The Old King

New beginnings and a strange visitor at a Derbyshire pub.

Lisa wished she’d worn another skirt, this one was shorter than her coat. The good thick tights would keep her warm, but she worried how she looked, giving it all the legs, at her age.

   ‘This,’ she said, breath misting the cold air, ‘Is where I should tell myself I look great, build up my confidence.’ Hands in pockets she strode along the jitty by the side of the railway cutting, talking to herself. Knew she was doing it, but when you spend a lot of time alone it’s sometimes nice to hear a voice.

   She crossed Field Lane and kept quiet on her way through the car park. There were plenty of people on King Street, out celebrating with four days to go before Christmas. Halfway along Strutt Street Lisa had another word with herself.

   ‘Well, you look no worse than some of that lot.’ Chuckled and waited to cross Cheapside to Days Lane and the Old King’s Head.

   Inside the door she unbuttoned her coat and looked for Nick. No, just a couple of solitary drinkers. Checked her watch and yes, it was a minute or two to eight.

   ‘What can I get you, duck?’ said the lady behind the bar.

   ‘Gin and tonic, please.’ Lisa watched the drink come together. ‘Think I was last in here at someone’s eighteenth. Long time ago.’ The pub was decorated, festive. Nothing too glitzy, not over the top.

   ‘It won’t have changed much,’ said the bar lady. ‘You been away?’

   ‘Yes,’ Lisa nodded. ‘Lived in Chester over twenty years now.’

   ‘Back for Christmas?’

   ‘No, it’s my mother.’ Handed over a note and took change. ‘She died in October and I’ve been sorting things out.’ Lisa still hadn’t picked up her drink. ‘I only work Monday to Wednesday now, so I can do a lot of it myself.’

   ‘Sorry to hear about your mum,’ said the lady. ‘I’m Betty, by the way.’ Friendly smile.

   ‘Lisa. I’m here to meet a friend.’ Paused. ‘Well, he was a boyfriend once, but that’s ancient history.’ Took out her phone and checked their texts. No, there it was – eight o’clock.

   ‘That’s right, sneak to the bar while I’m at the gents.’ Nick put a hand on her shoulder. Lisa went back in her bag, found the purse. ‘Only kidding,’ he said. ‘Got most of a pint still, over here.’ Pointed to a table by the window as Betty gave him a dark-horse look.

   Lisa sat down, wishing they were nearer the fire.

   ‘I think the old girl knew you were in the toilet,’ she said.

   ‘Should think so, she pulled me this pint.’

   ‘I mean she was just letting me talk.’ Lisa sipped her gin at last.

   ‘Well, you do enjoy talking,’ said Nick. Took a drink.

   ‘Look, I can just go, if you don’t want company,’ said Lisa, missing his smirk. ‘Plenty to do back at my mother’s.’

   ‘You’re not stopping, then?’ he asked. And she knew. Not tonight, he meant here, in town, in Belper.

   ‘I’ll stop for a bit,’ she said. That ought to hold him. It wasn’t that she thought he was still, you know, interested. Just didn’t need anything complicated to think about, not now. Not yet. They’d had a couple of coffees since she’d been coming back at the weekends, which had been nice, but this was the first time at night, so it felt a bit different.

   ‘Are you ready for Christmas?’ she smiled. ‘Or denying it, as ever. Pretending it’s not happening.’ Wide eyes as he nodded. ‘Just like my ex.’

   ‘And you sound like mine.’ Both took another drink.

   ‘Tell you what,’ said Lisa, ‘we’ve got a type, both of us.’

   ‘What type?’ said Nick.

   ‘The wrong type!’ Laughed. ‘All my boyfriends were like you, and so was my husband.’

   They were both divorced. Lisa had left her husband a couple of years ago, and Nick’s wife had taken off before that, to be with someone else. Lisa had left to get away. Her husband wasn’t violent or unfaithful, just controlling, manipulative. She put up with it for far too long, but once decided it was easy. Easier than Nick’s divorce, anyhow. They had children.

   ‘How are your lads?’ she asked, thinking Nick might take some thawing out before he gave much away, or maybe a pint or two more inside him.

   ‘Alright,’ he said. ‘James is still studying. But Billy’s business is doing brilliant. Folk always want electrical work done. He’s taken on two more since summer, and they’ve got another van. Be moving to some bigger premises next year.’ Smiled, happy. Supped the last of his beer and stood to get another, bringing another gin for Lisa after chatting for a minute with Steve Toplis, one of the other drinkers.

   ‘Thank you,’ Lisa took the glass. ‘Better not have too many of these.’

