is draped with drifted bracken,
insulated in its cellulose
by slow decay
till other fire-years
bare blackened, ant-hewn
stones and question:
Can you place division
in the scheme of History?
is draped with drifted bracken,
insulated in its cellulose
by slow decay
till other fire-years
bare blackened, ant-hewn
stones and question:
Can you place division
in the scheme of History?
Between 1954 and 1974, Edward Boaden Thomas wrote his epic 20,000 line poem The Twelve Parts of Derbyshire which was published in its entirety in 1988, two years after his death. My novel The Wood Road North is about the Thirteenth Part of Derbyshire, which is the area around Alport Height.
Fancy a virtual pub crawl, in 1996?
Here are some tunes you might hear on one of those new-fangled CD jukeboxes.
Selected Top 20 hits from the year. Pub soundtrack to my novel.
Pond Life is another Derbyshire story, set in Ambergate, which is where I grew up. That end of the Cromford Canal, and the Ladybird book which shares the story’s title, were part of my youth, as well as the narrator’s. My grandparents had a farm beside the canal, and like many children my interests were elemental, and the farm provided access to all four. There was an open fire, which fascinated me. Plenty of water in the canal, and the countryside itself provided amply in terms of air and earth.
The Ladybird books in Nature Series 536 really were my favourites, too. Along with Pond Life, the seasonal What to Look for quartet was amongst my most cherished boyhood reading, along with British Wild Animals, British Wild Flowers, and Butterflies, Moths and Other Insects. This was the start of a lifelong love of natural history writing, and alongside my rural upbringing primed me for the poetry of John Clare. There’s a darker side to the natural world, and our relationship with it, which should not be ignored, but I do think it’s important first to establish the connection, and I remain indebted to these Ladybird titles for their part in my young life.
As with most of my stories, Pond Life has links to my novels, in this case both The Wood Road North and the second one, which I’m still writing. Characters from the fringes of the novels pass into the stories, and more central characters from the stories appear in the novels. There’s also an overlap between the stories themselves, perhaps a separate narrative to which even I’m not entirely party, just yet. But a hard drinker called Mark turns up again here, as he did in Belper’s Many Taverns and The River’s Bride.
This story hints, albeit gently, at some of the wider themes in my work as a whole: nature and the countryside, reluctance or refusal to engage with the everyday world, the flow of water, and the power of alcohol. There are also family considerations, and the senses of place and belonging. The Ladybird book Pond Life has helped the narrator to construct his identity, and he turns to his advantage any suggestion in the phrase of backwater insignificance. Everywhere is a backwater, for somebody.
Spectral shoppers and vintage underwear, in Beverley.
I got the keys for the shop two weeks before Christmas. The landlord trod out his cigarette on the frosty pavement and gave me the tour. I’d already had a look round with the agent, and since the back room was still full of all the old fittings, I explained again that I’d need this space for stock, boxes and so on. He said if I wanted any of those old units to let him know. He’d get the rest taken away and stored. Since my first visit I had hoped some of the cabinets and shelves might work for my jewellery and ornaments. Most of my capital was tied up in stock, so I was sharp-eyed for potential savings.
Long ago this place had been a drapery and haberdashery. The shop was L-shaped, originally having been two separate businesses owned by the same man. The insurance broker on the corner of the Saturday Market was unconnected, but they had bought the frontage after that first owner sold up in the early 1970s. Afterwards the place had sold dressmaking and knitting supplies, finally standing empty for over a year until I took over. The landlord left me there and I stood a quiet moment, alone in the premises of my business – for now. I needed customers, and fast. There was a lot of hard work ahead, and I could have done with getting in a week earlier, but now I had to get open in time for Christmas.
On the Sunday night, after a weekend spent kitting out the shop with my fittings and half of the old ones, I met up for a pint with Bryan at the Moulders Arms. Work was getting worse, he said, although he had to admit he was grateful enough still to be working at all. I told him about the shape of the shop and my security concerns, how I was going to need a camera or two, even if they only looked the part. He said he’d get his son to call round. Jamie worked for a security firm. Then Bryan remembered the story, or at least that there was one.
‘Fellow who owned those shops was obsessed with the woman from the smaller place. Thought she was in love with him, although she was happily married. It was a local scandal at the time, but I don’t know how it all came out.’ He finished his drink. ‘I’ll ask my dad when he comes for Christmas dinner.’
I smiled, having in recent weeks become gently obsessed with a woman myself. The house that backed onto mine had been to let for some time until one evening I noticed the lights on. Over the following weeks I found the lady of the house to be fonder of lights than curtains or blinds. I’m barely middle-aged, but I felt like a dirty old man as I let myself watch her, although it was more a case of taking an opportunity, being grateful for what was offered. I didn’t even know her name, let alone whether she knew or cared that I was peering from the darkness of the spare room. Maybe I wasn’t the only watcher. I couldn’t see into the houses either side of me. But it looked as though she lived alone, because I never saw a husband or lover, nothing to inspire envy. She was a quick dresser, and quicker at undressing, as though the house was cold. Maybe she should have spent more on heating than light, but I wasn’t complaining. Her taste in clothing was what you might call retro, and I’m pleased to say she saw that through to the level of underwear. This made me think perhaps she did it on purpose, was an exhibitionist or whatever it’s called. Do modern women wear suspenders and stockings unselfconsciously, not with an eye on the attention they’ll attract? Karen never had. But this lady took them off as I watched, removing next the big white laceless bra and deep hip-hugging knickers, before bedtime or her bath. Her hair was pinned up and unfussy, probably shoulder-length if she let it down.
