Monday, September 18, 2006

The Driftway - Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively's The Driftway is a story in which not a lot appears to happen. Paul (whose age is never specified, but I'd guess he's about 10) and his younger sister Sandra (who's 7) spend most of the book travelling to their grandmother's house, but the journey has a profound significance for Paul. Paul and Sandra's father has recently re-married after being a widower for several years, and Paul resents the intrusion of Christine, whom he normally calls "Her", into their lives.

The story opens with Paul and Sandra visiting a local shop with the intention of buying a milk jug; Paul has been spending his pocket money on various items so that he and Sandra can eat up in their room rather than with Christine. He discovers he doesn't have sufficient money for a jug and having been interrogated by the young woman on the china counter, he and Sandra start looking at padlocks and chains for Paul's bedroom door, so that Christine cannot enter his room. He picks up a padlock and gives it to Sandra to hold, then starts looking at chains. He drops one and absent-mindedly puts it into his pocket whilst he looks at screw drivers. Sandra gets fidgety so they leave the shop, but the girl from the china counter has been watching them and has noticed that Paul still has the chain in his pocket, and Sandra is still carrying the padlock; the store detective therefore follows them and then drags them back inside to see the manager. Paul refuses to tell him who they are or to offer any explanation of what has happened, so the manager calls the police. A policewoman comes to the shop and tries to talk to Paul, but he still won't talk, although Sandra does. She offers to give the two of them a ride home in the police car, but Paul thinks it's just a ploy to get them away from the shop. When the policewoman answers the phone in the manager's office, Paul decides to make a run for it, and he and Sandra dash out of the shop. They hurry off down the street, then hitch a ride in a car, but Paul is convinced the police are after them, so when the driver stops to get cigarettes, they get out of the car and set off walking again. Whilst they were in the car, though, something strange happened: Paul thought he saw a cow crossing onto the road, but after shouting out a warning to the driver, he sees there's no cow there.

Paul and Sandra are heading from Banbury out towards Northampton as their Gran lives in a village out towards Northampton. Whilst they're walking again Paul sees a boy on a pony; the boy looks frightened, hunted even, and Paul wonders what has terrified him. The two of them stop for a while as Sandra's legs are aching and she's tired. Moments later a horse and cart, with two donkeys hitched behind, come into view. The driver is "Old Bill", a man who travels from Yorkshire to Cornwall, although he mostly stays around the Midlands area, travelling on the Driftways, the ancient roadways of England. Paul asks him if he saw the boy on the pony, and Bill tells him that the road is up to its tricks again. He explains to Paul that the Driftway they're currently travelling is ancient and has experienced many strong emotions, good and bad, from travellers who've used it. He suggests that because Paul is in an over-wrought state, running away from the police and from home, he is attuned to the "messages" which the Driftway may "send" to those who are receptive. As Bill and the two children travel the ten miles or so from the outskirts of Banbury to Cold Higham, where the children's Gran lives, Paul receives several such "messages" - he hears the accounts of several individuals who travelled the Driftway in a state of heightened emotion. Bill, who talks to Paul as if he's an adult rather than a small boy, points out that a great many people live their whole lives with little concern for others outside their immediate circle of family and a handful of friends, but other people are "the same as you and me" (p. 28), and if someone is in a receptive state, they can learn of others' joys and sorrows, and in doing so, become a better person themselves. Thus, when Bill and the children stop for a cup of tea, Paul notices the boy he'd seen earlier, lying under a nearby thorn bush:

the distance between them was of a different order, awesome and mysterious. He was here, and yet so far away that to hold him was an effort of concentration, an effort to focus on the one spot of grass and shadow. And as Paul watched, motionless because somehow he could not move - it was though he were held where he was, with the mug of tea in his hand, halfway to his lips [...] (p. 32)

This is a beautiful book containing some fascinating ideas and gorgeous language, such as this comment of Bill's on hitch-hikers:
"Real travelling's crawling your way over the country like a fly on a wall, hedge by hedge and hill by hill and village by village. From river to river and town to town. That way you feel the bones of the place, see? You see the way the land goes, and why they grow corn here and why they graze cattle there, and why there's cities where there are, and why there's a lot of people in one place and not so many in another. You see the way the shape of a country's made the people in it, and you see the way they've written themselves all over it, too, people who're dead and gone now. In the way the fields go, and the roads, and the things they've built, and the bits they've dug up or cut down or flooded or drained or not been able to find a use for at all." (p. 71)

There speaks a character created by author who is an historian and has a passionate interest in the English landscape, which she has studied in detail.

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