23 September 2016

In September we visited the Gibberd Garden in Harlow - our second visit.  It is beautiful, peaceful and inspirational. Go visit! From their website: The Gibberd Garden is an inspirational and...

Alice cover 0016. Unexpected Help

People have long feared the south. It’s a brooding presence, just over the horizon: out of sight but not out of mind. They know we are here; they tell us on the radio that they are coming to ‘re-establish control’. People said for years it was only a matter of time before they attempted some kind of invasion. Others disagreed, saying they were weak and disorganised, still fighting among themselves. No one knew anything for certain, until now.

Not until Friday did the soldier join the Seamarsh family for their evening meal. Friday was bread day; the oven had been on all afternoon and the kitchen sweltered. Every window had been opened to its widest. Above the usual kitchen sounds, indistinct street noises could occasionally be heard – children’s shouts, church bells and men’s strident voices, a passing lorry or a distant rifle shot. The nights were stretching out as summer approached and early evening sunshine slanted across the worktop, turning the steam from the saucepans of carrots and peas into the billowing of a garden bonfire. With the big table set for dinner, everyone, apart from Rob, had taken a seat.

The soldier had removed his jacket and sat at the end of the table nearest the door to the rest of the house. Predictably, Terry had grabbed the chair next to him.

Punctuated by the loud dink of the serving spoon, Rob dolloped badly mashed potato onto the queued plates. “Where’s your rifle, then?” he said with barely concealed animosity.

“Unless we are on patrol we must always have it secured,” the boy replied mildly. “Mine is padlocked to the bed frame with a bike lock. And the magazine is here,” he said, tapping his shirt pocket. “You can understand why.” His tone made Rob’s bad-tempered enquiry sound rather foolish.

“Just your sidearm, then,” Adam said through a mouthful of food. The boy nodded. “So, what do we call you?”

“Private Mallick.”

Terry looked up at him with her most innocent face. “Can I call you Tony?” she asked sweetly.

The boy looked startled. “What? No. Why? That isn’t my name.”

Alice and Adam tried not to giggle as Rob’s serving spoon dinged a load of mash on to the next plate with even more violence.

“Well, what is it then?” That girl could charm the birds from the trees, Alice thought. Even so, it might be for the best if she called Terry off, just in case their guest had a short fuse. “That’s enough, Terry,” she reproved.

“No, it’s OK, I don’t mind. My first name is Veer, but you are supposed to address me as Private Mallick. It’s company orders.”

“Oh, OK.” Terry appeared satisfied and turned back to her meal. The violently served mash had spread itself over half the plate and she used her fork to push it up into a heap. Carrots from the garden, peas from the freezer and fish from the market completed the plate, plus some roasties and of course, Rob’s magic gravy that could make practically anything taste of something. “So, is it all right to call you Private Veer?” she added, speaking earnestly to her pile of mash.

“Terry, stop it. That’s enough!” Alice scolded, trying her best to sound angry, while Adam covered his mouth and turned away, feigning a choking cough.

The boy looked around the table. His expression spoke more of misery than anger. Even Rob noticed it, and as he sat down picked up the pan of roast potatoes. “Here, help yourself. Take what you want,” he said, nodding at the pan.

Veer pushed his chair back and rose from the table. “Actually, I’m not all that hungry, thanks all the same. I think I’ll get some sleep. It’s a six o’clock start tomorrow.”

The door closed and the room fell silent. Alice, Terry, Adam and Rob ate without conversation, each absorbed in their own thoughts. Adam finished first. “Well, what did you make of that, then?” he said.

Rob gave a dismissive snort. “Seems pretty thin-skinned, if you ask me. He’ll have to toughen up if he wants to stay a soldier.”

“Let’s hope he doesn’t use us for target practice,” Alice added as she began to clear the table.

“I think he’s nice,” Terry put in.

“I think he’s nice,” Rob mimicked nastily. “You’ll get us all shot, you will.”

“She didn’t mean any harm,” Alice replied, “did you?”

