A Month in the Country
IT must have been nine or ten days before Mrs Keach
(the Vicar’s wife) visited. I didn’t work to set mealtimes and came down the ladder when I was hungry. And, in the middle of those hot August days, I usually cut two rough rounds of loaf and a wedge of Wensleydale and took it outside to eat. On Saturdays and Sundays, I had a bottle of pale ale; weekdays, water.
It was so hot the day she came that the grey cat let me approach almost to within touch before it slipped off Elijah Fletcher’s box tomb into the rank grass and then into its bramble patch. It was here, above Elijah, that normally I sat and ate, looking across to Moon’s camp, letting summer soak into me – the smell of summer and summer sounds. Already I felt part of it all, not a looker-on like some casual visitor. I should like to have believed that men working out in the fields looked up and, seeing me there, acknowledged that I’d become part of the landscape, ‘that painter chap, doing a job, earning his keep’.
So I nudged back my bum and lay flat on the stone table, covered my eyes with a khaki handkerchief and, doubtlessly groaning gently, dropped off into a deep sleep. When I awoke, she was leaning against the grey limestone wall looking towards me. She was wearing a dusky pink dress.
‘Have you been here long?’ I asked.
‘Maybe ten minutes ... I’m not sure.’ She spoke shyly. A wide-brimmed straw hat cast a shadow across her face so that I couldn’t tell how old she was. Then, for a few moments, she stood without speaking, her look wandering across the fabric of the church, then turning to follow the haphazard flight of a red admiral until it flattened against a headstone, pinned to its lichen by the sun. I slipped down from the slab but still leaned against it, drowsy, only half-awake.
‘Are you comfortable in the bell-loft?’ she asked. ‘Is there anything that you need? Are you sleeping well? I could lend you a travelling rug; we don’t use it at this time of year. My husband said you walked here. From the railway station, I mean. You can’t have been able to carry much, so I’m supposing that you’re sleeping on the floor. Perhaps you guessed that I’m Mrs Keach, the Vicar’s wife – Alice Keach.’
I told her that I had a sleeping-bag and there was my topcoat if I needed it, and I was using a hassock for a pillow.
The butterfly flew into the air once more. For a moment it seemed that it might settle on the rose in her hat, but it veered off and away into the meadow. The sound of bees foraging from flower to flower seemed to deepen the stillness.
‘I’m afraid that you must think us inhospitable,’ she said. ‘All of us in our beds and you up there on the floorboards.’
I said that it suited me very well and that it’s what I’d bargained for. At the end of each day I was so tired that it didn’t need a feather bed to send me to sleep.
I saw Moon’s head rising above the grass as he heaved himself into the sunshine and began an elaborate dance, waving his arms upwards and sideways. I’d seen him at it before. He hadn’t found anything out of the ordinary; he was just working off cramp.
‘All the same I shall bring a rug,’ she said and left the wall. She walked forward only a few paces but near enough for me to see that she was much younger than Keach, no more than nineteen or twenty, and that she was very lovely. More than just pleasant-looking I mean; she was quite enchanting. Her neck was uncovered to her bosom and, immediately, I was reminded of Botticelli – not his Venus – the Primavera. It was partly her wonderfully oval face and partly the easy way she stood. I’d seen enough paintings to know beauty when I saw it and, in this out of the way place, here it was before me.
‘And when will there be something for us to see?’ she asked.
I told her that it would be like a jigsaw – a face, a hand, a shoe, here a bit and there a bit. And then, imperceptibly, it would come together. ‘At least that’s how it ought to happen. But you don’t need to be told what might have disappeared in five hundred years. I can’t believe someone else hasn’t had a go before me and that I’ll find patches of bare plaster.’
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘but isn’t that the exciting part of it? Not knowing what’s round the corner. It must be like opening a parcel at Christmas. Well, I shan’t forget the rug and then you’ll have to let me see how the jigsaw’s fitting together, won’t you. You mustn’t mind if I haunt you a little ... Mr Birkin?’ And she laughed, an enchantingly gay sound like ... well, like a bell.
Then she turned away towards the gate and I turned too and went back on to my platform. And I wondered about Keach and his wife and how the oddest people meet and then live together year after year, look at each other across hundreds of meals, watch each other dress and undress, whisper in the darkness, cry aloud in the marvellous agony of sexual release.
