A Moon on its Back
By Peter Maughan
Published: October 16, 2007
1. A WINTER’S MORNING
All night the vixen had screamed down the burning fields of frost, under a sky chiming with January stars, stalking the hills under a moon and the wild white hair of trees, the barking of a dog fox led on and on across the valley in search of her. Until their clamour died in the hot-throated distance, and the pulse of the morning star dimmed like a weakening signal over the land.
The moon was full and sitting above the tall pines now, above the road which falls down the valley side, its ringing light striking the blue frost-bright slate of the village, echoing down the headlong High Street, fading away into silences where the shadows had drifted, piled like soot.
In the village which lies in the palm of two borders, high on a valley side, arranged as if by a child's hand around post office, church and pub, only the light from the telephone box burned in the lampless High Street, shining with a busy toy redness outside the post office and general store.
From clear across the valley, a farm dog barked at nothing out in the no-man's-land between night and morning, and a tawny owl glided across the village, its flight as silence and as remote as a dream.
Fluttering for a hold on top of a telegraph pole, it folded its wings, its blunt head moving in sweeps as it searched for small scurries of movement from shadow to shadow below. And finding none, sang out, the long-drawn quavering notes sounding under the moon like a ghost story told to a child.
And from one of the terrace of farm cottages in the High Street, a baby howled damply at the world, and a light came on in the bedroom as the owl, lifting for its roost in the wood below, beat its way down through the village. Its swift, sharp call in flight a fingernail drawn across the frosted glass of dawn.
Other lights shone in the village now, in the post office and shop where the newspapers, hot from the London train, were being sorted for the bin outside. In the kitchen of George Perry, coal merchant, waiting for the weather forecast and hoping for the worst. In the bedroom of Miss Holsworth, village spinster, dressing to the frivolous notes of a horn concerto on Radio 3, and in the farmhouse at the top of the High Street, where breakfast steamed the windows and the lights went on in the milking shed.
Udders swinging, the hunched shadows of the cattle were herded from the stalls, the cobbles of the yard brittle with silver under the moon, the dung-heavy smell almost as warm as breath in the frosted air.
Bales of last season's hay in the Dutch barn were tossed down onto a trailer for the stock out on the fields, sweetening the air briefly with the scent of an impossibly remote summer, and the tractor headlights swept across the yards, petrifying a returning barn-hunting cat, and turning into the High Street, rode off the hill into the quenching dark of the valley.
Battered and cooling, the moon had settled now above the Norman tower of the church, the black and gold clock fingered with elegant shadows, a smell like damp burnt paper on the raw air as the first fires of the morning drifted over the village, and light above the hills spread slowly in the east like a stain.
From across the valley a cockcrow flared petulantly, like a sudden protest against the cold and grudging dawn, and rooks in the grounds of what was once, when the village was young, the squire's house, preened and bickered in the tops of the horse chestnuts. And dug in across the farmlands, the creatures of the day felt the tug of light, but in the weather that had sent the owl home hungry still did not stir. While in the wood below the village, pheasants, dropped, coughing, from their perches, and pigeons broke from the tops of the trees, and with a clatter of wings turned blindly towards the fields.
Like the slow unclenching of a fist, the dawn gave up more light. A hard, clay-heavy light, worked into the sky as if with a palette knife, and birds sang, stray, thin winter notes, as the last of the night broke up over the valley, and the light gathered into a new day.
2. COLD COMFORT
Hunched over his pint like a bowl of workhouse soup, his head half buried in his turned up overcoat collar, old Mr Combes wiped at his mouth with a hand.
''Crops stinking the whole bloody country out,'' he went on, chewing the words damp with venom, ''going to rot in the ground. And a war on.'' His head slithered further out of his collar. ''So don't talk to I about the coldest bloody winter this century!''
John Buttle shifted his huge bulk in the chair. ''That's as maybe, Mr Combes, and I'm sure that ''
''In '79 '' Jim Howel began.
Young Wilf who'd been to grammer school, and who was rumoured to have something to do with computers, coughed sharply, twice.
''I think you'll find,'' he said, frowning with facts, ''that 1963 was the coldest winter this century. Indeed, if I'm not mistaken, it was the worse winter on record in central and southern England since the year 1740.''
Mr Combes brittle yellow eyes slid in his Wilf's direction. ''Read that off the back of a matchbox, did you?'' he sneered, and worked his false teeth up and down a couple of times nastily.
A week before, snow had been forecast. Snow, it was said, was gathering in the north and would, by the weekend, come down on the West County like a fist.
Extra food and fuel were ordered, sheep herded lower down the valley, and the bird table in the postmistress's garden made up like the spare room. But the threatened snow had not arrived.
And that evening in the village pub, the Pike, the talk had scornfully left the present to dig up winters past, their iron ghosts clanking and blowing now around the small, log-warmed bar.
''In 1979, the winter to which I referred,'' Jim Howel went on fastidiously, ignoring Wilf, and addressing the bald brown shell of Mr Combe's head, which had retreated again into his collar, ''the district council was talking about using pneumatic drills to try and salvage some of the crops. Until it snowed, that is, then you couldn't even see the tops of the hedges, never mind the fields. It were that bad there was talk of rationing, and bringing the army in. Oh, yes!'' he insisted, as eyebrows went up round the bar.
Jim sat back, arms folded, and stared at the opposite wall, like a small boy obstinately sticking to a tall story.
''Six of one and half dozen of the other, I've no doubt,'' Mr Beesley said, and showed his teeth in a vague placatory smile.
''Oh-ah!'' George Perry said, and leered as if talking of women. George had a coalyard in the village and whistled at his shovel through all the windfalls of winter.
''Mind you, I don't know about digging up fields and the army coming in, and all of that,'' George went on, one eye on Jim Howel, ''but young Wilf here's right enough about '63. Me and dad had the snow chains on practically all that winter, that I do remember. 'Twere a shocker.''
''You must have had a bumpy bloody ride for most of it, then. We never saw ''
''And if it weren't the snow,'' George went on, as if Jim hadn't spoken, ''then it were the diesel freezing up you. With a full load on the back. In the middle of nowhere, and with night coming on.''
Wilf Perkin, idly pushing an empty peanut bag about in an ashtray, nodded in grim agreement.
''All that's as maybe,'' John Buttle said fussily, stepping over two of the pub's dogs sprawled in front of the fire, ''but what '82? What about that lot, then?'' he went on, whistling the words as he bent his weight to beat a bit more life out of the logs with the poker.
He straightened up, and blew a couple of times, his face the colour of bacon. ''That snow! I thought we'd never see the end of it.''
John sat down again, shuddering elaborately, and drawing from Mrs Beesley an equally elaborate grimace of sympathy.
Jim Howel looked angry. ''Some people have got a short memory. We were cut off here half the bloody winter in '79.''
''From mid-January till the end of February, intermittently,'' Wilf supplied, as if reading from his notes.
The handbag on her lap almost squashed under the impact, Mrs Beesley leaned her ample body forward, the floral print dress with the buttons up the front bulging under the sudden avalanche of breasts like a parcel coming undone.
''They landed here in a helicopter then, and took June Fitch off pregnant,'' she said, and sat back gratified.
''Who did?'' Mr Beesley said with a worried expression.
''Probably an Air/Sea rescue job from Portland,'' Wilf said, narrowing his eyes.
Jim Howel shifted impatiently in his seat.
Mrs Beesley nodded at Wilf. ''That year, it was. 1963. When we were cut off with the snow. A week overdue June were, and that girt husband of hers saying not to worry, she'll calve down when she's ready.'' Mrs Beesley moved the handbag on her lap in agitation.
Jim Howel opened his mouth to speak.
''And it were just after that that the poor old Pool sisters died,'' Mrs Beesley suddenly remembered.
''That's right. She's right,'' George Perry agreed. ''They had that place back of the Pococks. Snow up to the thatch, there were. Yes, I remember that, all right.''
''Poor lovers,'' Mrs Beesley said. ''They found Miss Alice on the toilet, so I heard, and Jessica at the breakfast table. Boiled eggs untouched and the tea made.''
''Like Pompeii,'' Wilf said.
''I thought they died in hospital,'' Mr Beesley said, but looking quite willing to be corrected.
Old Mr Combe's overcoat collar stirred. ''In 1940,'' he snarled, ''even the bloody rabbits starved. And ''
''In 1963,'' Wilf started up, as if someone had pressed a button, ''many wild creatures died, our native birds flew south in flocks from the cold, and even those northern migratory birds, such as the fieldfare and redwing, were forced on further south. And in that year ''
''There weren't many birds in ''
''The Thames at Hampton Court in London froze over,'' Wilf got in quickly.
