No one ever refused an invitation from the Sultan. No one would be so imprudent or absurd. The Sultan's hospitality was so lavish, and his displeasure so legendary in its might, potency and jurisdiction that only a madman, would even think of such a thing. But although the Sultan was potent as a ruler, he was a man of extraordinary compassion. Learning of any disasters that befell his subjects, be they weak or strong, rich or poor, he was known to weep openly, and to spend long hours in fervent prayer in his private domain. He was a devout, godly, pious man who believed in the wealth of man's estate upon Earth, and who believed in the spirit of love, devotion and the attachment that bound him to his people, and they to him. He was a just leader of his people, slow to chide, but severe in his admonishment. Penalties for sinfulness and iniquity within his realm were grave, momentous and often fatal.
The punishment for defrauding was exile from the protection and welfare savoured by those who lived and breathed within the walls of his city-state. Exile meant living at variance with nature, exposed to the harsh elements of the desert to the north, or running the gauntlet of hordes of savage warriors raiding to and fro across the wastes of the steppe to east and west.
Adulterers met their portions of the Sultan's reprimands either in the vast Karakum desert if they were male, or else in the stone keep known by the people as the Witches' kitchen, and life in both places was thought to be Hell on Earth.
By day the Sultan could often be seen walking slowly through the groves to his own place of prayer and seclusion. As he walked along the pathways, his long, flowing gown trailed along around his feet, making an arc between the ground and his shoulders that the people called 'The arc up to Heaven'. When others trod this path, the curving billows of their clothes seemed to make an arc different in shape and purity that let followers know it was not the Sultan who was walking even when they could not see his face. Where his garment touched the ground small flowers sprang up making this particular pathway an avenue of colour. The men who tended the earth watered it daily, and tended the flowers to help them flourish and bloom. By these small signs, the Sultan's people knew their ruler reigned by the will of Allah, the 'kut' that only he bore as Sultan.
One day the Sultan was walking slowly to his house of prayer, his head so bowed in his fervency, that he nearly fell over a girl who was picking flowers on the pathway in front of him.
"My child, my child, what do you do that is so demanding of your attention that you impede my path to prayer?" The girl rose in front of him, and hid her face that she might not see the Sultan's disapproval.
"I was picking blossoms," she said through the material of her clothes.
"That, I am able to see," laughed the Sultan, "but why here, and why now?" The girl let the cloth slip from her face to reply.
"My father is ill, and I wanted these," she held out the flowers, "to make him well again."
The Sultan smiled and touched the girl's head softly. "Go now to your father's side," he said gently, "he has need of you," and he let the girl pass by his side, brushing his gown in her haste. The sway of his garment caused him to turn, and in turning he saw the girl's face in profile.
"What name did your father give to you, my child?" The girl wavered in her speed and dropped the flowers she had collected. They fell from her hands onto the mottled sward of the path. Both bent to gather the flowers, and kneeling at the girl's side, the Sultan again asked his question.
"What does your father call you, my child?" The girl turned, flustered that the Sultan should ask her name.
"Yasemin, my name is Yasemin," and she stood up as she had been taught when speaking.
"Then, Yasemin, go to your father's side, he has need of you". Again she sprang into the path.
"But go more carefully, your father is mending. Your faith will be rewarded," and he himself turned his feet towards the gate of his place of prayer.
As the Sultan kneeled in prayer, he saw the girl with her flowers, and again he felt her brush his side as she hurried back to her father. He heard her speaking.
"Yasemin, my name is Yasemin," and although he offered up his prayers in peace, the girl's name came back again and again to disturb his devotion, after which he stood up and breathed in deeply.
Walking back along the path, he happened to stop at the spot where the girl had nearly made him fall. He bent and picked up one of the flowers she had left on the ground. He held it up to his face. It was yellow, and the patterns intricately folded into its petals shone with a brilliance that also disturbed him, and he dropped the flower and continued along the path.
In the days and weeks that followed, the Sultan could think of little else but the girl carrying the flowers to her ailing father. His servants and those who counseled him noticed a change in their master, but said nothing.
Every morning Yasemin went into her father's room to see if he had everything he wanted. She had not slept well, hardly at all, for she tried to listen out for any change in her father's breathing as he laboured in sleep. This night his breath, though weak, had been even. In the small hours, when it seemed to Yasemin that her father was resting, she too fell asleep. Her sleep was light, and the slightest change to the rhythm of her father's breathing would have woken her. This night she slept, and because her sleep was fitful she dreamed. Her dreams wandered between the terror she always felt in the night lest her father passed away without her saying goodbye, and the thoughts of any normal, healthy girl. She dreamed of the man she would marry, her children, and the fine home that she would share with her new family.
One recurring dream seemed to bring her into marble halls, and she woke from these dreams feeling that she had touched the marble, had felt its delicious coolness even in the midday heat. She dreamed of gold and silver platters of meat and fragrant fruit, pomegranates lying open exposing their crimson flesh to her quiet gaze.
She felt as if somebody was constantly inviting her into these places where the sun's rays were stilled as if in divine reverence to those who dwelled there. Morning after morning, as she awoke, listening for the faint sound of her father's breathing, she found herself mouthing the same words.
"I will not go. No, I will not leave him. He has need of me and I am his daughter. I will not come." These words rang in her head.
This constant need to decline an invitation from something, someone, she knew not what to call it, left her feeling stronger and stronger. Her father did have need of her, and she was his daughter. She would not leave him, whoever asked her, she would not. She hurried to the next room and gently pressed her father's brow. He still slept. She ran for water, to wake him so that she could bathe him from the sweat that his fever doused him in every night. She held a chalice of water to his frail lips, and he suffered her to lean him forward and up, the better to drink. Even in his dull sleep he felt his daughter's soft touch and thanked God he had been blessed with such a girl. He drank a little, and the tepid water streamed from his thin lips, down his neck until a little pool was made in the hollows of his neck. He was an old man and his neck was thin and weak. His Adam's apple moved as he drank the water, and the little pool filled and emptied in time to his swallowing. Yasemin dabbed his neck and chest. She made little noises that gurgled in her throat, and watched her father drink and slowly open his eyes. She smiled, although she was hurting inside. These eyes were not the fierce eyes she had known as a child, fierce yet with a wonderful capacity to show joy the moment she came into his view.
She murmured to him as he recognized her after his delirious night. She spoke softly to him.
"I am here father. This is another day and you are already getting better." He smiled at her kindness, without believing her.
"You are getting stronger," she said, "I did not have to lift you to drink this morning." Again he smiled.
"And every morning I will be here, and every morning you will get stronger,” and she let him rest from the exertion of drinking, for she too knew that he was still the same. She spoke these words for him to encourage him back to health, and she spoke them for herself, to make herself think he was recovering, though she was not sure he was.
In the evening, when Yasemin's father was dozing, and his daughter was tending to the thousand chores that needed doing, and which she did without them keeping her from her father's side, a soft knock came at the door. She put down her brush, mopped her brow, and went to see who was at the door. She knew who it would be, for the soft knock was always at the same time, and always sounded the same. It was a gentle tap from a horse soldier’s stick. She knew its sound instinctively, and her expression lightened slightly.
Rustam heard the bolts being thrown back, and straightened, the better to look his part. He had recently become a soldier, and knew that those he loved, and who loved him were proud of the young soldier calling.
The two young people met, their eyes flitted towards each other, and then quickly away. Modesty forbade any longer contact, though both young hearts beat faster at seeing the other.
"I have come to see how your father is," said Rustam doffing his hat as he crossed the threshold into the cool house. Yasemin kept curtains drawn that the harshness of the sun's rays would not cause her father discomfort.
"He is the same," and then hurriedly, as if to convince herself, "better today, I think."
"I am glad for that, and.." he looked at her again, "for you." She lowered her eyes. Rustam continued to look at her. This asking and being given the same answer was the ritual that both tacitly entered into. It brought Yasemin comfort to be asked, and it gave her strength to say he was getting better.
"You will sit and have tea?" she asked, and he nodded and placed his stick and hat in the corner of the room. He sat down and she scurried to the kitchen where the water was bubbling gaily in the pot.
As she brought the tray of tea and two glasses to his side, he spoke.
"Have you thought about my…." She stopped him.
"I cannot give you your answer while he has need of me," and she beckoned to the door of her father's room.
"I only ask for you," he said quietly, "I know of your trouble."
"But yet you continue to ask," she said frowning slightly.
"Of course," he said, "I would not be worthy of you if I did not."
She poured out the two, and for a while they drank in silence, the warmth and the sweetness soothing away any distance either might have felt.
When the Sultan was asked to make judgments in disputes between the people, who traditionally depended on his great wisdom, those who were allowed an audience with him noticed a certain abstraction that came over him from time to time, but they said nothing. His decisions at these meetings were still imbued with the insight into the nature of his people that they so revered, but now some noticed that his decisions bore a slight partiality to those men who had daughters. At first it was hardly noticeable, not at all remarkable, and if noticed, put down to the immutable law of averages. As time went on, and more and more conclusions were reached by the Sultan, the scribes and advisors did start to see that there was a definite bias in the Sultan's decrees towards those citizens whose offspring were female. As it was observed, it began to be discussed. Talk of the Sultan's predilection was clandestine, but always took on more of a concern for the Sultan's state of mind, than being given over to elements that displayed any disrespect to him. On the contrary, the talk very often dwelt on how progressive in his thinking he had become. But nevertheless, the Sultan's decisions were scrutinised for this bias, and more and more often it was found to be increasing.
One day, the Sultan's chief adviser, a wise man by the name of Serik, asked the Sultan for a moment of his valuable time. The Sultan consented, and the two men sat down. Tea was ordered, the Sultan nodding his wishes to the attendant who had come to be able to read his master's thoughts and wishes manifest in the hundred little nods and frowns that never broke the silence of this room.
"What is it that you wish to talk about?" The Sultan turned to Serik for an answer. Serik straightened at the look he received.
"You are troubled, sire," he said, allowing a glimmer of kindness and respect to escape.
"I do not think I would call it troubled." The Sultan spoke in softer tones, glad of the mingling of respect and concern in Serik's voice.
"Why do you ask?"
"Only because it..." He paused, thinking he had blundered.
"You do not listen to gossip I hope." The Sultan's visage grew darker.
"Then continue what you were about to say." Serik gained a little composure.
