Category Archives: Places

Joseph Roth and the Schiller Park in spring

The parks of a city reflect their surroundings, not so much in how they look but in who can be found wandering their pathways or lounging on their green spaces. In Berlin, many of the parks were created with the expansion of the city – ‘People’s Parks’ intended as a patch of nature, a communal garden, for those who lived in cramped tenement blocks and worked the red-brick factories of the industrial age. With their trees, lawns and gravel paths, the parks of Friedrichshain, Wedding, Mitte and even the grand old Tiergarten in the heart of the city, have always shared much in common, but since the beginning they got their local character from their local characters.

In 1923 the writer Joseph Roth visited the Schiller Park in Wedding for an article published in the Berliner Börsen-Courier. It was autumn, and he reflected on the falling leaves and the poetry in the sound of their rustling, that symbolised a spirit of ‘mournfulness and a sense of transience’ that fitted the time of the year. Or at least, it did in the Tiergarten, preserve of the promenading well-to-do of Charlottenburg. In the Schiller Park, things were different:

‘…the locals from the working-class district of Wedding gather up the leaves every evening, and dry them, and use them for winter fuel. Rustling is strictly a luxury, as if poetry without central heating were a luxury.’ (from What I Saw, translated by Michael Hofmann, Granta)

On a Saturday morning in spring I run from my flat in Gesundbrunnen (once part of Wedding) through the backstreets of my neighbourhood until the Schiller Park opens out in front of me. There are no leaves on the ground of course, and even if there were, most of Wedding’s apartments now have central heating. But in the people on the benches and playing football on the open space, the neighbourhood is still reflected, as it was when Roth was here. This scene is Wedding. The park is rooted in its community.

The football pitches are both makeshift and yet impressively organised, with thin ropes and plastic training cones to mark the sidelines. Each team has a different coloured bib, and there is a referee, identifiable as the only person on the pitch without a day-glo vest and by the whistle hanging around his neck. There is a small crowd off the the side watching on at the halfway line, and I stop with them for a moment as I catch my breath. Encouragement is shouted in a number of different languages. A young child plays in the piles of discarded jackets and tracksuit tops of the players. I chat with a man doing keepy-uppies, waiting for his substitute appearance. We speak in English. He was born on another continent. He lives around the corner. He asks me where I am from. I tell him I was born on an island that seems to wish it was another continent. And that I also live around the corner. He laughs.

I am tempted to stay in the Schiller Park, to watch the rest of the game and wait for the time that the beers are opened from the crates that mark the halfway line. The sun is warm and music plays, a rhythm from portable speakers that mingles in the spring air with the sound of shouts, the referee’s whistle and the thud of a hoofed clearance out from the back. Elsewhere in the park, morning drinkers occupy the benches that line the path around the edge. I re-join the stream of joggers circling the park. Away from the football pitches, a family have arrived to set up for a picnic, laying out blankets between the coolboxes. It is the first warm Saturday of the year and you can feel the happiness in the air. The Schiller Park is still the neighbourhood’s backyard. It was a mild winter, but a winter nevertheless, and we all survived it. Now it’s time to play.

Words & Picture: Paul Scraton

By the river

It is a cold morning down by the river, on one of those days when it doesn’t really get light. If there is activity here, it is to be found inside. In the red-brick workshop where, behind high windows, a blonde woman with paint beneath her fingernails hammers at a lump of stone. In the library where, among the shelves, staff move with soft footsteps as tandem partners trade languages in low voices across circular tables and children search for stories they can read, listen to or play. In the apartments that look down on the river, the library and the workshop, and the spaces in between.

Outside, the football pitch is empty. The playground too, and the benches where drinkers gather on warmer days than this. They are part of the strange community down by the river, with their dogs and their brown bottles, and the arguments which can be heard over the laughter of kids on the playground or the shouted appeals to fair play in the direction of non-existent referees. They are all someplace else today. As are the young people who follow desire paths down the embankment to smoke and drink in the sanctuary of the bushes.

But there is life and movement beneath the sullen skies. A grey heron stalks the shallows, stepping elegantly over the latest shopping trolley to have been dumped from the embankment. A woodpecker scurries around the truck of one of the older trees. Wait until dusk, and a family of foxes can be spotted trotting along the embankment where, last summer, tents were pitched, tucked beneath overhanging branches of trees. The encampment moved on when the winter winds began to blow. A presence by the river for months, they left no trace when they departed, except a sodden blanket, curled at the water’s edge, waiting to be swallowed by the brambles in spring.

At the window she
stands, staring at the river
and recalls his face

Words & Picture: Paul Scraton

Out of season

The year starts slowly. Around the back of the boathouse, the vessels have been lifted up out of the water and tied to the chain fence in preparation for the winter freeze that can come at any moment. The road runs down the back of the properties that line the western shore of Plötzensee, this lake that has been here since the retreat of the glaciers and is now flanked by a children’s home and a youth hostel, the facilities of the swimming beach, football pitches and tennis courts, and a stonemason’s where they’ll keep your name alive for as long as someone has paid the cemetery fees.

