24 September 2017

After troughing with family and friends at Jossels restaurant in Market Rasen, we visited Linwood Warren nature reserve  on what was a beautiful, early-autumn afternoon. The reserve is right by...

Goodfleet6405. The Offer

The land is changing. After the farms emptied, the open fields soon reverted to scrub and are unavoidably, year by year, tumbling down to woodland. The townspeople here farm the lower slopes of The Down beyond the marsh and some keep a few sheep up on The Down itself.

There is talk of draining the marsh again so we can grow more food. The marsh is huge; it’s where the cattle and horses graze in summer. On very old maps, it is shown as Northwick Mere.

Adam stood over by the stove. It was his turn to cook the porridge, and Alice’s to make the sandwiches. Outside, Rob stood in a flowerbed near the big glasshouse, levelling out the soil with a fork. The warm room brimmed with cooking smells. The kitchen, far from modern even judged by pre-Great Death standards, nevertheless had worn well. The cream paint had blistered in places but the ancient furniture remained serviceable and left the visitor in no doubt that this was, in essence, a workroom. It was by far the busiest place in the house and, by common agreement, was Rob’s Kingdom. The large iron range, kept burning summer and winter, could run on any fuel but usually wood furnished the heat. Occasionally, if any had been brought back from a scavvy run and the Seamarsh household chanced to be high enough up the waiting list, a bag of coke helped to eke out the wood supply.

A large rectangular table located at its centre dominated the kitchen. Around it lived eight matching chairs with dark green tartan seat cushions, while above it a drying rack hovered close to the ceiling. Two large sash windows faced south and admitted enough daylight to make electric light unnecessary on a May morning, even on a day as misty as that one. Years ago, the already generous, L-shaped garden had been enlarged by realigning the fences of the adjacent houses (with the Town Council’s consent, of course) and the Seamarshes now intensively managed it for vegetables, fruit and poultry.

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 while successfully managing to ignore the presence of his girlfriend Debbie. She lay flopped, eyes closed and outwardly lifeless, in the corner armchair but, to Alice’s annoyance, still managed to intone, about once every minute, a feeble, “Is it ready yet?”

Alice could only see his back but imagined the seriousness of Adam’s face. Every few moments he 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 appeared satisfied. He lifted the pan, placed it on the breadboard in the centre of the table and stood with 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. She found Debbie irritating and dull as Sunday but, in the interests of good family relations, did her best to hide her disapproval.

Adam glanced towards Alice and noticed how she watched him. He untied his apron and hung it up. “Lump-free porridge,” he smiled. “Mum would have approved.”

Alice held her stomach, as a hand gripped her innards and twisted them into a spastic knot of fear and abhorrence. Past tense. The facts of what had happened yesterday could no longer be disavowed; the truth was out. A deniable rumour had become dreadful reality. Their world had been stripped of its last adult and now, he being the eldest, it would fall to Adam to be the one in charge. It probably hadn’t even occurred to him. Careful Adam, almost a man now. He would look after them well, Alice felt sure. She glanced towards the ceiling and listened. No sounds 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. Marsha had gone, was gone, forever.

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 must be 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 had come down 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 flowerbed. Why?”

Adam looked across 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 the sound of Rob kicking mud off his boots intruded and all eyes turned to the door as he entered, boots in hand.

“Well, it’s done,” he said quietly to nobody in particular. “I think I’ll plant a fruit tree on her next winter.”

Terry's mouth hung open briefly, a picture of shock and disbelief, and then she ran, full pelt, 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 gently touched her hair. “There, it’s OK, don’t cry, it’s done now.” Nevertheless, the howling and sobbing continued until a large wet patch had appeared on his 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, she could not tell whether Terry had begun to laugh or had sunk back into further misery, but to everyone’s relief it proved to be the former. The three youngsters, now all kneeling, hugged, 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 for work.

****

Alice predicted this would be a slow day. The mist hadn’t lasted long but now it had begun to rain. Already, she 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. A large art book, full of reproductions of the work of a 20th century English watercolourist, and currently Alice’s favourite, lay open across her lap. 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, submerged years ago beneath the ever-expanding forest.

