14 July 2018

This was our first visit to the Maitreya Buddhist Garden. It's about a half hour drive from Lincoln, and close to the River Trent. It is the lifetime's work of Buddha Maitreya, a Japanese monk, who...

Seamarsh cover 3 24. The Library

Dad says it’s our strange geography of hills, rivers, and marshes we have to thank for our survival. That and probably about a million other strokes of luck. Fortunately, a garrison of troops had their headquarters in Northwick. Their commander saw what needed to be done to save the town. He simply divided it in two. Anyone showing any signs of the plague was taken across the river and left there. Nobody who crossed the river ever returned.

Trade is everything, really. If people aren’t greedy then anything is possible. We live by trade – it gets us the things we need or want that we can’t provide for ourselves, although essentially we are self-sufficient. Dad says if you can’t eat it or wear it, then you probably don’t need it.

 “You never let me do that anymore,” Rob said resentfully as he scraped a plate of chopped leeks into a saucepan of boiling water. “You used to like me brushing your hair.”

Already late for school, Alice felt like replying with something cutting and unkind. Instead, she smiled at him in the mirror. “Well, times change, I guess. We’re growing up, aren’t we? You know.” She brushed her hair even more vigorously until it shone, then tied it back in a ponytail. She regarded her reflection. The spring sunshine had darkened her freckles and made her eyes seem larger, rounder somehow. Not at all bad looking, young lady, she thought to herself. “You know, you’re the best brother a girl could have.” That sounded false, she told herself regretfully, even though she had meant it. In a fluster, she made a grab for her jacket and bag and headed for the door.

However, Rob wasn’t satisfied. “But we’re not actually related, are we?” he returned, pausing from his soup making, eager to prolong the challenge. “Not blood related, anyway. That makes a difference, don’t you think?” He folded his arms and watched the soup bubble gently. He regarded Alice from beneath his eyebrows.

“Does it?” she said, not really wanting the exchange to continue. She could sense where this was leading. It had been building for a while, but now most definitely was not the right time to resolve it. If only Vic were here to talk some sense into him. “Right, well I’m going. See you later. Help Terry unload the cart when she gets back, will you, and don’t forget to give her a ‘well done’.”

Rob scowled and scraped his chopping-boardful of carrots into the proto soup. “I don’t deserve this!” he yelled after her as she closed the kitchen door.

****

Alice had needed to help Terry set up the market stall and by the time she reached the Library, it was almost mid-morning. It was definitely a two-girl job fitting the frame together and attaching the canvas sides. Hard, heavy work but at least it hadn’t been raining. A soaking made the canvas twice as heavy and far more awkward to handle. Nevertheless, Alice felt weary as she walked up the front steps of the old town Library: a massive, columned structure, built for an age when buildings were expected to stand for centuries. The brick façade and tall, blinded windows conveyed an impression of significance, of gravity and seriousness of purpose. The Library owed its survival, its weathering of all the many traumas and upheavals of the past ten years, in part to the building’s personality, if mere bricks and mortar can be spoken of in such terms. Simply by walking up to its tall, darkly-polished hardwood front doors one felt a natural urge to show respect, to lower one’s voice, to mind one’s Ps and Qs. Making sure the windows were always clean, the floors always polished, and the toilets always hygienic ranked as the most important task one could be given, Don always told anyone tasked with a job on the cleaning rota. Now she understood his reasoning.

Once inside, Alice made for the largest of the side rooms where she knew Don would be teaching. The rooms echoed with the chatter and laughter of young people. Maisie, a cheerful twenty-year-old and the nearest thing Don had to a nursery nurse, sat on the floor of the room’s centrepiece – a sunken rectangle of worn-out carpet tiles that acted as a central gathering point for assemblies and singing sessions, surrounded on three sides by broad steps that could seat thirty children or more. She read aloud to six youngsters while encouraging them to act out the story. A bear hunt was in progress. Alice remembered taking part in the same activity herself, many years before.