She was of old-fashioned stature, with a proper bust and hips, not the boyish ideal of recent years. There’s no glamour to skinny, no allure for me. And yet that was how Karen had tried to make herself during the last years, running every night, even after the gym. I could understand her wanting to be fit, but the more she did the more she hated how she looked, it was never enough. And when I told her she was fine already she looked at me with contempt. I wasn’t lying, but at some point her new life stopped involving me, so what I thought didn’t matter. She left me for a man she met at the gym. He was divorced and owned a business. Well, now so did I. Admittedly a lot smaller, but it was mine, and all that remained was to get ready and open.
With half my redundancy money standing idle around me I needed to get the stock out on show and the door open as quickly as possible. Jamie had fixed me up with two empty cameras – he did a lot of those, apparently – and by the afternoon of the Friday before Christmas I was moving stock around to find the best place for everything, resisting the urge to overload the shelves.
‘I’m not open yet,’ I called to the man who appeared inside the door as I bent behind the counter. ‘But if you see anything you like I can let you have it.’ He made no reply, so I rose to face him, catching a tweedy glimpse of suit and waistcoat before looking into his moustached face. The dark of his pupils spread rapidly under my gaze, and he was gone, vanished into nothing.
I held on to the counter, thinking I must have stood up too quickly, been working too hard. Skipped lunch, should have eaten. And it couldn’t have been anyone, or I’d have heard the old bell when the door opened. People passed the window and their pale winter shadows crossed the wall inside. That must have been it, just someone looking in. I told myself I’d do another hour, and then tomorrow I would open.
Back at home I ordered a pizza delivery and opened a beer. Along with the old shop fittings in the back room I had found some old box files whose possibly interesting contents I would investigate this evening to the sound of the radio in the living room. I would also keep a lookout for the cherished moment when the lights went on over the fence. The first file contained several copies of the Hull Daily Mail from the 1960s which I put to one side, and a number of photographs taken inside the shop years ago. I saw the glass-topped counter that now housed my jewellery, and behind it rows of little drawers for buttons and things. I was using those for storage in the back. The same balding man frowned from most of the photographs, but one showed a dark-haired woman in a crocheted dress standing in front of a different counter. As I stared the pizza boy rang the doorbell, and I put the pictures in a little pile. I’m a tidy sort of person.
As I ate, keeping my greasy fingers away from the old prints, I decided to buy a few frames, put up the pictures as talking points in the shop. Then perhaps if someone was interested they’d tell others, who might stop by for a look and leave with a purchase. As the beer and pizza went down I indulged in dreams of the shop’s success, allowing myself to become locally celebrated, but drawing the line at having Karen back. I closed the empty box and with immaculate timing the lights came on opposite. Another beer from the fridge, and I took myself upstairs to watch.
At nine in the morning I opened and saw brisk trade at the stalls on the Saturday Market for half an hour before my first customer came in. He browsed without buying, avoiding my eye, and leaving as I attended to a cheery man who spent over a hundred pounds, testing my new card-machine skills whilst obliging me to keep an idiot grin off my face. And it carried on in much the same way until half past four or so, when things slackened off. But what a start! I would have to order more stock on Monday, but had enough in the back and at home to keep trading until it arrived. I hadn’t planned to open on Sunday, but revised this in the light of today’s takings and the season. I’d get a couple of days off soon enough, and afterwards they’d all be looking for sale bargains. I had anticipated this and bought in some pieces for the purpose.
On Saturday night I ordered a curry and looked through the rest of the box files, whose contents included empty bobbins, patterns, and a great many catalogues. Catalogues for wool, for buttons, and – to my joy – a whole box full of fifties and sixties lingerie brochures. These vintage items could fetch a pretty penny from the right sort of buyer, but I was going to have a good long look myself first, if I didn’t keep them. I told you I was partial to the way women used to dress, and this whole experience stirred such childhood memories. My mother would take me to shops like mine had been, and I breathed in the rich aroma of the places, saw the haughty elegance of the mannequins, then as now at odds with the shapes of real women. Crouching in my shorts, I would touch the plate glass between little me and the contents of the cabinets. Now I had the keys to some of those cabinets, but I still spent longing hours peering through glass at the object of my desire.