''There weren't many birds in 1979,'' Jim Howel pressed on, ''flying south or anywhere else. And do you know why? Eh ..?''
Wilf frowned down at the empty peanut bag.
Jim folded his arms and waited.
''For because,'' Jim told him then, ''they were falling out of the sky. Their wings frozen. Solid as a Sunday boiler. That's why, boy!''
Stifling a smile he must have worn in the classroom while waiting for the question to get round to him, Wilf began, ''It's true that in certain coastal areas in the east, seagulls were found ''
Jim closed his eyes. ''Falling-out-of-the-bloody-sky-I'm-telling-you!''
''And milk bottles,'' Mrs Beesley said.
Everybody looked at her.
Her plump hands on her handbag disappeared as she leaned forward. ''I've just remembered. The year they took June Fitch off. We had milk bottles exploding on the doorsteps. With the cold. 'Tis a wonder there were nobody hurt.''
The door opened and Stan the landlord backed in clutching an armful of logs, and more drinks were ordered, and the talk grew taller. Images flickering in that small bar of strolling to South Wales and back on the frozen Channel, and foxes, driven by hunger, stalking the High Street like wolves, and bonfires burning on the skating rivers.
While outside the damp and windy darkness blew against the windows, and the dogs stretched in front of the fire twitched and dreamed contentedly.
3. A DAY IN FEBRUARY
On a telegraph wire above the scurrying High Street, a mistle thrush perched unsteadily in the rain and a wind that smelt of cabbages and mud, swinging and whistling with a sort of monotonous defiance, like a small boy who refuses to come down.
The rain was driven down through the village on stilts of wind, and off the brow of the hill to stride the valley, the rooks in the horse chestnuts below blown and glistening, their nests lodged like footballs in the bare swaying tops of the trees.
The wind tore the smoke from village chimneys and sent the postman in his orange waterproofs ballooning up the High Street, and the vicar, crossing the churchyard, into a sudden furious struggle with his umbrella, wrestling the black wilful cloth through the lychgate, casting it out before him. It bullied old Mr Snell, shoving him every couple of steps back up the hill he was struggling down to catch the town bus; it lifted the no-nonsense tweed skirt of Miss Holsworth, spinster, up and about with her dogs no matter what the weather, and rattled the corrugated iron gates of George Perry's coalyard, before running on to kick over the empty dustbins outside the schoolhouse and send them bowling down the playground like skittles.
And then, as if whistled back to the sea, it turned suddenly, taking the rain with it, seen on its way by Major Pocock, Master of Foxhounds and Chairman of the Bench, clattering sternly down the High Street on his hunter. And on a gable end a starling sang, a long thin dribble of sound blown on the last of the wind as the sun broke through, its sudden brilliance running across the roofs of the village, and sending the damp shadows of the pines along the valley road sparkling down the hillside.
More like spring than February now, we told each other, the High Street busy with women with pushchairs and retired men with dogs on their way to the post office and shop.
The church clock struck nine, the high clear notes sprinkled over the village like a benediction, and anoraked and mittened, children pressed around the doors of the schoolhouse as children have done since the commemorative stone was tapped into place by the reforming hand of the squire's wife, and the laborious, reluctant squeaking of chalk on slate could be heard on the still morning of a Victorian summer.
The sun glittered from a water colour of a blue sky, the air above the horse chestnuts loud again with rooks, their cries even more tangled and strident in the confused thievery and bickering of nesting time. Powder from the hazel catkins by the river blew in a breeze and the alder trees, that in summer shaded a bridge built by monks, were bruised with a purple flowering, the yellow points of the primrose a small bright find among the winter drabness.
And from the wood below the village, the first of the guns were heard as the shadows lengthened into the afternoon, a blackbird singing into them under a thumbprint of a moon. The outline of buildings cut into the twilight as lights began to dot the village, the wide arched windows of the schoolhouse framing on classroom walls the powder-paint pictures done with a large brush and a small hand, of matchstick people and puffing houses and dad with a cow, and the animals of Africa, looking big and fierce and cuddly enough for bedtime.
As the village and the hills beyond softened into a cameo of black against the lilac sky, the last, distant dry cough of a gun was heard from the wood.
All afternoon a percussion of death had beat at the air, as barrel after barrel was emptied into the flocks of woodpigeons wheeling above, each barrel seeking among the flocks the direct hit needed to bring one down. The gunfire hammering even louder at dusk, when the sun burnt itself out behind the trees, and the birds came blindly in to roost.
The guns were finally lowered, the burnt-rubber smell from the barrels smoking on the damp air, and bulging gamebags and the debris of food and drink were thrown into the back of Landrovers and the boots of cars. And they turned for home, bouncing along the rutted and horseshoe-punched ride, leaving behind the spilt feathers of birds and red cartridge cases shining among wet dead leaves.
The light of the evening star fluttered above the valley, fluttered and then held, and the rapid call of a woodpecker reached out across the wood. Followed as loud as dawn for that moment by an answering chorus from other birds, as the curtains in the village above them were drawn against the night, and the wind picked up from the sea again.
4. PASSAGE TO SPRING
Sweetened by a tower of Norman stone, the bells of Lent, carrying on their ancient sides the names of saints and merchants, squires and parsons, rhymes and prayers, rang out over the village, their peal of eight tumbling in an avalanche of iron down and across the valley, the land from hillside to hillside drowned and ringing.
The sap rose in the bud and creatures, cocooned and near death, stirred in their waxy sleep as the earth's pulse strengthened, and the first colours of spring cut into the land like small healing wounds. On banks the sweet violet grew, and periwinkle and ground ivy and the stars of blackthorn flowers in lanes slashed and spiked still with winter.
And in the wood in the palm of the valley, where the gabbling of woodpeckers chased through the bare treetops like squirrels, the primrose, the first rose, flowered, the promise again of summer in the winter soil.
Taking the road down and out of the village, one saw below, in the grounds of what was once the Big House, the constant movement of rooks above the horse chestnuts, fluttering and falling at dusk, breaking like clods of earth above the mating trees. And in the lanes that twist through the valley, a blackbird sang, the notes charged now with courtship, flung high above a fall of dawn rain.
Tender-heavy and dark against the pasture land, the ploughed fields waited for the harrow and the spring corn, and in meadows where later the cattle would lie and the lambs run by the side of the ewes, new grass glowed under a morning of pale sun, and rabbit scuts flashed in the hedgerows. And sweet eyes bright with lust, the hares met in twilight circles, and jack tumbled jill or was sent on his way by her, boxed and ringing across the maddening, doe-scented fields.
In the evening, at lambing time, the ewes drifted to their favourite places in the fields, and soon the air quivered with the clamour of birth, the ewes waiting their turn bleating and nosing at the first born of others, the lambs dropped wet and kicking into the sudden, unfocussed light of the world.
Those in need of a foster mother were wrapped in old coats and sweaters and housed in boxes, or in the bottom cool-ovens of farmhouse Rayburns and Ages. There, snug in the warmth and good-smelling darkness, they gazed out amiably when one opened the door, looking, with their glass-like eyes and thick curls of wool, pink-stained with birth, like presents hidden and waiting for little girls and Christmas morning.
There were more than the usual number in need of succour that season, their bawling running through the village for a while like hooligans, waiting for the milk taken from the ewes, warmed and fed to them in front rooms and kitchens.
The post mistress took two in, bringing them in with her when she opened up, paying out pensions and stamping postal orders with them sunk in a bed of old cardigans and torn forms in triplicate in a cardboard box next to the radiator. And Stan, the landlord of the Pike, a pub already overrun with dogs in the bars, chickens in the back yard and cats in the outhouses, set one up in an empty Cola box by the large stone fireplace. A soot-black lamb, frolicking when it had found its feet like a fire-blackened imp, sharing the perks of cider and crisps with the house dogs, and bedding down with a couple of them at night in a corner of the ash-warmed hearth.
Even Miss Holsworth, village spinster of austere, weathered visage and rigid views, responded. Gaining for herself an instant and thoughtful audience in the post office, when she saw the two lambs sucking blindly at their milk behind the counter, and exclaimed in a voice made loud with a lifetime's condemnation, and shrilled then with a high, unsteady eagerness, that she, too, had one in the oven.
We were pressed into foster service ourselves, by a friend with a goat herd. The nanny was a virgin, and the billy, a black noisome brute, as shaggy as a winter bison and nearly as big, his yellow eyes salted with lust, had gone at her without preliminaries. She'd high-stepped away from the encounter, wide-eyed and snorting, and five months later from the result of it two kids, Anglo-Nubians, with the long, pendulous ears of the breed sticking out like the functionally secured tresses of boisterous schoolgirls. Their eyes, with that look of having been born with a secret which continues to amuse, holding our faces steadily at feeding time, growing milk bright as the cholesterol ebbed in the bottle, the tips of their tongues under the teats like small wet slices of smoked salmon.