Maisie lived in Alice’s street, an only child who shared a house with her mum and gran. There were no men in the house, not permanent ones anyway, and Vic had done his best over the years to help them out, which might mean taking them a box of fruit and veg from the Seamarsh garden or attempting to mend something broken. A few years ago, Adam had developed a bit of a thing for Maisie, and for a whole summer, they were rarely seen apart: the tall, muscular Adam and the slight, dark-haired Maisie, who dressed like a boy and who, with her flat chest and cropped hair, from a distance could have been mistaken for one. But her handsome, sculpted face and curving hips would have fooled only the most myopic of observers. Then, one day Maisie declared that actually, she preferred the company of other girls, and that was the end of their romance, although the two had remained good friends. Alice liked seeing them together because Maisie made Adam laugh so much. There were not many things that made Adam laugh, and certainly not his current girlfriend, Debbie. What did he see in her? Alice had asked herself this question more than once while preparing supper, while the leggy and undeniably pretty Debbie practised some new dance moves around the kitchen table. As Vic was fond of saying, there’s no accounting for taste.

Don sat at the head of a long table sandwiched between two tall racks of books. He had his back to her, busy with a group of children participating in some kind of arithmetic lesson. Don’s group of slow children were learning to work with money, an essential skill in a society that relied so heavily on trade. In front of each child sat a small heap of plastic coins of different denominations – paper money had disappeared years ago – from £2 coins down to pennies. No ordinary child would need to be taught about something they used every day, picked up by watching the grown-ups buying and selling, haggling and bartering in the shops and the market. Acutely aware of the value and the price of everything, everyone counted out their money carefully, and woe betide any child who, when shopping for their mother, carelessly tendered the wrong amount or took the wrong change. With a curse followed by a whack round the ear a typical punishment, even for small children, when it came to errands involving money you quickly learned to get it right.

Don glanced up and acknowledged Alice’s arrival with puffed-out cheeks and pop eyes, his smile one of relief and welcome. He waved her over. “Be a sweetie and take over here, would you? I need to see a man about a dog.”

“Sure. Is Maisie OK getting the food ready?”

“All done. Back shortly.” He rose and straightened up with a grimace. “Been sitting too long. We’re adding and subtracting in tens, or trying to. We’ll get there.”

Alice slipped into the warm seat and surveyed the young faces. She knew them all, and their families, and they knew her. Two girls and four boys, aged between six and ten. A long-faced boy sitting to her left was attempting to balance his coins into one big tower. He stank of fish and wood smoke and, by the look of him, hadn’t had a decent wash in weeks. Michael, the fish curer’s boy, ten-years-old but without the intelligence to match his age. He’d been coming to the Library ever since Alice could remember, but in all that time had made next to no progress. A four-year-old could outwit him. One of Don’s favourite sayings came back to her. “One day, Alice, one day, the penny will drop.” Rather ironic in their current situation.

Sitting next to a shaven-headed girl on Alice’s right, eight-year-old Jade played tiddly winks with her coins. She wore only a t-shirt and sat on a folded towel. Her pants and smock had been pegged to a window opener, where they hung limply in the May sunshine.

Alice got on with the lesson. The boy at the far end of the table, his face spattered with dark blue dots, had evidently been helping Don to make up a batch of ink from its powdered ingredients. The boy’s heavy-lidded eyes flicked randomly around the room, as if following the flight of an invisible bug. The child’s sagging mouth would provide the insect with a neat hidey-hole, should it ever wish to land. Not for the first time, Alice wondered if there existed any point to all this, given the time and energy being invested in these young people. It might actually be easier, not to say more useful, to teach a horse to count. Some people reckoned it was at least possible.

Alice’s brief daydream abruptly melted as a cold hand gripped her ankle. Badly startled, she watched as a boy’s grubby face appeared from the shadows beneath the table and proceeded to rest its chin on her lap. The lad’s expression could only be described as imbecilic. A mouth full of broken and blackened teeth stretched in an expression that on the surface resembled pleasure, but on closer inspection actually brought to mind the face of someone enduring a vicious pinch. Alice pushed at his greasy forehead. “Danny Green,” she said wearily, “get out of there now, and sit down. You want to eat, don’t you?”

