The old man of Furnival

If it were not for the engines it would be quiet here. There are footsteps, horns and jet propellers; only the promise of people exists.

Towering, it rose before me, over the water behind the houseboats. It stood black on black sky, yet quite distinguishable, the sky’s black heavily bordered with orange — the colour of our outpourings into the clouds. Its branches were short and held close to the body – snowman’s arms. Neatly spiked hair began where the trunk disappeared.

The therapeutic effect one tree had on me was strong, my heartbeat halved and breathing lulled. And in the comfort of the slowing, my head fuzzed and a different tower swam in. I was sitting on the Isle of Hoy, gazing out at the Old Man of Hoy, a great sea stack rising uninterrupted from the ocean. The cliffs commanded close attention. All the noises that people make were silenced. In their place rang out waves and wind the screams of cormorants. This wind was far greater than a sound and a brushing hand, it stung my eyes, brought saltwater to my lips.

I stood up, turned my face to the rain. I stepped forwards, compelled, until the next step would take me into the air. Like a grandfather clock the old man out at sea was keeping time. Not in hours or years but in deaths of mountains. This great column holds up everything that can possibly last, and still he crumbles and crumbles.

Movement below startles me, perilously. My eyes drop and meet those of a puffin, looking up from his perch almost at my feet. This funny little guy brings me back, first from the ocean to the land, then from the island, skimming far across the water and down our country’s length to Hammersmith, Furnival park. Wet grass becomes cold wooden bench. The old man has retaken his tree form and, as silently as ever, surveys the river.

A child is running towards me with quick light steps, haphazardly following the path of a drunkard, pink beanie hat bouncing with her gait. Two joggers follow her, their trajectories terribly sombre in comparison. They, in turn, are followed by a couple of dogs, small shaggy things, running recklessly and tumbling into one another as they misjudge how their own legs work. Finally a human couple who move at a leisurely pace bring up the rear of the parade, softening its pace.

I am alone again. Watching the skyline beyond the boats beyond the river beyond the bushes. This tree tower is less than the old man of Hoy: less striking, less wild, less majestic, less unitary. He stands not in the cold sea here, but in the warm streetglow. More close then, more friendly too. Trees line the night on both sides of him, branches upon branches, arms upon arms.


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