Postcard from... the Canal Bank

Canal.jpg

By Paul Scraton:

To reach the canal bank the path moves past a stonemasons, where headstones wait in rows for future owners behind a chain link fence, and through a colony of allotment gardens, mostly locked and shuttered for the winter. Gnomes, felled by the last big storm lie on the lawn. Puddles gather in the centre of sagging trampolines. Leaves that fell months ago clog the drainage channels. The courts of the tennis club stand empty, the nets packed away. Grass grows long on the American Football field. Across the Atlantic they are preparing for the Super Bowl. Here, the season is long over.

Past a patch of wasteland of chipped bricks, blackened fire circles and piles of empty spray cans, the path runs alongside the canal now, through a tunnel of overhanging trees. Every so often a road crosses above, taking buses and cars in the direction of the airport. Thousands of people must pass this way each day departing or arriving in the city, but down here by the water is the domain of only a few. Joggers and cyclists. Council workers cleaning up the verges. Dog walkers. The canal itself still takes a barges or two, laden with coal, gravel or scrap metal, but as long as it is not frozen this is a place that belongs to the grey herons and mallards and the rowers with their metronomic strokes and heavy breathes. Their coaches ride ahead on little motorboats, issuing commands through a loudhailer, the only sound competing with the jet engines of the planes as they come into land.

In the summer, with the allotments in full swing and the path part of a major cycling and walking route, the canal bank will be alive with people. Alongside the rowers there will be kayakers on the water. The smell of barbecues and the sound of pop music from the gardens. The ringing of impatient bicycle bells. In the winter it returns to the edgelands. An in-between place. On the opposite bank from the path, smoke rises up from a houseboat in the shadow of a young offenders unit. Workers park their cars in front of steel and glass office blocks serving an airport well past its sell by date. Beyond the high fences, all is quiet and still in the army barracks built for an occupying army that left decades ago.

Places get their character from their surroundings. From the tennis club and the gardens. The proximity of the airport and the still waters of the canal running through the middle of the scene. But they also get it from the weather. From the season of the year. From the time of day. Now, with the rowers out of sight and earshot, everything on the canal bank is calm. Even the planes seemed to have stopped taking off or coming in to land. Winter mist above the water. The sudden movement of a jay, spotted through the trees. A siren in the distance.

A large branch, felled by the storm and not yet dealt with by the council workers, blocks the path. It doesn't matter. This is far enough. It's time to turn back.

Poetry of place: Chalybeate, by Evie Connolly

IMAGE: Evie Connolly

IMAGE: Evie Connolly

Chalybeate
(from a visit to Gorthaclode)

Do truths find their way home? Are there
imprints left behind from centuries before, when
smoke and steel drove paths beneath
amaranthine skies, through rolling forests
ablaze with oranges and golds? The spa well
spills its secrets into the pools of colour
collecting in the millrace and along the weir and
in the trout streams. 

In the shadow of a blasting furnace, iron water
was collected by the bucketload and pilgrims
soaked in the chalybeate spring. The
Gorthaclode Spa was hailed as miraculous
before events and circumstance dissolved a
ritual into history and stories were hidden in the
rivers and streams.  

Does a landscape summon its stories home?
Does an element return to its source over and
over?

Sitting along a pathway at Gorthaclode are
wagons loaded with steel as they wait patiently
for an old railroad to return to life. Sharing a
history with the crystalline rock birthed in the
soil and pulled home by the lodestone buried
in the hills, is this celestial metal merely finding its
way home and are we merely the transporters?

Evie Connolly lives in County Waterford, Ireland. Her poetry and short stories have been published in various literary journals and anthologies.
 

Breath

IMAGE: Louise Kenward

IMAGE: Louise Kenward

By Louise Kenward:

I sick up the last of my breakfast. Spittle drips on my arm and over the side of the boat. Diesel fumes mingle with sea and sweat. Anxiety has purged my stomach and pumps adrenaline in an attempt to stop me. I am compelled.

It is the second time I have reached this point, I cannot stay on the boat again, I cannot return to the shore without seeing for myself what lies beneath the surface.

