All travelers to wild places will have felt some version of this, a brief blazing perception of the world’s disinterest. In small measures it exhilarates. But in full form it annihilates.
– Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places.
The Black Pad is an odd place with an odd mood.
The long tracks strewn across the Black Pad seem to shimmer in the rare Coventrian sunlight, yet they swallow any scrap left remaining come dusk. These broken and scattered remnants of the blackest stone, leading nowhere fast, are bordered by withered trees which claw desperately at the heavens. The rusted goalposts in the playing field below stand solemn like ancient stones, forgotten and unloved.
The Black Pad is a wilderness seized, the urban sprawl of Wood End and Potters Green trapping it like a feral dog on a weakening leash.
I have not set a foot upon The Black Pad for perhaps five years.
Only then it had been to take a piss on my walk to work, head fuzzy with the stink of Guinness and bourbon. This was back when any semblance of the good life seemed to be but a vicious and cruel delusion; goading and ethereal, like a creak of laughter drifting from an empty pew at a funeral.
This was before love, you see, before hope.
I have not set a foot upon The Black Pad in perhaps five years and I have no plans to visit in the future.
I am on a train, travelling from Angers to Lille.
We’re heading back to the United Kingdom after a week in the beautiful village of Menil, deep in the Pays de la Loire region of northwest France.
Menil’s church was once visited by Joan of Arc herself, or so legend has it. Her statue looms above the deserted nave. It is a replacement of the original destroyed during the fires of the revolution.
Clouds rolled in over night but the temperature is still hitting the mid-twenties. The sun lurks somewhere behind cover, breaking through occasionally to illuminate the carriage; the half-finished Sudoku, the colourful rush of Candy Crush and the battered pages of my copy of Jolly Lad, all that which might bring some small measure of freedom to a three hour train journey.
Then I glance at the surrounding landscape from the window and it is breathtaking.
Nicola Payne vanished on The Black Pad on a cold December night back in 1991, leaving behind a six-month old son and a heartbroken family.
That poor girl.
I can remember the adults, cramped around the kitchen table in my grandparents bungalow, speaking in solemn tones, tutting and huffing and shaking their heads.
Kaput, my Grandad Tom would say. Kaput.
I can remember the homemade soup bubbling up on the stove, the smell of it lingering in the air.
I can remember the tea leaves and tobacco scattered about the old grey worktop.
I can remember the sky outside, pitch-dark and brooding.
Nana Molly would take old Jack down to The Black Pad for a walk twice a day.
Poor, old Jack, half-blind and perpetually wheezy, war wounds courtesy of an Alsatian attack and a nasty case of dermatitis scattered across the thinning hair of his back; that dog rolled with the punches.
Claire and I would often accompany Nanna Molly on these walks when Mum would be at work and Dad would be running a social club for disadvantaged children over at St. Chads in Wood End.
Burnt-out cars and sodden mattresses seemed abundant out there, shopping trolleys and dead fires and empty cans of Black Label, abandoned amongst the sprawl of rampant turf; out where the faerie lived, the wild beasts.
It had been The Hole that fascinated me most; a sixteen foot fall into a swamp of rainwater and cinder blocks, Asda trolleys and sludge. The Hole was man-made, a storm drain perhaps, a mess of grime-caked concrete and sharp, jutting pipes; a gaping chasm, an existential terror at the heart of everything, the dread footsteps of finality.
I would skirt its edges, enraptured, knowing I sink far more than I swim. I still do.
The Hole is gone now, filled by the local council. I often wonder how many people we lost down there in its somber depths? A great many, I would imagine. A great many.
READING: The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín.
LISTENING: Moonlight, by SOFT POWER.