"That’s the curse. I can’t speak in the present tense"
|Salisbury Cathedral, Aerial View|
Life welled up in the shadow of the building, a city that was named New Sarum, though it came eventually to be known as Salisbury. Events of historical importance blushed up in the streets, couples met and were married and grew old together, harvests were good or else failed, falcons nested on the spire, and the invention of the aeroplane meant there had to be a light bulb at the top, which someone sometimes had to climb up and change. House prices rose and kept rising and took flight, drink killed too many, and young men and women fell in love, and some of the sex was good and some was forgettable. The song went on. Five rivers ran together, and the earth sang in celebration at the top of its voice, a music hidden in the details of the everyday, in the footfalls of thousands of locals, the ringing of cash registers, the great soaring dream of the spire.
Salisbury Cathedral is the most beautiful building I have ever seen. I don’t quite mean the look of the place. Buildings are not beautiful because of their shapes or patterns, the bricks or stones that make them. What are transfixing are the ideas and dreaming and longing they encase. They stand as memorials to the lives of the people who made them, who raised the money to raise the walls, who buried the men who fell from the scaffolding. What I see when I watch Salisbury Cathedral cutting the air is a diagram of prayer, the hope at the centre of my life expressed as the burning arrow of the spire shot into the sky, asking us to look up beyond the everyday, see the size and possibility and quietness of the landscape, and imagine something greater than we are. It asks us to stop walking and think. It demands we look outside ourselves.
I have stared at that spire every night for a year now, and I think it is the purest picture of the human heart I have seen. It seems to me from this vantage point that the city has been built as an illustration of the way all our ordinary acts, our cups of tea and walks to the postbox and phone bills and potato peelings, are shot through with a heartbreaking and extraordinary love. That there exists in all of us a song waiting to be sung which is as heart-stopping and vertiginous as the peak of the cathedral. That is the secret meaning of this quiet city, where the spire soars into the blue, where rivers and stories weave into one another, where lives intertwine.
And I thought, I wish I had big enough words I could do something for her. I wish there was some fucking thing I could say. I wish I could get out the feelings I’m feeling and make a river of them and help her.
And then I thought I wish I had what she had. I wish I had something worth losing.
He was the tallest boy there, and I knew from the minute I walked in he’d picked me. Sometimes you can feel it, like gravity. Wherever I stood in the room I could tell where he was, which corner of the room and when he was listening to me. Like he was a plughole and sucking me into the middle of the world, cos I always thought the middle of the world was where he was after that evening.
Most of us are fucking suitcases buffeting our way through lost luggage, aren’t we?
I lived a lot of places in my wandering years. [..] I never found people anywhere with sticks fucked further up their arses than Smallsbury, though. But some reason or other I still ended up coming home. That’s what people do. That’s our lives. We don’t pick em, we’re born living them, and there is such a thing as home, you see.
Mum looked after me like she always has. I don’t know why I’ve always been so bad to her. If there’s one thing I regret it’s how old she is now and how long she’s had to put up with me acting the fucktard, cos even if I apologised now, even if we kissed and made up, it wouldn’t matter. She’d still have spent most of her life with me like a cloud over her shoulder, she’ll always have had all that shit in her life even if she forgives it. That’s why I’ve never tried to make up, I guess. No point, really.
Grief’s not like a cancer, doesn’t go when the operation’s done and the darkness is out. It’s a knife wound. Take out the blade and you still got the bleeding, wait long enough and it turns to a scar, but it’s always with you the rest of your life.
We’ve all got someone it turns out we ought to have loved, a job we should have taken. My trouble is when I sit still, when I look at what’s happened to me, I can see my real life, the life I should have been living, going on just under the surface of the world around me, and I can’t get at it. It’s like there’s another me just under the skin, who I buried there, who’ll never get out, who could have had such a fucking life but instead she’s had to watch me have this one.
But that’s what it’s like when you live in a small place. All kinds of ways of being survive you might think would have vanished long ago, because people don’t know they’re weird if you don’t tell them.
I’m haunted by that. The way I was dumb and never told him how I felt about him. My life these days is like one of those long walks home after you’ve lost an argument, when you think of all the things you should have said in the heat of the moment. When you’re confronted by the person you could have been, should have been, the witticisms that might have carried the day. These days I can’t stop telling stories to myself, because I want to be eloquent next time something happens in my life. It’s so strange when a song or a story can do that, put your own feelings into words as if you’d hidden them there yourself. I can’t do that. It’s only afterwards I can ever work out what I felt about anything. That’s the curse. I can’t speak in the present tense. That’s what I wish I could change.
Barney Norris - Five rivers meet on a wooded plain (Doubleday-2016)