“Isn’t it grand,” I say to Mary Jane, setting my eyes on the other side of the dale, but letting my hand venture through the heather towards hers.
“Yes, it is too beautiful, Arthur,” she speaks, just as she sings, with a voice of pure silver. She is wearing a broad straw hat, each weft and warp of which is as neat and tidy as the rest of her. The August sun is hot on my head.
“Don’t forget tha cap,” mother had said, but of course I did, rushing out the door so as not to be late for the annual outing. When I boarded the charabanc in my freshly ironed shirt and best waistcoat, there was a cheer from the basses, and a wink from Braithwaite as he followed my good eye looking for Mary Jane, sat with the sopranos.
And now, here we are, sat above the Tarn, looking down on the rest of the choir. We have only the whinchats for company, save the odd swallow up above. My hand is touching Mary Jane’s.
“Oh Arthur,” she says, but she does not turn her head. She leaves her hand where it is. I hear a little sigh. The mixed scent of cowberries, bilberries and heather is sweet, sharp and soothing all at the same time. The heaviness of the air addles my mind as I try and think how best to woo her.
“Allus do what tha knows best,” was mother’s advice in all circumstances. The farthest she had been in her whole life was to York, she was content with her lot – the farm, the dale, her family. I was restless, had been restless all my twenty years, kicking against the walls – even in the womb she tells me. I am the third and last son; no chance of good land for me to farm. I’ve got a mind like a jack-rabbit, hopping this way and that; how do I know what’s best to do?
Beyond the tarn, the town looks settled comfortably in the lower valley. Smoke rises from the chimneys of prosperous houses, adding to the haze that softens the far hills. Distant church bells ring for a wedding. I wonder whether I could cope with the numbers of people in the city, if even a small town like this makes me feel crowded. There are auditions for the Philharmonic Choir in the city in a few weeks’ time. They tell me that I should enter, that my voice is ‘exceptional’, that I can make a living with my singing.
“Yes, Mary Jane.”
She is looking steadfastly ahead, not ready to turn her radiance in my direction.
“Will you sing for me?”
“Of course, what will you have me sing?”
How I long to add the words ‘my dear’ but I cannot, not yet. A bit of a breeze starts up.
“Oh, anything,” she says, removing her hand so that she can adjust her hat.
In my dreams we sing the duet from the ‘Magic Flute’; just now I am flummoxed. The air starts to bluster and the sun goes behind a cloud. A couple of ewes, raise themselves to their feet, sensing a change in the weather.
‘For we like sheep have gone astray.’ I start on a safe piece from the ‘Messiah’, something that won’t challenge my range too much, something that I know well. By the time I’m done, the sky is a deep purple bruise and big raindrops are plopping all around us. The choir pack up the hamper and wave at us. Mary Jane puts up her parasol and I help her down the steep path, holding her hand again for the difficult bits.
Once we are on the main track there’s an undignified harum-scarum down to the road as lightning thwacks into the crags above, thunder shakes the earth and the rain cascades down, threatening to wash away all before it. Mary Jane’s parasol is in a sorry state and her straw hat droops but somehow she manages to keep her decorum. As for me I am drenched and there is water sloshing around in my boots. A sneeze takes me unawares.
“Bless you,” she says, as we hurry along with the others.
The storm clears as quickly as it came and we all emerge from our unholy huddle, sheltering in the bandstand. The driver of the charabanc wipes the rainwater off the seats and we climb in. I sit next to Braithwaite. I am sodden but happy, affecting to take no notice of the basses who are inventing a daft ditty on the subject of my courting of Mary Jane.
“Tha needs a hot bath,” says mother, after I’m home and shivering at the table with a mug of tea.
“I told ee to take tha cap,”
“Aye mother, I’ll just get changed and put these things to dry.”
I go to bed early but the shivering takes hold of me. By the morning the sheet is sodden with sweat and I’m shaking like a lamb’s tail. I’m as weak as a whelp and my throat is on fire. I open my mouth to call for mother but no sound comes. My breathing is harsh and fast.
“Fetch the doctor,” mother shouts to our Harold.
“Arthur’s got a quinsy, be quick!”
I do not know how long it takes Richmond to come, the fever has gripped me, the fire in my throat is not quenched by the water which mother gives me to sip. Richmond takes a look at my throat, counts my pulse and breathing, stands back to contemplate me from afar, approaches again, listens, listens for a long time, stands up straight and speaks.
“Your son does not have a quinsy,” he pauses, mother says nothing. Richmond rocks back and forth on his heels, hands behind his back, and says,
“but he does have pneumonia.”
Mother remains silent, her shoulders slump like a wet mop. She ushers the doctor out of the room. I am aware of muffled voices behind the door. It is a dread word ‘pneumonia’, but I am minded to know what has happened to my voice. I try to move, try to get out of bed, to ask Richmond the question. A pain shoots up my left side, tears mix with the sweat on my face, I fall back, it hurts to breathe. I see strange creatures, they climb the walls, they talk about me amongst themselves and scatter to the far corners as the face of Mary Jane appears on the far wall. She is a vision of beauty. Her pale unblemished skin, her water blue eyes, her ebony curls and her blood-red lips. She puckers her lips, I try to raise my head and fail. She opens her mouth and then, out of her mouth, I swear this is true, from out of her mouth comes a stooped figure. I gasp in recognition. My father approaches me, puts his stubbled chin so close that I can see his badger bristles and smell his onion breath. He speaks with a voice like gravel, the words coming out in slow procession as if he was chiseling each one out of gritstone and placing it in line before uttering:
“Don’t leave us lad, don’t leave us,” was all that he had to say. He squeezed my right hand, so vice-like that it hurt, but I did not have the strength to move or the voice to answer him. His voice fades away and I am left drifting between the pain in my side and the rasp in my throat.
