IS IT A ROPE OR A SNAKE?

IS IT A ROPE OR A SNAKE?

The most dramatic misperception I’ve ever experienced in my life, was almost exactly 30 years ago in the spring of 1990, when I was a youth of 39, didn’t need glasses for short or long distances, and had perfect hearing. I, my late wife Annie, and daughter Ione then 9 months old, were living in a very fitting location inasmuch as it had a strange hallucinatory identity, for it went by the name of the Debatable Lands, meaning where the English and Scots fought over the demarcation of the Border in the 16th century. Or to be more precise (and just to refute the heroic Carlisle Tourist Office account), where the Border Reivers whose favourite currency was stolen animals rather than bitcoins, raped, murdered, pillaged, stole each other’s cattle, and just to round things off nicely, burnt down each other’s farmsteads. We were renting a very old farmhouse in the far north east tip of Cumbria, about a mile from the Border where the latter followed the path of the much lamented and highly scenic old Waverley railway line between Carlisle and Edinburgh, and which also paralleled the route of the river Esk. The village we lived in, Penton, had a preposterous identity as it was composed of four separate hamlets all about 2 miles apart, some of whose names could not be located on any available map. There was Catlowdy where the Post Office and only shop were soon to close; then en route to the border village of Newcastleton, Roxburghshire was Bushfield, composed exclusively of forestry cottages… and between these poles was Penton itself comprising the railway station that had been closed for 20 odd years, and a small and touching riverside picnic area called Penton Linns. Half way between Penton and Bushfield was Nicholforest which subtended the handsome eponymous church and the imposing new village hall, and which is mentioned in Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet as ‘The Nickle Forest’. Many a map pinpointed Catlowdy and nothing else, so that the parent which is to say generic village of Penton where we lived apparently did not exist…

So it was that my 1990 hallucination happened on the usually trafficless road from Nicholforest church to the renovated railway station, both of which emphatically and tangibly existed that pleasant spring day, as much as myself and my 9-month-old daughter who I had in a pushchair, and whose locomotion usually encouraged her to have an extended afternoon snooze. For suddenly I saw before me at some 200 yards distance, a quite inexplicable vision. It would seem to be some bizarre reciprocal analogue of myself and Ione, inasmuch as I perceived a small child of say 8 to 10 years old was sitting on an armchair plumb in the middle of this remote North Cumbrian backroad and was facing my daughter and me. At first, I thought this furniture object was static, until no I realised it was intermittently and clumsily being propelled along in my direction. Weirder still, immediately behind the seated child was either what looked like a walrus (!) or an Old English Sheepdog which had its chin resting squarely on the back of the chair. I should point out at this stage that I hadn’t been drinking, nor was I on any medication or psychedelic stimulant, whilst also sheepishly confiding that the floridity of my vision does not end there. On either side of the sofa, which item is of course not as a rule propelled unlicensed along the public highway by a Lewis Carroll animal, were what seemed to be a pair of custodial or perhaps I mean heraldic flamingos.

Beat that, is all I can say at this point…

As I moved with extreme hesitation towards this Debatable Lands vision, after some 100 yards the mirage resolved itself into something a good deal more intelligible, albeit still very much an epistemological rarity. For a start it wasn’t a sofa that I was looking at, but a capacious wheelchair that was in the middle of the road and trundling towards me, a vehicle that was broader than the run of the mill kind, given that its occupant, an elderly and short lady was a bit on the stout and billowing side. The Alice in Wonderland walrus cum sheepdog I soon learnt was simply her old husband, who was white haired and had an enormous beard, and he was in the habit of regularly stooping down to chat with her, so that from a distance it seemed as if his walrus and/or Old English fizzog was permanently flush with her chair.

Nor were the flamingos flamingos, for they were in fact two beautiful peacocks, in themselves permanent exquisite hallucinations, two majestic pets kept by the gamekeeper who worked on the estate that this old couple lived on in a peppercorn rent cottage. The wheelchair lady fed them with the choicest of titbits, which obviously explained why the pair of them were following the old couple like ceremonial courtiers. The couple did not work for the estate, but as Harriet and Joe eventually explained to me the estate was looking for loyal tenants, long stay and reliable, not fly by night kids who would be here for a month or two at most. Then, after she had complimented the touching beauty of my sleeping daughter, Harriet told me from her wheelchair:

“Long stay alright.”

“Are you?” I asked her in all ignorance.

“You betcha! I ain’t going anywhere in the next five minutes …”

The next post will be on or before Friday 14th February

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