In the Back Seat

Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, April 11, 2018.

In the back seat you observe the journey from a different angle and your eyes are free to wander from the road ahead. The space of the back seat is exactly the right size so that you can lie across it if you want to, and pretend to sleep.

In the back seat, the time is not now; it is unending horizons, the space of a snowflake. The map isn’t an accurate one, but a blend of the real and imaginary, where different journeys can merge together and become one. In the back seat you are always travelling home, the sky darkening around you.

In the back seat you are transported. It is the perfect mode of non-navigational travel. Protected and vulnerable, the fuzzy blanket of childhood, the one which lets you dream in peace, the window framing images of the world passing by.

The back seat is the site of stories and of daydreams, the ones which come without being summoned, like a ritual to trace over the back of your hand. The speed and the motion allowing glimpses, partial and unformed, always passing and never fully realized. From the back seat I am always looking for places that will tell me stories.

From the back seat you watch the road in a different way, through the side window. Counting the boundaries along the road as they flash by swallowed up, each the same as the next, never to be seen again. The road signs going past so quickly, but looking back means being left behind, means missing the next one… The names of places take on a mythical aspect. The Devil’s Elbow…

My favourite journeys. The ascent to the moors, that gradual climb, the winding roads, the fields, the dry stone walls, the lost villages, the farmhouses which become more and more spaced out. It is breath taking to look around, to see below, laid out like a memory, the valleys, and to feel transported from it all.

The ascent to the moors. And when you’re up there it’s like a plateau where time feels different. Slowing down for the sheep walking along the road. Always wanting to stop and give them a hug. Looking through the window at those hills which always seem out of bounds somehow, they are boundless.

With my eyes I follow the trails, the trodden paths fading away to nothing. A place to be on the run, a fugitive landscape. Bleak, high and unyielding, this landscape without shelter, where only sheep could live, boulders next to the sky. A place where people seem out of place, those tiny walkers and climbers, a place to get lost in. The sheep, already prepared with their solid feet, their warm and waterproof coats. Even the footpaths look out of place somehow, as if you would drift away from them, bidden by some siren song, away into a parallel landscape far from anywhere.

– Tell us about the time when mum got stuck in a bog!

In the back seat, I listen to stories of walking up here and straying from the footpath. Imagining my mum stepping in the bog, her foot sinking, my dad trying to pull her out….

– Oh no, please don’t tell that story…

No, don’t tell it, but do… because it fills me with trepidation and excitement all at once. Imagining what it must be like, the foot caught, being pulled downwards into the bog, sinking into the earth. Like a trap laid by the hills themselves, to warn us away and keep us from venturing too far. Imagining the bog a living entity. How would you know it was there? How would you stop yourself from sinking?

In the back seat we make up stories about the passers-by, the lone runners and cyclists become fugitive too. Where are they going? They are criminals for sure, escaping the scene of the crime.

The forlorn houses on the edge of the hills seem like the last outposts, just below the clouds, or at the edge of an ocean. Waking each day to their desolate spectre, misty ocean, stretching as far as the eye can see. Full fathom; acres of rolling seas.

The part of the road where it feels like you’re flying – long and straight through a ravine cut into the hills. Scammonden Dam on a school trip. The sun shines and we draw sketches of pond skaters, and they tell us about the village sunk underneath the reservoir. This takes on mythical proportions for me, as the story of Pompeii.

– Look there’s Damian’s house.

– Who’s Damian?

– A friend of mine. He lives in that little house by the water. Hello Damian!

– Does Damian really live here? But doesn’t he get lonely?

– There he is, look he’s waving. Hello Damian!

– Can we meet him?

– Well, he is very shy.

Sometimes getting out of the car and knocking on the door of the wooden shack next to the water, and peering through the tiny windows calling out ‘Damian, Damian’… sometimes driving past and waving.

– Can we visit Damian?

– Damian isn’t in today.

The reservoir, high up and dramatic like a coal black furnace, the clouds dark grey with fury, or sad and open, the land of twilight blue. The cast of the hills above Meltham dark and alone, rain clouds the view towards them.

The backseat on the way home at night. The lights of the towns and the strange psychedelic lights of the motorway, sometimes well lit, high up, laying out the wasteland below them in empty, white, measured light. Sometimes the roads have barely any visibility, and it is then that you follow the red taillights in front, and the lights of the oncoming cars, creeping stealthily through the shadows. What can and can’t be seen conjures up a thousand travelling possibilities, the countryside spread out in darkness, the cat’s eyes in the road reflecting back our own intrepid lights. Let me tell you about cat’s eyes, you say…

The darkening sky marks the inside space of the car out as mysterious, and the driver into further reaches away. Silence is the place where the flickering miles creep by. I must remain awake, alert. My job is to monitor the surrounding landscape and I keep a vigil, keeping my dad company on our journeys together. While the inside of the car is shrouded in mystery, the seats, the objects; I can form a silent communion with the outside, familiar but cast anew. I am reflected in the window, my own features becoming one with the scenery outside, the recognisable call of the forehead, nose and lips, the eyes. Blinking lights fall into them and are swallowed up. Following the road of my own thoughts as you would trace the line of a headland. Like existing with your own ghost beside you; the self which ends and is endless.

In the back seat it is always the journey home at night and looking outwards becomes looking inwards. Crossing the high dark moors, the scattered lights of the houses seem fragile, the road seeming to melt once more into the hills as it is engulfed by the descending blackness all around.

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