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Driving through Greece with your family dozing around you, you did what most travellers do when they move through a landscape: think about somewhere completely different. The beauty of mental travel means that signs and things around us become triggers for memory. Driving up to Mt Pelion above the port of Volos, past statues of centaurs and monasteries partly shaded by Cyprus trees, mountain tavernas and the clanging bells of herded goats, you saw a chalk sign on the road, ‘VOLOS MALAKAS’. We all have a geological past that follows us. Sandstone, Caen stone, flint, lime, marble. Yours is chalk. In the North Downs you grew up on chalk. It crumbled from the hillside. It found its way into your hands to draw arrows on the street, to direct the left-behind to follow your young voices vanishing down leaf covered lanes, to make hopscotch grids, or like the ‘tossers of Volos’, a chance to scribe rude slogans about someone you hated,. Chalk haunted our imaginations. You still remember hearing how a boy fell over the edge of the chalk cliff on the lane, ‘cracking his head open’ like Humpty, red blood against the white chalk. Luckily the boy was put together again, but his accident stayed, like raspberries smudged on porcelain. Chalk was in your drinking water, as if your bones were made of the stuff. It might calcify once swallowed and form the skeleton.

Chalk would turn up in all sorts of places: the low meadows where cows seemed glued to the spot by the closeness of the weather; in the streams feeding the Darenth; in the hollows of bomb holes littering the forests above you; in your pockets. It lent itself to naming White Hill, a grassy steep slope in summer, a sledging haven in the deeps of winter. You remember violent games of throwing chalk at each other amongst the fallen trees from the 1987 hurricane, fat pieces of chalk clinging to the upended tree roots now becoming missiles; one finding the forehead of a friend, bouncing off  innocuously but leaving a red circle soon to become a lump. Or your faces pressed against the chalk counting to 100: coming ready or not. The babes in the wood in the hidden places, running out of copses and spinneys to reach ‘home’ without getting caught, sometimes falling over their own legs in the panic. Chalk scraped the green gridded blackboards of your primary school, forming language, placing letters both big and small that you would copy down in carbon (pens were alien to you: you still remember your first fountain pen when you went to big school, the ink cartridge bleeding onto your white shirt. You were not alone in this ritual). Chalk was a means of communication. It was, like the arrows on the pavement, a vehicle for the symbolic: “Remember, as you look at the cross on the hill, those who gave their lives for their country, 1914-1919”. You can’t miss it, a huge cross scored into the hillside. Sometimes the chalk starts to disappear, worn away by the elements, greened by moss or mildew. You were probably five or six when it was restored: so many people with buckets of chalk, crumbling it, reapplying it as if it were a masterwork being touched up. It never seemed religious, though it tacked onto that British line of spiritual land art, from white horses to 60ft phalluses.

To you it’s an arrow pointing home, every time you drive along the A225. Or where home used to be, as even villages change as fast as cities. Gone are Billy and his cart, the sweet man with learning difficulties that pushed his barrow around the village with a perma-roll up stuck to his bottom lip. The butchers shop with the sausage bunting gone too. The gardens of the older villagers once filled with over thirty different vegetables, now just a lawn. The Doctor’s surgery that smelt of cigarettes. George Wickham laughing as a deckchair slowly cut into the finger of a friend. Shaver’s tractor. Dolly Goldup’s shopping trolley. China Teeth and his drainpipe jeans and Jack Russell. Or the man who looked like a pier-end Leo Sayer, against whose house you managed to throw a golf ball after a poorly judged throw. Sometimes you can’t help yourself but hope that you’re playing a game of 40/40, that you’ll pull away from the chalk and see them emerging from the woods running for home. Instead, all the old devils are flipped on their backs like stag beetles. Chalk palimpsests briefly reveal themselves, before the first fat raindrops hit the corrugated roofs of the garages and wash away the arrows.

Posted 8 years ago

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