Christmas decorations still hang and flags advertising ice cream flap in what breeze there is, but beneath dull Berlin skies it feels as if the weather too is taking its time to get going this early in the year. The wooded paths around the lake are filled with joggers and strollers, but what action there is takes places on solid land. The playground is empty and there is little to encourage anyone to linger on the empty park benches. There is a need to keep moving.

In the summer the water will be alive with swimmers from the beach and those too tight to pay the bathing fees and who have jumped the lake’s perimeter fence, as the rowers strike out from the boathouse in varying degrees of expertise. Later in the winter a different type of action will come to the lake, after the snow and the temperatures have fallen and a rink can be cleared just offshore from the nudist section of the beach and the air will be filled with the sound of sticks on pucks and skates on ice.

Somewhere, in the apartments and houses of the city, ice hockey players wait for the cold to come, so that the lake freezes and the games can commence. Today, it feels like they might be waiting a while. On the Plötzensee there are no swimmers and there are no hockey players, just a cormorant flying low across the lake, wings beating down towards the water, a black bullet moving fast until that too is just a memory. The lake is still once more.

Beneath the jetty
Swans paddle without fear of
Divers from above

Words & Picture: Paul Scraton

Catapult – Stories from Unnamed Places No.09

They moved in together for the first time not long after she got out of hospital. It had been his job to find them a place, based on long conversations as she recovered from her physio sessions that left her so drained she talked to him with her eyes closed. It wasn’t easy to find somewhere that fit their requirements, but eventually he found it. It was down in the south, in a new estate built beyond the ring road on the very edge of the city. At first glance all the houses looked different, but when he walked down the street he realised that they were all the same concrete box with something slightly altered from one to the next, such as the roof or a conservatory, a carport or a porch. Cosmetic changes, to differentiate them from their neighbours.

He didn’t mind that. And he didn’t mind the distance from the town, from his work and her university. There was a train station close to the entrance of the estate and, in any case, being out on the edge had its benefits. In the beginning, they were the last of the houses, with nothing built up beyond the back fence. From the patio doors that led out to their tiny garden, he could look across a level expanse of sandy ground with an uninterrupted view to the woods on the lower slopes of the hills that rose up right at the moment the city stopped and the countryside started. Even as the estate agent talked through him at the empty walls, he was imagining the walks they would take. It would help her get better, he thought. Help her build her strength. He took photographs to show her in the hospital, but he had already agreed to sign the contract before the next visiting hours began. He didn’t tell her that of course, but it didn’t really matter. She was happy. They were going to be happy there.

In the beginning things went well. He worked and she studied. They spent summer evenings in their small garden and walked out across the empty space beyond the back fence to follow the forestry tracks up through the woods to a lookout point. Sometimes they would walk up in the dark, so they could be there with the views back across the rooftops of the estate towards the tall towers of the city beyond as the sun came up. Her recovery was going well, and soon it was not possible to tell she had been in the accident. Not by looking at her. She was quicker up the path to the lookout point, often running from the bottom to the top for no reason other than the fact that she could. Slowly, they were leaving the hospital ward behind.

The first change came with the sight of a yellow digger, parked just beyond the fence. Notices had been posted on the lampposts of the estate to inform residents that the building works long approved by the local council were now about to begin. Another curved dead-end street was laid out on the sandy soil. Pavements and more lampposts. Concrete slabs upon which the houses would be built. Soon it was only possible to see the top of the hill from the back garden as it rose above the houses taking shape, and it required a fifteen minute detour to the official footpath around the edge of the estate to reach the forestry tracks leading up to the lookout point.

Still, she continued to walk. Her favourite time to go was on a winter morning after a fresh snowfall; to be the first to lay tracks to the top was to turn it into a first ascent every time. She walked through the snow and she walked through the mud. She walked in the height of summer and when the spring winds blew. Increasingly, she walked alone.

Later, he would try and work out when it was he stopped joining her on those walks. It was around the moment that the new houses were finished and the first of their new neighbours moved in. She didn’t seem to mind that he stopped. In any case, she said at the time, he was always with her. When she said it then he took it at face value, understood her to mean that she always held him close. But, as he would come to realise, that was not what she meant at all.

It was fitting that she told him when she came in from another of her walks, knocking the snow from her boots on the outside step before finding him in the kitchen. He was surprised at her words but not as surprised as he would have thought. There was no anger in the conversation, no blame or recrimination, just sadness from both sides. For most of the conversation his questions were almost entirely practical, about where she was going to go and how they would sort out the house and the things they had accumulated in their short time together. And it was short, when he thought about it.

Only once did he risk a question that touched on deeper reasons. He was still sitting on the chair at the kitchen table, where he had been when she came in from the walk. She was standing at the doorway.

