I AM BACK AT THE GREEN HILL far away.
The wind on the exposed hillside scythes my body. It always seems to be howling a gale up here and, as usual, I’m thinking “what now?” I’ve been standing like this for a while, staring across the fields to the great white building in the distance that dominates the skyline. Beyond it, under a heavy grey sky, lies the sea. In the other direction, away to my left, is the lumpy outline of Dartmoor. I need to be here. But I also have to get away.
I head down to the estuary below and walk along the bank where wild garlic is emerging; there are no flowers yet, just broad shiny leaves and a faint oniony echo. Scarlet elf cups nestle in the moss. As I walk through the trees, the river glimpses, its smooth surface glinting in the sun. Some geese pass above, their coarse cries reverberating. I reach North Quay, an old stone jetty festooned with seaweed. As I begin to change, a light breeze blows downstream, making me shiver. As usual I leave my clothes in an untidy heap on top of my rucksack, impatient to get in. I walk across the ragged grass which covers the top of the quay, a feeling of dampness in my toes, and climb down the old metal ladder off the jetty. Its rungs are cold and hard on my feet. I sink backwards off it into the brine of the River Dart. The water is turbid but silky. The tide is going out and I swim upstream past the twisting oaks whose long boughs dip into the water like the arms of wizened old ghosts reaching for sustenance. Delicate fronds of bladder wrack float by me in the water. I look up to the green hill high above, where I’ve just been. And in that moment, I feel myself fall away.
The green hill is where my son Felix is buried. My brother James calls it the green hill far away. Tiny snowdrops appear there in January, fighting their way through the rocky ground, and up through the graves. They are followed by primroses and daffodils, then poppies and grasses, legions of grasses swaying on top of the mounds, blown by the wind that travels in over the moor from the Atlantic. These flowers, these grasses, this smooth river that flows below the green hill to the sea, they are all beautiful distractions from the fact that his body is buried here. It is down in the impoverished, stony earth below, wrapped in an old linen sheet that I inherited from my mother. There are thirteen cowrie shells in with him too, that we gathered on Cornish beaches on countless holidays, one for every member of the family to keep him company.
I continue to swim up river, pushing against the outgoing tide, trying to remember Felix’s childhood.
Momentarily, I’m back in our tiny garden in Cambridge, years before all this happened. The apple blossom is out, pink and white blobs dotting the ground like confetti as Felix runs around the scrap of lawn, giggling. He’s wearing his t shirt with the dinosaur on. I’m lying under the tree listening as he screams with delight and huffs and puffs. The sun is warm on my face and I look up through the branches to the blue cloudless sky above. We’re having a heatwave. A large cardboard box lies on the grass, its flaps open and inviting. He goes up to the box, gets down on his hands and knees and pulls open one of the flaps, revealing its dark interior. He looks inside and then back at me questioningly.
“Go on! In you go!” I say.
He pulls open the other flap and I watch him disappear inside, making a great show of carefully closing the flaps behind him. Seconds later one of the flaps is punched open and his fist, followed by his face, appears.
“Ha ha ha ha ha ha!” he squeals, thrilled with his performance.
After this, a few more fleeting moments come back to me, but it feels as though I’m dredging through a sea of mud.
It’s hard work swimming against the current. Being here in in this river is both a penance and an act of worship. I need to be here, it is a kind of compulsion but also a distraction, an empty space where nothing has meaning or relevance, a place I can be absent. In the water, I shrink back to a sort of visceral essence of being, rewinding back to Felix when he was part of my body, part of me, grown from me.
Moving along the shoreline, I notice sea-green lichen all over the banks like mould on a cheese. It sits next to velvety moss which grows on the exposed tree roots. The water ripples past me, gentle and soothing, making a pleasant sound. I put my face in, holding my breath. Nothing is visible underwater, all I can see through my goggles is briny murk, but the river is soft, dappling against my cheeks. Further up the estuary there is a marshy area where I get out, my feet oozing through the silky silt as I walk towards firmer ground. Some ducks are visible in the distance and a huge weathered tree trunk lies beached on the shore. I sit on the trunk to rest, choosing a worn section, denuded of bark, a natural seat. Again, my eyes are drawn up to the green hill which overlooks the estuary. I can see the trees on the skyline and the oval cob building which sits at the top.
Not long ago we were gathered there putting Felix's body in the ground. And a few weeks before that he was a young man just twenty years old. We were a normal family then.