[This is my started, but unfinished, novel, based on the terrible, shocking, beautiful story of Louis, Polly and Kate. You will see where I was going with it if you read the true story first, then these fragments. The title is a reference to an archaeological term - buried sites may, in the right conditions, cause changes in crops and pastures which can, in the right season, be seen in aerial photographs. Ditches, holes, pits, drainage lines and so on in clay soil produce good drainage, rich soil and good plant growth. Buried walls, roads, and other hard surfaces produce poor growth above them. The former may show up as lush green marks in a dry season, the latter as yellow marks in a good season. It is a metaphor for the effects of events in our earlier lives producing effects in our later lives, our characters, a theme that also features in my autobiography. Then, in a different sense, how choices we make at one time lead inexorably to a restriction of choices at the next, and so on, gradually narrowing down until there is effectively no choice at the end. Another theme is the contrast in choices between the two main protagonists - options may narrow, but there is always a choice, depending on how your character was formed. Time also features in the novel, almost as a character, with particular emphasis on the change in society from Victorian to Edwardian times as a new century dawned (which was going to be accentuated with appropriate Music Hall songs of the period - I put a few in, but not many yet - also reflecting the fact that Louis was the kind of chap who would have gone to the Music Hall, and his story was of a kind reflected in the songs). And so on.
Enjoy this - there are one or two places where I am quite proud of the writing, and I won't finish it now. Could I have pulled it off? Possibly, but instead I have tried to tell their actual story as carefully and thoughtfully as I can. These three people deserve this.]
‘A man should be able to lie at the bottom of a hill with his throat cut, bleeding to death, and if a pretty girl or an old woman should pass by with a beautiful jug balanced perfectly on the top of her head, he should be able to raise himself up on one arm and see the jug safely over the top of the hill.’ (Buddy, in ‘Zooey’ by JD Salinger)
Billy Wilkinson walked along the lane on a cool April morning. There were Spring flowers everywhere through grass and hedge, and he carried a stick with which occasionally, at random, he took aim and knocked off a yellow flower head, sending it spinning through the air. There was little logic to the choice, though if he saw a particularly tall one, or one of particularly bright colours in the distance he would line it up for execution in advance. At other times though it would be just a matter of a flower being in the way when his stick descended in a swing. Sometimes he imagined himself a cricketer, with a two handed grip, at others a soldier, playing polo on horseback, or sticking pigs who ran squealing from him.
It was still only 6 o’clock. He had risen early and hastily eaten some bread and drunk some milk, wiping a moustache from his upper lip when he finished, then putting on his cap and quietly closing the door behind him as he left. It was market day, and he hoped that the young lady he had now seen twice would be shopping again. He had to get there early, so as not to risk missing her, and find a place from where he would be sure to see her arrive.
Somewhere far behind him he could hear a rumble of wheels like distant thunder. That would be Mr Wragg coming to market with his big dray loaded with vegetables for sale. Since he had been trying to see his girl Billy had measured his timing of his walk into town by how far ahead of Mr Wragg he managed to leave. This morning he had a good start on him it seemed, and he would reach the markets in plenty of time. Mr Wragg would gradually gain on him, but if he kept up a brisk pace they should arrive on the outskirts of town almost at the same time. Billy enjoyed watching the stallholders setting up on a Saturday morning, the square gradually coming to life, the calls from one farmer to another. They were beginning to recognise him too, and would say good morning to him as they passed his vantage spot.
As he passed another field he heard the sound of a lamb, frightened perhaps by the sound and threat of his stick, calling for its mother. He could hear the increasingly louder lamb calls, then the sound of a number of ewes responding, then one particular ewe’s call becoming more insistent as she became certain that her baby was in distress or fear. Then an increasing crescendo of both calls until there was sudden silence and he could picture the lamb on the teat, getting more warmth and comfort and reassurance from the milk. The mother relieved that once again her baby was safe from the dangers of the world, at least for a little while.
He passed on, leaving the calls of the ewes and lambs behind. The morning was cold after a cold night, April notorious for its variation in temperature. ‘April weather, rain and sunshine both together’, Billy’s mam would say when he complained about taking a coat on a fine morning. Billy came to the corner of another field, and although he did not know it he was coming to a moment he would later remember for the rest of his life. It was a moment that he would recount to many of his family and friends, telling the story over and over again. More importantly, the most significant event so far in his life would come on Monday, when some very important and frightening gentlemen would ask him under oath to tell all he knew.
So it was a pity, all things considered, that he didn’t know that he should pay particular attention to the occupants of the next field. Significant events rarely announce themselves, and we often wish, sometimes bitterly wish, that we had paid more attention to something that seemed trivial at the time, but would later weigh heavily on our lives.
Billy thought he could hear voices, speaking softly, and this was so unexpected in a world that he had thought, for at least a little longer, consisted only of himself and the Wraggs, on the road to the market, that he at first thought it must be the sound of some animal, out late, and hurrying home. He came to an area where the wall had broken down a little and he could see into the field. They were human voices that he had heard, and what he saw was so unexpected, in his predictable world, that he stopped for a moment to stare. Rudely, as his mother would have said.
Sitting on the grass of the field, among spring flowers, were a couple. The man seemed old to Billy, with greying hair and a moustache, but the girl was young and lovely, almost as lovely as his girl. What was strange was that they were dressed in their best clothes, and sitting in the field at six in the morning as if in a front room. They were dressed in Sunday best, or for the theatre, and had the air of people who thought it was the most natural thing in the world to be sitting here on the grass. The girl was staring down at her hands, where she held a flower, the man smoking a pipe, the smoke and his breath together making a large cloud in the cold morning air. Neither was speaking as Billy stared.
But suddenly the man must have felt the eyes upon him for he lifted his head and saw Billy. Disconcerted at being caught rudely staring Billy managed to stammer out ‘Good Morning’, not knowing what else to say, and the man removed his pipe from his mouth long enough to say ‘Good Morning’ in reply, his smoky breath coming out in two spurts as he spoke the words. Caught out, and unable to keep watching, and having no idea what else to say in a social situation he had never imagined being in, Billy turned and continued on his way.
After the ball is over, after the break of morn,
After the dancers’ leaving, after the stars are gone,
Many a heart is aching, if you could read them all—
Many the hopes that have vanished after the ball.
‘Your turn Lou, come on’.
He had been miles away. ‘Twopence for your thoughts’ his mam used to say ‘worth more than a penny, your thoughts love’. ‘Don’t spoil the boy, Ann’ his dad would say every time she said this. He grinned slightly as he pictured the scene, pictured himself running to his mother’s knee, clutching her dress as a protection against his father. Although realising now, and perhaps even then, that his father had been as much puzzled as angry, and just as fiercely protective of his youngest son, though in quite a different way, as his mother.
‘Come on Lou.’
He stood up, letting the cue slide down through his clasped hands as he rose, so that its butt remained on the floor. Taking the chalk from his waistcoat pocket he carefully attended to the cue tip while surveying the table. He took great pride in his prowess at billiards. It was a game that favoured attention to detail, a careful analysis of angles and consequences, being able to plan several moves ahead. He loved too the simplicity of the small number of balls, the restricted scoring, and the patterns that kept forming and reforming. He began to play in an almost dreamlike way, as if he floated above the table, watching the movements, seeing where a ball would end before it was struck, planning the next shot, but somehow remote. He had found that this was the only way he could succeed, if he suddenly became aware of the physical nature of the baize cloth, or the pattern of lights, or the imperfections of the cue, he came down to earth fast and missed his shot. He tried to stay in his dream sequence as long as he could, racking up points effortlessly, but suddenly a voice intruded in on him.
‘I said, would you like another drink? Or will I just clear your glass away?’
He straightened up, knowing without looking that his last shot would miss.
‘Ah, yes, sorry, John, are you having another?’
‘No, best not.’
He began gathering glasses together to pass to the girl.
‘Oh, no sir, don’t you worry about that’ she said flustered that a gentleman would be bothered to help her, would even think of helping her.
‘Well, if you are sure’, he said, looking up straight into her eyes, totally attentive to her, and she looked away flustered, unused to men looking at her, unused even to them paying her any attention except when rotten with beer at the end of the evening.
Louis believed that all women had at least one time in their lives when they were attractive, no matter how briefly. And he believed that all women retained at least some hint of that moment, and that if you could find that hint you could both give and receive pleasure. This woman was a challenge though, big boned and already fat, her hands covered in metal and coloured glass, each finger with a ring derived from the fairground or cheap pedler, the flesh already starting to bulge around the rings and lock them in place. Her face was grim too, with down-turned, thin-lipped, mouth, and red nose. But there, a lovely ear, uncovered by the hair now hanging down. And her eyes, something gentle and lost in her eyes. Then, satisfied that he had paid her the respects due as a woman, he said
‘No trouble love, there you go, take care now’.
Another man might have slapped her on the bum as she turned, but she knew he wouldn’t, such a gentleman, and she walked off, her heart a little faster, her mouth a little softer.
‘What an ugly cow eh Lou?’
But he wouldn’t reply, wouldn’t take part in that kind of denigration of a woman. He loved women. Preferred their company to that of men, but that was a thought to keep to himself, with John full of beer.
They came outside into a bitterly cold still night, breath with beer and smoke fumes suddenly magnified in the night air into dense clouds.
‘A braw bricht nicht’ he said, before he could hold the thought back.
‘You’re a funny booger and no mistake’ said John, having no idea what had been said, but suspecting some piece of literary nonsense.
They walked on in silence for a while, hands in pockets, shoulders hunched.
‘Do you fancy a spot of rabbit popping in the morning?’ said John. ‘With this frost on the ground there could be some good sport up at the castle if we can get there early.’
He was walking along a balcony of polished dark wood. Couldn’t see properly in the dark but he was up very high in an old house. High on a balcony – a mezzanine floor running around the edge of a very deep central well. The dark wood was slippery and almost felt as if it was sloping down towards the edge. He kept close to the wall, as far from the drop as he could, feeling his way around. No doors, no exits, he had to keep moving around the wall. Then he slipped and felt himself sliding towards the edge on his stomach, his hands trying to hold on to the smooth boards. Nothing to grip, nothing to hold on to, he was slipping faster and faster, his feet now over the edge of the great drop. And then, as he always did, he woke up, sweating and shaking.
Had known as he slid that he was in a dream and would awake. Had been dreaming this dream since he was a little boy. More often since Emily had gone. Always awoke before the edge. Always awoke before falling screaming to his death. Always would awake just in time.
The sound of wheels came from the other side of the hedge like a sudden thunderclap on a clear day. They had been alone so long in this tiny world, he had been alone so long, that this intrusion of others was shocking. He looked up, hearing voices now.
‘Those poor devils will have had a cold night of it mum’.
And he caught the eye of a burly market gardener, driving early with his load of vegetables to the Saturday markets, his wife sitting next to him. They were both looking at him, perhaps with pity. He hadn’t thought of being cold last night, but he shivered now, someone walking over his grave, as he realised how wet he was. He looked down at Kate once more. What was she doing here? What was he doing here in this muddy field, when just down the path was Tom’s farm house? A kind of a brother-in-law he guessed, unable now, as he shivered again, to work out the exact relationship, but he had visited the farm as a boy, ridden his bicycle down that track, would be made welcome and warm. But it would only be a brief welcome, once they learned the story, and it was too late to think of that warm farmhouse. Could only think about what he had to do next, because there were no choices left now. Perhaps there never had been any choices.
‘You can’t call him Louis, lass. That’s no name for a boy. They’ll give him hell when he’s old enough to care.’