‘You still see me as that girl lying in the hospital bed,’ she said. He was too scared to ask for more.

When her book came out, a couple of years later, he was living back in the city centre. She had moved completely, leaving that place and all its memories behind, memories of the university and the flatshares, the accident and the hospital, and the house between the city and the woods. He was surprised when a friend showed it to him. He’d never known she’d been writing. They had copies in the local bookshop, and he picked one up after work. Crossing the street outside the bookshop he went into a pub, ordered a beer, and began to read.

When she had walked those hills alone he had always been with her. That’s what she said, and he still saw no reason to disbelieve her. But when he read her stories, sitting in that pub, word after word, page after page, he realised that there, between those covers, he was absent. She had let him go.

Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig
With special thanks to Nadine Khouri

Night Train – Stories from Unnamed Places No.08

At the station he was one of the few that separated themselves out from the crowd of commuters staring mournfully at a departure board listing train after train delayed by the weather. Looking up at the list of destinations it was possible to imagine a map with the station at its centre and all the different lines stretching out, each disrupted at some point along its length. A fallen tree or a downed power cable. A broken down engine. Something dropped down from a bridge, onto the tracks. All the lines are blocked, service interrupted. All but one. And on the imaginary map it is the longest one, travelling the furthest, an unbroken line that will remain clear through the darkest hours of the night.

At the platform, on the very edge of the station, P. found his carriage and stepped aboard. His compartment was the first on the right. Inside there was space only for a bunk bed and a tiny table underneath the window. He left the door open until the conductor came by and held out her hand for the ticket. She looked at it, and then back up at him.

You are travelling alone, her eyes seemed to ask him, as she held in her hand a ticket purchased for two. He started to phrase an answer, an explanation for why she wasn’t here with him, and then stopped himself. You don’t always need to explain. The compartment is paid for. You have the ticket. No further information is necessary.

The conductor stepped back out and started to make her way down the carriage. P. stood in the doorway for a time and looked across the narrow corridor and through the window, down onto the platform. Farewells and final cigarettes. Piles of luggage, still waiting to be loaded on board. Plastic bags filled with sandwiches. Cans of beer. He could sense the excitement, both outside the window and inside the train. It reminded him of school trips. Of long coach rides broken up by stops at lonely service stations or ferry rides. The excitement of a journey through the night, of travel outside of the norm.

He could sense it. He could remember it. But he didn’t feel it. Not now the top bunk would remain empty.

At the appointed time the train eased out from the station. He lay on the lower bunk, propped up on his elbow, watching the city pass by beyond the window until the lights and buildings were replaced by the darkness of the countryside. He left the curtain open even as he put his head back on the pillow. He didn’t really expect to sleep. He was looking forward to the light of the morning. When he had bought the ticket, had he known he would be travelling alone? He could have guessed it. He could see that now. When she walked into the pub, no bags in her hand or over her shoulder, he had known the answer with certainty, but he could have guessed it before.

What did you expect?

She never voiced those words. She chose better ones. Softer ones. But he could read it in her face. She never even sat down at the table.

He woke just before midnight. Station lights shone in through the window, illuminating the cabin. He untangled his legs from the thin bedsheets and sat up, head bowed beneath the top bunk. He did not recognise the name of the station, but the iron bridge that crossed above the platforms beneath the vaulting roof seemed familiar to him. His fuzzy head took a moment to recall the memory, and then it came. It reminded him of the station at home, in the town where he had grown up. On Saturdays, when they went shopping or to the cinema, their local train would call at Platform 2. They would cross the bridge to get to the exit, passing over the trains waiting at the other platforms below. He could picture it exactly. And surrounded by his group of friends, on their way to the shops or to watch a film, he always looked to see where the trains were headed. Imagined himself on board.

For the rest of the journey he alternated between half-sleep with his head down and half-awake with his head up, watching the world pass by beyond the window. He tried to spot the invisible boundaries through the darkness. The moment the church spires changed their shape. The uniforms of the lonely station officials, working the graveyard shift. The language on the billboards when a road came up to meet the tracks, running alongside them for a while.

He tried not to think of her, which meant he thought of her constantly. What had she done when she left the pub? Where had she gone? Where was she now? But time is frozen when you travel long distances. P. knew that. So long as he was sitting in this compartment with his head pressed against the window, only the train was moving. In the witching hour, on the night train, he was out of time. Nothing could be done until the train reached the last of its platform stops. Nothing would change until he stepped out of the compartment and down off the train. So long as he was moving, everything else was stilled.

The first light appeared on the horizon as the train crossed a flat landscape of frozen fields. A low mist hung above the ploughed, rutted earth. Here the villages were small collections of low houses clustered around a church. From the train it was only possible to see into the gardens and small-holdings. A back door or a kitchen window; the villages were turned away from the world, into themselves. From elsewhere in the train he could hear the sounds of his fellow passengers stirring. Hushed conversations. Soft footsteps padding along the corridor to the toilet. He could smell coffee. They were nearly there.

