Back To The Fen
(by
Alex Mitchell )


I liked living out in the Fen, near Christchurch, well enough whilst I was still a kid – not that I had anything to compare it with – but I became bored with it in my teens, about that age when you start to find girls more interesting than tractors. The worst thing about being down our drove-road was the difficulty you had meeting other people your own age, what with the distances and there being no late bus service from Wisbech or March. There wasn’t much choice of mates, girlfriends or future partners, not if you didn’t want to end up as Joe and Doris Normal. We all kick against what we are, where we came from, what we are headed for. Some kids’ parents had moved to the Fens to protect them from the evil influences of the big city. The upshot was that we became absolute suckers for every evil influence we could get our hands on, probably more so than city kids themselves.

There didn’t seem to be a great deal to look forward to; no proper jobs, not for we lads, anyway; no real prospect of getting a place of your own unless you settled for being trailer-trash, stuck in a freezing cold caravan in some farmer’s cowfield. The Fen villages were just fading away. The smaller ones always had a kind of half-hearted or make-do appearance, like temporary staging posts in some dead-loss location in the Wild West of America. But now you could draw up a check-list and watch one thing disappear after another; High St. shops, family businesses from way back, the train service into town, the railway station itself, the late bus, then all the buses, the secondary school, the primary school, the cottage hospital, the doctor’s surgery, the public library, the banks, the police station, the vicar, then the church itself, the Post Office and then, the last thing of all to go, the pubs.

We all knew of local lads, older brothers, whatever, who had moved to the city, Peterborough or further away, to find a job and a place of their own. They had a hard time finding work as a country boy with no local contacts, nobody to pull strings or put in a word for them. You had to live in a bedsit or whatever for years before they’d even put you on the waiting list for a council place, and even then, the best you could hope for was a flat on the worst crime & drugs-infested high-density estate on the outer edge of the city. So there we all were, stuck, with no way out, or round, or through. Whether you moved or stayed, there wasn’t much to get enthusiastic about.

In mid-life, most of us have learned to settle for things; to make some kind of accomodation with life; we are less inclined to waste time and energy kicking against the pricks. We look for compensations, accentuate the positive, or try to. Visitors to this region tend to see the Fen during the oppressive heat and drought of the East Anglian summer, when the landscape is flat, boring and monotonous. In winter, the same territory, between and around the Old and New Bedford rivers, serves as a flood-plain and becomes hauntingly, if austerely, beautiful and mysterious. The view southwards from the bridge at Welney, just along the road from here, is of the dead-straight, man-made river stretching out far ahead to its eventual conjunction with the blurred, misty-watery horizon between land and sky and the great red-gold ball of the setting sun. Immense curtains of mist glide vertically off the rivers and come rolling in from the water-meadows and fields. At these times, the rivers, the fields and the great dome of sky, mist and cloud merge and coalesce, the one into the other; at first pink streaked with gold, then gold streaked with silver, then silver fading into misty mauve, blue, grey, brown and, finally, ink-black, all of it mirrored throughout in the great flat infinity of slow-moving, near-static water, such that the fields and riverbanks seem to be floating in suspension between water and sky in a shifting, evanescent mass of refracted sunlight, mist, colour, cloud, river and sea. Areas of higher land and clumps of trees are seen in the distance only as sinister black islands. As day fades to night, a solitary individual - perhaps myself - stands on the bridge, poised between water, mist and sky; no longer a creature of terra firma, more a throwback to those pre-historic times when our earliest ancestors, the first and most inquisitive of the amphibious fish-things, flopped and slithered its way out of the water, through the mud and up on to the land.

What is it that draws us back to the water, again and again? Why do we feel such a sense of peace and tranquillity here, and nowhere else but here? Is this where the ancestral fish-thing in each of us feels most at home? Or are there still fishy things deep in there now, calling us home?

The Fen villages stand on what used to be islands of higher ground, surrounded until quite recently by marsh and fen. They were isolated communities, cut off from the outside world by the surrounding marshland and water. In the past, the Fens were a place of refuge for fugitives, outlaws and persecuted religious groups. The Fen people were nicknamed “yellow-bellies” on the basis of their aquatic way of life and because their ancestors were supposed to have interbred with the water-dwelling local wildlife of frogs, newts and toads. More to the point, the isolated character of the Fen villages, and the difficulty of travelling from one village to another, meant that the Fen communities were prone to in-breeding. This problem was eventually diminished by the draining of the Fens for purposes of agriculture and, as in other rural areas, by the advent of the bicycle, which allowed eager young lads access to girls in more distant communities and to distribute their genetic inheritance more widely in the process; but people still say that babies in the remoter villages are born with webbed feet.