   Nick shook his head, sat down and tasted the first of his new pint.

   ‘Anyhow,’ he said, ‘I’ve been offered voluntary redundancy.’ Put the drink down. ‘Our Billy says he could use me for some of the week at his place, driving and that. I’ve had a look at what they’re offering, and it’s nearly as much as I’d take home between now and the finish, anyhow.’

   ‘So you’ve said yes.’

   ‘Not yet.’ Moved the glass without picking it up. ‘Offer’s open till the tenth of January. Going to give it some thought, over the break.’

   ‘Not much to think about, surely?’ Lisa sipped her drink.

   ‘The money’s one thing, but I’d like to know what I’ll be doing, how my life’s going to be.’ Pointed at his beer. ‘I’m off this week, and I was in here yesterday afternoon at three o’clock. I can’t be doing that every day.’

   ‘Oh, you’ll find plenty to occupy yourself with.’

   ‘Like you have? What about when your mother’s place is sold and you’re back in Chester, by yourself.’

   ‘I’ve got friends,’ Lisa said. ‘Although most of them still work full-time. Everyone I’ve known the longest still lives here.’

   The wind had got up outside, and a lot of it blew into the pub as the door was held open by a curious character. Straggly grey-white hair ran from under his battered hat, icicled on the shoulders of his overcoat. His beard was nearer white, hid his neck and most of what looked like a red scarf.

   ‘Do you allow birds?’ he called across the room, voice booming and not local. Betty looked at him funny.

   ‘Women, you mean?’

   ‘No,’ he said, ‘birds.’ Pulled his other arm in and there at the elbow sat a raggedy crow, moving its head from side to side without breaking eye contact with Betty.

   ‘Ooh no,’ she said. ‘We’re not having that thing in here.’

   ‘All right,’ said the man to the crow. ‘You’ll have to wait outside.’ To Betty: ‘I’ll put him on the window ledge.’

   Lisa pulled a face and hoped it was going on the other ledge, not the one under their window.

   ‘Won’t it just fly away?’ said Nick, as the man came back inside and closed the door.

   ‘Never has before,’ he said, rubbing his hands together on the way to the bar. Nick finished his pint. Stood to get another, wanting to see and talk to the newcomer.

   Betty passed the man a pint of cider, getting a crumpled note in return and going for change.

   ‘What’s the crow’s name?’ Nick asked.

   ‘Crow,’ said the man, ‘they’re all called Crow. Don’t like it if you give ’em a name.’ His boots looked wet. Today had been damp, but the night was clear, frost tingling in the air. Nick could feel the cold coming off the man’s overcoat. He held out a big rough hand for Nick to shake.

   ‘Oliver King,’ he said. His hand was very cold.

   ‘Nick Lovell.’

   ‘Nice in here,’ said Mr. King. Pointed round the room, at the holly twigs, then the little sprig in his top pocket. ‘Got that from the Holly Bush,’ he said.

   ‘Well, obviously,’ said Nick.

   ‘No,’ Mr. King laughed, ‘the pub. The Holly Bush in Makeney. I was there earlier, walked here.’

   ‘You must be thirsty,’ said Betty.

   ‘I’m always thirsty,’ he grinned and went to sit by the fire. Lisa nodded over at him, as Nick returned with his new pint.

   ‘Was going to suggest moving to that table,’ she said. ‘Too late, now.’

   ‘Never mind,’ said Nick, ‘the gin’ll warm you up, if you sup it.’ Watched her nursing the last one. ‘When’d you start drinking that, anyhow?’

   ‘Got sick of bad wine in pubs,’ she said. ‘I must be getting old.’

   ‘Rubbish,’ said Nick. ‘I still feel seventeen, in me head.’ Smiling eyes. ‘And we should be talking about the future.’

   ‘It’s only just begun!’ Noddy Holder assured them, over the speakers.

   ‘There you go,’ Nick said, and they chinked glasses. Lisa stared over at the old man by the fire, now warm enough to take off his coat. Kept the scarf on though, above his dark green jumper and brown cord trousers.

   ‘I used to drive down and fetch Mum to Chester for Christmas,’ said Lisa, ‘take her home before New Year. Not anymore.’

   ‘So what will you do?’

   ‘Not sure,’ she said. ‘You?’

   ‘I’ll be at our Billy’s. His mother never comes back here, always thought she were too good for Belper.’

   ‘You used to say that about me too,’ Lisa reminded him, ‘whenever I came back here.’

   ‘Sorry. But you said it yourself enough times, before you left.’ Nick had almost finished his drink. ‘What do you make of the old town, now?’