Christmas was on Thursday, so once I’d converted another few hundred pounds of stock into cash on Sunday I was optimistic for the short week ahead, and resolved to order even more stock tomorrow. Outside in the dark afternoon I locked the door and was reaching up for the shutter when I saw a young woman standing inside the shop. Like a fool, I had and shut the place up with a customer still browsing. Hoping she’d see the funny side, I fumbled open the door and strode into the shop, making all sorts of apologies, to where she stood at the end of the counter. She was short, petite and gloved. I couldn’t say how old, because her hat covered most of her hair and the shop was in darkness. She said nothing, but raised her head, looked into my eyes, and disappeared, just like the man had done. This wasn’t a shadow, unless it was my own, cast by the street lights outside. But I didn’t believe that. Nor did I believe that people could just fade away like that, or appear real if they weren’t. The mind had greater depths than science had plumbed, I was sure, and so that’s what I told myself. To everyone else I said nothing.
At home I had the comfort of my alluring neighbour opposite, now the one constant in my life. How I might get onto friendly terms with her remained uncertain, yet I was increasingly sure that with our shared taste in ladieswear (mine stoked daily by the glossy-thick pages of those engrossing catalogues) we could share far more together. First, I needed to get through three days of trading without being driven insane by vanishing figures. They did their best. I put down the telephone after placing my order on Monday morning and rushed to help an old woman reaching for a lead crystal vase on a high shelf.
‘Allow me,’ I said, and startled, she looked at me. I heard her draw breath, I swear, but she was gone. I placed the vase on a lower shelf and put the kettle on. Trade was slower that day, but picked up on Tuesday when I supposed more people were off work. My delivery arrived mid-morning by which time things were so busy that only with difficulty could I restock the empty shelves, between customers. Lots of cash, for some reason – I had to shut for ten minutes in the afternoon, to visit the bank. When I returned, to a shop of whose emptiness I had assured myself before leaving, a middle aged man in an apron was sitting behind the counter in my place. This time I didn’t look in his eyes, glanced around him, watched his balding head turn to follow me into the shop and back again past him, saw the big fabric scissors in his right hand and there in his left a Gossard catalogue from 1965, exactly the same as the one back at home in the box. I looked at his face and he left me, his lost mirror image, the keys in my left hand, the paying-in book in my right.
At about ten on Wednesday morning, Christmas Eve, just as I was closing the till, a policeman put his gloves on the counter – I saw them clearly – only to dematerialise when I looked up. This time it was different, because I wasn’t alone. There were two customers in the shop, a mother and daughter by the look of them, and as the solid dependable copper atomised into nothing before me I saw them behind him, through the space where he had been, and the daughter was looking at me as though nothing had happened. Possibly I stared back too hard, as she expressed a desire to leave, but happily not before her mother had spent sixty pounds on her card.
After work I called in at the packed Cornerhouse for a standing drink with Bryan, who told me what his wife Sandra had remembered about the story of my shop.
‘The woman went missing,’ he said, ‘after complaining to her husband about unwanted attentions from the shop owner. The police had him in for questioning, but there was never a body and he denied everything, so they had to let him go. It broke him though, and he died soon afterwards.’ My face must have saddened at this, because Bryan asked what I was doing tomorrow, said if I was on my own I could come to theirs.
‘Looking forward to a rest,’ I told him. ‘Been working hard.’ He didn’t know how hard. Today had proved that I alone could see the vanishing figures, but at least I saw them only at the shop. After Bryan went home I stayed and had another. Thus encouraged I went via Tesco, having decided to introduce myself with a bottle of wine. No idea what I was getting, hardly drank wine myself, but I tried to get something nice, spent ages thinking. Women like white wine, don’t they? But white needs to be cold, and there was no time to put it in the fridge. Red, then. Paid nearly ten quid, it must be love. Happy, I sang to myself as I walked home.
As soon as the lights went on I set off round to her house. Only took a couple of minutes, even though I had to go back for the wine. There was no answer when I knocked on the front door, and from this side all was dark. I noticed the To Let board was still up, an oversight presumably. Never really came down this road. Between the houses I could see the light escaping around the blind in my kitchen as I walked down the side passageway to the back garden. Untended for months, this was a bit of a state, but the lawn was lit through the open curtains and I strode, taking my moment.
The living room was empty – literally empty apart from the carpet, curtains wide at the patio doors. Nobody there. Next along was the kitchen, with a door half-windowed in frosted glass, and the window. I saw her standing there in a green mini-dress, reaching to open and close a cupboard door, taking out nothing, putting nothing back. The white kitchen surfaces were bare under the glare of the bulb. As I raised my hand to knock she walked through to the living room and I moved back that way to see her cross the carpet and touch something that wasn’t there against the far wall. It was feeling very cold out here now. She turned again, walked the length of the opposite wall and smiled against the window, looking past me. I stepped out, holding up the wine bottle and grinning back, but still she stared, clearly seeing something I couldn’t. Every inch real, with a shadow and everything, not like those others, the watchers, the things I’d imagined, believed. I could see the shape of her underwear through her skirt, and a place where the paint on her toenails had chipped. She was there before me, just glass in between. I could have watched her forever, but that wasn’t enough.
