There’s talk of draining the marsh again, or at least part of it, so we can grow more food. Our numbers are increasing, which is great, but it does put a strain on everything. At the moment there are few people who are too old to work, but that will change in time. By and large, we are a healthy lot. Everybody is active and we eat a basic diet, but it’s not like the Middle Ages or anything. We know so much more than they did. We can make an amazing variety of things from materials the medieval peoples had no idea about. We know how the body works and how to stay healthy. We can fix teeth and correct defective vision with glasses. We don’t salt our fish or meat for winter, we brush our teeth and we don’t crap in our drinking water. And we can make and use electricity. Knowledge is precious.
It was Adam’s turn to cook the porridge; Alice’s to make the sandwiches. Rob was busy outside, turning over the soil in a flowerbed near the big glasshouse. The room was warm and full of cooking smells. The kitchen was far from modern, even judged by pre-Great Death standards, but it had worn well. The cream paint had blistered in places; the furniture was ancient but serviceable but this was in essence a work room. It was by far the busiest place in the house, and by common agreement it was Rob’s Kingdom. The large iron range could run on any fuel but it was chiefly wood that supplied the heat, and occasionally coke if any had been brought back from a scavvy run and the Seamarsh house was high enough up the waiting list. The stove was kept burning summer and winter. The kitchen was dominated by a large rectangular table situated at its centre, around which were placed eight matching wooden chairs with dark green tartan seat cushions. A washing rack hoisted to the ceiling was full with what you would expect to see. Two large sash windows faced south and admitted enough daylight to make electric light unnecessary on a May morning, even one as misty as it was that day. Years ago the large, L-shaped garden had been made even larger by realigning the fences of the adjacent houses (with the town council’s permission, of course) and was now managed intensively by the Seamarshes for food.
Alice put Adam’s lunch into his knapsack and looked over to where he stood, head down, studiously engaged in the process of making lump-free porridge. Alice could only see his back but imagined the seriousness of his expression. He was even successfully managing to ignore the presence of his girlfriend Debbie, who had flopped, eyes closed and outwardly lifeless, in the corner armchair, but who, to Alice’s annoyance, managed to intone just about once every minute a feeble “Is it ready yet?” Every few moments Adam tipped the saucepan towards him and lifted a ladleful of porridge up to his face to inspect it before letting it pour back in. At last, he seemed satisfied. He lifted the pan and placed it on the breadboard in the centre of the table and stood arms akimbo, his expression one of mild satisfaction. He called over to the supine Debbie “Wakey wakey, sleepy head. Your porridge awaits.”
“Your toast would await too, if you’d sliced some bread and put it on the hob like I asked you to ten minutes ago,” Alice added drily. She found Debbie irritating and dull as Sunday but in the interest of good family relations did her best to hide these sentiments.
Adam glanced towards Alice and noticed she was watching him. He untied his apron and hung it up. “Lump-free porridge,” he smiled. “Mum would have approved.”
Alice jolted. It was like a huge electric current had passed through her, gripping her innards and twisting them into a spastic knot of fear and abhorrence, as if a premonition had suddenly become a dreadful reality. So it was undeniably true. Marsha had gone, was gone, forever. Their world had been stripped of its last adult, and since he was now the eldest it fell to Adam to be the one in charge. It probably hadn’t even occurred to him yet. Careful Adam, almost a man now. He would look after them well, Alice felt sure. She glanced towards the ceiling and listened. No sound came from the room above. No creaking floorboards as Marsha crossed from the bed to the bathroom. No tick, tick, tick of small doggie paws as Miss Havisham scampered behind.
A sullen Debbie plonked herself at the far end of the table and pulled up her legs. She alternated slurps of porridge with attempts to drag a brush through her blonde tangles and all the time glaring at Adam as if it was his fault she wasn’t happy. For his part Adam looked completely unbothered. Terry had silently entered the room and sat demurely as Adam served the porridge. Usually Terry ate breakfast in vest and knickers but today she was already dressed and ready for school. She had even brushed her hair, which always made her look older and more grown-up. She noticed Alice staring and made a face. “What?” she said with mild irritation. Adam added milk to her plate and pushed the honey her way. He looked at Alice and briefly eyed Terry, who ate her porridge with muffled slurps. Alice turned back to her sandwich-making. “Cheese and lettuce OK for you?” she asked.