The train snuck up on the city as it was still waking up. There was little traffic on the streets below the railway embankment, and the only souls stalking the pavements were the few early risers and those still trying to find their way home from the night before. For the first time in the journey P. looked at his phone. He had service. No messages. It was still early, he told himself. Suburbs gave way to neighbourhoods of red-brick industrial buildings and tall towers of glass and steel. A team of bin men moved with grace along a street lined with black sacks resting on the paving slabs outside firmly closed doors. Steam rose from heating vents as the sky burned red in a warning of what was to come.

They arrived at the station within a minute of the scheduled time. P. climbed down to join his fellow passengers on the platform. He had spoken to no one, and yet he still felt he shared something with these people. There seemed to be desire among all the night train passengers to wait for a moment, to take the chance to gather themselves before entering the early morning fray. Those who had taken the train before would know it was a shock to the system. From the quiet of the carriages that had carried them through the night to the start of rush hour on the streets beyond the terminus building. P. looked down at his phone. A trickle of notifications, but not the one he had been waiting for. But now they were off the train, time had started once more. He would just have to be patient.

Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig

Waving Flags – Stories from Unnamed Places No.07

Just after dawn, J. stood on the deck of the ferry as it moved slowly along the coast towards the port. Leaning on the railings, she looked down towards the dark waters below and then across to the shore, to the oil refineries and gasometers, the bursts of flame against the dull sky and the cranes swinging above wide expanses of cracked concrete. Somewhere, to the north and the south, were the resort towns with their arcades and fish restaurants, rented beach chairs and old ballrooms where the wooden floors and velvet-cushioned chairs had long been worn raw, but here, either side of the port, the coastline was devoted to industries whose days were surely numbered.

‘It’s quite the welcome home, isn’t it,’ a man said, from behind her. She could smell his cigarette smoke. Gulls hovered. A solitary cormorant flew alongside the ferry for a moment, wings beating down just above the surface, until it was out of sight. The man tried again. Something about a seal. But J. refused to engage. A second or so later, a cigarette end spun high over her shoulder, spitting sparks, to be extinguished in the wake of the ship. She heard him walk away.

The night before, she had sat in the ferry bar with a beer and a book. The crossing was smooth, and she had enjoyed the gentle roll of the ferry beneath and around her as she read. The bar was quiet. Families playing cards. A pair of couples, sharing a bottle of wine. Even the group of lads sat at the next table seemed subdued. J. spoke to one of them at the bar when she was getting a second drink. They were on their way home from a stag party. Glassy eyed. Dry skin. Three-day beards. No energy for anything except to finally get home.

‘So where are you from?’ he had asked her, although she could tell he was going through the motions. His mates would be able to see him from where they were sitting. They would expect him to try. But it was clear his heart wasn’t in it and so she replied, although it wasn’t an easy question to answer. The name she gave him was the place that she lived, the city she had moved to a decade before. The city she had left that morning, to drive to the ferry.

‘And you like it? Living there?’

She told him she did. She agreed that it was a hard language to learn, but that she had got there in the end. She enjoyed her job. She liked her apartment. She thought she had a better quality of life than if she had stayed in the place that she still called home, if only out of habit than any real conviction.

‘I dunno,’ he said, rubbing his stubbled cheek with his fingers. ‘I’ve got friends like that. Different places but, you know, similar. I always reckon that it sounds great for now… but what do you want to do in the long run? Can you really imagine growing old in a country that isn’t yours?’

He walked back to his mates, carrying a beer for each of them. They barely looked up when he rejoined them at the table. None of them turned in her direction. She went back to her seat and her book.

From the deck, she watched as industry gave way to suburbia as the port approached. Streets of low-slung houses and big, boxy supermarkets. New developments on the waterfront. A medium-rise tower block. A glass hotel. She followed the other passengers down into the bowels of the boat when the call came over the tannoy. Into her car to follow the waved instructions. A queue to disembark. A queue to show passports. A queue at the roundabout.

She drove out through the town along early morning streets. Sunshine was breaking through now, low above the horizon from where the ferry had come in the darkness of the night. She followed the coast road north, as it moved between tall fences topped with barbed wire and then churned fields, recently harvested. At a pull-in on the edge of a small seaside town she stopped at a food truck selling hot tea and coffee, sipping her scalding drink beside her car as she looked out across the dunes towards a narrow strip of beach and the sea beyond.

The truck had two flags flying from it, one at the front, one at the back. Both the same.

As she continued her drive she noticed more. One in the front garden of a neat detached house, the flagpole a brilliant white above a deep green lawn. Another, hanging from the window of a flat above a row of shops. She thought about the flags as she drove on, thought about the man in the bar the night before. Thought about home. And then she was there.