I got right in front of her before she straightened and put her head on one side, all mute. I could hear no sound from inside, and very little out here, until I tapped the glass and she jumped like a waking sleeper. With a look of horror she stared into my eyes, then the blackness spread, the lights went off, and I was alone in the dark.
My short story Pond Life is featured as a guest post on Helen Day’s fascinating Old Ladybird Books blog. Helen has made great use of the illustrations from the Ladybird book of the same title, but I will confine myself below to the cover, after which you can read the full text of the story.
I couldn’t say how many childhood hours I spent on my stretch of the Cromford Canal in Ambergate. Probably fewer than I remember, but as time passes the important experiences seem to choose themselves, and they’re hardly ever the ones that took the longest. According to my memory, most afternoons I could be found under one of the two bridges nearest to Chase Road where my parents lived, or somewhere between the far one and the end of the canal, messing with nets and jars, looking for water snails and caddis fly larvae or fascinated with a ram’s horn snail. The Ladybird Book of Pond Life was my guide in this important work, and with the willow tree’s shade on my bedroom window I would study the text and illustrations, checking off the plants and animals I had seen, staring into the pictures of those I hadn’t. Oh, to have found a hydra, that spindly green freshwater anemone near the back of the book! I thought I could find anything in the canal, it being just a long narrow pond, bigger than any other. Everything ought to be in there somewhere, surely. There were lots of dragonflies, but although they must have been there I never found a dragonfly nymph down in the water, such a scary thing it looked in the book. There were innumerable frogs and toads, plenty of spawn in spring, a few newts, whirligig beetles and hover flies, as well as some good-sized beetles in the pastures along the banks, but they were in a different book from Series 536. Those were my favourites.
Some of the local boys went fishing, but I didn’t like the dark Amber water or the eddies where it joined the Derwent. I suppose I was younger than my years, as well as shorter. When I started to go there on the bus, the lads at school in Belper were interested in music, in clothes and girls and football more than all the dreamy pleasures I would take in my surroundings, the beautiful valley. I couldn’t see it then, that I was different and rural, but now it’s all over my memories of Belper and school. So instead I think of the countryside, the holidays, the sunshine and the herby smell of hay from the fields around our house. After the Chase Road bridge over the canal you can walk for a little way along the towpath, looking over the broken walls and fields to the River Amber and the viaduct. Then you reach the place where the water just pours away, or at least what overflows does, the canal itself isn’t flowing at all. You can walk around it, the path carries on but the canal’s gone. They cut it all away for the gas plant, my dad said. That was where they used to put the smell in the stuff. Nobody ever believes me when I tell them that. Halfway there a black metal bridge over the water carries a great thick pipe from which a big drip would fall every few seconds, washing the towpath back to its pebbled stone. As a lad I ran under it, or waited for the drip and timed my walk. I think the pipe takes water from the underground reservoir up beside the woods.
The other way, northwards, the dry gritstone walls run low, waist-high to me now, between the towpath and the farm, with the railway embankment behind it. Then on the right, over the canal, the woods begin, looming over the water most of the way to Whatstandwell, the next station up the line. At the same time the wall becomes taller and mortared with the big house hidden behind, ivy curling around the ever-closed door set into the stonework, so that here, before the next bridge which marked the extent of my young towpath, the water had its own dark valley, sheltered and quiet. Like me. We haven’t had so many restoration attempts on this bottom end of the Cromford Canal. You might call it a backwater, if canals have those. I’ve always been concerned about the effect on the wildlife of dredging out all the mud and reeds and habitat, just so people could chug their way down here and back in boats. I needn’t have worried. Every few years we hear it’s all going to be opened again, dredged and made ready for the tourists. That’s what I like about this place: nothing ever changes very much, or at least not very quickly.
Two men would walk past along the canal some afternoons. They parked near the substation on Chase Road and came up by the bridge under which I would lie on the towpath, chin over the stones of the canal’s edge, the arch shading the water from the sky, skimming the light from its surface, letting me see to the bottom where no plants grew. The surface still worked, I learned. It was still gathered tense against the air above, glid across by waterskaters, and water boatmen clung at the underside. Crickets sounded from the parched grass by the drystone walls behind me. All this insect life! Those two men knew about wildlife and the countryside, especially the older one. They would stop to ask what I had found, what I was looking for, then they went walking in the woods. I was afraid to go up there alone, and scared to ask if I might go with them. I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers.