‘You had the lovely Alice to see you,’ Moon said when we met that evening. ‘I saw her in the yard. You seemed to have a lot to say to each other. Now, didn’t you find her a bit of a stunner? Fancy that gem of purest ray serene hidden away in Oxgodby’s unfathomable caves! Well, come on, admit it.’
‘She’s a beauty all right,’ I said. ‘Quite extraordinary, in fact. Though maybe she doesn’t know it.’
‘Rubbish!’ he exclaimed. ‘Every woman knows it. But Keach catching her! It’s an outrage. Almost as big an outrage as society arranging that from the moment he got her to sign on the sanctified line, other men could go as far as that line and no further. It’s a devil.’
‘Perhaps he’s all she wants,’ I said.
‘Oh come on!’ he said. ‘You’ve seen him. Worse, you’ve heard him. Let’s go up to the Shepherd and sink a jar to lost beauty.’
Well, perhaps he was right. Frankly, if Keach really was as awful as he seemed, living with him didn’t bear thinking about. But mercifully it wasn’t Baghdad, so he couldn’t drape her in a yashmak and other men could still cast an admiring eye on his doe-eyed bride. And, as we sauntered back down the road, first smelling, then seeing the swathes of hay lying in the dusk, I thought that just looking at Alice Keach was wonder enough, so that I hoped that she would keep her word and call often to see how I was getting on.
THIE WORK went well. My picture was so well preserved that I became more and more convinced that, even before it was forty or fifty years old, it had been hidden beneath a lime wash. Why? The priest found fault with its iconography? The local magnates took umbrage at some fancied resemblance? A literate churchwarden thought it old-fashioned for a forward-looking parish? Take your choice. Every week that passes, you can bet your life that, somewhere in this land, there’s a first-class row bubbling up about what someone wants in and someone else wants out of a village church.
Arriving in good time
BARTON Ferry lay four long miles distant along a featureless road. Farmhouses along the way stood a field’s length back, and a broad dyke carrying seepage from ditches and drains followed the dusty way to where it stopped at the river’s brink. There were a few cottages, a bell on a stout post which also restrained a rowing boat and, on a patch of grass sprinkled with ducks’ feathers, a brick chapel scarcely bigger than a large room.
I’d arrived in good time but a brown-faced young woman, a fine healthy child-bearer, was waiting by the door. She was pretty but terribly shy, and gazed away over the river and the road beyond, as I explained lamely that Mr Ellerbeck was off-colour and that I was his inadequate reserve. She made no comment but neither did she seem overly cast down by this news as she let me in and asked for the hymn numbers. I said I’d leave them to her but would be obliged if she’d pick long ones and, preferably, with choruses between each verse.
There were only half-a-dozen pews and these huddled before an enormous varnished pulpit which I scaled and found my exalted position afforded an excellent view of the river through the rear window. Behind my head an enormous clock would share, perhaps engross my fellow worshippers’ attention. Then I busied myself finding two very long chapters in the Old and New Testaments and put the tasselled markers in. The clock’s loud ticking was much slower than my heart beats. The organist made no sound at all, her strong brown hands on lap, her head hanging. I don’t think she was praying. It was very hot and I began to sweat.
On zero hour and not a second earlier, two freckled children, a red-faced farm lad and an elderly man trooped in and penned themselves like sheep below me. I then announced the first hymn, ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing my great redeemer’s praise’, which we sang surprisingly loudly for so tiny a band. The succeeding prayer limped from despairing silence to silence, the Lord signally not honouring Mr Ellerbeck’s guarantee on His behalf to put words into my mouth. Nevertheless I stumbled on, tossing in pleas to be forgiven for unmentionable sins I felt were His responsibility (with Passchendaele in mind) rather than mine, and sprinkling around plenty of Thees and Thous as cover: I deceived nobody. Opening my eyes once, I saw the organist’s bowed shoulders were twitching slightly.
After we bellowed hymn 4 (‘Crown him with many crowns’) I basely determined that I must abandon my awful impersonation, even if I did land the stationmaster in trouble with the Circuit Authority.
