Monday, May 9, 2011
Ghosts of rural North Carolina
I went to North Carolina again tonight to meet a man in the empty parking lot by a rural courthouse where I used to spend far too many wasted hours sitting through board of commissioners meetings.
We went into the old jail house that had been converted into the kind of museum that nobody ever visits. He told me about the Civil War for an article I'm researching.
He didn't seem to realize I'd interviewed him a few years earlier in the same place and insisted on giving me a tour of the museum that lasted about five minutes.
A feeling of melancholy came over me as I looked through the bars of the windows at the occasional isolated light twinkling far away across the fields. It seemed so long since I had been here that the historian didn't remember me. And it felt so much longer since I had arrived here. The time since I had last been home was stretching out like the miles and miles of fields around me. For a second or two I felt I was gazing at the earth from afar, while lost in the wastes of the Sea of Tranquility on the face of the moon.
I was glad to get the interview over and to be driving home but rural Carolina, as opposed to the beach, has always made me feel strange and insignificant. The roads dissecting the flatness, the gaping depths of the swamps, the storm clouds gathering above the over ripe trees, the sinister humming of the wires and the trailer homes of the poor, conspired to unnerve me.
This was a world away from the manicured English countryside with its duck ponds, cricket and gastro pubs. It was the hinterland of a vast and still untamed continent.
And when you cover news in such an area you start to see things other people don't see. In your mind's eye you see the bodies that have long since been removed.
On the winding road north I noted the landmarks, the school whose construction I wrote about at tortuous length, now completed and looking like any other school, the curve where a truck wiped out a family. With the pink twilight falling over fields and swamps, this landscape was shuttered up, its few residents sequested away in their homes. I wondered how they could live there, year in year out, looking at the blurred world of fields and trees and telephone wires and not lose their ambitions, the aims or their reason for living.
Reaching a straight section of road, a strange feeling came upon me and the hot air from the blower, descended a few degrees. It came back to me now, the message on the scanner and the freezing rain of Christmas Day. I was wearing my Christmas fake leather jacket that neither kept out the cold nor the rain, the photographer her Christmas dress.
And we stood there in the highway behind a fire truck, a couple of police cars and an ambulance as the rain drove through us.
There was a mean roadside store and yellow tape round a trailer. We kept on walking until a police officer told us to stop. In front of the charred trailer a body lay under a tarp.
We beat a retreat from the rain and the law, back under the awnings where a ragged man dragged on a cigarette and told us the victim was his crippled cousin. His wife had recently died and he didn't want to spend Christmas alone. There was a spark as the story came together but it was hard to keep up our spirits at this godforsaken incident scene on Christmas Day, with the rain pricking us like needles and running in icy rivulets down our backs.
It struck me that so many hours and days a months separated that freezing day from this warm May evening and that this tiny and sad tragedy had been left behind like the asphalt on the road behind me. But then I spied the mean little store that the dead man had owned, that was now closed down, boarded up. And I was shocked to see the trailer behind it, its windows still gapping and black, the scorth marks still livid and black as if the fire took place yesterday.
In these parts of North Carolina much changes but much stays the same.
Yet it felt eerie to be in on the story and to have witnessed this obscure tragedy whereas most would drive by in blissful ignorance.