Taking the path through the new estate – the right of way that was a condition of the granting of planning permission a few years ago – you’ll pass by an overgrown, waterless pond, pressed into the ground like the footprint of a giant who, in a blind panic, tried to leap over it all but couldn’t quite make it. There’s a pole by the pond with a lifebelt and a sign that says: Beware. Deep water on occasions. Every time I see it I feel like taking a photo and then captioning it with Christmas? Birthdays? or something. I never do, though. It’d be a lame joke, and anyway, I suppose I simply want to ignore the whole thing and get through the estate as quickly as possible. There’s something so joyless about that belt and sign, or worse – anti-joy – actively negating any sense of exploration or change or contact with the earth. It’s not just that there’s never any water in the pond, no doubt because of the desultory way they built it, but based on the remotest chance that after a particularly heavy bout of weather there may be a little residual water with the trash in the bottom, here’s a belt to throw in after you if you climb over the rail to investigate. (And by the way, if anything happens, we’re covered).
It reminds me of that time I was at college. There was a mill pond across the way, and I used to sneak in there to go swimming, despite the signs. One day I was just toweling myself off on the bank when a severe looking guy stopped by.
‘I hope you haven’t been swimming’ he said.
I wasn’t sure what to say. I was naked and soaked. What else would I have been doing? But I thought it was easier just to be honest.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Why?’
‘You’re not allowed. This is private property. If you drowned you could sue.’
‘If I drowned I’d be dead.’
‘You know what I mean. Didn’t you see the signs?’
‘But I’m not doing any harm.’
‘What d’you want us to do? Put a fence round everything?‘
‘I’m only swimming.’
‘We’ll have to put a fence round the whole bloody country at this rate. Is that what you want?’
‘We’re an island. That’s a lot of fence.’
‘You leave us no choice. Now get dressed and clear off. And if I see you over here again I’ll inform your superiors.’
I suppose that lifebelt pole sums up the disquiet I feel when I cut through the estate. The place has a fake, toytown feel, beyond the raw brick and newness of it all. There are tags on the plants in the planters, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see tags on the houses, too, arranged as they are so conspicuously in size and price order, from the starter two-bed to the executive brand with the double garage, portico and balcony. Glum workmen in day-glo jackets walk behind slow-moving trucks doing what, exactly? Positioning life-sized models of people, according to the time of day.
The only thing that buoys me up (deep water on occasions) is the giant oak tree the planners decided to leave in the middle of it all, islanded on a regular patch of chequerboard grass that I suppose is meant to look like a village green. The oak doesn’t care about any of this. It spreads its colossal arms to the heavens, biding its time, waiting on the rain.