‘Look here,’ I declared quite fiercely. ‘I’m just filling in and, as I’ve not preached before and certainly shan’t again, I’m going to tell you what I’m doing in Oxgodby and, if you want to leave or nod off, that’s all right by me.’ Actually, they recognised the good sense of this and listened with great attention and, in fact, the children put up their hands and asked several sensible questions. Afterwards, the old boy who was their grandfather said he’d drive them over in his trap so they could see what I’d been talking about.
When they’d drifted off on their several ways I thanked my organist, and as she was locking the door, made to put on my bicycle clips. ‘You could come on home for your tea,’ she said.
`Well, I’m expected back I think,’ I said but then thought, Why not? Perhaps I can ask her to meet me again. (I was missing a woman badly.) So I added, ‘But I’d like to come; I need a cup of tea in this heat; I know the Ellerbecks will understand.’
She lived at a farmhouse gable end to the road – not a big place. Deep red hollyhocks pressed against the limestone wall and velvet butterflies flopped lazily from flower to flower. It was Tennyson weather, drowsy, warm, unnaturally still. Her father and mother made me very welcome, both declaring they’d never met a Londoner before. They gave me what, in these parts, was called a knife-and-fork ‘do’, a ham off the hook, a deep apple-pie and scalding tea. In conversation it came out that I’d been Over There (as they called it) and this spurred them to thrust more prodigious helpings upon me. Then I noticed a framed photo of a young soldier on the piano top.
‘That’s our son, our Perce,’ Mrs Sykes said. ‘He had it taken on his last leave, on his nineteenth birthday.’ A glance across those faces made it unnecessary to ask what had befallen Perce. But, when I got up to go, I went across and looked more closely at him; he’d been a stocky youth, open-faced, a pleasant-looking chap. His father came up beside me and was looking over my shoulder. ‘He was a right good lad, Perce,’ he said, ‘a real worker. Would give anybody a hand; they all liked him.’
And on my way home by the dyke-side, on the empty road between fields of corn blowing like water, I suddenly yelled, ‘Oh you bastards! You awful bloody bastards! You didn’t need to have started it. And you could have stopped it before you did. God? Ha! There is no God.’ Two horses grazing over a hedge looked up and whinnied.
‘How did you get on over at Ferry?’ Mr Ellerbeck asked when, that evening, he walked in from Malmerby.
‘Well, I learnt one thing,’ I said ‘—that I’m not cut out for a preacher. I expect your Super will be round to tick you off when complaints come up the line with the rations.’
‘He had his tea at Lucy Sykes’s,’ Kathy cried. ‘She asked him in. He’s been quiet ever since, because he’s fallen in love with her.’
‘She’s a fine strong girl,’ Mr Ellerbeck said. ‘And she gets a lot out of that old organ at Ferry. Good Christian upbringing, too. We’ll ask her over to the Sunday-school anniversary and that’ll give you another chance to have a look at her.’
It never seemed to have occurred to the Ellerbecks that I might have been married.
IN LONDON I’d sometimes exchanged a word with the family next door on one side and nodded to the couple on the other, but, if I’d passed whoever lived beyond that, I shouldn’t have known them. Yet here, within twenty-four hours of my performance at Barton Ferry, word had got round about tea at the Sykes’s.
‘Hear you’re haring round the countryside looking over the girls. Thinking of settling down in Oxgodby then?’ Moon said slyly. ‘Better keep it quiet that you’re wed: every second chap round about has a shot-gun.’
Even Alice Keach had heard, but she put it more obliquely at the end of a conversation that had begun by her asking if I’d wanted to be an artist.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Never thought of it. Didn’t know what I wanted to be. I only knew what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to be an engine-driver, a policeman or a rent-collector or have anything to do with the sea.’
‘What about the Church? You would have made a good clergyman.’
‘Good heavens! Really! That’s almost the last thing I’d be any good at. Not my style at all.’
‘But you would have listened. You do listen. And you know how to be still. Don’t you know that, when people are with you, they don’t feel they have to say something? I mean just say anything to fill in silences. Were you always good at listening? When you were a little boy?’