“I love you, Alice,” came the thoughtless reply. A string of drool left a dark trail across Alice’s smock. The head disappeared and then re-emerged, next to an empty space beside Jade. Danny nodded in Jade’s direction. “She weed herself again.” Alice fought the urge to admit defeat and give up; the chances of these children ever becoming numerate seemed about as likely as finding a mermaid’s slippers.

The Library provided a dinner of sorts for all the children who attended school, food being one way to encourage their families to send them, because many thought it pointless teaching their offspring things they would never find a need for in their daily lives. “Who cares what happened with Churchill and Hitler in 1940?” “My boy could be down on the dock making up fish boxes or mending nets. He doesn’t need to know about poetry or name the capital of Turkey.” “So long as she can write her name and read a list, and sew and cook, the rest don’t matter.”

The world will recover one day, Don often remarked. People will want to remake civilisation as it once was, in all its richness. They will want to make the world a better place for their children, because people always have. It’s the human story. The world still had a memory of itself from the time before the Great Death. Everyone over the age of thirty acted as a neuron in the collective memory of the recent past, but the memory had become weak and patchy, especially in the warmer parts of the world where almost everyone had perished. Meanwhile, it remained everyone’s sacred duty to preserve and pass on the old knowledge. Alice got that. It would all be worth it, one day.

She helped Don and Maisie as they handed out the packed lunches. Each box contained a hunk of brown bread, a matchbox-sized cube of yellow cheese, a carrot, a hard-boiled egg (unusual and a treat) and a small, badly scabbed green apple. The children sat in a silent circle on the Library floor and ate with vigorous, unswerving dedication. Despite the fact that David had stuck the long handled spoon deep into his mouth, most children had still helped themselves to a generous dollop of Maisie’s pickle.

That day, around twenty children attended class. In the old days, some would have been called infants, but most were between eight and eleven. Some were young teens, like Alice. Most of the girls and even a few of the boys were dressed in a t-shirt and a shift dress that had begun its life dyed a plain navy blue, but in most cases had been personalised with embroidery, tie-dying and beads. A touch ironic, Don had pronounced more than once when sitting with Alice and observing his motley class. Finally, hippies were about to inherit the earth.

Apart from the low background murmur of mastication and suppressed belching, silence prevailed. From outside, the distant shouts of men giving and receiving commands drifted in through the open window. A fish trader passed beneath the window, his grunting and cursing drifting up as he pushed his loaded barrow up the street to the market square. Then a new sound took prominence, one that Alice had never heard until yesterday – the clatter and slap of a lorry engine. Descending the hill with squealing brakes, the vehicle slowed as it approached the docks, gearbox cogs crunching painfully as its inexperienced driver attempted to change down through the gears. The olive green canvas top edged past the windows, watched in silent fascination by the children. Many of the boys left their food, to stand on the benches and peer out at the passing spectacle. With the lorry soon lost to sight, the boys returned silently to their places as, in the distance, the truck could be heard accelerating away along the sea front.

“Sorry about your mother,” Don began. “If you…”

Alice shook her head vigorously, her eyes fixed on her plate. “No, I’m fine. It’s OK. We’re OK. Adam’s been great, so’s Rob. Thanks for taking Terry out of the way.”

“Will there be a funeral?”

“Doubt it. We were talking afterwards about how we were going to get her downstairs, you know, after we found her. It was horrible. Before yesterday, I’d never seen anyone dead. Then four soldiers turned up, just walked in. They didn’t say anything to us and pushed Adam out of the way so they could make up a plywood coffin on the floor beside the bed. Even with four of them, they were having trouble lifting her, so in the end they gave up and instead rolled her off the bed and into the box. We stood there, watching them clamp the lid on with straps and then try to lift it down the stairs. She’d always said the only way they’d get her out of that room was in a box, and she was right. At that point, I nearly laughed out loud, but managed to stop myself. If I’d started I wouldn’t have been able to stop, I knew that. Those boys really had to work hard to get her out to the lorry – you know how fat she was. I almost felt sorry for them.”

“She’ll be missed by everyone, don’t you think? I bet she embroidered half the smocks in this room. Everyone knew her and everyone visited her. She didn’t need to go outside; instead, the world came to her. What did your neighbours do? You know, when they were putting her in the lorry?”