"It has been noticed that you are not looking well these days, that..."
"Pray continue," said the Sultan, his curiosity overcoming his reserve.
"That something is giving you some discomfort." Serik bowed his head in a plea of forgiveness for the intrusion.
"I am the Sultan." Serik smiled at his master's shrewd observation.
"Yes, master, that is true, you are. The Sultan caught the sarcasm in Serik's voice and stiffened.
"I am the Sultan," he repeated, watching for a sign from Serik. Serik gave none, and bowed his head at his own unrefined behaviour. "I have no children, I have no children to carry on my work." Serik smiled again, but this time it was a sympathetic smile.
"That is also true, master." The Sultan looked Serik in the face, looking for disrespect, and finding none he continued. "And I am getting older. I am not even married. I have no wife to bear me an heir." Serik was again going to say that that was indeed true, but the Sultan started again.
"I have found a girl. She is right for the wife of a Sultan, though she is poor."
"Then you must inform her of your intentions, inform her..." The Sultan squirmed at being told what he, The Sultan, should and shouldn't do. It wasn't that he resented Serik's telling him, but rather that as he listened he felt the other's junior.
The Sultan had spent most of his life cloistered and bent in prayer, only allowing himself to lift up from his prayers and devotion to administer judgments on his people when it was required. He knew nothing of courtship, of wooing a maiden, of asking a man for his daughter's hand. He felt naive and slightly simple, but he also felt clean and pure, and these feelings served him to be dignified in his ignorance of such worldly matters.
"What shall I do,” he asked meekly. Serik thought for some long moments. He had no wish to incur his master's displeasure a second time in one day.
"Send for her to come here,” then he added almost as an afterthought, "ask her to come with her father."
"Her father is unwell, and could not be expected to make the journey." The Sultan looked glum.
"Then she must come with another elder. Send her an invitation. She must come if you send her an invitation to come and talk. You are the Sultan."
"And I am also someone with designs on a man's daughter. I can send no such presumption."
"But what else can you do, if you do not send her an invitation?" The Sultan pondered over this until Serik almost blurted out a solution.
"Send your entourage, provide the means of her coming here. Then she cannot refuse, and would not do in any case."
"But her father," the Sultan replied quickly, "how will he fare without his daughter at his side when he has need of her." Both men pondered over this for some time. At last it was the Sultan who tendered a solution.
"I will send her my physician." Serik clapped his hands together silently.
"That is the answer, then she would not and could not refuse your invitation."
"One last thing before you go," Serik stood up knowing he had been dismissed.
"Will you draft a letter for me. You know of my ignorance in these, erm," he paused, searching for the right word, "these matters." Serik bowed his head in obedience, happy at last to be able to do something tangible for his master.
"I will be happy to, sire," he said, bowed again and left the Sultan to his thoughts, which were racing in his head. He almost said to himself, "She will come, she must come if I send her an invitation." But he only half believed it, only wishing it deeply. "Wishing would not make it so, he thought."
Alone in his quarters, Serik thought about what the Sultan had told him.
"He could choose any girl his heart desired, and yet he chooses a girl from a poor family." Serik pondered over this, and then said to himself.
"But that is part of his greatness," he poured himself a glass of water.
"He could have a partner with a fabulous dowry, but what does he want with riches, he has everything he wants in the cool domain of his prayers."
He drank a little water, and then held the glass up to his eyes.
"Purity is everything. As it is with water, so it is with the heart."
Alone in his room the Sultan rested. His thoughts moved to the girl, indeed, they had never been anywhere else. He drank some milk, and let the cool smoothness flood through his mouth. The coolness soothed him.
"What if she refuses me," he thought. "It is unthinkable." A smile flickered across his face. "And yet I am thinking it just the same." He frowned now, and his brow carried uncustomary furrows. The smile returned.
"If she refuses me she will be right. I cannot expect to command the love of a girl in the same way that I command the love of my people."
He drank a little more of the goat's milk.
"It is said that a women falls in love because of what she hears from the mouth of a man, and," he paused to recollect the adage, "and a man falls in love because of what he sees in the face of a girl." He thought of Yasemin again, and tried to remember what he had seen in her face.
"Something more than beauty," he said softly to himself, "something more profound and longer lasting than mere physical beauty." He thought of her face, and he remembered seeing it in profile as she passed him on the path. He remembered what she had been doing there, picking flowers to take to the bedside of her sick father.
"Beauty of spirit, beauty of thought, and beauty of faith, that is what I saw." And once he found these words, he never lost sight of her face, radiant, trusting and clear and pure.
"Like goat's milk, purity is everything," he said, and finished the milk, savouring its purity.
"But what has she heard of me, I said very little to her. How can I expect her love if that old proverb has any truth in it?" The frown returned, and remained in his fitful sleep as the milk and the activity of the day, the uncertainty, the not knowing, all took their toll and he blinked heavy eyelids to a sleep that evaded his troubled mind.
Yasemin's father was getting weaker. That was the plain truth, and everyone saw it except Yasemin, who refused to believe that her father was recovering. She clung to the thought night and day, with the tenacity of a person faced with accepting the awful truth. She refused to believe he was getting better, and saw daily signs that he was actually in a state of slow recovery.
"Look, she would say to her uncle when he came in the mornings with the bread for the day, "he has eaten that whole piece I gave him," and she showed her uncle the remains of a piece of bread. He had tried to nibble at the brown corner, but had not even the strength for that.
"Yes, he has eaten some bread," her uncle said softly and with some encouragement, though he knew his brother would not last many more nights.
"He is getting better, and it is all because of you, Yasemin."
"I know it, I know it," she cried out, almost with pleasure, "and he will soon be fit and sitting in the garden again." And then as if to convince herself again she said, "you'll see him soon tending the borders."
The uncle looked again at his brother's daughter. She was a good girl, she would fight to the very end. She would never leave him, and then he wished he had had daughters instead of the two scoundrels he had to call his sons.
He muttered to himself, "And she will make someone a good wife," and then added, "She is fit to become the wife of even the Sultan." Yasemin looked up, and her uncle saw her face in profile. "And she is beautiful enough."
He only smiled at her turned face, and left her to tend to his dying brother.
"Say goodbye to him, my child."
"You are going somewhere," then hurriedly, "you will not bring bread in the morning while he is like this?" The man moved his head that she may not see his expression, for he could not know contain or hide his sadness. He murmured incoherently.
"Of course, I will bring you bread, for as you say, he is eating again."
At the usual time that her uncle visited his ailing brother, Yasemin looked out from a window, fully expecting to see him hurrying down the hill towards the house. She saw nothing, but she heard a great commotion coming from the direction of the hill.
"Perhaps he has fallen and hurt himself hurrying to get here," she said to herself. The noise was growing. And it was getting nearer and nearer.
"I should go to see if it is him," she said to her father, who was still sleeping. She talked to him constantly, whether he was awake or asleep. If he was awake she spoke normally, and with expression and enthusiasm, but if he was sleeping she spoke in deferential quietness, not wishing to wake him, but still having a need to speak to him as if he were standing beside her working in the garden.
Outside the noise, the sound of voices, excited voices, frantic voices, and a rumbling of strong cartwheels along the rough stone of the track, joined with the voices of her neighbours to produce a deafening tumult, which ceased outside her door. It could only mean one thing, that her uncle had fallen, and a cart was bringing him to his brother's house, her own house. The situation inside her own house, her father laying sick, together with her unrelenting belief in his recovery, had given her mind over to catastrophes involving others. It was never never her own dear father who was going to be brought low by disaster, but someone near perhaps. This sound made her fear worse, though she would not endure the thought where her own father was concerned.
"It must be him," she said to herself and unbolted the door. As she unbolted the door and threw it open on its rough iron hinges, the last of the clamour outside died completely. Directly in front of her, a young man dressed in fine raiment, was getting down from the carriage. She had never seen a carriage like this one, and wondered what it meant. As the young man lowered himself with something of a flourish, an older, altogether more serious looking character dressed in black, had rounded the back of the carriage, and he too was approaching her. Yasemin's heart leapt. Could it be that her uncle had been involved in some terrible accident, for she recognized the clothes of the older man. He was a physician, and he was looking straight at her, waiting for the younger of the two men to do something or say something, she knew not what. The younger was unraveling something. Its yellowy white surface reflected the sunlight of the morning, and his face was illuminated by its iridescence.
The Sultan sat in the half darkness of the evening and reflected upon his decision. Now that he had made it, and events were unfolding around him he found himself in a state of uncertainty.
"Freedom from having to make a choice is a great freedom indeed," he said to himself quietly, and smiled. This choice had been one he felt he had freely entered into, and he had only the coercion of his heart to suffer.
And yet he still doubted that she would come, although he had sent his entourage, and his finest physician to attend to her father.
"Will she come?" he asked gazing upwards, "only God knows." And then as if to revive his spirits, which had somehow sunk with the question, he said,
"Whatever path she chooses will be the right one," and pausing, "and God knows that too."
He looked around the marble hall in which he sat. The finery around him, the jewel encrusted chair on which he sat, the fine carpets upon which he walked to and fro, and his own magnificent attire, all was nothing before the peasant girl who held his life in the balance. It was good that he trusted in God, for the crushing weight of uncertainty, the fear of refusal, could not - would not - have been born without his faith. He kneeled in meek submission to the will of God, and let his faith and his piety be shown as he mouthed his supplication to the Heavens.
As he prayed there came a sound from outside this private chamber. Hearing it, he continued his devotion, a little disturbed by the noise from without, and finishing his prayer, he stood upright and approached the heavy wooden doors. There was something going on the other side, and for an instant his temper flared at the intrusion into the solitude he always required to direct his thoughts to God.
Opening the door, not without some effort, he found that it was the physician who was responsible for the commotion.
"They would not let me see you, sire," he almost shouted in his urgency, throwing the two guards back from him as he spoke. The Sultan was curious.
"And why would you want to see me, physician, I am not unwell." The physician who had forgotten himself in the heat of the moment, bowed deeply to his master. He was now almost breathless.
"Calm yourself man, be not afraid, and say what it is that is bursting your lungs to utter." The physician straightened sharply, as he was bidden to speak.
"She will not come, sire, and her father's state worsens by the hour."