‘My sisters used to say my ears were too big: that meant that I was too good a listener. I’m sorry – I know that’s not what you mean. Well then, maybe I was. My mother was a quiet woman. She’d sit for an hour sewing or darning and not a word. Sometimes she’d pucker up her mouth and glance at one or the other of us. And, if anything had upset that one at school, she’d hear it all out and then ask one or two questions so, in the end, you found you’d answered yourself. Is that what you mean?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘That’s exactly what I mean; I should like to have known her. And Mr Birkin – back to parsons. I hear you were a Great Success at Ferry …’
She said this as she rose from the pew to go. ‘And that you’ve fallen in love.’ She’d gone before I had time to reply; her gay laughter slipped back through the open door.
Well, she was right. I’d fallen in love. But not with sweet Lucy Sykes.
YOU MIGHT wonder what I thought about during the many hours I spent up on that scaffold. Well, obviously, the work itself, the vast painting I was uncovering. But also about the nameless man who’d stood where I stood. Not his technical abilities although, quite properly, these were extremely interesting to me. For instance, he had a very very good line in hands, his speciality being knuckles and wrists. His hands spoke to each other and were answered. But he wasn’t much good at feet. Let’s leave it at that. No, it was his quirks which really fascinated me. As when, for instance, he’d dropped iconographic rules to slyly lift the line of a man’s lips or turned aside to rattle off a string of grace notes on a costume’s edge—things just done for the hell of it.
Taking a break
‘Look here,’ Moon said. ‘We need a break. Damn it all we’re not wage slaves. They’re not pouring money over us. Let’s take each day as a dividend for what’s past. I’ll fix it with Mossop. Tomorrow we’ll have a holiday.’
SO, NEXT DAY, we downed tools and went off to the big field where Mossop was working. Already it was a day of great heat, the barley heads were brittle and bowed and you could have sworn there was an oven smell in the air. When the dew had dried, the reaper-binder, its sails flickering, the team fresh and skittish, began tossing out sheaves and we started to stook. But heavens, the thistles! After a time I learnt to kick sheaves over until I saw a firm handhold before jamming them, heads together, into the stubble, four or five pairs to a stook. And we went on back and forth across the cracked earth in the growing heat till mid-day, when each sheaf’s shadow was no more than a black tip. Then it was dinner-time (‘t’ Missus’s expecting you two gents’) and rabbit-and-potato pie put fresh heart into us and carried us on until, at four, `th’allooance’ came, greengage pie and scalding tea in a can.
And we finished in the dusk, a first star rising above the dark rim of the hills. Kathy Ellerbeck was waiting in the deep roadside grass by the field gate. ‘Don’t forget it’s Sunday-school Treat tomorrow,’ she said. ‘Mr Dowthwaite’s expecting you; there’ll be your dafties to keep an eye on.’
It was useless to claim that I’d been having a holiday all day. She was remorseless. ‘What about Mr Moon here?’ I asked. ‘Can’t he have a treat too?’ But no, he couldn’t come. The treat was a reward for service and Moon hadn’t rendered any. ‘Anyway,’ she said, ‘he’s Church.’
It was that kind of day
THE NEXT day was Saturday and, now that Moon was done, I decided to bring the job to its end. So I sent word that I shouldn’t be able to umpire for the team at Steeple Sinderby and, after working through the morning, came down about two o’clock. I took my bread and cheese outside, half hoping Moon would be about. But he wasn’t and, later, I found that he’d gone to York on the morning train.
So I sat on Elijah’s tomb slab, and, when I’d eaten and smoked a Woodbine, fell asleep sprawled across the warm stone, one arm behind my head. When I awoke, Alice Keach must have been there for some time because she was smiling. ‘I thought I’d find you here,’ she said, ‘when I saw you weren’t with the cricketers waiting by the Shepherd. I’ve brought you a bag of apples. They’re Ribston Pippins; they do well up here; I remember you saying you liked a firm apple.’
We talked about apples. It seemed that her father had been a great apple man. In Hampshire, they’d had a fair-sized orchard planted with a wide variety and he’d brought her up to discriminate between them. ‘Before he bit into one, he’d sniff it, roll it around his cupped palms, then smell his hands. Then he’d tap it and finger it like a blind man. Sometimes he made me close my eyes and, when I’d had a bite, ask me to say which apple.’
‘You mean d’Arcy Spice or Cox’s Orange?’