Louis hurried along the street, scarf wrapped around his lower face and neck, the wind cold and damp. Ahead as he looked up was a purposeful movement, and a group of workmen entered a building, hurrying out of the wind. As he reached the spot he realised that they had entered a public house, and without really thinking about it, just anxious to escape the cold, he stopped and turned. The door was big and heavy with brass handles and plates. It was so heavy that he was stopped in his tracks, unable to continue the movement that had taken him from the pavement. He took a stronger grip on the handle and leaned forward, his weight enough to move the door now in spite of the heaviness and the pull of the wind rushing past.
As he moved in he saw a sign on the door at eye level ‘Workmen please scrape your boots’. Not many had heeded the sign, the carpet stained and re-stained, different colours and shapes telling the stories of many a fight, or vomit, or spilled beer, or hard lives in mines, or heavy clay in road works or fields. Louis looked down automatically, but inevitably his boots were in his bag, and he wore shiny shoes.
He saw no one he knew through the smoke, heard no familiar voices. This pub wasn’t a normal part of his life, and these people were strangers, but he had come down this street for once from a job in a new part of town. The lack of friends and family pleased him. It meant he could relax, make no effort, stay quietly in his own world for a little while.
The bar was empty at the end furthest from the taps and the barmaid, and he sat on the stool there, separate from the crowd. He placed his hat on the bar, carefully removed his scarf and rolled it, so that it and his gloves could fit neatly into the hat. He reached down into his bag, placed it between his shoes, and removed tobacco pouch and a book. He placed both on the bar next to the hat, and then, reaching into his jacket pocket, added a pipe and matches to the row of belongings.
He had been concentrating on organising his space, and only slowly became aware that a voice nearby was becoming insistent.
‘Sorry?’ he said.
‘I asked you what you wanted love.’
He realised that the barmaid had finally come down to where he was.
‘Oh, sorry, I didn’t hear you. I’ll just have a pint please.’
She moved away quickly, aware that she needed to fill this order and hurry back to where the regulars were ready for yet another round. He reached into his pocket and found enough pennies to buy the drink, placed them neatly where the barmaid could pick them up without disturbing him again, then opened the book at a place where a bookmark obtruded slightly. He was deep in the words when the beer arrived and the barmaid, shrugging, took the pennies and left the strange customer alone. She had never seen anyone read a book in there before.
Louis took his first sip of beer and then placed the glass where he could reach out and find it again without lifting his eyes from the page. He had created a small area of calm and order in the middle of the chaos. A workman further along the bar nudged his companion, and indicated the stranger with a turn of his head.
‘Yon’s a queer customer.’
It wasn’t just the book. Louis was dressed neatly and cleanly. He had changed before leaving work – not just shoes but all his clothes. And he had washed thoroughly in the water barrel. The rest of the crowd had come straight from work, muddy and sweaty trousers and shirts and boots, smudges of various colours on faces, necks grimy, fingernails blackened with dirt, not wanting to waste a moment of drinking time. Louis was dressed as if for an office, or even for a social visit on a Sunday.
He reached for his glass and raised it to his lips while looking down around the edge of the rim so he didn’t need to take his eyes from the page. He raised the glass further and further and opened his lips, but nothing reached them and he realised the glass was empty.
Cold air blew over him and he shivered, remembering in that moment that he had shivered several times without being fully aware of it. Looking up he saw a large group of men leaving, one holding the door for the rest, and making a mock bow as if he was a doorman in a flash hotel. Looking around the room he saw that he was one of the only men still present, and realised that the door must have opened and closed a number of times in the last hour. Men had come from work, had their pint, or two, and then gone home for a wash and dinner.
Time he went too, and he put on his scarf and gloves and hat, put away the book and tobacco, put the pipe, half smoked with unburnt tobacco still showing golden around the edges of the black centre, into his pocket with the matches, and got up stiffly from the stool.
He began to move towards the door, but sensing something missing from his arm he turned back and picked up the bag from the floor, then again headed away from the bar.
He already had his key out as he skipped up the three steps to his front door, but as he reached for the keyhole the door opened and Mary Ann was there, her face showing concern.
‘Where have you been Louis, I was worried half to death?’
‘Nowhere love, I had too many seedlings to get in and I couldn’t leave them once I’d started.’
The lie came with little thought. It was not that she would object to the pub, or not out loud anyway, but she would feel it as a personal rejection. If he wasn’t working he should want to be with her and the children. She never said, was never game to have the thought made real in words, but she feared in her heart that he didn’t want to.
She was a plain woman with a face that seemed too big for her head, her eyes too wide apart, her nose too broad, and, most of all, her jaw too large. It was a jaw inherited from her father, and it looked in place on that tough labourer, but on her small body it helped make the whole head out of proportion. Her hair was curly and had been teased up away from her face, showing her wide brow clearly and adding even more depth to the long face.
Her forehead was wrinkled in concentration and concern. She carried a permanently puzzled look, as if puzzled to find herself behind this face, puzzled that she was living this life, puzzled to be with this man, puzzled as to why she still held him.
He felt guilty about the wrinkles, guilty about being late, guilty about lying to her. Though it was not much of a lie. But he had again been thoughtless, and she had again been worried, and he leaned forward to kiss the wrinkles away while he reached for her hand.
‘Ow, damn’ he swore, feeling something penetrate his hand and seeing a drop of blood welling up on his thumb, ‘what’s that?’
‘Oh, sorry love’ she said, hurrying to put down the pincushion she had been holding in her hand and reaching out to inspect the thumb.
She was anxious that she had hurt him, that this would be the final straw, one piece of sharpness too many, and he would turn on his heel and walk out of her life forever. Anxious too because he didn’t like her sewing, or, rather, didn’t like to be reminded that she had to sew to help support them. Accepted the fact of it, but wanted it done behind a closed door, or done when he was out.
He pulled his hand from her and sucked the spot of blood away. She was in the wrong now and his lateness was no longer the issue.
‘Leave it, leave it. Where are the bairns?’
‘Oh, in front of the fire, playing some game, I thought they would have heard you by now. Percy, Fran, daddy’s home.’
‘Mam, I am trying to read to Louis and Annie won’t let me.’
‘Annie, leave Emily alone’.
‘But it’s my turn to play with the baby, Mam, and Emily sneaked in.’
‘Louis, you come here and stay with your mother’
He couldn’t really remember being read to, though when they reminded him, claiming priority in who had taught him to read, he always acknowledged a memory of whichever sister or his mother was quizzing him. But he could remember the feeling of being read to. Of curling up in a chair with Emily, contorting his body so he could look at the pictures, or of lying on the floor with Annie, his feet waving in the air, his head resting on his hands, his elbows on the floor. But best of all he remembered lying on the sofa with his mother, resting his head on her soft shoulder, and moving his cheek to feel the smoothness of the silk.
The memories were prompted by the book he held in his hands. It was a bible and he felt a little cheated. He had worked so hard for the Sunday School prize, and he had hoped it would be a book. For a while there he had not thought he was getting a prize at all. The vicar had called out several names, then his friend Robbie Young. Robbie had got one of Captain Marryatt’s books, and Louis had thought he must be top of the class. But the vicar had been going in order from fourth to first and next he called out Louis’ name, top of the bible class. He was congratulated on how well he had done, and then presented with the bible as if it was the greatest prize of all. But he thought it was unfair that second place had got a better prize than he did.
He wriggled in his seat when he got back, and Annie turned and looked back at him from the pew in front. She frowned at him and then looked towards a brass vase on the window sill. He knew what she meant. ‘Bold as brass’ his mother always said about him when he was complaining of some unfairness.
But it was so unfair, and he managed to sneak a look across to where Robbie was sitting. Robbie himself was sneaking a look at his book. He had managed to get his finger into the first page and gradually wedge the book apart so he could, by looking down in an apparently prayerful way, get a look at the first few words. Louis wondered which one it was. They had Masterman Ready at home, and he hoped it might be Children of the New Forest. If it was Robbie would lend it to him when he finished. But he would rather have had it himself, part of the pleasure being to write in a new book ‘Louis Carter, 25 December 1874′. You couldn’t do that with a bible.
They trooped out dutifully after the service, his sisters Annie and Emily being very well behaved. Louis was desperate to run after being on his best behaviour inside the church, but he didn’t dare. The churchyard would have been a good place to play with its big old trees and the tombstones so worn that they seemed like some of the ancient standing stones. The names could barely be read. His mother always said it wasn’t respectful to run around the churchyard, and use the stones for hiding places, but he didn’t know these people, didn’t know anyone who had died except his grandmother and he couldn’t remember her. Was only four when she died and he was dressed up in hot dark clothes, fidgeting to get away while his mother held on to him to make sure he stayed in the photograph.
So it wasn’t until he got out of the church gate that he was able to say ‘I’m just going to see what Robbie got Mam’ and walk ahead as fast as he could without actually running.
‘Wait for me Louis’ said Emily, also trying to hurry without appearing to hurry. She was 13 and a girl, and therefore, by necessity, more dignified in her behaviour than 10 year old boys, but she liked Robbie and was also curious as to his prize. They would all get to read whatever it was, and she wanted to stake her claim as early as possible, although she knew Louis would get it first.
Together the three of them walked along a lane in which water had collected in wheel ruts and then frozen, so that you had to be careful not to slip in your Sunday best clothes, but where the ice was thinner the two boys, without breaking step or even thinking about what they were doing, kicked through the shell and scattered fragments like diamonds ahead of them.
They stopped at Robbie’s gate, agreeing to meet in the afternoon after Christmas dinner if they could. It was unlikely though, Robbie would have farm chores, ‘Animals don’t know it’s Christmas lad’, and the Carter children knew that their big brothers Henry and Fred would be home, perhaps by the time they reached the house. It had been some time since all five children had been under one roof and their mother would want to keep them together as long as she could.
As they stood at the gate of the Home Farm Annie came up from behind and, standing between them, put one arm each around their shoulders. She gave them a little hug, pulling them so that their heads almost touched on her chest, and said, ‘Come on slow coaches, you can see Robbie any time, let’s get home to our Henry.’
And every little movement has a meaning of its own,
Every little movement tells a tale.
When she walks in dainty hobbles,
At the back round here, there’s a kind of wibble-wobble;
And she glides like this,
Then the Johnnies follow in her trail,
‘Cos when she turns her head like so,
Something’s going, don’t you know,
Every little movement tells a tale.
He had left work early, collecting a new seed catalogue from the nursery before it closed. As he walked along the street a woman came out of a shop entrance a few paces away and, aware of his presence, turned hurriedly and kept ahead of him. He slowed a little, so as to keep a more comfortable distance between them, and so he could more readily see her. There was something distinctive about her, but for a moment he couldn’t work out what it was.
Then he had it, it was her hands, or, rather, the way she held her hands as she walked. Somehow she held them out sideways from her skirt, almost at right angles to her arms, the palms pointing down. The fingers were posed, the wrists, as a result of the pose, giving the impression of infinite and effortless flexibility. Like a dancer, he thought, that was it, a ballet dancer, not dancing down the street with her feet, although obviously in a hurry, but letting her hands remember poses, movements, from some long ago performance.
He was fascinated. Could see little more of her than this, except that she was slim like a dancer, but the hands held him mesmerised. Suddenly she turned into another entrance, and as he caught up to her he could see she was struggling with a heavy door, the elegant wrists perhaps not strong. He came up behind her, grasped the handle just above her right hand and pulled.
‘Allow me’ he said, as the door began to move, and she let go of the handle, perhaps as much surprised by the door moving as by a stranger pressing close behind her. She stepped away a little, not looking at him, to make way for the now moving door. Then it opened enough for her entrance, and she moved forward.
‘Thank you kind sir’, she said, glancing quickly at him from under her hat brim.
He wedged the door open with his foot, then took off his hat, and made a little flourish with it to wave her forward. Realising that he was at the door to the public house he had visited last week he followed the girl in. She moved quickly down the length of the bar, then lifted a section at the end and went behind the bar and into a back room, taking her hat off as she went.
