Of elephants and memories…

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Every landscape, no matter how tiny, is infused by our own personal perception of it. Infused with memory, with initial response, with emotion, with a past. At times, it’s a deep past, locked in deep time, that we sense and respond to. At others, it’s an instantaneous crashing reminder of a moment of love, or upset, or trauma, or loss. A landscape – and by that I mean all that that landscape is; sight, sound, taste, touch, smell – is memory.

For me, a whole landscape can also be framed by an object within it; the experience of a place pivots around one specific spot, one object, one viewpoint. Take this, for example:

By my parents’ home is a small playpark, owned by the local council. When I was small it was regularly cleaned, mowed, re-painted. I can remember the frustration of my 5-year-old self on painting day, where we would head to the long-promised park after dinner and discover the swings tied back and the wee fence around the elephant. The elephant was metal, a single-person seesaw, ears and tail much loved and well-rubbed from patting. The crackled flaking paintwork was part of him, part of his essence, his being. I was traumatised the day that he was painted in the wrong colours. My inner self was gutted, furious because a random council worker had turned his blue head cover to red, his saddle yellow and the rest of his body green. He suddenly clashed with sky and melted into the grass, rather than melding with the sky and standing out (blue with gold trim) from his grassy surroundings. My small heart was broken, my park-map-landscape altered in a way I had no control over.

I remember my dad’s smirk when I arrived at the park the next day with a blue pen, determined to at least return my elephant’s head cover to fuse with the sky.

The same park had a wooden climbing frame, complete with tyre swing and metal slides and a fireman’s pole. As an almost-teenager, this was the hang out, the part of the map where your friends would be found, night after night, until bats flew and owls hooted at dusk’s edges. The part of the map where shy, almost couples would be teased mercilessly, where you could be elated or taunted or left on the edges, quietly observing the boundary lines between order and chaos. Memories of truth or dare, secrets or danger, shout or whisper, kiss or slap; all still lie just under the surface of those few square metres of landscape, close to where I grew up.

The climbing frame was taken away at some point after I left the town, headed to an entirely new landscape at university. It was replaced with a more modern metal slide and monkey bars. My two girls play when we visit, occasionally, but the park has faded in many people’s memories now, including the council’s. The play things are no longer cared for; the swings have rusted and the small metal elephant has no colour left. He is rubbed clean, details lost, though he still smiles down on the now-empty paddling pool. I have no doubt he conjures memories for more folk than just me; I still stroke his ears when I visit.

He made my fingers smell like copper coins, and my 5-year-old bare legs turn cold as I see-sawed him to whatever country or landscape I had in my head at the time. He watched on years later when I was kissed by a lad from school. He listened to angry rants when I ran to hide from an argument at home. He was there, is there, as part of the landscape, as a tiny, insignificant yet pivotal point on my childhood mental map. He’s as important as the dune by the sea, the twisted tree branch in the woods, the bench on the corner, the doorway of the sweet shop. He’s an elephant, totally out of place if you think literally, yet firmly, completely fused to it.

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