   Lisa looked over at him, light flickering in her eyes.

   ‘Nick, I never stopped loving it. Just tried to tell myself I’d moved on.’ Eyes wetter, now.

   ‘Hey, don’t get upset,’ he said. ‘Let me get you another.’

   ‘No,’ said Lisa, standing. ‘It’s my turn.’

   At the bar she was joined by Mr. King, returning his glass and refusing a refill.

   ‘No, thank you,’ he told Betty. ‘Still got some way to travel.’ Left his glass on the bar. ‘I’m off to the Royal Oak, now.’

   ‘On Mill street?’ said Betty. ‘You’ll have a job. It’s a house now, not been a pub for over ten years.’

   Mr. King’s face was very still as he took this in.

   ‘But that’s where I go,’ he said, staring.

   ‘Not no more, you don’t!’ called Steve Toplis from his table. Mr. King turned and stared cold into him. Steve looked down at his paper.

   ‘I think I will have another pint, please.’ Mr. King put money on the bar and blew out sad air. Betty finished taking Lisa’s money and got him a new glass.

   ‘There’s still lots of pubs,’ Lisa said. ‘You could try the Nag’s Head, or the Grapes.’

   Mr. King shook his head.

   ‘Thank you, but that really won’t help.’ He took his glass and turned to speak with her, voice lower now, and friendly. ‘I’m on a long journey, and it helps to have familiar names along the way. Means a lot to me.’

   ‘Where are you headed?’ asked Nick from the table, wanting his beer and Lisa to sit down.

   ‘A long way and back,’ said Mr. King. ‘But not so far as you.’

   ‘Me?’ said Nick.

   ‘Yew, the tree.’ A long drink of his cider. ‘I’m walking the wood road, so I see a lot of trees.’

   ‘Where are you staying?’ Lisa asked. He didn’t have a bag or anything.

   ‘Here and there,’ he said. ‘I know a lot of places, and they all know me.’ Back to his chair by the fire, but his voice had grown quieter and he didn’t stay long afterwards. Pulled on his overcoat and wished everyone well before closing the door behind him. Steve peeped out through the curtain to confirm that he’d taken the crow.

   ‘Funny feller,’ said Betty, relieved about the bird. ‘Seemed right upset about the Royal Oak.’

   ‘Can’t have mattered that much,’ said Steve, ‘if he’s never been for ten year.’

   ‘Maybe he liked out-the-way sort of pubs,’ said Nick. ‘Holly Bush, here, Royal Oak.’

   ‘Mentioned something about a wood road,’ Lisa said, and Steve stood up.

   ‘Still got those maps on the shelf, Betty love?’ he asked. She went to get them and Steve looked over at Nick. ‘Kev Freeman leaves ’em here, so we can plan walks and stuff.’

   Betty handed over the maps and Steve found the largest-scale Ordnance Survey sheet showing Belper – not recent, but good enough for the job. Nick and Lisa took their drinks over, to see what he was doing.

   Nobody had a ruler, but Steve snapped the rubber band from the sheaf of maps and stretched it between the Holly Bush at Makeney and the corner of Mill Street and Pingle Lane, where the Royal Oak used to stand.

   ‘Look at that,’ he said. Even Betty came to the table as Nick pointed.

   ‘Right through this place.’

   ‘But you can’t walk it in a straight line,’ said Steve. ‘That’s just on the map, you know.’

   ‘As the crow flies,’ said Betty. They all looked at one another.

   ‘So what’s the connection?’ Lisa asked. ‘Why these pubs?’

   ‘Should have asked before he left!’ said Steve.

   ‘Holly and Oak,’ Nick wondered. ‘Trees. And his name was King.’

Later, under the cold stars outside her mother’s house, Lisa found herself asking Nick if he wanted to come in. Had the key in her hand ready.

   ‘Better not,’ he said. ‘We don’t want folks talking. I’ll give you a ring.’ They nodded. ‘Will you wait a bit to put it up for sale?’

   ‘The estate agent I spoke to said February’s a good time.’ Lisa could see her breath under the streetlight. ‘But it’s been nice, staying here in Belper at weekends.’ Looked at him. ‘I’ll miss that.’

   ‘Don’t say any more.’ Nick stepped away. ‘Goodnight.’ Waved from the gate.

   ‘Goodnight,’ said Lisa. ‘And thank you.’

   Nick watched until she was inside.

   On Green Lane he put his hands in his pockets, looking forward to the warming climb home. They hadn’t stayed late at the Old King’s Head but the roads were quiet and there was nobody ahead as he started up Mill Street. Smiled as he passed the house that used to be the Royal Oak, then stopped and turned at what sounded like a baby crying. Surely nobody would have a window open in this cold?

