Issue 7

Jon McGregor
I Remember There Was a Hill

There was a hill, and on the hill there was a road. The road was narrow and straight and it went straight up the side of the hill. The road was broken, with ruts, and holes, and streaks of mud where tractors or tracked vehicles must have turned in and out of the fields on either side. The road was lined with poplar trees, and hawthorn hedges, and then as the road flattened out the hedges gave way to stone walls, and brick walls, and the low fences of front gardens, the front gardens of the houses that made up the village that sat like a fortress at the top of the hill. And in that village there was no green nor park nor pub nor church nor school nor shop; only the two dozen houses set back from the road, none of the houses looking out towards the sea but all turned inwards facing the road, the doors all closed and the windows all closed and the curtains all closed and no one tending their roses or mowing their lawns or mending their roofs or painting their window-frames, and no one chasing a ball or walking a dog or passing the time of day or taking a bike from a shed or hanging out laundry or washing a car or getting into a car and driving out on to the road to make their way down the hill. No barking dogs. No hum of distant lawnmower, nor rumble of tractor. No sudden cracking sounds of guns. No music or drums. No marching feet. No posters taped to telegraph poles which told of flower shows or village fetes or meetings of the neighbourhood watch. No parish noticeboard. No markings on the road, no signs noting entry to the village and asking visitors to drive with care. No signs displaying the village name, nor the year the prize for Best Kept Village was won, nor the name of the village's foreign-sounding twin. There was a phone-box, beside the road, and a phone which had just started to ring.

The phone-box was beside a dry-stone wall. There were sheep on the other side of the wall. The sheep were in a narrow field which fell steeply down the hill, and the grass was still wet with the night, and the ground was pitted with rabbit-holes, and at the end of the field there was a row of poplar trees and a pile of dead wood and around the dead wood there were nettles growing and beyond the trees and the dead wood there was a view of the land running away to the sea. There were no other hills. There was no other high ground. There were trees. There were towers such as church-towers or water-towers or town-hall towers and on all these towers there were windows or ledges or rooftops or viewing platforms of one sort or another. There were no rabbits in the field. The sheep were huddled up against the wall. The sheep were terribly thin. The phone rang. It was clear that these trees would grow tall in the gardens of these houses and beside the road and in the hollows and boundary-lines of the land between the hill and the river and the sea. That they would rot from within and grow heavy-limbed and in some strong wind come crashing down into these houses and across this road and into the ditches down below, and that new trees would grow up in their place. That the grass of these lawns would grow prairie-tall and thorned briars reach up and twine around the houses and break through crumbling window-frames and pull the brick walls down. That these sheep would die, like all the others, and the uncut crops rot in the fields and the dead chaff be blown into the ditches and clog the ditches and the floods sit heavy on the land for seasons at a time and the roads crumble and the way be passable only by tracked vehicles or airborne vehicles or those wary few who might come through on foot.

The phone-box door was heavy but the hinges didn't creak. The windows of the houses set back from the road were still curtained and dark and the curtains didn't move. The ringing of the phone echoed loudly inside the box and the ringing would not stop. The door was opened. The phone was lifted. First there was a low humming silence. Then the wet click of a mouth being opened to speak. Then there was a voice which spoke. Two planes came low across the sky in silence towards the sea, and the sound which followed was like the sound of improvised explosive devices in a culvert very close by.

The sheep scattered blindly across the field towards the dead wood beneath the poplar trees. The heavy door of the phone-box banged shut. The sounds all faded away.