THE FIFTH COLUMN
Waiting in line at the traffic department to renew my driver’s licence recently, I read Robert Macfarlane’s Wild Places, in which he sets out to find the remaining regions of true wilderness on the British Isles.
In spirit with Robert that day, I climbed beech trees, slept on ledges and swam in phosphorescence. Together we traversed shingle beaches, stood in awe of lochs and discovered a great many other things I had no idea about. In the real world, the one I was occupying in the traffic department, my journey started in a light Cape drizzle at the back of the first of three queues I would stand in that day.
Starting out, I held the book closed at my side (inspired by the outdoors — sadly, it wasn’t made for it). As the queue progressed, and I found cover, I started to read. Pages one to 19 dealt with the aforementioned beechwood climb. From page 19 to 43, Robert sailed to and overnighted on an island frequented by Celtic Christians in the sixth century.
My first port of call was a thick glass window behind which a girl with fast hands stapled my forms and asked me to fill in a fourth. She directed me to a separate room I promptly walked to, now fully within the building. The room was packed to capacity.
I took a short break from the book and wondered about the lives put on hold, mine included, to spend the day at the traffic department. I also marvelled, yes marvelled, at the patience of everyone standing and sitting, staring blankly into space without a book to read. I returned to The Wild Places.
Robert was crossing a moor (wetland, I think) in Scotland, loosely following the footsteps of a Scot named WH Murray, who credited “a sudden access of memory of the mountains and moors over which he had ranged” for keeping him alive during World War II. After the moor, he explored a forest and then “trudged downstream through the shifting sands” of a river mouth.
The queue I was in shifted like mud. Moving sporadically from one seat to the next (I’d made it to the seats) I found it hard to read. Next to me sat and rose a very frail woman. I admired her grit, and felt bad when the woman to her left cradled her elbow and helped her up, thinking I should have done the same.
From pages 131 to 151, Robert visited a cape called Cape Wrath, which summed up the way I felt about the Mother City at that point. A traffic cop in full regalia asked everyone who wanted to complain not to do so.
I made it to the eye test — destination of the second line — and placed The Wild Places on my lap. I was initially anxious (reading for long periods has a detrimental effect on my sight), but relaxed and passed the test.
On to the final stretch. The longest line of all hugged a wall and snaked towards cashiers, which raised some questions. Would they take a card? If not, would I lose my place in the queue if I left to draw cash?
I grappled with the questions for quite some time, but decided to return to the book to start on chapter nine. It was titled Grave.