‘Come on Kate’ called the barman, clearly impatient and trying to serve a number of customers all clamouring for their first drink. Louis went and sat down at the empty end of the bar where he had sat before. The barmaid, ‘Kate’, came out again and called out to him ‘Won’t be a moment sir’, and then turning to the crush of workmen said ‘Now, who was first’.
Louis pulled the seed catalogue out of his pocket and began to look through it, becoming engrossed as he thought about the Spring plantings where he was working.
‘Thank you for opening the door.’
Thank you for opening the door’, she said, ‘sometimes it sticks and it is too heavy for me anyway really’.
‘Quite all right’ he said, paying her full attention. She was beautiful he thought, or at least beautiful to a man who thought all women had some attractive feature, and elegant, as she stood with her arms angled sideways, her hands resting palms flat on the bar, frozen in the same pose as when she walked.
‘You’ve been in before’ she said ‘I remember you reading last time’.
‘Not so unusual, reading’ he said, knowing that it was.
‘It is in here’, she said, ‘what are you reading this time?’ Then she looked down at his hands, ‘Oh, it’s a catalogue, are you a gardener? My father is a gardener.’
‘Yes, I am’ said Louis, pleased that he could make some connection with her, ‘can’t you tell?’
‘Well, you are a very clean gardener’ she said, smiling.
‘Come on Kate’ came the call once more from down the end of the bar.
‘Oh, I must get back to work’ she said, ‘what can I get for you?’
The boy I love is up in the gallery.
The boy I love is looking down at me.
There he is! Can’t you see?
Waving his handkerchief,
As merry as a robin that sings on a tree
Rob was never sure how it had come about that he was courting Emily Carter. One moment it seemed they were the three musketeers, or Robin Hood, Will Scarlett and Maid Marion, three children, one of whom was, almost irrelevantly, a girl, running around the fields and forest. Then Louis was courting some girl he had met while gardening, and Robin and Marian had been left as a couple.
They had only gradually, it seemed, become aware that friends and family had long considered them as a couple, and thought that it would be a good thing to join together two families that had known each other so long. Neither of them had formed attachments elsewhere, and both thought of the other as their best friend. They had grown up together and there were no secrets, no surprises to come that could wreck things.
One day as they crossed a style, on a Sunday walk to find blackberries, she didn’t jump up and down from the style with her usual laugh, but to be more fragile somehow, and he held out his hand to help her down. Then letting go of the hand seemed to be harder than not letting go and they walked on together, somewhat awkwardly in silence, unused to synchronising leg and arm movements.
When they reached the next style, still unusually silent, they stopped, and the halt, while hands were held, somehow involved both their bodies swinging around to face each other, and that could only, apparently, end in a kiss. Emily pulled away, laughing and jumped the style easily this time, then waited for Rob with hand held out. They walked on together thoughtfully for a while, and when they reached the hedgerow with the blackberries they stopped and Rob said ‘Well, I suppose we should get married’. They weren’t the words she had read in books, nor imagined, but they turned out to be the right words.
Since then, for a year now, they had spent any available Sunday afternoon together, in long walks, or riding their bicycles, and then finishing up back in the Carter’s front room.
‘Robbie my man, it has been too long’.
‘I’ve been busy Lou. Can’t keep up with the work at present.’
‘Ah, we have become staid old married men and fathers Rob, who would have thought it in the old days eh?’
‘So where are you off to? Dressed up as usual. No Polly?
‘No, she’s home with the bairns. Hard to get her out of the house these days. Very dedicated. I’m off to see this display of the new American watches that have just come in.’
‘Don’t know anything about them.’
‘It’s wonderful. This American company Waltham makes the works in this precision factory. Puts thousands of them together every year. Then they get sent off all round the world, the local silversmiths buy them and then make their own silver cases. Dennison and Wigleys have just had a shipment and put them together and there are a few on sale in town.’
‘Are they any good?’
‘Any good? Any good? The Americans have all the great ideas. The twentieth century is going to be the American century you know, and dear old England is getting left behind. And until this old queen has toddled off and let Edward get on with things, bring in the new broom, we are going to go on being left behind.’
‘You mustn’t talk like that Lou, she’s not such a bad old stick. Best queen we’ve ever had.’
‘No, no, good for the old timers Rob, but we need new men and new ideas. It’s the time for young men like you and me to take over things and put a bomb under these old men and women. Mothers and fathers have to step aside and make way for their children. You know, you’ve had enough trouble with your old dad.’
‘Yes, well, let’s not talk about him. I’ll come with you, it’s probably time I had a watch, if they are any good. And a good silver chain.’
They strode off together, both well dressed young men, though they would have seemed provincial to a Londoner. Robbie especially had good solid clothes rather than flashy. Louis was much closer to the ideal they saw in newspapers.
The watches were superb, beautifully made, and with an accuracy that allowed for a second hand to be included. But not so dear that Rob couldn’t buy one without feeling that he should check with Annie first. They looked on as the watchmaker wound them both up and showed them how to open and close them and set the time.
‘Come Robbie, let’s set both watches to the identical correct time and then see whose runs the best over the next few years. I say I have the best of them.’
‘They’re identical Lou.’
‘No, things are never identical, there are always subtle differences. If we had ears to hear the ticking of the two watches would be slightly, ever so slightly out of step, and that tiny difference adds up over the years. Even if it is only a slight difference, I tell you in ten years time my watch will still have the correct time and yours will be a bit out. I’ll lay you a fiver on it.’
‘You’re an odd fellow Lou. We won’t remember in ten year’s time, but if it makes you happy I agree to pay you five pounds if your watch is closer to the correct time in ten years than mine is.’
They parted, one wondering at the oddness of his old friend, the other wondering how his old friend had become so, well, old.
They had crept up to the edge of the woods, looking up a sunlit slope where about a dozen rabbits grazed quietly, every so often one sitting up to look around for danger. He watched as one fine looking buck paused to groom himself.
‘Bit like you that one Lou’ said Rob, laughing quietly, ‘a fine dandy’.
Louis didn’t reply immediately but suddenly there was a bang and almost all the rabbits had gone except for a young one lying on the ground.
‘Never heard the shot that killed her’ said John as they walked across. ‘She’s a beauty Lou’.
Rob looked down and saw a smear of blood next to the rabbit. Then he realised that she was looking up at him, the eye moving as if trying to see a way out. ‘She’s not dead’ he said, horrified.
‘No more she is’ said Louis, ‘better put her out of her misery’. He picked up the rabbit and snapped her neck with a quick clean movement. ‘Hate seeing them in pain’ he said.
Rob just managed not to reply. She wouldn’t have been in pain if you hadn’t shot her, he thought.
He was thinking as he rode, planning the order of rows in the garden bed. He had the seedling trays in a carry tray, and was riding his bicycle with his fingers holding the handles, and his thumbs holding the tray sitting on the handlebars. Hardly aware that he was at the corner, he automatically swung the bicycle to go around it as he had done so many times before. Suddenly in front of him he sensed a flash of bright colour and a frightened face, and he swung even further. There was a grating sound, he felt the fingers of his left hand, still locked on the handle, scraping against the wall, and then the bicycle wheel jammed into the wall and he fell off, tray and plants scattering across the pavement.
‘Bloody hell’ he said, sucking the blood from his fingers, the pain suddenly intense, as if it had taken the brain some seconds to realise that the fingers had been injured.
‘Caught between a rock and a hard place’ said a voice, a hint of laughter in the words.
He looked down and there was a straw hat, and under it some curls, and under that two beautiful brown eyes. The girl had knelt down to start gathering up the seedlings, some with soil spilling out from their trays.
‘Mary Mary quite contrary’ he said, immediately wishing he hadn’t. Trying to impress her instinctively but failing. Then he realised who she was. The girl from the public house.
‘You’re the girl from the Dragon’ he said, knowing that he sounded like a schoolboy again.
‘And you’re the man who reads books at the bar’ she said, again with that edge of laughter in her voice, as if everything about being nearly run over by a bicycle was potentially a source of humour.
‘Sorry’ he said, belatedly ‘sorry to frighten you’.
‘I’m all right’ she said, ‘not sure about these plants though. A bit the worse for wear’.
‘They’ll be fine’ he said, not wishing to have any hint that he might blame her for this or indeed anything. ‘Have to plant them this afternoon just down the road. A drink of water will soon pick them up’.
‘All my fault though’ she said ‘can I get you a drink this evening to make up for it?’
‘No, no, I’m the guilty party’ he said ‘don’t think my head’s screwed on the right way sometimes’. Let me buy you a drink.’
‘Maybe we’ll buy each other drinks then’ she said. ‘What time will you come?’
‘Half after six. Maybe earlier if I can finish getting these in quickly’.
‘And what do I call you?’ she said. ‘It would help to have a name to call out next time disaster threatens around a corner.’
‘Lewis’ he said ‘my name is Lewis Carter’.
‘Well Lewis Carter’ she said, ‘I’m Catherine Bray. If you can’t see me when you come into the bar ask for Kate and they will call me.’
Nowhere else to go with the conversation without a beer in his hand, now that all the plants were picked up.
‘Well, soonest gone, soonest back’ he said, swinging his leg over the bicycle seat again.
‘Ride carefully’ she said with that half laughing half almost mocking tone, ‘don’t crash into any other girls’, and then she had turned and was gone around the corner.
I was weaned on cucumber, and on my wedding day,
Sitting down to supper when the guests had gone away,
My old darling said to me, “You must be hungry, Joe!
What is it you fancy?” I Said, “Fancy! Don’t you know?”
‘So, I suppose you are married?’ she said.
He had been waiting for the question. Thinking about it while he marked out the string lines and dibbed in the holes for the seedlings. Realising when he had finished planting that he had thought about it so much he wasn’t sure that he hadn’t mixed up wallflowers and stocks and cornflowers in each other’s rows. Maybe next week he could move them back before anyone noticed. Or perhaps he could say it was the latest London fashion to have mixed rows.
Thought about it a lot, then, and the implications of his answer. If he said ‘yes, ‘fraid so love. Old married man me, ball and chain, kids, domestic bliss’, then that was the end of it. That was the end of her looking at him with those bright searching eyes. Suddenly he would be back, where he belonged, just one of the many boring middle-aged, married men, who tried to chat to her each night. One of the many who became more attractive, in their own minds, with each pint of beer. She would start managing him then, as she had learnt to manage the others. Fend him off easily with a laugh while not offending him enough to stop him drinking beer and making the landlord a profit.
If he said no, then just for a little longer she would go on flirting with him. Go on seeing him as the bachelor gay, young man about town. Where was the harm? Just a little longer. You are old a long time, he thought, and dead even longer, where’s the harm in pretending for a little longer?
‘Me? Married? Do I seem married?’
‘I don’t know. Can’t tell with you, you’re an odd one.’
He was secretly pleased. An odd one he. Not one of her usual customers. Something special.
‘No, I’m not married love, need my freedom I do’.
‘Have you never been married?’
‘No, why do you ask like that?’
‘Well, it’s just, you’re not a boy, are you, and you’re not ugly, or an axe murderer I think. So why hasn’t some girl snapped you up before now?’
He had thought about this question too, while he planted the seedlings, and now he had to get the tone just right.
‘Well, I wasn’t going to tell you, but there was a girl, once.’
‘She died. She was just 25, and she got tuberculosis. Coughing blood and getting weaker and weaker until she died.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry, that must have been awful. And there has been no one since?’
‘No, I couldn’t go through that again, losing someone I loved. Would have to be someone very special to tempt me from the single life.’
‘Well, I hope you meet someone special. Seems a shame for you to be wasted’ she said, getting up from the table, as the landlord had caught her eye, the bar stating to fill up.