She parked by the harbour and walked down along the sea wall. Looking out towards the horizon, she could see her ferry, already making its way back from where it came. Apart from a fisherman at the very end of the wall, she was alone. She pulled out her phone and searched out the name.

Three rings.

‘I’m here,’ she said. He told her he was on his way. That he was sorry, but he had overslept. It didn’t matter. He was hands free, he continued. They could carry on talking. Get the awkward bit out of the way before we see each other, he joked, but they both silently thought he had a point. She asked him if he had seen any flags this morning.

‘There was one just outside the village,’ he said. He couldn’t remember when the farmer had started flying it, but it was so big that it had got people talking. ‘The woman at the bakers reckons he stole it from an Olympic medal ceremony.’

J. asked him if he could remember there being so many when they were kids.

‘Not really. Maybe when the football was on.’

‘But there’s no football at the moment, right?’

He didn’t answer. He was nearly there. She knew it was his car the moment it turned into sight. He’d stopped talking. He was concentrated. Looking for her. It had been a long time. A lot had changed. The line was still open when he pulled into the car park, her phone still pressed to her cheek. As he cut the engine she hung up, dropping her phone into her pocket. Hands free. As he opened the door to climb out, she started to walk back down the sea wall, chasing the long shadow that was sure to reach him before she did.

Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig

Polished Wood – Stories from Unnamed Places No.06

Before he set out on the journey, he had been sure that with each stage along the way he would leave more and more behind. He would catch the bus from in front of the brand new railway station, where no trains had yet been scheduled, and sit at the back as it wound its way through the streets that still bore scars of long-finished war and where, only the day before, he had been making his patrol along streets marked with potholes and craters that could have been caused by shells but might, just as easily, have been the product of the last harsh winter.

As the bus reached the suburbs of the city, crossing the old front line, he felt that he would already have begun to forget some of the details. Of the abandoned villages and suburban trenches, of the people and their stories that had begun long before he got there but which were still to reach a resolution. His comrades called it The Zone. It seemed like the right name for a place that became more unreal the further you moved from it. At least, that was what he had hoped. Leave it physically, leave it mentally. You had to. It was the only way, even if, when he reached his destination, by bus and then train, three border crossings and a hotel down by the river, it would only be for seven days.

The hotel was small, occupying the top floors of a slim townhouse with a view through grimy windows to the buildings on the opposite bank of the river. He had never been to this city before, but as he walked through the narrow streets of its old town he felt a stab of recognition. What was, and what could be again. He moved slowly, enjoying the fact that none of the people he passed knew what he was, that none of them were making a judgement based on a uniform and a weapon in his hands. To fill his days he simply walked, zigzagging through the streets, creating his own mental map. Certain corners of the city soon became familiar; the neighbourhoods he returned to without making a conscious decision. He could not explain why he was drawn to these particular places. They were nothing like the city streets he had grown up in. Nothing like the small towns outside the bases he had spent the last years moving between. Nothing like the place he had just left behind.

‘That’s probably exactly why,’ she said, as she placed a beer on the table in front of him.

The cafe was on the nearest corner to his hotel, facing the river to the west and a department store to the south. It was split in two, divided between loud and quiet. The main room was always packed, full of talkers and readers and drinkers and cigarette smoke. The side room, where she worked, was smoke-free and, more often than not, empty. When he walked in, he could smell the coffee beans and the cleaning products used on the floor, the wood polish and the food being cooked in the kitchen. He went to the side room to avoid the smoke and to have some space for his thoughts. And because she was there.

On his third visit, she began to pour his beer before he had taken his jacket off to sit at what had become his usual table. By the next day they knew each other’s names, and he told her what it was that he did. It was on the fifth day that he told her about the walks through the city, about the neighbourhoods he was drawn to, time and again, and how they made him feel. He apologised for talking too much and she told him not to worry. Look around, she would say, and it was true, the side room was empty apart from him. She had plenty of time to hear him speak.

It was on the last night that he told her about the bodies in the forest. About what he had seen during what had supposed to be a normal patrol of the back roads north of the airport. It was a boy from a nearby village who had discovered it. The boy had wandered off the trail that led down to a fishing spot on the river, ignoring the warning signs of mines and other unexploded munitions. He had seen the earth, disturbed by an animal of the forest. The first glimpse of something that shouldn’t have been there. Then another. Then another. The boy had run back along the trail, emerging onto the street as the patrol approached. Flagged it down. Led them into the woods.

She listened to the story as she stood beside where he sat at his table, the beer untouched in front of him. Later, when he remembered the scene, he could see the condensation running down the glass to the soft cardboard mat and the dark wood of the table. He could hear his voice telling a story he had told no one else before. He could feel her hand on his shoulder.

The next morning he was due to travel back. The final few months and then he could leave The Zone once more and forever. Put an ocean between it and him.

