Roots

peter-crowley-coventry-war-memorial-parkjpeg
Memorial Park, Coventry, by Peter Crowley.

One sunny Saturday when I was seven, a completely new feeling hit me, right in the middle of going downstairs. I was so full of it I had to sit down. Mum found me and wondered what was wrong.

‘I’ve got a funny feeling,’ I told her.

‘What kind of funny feeling?’ she asked.

‘A sad one,’ I said, hands pressed to my chest. ‘Like I miss something.’

‘Hmm,’ said Mum. ‘Sounds a bit like homesickness.’

I was puzzled. How could I be homesick? I was home.

But the longing was there all the same. It had found me, in the middle of that sunshine, that no-school freedom, that afternoon playing Lego with my sister. I realise now that feeling was of loss-to-come. Some moments mean so much that you miss them, even while they’re happening.

I felt the opposite feeling this week. Homesickness doesn’t really have an antonym. Home-wellness? You know, the feeling you have when you’re in a place that’s really yours.  It’s nothing to do with deeds or mortgages, that feeling. It’s more about places that have held you, that know you.

I was running under the beeches in the park at the end of the street I grew up on. I felt lighter and stronger, each step faster, just because I was there, passing the trees that are wardens of my childhood. Trees that watched me ride my first bike, push my little cousin in her pram, sit with my sketchpad. We have grown taller and thicker together, me and these trees. It probably looks nothing special to anyone else, these few green acres of Coventry park, but this is my place. It is a place that breathes into me.

Coventry is a hard place to be from. It’s not just that it doesn’t like to let you leave. Maybe it’s because it’s right in the navel of the country, but it seems to have a weirdly strong gravity. Coventry throws ‘em out for a while, but its kids tend to boomerang back home.

Coventry is hard, at least to me, probably its sappiest daughter. It’s hard to look at, in places. It’s had hard times. At school, if people called you ‘hard’, you’d made it. It’s hard for strangers to drive around its bonkers ring road. But there’s something to be proud of in its hardness. The blitz hit out its front teeth. Macroeconomics made it the Specials’ ghost town. Now, the cranes are busy again on that old skyline with its three spires. Coventry is a place that has had to get back up, time and again.

My park is Coventry’s memorial to the Great War, planted in a softer time, when the city took loss and death, and turned it into grace, creating a place that grows and breathes. At the foot of each tree is a plaque, which bears the name of a fallen son of the city. A hundred years ago right now, numberless young lives were forever lost in the trenches of France. In their memory, there is a place for families to potter and dogs to race in the sun, where you can swing a golf club or play five-a-side. A place that watches its people grow up, safe in the privilege of peace: to forget.

As ceasefire teeters in Syria, I hope that in a hundred years there will be a war memorial park in Aleppo, a far older and grander city being torn further apart every day. And that there, people will know what it is to have got back up again, to have rebuilt everything they lost in 2016. There will be somewhere to fall quiet under the cedars, crickets singing as the heat fades. Where children play in the shade, instead of being pulled from the rubble.

In 2116, who knows what will be left of my place. Maybe nothing but more clay brick houses pulled from the heart of the country. Or maybe the trees run wild, and stumbling into the forest one day, an intrepid kid sees the stone square the oldest beech has grown around, and wonders what it is for.

In these places, there is bliss in forgetting. Feeling the ache of loss-to-come and letting it go. Over us all, the leaves shiver in the sunlight. Underneath our feet, the roots run deep, knitting together the broken ground.

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