Alice took Don’s arm and rested her head on his shoulder. “The neighbours? They all came out to gawp, of course. That lot’d come out and stare at two cats having a scrap. It was nearly dark by then. The truck ended up surrounded by about twenty of them, all craning their necks to try and get a better look. Then the soldier with stripes pulled out his pistol and cocked it above his head. You’ve never seen folk move so fast. Within twenty seconds, they’d all scuttled back inside. We stood watching until the lorry had gone. As they made ready to leave, the sergeant came over and told us we would be putting a soldier up. He’s going to have Marsha’s room.”

Don sat up straight and looked at Alice. “What? You mean he’s been billeted on you?”

Alice nodded. “If that’s what you call it, then yes. He’ll be staying until the job is complete, the sergeant said. We have to feed him and pretty much do as we’re told. Marsha wasn’t my real mother, you know.”

“Yes, I know. You came from Northwick, didn’t you? I remember you telling me this a long time ago. Alice in the bulrushes,” he chuckled.

Alice didn’t return the smile. “What’s going to happen, Don? Is this the end?”

If Don felt anxious, he didn’t show it. He gave Alice’s hand a squeeze and she leaned her head back on his shoulder.

“Best case? I suppose they will take what they came here for and leave. Why would they want a single village when they can have the whole coast? Once they have repaired the Endeavour they can do whatever the hell they like. Their first job will be to secure their electricity feed from the wind farm. Then they will neutralise Northwick. In the meantime, they spread terror until they are completely sure that nobody will dare to oppose them. I think there are too few them to do it any other way. But it does make their control just that little bit more precarious.”

“And when they leave? If we’re of no further use, what’s to stop them murdering us all and moving their own people up here? Nothing. Is there?”

Don gave a snort. “I think that’s about as likely as finding a left-handed python. I simply can’t see it myself. Can you imagine a thousand Wendonites dumped in an empty fishing town? How would they feed themselves? What would they do? They wouldn’t survive even one North Sea winter. And we are survivors, Alice. Never forget that.”

****

The conversation ended naturally and both turned to complete tasks begun earlier, Don to repairing a book trolley whose castor had fallen off, Alice to finishing her piece of writing, entitled ‘The Rise of Hitler’. With the trolley once again working correctly, Don set it on its wheels and begun to fill it with books from a pile on the floor. “Did I see Terry come in just now?” he called over.

“Think so, yes. She must have left the stall with the Johnsons. We have an arrangement – we keep an eye on theirs and they keep an eye on ours, in case one of us has to run an errand and leave the stall unattended. Either that or the boys packed it up early. Trade’s pretty dead at the moment.”

“Well, you know where she’ll be,” he said, standing and holding his sides as he arched his back straight.

Alice watched as he stretched. Still lean and muscular, and despite the occasional mild complaint about aches and pains, Don remained as agile as most men twenty years younger. Although greying now and receding by the year, he had retained what would still pass for a full head of hair. Normally he kept it brushed back but any leaning over would cause it to flop in his eyes, and he now swept it back with his free hand as he searched around on the desk top with the other. His spectacles were in his top pocket, as Alice indicated with her eyes. They smiled at one another and Don gave a wink of thanks.

“How old are you, Don, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“I don’t mind at all,” he replied cheerfully. “I’m old enough not to remember my first serious kiss, put it that way. I’m sixty this year, but I guess age is just a number, isn’t it? It doesn’t actually tell you very much about someone other than the year they were born, in my case 1965. It’s your outlook that’s the most important thing. Physically, I’m in better shape than some thirty-year-olds I could name, though obviously my skin tells a different story.” He looked thoughtfully at the backs of his hands, then turned them palm upwards. He stiffened his fingers until the lines on his palm darkened and stood out. “I’ve carried this set of lines since birth,” he said, and slowly traced the letter M on his palm with an index finger. “These are still my baby hands, larger and older now but they are the hands I had when I entered the world. Don’t you think it’s odd how the skin on your palms and the soles of your feet doesn’t seem to age like the rest of your body covering? These hands will die when I do and their job will be done.”

