Thursday, 4 March 2010

Summer/Winter

It was the first of July, and the skies were deep and blue, the clouds brisk and high. Ducks ploughed the river, and by the shady bank was a bob-throated moorhen; a rook stared down from a ragged nest in the green branches; and the swan with his sad sway, that snake-necked, dragon-shaped bird, glid silently behind his mate, white and dazzling on the brown waters.

In a field by the bank, a woman stood quietly by a crowded beer-tent. She turned her face into the breeze, while the roaring steam-rally circled around. The iron and brass traction-engines gouted wreaths of white smoke and steam over the green hedges. Their heat made the air tremble like water, and the torn sods flung from their wheels flew dark like sparrows against the sky.

She wiped her arm across her forehead, breathing deeply. She glanced up and down the procession of engines, wondering if she could dash through. Her eyes were wide and smiling, as if the circling hot metal was just a ripple and mist on the surface of the river.

Her father had died three years ago, just up the river in Tewkesbury. Her mother was long dead. Deirdre was born when they were beginning to feel their age. She had been left the house on the river, and knew herself fortunate.

What a day, with the children distrustful of the noise and the parents considering ice-cream. She had come to the steam-fair to see the men stood proud on their footplates, with caps above their sweat-red faces. They went round and round, an iron wheel circling, made pretty with brass, and they mind lessly turned with it, making a shriek and smoke across all the green fields and hedges.

She glanced again at all the men in turn, but not for long.

A steam organ on the other side of the field began to hoot. She shivered, quickly turned her face away and slipped into the beer-tent. A different note came into the engine noise, and she quickly turned, but no, passing one by one were the shapes of the still-circling machines. The sunlight was shining through the orange canvas, making the scuffed grass look like brasswork.

As she drank, she pondered herself. She was looking for a man, she was bored, body and soul. A recklessness was upon her; she would snatch the first who was half-decent and half-honest. She laughed, excited by the thought. Men were asses, stubborn, yet easily led with the carrot of their self-esteem. But it made her laugh, the thought of a half- decent, half-honest man.

The circling engines slowed and stopped with gasps and groans of release. Husbands dragged their wives closer to the steaming contraptions.

Deirdre slipped through a gap between two engines, then walked down to the riverbank. She watched the swans downstream,the noise of the fair still brazen behind her. The swans were almost out of sight, turning the bend, but they turned again, across the river; the throaty drumming of a diesel engine came along the water, and a narrow-boat swung slowly from around the bend.

Smoke from the funnel obscured the man steering as it came into the sunlight. Then another man came out from under the long green tarpaulin rolled back by the bows, filthy with coal. He balanced along the gunnel to the stern, talked to the man at the tiller, nodded, ran back while the boat steered to the bank, shouted, pointed to the engine drivers coming down the bank, jumped to the bank, and wrapped a rope around a tree.

He was quite tall and sturdy, and quick in his movement. His eyes were stark in his grimy face. A few drivers wanted to buy coal off the side, so he jumped down into the hull and began to heave old fertiliser bags up to them. The man at the tiller took the money.

Deirdre walked along the bank and beside the boat. Roses were painted on it; it was called the Gloucester Swan. Dirty green canvas awning, damp smell of coal, diesel and oil. Old car tires hanging as buffers against the sides, and seventy foot long.

She looked down into the hull, and the man in there looked back at her from his sack-filling. His hair was all awry and choked with coal-dust. He smiled quickly, and bent back down to his work. On the river, the swans began to take flight, their wings battering on the water. The bilge pump was grinding and choking, and Deirdre wrinkled her nostrils at the stink of damp.

She leaned briefly against a tree, looking at the river. A tight smile crossed her lips. She walked back to the open side of the boat.

'Hello? Are you going to Tewkesbury?'

His head snapped up, his eyes startled, his shovel poised above the coal. He frowned. 'Well, yes, we are.' The sun wobbled upon the water.

Deirdre leaned over the open tarpaulin. 'In that case could you give me a lift along the river? My house is up that way. You could sell me some coal while you're at it.'

