The stone with the thin blue string

In my absence over the summer the city seems to have transformed itself into a hateful monster, roaring with traffic, belching obnoxious fumes, yawning with its cantilevered metro mouths, its innards slithering with the squeal of metal on metal. We scurry across its surface and in and out of its dirty orifices like parasitic organisms feeding off our host. We get up in the dark and the cold, and come home under heavy orange/grey skies and drizzle. Autumn disappeared round the corner with a rustle of dry leaves. Winter is here in full force. Furry blankets are unearthed from the back of wardrobes, summer clothes stored away and inefficient heating cranked up to the maximum setting. There are days of bright blue skies, the unforgettable sapphire skies of Madrid, but other than that it has been a descent into cold, damp industrial night.

Over-worked and under-stimulated I head for the mountains one Sunday. The Ponce was still in bed when I called, another friend suggested the Retiro, but I know this will not satisfy my hunger for open spaces and solitude. Too many people, the distant hum of traffic audible even from the centre of the park. Another friend would love to come but is away for the weekend. I set off on my own, catching the hour-long train to Cercedilla in the Sierra.

I am joined on the train by a few hikers, muffled up against the cold and crinkling with waterproofs. It is a heavy grey day, which also explains the reluctance of some of my friends to join me. Let it rain; I don’t care. Rain in the countryside is an entirely different matter to urban rain. We roll out of the city, out of the apocalyptic tangle of pylons, tunnels and towers. Madrid fades, after dreary outskirts it becomes a silhouette, the four high towers like uneven teeth sticking out of its upturned face. Later, as we approach the Sierra and I glimpse mountains, woods and snowy peaks, I begin to strain at the leash, a thrill inside me incited by the green valleys and open skyscapes.

There are very few people at the station and in the centre of the village, there is a Sunday lunchtime hush. First I wander around the old summer houses by the station; an elevated pathway lined with sturdy villas indicates ‘This way to the centre of town’. The plaques by the locked gates ring with past glories: ‘Villa Electa’, ‘Villa Victoria’. I have seen so many of these types of houses in so many parts of the world that I no longer even bother to work out ‘Chosen Who?’ or ‘Victory over what?’ One villa has an elaborate shell-shaped alcove housing a plastercast Madonna, just inside the main gate, flanked by steps zig-zagging up the house through the gardens. I can’t help smiling to myself, it reminds me of the Ken and Barbie kitsch-ness of Naples. The villas begin to bore me, as I head back toward the station, only stopping to peer into a dilapidated barracks-style building that must also have been a boarding house at one time, perhaps the grandest of them all. Shuttered windows and crumbling brick-work is all that’s left now. I poke my nose in through the slats at one of the windows, and there is a chaotic and poignant interior: old, dusty, and ancient metal-framed bed pulled at an angle into the centre of the room, filthy bedding and mattress still in place, around it an abandoned shoe, a notepad splayed open face down but no pen. Two windows down, perusing the kitchen in the same manner: rusty old appliances huddled as if for safety in the middle of the room, I hear a creak, a bang- possibly a shutter blown to by the wind, but the notebook, the shoe and the bedding have made me skittish and I hurry away. What if someone was squatting in this squalor? That would make my curiosity intrusive and possibly dodgy.

Back at the station I take the opposite road, heading out and away from the centre of town. After all, I came here to get away from people. This road says it is an ‘Ancient Roman Road’ which sounds much better. Within five minutes I am noting and savouring the smells of the countryside. The air itself is clear and crisp, with the bite of the mountains. We are higher up here even than Madrid, which is at 650m above sea level, making it the highest capital in Europe. I sometimes wonder if this slight reduction of oxygen makes us all a little light-headed and brain-impaired as a result. It is also the most polluted city in Europe. You can’t see the poor air quality when you are down in the rat-runs and the wide avenues, looking up at a bright blue sky. From this perspective you don’t see the choking cloud of contamination. But you can see it when you approach Madrid through the mountains, glimpsing it across the plain. Then you see clearly that it wears a brown-grey beret of pollution and woolly fumes. From inside the city you are aware that something is amiss as you breathe, everywhere people cough and splutter all year round, there is a constant grime in your nose and throat, and a feeling of general malaise. It isn’t a healthy place to be, by any stretch of the imagination. Here in the hills I inhale as though I am advertising mint mouthwash. The air out here smells so good. I want to bottle some of it. I want to eat it, absorb it into my body somehow.

