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Authors: Henry Williamson

Donkey Boy

BOOK: Donkey Boy
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DONKEY BOY

HENRY WILLIAMSON

To

John Middleton Murry

‘Learning is not worth a penny when joy and courage are lost along the way.’

Pestalozzi

The lines from The Absent-minded Beggar by Rudyard Kipling are taken from
The
Definitive
Edition
of
Rudyard
Kipling’s
Verse
published by Hodder & Stoughton Limited, and are quoted here by kind permission of Mrs George Bambridge.

I
T
IS A
wonderful feeling to be alone in your very own house for the first time. Richard had visited the building in Hillside Road many times during its erection; but always with his exuberance diminished by the thought that while the builder and his men were there he had no right to consider himself the owner, or, indeed, to be there at all. The only free days had been Sundays; but of course it would not have done to be seen there on the Day of Rest. Not that Richard had any religious convictions about the Sabbath; he went seldom to church; but Sunday was Sunday, after all.

Now the builders were gone. A cheque for the balance of the purchase price had been paid to Wilton, Lemon & Co., and in due course the conveyance would be posted to him. At last he could insert the new latch-key on the ring, secured to a trouser button by a steel chain, into the lock of the front door, turn the key, and, pushing gently, feel it opening. There was a step up from the tessellated porch, and then he was inside his own hall, the key carefully withdrawn, and the bunch as carefully dropped back into his trouser pocket.

It was a Saturday afternoon in early March. The air was buoyant; gulls had been flying high over London Bridge, as though exalted by the impulse for renewal, for mating and nesting upon the marshes of the Thames estuary. Buoyantly upon the paving stones of the bridge black-coated men, suitably hatted of course, had moved in their tens of thousands to the railway stations upon the south side of the river. Exalted by thoughts of his new house, Richard Maddison had, with almost reckless extravagance, bought a first-class ticket for Randiswell station, on the South-Eastern and Chatham line, as that was nearer the house than Wakenham station on the London-Brighton and South Coast Railway, where he had a quarterly third-class season ticket.

The first-class fare to Randiswell was sixpence, a considerable
item in the budget of a City clerk: the price of three two-pound loaves, half a pound of the very best China tea, a pound of Windsor soap, or a hundredweight of coke. At London Bridge he had decided, suddenly, to go by the low level—go hang to the expense! Into the soft, clean upholstery of the carriage he had settled with pleasurable excitement. The familiar smells of Bermondsey were wafted through the open window, to where he sat alone; they recalled with startling suddenness the last time he had travelled on the S.E. and C.R. line, on the night of his clandestine marriage, when Hetty and he were bound for their brief honeymoon in the gamekeeper’s cottage near Shroften farm. The smells were of hops from the brewery, of tan-yards, of glue and vinegar factories, predominant among them the acrid whiff of sulphur—in an instant he was back again in the November night of five years before: and feelings of humiliation at the wretched secrecy of it all arose strongly in him, as his father-in-law’s face came to his mind. The sense of smell, almost atrophied in civilised man, is nevertheless the most potent of the senses to recall scenes in memory.

Richard Maddison, now past his thirtieth year, had settled with himself as a creature of habit. He had travelled about four thousand times to the City, to his desk in the Town Department of the Moon Fire Office. About eight thousand times his boot leather had pressed upon the flag-stones of London Bridge, on his way to and from Haybundle Street. Each time he had been conscious, in clear weather, of the rising sun on the right side of his face as he went to work in the morning, and again of summer heat, or winter hues of sunset, in the late afternoon as he returned. To the sun, or its weak circular image beyond mist and smoke, he usually doffed his hat, carrying it in his hand as he swung, among thousands of others, across the swift muddy currents or flooding tides of the river. Six days a week, except for Sundays, Bank Holidays, and ten days’ vacation a year, he worked in an office, for about half of each year in artificial light.

During that time he had lived either in lodgings or a rented house, always hoping to be his own landlord. Now he had attained this desirable state: he was the owner of a £650 house, one of fourteen in Hillside Road, Wakenham, built by the Antill Brothers on a ninety-nine-year lease from the ground landlord—a mysterious individual concealed by the term
Banker’s
Nominee.
To this nominee Richard had contracted to pay £3 15
s
. per annum ground-rent for the next ninety-nine years, after which time the house would become the property of the ground landlord, according to the terms of the agreement.