He gathered himself and squinted directly up at her, the sun in his face. She watched him assessing her prettiness. 'Well, yes, if you want us to,' he said. 'You live there?'

'Yes.' She gazed down into the dark hull at the shiny coal blocks glittering in the sunlight; the heat fell hard on the back of her neck. She moved quickly, scowling as a driver of an engine nudged her while shouldering a bag of coal. He barked an uncouth apology, then stamped away.

'Well, yes, you could take a lift with us, if you like?' He studied the coals at his feet briefly. 'I'm Richard. That's Nick - Nicholas.' He gestured towards the stern.

'Deirdre.'

He smiled and passed the shovel back and forth between his grimy hands. 'We'll be stopping for a drink. I'll be up in a tick. Do you want a drink?'

'Yes, alright.'

He began to shovel coal again. 'What are you doing hangingaround a bloody place like this?'

'I don't know. Looking for something to turn up.' She grinned, seeing the back of his neck tense as he bent over the sack.

'Oh yes?' He strove for a non-commital tone. 'You know, something different. I'm been so bored the last few days. Don't you ever get like that?'

'Yes, often.' He smiled directly at her, climbing out of the hull. 'Let's have a drink.'

They started to walk back up the field to the tent. Deirdre turned to him, smiling at his dirtiness. 'What are doing when you get to Tewkesbury?'

'Don't know. Getting drunk probably. Nick, that's my brother, he wants to meet someone. Then he'll be carrying on to Gas Street tomorrow. I've got to go back to work.'

'What do you do?'

'Work in a bank.'

'A bank! You don't look like a banker.'

'It's alright. But I don't like it much.'

'I couldn't work in a bank. Too stuffy indoors. Where about's your bank?'

They insinuated their bodies into the crowded tent. 'What do you want to drink?' he asked.

'I'll have a pint.'

'Gloucester. Westgate Street. It's crap, but it does me for now. There's no future in the boats though. It's easier to use lorries on the motorways. River and canals are silted up badly. Nick reckons it'll be too expensive to scrape the boat up and down in ten years.'

'Why?'

'The more rubbish that blocks it, the more it scrapes off the bottom of the boat. I mean, though it's cast iron on the sides, the bottom's made from elm planks. What with all the rubbing, they get weak.'

'Planks?'

'Here you are.' He passed her his beer. 'Well, they're more like beams than planks. But they cost an arm and leg.'

'I'll bet.' She paused for a moment, watching him, and sizing him up. 'What do you do in the evenings?'

'At the moment? Not much. Let's get out of this bloody tent.'
They walked back down to the river bank, then along a little way, out of sight of the crowd.


Deirdre walked along to the stern. The blare and whistle of the rally increased as the engines shuddered into motion again. This time they circled separately, competing. Nick was wiry and dark. He stared at her for a moment.

'Afternoon,' he coughed, standing up straight by the tiller. 'Can I help you?' She explained. 'Be my guest. Step up on the gunnel there.' He reached up to help her balance on the narrow side-plank. His hand was sticky with oil and dust. He turned and lit a cigarette. 'Have you been watching the tractions?' His accent was strange. It sounded as if he were exaggerating it.

'Yes.' She leaned against the cabin side. 'But I find them boring. Round and round and nothing else.'

'Eh? Oh, I know you mean. But they're good beasts those tractions. I'd have one if I'd the money and somewhere to put it.' And he stared utterly without interest across the field.

'Do you own the boat?' she asked, leaning out a little over the water.

'No. I just work it. Dick helps when he gets bored. He likes it enough.' He stared at her legs, followed the line of her body up to her breasts, and pushed at the tiller a little. 'Are you spoken for already?' he asked, smiling.

'Mind your own business,' she replied mildly.

'Just you watch out, Dick's a right rake. I'm only telling you this because he's my brother.' He smiled and winked.

'What does he normally do?

'Eh? He's in training.'

'The bank?'

'In Gloucester.'

'On holiday?'