With the charm of all new-born animals, they tried their first feet, staggering and constantly threatening to topple, their long, smooth-jointed stilts of legs new and perplexing equipment to them as they gazed down from their unsteady height with an abstracted air, as if wondering where they'd put the instruction manual.
Meanwhile, the bleating of the lambs out on the fields grew lustier, short quivering bursts splitting the damp air as they followed, stiff-legged, the milk and warmth of their mothers, or romped on fine days under the trees, the bare black branches running like cracks against the sky.
While in the pines along the valley road, a song thrush perched higher and higher among the green, trying to catch and to hold the sun, the reaching, darting notes threading the twilight, singing into the lengthening dusk of the days.
5. FLIGHT OF THE SNOW CUCKOO
In the month that sees the arrival of the cuckoo and the first, salad-green leaves of the year, it snowed. And as we stepped out into the bright confident days of the month, brilliant days that called with the promise of summer, it hit us with the sudden cold shock of a snowball in the back of the neck.
It fell at the very end of the day and out of sky without warning. With the church clock striking midnight bell on bell like disaster, it goose-feathered down the night, falling steadily on the farmlands and the dark sleeping village below, the solitary light of the telephone box in the High Street burning among the swirling flakes like a Christmas lantern.
All winter it had failed to get a grip and now, on an early morning in spring, it sat on the village as fat as a bully.
The sun rose on a garden world speckled with bird tracks, and brushed with the prowling bellies of cats, gifted with sudden arctic vision. Footsteps followed the milkman from door to door down the high Street, and along the valley road, where the tall pines stung the chilled sunlit air, the morning deliveries for the shop and pub arrived like relief from a watching world, the brave red of the post van, pushing through the mail no matter what, shining in their wake, the sound of the horn on its approach as clear and triumphant as brass.
And the villagers, waking to find the enemy on the doorstep, put the kettle on again, and armed with woolies and shovels went out to meet it.
While in his premises at the bottom of the hill that tips the village into the valley, George Perry, coal merchant, now that his busy time of the year was over, slumbered on, blowing perhaps, above the coal heaps and black dust, dreams as clean and as swift as fishes.
And then the curtains of his bedroom twitched, and George’s startled features, topped with a begrimed and buckled cord cap, put on first thing, pressed against the panes. Only minutes later army surplus boots hammered on the stairs, and George, a man with the bowed strength of a figure in an old Guinness advertisement, half emptied his yard onto the back of the lorry, and with a rescuing rush of corrugated iron gates, chugged, exhaust coughing and blowing, up into the village, eyes peeled for survivors and a sudden demand for coal.
And outside the school, when hostilities broke out, the air wet and wailing, and loud with the barking of dogs, snatch squads of young mothers braved the cross-fire of snowballs to dive into the rioting ranks, dragging their charges behind them through the gates, and into the custody of school.
Only Miss Holsworth, indomitable spinster of this parish, green- Wellington booted and buttoned up in a shooting jacket like a stiff, awkward embrace, refused to make a fuss. Ash walking stick at the ready, should lust or impertinence rear, her two grey English setters shambling like seals behind her in the snow, she made her way to collect her copy of The Times from the shop, as she would through fire, flood or invasion, her voice, when invited to remark on the sudden weather, brief and briskly bright, as if dealing with the rude remark of a child, made for effect and therefore best ignored.
Inside the post office, melted snow puddlied the floor, and around a transistor radio on the counter tuned in for the weather forecast, a small group of villagers had collected, waiting, perhaps, for London Calling and the voice of Churchill and no surrender.
But we were not to be tested further. There was no more snow.
And with the last of it glittering along the hills like salt, days of strengthening sun flushed what was left from the land and sent it running through the roadside springs, the air clean-breathed and scented again with the frail brilliances of the earth, the church bells of Easter breaking now over the village like a summer shower.
6. BILL SIKES
The last morning of his life was one of sudden flawless beauty; a glittering, warmed jewel of a morning, given to him as if a gift.
He was a large, almost pure-white boxer dog, six stone of packed, fluent muscle, pulling ahead of the two boxer bitches on that morning in late April, glaring and smelling his way through the village. A dog of a dog, full of his prime, strutting it out centre of the road like an invitation, or a challenge.
We had had weeks of almost constant rain, and as we took the road down and out of the village on that grey dawn, mist clung damply to the air and the sodden fields, the wood, as we tramped through it, holding the weather like a marsh.
And then, in the lanes beyond the wood, with a gradual, almost imperceptible, flush of warmth and light to tell of its coming, the sun rose, rose burning in slow release above the hills of the valley, the misty fields smoking under it, the air as we walked shining like a thing newly and frailly grown.
With the gathering sun striking sparks from the damp world, and larksong rushing the new high blue of the sky, the dogs ran and pounced on the morning like a thrown ball.
Heads down, following its fresh scents bloodhound-like on the trot, rumps up in ditches and along banks, their scuts of tails an ecstatic blur, they quartered the lanes in a burst of energy as uncomplicated as a shout.
And Bill Sikes, wearing a black eye of dirt from a rabbit burrow, and ditch mud on his legs, like disreputable socks clean on that morning, careless under the sudden beneficence of the day, heedless of how or why. A Just William of a dog, with the sun and the highroad calling, trotting ahead with that sideways rolling gait of his to meet them.
He arrived at the age of six weeks in a shopping basket carried by my wife at a time when we were between dogs, and entered our world in a small explosion of savaged book covers, chewed furniture legs and missing, presumed buried, shoes.
We called him Bill Sikes because his Toby-jug villainous looks seemed to carry that name already, like an inscription stamped on his bottom.
But despite what it said on the outside, his was essentially a gentle disposition; a disposition that was quite prepared to allow humankind and the rest of the dog world their part of it if they would allow him his. Although he would never remember a previous engagement when it came to a fight, he would never start one. And the dogs who, on a couple of occasions, had been intent that he should involve himself in the sport, soon lost interest in the idea.
Sikes, with the agility of the breed and six stone of muscle behind him, lifted a shoulder under them, and with one clean movement flipped them onto their backs, and then held them there, growling down at them in a meditative sort of way, as if pondering which bit to chew on first.
But they both remained unchewed. When he considered he’d had his due of appeasement, he simply trotted away from them, confident and content in leaving a lesson wall taught.
With old people and other, small animals he was either indifferent or, if he decided to involve them in his world, mindful of his power and fanged strength. He once, presumable for the sheer hell of it, chased and caught a rabbit. Scooping it up on the run, he went the full circle of a three-acre field as triumphant as a greyhound that had finally got the hare.
And when he did decide to come to heel, swaggering back to us, he opened his jaws and the rabbit, a bit damp and chewed looking, and no doubt confused, dropped to the ground in one piece - found he had dropped to the ground in one piece, and took off, ears flattened, for the nearest hedge line.
With children Sikes was as patient as a seaside donkey, and with adults friendly but aloof under the admiring word or hand. It was for us, the people who fed and guided him, that he reserved the works. To wrestle him off a chair or, simply so we could get into it, the bed, was to unleash a rising, bloodcurdling of chorus of snarls and growls, spittle bubbling at his mouth like a lubricant for those terrible bared teeth.
But there was no harm in it.
Not in Bill Sikes, with his battered bowler and red-spotted kerchief tied at the throat, growling stage curses from that Dickensian underworld where all shadows are larger than life.
And it was I believe those shadows, thrown against a backdrop of memory, that was at the heart of most of the affection given to him in his life.
Bill Sikes was a dog who seemed to appeal to men more than women, and I believe that that appeal was rooted in a recognition which went back to childhood and to innocence.
Sikes belonged in that cupboard in the imagination of a man where the wooden swords, catapults and bent pin for fish hooks are stashed. He was tramp, pirate, outlaw and Dick of the Bloody Hand in the day-dreaming underworld of the small boy. A half-remembered figure that beckoned outside a classroom window when the sun shone and the lessons droned, to follow, carelessly and gloriously free, Sikes on a country road forever summer.
It was, we were told, his heart. That muscle that had given him so much boisterous life had suddenly failed him.
We returned from that walk with the sun still climbing, Sikes swaggering ahead of us through the gate as if bringing it home, a swag of bright coin over his shoulder.
When he faltered, faltered and then fell. He tried to rise again, his face a terrible and deeper shade of white, distress and bewilderment in his eyes.