The seemingly unassailable human dominance of the landscape for thirty centuries had taken only ten years to unravel completely. Apart from the farms adjoining Goodfleet and Northwick, there were no longer ploughed fields or farm animals anywhere in the whole of Anglia. Their edges no longer sharply defined by walls and fences, fields everywhere had begun tumbling down to woodland. Field boundaries had all but disappeared. The land had become scrub, an unending sea of bushes and briars stretching the length and breadth of the land and already far too thick and tangled to walk through. Everywhere, ditches and drains had become choked with weeds, filled up with decaying plant matter until they were no longer fit to carry rain off the land. In the winter months, huge areas of low-lying ground now lay under water. Winter floods were normal, drowning farms, roads and entire villages. The rivers had reclaimed their flood plains. In fifty years, all traces of a farmed landscape would be part of history, erased from the collective memory and only observable in photographs and the works of artists such as this one.

Alice flicked through the pages of the book, lingering over 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. Cities played no part in his realm. Some of his paintings showed scenes of people at war, though the individuals depicted were not fighting, but engaged in ordinary, everyday jobs like writing, sitting at a desk, talking on the telephone or simply resting. One showed men scraping ice and snow from the wings of a military plane. Alice tried to imagine standing close to it as the plane 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 war movies allowed Alice to imagine how this might feel, not that a film could ever count as a substitute for the real thing any more than a picture of a pineapple could be a substitute for a mouthful of the actual fruit.

Unexpectedly, the page darkened; a shadow cast across the book 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 dark brown hair, coated in fine rain droplets, tied severely back, the unblinking eyes missing nothing. 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 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 a 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, despite her reputation around the town for belligerence, especially after a lunchtime spent in the Wheatsheaf. Alice decided to brazen it out. “So what? Birdwatching’s not a crime.” The two had never 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 t’ see down there, 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. Although plainly after something, Alice decided the woman had not come to cause trouble. “Do you live at Newmans, then?”

“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 stoppin’ 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, sounding as much instruction as invitation. Alice looked at the woman as she continued to poke at the trays of trinkets and spares. Through 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. No, 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 had recovered 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, and then together they worked on the boats for a couple o’ years before they joined up. They were in the same company but different platoons. They drank together, though, even after 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. It felt like she was sitting in the middle of a see saw, and unless she held on to something there was a risk she might slide right off. With a push, she righted herself and with great effort composed her features, but then discovered that she could not think of what to say next. What did this woman really want? 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 ha’n’t 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 maybe Don, but then he spoke generously 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 took a neutral position. He liked to wait to hear the detail of any update before offering an opinion. However, 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, clearly 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 Rob’s change of expression.

“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 here. Last week... “

“I showed 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 always 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, Sis? It would mean less time helping Don, probably, and I know that’s where your heart lies, not selling ducks.”

She had not expected this. Under Adam’s seemingly impartial question, she glimpsed a partisan interest. He knew something about the 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 had fallen quiet. Even the normal street murmur had briefly died away, allowing the ticking of the railway clock that hung above the dresser to assume centre stage. Adam chewed slowly and cleaned his plate with care. With Rob’s custard 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. 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, 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 moneymaker 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. Dad never said anything about that to me, even when he told me off for going on the marshes and spying on him.” A feeling of resentment began to rise inside her, as if somehow her dad had tricked her or cheated her by not sharing this information. Something else to discuss with him when he came home.

“Dad doesn't talk about his army days all that 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, and apparently, the best shot in the regiment. Dad said he’s seen him drop a roebuck from half a mile away. One clean shot in the neck. His army career ended badly. One day, while out on patrol, his squad suffered an ambush. They were somewhere abroad, Iraq maybe. Except for him, they were all killed, and he was taken prisoner. Missing for two years, and then one day he just turns up at an American military base, so thin and frail and burned by the sun as to be hardly recognisable. He’d escaped and made his way across the desert alone. Nobody thought he would live.”

“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’d more or less recuperated. 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. Now his lifeline to the outside world was about to be cut. In that moment, Alice resolved her thoughts. She would take the job.

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