‘Maybe I have now’ he said, so softly she wasn’t sure she had heard, but nearly sure. Not the time to reply now but next time. As if she hadn’t heard she said ’see you later then’ and walked off without waiting for a reply.
‘What is it Lewis’’ she asked ‘What is it?’
‘Possess your soul in patience’ he said, ‘it’s a surprise’.
He turned to her, holding the scarf stretched out between his hands, the two ends hanging down from his palms. ‘Come on, let me put this on you, you are not allowed to look until I am ready’.
She turned then, her eyes already closed trustingly, as she turned her face up toward him. He could see her long white neck and bent down it kiss it once, causing her to shiver. ‘Your moustache tickles’ she said, but it wasn’t a complaint. Then he wrapped the scarf around her eyes, leaning forward and tying it behind her head.
‘Come on then’ he said ‘let me lead you’, and he held one of her elbows and steered her forward to the door of the room where the birthday present was hidden.
Sometimes, where the ground was firm, their feet landed simultaneously, and there was a rhythm to the sound, as if only one child was running. Then someone’s foot would hit a patch of loose soil, or a deeper drift of rotten leaves, and they would shorten stride to compensate, or lurch sideways, almost falling. Then suddenly the sound of the footsteps resolved itself into 8 separate feet, awkwardly out of step so that all rhythm was gone.
The sound of their breathing was also out of step. Rob was older than Tom, and both were fitter than Lou, Emily was the lightest. The gasping of their lungs was louder and louder, made almost solid by the steam of their breath on this cold morning. A lot of noise, too much noise to hear the pursuit, even to know if there still was a pursuit. But they ran on anyway, there was a goal to be reached.
And then they reached it and the branches of the giant oak were overhead and they slowed a little to swing around the trunk, their footsteps all deadened by the deep mulch of long dead leaves. They were home safe. There was the dark triangular opening at the base of the trunk and one after the other they squeezed in. Just enough room for the three boys, their knees pressed hard against their chests, their shoes touching in the centre of the circle, Emily waiting outside. All still breathed heavily for a little longer until Rob got his breath and said shoosh. Lou tried to control his breathing, taking deeper breaths to change the rhythm, as if he was trying to stop himself crying. He finally managed it, though he was still winded, and they all sat quietly, trying to hear if the hunt was still up.
‘We’ve done it’ said Rob ‘Robin Hood and Will Scarlett and Friar Tuck and Maid Marian have escaped the evil Sheriff and live to fight another day. Hooray.’
‘We should climb now Robin, and make sure that the Sheriff and his men are nowhere in sight.’
So out they came and up the tree, one after another, except Emily who stayed on the ground, the climb an easy one because of the shape of trunk and branches and because they had done it so many times. Lou had often closed his eyes at night and imagined the climb, every branch clear in his mind. The first step came after you held on to two branches, just above the height of his head, then you swung up and managed, stretching, to get one foot on to a kind of ledge between the first two massive main trunks. The ledge was flat, and many children’s feet had worn it away, like pilgrims on a cathedral’s steps, to a slight hollow. As he began to swing up he could see that the hollow had collected some rain from the night before, and was a miniature shallow pond. Not too shallow to drown a beetle though, that had somehow stumbled in, perhaps fallen from above, and drowned in water scarcely deeper than the length of its legs. It lay face down, its back shiny above the surface of the water, as if it was deliberately immersing itself and would soon pull out with a rush of air and waddle off.
Each of the three settled on a different branch, arranged by age, Rob and Louis equal highest, Tom the lowest. They looked back along the way they had come towards the road. No sign of the pursuers, who had, as they knew deep down, given up on the game some time ago and gone off to play cricket.
So a moment of posed triumph, an achievement, of sorts, shared, and then they began to shift position a little restlessly, no one wanting to be the one to definitely say the game was over, but all knowing that it was.
‘Oh, come on’ said Rob, ‘I’m hungry. Time for tea.’ And the spell was broken. They jumped from the lower branches to the ground, no longer merry men but grubby children, and set off back up the track. They reached the familiar junction and Rob and Tom turned right, leaving Lou and Emily to go left.
‘See you’ they all said casually yet simultaneously without looking at each other, ‘see you tomorrow’.
‘What do you mean you’re going away?’
He put down his half full glass, too stunned to risk holding it in his hand any longer.
‘Going where? Why? When?’
She laughed at him then, laughed at the rush of words, the shock in his eyes.
‘Well, nothing lasts forever you know, did you think it would?’
Yes, he had thought it would. In the closed world of the public house, the same rituals repeated every night, the glasses always full again, the same words from the same people in the same places, it had indeed seemed that time was standing still. Had seemed that he could go on seeing her here, every working night, could exchange a few words with her, could let his fingers run over her hand as she deliberately held on to the glass she passed to him a few moments longer than really necessary, could snatch a kiss in the passage as they both pretended to need to coincidentally go out the back.
And when she was busy with orders behind the bar he had thought he could always be the centre of attention of the other regulars, the men who had begun to see him as a source of amusement after a hard day’s work. Knew that he could always be relied upon to stand his round, tell a funny story or a risqué one, play a game of snooker for a small wager and pay up with a laugh when he lost, sing a popular song when someone sat at the piano, his rich voice drawing attention and bringing silence until he finished.
He was back in his courting days again, courting not just Kate but the world of the bar, and now it was going to be all lost.
‘I have to go back home’ she said ‘this was always just a temporary job until Lizzie came back. And my da wants me back where he can see me, doesn’t trust me so far away, thinks I might get up to mischief’ she said with the laugh and the toss of the head which always drove him to near madness.
She went back to the bar, answering the call of a group of desperate men with empty glasses, knowing that he would need to think about things for a while. She didn’t know what he would do, but she knew that his eyes were following her hungrily as she walked back to the bar, knew that he would be watching her all the time as she served other men, knew that he would keep watching her until she came back to his table.
‘Could I come and visit you on weekends and when I’m not working?’ he asked when she came back.
She stayed silent for a while, pretending to consider her answer as if she had not thought about it being asked a thousand times.
‘Would you be coming courting then?’ she asked. ‘My da wouldn’t let you in the house if he didn’t think you were serious about me, didn’t think you had ‘onourable hintentions.’ She deliberately treated the last phrase as a joke, giving him room to escape, he was not a man a girl could trap, then waited anxiously for the reply she was almost sure was coming.
‘Of course I’m honourable love’, he said with a laugh, ‘ask anyone’.
Rob came through the farmyard gates and headed for the tool shed to put away his scythe. Just outside the barn door his father was holding a ram and talking to his two younger sons. He suddenly had a sinking feeling as he remembered helping his father with the sheep yesterday. The sheep had been brought in for drenching for worms, and the ram, a sheep Rob was very fond of, always coming for a scratch behind the ears, had felt neglected and had done a play charge at Rob’s father.
But old Charlie had been off his guard, looking the other way, and the ram had knocked his legs out from under him and sent him sprawling on muddy paving. ‘You Booger’ he shouted, and it wasn’t a friendly name calling. Rob had seen his father often punch rams in the head to turn them back, and in the village it was commonly said that he had once punched a bull in the forehead and left it stunned. It was also well known that those big fists were often used on the farm lads, the young labourers who came to help at busy periods like harvest time. Rob had seen one of his cousins knocked to the ground for being too slow to respond to an order from the old man. He hadn’t punched his own sons, but he had never held back from unbuckling his broad leather strap and using it round their legs to teach them a lesson, teach them who was boss.
‘I’ll chop your bloody head off you booger’ he shouted again, and Rob knew that he had meant it. Charlie didn’t distinguish between cruelty to people and cruelty to animals, and throughout his childhood Rob had been witness to the beheadings of many roosters, had seen many sheep have their throats cut, watched as kittens were drowned in bags. When he was very young he had both cried and protested, but his father had knocked those weaknesses out of him. Now he just tried to avoid seeing what he couldn’t prevent.
So, as he had often done, he avoided looking to where his brothers Tom and Len were being shown how to kill the ram. Tom was hanging back as much as he could without the old man noticing. Len was pressing forward, eagerly absorbing the lesson. He was already holding the sharpened knife, eagerly awaiting the instruction to go ahead. Rob had never liked him, had never played with him much when they were children, though Len was only a year younger, had always seen him as his father’s son, not as his own brother.
He had almost reached the shelter of the shed when his father saw him. ‘’Robert’ he bellowed, putting emphasis on the first syllable, then ‘Robert’, putting it on to the second syllable, almost as if I am two different people thought Rob. He reluctantly put the hoe into the shed and walked towards the group.
‘Give Robert the knife lad’ he said ‘he’s the eldest, time he did a man’s job around here’.
‘Aw, Dad’ said Len ‘you said I could do it this time’.
‘Naw, give it over, lad’, said Charlie, though not in an aggressive way, he was fond of Len, the only one of his sons he was proud of. ‘Chip off the old block that’un Charlie’ they said to him at the pub and they were right.
‘What do you want to kill him for?’ said Rob, softly. ‘he’s always been a good ram and he’s done no harm’.
‘’He’s too old’ growled Charlie, determined as always to dominate with words as well as fists. ‘Old rams are good for nothing except to have their throats cut and be minced for the dogs. And besides, this one challenged me, you can’t let an animal get away with that. Got to show them who’s boss. Isn’t that right lads?’ He appealed to Len and Tom without turning to look at them, while staring unblinkingly into Rob’s eyes, watching for his reaction, demanding that he look down and submit to his father’s will, just as the ram was about to do.
‘Oh, bugger this for a life’ said Rob, dropping the knife Len had passed to him, and heading towards the house.
‘Don’t you walk away from me’ shouted his father ‘you come back here and do as I tell you.’
Rob ignored him and kept walking. Inside the house in the room he shared with Len and Tom he packed his belongings into an old bag that he normally carried tools in. Not much to show for twenty years he thought as he put in a clean shirt, his best trousers, a couple of books, a few other odd and ends. He slung the bag over his shoulder and headed back out into the yard. There he saw the ram twitching and jerking on the ground, a big pool of blood spreading across the paving. Len had sprays of blood on face and shirt and trousers, and his boots seemed soaked in blood. Tom looked sick, his father looked angry, that deep blood red flush that came into his face when he was about to speak or act violently.
‘Come here Robert’ he shouted, in the tone of voice that he used to make his dogs crawl to him, tail between legs. Rob kept walking towards the gate. He was shaking but at the same time relieved. A decision made, or made for him, a journey begun. No turning back and that was a relief, whatever was to come outside the gate had to be better than what had been happening inside.
‘Walk through that gate and you don’t bother coming back’ said his father, also sounding calmer now, almost humorous. He had been defied by his son but he was about to win, his son about to lose everything. He would have been disappointed, now it had come to this, if Robert had given in, had bowed to his will. This was a more complete victory. This was the kind of occasion that would become part of his story, his identity, ‘he even threw his son out’ they would say ‘he takes no cheek from anyone does Charlie.’
The silence extended, Rob only aware of the sound of the ram’s hooves still beating futilely on the ground as his body tried to escape the battle that its head had already lost. Then he started walking again and went through the gate and into a new life.
Louis knocked softly at the door. He could just hear the distant sound of voices and laughter, see the lights, see smoke coming from the chimney. Here was a whole little world that he was about to enter, about to join, and he needed to do so, wanted to do so, softly.
He raised his hand to knock again, perhaps he needed to announce his arrival more firmly. Then he heard footsteps and the door opened, light shining on his face and into his eyes as he tried to adjust from the darkness.
‘Ah, you must be Carter, come in lad, come in’.
He stepped into the hall, still unable to clearly see the man, but just sensing a large shape holding the door open.
‘Mr Bray?’ he said, holding out his hand.
‘That’s me, ah, Mr Carter’ said the man, apparently adjusting his ideas about the age of his visitor from ‘lad’, ‘Charles Bray. Pleased to meet you. Come in, come in. You won’t mind the kitchen will you, it’s warm in there.’ It wasn’t a question.
