The teacher laughed and said if anyone knows about the Clearing Where Bog Myrtles Grow, it was because of the signpost on the M6 toll road. They knew it from a passing glance at a road sign, possibly glimpsed once more in the rearview mirror before slipping from memory entirely.
It stuck in the boy’s head as he walked home from school, following the concrete path along the edge of a small stream they called The Brook.
That path hadn’t existed in his grandma’s time.
When she was a girl, this whole place was fields. The school stood alone, a pre-war quad with chimneys and fireplaces and teachers were cork boards and sharp belts that bit flesh. The Brook then had been a simple stream, not a brick-edged, rigidly straight rod like it was now, full of grates to catch crisp packets and abandoned trolleys.
The boy looked back at the new school: a square 60s multi-storey block squatted on the edge, and a cream-coloured water tower with a narrow neck leered at him, weepy orange rustmarks dripping down its face. He remembered hearing about a boy who was thrown in the water tower’s coal pit decades ago, and another who climbed its corroded ladder for a laugh. The Clearing Where Bog Myrtles Grow has a complicated relationship with coal.
To his left were cul-de-sacs of boxy semi-detached houses. “This was all fields when I was a girl.” Council houses, they looked like copies, as though built from the same Lego set. Home upgrades had created some variation, but most front gardens were still bordered by those concrete monoliths at regular intervals, exactly the same from house to house, sentinel stones that had stood the test of time as the fence panels they supported rotted and were replaced (or left to languish, giving anyone who walked the Brook Path a clear view into their nettled gardens.)
Up the road from the village was a place called Church Bridge, which lay right beside Wacla’s People’s Road. That road was two thousand years old. In the mists of time, when this corner of the land was isolated and wild, its safe, paved stones had ferried settlers, traders and travellers through the dangers of the Forest of Arden – and later, felt the thunder of legionary sandals as they marched up to Anglesey and slaughtered the druids and ended an era.
In later years, when the Saxons came and the Normans came and the country changed and the wilds were slowly cleared, giving way to ample farmland (there’s more woodland in England today than there was in 1300), the Forest of Arden remained, and Wacla’s People’s Road was still the safe path through a dangerous land, and the Clearing Where Bog Myrtles Grow became a safe haven, a place of respite for the weary. That road shaped the village: over a thousand years ago, it marked the border between England and the Danelaw, and the folks of the village of North-Farm-sur-le-Hillock, who the boy went to the same school as, were foreigners in a different country.
How things change.
The Saxons gave the place its name, after clearing the woodland and building their farms. The Normans built the manor, and two decades later came by with their scribes and vellum and wrote it in the Last Book, though they were outsiders, and even then people from outside didn’t understand the village. You see, there are actually two Clearings Where Bog Myrtles Grow, a big one and a little one, right beside each other. Only one appeared in the Last Book, and it was labelled wasta, wasteland. The commissioners moved on, weary from travel and talking and writing and altogether uninterested in these tiny hamlets in the woods. The Clearing has a complicated relationship with outsiders.
The boy’s grandma’s dad was from London, though his family was Welsh originally. They came from a long line of military engineers, and when the Big War started nearly a century ago, he was called into the office. “Got a new job for you,” the man said. “You’ll have to relocate, though.”
“Where is it?” the engineer replied.
“Oh, it’s only up the river.”
The engineer boarded a train and stepped off onto a flat platform surrounded by rickety, tumbledown mining shacks that was built a century before his time. If there had been a return train, he later said, he would have taken it.
They were accustomed to the luxuries of London – up here there were no showers, and his wife had to learn how to cook on a range without electricity. They were distrusted by the locals, and she was shunned as a city girl for her love of fashion.
Not long later, a bomb landed at the end of their street, discarded by a German pilot who had missed his target in the bombing run. The engineer and his wife learnt to live the provincial way, and the villagers came to accept them as their own.
After the industrial revolution, the Clearing Where Bog Myrtles Grow had become a mining village, though even by the time the engineer arrived all that time ago, it was on the wane. North-Farm-sur-le-Hillock had it worse: at one time, there were forty collieries within two miles of the village, iron frames with spinning wheels that looked devilish framed against the soot-stained sky and cinder-coloured night. The black ground had been discovered, the stuff that fired engines, and overnight the wooded, wild backlands became an industrial waking nightmare that they called the Black Country – where the sky was black in the day and red at night. A mining accident claimed the lives of fourteen people, while in the Clearing Where Bog Myrtles Grow, two men fought to the death when one was late to relieve him of his gruelling shift. It was hard to believe that just five minutes down the road was the site of the largest Anglo-Saxon treasure hoard ever found. This ancient frontier of free people had been enslaved.
The boy continued up the path and wandered to the village library. In his youth it had been a big building beside a playpark, but now it was a small rented storefront with four shelves. He stood behind the counter and served the olduns who came in, and chatted with the other volunteer, who remembered when the smog was so thick it would roll across the threshold like living tendrils whenever they opened the front door.
Though the scars had healed by the boy’s time, the mines left their mark on the village. The children before him played on The Mound, a grey, ashen heap of slag extracted from deep in the earth and left there. When they chose their houses, the wise ones asked to see the survey maps that showed where the old mineshafts had been before they were filled in and built over. Three houses down from the boy, a house stood over a mineshaft. In North-Farm-sur-le-Hillock, a shaft collapsed, leaving a hole in the ground.
Industry was gone from the Clearing Where Bog Myrtles Grow. The council houses had been bought, one by one, and the village was now home to retirees and businessmen. They liked to come to the library and ramble on about the mining, how things were better then, while ignoring the extreme suffering of that age and voting Tory. The Clearing Where Bog Myrtles Grow has a complicated relationship with coal.
They would look around and complain there weren’t as many books as there used to be.
“We’re voluntary now.”
“None of us are paid – they don’t have the budget these days.”
“Oh, that is a darn shame.”
The library once had DVDs, video games, events. Now it had large-print Westerns with plastic protective covers and two ancient computers that rumbled when they turned on. If it wasn’t for the charity, it would have closed entirely.
The boy wandered back down the Brook Path after his volunteer shift, glancing at the glowing lights in the windows he passed.
There was more to the Clearing Where Bog Myrtles Grow than a roadsign on a motorway. But that was true of every place, he supposed.