And the knowledge, finally, that whatever had struck at him with such dreadful force was not to flipped over on its back this time. Was not something he could trot away from, confident and content in leaving behind a lesson well taught.
He died some minutes after we entered the vet’s.
Reviving in the car on the way there, he shouldered his way though the door of the surgery, Sikes again, centre of the road and ready for anything, out on his own with us as he was in the beginning. The hand that had struck him down and held him there for the first time in the five, game years of his life, forgotten.
In the reception he jumped up and put two paws on the counter. A dog sure of his welcome, and poised still in my memory, Bill Sikes breasting the bar of the Pickwick Arms.
Before falling back, as if pushed, and lying there, still, on his side.
Rushed onto the surgery table, surrounded by humans in a drama of attempted resuscitation, he exited as he had lived. In a circle of attention, centre of the road, upstaging us to the end.
7. PORTRAIT OF A PUB.
Within singing distance of each other, the Pike sits near the church at the heart of the village, its sagging roofs stained a cider-gold with weather and patched with lichen.
It dates from the mid-17th century, and was thatched until losing it to a fire in the 1950s, a beacon in the lampless dark of the valley for the fire engine from a nearby market town, its bell charging the imperilled air from six, still miles away. The men, all part-timers, piling out in a tangle of shouted orders, hoses and ladders, eyes sternly raking the upstairs windows for young women in negligees and distress.
As the men of the village stood alone with their thoughts, watching their pub burn, and the women made more tea, a group of small boys, among the first on the scene from the terrace of farm cottages in the High Street, waited with a proprietorial air for the walls, or at least the rafters, to collapse. But when they put it up they cut into the land for its stone, the walls, nearly three-feet deep, rammed with local cob and faced with solid chalk and flint, its timbers weathered oak and hammered there with iron. The walls, and the rafters, smoking damply on into first light, held.
It was built in 1661, a year after the late, deposed king's epitaph, Exit Tyrannus, was joyfully painted out in London, and the landlord hung out the sign of the Black Boy in honour of a young monarch restored from exile.
Sometime in the 1870s, after being bought by a maternal forbear of Stan's wife, Molly, who stands at the head of well over a hundred years of unbroken family tradition, it was left to the eldest daughter. She, in 1877, married a foreman woodman on the squire's estate, and in wifely deference renamed the pub the Woodman.
And then occurred a scandal which can still unsheathe female expressions of indignation in the family today. Barely, it seems, was the paint dry on the new sign, when the foreman, a dashing fellow with his best brown bowler worn at a fast angle and a curled moustache like a wink, ran off with the second cook from the Big House.
But if the spurned wife declined at all, she obviously did not do so for long. Within six months she had a new man, and the pub a new name the one it bears today.
A man who staggered with half-drowned pride into the village one Sunday morning embracing the corpse of a local legend, a pike. A whale of a pike, weighting 27lbs and nearly four-foot long, brought up roaring and snapping from the depths in a small tidal wave of fury and erupting lily pads. He sold off nearly all his belongings to pay for its preserving and mounting, and when he came to her he laid it proudly on top of his remaining odds and ends on a carrier's cart, and wheeled it through the village like a dowry.
Today, that fish still dominates the back bar. There, stuffed and suspended in its glass cage, chainsaw teeth exposed in a death snarl, one unconquered, fierce fishy eye staring off in the direction of the dart board, it lays in wait forever in a small silent riverscape of carefully arranged weeds and stones. But studying it, and the simple words etched on worn brass beneath, giving its fighting weight and date of capture, men still turn thoughtful, its ferocity and the drenched, turbulent deed of that day reaching them across the years like ripples.
Stone-cool in summer, and warmed and scented with log fires in winter, the pub has three bars, the main one, the original centre of the house, a dim, blue-flagged room, moist with the casky smell of centuries, with beer and cider in barrels behind the bar. Molly joins her husband there after six of an evening, dressing for it, a scented, luminous blonde with the power to take thirty years off a man. Under the heady influence of her eyes widening in admiring disbelief, stolid, middle-aged customers are reduced to breast-beating youths, turning accounts of prosaic tasks about the home or farm into dragons slain, and laying them with casual pride at her feet.
On weekends the pub lets its hair down. In the room laid out like a Welsh front parlour indicated to strangers as the lounge bar, and known to family and friends as the best room the knitwork antimacassars are removed from the piano top, under the black colonnaded Victorian wall clock which stopped in some long-forgotten year at twenty to four, and Stan addresses himself to the keys.
Golden Oldies and show tunes, rock and roll, and Walking Together Down An English Lane, and I'll Call You Sweetheart, and the Folks Next Door, the older women of the village sitting bright-eyed over their Saturday night mixes, handbags clutched on laps.
And then, as he does every Saturday, Mr Neville, a dispensing chemist with a shop in a nearby market town, who wears a clipped moustache and a regimental badge on his blazer like a reprimand to a backsliding world, listens frowningly to Stan's 'intro', and eyes boring into the opposite wall, launches himself sternly into a Harry Secombe number.
Finally, towards the close, Tom Hewitt is urged to sing. A working shepherd until well into his seventies, and nearly ninety now, with yellow-white hair sitting as light as smoke on his head, and a face burned still with weather. One hand gripping his pint like a hook, he sings in a sweet, wavering voice without accompaniment, tales of hard days and harvests, and dalliances with girls called Helen and Mary beneath summer elms, his eyes as he sings closed on a memory of a village England that was young still when he was.
The past is always here, a door constantly opening and closing on fragments of other lives, muffled and dimly told from other rooms. It tugs at the mind when footsteps sound in the quiet times above a low ceiling; it's there in the light spilling onto the cobbles of a yard that was made for horses; in flagstones damp with barrels; in the smell of logs burning on a winter's dusk, when the fowls in the back yard walk the stable loft ladder to roost; in sunlight slanting through a mullioned window and corners dim with stone.
And it's there in the people themselves. In a face split with glee as sudden and giving as a child's; in the random, unhurried talk in accents shaped by the land; in the clumsy, bursting celebrations; in the insularity, and fermenting, terrier-like squabbles and ancient animosities; in the local scandal breathed with relish, and gossip as old as Chaucer.
While around them, the land is ploughed and the corn sown and reaped again, and the seasons turn and break timelessly on the hills of their valley.
8. THE WEDDING
We stood in groups along the lane or leaned against the warmed mossed stone of the churchyard wall, the air drowsy and stroked with the scent of lilac, and told each other again that it couldn’t be a more perfect day for them. And so it couldn’t.
A gilded summer’s day, sparking with butterflies, bees sinking among the pollen in village garden and the fields of clover, and cuckoos calling across the mowing grass.
Children ran and chased among us in small riots, the men grinning among themselves, the younger ones rowdy with a playfulness that might have been relief, the women talking softly together, sharing their laughter like secrets.
Standing in the middle of the lane, a father shifted the weight of his daughter on his shoulders, and the horsewoman, who had paused on her morning trot through the village, turned, saddle creaking, to check that she was causing no obstruction, the great bay tossing his head impatiently, bridle jingling like coin in the sudden silence.
The two photographers, who’d been lounging under the young green of the lime trees, had moved quickly to the church doors.
And ahhh the women breathed, and dreamed with their eyes, putting aside for that moment what is, or was, or might be, and allowing only what should be.
Oyster-grey satin and a veil lifting in a June breeze, the church bells ringing out their full peal, spilling from the tower in a fall of silver, and clear across the valley as the young couple stepped out of the ancient dimness, into sunlight and a glittering shower of rice.
Starched, pressed and pinned with flowers, the men of the wedding party gathered one side of the church doors, the women the other, the bride’s train of maids lowering their eyes at the watching crowd, bringing down a few of the village lads, standing in a line on the churchyard wall, in giggles and sudden confusion.
And then the photographs, framed moments for family albums and the tops of mantelpieces and sideboards, and the gaze of future generations.
There she is, that’s Sharon.
‘ ‘But she was beautiful!’’
Took her hours to get that hat on right…
‘ ‘That’s great uncle Jason at the back there, isn’t it?’’
He made one of the speeches at the reception afterwards.
‘’Doesn’t he look young!’’
I can hear ‘ee now …
‘’Look at those clothes! How funny…’’
The first photographer looked up from the viewfinder of his camera. ‘Can we see a bit more of the ladies, please?’ he asked.
‘As much as they want to show, eh lads?’ the second photographer said, backing away artistically among the gravestone, among past generation of the same families, and winking at the males shoulder-shoulder in a scrum of grim awkwardness.
