Pens of the Earth: A Celebration

By Richard Salsbury

She could go down to Canoe Lake, or sit on the esplanade with views all the way out to the Isle of Wight and the sounds of the swashing of the sea. Instead she chooses to come here – a park bench with no park, an open space as narrow as a road, because that’s what it used to be.

Sometimes she reads, sometimes she does the crossword. Today she knits – another jumper for the charities. Her activity is always something of an excuse, though. She has adjusted the timing of her visits to coincide with the children. Saturday morning between breakfast and lunch is best. After retiring from the housing association the days had all blurred into one, so it’s good to have something to mark the start of the weekend. Something to look forward to.

Knit one, purl one. Knit one, purl one.

Planters and pots thrive at what used to be the junctions with other roads – barriers of green that keep the rest of Portsmouth’s traffic at bay. Other parts are more open, and she is amazed at the variety of uses to which the space is now put. There have been pop-up markets, open mic music events, a mini Olympics with chalk-marked tracks, which took weeks to fade.

Today is quieter. There’s table tennis at the end near the pub and a gaggle of children playing some kind of game that involves a lot of running, but also the use of their mobile phones. She doesn’t pretend to understand it, but then she doesn’t need to, just as they have no need to stop and talk to someone old enough to be their grandmother. They laugh, squeal, have the occasional strop, make up. All is well.

It’s a shame that Tom and Laura chose to move out of the area, a shame that they never got to see this. But they must each find their own way.

One boy in particular catches her attention. He’s the right age and build, and has a tangle of red hair. Even his running style is similar – gangly but fast.

She evidently spends longer than usual watching the boy, because when she next looks up from her knitting he is standing before her, one leg twisting restlessly while the other gives him support. He has more freckles than Connor, a rounder face.

‘You’re always here,’ he says.

It’s not true, but it’s near enough.

‘Well, that’s because it’s nice here, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah, I guess.’

‘You know cars used to drive down here?’

The child frowns and smiles at the same time, an exaggeration of how an adult would show disbelief. She imagines a parent who teases him, testing him with falsehoods, preparation for a life in which such a skill will prove useful. She approves, in principle, but in this instance feels compelled to make him believe.

‘It’s true,’ she says.

‘Why did they stop?’

‘I made them stop.’ There is pride in her voice – she can’t help it – and perhaps it’s this, more than anything that chips away at his doubt.



‘Are you a superhero?’ he says, with just enough sarcasm that he can pretend to have been joking if she mocks him.

Normally she would laugh this off. Instead she leans forwards, glances to either side and whispers, ‘Yes.’

He takes a step backwards. ‘Show me your powers,’ he says.

‘I already have. Every other street around here has cars. All of the roads except this one. I made them disappear.’

It’s a much better story than the reality – the endless meetings with council officials, the alternative parking arrangements for those with cars, the irate residents who didn’t see why things should change. But it happened, all the same. There was a point where they seemed to melt, like butter in a hot pan. Strange that they never asked why she was so insistent, or why she demanded that she received no publicity, that it should appear simply to be a council decision.

The boy seems undecided, but willing to consider it a possibility. He retreats back to his playmates and whispers in their ears, but the direction of his eyes betray the topic of his conversation. Perhaps, among these children, a myth is in the making. Well, why not? A septuagenarian superhero in faded knitwear. The idea appeals to her.

The boy returns to his game.

Knit one, purl one. Knit one, purl one.

Festing Road. She tried to get them to rename it, remove the word ‘road’ and substitute something more appropriate to its new use. But that was the point where they dug in their heels. ‘Be happy that we’ve let you have this much,’ they seemed to be saying. And so, for the first time in the whole process, she backed down.

Festing. The word can have many meanings. Two in particular seem apt. Fasting – going without; and Fest – a celebration.

It’s five years now since it was closed or, as she likes to think of it, reborn. In all that time would there have been another accident? Is one of these children alive only because of what she did? Impossible to tell.

She doesn’t speak to them unless they approach. She has avoided learning their names. Best just to watch. If one of them is not here next Saturday it could mean anything, anything at all. She has learned not to expect any sense of permanence from life. What matters is that they are here today, together.

Knit one, purl one. Knit one, purl one.

Richards Inspiration: ‘I liked the idea of a connection between the young and old; the idea that the future might increasingly take inspiration from the best of our past.’

Pens of the Earth is about environmental tales from a positive Portsmouth – encouraging writers to celebrate existing environmental initiatives, and to imagine what might be.

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