We young lads all lived for the weekends. Come Friday night, the lads from the village and round about would get beered up at the Seven Stars, then piled into their Ford saloons and Morris vans and set off for the dance-halls in March or Wisbech, or perhaps Downham or Ely; wherever they had a late licence. Most nights, you knew who would be there. There might be one really lovely girl you and all the other lads dreamed about getting off with, and there would be the others, honest, plain-faced country girls built for endurance rather than style, broad of beam and sharp of tongue; too much like your best pal’s mother to be taken seriously as girlfriend material.

Funny how Dame Nature only seems to get it right about one time out of twenty. Most of us look like an experiment gone wrong. All we lads yearned hopelessly after the lovely Helen Atkins, the only daughter of Big Jack Atkins and way out of our class in looks, brains, social background, the lot; and ignored, at least until the end of the evening, the pairs of other girls dancing disconsolately around their handbags, there for the taking. The lovely Helen, for her part, had eyes only for my best mate, Andy Southwell. It’s strange how all the beautiful, talented people like Helen and Andy pick each other out of the crowd, as if by long distance radar, and how invisible the rest of us, we ordinary mortals, seem to be to them, as if we just didn’t exist. Funny how each up-and-coming generation thinks they’re the first to discover this particular game, that they’ve invented their own set of rules, when the game and the rules have always been much the same.

Andy liked his beer and the snooker table down at the Seven Stars even more than he liked spending time with Helen. For a time, Helen pretended to like the pub too, so that she and Andy could be together more of the time. After a while she got tired of being the only girl there, and would go and sit in the van by herself and wait for Andy to come out to her, which usually took until after closing time.

The Friday night in question, the four of us – Andy, me, Helen and her friend Susan, were at the dance in March. Susan and I had been sort of pushed in each other’s direction by Helen, and were still making up our minds about each other. She was nice enough, I suppose, but she was never going to be “the one”. Looking back, I wonder if I knocked about with Andy mainly so as to be near Helen. I liked neither the darts-and-snooker milieu of the Seven Stars, nor the fizzy keg beer of the period, but I thought it must be me who was out of step. Whatever the case, none of it did me any good at all. It wasn’t until much later that I finally gave up pretending to be one of the good ol’ boys.

Andy and I were up at the bar as usual, while Helen and Susan were in the dance hall itself. The worst thing about these dances was that, sooner or later, the lads from March would pick a fight with the lads from Guyhirn or wherever, usually on the pretext that somebody had tried it on with their girlfriend or sister or whatever. Lads were always trying to get off with Helen, and would then fall out on Andy or me in a fit of jealous resentment. I noticed two or three groups from previous encounters. The atmosphere was tense, threatening. It was time to exit the premises.

Andy has had a fair bit to drink, but he knows the road across the fen and home to Christchurch like the back of his hand, could do it blindfold. We’re cruising along, no problems, when a white Ford Escort pulls alongside and a lager can smashes against Andy’s side window. The Escort is crammed full of goons from the dance-hall, shouting and screaming foul abuse, mainly directed at Helen. They want us to chase them, want a race. Sober Andy wouldn’t have risen to the challenge, but drunk Andy does.

The back roads across the Fens are dead-straight, but narrow and undulating, being laid down right on top of the river-banks, where the alluvial silt provides a firmer base than would the peat-soil of the adjacent fields, most of which have shrunk and subsided down to a level well below that of the roadway, or even of the rivers themselves. It is easy to go off the road and plunge down into the river on the one side, or into the deep, steep-sided ditches draining the adjacent fields on the other side. Sections of the tarmac have subsided, or are crumbling at the edges, through lack of maintenance. I never understood why they wasted so much time at school warning us about unsafe sex and drugs when far and away the commonest cause of early death amongst our schoolmates was through motor accidents, cars going off the road and ending upside-down in a freezing-cold river or ditch.

As I say, the Fen roads are dead-straight for miles on end, until they take a sudden, often completely unpredictable, right-angled turn around the perimeter of some long-dead person’s land. Flying along at eighty-plus, the Escort in front of us suddenly clamps on the brakes to get around one such bend, losing the back end in the process. Andy doesn’t stand a chance, of course. Our van hits the spinning tail of the Escort and is tipped leftwards over on to its roof, then back on to four wheels again. I hear the girls screaming, as if in the far distance, but I’m unable to scream with them.

