Authors: Chris Priestley
I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.
The old man shuffles to a halt and stands for a moment, head bowed, shaking a little, holding on to his staff. He looks at the end of his days – but then he’s looked that way for a long, long time.
Is he more exhausted by the walk he’s just made across the moors, or by the thought of the miles he will walk tomorrow? Maybe it’s just the weight of all those years of guilt. I don’t much care.
He’s suffered long and hard, but so have I. I’ll waste no sympathy on him. His death would free us both, but, spiteful to the last, he seems to go on and on. Maybe he’s immortal, for we’ve walked together for centuries now. Soon it will be nineteen hundred years since the birth of Jesus.
Our dress is very different from those about us, but there is something in the magic that surrounds us that means I’m hardly noticed at all. I’m seen and yet not seen. I flit like a thought into the heads of those I pass, and then that thought flies on and I am forgotten in an instant.
The old man’s clothes are no more than shabby rags and his long hair and beard, both frosted white, mark him as a travelling beggar and nothing more. There are plenty enough of them in this new age, just as there were of old.
We’re back in our own country. We’re once again in England after so many years in foreign parts. It’s different now, and yet the same, like the ghost of the girl still visible in an old woman’s face.
The old fellow sits down on a low wall and leans the tall staff against it, resting his bony arms on his wasted thighs. I can see his lips moving silently. Is he praying? Are you praying, you old sinner?
It’s cold. The leaves have fallen from the trees and redwings hunt among the tangled hedge for the last of the berries. The old man shivers and hunches his shoulders.
He pretends he doesn’t know I’m here, but we both know he does. I’m always here. We’re tied together and he knows it. We might each of us wish it weren’t so, but it is and there’s not a thing either of us can do about it.
He lifts his head. He raises his eyes and looks at me. As soon as he sees me, I watch the usual burst of pain rack his body. After a moment, he looks at me again, his face pale and contorted, his eyes sunken. He searches my face for something – pity? – but finds nothing of comfort. He closes his eyes and hangs his head.
A young man walks past me, dressed in black, a scarf tied round his neck. He pays me no heed. He seems caught up in his own thoughts, muttering quietly to himself.
He’s a big man, with black unruly hair. His clothes, though respectable, are also a little shabby. He seems absent-minded. His large eyes are watery and he has the air of a sleepwalker about him.
All in all, he has the look of someone cultured but not someone of any means. Perhaps he is a country parson or schoolteacher. Whoever he is, his life is about to change for ever.
Bells ring out from the church tower in the town. A horse and cart rumbles by and the man stands aside and finds himself beside the old tramp, who he had clearly not noticed till then. He looks at him with his large, kind eyes.
The young man is about to speak – perhaps to ask if he can be of any help – when the old man’s hand shoots out like a snake and clutches at the stranger’s sleeve. He tries to pull away, telling the old man to leave him be. He does so with good humour. But there is a quiver of fear in his voice. As well there might be.
The young man tells him that he is expected somewhere – that friends are waiting for him – that he has to go. I almost feel sorry for him. He has no idea what he is about to hear. He asks again, his voice more pleading now, for the old man to leave hold.
But he doesn’t let go.
‘There was a ship,’ begins the old man hoarsely.
The young man laughs but his patience begins to fade and again he tells the old man to leave him be. His tone is angry now and the old man looses his grip. But it means nothing. His true hold on the young man is only just beginning. He fixes him with his shadowed eyes, twinkling like rock pools. The young man becomes still.
Though I have watched this scene acted out a thousand times before, it still pulls me in: the moment when the old man traps his prey. The young man sits alongside the wizened old traveller, staring intently at his leathery face. Passers-by who had noticed the old man stop the stranger, now seem not to see either of them at all and continue on their way without giving a sideways glance.
And so the old man begins his tale: a tale I have heard many, many times before. In any event, I hardly need to hear it told. It’s not something I’m ever likely to forget. I was there, after all, though you would scarcely know it by the way he tells the story.
