Authors: Clare Francis
|2004 : UK|
The war is over, but the personal turmoil has just begun...
It is 1946, and the eve of the harshest winter for a hundred years.
Servicemen are pouring home from the war to a land beset by food and job
shortages. As anti-Polish refugee propaganda reaches its heights,
Wladyslaw Malinowski, a young verteran of Monte Cassino, attempts to
start a new life on a withy farm in the middle of the wetlands. His
taskmaster is Billy Greer, newly demobbed, and itching to escape to a
job in London. Stella, the local schoolteacher, has been waiting for the
return of Lyndon Hanley, a hero of the Burma Campaign. But Lyndon is
troubled, elusive, and ultimately unresponsive. When he goes away again,
she finds herself falling for the beguiling and irrepressible
Wladyslaw. As the country is brought to its knees by blizzzards and coal
shortages, people start to go hungry and attitudes harden. Then a death
occurs on the wetlands, and it seems Wladyslaw, the outsider, will be
back to the farm in much the same way as he had left it seven years earlier, in the gloaming of an October evening by the drove-road over
Curry Moor. The last light lay in blazing bands across the western sky, making fiery ribbons of the puddled cart-ruts, which stretched out before him, rod-straight, to the wetland edge. The drove
appeared deserted as far as the metalled road and the stone bridge, but he strode along at a sharp lick all the same, the sooner to escape the exposure of the open moor, for he knew what people
would say if they spotted him coming by this route, that he was running true to form, stealing back like a thief in the night. He had judged the risk worth taking nonetheless, for the chance to do
his business quickly and get away unseen.
Mounting the ramp to the small arched bridge, he tensed momentarily as a horse and rider rose up over the crown, but it was only a gypsy boy, bareback on a snorting pony, the creature’s
eyes glinting red in the sunset. Mercifully the river-top path was clear of people, so too was the path that dropped down to the damp stubble of Hay Moor, but he didn’t slacken his pace till
he was over the rhyne and starting up Frog Field, when an odd discordant sound caused him to pause, his soldier’s instincts reaching out into the dusk. Above his head bats darted and
fluttered in jerky parabolas, while in the meadow below, cows stood solidly against the dying light. At last the sound came again, and, making out the distant yawling of a dog, he walked rapidly
He crossed an orchard rich with the scent of fallen apples, which bumped and scuffed against his boots. Looping around the back of Old Maynard’s farm, he heard the dog much closer, howling
and jerking at its chain. A rarely used path kept him away from the lanes and cottages for a while longer, until, meeting the North Curry road, he was forced onto its ringing surface. Hitching his
knapsack higher on his shoulders, he stepped out at a smart clip, but if there was anyone to witness his jaunty march he never saw them. A minute later he gained the shadows of the next footpath
which undulated across two fields before sloping down towards the dark expanse of West Sedgemoor.
Even before he sighted the inky line of pollards that marked the old rhyne he felt the cool breath of the wetland against his cheek, he heard the faint riffling of the wind in the withies like
the rustling of a woman’s skirts, he caught the boggy smell of water and overblown vegetation, scents and sounds that brought a surge of memory, unexpectedly powerful, disturbingly sweet.
A place called Sculley Farm lay ahead. He had intended to skirt its southern boundary, but it was getting too dark to attempt the narrow overgrown path along the wetland edge. Instead, he swung
across a field and climbed over a stile onto a lane of loose stones which chimed and rattled under his boots. Coming abreast of the farmyard, a shape detached itself from the darkness by the
A scratchy voice called out, ‘Who’s that there?’
He would have walked on, but the figure lurched into his path.
‘Watch out!’ he exclaimed sharply.
An old man’s laugh, a blast of cidery breath. ‘Billy? That you, Billy Greer?’
‘For Christ’s sake!’
‘Let you out then, did they?’
