Friday, 19 December 2008

Memories of Darkness

It’s early evening and I’ve just got off a train at the small village of Heyford in Oxfordshire, not far from the middle of nowhere. I’m on my way to pick up a van from Upper Heyford airfield, which is about three miles from here. The site was formerly used by the US Air Force during the Cold War but these days is only used, like many similar airfields around the country, to store cars by the thousand on runways that are no longer needed for their original purpose. This is handy enough for the transport firms who have all this relatively cheap space at their disposal, but not so handy for the platers who have to make their way in and out of these isolated places.

In the past I’ve usually hitched into Upper Heyford from the M40, so the route from the train station is new to me. The few commuters who also got off here have quickly disappeared into waiting cars and I’m now alone. The station is on the edge of the village and after looking around for a minute to get my bearings I set off down the lanes. Neither the moon nor any stars are visible overhead.

When was the last time you found yourself out of doors in complete darkness? I don’t mean streetlit or moonlit darkness, but the more thoroughgoing, uncivilised kind that renders everything more than ten feet away from you into an inky nothingness?

As I’m walking along an odd thing happens - two long forgotten, insignificant memories pop suddenly into my mind. The first is of walking down a dirt road on a family holiday in Corfu. I was probably in my early teens and for some reason I was walking alone at night back to the apartment we were staying in. The recollection contains no details, except that it was as dark then as it is now.

The second memory is even more vague, and not linked to a single situation but a collection of them – the scout camps I went to when I was a kid. I have an indistinct image of woods at night, whenever I left the tent or the camp fire for one unrecalled reason or another, probably to piss behind a tree, and was alone in the dark.

Perhaps my brain is responding to the threatening darkness by trawling through the past for any relevant experiences that might be of use. Maybe this is why, when people believe they are about to die, their whole life can allegedly flash before their eyes - a last desperate scouring of the memory banks in the hope of finding some forgotten scrap of knowledge that might save the day.

After the best part of an hour stumbling along the lanes I arrive at the entrance to the air base, although the van is still about a mile away, outside the security guards’ portacabin, beyond a maze of old hangers and empty concrete buildings.

Just at this moment a small, single decker bus comes grumbling along behind me. Its interior lights reveal rows of almost empty seats and suggest a blissful degree of warmth and comfort as it rattles past and onwards down the lane.

It never occurred to me that there might be public transport around here at this time of night. I wonder whether it stopped at Heyford station, although even if it did it would not have got me here any quicker and I would have been deprived of those strange memories which I never even knew I had forgotten.

My memory is generally appalling, even for recent events, even when I've made a special effort to retain the information. However I doubt that I’ve ever thought about either of those two insignificant situations even once in all the years since they occurred, and yet they have obviously remained between my ears somewhere, awaiting a chance to be useful.

I wonder if all the rest of my life is still crammed in there as well. I’d like to believe that it is, but given the circumstances in which such things seem to be revealed, I think I’d prefer to never find out.

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