Easily distracted

I’m sitting on a bench, in an old graveyard called the Howff – a Scots word, meaning an enclosed open space. It’s in the heart of Dundee, opposite the big D.C. Thomson building, which is across a road behind me. Most of the gravestones in front of me are green with lichen. On several stones, you can see carved skulls and crossbones. I am reliably informed that they are not the graves of pirates.

It can be a gloomy place when the weather is grey and raining, but right now – it’s relaxing. Not that I think being near lots of skeletons is relaxing. I don’t. I’m not a ghoul. It’s relaxing because it’s sunny and the sky is blue, and birds are singing. So, if you want to call anyone ghoulish, it should be those birds, who are singing in a graveyard. The worst I do is occasionally hum a little tune, although not very tunefully. Still, I can’t blame the birds for wanting to sing – it’s lovely here. Clouds of pink blossom are decorating the trees, and the cut grass between the gravestones is a bright, glowing green. Even the faded green of the gravestones looks almost happy.

For years, I’ve often wandered around this place, taking photographs. Sometimes, I just sat on a bench and read a book. When I worked in Dundee House, as a Welfare Rights Officer, I brought my lunch along here and hid for a while, from all the troubled souls coming in to see me with their welfare problems. Sitting on a bench, when the breeze was gentle and seagulls were crying in the distance, I could sometimes unwind from the steel grip of other people’s pain.

In the 1980s, I used to waste money in an arcade, not far from here. As soon as you walked downstairs, your senses were combobulated (it is a word now!) – with red and yellow lights flashing, and little jingles and whooping sounds repeating. Machines whirred, clicked, and sometimes clattered deafeningly as coins poured out, for a win. And players of all ages, but mostly young, focused fanatically on pressing buttons, as if their lives depended on it. In fact, for each player, two or three lives might depend on it. The ‘lives’ in a game of Space Invaders. Or Galaxians. Or Paper Boy.

From where I’m sitting in the Howff, I can look beyond the rows of gravestones and trees, and up at a high building with dozens of white frame windows. It looks as if it might be an old jute mill converted into flats. There may or may not be flats in there, but there are certainly – offices, shops, and at least one restaurant. I knew the building in the 80s as other offices of D.C. Thomson. I worked there, as an apprentice. Printing black and white photographs in a smelly darkroom. And, early on Saturday mornings, I’d open the place and try not to make a mistake as the wire machine began to hum and a photograph was sent in, line by slow line, arriving from somewhere else in the world. Once it was printed, I’d take it off the machine, roll it up and place it in a thick plastic tube.  I then inserted the tube in a system of pipes, where it shot away to a different part of the building, ready to become part of a newspaper, soon rolling out on vast printing machines.

My mind turns to thoughts of news- real news, like the Timex strike 20 years ago, and miles of unreal news – lottery wins, a Royal wedding, politicians gibbering. But- sitting here in the sunshine, in the quiet of an old graveyard, I’m easily distracted from those thoughts. Out of a high open window, a smell drifts down to me – a vegetable curry, perhaps. It smells delicious. Spicy. I don’t know why that takes me back to the clattering looms of Halley’s textiles factory, but it does, and my ears are suddenly hot and sweaty beneath bulky plastic ear protectors. Maybe, I noticed a smell of food from the works canteen as I passed by, and maybe it smelled like a vegetable curry, although it was more likely to be a mince pie. Anyway, I walked past the canteen and on to the factory floor and amongst the giant looms, all clattering away with a hellish clatter. Here and there, I’d stop for a few minutes at one giant machine, switch it off, and carry out some tests on the woven polypropylene. Whenever I switched the loom off, a bubble of quietness formed around me, which was weird, because dozens of other machines were still clattering so loudly it was like they were shouting through my bones. I suppose it was the sudden stopping of the nearest vibrations in the air that caused the sensation of being in a bubble of quietness. Years later, I wrote about it, and years later from then, here I am remembering it again. Some things stay with us even if we are not sure why.

Perhaps, the ‘bubbles’ some of us talk about now, during lockdown, will return to us, again and again. The people we live with, the precious times when we didn’t have to wear masks, and we could feel the touch of another person. Or, for the many people who live alone, the memories may be – letters, parcels, phone calls, or a day on a park bench – one of a million masked conversations around the country. As if everyone decided at once – to pretend to be surgeons.

The latest lockdown in Scotland is ending. In the weeks ahead, I’ll walk through familiar but strange places- charity shops, bookshops, cafes. Places which became only memories to me, for months. It’s the same for all of us, I suppose. And we will be meeting with other people. The voices of others will be nearer – not in some faraway world over the phone. Faraway, even if it was just in a nearby town or a few streets away. To be able to look at the eyes of others as we speak with them, in real life, rather than on a Zoom call, that will be strange too. Strange, but good.

I’m back home. Writing about the lockdown ending and memories and the future. The cat wants to go out to the garden – a small paw is resting gently but instructively on my arm. That’s okay – sometimes, I like to be distracted.  

Harvey Duke

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