Anarres, Eriador, Archenland, Earthsea, Oz, Middelheim; a border post, flamingo pink, marks our entry point into this country, a single column sucking the ceiling down through the floor. The circular glass booth is empty, lightbulbs flashing weakly against a blue sky. There is no guard to stamp our passports or rifle through our luggage. No one to slump in the midday heat smoking contraband cigarettes. The wilderness beyond is flat and open, the sun beating down on tussocky earth. Someone has dreamed up a sheltering canopy, but until it matures, ants crawl over bald patches in the overlong grass. A sign in a language neither of us speaks is spiked into the ground; Keep off the Grass! Or perhaps; Picnic Area. Or maybe; Danger – Landmines! This is a buffer zone, a colony, a place in the making. Settlers come on the promise of overflowing breadbaskets and chubby infants, only to find stars shining through the holes in the barracks roof and wolves howling on the horizon. Cross country, we decide, and with a deep breath we leave the path, picking our way across uneven terrain, seed heads sticking to our sleeves. We meet a boulder squatting tank-sized, wrapped in bandages and painted a dull thick gold. We duck the eaves of an unfinished tower, cheap brick shattered, yellow foam blossoming in the gaps beneath the window frames.
The Wilderness peters out at a fork in a path between an owl and an eagle, silent claws on plinths of bronze. We turn right through an archway of dark leaved rhododendrons. The air is moister, the hum of insects replaced by the silence of interrupted conversations. The remains of an army is scattered across the battlefield frozen in their defeat. Achilles, or Ulysses perhaps, his foe long flown, braces a heroic foot on an outcrop to draw his bow. Muscles pause mid-tremble. A satyr gyres skyward, brandishing silent pipes in a call for aid that never came, a gorgon writhes on the lawn, her blue skin irresistible to a banquet of flies. A dancer throws her breast to the skies, open mouthed and emptied of movement. Renoir, ossified, Rogiers, petrified, a dead spider upturned in the courtyard of rusting iron seraglio. A tractor chews up sticks and pinecones as it weaves its way towards us. We feed the jackdaws crumbs from our lunch boxes until the crows come and chase them away. I squint at a knot of figures under the pergola, daring them to move.
A wall of whispering foliage separates us from a chequerboard province of napkins, tables, and wrought iron chairs. Purses and lipsticks spill from unattended handbags. A duck and her husband waddle past a finger painted thatched cottage, a glasshouse stuffed with books, and a still water miasma over the hump of a bridge. This is the old country. As a goose watches her brood beside water the colour of olives, we collect maps to the outer regions, ice creams, and coffee, and traverse the meadow rising plumply from the white lime walls of the manor house. Two sisters stand in silent debate, the crests of their pregnant bellies all but touching. A congregation of silver chairs sit empty under a Monkey Puzzle tree, forgotten by a wedding party gone to listen to speeches and tryst under willows. Statuary clusters, name plates, dates, pedigree, curve, mass, likeness, counterpoint. My mind quivers and I click my camera in the vain hope of taking at least some of it in. A light aircraft gnat-buzzes overhead, skin stretched over ribs, armpit wings, a scatter of last year’s beechnuts across the ground. A shrouded captive, knife slashes in her blindfold, relaxes like an extra from a horror movie on cigarette break. A skeleton high wire cycles through the treetops. An overturned Peugeot 205, dried mud handprints on the inside front passenger window. Disembodied cowls loom at one another, ghoulishness drained from them by the beams of sunlight and the traffic sucking at the perimeter fence.
There is a valley; bustle, bright orange coveralls and tools spiking from a wheelbarrow. We inspect the pavilion under its billow of a roof as workers arrange rocks on the bed of a dry pond. “Is it too big for us,” I ask, squinting past cupped hands to shrouded plinths and ladders resting against walls, thick slices of light on tiled floors like spilled paint. “Not if we share it,” he replies. In the forest beyond, a tall figure loiters, jaw against pelvis in shock at the slim golden boat it has drunkenly wrapped around a birch trunk. I recoil from a slim monolith of burnished silver, gnawed chunks revealing nose, lip, chest, the ticklish skin of a heel. The sun vanishes behind a cloud.
Waiting woods yield to grid, sliproad, and bark-stripped saplings locked in looping plastic. Ideas congeal on cubes, more red than international orange, two shades more cyan than Klein Blue. A thicket of girders bristles with manliness. A coppice of steel spikes glower at the real thing. On a cracked slab dusted with gravel, defrocked dignitaries avert their eyes from one another’s fall from grace. Robbed of their pedestals, they are lumpen, fingers too big for their buttons. A functionary watches us from the window cut in her slanting shipping container, teachers scold their fluorescent flock, cars weave like somnolent cattle. The air thickens to gelatine as we cross an invisible line into an enchanted forest. With each step, the sense of being at the heart of it quickens, a spring winding itself ever tighter. Thoughts solidify, thick and fast from the undergrowth; a blinded brick castle lying in wait to capture a princess; headless gymnasts marching crotch to buttock past sudoku columns; nodding donkeys tugging at stands of copper beech. Provinces nest one inside the other, ever smaller, interleaving and overlapping. Sculpted hills rear like velvet pillows, an emerald palace snares saplings in trellised traps, box hedges hem bamboo explosions, ski slopes, crushed barrels. A gilded chair faces a sheer brick wall.
The bench where we rest huddles in the scoop of a shivering bank of purple blossom. “I suppose the bees are more interested in the flowers than us?” he asks, worry creasing the spot between his eyebrows. I nod, sip blood warm water from my flask. We read a chapter or two of worms and witches, sand and spice, blue in blue eyes and bloated barons, aloud to the stillness, fortifying ourselves for the journey back out to the edges. There will be other adventures awaiting us; in every country of the imagination, getting to the centre is just a beginning.