‘Will you come back?’ she asked, as he paid the bill and pulled on his jacket for the short walk along the embankment to his hotel. He told her that he wasn’t sure. He had heard that people often did. That what they experienced created a connection to these places that would stay with them, that called them back as, for however much they might wish to bury it away, they found that they couldn’t. He didn’t know, he told her, whether he was one of those people, or one who would eventually be able to forget.

‘I meant here,’ she said, softly. He looked around. The unoccupied tables. The coffee machine and the rows of bottles lined up behind the bar. A tram passing by outside the window, and the river beyond. He shook his head. He had thought that with every stage of the journey he would have put more and more of it behind him. How could you go back if you had never left?

She stepped out from behind the bar and walked him over to the door. They stood there for a moment, both looking out through the glass to where the city lights reflected on the surface of the river. And then, with the slightest touch of their fingers, they said goodbyes, and he opened the door to step out, onto the pavement.

Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig

Hagstones – Stories from Unnamed Places No.05

Ever since they discovered the town, J. had liked to walk on the beach. He would cross the sands from the pier to sit on the rocks and watch the fishermen, or to press on, following the sweep of the bay round to the north, where the sands gave way to pebbles and stones and the forest came down to meet them, and where it was possible to search for amber and the hagstones his wife collected. He came for peace and quiet, for ideas and inspiration, but it rarely came. There was no poetry, he knew, in the white cliffs and the flapping sails of the boats in the harbour. That was for the cards in the bookshop by the pier, once printed on cheap, flimsy cardboard. Nowadays they were more substantial, but the trite verses remained the same. No, there was no value in that scene, except for the freedom he had once felt, down on the rocks.

It was on the beach that it began. Not in the city, where he might have thought the danger would be, but there, at his sanctuary, tucked away by the promontory where the trees of the forest circled around in a dense, shadowy embrace. Had the man been waiting for him? It was hard to remember, hard to piece it all together. That first time.

The sea was calm, that much remained clear all those years later. The man had known him, known his name. He addressed him at the top of the pebble beach beyond the sands, where it was possible to sit on the old concrete slabs of long-abandoned flood defences. The first thing J. noticed was the suit. Cheap polyester, but still more expensive than anything in the ordinary shops. It gave him away, and made J. defensive from the beginning. In contrast, the man remained calm throughout, even when J. had met the softly delivered request, the whole point of the conversation, with an angry shout. The man had stayed still when J. stalked away, at ease with his hands in his pockets. When J. reached the path up from the beach onto the promenade, he looked back and the man was still standing there, watching him go, confident that there was no need to chase.

At home J. told his wife what had happened, and her response surprised him. It could be useful, she had said, carefully. You could help him. Not much, of course. Nothing important. But just enough… Just enough to make things… easier.

It was as if she had known the man would back, a few days later, waiting on the beach. He was sitting on one of the concrete slabs, turning a small stone over in his hand. And so it began, and so she proved to be right. A larger apartment became available. The waiting list for a car evaporated. A collection of stories he had written,  long blocked by the publishers on account of a mysterious paper shortage, was finally released. Most surprising of all was he was granted a visa to travel, to give readings at festivals and to attend a conference in the north.

It was that last trip that he remembered most. Before he went, J. had met the man down on the beach one last time. The visa had been approved, the man said, his voice as gentle as it had always been. J. asked about his wife. This time he had also asked for his wife. He sensed that both the man and J. himself knew what this meant. The man nodded. Farewell, then.

Once they were there, out of the country, his wife surprised him again. On the last evening, over coffee and chocolate cake, he brought up the prospect of staying put. Of not going back. His wife sighed and ordered another glass of wine, before painting a picture of their life in exile. A poky apartment. No status. A token job. What would we have there? Who will read your work? Who will you even be? It was a point, he conceded. At the end of the glass of wine they were in agreement. They would catch the plane home.

After dinner they went for a walk. Down to the waterfront, the way out to open waters blocked by a hundred islands.They did not talk any more about the decision. Later, he could not remember what it was they talked about. They found a bar and he had a beer. She smoked cigarettes and watched him drink. When the bartender heard them talking in their own language, he asked them if they had heard the news. It was only when they got back to the hotel, that the details became clear.

Revolution. They had decided to return to a country that, by the time the plane touched down, no longer existed in the way it had just a few days before. In the beginning it was okay. He’d been a dissident poet. He had always been on the right side. There was a spike in sales and the offer of a university post. In term-time they lived in the city, and in the holidays they returned to their old apartment in the town by the sea. There, things were changing as well. New hotels and guesthouses filled the gaps along the seafront. New shops and restaurants along the pedestrianised street running down to the pier. The concrete slabs were removed and the dunes were fenced off. When J. went down to the beach, there were more people there, lounging on the sands or stepping carefully across the pebbles, searching with poles for amber or the small stones with neat little holes.