As I got older, I would go up the path through the woods with other village kids at the weekend or on holidays, took a picnic lunch up there sometimes and ate it in one of the fields between the trees. That must sound like something from another world, long gone, now. That’s how it sounds to me. But it’s all still there, and not very different. It just took a while for me to see how unchanged it remained, after I went there with Shaun and Mark. They came on the bus from Belper and we set off from my house along the towpath to the second bridge, up onto the road and over it, through the field to the stile at the top end and into the woods, up the long steep path. I loved the woods, the smell and sound and sight of them. It was like stepping into another of my Ladybird books, or something by Enid Blyton; at least that’s how they were to me, not to those two. The way they spoke made me think they would have preferred to be alone, so I felt I was tagging along, an inconvenient younger brother, despite being their age. Clearly they knew it too, because we had barely reached the top of the woods when they left me, and I had to go back home on my own. I was hurt and ashamed. They hid, or just walked off when I was looking at something. There was a lot more to see in the woods, especially if you could be quiet and watch. They wouldn’t do that, had to be breaking sticks and throwing stones. It was the wrong way to behave in the countryside. I would have been fine, but after looking for them and before I set off down the sandy path again I shouted, ‘Shaun! Mark!’ and listened for them, called again, listened. Nothing, just the sound of the woods in the wind, pressing close around me. It was worse than being alone. I felt cold danger poisoning the air. By the time I got back down to my canal I had been running most of the way, all sweaty wet, hot and bothered. I should have stayed under the bridge to look for fish instead. There were pike in there, pencil-thin ones. I waited, my breathing slower shaded in the cool, until I heard the other two coming down the field, not laughing at me, nor careless, but concerned I was still up there, that I’d been following them. Above the bridge I heard Mark say ‘He might have seen!’ I thought they’d find me there, come down onto the towpath, but instead they took the road and when their stonekicking steps had gone there was just me in the shade under the bridge, sitting with my head against the stone and my bottom in the dust, level with the water. ‘I might have seen,’ I said to myself, a little later, and my words buzzed round in the arch of space. The stirring water rippled in reflection on the stone. I hadn’t seen. But I thought about it for a long time, although I never asked, and nor did they.
We grew apart as we got older, but we still saw one another at school and I used to have the odd drink with them for a few years afterwards. They didn’t stay on in the Sixth Form. I don’t even think they took any ‘O’ Levels. Living in the town they could get to pubs easier than me and their parents didn’t ask so many questions, weren’t as protective as mine. I used to resent that, but now I’m here again in their old house I know it was better for me. If only Mark’s parents had been the same, or Shaun’s. It was terrible, what happened to him. He always had an unhappy look about him as a boy, but the last time I saw him, stumbling across King Street from the old laundrette, he didn’t recognise me, his face was just…nothing. No expression, no feelings. He was already gone.
I went out with them one final time before I went off to the Poly. They came on the bus to Ambergate and we went in the Hurt Arms, then the White House where they started an argument over a game of pool and got us thrown out. I didn’t even play pool myself, I liked to sit in the other side of the pub. So we walked to the Fisherman’s Rest and Mark saw someone he used to go out with, which put him in a terrible mood and started him drinking really hard, as hard as Shaun. I was a long way out of my depth with those two, and I didn’t want to learn how to stay afloat in that much drink.
I met Suzanne at the Poly, where she was doing Art. She lived in Nottingham and seemed impossibly worldly to me. I couldn’t believe she wanted anything to do with me, but I’m very happy that she did. Those days seem a long time ago now, but they made a difference, made me confident enough to get through life pretty well, and I’ve been working at County Offices for twenty years now. Sometimes I let myself imagine what retirement might be like. I’m nowhere near wanting to stop work yet, I just like to know it’s all in order.
Living back here feels right, although I waited until Mum was on her last legs before suggesting it to Suzanne. But it was what she wanted too. The picture I’d painted of growing up in this countryside, by the canal, had been so fond and rich that she’d started to feel as I did, missing something she’d never had. Now she paints it herself and sells a lot of her work. It’s better than I ever dreamed, and I only wish our children had been able to grow up here. I’m happy that Andrew and Rebecca didn’t resent us being the same with them as my parents were, keeping them in at night, making sure they did their homework, giving them hopes and aspirations. They should do a lot better than either of us now, both got good jobs and opportunities ahead of them. One of the Directors at Dyer’s seems to have taken Andrew under his wing. You need to work hard to achieve your aims in life, but at the same time you can’t underestimate the value of luck.
Rebecca and her husband Martin live in Sheffield and we see them often. Martin likes to walk, always wants to set off on one when they’re here. I’m glad to go, but he’s not like me, which is presumably what Rebecca sees in him. He’s not so interested in the details, more in landscape as a spectacle. He goes rock-climbing, canoeing, sees the countryside as a thing to be overcome, not something of which he’s a part. I bet he never leaned over the stones at the edge of a towpath to look for water snails. But I’d happily spend the afternoon doing just that, even more so now. I’m here again, the canal’s still here, and we’ll both be waiting for any grandchildren who might come along. Perhaps one of them will be like me, a quiet little thing interested in the margins and what goes on away from the crash and clatter. Between us, we might even find that hydra.
This story was published last month by Nailed. The title of the piece is taken from a line from the unrecorded Belper song cycle which I composed in the 1990s. There are connections to my novel The Wood Road North which I won’t spell out too clearly here, plus a character who appears in Belper’s Many Taverns, another story from this collection which is already here on WordPress.