He closed the door, and there was an awkward moment as the men, both used to being masters of their domains, said, simultaneously, ‘After you, after you’ and each stood back against the wall to let the other pass. Some shuffling of feet as Louis quickly decided that he was, after all, the intruder, and went ahead.
There was the whole family, with Kate, face flushed, at the far end of the kitchen table. The others were sitting at the table, playing a card game of some kind. There were many of them, and the narrowness of the kitchen meant that the youngsters sitting on chairs on the wall side had the backs of their chairs pressed against the wall, their chests pressed against the table edge.
Kate’s mother was struggling to get up, avoiding pushing her chair too close to the fire, and trying to just turn it enough to get out sideways, which her bulk made difficult. Kate’s sisters were giggling and whispering, their mouths hidden behind fans of cards pressed against noses, pretending that no one could hear them.
The introductions, ‘Lewis, this is my Mam, Mam, this is my friend Lewis, Lewis, Nora, Nora, Lewis’, seemed to take an age. Then he was given a seat at the end of the table opposite Mr Bray who sitting at what had clearly always been his place at the head of the table. Kate was next to Louis, but he carefully avoided looking at her or touching her. He put his hands carefully on the table, as if perhaps he had been told by a policeman to keep his hands where they could be seen. At first he had them tensed, fingers splayed slightly, but he sensed that made him look as if he was poised to push to his feet and flee, so he relaxed them. They rested on a bright white tablecloth, a little worn in places. He could feel with his fingers that the table underneath was not quite smooth, a fact hidden by the stretched cloth, a ridge running lengthwise suggesting a flaw in the wood, or boards that had been warped under pressure.
The cards were put away over the protests of Kate’s brothers, who protested more when they were sent to bed. Before they had been extricated from their chairs, cups of tea and a plate of biscuits were on the table, and both grabbed a biscuit on their way out, in spite of the chorus of disapproval, and a mock attempt to hit them with a tea towel.
Somehow they got through the next hour. They talked haltingly about the weather, and the old Queen, and the house, and his gardening work, comparing notes with Charles Bray. Kate’s sisters continued to giggle occasionally at the dullness of his conversation. Then, at one point when he had spoken of his love of music, Kate’s mother said ‘You should take your young man to that concert next week Kate’. Ethel giggled again and said, deliberately audibly to Nora, ‘Old man more like’. Kate, instantly angry, said ‘You’re just jealous cos you don’t have a man of your own Ethel Bray’. Charles Bray said, with the air of a man who has said the same words many times ‘That’s enough girls, Ethel, that was very rude, go to your room. And you too Nora’. Ethel rattled her cup in its saucer as she jumped up, the tablecloth caught by her knee, and almost ran from the room, her neck blood red, as Louis could see from behind. Nora complained briefly, then went, with the look of someone who was being, though completely innocent, consciously obliging.
‘Mr Carter, I’ll wager you are ready for a pipe, I know I am. Come into the front room, Mam won’t let me smoke in the kitchen’. Louis snatched a glance at Kate, whose fingers were pulling the tablecloth into stiff folds, and then followed her father out of the room, which no longer seemed a haven.
At first it was a hum, a sound that was almost not there, then brought on a soft breeze, then gone again. But it became louder, more concrete, resolving itself into almost distinct sounds, like a landscape seen through clearing fog. It became louder still, both a humming sound like bees, but also some staccato sound that he couldn’t place, perhaps like a Gatling gun heard in the far distance. The noise increased, more and more the sound of a Gatling gun, or what did they call it now? Maxim gun, that was it. Sounded like a factory making death. More and more the sound brought back to him the echoes and images of a now distant war. He could feel his hand clenching on the handle of the hoe, and tried to relax the fingers.
A dog barked with that almost hysterical sound they make when something is wrong with their world, something twisted, not right in its sounds and shapes. Then the sound resolved itself into its individual noises, tyres humming, wheels stuttering over corrugations, cogs turning, coats flapping, girls laughing, boys calling, as the cycle club swept around the corner of the wall which had kept it from view.
He had been leaning on the handle of the hoe while he absorbed all this, glad of the break in the routine. It was a long time since he had started work at almost first light, and it would be a long time before he had his midday meal. There had to be a good reason for stopping, otherwise you would be seen as a slacker. It was duty to keep working. It wasn’t done to sit or lie down, except at meal breaks. He had often longed to lie down against the hedge, and absorb the sounds and smells and sights that came when you were working alone in a garden. But a passerby seeing you laying down mid-morning would think you had had a seizure or had died.
So with a barely audible groan he straightened himself, loosening his grip on the hoe and ready to start to swing it methodically again. As he did so there was the sound of a gunshot from the hill about a mile away. His lips tightened, something dying, probably in the cool green shade. Something that had sought shelter in the wood, thinking that here was a sanctuary, only to die in a puff of feathers or fur.
He kept listening a moment longer, wondering if there would be a second shot to finish off the creature, but either the first one had been effective or the animal had escaped. He couldn’t see any movement among the trees, maybe a poacher was waiting, still and quiet, for another chance.
With a sigh he swung the hoe again for the first time, a little clumsily at first, then with the ease of long practice and effort. The long row of turned soil with the exposed roots of the weeds behind him had dried to a light grey brown, but the newly turned soil was a richer colour, a dark, almost red-brown shade. He kept his eyes focussed on the point where the blade of the hoe was aimed. Sometimes he had to hold back on the swing, and pull up short of the ground, when he spotted the end of a worm protruding from the part he had just cut. He would adjust his stroke to cut further forward so that there was no chance of cutting into the worm. But there were times when he saw that he had unknowingly cut a worm in half. He hated that. They said that it didn’t matter, the worms lived on, some said they even grew two new worms, one from each half, like dividing a clump of iris with a knife. But he didn’t know if he believed that. How would you know anyway? Come back and see two worms?
Anyway a beetle grub, or a slug wouldn’t survive, or a field mouse, or a nest of eggs. He had to be alert all the time. He was responsible. At times he felt he was responsible for the whole world. He had to rescue every animal, stop it hurting, stop it dying, but sometimes he just couldn’t keep up. Sometimes things would die and there was nothing he could do. Those bicycle riders for example, they were probably killing things as they rode. Sometimes he had killed things, unaware, a hoe chopping though a toad in a hole, an axe cutting through a beetle in a log, but he always grieved. Those riders wouldn’t grieve, would probably be unaware of what their wheels had squashed.
He worked on, slowly, with infinite care and taking infinite pains.
The three boys stood at one end of the field, each with one hand held out, palm down, fingers curled over, holding imaginary reins. Their other hands held long twigs, almost branches really, from the willow on the nearby creek. They grasped the twigs in the middle, and held them vertically. Each had a fixed, and they hoped fierce, expression, their eyes looking far away to where the field narrowed down, between two walls, almost to a point. Occasionally each would use one foot to scratch the ground in a way they fondly imagine a horse would do. They embodied in themselves, in their powerful imagination, both horse and rider, and saw nothing odd in this.
‘Charge’ screamed Louis, and they set off, not in their normal scrambling boy run, but in a kind of galloping hopping motion, down the field. ‘Half a league, half a league, half a league onward’ shouted Rob, and Louis completed it with ‘all in the Valley of Death rode the six hundred’. Tom said nothing, just concentrated on fierceness of expression, lips clenched, frown deepening, because he could never remember the words exactly, and always thought it was ‘into the valley of death’ they were riding.
They hadn’t galloped very far when Louis screamed ‘Kaboomm’ and Rob and Tom made a kind of strangled noise, deep in their throats, ‘Chrooogh, Chrooogh’, that they fancied might be like shells exploding. Louis fell forward and sideways, his knees hitting the ground first, and then rolled partly on his shoulder. The others followed, copying him almost exactly, but each then adopted a different pose on the ground, sneaking glances at each other to try to create differences in the tableau of fallen cavalrymen.
‘The brave Light Brigade is felled by the Russian cannon’, said Louis, organising the reality that existed in their imaginations, so that each would see the scene as he did ‘and now here comes brave Florence Nightingale and her chief nurse to tend to the fallen’. Emerging from a kind of kink in the wall came Annie and Emily, both with a piece of white cloth tied around their heads, as close as they could come to having a nurse’s uniform. They each carried some other pieces of sheet, begged from their mother, and they set about bandaging the wounded soldiers. Legs and arms each had a bandage, and there was just enough material left to put Tom’s arm into a sling, and to wrap a piece around Louis’ forehead and over one eye. Then they led the wounded soldiers carefully, with much groaning, over to the shelter of the wall where a jug of lemonade and some old cups were arranged on a board. The three boys stretched out on the ground, and the girls raised the head and shoulders, up on to an elbow, each in turn just enough to be able to take a sip of lemonade. Once the ritual, and the game was over though all three hurriedly sat up and drank properly from cups, which were quickly refilled. Hot work in the Crimea.
Rob stood up and looked back along the stones. The wall, otherwise running straight for a hundred yards, had a kind of a bay in which they had set up their field hospital, a kink which bulged out and then back again to where the wall continued on its original line behind him. There seemed to be no present day reason for the blemish, and nothing that Rob could remember that would explain it either. Perhaps there had once been a stone house here, he thought, and, although it and its family were long gone, had left its impact on the wall in the form of ghost of a corner. Or perhaps a tree had once grown here, or a patch of ground too wet to build on. Whatever the cause the wall preserved, in this strange kink, a kind of ancestral memory of a past landscape. Each successive farmer had left it in place when repairing the wall, perhaps because it had always been like this, perhaps for no better reason than that it was easier to keep repairing it as it was than to demolish the aberration and straighten the path of the wall.
He came up to the door and gave it his special knock, da da da dum, the first three knocks staccato on the glass panel, the fourth on the wood. He could hear a door open inside and see, through the frosted glass, a shape hurrying towards him. Then the door opened and he was grabbed around the waist.
But another figure now appeared in the doorway.
‘Leave him alone Nora, Mr Carter doesn’t want to wrestle with old ladies, do you Lewis?’
‘Nay Kate lass, she’s alright, it’s nice to get a warm welcome on a cold night. But come on Nora love, let me in, or we will all freeze, and run and tell your dad I’m here’.
As he said this he was looking at Kate over the top of Nora’s head, and he gave her a wink.
‘Very well, but you must sit next to me while we watch the card play’.
She turned and ran back down the passage, leaving Lewis to open his arms and embrace Kate, who didn’t waste time pretending reluctance.
‘Who is here love?’
‘Just Mam and Dad and the boys’
‘Not Princess Ethel? Or Queen Ethel should I say?’
‘No, she’s not home this weekend, she’s had to work both days’
‘Ee, there’s a shame, when I was hoping to see her.’
‘Shush Lewis, or the others will hear.’
There were footsteps in the hall now and a man came towards them, followed by Nora.
‘Good evening Mr Bray’
‘Good evening Mr Carter. Very good to see you. Come on in where it is warm. Our Mary and me are just having a round or two of cards with Charlie and Arthur.’
They moved to the kitchen where a plain wooden table was scattered with cards. Kate’s youngest brother John, and his mother were sitting at the table, and had been arguing over some point in the scoring, John’s brow lined with concentration as he tried to work out how he had made 16 and 7 add up to 21. Her other brothers were standing by the fire, their chairs pushed back.
‘Hullo Mr Carter’ said Mary Bray “How lovely to see you. Come here and help John add up. He has Charlie and Arthur in front of us and I am sure that’s not right. Here John, let Mr Carter have a look.’
But just as he was about to reach for the book, John exclaimed
‘Oh, yes, there it is, I did the same thing twice do you see. So Mam and Da are winning by 2, not losing by 2.’
