February 13th - Just as I feared I couldn’t stand the grey anymore, a blessed break in the weather. I have never, ever been so glad to see the light.
One commute on the canal through Walsall to Darlaston - a route I haven’t taken much since Christmas - was all it took. Sunshine, wildlife, glistening water, beautiful mist-suffused urban streets. And in Kings Hill Park beautiful yellow crocuses reminded me of the good that was to come.
I noted that the towpaths from Bentley Mill Way to Bughole Bridge are now being resurfaced, so if you cycle this way, expect to avoid folk in hi-viz marshalling small excavators and other such plant.
Today, my week was saved… by a crocus. I’m just mad about saffron.
February 19th - It was a warm day with an insistent wind and occasional sunny periods - but a fine day for a ride. I covered 63 miles, the first big ride of the year, and the towpaths were much easier going than I thought, apart from a couple of rough patches at Stourton and west of Wolverhampton.
The canals showed themselves beautifully, and the sound of church bells and sight of daffodils, snowdrops and other spring flowers gladdened the heart.
Of course, the architecture stole the show - the viaducts, aqueducts, bridges, locks and associated houses are gorgeous.
The Black Country is wonderful and I’ll always love it.
This is your home. It has been for as long as you can remember, nearly as far back as you can trace. The only time it wasn’t was when your family came here from a far-away land, looking to better themselves. You’re not sure how this town is better, but you suppose they’re content with the outcome. The garden is happy this year.
Your house is small and old, and creaks underneath your feet when you walk. The boards bend beneath the carpet and rug and Ma always says how they’ll need to fix it up. At night, when everyone’s asleep and you’re almost there, the wheezing and groaning keeps you awake - lethargic and hazy, you bid the noise little heed. In the morning, you do not ask about the circles under the family’s eyes. When the chicken count is off, your father simply nods, mumbling something about coyotes.
In the early season, rains flood the canal, the waters licking at the towpath. The wet gravel strains your shoes gray and sinks into the canvas like ink, relentless. The water churns, quick and anxious from the recent storms. You toss stones into the depths and wait patiently for the time of year where you can see deep enough into the canal to not fear what it hides.
The summers are hot and humid, like you could cut the air with a knife. Each meal is full of ripe fruits and tender meats, always a surprise since your mother never lets you in the kitchen. The fragrance only stays until she cleans that night, the lower floor then reeking of bleach. You sink your teeth into a slice of cantaloupe and wonder what she’ll serve tomorrow.
The apple orchards go on for acres, smelling sickly sweet and filled with clouds of gnats. Near the end of the season, the half eaten and dropped fruits have all begun to rot, leaving a heady smell in the air. It makes you sick to your stomach, but you push through, because the other kids always make fun of you if you can’t just get past it. Everyone knows the difference between the smells of decay. No one points out that rotting fruit is hardly so strong.
There are plenty of ghost stories about your town - they’re all complete nonsense, really. However, there is a truth in the tales of Irishmen left in the soil of the canal, dropped dead in the heat as they dug the trench and left there in negligence. There is always a memorial by the bridge over the water, but something always catches your attention before you can take a closer look. You wonder who it’s for.
You leave pumpkins on your porch in November, gourds and wreaths lining the house. Candles sit in the window like vigilant soldiers, wax dripping into the sills and melting the lines of salt placed there. One night, you open the window to move the stale air from your room. Your fingers break the line of salt as you do so, and the wind wails, the window screeching suddenly. You slam it back shut. Ma is in your doorway with the salt before you can even get your feet to move, her face one of a stern sort of sympathy. You don’t thank her, but you find a newly-purchased container of salt on your dresser the next day, and you lose a tenseness you did not realize you had.
Downtown is chilly - cold enough for a jacket but not enough to excuse staying inside. There’s attractions posted around the square for tourists who never come, and you have never been in any of them. In fact, you’re not actually sure if they’re tourist attractions, or if the facts they state are actual facts. The town is old, but so is every town around here. Anybody that visits the shabby old museums get nasty glares, and you throw a few sneers, as well, though you don’t know why.
They say the towpath can take you anywhere within four counties. You don’t doubt it - you’ve never walked it past Barberton, but you’ve heard of people who went on a walk and never came back. You can’t remember any of their names.
The shops downtown are old and varied; candy shop, hair salon, tattoo shop, a stuffed animal shop. Some you couldn’t name - there is a shop with young girls’ clothing hanging in the windows that never seems to be open, and a pagan shop on the corner with bones that seem just a bit too large to be as they claim. The woman there offers to give you a tarot reading, and you politely decline, nervous. She smiles and nods, and you remember your friend’s mother talking about how the church wants to make a petition to close down the shop. It seems like the only safe place you’ve been in years, and you end up buying a bundle of sage to burn at home, ignoring the fact that somehow everyone in town seems to know about your purchase. The woman tells you about herbs of protection and you try to listen, but it feels as though your ears are about to pop, and you recall your mother’s speeches about the wrath of God too late. You cannot hear or sleep for days.
In the winter, it’s almost as if the town dies. Doors close and do not open again, and you see your friends at school and the bag boys at the grocery store but you do not make eye contact with them, and there’s never anyone outside or in the aisle with you. The drive home is icy but empty and you do not see your family when you get home. Only your father is there, in the doorway to kitchen. (You’ve never seen it open, and you realize you’ve never been inside before; your curiosity suddenly flees as you realize you have no interest in knowing what’s inside.) You go to your bedroom and crawl under the covers, and you block out the sound of nothing as best you can.
You see a post about hometowns and cornfields and laugh - it seems like everyone lives in this state, funnily enough. You mention it to one of your friends and they laugh as well, but go tight-lipped quickly after. You both drive for hours, closely following a map, but you cannot seem to find your way to Pennsylvania, always ending up back in Massillon or Cleveland, as if the road never ends. Your fingers shake on the steering wheel as you take the highway back home.
February 15th - The day had been warm for the time of year, and the morning commute grey and foreboding but dry. During the day it rained, and on my late return in darkness, it was on a warm, April-like wet night after the rain.
The journey was unremarkable until I came across this fellow on the canal towpath near Silver Street. A large, healthy looking frog, clearly on the move.
Awakened by the warmth and seasonal imperative, it will be off to the water to mate, then another year of avoiding herons and other predators whilst doing little more than eating. Not a bad life, really.
Pretty soon, the roads and paths at night will be full of frogs and toads on the move, and there will sadly be carnage as many are lost under vehicle wheels. But I shall have my eagle eye out, and like this one, I will assist any I find to a place of safety.
It’s coming on spring. The snowdrops know it. The crocuses know it. The light knows it. My heart knows it, too.
I stop for amphibians. And occasionally, for no perceptible reason whatsoever.