He had bought the house through his sister’s husband, George Lemon, who lived in Epsom, and was a partner in a firm of solicitors in Lincoln’s Inn. He had written to George Lemon only after some hesitancy and indecision; for his feelings of loyalty to other members of the family conflicted with his sense of no longer belonging to their world. In the end it had seemed the right thing to do, small as the value of the property was, to write a formal letter to his brother-in-law. George Lemon had replied most graciously, inviting Richard to luncheon at the London Tavern (he had fought against sleep in the Town Department of the Moon Fire Office that afternoon), and when they parted had made Richard promise to cycle over to spend the day with them at their place in Epsom any Sunday he cared to come.

Now, at last, he was alone in his own house, free to stand and enjoy his very own property!

Having closed the front door behind him, pressing the catch of the lock gently to save wear-and-tear, Richard hung his umbrella on the staircase railing by the post at the bottom of the stairs, and then put his silk hat upon the rounded nob of the post. He was now ready for a thorough inspection: but first—for everything must be done in proper order—he must sweep up the fragments of mortar and plaster on the floors, lest the surface of the wooden boards be impressed and injured further. Builder’s men were careless beggars, with no respect for tidiness!

A month or so previously, Richard had brought over a bundle of newspapers and put them in a corner of the front room, remarking to the plasterers that they might find them of use on the floors, but the hint had not been taken. Some had been used for lighting fires in the grates, with ends of planks and laths on which to boil cans of tea, he noticed. So Richard had made neat piles of waste-wood, for kindling his own fires later on; but these had disappeared. Always picking and stealing, the lower orders, he thought. Thank heaven they were now gone, and the place was his own!

Richard did not know that his action in collecting and storing
odds and ends of planks had been resented by the two joiners, who regarded all waste wood as belonging to them—their perquisites. They had considered the toff to be a stingy cove, pinching their firing. Hadn’t he got enough money to buy a fard’n bundle of firewood for himself at the grocer’s?

After leaving the railway station that early afternoon, he had purchased a hand-brush and pan in a shop in Randiswell; and with these he intended to sweep up the dust and shavings in each room. He hoped to do some carpentry in the new house, and had already chosen the small upstairs room beside the bathroom for his own den. There he went first, and when he had swept a neat heap into the centre of the room, he sat on the floor, to enjoy a few moments of happy contemplation in solitude.

Should he keep his butterflies here, and his shelves of books, as well? No; wood-dust would get on them. He must think of another room for his very own personal things—his fishing tackle, sporting prints, dark lantern, butterflies, books, his breech-loader, green-heart rod, and cartridge-loading implements. And, of course, his special constable’s insignia and truncheon!

He got up, and looked out of the window, with thoughts of possible neighbours. The room looked directly on to the semi-detached house next door. Across a short space was a set of windows precisely similar to his own, but all facing south. At the moment this house was unfinished; even so, a FOR SALE board on its post behind the privet hedge of the front garden was already displayed. It was a pity that the houses were built in pairs, but there it was: a poor man like himself could not pick and choose. At least he would now be away from Comfort Road, and the smoke of the railway cutting causing smuts to enter every window. The rainwater in the butt, too, had never been clean, since the catchment area of the roof collected much soot.

Here it would be different. There were but fourteen houses in Hillside Road, and they faced the Hill—forty acres of glebe land recently purchased by the London County Council, for over a thousand pounds the acre, and soon to be railed-in with spiked railings five feet high. Already various deciduous trees had been planted on the grassy slopes, and the view from the main bedroom, facing west, would be most welcome after the constrictions of being in a street with houses facing one another.

To the main bedroom Richard now went, leaping up three
wooden stairs to the landing. Here was a second door leading into a secondary bedroom, with a window facing east. This connected to the front, or west, room. It would be suitable for his own dressing-room—hut then there was the question of the boy. Phillip was rising two years of age, old enough to sleep by himself, especially as there was now another little one on the way.