Yasemin's father had indeed become considerably worse. His breath rasped out of him, and intermittent bouts of coughing racked his frail body, sometimes lifting him off the white bed linen. Yasemin sat by her father, and would see no one. Even the Sultan's physician had to enter her father's room before she would speak to him.
"Cannot you do something for him," she entreated him. He took out the tools of his trade; a sort of rounded horn, which he placed on the old man's chest to listen to him breathing.
"I fear your father has pneumonia," he said gently to the girl waiting anxiously for an answer.
"What does that mean?" she asked uneasily.
"He is literally drowning, his lungs are filling with water, and that is what is making him cough so," he said.
"What can be done," and then as if in shock, "there is something to be done, is there not?" The physician thought for a moment.
"You can pray for him," and he looked at her realising that she must have been doing all she could, she looked so tired.
"And you can keep him as warm as possible until his fever passes." He had said that to give her hope, although he knew that there was none. The old man would not escape death. His heart would not stand the pounding it was being given by the lungs without their fill of life giving air.
"And you can ask God for a miracle," he said, turning his face that he might not see the girl's anguish.
"I have asked for God's forgiveness for my sins, and I have asked God to remember my father's life, his work in the fields tending His Creation."
"Yes," said the physician gently, "I can feel there is a bond between your father and the Earth," and then he added, "and between you and your father."
"I am his daughter."
"Quite so, and you must not leave him now, for if he is to survive this night, he will need you constantly at his side. His brow will become bathed in perspiration, and you must attend to him."
I will never leave my father, now or at any time." She looked down at her ailing father, at him struggling against the interminable fluid that filled his poor lungs.
"He may sense that you are about to leave his house."
"He has not heard or seen what has been going on outside," she said with dread in her voice.
"But he has a sixth sense where you are concerned, he knows everything."
That night was the longest, most agonising night of Yasemin's young life. She felt the weight of each second, the length of each single minute, and the duration of an hour was almost intolerable, for she weighed time, not by the passing of hours, minutes or seconds, but by her father's heartbeat. She held his wrist throughout the night, feeling for the faint pulse that told her that his life still hung by a thread. After one heartbeat came the unendurable stillness until the next, and the next. She spent the night dying a death between each of her father's heartbeats, stricken by the thought that each one was his last.
As she held his wrist she prayed. She could not kneel as she would have liked, but she prayed her most earnest entreaties. She knew that her God was an all-knowing deity, and she knew that He knew she had entertained thoughts of admitting the Sultan into her young life.
"Who would not do so," she had said to herself. But she knew that she could not leave her father, and this vow she had made, she did despite the Sultan's prayers for her to become his bride. She felt almost now as if her prayers were in direct opposition to those of the Sultan, and wept a long tear in the fear that the Sultan would prevail. She knew of his might, of his legendary displeasure, and his awesome jurisdiction and power, and she became afraid for her own life, as well as the life of her dear father.
In the darkest hour before the dawn, Yasemin reached a crisis in her thoughts, and her father reached one in his affliction. As Yasemin and her father came near to God, in their thoughts, and in their bodies, a noise from behind her made her start. She tugged slightly at her father, and he too started. A tall man was standing behind the girl, and as she looked round in perfect dread, she saw the figure turn to leave. As he did so she noticed the shape of his long gown, between his high shoulders and the ground. It was a heavenly shape, which at first did not strike her vision, but as she peered harder in the darkness, she comprehended the shape that was before her.
A voice emanated from the figure.
"Have no fear, my child, you will not leave your father, for he has need of you." She turned to her father, who had opened his eyes a little.
"And do not be afraid of anyone, God has seen your faithfulness. You will not go unrewarded." The figure merged slowly into the darkened room that had become perceptibly lighter with the passing of the apparition. Some hours had passed at a pace of unearthly rapidity, and her father's pulse was much stronger.
The first light of the day streaked through the windows, in spite of Yasemin's attempts to draw the curtains to keep it out. Now, she stood up and flung them back so that her father, who was now sitting up, and breathing regularly, could gain the benefit of the life-giving rays.
But there was another commotion, and she saw that again the carriage was in the track coming towards her home.
"He cannot have heard my father is recovering," she thought, and passed out of the room to find out what was happening.
The same messenger strode to her door, though it seemed that his step was heavier than it had been the day before. She opened the door. The crowd, many with sleep in their swollen eyes, were blinking at this second visit.
"I have news," said the messenger gravely. Yasemin shook with the fear that she had wronged the Sultan.
"My Master passed from us in the night." He bowed his head in sadness.
"You cannot mean.." Yasemin shook the man by his arms, "you cannot mean that the Sultan is dead." The messenger lifted his tearstained face and looked at the girl in front of him.
"I do mean that, for my master, the Sultan, Sultan Sancar is no more."
The girl turned her face and wept.
"But he has bidden us to send you a token," he said, pointing at the ground. At his side lay a casket, bound with iron bands, mighty as the Sultan's displeasure, lavish as his hospitality.
"But what is it?" she asked.
"That I cannot say, I only am commanded to bring it to you." Then, as if commanded again, he turned on his heels and was gone from her door, leaving only the casket to be carried indoors.
She pulled at it until it was safely inside. Then she locked and bolted the door. She took hold of the clasp and bent it open with her tiny hands. It was stiff, as if it had been closed up for centuries. It finally yielded to her pressure, and slowly the lid opened. As it opened, a strange, almost unearthly light glowed from its inner recesses. Upon it being opened, the room filled with an incandescent glow that was suffused with the singular warmth of the happiness of a full stomach, a raging thirst quenched, or of a mortal infirmity brought low and a restoration to full health. She mouthed wonder at the sight, but uttered not a word. Behind her another sound grew, and turning she saw it was her father who was moving slowly towards her. His face shone and he was hearty. He looked down at his daughter.
"This is the Sultan's gift to his new bride, on the morning of their new life." They smiled at each other, and silently gave thanks for the wisdom and greatness of Sultan Sancar.
Our city did not have a wall around it. It was so remote, so high, that nobody ever thought to build one.
”Why do you want to build one, to keep us in, or the snow out,” they would have said, if it had ever been suggested. Our city was high in the mountains, although in summer it did not seem so. All around our city, which was built on a wide flat plain, were higher mountains, so that you could almost forget the city was nearly two thousand metres above the sea. Only the cold air in the night, and the wind howling from the lairs of wolves made you remember that this city was high, high, high, above the passes and the lakes, the frowning cliffs, and the black canyons at their feet.
In our city, the lives of the people were dictated by the seasons, by the constant preparations for winter. In the springtime, when the first green shoots showed through the snows, we fertilized the fields with muck from our horses and our oxen, and with our own muck too, for nothing was wasted in our city. The muck was spread over the fields, still half covered with the snow, but the green shoots almost seemed to grow greener with every day that passed. When the snow finally melted, the plain became a carpet of many colours; the flowers and the bright mosses between them made it seem as if the city had grown up from a sea of flowers.
After the worst of the winter had passed, the days slowly grew warmer, although it was still too cold to do much after dark. Even on spring nights in our city, the streets and squares were empty, only those who had to go out on important errands were to be found outside after the sun had gone down.
The people, and the animals stayed indoors. We would have put the cattle out but there was nothing for them to eat, except snow and the green shoots of the first of the year's grasses. Gradually all the snow vanished from the plain until the children ran out into the long awaited sunshine to play. The grass grew furiously then, but the hungry horses, sheep and cattle had to be kept off it until the grass grew long enough to be cut, piled to dry, turned every day, and tied onto the rooves of the houses, in a great sheaf of a pyramid, away from the hungry mouths of the animals.
My task as a child, before I was big enough, or strong enough to handle the scythes the men used to cut the grass, was to take our animals up to the slopes of the mountains that surrounded the plains upon which our city was built. My father came with me on the first morning, and I rode behind him on our donkey, which had no name. We were too earnest in surviving the winters to be interested in such things, and my father would have beat me if he had ever heard me talking softly down the long ears of our donkey.
As we got higher and higher, toward the spring pastures on the slopes of the green mountains, I watched my father as he looked around for the best place to graze his animals.
“Boy,” he would say to me, for he never called me by my first name out of the house, this is the place, bring our animals here every morning. He pointed higher up the slopes, showing me the limit of where our animals were to eat. High up there, on the slopes of the mountain I could see the whole of the city below, and my favourite game was to squint down and see our house, and to watch if anybody entered or left while I was away.
If I thought I had seen someone go into our house, when it was time to go back down, I would make the animals run back down the hill in my rush to ask my sister who had called and what they had wanted. If my mother's sisters had been, I rushed to my mother to tell me what they had left me, or what they had been talking about.
Both my mother's sisters had been beyond the city, and were full of tales of the land down below the lake, where the people lived in warm sunshine all the year round. If my mother's sisters came in the evenings, I begged to be allowed to stay up until they came. My sister went to bed when the sun was going down, for she was younger than me, but I didn't go up sometimes until an hour had passed after the sun had gone behind the mountains.
As we sat eating, they would come, and I would rush to finish so that I could go and sit by the fire, and listen to them talking to my mother and my father. Always they brought something for us, and we waited with eager faces until we were given the something that they had brought for us. If we had ever dared to ask what they had brought us, my father would have sent us to our beds sad and hungry.
My mother's sisters knew we were waiting, and they knew, I think, our anguish and our excitement at waiting. This night, I was given a pomegranate, as I often was, and I ran to my mother's apron to seek out a needle to spike the small pockets of fruit, each with its own seed. I liked to eat them that way so that they lasted half a week, and then in the morning, after the visit of my mother's sisters, I could take the round red fruit up into the high meadows and spike at the yellow flesh until it was time to come down again. The animals liked me to get a pomegranate, because I was always so intent upon not missing a pocket of fruit that I let them wander onto the higher ground where the tender shoots were just beginning to show through the last of the snow. My father would have beat me, but he never saw the sheep eating the green shoots higher up the slopes of the mountain.
The juice from the pomegranate slowly seeped into my cheeks and made me bunch my eyes at first, but then it began to grow sweet in my mouth, and I thought of the warm, soft lands where such delicious food could be plucked from boughs hanging heavy with ripe fruit.
I smiled to think that my mother's sisters had been there. As far as I knew, nobody had relatives who had been anywhere near the south, over the mountains, down, down, down to where there was no snow, not even in winter. There was not even a winter, my mother's elder sister had told us, and we wondered what life was like without snow, or cold, or without having to pile the dried grass on our rooves.