   There, on the windowsill of the former pub, perched a crow. It was staring back, head swaying. Without walking closer Nick pulled out his phone and took a picture. Even the flash didn’t scare the bird away, so he went nearer and took another. Still not bothered.

   ‘Bloody hell,’ said Nick to himself and the bird. ‘Lisa won’t believe this.’ Was about to call her, then decided to wait until morning.

   Then he could ask all the other things, too.

Jitty

Jitty

My short story Jitty has been published in Issue 41 of The Blue Nib, and you can read it here.

JITTY

What am I? The spirit of the jitty, of all the jitties, all over this town. I expect there are more like me, in towns and cities, wherever there’s a jitty. In other places they call them alleys, ginnels, snickets, twittens, shuts. I know these names from people who pass with different accents, and say the wrong word. You can tell when someone’s from further away sometimes, even before they speak.

What sort of a thing am I? Just this, what I’m telling. The spirit of all that has passed here, through these channels, these back ways, these jitties. The trace, the track, the leaving. So I’m anxious, nervy, hurried and furtive. I’m hopeful, excited and full of desire. Then the darker meat: plotting, suspicion and deviance. But try not to judge me. I’m only the sum of my parts, which are your parts. The parts you have played, as you pass along the jitties of the town, on your way home, out shopping, or drinking, to meet with your friends, with your lovers, to follow and spy on your enemies.

Oh, I know spite and resentment, the spurned, deceived lovers tailing new couples, the fear and the hope in the breathing and voices of people who hide their love here. Not everyone comes from the jitty the same as the person who walked there and talked, stopped and waited. Met others, another, embraced and wished they could shrink back into the cracks of the walls as I can, who pass past their passing and see as they come and they go. The men wait for women wait for women wait for men wait for men wait for women wait for women wait for men wait it’s easy to stick in a cycle like that one, a loop, for a long time. Forever, I’m sure, if you don’t find the will to break out of it. A circle of words can fill all of the dark between days, between dark, between days, between dark, between days, when there’s nobody passing. But those nights are rare. The jitties draw people, invite them like lovers, inside.

Love is love in the jitty, took quick, maybe stolen. In these shaded places, some people reveal themselves. Friends enter jitties, and so friends emerge, but between, within, sometimes, they’re lovers. The touch, the kiss, the sudden swell and press of warm desire. The drunken screws, quick, clothed and hungry. Shared minutes of passion in lifetimes of guilt and denial, perhaps. Or sometimes they can’t wait, can’t carry their lust up the valleyside home, and stop here in the darkness instead, to unleash it. Laughing and pouting, up against the wall, gritstone against shoulderblades as they press together, hidden here, unknown except to me.

I’ve no wit of my own, I’m not clever. I know only what you tell me, in passing, as you pass. I expect there was a time when I didn’t use words, hadn’t learned them from you, from your fellows and forebears. I know plenty now, more than some of the people who walk here. Time’s been on my side. And stories, I know lots of stories. They’re snippets and snatches, small scraps of your lives, just the times in the narrow gaps here between buildings, the passages passed in the passage. The jitty, my realm.

I can zip about easy enough, and unseen, or at least nobody ever stops to talk to me. No, wait. That’s not true. You do get odd poets and singers, or drunkards, who say out loud how much they love this jitty. But I know they don’t mean me, they mean the stones, the steps, the way plants grow from the wallstones either side. Not me. They haven’t seen me. Come to that, I haven’t seen myself. Sight’s not my strongest sense, I’m more a feeling, smelling, hearing thing. I listen, to the wind and traffic sounds that blow and bounce from off the bricks and stones, but more keenly to the footfalls and talk of the people who pass. They speak alone, into phones or to themselves, and then some of them sing. I’ve known a good few that way, because they sing the same songs, often at night, on their way home, pulling up the valleyside between the houses, singing. One that I remember used to sing himself a song about the town:

Somebody told me you lay there like poetry:

Cotton-tied, the river’s bride, riverside the cottoned widow.

And that’s the way you promised that you’d stay,

But now you’re changing, and pushing me away.

For all the warmth in his voice, those words used to hurt. He wasn’t singing to me, although I do change, I have changed, can’t help it. But as for pushing, never! If I could catch and clutch you all to me, how I would show you my love. See there, that’s me and him both singing and sighing after the same old forever thing – all that we lose and can’t get back again.