It takes me a while to come to, something warm trickling down my face. My right leg is at an unlikely angle and there are white shards of bone sticking out through my trouser-leg, below the knee, although I can’t feel anything yet. Andy is up against the steering-wheel, blood coming out of his mouth. Helen is between us, her head under the dashboard, not moving. Susan is lying on her front out on the bonnet; she must have gone straight through the windscreen, which is completely shattered. I can’t see her face, which is probably just as well.

A police car arrives, followed by an ambulance. I can only hear their voices, can’t see anything now.

“Smells like a brewery in here – suppose they’re all pissed as usual. Cover that one’s face, for God’s sake, I can’t look at her like that. It’s worse when it’s a girl.”

Helen was in hospital for weeks after the accident and her schooling was set back the best part of a year. She never got over an irrational sense of guilt regarding Susan’s death, and suffered nightmares and flashbacks for years afterwards. She became a much more subdued person, staying in nights working for her A-Levels with a view to studying medicine; her way out. She married a young doctor she met whilst at Durham University. She was the only one of our crowd who got away and stayed away; she never came back, except for her father’s funeral.

Andy never got over losing Helen; as so often, we take what we’ve got for granted, and only realise what we had once we’ve lost it for ever. He spent more and more time in the pub, between spells in and out of work in a rapid career descent from Barclay’s Bank in Peterborough to door-to-door insurance salesman in Lynn to garage mechanic in Denver to odd-job man back home in Christchurch. Andy was killed in a motor accident shortly after his 23rd birthday, when his car went off the Ramsey Forty-Foot road in the middle of the afternoon; no other vehicle was involved, but none of us was greatly surprised.

The Friday night dances were a cruel lesson in the realities of life and about where you stood in the pecking-order. Lads fought and competed over the lovely Helen Atkins, who wanted no-one but Andy, who in turn was inseparable from his drinking-mates down at the Seven Stars. Nice, plain-faced girls went home alone while the local lads drank themselves into a coma or got into fights with lads from neighbouring villages and towns. Nobody got what they wanted. As youngsters, we aimed high, stars in our eyes. Most of us learned to lower our sights and settled for the kind of life that was available to the likes of us, something on our level, somebody of our own class. We spent our salad days chasing rainbows, in pursuit of the lovely Helen, or others like her; but we mostly ended up marrying and settling down with one of those plump, plain-faced local girls, for better or worse. Some of us went away for a time, but we all came back sooner or later, because here is where we belong.

The back road between the Old and New Bedford rivers, my road home, is on a slightly lower level than the surrounding fields and water-meadows. Floodwater begins to spill off the fields and starts to trickle over the lowest section of the road ahead. Time to be getting back. This is what it will feel like when the world ends. This is what it will feel like for the last man left alive, as tidal waves cascade over the last remaining hillock of dry land.

Walking back in the near-darkness, I feel a sense of awe at the force and power of the huge expanse of water pressing up against the roadside; then sudden fear as it starts to pour through the grass verges on to the road in front of me. Each winter, the black water and the slimy fish-things try to reclaim the Fens; the really major floodings which used to occur every couple of decades now occur almost annually. There is a distant rhythmic swooshing noise as a skein of Brent geese come flying straight at me, returning to their favoured waterbank. I am invisible to them and they go slicing past, ten or so feet above me. I trudge along the grass verge as the road surface disappears beneath the water. I had thought the water to be static, but it is, in fact, flowing quite fast through the gaps in the verge and it is a real effort to splash through it. This is the worst part, the lowest dip in the road, midway between the two bridges. I should have come back earlier – ten or fifteen minutes would have made all the difference. I am having to make a conscious effort not to panic. The gaps in the verge are wider here and I have to leap over fast-running water. I am terrified that I might slip and fall into the swirling, inky blackness. I have an atavistic horror of the loathsome fish-things lying in wait down there, all pop-eyes and fins and teeth. I suddenly hear myself praying.

But the worst is behind me now. The road rises steeply to the bridge across the Old River and the lights of the Lamb & Flag. So good to see the road surface again, and to feel dry land under my boots. Safe on the bridge, I look back at the opaque watery blackness and shiver. I escaped, this time. But I know I will go back to the fen, and will keep going back, until such time as I escape no longer.