‘I should think so’, said Charles Bray, ‘I didn’t spend all those years studying Cavendish with your mother to have these whipper snappers beat us’.
He sat down again at the head of the table.
‘What do you think Mr Carter, would you and Katie like to play with the Whist champions of Sheffield Road?’
‘No, not for me thank you Mr Bray. I don’t like games of chance where luck decides your partner and how many trumps you hold. I like to make my own choices and my own luck. Inevitably in Whist I finish up getting no trumps at all, and partners who can’t tell spades from hearts, or think that the ace remains the lowest card all through the game.’
‘Mr Carter is a Bridge player Da’ said Nora, ‘that’s the best card game isn’t it Mr Carter?’
‘Oh, you would say that Nora’ said Mary, ‘just because the Prince of Wales plays’.
‘No, mam’ said Arthur’ It’s a much better game, we keep telling you that don’t we Charlie’ he said appealing to his older brother.
Charlie, like Arthur, secretly admired Lewis Carter, imitated his clothing where it could be done without either being too expensive or too obvious, and certainly believed that if the Court and Lewis were playing Bridge then it was the game of the future.
‘Yes, much better, it relies on skill, not luck, and you don’t have to learn all these silly rules and signals from Mr Cavendish’.
‘Mr Jones’ said Charles Bray, in a tone acknowledging the ignorance of youth, ‘His real name was Henry Jones but he called himself Cavendish. Don’t know why, made him seem grander than plain Mr Jones I suppose.’
‘Well, I am sure it is a very good game’ said Lewis Carter ‘But the girls and I will just sit and watch while you finish thrashing these boys.’
They crawled across the ground side by side. Each had in one hand a tall garden stake, an end sharpened and blackened in a fire. They were spears and they had to be trailed flat along the ground, just as knees and elbows had to be pressed as close to the ground as possible. The aim was that a passerby should only have been able to sense their passage by the ripple of grass stems, but in fact the grass was short, and they were clearly visible as they crawled, had anyone been watching.
The ground was soft, growing softer as they approached the pond, and gave way a little as each knee, each elbow in turn took the weight. Louis could smell the softness of the ground, see the occasional beetle and ant, and could feel the grass stems tickling his nose, so dedicated was he to keeping his head down.
They reached the edge of the pool and raised their heads to look into it, delighted, though frightened, by a fluttering of ducks taking off, ducks unaware of their approach until the boys had lifted their heads over the small parapet of the pond edge.
‘How deep do you think it is Louis?” asked Rob, peering into the muddy water.
‘It must be very deep, bottomless in fact’ said Louis, sitting up and holding his spear properly now, aiming at the surface of the bottomless pool, ready to instantly strike if an alligator should emerge, or perhaps even a Loch Ness monster. But there was no sign of anything now that the ripples of the duck’s departure had settled, and the two Indians relaxed after their long crawl. They leaned back on their elbows, looking back the way they had come. There were clear tracks of their passage, and really, in the wild west, they should have been smoothing their tracks with a branch so that no one would be able to follow them. So much to remember.
Louis got out his pen knife and began shaving away a slight irregularity where he gripped the spear. The knife slipped on the hard wood, and sliced into the thumb of his other hand. ‘Ow, that hurt’ he said, sucking it, forgetting for a moment that an Indian brave didn’t feel pain. ‘If I knicked myself too we could do the blood brother ceremony’ said Rob, simultaneously excited and fearful at the idea. ‘All right’ said Louis, ‘quick before I stop bleeding’.
Rob got out his own knife and trying not to look, stuck the point in to the ball of his thumb. It hurt, but was barely enough to draw blood. He squeezed and squeezed, hoping to avoid having to stab again. ‘There you are’ he said, holding out the thumb with the glistening single red drop. Louis held out his own thumb, where there was still an ooze of blood, and they carefully put their thumbs against each other.
‘What do we say?’ said Rob, ‘there should be a ceremony’. ‘’We Indian braves, Rob of the Young tribe and Louis of the Carter tribe, born in the same year and the same county, and being like brothers ever since, now solemnly swear, by the mingling of our blood, and this secret oath, that from this day henceforward, we shall be blood brothers.’
‘Not again Louis, not another weekend away’. Polly had the tone of someone who rarely complains, and is nervous about complaining this time, but is hoping that the listener will remember that she rarely complains and therefore treat the complaint seriously. She is not a nagging wife. Not a nagging wife.
Louis didn’t reply, distracted by the close inspection he was making of the tablecloth.
‘If it was just the children, or just your mother, I could cope, but not when it is all three’ she said, risking pushing the matter further.
Now that his mother had been added to the complaint he was driven to reply. ‘I can’t help it, love, you know I can’t, we need the extra money, you know that’. He continued to stare down at the cloth as he spoke, not wanting to see her pleading eyes. ‘There just isn’t enough work around here to keep us going, I must go away and do these extra odd jobs.’
She didn’t respond, had made her plea, knew what the answer would be, knew there was no way of arguing, she had played the ace of hearts and been trumped by a low spade.
‘I’m sorry you are stuck with my mother, I know she isn’t easy’.
‘Oh, she’s not so bad I suppose’ she said, backing off a little, ‘but it is almost constant demand from her now except when she’s asleep, and what’s worse is that she can’t remember the demands. She’ll ask me for a glass of water and then five minutes later she’ll ask me for a glass of water again. I could give her 50 glasses lined up on her bedside table and she would ask me again for the fifty first time.’
‘Well, I know it’s hard, but it won’t be for much longer I suppose’ he said, being magnanimous and conciliatory, ‘she can’t live for ever.’
‘Don’t say that Louis, don’t say that, it’s your mother’.
‘Well, I don’t mean I want her to die, but she is nearly 80 and senile. Got to be realistic about the situation. And when she does die of course we will be much better off and I won’t have to work all these extra weekends’. He lightened his voice, almost into a chuckle, to show that while this might be theoretically true it wasn’t something he had considered seriously.
‘You mustn’t say that Louis, people might hear you and think you want to kill her for her money.’
‘Oh, everyone knows how I feel about her. She’s had a hard life and deserves looking after. I think losing Annie was the final straw that brought on the senility.’
‘Yes, I know, and I don’t begrudge taking care of her, I just need a bit more help from you. And besides, we never do anything together any more. Never have any fun like the old days.’
‘Alright, alright, I’ll try not to take anything new on for the following weekend and we will do something. Ask your sister to keep an eye on the old lady while we take the children out somewhere nice, what do you think?’
They had both won, she thought, while he thought he had won.
For once it was all five of them, with Annie coming along for the walk. They had decided to walk in to the town for an adventure. It was market day and there might be interesting visitors to town, unusual sweets for sale, just something different to break the never ending routine of farming life. At the last minute old Joseph Carter said he would come too, needed some new boots and could do with a walk to blow off some cobwebs.
Rob couldn’t imagine his own father choosing the company of children, but Louis’ father was different. Nor could he imagine listening with interest to what his own father had to say. Charlie couldn’t and didn’t read, and had no interests beyond his farm and the farms of his friends at the pub. Joseph read a lot, had many interests, and could talk about them to anyone who would listen. Rob liked to listen, and Joseph liked to talk to him, free of the squirming embarrassment his own children pretended to feel when he talked about the stars, or ancient Romans, or rocks, or animals, or politics, or foreign countries.
So today Rob suspected that Joseph had come along as much for the captive audience as for the walk, and he stayed close to the old man, currently pointing out an interesting bird which had landed not far ahead of them only to flutter off again quickly, before folding its wings, when it realised that humans were bearing down on it.
They walked up on to a bridge over the river, not very high, but high enough, in a flat landscape, to see back most of the way they had come from the village. It was a view back over fields, green fields dotted mainly with sheep and just the occasional milking cow looking out of place among its very distant woolly relatives. Though the fields were green they were not as green as usual, after a so far hot and dry summer, and seemed to be of unusual interest to Joseph, peering into the distance, his hand shading his eyes from the sun.
‘What can you see sir’ said Rob, hearing Louis groan but ignoring it. ‘Well, it’s very interesting’ said Joseph, ‘just as I thought’. He paused briefly, assessing the interest, but his delight in imparting knowledge he found of interest quickly trumped any concern about whether he was being boring to others. ‘I was reading just the other day that antiquarians like dry weather because it helps them find Roman or Anglo-Saxon or Norman or even Ancient Briton remains under the ground’.
‘How so sir?’ asked Rob, who thought that the idea sounded completely upside down, soft ground should help you find hidden treasure shouldn’t it?
‘Look over there lad’ said Joseph, pointing with his stick ‘can you see that there are some yellow lines in that field?’
Rob peered in the direction indicated, standing on tip toes and then pushing himself up even higher with his hands on the parapet. He could, he thought, just, see what Mr Carter meant, the green of the field wasn’t uniform as you might think, but there was some indication of a slightly yellower pattern, almost as you might see if you lay on a patterned carpet and looked sideways. Impossible to tell what the pattern was, but while Mr Carter was clearly excited by it, Rob wasn’t sure that the two were seeing the same thing.
‘What is it sir?’ he asked, noncommitally, hoping that the answer would give him a clue as to what he was supposed to be looking at, and he could then look again, pretending that he had been seeing it all the time.
‘It’s where a Roman villa used to be’ said Joseph ‘people often find Roman coins and pottery and bricks in that field, and they didn’t know why. Then someone noticed that there were areas where the pasture was thinner, and some patches where crops always grew more thickly. Some gentlemen came out from the town and poked around a bit and found that where the pasture was thin it was growing above old Roman walls, or roads, and places where it grew well used to be ditches or drains or such like in Roman times.’ He was warming to his subject, loved to teach when people loved to listen. Robert was listening now, enjoying one of those moments when someone tells you something that makes so much sense you wonder why you didn’t see it before, something which just makes perfect sense, forms a pattern, something that makes you want to hug yourself.
‘So if we could get high enough’ said Rob, ‘you could see a kind of plan of the villa, like the way builders mark out chalk lines on the ground before they start building’.
‘That’s right lad’ said Joseph, a teacher taking pleasure in a pupil’s response, ‘the gentlemen called them “crop marks”. Everything that is under the ground affects what grows on the ground. Sometimes you can see circles from ancient burials, or where the old fields used to be long ago. Some things under ground help things to grow well, some things make them grow poorly, and in poor seasons like this one the stress on the plants shows up more on the ones struggling to grow where there was once a road or a wall, and you can see the result as a yellowing or a stunting of the crop. In good seasons you can’t pick it because everything grows well.’
Louis and the girls were impatient to be gone, and were fidgeting, dawdling down the road a bit and ostentatiously waiting for the others. Reluctantly Rob lowered himself, and the two set off to catch up to the others.
She held her hands out in front of her, at shoulder level, palms vertical, fingers splayed upwards. She could feel the scarf around her eyes tickling her cheeks and nose and the back of her neck. Then she felt Louis grasp her at the waist from behind, one hand either side, and steer her forward.
‘It’s alright Kate love, I’ve got you, I won’t let you crash into anything.’
His hands were firm on her waist, and she immediately lowered her own, trusting him in the darkness, and took a step forward into the unknown. Finally she felt a table against her stomach. He took her right hand and lifted it up over the edge of the table, guiding it with his thumb and fingers downward until she felt an envelope.
‘Open it’ he said, and she lifted the flap and slid her fingers inside, feeling an edge of cardboard. She pulled it out of the envelope and then, unable to play the game any longer, quickly pulled down the scarf, leaving it hanging down in a loop around her neck, and looked at what she held in her hand. For a moment her eyes couldn’t focus clearly, then she read the printing.
‘Oh, Louis, you shouldn’t have’ she said, delighted that he had. They had seen the advertisements for the music hall on posters in the town, and she had marvelled at the number of new acts from London. But then she saw that the performance was on Saturday.
