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The International Writers Magazine: Ceasar's Town - from our archives

The Forbidden City
Natasha Reid

There is a town, an average town, but one of great importance to me, that I can no longer see except in dreams. I can no longer go to it, through it, or even near it. It lies on the uninteresting A12, and started life as Cæsaromagus.

It has no outstanding features, except one: it holds my family home and I go there every night and have done for several years. I see every place and street and thing in my mind's eye, as if I stood before it, actual and always. Every brick of the house I grew up in and hated so much that I fled it repeatedly, only to return to its shadow.

The corner of the street where I turned my bike to zoom down the hill, where the house with the sad eyes stood, is as vivid now as if I were astride my first two-wheeler. In town is the cathedral, my favourite place, albeit small and insignificant in comparison to the great edifices found elsewhere in England. It still stands without any input from me; it doesn't notice my absence; if only the feeling were mutual. But, I can be there in the blink of an eye. I can walk across to it, as if attending again. I can sit in one of the pews that used to populate it, and hear the choir pealing its way through Evensong.

It is a sunlit Summer's evening as I watch John Jordan beat the choir into a rendering of Tallis, Byrd or Stanford. Light streams in through stained windows, warming the old wood, the whiteness and the cool air. And in the corner still stands the C16th memorial to the local landed gentry; boys on one side, girls on the other. Back outside, my father still walks with his fast and determined gait, shopping bags in hand, from County Hall towards the indoor market, ready to do battle with any traders who might rip him off a potato or two. His hat is forever wedged on his head and his gabardine always wrapped around. His shoes are excellent quality, but patched - a skill he learned in the '30s and '40s, when, he told me with reverse pride, he didn't even have the price of a cup of tea. On he walks, an embarrassing character to a teenager, for he was well-known around town for his eccentricities, apparent bonhomie with the girls in Sainsbury's and his thrifty ways.

Down the High Street and past the same shops that, today, you will find in any and all high streets. Character gone, replaced by corporate shop-fronts so the lost shopper need not trouble to search for something unique or unusual. Here they can buy the same article they omitted to buy in their home town. However, look beyond the repetitious signs and names; look upwards. The order and juxtaposition of these buildings are unique. The upper storeys mostly still reflect the higgledy-piggledy hotchpotch of a pre-war, Victorian and back to mediaeval, skyline.

I continue over the old stone bridge, which used to divide the main thoroughfare into two and still denotes the street's name change. On the right is a plaque where the old county gaol was, telling how a farm worker was prosecuted for the unspeakable love between him and a sheep, memorable to me because it was the date of my birthday.

Then, before me, is the dual carriageway that the Council, in its infinite wisdom, drove right through the middle of the town, destroying old houses, shops and streets in its way. Up the continuation of the high street, which, thankfully, has retained its individuality, at the minor expense of ease of passage, I remember every shop, and if not its name, at least its function. (Behind this part of the street is the car park where my mother and I parked, the day she was told she had cancer.) Further on, I pass the church where I was dragged to Sunday school, where we sang Christmas carols with one of my Junior schools, and where, to its rear, there was wasteland, now filled to capacity with box-houses.

I have turned left and am now faced with a choice; to continue straight ahead and past an old schoolmate's house, or turn right. I choose right, because that way I walk past the old church hall where I went to Brownies and Guides, and to so many bazaars where they sold those tiny dolls’ cradles, covered in white lace and cotton. (I also avoid passing the house where I wet myself as a little girl and was never allowed to forget it.

Now past the huge oak trees, which gave me somewhere to play, and the road, its name. We are back where we started, at the other end of the road, the bottom of the hill, by the college where I started to re-take my 0-levels, and gave up after one short term. I will stop here where the bend in the crescent prevents me from seeing my mother's house. It is no longer mine to visit; someone else lives there, making their own memories. My nocturnal visits are an invasion that I cannot avoid, but there is no need to describe every nook and cranny to you. Its secrets will remain unknown, and one day, for example, someone will ascend to the chimney of that house and find the little message my maverick father attached up there, indicating the demarcation line between the two owners of the stack, and wonder what kind of strange person bothered, but there will be no-one to enlighten them.

Instead I continue up the road towards the old by-pass. On the left is the house belonging to an older boy, on whom I decided we should spy, as he was 'suspicious'. My playmates and I had a commando group, built tanks out of tea chests and hid in the bushes and trees of the park that I am now approaching.

Before me stands the old by-pass, built in the 1930s to relieve the old, straight Roman route through the town centre. (This by-pass is now by-passed by a by-pass that passes the town by completely.) I cross and go left here towards one of my junior schools and the waste land where we played in the secret hillocks and trenches. Opposite is the footpath, running between a cornfield and an overgrown walled orchard, once belonging to the mansion whose owners’ predecessors rest in the cathedral. Now there are houses where we used to play, but I can block them out, because my memories of play are stronger. I have seen enough. I yearn for a past that exists only in my nightmares. All are gone who made that a living, meaningful landscape.

No-one is left in that town to dilute the negativity and pain. For all that it is apparently a vibrant and expanding young city, it would be the loneliest place on earth. There is no-one except ghosts to visit, to talk to, no-one with whom I have a past. Going there would be devastating and therefore it might as well be immured by a hundred foot wall. In the time when, to a child, life stretches in front to infinity, I thought those people who made my life hell or heaven were there forever; that they would never leave me alone. Now that they have, I want them back so terribly. I can want as much as I like, but they cannot and will not come back and so the city I have forbidden myself, remains closed until further notice, whilst a heart by-pass is performed.

© Natasha Reid Jan 2008

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