Terry fumbled in her tunic pocket and pulled out a folded envelope. “I found this in his jacket. Shall I read it?”

“Bloody Norah!” Rob wailed. “See what I mean?” He leaned across the table and made to grab the letter but Terry quickly pulled it out of reach, only to have it taken by Adam.

Alice covered her mouth. “Don’t read it, Adam. It’s none of our...”

Too late. “So, what have we here, then?” Adam said, and began to unfold the letter. Alice glared at Terry and cocked her head sharply in the direction of the door. Terry caught on immediately. She slid off her chair and stole across the room on cartoon tiptoes. After listening for a few seconds she eased open the door a crack. The hallway was empty.

Adam handed the thin notepaper to Rob. “It’s from his mother. He must have gone to a training camp of some sort before coming here.”

The letter went round the table. Alice waited patiently for her turn. Oddly, no one made any comment about the content of the letter. At last, Rob handed it to Alice. She held it to her nose and inhaled. An old habit, smelling things, but for her it made objects more real somehow. The paper smelled faintly of apples or roses, the smell of summer.

The contents of the letter were unremarkable – a concerned mother’s note to her son. Nevertheless, it was a glimpse into lives lived outside her experience, in a place that wasn’t Goodfleet. Clearly, he was loved and missed. In that moment, she felt a deep yearning one day to walk out of this town, the place she had lived her entire life and that had kept her safe. It would undoubtedly involve danger, yes, but that did nothing to lessen its appeal. What new knowledge might she gain, what new friends might she make?

Now, Alice looked hard at Terry. “OK, missy, now you listen carefully. You are to replace this letter immediately. Do you understand?” Terry nodded solemnly. “Did you go in his room?”

Terry contrived affront. “No! Certainly not. I found it in his jacket pocket. It’s hanging by the front door.”

“Anything else in the pockets?” Adam asked.

“Nothing. Just some fluff. Oh, and a hand grenade. Joke.”

Alice held the paper to the light. “I’ll bet this was made recently. It’s proper paper, not that grey rubbish we have to use at school. Boy, I’d love to get my hands on a few pads of this stuff.”

“You’ll have to talk nicely to Private Mallick, then, won’t you?” Adam said with a grin as he tucked the letter back into its envelope.

“Or marry him!” Terry added, and quickly ducked to avoid a swipe from Alice’s tea towel.

Adam caught Terry by the elbow. He held her by both arms and looked into her face, and wearing his most serious expression said, “Now, Terry Silver, I think that’s quite enough of your nonsense. Rob’s quite right. We don’t want to upset our uninvited guest needlessly by doing something stupid. So, there’ll be no more going in his pockets, no more flirting, and absolutely no going in his room. Understood?”

Terry nodded unhappily. She had never been told off by Adam before, and she didn’t like it. He sounded like Vic when he was laying down the law – briefly painful but in a way reassuring. Still, she would make sure it didn’t happen again.

****

Market day for the Seamarshes meant an early start and Alice and Terry were first up. It was decidedly cool, the low sun not yet strong enough to provide much warmth, and both girls had put on big top coats over their smocks. Nevertheless, it promised to be a fine day. One side of the birdhouse roof dripped with melted frost and beneath it several sparrows fought over the latest offerings of crusts and bacon rind, cheese ends and cooked potatoes.

“Do you want a hand with those?” The soldier stood in the kitchen doorway, watching Alice and Terry as they loaded the handcart with the day’s sales goods. Terry flashed Alice a cheeky grin as she swung another fish box full of bike parts on to the front of the cart. Most of the remaining boxes contained a hotchpotch of repaired toys, ornaments and bric-a-brac. On top, the girls had tied two bicycles – a mountain bike and a child’s three-wheeler. These would fetch as much as the rest put together, provided people were in the mood to buy.

The boy leaned on the doorframe while Terry tied down the bikes, her lips pursed in concentration. Alice felt slightly alarmed. What would be a suitable response? “Er, thanks, but won’t you get into trouble? Collaborating with the enemy and all that?”

