Old Dust

the shire

I used to watch him when I was a kid. I’d hide on the stairs and peek through the metal railings.

The steps were cold, bare concrete, painted dark red to hide the splashes that spilled on the floor, but you could see all the colours from the ink on the metal, spatters of fuschia, yellow and blue.

There wasn’t much art or colour living out in the fens.

It was more artistic than anyone could have deliberately designed. The industrial equipment seemed enormous, immovable and inexplicably intriguing. I must have been about seven.

His office was also the dark room. There were always papers, negatives and crunchy sheets of acetate with weird diagrams drawn on them lying around.

It was when the X-files was on TV and me and my little sister used to sneak into his office and rummage through the towering filing cabinet looking for secret documents from the FBI about alien testing.

She must have been five.

We never found proof of aliens, but it didn’t matter. We found plenty of documents that we didn’t really understand, and that was adventure enough.

The office had been built out of the old bricks from the outhouses. The house had once been a grain store he told me.

It backed onto the river but there was now a road where the old grass banks had been.

You could still see the outline of the huge arch on the wall where the barges came in to unload the grain. When we moved in there had been three outhouses in the yard.

One was used for killing the pigs, and there was a big iron bath in there.

The other was used for hanging the meat up when it had been salted.

There were rusting iron hooks nailed into the wall that cast long shadows on the crumbling brickwork. I used to imagine the pigs being killed and their blood being drained into the bath.

I wondered if once that floor had been painted red, too.

The last building was an outside toilet, old, broken and disused for years. The ceiling had fallen part way in and now swallows had made it their home.

All the rooms were dark, musty and damp with brick floors that had worn down in places from long forgotten footfall.

The bricks were permeated with damp and the salt was rising out of them, crystalising on their surface.

Some of the bricks had big holes whittled into them, smooth indents that looked like tiny caves worn down by the sea over time.

That was the sparrows he told me, because they liked the taste of the salt.

The garden was always full of sparrows.

When we knocked them down all that was left was a huge pile of rubble in the garden, it didn’t look like it had ever been anything.

It looked like a ramshackle mountain and I used to climb to the top and build forts out of the bits of broken brick and make mud pies.

I wore scruffy clothes, dungarees and second hand jumpers, because I was always covered in old dust.

The sparrows loved it, too. They rolled around in the dust like they were taking a bath.

He used the old bricks that weren’t too full of holes to build the printing studio where I hid on the stairs.

He took the hooks and the big iron bath to the farm life museum in the village, a little building down the road with a thatched roof.

It was full of antiquated machinery from old industry that people from the village had donated.

Mannequins dressed like maids were positioned to look as though they were weaving thatch or boiling things in big black metal pots over long extinguished cast iron fires.

I was sad to see the iron bath go because it was fun to play in on top of the rubble, but he said they were just taking up space.

Although the studio was new, you could always smell the age of the brick.

It mingled with the smell of melting plastic, white spirit and ink. It sort of stung your nose, but was pleasant anyway. The chemical smell was like the taste of pink pear drops.

When the red light was on, all the colours looked black. The force of the water that rinsed the ink into the plastic bath screwed into the wall was terrifying but I loved it anyway.

The noise of the powerful spray from the hose against the fine mesh of the screens in that red room mixed with the smell of the chemicals was addictive.

So I hid on the stairs and took it all in.

Slowly the lettering would appear on the wet screen in the dark, translucent and glistening.  But that’s when I was a kid.

After a while there was less ink, less Perspex and the X Files went on for too many series to be fun anymore.

I helped out on weekends if I was bored.

It was helping him out, or drinking vodka down the playing fields, waiting to leave.

The splashes of colour were still there, but they weren’t as bright anymore. I didn’t know how the machinery worked, not really, even though I had watched so closely.

I was only a kid.

When I came home years later the fens looked different, but nothing had changed.

The fields were still there, as flat and hard as they ever were. There were still only farms buildings to block your view.

But the fens have no memory.

They are always a clean slate, unfeeling, offering no protection from the elements.

You could try and impose your own memory on them, but it would just blow away like the dust on the fields and be lost, or caught, useless, in the old barns under the vast open sky.

I couldn’t explain that my memories were as redundant as everything else.

I felt like a different type of person, a person looking through colourful railings at something magical I couldn’t quite understand.

I thought later about sitting on the red concrete stairs watching him work.

I thought about how much skill it must have taken, and about how difficult it must have been.

Later I couldn’t explain that I understood that trying was hard, and that it didn’t necessarily mean anything.

The machinery, the screens and the bath in the dark room are dusty and forgotten and taking up space.

I never really had understanding.

Only memory, the meaning redundant and lost, outsourced, and mass-produced, from the same batch but with a different label.

I wished I had tried to understand better.

But I was only a kid.


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