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Friday, May 27, 2005

Downs Syndrome

"I don't know why they were called the 'South Downs'," I said, trying to kick off my battered and muddied shoes. "Frankly, it was a fuck-load more 'up' than 'down'.
With a final heave, my boots skidded across the floor, leaving dark smudges in their wake. My comedy housemate Jay frowned slightly.
"I'd arrange for an air-lift."
"What do you mean?"
"Helicopter up there, look around, and then pile back down. See? 'Down'. That's probably what they did in Roman times. When they got the name."
He'd been down the pub since lunch time, and was over-emphasising everything. Including, most probably, his imaginary correctness.
"I don't think they had helicopters in Roman times, dear."
"No, but they had catapults."
There was a gleam in his eye I didn't like, so I made my excuses and left.

It's widely known I don't do nature.
I like pictures of it - it is, after all, very beautiful. Get me a coffee table book that I can leaf through, full of gorgeous shots of squirrels being squirrelly, and sunsets unsurpassed. But the reality is mud, muck, rain, exposure, wind, spiders and well... nature. Process it, box it up and stick it in a conveniently appointed museum with a nice gift shop at the end, I think I'd finally be able to appreciate the majesty of our splendid emerald isle. But as I slipped and slid up on the sheer, mud-coated slope and skinned my hand on a tree as I tried to steady myself, each squelching step expanded my imaginary lovely museum exhibit to have the most marvellous café too - nothing with those awful brown plastic trays, but somewhere with a table service.
The Wife, of course, was already having a marvellous time and had been gambolling around since we'd left the train station. He's an Aussie farm boy of old, so is used to this green nonsense and had skipped across a field and already saved a sheep with its head stuck in a railing by the time I'd got myself detached from a inconveniently-placed barbed wire fence.
"Why didn't you bring your boots?" asked the Wife, bounding back from chatting with an ancient oak tree.
I looked down at my black work shoes and grumbled something about not having anything that matched them since I'd had my wardrobe culled. He looked at me like this was the most stupid thing he'd heard. I looked at him as this was the most stupid reaction I'd ever seen.
"Well look. There's not even a grip on them," he said. "You'll be buggered if it starts to rain."
"Rain? The BBC never said anything about rain!" I cried, looking up at the sheer mud cliff ahead of us. How backward was this countryside-thing that it wouldn't even be governed by that most bastion of institutions?
"I'm sure it'll be fine," he said with a placating hand on my arm. "Those clouds are moving pretty fast - the black ones will probably pass before they start to rain."
I looked on without his optimism.
...and the gift shop would have gorgeous little erasers with 'National Trust' on them in majestic gold lettering...

We sheltered under a tree in order to get out our umbrellas. The pregnant clouds had finally given up, and my sodden t-shirt was beginning to cling unflatteringly.
"Ha ha," I said. "Look at that, the people on horses are turning back. Do you think it's the weather?"
"I doubt it," said the Wife, bravely sticking out his hand from under the umbrella to wave as they passed.
The fat girl at the back of the group looked down from her kagooled vantage with a mixture of surprise and pity and galloped off towards the dry.

Fifteen minutes later:
"I don't care if it's Natural Trust property - get me a fucking cab. Now."

The third member of our merry, muddied band was the Wife's housemate Rob. He is one of my favourite people on this Earth, period, being so friendly, disarming good natured and interested in life - so much so that whenever he finds a new fact, he wants to share it with you like a kid picking up shells on a beach. So he hadn't left the house without printing out everything about the area - potential places to visit, routes of interest, cab companies... you name it, it was documented in his little plastic folder. He was our own walking In sandals.
We knotted together in the pub, perusing his printout masterplan and trying not to drip rainwater on them. Rob had found us somewhere quite close to stay, though I was naturally dubious:
"We can go here?"
"I think so. I'll just make a phone call."
"They have a phone?" I asked, completely thrown.
It turns out they did. And that is how we all ended up in a Buddhist monastery in the middle of nowhere, watching The Eurovision Song Contest.