He continued to regard his hands thoughtfully, turning them over several times and flexing his fingers, as if to remind himself of their miraculous existence. Then he reached over, took one of Alice’s hands by the fingers, and held it gently. Alice watched, fascinated by his absorption in the meticulous examination of her palm, as if he was seeing a hand for the first time. “Hands are beautiful aren’t they?” he said, letting go of her fingers, and then glancing up to regard Alice, his head cocked slightly to one side. “Does my age matter to you?”

“No, not at all,” Alice replied quickly. “It makes no difference. You are the youngest old person I know.”

Don looked pleased. “Thanks, and if that’s in any measure true then I have you and the other children to thank, because it’s you who keep me feeling young.” Then his face became serious. “Now I think you have a date with Terry. Let me know how it goes.”

****

Alice found Terry in the Local History room, leaning on the sloping glass front of a cabinet of jewellery items – necklaces, bracelets, rings, pins and medallions. Her precious sketchbook sat open in front of her, one out of a boxful rescued from a village bookshop last year by Vic while on a scavvy run. Alice watched as she alternately peered in through the glass and then drew on her pad, so completely absorbed in her task that it was only when Alice came and stood by her elbow that she looked up.

“That’s beautiful, Terry,” Alice said appreciatively. “I love the way you have organised the page, and the detail in that ring is amazing. You have a real talent.”

Terry glanced up at Alice and briefly studied her face. Having decided the praise was honestly intended, she leaned over and kissed Alice’s cheek. “Do you want to be going?” she asked. “I know we have to pack up the stall and the Johnsons go at four. I sold the road bike you and Rob built last week and got eighty quid for it!”

“Oh, well done Terry! No, no big rush. The boys are going to pack up today, remember. Ten minutes?” Alice leaned back on the cabinet and surveyed the gallery. Although she had spent many hours in this room, it never failed to capture her imagination. Frozen in time for half a century or more, the room itself qualified as a museum piece. Alice had swept the room and dusted and polished these display cases a hundred times. The original glass and hardwood cabinets, fitted at the time of the Library’s opening in the late nineteenth century, still served admirably their original function and looked so solid and fit-for-purpose that one could imagine their continued service for another hundred years. Now, with her hands clasped behind her, she paced slowly along, looking from time to time into this cabinet or that, until she reached her favourite exhibit – a life-sized tableau that occupied the entire end wall of the room. It depicted one of the few events in history that had any significance beyond the local area: ‘The Siege of Goodfleet Manor’.

Although undeniably a simple story, the intrinsic fairy-tale qualities of the ‘siege’ and its consequences had, over the centuries, allowed it to assume the mantle of a folktale. The legend tells how, one dreary December afternoon, Sir Thomas de Brock, while returning on horseback after a drinking session in the town had, while riding at a reckless pace, allowed his steed to knock down and crush beneath its hooves, a child. The horse had then reared and thrown off its rider.

Within an hour, the mount had returned, riderless, to the manor house. Lady de Brock had immediately sent a group of servants out to look for their master and some hours later they had found him lying in a ditch, snoring and still drunk. It did not take long to piece together the sequence of events that had led to the child’s injuries. Despite this only being the daughter of a commoner, it was clear, given Sir Thomas's previous history of shameful behaviour unbefitting a nobleman, that inevitably it would lead to trouble. The squire’s men left the dying child lying in the road and carried their master home. As it happened, this was no ordinary peasant girl, but the town’s Queen of the May, the Golden Child, a girl of such radiant beauty and innocence that everyone who met her instantly loved her, or so the legend goes.

True to his cowardly nature, Sir Thomas fled next day to Wendon, pleading urgent court business and hoping thus to lie low until the furore eventually passed, as it had on so many previous occasions. However, this episode proved to be the exception. Soon, the circumstances of the tragedy had become widely known, and so incensed were the townspeople at the wrongness of the girl’s death that they formed a gathering in the market square, where they resolved to march on the manor house and demand justice for the parents of Elizabeth Semmes, the Golden Child.