The bride’s mother, creaking with corsetry and authority, went among their ranks like a sheep dog, breaking up the men and herding in the women, thrusting them, with their frills and colours and the froth of hats, like flowers into the embarrassed hands of the males.
And then the bridge and groom. She, flushed and shining with her day, moving her veil from her face like hair, he, full of shouldering pride on moment, shyness the next, the bloom of a scrubbed hangover from last night’s stag party on his reddened, large-boned features, grinning at his mates, winking and pulling faces at them in the manner of a member of the audience dragged up to assist in one of the acts.
The oak gates of the churchyard had been tied together, a local custom of great age, dating back to the untying of knots by the groom on the gown of his bride. And this groom, stepping ahead of his bride, squared up to them, his beefy hands getting to grips with the rope as if it were some obscure test of manhood.
Blushing and serious browed, he ignored the laughter and comments:
‘’Just pretend you’m trying to get into the Pike, John, ‘afore last orders.’’
And to his bridge:
‘’You got ahead and wait at the hotel, m’dear. We’ll send ‘ee on when ‘ee’s finished.’’
Her groom untied the last knot, and in relief and embarrassment resorted to strength, scooping up his bride like plunder and carrying off in a last shower of rice to the waiting car.
The hired white Rolls, streaming with ribbons, the high gloss on it catching the sun like snow, did a triumphant tour of the village, and then passing the church again, pulled up at the Pike ten yards further on.
Stan the landlord, waiting at the door with his wife Molly, kissed the bride while Molly cooed in her ear, their two teenage daughters rushing from the bride to her maids and back again, gasping and squealing with delight at the sudden flood of satin and lace
The cake was cut and the best man, as if doomed, stood up to speak.
‘‘I’ve known John a tidy few years now, even since in fact we wur at school together, here in the village …’’
And John, sitting with his new wife at the head of the table, hung his head as if listening to a particularly convincing closing speech for the prosecution.
Sparkling frostily in a stream of sunlight from a nearby window, iced bottles of champagne bristled from improvised wooden flower tubs, among food piled like a jumble sale on tables borrowed from the village hall. Draped with impeccable linen, they shouldered loaves of cheese and meat pies, pickled onions, pates, quiches and salad bowls, baked pink ham, cold meats, plump cottage loaves, pickled walnuts and sausage rolls.
Champagne corks went off like fireworks, a new barrel of local cider was tapped, the flags in the bar puddle with it as the men helped themselves. And glasses of gin, whisky, rum, port-and-lemon, ale, lager, Guinness, white wine and cider-punch were lifted and clinked, and filled again.
Stan sat down at the piano, and the groom, between songs, scrambled up on a chair, fired into a speech even he didn’t seem to understand, and one of the bridesmaids was sick, politely, into an ashtray. Two of the men had to be restrained from taking their coats off to each other, and Mr Neville the dispensing chemist was reported to have been seen in the hedge in the back yard, locked in a damp and desperate embrace with Miss Prout, schoolmistress and occasional church organist. And throughout it all, wailing like a Greek chorus in the din, somebody’s maiden aunt wept steadily in a corner and refused to be consoled.
And then it was time for the bride and groom to leave for their honeymoon.
But the groom could not be found. The house and backyard, including the old stable loft where, on Sunday mornings, the odd Saturday night drunk had been found as warm as an egg in the hay kept there for the nesting boxes, was searched, but no bridegroom, sleeping or otherwise engaged, was to be found.
The bride’s mother, holding her best handbag like a weapon, confronted the groom’s mother. And the groom’s mother, with an air of having pulled a fast one, shrilly told the bride’s mother, the bride and anyone who cared to listen, that her son was now somebody else’s responsibility.
And dumping herself down in the nearest chair, handbag clutched firmly on lap, folded her mouth in obstinate disassociation.
And then one of the bride’s more distant relatives who, on arriving at the reception, had parked her husband down, allowed him a small, drowned whisky and herself a sherry, and refused the food – ‘’No, thank you, we hate before we came out’’ – and who had sat throughout with the look of someone taking a last and deeply hypocritical look at the deceased, had her say.
‘’Never had much sense, that family,’’ she sniffed loudly. ‘’Fancy running off after you’ve got married.’’
And the bride, as she was meant to, heard it.
Standing there without her groom, the tears that had been trembling on the brink finally fell, silencing the room in their abandonment.
Her bridesmaids, with squeals of concern and furious looks at the offending relative, rushed to her side and wrapping her in a comforting damp bandage of satin. And in the uproar which followed, the groom, standing diffidently in the open doorway, went unnoticed for a few moments.
Pale faced, with the crust of cowpats on his knees from the field behind the pub where he had purged himself of the day’s excesses, he coughed politely to draw attention to his presence, and smiled wanly into the room.
Holding his bride, who had fallen, sobbing even more violently on his shoulder, he looked with reddened eyes at the two men who had taken their coats off again, at the debris of food and drink, and at the aunt, still weeping steadily in the corner, and said quietly and to no one in particular,
‘’’Tis the champagne that does for I.’’
9. A TRIP TO THE SEASIDE
We rose early one morning in summer, a spruce and shiny morning, prinked and polished with dew. And leaving the still-sleeping village behind, breasted the hill in a burst of brass from the sun, and turned towards that glimpse of the sea which could be seen between a gap in the hills of the valley, calling on hot summer days like the music of a carnival heard only streets away.
On we strode, under showers of dawn birdsong, splashing through deep-banked lanes where the sun fell in pools, a blackbird, caught napping, stuttering alarm in flight as we passed beneath it, in stern and purposeful silence, on towards the sea.
Stopping only to point with military fingers at the Ordnance Survey map, or to take with an air of half-rations a sandwich or flask-top of tea, we left the farms behind where dogs had barked and the cocks crowed as if the sun were marching past. Through hamlets and villages, where we arrived with the milk and the post, and out the other side, the sea running head of us, peeking and then gone again, between the moving hills.
Until filling our lungs with the shell-pink smell of it, we paused on the top of the hill which runs down into the town like a playslide.
The tide out, the sea waited at the end of the beach.
''There it is,'' we told each other, and rolled the air round our mouths judiciously.
Below us, the sand and deserted sea front sprawled like toys put aside at bedtime. The jumbled roofs of the town steamed through the morning haze, seagulls gliding and calling above them, and in the bedrooms of hotels and guesthouses holidaymakers drifted with the sun and sea in their dreams, buckets and spades and buoyant rubber waiting for their sleepless children like Christmas morning.
We climbed down into the blue-and-white painted town, flying as crisp as a flag from the stern of the sea. Down along the swept pavements, the shop blinds rolled like coloured sticks of rock, the cast on the violently cheerful posters for The Summer Show For All The Family dying on the empty streets.
Along the front, the gulls whining and plucking at the air, a youth doused the pavement outside an amusement arcade and beat at it with a bass broom. And on the beach a solitary figure of an old women, wearing what appeared to be a dressing gown tied at the waist with a bow of blue string, held a cluster of carrier bags in one hand, and with the other prodded irritably at the sand with a walking stick as if to wake it up.
The smell of breakfast followed us as the sun climbed, the tinkle of the tea things from hotels and boarding houses running now along the front like a genteel breeze. And in a lull of dreaming, empty sea and sand, images flickered in the memory like a What the Butler Saw machine. Pictures once seen of a Victorian beach with enveloping costumes that never touched water, and unsinkable hats in case, perhaps, they should. Of home movies showing some girl with bobbed hair running, laughing, down to the sea, and then, without turning, running back again, forward and back again, to the wound-up tune of the Charleston in some suburban front parlour. And paper hats and Kiss Me Quick, and arm-in-arm along a postwar front when the lights went on again.
And then the sea shook itself, and turned towards the town. And we made our way down to the harbour to see what boats the tide would bring in.
We walked along the cobbled quayside, wrapped in blue sea breezes like silk, the sun racing towards us, skimming like a stone across the water. Here and there a few scattered figures waited, the old men among them, home for good from the sea, weathered almost to wood, burned and aged to a single, unsayable thought as they gazed steadily at the horizon, the tide moving beneath them.
The boats came in on the flood, the thrown ropes caught and anchored, men, scaly with fish, climbing the quayside ladders as mysterious to us as divers. And then suddenly, as if blown across there from the high street, women with shopping bags were everywhere. Drawn like seagulls to the fish laid out on the cobbles, falling on the catches as they were priced, prodding and peering, some of them, landladies perhaps, holding up mackerel by the tails with an expression of something left behind between the sheets.