I always longed for the warmer times, in between the winters. We seemed to live then. Everybody worked together to get ready. When the time came for the grass to be cut, every man who had any strength, and a scythe, helped to cut the grass, which never grew more than half a metre high. When the time came, the men would come around to sit in our house and talk. I think they came to our house because it had a room where they could all sit and talk. When they came, taking their rough boots off and leaving them at the door, deferential to my father, respectful to my mother, jolly to us children. My mother, and some of the other women who had come to help, made tea, and brought out the samovar into the middle of the room, and poured the tea from it.
Our people love tea, and will drink it whenever two or more people gather. If the men sit down to play cards, or tavla, they do not have to ask for tea, it is understood that tea will be wanted, and it will be provided.
My mother had just bought some tea, which had come over the mountains, from the north, and she left the bag where everybody could see it, as if to say, this tea is fresh, it is new, and it will be good.
The men saw the bag, but took no notice of it. Tea was tea to them. They didn't care where it came from or who had made it. They were only interested in the taste, and an ever-ready supply of it. It was not a man's job to make tea. I had never been taught how to make it properly, although I had seen my mother make it a thousand times. I had watched her show my sister how to make good tea, in readiness for the time when she was a wife, and had a man to make tea for.
My sister was younger than I was, but even now, when she came home from school, she would have her duties, and when my father came in after toiling in the fields, before he went out to talk and chew tobacco and drink tea with the other men, my sister brought him water to wash his face, and took his boots outside and cleaned them for the next day.
She was getting a sort of training. All the girls in our city had the same things to do, bringing water for their fathers to wash, waiting on guests as they sat and chatted, helping their mothers, until a young man and his father came one evening, and talked long to the girl's father, and a date was set for the start of a life together, on the plains of Erzurum, preparing for the winter, and preparing for the next generation, the continual battle against the elements, helped by Allah, doing everything within a circle of mountains, two thousand metres above the sea.
When the grass had stopped growing, the men started to cut it on the plain outside the city, and everywhere I could see men with long handled scythes, sweeping the flat ground expertly in broad semi circles, which showed lighter green underneath.
Our mothers, and us children had our jobs too. It was my job to take the grey stone round to the cutters, so that they could sharpen the blades of their scythes. I took water to them too, which they drank in huge gulps, so that I was continually running back to the house for more. My sister and the other girls, and some of the smaller boys, helped the mothers to tie up the grass in bundles, and lean them upright to dry out.
I loved to see the plain when most of it had been cut, although this took several weeks of hard, thirsty work.
When the men had nearly finished, and everywhere looked like a green carpet, short and even, and the stooks of grass looked funny, standing a few metres apart, like soldiers watching over our land.
Then when the men had gone back to drink tea and rest, we played our games in between the stooks. We chased the girls until they screamed, and we jumped out from behind the stooks, in imitation of the Red Indians we had read about in storybooks at school.
When the grass had dried, the women came again and piled it onto carts pulled by donkeys, or else carried it on their backs, bent almost double, walking back to the houses, an hour away under the weight of a sheaf of dried grass. There were long lines of women trudging along the tracks back to the outskirts of our city. The carts were piled high too, and they lumbered along at the pace of the child walking at the donkey's side, prodding it with a stick if it slowed its ambling pace.
Once all the stooks had been brought in, the men left their tavla, and their talk, and in twos and threes, helped each other to pile the grass on the flat rooves of the houses, and the rooves of the byres and barns, keeping the people, and the animals warm through the winter.
The walls of the houses were thick, so thick that we could sit and play in the space behind the windows, although once the winter came that place was filled up with paper, rags, or anything to keep the cold out of our warm house.
There were no windows in the byres of course. Cows and sheep are not interested in looking out at snow, but they need the warmth, and piling the grass tied in stooks, on the rooves kept them warm until the sun gave the earth some heat again.
With food in our cupboards, charcoal stacked in an empty corner, and water in the well below the floor of our house, we were finally ready for the winter. It came always within a few days every year. The days would steadily get colder, and the nights would already be freezing, then, when the wind turned and blew from the north, everybody stayed indoors, the snow came, and covered the tops of house and byres, and my father put on his rough coat and his leather boots, and cut a hole through the snow.
We were walled-in by the snow, but the passage my father had cut served to let us out of our prison. He cut a way into the byres where the animals slept. He cut steps up to the grass on the rooves. The grass had been covered over with oily covers that my father had brought back from the men who sailed the sea, which I had never seen.
Every morning he cut his way to the grass on the roof, and took armfuls of it to the animals. I went with him, muffled up to my eyes against the bitter cold, and while I gave each animal some grass, my father dug deep into their dung, and threw it out of the door in a great steaming pile, to be used after the snows had finally gone from the plain.
Our lives were dictated by the winters, and the preparations to survive them. Everything had a sort of circular movement, so that before a child was old enough to read and write, it could sense the rotation of life, moving continually around the icy winters, through the summers on the high meadows, spying for visitors, spiking pomegranates, coming down to help get the grass in, and playing in and out of the stooks standing to dry, talking down the long ears of our donkey, who was older than men, and had seen everything that ever went on in Erzurum, the city without a wall.
"Of course I live here in Trabizon, but I am not Turkish. You see, I have to put a sound between the b and the z. It is not possible to say this word like you Turks say it.
My language is Georgian, and of course I know Russian but do not speak it anymore. We had to learn it at school, but we didn't speak it very much. If ever we had to go up to that frozen city in the north, we would practise Russian, but Georgian is my language, and now a little Turkish.
I came here because it is not very far from my village in the green hills of
Nobody loves tea like a Georgian, except the Turkish, and the English who do not make tea like we do. We know how to brew tea. We do not rush it, to spoil just to get in front of the television or a football match. In
When the border opened and the 5 Year Plans were over we crossed and came along that road that leads to the first town; Hopa. We could see that you had been frightened of us. That road, the only way into your country from ours, could have been destroyed easily and sent into the sea. The faces of the quarries would have rolled over the asphalt and we could not have come.
It was not our doing you understand, to be unfriendly to you beside your firesides watching the news of this and that, listening to the ideology pouring out of that cold city in the north, and I am sure that it was none of your doing to say and think about our too large brute that is now not anywhere.
We have come, that is all, and everything that ever was is forgotten for as I have said we had no control over the saying.
Now we are here we are happy. My friend over there, you see, on that stall selling bits of anything, watches, bottles of Vodka, spanners, she is no beauty but she makes a fortune in the night, around the hotels.
Those girls, I do not do such things, tell me that this is not Trabizon, this, they say, is Eldorado, they say that the streets are paved with gold around
They are not bad girls. Some of them were schoolteachers in
Like a pheasant that has too many brown chicks, we did not look after our own. The men who ruled us but never cared for us, took us for granted, and fed their own glory from the mouths of statues, and now the statues of stone are knocked down forever, we have to look after ourselves again, but I think that is too late for some.
We never really thanked the man with the marks on his head until it was all over. Nobody ever imagined that what he did could be done. We just brushed him aside as yet another good talker, just another zealous reformer who would end up in the Lubyanka, but he did it and we are free from that yoke.
You called us
Those women over yonder – yes – look - they are different. They come from a little country, cold and grey, and yet they are warm people. They look not like us who are from the same villages and the same towns. They have high blue eyes, high cheekbones and proud faces, plenty to be proud of. They had to speak other tongues than their own in what they thought was their own country, and work like dogs only to starve like dogs, but that is all forgotten, I do not forget, but my husband who is dead, lying in Georgian earth, said I was a fool, but it is sometimes hard to not remember, and so do not try to forget for a while, that is the way to stop these things from happening again to us, or to any of us who are together in this world.
Enough talk. You want to buy. Look what I have for you. Playing cards, you play cards, don't you? A bottle of Georgian vodka, better than that cheap stuff she is selling over there.
Here we have clothes for the young people. They are listening to music that is loud and wild, I do not like it but I like our young people being a bit crazy like all young people, while it is the time for them to do things like I don't know what in these new days.
You want a watch, maybe a stopwatch on a chain that looks silver. Look on the back. See it has an emblem. It is from our navy. Look here you will find these nowhere else in the world, dishes for holding I don't know what, they have a hole in the centre. This one is the 10th symphony of that fool Shostakovitch. He was in favour with those jackals in
That is one of my ambitions by the way, to see the magnificent Bush House, full of plays and symphonies. That would be something to see. I suppose my daughter's kids will see it someday.
I tell them, I say, go to
But look at this stuff, the leftovers of a superpower. Don't make me laugh. You want to know what really makes me laugh, that the crazy Americans were shit scared of those bastards in
The world's richest, most advanced country, frightened of us, beavering away behind our closed borders producing this, a coffee grinder that wouldn't grind a monkey nut, a drill that hasn't been hardened, it wouldn't even drill wood, and a radio that might get the World Service from Bush House if you were sitting in the
And now it's all over, and we are here..in Eldorado. The British and the Americans go to the Middle East, that is their Eldorado, with black gold under the sand dunes, but this is ours, here on the beautiful Black Sea, a few kilometres for some of us, a thousand for him from the shores of the
I never hear it these days, it is just so much noise, but they still go to the mosque, the devout, the ones with beards, and little skull caps, and their women, covered from head to foot, they go, at different times, and they are good to us. They come to buy the things that they can't get from their own shops. The trip to the capital, or to
And us, we learn their language, and live in their houses and apartments, sell them all kinds of rubbish, and see some of their men folk behind closed doors on hotel corridors, and we do exactly what we want, or should I say, do what we are capable of doing.
We know the value of goodness, and we are glad to do things, to make money. Yes, of course, for nobody can live without money, but as well, it is for the making and the doing, and to see what we have made and what we have done. To be able to say to you; Look what I have done with these hands. I was not ordered to do it. I did it because I wanted to, that is all, and that is the best reason for doing something, because of wanting to make something and say that is mine, and now you will give me something for it, and it is yours. You give me some of that tea you have grown, with your hard work and with the hand of God, and this is yours.
And we do what we can - whatever that thing may be - it is good. She has the looks and the figure. She earns her life on her back. That man was an engineer in
We each do what we can, and we are free, free to starve if we must, but free for all that. The threat of starving to death is better than being told that you have to move to a farm two thousand kilometres from the place you were born, to starve there instead.