I feel myself floating, spinning like a feather in a river’s eddy, at the mercy of forces beyond my control. Someone is holding my hand but the water is rising, is she saving me or pulling me down? I see Mary Jane’s face again, this time above me, where the clouds might be. She opens her mouth, closes it. I dread to look what might emanate from it. This time the sight is more gruesome. Out of her mouth comes George, my eldest brother with the snout that reminds me of our best pig and his gruff voice, but not bullying, for once.
“Na then fella, yer can beat this, don’t grieve your mother for the rest of her life.”
George disappears and I am cast adrift, thistle down floating free towards eternity. I look down and Mary Jane is there, sitting next to my bed, holding my hand. My mother brings in some tea and kneels beside her, resting her head on the counterpane, Mary Jane puts her arm around mother’s shoulder, the light from the window dims. Suddenly, they both startle, mother gets up and hurries out of the room. After a few moments she escorts Richmond into the room. Mary Jane stands up and moves to one side, making way for the doctor. Richmond attends to me, counting my pulse, listening, looking, listening.
“This is what we call the crisis,” he says, in a whisper that cannot disguise the ice within, “Arthur will either live, or he will die, tonight.”
Mother supports herself against the back of the chair, Mary Jane moves to hold her. They embrace and Mary Jane guides mother into the chair.
“May I escort you to your home, Miss Meredith, for it is almost dark?” says Richmond.
“Do you not have other patients to attend?” Mary Jane asks.
“No, I am, God willing, finished for the day,” he replies, standing with one hand on the door, the other, palm up, in her direction.
“I will be passing the vicarage, it will not be out of my way.”
Mary Jane gazes at my body lying beneath a single sheet. She holds mother’s hand, who looks into that peerless face that I can no longer see. Mother looks across at me and sighs.
“He is in the Lord’s hands, Miss Meredith; there is nothing you can do here.”
Mary Jane looks at me and turns to Richmond.
“Thank you for your kind offer, Dr.Richmond,” she whispers, “I am much obliged.”
She leaves the room, followed by the doctor, who nods gravely in my mother’s direction. She is as pale as the bedsheets. Her hands clench and unclench the handkerchief between them. I feel that I have lost all substance.
The vision of myself on the bed fades. I lose any sense of pain or distress but I still have some notion of me.
There is an other. I sense a presence all around me, above, below, behind, in front, within. I float in the presence. I am part of it and it is part of me. All creation is part of it. It is part of all creation. I sleep.
I feel warmth on my left cheek. I am aware of light beyond my eyelids. A blackbird sings his operetta outside my window. I open my eyes and take some time to find myself in my room. When I breathe deeply I still have a pain in my left side, which catches me and makes me gasp with the sharpness of it. When I gasp, the sound is like carborundum on a scythe. My body smells rank but someone has left the window open and I catch the scent of the climbing rose. I am back.
I spend the next few weeks recovering. Each day I try to do a bit more, each day my body protests. Mother feeds me up, starting with lamb broth and moving on to more substantial fare. George appears a bit disappointed that I have recovered, I surmise that he had his eyes on my moleskin waistcoat. Harold is more welcoming, he even spends some time with me once the hay is all in. Father speaks to me as rarely as before, but when he does I notice him staring at me, as if he still cannot quite believe that I am here. By Michaelmas I am able to walk to the end of our lane. My voice is back, but the lung is a problem, every time I take a deep breath, my left chest feels as if it has been stabbed – I can talk, but singing is a torment.
I return to church on the same day, as it happens, that the banns are read for the first time for Mary Jane Meredith, spinster of this parish and Dr. Henry Richmond, bachelor of this parish. I say nothing but fix my gaze on Braithwaite in the tenors, where I should be. He looks back and shrugs, with a look on his face that says it was not meant to be.
After that, I start to go to the chapel. This is not only because I cannot bear to be in the same place as Dr. and Mrs. Richmond, I also feel more at home with the Wesleyans. There is a simplicity at the chapel which I find easier to bear than the pomp of the church. I ponder what is to become of me: no land to farm, not enough breath to sing for a living, not enough brains for a college. When I’m up on the moors I sometimes catch a hint of that notion of being a part of a bigger something. I go and talk with the minister. We have a bit of a misunderstanding – he asks if I felt ‘called’, I advise him that I am quite warm enough. It soon becomes clear that there is far too much book learning involved in being a preacher. The more I go to the chapel the less I like the way they all want to put God in a box of their own making, neat and tidy, like a coffin.
I find my peace up here on the moors, with only the curlews for company. There are days when the wind chases through the tussock grass, the ravens play in the air and the sky has no end. I am lost and found at the same time.
So I get myself apprenticed to old Hardraw. It takes me five years to learn how to fashion a wall as well as him; he isn’t one for talking, just shows me how to choose the best stones for the right place, how to hold a line, how to fashion a sheep gate. So, if you want to build a dry stone wall, I’ll be happy to show you.
© David Cundall