Some time later, the sun was out and we'd climbed to what looked like the top of the world.
The Wife was beaming from ear to ear, and had managed to acquire an ice-cream from somewhere.
"Beautiful, yeah?"
I nodded, sitting down on the grass. Rob joined us, also with ice-cream, as we looked over the lip of the hill and the most incredible vista beyond. The land splayed out before us, dropping down the hill and receding in patchwork fields as far as the eye could see all in the most luxuriant greens. We were so high up we were level with the clouds covering the land below. If my life had a soundtrack that wasn't Girls Aloud, this final stumble up the grass for the final moment of revelation would have been scored in that overly-ceremonious way of John Williams.
And we sat in companionable silence for some time, admiring the view and watching the clouds rumbling past like leviathans.
After a few moments, Rob went off to phone for a taxi. The Wife leapt up and held out his hand for me.
"There's a gift shop up there," he said, indicating to where the pub was. "Shall we go and see if they have any National Trust erasers?"
I grinned.

Two monuments of interest on the South Downs.
One: it turns out the pub at the summit was called 'The Devil's Dyke' - which I found far too funny, but probably was suffering from low oxygen at altitude. I giggled as I snapped away at it on my camera-phone, thinking of at least three people I could send it to with the subject line 'Lick you were here'.
Two: the monastery had its very own stone circle. The Wife and I pranced around it at midnight when everyone else at the retreat was asleep, pretending to be worshipping Hecate.
"Here, feel this," he said. "They're all warm..."
I felt my way around them in the moonlight. "Well. Apart from this one."
He wandered over. "Hmm. You're right."
We called over to Rob, who was on the outside of it enjoying a ciggie, and asked him what that particular stone was.
He looked at the sign. "Heart, apparently," he replied.
The Wife and I shared a look.

The Wife had never seen the Eurovision Song Contest before. It had obviously had a big effect for, as we walked along the following morning, he was happily whispering "France-ten-points... Fran-say-dizz-points! Malta-twelve-points... Maltee-dooze-poins!" to himself. We were making good headway thanks to no mud and some sunshine, and had now reached the tiny hamlet of Small Dole. Or to give it the correct title 'Small Dole 2000'. This was according to the metal sign that proudly stood at one end of the high street. Which comprised a bus shelter, a Londis supermarket and a pub, before being bookended by another 'Small Dole 2000' sign. We tried the pub - and got told by the landlord that it wasn't open. It clearly was. And it was equally clear that they Don't Like Strangers.
We regrouped by the bus shelter, plainly spooked by the whole affair.
"It's like Royston Vasey," said Rob, scowering the map for the nearest road out of there. "We're not 'Local' enough."
"Perhaps 'Small Dole 2000' is the population," I said. "And it's cast in metal because it's been like that for centuries. Every time someone gives birth, they shotgun an old lady."
And at which point, a grey-haired woman hurried out of the store, leapt into her car and drove off with some speed, accidentally giving credence to the whole thing.
The bus was coming in 20 minutes. It was only fair that, after we'd tried the pub - to no avail - and bought some crisps from the supermarket, we should do the only other thing in town and use the bus stop. I booted some stones into the road while we waited and Rob idly picked at the rusted drawing pins that had been hammered into the telephone pole next to it.
"Hey! This must be where they put the 'Missing' notices!" he said. We laughed for a moment until we looked further and further up the pole: the surface was completely encrusted in corroded drawing pins like barnacles on a whale.
And when we sped out of town on the bus, we didn't look back.


kim said...

Catapultam habeo. Nisi pecuniam omnem mihi dabris, ad caput tuum saxum immane mittam.

Lee said...

'I have a catapult. Give me all of your money, or I will fling an enormous rock at your head.'

You charmer.

Mr Kenneth said...

What a fantastic entry! I especially like the vision of an Australian in walking boots, randomly scoring European countries in English and French. Val de ree, val de raa!

Rob said...

I used to live on the South Downs (albeit in a house, obviously.) It's full of villages that need the Miss Marple theme permanently dubbed onto them, crappy transport systems and the far right.

It only served to instill in me the certainty that I'm a city boy at heart.

cyberpete said...

...and they could sell those wristbands with 'National Trust' on them in majestic gold lettering.

Christopher said...

Love the website!!

Snooze said...

Small Dole just sounds scary. Perhaps it's just as well they didn't welcome you into the pub. That might have been the last sighting of you.

Cheryl said...

Just in case it's the Brighton Devil's Dyke, I found you a site where you can watch the summit on webcam, warm indoors. Muahahaha.
There, you didn't even need to go, except for the rubber.

Local rumour says that Royston Vasey (the town, not Chubby Brown)was thought up after a trip to Rottingdean , and that Walmington on Sea was based on Seaford. I bet you can believe that right now, too.