If Alice thought this would put him off, she had miscalculated. “Perhaps,” he replied, and with a nod indicated a long coat and a wide-brimmed hat that hung on a nail inside the outhouse. “I could wear those.” Alice covered her mouth and glanced at Terry, who had convulsed in a fit of silent giggles. The boy unslung his rifle and let it rest against the outhouse wall. He beckoned to Alice as one would to a nervous animal. “Let me try them on,” he said, his faint smile enough to convince her of his honest intent. Once she’d registered the soldier's seriousness Terry quickly regained her composure and handed him the hat.

The long, flapping overcoat and fedora had instantly transformed the boy into a walking scarecrow. Nobody would have taken the figure to be a soldier. He slid his rifle between two rows of boxes and turned to the girls. “Is it best to push or pull this thing?” he said, his serious expression difficult to read.

They took the back alleyways through town and met no one. The long grind up Marshall Street proved far easier with three and they made it to the top of the road without pausing once. “It’s left here,” Alice shouted from the rear of the cart. At the junction, the boy stood up and said to Terry, “Does your cart have a handbrake?” He removed his disguise and retrieved his gun. “I’ll leave you here. I’m going… well, never mind. See you later.”

“Sure, see you later. And thanks,” Alice replied, smiling.

“And if you get fed up with soldiering we could make it permanent,” Terry chipped in. The boy plonked the hat on her head and draped the coat over the cart. “And you’re cheeky,” he said mildly, and winked as he shouldered his rifle and turned to go. “See you tonight, then.”

They watched him march away and turn at the corner, his steel-shod boots clicking over the cobbles. The two girls looked at one another. “Did that really just happen?” Terry asked as she made to resume their journey.

“Weird, wasn’t it? Weird, but kind of nice,” Alice replied. Terry looked at her inquisitively, but decided to say nothing and they continued on their journey to the market.

****

After tea, Alice busied herself in the vegetable garden. The onion bed needed weeding and the others were all busy doing other things. Rob had gone with Terry and Emma to look over the latest finds brought back by the scavvies. Every year the roads became more and more difficult to use. The metalled surfaces were starting to break up and blockages caused by fallen trees became ever more common the further the foraging crews went. Removing a rusting car from a country lane could cost them several hours – a lorry meant finding an alternative route.

The scavvy gangs went out three or four times a year, normally: March (as long as it hadn’t been an especially wet winter, in which case many roads would still be under water), May, June and July. August and September were the main months of harvest and every spare body that could lift a bale of straw or lead a horse and cart helped on the farms. On this trip, they had managed to get through to the large village of Heysham St Mary, about twenty miles southwest of Goodfleet. There they had found no signs of recent occupation and had been able to take their time, stripping the shops and houses of the most valued items and loading them on to the horse-drawn hay carts. Anything electrical always had top priority, along with tractor parts and tools. Kitchen appliances that looked to be in working order were taken whole. Fridges and freezers were the most highly prized. Electric motors were unbolted from washing machines and dryers (everybody in Goodfleet used the communal laundries). Computers were always in demand, as were kettles and toasters. The Seamarsh family were interested in bicycles.

Alice tipped a bucket of weeds into the open compost bin and made to settle once again to her weeding, when she heard a voice. “Want a hand? Again?” The soldier stood in the kitchen doorway, squinting against the low glare of the evening sun. Next to the back door, a fledgling blackbird landed awkwardly in the shrubbery. It eyed the boy first with one eye and then the other, turning its head this way and that, before starting to feed on the mahonia berries. The boy stepped out of the doorway and unslung his rifle. He removed the magazine and emptied the firing chamber before leaning it against the wall. Then he took off his jacket and hung it over the weapon, removing it from the scene. He picked up a bucket and took up a position opposite Alice, where he knelt and began work.

“Did you see your dinner?” Alice said. “It’s baked sausages.”

