I offer no apology for the way I occupy my time, although the world at large probably views it as rather sad. Most of us pass our lives without experiencing the feel of anything valuable in our hands, but who can say the long calm hours of patient searching are without merit?
I walked carefully, methodically over the field, the breeze tugging at my hair and whispering in my ears. A still day can bring serenity, but I prefer a gentle wind. The rustling from the copse, and a wave of shadow washing across the slope below, as the barley bowed its head, put me in mind of centuries of country walks, and of young couples lost equally in their surroundings and each other’s presence, as once we had been.
Having found the starting point, I put on my headphones and deployed the metal detector, stepping forward slowly, swinging the machine gently from left to right without varying its height, and listening for any alteration in the signal. After a while, the beeps of the detector encouraged me to my knees, and a little prodding with a trowel uncovered the source of its excitement. This was another day when I would open my diary and record: spent cartridges only. My detector was tuned to ignore old bottle tops, but I encountered them too. My collection in a plastic bag represented litter removal for the farmer, not a link to lost history for me.
We had picnicked on a distant day, in a place similar to this, floating away on the delight in each other’s eyes. I was elated by her wonderful personality, and we laughed frequently from sheer happiness.
At the club, it is true that some reinforce the public image of the pastime, being the meeker members of society, some with a passion for recording which bus routes they have travelled. Nevertheless, there is good conversation, and a preponderance of those who, like me, reach out for a connection with the past. Not for us the fantasy talk of great riches from a golden hoard, nor the mundane journeys to sandy beaches which yield last week’s watches and earrings. Rather do we care about the surreal and incomprehensible change which constitutes history, for without change there is no history.
When I spoke her name, she would turn with an eagerness expressed in the movement of her shoulders, and her face would glow. We could communicate with a glance, and understand from the merest hint.
In my personal history, there has been change. Meeting each other’s expectations was once the obsession of our lives. Later, a mismatch between expectation and reality became a source of criticism. We lost the skill to laugh at trivia, began to argue over the insignificant, and failed to discuss the truly important.
I could see she had changed, not only in behaviour, but also in what she needed, though I couldn’t work out what it might be. Her youthful deference of girl to man had enchanted me, but I shouldn’t have expected it to endure. She accused me of changing, too. If I could have seen through her eyes, I should have understood, but neither her explanations at the time, nor years of hindsight, left me anything other than blind.
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She never knew that I searched the fields with a metal detector, for I began only lately, and if we had stayed together I might not have begun at all.
A friend from the club invited me to his home, to admire some interesting coins. He had once been at the same company she used to work for. Like me, he was retired, and a pensioners’ magazine lay on his coffee table. I picked up the publication and casually turned pages. Sad I may be, spending day after day awaiting some resonance from the past, but as I glanced at the text I became sadder. An old person rides a bicycle over long distances, and this becomes a matter of public celebration; there is an appeal for anyone who remembers Romford branch as it was thirty years ago; and the editor apologises for misspelling a name in an obituary. Ah, the pages of the dead: name, age, date of death, last job title. Who would choose to sit with a cup of tea, hunting for familiar names in this gloomy litany? Then I, who searched so often without finding, now found without searching, and there, stark on the page, was her name. Date of death six months ago. I slowly closed the magazine and replaced it on the coffee table, politely took my leave, and walked away.
I wondered idly whether she had died alone or surrounded by people she loved, whether the end had been sudden or slow. Idly, because not only could I do nothing now, but I could have done nothing then. Events occur, and if you are not present, they are excluded from your past.
Taking my metal detector to the field, and carefully finding the starting position I’d logged previously, I spent several hours slowly sweeping over tufted grass, listening in vain for an echo of the lost past. As so often, there was nothing significant to record. Late in the afternoon, a silent flock of wood pigeons circled the sky, silhouetted against streaks of grey and blue. They flew in a vast arc, undulating above the field, gathering more and more until they wheeled away towards their roosts. I returned home, stored the equipment behind the ill fitting door of its cupboard, and climbed upstairs to the landing.
I opened the loft hatch, pulled down the ladder, and stared up at the dark square of the opening. Stouter and less agile than when I had deposited a hoard of old diaries amongst the rafters, I was nevertheless comfortable with the prospect of hauling myself up. It was worth the effort: I wanted to hold the diary in my hand, and to stare at the date and one line entry. No lyrical description was necessary, for I could conjure one from my memory. The shifting of leaves in the copse, and ebbing and flowing of a field of corn, were well remembered, and yet no more than background to an altogether more precious experience. I slowly heaved my bulk through the narrow opening, found the light switch, and surveyed a deep midden of forgotten papers and discarded books, archaeological strata layered across the loft floor. The small diary was well and truly buried, but no matter: I had the patience, and the dedication, to search until it was found.
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© Roger Woodward, 2013