She laughed. ‘Oh no, that would have been too easy, like salt and pepper. I mean apples very much alike in shape and flavour. Like – well Cosette Reine and Coseman Reinette. I’m an apple expert. Apples are the only exam I could ever hope to pass.’
Then, quite unexpectedly, she asked if she could see my living quarters and we climbed there. ‘So this is where you spy on us during Sunday services?’ she said, poking her head past my baluster and looking down. ‘What an elevating picture we must make!’
I told her that she’d been safe; I’d only been able to see her hat. ‘The light straw one,’ I said. ‘That’s my favourite. Particularly when you stick a rose in the ribbon.’
‘Sick a rose! Really! Let me tell you, sir, Sara van Fleet isn’t any old rose. And it’s late in the day to be telling me now. If I’d known, I’d have worn it each Sunday. I don’t think Arthur knows what I’m wearing.’
Then she turned and went across to the south window. For a while she stood without speaking. Then she said, ‘So Mr Moon found it after all?’
Oh, why not? I thought. It’s going to be published anyway. So I told her what he’d been doing and leaned forward to point out the site of the Anglo-Saxon chapel. She also turned so that her breasts were pressing against me. And, although we both looked outwards across the meadow, she didn’t draw away as quite easily she could have done.
I should have lifted an arm and taken her shoulder, turned her face and kissed her. It was that kind of day. It was why she’d come. Then everything would have been different. My life, hers. We would have had to speak and say aloud what both of us knew and then, maybe, turned from the window and lain down together on my makeshift bed. Afterwards, we would have gone away, maybe on the next train. My heart was racing. I was breathless. She leaned on me, waiting. And I did nothing and said nothing.
She drew back and said shakily, ‘Well, thank you for showing me. I shall have to hurry away; Arthur will be wondering what’s become of me. No, please don’t come down.’
Then she was gone.
I must have stayed alone there for a couple of hours, sitting on the floor, my back to the belfry wall. Once I heard Kathy Ellerbeck calling from below, but I didn’t answer and she went off.
NEXT DAY, Sunday, she wasn’t in church and I couldn’t face Moon, chapel, or the Ellerbecks, so I set off across the fields, not following paths, but through gaps and over walls, towards the west. I’d never been that way before. There was warmth and ripeness in the air. Autumn was burning across the Vale, the beeches flaring like torches as the heat mist ebbed away from hedges and spinneys and from flocks grazing along the slopes of the faded fields. Yet, unwilling as I was to acknowledge it, I knew now that this landscape was fixed only momentarily. The marvellous weather was nearing its end.
It was dark when I got back, so late that there were no lights in the village windows. Even so, weary as I was, I knew that I shouldn’t sleep so, turning past Moon’s darkened tent, I stumbled off down the vicarage’s tunnel of a drive. When I came out in the carriage drive-around and stood before the house, the moon had risen above the trees, flooding the scene with light. A bedroom window was open and, for a few minutes, it seemed that Alice was standing there in her nightdress, had caught sight of me and was waving.
But it was only a curtain caught by a gust of the night breeze.
I didn’t know what I hoped might happen, nor how long I stayed there, nor have I any recollection of returning to the belfry and to bed. Since, I sometimes have wondered if it was a dream.
NEXT Morning I stayed in the belfry, on the boards, propped against one wall, staring at another. Once I heard Charles Moon calling me and, now and then, footsteps (but never hers) below in the building. Then, towards evening, I pulled myself together and thought, Well, usually there’s a second chance for most of us; perhaps she’s waiting there as I’m waiting here.
Yet, when I reached the carriage drive-around, I found it hard to approach nearer and, had I stopped, might have turned and gone back. Then I was standing on that absurd portico, within a pace of the door itself – and breathless as though I had been running.
How does one know that a house is empty? That house was and I knew it. I knew it even before my knocking was unanswered, even before I stooped to raise the flap of the letter-box to peer into a darkness so concealing that only memory led me back along the stone-flagged corridors, into shuttered rooms, up uncarpeted staircases.
They’re not here, I thought. They’ve gone. And I turned away. Then I remembered the bell, its mean little knob sagging from a hole bored through a doorpost, its rusting wire disappearing into the darkness and silence. And I pulled at it, hearing at first only a rasping scrape until, far-off, deep inside the empty house, a bell answered: it stirred the stillness for no more than a moment. Yet, high on some wall, it must have still quivered like a live thing.