Let’s start, like the story, with the dog. My family had a taste for Jack Russell terriers, but Rex is a combination of the first two larger dogs that I knew as a child. One neighbour had an Alsatian called Rex, of whom I was encouraged by my parents to be frightened. Another had a boxer called Jan, a very pleasant creature. I didn’t really connect these thoughts until I started writing this commentary, which might serve to demonstrate how the memory access enjoyed by the creative spirit is far more complete than that afforded to the everyday conscious.
Colin and Rex appear briefly in The Wood Road North, and in The River’s Bride Colin thinks about the Lord Nelson on Bridge Street in Belper, as well as two of its fictional regulars from the novel. Colin’s previous dog Rosie is named after Dave Swarbrick’s title song on the Fairport Convention album of 1973; not for any particular reason (unless she liked to ‘lie down cosy’) but that’s what was playing when I needed to give her a name.
Although it’s early in the morning and he’s only a casual drinker, pubs and drink are important here, as in most of my stories. In Belper’s Many Taverns we hear from Mark Barrass, and unpublished stories from this collection concern older drinkers, along with others who use pubs as means to different ends.
Mrs Barber is a confection of the old folks I knew, or was related to, during my youth. The broken biscuits and rock cakes, the tea in china cups when there was company of any sort, and the frank, blunt expressions of opinion. I recently moved to an old house where we could have real fires, and the richly nostalgic smell of a room where coal has been burned still takes me back to those signifiers of life in a different age.
I said that this story had links to The Wood Road North, and in terms of its general shape The River’s Bride resembles the novel, too: it starts out slow and lyrical, before an event causes a change, after which nothing is the same.
In a new and possibly unique feature, I would like to announce a competition. Anyone who knows Belper and its history might be able to guess what the other children used to call old Mrs Barber. There’s a signed copy of The River’s Bride for the first person who supplies the correct answer by way of a comment.
I nearly didn’t write this one. Had no intention of lowering myself with a ‘spooky tale’ for a competition, even at the suggestion of a friend and fellow writer. I was serious, literary and uncompromising, right? But then I finished work for the festive period in December 2013, relaxed a little, and early one morning woke before everyone else in the house with an idea, or the start of one.
The narrator of The Stoat has a little in common with me. We both enjoy pubs and beer, and I once had a girlfriend like Fiona. Like him, I moved to Beverley after a rural youth in another part of the country, but I have never owned a dog.
In what will no doubt become a recurring theme in these commentary postings, one of the pubs in The Stoat is no longer in existence. Soon after I wrote the story, the Oddfellows Arms became a residential development. The others are still there, although I haven’t been to the Sun Inn for a while – supposedly Beverley’s oldest pub, and my local for my first 15 years in Beverley.
But I have never been to the Stoat, because it isn’t real. Or at least it only existed in my imagination until the story was told. For years, my wife and I shared a standing joke about how we had moved to the town just too late to enjoy a warm welcome and foaming ales at a disused old property a mile or so outside the town centre, which we fancied would have made a great location for a pub. Its name didn’t come right away, and I’m not sure whether I can really remember how it became the Stoat, but that’s what we used to call it.
So there I was, downstairs in the kitchen before it was light, chain-drinking cups of tea and writing furiously on sheets from a narrow-ruled WH Smith A4 pad. I came down alone in the cold early morning with an idea about how our unreal pub might have got its name.
The end result differs from the rest of my work, but there are similarities, too. The pubs, the beer, the broken relationships and communications from the Beyond. Wherever that might be. By this time I had a second novel to write, and more short stories linked to both of the longer works. But the following year I wrote another seasonal tale based in Beverley, which I shall post here in December.
First published in the 2013 Spooky Tales anthology of competition winners from What The Dickens magazine.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, Fiona packed her things and left me. She’d done it before and come back, but with fewer things each time. Given the date and her awareness of train times from Beverley to Hull and on to Leeds, some advance planning had been done. So I didn’t plead with her like all the other times, just watched her fill two bags and a case, and then gave her a lift to the station. There are only so many times someone can leave before you lose interest in whether they’re coming back. I’d done that last time, in late summer, when she walked out for a fortnight. She returned almost before I could feel the change, but it was done. Fiona could feel it too, although she’s more bloody-minded than me and stayed on for four more months. She couldn’t hurt me now, and that really got on her nerves. We used to have grand pot-smashing rows, so now she had them on her own. I couldn’t even be bothered to argue. Perhaps she was frightened, because I was starting to hurt her with my indifference. There was no option but for her to leave, and as I drove back alone I was happier than any time since the summer. It was almost Christmas, I wasn’t back at work until the second of January, and there was snow on the ground.
Not much snow, just the weekend’s smattering, but late December had been cold and dry so the frosty fields around the town were white as I set out to buy myself a Christmas present. I knew what I wanted, and how things were going to change. One pair of Hunters later I walked home with a big cardboard box gift-wrapped in a bag under my arm. The dog could wait until January. I wouldn’t have trusted anyone who might sell me one on Christmas Eve.