Terry nodded. “No pickled onions, thanks. Where’s Rob this morning?” She put down her spoon and pushed away her empty plate. From outside came the sound of hammering. “Is that him?” she asked. Adam nodded. “What’s he doing?” First she looked at Adam, then at Alice, but neither looked like they were about to give her an answer. She crossed to the window and pushed herself up so she could see out. “Adam, what’s he doing? He’s hammering a stake into the flower bed. Why?”
Adam looked over to Alice, who now stood with her back to the worktop. She gripped the sink and ran a hand over her cheek. “Well...” she began, but was interrupted by the sound of Rob kicking mud off his boots. All eyes turned to the door as he entered the kitchen, boots in hand.
“Well, it’s done,” he said quietly to nobody in particular. “I think I’ll plant a tree on her next winter.”
Terry's mouth hung open briefly, a picture of shock and disbelief, and then she was running, pelting down the room to grab Rob round the waist and press her face into his stomach. “Oh Rob, poor, poor Rob!” she wailed, on and on.
Rob touched her hair gently. “There, it’s OK, don’t cry, it’s done now.” But the howling and sobbing continued until a large wet patch had appeared on Rob’s shirt.
“Come on,” Alice said quietly, and put her hands on the girl’s shoulders, but Terry wriggled to shrug them off. Then she turned and faced the others, anger now etched into her features. “You!” she pointed accusingly at Adam, “and you!” It was Alice’s turn to be in the frame. “You left him to do it on his own! You could have helped!”
Adam shrugged. “You didn’t want any help, did you mate?”
Rob shook his head and finished drying his hands. “Nope. I could manage,” he said mildly.
“But you must have wanted help,” Terry wailed, the tears starting once more. “You couldn’t possibly have...”
Suddenly a light went on in Alice’s mind. She knelt facing Terry and took her hands. “It was Miss Havisham. Rob buried Miss Havisham. It’s all over now.”
Terry stared at Alice, and then exhaled hard enough to cause Alice to blink. For a few seconds it was difficult to tell whether Terry had begun to laugh or had sunk back into further misery, but to everyone’s relief it was the former. The three youngsters, now all kneeling, hugged and laughed and hugged some more. Adam came over and joined them, and though he remained standing his deep slow chuckle chimed with the joyful noises of the others.
When the laughter finally subsided it was time to leave the house. “Family meeting tonight,” Adam reminded the others as he and Debbie left the room.
It was a slow day. The mist hadn’t lasted long but now it had begun to rain. Alice was bored. She sat under the awning of their market stall listening to the patter of fine drizzle on the canvas cover overhead. It was cool for May and she wore a long, thick jumper over her dungarees, one of Marsha’s ‘specials’ made from home-dyed wool. It must have been years old because Marsha gave up dyeing long ago and hadn’t knitted anything for several years. Alice had squashed her slender legs beneath her in the ancient canvas folding chair that had managed to endure far beyond its maker’s anticipated lifetime, always threatening to collapse or rip, but never actually doing so. Open on her lap was a large art book, full of reproductions of the work of a 20th century English watercolour artist, currently Alice’s favourite. In his time the artist had painted landscapes and rooms, work scenes often empty of human life and yet bursting with energy and mystery. The pictures reminded her of views she had seen the one time she’d been out with the scavvies. He had painted views that depicted mile after mile of empty landscapes and deserted farms, except that today if you looked for these landscapes you’d not find them anywhere in all of England. They had vanished years ago beneath the expanding forests. The seemingly unassailable human dominance of the landscape for thirty centuries had taken only ten years to completely unravel. Except for the farms adjoining Goodfleet there were no ploughed fields and no farm animals any more. Fields everywhere had begun turning back into forest. Their edges were no longer sharply defined by walls and fences. The fields had disappeared. They had become scrub, an unending sea of bushes and weeds stretching the length and breadth of the land and already much too thick and tangled to walk through. Everywhere, ditches and drains had become choked with weeds. They had filled with decaying plant matter until they no longer carried rain off the land. In the winter months huge areas of low-lying land now lay under water. Winter floods were normal, drowning farms and villages and roads. The rivers had reclaimed their flood plains. In fifty years all traces of a farmed landscape would be history; memories only visible in photographs and the work of artists like this one.
