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Matthew Hooton
Matthew Hooton

Matthew Hooton grew up on Vancouver Island before moving to England and completing an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, where Deloume Road was unanimously awarded the inaugural Greene & Heaton Prize for best novel. He has worked as an editor and teacher in several cities in South Korea. He now lives in Victoria, British Columbia. 'Deloume Road' is published on 20 May by Jonathan Cape.
Deloume Road
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From 'Deloume Road'

Matthew Hooton

The Road

          

A berry-stained ice cream pail with a shoelace for a handle sits in the wheat grass beside Deloume Road. The boy next to it has white-blond hair and a sun-freckled nose. He lets his hand, full of blackberries, hover over the pail. The child hesitates, his cobalt eyes studying each berry in case one is too ripe for the pail, then tips his hand.

          A mangy dog with patches of brown and black fur pauses at the sound of the berries hitting the plastic and trots over to sniff the bucket before continuing down the road, one ear flopping with each step, past potholes, crabapple trees and a neglected stop sign that rusts and curls on its wooden pole.

          Just over the Malahat pass with the old Bamberton cement works behind you on Highway 1 heading north on Vancouver Island, take a left onto Shawnigan Mill Bay Road. Pass dairy farms, orchards and a cidery, each isolated along the road, as if dropped into massive and seemingly timeless clearings from the sky—no hint that this land was painstakingly carved out of forest by hand, horse and dynamite nearly a century ago. There aren’t any towns here, and few businesses to speak of, only roads sparsely littered with houses and the occasional farm shop, all of it a wilderness suburb of the small town of Mill Bay. Five miles or so of this, then on your left Deloume Road begins at the top of a hill. There is no need for a No Through Road sign because there isn’t anywhere to pass through to—Deloume Road far enough from coastline and so deep in wilderness that it feels like it inhabits its own continent at times, a world removed from even the smell of salty air, the forest on the edge of the rain shadow, dryer and warmer in summer than the dark temperate rainforest farther north, but still dense, tall and green, full of mossy conifers and arbutus.

          Deloume Road is covered with loose gravel and the sunken patch at the bottom of that first steep hill is impossible to drive over without scratching a car’s exhaust pipe. The children of Deloume ride bikes down this hill, dust and gravel flying up behind. At the bottom they pull back on handlebars and jump off the divot, then hit back-pedal brakes and skid sideways. Men drive past this spectacle with too much care, as though shocked by the memories evoked. They consider the scratched exhaust pipes beneath their seats, and make unspoken measurements of the road and of their cars, trying to suppress the panic of excitement they feel when the bike tires lift off, and the profound sorrow of middle age that creeps into the passenger seats beside them when the dust settles and they see the long snaking skid marks in the gravel.

          The only driveway off this steep hill leads to a derelict house, where artists and leftover hippies practise landscape painting and cultivate marijuana, and where cows have become famous in portraits without knowing it. This house isn’t part of the neighbourhood proper, and it stands like a gatehouse to the road ahead, paint peeling from its wooden siding. The first half mile of road from the bottom of the hill is flanked by farmland on each side: on the right, cows graze beyond electric-lined wooden fencing that starts thirty feet from the road, and on the left, rotten wooden poles and barbed wire run right alongside the gravel, and the sweetness of pig manure hangs heavy in the air. On the pig farm the boards of an enormous roofed trough have turned grey with the weather, and the land around it is laid waste by hundreds of sows and their offspring. Crows sit on the telephone lines along Deloume here, drawn to the mounds at the back of the farm where diseased pigs are buried.

          When the farmer is out of sight, they will flock to the earth and scratch with their beaks and talons, uncovering a limb or a hip, then tear at the hide and eat whatever flesh they can find, keeping watch all the while. If a child stops beside the fence to pick up a stone, the crows will scatter.

          Blades of grass grow waist-high along both sides of Deloume, and tangles of blackberry bushes and crabapple trees border the dairy farm in patches, filling in the space between the road and fence, cutting the cows off from view in places. Children stop here in August, laying their bikes in the grass on the roadside and wandering deep into the mess of thorns and branches, eating berries as they go, until it appears from the road that they are impossibly far in and must have sprung up from the fertile ground. They pick sour apples and bite into them, squinting and chewing their bottom lips as they wait for the sourness to pass, the bitterness sharper because of the blackberries they’ve eaten. The smell of overripe berries and the buzzing of fat insects surrounds them. That night the children will have stomach aches but won’t complain in case their mothers see their stained fingers or thorn-scratched arms and know.

          The farmland past, the road travels through maples that reach across and touch leaves, forming a shady tunnel, and a narrow river flows beneath that, dividing the farmland from the rest of the neighbourhood. Children spend their summer holidays beside the pool at the end of the stacked metal pipes that allow the river passage under Deloume, trying to catch small trout with fishing rods made from red cedar branches and hooks stolen from tackle kits and fastened to shoelaces with a few inches of real fishing line. When the river slows to a trickle in August, the children will explore it as far as they can walk and still won’t find its source before dinner. The river smells of rust and the river is endless.         

          Just beyond the river a stop sign stands without reason, placed there by the government and ignored by drivers. It faces the other side of the road, and nearly every child that walks past throws a rock, aiming for the open space between the T and the P, where bullets have cut through the metal. Up a small hill from this valley of farmland and riverbed is the heart of the road, where the gravel has been steamrolled with tar and is less dusty. Along this final half mile of Deloume long driveways appear every few hundred feet on each side, and some of the homes’ TV antennas are visible from the road, the haphazard metal ladders reaching towards the heavens in hopes of picking up the CBC or maybe a channel from Bellingham or Seattle. In winter, chimneys give off smoke signals, messages from house to house reminding families that they are not alone in the wilderness, that the forest separating them isn’t infinite. The signs at the ends of driveways are numbered out of order and can’t be separated from family names: 1204, 1217, 1212; Ford, Henry, Choi. Twelve driveways in all.

          Scotch broom spreads along the sides of the road and up the edges of driveways, choking saplings and flowering in butterfly-blossom yellow each spring. And along the road and between houses are alder and cedar too, maple, pine, fir and hemlock. Acres of seemingly impenetrable Oregon grape and salal, huckleberry, salmonberry and blackberry. There are stinging nettles, wild strawberries and honeysuckle.

          And now the road continues its slow winding climb past the final few driveways, until Deloume ends in a silver metal gate that is the private entrance to an overrun hobby farm, where cows, sheep, goats and chickens live, and where the owners come and go and feed the animals too much and don’t harvest their fields.

          This is the end of the road, but if you turn around, it’s the beginning.

          

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