Back at home I planned my Christmas. No visits to Fiona’s shallow friends, none of whom she was going to miss back at her parents’ house. No waiting up for her to return from an ostensibly work-related evening at three or four o’clock in the morning, and no rows. I’d play music, drink wine, ring the friends I’d neglected for her, and maybe drive down to see my own family, between Christmas and New Year, having pretended all was as normal until then. No point upsetting my mother, even though like most people she didn’t exactly get on with Fiona. There was too much food for me to eat tomorrow, so I thought about cooking the lot and taking the excess to Brian and Cynthia across the road. They struggled, but kept struggling, and reminded me of my grandparents. Of course Fiona thought they were imbeciles and resented my helping them out, but – you know what? – I’d spent enough time thinking about that selfish young lady and right now, right now I fancied a beer. It was six o’clock. Dark, but still early. I had a shower, took a second shave like I used to years ago, chose a shirt and some decent jeans.
I walked out onto Norwood and made my way into town. Before leaving I had called Jamie to ask if everyone was going for the customary Christmas Eve drink. I’d not been to the last three of these, and this year he hadn’t bothered inviting me. Sounded a bit awkward at first, but said he’d be in Nellie’s with Phil and Steve at about half seven. That gave me half an hour for a pint in the Durham Ox after which I’d meet them. There were some regulars in the Ox and I ended up staying for another half, but if Jamie was running to form they’d be late anyhow and either way I’d catch them at Nellie’s. Lots of people were out, dressed bright and colourful, tinsel in hair and laughter cracking across from the bus station as I crossed to Ladygate and entered the gaslit pub. Should have mentioned that. Everyone calls it Nellie’s although it’s really called the White Horse, which is another story.
Back in this one Nellie’s was jammed. I wriggled through the rooms upstairs and down, in the back, out in the yard, by the real fires and under the gas mantles. No sign of them. I looked at my phone: ten to eight. Maybe I’d missed them. The battery was also under half way. Too late now, should have charged that. Stood outside in the crisp air and called Jamie. He answered, distorted through pubchatter, saying full, gone to King’s Head, see you in the – I think he said the Angel, before it cut out.
No point buying a drink at Nellie’s, so I walked through the illuminated town to the Angel. Rather less rooms here, but again no sign of the lads. Never mind, I was having a drink. They’d get here. The guest ales were nothing special, but I was determined to have a decent time even alone, and ordered a pint of the Elven Ale.
‘You sure?’ asked the barman. ‘Not selling much of this. They say it’s fairy’s beer.’ Told him I’d have a pint anyhow. Nearly five per cent, half an hour since my last drink. Two blokes left and I took one of their stools, my coat on the other, telling the askers the truth: I was waiting for my mates. Who didn’t turn up. I was getting the message, but it was Christmas Eve and I knew plenty more people in Beverley, even if I hadn’t seen anyone familiar since the Durham Ox. I nursed the drink, very nice for ‘fairy’s beer’ – tarry and warming. I hoped I’d find something similar in the next pub, wherever my feet took me.
They took me to Wednesday Market, but a DJ yelled over the music in the Queen’s Head. I stood at the roadside: Highgate and the Monks Walk, or Eastgate and the Oddfellows Arms? Well, there was a name for me tonight. The Oddfellows was half-full, and I was delighted to find the Elven Ale on offer again. As I ordered a man standing nearby tapped my shoulder.
‘Good choice!’ he boomed, bearded and stout. ‘It’s on capital form!’ Pleased to find I wasn’t the only fan, I paid and turned but he was gone. Moved faster than he looked, I chuckled to myself, settling into an easy conversation about overspending, waste, debt and the rest. Of course we all knew better, us strangers talking in a pub on Christmas Eve. I left when they suggested a game of pool. The beer was nice, but I wanted to try the Sun Inn, which was my local when I first moved to Beverley. Since then I’d been promoted, bought a house, done everything except settle down properly. But now I would settle down into myself, and if the lady came along so be it. If not, just me and the dog. I held open the door of the Sun for two leavers and worked my way inside. Waited at the bar long enough for one of the barrels to be changed. Folk musicians played and people were singing along. Served at last, I asked what they had that was dark and strong.
‘Hang on,’ said the barman, labelling the new pump with Elven Ale.
‘Pint of that please,’ I said, and watched him pull it. Beside the window I spotted the large bluff chap from the Oddfellows, waving from his table. He pointed to the seat opposite and I joined him, buying him a pint of the Elven on the way.
‘Very kind,’ he said. ‘An acquired taste perhaps, but once you’ve had two or three of these nothing else measures up.’
‘Where’s it from?’ I asked, not having noticed the name of the brewery.
‘Not sure,’ he admitted, ‘but they have it all the time out at the Stoat. I’d never heard of a pub called the Stoat at all, let alone in Beverley. ‘It’s on Long Lane,’ he said, pointing past the Minster. I thought my way along the country road and shook my head. ‘It’s easily missed,’ he confided, ‘like a lot of sweet things. But away from the town there’s still a warm welcome, for those who enjoy one.’ He described the place in such detail that I was resolved to go there even before he stood to take his leave at the end of the pint.
‘Bound for the Stoat?’ I asked.