The pheasant with too many chicks, and her bright plumage showing everywhere that she is a good mother when she is nothing of the sort.
That old piece of nastiness, Joe Stalin, they say, was a Georgian, but I never believed it. No Georgian that I ever met would do such things. We are a kind people, who just want to be left to get on with our lives, write music, sell vodka, or ourselves, it doesn't matter, so long as we live by our own decisions, to live or to die, here in this green, pleasant land, where they grow tea, and sit drinking it in the evenings, without the fear of somebody coming to take them away. This is Eldorado.
The man's step grew heavier as he climbed the hill. He was hungry, and now he was beginning to feel weary of his journey. His appearance suggested poverty, yet his face did not have the downcast look usual to that state. His tiredness hung over him like a cloud, but he had the look about him of intelligence, and he had a keen, bright eye. Whether the expression he bore was emphasised by the contrast it made to his general appearance would have been difficult to say. The impression gained by an interested observer would have been of a once prosperous, perhaps thinking man, who had lately fallen on hard times.
This part of his journey crossed a lonely tract of moorland, and only the grey walls on either side gave any suggestion of population. The place froze his bones. He eventually approached a building of singular appearance that seemed to grow out of the failing light. Looking to his feet, he feared he was too late to find a bed, for the ground was dark and cheerless, but lifting his gaze he saw that the sky still held the last remnants of day in it. It was a mongrel hour, neither night nor day that a clear sky can frequently produce. The track twisted away to the edge of the moor till it disappeared into a chasm, where the grey overlapping hills met in a rocky abyss into which night had already fallen.
The building was windowless, dank and grey, and somewhat macabre in appearance, made so by a large wooden construction at the building's rear. The sinister air that surrounded the building, and the slight chill of the evening caused the man to shudder. The house, built of a coarse, grey stone of the same kind that had made him stumble earlier in the day, was not sheltered. It lay at the very brow of the hill, prey to any gales that this upland seemed to make neighbour.
He approached the small wooden door, and caught the sound of voices through the cracked mortar. He knocked limply on the door, and heard the sound of bolts being thrown back on the inside. The door creaked open, deadly slow and stiff as if through lack of use. In the opening, framed by a dull light, stood a headless man; the lintel obscured his shoulders. Both men stooped, and came within an inch of banging heads.
"Come in stranger," urged the leather-aproned man within. The traveler entered, straightening to his full height in the dim light. His eyes slowly grew accustomed to the lacklustre twilight of smoking candles, and he saw men sitting at wooden benches; he heard the hum of their talk, hardly intelligible through the mist of their breath. He felt the presence of the man who had opened the door. He turned to look at him. He looked past him and saw barrels resting on rough wooden stillages.
"What can we do for ye?" asked the round faced man, who was staring intently.
"A glass of ale," his reply was automatic, and was spoken to the barrels rather than to the man who had asked the question.
"And some bread and a platter of meat ye'd be wanting, I shouldn't wonder," said the man, who now assumed his place as Landlord.
"If it isn't too much trouble."
"No, t'aint, that's what we're here for," and turning to a girl who stood in his shadow, yelled at her roughly.
"Mary, stop yer gawpin' and get this gentleman what he wants." The girl rushed away to the barrels.
The room became more and more distinct; he saw people sitting around low tables. Some were drinking from rough pewter tankards, while others chewed tobacco, and spat loudly into the sawdust of the stone floor. The men sitting at the table nearest to him, turned their heads the better to see who had entered, and in so doing, revealed their faces and yellow necks. Some of them had hideous swollen goiters, which made him turn his head away. Looking down at the benches, he saw that the men had hutched up to leave him a space to sit, and he sat down wearily. The men turned to resume their mumbled conversations.
The girl put a tankard down in front of him, and he drank long and deep. The warmth and the closeness of the air relaxed him and he felt his tiredness again.
"Where are you headin', stranger?" the landlord said, addressing the back of his head, and winking to those who faced him.
"Alfreton." His reply was slow and reluctant. The men stared at him as he answered.
"There's work round these parts, if it's work ye want," the Landlord turned his head to the men sitting next to him.
"There's work, but it's work ye wouldn't be wantin'," he laughed loudly and spat in the sawdust. The stranger turned his head, which the Landlord took for a question.
"We're waitin' for him as comes to hang 'em up, ye know," and laughed again grimly.
"He's come," said the stranger looking back to the table. The Landlord scratched his chin.
"Ah think yer wrong my lad, ah should've known about it afore this."
The stranger looked into his tankard,
"I'm the hangman." The men started up, the rough chairs were thrown back, and some spat loudly, but this time onto the table in front of the stranger. They passed him roughly, mumbling under their breath. After they had left, the Landlord spoke again.
"Don't let 'em worry ye lad, them's his brothers, that's going to swing tomorrer," and he clapped the stranger heartily.
"By, but you're a bold one and no mistake," the Landlord laughed again, more heartily this time.
"Tell me," the stranger returned, realising that he was the reason for the men's sudden departure, "what are those bulges..I mean on their necks?"
"Them's Derbyshire necks, comes from drinkin' t' water round these parts, but ah nivver drinks it meself." He grinned hugely, showing a row of uneven, tobacco stained teeth.
"Ye'll be stayin' here tonight then, they'll be waitin' for ye outside I shouldn't wonder." Then shouting across the room at the girl whose mouth was open, gawping at the hangman.
"Get this lad a room ready lass, and quick about it, shut up yer gawpin' and look lively, ye'll 'ave it dark." The girl turned and ran, but her mouth remained wide open. She had heard about hangmen, and the stories she remembered made her afraid of the stranger. It was said that if you looked a hangman in the eye, he would string you up later in your life. She had avoided looking directly at him, preferring to stare at his back, but now that he turned she fled in terror lest their eyes should meet and seal her fate.
At the top of the few bare stone steps, the hangman faced a row of closed doors, and hesitating, came face to face with the skivvy who flung her gaze down too late, for she had looked right into his face and seen the eyes that would come to haunt her dreams for the next few nights. He entered the room she had left. The bare wooden bed, the chair and table reminded him of the structure at the rear of the inn. He remembered the job he had come to do. His thoughts did not linger on that; he was deadly tired and sank down and slept fully clothed until the first light, when he awoke staring as if in sickness at the strange room around him. The duty he had come to perform had turned his dreams into a waking nightmare. He still felt dog-tired.
The morning was dull and overcast. The gloom invaded the room, and gave the wooden frames in front of him the strange twisted look of the gibbet outside. He left the room and set about his task. He worked quickly with the skill of a man practised in his trade, and within less than half an hour the rope was set. All that remained was the wretch to come and test the knot. He turned to go indoors, taking a last look at the simple scaffold and the rope that hung limply in the cold wind. He remembered how the platform had looked in the failing light the evening before.
The scene then had been sinister, but now with the noose the place was grotesque and reminded him of nightmares, in which men hung and laughed hideously, the laughter contorting their pathetic bodies, until he could stand no more and woke shaking, his brow bathed in the ice cold perspiration of fear.
"Come away in," it was the Landlord who spoke, and startled the hangman who was lost in his imaginings.
The rumbling wheels of the tumbrel stirred him. He pulled on his coat and looked at the door. The time had come. A Minister was helping a ragged ruffian down from the cart. His feet were manacled and he shuffled towards the scaffold. His irons clinked together. Two burly men followed, carrying his coffin of poor and dirty planking. The Minister came after, his lips moving continually as they moved nearer to the gibbet. The prisoner's eyes stared out of his head at the wooden frame waiting in front of him. The hangman shut the door quietly behind him and looked at the small group of people that had gathered around the steps up to the platform. The men with the swollen deformities pulling their necks stood comforting a sobbing woman, supporting her lest she should fall to the ground in her grief. On the platform the two burly guards spoke roughly to each other unconcerned by the event that was about to take place, scorning the words of the Minister as he spoke and motioned to the prisoner, speaking to him as if he wasn't there. The condemned man stared balefully at his shackled feet, his face now twisted in the grimace of fear and anger. The hangman stepped onto the platform and nodded to the guards that the time had come. The prisoner was brought forward to the rope. The woman was crying uncontrollably now. The hangman passed a few words to the guards, and then, when he was sure that it was the right man, started about his business.
The Minister had placed himself behind the prisoner. He spoke in a voice that could be heard by all.
"How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? Forever? How long wilt thou hide thy face from me?" The hangman placed the noose over the man's head, and stood him over the trapdoor. The wailing of the woman and the pathetic sobbing of the condemned man shook the hangman who had not altogether hardened to his work. A hood was placed over his head, and the knot behind his ear, the better to break his neck the instant the door gave way beneath him.
"Consider me and hear me, O Lord." The Minister's voice boomed to the mists of the moor in front of them. The woman's wails and the wind howled a reply.
"Light mine eyes lest I sleep the sleep of death." The door flew open and the man's neck cracked audibly as he fell.
"I will sing unto the Lord," the Minister's voice trembled, "because He hath dealt bountifully with me." The words were lost, submerged by the moan of the wind lamenting with the people who stood shivering as the two guards cut the dead man down and laid him in his coffin. The Minister was moving. His eyes were heavy under their lids, and he turned quickly to avoid the hangman. They passed on the platform, the hangman happy to escape the Minister's eyes.
After feeling the man's neck as he lay, already stiffening in the cold, he went back indoors to prepare for his journey to Alfreton. The wet mists had chilled him, and he ate his meal quickly. He got up, and left the inn. He stepped into the middle of the track and tramped slowly along wearing the expression of a man ill fitted to his trade. Above him, a ring of clouds, dark and full of rain, rolled slowly over the moor. Alfreton prepared itself for the gathering storm that was about to break.
They had discussed the thing rationally, and had both come to the same conclusion. It was better that she didn't know. She would only make herself worse. It was best. The results of the initial tests had confirmed their worst fears. It was malignant, an ugly word, the two consonants in the middle forcing the back of the tongue hard against the soft palate for the 'g', and then immediately touching the hard palate with the front of the tongue for the 'n'. An ugly word formed by an action similar to vomiting.
The treatment was drastic, penetrating rays, invisible, ravaging through healthy cells and diseased alike. Destroying good and bad, malignant and benign, at the press of a button on a white console.
