Illustration by Christine Renney
‘As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said ‘No Trespassing’
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing
That side was made for you and me’
‘This Land Is Your Land’ by Woody Guthrie
Edward had always sort of melded, was at his happiest when unnoticed. In his youth he suffered from a debilitating shyness and although he was now relatively successful the after effects lingered.
Perhaps this melding, this blending in, was his defence mechanism. It was most certainly the way in which he had managed over the years. Although Edward wasn’t an ambitious man he was quietly satisfied with the places and the roles he had forged for himself. He was a husband and a father. His wife, their daughter and their modest but comfortable home were the things that mattered to him the most, along with his job. His job was important. It was quite possibly, was almost definitely, the thing that mattered to him most of all and despite everything that had happened it remained the glue that held him together.
Edward worked for the Environment Agency, tending to the rivers and waterways across three counties, a considerable area. He had begun as a surveyor, measuring levels of pollution, monitoring erosion and damage to bridges and other supportive structures, the general wear and tear to footpaths. But Edward had slowly risen in the ranks and now others collected and Edward collated the information and ultimately it was he who decided where the money went.
He took his job seriously; toiled long and hard and, in his own quiet and unassuming way, he had proved to be highly efficient. Each year, when the budget was cut just a little more, fretting and frowning Edward strived to be fair.
At fifty five he had aged quite dramatically. His wife and daughter noticed that he was getting greyer on an almost daily basis, both his skin and his hair. Although neither of them would have said so, they both believed that Edward was shrinking.
He didn’t tend the rivers anymore. It wasn’t about ensuring the places remained safe and accessible. Edward now was forced to put up fences and signs warning people of the dangers, instructing them to keep away.
After he had accepted the office job, becoming responsible for the constantly reducing funds, Edward continued to visit the site of the latest clean-up operation or bridge mending. He would drive out in the evenings or at the weekend.
When his daughter had been younger, aged nine, ten, eleven and twelve, she had accompanied him. Had it really been that long? For nearly four years together they had monitored the Department’s progress job after job after job. They would often take a packed lunch and make a day of it.
His daughter, though, moved on. At thirteen she didn’t want to accompany him anymore. Edward was disappointed but she was a teenager and for her it was the beginning of something that, quite rightly, he could not be a part of.
He tried to hide it and didn’t want her to feel guilty but she, of course, could tell and he was relieved when at last she stopped making her excuses and started to forget.
The work to be carried out lessened considerably but Edward continued doggedly with his excursions. He revisited all of the old sites and, over the years, he witnessed firsthand the gradual deterioration. It was, he concluded, time to start again; to begin afresh and this simple truth he found exasperating as he began in earnest to visit the places that had been neglected entirely.
Edward pushed through the brambles. He held his hands above his head and the thorny branches clawed and pulled at his jacket as he lunged awkwardly alongside the dry river bed. He glanced across at the overgrown hollow and wondered if technically this was still a river and if he shouldn’t perhaps invest in a new set of maps or was it him? Was he taking this, whatever it was, too far?
Engulfed by the brambles Edward turned and started back toward the road. He would need to come back at the weekend, needed longer if he intended to pursue this river.
The going was easier now, he had already trampled a path of sorts and he quickly reached the clearing in front of the fence and the imposing sign. A man was standing on the other side with his dog, a fat black Labrador. He had been waiting in the lay-by, watching and listening, expecting an unruly kid to emerge, not someone older than himself and in a suit and tie.
‘Can’t you read?’ the man shouted.
‘Yes, I can read,’ Edward mumbled. ‘But tell me what there is to read on this side?’
The man stared at him blankly.
‘Have you never heard of Woody Guthrie?’ Edward asked a little more forcefully.
‘Woody who? What are you talking about?’
‘Woody Guthrie. The Okies, the Dustbowl?’
‘Can’t you read?’ the man repeated.
‘Yes, I can read but tell me anyhow. What does it say?’
‘Do Not Enter,’ the man barked.
‘Private property?’ Edward ventured.
‘Yes, of course it is.’
‘Yes, that’s what it means.’
‘Now tell me,’ Edward pointed up at the bare and weather beaten board, ‘just what is written on this side?
‘Go on,’ he urged, ‘make a wild guess.’
Edward moved forward and was surprised when the man, taking a step backward, flinched. He was unnerved, possibly even afraid.
‘Nothing,’ Edward said. ‘There isn’t anything written on this side.’
Bemused, the man turned and, pulling his dog, started toward the footpath that ran alongside the road.
‘Hey, hold on,’ Edward called and leaning across the fence he held out his card.
‘Go on,’ he demanded, ‘take it.’
And the man dare not do otherwise.