'Eh, no, not at all. He's skiving. He's been with me this past fortnight. I told him he'll get sacked. He's a clever lad though. He says he doesn't like the pen and paper work. He'd rather play in the filth. He likes the dirt. He jumps in the mud any chance he gets. And if there's a drowned dog tangled up in the propellor, he's the man to clear it.' He winked at his brother, who was at the rope, and opened the throttle. Almost immediately the steady cough burst into a rattle, which settled down into rapid thumping, and the far nose of the boat began to swing slowly into the current.

Deirdre smiled. 'How long have you been boating?'

'Four years now.' Heavy think. 'And ten months.'

She smiled again. Richard came along the opposite gunnel, sweating.

'Alright there?' he asked, facing her across the cabin roof. His eyes were bright as he looked at her.

She nodded, and watched the field of tractions receding. Still circling, their noise faded, replaced by the slapping of water and diesel-thump. She breathed the smell of water and oil. They motored past some oaks, the crown branches reaching out over the river. The two men were humourously sending messages to each other with their eyes. Once the fair had passed completely from sight and hearing she turned and smiled at them.

'Thanks for giving me a lift.' Her eyes blazed in the sunlight, pale and unfocused.

Nicholas muttered something, watching the river ahead. Richard watched her, his mind yoked to his thighs and stomach. He was aware of the eight feet of cabin between her and him. He fumbled for cigarettes and passed her one across the roof in silence. She gave him a knowing glance.

They smoked quietly. The river foamed white and brown by the fender. They passed a dredging boat, like a raft of girders, mobile home, crane, all brown with mud and laden with filth, bicycle frames, car-tires, and other rubbish unrecognisable. A muddy figure stood smoking, watching them without interest. Nicholas laughed as they passed, then turned to Richard.

'He shouldn't be slacking! The canals are bloody awful these days. He should get up to the Wors and Brum. He ain't got time to stand there!' His face had worry in it, but he waved his arm in a mock salute, and turned again to stare ahead. Deirdre watched the man become a remote brown figure in the distance, ghostly in the sunlight.


Her house stood some fifty yards away from the river, at the top of a scrubby field. Nicholas steered towards it, and Richard jumped down and tied up. The bank shelved steeply; and a gap of water lay between the boat and bank. Richard held out his hands to help Deirdre cross. She readied herself,looking at his face, jumped and slipped and collided with him as he tried to catch her. He smelt of oil and coal, industrial dirt.

'Oh bloody hell! I'm sorry,' he muttered, flushing. Her white dress was covered in black smuts and smears from his overalls.

'Doesn't matter - it was my fault; I was clumsy.' She laughed suddenly, tossing her hair back and staring frankly at him. She laughed again, quickly, her eyes flashing. 'It'll wash.' She rubbed at one of the stains and laughed a final time as she discovered it oil. 'Well,' she added, 'never mind - what's done is done.'

Nicholas came up, staring at his brother with a faint anger in his eyes. 'What's the blasted fool done now?' he cried. 'Bloody hell - I am sorry - your nice white dress. A bloody clumsy oaf - how did you bloody manage that?'

'It doesn't matter, really.' She was flushed. 'It was my fault - an accident. Don't worry about it.' She smiled, still flushing. 'You can both make up for it by carrying the coal up to my house for me.' She pointed up the field.

The men nodded slowly, shouldering a heavy bag each, Nicholas still staring with pretended disgust at his brother. They followed her up a dry path through the field, which smelt of heat and dry soil, and dusty flowering grass. Holding open the gate, she pointed to an outhouse.

There was a lot of coal heaped there already. Richard placed his burden down, moved aside to let his brother through. 'You've got enough here to last till winter after next,' he remarked.

She nodded, absent-mindedly. 'Can you wait a moment?' She disappeared into the house. Once she had gone, Nicholas laughed quietly and gave Richard a cigarette, his eyes amused and wrinkling.

'You bloody clumsy oaf,' he repeated. 'But she must be well-off to live here. I wonder what she does for a day's work?'