And then, one day, when they were up on the coast there was a knock on the door. An old friend. They walked together, down on the beach. The sea was not calm that day. There had been a storm the night before, and it remained unsettled, crashing against the rocks at the promontory and the legs of the pier, leading out from the beach. Against the wind, they talked and his friend told him what he knew. About the man and the meetings. About the car and the apartment, and the trips overseas. He knew and soon others would too. He wanted to give his old friend fair warning of what was about to come, even though he wasn’t really sure if J. deserved it.

They never returned to the city. The town by the sea continued to change, but their small apartment remained the same. To top up their pensions, J. worked selling lottery tickets at the zoo two towns over. His wife worked summer shifts in the bakery. She continued to search the shoreline for hagstones with which to decorate the mantelpiece, but it seemed as if nowadays there were less to be found. J. rarely went with her, preferring to walk on the beach alone. Sometimes he stood where the concrete slabs had once rested, so solid and sure, as if they would always be there. He would look out across the water and try to picture the sea as it had been in those other times. The calm and the storm. Both brought their dangers, and  for J., as he stood there, he knew that there was no longer any sanctuary to be found on that beach. Not on the sands and not among the stones. Not anymore.

Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig

Edgeland – Stories from Unnamed Places No.04

She hadn’t been there for twenty years but when she reached the end of the row of houses she found she still knew the way. There it was, the footpath; a narrow strip of concrete between two high garden fences. It led down to a bridge over the motorway, and from there into the next estate, the next collection of boxy houses and neat gardens, built around a confusing network of curving streets that, if you did not know your way around, always seemed to come to a dead end.

Before the bridge, between the motorway and the back fence of the gardens, there was a strip of woodland, left when the estate was built to act as a barrier to the sound of lorries and cars moving in and out of the city. When she was young the fence between the path and the woodland was wire, and it was their way into the woods. However often someone was dispatched to reinforce it, new holes would soon appear, so that anyone who wanted to could crouch down, step through the fence, and disappear beneath the canopy of trees into the undergrowth of ferns and bushes, trying to avoid the sudden sharp prick of the brambles that lurked within.

It was there, between the gardens and the tall sound wall of motorway, spray-painted with personalised declarations of love, hate, and crude messages of loyalty to football teams, that she spent her summer evenings during those last years before she left home for good. What could she remember now? Warm beer and fumbling fingers. The smell of badly rolled joints and the tang of blackberries, still too sour to be picked from the bush. If you followed the long-cleared path through the woods it would lead you to the back of a supermarket car park. Beer and wine from the aisles, running the gauntlet of the checkout queue and the knowing look of a friend’s older sister who worked the Saturday shift. Across the car park and once more into the bushes.

It was their place. Two distinct groups used the scrap of woodland between the pathway and the supermarket in her time, from different schools but with little animosity between them. Later, as the end approached, relationships developed across this divide, and those who had been left behind coalesced into one group, sitting together in the small clearing against motorway sound wall, a small bonfire burning in front of them as they felt the vibrations of the long distance lorries rising up from the ground and through their backs.

As she returned now, she thought about that time in a way she had not for years. It couldn’t have been more than a couple of summers. A collection of long evenings, the sun speckled on the forest floor, broken up by the branches of the leaves and trees above. It can only have been a couple of summers, but it was more than enough. There were plenty of firsts in what they called their forest, plenty of reasons to remember.

Now she walked down the path between the houses, the tarmac beneath her feet uneven from the tree roots that had stretched out in the years since she had lived away. Beyond the back garden and the old wire fence had been replaced with a concrete structure, but there were tell-tale signs that this was still a boundary easily breached. A seemingly discarded collection of breeze blocks, piled up alongside a nobbly tree, just before the path lifted up onto the motorway bridge. Muddy ground at the front, on the edge of the path, dried hard in the summer sun.

She could see her way. Step. Reach. Grab. Pull. She was over and down in a second, and with no need to hide in the undergrowth.

The path, worn by decades, led her through the trees. Her feet felt more roots, bits of brick and glass and whatever else had been discarded. It was clear as soon as she entered the half-lit, shaded space, that when they had left all those years before they had soon been replaced. And in turn, the woodland was used by others, for a summer or two, before being handed over, unspoken, to those who came next. At the clearing she stopped, holding her hand to the motorway sound wall to feel for the lorries as she read the latest declarations of love and hate, trying to remember the intensity of such emotions as she had felt them back then.

Her thoughts turned to the final evening. She had known it was the final evening even as they had hurried back down the path to the fence, ducking through the path, the normal fears long extinguished as they knocked on the first of the doors on the street, asking to use their phone. No mobiles then.

She was looked down at the debris resting in the centre of a blackened fire circle when the figures emerged from the gloom to stand in front of her in the clearing. Two girls and a boy. Aged anywhere between twelve and eighteen. At what point had she lost the ability to tell? They were shocked to see her, smiles turning to frowns turning to scowls.

‘Are you lost?’ one of them asked, unmistakable hostility in his voice.

She shook her head.

‘No,’ she replied, and made her way towards the edge of the clearing. ‘I know exactly where we are.’

