I discovered myself absentmindedly scratching at my ankle while editing photos in the late evening after Mikey had gone to sleep. Walking through long grass at the roadside, I had managed to get stung by nettles. Little raised itchy red bumps dotted my ankle, the first time I remember being stung by nettles in a long time. They were always one of the perils of outside play in childhood, and the fun of summer was usually accompanied by the hot uncomfortable itch of nettle stings.
When I was a girl, I remember climbing a walnut tree with my friend. The tree grew in her backyard, its branches wide and low to the ground. It was quite easy for us to make our way up as a pair, one giving the other a boost and the first girl onto the branch reaching down her arms to help the other up.
My friend lost her footing on the lowest branch one day, she slipped and fell into a patch of nettles growing below. After catching her breath from the impact of the hard ground and hauling herself out, her arms and legs were covered with those itchy red bumps. The only parts of her that had not been stung were the parts that had been saved by the cover of her t-shirt, shorts and socks.
I think the next day, or perhaps a few days after, her dad cut all of those nettles down. But the short stems were still there, the stinging hairs were always worse on the stems and we still managed to get stung again on our way back out to the same walnut tree.
One evening last week I had walked along the edge of one of the roads just outside the village I grew up in, past the house that used to have that walnut tree in the backyard (my childhood friend’s family haven’t even lived there for years now) and up along the riverside. It was walking through the long grass at the riverside that I was stung by nettles.
The river is actually not really a real river I suppose, although it is always full of water and people do fish on it. It’s part of a large network of long man-made drainage ditches dug in the area as part of an effort to drain the fen or marshland starting in the 1630’s, turning it into farmland for arable agriculture. There are parts where the fen is still marshy, especially when you begin to get a little closer to The Wash, places that we used to go to for school trips to examine the various plants and wildlife that were different from those further inland.
The road follows the ditch for a while out of the main village, with open fields on the other side. There’s a bridge that I remember being interested in when we first moved here, because it splits into two halfway along and is at a point where the ditch itself also splits into two.
The fields and the roadside nettles look just the same as they had always looked. The skies look larger, though, after the crowded city skies I’ve become used to. I half expected the fields to look less vast in my adulthood. Things often look smaller when you return home after a long time, because your strongest memories are of them through the eyes of childhood.
But the fields are just as big as they always were and the nettle stings on my ankles are just as itchy as I remembered them being.