The horizon of the sea rose glittering with the sun, and broke over the town in a shower of light. And like a weather-clock, the doors of hotels and guesthouses opened, and holidaymakers set off for the beach as if for work in a rush hour of towels, sun hats, beach toys, paperbacks and oil, their children hugging armfuls of inflated dinghies, seahorses and waterwings that couldn't wait, or were dressed already for the deep, small boys in goggles and snorkels, periscoping down the high street.
The blinds closed over the shops as the sun gathered and struck at the town, the streets snarling with traffic. Goods vehicles and family cars, and cars with surf boards on top nosing among them like sharks, bikers in leathers and racing cyclists with caps on back to front, caravaners and day-tripping charabances, the faces gaping behind the great bowls of glass like goldfish.
On the front, women with laughs like candyfloss and men with red braces jostled past men in orange pants and sea-going plimsolls, for gripping, after lunch, the pitching cobbles outside the Admiral Coddington or Lord Nelson, and chubby-naked infants with moustaches of ice-cream darted under trays of tea, crisps, hot-dogs, Coke, hamburgers and sandwiches, borne down onto the sands.
The crowded sea was churned white with activity, children climbing and jumping all over it like some large amiable pet. And the morning stirred and slid lazily into the afternoon in a heat haze of cooking flesh and sand, bodies turning and browned in oil, or plunging, as red as lobsters, into the boiling sea.
We took a last walk along the front, where seagulls loitered like touts outside the food kiosks and the air smelt of hot-dog onions and chips, the sound of Space Invaders from the arcades ricocheting around us. And on the strolling promenade families and young couples went by, while the old sat in deckchairs, or nodded there, old ladies in their summer dresses drowsing as if held in an embrace, stroked by memories and the sun.
And we paused again on the hill above the seaside town, and looked back at its silent, shrieking and splashing distance. The cliffs and crisp blue sky above it as remotely golden and impossible now as those that called from long-ago railway posters of childhood and endless summer.
10. WASSAILING AND THINGS
The day had been dizzy with heat, a midsummer's day brought bellowing to its knees in fields where the cattle lie prostrate and the lee of walls were littered with sheep. And now, sun-sapped and taunted by a cuckoo beating its way across the back of the pub, we stood in the murmuring dimness of the Pike, the cider running from the tap as clear and as green as shallows.
The vicar, a truant figure in pressed jeans and an open-necked shirt of the sort of blue check which sighs for boyhood, lowered his dutiful pint of Five Jacks.
''Where was I?'' he asked.
''Something about that book you wur reading, Vicar,'' George Perry supplied. ''Wassailing and things,''
''Of course. Thank you, George.'' The vicar's smile fell on George like a halo.
Pleased and embarrassed, George squared his shoulders, his chest, after an afternoon spent in a deckchair in his coalyard, rearing out of his shirt and khaki braces like an inflamed bull's.
Jim Down looked at him with interest. ''What's that then, George? Wassailing?''
''Search I,'' George said with a touch of astringency. Jim Down, a forester, had a growing sideline in fire logs.
''Is it dancing round the cider tree and that, Vicar?'' Wilf Perkin, who'd been to grammer school, asked brightly.
The vicar beamed down at him from his pale height of six-foot three.
''Something of that sort, Wilf, yes,'' he said, as if sharing a joke. ''But terribly interesting, I thought,'' he added, and raised his glass with an air of conclusion.
A conscientious man, the vicar had applied himself assiduously to the living since arriving a few months before, each tentative approach made to the community like an exploring hand around a female waist.
''An old custom,'' George Perry said, filling the conversational gap.
''Ancient,'' Wilf said, more specifically.
''Bound to be,'' Jim Down chipped in, and indicated to Stan the landlord that he wanted to buy a round. Stepping over one of the pub dogs simmering noisily on the cool stone of the floor, Stan bent to the cider barrel.
''Yes, it goes back apparently,'' the vicar said with the timing of a salesman, ''to the fifth-century.''
Wilf nodded slowly, as if to say that he would have put it about there himself.
''Like a lot of these ancient customs independent of the church,'' the vicar went on, ''it's a propitiatory practice, of course. Appeasing the spirits of the fields and trees, et cetera.''
The syllables of 'et cetera' came out like a schoolmasterly rap across the knuckles. Then he smiled down at them, equals in enlightenment. ''But harmless enough,'' he added, almost mouthing the words, as if not wishing to spoil the fun.
''It's roots '' He blinked with surprise at the fresh pint Stan had put in front of him, and with a flustered air finished the remains of his old one.
''It's roots of course go deep into history. Deep.'' The vicar paused and his eyebrows lifted. ''Rather good that. Roots, cider-tree…''
He laughed, a sudden high sound like a shout. And one hand gliding in like a large speckled fish, delicately parted both sides of his shirt collar from his neck, and frowned up at the ceiling as if seeking a source of irritation.
''No, it occurred to me,'' he pressed on gamely, ''that I that's to say, the village those interested might reinstate, as it were, some of those old customs… Well, wassailing for example.''
A few more customers drifted in through the open door, their figures turned to shadows for a moment against the parched light outside. Stan put down the copy of the local paper he was reading.
George looked up doubtfully at the vicar. ''What, dancing round a tree and all that, Vicar?''
''There was no dancing involved, George,'' the vicar said, sounding tired. ''Simply a cup, cider cup, filled with wine that's to say, apple-wine, cider. Then ''
''Laced with gin, Vicar,'' Stan put in.
He was checking one of the pints, holding it up to the naked bulb that burned in the bar day and night, the cider gleaming now a pale milky-gold under it.
The vicar stared at the draught with starched blue eyes.
''Laced with gin, Stan?'' Wilf Perkin said, and frowned, as if considering an unlikely chemical formula.
''Oh, yes. I remembered they at it. Buggers they wur.'' Stan smiled an apology at the vicar and bent to the barrel again. ''Then there was faggot burning.''
''Around the cider-tree?'' The vicar's head went back as if singed by the image.
''Noa. Different custom altogether, Vicar,'' Stan said kindly.
The sun was going down now, spinning down a wheat-coloured sky, burning itself out against the deep and ancient windows of the pub, the air oiled with the evening scent of honeysuckle from the hedge of it in the back yard.
Stan finished with the round and tossed the money into the cash drawer. ''They used to drink a pint of cider to each strip of wood binding the faggots, see. Well, could amount to fifteen pints or more sometimes.''
''All with a drop of gin in them?'' George Perry looked impressed.
''Noa, George, that wur wassailing,'' Stan said, the words falling like clotted cream. ''No, with the faggots they'd toast then, like, then throw 'em on the fire there.''
''Themselves as well, along with 'em, I shouldn't wonder. Fifteen pints of Five Jacks!'' John Down said, and winced.
The first of the haymakers piled in with their thirsts, spokes of light from the dying sun wheeling in after them, oil stains and the dust of hay on brown skins, their hair tangled and snarled with sweat.
Stan set up a handful of empty pint pots, the polished glass shining in the gloom.
''But what about the actual ceremonies, Stan?'' the vicar asked plaintively, and as if Stan were much further away. The vicar's features had taken on a flushed and brittle animation.
''Well, it wur'nt the ceremonies as such, Vicar,'' Stan said. ''I don't remember much of they. No, 'twere more like well, the atmosphere, I suppose…''
The vicar stared almost wildly at Stan's back bent over the cider barrel. And then at the glass in his hand as if seeking an answer there, and lifting it to his mouth found it empty.
More of the field workers crowded in and a move was made to sit down, George with a proprietorial air escorting the vicar to one of the settles next to the fireplace, where the faggots had roared and the wassailing parties had stood with ritual and the iron smell of a January night on them. Filled now, in midsummer, with a large urn of foxgloves, honeysuckle and bracken.
From the press of bodies in the bar, the air crackled with energy. An energy which seemed to spark between the men like static, raw with the smell of the fields and fruitfulness.
And the vicar, with another empty glass in front of him, and his head resting on the high back of the settle, watched the shadows moving on the whitewashed walls of the pub like the reflection of flames, his eyes as gently amused now as a child's.
11. SUMMER’S END
The green of the wheat fields deepened, turning to gold, fired with a pale brittle flame as the valley burned with summer. Burned in a heatwave of simmering mornings and charred dusks, when fields poppies flared in the twilights and the nights held the heat of the day like a cooling stone.
Under skies bleached by the sun, the valley dozed and droned through the days, days of bumble bees, dragonflies and adders, and the endless purring of doves. The lanes were clotted with summer, its scents clinging as thick and as warm as wool to tangled hedges of honeysuckle, dog rose and blackberry, the tall grasses on the banks seared by the heat, the husks of cowparsley falling to rust.
