In Vegetation And In Awe

I met my antagonist in vegetation and in awe. The vegetation was a patch of scrub and gorse and bracken and furze and phlox and lupins and stunted hollyhocks, behind the towpath that goes along beside the canal, leading to the sea, which in turn leads on to all the major oceans, Indian, Atlantic, Pacific, I can’t remember the names of the others offhand. I was in awe because my antagonist, too, was in awe, and awe has a way of feeding off itself, and increasing exponentially. We made a handshake last for hours.

The stunting of the hollyhocks looked natural, organic, or so it seemed to me. They did not appear to have been pollarded, like the willows by the canal just before the level crossing. The patch of vegetation was equidistant, I would guess, from the level crossing, along the canal in one direction, and the sea, in the other. I could draw you a map, if you wanted me to. I do not think I would have been able to then, in the immediate aftermath of our meeting. My antagonist had a very firm handshake, intimidatingly so, and I was not to be intimidated, so I grasped his hand all the more firmly. I think we were bent on crushing each other’s bones. Neither of us was willing to relinquish the hand of the other. That is why we stood there, in vegetation and awe, like a pair of ninnies, shaking hands for hours.

I had come from the level crossing, he from the sea. His shoes and trouser-cuffs were still wet. It was a humid day. The stunted hollyhocks drooped. The air was thick with flies. In the distance, we could hear the sound of violins. I remember the sense of awe as if it were yesterday, though it was the day before yesterday. I wanted to smoke, and I managed to extricate a cigarette from the packet in my pocket and put it between my lips and take my lighter and ignite the cigarette with deft movements of my left hand. My right was still clutching the right hand of my antagonist in that long, long handshake. For a moment I thought he was going to mirror my actions, for he put his left hand in his pocket, but when he took it out he was holding a boiled sweet. As deft as I, he unwrapped it from its twisted cellophane wrapper and popped it into his mouth. He let fall the wrapper, and it landed upon a lupin. I was disconcerted – I had not had my antagonist down as a litterbug.

He took advantage of my momentary disconcertment to tighten his grip on my hand. I puffed a mouthful of smoke into his face. He blinked once or twice but marshalled himself, but his grip relaxed just a little. We both adjusted our footing, me in my Tyrolean postman’s boots and he in his wet shoes and socks. I think they were quite expensive shoes, though I am no great judge of these matters. I suppose when one lives by the sea one has to pay due attention to one’s footwear.

Neither of us said a word. What would have been the point? We spoke in different tongues, mine that of the interior, his, like Beau Brummell speaking French, that of those accustomed to chewing pebbles and talking next to the sea. Without a pebble, he made do with his boiled sweet. Even if we had shared a language, we were too awestruck to speak. And as our awe grew, so did our antagonism. Would either of us claim victory?

I do not know how many hours had passed when the referee emerged from somewhere behind the clumps of scrub and gorse and bracken and furze and phlox and lupins and stunted hollyhocks. He flicked his ribbon at our hands, still clenched in handshake, and pronounced a tie. We would have to return, to the same place, at the same time, next week. He hinted that there might be television crews eager to cover our confrontation.

Our seconds appeared, and bore us home on palanquins, me to the chalet by the level crossing, he to the sea, the sea. He took my cigarette butt as a memento, and I pocketed his boiled sweet wrapper. At sunset, the patch of vegetation was deserted and undisturbed, as if we had never fought there at all, as if the whole thing had been but a dream.

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