Alice flicked over the pages of her book, lingering on her favourites. She liked best the paintings of southern chalk hills with their ancient carved animals and giant men, and the harbours and beaches that reminded her of home. Alice felt comfortable in this artist’s world. It was recognisable for the most part, familiar even. Cities played no part in his realm. Some of his paintings showed scenes of people at war. The individuals depicted were not fighting, though, but carrying out ordinary, everyday jobs like writing, sitting at a desk, talking on the telephone, resting. One showed men scraping ice and snow from the wings of a military plane. Alice tried to imagine standing close to it as it took off. The air blast from the propeller, the wave from the helmeted pilot, and the incredible roar of the engine as it started to move forward. Watching some of Don’s old films had allowed Alice to imagine what this might feel like, but that was hardly a substitute for the real thing any more than a picture of a pineapple could be compared with tasting a mouthful of the actual fruit.
Unexpectedly, the page became noticeably darker; a shadow had cast itself across the book and roused Alice from her reverie. She glanced up. The shadow belonged to a woman, a virtual silhouette against the bright grey sky, an avian head poking out of a black rain cape. The sharp nose darted quickly to left and right like a scrawny pullet, the unblinking eyes missing nothing, the dark brown hair, coated in fine rain droplets, tied severely back. Alice recognised the lined, solemn face as that of Witchety Susan, a market trader whose reputation as a drunkard and a brawler ensured that most people treated her with a grudging respect, if only out of fear. Witchety Susan picked up a bicycle pump and tested it by giving it several hard pumps while covering the end with her finger. The escaping air made a quacking noise that under different circumstances might have made Alice giggle. The woman returned the pump to the rack. “You Vic Seamarsh’s kid, ent you?” Without waiting for a reply she continued “I sin you lookin’ at us wi’ a spyglass.”
Alice felt her cheeks warm. She closed her book and stood. The woman sounded matter-of-fact and not at the moment particularly hostile, although her reputation around the town was for belligerence, especially after a lunchtime spent in the Wheatsheaf. Alice decided to brazen it out. “So what? I was just birdwatching.” This was the first time the two had spoken in the four years since Alice had begun selling in the market.
The woman began a wheezy laugh that quickly evolved into a hacking cough. “Birdwatchin’, eh? Nuthin’ much down there t’ see, apart from poultry.” The woman picked up a puncture repair kit and studied the label before fixing her gaze on Alice.
Despite the woman’s fearsome reputation, Alice did not feel particularly intimidated. “Do you live at Newmans, then?” Alice decided the woman had not come to cause trouble, though plainly she was after something.
“Newmans? I thought all you young ‘uns called ‘im the Mereman.” The rattling cackle made a brief reappearance. “As you know, I sell ‘is birds and ‘is eggs, but I’ll be stopping soon.”
“Oh? Why?” Alice did not bother hiding her puzzlement. Why was Witchety Susan telling her this?
The woman sniffed and rubbed a hand up and down one cheek. “I’m dyin’. I can feel it. There’s somethin’ inside me growin’, and it i’n’t a baby. ‘e’s goin’ to need somebody to sell ‘is birds and ‘is eggs. You want the job?”
The question hung in the air. It sounded as much instruction as invitation. Alice looked at the woman as she continued to finger the trays of trinkets and spares. Through all the wrinkles and broken veins Alice could clearly perceive the face of a young and good-looking girl, frightened and lonely, still in this world but preparing soon to leave it. She hesitated, still incredulous, unsure of what to say next. “Me? You’re joking. But you’re not joking, are you? But tell me, why have you chosen me?”