It was a sad song, of loss and longing, but the sound of him found its way into the stones, and I feel the vibrations he left, in quiet times along these ways. He would sing of separation from the home he had known, and although I have never had a home beyond these ways, I still feel the pain of estrangement. For this is what I feel, from the world outside the jitty, the world that I know must go on all the while, but of which I hear only what wind and the walkers bring here to me.

Sometimes, it would be a long while between his visits, but my memory is very good, and when he came back with another verse, his voice heavy with drink, I caught and kept it. Here was an exile, returning infrequently, but never fully gone, not inside himself. It’s hard to leave this place, properly. It follows, and calls you back. So back you keep coming, down your days.

I share special moments in young people’s lives. The times that your parents don’t find out about. The first can of beer, shared between friends, one of whom has pinched it, warm perhaps and not unshaken, from a parent or sibling. The first cigarette, sucked at and coughed over, with friends who knew this would happen, but not that the moment might colour your view of their friendship. Shared bottles of stronger drink, before school discos from which you would later be ejected, for turning up drunk. Oh yes, I’ve heard, smelled and known all of these. I am only what you have made me – the traces of your passing. The moments of your life you left behind, here in the jitty.

And later, older, still you took these short cuts to the taverns of the town, and pulled your way back up the valleyside along the jitties, home. But still your leavings stain and scent these channels, where you couldn’t hold it in, and stopped to piss, or should have held back in the boozer, spewing what your gut could not accommodate. Dropped bottles, too, smashed in the dark. The people in the morning taught me words to describe you, but I’m sure you don’t need to hear those again, and I’m certain you’ve learned at least some of the lessons of youth.

For me, time is nothing. I know, and remember, but little is new. Different words to call alcohol, new words for men and for women, new fashions that don’t quite recapture the fashions they follow. New ways to say what you want from each other, although most of it boils down to something eternal and unified:

‘Hold me.’

Which is what I do, or what I would do if I could. I’d hold you all, my children, kids of the jitty, their mothers and granddads and all. But you pass, and the price of my timeless long life is that you move beyond, take a place in the world, and I cling to the scraps that you leave. Did you know that your cast-off emotions, your misjudged encounters and mistaken affairs, were precious enough to be my very being? Your follies, failings, your loud drunken songs. All of these I have taken to heart, and I care about you all. Have never wanted you to feel pain, to hurt yourselves or one another, but like the timid older relative I feel myself to be, I can’t stop any of these things. Only you can do that.

And you do, most of you. The days are longer than the nights for half the year, and then you pass in greater numbers. Mothers, singing to their babies, people talking to their dogs, and older feet that go more slowly, clicking sticks between the steps, and breathing laboured, but the same affection for the town, its stones and passages, its alleyways. The jitties.

Still the children keep coming, on the walk to school and back, hatching plots and learning these ways through their town, the ways they’ll walk for decades, choosing jitty over pavement, quiet shade over traffic and noise. You see, like a jitty, this works in both directions. The people leave their traces here, and these become me. But the jitties shape the people who pass along them, making them to some degree as I am, shy and furtive, unkeen to be seen, afeared to be heared, not wanting notice. So all of you – some more than others – have jitty inside you. How else could it be? I am a part of you, just as my parts are yours. I’ll be here as long as there are jitties, and people walking. They never stop walking. Here comes a boy, not five years old or else he’d be at school, trotting ahead of the lady he’s about to call Granny. Listen.

‘Granny?’ Stops and turns, waiting for her.

‘Yes, duck.’ Hand on the handsmoothed rail.

‘I love this passageway.’ Puts her other hand down to his shoulder.

‘Jitty, duck. It’s called a jitty.’

Commentary: Pedigree

Rifleman's ArmsThis story was published last year by The Blue Nib.  Marston’s Pedigree is a well-known beer in the East Midlands, celebrated as a local legend and denigrated as headache-brew, in roughly equal measure.  Pedigree is still served at the Rifleman’s Arms on Bridge Street in Belper, where the story begins.

Amongst my short stories, Pedigree has some of the closest links to The Wood Road North and its counterpart To Hawthorned Door, of which more later.  But the story is familiar, ancient and eternal.  A woman of a certain age feels the biological clock ticking down, and her husband is no help.  She takes matters into her own hands, finding a way to get what she wants, and at the same time giving something back.  So to speak.

Despite telling a story, framed by a bedroom scene, Pedigree is another slice-of-life window into the life of a character who might otherwise be seen as minor, socially as well as in fiction.  And the constraints are on show again – Angie’s rings, and the scale of her home – but here these are barriers which present opportunities, requiring secrecy and allowing for comings and goings.  So to speak.  Angie couldn’t carry on like that if her house was overlooked by neighbours.