Richard glanced around the garden. Apart from the house, a large brick barn gaped hollowly at them. Richard stared into its darkness, so plain against the glowing red of bricks in sun. Ivy grew up in places, and also some small yellow flowers that had rooted themselves between bricks. He was startled as she emerged from the barn, having come from the house.

She had changed, and the sunlight caught her, and her legs were silhouetted in her dress. Her head and shoulders were mantled with the flame of her hair, framed with glowing brick and yellow flowers. Then she turned to face them, opaque, counting out money.

Nicholas was quicker than his brother. He hastened forward.'Don't you worry about that. We owe you a dress as it is. Put back your purse - I won't take it.'

She smiled and nodded. Then to Richard, standing there, frozen and insensible. She pressed the shillings into his warm hand, that involuntarily clasped her own in a sudden grip. Then he smiled and relaxed.

'Thank you again,' she said, half-laughing. 'I'm sorry the pub's shut; I would have bought you a drink.'

Nicholas shook his head, laughing with closed eyes. 'Eh, no, I have to be in Tewkesbury at half-five as it is. We're meeting a friend there. Anyway, nice to have met you, and look after yourself.' He turned to his brother with a sly smile. 'Coming Dick?'

Deirdre glanced at Richard. 'You can stay here a while, can't you? You could get to Tewkesbury later. I'll give you a lift.'

Richard blushed under his brother's stare.

'Suit yourself Richard,' Nicholas laughed. He walked down the path, went through the gate, and across the field. He seemed uncomfort able. Richard stirred uneasily, about to follow.

'See him off and come back.'

'Yes... I'd like to. Wait a tick.' He turned, walked quickly away, and glanced back at her. She was walking back into the barn, oblivious. He cursed under his breath.

Nicholas grinned at him as he untied. 'You staying or coming?'

'I'll stay a while, I think.'

'Don't blame you.' He shook his head with mock-sadness as he started the engine. 'Lovely, isn't she? Bet you won't mind having her - come to think, I wouldn't mind either, if I wasn't tied. Actually, I still wouldn't mind. Light as...' He frowned, struggling for a word, but gave up.
Richard nodded glumly, standing on the gunnel.

His brother stared at him, mocking him. Then he burst into harsh, friendly laughter. 'Don't you worry about it - I'll see you later, or perhaps when I get back from Brum.'

'In a couple of days,' Richard muttered.

'Get away with you, and untie the bloody boat. Wish you luck.' Nicholas laughed. 'Don't go getting yourself into my predicament. You know what these bloody women are like. Go on. See you soon, you lucky bugger.' He winked, exaggerating his coarseness, 'And give her one from me too.'

*

It was the shortest day, the snow lay upon the ground, and the December sunlight was an icy yellow in the misty air. Inside the barn, Richard and Nicholas, both dressed in wedding suits and looking like fools, had just finished arranging the tables and tablecloths, cutlery, nap kins and glasses. Now they leaned back, exchanging doubtful, nervous smiles; lit their cigarettes and walked into the white yard.

Their smoke and breath hung in persistent clouds as they paused and stared out over the white fields, broken by black winter trees. Birds sang in the faintest warmth of the sun.

Nicholas spoke. 'When's the beer get here? That's the important thing in my eyes.' He was subdued, walking to and fro, kicking the ground.

Richard glanced quickly at his watch. 'Soonish.' He moved to the fence, knocked some snow from it and leaned on his outstretched hand, his wrist and arm protruding whitely from the jacket.

'Cheer up,' Nicholas muttered. 'I'd have been happy if it had snowed at my wedding. Makes it whiter than a white one, if you see where my drift goes. Here you are, with the elements all turned out in sympathy for you.' He peered closely at Richard. 'You look pissed-off and nervous. You regretting it?'

He laughed, averting his face. 'A bit. My head's broken, and my stomach's filthy.'

Nicholas was amused. 'Yes, mine feels like that. But I quite enjoyed myself - you alright? Take good deep breaths. The frost'll do your stomach good. You should have had it the night before last.'

'I would have. She insisted it had to be the night before.Said it would set me up properly.'

