A week before I leave for Los Angeles I take a walk on the edge of the village where I live in the Midlands of England. I choose an ancient pack-road broad enough for two carts to comfortably pass, and fringed with a pot-pourri of hedging and trees, some of which are centuries old. Today is the first frosty day of autumn and the ground is hard underfoot, patches of mud encrusted with ice and spears of grass frosted by crystal. The bare foot-printed earth is also studded with fragments of silvery gypsum, each one glinting like a cheap jewel in the pallid autumn light.
From up here I gaze eastwards towards wooded hills tumbling gently away in a confusion of complicated greenery. This complexity is not accidental. It’s designed to hem the rough edges of a large and well-tended golf-course, and as I look more closely I can see swathes of smooth turf opening out beyond the young oaks and sycamores.
Just beside me, holes in a tangled hawthorn hedge reveal shapes moving in and out of view. Only segments. The hedge won’t allow entirety. One moment a tail, then a rump, then a head. Sometimes eyes looking directly at me. Also long gaps of nothing. There are light brown segments, and black segments. It is likely, but not certain, that they belong to different bodies. Gaps in the lower hedge allow more than the matted branches at head height. Occasionally a taller thinner figure – human – passes across the spaces in the distance.
Turn to the north, and my gaze is immediately tugged downwards to a flat glacial plain, every square metre seamed with newly-ploughed furrows at this time of the year, and the whole extent nibbled across by Fairham Brook, a meandering stream which from a distance is barely noticeable in the unfeatured landscape.
To the west, the village – a spread of post-war houses with greying roofs and white painted walls, each long garden lawned and trimmed with privet, and beyond them the older cottages coiled around the church spire like a snake in its nest. Just outside the village is the source of everyone’s pay-packet, catalyst for the building of the council estate once called Tin Town by the locals - a series of long single-storied sheds, powdered with white dust - the gypsum works.
The sky begins to fade and soon it will be dark. From up here I can just make out the eddying white dust along the margins of the road below, and the faint noise of heavy lorries entering and leaving the plant. There is a humming of machinery too, making a steady undertone to the rustling breeze and the goodnight calls of wood-pigeons. In the weakening light the pale gypsum glints up from the footpath and I stoop to harvest a lump from the soft mud. I rub off some powder with my finger-nail and blow the tiny glittering crystals out into the darkening air. Some stick to the skin of my palm and without thinking I lick them off. They scatter instantly on my tongue.
The Midlands village mentioned above is East Leake, on the Nottinghamshire/Leicestershire border. Borders, being not one thing or the other, or often both, have excellent potential for virtuality.