The peacock at Waterloo
I was standing on a seat, trying to catch a butterfly.
A few minutes before, Daliah and I had stepped off the train from Wimbledon, where we had been visiting a friend for the afternoon. As we made our way through Waterloo Station, we chatted about how unlikely it was to see a butterfly on a train in the first place. Like the passengers before me, I had even paused briefly to take a photo before getting off. The butterfly was pretty: tiger-orange wings with eye-like purple and black spots at the tips. (A Peacock, Aglais io.) Something novel to share on Instagram? But then I was arrested by a pang of remorse.
“We have to go back,” I said.
Since Waterloo was its terminus, the train was still sitting there with its doors open. The butterfly was still there too. As it fluttered around the luggage rack, I climbed up on the seat and attempted to get a gentle hold on its legs or body.
I should say here that this is not something I actually knew how to do. I was never one of those kids that caught insects with their bare hands, and as an adult I default to "escorting" errant flyers back outside with a glass and sheet of paper. But in that moment, I felt like I was being directed by some other intelligence: remove your gloves, cup your left hand this way, extend your right hand that way. And then I had her.
I stepped off the seat, and Daliah and I went out on to the platform. I opened my hands and — the butterfly flew straight back into the train. This time, she landed on the floor.
“What?! No, no!”
I got back on the train, now feeling slightly more confident in what I needed to do, and picked the butterfly up again. This time I held my hands cupped over her as we stood on the platform.
“Where can we take her?” I asked.
“The river’s not far away,” Daliah offered.
We started through the station again. At the ticket gates, we had to do an awkward dance: Daliah getting my wallet out of my bag and tapping me out while I manoeuvred through holding the butterfly. My hands were starting to go purple with the cold by the time we reached the river. Despite the January chill, both Waterloo Station and Southbank Centre were thronged with partygoers and families of tourists out on Saturday night, shouting and jostling on their way to dinner or a drink-up. Somehow, I was surprised that no one seemed to notice two women with a wild creature that had appeared from another dimension.
Maybe it was because of the butterfly’s stillness. Although she was no more than a shadow in my palm, it felt like she was emitting a field that was holding all three of us. It was both fragile and powerful at the same time. On one hand, it seemed to throw a cloak of invisibility over us. At the same time, it made me see the human-made environment as a kind of prison, hemming us in from all sides: wherever you looked was concrete, glass, bright electric lights. Even the river looked like another straight cemented street, criss-crossed by bridges and walkways. The only place that seemed remotely hospitable for the butterfly was a little island of green amidst the sea of shops and restaurants: a plane tree with a few rosemary bushes planted at the base.
It reminded me of a dream I had had a few months earlier. In the dream, I am standing in a forest of ancient, magical trees that have been twisted into marvellous shapes over time. And because it feels like I am in the company of wise and wonderful beings, I am happy to be there. However, this forest is only a remnant, a tiny island left next to the sprawl of a suburban housing development. As I peer through the trees I start to hear machines. I hear chainsaws, and I know they are coming for this magical woodland, and there is nothing I can do about it. In the dream, I am wracked with grief. I weep with my whole being at the shattering sense of this loss. Even writing this now I feel the feeling again. It is something vast and bewildering, a sense of the web of Life itself being cut.
To me it seems like the dream of the forest and the butterfly on the train are messages. And while I feel sure I am not the only one getting such messages, I can only say what I think the messages mean for me.
To talk about saving the world or even changing the world is the wrong end of the scale for action. And taking on the machines, whether in the literal form of chainsaws and bulldozers or in their abstracted form as corporations, can be downright dangerous. But I think there is a remit for action in other places, in the islands and the remnants that are left on our damaged planet, where it is still possible to create refuge and carry some beings to safety.