“Well, why not? Don’t tell me you make so much from your bikes you don’t need the cash. That girl you tag around with, she could run this easy, ‘til she gets herself knocked up anyway. She got all ‘er wits, that’s common knowledge, and she’ll need ‘em. Good job she got a guardian angel.” The woman once more leaned forward and coughed violently, then spat before Alice could look away.
Alice felt out of her depth. What guardian angel was she talking about, and why would Terry need one anyway? More urgently, how did the Mereman even know of Alice’s existence, let alone want to offer her a job? “Did he ask for me?” she blurted. She could hardly believe what she was saying. It was preposterous. They’d never met, even casually, although Alice had fantasised about doing so many times. Like the time she imagined she’d found an injured seabird and had taken it to him so he could nurse it and make it fly again, then after the bird was well they had released it somewhere together out on the marshes. That kind of thing.
“He knows, he knew, your father.” Alice must have looked very puzzled, because the woman continued “No, not your real dad, Vic I mean. They knew each other at school, then they worked on the boats together for a couple o’ years before they joined up. They were in the same company but different platoons. They drank together, though, even though Jack rose up to a captain. Your dad was ‘appy stayin’ as a private soldier in the cookhouse.”
Alice gripped the table tightly. The world she knew, or thought she knew, had tilted unexpectedly and come to rest at a dangerous angle, suddenly lopsided. She was sitting in the middle of a see saw, and unless she held on to something there was a danger that at any moment she might slide off. She righted herself but discovered she was completely unable to think of what to say next. What was it this woman wanted? Then it struck her that this was her moment. “I want to meet him first, you know, to discuss terms.” She hoped this sounded like a businesswoman talking and not a silly child.
Now the woman scowled. She threw down a bike spanner she had been fingering. “No. ‘e won’t meet with you. There i’n’t no way. For ten year ‘e hant spoke to nobody ‘cept me. Lissen. You get to keep ‘alf of all you make on ‘is stall. You spend the rest on what’s on ‘is list, what you can get anyway. You leave ‘is stuff in the caravan an’ pick up the new list. ‘e’s got an agreement with Mickey Davey to waggon ‘is birds into town. All you have to do is ‘ang ‘em up and sell ‘em. And I know you can do that, girly. They say you’re the best trader they seen in the market for a long time. You got a level head and don’t get flustered when some o’ these men tries to get the better of you. You can drive a bargain, and you’re honest. Not bad for a fourteen-year-old, boy or girl.”
Alice felt her cheeks flush. She wasn’t used to hearing good things about herself, except from her dad or Don, but then he was generous about everyone. In the end she said “I’ll think about it. I’ll need to talk to the others.”
“You do that, girly. Now, ‘ow much for this lantern?”
“I don’t like it,” Rob said immediately as Alice broke her news. The four youngsters were eating their evening meal in the kitchen of 38 Walsham Road. Terry flicked a pea at Rob and prepared to dive out of her seat for a mad chase around the table, but Rob ignored her. He hated change; to his way of thinking, no news was always the best news. As a rule, Adam was neutral. He liked to wait to hear the detail of any update before offering an opinion. But Alice had told them everything. Even while relating what she remembered of her conversation with Witchety Susan she wondered again if she had dreamed it. It did still sound incredible, unbelievable even.
Rob stared grimly at Alice, his hands held out in exasperation. “What about the bike stall?” he whined. “We’ve spent years building that business. It works well and gives us a steady income. This is mad; why change things?”
Alice turned to Terry. “You can run the bike stall, can’t you? Rob, she’s nearly eleven now. And I won’t be far away. She does run it some days when I’m at the Library with Don. Anyway, you’re the mechanical genius. I just do the easy stuff.”
Rob looked slightly appeased and stirred the custard pan in silence. Terry, looking momentarily delighted at this turn in the conversation, decided to join in. “That’s right, Rob. And Emma could help me,” she chirped, sounding more assured than she now looked, having clocked the change of expression on Rob’s face.
“That simpleton?” he snorted, and eyed the ceiling in disbelief. “If that’s a serious suggestion then God help us all!” Alice bit her lip. This wasn’t going well at all.
