Conkers [Monday, Mar. 02, 2009, 7:07 pm]
I was eight years old. My mom had been apprehensive about my sister and I wading through the water that flowed so close to the public toilets, but we pulled our wellies up as far as we could, and fished them out of the water all the same. I started using my butterfly net too, and it helped, but it didn't work so well for butterflies after that. It was fine with me - I had more important things to capture with it. The local children called them Conkers. Mom said they were really horse chestnuts, and were so named because they resembled the deep brown color of a horse's shiny coat. And shiny they were. We hoarded them and used them as currency since we were too young to earn much actual money. Once they had been washed and dried I would lay them out on my bed and admire the deep brown sheen, and individual curve and shape of each particular conker.
That's my old house across the street. I have no idea who lives there now. I'm sure many people have lived there. There's a new development of houses and roads behind my old house now too - well, it's not new. It went in just as we left, but no one lived there then. Now my old dead-end dirt road has been paved, and the old train tracks covered over. The underbrush that formerly worked so well as a "fort" and treasure trove of broken pottery is all gone as well.
My sister and I liked to sit in our hedge. It was hollow, and if we crawled all the way down to the end, we could see the sidewalk, and watch people as they went by. If we were quiet, they never knew we were there. We found an old white mug in there once. Mom wouldn't let us use it in the house even after we washed it seven times, so it stayed out there as our marker. We hung it on the branch above the "door" to signal when one of us was in there. Eventually we started chatting with the lollipop lady, who worked in the mornings and afternoons as a crossing guard for the school children. She had a big, round, neon yellow sign that said "SLOW, CHILDREN" and she'd stand in the road with it until all of them were across.
I've passed the old house now, as well as the town hall and the church. The road seems busier than it was before, but perhaps that's because it's a Saturday. The wind whips my shirt in ripples across my skin as I approach the cliffs. I'll go down the steep path eventually, but I just want to stand and gaze out over the North Sea for a moment. Everything is still familiar - the sand, the long beach grasses that used to prick my legs as I ran through them. Even the scent of gorse bushes comes rushing back to me - it's something I'd forgotten about just long enough to remember again when I found it.
The walk to and from the beach was tiring for my young legs. I wished many times to be able to ride in the stroller like my brother, but I was too big. We got home just as the sun set, and I dumped the sand out of my shoes before going through the door, as my mom insisted. One time we found a crop of giant rhubarb stalks on the way home, and my mom made a pie out of them the next day. It was a wonderful thing to come home to after a day of riding my bike, climbing our copper beech trees, and looking for conkers. As exhilarating as finding fallen conkers on the ground was, there was nothing better than actually opening up a fresh one.
Back at the burn, I select a few last souvenirs. There are five conkers in my bag, but I see it beneath the tree and have to have it - a newly-fallen, spiky green casing that hasn't opened yet. It looks like a small puffer-fish, without a head or tail. There's a crease dividing the ball in half, and I stick my thumbnails into it and pry it open slowly, taking in the new birth as it happens. The inside is white and moist, like the white inside an orange's skin. Its moisture is what keeps the conker shiny, and shiny it is. I pull the beautiful chestnut sphere out of its womb, and touch the delicate, glistening skin. It's hard and smooth, and as I gaze at it, I feel like a child again, wallowing in the privilege I've just received. This conker is as new as it could possibly be, and no one will experience it any newer or shinier than I am, right now.
My night-side table drawer is where I kept all my important things. Most of my conkers stayed outside, but there was one that was so bright and beautiful that I couldn't bear to part with it. I stuck it in the back of the drawer for safe-keeping, and over time I piled other things on top of it, and generally forgot about its existence for several months. Then one day I found it again, and barely recognized it. It wasn't the same conker I'd put in there. The skin that had once been shiny and smooth was now wrinkled and dull. The whole thing had shriveled into a ball that was anything but beautiful, and there was nothing I could have done to save it. I didn't understand why it had to do that...
But I think I do now. As I cradle my new conker in my hands, I force myself to breathe in and out slowly, and just enjoy the essence of the place, while I'm here. How I'd love to bring everything back with me, and meld my old life into my new one. But I can't. Some things can't be hoarded, or kept in the backs of drawers for months on end. Sometimes it's best to leave them where they are. I lay the beautiful new conker down on the ground where I found it. Maybe a child will come across it later, and not quite understand its importance. Perhaps it will grow into a tree and produce its own seeds in time. As for me, I still have the scent of gorse bushes, and the feel of beach grass pricking my legs, and the sight of the church steeple at dusk, standing out like a finger pointing to the sky. These things will never shrivel up and lose their luster as long as I can keep them somewhere in memory, and relive them often enough to keep them alive.
Vitality - Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009