There is a town called West End, and to those who were not born there, I suppose it is not much. It is a place of very old buildings and very old hills, a circular place, and a mossy one. It straddles a road, which crosses a brook in the middle, so that the town would be divided into quarters, if you were to view it as the birds. Pinched between the border of Wales and the lapping sea, which throbs on the slopes only a few miles away, it is not a very tidy place.
To use a popular, if unoriginal turn of phrase, “if you blink, you might just miss it.” I suppose that this is true, especially considering the modern rate of blinking and missing things both.
As I said before, if you were not born there, you might not appreciate it for what it is. I suppose the same could be said for much of the country. It is damp, and cold. Then, we had rain. Now, I suppose there is golf.
I myself was not born there. But through a process that I like to call “geographical osmosis,” I daresay that there is as much of that rain in my blood as there is in any native. I spent a total of thirteen years in that town, between the age of nine and twenty-seven. It was a long stage without blinking, I suppose. I was frozen in a time and place quite separate from the rest of the world.
This account is not, technically, about West End. And it is not technically about me, either. It is about time. And particularly, it was about the time that I spent in that place. So in that manner, I suppose we are all star characters, West End, Time and I, each playing our parts. But more on this later.
As I said before, it was a circular sort of place, as many places are circular, I have found. There were two churches, one at either end of town, and on opposite sides of the brook, into which the entire population were divided. I would be lying if I said that the population was divided equally. And I would be lying if I said that I found myself in less popular of the divisions.
Suffice it to say that one was Catholic, and one was Anglican, and I was one of the two. If there were any members of the township who did not frequent either one or the other, they kept themselves well secret from the public eye (though I do not doubt, now, that they existed).
There was, behind the Catholic church, the graveyard. And here, I would draw all attention, before I drew it anywhere else.
The dead outnumber the living, in West End; the graves are far more than the houses. And there, where the great memorial stones are all heaped up and sloping, the ground uneven and the whole world painted green by the rain and the moss, are three stones that I have found my feet at many times.
To read the names from them would be to give away the ending to this story, and if I were to do so, I am afraid that I would find it hard to see a point at all.
But I am of the opinion that I must start at the end. While it may seem to defy tradition, are not all stories told from the end? Indeed, I submit that they are all told post res, after things, with the exception of, I suppose, diaries.
This is not a diary. Neither is it, though I suppose it shares characteristics with, an autobiography. For you see, this story is not about me. In particular, perhaps this story is not about much of anything. But, while I am not its center, I must bear the misfortune that it does, in large quantities, feature me as a character. I suppose, as a play features an actor. But this is not about the actor; I intend, rather, to capture the story as a whole. And therefore the events I shall record are those that depict the merging of life; where my story encountered others, and I was changed by it.
You see, this is a story about Time, Death, Rain, Love, Old People and Young People and a Circular Town at the end of the world. It is a story about tombstones and not blinking, about staring at stars and being bitten by horses. It is a story about life, but not my life; all life. And simply how I came to understand my place in it.
If I must describe it more, I must make the premature declaration that all lives are stories. I shall not defend this assertion quite yet. But if you bear with me for a while, imagine this particular manuscript to be a collection of highlights. Mere scenes and images.
For, while many of us like to imagine our own stories as great, complex tomes (written in muscular verse of some High Greek or Hebrew), they are more like picture books than anything else. Simple enough for a child. (But dear God, such stories as all children must be kept from.)
I shall not recount, in this story, all the endless hours I spent, in that year of rain, or those that followed, wasting my time in endless bouts of solitaire, or the whole afternoons lost in the limbs of the beech tree in the garden, or the days I spent hunting the cat beneath the furniture with the broomstick in my hand, or later the whole nights I spent beneath that moon, watching eyes that were surely not as impressed with mine as I was with them.
They are chapters to be skipped, in this account, for they are not the point. Rather, I would show pages. Glimpses at a life, at the turning points that it encountered. If one were to skim the entirety of my life, as one might skim some haughty volume of the classics (I flatter myself), I believe that these are the dog-eared-est, the worn-est. To them I have turned often. To them, I turn even now.
And I know not how many times I shall turn to them again.
And therefore, we must begin not at the beginning, but at that point where, finally, the beginning seems clear.
We start at the end. In a graveyard, in a circular town, where my feet know the path to three graves, and shall learn their way to a fourth, and eventually find themselves permanently at a fifth.
I stare at the names, and try to imagine what sort of people were (and are) attached to each. Like trying to guess books by their cover. But with people, it is still more impossible. I see whole lives jotted down in inscribed letters, as though they could be entirely summed up in only a few words.
Names and summaries. Synopsis. Book titles. A line, or two, in verse or in prose, to determine the entire measure of a life. To determine the complete worth of an existence.
Amidst a horde of planted corpses, a garden quite the opposite of the sacred Eden, standing before that grave I stood before when it was filled, now years ago, there are words that I knew. Words that I paid to have inscribed.
Words about time. About me, and a circular little town, and about a man who is now looking up at the sky and smiling. Those words were his words, and he wore them like the suit he was buried in; proudly. Uprightly.
The invisible train is coming, and it rattles the tracks. Its whistle blows for each and every man, in turn. You can either climb aboard, or be run down in its way. But it comes.
It is the beginning, and the end. That phrase. My feet in the moss, which were once bare, and are now bundled.
And now, you have seen the end. And I daresay, I grow ever nearer to seeing it myself. And so, we must return to the beginning, once more.
There is a bakery, in West End, on the north side, closer to the pastoral abode of the Anglican minister, in which there lived a baker who was well known for giving away his bread, when it was a day old and he was aware he could not sell it. He was generous, all things considered, when many were not.
On the side of his shop, where hung a sign, welcoming all newcomers to the township, there was suspended the quote, “Once you’re here, you’ve reached the end.”
This declaration was supposedly issued by the founder of the town, a famously hopeless sort of clergyman, who was renowned, his less renowned explorations into the realms of alcoholism not withstanding, to be quite a clever fellow. (Though I must say, I have little reason to believe that he was clever, having had the privilege of knowing several clever fellows myself.) I have always assumed that he meant, ‘the end of the road,’ for the road ends at the sea, but I cannot be sure.
But West End was not an end, for me, though I might have felt so, at first. No. It was a beginning. And much more than a beginning. If not where my life began, it is where I caught a flame to live it.
And that flame was lit, first and foremost, at the end of a street called La Colline Ave, in a house called Highcaster. And in the house called Highcaster, my story begins with a woman, whose first name, I suppose, was Lady, but who would have been called Eleanor, by her friends, had they been alive.
Her friends would have called me Harrison, I am sure. They would have been a formal bunch; sipping on tea and nibbling on gossip, and they would have made me wear one of those intolerably stiff neckties. As it was, I escaped the neckties, and I was called John. I escaped Lady Highcaster’s friends entirely. And I imagine, so did she.
The invisible train had come for them already.
And so, the story begins here. iHighcaster