‘I thought it was a birthday present’ she said, ‘I thought you would take me out for my birthday’.
‘Can’t make it during the week’ he said, ‘not even for my girl’s birthday’.
The only way to say that was firmly. Couldn’t let a note of apology creep in or he was a dead man. ‘You know I have to work. Your dad knows what it’s like for us casual gardeners, you have to work all the hours god sends. It’s for us in the end you know. I’m saving up as fast as I can for us, putting a bit by each week.’
She said nothing, looking down at the tickets in her fingers. Nora and Ethel would be so jealous of her being taken to the music hall by her man. Pity it wasn’t on the day, but there would be an even bigger crowd on Saturday, even more people to show Louis off to, her arm through his.
She held up her hands again, in mock surrender, the outlaw to the sheriff, ‘It’s all right’ she said ‘I know. I know all about you and your work. I know you are saving for us. I’m just disappointed that’s all, it would be lovely sometimes to see you during the week.’
‘One day I’ll be with you every day’ he said, ‘One day. You’ll see.’
Rob walked along the path between the trees. He could have walked it with his eyes closed, or in the middle of the night. He slung the bag over his shoulder, feeling its weight between the shoulder blades briefly until he adjusted position.
He hadn’t really had a plan until he had walked through the gate and heard his father disowning him. Turning onto the path was an act of familiarity rather than purpose, doing something automatically gave him time to think.
Maybe I should run away to sea, he thought, two years before the mast. His bag could be his sea chest. Once he got to the road there must be wagons heading to the coast, there must be many ships and I can just ask if I can work my passage to America, or maybe Australia. I could tar down the stays swinging ‘aloft twixt heaven and earth’ he thought, a phrase he had always liked, could eat plum duff with molasses. But on the other hand he might have a captain who was a ‘down-east johnny-cake’ and he’d had enough of that type with his father.
It was all just fancy really, he knew, he had never even seen the sea, let alone sailed on a square-rigged barque. No escaping on a sailing ship for a farmer’s lad. Besides the days of sail were nearly over, everyone knew that, and being the crew on a coal eating steel ship wouldn’t be much more fun than being an iron pudler in a foundry or a coal miner or a biscuit oven worker in the potteries.
He hadn’t been anywhere really, just the few miles around the village, and occasionally into town on market day. But he didn’t mind that, not really, knowing everybody wasn’t a bad thing, knowing the future, knowing where you were going. Must be hard for those poor sods in the factories who might lose their job at any moment, dismissed on a whim.
He was half way along the path now. His father might send Tom, or Len, after him, but he doubted it. Stubborn old bugger he was. He wouldn’t let his son best him for all the tea in China. He looked around as he passed the big oak tree. It was all so familiar and comfortable. But it was a long time since they had played children’s games here and it seemed smaller than he remembered.
But then the whole wood seemed smaller really, considering that it had once been Sherwood Forest, been whatever they wanted it to be. As he looked sideways he could see the edge of the trees not very far away. To imagine it as a boundless forest you had to focus down on the centre, pretend there was nothing beyond, not see familiar fields, and cows, and houses, just over there.
And just at the end of the track there was the house he had, apparently, been aiming at all the time.
‘Hello there lad’ said Joseph ‘what’s wrong?’ Then he realised, seeing the bag, still slung over Rob’s shoulder, that there was probably more wrong than could be covered in a sentence. ‘Come in, he said, ‘come in, the girls and Louis will be delighted to see you’. He stood against the passage wall, holding the door right back with his left hand while with his right he made a sweeping gesture to usher Rob in.
The sound of a piano, and then singing, could be heard from the front room. Emily was playing while Annie and Louis sang, arms across each other’s shoulders. Their mother sat sewing in the corner, nodding her head to the rhythm of the song but not knowing the words to join in, except when the chorus came.
The music stopped as Emily looked around to see why two people were coming in. ‘It’s Robbie’ she said, delighted by the surprise, ‘Hullo, why aren’t you working?’
‘I’ve chucked it’ he said, swinging the bag down to the floor between his legs, as if to play out the words in emphasis, ‘or rather it’s chucked me’.
‘It’s your father, isn’t it’ said Annie, and started to say more when her father shook his head and frowned at her.
‘Have you left home then?’ said Louis, apparently delighted by the drama that seemed to be building nicely, ‘You must stay here, mustn’t he dad, mam?’
‘Now now Louis’ said his mother ‘let the boy speak for himself’, but inevitably her voice was soft, belying the sternness of the words themselves.
‘Well let’s have some tea first shall we mam?’ said Joseph, ‘come into the kitchen lad, and get warm, and we’ll decide what’s best to do’.
And so there they were sitting around the table in the kitchen. It was as if someone had said, hey, you don’t really belong in that family, that was all just a mistake, this is your real family here. His bag was already on the bed in Fred’s old room. He had told them what had happened, and that he couldn’t go back, had to make a new life somehow.
‘Well’, said Joseph, ‘I have an idea, don’t know how you will feel about it. Louis is just about to start as an apprentice gardener with me up at the big house. I’m getting older and I need the help with the digging and lifting, but in any case Louis needs a trade. There’s plenty of work to do up there, and the old lady’s not a bad sort. She said I could get two lads, and I was going to ask around in the village. But it’s yours if you want it. Won’t pay much, but the work’s good and I can teach you everything I know and get you set up to go out on your own later if you like it. What do you say?’
‘I say yes’ said Robert ‘I say yes please!’
‘Hooray, we’ll be green thumb brothers’ said Louis. ‘We can all go to work together in the morning’, said Emily, ‘it’ll be just like the old days’.
‘Look at that fellow over there’ said Joe, gesturing with what he thought was a subtle movement of his head, ‘wonder what he’s writing’.
Rob looked, and could see a young fellow in the corner writing in a notebook, occasionally pausing, looking around, checking back on something on the previous page, then writing again.
‘Perhaps he’s a copper’ said Joe.
‘Or Sherlock Holmes’ said Rob.
‘No, I think he’s a young novelist’ said Louis, ‘still unpublished. He’s come here to add a pub scene, and now he’s writing about the four ruffians he can see in this corner.’
‘So we might be characters in a book already’ said Rob.
‘Better still’, said Louis, taking out the notebook he used for writing orders for the nursery in, ‘I will start writing a novel, and that young writer will be a character in my novel.’
‘You’re a queer fellow and no mistake’ said Joe, left far behind in the world of imagination.
‘And even more’ said Louis ‘that young fellow is going to see me writing about him, and he will change his book, to have a fellow in a pub writing a book about a fellow in a pub writing a book.’
‘What would we write about?’ asked Rob ‘not much interest in a bunch of grubby gardeners’.
They heard a cart coming down the road behind them and stopped to let it go past, pushing themselves up against the wall. As it came abreast of them it could be seen to be a load of lambs headed for the market. Rob hated seeing that, if he had been alone he would, after the cart was past, have shaken his fist and silently cursed the driver. He pictured the lambs waking up as usual that morning, lying in the grass cozy against their mother’s side, a day like every other day, peaceful and safe. Then they would be suddenly rounded up by a shouting red faced man with his dogs, frightened, trying to escape in all directions but gradually driven into a yard and then on to the cart, calling for their mothers who were calling, frantically, for them. But even when they reached the market they would have thought that it was an outing, an interesting excursion, until the knives came out and the first throat was cut and the blood with its terrifying smell began to flow and the nightmare continued until the last desperate lamb, slipping on the bloody pavement, was cornered and killed.
‘Lamb chops for tea?’ said Louis.
It was as if they were in a play, and his mother had created, accepted, the role of poor elderly, sick, bed-ridden woman. She was like a great actress who becomes the part, puts it on with the costume, is the character. It was her last starring role, he thought, after that of grandmother, mature mother, young mother, single girl, baby girl, adopted at each stage in the past. He had only seen the last two, and it was hard now to imagine any of the others, so completely had she taken on the latest role.
Neither had spoken for some time in the dim room. But Louis suddenly became aware of something that he realised must have been happening for some time. His mother’s eyes would flick away from his face so that she was staring over his shoulder, then back, then away again. Perhaps every minute, almost as regular as clockwork. What was she doing he wondered, but he knew that if he moved suddenly he would frighten her and break the spell.
Keeping his head still and his eyes looking into hers he slowly twisted his body sideways in the big soft chair, holding one hand stiffly on the arm to make a kind of lever. When he was almost lying on his side, stretched full length he quickly turned his head to look in the direction that his mother was now, once again, staring towards. As he did so he suddenly realised what it was – the clock of course. His ears became aware of the ticking, loud in reality but so much a part of the background, like his own heartbeat, that he had been as unaware of it as he had been of his mother’s regular movements.
She was checking the time, every minute or so, the hands moving quickly as if in a peepshow, each time her eyes seeing them in a slightly different position. Louis edged himself back up again and took out his own watch, a habit whenever he saw anyone checking a clock. He pulled the chain and with one practiced movement swung the watch into his palm and looked down at it. He prided himself on being able to pull his watch out with a smooth and fluid movement. The sort of movement that would come from frequent use of a watch by a man to whom time was important – a businessman, say, or a doctor, or a man about town with many social engagements.
Watching his mother lying there, her life reduced to the regular checking of the time and the regular arrival of small meals, he wondered if she remembered, at all, the last time she had done all the things of normal life. Picked a flower, travelled on a train, gone into a shop, had sex, seen a sunset, put shoes on her feet. And if she had realised, on each last occasion, that an event, otherwise unremarkable, would be important by being the last of its kind.
Suddenly, so suddenly that it came as a shock, she started speaking. He leaned forward in the chair, trying to catch the words, but she was speaking so fast, and so quietly, that he couldn’t understand any individual words. A torrent of sounds flowed from her mouth, if anything going even faster. It was as if the ticking of the clock had reminded her of how little time she had left and she had suddenly started to speak, desperately hurrying to communicate, perhaps for the last time, with her son. Then he began to recognise, here, and there, a word, and as they accumulated he could see the shape of her thoughts.
It was all old stuff, the stuff of her conversation for as long as he could remember, how she had met his dad, how they had lost their money, how Emily had died, what a lovely baby he had been, how she had cried when he had married. It poured out of her, and the fact that it had all been said a thousand times seemed not to matter, she was determined to say it one more time, as if here was one last chance for him to memorise it all. Then she just as suddenly fell silent, perhaps a new thought had arrived that it was all too late, that all had been said that needed to be said in her life and now was the time for silence.
Rob was, for once, alone in the house. He wandered from room to room enjoying the rare silence. Usually there were too many sounds, raised voices, arguments, games, instructions, questions, plates clattering, dogs barking, the fire being poked, a kettle boiling anxiously. You couldn’t hear yourself think as the sounds swirled around you and dragged you on in the never-ending demands of family life and farm life.
He went into his parent’s bedroom. A different world that he rarely saw, and which they maintained as their own place away from the rest of the family. It wasn’t possible to come in here when they were at home. Not much to see really, the worn furniture that came from raising a big family and running a farm. Some that came from his grandfather, so doubly worn for the same reasons.
There was a full length mirror, the only one in the house, in here, in the corner, and he stood in front of it, intrigued to see his whole body instead of just his face reflected. When he was younger he had imagined that there could indeed be a world through the looking glass, and he smiled with pleasure, remembering. He stepped forward to the glass and extended both hands forward, his arms straight, his palms flat and fingers pointing upwards, until the palms rested on the surface of the glass. It was as if the boy, no, the man, in the glass, had leaned forward to meet him and was now trying to touch his hands. He leaned forward even further and rested his forehead on the glass, so that he and his image met right on the surface. He could see a little back into the room if he shifted his eyes from side to side, and directly in front of him was the mirror Rob, ‘Bor’, trying to reach into him and blend with him, while he, Rob, tried to enter the other world.