"We can only delay a malignant glioma, which is what your mother has." The doctor stepped back, as if the words he had just spoken would rebound upon him, condemning him to die a slow, painful death. His expression was openly sympathetic; only his eyes gave a clue to his real thoughts, and the nature of the reality the three people now had to face. His eyes were steely grey, impassive, unsmiling. He had vouchsafed similar news to countless sufferers, and to literally thousands of distressed relatives. This was one aspect of his work he had never been able to come to terms with. He had examined the cancer. He had scrutinised the guilty cells under a microscope. He had seen them, and now he could never inform either victim or relative without visualising the killer cells multiplying their way through so much human tissue like scythes through summer grass.
His eyes betrayed what he always felt at such times as these, and he turned away that son and daughter might not observe his distress.
Her life was nearly over. It had been a long one, but this fact made nothing easier to bear for son and daughter, who both knew that it was nearly time. She had had a good life, had brought up two children, and seen them in their turn, bear their own, and bring them up as she had done. The two little boys pulled at their granny's coat as she sat on a chair looking out over the garden she had helped Kenneth to tend, until he had passed quietly away. Now she found she solace in her two grandchildren, and in the garden, still in all its glory, sadly in need of tending. The drooping heads of the faded roses, white Peace, scarlet Harry Wheatcroft, both in need of pruning, to make way for new buds that would burst into colour again and again until the summer was over, and the beeches at the far end of the lawn dripped in browns and duns. But now, with the roses splashing colour in riotous splendor across the length and breadth of the front garden, she felt its glory, and she felt her husband's presence in the long, ordered beds of flowers, perennially sharing the spring and the summer of their lives, fading into autumn. She felt his absence too, remembered his long thin hands carefully rooting out the weeds that would have smothered the life of the healthy flowers and shrubs he had planted with care and diligence.
Merely thinking of her husband made here senses start, and she again noticed how memories evoked taste and smell, and the images of their life together in the garden, in the days before kneeling became too painful for both of them. The smell of the roses, and the rare whiff of tobacco from his pipe as he pondered his work, the taste of
She had always had that, a peculiar ability to sense taste and smell, provoked by a phrase, a word, or a memory, and now she could smell roses, the tangy scent of newly cut grass, and the smell of ash from Kenneth's pipe as he knocked it out into a wet scoop on the top of the wall that surrounded their home.
She might have gone back into the house, to shy away from the senses that filled her nostrils and her mind. She might have tried to avoid thinking of a time that was past, but rather than forget, she breathed in deeply to smell, to taste a sorrow that filled her, hearing their grandchildren playing around her, seeing life continuing all around, the life her husband had bestowed on a thousand blooms, whose scent now reminded her of him.
Of course she felt a little ill, off colour was how she had put it, and so she had gone to see Dr. Waite.
"It comes to us all," he had said, "old age. It has come to me, and it has come to you." This was his way, feigning an absolute lack of any sympathy, almost trying to sound as if he couldn't care less. She knew different. He continued in like fashion.
"Why it only seems like yesterday when I would finish the morning surgery, take the car out, call for that husband of yours, then drive at breakneck speed up the A6, climb Coniston Old Man, and still be bright enough to take Evening Surgery as well, and maybe afterwards, think nothing of rounding off the day with a walk over to Lydgate for a drink or two with him. Yesterday I could do it, but today, why it takes me all my time to come here just the once, and have the patience to sit and listen to you villagers with your imaginary this, that and the other, and now this. You of all people, complaining that you can't get down to do the herbaceous border."
He was in full flow now, and a stranger would have taken his mood for rudeness and ill temper. She knew him better, and listened.
"Let the damned borders grow wild, give the badgers and the foxes their land back. That husband of yours took it off them when he built the blasted place. It was always a wild and windy corner up there. It's a wonder you managed to get anything to grow there in the first place, let alone a fine young family, and the best display of dahlias every year. Away with you woman, and thank the Lord you've still got your wits about you, and your family to look after you, now that…." He could not bring himself to say what he wanted, and mumbled something as an ending. He had finished. He had worked it all out of his system, and he had a tear in his eye from remembering her family, and how she had met her husband. He remembered their courtship, their eternally walking along
"Window boxes." She looked puzzled. " You could try window boxes for your blessed flowers, if you must have them." Then he added.
"Get that son of yours to knock a few together for you. Then you can have your herbaceous borders at eye level, instead of kneeling down in wet grass. There's your answer." She left quickly, only giving him a nod for thanks. He returned the nod, as he had always done, and it meant more than words. It meant sharing a time, and a place. It meant a shared experience of life, undefined, and probably incapable of being defined, yet tangible for those who shared the same unspoken knowledge, whose feet had stood in the same soil. She left, comforted by familiar affections that had the power to overcome the unfamiliar sensations she had somewhere deep inside her self, where her dead husband still dwelt.
The bleakness of the winter had passed, and the beeches at the end of the lawn were slowly drying out. The time had come to plant out the seedlings from their little pots in the shed. The children had done most of the work, although they had rushed a little in their impatience to get out into the sunshine again. Still, the seedlings had appeared, and now they were reaching up, pale green, searching for the light.
The new window boxes lay in the corner of the shed, oblong boxes of pinewood, just long enough to fit in the windows overlooking the side garden. They would get more sunlight there. She moved one of them, and slowly picked it up and put it onto the low wooden bench in front of her chair. The wood was new, still green in places, and distorted because it had been cut early. She lowered her face to the green and yellow pinewood. She smelt it, and breathed in deeply. Images grew out of the fragrance of pine that filled her nostrils and her mind.
The bags of peat lay waiting. The window boxes would have to be filled. She could do it. She had done it a thousand times. She looked at her hands, her fingers were bony and stiff, gnarled by the arthritis. She knew that holding wet earth would hurt her for days. She picked up the green and silver trowel, feeling the familiar smoothness of its handle. The varnish had worn off most of it, but it was still warm and smooth, even on cold days. She opened one of the bags. The string threaded through the top to keep it secure had been cut, and it was easy to unfold the top to see the brown peat in folds, dark, within the thick brown paper sacking. She plunged the trowel deep into its softness, and brought a lump of it out. It had the fine, delicate structure of sphagnum moss running through it, and it reminded her of the leaf patterns on chinaware. She thought of the peat cutters standing in their square cut trenches, troubled by the wind and the rain that tore at their poor clothing. She brought the lump of peat up to look at it more closely. It smelt of bracken in the wet, and reminded her of journeys time had overlaid, like footprints under snow. She uncovered them.
The peat wasn't as firm as she would have liked. She knew it needed to be firmer, but she hadn't the strength, either in her arms or her hands to push it down any harder. She was tired out from the exertion of filling the box. The seedlings would be smothered by the sphagnum peat, and so she looked for the bag of sand. It was away in the corner, out of reach. She got up and felt its deadweight, and rather than try to move it, she thrust the trowel down into it. She sprinkled sand over the peat. It glinted in the weak sunlight as it fell from the trowel's rounded edges onto the peat below. She closed her eyes. Memories showered down like sand through an hourglass, and every sparkling grain that gaily peppered down onto the conical pile of her days brought her long life nearer to its end. Her eyes were closed, but the glinting sand had burnt an image into her eyes, and the shining points of light stirred her.
The boxes looked lovely. They made the house somehow lighter, and the fragrance of the flowers filled the hall and stairs. It percolated up to the bedrooms, and strangled the smells of cooking which emanated from the kitchen. The whole house had become a garden. She now kept the lounge door open. She loved even a glimpse of greenery, and through the long evenings when she did not feel like going out, she could still imagine and enjoy her beloved garden, to which the badgers and foxes were beginning to return.
It was becoming neglected, and although her son and her daughter, and the children came up at the weekends to help, it was still sadly not enough. The most that could be done was to ensure that the grass did not get overlong and that the borders, full of the shrubs and roses that Kenneth had planted, were not overcome by rank weeds and grass.
As she sat alone, reading the evening paper, or listening to the radio, she could sense the life in the boxes of peat and sand. She thought of the growing plants in the window boxes taking in the air she was breathing out, and using the carbon and the oxygen to provide her with new air to breathe in. They were all together in the house, in a mutual life support system. She knew the flowers would not fail her, and so she tended them carefully, watering them regularly and giving them the nutrients they needed to grow. They were her plants, and so she took care to give them what they needed to flourish, and give her joy. She thought of her life, she had given nourishment and love, and most of all; she had given life to the souls that had filled her life. Now Kenneth had gone, but there was still her children, and her children's children, and the plants that surrounded her. They had all given her so much, and they were still giving, and accepting what they needed to survive when she would no longer be here to look after them.
"Malignant is," the doctor paused," an ugly word, but as you both know, what your mother has is malignant, and,” he paused again, "your mother's glioma is in its advanced stage." Both son and daughter hung their heads while the doctor pronounced his sentence. He continued after a period that seemed too long.
"Although now there is no hope, I can tell you that she is not in any pain. She will feel no discomfort, other than the cerebral discomfort of knowing that she must leave.." His voice petered out, and a soft gurgling noise emanated from his throat, as if his vocal chords would not permit the words to pass into audible sounds.
His memories stirred in him, and he coughed to disguise his emotions.
"Her life has been a good one," his voice was still wavering, but it was steadier with every word.
"Your mother, and of course, your father," he coughed again, "were, erm are er both very good friends of mine." He paused again, looking down at the floor. He didn't really know how to continue. He knew what it was he wanted to say, but he could not find the words, and almost gasped at the enormity of what it was he wanted to say but just couldn't. Stuart could feel the doctor's plight, and eased his way.
"We know, Doctor, we know," and he smiled to reassure the man, that they did indeed know. He remained confused and silent.
They left, and only the memories remained, inscribed indelibly on the minds of son and daughter, grandchildren, and friends. The hourglass had only a few grains of sand, and those were about to run helter skelter out onto a little conical pile.
Our lives had been radically different. We had gone in different directions. Herbert, my schoolmate, had lived, still lived in the house he was born in, the house that had perhaps been in his family for generations before him. Through the years when we were out of touch, I never ceased to wonder about him as I passed. Its stone walls and perpetually curtained front windows gave it an impassive appearance and I was almost stopped from knocking on the front door because of this stolidness. In fact I don't think I ever knocked on the front door, I always used the back door whenever I called. They lived in the back of the house, as most people at that time tended to do, reserving the front door for special visitors, relatives perhaps, or officials who had cause to visit them in connection with unpaid bills or whatever.