Pedigree has attracted several compliments about the feat of writing from a woman’s perspective, but I think Angie pre-empts this herself when she considers whether Andy will boast to his friends about their encounters.  She decides they won’t believe him, and I think the same events, told from the young man’s viewpoint, would suffer the same fate.  The two characters share a physical experience, but for Angie that’s only a small part of the story.

Angie appears briefly in The Wood Road North, but Andy will play a bigger part in To Hawthorned Door.  For now, mine’s a pint of Pedigree.  What are you having?

Pedigree

Pedigree 1

My short story Pedigree has been published online by Blue Nib in the first issue of their Intermission supplement.

Read it here: Pedigree

PEDIGREE

   ‘Was that all right?’ he said, panting anxious. ‘Did you like it?’ Angie plumped her pillow as he eased away.

   ‘Oh, it was fine.’ She breathed in and out. ‘I just need to lie here for a bit, I think.’ He smiled, pleased with himself on the king size bed, yards of carpet away from the dressing room and the chaise longue. Through the doorway was an en-suite bigger than the lounge at his parents’ house, a big claw-footed bath in the middle and a separate wet room the size of the bathroom at home. Andy had never been anywhere like this. He lay looking at the moulded ceiling, heard the breeze push and pull the curtains through the open windows, felt sweat trickle behind his right ear. Beside him Angie lay still, saw him glance across her tanned body, hoping he didn’t see its flaws as she did. Held his hand. He was twenty, bless him. Any younger and he’d be half her age. She was already old enough to be his mother, which after a fashion was why they were here.

   Last Friday night she’d been out with three of the girls in Belper. They were celebrating Tanya’s new job, but Angie had also been looking for a likely young man. She spotted him on the way to the Ladies in the Rifleman’s Arms and knocked against his elbow on the way back, spilling his drink a little. Apologised and insisted on buying him another, got him over to the bar, away from both sets of friends, bought him a pint of Marston’s Pedigree. He was on his summer break before the last year of university and kept her chatting, not making her feel stupid. She hated it when they did that. Asked was he staying till last orders and he said probably. Said she’d see him later and went back to the girls, kept glancing over from their table. He was looking back each time. By half past ten the others were ready to go home, but Angie said she’d finish her drink and call for a taxi, having further to go. Instead she went to the bar and waited. A couple of minutes later the lad was at her side, offering to buy her one back while his mates played pool. She accepted, dry white for her and more Pedigree for Andy, now she knew his name. They stood at the bar talking again, and she did a bit more looking. He was taller than her, slim not skinny, shy around the eyes and hair a bit too long, but he’d do. She touched his hand and looked into his eyes, knew it was going to work.

   ‘Would you walk me up to the Market Place after?’ she said. ‘I live just out of town, you see. Need to get a taxi.’ Did the eyelashes too, it couldn’t hurt. Before the first lad, Jamie, she’d worried about being obvious, but that didn’t seem to worry the men. She’d been planning to try and look a bit classier once she turned forty, but now she was nearly there it seemed forty five might be soon enough, if not fifty. Classy could wait, at least till she got what she wanted.

   She kissed him twenty paces along the footpath between Field Lane and the railway station, that way being more private than the car park. Just stopped and turned to him, would have pushed him up to the fence had he not held her against the wall, keen and strong as their mouths came together. She’d made sure he wasn’t a smoker, but he tasted of beer until their tongues had been at work for a minute, then it was lost in the wine and her lipstick. She could feel the gritstone against her shoulder blades as he pressed against her and she moved her thighs apart as much as her skirt would allow. His breathing made it hard to hear anyone coming down the path, but she was nearly done. He rubbed himself against her hip, full of rush and hurry, and the rest.

   ‘Not now,’ she said. ‘Not tonight, I can’t.’ He understood, except of course he didn’t. She wanted him sober. Kissed him again, straightened herself up and gave him her telephone number, told him to ring at half past nine on Tuesday morning, when she’d receive him at home. He’d have noticed her left hand already, but she made sure now, held the rings between their faces.

   ‘You’ve seen these, right? You’re a sexy lad, but you’re no use to me if you can’t keep your mouth shut. So if anyone asks, any of your friends, you walked me to my taxi and got nothing, which is how it’s going to look now, if anyone sees.’ Fixed her lipstick in the compact mirror under the next light and they walked on. At the Market Place she made him stand and watch as she got into the taxi, said a friend lived nearby and she couldn’t be seen with him. Blew a kiss through the back window though. Andy stayed leaning against the corner of the White Swan.

