Thursday 30 November 2017

Spirits of Adisham

It’s 7.45 am, misty and fresh. On the rocky, inclining path towards the train station, a procession of gaunt commuters and schoolkids plod in sequence, tiredly brushing off the spider webs clinging to their faces from the bordering hedgerow. Emerging from the heavy green trees onto a damp platform, they wait wordlessly in their designated standing spaces until two familiar headlights appear under the bridge to the right. Screeching and whirring assaults the eardrums as the train bumps to a halt, and our small congregation of villagers clamber on when the doors bleep open, joining the other bleary-eyed passengers. The 10-minute journey to Canterbury never feels long enough.
Station Road is mostly quiet for the rest of the morning, apart from the school run when a queue of cars from the nearby villages – Aylesham mainly, and others like Nonington – siphon down the hill, turning left at the Pond to drop off their children at the primary school halfway up The Street. The Pond better resembles a village green than a body of water; yet – as all of us who went to Adisham Primary once learned – there was indeed a Pond on the site until the 1960s. Centuries ago, a woman accused of being a witch drowned there, after being dragged helplessly from one of the neighbouring settlements. The vast, grassy space where the deadly water once collected is now solely occupied by a small tree, and a handsome view of the Holy Innocents church in the background, all of which compose the definitive Adisham scene that is captured most often by photographers. The dank mire of yesteryear is now safely undetectable to the cars pootling past.
Children who live in the village tend to walk to school. Indeed, a short distance up The Street, two siblings are swinging their blue bookbags embossed with the Adisham Primary School logo – the silhouette of a tree – bounding down the pavement towards the black metal gates. They live in the Ileden cottages, part of a tiny farming hamlet on the other side of the village woods that has been around since God-knows-when. Its existence has continued largely unchanged, except for the drone of the now ever-present road traffic that emanates from the A2 road to the west. The Street doesn’t reach up as far as Ileden, so every weekday the children trot down the bridleway through the woods into the main village, past the horses at Woodlands Farm, the grey brick Baptist Chapel, and the former Post Office, which has now been converted into a house. Their parents moved to the village 8 years ago with their faithful Irish Wolfhound, the largest pet you will probably ever see, because they wanted a calmer life for their family.
Strolling dead centre in the middle of the road, past the red brick school building carved with the names of hundreds of past pupils, Martin’s gaze interrogates you from behind thick-rimmed glasses, as if he’s trying to build a mental factfile. It’s midday, and his hands are wrapped around gardening tools or maybe a wheelbarrow, sweat gleaming from his fleshy face. The echoes of playing schoolchildren stalk him down the road until he reaches the Bull’s Head, our local derelict pub. Once the hub of the village community, the structure is now a cocoon of peeling paint, mossy bricks, broken glass, boarded windows, and cracked roof tiles. Sometimes when he’s pruning the roses, the old Bull’s Head fades into Martin’s mind without him realising, and he is there, still able to taste the starchy ale and feel the stick of the wooden bar on his forearm. All the old guys are there, like David, the former station manager. They always got on well. They saw everything there: first kisses, new years, bobbing apples at Halloween. Like dandelion seeds, no longer here. Scattered.
Martin pauses there a moment, then turns left into a row of tall hedges that hide one of the village’s villas. Set back from the road with their long, green gardens, they remain mostly invisible in your mind’s-eye view of Adisham. They’re the kind that house those parish councillors you never see, unless you go to their monthly meetings in the Village Hall – which most people rarely do. The person that springs to mind is Valentine Stevens, school governor, who seemed to be everywhere when we were young. She would make appearances at events such as the summer fete or the larger church services, like some kind of mayor. I’ve heard that she lives in the white villa on Cooting Lane with the tall gate and flowery front garden, up by the farm with the big black dogs that inevitably come charging towards you from the cottage if you make the mistake of walking past. I don’t think I’ve seen her since I was 11, when she handed me an Oxford English Dictionary upon finishing at the primary school, one of Adisham’s traditions.         
As school finishes for the day, bunches of kids run straight to the adjacent recreation ground (the Rec, as we call it) with parents in tow, where the newly-painted and kitted-out play park becomes a swarm of crawling limbs and grabbing fingers. A group of older boys turns up shortly after, having caught the train home from their secondary schools in Canterbury, booting a beaten-up football between them as they run onto the spacious grass field pock-marked with molehills. After a quick kickaround they begin playing games like headers and volleys, or taking turns to go in goal as the others take shots. Every now and then enough people will turn up for a full game, with two teams, which will take place in the asphalt court or on one of the grass pitches with the rusty, flaking goalposts. They’ll play until the latest possible moment – after dark in winter, when the ball simply cannot be seen – and right up to the point when their parents have already called them three times to tell them to get back, or they’ll be grounded.
Later, just after the evening rush hour, a steady stream of small round European cars clumsily squeeze into the little available space on the village streets, followed by the unlucky latecomers who passive-aggressively zoom off to a less desirable spot, probably only ten metres further up the road. The fields behind their houses are carpeted with pale yellow wheat, and a red combine harvester is raking neat paths through the crop, thick plumes of coarse dust trailing behind that slowly settle into the cooler air. Within minutes, that neighbour who works as a teaching assistant at the village school emits a sound halfway between a sneeze and a shriek, and their yappy fluffball dog barks hysterically for five minutes afterward in their back garden, drawing a collective exasperated sigh from the tired Mums preparing gravy dinners in the neighbouring semis.
On kitchen tables is the latest Village Newssheet, a single folded piece of A4 paper of which half is taken up by the village directory, a list of telephone numbers and addresses for all the 'important' people in the Adisham community. This leaves room for a maximum of roughly 10 snippets of ‘news’. In the summer months, one of these inevitably reminds villagers to be considerate when lighting barbecues and bonfires. This has, after all, been the dominant subject of hushed conversations over every garden fence. Though despite the collective scorn, the same neighbours you confide in this time will be those you complain about next weekend (over the other garden fence) when they light a barbecue while your washing is still on the line.
Bonfires aren’t as annoying; they tend to be in the evening and aren’t usually accompanied by the unsettling commotion of laughter and garden-chair gossip next door. Silently the smoke swamps across the valley, spreading out in a light grey haze that dances around the nostrils of those strolling back home from the station after work. Woodsmoke is not an unpleasant scent, either. It is nostalgic, conjuring up wintry visions of quaint, timber-framed houses with crooked rooftops, like Dane Court up the road that has been sitting there for at least 600 years.
The rest of the newssheet praises the efforts of volunteers and the turnout for recent village gatherings – Wine and Wisdom nights, Messy Church for the kids, the Big Breakfast one Saturday morning each month. We like to jest at the newssheet and its charming interpretation of what constitutes ‘news’, but if it weren’t for those who are willing to make these events happen – the young families, the pensioners with little else to do, the churchgoers, the schoolkids, the parish councillors – I’m not sure we would have a village community at all. Our meeting places, where our lives intersect – the church, the school, the village hall, the Rec – they would all be desolate; exorcised artefacts. The crumbling Bull’s Head pub is a warning. Without at least the illusion of togetherness and common ground, our hopes, feelings, and prayers would only find voice in the mutterings of those hiding behind closed doors and twitching net curtains; the scroll-wheels of those silently scanning the Adisham Village Community Facebook page.
It's here, in the lands between somewhere and nowhere, that our spirits linger.