‘Perhaps,’ he said, ‘but in case I don’t see you I’ll leave you the price of another drink. Don’t want to be in your debt.’ I protested, he insisted, he left. I finished another half and set off on Long Lane, which was well-named. A few coy corners, and then one stretch of gently veering unlit narrow countryside that had me singing to myself for company as I approached the light ahead, half a mile past the last house – or what I would call half a mile, being a country lad. More like a mile to a townsman. This must be the Stoat. The cold bit my face, numbed within from the Elven Ale, and I hoped there’d be a seat close to the open fire my new friend had described. I wasn’t afraid of the dark, but jumped as the white shree of a barn owl sounded nearby. I looked but couldn’t see the bird. What I could see ahead was the Stoat, clearly visible now as I came the last two hundred yards. Outside and in, it was more like a farmhouse than a pub, but as described: a great log fire with benches around it, figures seated and standing, and warmth in the flagstones underfoot. Voices welcomed as I stamped my feet inside the door, and a rich, familiar speaker sounded from the fireside.
‘Evenella! Drink for our young friend.’ There sat the bearded man last seen in the Sun, beaming in the firelight. I sat opposite him and Evenella brought me beer in a straight-sided glass. I tasted and stared. She was a strange, regally beautiful woman. Hard to guess her age, but not more than thirty and probably younger. White blonde to the eyebrows and lashes, face narrowing under her mouth. Lips a little thin perhaps, but –
Oh yes, I was still staring. She smiled, eyes and teeth bright in the flamelight, and took my coat.
‘She’s a special lady,’ said my stout companion, ‘and I see you’re quite taken.’ Before I could deny it he called out ‘A toast to the Stoat! The one becomes the other!’
‘The Stoat!’ answered the others, and we drank.
We drank. Soon I could take no more beer, although I felt anything but drunk.
‘Is there anything else?’ I asked. ‘Spirits maybe, or something to eat?’ There was laughter in the room and Evenella touched my shoulder at the neck, fingers gently squeezing.
‘Would you like something warmer?’ she asked, and I rose to follow her through the door at the back of the room. The men cheered behind us.
I woke, painfully cold and on hard ground in the coming light. There was sky above me, clouded slate-grey, and damp brickwork at my side. Stiff to the joints, I tried to stand, and hessian sacking fell away. I was fully dressed, coat, boots, hat and gloves. Surely now the hangover would stoop from above and finish me, but nothing came. Only cold, crystal cold in my face, feet and hands and a damper cold beyond shuddering deeper inside. I stood swaying in what must have been a stable or something. Ahead the main building was a ruin, with Dangerous Structure – Keep Out signs and corrugated iron to discourage the unwary. I walked around the house, surely never a pub, and got out through a gap in the fencing, snagging my jeans. On Long Lane I could see the Minster rise from the mist and started my aching way for home, looking back only once at the Stoat. Clear head notwithstanding, I must have drunk far more than I remembered, given all the other things I thought had happened. Was I still drunk, or was there something in the Elven Ale?
The town was deserted, curtains still closed and only a few lights showing. At the end of Walkergate I passed a rough sleeper in his waking stupor on the bench. Feeling his pain, I reached for my wallet to give him something. I had spent nothing at the Stoat, but the memories ran over me. I handed him a tenner, then another. He stared at the notes, smelled them and I walked away, sensing now, and more strongly back at home, that I stank. An animal scent, pungent as fox or cat, but neither. Everything I wore ended up in the bin.
The bath was very hot, but I needed it and lay remembering. The fireside, the nuttysweet beer and the bed in the back room with Evenella. Her voice, high and cool as we undressed, and I noticed she was not entirely blonde. Quite black, that little tuft. I lay in the steaming water, exhausted, bewildered and grateful. The bells of St. Mary’s were ringing and in the bedroom I could hear my charging mobile pulling down missed messages as I fought the urge to sink through my dreams into sleep.
I haven’t seen the bearded man since then, or been offered Elven Ale, but I walk past the house on Long Lane with Ellie, my spaniel. Someone bought the house and started doing it up, yet until recently I never saw anyone as we passed. Then one clear October morning there was a woman with short red hair and a baby girl at her shoulder in the doorway. I looked where she stood, and there were the old worn flagstones.
‘It’s a lot of work,’ she said, smiling as the infant settled, ‘but it’ll be worth it.’
‘Yes,’ I nodded, wondering if she meant the house or the baby, probably both. ‘Are you by yourselves?’ I asked. She was.
‘My father helps when he can, but he’s very busy,’ she told me. ‘We’ll get there.’
‘Well,’ I found myself saying, ‘if you need any help just ask. I walk past here often.’
‘I know,’ she said, and we left it at that, although since then I’ve looked for her each time and seen her often, speaking sometimes. The work is almost finished, but thus far she has resisted my invitations to visit my home, much as I have resisted asking more about her situation.
This morning, a year after the story started, there was a card through the door, handwritten and unstamped, with no postcode. A woman’s hand, wilful and spirited. Inside a winter landscape blank of festive message, but with an invitation.
See you again this year?