Watched over by Mount Agung, I tip backwards over board and into the Indian Ocean. Weight and discomfort of my dive kit on land disappears with the horizon.

I suck at air, teeth gripping the mouth piece. It sits awkwardly, jaw aches, I'm holding too tightly. I adjust weight belt, tighten straps loosened by the water. The pressure gauge registers a full tank, clean tasteless air. I have already checked these things twice.

I am last to dip beneath the waves. Air released from buoyancy jacket, I am weighted down with equipment and 6 kilos around my waist. Despite this, I struggle to sink. Instinctively I take a deep breath before putting my head back under water. I bob up to the surface again. Looking down I watch others as they drop through the door to an other world. I continue to pull, to knock, it is jammed. Resistance of water against my body is too great. The blue beneath me tantalises and terrifies.

I'm being pulled down. My right leg is being tugged below me, dragging me under. I realise the need to push at this door, not pull. I let go of the breath I've been holding and slowly, slowly sink.

My first breath beneath the waves. Colour scattered blue, movement of fish, glitter and gold. Constant motion and total stillness. Swollen bubbles escape my mouth joyously as I descend further. Three, four, five metres deep. Submerged in water, a return to the womb, to the source of life, a time before evolution brought legs and lungs. A sanctuary. Yet life is taken as easily as it is given, stolen by cruel and unsentimental seas. A careful balance of body, air, water. It is easy to perish, to dissolve into saline. I try to swallow, for airways to adjust and regulate pressure in air cavities. I shift my jaw, willing ears to pop. Swallowing with the mouth piece is difficult. I bite down hard, swallow, ears release. I drop further.

Ten metres. I realise my buoyancy and its control is the biofeedback of my breath - my body acts as a balloon. I inhale, lungs swell, I rise up. I exhale, lungs deflate, I fall deeper. Having risen and fallen with initial breaths, I am now learning to pace inhalations, exhalations, slow, deep, breath. Steady, calm breath. An exercise in stillness, a meditation. The whole of my body is needed to focus on this one thing. Body connects breath, breath connects body.

Fifteen metres deep and I have never been so aware of my own breath. Never before have I had to attend so carefully or so completely to inhaling and exhaling. Rib cage expanding and contracting. It is more than concentration - to think about what I am doing I may lose control - I am a whole, mind and body acting as one.

Elusive, delicate, fragile breath. Mouth open, organ of life, pulls in air. Lungs, heart, connected, pumping blood, sustaining body. Twenty metres. Slow, full breaths. Senses alert. Mind quiet. Air swells from regulators as I exhale. Steady, measured, breath. All I can hear is the escape of bubbles to the surface and the crunching of parrot fish on coral beneath me.

I sink further. I look more closely, orange and white clown fish dodge the caress of pink tipped anemones. Wide flat laced table corals shelter blue and purple nudibranchs - tiny molluscs the size of a finger nail wearing their lungs on the outside of their highly decorated bodies. Delicate red sea fans sway gently as yellow tipped black and white striped angel fish glide past. There is an abundance of life quite oblivious to my presence. I watch, I drift, all feels at peace, all feels just as it should be.

Slipping through depths the gentle grip the ocean has taken does not let go. I do not ask it to. The further I descend, the tighter grasp the sea takes of me. Temperature drops, light weakens, I surrender to it. All consumed, it holds me. Immersion of body and mind. My pulse gently beats in my ears.

Sense of time is lost. I check the pressure gauge, I am running out of precious air. The spell broken, I have to surface. Again, gradually, slowly, I readjust my body to changing pressure. Rising too quickly is as risky as not rising at all. Emerging upwards warmth returns and sunlight dusts my face.

I return again and again. A calling of the sea sings more loudly than before. A sense of arrival, of coming home when I stand on the shore. A restful calm descends and envelops me, a sense of other, of completeness. Shoulders fall, breath quietens, thoughts calm. I am now embedded in molecules of ocean and they in me.

Louise Kenward is an artist engaging with place and person, past and present. Making journeys, writing, connecting. At times accompanied with 19th Century Victorian traveller, Annie Brassey.