You’d think you might have more than a passing word to say about your own nephew, you old liar! Yes, that’s right: that withered old bag of bones over there is my uncle. My own flesh and blood, heaven help me.
He is my own father’s brother. He hails from the same West Country town that I do, though so much time has gone by now I no longer feel that we were kin at all. I wish we weren’t.
It is a sure sign of a lack of any knowledge of the world when country folk tell you that their own particular patch of land is the best in all the world, but that is exactly what I once thought of my small stretch of the Somerset coast.
And strange to say that though I have travelled far and wide, I still feel the same. All those years I spent dreaming of foreign lands and now I have the same yearning for my home.
I would give anything to see my home again, though I know that everyone and everything I knew will long since have turned to dust.
Even so, I would love, just one more time, to walk the moss-floored oak woods, to stand on the harbour wall or skim pebbles across the breakers as I once did. These things are like a dream to me now. They are like words written in mist.
And yet they are there still in my memory and perhaps I can make them live again. But where to start my story? Which beginning shall I choose? Yes, I think it must start on the day I saw the pilot’s son in the woods . . .
We lived in a little hunchbacked cottage on a tree-lined track that led out from the town and up into the wooded slopes beyond. We went to the town regularly to sell our wares – my mother made baskets – and to buy provisions, but we saw few people at the cottage.
It was a small place but comfortable and, like many others of those times, with a wooden frame and thatched roof across the house and the adjoining barn. Dog roses climbed over the garden fence and honeysuckle grew over the porch.
My mother had a little vegetable patch where she grew beans and cabbages, and a small orchard of apple and plum trees, and beyond that lay the woods of oak and hazel that coated the slopes leading down to the pebble beaches below.
I slept in the top of the house, the beams crowding in around me. My father had cut me a round window in the gable end and I could crouch on my bed and look out across our vegetable patch and towards the woods. I loved to look at the woods at night and hear the owls and, sometimes, in warmer weather, the nightingales that lived there.
My parents had taught me all about the nature of the local fields – my father about the animals and birds, my mother about the plants and flowers and trees. I could name almost anything we came across by the time I was seven.
Often, if I couldn’t sleep and the weather wasn’t too cold, I would take down the round shutter my father had made to cover the window at night and I’d look out at the night woods and wonder what animals went about their unseen business among the trees.
One summer evening as shadows grew, I was kneeling on my bed and looking out when I saw a figure I knew well, standing in the clearing beyond my mother’s little vegetable patch. My mother was dozing in her chair by the open back door and scarcely noticed me passing as I went out.
The pilot’s son stood exactly where I had seen him from the window. He hadn’t moved a muscle. I walked slowly towards him, stealthily, not wishing to frighten him.
The pilot, who steered a safe course through the treacherous shallows for ships coming in and out of the bay, had been a good friend of my father. They’d known each other since they were children. He’d been kind to us since my father died. I had a strong suspicion that he bought more baskets from my mother than he could ever use.
And I had known the pilot’s son all my childhood, but I could not say we were friends exactly as he had always been something of a strange boy. We had played together as young children, but as he got older, more and more, he entered into a world of his own making and we didn’t talk as true friends might.
He was pale-skinned with pitch-black hair and eyes that seemed a size too large for his thin and delicate features. He was always out and about, come rain or shine, but his smooth, wan skin was like that of a newborn infant.
His hands were long and thin fingered and those fingers seemed as though they were without bones. When he made gestures – as he often did, for no obvious reason – they moved like seaweed fronds in the tide.
‘Hello!’ I whispered, following his gaze.
He didn’t respond and I was about to speak again when he turned to face me. He appeared to take a moment to remember who I was. Then his eyes opened wide.
‘The Devil is coming to your house,’ he said, all of a sudden.
I was momentarily startled, as you can perhaps imagine. But then little of what the pilot’s boy said made any sense. It was better not to try to make sense of it. On this occasion, for some reason, I decided to humour him.
‘What do you mean?’ I said with a nervous chuckle.