What came over me? A sort of madness I suppose, because I gripped that knob more firmly and dragged at it again and again so that the bell’s sound came hurrying along corridors, round corners, down staircases, echoing and re-echoing, spreading through the dark and empty house like ripples of her laughter. But now I knew that it was laughter calling to me from the past—clearly, playfully, yet poignantly sad. It was the worst moment of my life.
And I dragged at the wire again and again, savagely, despairingly. For how long I cannot say, but when, at last, I turned away and went, I knew that I should never see her again.
SOMEHOW I got through the rest of the day and, during the night, a wind got up, threshing athwart the ash trees, driving in great gusts at the tower so that, for the only time I lived in that tiny room, the bell above me stirred. It was no more than a thin sound pared from its rim. Half-asleep, I wondered what its significance might be, but in the morning it had become no more than a sound heard in the night.
Then it was one of those marvellously clear days which come after a good blow. The trees had stripped down to their black bones and had heaped leaves in drifts against hedges and walls. Children played amongst them, tossing armfuls into the air, screaming in and out like swimmers at the sea’s edge. I saw roofs and walls and gardens hidden from me before. It was astonishing, like looking for the first time at a map of a place one believed one knew well and now finding new holes and corners.
I looked down from the window for a long time; summer and autumn had gone. During the night, the year had crossed into another season. In yards and gardens people were pulling up, burning, trimming, strengthening fences, scraping gutters. They had come out, answering a summons as naturally as the swallows gathering on the telegraph wires and the hedgehogs snuffling into hedge-bottom’s rubbish to sleep out the winter. They were doing as their forebears, the men and women on my wall-painting, had done – battening down before winter’s onslaught.
That morning I had my first letter. Heaven knows how she had learnt where I was, but it was from Vinny: she wanted me home again. There were other things too but that’s what it amounted to – she wanted me back. I had no illusions. She would go off again, would come back again. And I should be there.
When I read it, I packed up my gear – everything but my remarkable overcoat. I left it hanging on its nail for Mossop: he’d pointedly admired it more than once and I’d nothing else to give him. Then I went down and had a last look round. The good old Bankdam-Crowther, now reprieved – perhaps this was the moment to put it through its paces and depart in a climacteric roar of smoke and sparks? Then I dawdled down behind the south arcade to second for the last time her grieving husband’s Farewell to Laetitia.
Ah, amantissima et delectissima.
And I thought, Perhaps you did well to leave early; it may not have lasted.
Last of all, I gazed beyond the scaffolding to the great painting half hidden in the shadows. Truthfully, I felt nothing much. Certainly no more than a bricklayer may feel as he goes on to a new house. There had been a grey wall and now there were shapes and colours.
So I humped my pack and went out into the yard. Though it was past nine, the grass was soaking with dew and cobwebs drifted, breaking away from bushes and briars. All was as it had been – the fields, the high woods, even the crouching cat. It stared hostilely at me as I lifted the loop of binder-twine to open the gate, meaning to cross the meadow to say cheerio to Moon before going down to the station and the Ellerbecks. Then (and I can’t explain it) the numbness went and I knew that, whatever
else had befallen me during those few weeks in the country, I had lived with a very great artist, my secret sharer of the long hours I’d laboured in the half-light above the arch. So I turned and climbed the ladder for a last look. And, standing before the great spread of colour, I felt the old tingling excitement and a sureness that the time would come when some stranger would stand there too and understand.
It would be like someone coming to Malvern, bland Malvern, who is halted by the thought that Edward Elgar walked this road on his way to give music lessons or, looking over to the Clee Hills, reflects that Housman had stood in that place, regretting his land of lost content. And, at such a time, for a few of us there will always be a tugging at the heart – knowing a precious moment gone and we not there.
We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.
All this happened so long ago. And I never returned, never wrote, never met anyone who might have given me news of Oxgodby. So, in memory, it stays as I left it, a sealed room furnished by the past, airless, still, ink long dry on a put-down pen.
But this was something I knew nothing of as I closed the gate and set off across the meadow.