I had moved geographically and spiritually too no doubt. But while we were both at school, we shared something. Institutions play important parts in people's lives, and moving on is an involuntary action at such times. One organisation has control of your life for a period, and then relinquishes it to another. He managed to slip between them so that his not moving was of his own volition, or, as I now have come to think, was the result of a sort of inertia that came from his father, and from his disability. And though Herbert had lived in the same house, moved around the same circles, under the same hills, the circles and hills that I had inhabited in younger years, he had moved on in ways I had no real experience of. I knew what it was to go off to strange towns, to work with people I had never met before, and to acquire opinions that were not mine. The new world I was moving in shaped me in ways that I am perhaps only now coming to terms with, but as my frame of reference has moved, I now find that I have no place in my mind that I can really call my own, from which to view my past life with Herbert around the place I grew up. Geography is something, but so too is the society in which one finds oneself. The boy in the black and white photograph is not the same person who is now looking at it.
Herbert's sister Edith committed suicide in the time between our meeting, and though I was sorry to hear it, it seemed there was nothing I could do, nothing I could say, that would, that could have any bearing on their lives and their ability to survive their grief, so I did not say it, and as the time passed after her death it became more and more unthinkable that I should go and try to console them. After a while I reasoned that mentioning Edith would only open up old wounds. And saying that and thinking it; about the opening up of old wounds was a cliché that I used to justify my not going to them. The wisdom that has been passed down to me, if it is wisdom, has come down in lumps of words that I accepted, that most people accept without really questioning them and the things that were behind them. The ideology of the ruling classes comes to us, perhaps I would have said comes down to us, for that is how I still think of myself, in a sort of diluted form, in words and phrases, and ideas about what we ought to do, and how we ought to behave are given to us secondhand, without any of us ever seeing or hearing those who originated them. And we accept them and they become our lives and we live them.
Later Herbert's brother Edward died away from home, then his parents passed away, Mr. Thornley first, and then Mrs. Thornley, though she had remained upright and strong for a long time after old Edward Thornley had died. He'd had strong views on nearly everything, and whenever I called, Herbert's father seemed to be standing with his back to the tall, black, cast iron fireplace, a roaring fire shooting up the chimney, berating his family for not following his ways, although I'm sure they did. He spouted from under his Victorian moustache and a timid boy like myself could only back away from any look he chose to throw my way as he espoused his codes to his children. Mrs. Thornley seemed to me at that time like a homely beacon, doing the housework around the legs of her husband, and thinking to herself, "Stuff and nonsense."
Whenever I saw her, which wasn't very often, I spoke to in respectful though friendly tones, still feeling like the boy she had known, coming in from the hills. And I always addressed her as Mrs. Thornley, maybe because she was my friend's mother and I could never think of her as anything else, as a person I might have got to know. People are keen generally speaking, on their titles. Sir Roger Tanner was always Sir Roger Tanner, even though a lot of people despised him as a rich mill owner in the area, and even when they were cursing his name, they would use his title, so that if they were angry he would become Sir Roger bloody Tanner, but the Sir and the Roger and the Tanner always remained to show that he was an outwardly respected member of the community.
But she had gone, and Herbert had experienced the passing away of his family staying right where he was. Every day he saw the same hills from his front window. No doubt they were a comfort to him as he saw a world changing and passing him by without being part of it or being able to really take part in it. They were at least permanent; the horizons he always saw spoke to him, speak to me in slightly different ways. I have changed, my life has changed, but the hills remain the same hills, and move for me between nostalgic shapes from my youth, to disturbing reminders that I am not the same person.
He saw the same meadows across the road, and turning looked at the same furniture his family had used, the same carpet they had walked on, the same clock on the mantelpiece his father had wound up before climbing the stairs to bed.
Seeing him years later was like looking through a window on my past life, me in my home with all its faded emotions and memories, with my parents and my sister, and him in his with his family with the different memories and emotions that all that evoked in him and made him who he was. His family had bearings on his life. My family had, and still have bearings on my life. My family are still there though, and we continually redefine who we are in the changing world we live in, it is possible to do that, but for Herbert I think he is stuck in a sort of time warp, to use the popular TV saying, in a world in which he cannot redefine himself, bouncing his thoughts off those who were nearest to him. Perhaps he never could, coming from a large family dominated by a father with firm opinions expounded without questioning from his place in front of the fireplace looking at his family over his beetling moustache.
Herbert had a birthmark, and with the house and the hills facing it, this is all that is left, and this birthmark defined who he was, shaped his mind, a continual reminder every day in the mirror that he was different. Strange to mention it now, and it must seem like I'm going to try to evoke pity from you because that mark across his face affected his life in ways I couldn't and still can't comprehend. Now, in a world fascinated and controlled by appearance, outward signs, he must be doubly disabled, and only the tenacious take the trouble to enquire what is behind that wine red mark that covers half his face. Seeing it again opened a window on my past. Of course, I forget the details of someone's facial features, but when I saw it close too, I could remember the shapes I had seen in it as a boy.
I saw shapes in the fire at home, and shapes in the galleon wallpaper in my bedroom, but that paper has long gone and with it the shapes I saw and couldn't avoid seeing whenever I lay on my bed. The ashes in the fire changed the instant I saw a lion or a castle in them, but Herbert's birthmark was still the same. He never had it operated on, and to be truthful, after the shock at first seeing it, you didn't see it ever again. You did, of course, and when I looked at his face, close up, I saw faces in it and shapes at the edges, and I saw a depth to the redness that I can't put into words, but can still feel. I'm sure I don't know, can't know how that mark has shaped his thoughts, his notion of who he is, but he isn't going to tell you, and since nobody else can, I will try. That is extreme self-indulgence, but in trying to discover he is, perhaps I will discover who I am too. Because I never saw it when we were kids together, and still do not see it now when I talk to him, I think I am able to react to Herbert, a Herbert without a mark on his face, as a person I once knew well. Appearances are everything, as I have said, and my appearance doesn't give any clue to who I am. My birthmarks are internal ones. You can't see them but they are there nevertheless, and they have shaped my life just as much as Herbert's birthmark has shaped his. Finding out how his life has been shaped by something you can see, something tangible, might give me clues to how my life has been shaped by things that are not tangible, which cannot be seen, but which are no less real for that.
I visited him in
The nurse on duty smiled and said she'd try to get him to come to talk to me, but she couldn't promise that he would. I nodded and smiled and wondered to myself if I really wanted to see him, if my embarrassment could be covered so as not to affect his embarrassment at being in this place. But he came out of a door and walked towards me. His stature was different, and straightaway I knew something of the pain he was experiencing, though not the cause or the extent. I don't mean his build or anything, which was about the same, but his head looked bigger and his birthmark more prominent, but mainly I suppose, because he walked in a way that we call crestfallen.
When he half smiled at me and sat down in his pajamas in the middle of the afternoon, I saw his birthmark and the shapes I had seen twenty odd years earlier when we had been fighting or laughing, walking home from fishing, which sounds as if I'm going to lapse into crushing sentimentality about the good old days. I'm not talking about those days, I'm talking about these, but they are somehow mixed up with those days and the people we used to be, maybe Herbert still is. His eyes showed some of the same lad I had known and I remember he showed pain and hurt in the same way he had all those years before. His hands folding and unfolding continually, I don't say in supplication, but their shape impressed me, like the hands of a great artist who had been thwarted before he could practise his art. And looking at those hands now folded, and his eyes, and the shapes in the birthmark that flooded into his temples and half way down his neck, I knew I had been away and what I had missed and what I had been, and the extent to which my life had taken on leaps that were partly my own doing, partly those of organisations over which I had little control.
When we were boys, it seems now that we were as close as it's possible for two lads to be. It felt so then, but then we never thought about it, because we were like one boy who had the same thoughts in two different heads. Coming back and seeing him again after all those years had made me remember that oneness and I had the fleeting thought, that I had lost something in my changed life, and that he had retained it intact lest I should come back for it one day. And now I was here, meeting Herbert in a ward for drying out alcoholics, for people getting over nervous breakdowns and severe bouts of depression. Herbert came in this last category, or maybe it was the last two. He had never had a drinking problem, perhaps if he had things would have been different, perhaps he would have blamed the world and cursed and sworn at it because it had treated him badly. I won't pretend that seeing him didn't hurt, and nor will I pretend that seeing him pained me beyond endurance. But there was something, and later when I was traveling back, I thought that something in me had gone, and that Herbert had been its custodian, and he had kept it for me, so that he still had whatever it was, but that part of him that he kept inside for me was wilting and dying with his illness. And that meant that his getting better, recovering from whatever it was, meant a lot to me, for it was in his mind, and perhaps only there, that what I once was remained.
I can't put it clearer than that, and I don't even think that's entirely how I now feel or how I felt, but it's all I can do to express myself in words. I might as well try to express piano music as express what it is that I felt then, for the years living a different life, denying some of the things I once was, has overlain the boy I was and the way I thought of myself then. I sort of envy Herbert for having the same hills around him as he sleeps, guarding our past from being lost forever.
I suppose from the outside anybody looking at us would say it was the other way round, that I had everything and he had lost something, but that would be just missing the mark, missing the point of all this, that me and Herbert had been one, more than the sum of two people, and that in this slow decline in hospital, I was losing something too, was about to lose something I could never regain. And as I say, this thing that was about to be lost resided in Herbert, and depended on his getting well again. But this is not anything paranormal or sensational, and I think it is more commonplace than most people realise. I too would perhaps have missed it had not Herbert been lying in a hospital bed. And now it sounds to me as if I'm saying that I am in some way glad that he was ill, that his illness was something I was about to feed on.
I didn't communicate any of these thoughts to him, well at least not in words. I saw him looking at me once or twice and I remember thinking that he possibly had some inkling of what I was thinking. Were we still of the same mind, I asked myself, but found myself saying that we couldn't be, that too much had changed in my life at least. I had had a different experience of life, and to imagine that we thought in the same way like we used to, would be to deny that my experiences had changed me in any way, that was unthinkable. Nevertheless, I had, once or twice, the distinct feeling that he knew what I was thinking.