Walking down from the hills, the hedgerows crackling and jumping with insects, one followed the road into the village in a ramshackle fall of old stone, slate and thatch, the sounds of summer stone sharp on the still air. The eaves murmured with swallows, and swifts swooped and glided down the drowsing length of the High Street, where radios played on bikinied lawns and Panama hats stalked with English coolness the jungles of hollyhocks and sunflowers, the heated colours in front gardens bruising the eye.
Church bazaars and village fetes, and long, murmuring Sunday afternoons, when the starched crackle of applause could be heard from the cricket field above the village, where the green, yellow and white pavilion, repainted for the season and varnished now by the sun, sat like a beached Victorian pleasure boat.
White flannels against the green, running up to bowl, the chop of leather on oiled yellow, and across the valley the breaking voice of a cuckoo calling. The spectators sitting on deckchairs in front of the pavilion or sprawled with bottles and sandwiches under the beeches lining the field, the shadows of the great trees lengthening as the midges swarmed, and twenty were needed for victory and five wickets still to fall.
The fields of corn, darkened by August suns to saffron, were harvested and the weather broke at last in a night storm, the glazed air splitting with a running crack of thunder, the valley deep, green mysterious water under the sudden brilliances of light. And up on the valley road a mistle thrush, shaken into song by the brief unholy daylight and thunderous dark, sang out, the notes sounding clear across the singed and waiting silence as the first fat drops of rain fell on the yellowing leaves and the parched earth below.
12. THE MEET
A late November morning, frost hard and ringing under a sun polished as pale as brass, glittering along the crushed white verges where the onlookers waited. And calling across fields rutted with the grazing of cattle and stiffened with cowpats, the breath of riders and mounts on the road steaming the air, the sun striking sparks from bridles and stirrups.
Major Pocock, Master of Foxhounds, in gleaming top boots and pine-green coat, signaled a right wheel, whip hand out, and they peeled off, clattering into the forecourt of the Bottle Inn, the line of horses behind him breaking single file under the thatch of the pub and the sign which asks one to Please Park Prettily.
The faces of the horsemen were stern with the cold and the thought of the chase, or in ruins from last night’s hunt ball, the younger members sportingly brisk and loud with the utter swank of it. The women, on mounts plaited and ribboned, clipped and brushed to a polish, sniping glances at each other’s turn-out from the cover of a small adjustment to a rein or a caressing hand from saddle to horse.
The spectators crowded in for the tables of hot pies and sausages, and wine mulled in tea urns. The glossy bloodstock hunters mincing in sidesteps from the vulgar noise and smell, the hounds, with names like Exmoor, Coldstream and Royal, released, spoiling, from the trailer, swirling in honey-coloured currents around the legs of the kennelman and whipper-in.
The landlord of the inn brought out the first of the stirrups cups on a silver salver, the pale amber, watered by the sun, carried rump high among the big thoroughbreds.
Saddles creaked as the glasses were lifted, the hunting stocks of the women in a sudden fall of silk, white breeches stretched tight over tensed and mettlesome seats, pulling at the skirts of their coats as they straightened in the saddle, those faces pale with breeding warmed by the cold and drink like sun on ice.
And in the pub, over hot toddies or ale, or the local cider, Five Jacks, its name stamped on the barrel like a warning, the talk was of winter crops, stock, horsemanship, the cunning of foxes and the price of feed. The logs whitening in a hearth big enough to stable a pony, adding their smoke to a ceiling stained with fires.
And then Major Pocock lifted his whip again, onwards, and swayed out of the forecourt on his iron grey stallion, under a sky trailing puffs of clouds like cannon smoke, the hounds flying their tails like standards, the children of local farmers, on brightly coloured ribboned ponies, sitting among the big hunters as small and as showy as mascots.
They wheeled off the main road, down a lane with hedgerows bristling with winter, the horses picking up the pace with a hollow smack of hoofs, the horn on fire with the sun as the huntsman lifted it, and sent out across the hunting fields a flourish of challenging brass.
Booted feet hit the ground, and a five-barred gate was run back, the hounds steaming, whimpering, down the hilly field. Heads down and rooting in circles through the dew of thawing frost, the boots of the huntsman and whipper-in shining like tar in the wet grass.
A feeding crow lifted lazily into the sun, fluttering over the milling field, the rest of the hunt watching from the lane above, only the movement of an iron shoe stamped impatiently or a bridle sent ringing with a sudden toss of the head breaking their waiting stillness.
But no fox was up and running, and the hounds were lifted, yelping and whining in wider circles, and then into the next field. The hunt on the move again, reining in at every fresh cast, their comments clipped and to the point as the search moved from covert to foxless covert below.
And along the hedges where the hunt followers watched and waited, the men in ancient Barbours and the women in trilbies and silk headscarves, with a hunt on them in full cry forever, fieldglasses were lowered with a frown.
‘’Had me doubts when I saw the ground frost this morning. Damn bloody little bugger could have holed up anywhere.’’
The big horses were ridden at a walk, shouldering down the lanes that twist between fields, the back of the riders stiff in the saddle. The huntsman, mounted again, trotting ahead of them, standing in his stirrups now and then to peer suspiciously over the hedgerows, as if to catch the fox padding it unsportingly away.
Only the two elderly members bringing up the far and rolling rear showed the proper upper lip.
Sitting low in the stirrups in untidy, portly bundles of scarlet coats, gilt buttons and old yellow hunting waistcoats, their complexions as livid as strawberry marks, they swayed down the crown of the lane, as if out for a social airing on Rotten Row. Heads together over the latest gossip of the county, the worn silver of a half-bottled sized hip-flask catching the sun as it passed between them.
And then, from ahead of them, a muffle shout went up. And the hunt turned and clattered back up the lane, hands shading their eyes nautical fashion.
And a shout of, ‘’Thur! Thur’s the bugger! Thur!’’ from a field below, where the hounds ran in tangled circles, whimpering blindly. The whipper-in, half over the hedge with the utter incredulity of it, not to mention the sheer neck of it, watching as the fox jogged carelessly down the side of the next field.
He shouted again, the words this time correct, and almost dancing with rage. ‘’Siiiii – ghted him!’’
The horn of the huntsman threw up a few hurried signaling notes, followed by the call of the Major’s horn, blown with an emphasis that sounded like a rebuke. And the two hard-pounding gentlemen bringing up the rear, pocked the hip-flask and broke into a trot.
The game was afoot. It was a find. The fox, showing sport at last, had broken covert. Was in fact by now busy showing a little more sport by putting the length of two fields between him and them, a game surge of red against the green, running fit for the next county.
A stickler for ritual, and not a man to be panicked into the neglecting it, like some he would no doubt later have discourse with, the Master lifted himself slowly and portentously up in the stirrups to deliver a fine, long-drawn, bellowing for Harry and for England cry of a view halloo.
The call rearing like a charger, and mostly addressed to the backs of the rest of the hunt who, adding to a laxity which now appeared to be general, were already through the nearest gate and into the field. The turf minced and flying as they dug in for the gallop, drumming across the green and putting up ahead of them a flock of feeding sparrows and the sudden brilliance of two golden pheasants, lumbering just in time above their heads, flaring in the sun like parrots.
The Major was through the gate himself now, punching a bit of steam out of the flanks of his mount with boots, and roaring, ‘’Make way for hounds!’’ as a couple of thrusting young blighters in front surged ahead to be first up and yellowing over the hedge of blackthorn spikes. The rest of the field taking it in a ragged line behind them, eyes closed and over, one mount stumbling and another refusing, to be waved out of the damn way by the Major, coming on fast, seat up and meaning business.
The fox was at the next field gate now, and under it in a dip of red, the strident notes of the horn tickling that little bit extra out of him, the hounds baying with its scent full in their nostrils, and running as close as huskies. The hunt yelling and halloaing and tallyoing away, scattering sheep and cattle, udders flying, the sound of horn and hounds crashing among the hills, sending the knockabout music of Old England echoing from the green distances.
The sun was low in the sky when they returned, hunched with cold in the saddle, the chase drying on them, the mud of two counties on boots and fetlocks. The iron of the big hunters clattering along high-banked lanes, the sun, filtering through the bare hedgerows, lacing the silver light with shadows.
The hounds quietened now, blood and the smell of fox on them. The mounts carrying their necks low, bellies scratched and salted with sweat, ridden at a walk back to horsebox or stable.
Leaving the last-ditch stand of the fox, and the rapid tattoo of brass signaling its death, behind them.
13. A VISIT TO NATHANIEL
He had made the round-topped table under the front window from beechwood. At its centre, rooks flew over a stand of winter elms, and in a broad belt around the edge of it, a carousel of small animals ran and tumbled in demented, secret delight.