Richard swept the shavings of the bedroom into the pan, and shook them into the grate. Then he glanced around him with satisfaction. The western front was nearly all glass, for the floor ended in a bay of three windows. A fourth window, the upper half of a door, opened on to a little balcony, shared, unfortunately, with the house next door. A low railing divided the balcony, and the space there was only sufficient for one armchair, or two upright chairs at most. Still, Hetty would enjoy sitting there with Phillip, on summer afternoons when her work was done, with the green expanse before her. The sun would catch the balcony from the south, and be visible until it set in the west.

He opened the door, and stood upon the balcony. There on the distant heights of Sydenham stood the familiar Crystal Palace, glittering in the sun.

He felt exultant in his purchase. He was the owner of this new, clean house! Ninety-nine years to run! But to the job in hand. From the main bedroom he went into the dressing-room, to sweep up; and this being done, he descended the steps to the bathroom, the first door on the left past the head of the stairs. Here was much to satisfy the eye. What joy, to have a modern bathroom! Complete with water-closet, hand-basin with hot and cold taps, and new pattern of gas-jet: and the very latest design of bath, in no sense a boxed-in tub, but a real bath standing on four feet of iron cast in the shape of a lion’s paws, well raised from the floor with plenty of space for cleaning underneath.

The happy expression on his face changed to one of vexation. The lavatory pan was foul, and stuffed with fragments of newspaper. He pulled the plug, the mechanism clanked hollowly, the water had not yet been turned on. He turned away in disgust, and went downstairs into the kitchen, and so to the scullery and the back door. This was locked, bolted, and chained; and having opened it, he went down three concrete steps to the yard below. Here, by a drain and under a spout, stood a rainwater-butt.
There had been a spell of hard frost recently, and a cake of ice lay on top of the water in the open butt; but it was not thick enough to have opened the oaken staves.

Amidst the building debris which littered the back garden lay a dented bucket, encrusted with white. Picking this up, he banged it to loosen some of the plaster of Paris, shook the flakes free, and returned to the butt. Setting the pail under the wooden faucet, he turned the tap. No water flowed forth. It was held by the vacuum, seen as opaque bubbles of air under the circular plate of ice.

He was about to strike the ice with a brick which he had picked up, when a peculiar sound made him pause. Could a curlew be singing over the field of withered yellow grasses beyond the garden fence? Listening intently, he heard the trilling notes of a curlew, or was it a golden plover? The notes appeared to come from the sky above the yellow brick face of the house: a series of remote bubbling notes. He went down the concrete passage between the outside wall and the creosoted wooden fence which separated the two houses, paused at the end, and listened. There was only the cawing of a rook in the elms beyond the garden. Most mysterious! Could his ear be deceiving him?

By the water-butt the sounds were audible again. The faintest of trillings; and then a creak, followed by a slight crack. Peering closely, he saw that a wandering bracelet of minute air-bubbles was threading its way under the plate of ice, scores of tiny bubbles following one another along a wandering course and disappearing at a certain point, where a stem of grass was frozen in. The battered plaster-pail was slowly receiving water from the wooden faucet below. So the mystery was made plain: the bubbles were making the singing noise, as they rose from the tap and found their way into the air again through the grass stem in the ice-cap. Now, as water trickled out below, they were like the reeling cry of a nightjar. The ice creaked, settling between the oaken staves; a grasshopper warbler succeeded the nightjar; then the rapid and near-inaudible ticking of the pipistrel bat alarmed, with glinting eyes and teeth, in its hole in the garden wall at home, seen by him and his brothers long ago. The reed-like trilling of the bubbles recalled the sunlit days of his boyhood, far away in the West Country. Richard sighed.

It was no good trying to recall those days, they were gone for ever; and looking at his watch, Richard saw that it was already two o’clock. Hetty would be expecting him any time now, but as the Saturday meal on homecoming was always a cold one, he would not be guilty of keeping her waiting. They had arranged to spend the afternoon in the new house, to decide where the furniture should go. It had been planned to bring a kettle and picnic basket for tea, with the boy; and Richard wanted to show her a tidy house, which was the main reason why he had come down to sweep up the dust in the rooms. He must dawdle no longer. With a blow of the brick he broke the ice. Water gushed from the faucet, with black fragments of old leaves. He had found the barrel lying in the field behind the garden during the late winter, and stood it in the angle of the wall, asking that a pipe be fixed from the gutter above. It would be useful to water the garden.

BOOK: Donkey Boy
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