'She doesn't seem too bothered about the day itself.'

'Well... it's just a day, isn't it.'

'It's what's to come that counts, true enough. Silly to get worked up about it. Who's going to give the bride away then?'

'It's only the registry. She's responsible for herself. No-one gives me away, do they? Anyway, it does n't matter. As far as I'm concerned, marriage starts when you first think about it.'

Nicholas smiled broadly, raising his eyebrows. 'It? Far too many marriages for a man to think about.' He laughed as Richard threw a handful of snow at him. 'Well. I'm going to see how Helen's doing in the kitchen. It's time you got that fire lit, or else we'll be freezing to death later. Stupid idea if you ask me.'

'Yes, I'll go and light the bloody fire.' Richard threw his cigarette away, clapped his brother upon the shoulders, and walked back into the barn, the frozen snow squeaking beneath his shoes.
He enjoyed sitting with a cigarette and a dark glass of beer, watching the yellow flames wriggling up through the kindling. The silence outside was only broken by the crows throating distantly. Two great pieces of wood on either side of the hearth supported large boughs, be neath were stacked lesser boughs. On top and all around black coal was piled. The flames rose higher into some of the larger wood and the black-gleam of frost hissed on it.

He stopped to stare out over the fields, and watch through the open door the crows gliding in the sunlight, then he sat carelessly on a chair, his thighs relaxed, his hands resting on his glass between them, his neck drooping forward. He would be a husband before the sun set. A log spat making him flinch, and he shoved back his chair a little, resuming his pose of slack ness at a distance. But he could not get comfortable again. He stood, crossly, and walked out down to the river.

Deirdre was already there, knowing that all had been set in motion towards readiness. He saw her, and shivered in the frost. In ten minutes they would go to Tewkesbury.
The Severn slid blackly between its snowy sides. She leaned against a fencepost and stared into its waters, not looking at him. So black and glassy-deep and sullen, and dull-heavy beside the white snow.

The imminent marriage shocked her. It was too simple, it seemed dangerous. Somewhere, the sureness was wanting. She thought it was Richard who had the unsure heart, shying from her. But he was caught and she could drag him beneath the black surface, and drown him in the cold depths. She was the black water horse, who drowned her rider in a mad welter of dark water and hooves, and then grazed peacefully on the flood meadows.

The wind began to blow. The river was flowing uneasily, iron-grey surface flecked and mottled by the wind. Over at the far bank, agitated water slapped and thudded against the pilings, nervous, the wind twisting wavelets into little racing flocks.

Deirdre laughed, a sudden heavy blow of wind making them stagger on the bank. Grey waves racing, knocking hollowly on the dirty metal pilings. Again the blow of wind, but they braced as they heard it in the branches before stooping on them. She turned to him, as the waves slapped the pilings, staring at the confusion in his eyes, and her limbs seemed caught with flame, her nostrils arched, her eyes rolled up darkly like a terrible horse, that having once shone its madness, returns a terrible calm gaze again.

They heard their names called. The river rushed swiftly and darkly past, and for a moment it seemed still and she and he and the land were careering past its waters, white and silent.

Nicholas was warming his car; Helen, his own wife beside him. Deirdre opened the door and Richard climbed in. The car lurched and slipped across the frozen yard, and swung out past the dark river, then disappeared among the hawthorn hedges. The river poured past, unceasingly.

4 comments:

David said...

Ok, so I was only nubbut a lad when I wrote this.

Kate said...

Duh! Just spotted your tag. Oh well, at least I was right (for once)!

Kate said...

Is this a DH Lawrence rip-off (I mean rip-off in the nicest possible way)?
e.g.'He smelt of oil and coal, industrial dirt.
[...] Her white dress was covered in black smuts and smears from his overalls'.
although you need to up the pathologically fetishistic, obsession with female apparel a bit more.
The bloody class-traiter (and cross-dresser). But one can't help but love him all the same.
;-)

David said...

Oh yes, I loved DHL from late-teens to mid-twenties... The mardy-arse! Some things he could do so well in writing, and others quite awfully.