The Aitken Alexander Isolation Series: Spirit D’escalier the size of a country by Max Porter

‘Spirit D’escalier the Size of a Country’ by Max Porter

The government said we could drive so I loaded the boys in the car and we drove up and out of the city to the mile-deep green bowls where the old woods meet the soft stone and the clean springs, and it was green, green, the greenest thing I had ever seen, and the bird song was symphonically almost comically loud and I told them Romans drank this water and they sang Fart fart bum butt-trap when can we have our snack, Wiener truck on the wiener man, He hit me, He deliberately trapped my hand in the gap, Can we have Radio One, Why didn’t mum come, She needed a break, we needed a break, you’re breaking us, But when can we have our snacks, and we parked up high and they ran-tumbled down into a valley, and I followed painfully on my knees-of-a-ninety-year-old, into the scene, tripping, whistling, taking great lungfuls of clean air, stench of wild garlic, cows like an advert for butter, sheep like an advert for sheep, luminous beech, the little one sang Oak before ash watch out weiner face you pee pee splash and they laughed and I laughed and they were like puppies off the lead, running off lockdown, shaking off home-school, leaping, tripping, quoting themselves, the jokes of five weeks sung back as celebration, nut jokes and butt jokes and super Mario kart characters on the hill, quoting back to me in physical form ideas about what children should be, if they are fortunate enough to be in the wild, free, we jumped across a tiny stream full of cow shit, I hugged a tree, they imitated me, we sat for a snack and I told them how lucky we were and a parent from school in sensible walking shoes came up through the gate and we talked of how lucky we were, how grateful we were, to have access to this, she works 12 hour shifts 6 days a week in a hospital job and after she left I explained to the boys how lucky we were, how grateful we are, and then we got back in the car and drove higher, up, on a single track road, grass in the middle, higher and higher, further from home, and I told them grass in the middle of the road means we are really far away and we wondered if anyone, ever, had come here before, we are certainly the first this year, the first people here, watch out for deer and then Oh, wow, holy fuck, Dad watch your language, but there on the hill is a mansion, a castle, a Disneyfied fortress, a wedding venue big shot listed fuck off vine-clad palace with Bentleys in the drive, an orchard, a lawn cut striped like a court, and cameras on fence posts and gravel so clean you would suck it and as we turned in the drive we oohed and aahed and the eldest who is interested in fame and money asked, Who would live in a house like this and how much would it cost and I did the voice and said Wheuu Lives in a Huyse Like Thiiis, and I said, Three million, no four, I have no idea, ten, maybe more, and up the lane came a mother and daughter in high waisted jeans with what I would call Prince William belts, those embroidered faux-Mayan belts of the Polo field or private school, and they were tanned, wearing crisp white tees and trendy glasses, brand new Nikes, they had salon hair, they had a spaniel on a plaited red lead, and I slowed and out of the window, but still at a distance of two metres, asked, What is the best way down to the river, where is the path down into the valley and she, well, wait, cut to my youngest son’s impression of her later, telling the story to mum, with the other two doing impressions of her face, face like a puckered anus as I would say, No, ooh no, no there’s no path, no this is all private land around here, all private land around here, and cut back to us in the car, me and my smiling babies, the interior of my car which was described in a profile by the Bookseller Magazine as a “hideous crime scene” and I just thanked her and drove on, knowing that I would regret not replying, knowing I would profoundly regret not speaking my mind and think of a hundred ways to expose this terrible person’s terrible ways, but so be it, I just smiled and left because this was real life and I am a wimp, and there, not three hundred yards further down the road, was a sign for a public footpath leading along the river, and there, a little way on, another, because, as I explained to the children, Of course that awful, awful, awful woman doesn’t OWN THE VALLEY, and even if she did she cannot OWN the land, and I wanted to explain to them how it wasn’t especially the stupidity that upset me, or the fact she had lied, it was what the lie represented, and I wanted to tell them a balanced and unemotional story of what it meant that she had said what she said, or owned what she owned, and how it was connected to what I was saying earlier about this country and your friend’s mum working in the hospital and the history of money and land and the way we vote and the way we treat one another and the land and as I was relaxing into this monologue and the children had fully stopped listening we passed a farm and the barn had a UKIP sign and the sign said Put Britain First For Once, a real modern British artefact, almost retro now, the purple and yellow, the pound-sign graphic design, vintage irony, putting Britain of all places first for once, Uh Oh, said my eldest, now this really is Dad’s nightmare, what if we broke down here, between the rich lady landowner and the UKIP farm, and I guffawed, what if we broke down here, exactly that, well, we appear to be broken down here, between these two positions, and I said we would trespass, we would walk home, boys, from here to the city, on other people’s land, but we didn’t break down, we drove home, and I stopped to photograph an ash tree, split in three, and they mocked me, and I explained that the tree pre-dates cars, trains, electricity, that the tree laughs at the barbed wire fence or grows around it and they said we know, we know, please, please dad, we just want to go home, we’ve done really well, you said it would be a short adventure and it’s been a long adventure, and the government did not say we could drive around looking at trees and you’ve told us this story so many times before.