by Josie Melia
If I’d been a sheep in the North, I could have been hefted. Traditionally, ewes heft their lambs from an early age, teaching them which patch of upland pasture is their ‘heaf’, passing on a sense of belonging there. And once lambs have that, they don’t need fences – they just don’t stray.
Well, I’m not a sheep, and I have strayed from where I was reared. But there’s something about that idea of being hefted that feels right. When I’m back in the landscape of my childhood there’s a sort of gravitational tug, like I recognise the place at a gut, cellular level.
I’ve lived near the South Downs for more of my life than I’ve lived anywhere else, and I love it here. But I was hefted in the north – actually in the middle of a town full of factories and choked in soot – but next door to the moors that run into the Pennines. Oldham now markets itself as ‘Gateway to the Pennines’.
This story takes place on the morning of Sunday November 14th 2010. I’m in Oldham to help move my mum, who’ll be 94 two days later, into a home for people with severe dementia. The home is in an area of Oldham called Moorside and it is exactly that, by the side of the moors.
It’s Remembrance Sunday, which is ironic. My mum was born in the middle of the first world war and married in the middle of the second but now her 90-odd year old memory hoard is spilt and scattered like disassembled lego across a child’s bedroom floor.
One month earlier her first great-grandchild, my grand daughter, Eleanor Rose, was born in Brighton and I’ve brought a photo to show my mum. I can see she knows it should be significant – and I’m touched by her effort – but her main focus is on trying to walk through a plate glass window to reach her sister, May, who she thinks she sees on the other side. May has been dead for nearly twenty years.
Shortly before 11 o’clock, I leave my mum briefly to head into town and pick up some bits and pieces for her. But soon I have to stop the car on a deserted moorside road. It’s all been too much, and this familiar Oldham edge landscape is getting to me. I plug right in to its grey-tinted melancholy. There’s a scrubby hill to my left and a solitary white horse grazing a field to my right. Beyond that, dark dry-stone walls scratch a tattoo across broad-shouldered hills into the distance.
I’m back to my own beginnings here, while, hundreds of miles South, little Eleanor Rose, right at the start of life, blinks out of the window at a blurry view across the South Downs, and my mother, nearby, conjures visions way beyond Oldham as she nears her end.
Then around the bend in front of me, comes the most wondrous, life-sized radiant white figure, floating smoothly towards me, like a visitation from some miraculous being – Our Lady of Lourdes come down to Moorside to cure my mum?
And I’m just awestruck. I wind down my window. I raise my hand to wave. I don’t know what for.
And he floats on, (it’s a he) past the white horse (that by rights he should be riding) past my car, not noticing me (that’s only right for a supernatural being). And I’m left there, in awe – the way he owned this road, this time, his place in this landscape – it’s had an astonishing effect.
As rationality trickles back to me, I piece things together and realise that my vision was a very tall, elderly, white-bearded Asian man wearing a white tunic jacket and elegant white turban, riding a white mobility scooter – hence the smooth, slow, floating effect. Perhaps because of the day and the time of day, and his purposeful upright bearing, I make a guess that he could be a former Indian soldier on his way to a remembrance service.
And that brings to mind another place: the Chattri on the Downs, the memorial to Indian soldiers from the first world war. I look across at the white horse in the empty field; I think of the white-domed Chattri, and for a moment the two landscapes blur together like a double exposure film: the moorlands on the edge of Oldham, where I was hefted, and the beautiful South Downs where I hefted my own family that is now busy hefting a new generation.
Josie Melia (October 2017) for Spoken Word event 20th October, Brighton