Later, as I climb a wooded slope, I catch the sharp, pungent stink of funghi. It’s a known scent, but the smell of grocery mushrooms compared to this is like the smell of chemical pine toilet cleaner compared to that of a real glade of pines. Heading along the side f the road, which follows the voluptuous curve of the hills, I also catch bitter, dusky wood-smoke, a fragrance so nostalgic and rural that I am transported back to Ibiza in Winter, and further back to Nottinghamshire in late November. Bonfire night and country cottages, chestnuts and the feeling of flames on your face, the cold at your back.

Next to hit me in the face are the colours: the hundred autumnal shades of orange- in the rusty, coppery clay soil, the tufts of dried-out grass, fallen leaves, low banks of dessicated ferns and the rich orange-mousse colour of clusters of funghi. There is the particular furry silvery-green of the moss which covers walls and rocks, and the sea blue of the luminous storm-clouds above, a murderous midnight colour with a velvet tone to it.

But then human intervention creeps in upon my rural idyll, inevitably. Sign-posted just ahead on this deserted country road out of Cercedilla is the Banesto Escuela Corporative (Banesto Bank Corporate Training School). As I round a bend it looms into sight: a sleek, gated mansion with ample parking and all mod cons. How depressing to come out here to these beautiful surroundings to be faced by a breeding ground for banking and business. After twenty minutes of walking in the light rain I decide to take a breather and spy a stone bench by the side of the road. As I approach this I make out the words ‘Islam Terror’ sprayed onto it in huge spidery letters.

I take a path up a steep wooded slope to get away from the road, picking my way past fenced and walled gardens, sheltering squat, silent houses with no lights on and no smoke emerging from their chimneys. A large alsatian leaps  at the fence as I walk by its home and barks, barks, barks. I keep walking for another ten to fifteen minutes up through the trees, aiming for the top of the hill, and even when I am out of sight it still barks, barks, barks,. I can hear it running backwards and forwards. Nobody comes out of the house. I am now well above the building, screened by trees, yet every time my foot crushes a twig the dog barks, barks, barks, voicing its boredom and territorial fury even though nobody is listening. I feel sorry for it but the sound makes something inside me snap for a moment. Everywhere I go in this damned country there is noise, chaos and noise. Even in the middle of the countryside on a deserted rainy Sunday there is incessant, intrusive noise.

Eventually the dog gives up after I have sat quietly for a few minutes. I huddle up beside a rock, my waterproof acting as a groundsheet and I stay here for an hour or so until I get too cold, half-meditating, staring at the sky, the distant mountains and the closer details: the engineering of a curled fern leaf, the face of a stone, the creamy underbelly of a nearby fungus. I decide to leave my cares, stresses and city-worries up here on the hilltop. My money worries, my growing sense of isolation and creeping age in the heaving mass of millions of people, my health issues and broken fake friendships of the past few years, my disappointments not so much in love, as that has barely come close enough for me to feel its breath, but in lust, all of these worries and anxieties I decide to leave behind me. Let them disappear into the rain; I can leave them here, they’ll be safe without me.

Walking back down the hill to the cacophony of barking I notice a stone with a thin blue piece of string tied round it. The stone is hanging over the side of a garden wall, suspended on its thin blue line. I look closer and I find the cord is tied to a creeping plant, weighing it down over the wall so it grows in a certain direction. The image makes me immeasurably sad for a few moments. It strikes me that we all have a rock tied around our hearts and lives, forcing them to grow in a certain direction, not necessarily where we would like to creep and flourish, where our nature would have us grow, but in the manner someone or something else dictates.

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One Response to “The stone with the thin blue string”

  1. poignant and lovely.

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