Nathaniel touched each animal in turn, and as if for the first time, named them: Rabbit, Stoat, Hare, Shrew, Mole, Squirrel, Rat, Otter, Fox and Badger.
On top of the television and a sideboard, and hung on the walls, were displayed some of his other wood carvings. Among them a Romany vardo, with a couple of tethered ponies cropping the verge; a retriever with a plump pheasant in its mouth; a team of two Shire horses, the drag and weight of the plough cut into their shoulders; and a vixen, head up to the wind, her mask tight with concentration and need.
And on a round plaque on one of the walls, a small bird encircled by thorns.
The bird, Nathaniel told me, was a robin, the thorns those of the hawthorn, from which was made the Crown of Christ.
The breast of the robin, Nathaniel said with an edge of impatience, as if he'd had to explain this many times before, was, in the beginning, white. But it went to our Lord bleeding on the cross, holding water for Him in its beak. And came away from Him with His blood on its face and on its breast. That is why the robin is said to be so confiding in man, and why its winter song sounds of lament.
We sat down by the fire and refilled our glasses.
We were drinking cider, laced with gin because it was Christmas Eve. In the small tiled fireplace ash logs burned steadily, helped along by Nathaniel who gave them a poke now and then with his stick, sweetening the air with their scent.
There was a refugee air about the old man, sitting with his wood carvings in that neat and otherwise featureless room. A man who had left the rest of his past behind, who had been fed and numbered and was waiting now only for some sort of collection.
We were sitting in the front room of his old people's bungalow, one of a cul-de-sac of them tucked away in a corner of the council estate on the edge of the village, their modern oblong windows giving them a vacant look, the small clipped lawns in front like bibs for mouths.
Nathaniel was well over eighty, a big man, his physical decline sitting on him like an ill-fitting suit. Over half a century had weathered his body, his muscles hard with knots which pained and held him stiff.
In a worn leather-framed photograph on the mantelpiece a young Nathaniel posed with his new wife outside a terraced farm cottage, their first home together, one arm hugging her to him, and looking straight into the camera with a smile as confident as a wink. His wife, Flora, had the look of a woman pulled laughing in protest from the kitchen, taking off her apron perhaps and tidying herself as she went, and half resisting now, as if in the sudden company of strangers, the teasing arm around her, composing herself for the serious business of having a photograph taken.
''We were married near sixty years, me and Flora. Sixty years along o' me. She's dead now. Yes.''
He reached for his tobacco tin and papers on the mantelpiece, the edges of the tin showing though silver, a scratched and faded picture of a bearded Tar of the King's Navy on the lid.
''She were a good mate to I, my Flora. My mommet. We had some good times together. And some bad, mind. Oh, yes. And some bad.''
Nathaniel teased a thin line of tobacco along the cigarette paper, his movements slow and a little shaky, his large, blue-veined hand knotted and stained with age, the little finger bent with an old break. The result, he'd told me earlier, of a fight with Big Willie Boswell, a travelling man up for the apples. They'd followed the Romany rule, stripped to the waist on a fighting mark made that day nearly sixty years ago by the heel of a boot in the grass behind one of the cider orchards. A mark to which the loser, Big Willie Boswell, afterwards failed to come up to.
''A girt big bastard, 'ee were. Always used to wear a woman's scarf round his neck, and a gold pin, a horseshoe, near as big as a pony's. Rings on his fingers. His brother, Nelson, made him take 'em off first. I can see 'ee now, Willie. Built like a Shire, prison tattoos up his arms, standing there. I got a hold of him straight away, went to him like a lover I did, and rammed my head up into his nose. We got drunk afterwards together, me and Willie. Big Willie Boswell. I can see 'ee now…''
Nathaniel sealed the cigarette paper with his tongue, and looked at me, the lacquer of age on his dark eyes like the crust of old fires. ''And times could be bad, could be hard. Oh, yes. Hunger, cold, worry. You got to know 'em all.''
He struck a match to his cigarette, his hands cupped around it as in a gale.
''And I were what they used to call a useful man, mind. I could plough, pack a good straight furrow, sow, reap, mow.'' Nathaniel's low, warm breath of a voice blew on the words, rekindling them down the years, coaxingly, with an old confidence.
''I could lay an hedge, work all day with a scythe. I could lamb, shear, ditch, thatch. Work as a horseman, cowman. Do most carpentry. Do most anything. Yes. That's all gone now, of course. Well, no need for it, see. Noa, no need for it.''
He thought about that for a moment, leaning back with his glass and cigarette, and then said, ''You can't blame they today, though. No. Took near a week then to turn a five-acre field, huddled behind a team of them big old boys, working through whatever the good Lord happened to send down. Now 'tis a morning's work with a tractor, and you can shut yourself up in the cab with a wireless while you'm doing it. Noa, you can't blame they these days.''
Nathaniel took a drink and studied me.
''And I'll tell 'ee something else. You could be out there in the winter with nothing in you all the day but maybe a slice or two of fat bacon, or a bit of bread and cheese. And your wife at home going without to keep the kids quiet.''
With an old man's sudden anger he went on, ''You had to get out a bit at nights, see! Get out a bit and take some off 'em. Oh, yes!''
Nathaniel turned his face to the fire. ''I had a good old dog then, a lurcher,'' he said after awhile. ''And an A 410.. A poacher's piece.''
He looked up, his eyes gleeful with memory. ''You could break it in two, see '' he put the glass down to show me, miming the actions, his hands young again ''tie the butt under one arm, the barrel under the other, and your coat buttoned-up over it. Had a nice, quiet polite sort of cough to it, that gun. With a new moon on its back, and that old dog of mine slipping ahead …''
Nathaniel growled with delight. ''My Flora, she'd be up at all hours burning the feathers, nagging I out to the back garden to bury the carcasses. The kids hanging out the bedroom window, whispering and giggling, and Flora standing at the kitchen door in her night things.''
He grinned across at me, a brown, cracked grin of teeth, his eyes moist with drink.
''I were a wicked bastard, sometimes, I must tell 'ee that. I were no angel. Noa, no angel.''
We freshened our glasses and drank to that.
It was growing darker in the room now, and Nathaniel, with the aid of his stick, limped over to the light switch, and then drew the curtains.
Returning to his seat, he paused in front of the plaque on the wall, the robin ringed with thorns, and swaying slightly, mock-punched the air in front of it, across the face of it. A gesture which had something in it of the rough, teasing, almost puzzled affection that big men will sometimes show to women and small children. A gesture that speaks not only of strength and weakness, and of experience and innocent. But also, somehow, of wistfulness.
We saw off the last of the cider and Nathaniel got down to the singing, The Blackbird, the Pleasant and Delightful, and The Painful Plough, deftly threading the words through the intricate rhythms, his smoky old voice needing no accompaniment.
''We used to sing a lot in the old days. Sing at work. Sing in the pub. Sing going to work and coming home. Sing to the horses. Sing in the fields, sing in the sheds. Sing everywhere.''
One of his sons was due to take Nathaniel back with him to spend Christmas with the family, and we mustn't be drunk, noa. But just a small one, for the road. And because it's Christmas.
Lowering his gin and water, Nathaniel said then, ''When I were a lad, father and mother used to tell us that on Christmas Eve, near midnight, the cattle would kneel in their stalls.''
He aimed a forefinger at me.
''Now that were old Christmas Eve, mind. January the fifth. And on Christmas Day, January the sixth, the white thorn, the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury, flowered. The thorn planted by the man who buried Christ. Joseph of Arimathea. Come here to bring the good news. Yes!''
Nathaniel studied me for a few moments, his head up, chin pushed out. And then he smiled, slowly.
''Let you and me have another drink. A small one. For the road.''
I told him he was a wicked bugger. And he laughed, a sudden shout of a laugh, and slapped his hands together hard, like a horsedealer. ''Yes!'' he grinned. 'Yes!''
He saw me to the door after that, standing stiffly and limping his way across. And waited in the doorway until I had reached the gate, the light from it seeing me down the path like a lantern.
There was frost on the air and the smell of fires, the sky arched and torn with stars. Merry Christmas and spray-on snow and the lights of trees, and television sparking behind drawn curtains, as I walked down through the estate.
I took the road which ran along the valley side, and back up into the village, the stiffening fields falling away one side into the night, the glimmerings of lights from scattered farmhouse windows almost drowned in the dark flood of the valley.
And then, walking up into the lampless High Street, the bells of St Mary's broke above me, their simple rough strength shaken from its ancient tower, ringing out clear across the valley. Ringing out, rising and triumphant, the sound of them in the darkness like the sudden bright comfort of lights.
A MOON ON ITS BACK – THE END