“But you like Emma,” Terry protested. “You spend enough time with her when she’s round. Last week...“
“I was showing her how to make bread. She was interested,” he countered, less than convincingly. As his gaze slid sideways he pursed his lips as if about to break into a whistle.
“Ooh, she was interested,” Terry mimicked. “Then why won’t you show me how to make bread, you meanie?”
“Because you want to do it too quickly. And you don’t listen. Remember the shortbread?”
“Oh, God. Don’t remind us,” Adam added with a contrived groan. He grinned at Terry and received a flicked pea in return. Then he turned to Alice, serious now. “So what do you think, Alice? It would mean less time helping Don, probably, and I know that’s where your heart lies, not selling ducks.”
This was unexpected. Under Adam’s seemingly neutral question she glimpsed a partisan interest. He knew something about this situation that she didn’t. She filled pudding bowls with rhubarb crumble and passed them to Rob who bad-temperedly ladled on custard and skated the dishes across the table. When all had been served and were fully occupied emptying their bowl, Alice took her chance. “What do you know about the Mereman?” she asked as casually as she could.
Apart from the usual dinner sounds the room was silent. Even the familiar background murmur from outside was still, and seemed to amplify the ticking of the railway clock that hung above the dresser. Adam chewed slowly and cleaned his plate with care. When Rob’s custard was on the menu he’d even been known to lift his plate and lick the rim. Eventually he gave up on finding any more and put his spoon in the bowl, leaned back in his chair and locked his fingers behind his head, as Father always did after a good meal. But unlike Vic, Adam did not follow this with a loud belch. Instead he smiled and said “Rob, that was a damn fine dinner.”
Although Rob had heard this many times before, nevertheless he floated around the table collecting up the dishes, which was actually Terry’s job but she was still finishing. Alice remained seated opposite Adam, watching him and waiting. At last he said “I, for one, think you should take the offer. It sounds like a money maker to me, and who couldn’t do with a bit more security in these troubled times? It’s not much more than two day’s work, if you think about it. The birds practically sell themselves and you’ll probably be sold out by lunchtime. You can still keep half an eye on the bike stall. Not that I think you’ll need to,” he added quickly as Terry, who had finished eating now, crept up behind him and crooked her arm around his neck and while growling began mock-biting his ear. He pulled her round to sit on his lap and looked over to Alice.
“But the Mereman; Witchety Susan says he knows Dad. They were army mates. But Dad never said anything about it, even when he told me off for going on the marshes and spying on him.” A feeling of resentment began to rise inside Alice, as if somehow her dad had tricked her or cheated her by not sharing this information. It was something else to discuss with him when he came home.
“Dad doesn't talk about his army days much, even to me. Once or twice he’s taken me to the pub where his old crew usually drink. There’s about ten of them, all from the same regiment, most from the same company. Four of them are officers. The ranking officer is a woman they call Twiggy. Don’t know why, because she’s not exactly thin. I’ve heard them mention the Mereman. His real name is Jack Newman.”
“What did they say about him?”
“Not much, really. He was an officer, a captain. Apparently he was the best shot in the regiment. Dad said he’s seen him drop a roe buck from half a mile away. One clean shot in the neck. His army career ended badly. One day they were on patrol, somewhere abroad, and his squad was ambushed. Except for him they were all killed, and he was taken prisoner. He was missing for two years, then turned up one day at an American base. He’d escaped and made his way across the desert alone. He was hardly recognisable. Nobody thought he would live, he was so thin and frail and burned by the sun.”
“And what happened?” Terry asked.
“Well, he recovered. He must be incredibly tough. For months he couldn’t speak. He just cried and screamed. They didn’t let him return home until he was practically well. They were waiting for him to tell them what had happened. Apparently, he never did. Physically, he made a full recovery, mentally he’s a mess.”
To Alice, the Mereman's life alone on the marshes suddenly made complete sense. “Poor man,” she murmured. And now his lifeline to the outside world was about to be taken away from him as well. In that moment Alice resolved her thoughts. She would take the job.