Isobel in Birnam forest

I often notice brightness and a thousand and one bright things: shiny paperweights and pens on my desk, bright eyed birds on the garden grass or on the branches of trees in Birnam forest. There, we saw a three-hundred-year-old Sycamore, and a much older ‘great oak’. It was one of Beatrix Potter’s favourite trees. The trunk of the oak was very broad. I imagined a cottage inside.

Brightness also flits in and out of my dreams. In some green glittering place, between dreaming and deliberate thinking, I walk along a path dappled with leaf shaped shadows and light. At the same time, I’m aware that I am half asleep at home, and outside the streets are dark and so quiet the clock on the wall feels able to tick louder. I notice myself breathing and I wonder if it really is my breathing. I see two tiny bright spots of light through the trees, and I don’t know if they are fallen stars or the eyes of some approaching creature.

Imagining is an extraordinary ability, isn’t it? Yet, we do it so often, we mostly take it for granted. In my half sleeping, half thinking state, I wonder whether I am imagining or not. I think I am running. I am running on a path through Dudhope Park. Nothing is new but everything seems fresh, and there’s a bright blue sky high above. I run by an old iron bench. Even the rusty curves and cracked green paint look extraordinary in the sunlight. My trainers hit and hit the path, my breathing comes easily, and I’ve forgotten whatever it was I was trying to think about. Was it ‘imagining’? I turn down a path that shouldn’t be there and it takes me to a pond where two huge white swans with long necks are proudly glowing as they glide across the cloud-reflecting water.

I wake up. Isobel wakes up too and opens her eyes and the sunlight streaming through the window shines more brightly.

“Good morning” I say.

“Good morning” she says, and smiles.

Nergal jumps out of some other dream and suddenly lands on the bed between us. My heart back-flips.

We both say good morning to the cat, and she meows loudly. I take it to mean: “Yes, it is a good morning. Now, feed me.”

Later in the day, but in another somewhere between dreaming and deliberate thinking, I walk along a familiar pavement from our house to Dudhope Park. I walk through the park towards other familiar streets, enjoying being surrounded by birds singing and by the sound of leaves rustling in the tall trees. The sun feels hot but there’s a cool breeze. I think about a note I blue tacked to my desk. It said: ‘Write about ordinary stuff which is also extraordinary.’ Hmm, I think. It sounds like my usual not very helpful starting point.

Most ordinary, everyday things, I suppose, do not feel as if they could ever be extraordinary. I glance down at the grey tarmac path I’m walking on. I cannot see anything extraordinary about it. Soon I am walking past Dudhope Castle, which looks more like an ordinary hotel or a large B&B than a castle. I look up at it and remember a long attic room where I saw a very extensive model train layout once or twice when I was a child. That was real, I think. I don’t think I imagined it. I look at the castle again, and it still looks like a hotel, but I know it’s not. It’s full of offices. No matter how much I stare at it, it doesn’t look extraordinary. I heard that the train set was removed years ago. So, for me, the extraordinary bit of the castle has gone.

I keep walking. Seagulls fly over me, making that sarcastic, screeching sound they sometimes make. I ignore what I assume is seagullish criticism of my feeble attempt to think.

A repetitive, boring job if you’re stuck doing it for years might never feel extraordinary. Yet, if you just did it for a day or a week, and the work wasn’t too tiring, then the experience could feel unusual and even extraordinary, at first. I felt like that once, sweeping up spilt popcorn in a big, empty cinema. In the gloom, the rows and rows of empty seats and the vast blank screen seemed to be holding their breath waiting for the next film and for light and shadows to move on the screen, with a large crowd of people watching.

After just a few weeks of sweeping up scattered popcorn, I decided that some cinemagoers must enjoy throwing popcorn onto the carpet of a cinema for other people to clean up. Well, that’s how I felt.

Suppose you were recruited to be a participant in a psychology research project. In the experiment you have to walk around a city and visit various places on a list. Some participants are given a list of ordinary spots – like a messy lane, or a bin at a bus stop. Other participants are given a list of extraordinary places. Hidden underground streets, or a newly built statue of a giant mouse. All the participants have to make a note of what they see, think, and feel when they have reached their destinations.

Perhaps we would all prefer the extraordinary to the ordinary locations, because they spark off a greater richness of responses and associations. We might see something we want to know more about, or something to talk to others about, or we may desire to visit the place again. With ordinary locations, it can be difficult to even notice what’s there. Often, we associate the ordinary with boring, and the extraordinary with interesting. Yet, not on every occasion. We have all encountered the opposite. Small children who shove aside an expensive toy and are fascinated by the big cardboard box the toy came in. Or trainspotters. One person’s ‘boring’ can be another person’s source of fascination. The ordinary morphs into the extraordinary, sometimes.

The actor Bernard Cribbins died recently. He was 93. I remember particularly his voice. It was ordinary but it wasn’t – it was like all the ordinary dads, uncles and grandads who were good storytellers mixed into one voice. Perhaps his best performances were reading stories on the children’s TV programme Jackanory. He read stories on more episodes than anyone else: 114, between 1966 and 1991. He read Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and lots more. I don’t remember the exact stories so much as his ability to change character from grumpy to panicky-squeaky, and from brave to baffled. When I heard the stories first, it was on an old black and white TV. I didn’t always listen with rapt attention. Sometimes, I’d get distracted by comics or lego or the need to sneak into the kitchen and find out if there were any custard creams left. I had no idea that the man and voice on the TV was very special. Now, I realise that he must have been someone extraordinary, because I remember an overall impression of fun and kindness, decades later. Extraordinary.

Harvey Duke

1 thought on “Extraordinary

  1. Good stuff as always Harvey. Interesting thought processes there. Ordinary and extraordinary. Thanks for your welcome efforts.


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