When she was enough steps down the well-trodden path that she knew would lead her to the supermarket car park, she heard the sound of their voices. The moment was over for all of them. Laughter. Beers would be opened. Cigarettes smoked. They would have forgotten her already, safe once more in the place that was theirs, and would stay that way, for a little while longer yet.

Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig

Overheard – Stories from Unnamed Places No.03

‘I’ve made a note in my journal,’ the blonde woman said, as the tram rattled around the corner to follow the embankment above the river. ‘It’s a countdown. Four years and thirty-six days. And then I’m leaving.’

She spoke to her friend as if no-one else on the tram could understand what she was saying, and it seemed like a reasonable assumption. They were a long way from home, a long way from that small corner of her country where her language was spoken, and even there only by a minority of those living in the mountains and along the coast. She seemed to feel a safety in her mother tongue, confident in its impenetrability as she discussed the many and varied faults of a man she wished she had never married. Her fellow passengers did not flinch as she discussed her miserable sex life or the quiet despair of long evenings in a dreary living room, with only the television to break the silence. She could speak freely, confident that even if they heard her, they did not understand.

T. understood. His ears had picked up the sound of a familiar language over the rattle of the tram and the tinny, recorded announcements of the next stop. He was as surprised to hear the language of his grandmother as the blonde woman would have been to discover that there was another person on that tram who could also speak it, however imperfectly or inexpertly.

T.’s father had never learned. As a family, their language was that of the plains and the big cities. There seemed little point back then in teaching a young boy the words spoken by only a few thousand others. How could it possibly help? So his father had grown up speaking to T.’s grandmother in a language she herself had only learned in later life. Even when T.’s grandfather died, lost to a long illness that seemed to accelerate and thus was not long enough, mother and son continued to speak in her adopted tongue. By then there was no-one left in the family capable of reading the books she read, or her diary, which she continued to write in the language of her childhood, the language of her thoughts and dreams.

Why had T. decided to learn his grandmother’s language? The diary was part of it. She had left it to him, delivered via her lawyer in a large packing box. Sixty-seven volumes in all, covering nearly seven decades, from her late teens to her final month. There was something else too, some romantic notion he developed as he headed off to university, as he left the mountains for the big city, that there was a part of his past that he could not reach, that he would be unable to reach, until he learned to speak and read the language of his grandmother. On this, he would be disappointed. There was no great spiritual awakening to be had once he understood the language of his grandmother and his great-grandparents. He felt no extra sense of belonging or ownership on that first journey back to the mountains, now that he could speak to some of his old neighbours in their old tongue. For their part, they found it amusing, although they professed to be pleased that he had, unlike many of the younger generation, made an effort.

There may have been no great awakening, but he could read now read his grandmother’s diary. And he knew that if he could go back in time to speak with her, he would have been better able to know her as she expressed those thoughts and dreams in words that instead she had transcribed onto the page in her neat handwriting. There was something else, too. He noticed that his own thoughts and ways of expressing himself changed, now that there was a second language in his head. The new one influenced the old one in all kinds of ways. There were some words, expressing feelings or ways of understanding the world, that existed in his grandmother’s language but which were unsatisfactorily translated into his own mother tongue. He loaned one language words and idioms from the other, if only in his thoughts, and he felt subtle shifts in sentence structure, as one language made gentle suggestions to the other.

He moved on from his grandmother’s diary to her small library of books. Works of poetry and fiction, natural history and geography. He saw how his grandmother’s language had given names and places to mountains and streams, valleys and waterfalls. He had always thought the names had sounded so lyrical, but now he realised how prosaic they were. The Rocky Cliff. The Red Mountain. The High Falls. The Valley above the Woods.

And now, a long way from home, he could understand the women on the tram.

It struck T. as almost absurd, that he could follow their conversation in all of its intimate, melancholy detail, and yet he could not even read, let alone understand, the signs and the advertising hoardings that the tram passed as it moved along the river. The women did not know it, but they shared something, just as he now shared something with his grandmother, even if she too would be aware of it.

What he had realised, once the language had begun to stick and he began to be able to read his grandmother’s diaries, was that what he shared with her, and now with these women on the tram, had nothing to do with heritage or birth. There was no deeper connection to the mountains, the valleys and the cliffs through lineage or blood. What they shared now was a language, and all that flowed from it. Music, culture, poetry and the uninspired names of summits and ridges. And as far as he understood it, you were not born with language. It was not passed down along the bloodline. It was taught. It was learned. And thus, it was open to anyone.

As the tram reached his stop he caught the blonde woman’s eye as he waited for the door to open. He smiled and she hesitated, pausing in her conversation for just a second. Calculating the odds. It was unlikely, he could almost see her think. A tiny shake of her head as her gaze returned to her friend sitting opposite. ‘He does have nice eyes,’ she said, her voice weary now. ‘That much hasn’t changed.’

Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig