Okay, so it’s not up there with Romeo and Juliet, or Leave or Remain, but this business about the bypass has started to divide our village in a way I haven’t seen before. Oh, there were the tiffs and the factions and the folk who rubbed each other up the wrong way, that’s how it is in any village, no matter what anyone said. But we muddled along. We generally ended up having a laugh and a drink together, or at any rate, agreeing to differ. It was the kind of village where we might all have our “pet activists” and favoured causes, but it all remained pretty vicarious, as we turned our attention to the forthcoming car boot sale or raising money for new church bells.
Of course, we can’t have suddenly woken up one morning and realised that the row over the bypass was a different matter, but it sometimes seemed that way. It was much a matter of things that didn’t happen and weren’t said as things that did and were. Tiny trivial little things. People on opposite sides of the debate stopped smiling and saying, “See you then, mate!” when they parted company, and increasingly, stopped seeking out each others’ company altogether. We were becoming polarised. And once you become polarised, then it’s very hard to reverse the situation.
I told myself I had to stay apparently neutral, on the surface, being the village school teacher and all that, but I doubt if anyone really was totally neutral, underneath. There were those it might have mattered to more than others
But the truth was, in my heart I was “against” and I reckon most people knew it. The children at Rosenby Infant and Junior School were lucky – they could do what, a generation ago would have been considered absolutely normal for many children and go on nature walks. I won’t delude myself that everybody enjoyed them – some seven year old little girls (and little boys, come to that) can have an aversion to getting their feet muddy and can regard anything that doesn’t come in plastic packaging as yucky. But most of them ended up at least enjoying parts of the walks. And even asked for one, sometimes, eager hands going up and eager faces putting on their best pleading look, and eager voices chorusing, “Miss, Miss, PLEASE can we have a nature walk!” I nearly always gave in, even if I suspected that at least in some cases it was because a nature walk was preferable to some of the strictures of the National Curriculum (and the children weren’t the only ones who felt that way!).
One day – it was one of those crisp, soft-coloured days in early autumn that make it seem preferable to summer – one of my “top juniors”, a bright child called Emilia, who probably got away with more than she should, asked me, “Miss, is it true what my Mum says that if they make that bypass then we won’t be able to go on nature walks any more?”
Trying to think on my feet, and not entirely succeeding, I gave her what, before very long, she would recognise as a two-part answer. She plainly wasn’t the only one who was interested. “Well, Emilia, if they make the road through the wood, then yes, it’s certainly true that we won’t be able to have our nature walks there, which would be a shame, but I hope we’d manage to find other places for them.” I realised that would be a shame probably contravened teacher neutrality, but you can’t watch your every last word. Emilia looked thoughtful. “Yes it would be a shame. Like you know, of course, Miss, I’m going off to high school next year, but I want Jared to be able to enjoy them!” Jared was her little brother, starting at the school next year. “I’ve told him all about them, though I should warn you, he REALLY likes yucky stuff!”
I had to smile, reflecting that if she kept to the career ambition she already cherished of being a nurse, she’d have to get used to coping with yucky stuff sooner or later!
Beyond the default background thoughts about the issue, I put the conversation to my mind for the rest of the day. The next day I had a phonecall that Mrs Jarvis wished to see me – the mother of Harrison, one of Emilia’s classmates. I had a general rule that I was always open to see my pupils’ parents or guardians – many of whom I knew socially anyway – but unless it was an emergency, I preferred them to make an appointment if they were actually coming into the school. She agreed to that, but gave the impression that she didn’t feel like waiting very long. Harrison was one of one of those children it’s far too easy, and entirely wrong, to overlook. He was reserved, but didn’t strike me as pathologically shy, and I’ve never been of the opinion that a quiet child is necessarily a troubled one. He always seemed eager to please, and was a clever child, but sometimes I wished he could appear to enjoy his studies more. He wasn’t bullied, but didn’t seem to have any particular friends either. I realised that on the occasions when I had met her at the parents’ evenings, Mrs Jarvis had struck me as very like her son! To be fair, they lived right on the outskirts of the village, so I suppose it was natural I didn’t know her as well as I might have done. I did, however, know that though she wasn’t one of the “frontline campaigners” she was most definitely on the “build the bypass” side of the argument.
She was the kind of woman who minded her manners, and said good afternoon and thank you for seeing me, but the expression on her face, though you couldn’t call it hostile, made me realise that this wasn’t going to be an entirely comfortable conversation.
I said she must call me Anne, and she said her name was Cora, but that didn’t make things necessarily any more informal and easy between us. At least she went straight to the point. I prefer that. “You said that it would be a shame if the bypass was built.”
“Well, I said that it would be a shame if we couldn’t take our nature walks there. That isn’t quite the same thing.” But I was being pedantic, and she was right to call me out on it. “With respect, Anne, that’s splitting hairs. And actually I understand – it’s unrealistic to expect a teacher to leave every last one of their opinions at home all the time. I’m – not planning to report you or anything.” I didn’t know what to say. To say thank you might appear sycophantic, and anyway (and I wasn’t proud of this thought!) I was long-standing friends with the chairwoman of the Board of Governors, so I’d probably be safe enough! Yet to say nothing seemed ungracious. In the brief silence, I noticed that she was wearing a thick winter coat, too thick for the relatively mild autumn day, and yet she didn’t seem to be too warm. She was almost, involuntarily, holding it around herself as if to seek warmth. I wondered if she were ill.
“A few years back,” Cora said, “I would almost certainly have been on your side of the argument. I was raised in a town, but there was a wonderful park there, and our holidays were almost always in the country. Just – just words like celandine or heather or catkin seemed to have a kind of magic to them. I had all the Ladybird and later on, all the Observer books about the natural world. At one point I thought about being a gardener, but in the end, I trained as a teacher,” she smiled, as I looked up in surprise. “Oh yes, Anne, that’s one reason why I understand how awkward it can be, though I taught in senior school, and mainly just history. That was my other passion. I used to teach myself. I gave it up when Bertie was born, but carried on tutoring, and fully intended going back when he was a bit older. That’s – my older son, Bertie. I hesitate to use words like idyllic, but it was a good life. My husband, Victor, was the village vet, and we had – well, not exactly a thatched cottage, I mean, it didn’t have thatch, but the kind you still see pictures of in the stationery they sell in Heritage Catalogues. I was finally living in the country, and I had a husband I adored and who adored me, and a healthy, cheeky little boy who was our life.” She did not need to say it for me to realise that she was thinking oh if only time could go backwards!
She went on to say that one of the few flies in the ointment was that people who had to commute – and in the real world, many of the villagers did – took about twice as long as it should have needed to get to work and come back because they had to go along winding country roads. These roads got busier than they should, but building a bypass would mean destroying acres of woodland. “Sounds familiar?” she asked. I nodded. Of course it did. And at one and the same time, I had a horrible prescience about what Cora was going to tell me and yet told myself that I was probably imagining things. The former proved to be true. “I said we complained about our journeys taking much longer than they should have done, but – well, that was just a nuisance. Not a danger. What was dangerous was traffic – speeding through the village because there was no alternative route. We had managed to at least get some traffic lights and there was a school crossing patrol but – it was still an accident waiting to happen. Bertie – was – was killed instantly ….” She had been struggling to maintain her self control, but now it crumbled, and I wasn’t so far off myself. “Coffee?” I asked, simply, knowing that sometimes the most simple and prosaic gesture can be the best one. She nodded. I fetched us both one, and after she had collected herself a little, she went on, “For a while – I hated nature, Anne! I hated trees and flowers and grass and birds. I did get over that. Though I still have my moments. And you’ve no need to tell me that – children die on the roads in villages with and without a bypass, and in towns, and in the open country, and it’s not even as if,” she paused to find the right word, “The layout of this village is the same. As much as anyone can, I’ve come to terms with it. Harrison is a joy and a comfort – my mother advised against me calling him Bertie, and she was right of course – though I wish he could be a bit more outgoing. Sometimes I think he catches my mood even though I try not to let it show. Our marriage survived, though it went through a crisis. But it was almost as if I owed it to Bertie to side with the people who wanted the bypass, because it would save children’s lives. Something self-indulgent…”
“No, not that!” I said, at once, “Certainly not that. Though I suppose if it comes down to it, both sides in this debate have let things get out of control.”
We talked a bit longer, and tonight, not without some apprehension because though neither of us is especially shy, nor are we natural orators, we are joint-hosting a meeting at the village hall. We have already contacted the Planning Committee to ask if there are any possible alternative routes for the bypass, sparing more of the wood.
We have no illusions. People are not going to cheer and embrace us and say, oh, why didn’t we think of that all along, and there are those who think that compromise is a dirty word on principle. Well, nothing wrong with convictions, I suppose!
Cora and I have talked quite a bit about Bertie, and she told me that he, like most children, made up words of his own. When he had a cut knee, or a bruised elbow, and it was starting to scab over or to fade, he would say, proudly, not “It’s healing, Mummy” but “It’s bettering, Mummy!”
I would happily settle for at least some flicker of bettering in our village!