Helen Tookey: Sudley Field

Sudley Field

by Helen Tookey

this small field it has become
a clockwise habit a repeated enquiry

what am I asking?

Slip through the gap in the sandstone wall and the field opens up. The space of sky that suddenly appears. The air different, cooler and fresher, the heat not trapped by the hard surfaces of the streets. Walk up the earth path, under the beech trees, along by the sandstone wall. The sight and scent of green, dense shifting space of nettles and ivy. And then out from the trees by the stone steps, the merchant’s house, and the gate to the rose garden, standing open –

the path through the trees a cloister of birds

seek the green chapel

weave & cross-cut of song overhead
for the time it takes to walk the path

The fallen tree like a sad beast, the twisted roots of ivy behind the garden wall. Envelope of ashes and charred Swan Vestas, protective cross of rowan wood. The way the green gate opens to the rose garden, standing invitation to a place of memory. The six white rose-trees and the surrounding red, and the sad scarf on the sundial.

Walking for once anticlockwise, turning right, not left, towards the infant trees – oak, beech, rowan, planted maybe five years ago, at first so tiny, just foot-high shoots, now already taller than me, and already too crowded, clamouring for attention in their small patch of ground. Surprised by how disorienting it feels – the field on my wrong side, not speaking to me.

The earth path now covered with fallen leaves. The air still and grey, cloud low over the estuary. Sense of being held, of waiting for something. The weather not yet harsh, but we know it will come.

only the field
& the vast song of the wind in the beech trees
& the gulls scraps of being blown down the wind
crazy chase of sky over river
gleam of sunlight on gunmetal water
there and gone as clouds shift
gulls white against field black against sky
& the wind in the beech trees immense as ocean
so you cry aloud into the sound of it
and the rain comes the rain comes the rain comes

The veranda roof is leaking. One of the skylight panes is cracked. And the putty round the edges of the panes is old, dried up, shrinking away from the edges, no longer making a good seal between glass and wood, blackened with mould. The glass panes themselves are speckled and greened with moss. Rain drips onto the mosaic floor, onto the wooden benches. Somewhere between inside and outside, shelter and not.

Christmas day & like an answer it is there
hawk in the beech tree
wings outstretched black tips
you don’t have the name but you recognise its presence
takes to the air branches spin against sky
as you try to track it
thirty seconds but it was there
enough that it was there

Thaw. Under the trees, earth-surface softened, uneasy underfoot. A kind of truce – uncertain which way to go. Thin water hanging in air. Dark patches on the benches from the leaking veranda roof. Something in the world keeps turning its face away.

February sun through thick cloud, tiny flecks of rain in the air. The man coming out to the courtyard to refill the bird feeder, telling me how to recognise a robin’s song, telling me about the family of goldfinches he watches from his office window just above us.

The new red leaves coming on the roses, still tight-furled against the wind but there, sharp new red, thin growth-lines from the blunt-cut tips of the grey-green stems, and the river is bright with sun, its own sharp line –

Today on the field everything moving, sailing. Gusty spring wind; under the beech trees quick play of light and shadow. On the earth path, a pair of blackbirds. The male almost at once flew up onto the ivy-covered wall, but the female stayed, pecking in the soft earth for grubs or worms. I waited, took my cue to move from her. She must have been aware of me, but seemed unfussed so long as I kept my distance. So I followed her slowly up the sloping path, until for whatever reason of her own she too flew up to the safety of the wall and the overhanging trees; and I saw that there was the male, having kept pace with her all the while, flitting unseen from tree to tree.

Here on the veranda is where everything centres into itself. This is the only goal, the only explanation I could give you.

The cherry tree grows straight, then splits and twists, spirals into three, each bough with its abrupt angles, doublings-back, bark cracked at the knuckle-points – the tree’s decisions and shifts of direction written on its skin, formed into its bone growth. I hold my notebook open beneath it, try to catch its drift.

on the earth path this sense of placement
as though you were setting each foot naked on the earth
as though you came into a new kind of connection
your body moving inside air
the space under the trees a kind of rightness
things falling correctly

This small child, climbing the steps to the rose garden, calling back to the adults: Come on! I will show you the way!

under the trees deep gloss of ivy
light-mottled leaves against the sky
underfoot the beechmast little loose
dry fourpointed pale brown on the dry earth

emerge into the space of light
unrolling green it opens to you
glasslike jewel-like yet a softness
a gathering an altar cloth scattered with leaves

like the floor of the chapel where the swallows were
sudden unexpected in their livingness
their dart & flicker & coming to rest
making of the chapel a new thing

The whole field in shadow, and the sun blazing to its setting an inch above the housetops. Sky in the west slants of purple and gold. The low hills beyond the river distinct, blue-grey, almost mauve, pink-orange gleams here and there as the low sun catches buildings. The gunmetal stripe of the river. The birds calling, the lovely music of the blackbirds, the low calls of the doves, and the sky in the west goldening and pinking, bright gleaming gold low down and above it a soft sheen of pinkish-blue-grey like eyeshadow palettes, and the colours just changing slightly as you look, as the gold sharpens and the black silhouettes of trees and rooftops densen and deepen, and the gold lights the clouds from underneath, the mauve deepens like a sea, tiny island clouds of lighter pink, darker pink, and the Welsh hills now a soft dark pink, clearly glowing pink above the dark blue of Wirral, and the river’s blue lighter by contrast. The undersides of all the clouds now bright salmon pink, and the hills blueing from below, just their very tops still pinkish, and the gold in the west now fading and the air colder around you, and the entire beauty of it, the gift of it.

Choreography of swallows – the quickness of it, the risk & calculation, turning on a dime, wingtip/wingtip. Quick speech of the whole body, dark/bright, skimming the grass – six, seven, eight in conversation, configuring space above the ground of the field.

Sunday morning. Church bells in the distance. In the cathedral of beech trees, leaves falling – the little skittering sounds of them –

And on the path just now, tiny bright scraps of birds, flickering pale, bright red caps – the goldfinches –