   She thought he might not call – two of the others hadn’t – but on Tuesday morning the phone went and she told him to come here, the big house in its own grounds a little way along Jackson’s Lane. Did he know where that was? He said yes, but then had to look it up, felt sudden guilt about asking his mother. On the bus he paid all the way to Heage, not sure how far it was. Got off at the stop before the lane-end and walked the rest of the way on tenterhooks. He looked at the house, checking over what Angie had told him on the phone, felt a suspicion he was being had. Go through the gate, she’d said, come to the door and knock. In his imagination over the weekend, Angie had answered the door of a more modest house in less modest attire. He looked as he had on Friday night, but she stood smiling in a clinging black dress with bare feet and red painted toenails. She turned away, figure distorted by no visible underwear.

   ‘Close the door,’ she said, ‘and follow me.’

   She couldn’t help comparing them. Andy was sweet, thin and wiry, wisps of hair starting at his chest. Nothing like the size of the last one, but more caring and unselfish. Of course none of them could compare to Adam for selfishness generally, but then he was also a great, exhausting lover. Anything he did now, with her or anyone else, wouldn’t teach him anything new. Except fathering a child. That would be a novel experience, and not one he wanted. He never said at the start, but every time it was mentioned later on, even in passing, he said he didn’t want them, couldn’t bear the thought of children. A lot of men said that, she told herself, he’d change his mind once she was pregnant. Only she wasn’t. She wasn’t on the pill either, hadn’t been for ages, but Adam didn’t know that. She played it straight and tried to trick him fairly, first. Made sure they did it every ovulation day, sometimes either side as well, to be sure, for over a year without success. She knew how to arouse him, would do what she just did to young Andy, who couldn’t believe his eyes, nothing under her dress, waiting for him to notice. It didn’t take much to get Adam so keen that he’d ask no questions, just wanted her there and then. He was a shallow man really, for all his pretence. There was hardly a room in this house where they hadn’t done it, she really could have him whenever she wanted. Ensuring he came where she wanted was trickier – he liked variety, you might say. That was the advantage of a young lad. Andy felt lucky enough to be in there at all, same as the rest had been.

   She knew he’d tell his mates, no matter what he promised. It was up to Angie to make sure they didn’t believe him, make it seem like a fantasy. Life with Adam had made sure she blushed at nothing, and she’d do whatever the young lad liked, plus a lot of things he’d never have imagined, as long as he gave her what she wanted on the days when it mattered. That was all she needed, a bit of luck to give her that one thing, more than ever, now she was close to the end of the years. The idea came first, then the planning, and only after working it all out the thought of bringing up a stranger’s child, not Adam’s. What if she didn’t know who was the father? She had to keep screwing her husband, too. Didn’t want this to begin, but it started. She waited for weeks, persuading herself that the lineage didn’t matter, just the luck. Just the one bit of luck. And the child would still be hers, she’d really be a mother, no matter what.

   Sometimes she wondered if Adam was really so bloody unkeen he’d had a secret vasectomy. Could even he manage that? Or, increasingly, if he just had no seed, no swimmers, couldn’t do it if he wanted to. Maybe not wanting children was a pose to cover his shortcomings. She didn’t like thinking that, on their bed, beside the young stranger. But how could Adam know, how could he be sure? The rest of the time she’d worry it was her, lay thinking of it at night, going round and round – in a cycle, appropriately enough – moving from his fault to hers, blaming him for resisting, herself for not insisting. When she saw how she circled, she wanted to break out of it, or at least test which one of them it was, if either. If it was her, fine. Not fine, she’d never be able to have children, not with anyone. But at least she’d know, as well as she’d ever know, since Adam wouldn’t go near a doctor for anything, let alone this. And nor could she. The doctor still thought she was taking the pills, too.

   Adam found it easy to have other women, too easy to resist. At work all day, only in the office half the time, then out with clients, or at the gym. So he said. He kept himself fit, worked off all the drink at least, and he also met women, she knew, or suspected. But only this year she’d realised their house was perfect for daytime infidelity, a distance down the lane and standing by itself. Adam never came home until the evening and her friends always telephoned first, never just turned up. Mostly. Kate had once dropped by to show her some fabric samples when she had young Mick with the tattoo upstairs in bed. She’d told him to stay put, wrapped herself in a towel and wet her hair, told Kate she’d just been getting in the shower. Still took ten minutes to get rid of her, and all the time Angie was wondering if she could smell the sex and aftershave, see the red flush she felt in her cheeks and at her throat.