Billy dimly recognised an old fool named Percy Frith, and brushed roughly past him, annoyed at having been identified, and yet more annoyed at letting it show. He was still berating himself as
he strode down the track to Crick Farm. Several times in as many yards he renewed his vow to leave the moment he had finished his business, to get clear away and never come back.
The cottage sat low and dark against the wetland; the damp seemed to rise around it like a mist. A glimmer of light was showing in the kitchen, another behind the curtain above. Entering the
yard by the latch-gate, Billy’s toe caught on a piece of tangled metal that clanged and clattered as he kicked it aside. Underfoot the concrete was soft with a carpet of stripple and mulch,
while in the middle of the yard he almost walked into a pile of withies, mouldering by the smell of them. He felt the first creep of foreboding as he came across more clutter around the lean-to
porch: a loaded handcart, a cider barrel with sprung hoops, and, propped anyhow against the shiplap, a jumble of scythes and rakes.
The kitchen door opened on uncertain hinges. He called a greeting and heard only the muted tones of brassy dance music trumpeting from a radio upstairs. At first everything appeared unchanged:
the draining board scrubbed and bare, plates slotted neatly into the rack above, dishcloths drying on the clothes-horse in front of the range. Then he felt the chill in the air, he saw the stubby
candles guttering and no lamps, he saw on the table the remains of a solitary meal, and it struck him that one of them must have died. This thought triggered the apprehension he always felt at bad
news, the prick of guilt and alarm, the sense that, however remote the event, however innocent his part, blame would somehow attach itself to him. Only with an effort did he remember that such
thoughts belonged to the past, that he had nothing to reproach himself for. That he never did have, except in his own mind.
Overhead, the muffled dance music gave way to a sonorous BBC announcer. Billy picked up a candle and carried it through into the cramped hallway. He called up the stairs and heard an exclamation
followed by the shuffle of feet. Uncle Stan appeared on the landing above: a fierce white face over a shadowy body.
‘It’s me – Billy.’
‘For the love of God,’ Stan exclaimed.
‘How are you, Old Man?’
Stan clomped down the rackety stairs, wheezing like a pump engine, and peered at him through damp eyes. ‘So you be back, then.’
‘Not for long,’ Billy stated rapidly. ‘I can’t stay.’ When Stan made no sign of having heard, he repeated slowly, ‘I – can’t –
The old man’s face took on the expression Billy remembered so well, closed, stubborn, remote. Billy gave a humourless laugh. ‘Same old Stan, eh? Where’s Aunt Flor?’
With a small lift of his head Stan indicated the room above.
‘How is she?’
Stan’s mouth turned down.
But the old man only shook his head and moved away into the kitchen.
Billy followed. ‘Is she ill?’
‘Well, either she’s ill or she’s not ill.’
Still nothing. This had always been the old man’s way, to use silence as a weapon of irritation, but Billy wasn’t going to rise to the bait, not this time round. As the old man moved
towards the larder, Billy ducked his head in front of him and repeated tolerantly, ‘Well?’
‘What’s the point in harping on about it?’ the old man demanded with a quiver of agitation. ‘There ain’t nothing to be done.’
‘How can I be harping on about it when I’ve only just arrived? When I don’t even know what’s wrong with her.’
‘It were a stroke, weren’t it? A
.’ The old man was trembling.
‘All right, all right. Just simmer down.’ Billy wasn’t sure what a stroke was, whether it was the same as a heart attack. ‘Is she bad?’
Turning away, Stan sat down heavily at the table. ‘Bad enough.’
Billy felt like asking what the hell that was meant to mean, but managed to hold his tongue. He looked down at the old man indecisively. He hadn’t allowed for this, the sag of the
shoulders, the air of defeat, the sense that the old man had grown smaller, almost defenceless. Yet even as he wondered if he might be feeling something as unexpected as pity he had a memory of
Stan on the withy beds, glaring at him angrily, delivering a stream of scorn, and the feeble impulse to sympathy died.