Some way along the A34, at a point where recently demolished chimneys used to mark the half-way point on this particular journey, I glimpse the flashing and thrashing of huge brown feathered wings amongst the brave, road-lining trees. Autumn is almost upon us as I write but the colour-changing, storm-waiting foliage has yet to fall. Unlike the pheasant that drops to the ground from the branches like a weighted coloured stone as I pass. Had I not been driving, I might’ve seen the hawk reatttain giddy heights in search of something more manageable. Reattain. It is a proper word but seems clumsy when speaking of the elegance of hawks. In any case, this hawk may well have waited for the irritating traffic to pass before reclaiming its prey.
It’s not a bad road, the A34, but it has its moments. I’ve travelled it for more years than is justifiable for any harm I’ve ever done others. Small children with a toy rabbit, over which they have thrown up, and which subsequently lost an ear by being washed and hung ignominiously on a line at Grandma’s, are now in their mid-thirties. A later, unexpected, but gratefully received son who was taken en route to see Thomas the Tank Engine at Didcot railway junction, now – to me – mysteriously manages clients and speaks kindly, but authoritatively to his speedily aging mother.
And still I travel onwards to my own parents. I drive along that part of the road which takes a dangerous fork where the choice is London Town or the nebulous Midlands; and a place that used to be Newbury before it became bypassed. I’ve yet to enjoy this stretch. Beacon Hill. It sounds spiritual. Why, in 39 years, does it always rain here? It’s greyer than the rest of England. It’s spooky. I don’t like it. And I’m bored so, even though it’s not time for lunch, I need distraction and reach for my sandwich and crisps. Today’s ‘meal deal’ is bacon and egg crammed into pieces of brown bread with a shiny packet of cheese and onion cholesterol.
I remember when travelling lunches were quite different. There wasn’t a lot of journeying back in the day but there were rare school outings of which the ‘picnic’ was an integral part. The sandwich arrived in greaseproof paper and comprised, inevitably, cheese and cucumber. I don’t know whether it was the effect of the greaseproof paper or whether the food was simply better: I do know that, no matter how far you’d travelled, the cheese was neither bland nor sweaty: it was tasty and strong and reminded you of the village shop and thus of the home from which one had been temporarily wrenched. And the cucumber was like a refreshing drink: sharp, hard, juicy and with a distinctive smell. The crisps were in a slippery bag with a little corner of salt hidden at the bottom.
Travelling lunches are de rigeur now. And tricky to access. They arrive in triangular, cardboard packaging which is impossible to open with one hand on the wheel. I’ve travelled twenty minutes, nibbled at the crisps and arrived at the hawk-causing carnage before I manage to make an intrusion into my ‘all day breakfast’ goodies. Despite the frustration, the result is fortuitous. By the time I see the pheasant fall in its death throes, not only have I managed to open the sandwich packing, I am actually hungry. Further, I am listening to something wonderful.
In that foreboding part of the A34, that unnerving no-man-or-woman’s land, radio reception is muffled. Communication with the outside world is non-existent so I play a CD. I am amongst the last of those who haven’t yet accomplished musical downloads. Every now and then, my darling boy, who was once so grateful to see the fat controller, gives me a CD that he thinks I will enjoy. I love the latest gift despite the fact I’m unable to differentiate between the name of the band and the title of their production. I revel in the fact that he knows exactly what I’ll relish. By the time I’ve arrived at the scene of carnage, I’m doing a spot of hand dancing and eating my sandwich. I’m full of bonhomie.
The last time I wrote about a road it was by way of an exercise demanded by tutors on a course I was studying. I didn’t even have to think about which road to write about. I was so unhappy it was obvious that there was nothing so dreadful in my life at that time as the A30. And, as there was no way I could write rationally about what I then referred to as ‘that bloody, bloody road’, traversing the bleakness of Bodmin Moor in a south westerly direction, I wrote about being homeward bound. Stupid tutors. Clever tutors: what a great way to make you thing about travelling rather than leaving or arriving. A bit like life really.
The road to your parents may be tedious. The arrival might not be quite what you’d anticipated. But some people can no longer make the journey.