   Andy was working behind the bar at the Nag’s Head for the summer – she’d been lucky to meet him on a night off – so he was free most weekdays, which suited her. In October he’d go back to University and it would all be over. She’d tell him it had been fun, but that he should find a girl his own age. Lucky little cow, he’d be streets ahead of anything else as young, by the time Angie was done with him. But if this worked, one time – and it only needed to work once – there she’d be, pregnant. It’d all come out then, if there was anything to come. Well, she’d cross that one when she got there. She wouldn’t be alone anymore. Besides, she was having a good time, feeling desirable and feeding her desires. Not that Adam didn’t pay her attention, he complimented her all the time, but it was always physical, never about the things she said or did, so it sometimes felt like an insult, especially when she’d heard him say the same to other women.

   ‘Me and Adam have an arrangement,’ she said. ‘Not that we’ve ever talked about it.’ Andy felt her hand on his abdomen. ‘He sees other women, I know he does, but he keeps it clean and says nothing, and nor do I.’ She stroked his thigh. ‘Don’t think he’d mind me going to bed with another bloke, but I’m going to keep it nice and quiet, same as him. He never got jealous before, and we used to get up to all sorts.’ Waited. ‘But that was open, not behind one another’s backs, like this.’ Waited again, but he didn’t ask. ‘Now he just likes to be out drinking with his clients and cronies – half of them are both – and only drags me along when he needs someone on his arm and there’s no chance of pulling something younger.’ He looked. ‘Oh, don’t say it. And don’t blame Adam. In a way, I can blame myself, because like I say, we used to get up to all sorts when we were younger.’ Emphasis on the sorts, this time. ‘Very free and easy, we were. You wouldn’t believe some of the things we did.’ Still no question. ‘But I grew up, wanted more stability. Not Adam. He’s never going to grow up.’ A car passed outside, the first they’d heard in over an hour. ‘Don’t get me wrong, it was fun back then, a lot of fun.’ Her fingers stirred his pubes. ‘So thank you for reminding me.’ Kissed above the hair now, hand below. ‘I hope I haven’t disappointed you.’ Knew she hadn’t, but she wanted to hear it. He shook his head, said no, no. She felt him firm again, ready. Kept him waiting. Considered telling one of the stories he didn’t dare ask about, wondering what he’d like to hear and how far to embellish, how much to hold back. But young men could be so moral, idealistic. She could tell him all those things later, show him most of them. Just kept stroking. It was doing the job. She’d give him something to remember now, keep him ready for next time. That would have to be sooner than she needed, but not sooner than she wanted. She couldn’t wait a month, didn’t want to keep him waiting that long, either. He was nice, this one, and she was going to treat him nicely. They wouldn’t have long together, after the summer she’d be looking for another. Although with any luck he’d be the last. With any luck.

– The Wood Road North – Soundtrack –

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.

The Wood Road North – Pub Soundtrack

01. DREADZONE – Little Britain
Britain today is a powerhouse of ideas, experiments, imagination.
02. LIGHTNING SEEDS – Ready or Not
I’ve got a million thoughts.
03. GARBAGE – Stupid Girl
A million lies to sell yourself.
04. SPACE – Female of the Species
She deals in witchcraft.
05. MANIC STREET PREACHERS – A Design for Life
We only want to get drunk.
06. THE PRODIGY – Firestarter
I’m the pain you tasted, well intoxicated.
07. JX – There’s Nothing I Won’t Do
Anything you want me to.
08. THE WANNADIES – You and Me Song
And we’ll always be together.
09. CAST – Walkaway
Now the words just slip away.
10. DAVID BOWIE – Hallo Spaceboy
You’re released but your custody calls.
11. ELECTRONIC – Forbidden City
Too much to drink, but not enough to lose.
12. LIVIN’ JOY – Don’t Stop Movin’
Mystical, magical, physically phenomenal.
13. KULA SHAKER – Tattva
The truth may come in strange disguises.
14. RADIOHEAD – Street Spirit
Form a circle, before we all go under.
15. ROBERT MILES – Children
16. SUEDE – Trash
Our nowhere towns, our nothing places.
17. BABYLON ZOO – Spaceman
Beyond the black horizon, trying to take control.
18. SNEAKER PIMPS – 6 Underground
I’ve got a head full of drought.
19. FAITHLESS – Insomnia
Keep the Beast in my nature under ceaseless attack.
20. SHED SEVEN – Chasing Rainbows
I don’t keep my secrets there. I hide them everywhere.
TWRN 3

Watchers

Spectral shoppers and vintage underwear, in Beverley.

wednesday-market-snow

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.

Pond Life

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.

pond-life-vintage-ladybird-book-nature-series-536-first-edition-matte-hardback-1966-2168-p

Pond Life

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.