“I’ll get it later,” he replied. The two worked in silence for several minutes. A starling had brought its brood to feed at the bird table and, for a while, the air rang with their raucous screeching and chatter as they squabbled over bacon rinds and crusts. Then, for no detectable reason, an imaginary enemy sent them off over the gardens, flying in close instinctive formation like a squadron of tiny fighter planes.

Alice pushed herself onto her feet using the rim of her filled bucket. Veer looked up. His face showed pain. “I’m sorry for what happened to your mum,” he said. “You know it’s… “

Alice cut him off. “Sure, thanks. I know,” she said impatiently. “But why? I don’t understand why. Do you know why they did it? She wasn’t a threat to anyone.” She felt the anger triggered by this thought rising inside her. The senseless wrongness of Marsha’s death had unexpectedly boiled to the surface, like fizz rising inside an opened pop bottle. Tears, she knew, would not be long in following.

The soldier looked down and examined the dandelion seedling in his palm, as if it contained a truth that might be revealed through prolonged examination. At last, he said, “It was an accident, I think, a stupid bloody mistake. The gun went off. I’ve heard as much in the guard hut.”

“Do you know who?” Alice gripped the rim of the bucket tightly, like a seasick mariner fighting the urge to vomit. She stood and leaned against the compost bin. Veer also stood and they faced one another. He hesitated, and then made to speak, but before he could utter a word Alice cut in. “No, don’t answer. What does it matter anyway? It won’t bring her back, will it?”

The boy looked down. He dropped the weed into the bucket and walked over to the wall where he picked up his coat and rifle and silently went inside. So, that was that. The anger quickly left her and she resumed her weeding. Had it truly been an accident, merely a stupid mistake?

After a few minutes, the soldier reappeared holding his dinner plate. He sat down on the back step to begin his meal, closing his eyes at intervals and lifting his face to the evening sun. Alice had about finished. She tipped the product of her weeding into the compost bin and wondered what to do next.

The boy seemed keen to talk. “You have a pretty nice life here, don’t you?” he began.

Alice wasn’t particularly interested in responding to what sounded like a challenge. “I suppose so, yes. Why, don’t you?” she returned curtly, but immediately regretted it. Belatedly she recognised her response as needlessly cutting, cruel even. These young men were not here of their own volition. Most were conscripts of some sort; she knew as much from the gossip she’d overheard in the market. Their fate had been forced on them by circumstance just as much as hers had. Her untethered hair had fallen across her eyes and she parted it with the back of a sweaty hand. She inhaled deeply and looked up to inspect the boy standing before her, holding his empty plate. “I mean, at least you’re seeing something of the world, aren’t you? I’ve never been further than Northwick.”

“I’d rather be home,” came the simple reply.

More than anything else at that moment, Alice felt she wanted to know more, in fact she wanted to know everything, to hear the story of his upbringing, who his parents were, about his life in Wendon, and the story of how he became a soldier. What should she say? Then she had an idea. “Have you ever been down to the marshes?”

“No, never. We don’t bother patrolling down there. Why would I want to go there anyway? We know nobody lives there, nobody important, anyway. The marsh can’t be crossed without a boat. It’s of no relevance to the mission, the Commander says, not worth bothering about.”

“Somebody does live there. The Mereman has his duck farm. I have to take him some errands tomorrow. You could help if you like.”

For a moment, the boy looked almost happy. As he thought about the offer, his face altered; the frown relaxed and his smooth, pale features became more boyish and open, his usually narrowed gaze softer and rounder. The change made his military uniform seem even more out of place than before. “Yes, I’d like that very much,” he replied. “What time are you going?”

“Early,” Alice said. “We need to load the bikes first, which will take a while because we’ll need to get them balanced or they’ll never survive the potholes – there’s a lot of stuff to take down there. Say 5.30?”

“Perfect. I don’t need to report until the afternoon. See you at 5.30.” The soldier smiled. He picked up his rifle and left for his next patrol.

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