Then he stepped back, breaking the contact and the spell. There was no mirror world, he knew, it was just a childish dream from a book. And as he moved away from the mirror he heard voices outside in the yard. He quickly left the bedroom, back into the real world.
‘What are you doing in there Rob?’ asked his sister ‘You’d catch it if the old man saw you’.
‘Not doing anything’ he said, ‘just looking.’
Louis sat on the grass, stretched his legs out, and patted his thigh, beckoning Kate. She sat next to him, a little distant, her back towards him, and began to lean backwards. Then she suddenly remembered something and leaned forwards again. She stretched both hands up to her head and removed her hat pins, then took the straw hat off and put it on the ground
‘C’mon Kate, we haven’t got all year you know’ said Louis, pretending to whine.
She lay back again, he back slowly unbending until she could feel his thigh with the back of her head and then she relaxed completely, safe with her head in his lap, and his face looking down at her.
‘Happy now?’ she asked.
He didn’t answer but began gently stroking her head, concentrating totally as his fingers moved over her hair.
‘You going to do my bumps then?’
He looked startled for a moment as if awakening from a dream, then smiled, and then settled his face into a serious German professor scowl.
‘Ah, vot haf we here then’ he asked, pretending to find a large bump behind her ear, ‘Mmm, zis patient has much amativeness, her boyfriend must be a lucky fellow no?’ She giggled as he continued to examine above her ear ‘And here, much secretiveness is evident. And here, mmm, adhesiveness, always strong in women. The patient must be careful not to attach herself to worthless individuals’.
She laughed, but not quite so loudly. She didn’t believe any of this, just like she didn’t believe in the stars, lucky or unlucky, but you could never be absolutely certain there was nothing in it. Louis didn’t sense her change of mood and continued. ‘Oh, zere are so many bumps, what organs she has in her brain, look, here is discernment of character, there is great talkativeness, up here a roving disposition, there hope, here firmness, and, what is zis -”indifference to public opinion” very large’.
‘Oh you beast’ she laughed, and rolled away from him, ‘I don’t know why I put up with you’.
‘That would be your “Love of the perfect and beautiful”’ he said, quickly holding up his hands for the expected swipe which quickly came. He managed to take hold of her hand and pull her back on to him and, laughing, they rolled together a little way down the slope, eventually parting and lying back flat on the ground together, side by side, looking up at the sky,
Watching her, and listening to her, slowly dying, not in minutes or hours but in days and weeks, he realised that the old saying about your life flashing in front of your eyes was only true if you died quickly. If you died slowly your life kept coming back to you, but it was being replayed almost at the speed it had happened originally. It was like watching a very long piano roll slowly unwinding from one roller and winding on to another, sometimes sticking, sometimes rewinding briefly, and then onwards. The pattern of holes in the paper recreating not music but old hurts, old pleasures, old grievances, old loves, old hates, old disappointments, old happiness, old hurts, and with increasing frequency, old, and then not so old, deaths, as if she was putting together her team for the afterlife.
She seemed to be turning in on herself, her mind spiralling inwards as one memory led to another, one idea led to another, one bitterness triggered more bitterness. Lost opportunities were magnified, old regrets were felt again. Louis had once seen a potato that had been left by mistake in a bag that was tightly tied. It had sent up a shoot that had nowhere to go, hitting the top of the bag and then being turned and turned by the sides of the bag before returning back almost to the starting point, then went again at a slightly different angle until again it returned at another different point. By the time Louis had once again opened the bag he found a tightly woven ball of withered shoots, the original potato in the middle having been exhausted of all its contents, reduced to just a husk.
So his mother’s brain seemed to be shrinking, wrapped ever more tightly in a mesh of shrivelling thoughts. They were not new thoughts, but those that had been repeated endlessly during her life. Now they were no longer ideas with a purpose, but thoughts strangling their point of origin.
As each day went by his mother had less and less interest in the world beyond her bed, less and less interest in what was happening away from the bed. Louis would try to tell her what the children were doing, or what his latest job involved, but she would stare at him blankly, her expression so lacking interest that his words were absorbed by it and he would falter and then stop talking. Then she would speak about something from long ago.
As the days and weeks went by he was less and less willing to express himself to the vacuum in her eyes, he couldn’t breathe in that emptiness, it was killing him too. So he would stay away for some days until guilt drove him back into a room where there was less and less sense of human presence, of human mind.
Louis sat in the darkened room watching his mother sleeping, waiting for her to wake up once more. Her face was totally still, but he knew that in her head there were images and sounds fermenting and mixing. Suddenly she awoke and the ferment became visible.
‘There’s a dog, a dog in my room, it’s going to bite me’, her eyes darting around, looking into each dark corner for a black dog.
‘There’s no dog Mam, it was just a dream.’
She looked at him, considering this for a moment, then took hold of the corner of the sheet and began feebly pushing it away from her shoulders.
‘I must get up, must get up, your Dad needs his supper, he was calling me, but I couldn’t get past the dog.’
‘Dad’s not here Mam, he died a long time ago, remember?’
This seemed to hit her like a physical blow and she relaxed her muscles again and half fell back. He wondered when the last thought would go through her brain, the last memory, the last image of happier times. And would she know it was the last one as it happened.
As he visited each day he wondered if this would be the last one. Slowly he watched as the spiral of her thoughts slowly withered away and she spoke less and less, moved rarely, slept often as the husk shrivelled and then, day, almost unnoticeably, died.
He stood at the end of the grave, looking at the headstone with its freshly written legend added below the weathered inscription at the top and the less weathered ones in the middle. Louis remembered the scene after Emily’s death. They had all stood here, weeping, his mother having to be held up by Fred and his Dad, Rob grim faced, unable to cry, but trying to comfort Annie. And now this. If someone had photographed this end of the grave at intervals of a few years it could have been played back in one of those peep shows to show people’s bodies disappearing one by one as their names appeared on the tombstone. The next scene was almost the same he thought, but with his Dad missing. Then Fred had gone, his name added at the same time as his Dad’s, the deaths had been so close. Annie was gone too of course, from those silent figures in his imaginary peep show, but she had been buried up north. And now his Mam was in the grave. So terrified in the last few years that she would die somewhere else, or where there had been some mistake ‘promise me I’ll be buried with your Dad and Emily and Fred’ she had begged, ‘promise me’, and now here she was, the ground freshly opened once again.
So only he and Rob left now, out of that close knit group united in grief in a churchyard. And as if his mind had been read he felt a hand on his arm. ‘Come on old man’ said Rob ‘let’s go and have a pint’.
‘Is that all there is’ said Louis, ‘having a pint, and then another, and then you die? And then you are forgotten?’
‘What’d you think’ asked Rob ‘immortality?’
‘Don’t know’ said Louis, ‘but a bit more than that.’ He pointed to a gravestone on which the lettering had so weathered that it was unreadable. ‘Or that’, pointing to another which had split diagonally from the top corner to the bottom and then fallen forward so that the side that had once recorded a life was lying face down in the grass like a dead soldier.
They walked on, quietly. Hard to think seriously of death when you could feel the grass springy under your shoes, feel the breeze on your cheek. Hard not to when the very ground was full of bones.
‘It’s a wave of death, a plague of death’ he said, in the tone of resignation of a man who has fought bravely against the universe but can fight, single-handedly, no longer. Louis took another swallow of beer, and stared into the glass as he put it down on the bar, and continued to stare into it, both hands wrapped firmly around the base, unwilling to look at Rob while sounding sorry for himself.
‘Like a field of wheat struck down by the harvester’ he said, ‘or a copse of trees brought down in a storm, or charging soldiers felled by a Maxim gun. It’s as if death itself is a disease that one member of my family after another is passing on to the next one.’
He was on tricky ground here and he knew it, but the enormity of being the only survivor now of his whole family kept him talking, worrying away at the subject, because it was unique for a fellow’s mother to die and he the only one of six left to bury her.
But Rob had also lost his wife, and his father in the last year, so he too was grieving, certainly for the wife if not for the father, that old bastard Charlie who had treated him so badly in life and had had a last laugh in death. So Louis softened his lament, extending it to include Rob. ‘Blood brothers still, eh, we have both had losses’.
Robert didn’t react, it was Louis’ turn to grieve. So he just said, again, these things needing to be repeated often in the face of death, “I was so sorry about your mother Louis, I liked her a lot when we were children, and she was good to me when I left home. I know she hasn’t had her wits in the last few years, but she was always a nice lady, everyone liked her. Have you put the funeral notice in the paper, I reckon a lot of people would like to pay their last respects?’
‘It goes in tomorrow’ said Louis ‘seemed so strange to put in a notice about her death, I thought she was going to live forever’.
‘It’ll mean big changes for you and Polly, won’t it’ said Robert ‘a big burden in the last year, nursing her all the time’.
‘Yes, strange, all my family gone and I feel like we are starting a new life’.
‘A new life in a new century’ said Rob, knowing that Louis had already made the comparison a number of times, ‘just like the old queen dying in a way.’
Louis was pleased to hear his friend pick up on the comparison which added big significance and meaning to the death of his mother. He did grieve for his mother, but at the same time, and he couldn’t admit this even to Rob, a bit relieved and excited. His life was unique and he was free to live it to the full now. No one else had suffered losses like his, but no one else was living a life like his either. The future was opening up ahead of him.
When he came back into the room his mother was freshly washed, her hair brushed, her nightdress changed, the nurse just picking up the dirty clothes.
‘There you are sir’ she said brightly ‘Doesn’t she look nice?’
He just nodded, not wanting to take part in that kind of charade, and sat down in the chair at the end of the bed once more. It was very warm in the room, and his mother was now wearing a short sleeved nightdress. On her arm just above her elbow he could see her bangle. He hadn’t seen it for some time, and he noted that it was now deeply pressed into the flesh.
It was silver, and had been given to her by his father when they were first married. In those days she was slim, all over, and the bangle had sat loosely on her wrist. He could just remember that she had once had the habit of playing with it, absent-mindedly, turning it around and around with her fingers.
But as she aged her forearms thickened and reddened, the visible signs of the effort of raising children and running a house. Odd, he thought, that housewives had forearms like coal miners. So as the bangle sat more and more tightly she had pushed it further and further up her arm to stop it digging in to the thickening flesh. Finally the only place it could sit comfortably was just above the elbow, in a valley between the two massive muscles of her upper arm and forearm.
And there it had stayed, but now he could see that even this part of her arm had thickened. Not muscle now but fat as she had become more and more restricted to her rocking chair and now her bed. No way to remove the bangle now, and wouldn’t be until she died and the flesh melted away leaving the still slender bones underneath.
As he turned into the main street the storm, threatening all day, finally broke. A sudden gust of wind made him, not expecting it and therefore slightly unbalanced in mid stride, stagger slightly. Then the wind became rain, blowing straight into his face and neck. He stopped, planting his feet deliberately a little apart, flat to the ground, giving himself a firm foundation as he hoisted the handles of his bag up his arm and then over his shoulder. Then he used one hand to pull together the lapels of his jacket, bunching them tightly under his chin, and the other to hold his cap down with the rim now extending flat down his forehead like one of those fancy cavalry regiment’s caps.
Then he set off again, eyes on the ground, occasionally looking up to get his bearings and adjust his course down the street. The rain stopped but he could feel the cold wind on his wet cheeks, and tried to push his chin deeper into his coat, feeling the rough wool fibres against his cheek. Then another shower of rain.
He felt something wrap around his legs, and almost stumbled, then stopped. It was newspaper, that seemed to have hit him flat on, the pages extending across both legs. He tried to kick it off one leg, then the other, but it was firmly wrapped around almost to his calves. He didn’t want to let go of cap or coat, so he stubbornly kicked again the surprisingly tough paper. Still no progress and he was starting to fee like a comic turn in the Music Hall.