We went outside into the sun and sat down. We talked, and I tried to hang back to let him have his say, remembering what I had come here to do, to try to revive in him something I thought he might have lost in his illness. I hadn’t told my family that I was going to see him, which left me with the choice of chickening out before I got there. To be honest now, I didn't have the ideas and motives I now think I had once I got to see him. Like a writer discovering what he wants or has to say in the act of writing itself, I don't think I could have known what it was I ended up wanting to do.
We talked about the fishing we had done together, and the places we had gone to, and the fish we had caught, and about those we hadn't. I made him tell me the things I had all but forgot; how to tackle up, how to tie the hook on and what sort and size of line you needed, and how high to put the float and how heavy to weight it, and what bait to use. And he told it all to me. He remembered everything, and a lot that I had forgotten. And in the telling, in the remembering, I saw something of the lad I had known, and in seeing that part of him I saw myself. I remember a sort of improvising as I went along, knowing what was going to be the right thing to do by instinct rather than any real knowledge based on psychological methodology. It seemed to work too, as I hoped it might. His clouds lifted and for a brief time we where back on those banks with our rod and our basket, and then we were walking back up through the fields from to the place we lived. My thoughts had drifted back to those riverbanks, and I thought that his had for a while too. I remember thinking that he might be able to rest from his anguish, and to this day, I am grateful for anything I might have given him, however briefly, in those moments we used to focus on a better time in our lives together. For we were happy, I'm sure we were. I know I was, and felt him to be the same.
I remembered some of the songs we liked and used to sing together walking home in the evenings, and I got him to remember them too. One of our favourites was a song called 'The Concrete and the Clay'. I sang the first few lines and they came back to both of us till we were singing them again thirty years after we had first heard them.
‘You to me are full of roses in the sunshine,
And you to me are full of summer lanes at dawn,
In lovely shades, that something there,
The sidewalks in the street,
The concrete and the clay beneath my feet
Begin to crumble, but love will never die,
Because we'll see the mountains crumble,
Before we say goodbye, my love,
And we will be in love eternally,
Oh, that's the way, that's the way it's going to be.’
The gentle lap of the river on the boat's sides kept pace with the splash of oars as Clemency, the sun shining on her young face, pulled gently at the smoothed handles. Moorhens darted under overhanging banks as she approached. She pulled the boat into the middle of the stream, feeling the
stronger currents, and thought of them as friends, so familiar were they to her.
Looking downstream, first to the right, then to the left, she saw the waterside life returning. The moorhen resumed its pecking, blackbirds returned to long boughs to continue their courtship displays, and the surface of the stream regained its serenity, hiding the currents that Clemency knew.
A few pulls on the oars brought Mrs. Fairclough into view, sitting, daintily sipping tea at the gleaming white table that was always set for two. Clemency didn't know who the other place was set for. She thought perhaps it was prepared for somebody Mrs. Fairclough was expecting, but who never seemed to arrive.
Clemency was gone, and with her Mrs. Fairclough's only distraction from the lonely reaches stretching away in front of her. She was thinking about her husband, and her memories of him brought soft tears to her delicate blue eyes. Her loneliness crushed her. Dark fingers of melancholy probed her mind, and her grief left her weak and forlorn.
At this time of the year, Gerald would have been tending the seedbeds, a hoe in his long, sensitive hands, or else he would be kneeling as if in prayer to the red earth of the garden he loved.
She would call his name softly, and he would come to her, and sit with her, his face reflecting her happiness. Looking up from their tea, smiling, they would see the scull slowly passing, and Clemency, her father's eye patch over her right eye, sailing the
Mrs. Fairclough wept a single tear that ran down her cheek to the corner of her mouth. She quickly sipped some tea from the flowered china, sweetness dissolved the taste of sorrow, and left in its place an emptiness that, with the sound of the stream lapping at the green bank, made her feel cold and alone. She returned to the house, pale and wan, chilled by the breeze, saddened by the water, not wishing to see Clemency return.
Inside the house she felt her husband's presence again. His pipe lay on the bureau, his slippers beneath it, a volume of poetry lay open on the chair where he used to sit. The flowers that he loved to look at, stood in a vase, fresh and green. The gramophone, if switched on, would have played the overture to his favourite opera. The man himself was missing. Mrs. Fairclough sat in the failing light and waited. He did not appear, and she sighed gently and slipped quietly into a sleep from which she did not awake.
The market workers, passing to empty their buckets of water as they cleaned the floor after the day's work, were the only people who ever spoke to Old Rimbant, and their talk was mainly to cheer themselves up during their drudgery, for which they got paid very little. They would ask him questions that didn't need answers, for they had no time to listen, nor were they interested in his replies.
“How arta this mornin?” they said to him. “Bet you're glad you don't 'ave to do this, owd lad.” They humoured him with mindless froth.
“Whato Owd Rimbant,” they would say as they passed him, “must be nice just sitting there.” But they would give him nothing in the way of conversation, except to ask him if he wanted shoving anywhere, or if he wanted his cup filling with tea.
He was thought by many to be surly and humourless, and the people of the town mostly imagined him to be embittered and angry with his lot, and so they avoided speaking to him. As they dropped coppers into his dirty cup, the shoppers rarely thought about him and the bitterness and frustration that had been welling up inside him since a shell, or whatever it was, had taken his legs from him in 1915. Nobody knew anything about him, and nobody cared. The market workers looked after him, but didn't really know him. Like familiar scenery or an old face, he was looked at and passed without really being regarded or considered at all.
The first time I met him was when my father had taken me to buy some wire netting for our rabbit hutches. A dog had recently got in under the fences, and two rabbits lay with their throats ripped out before we knew anything was wrong.
After we had been to the ironmongers, I waited with the wire netting just inside the door of the market, while my father had a couple of pints of beer in the Market Hotel across the road.
Every time my father and I went to the ironmongers, for some tacks to hammer in the tarpaulin which flapped in the wind, or for some more wire to keep stray dogs out, I would be left in the entrance to the market, next to Old Rimbant.
At first, I didn't like to speak to him. I was a bashful lad, and I didn't like looking at the two stumps of his legs. I remember thinking his face was hard, and sort of mean, and I wondered how he went to the toilet, or even if he went at all.
His way of speaking to me was a bit severe at first, but as I went back again and again, waiting for my father, his voice grew somehow softer. He asked me my name, where I lived, and how old I was, and gradually I became less afraid of him, and asked him questions about himself, and so we slowly became friends.
After four or five visits, and when my father began to stop a bit longer in the Market Hotel, I found the courage to ask him about his legs. I pointed down at the two stumps in front of him. His answer was short, as if he wanted to get it over quickly. He saw me look down at my feet and nodded at me, smiling at my shyness as he spoke.
“Dar-nelles did 'em for me,” he said, pausing in the middle of the last word, maybe it was two words, with his mouth open as if he had swallowed a letter or a sound, and then he said something that sounded like Hillten.
I never told anyone what Old Rimbant had said to me as I waited for my father in the entrance to the market hall. It hardly occurred to me to mention it. I thought it was a secret, and so I never told anybody.
I thought about what he told me, and often went to sleep with the strange words still on my lips. The words Dar-nelles and Hillten and the two stumps of his legs frightened me to sleep clutching the blankets over my head. I couldn't get beyond those words, and he never said anything else, he just repeated them over and over again, so that I never asked him again.
As my father got stocked up with the things he needed, we went to the town centre less and less, and I stopped thinking about the old man with the two stumps for legs. The words he had uttered thickly to me as the shoppers rushed past us hardly stayed in my memory, but from time to time they came back into my head, so that I never really forgot them. When I remembered the two strange words my mind felt closed, and grey images clouded my head. I imagined malevolent beings that were like the trolls I had heard of in far off lands.
I thought of the old man getting torn apart by great grey animals that had no pity on human creatures. I wondered what things could be so callous as to tear a man's legs from him above the knees, to leave him to live the rest of his life sitting on a trolley begging his neighbours for a crust of bread.
The sound of the rain on the window, and the gentle hiss of the gas fire lulled Muriel to sleep. The front door clicked open, but it did not wake her. Her son entered the hot living room quietly. He had looked through the window and seen his mother asleep. He closed the door slowly, but the movement of the stifling air disturbed her sleep, and she murmured softly. Glyn bent over his mother and kissed her cheek. The taste of salt from a dried tear reminded him that his father wasn't sitting in the other armchair, would never sit in that chair again. David, his father, was dead. In the middle of the week; not a special week, but an ordinary one, filled with rain and shopping, dinners and headaches, the TV and a glass of beer; in the middle of this ordinary week, David had died. He had felt a bit queer, a bit off colour was how he said he felt to Muriel that morning, but he had set off to the Library as usual. Dick Francis and Agatha Christie were on his mind as he pulled up the collar of his gabardine coat to the chilling wind and driving rain. The traffic seemed slower than usual in the High Street; perhaps it was the weather. The rain was falling steadily now. He crossed the wet street a little breathlessly, clutched at a dull ache in his side, and climbed the few steps up to the big oak door of the Library. He opened the heavy door gently, and felt its weight strangely comforting. Inside the Library the air was hot and heavy, close and somehow muffled.
He listened for sounds, but there were none. The noises of the people moving around the shelves were mute, and everything seemed padded by the hot air. He sat down heavily, and dropped the books he had brought back, onto the table's polished surface. They hardly made a sound as they fell. He put his hand up to his left ear, and muttered something quietly to himself. The sound of his own voice filled his head. The air became thicker and more difficult to breathe. He felt he was drowning in the thick air. He was falling, and his fall was never ending. The name of his wife hissed from his lips that had already started turning to stone, waxen and grey. Immovable, he lay on the wooden floor.
Now he was looking through something. It was dark, but the centre of the glass, as it now appeared to be, was swathed in a full light. There was a smell of burning candles, and a noise that did not disturb or deafen. There was a sharpness to everything. His eyesight was keener than he remembered, and his hearing had become acute.
Looking down into the glass, he could see the shapes of two people, now three, four...talking, talking, talking.
Now he saw a woman sitting alone in a chair, she was staring out at something, nothing. He held out his hands to touch her face, but could not.
The dark surface of the glass prevented him, but he could see her clearly now. She had lines down both cheeks. She had been crying bitter salt tears, but now she was sleeping.
Another figure moved into the glass, and edged slowly towards the woman. A young man bent over the sleeping woman and kissed her lightly on the cheek. And now it was quiet, the only sound was the rain on the window, and the gentle hiss of a gas fire._