Thirty men, some armed with farm tools and others carrying more formidable weapons of war – long-handled billhooks, pikes, flails and maces – set off for Goodfleet Manor. In the modern age of firearms, the blood-curdling terror that could be induced by the sight of a rabble of muscular peasants armed with bludgeons and weapons of honed steel has been lost to the popular imagination. Alice eyed the pole-mounted blades of sharp iron, the choppers and spiked hammers whose sole reason to exist was to cause injury and death, and shuddered.

Outside the gates of Goodfleet Manor, Sir Thomas’s servants met with the mob. They were without doubt sympathetic to the townsmen’s grievance (since it was they who had alerted the whole town in the first place), and did not attempt to stop them from entering the precincts of the house. When told that Sir Thomas had fled to Wendon, initially the mob was at a loss for a way to proceed. Then someone suggested that Lady de Brock should be made to pay a visit to the parents of Elizabeth Semmes, to arrange for compensation and to offer them an apology. There was never any question of harming her since justice, not revenge, was the issue here.

The museum tableau portrayed the moment in the story when the distressed Lady de Brock, accompanied by her own daughter, is dragged in front of Elizabeth’s grieving parents, who stand at their cottage door, inviting her to enter. Five of the townsmen, life-sized mannequins armed with weapons of war, dominate the scene. They flank the figures of Lady de Brock and her daughter as they make their way towards the cottage door. Over the years, Alice had gazed countless times into these hard, peasant faces; to her they had become real people, with names and histories. For one school project, she had written for each of them a biography that told of their life in war and peace.

The only record of what Lady de Brock saw within the cottage comes from a letter written to her husband and found among her belongings after her death. She describes the dead girl as indeed the Golden Child: beautiful, with long, chestnut brown hair and a delicate face of intelligence and sweetness. She had been laid out in her Queen of the May dress, the plain coffin garlanded with aconites, mistletoe and ivy.

However, the legend does not end with a simple apology from Lady de Brock. Still angry at the disappearance of Sir Thomas, the crowd determined that Lady de Brock would dig the child’s grave, and her own daughter would help her. And so the digging began, and continued for hour after hour until at last, with the grisly task complete, the child’s parents were able to lay their daughter to rest. The story concludes with the death of Lady de Brock a week later, from a chill caught that day. Her daughter passed into the care of the Semmes family, who raised her as their own.

Sir Thomas never returned to Goodfleet. Later reports said he had been killed in a duel at a tavern in Whitechapel. The townspeople flattened the manor house and the de Brock lands defaulted to the crown, in lieu of unpaid taxes, and remained in royal ownership until sold to a local man by a hard-up Richard III.

Terry stopped drawing and put down her pencil. She went and stood in front of Alice and picked up her hand. “Look at her sad eyes,” she said, pointing to the figure of Lady de Brock. “What do you imagine she sees when she goes inside the cottage? Just a dead child? I wonder how beautiful she actually was.”

Alice shrugged. “The Golden Child? Who knows? Every child is a golden child to somebody, or should be. Her Ladyship, on the other hand, well she had everything, didn’t she?”

“Do you think so? Made a bloody poor choice of husband, don’t you think? She didn’t get that one right, did she. What a bastard.”

“True, though I wonder how much real choice women had in those days. I don’t imagine they hooked up because he was cute and she was a babe. I’ve never forgotten something I overheard Dad saying to Don once, when they were drinking upstairs in the Library. ‘All men are bastards, Don, and I include myself in that definition.’ Dad said that.”

“Really? Do you think it’s true?” Terry's face displayed a mixture of shock and glee. She had been granted a peek through a chink in the curtains into the murky world of adults, to be both thrilled and repelled in equal measure. Thomas de Brock was a bastard, no doubt about it. But Don? Vic?

Alice pulled Terry down to the floor and the girls sat cross-legged in front of one another. “There’s no way to say this gently, so I’ll just say it,” Alice said, trying to keep her voice even. “Some soldiers came to the house on Tuesday, when we were at the Town Hall. They killed Marsha. Sorry if that was a bit blunt, but best you know.”

She let Terry wail and howl until she had finished, but knew that this would be the last time the child would shed tears over Marsha’s death. Now it had become part of history, another rock added to the heavy sack that every mortal soul seemed destined to lug around on their back. Perhaps Vic had it right. Perhaps all men are bastards.

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