood changing from moment to moment.

‘I expect you come from a lovely family, that’s nice for you’, she says, with smiles and warmth.

‘Umm…’, I say, thinking of my parent’s troubled relationship.

‘What will you do if you miss the last train?’ She says this with urgency. ‘What will you do if you get stranded in London?’

‘I’ll stay with a friend…’

‘That’s nice for you’, she says. This is an oft repeated phrase. It comes with tight lip resentment.

‘What if she doesn’t have room for you?’

Her words nudge me towards destitution; I begin, uncomfortably, to imagine it.

Minutes before my train is due, she asks me to watch her handbag and disappears. The train draws in. I look anxiously up and down the platform. No sign of her. Suddenly sure she means me to miss the train by watching her handbag (for who doesn’t take their very small bag to the loo), I get on, guiltily eager to escape her. I feel sure she will appear promptly to reclaim it, is possibly even watching me; my shoulders tingle with the thought. I feel steeped in warm relief as the train pulls out and I leave her behind to strike up an acquaintance with another stranger, next up.

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