Last Orders

Towards the end of the last century, on a boozy night in an Edinburgh pub, it became apparent from the nudges, whispering and giggling that the young women at the next table were considering the possibility that I might be somebody famous. I was in my twenties, still sporting a full head of hair, and wearing a seedy leather jacket that I thought made me look edgy and sophisticated; the idea that I might actually be an interesting and famous person was not entirely preposterous. Nature called, and I set off to the toilets with the intention of walking past my new groupies and maybe finding out who I was supposed to be. Unfortunately, I tripped and fell headlong, faceplanting next to their table. As I began to haul myself back up, one of them peered down at me and said to her pals, “Naw, it’s no him”.

The spurious reason for shoehorning this tale into what is really an account of a walk out in the Fens, apart from the indulgence of reminding myself that I was once young and desirable, is that, in some respects, I am still trying to find out who it is that I really am. The cocksure certainties of youth have long passed by and I am left with the insidious creep of middle aged doubt. My usual solution to this sort of maudlin nonsense is to march out of the house and walk it off, but, for a while, that had become less effective. Rather than serving as a distraction, walking was allowing me to dwell and ruminate, churning stuff over and over in my head. Happily, that tendency seems to be fading, but perhaps my long solo walks are best avoided for the time being. Much better instead then to find a companion and, even better still, to set out with some purpose in mind. To this end, on a grey and unprepossessing day in early March, I dragged my son out into the boondocks, somewhere to the east of Ely, on a quest to find the fabled Waterman’s Arms.

In truth, I have been out this way before – back in the midst of lockdown at a time when there was uncertainty about what we were or were not permitted to do. Not that social distancing was ever going to be a problem out here; on that occasion and, as it turned out, on this one too, there was nary a soul to bump into. Now, that really was a bleak day – a heavy pewter sky, the river a muddy brown, even the grass seemed to be lifeless, as if I had strolled into a Rothko painting. It was spectacular in its gloom, entirely in keeping with the pandemic; a thrilling monotony until a flock of redwing and fieldfare, bustling and noisy, broke the silence and provided relief. I’d walked south along the river bank for a few miles, battered by the wind and rain, when I came upon a fence, beyond which was an extraordinarily dilapidated wooden building.

It looked as if it was a private property; a handful of sheep and some horses were grazing, scrap metal lay around while a smattering of unwelcoming signs which, although not exactly saying “keep out”, weren’t encouraging either. I was curious – I hadn’t spotted it on the map (which indicated that the path carried on along the towpath) and was half tempted to explore. However, even if the path had carried on, the Amityville vibe was enough to put me off. I turned tail and headed back, quite unaware that I had stumbled upon the remnants of an ancient boozer.

Two years on, we set out once again along the river, but this time crossing the bridge so that we can walk along the east bank. It’s a funny old place – one of the more isolated spots in the Fens, tucked away from the main roads and the hustle bustle. There is no passing traffic down here, unless you count boats, so it surprising to find what is a fairly decent sized community. Judging by the parish church, the chapel and the old school, now all converted into private residences, it may once have been even bigger. There is now a distinct off-grid feeling about the village, a real sense of independence. It isn’t classically pretty – it’s a hotchpotch of old cottages, narrowboats and cruisers, new builds, caravans, farmyards, crumbling stables, rusty tractors, derelict vehicles sitting on bricks, snarling dogs on chains. But it has that hard to define appeal that you get with the homely and improvised; the charm of beach huts and garden sheds, allotments – that kind of thing. Comforting even, or it would be if the dogs would ever pipe down.

We are soon beyond the village, marching along the raised bank that lifts us high above the surrounding country. This is open territory, but the views on this dank day are not inspiring – the real interest is on the river. The usual gathering of moorhens and ducks are busy getting on with it while a kestrel, hovering over the opposite bank, keeps a wary eye on us. A whistling call alerts us to a pair of kingfishers skittering over the water, adding lustre to the occasion. We are still at the tail end of winter, and there isn’t much song about at all. To be honest, it isn’t really the weather for singing, although a determined blackcap brings some momentary cheer.

The river eases to the left and there, across the water, emerging from a scatter of trees, is the Waterman’s Arms. It doesn’t look like a pub, not even a ruined one, and could easily be mistaken for a barn, if it weren’t for the upstairs windows and chimney giving the clue that this was once a residence. It closed in 1956, presumably as the trade from passing bargees dried up, rendered obsolete by road and rail, and has been left to sink slowly into the Fen ever since. The idea that this place was once alive to the sound of shouts and laughter, with the smell of food, beer, tobacco and woodsmoke drifting out across the river, and the lights from the pub reflected in the dark water; well, it’s almost impossible to imagine now, as we gaze over at the ramshackle building. We listen, but there is no echo of what once was. And that’s the point really – existential worries over who I am or amn’t, do not matter a jot in the scale of things. Time will pass and we will fade away, regardless, as will the jobs we do, the pubs we drank in, the streets we walked along. The important thing is to use that time before it has already passed. Seizing the day can be easier said than done but, being out here, with the cool wind on my face and the suggestion of rain in the air, feels like the right way to be going about it.

Last word goes to Mary Oliver, from a poem called Good Morning

Bless the notebook that I always carry in
my pocket.
And the pen.
Bless the words with which I try to say
what I see, think, or feel.
With gratitude for the grace of the earth.
The expected and the exception, both.
For all the hours I have been given to
be in this world.

2 thoughts on “Last Orders

  1. Eric Wark you are a gem! Great piece of writing as always! Maybe speak at this few days as the clan gathers in Bowden. Unfortunately unlikely to see you when I visit later this month. Ageing isn’t so bad! 🤗🤗🤗❤️


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