I walk early every morning, often along the riverside. It is one of the huge delights of living in Wakefield. Every morning is different. The river can be sleepy, shrouded in mist, or bright and excitable, or grey and choppy. The sky too, each morning has its own emotions going on. They feed my mind, so that whatever story I’m mulling over, there is another voice colouring the narrative. But whatever the internal dialogue of the day, my eye is always drawn to the splashes of red that punctuate the horizon: the covered bridge, the red roofs of the church and the village house, the Banque Nationale sign.
I’ve had a mixed relationship with red over the years. My attitude towards the colour, of course, is totally wrapped up in my own experiences, and the stories I have told myself. Until recently, I had decided that I am not a fan. It is too loud a colour for me, too brash, too out there, just too, well…red.
Between the village where I grew up were two factories (Blythe Colours and Harrison Mayer), both commonly known as the “colour works”. A complete mystery. I was told that they each made colour, but I failed to grasp how anyone could make colour — colour just was, wasn’t it? Even more mysterious, my father was the purchasing manager for one of the colour works, buying up raw elements to “make” into colour: cadmium for yellow, cobalt for blue, selenium for red. I couldn’t wrap my head around how those silvery grey metals on the shelves of the school chemistry lab could transform into the vibrant colours of pigments for paints and glazes.
My mother hated the colour yellow, so I did too. We loved red: the colour of royal mail boxes, telephone booths and Christmas. Then, when I was thirteen my father died, leaving me with two negative associations with the colour red: the red wool dress he bought for me on one of our last excursions into town, and the red blanket I saw him wrapped in, as he was carried out to the ambulance. In retrospect though, I began my dislike of red a couple of years before his death. I was a paint monitor at school, staying in at recess to mix the powder paint with water to just the correct consistency for my classmates to use. All the other colours mixed up just fine, but red, red was always a problem. It just wouldn’t mix right. The powder encased bubbles of air and wouldn’t dissolve in the water leaving a frothy mess. A bit like mixing cocoa powder to make hot chocolate, it needed to be coaxed little by little into a workable solution. I never understood why it wouldn’t behave like the other colours, but then I never really grasped the concept of colours having different properties or compositions.
At my school, as was common at the time, students were assigned to teams, otherwise known as “houses”. One the first day of school, like Harry Potter, students were sorted into houses, keeping that allegiance throughout your entire school career. I was assigned to Manifold house. Named after a local river, it was designated the colour (you’ve guessed it) red. How I longed to be the blue of Dove house (my favourite local river), or the green of Churnett (my favourite local valley). The Manifold valley was attractive enough, but the river itself was not to be trusted. It was a poor walking companion, disappearing underground at times, leaving you to wander along the valley with only the sheep for company. Just when you were totally fed up, it would reappear, and gurgle along, as though it had been listening to you all the time.
Walking the hills and moors near my home, I learned too that the colour red cannot be trusted. While it’s used for “stop” and other “danger” signs, red is not a “safety” colour. As teenagers, we were made to wear blue or yellow anoraks when hiking, so we could be easily spotted if we got into difficulties. For whatever evolutionary reason, the colour receptors on the retina of our eyes have developed so that our brains can differentiate really well between red and green (unless we are colour blind). However, those receptors are much more sensitive to green light than to the longer (red) wavelengths at the end of the visible spectrum, and so when viewed at a distance, red simply disappears.
This past summer my early morning walks along the river made me reconsider my relationship with red, thanks to a chance meeting with a cushion. Not every morning, but often, as the dog and I padded towards Peace Park, I would catch a distant glimpse of red. As we got closer, the red splash would take shape and appear as a cushion, on the bench dedicated to Ernie Mahoney. The dog and I were fascinated. It was a beautifully crafted object, made of red brocade, sturdy, with a cream braid around the edge, not something one would casually leave behind. Whatever the particular light of the morning, it played off the red church roof, and turning the other way, the distant covered bridge. Clearly, it had been placed carefully, intentionally, but for what purpose? I touched it gently; it was never cold, never damp from the morning dew and according to the dog, smelled just right too.
My morning walks are also punctuated by encounters with other early morning walkers, or runners, sometimes also accompanied by dogs. That was how I met Joan. Like me, Joan walks along the riverside in the early morning. Joan delights in greeting everyone along the path, including the dogs. Readers of this blog will also have encountered Joan, one of our first guest bloggers. In our early morning chats, Joan described how she likes to tell herself stories as she walks along the river. Joan’s stories come from her vivid imagination; she tells me that she makes them up, unlike me, although I’m guessing that the river also has its say. One morning, when we were chatting about writing, she suddenly stopped. “Well, I have to go, Walter will be looking out for me, so he can get my cushion ready”. And suddenly, it all fell into place. Every morning, Walter would carry the red cushion across the road from Molo’s Cafe, and placed it squarely at one end of Ernie’s bench, so that Joan could sit and watch the sunrise and the river’s flow. I have never witnessed the ceremony of the cushion’s crossing, but the cushion itself has become a new symbol for me. The red cushion, a simple act of kindness between two friends. Red, the colour of Wakefield.