Mud and Sand

“The weather was better in Porthmadoc.”   Tim said.

“Hmm?” Jen was studying a beer-mat.

“In the common parlance, Jen, a penny for them?”

“Sorry.”  Jen said.   The bar-room atmosphere made her whimsical.  “Was that your last job – Wales?”

“It was.”   Her manager launched into an exposition of tyrannical landladies who ruled a dominion of persistent rain.  His voice almost instantly faded into the choral background of muted conversation and laughter; a pub in a small northern town.  Wednesday.

‘In two days’, Jen thought, ‘I go home’.

A lone drinker at the far end of the bar, a toughened, interesting man with the broad accent of the Dales, was at least three pints ahead of the hour.  A woman’s heels clicked busily towards the toilets.

“Oh, lord, I give up!”

Jen stirred.  Tim had asked her something, had he?

“I’m sorry, Tim.   It’s the noise.  What did you say?”

“I said the trenches’ll be full of water again in the morning.”  Tim waved at the window.  “This rain.”

“If somebody hadn’t dug it so deep it was below the water-table….”  She replied.

“There’s no archaeology down there, anyway – saves time.”

“Not if it keeps filling up.”   Why had she agreed to this drink?   Jen had many ways of passing her evenings when she was away on a dig.  Going out with her married manager was not one of them.

‘Heels woman’ returned from the toilets.  As she passed the Dales man, he muttered something to her which prompted a disgusted look.  He brayed out a hideous laugh.  Heads turned.

This was so far from the dream Jen had pursued at University:  the summer digs among romantic ruins in Africa and Spain.  Only once since those idealistic days had she worked in tropical sands with a hot sun on her back.  They were a world away, hidden behind dark northern clouds filled with needling rain, four-wheel-drives which floundered like turtles in claggy mud, the smell and chug of a pump clearing water from around her frozen fingers as she worked.

And managers with a feeble hope they might sleep with her before the job was finished…

“That guy’s going to get himself chucked out.”  Tim was saying.

The Dales man had begun pestering ‘heels woman’s’ partner.   Their conversation, if it could be so called, was becoming hostile:  “Yer one o’ them bloody dev’lopers, en’t yer?  That were your car on my land ‘smornin’  weren’t it?   Yer ask p’mission ‘for yer cooms on my land!”

He was cut short by the heavy hand of the landlord.   “Time to go home, lad.”

“Aye, aye.  Go ‘ome, eh?  Long as I’ve got one.  This bastard, ‘e’s takin’ it off me, aren’t yer?”

But the drunk’s eloquence was short-lived.  His piece said, he allowed himself to be guided to the door, and out into darkness.

“That’s as much excitement as I can stand for this evening.”  Jen decided.  “I’m really tired.  I think I’ll turn in.” 

Tim walked with her to another pub near the edge of town, above which was the room which had been Jen’s home for ten merciless days.  Side-stepping his clumsy attempt at an embrace she wished him a firm “Goodnight”, thankful to close her door on the world for a few precious hours.  

Her window overlooked the street, so in drawing her curtains she couldn’t fail to see the inebriated figure of the Dales man, meandering by.  In some ways, she thought, he was a kindred spirit.   ‘Two lost souls, we are, Neither of us wants to face tomorrow’. 

With the morrow, as Tim’s aged vehicle bounced and slid along the country lane which led to Low Meadow development site, the rain returned.  Huddled beneath swathes of oilskin and wool in the back seats were ‘Bolly’, an Oxbridge graduate, Melanie (Mel), a Somerset lass with a rare sense of humour, Paul, who had outrageous acne; and of course, jammed into a corner, Jen herself.

A brightly painted sign reminded them they were guests of ‘Low Meadows Executive Homes’.  Beneath and beyond it, Low Meadow itself; devoid of any bricks and mortar miracles or even the foundations of any, but just a meadow – a large field.  Tim drove through the gate.

“There you are – told you.”   He shouted over the wind as they disembarked, gesturing towards a wide trench, half full of brown muddy water,  which cut a gash in the meadow, some twenty metres from the gate.   “We won’t be able to work this morning.  Set up the pumps and let’s get back to town.  We can do some soil samples or something.”

Pumps were stored in a site shed.  Together, the team got them working, so a steady flow of flood water coursed out into the lane.  A steady downpour of rain did its best to keep pace.

Tim said:  “Who’ll stay and keep an eye on things;  Jen?”

The price, was it, for last night’s rejection?  Jen watched the four-wheel drive’s lurching departure.  Sheltered by the shed, she boiled a kettle on the team’s battered primus.   The tea tasted of nothing much, but it was hot, at least.

There was little to do.  The pumps worked on faithfully, their very audible insistence  prompting Jen to take her tea outside.  Deluge notwithstanding she wandered around Low Meadow, surveying the damage an archaeological dig could do to a farmer’s land.

The flooded thirty metre trench was one of four. Two trenches had already been re-filled, a third awaited refilling – although that, too, was half-full of water, which no-one minded, because it had already been studied.   Filled or open, each was a livid scar on the face of a field where a silage crop awaited harvest.   Worse, the surrounding area was a morass of planting and mud, ground down by each pass of their excavator, now parked innocuously by the hedge, or Tim’s four-wheel drive.

Jen clasped her mug of tea for warmth.   Tim was right about the archaeology, she supposed.  In ten days the team had found not a shard here, yet there was that feeling, that instinctive spark kindled by her years of training.   This was good land, high enough to be defensible, and a stream ran in a valley close by.  In terms of early man this was an excellent place to set up home.

“What the hell are you doing on my land?”

The shout was authoritarian enough to make Jen jump. Absorbed in her thoughts, she had failed to hear a Land Rover draw up in the lane.   She wiped spilt tea from her sleeve as a stalwart middle-aged woman in anorak, cords and boots approached; a woman who was quite clearly furious.

“Are you responsible for this carnage?”

Jen swallowed hard.  “And you are..?”  She began to ask.

“Never mind who I am.  I have a lot more right to be here than you, that’s all you need to know.   You did this?”

“Well….”

“Can you drive that?”  The woman waved at the excavator.  “Never mind, I will.  I want it out of here.  Give me the keys.”

“The keys are not here.”  Jen managed to stammer out.  “Our driver’s got them.”   It was a lie – there was a spare set hidden in the shed, she knew.   “Look, can I explain?”

“When you and everything you brought with you is out in the lane, yes.”

“That’s not going to happen.”  Being wet through; being continually hit upon by every male crew-member who felt the need; being frustrated in a career which had turned out to be nothing like the one she had always wanted for herself; and, yes, being alone – alone in every sense of the word;  all these things sprang to Jen’s aid right now.   “We have permission.”  She articulated icily.

“You don’t have mine.”

“We don’t bloody need yours!”   Jen blazed.  “We’re employed by Park View Developments.   They’ve purchased this site for housing, and asked us to do the archaeology before they start to build.  They have to do that – that’s the law.   Unless you own Park View Developments this is not your land.”

She saw her words had hit home.  Her antagonist’s expression had altered subtly from anger to pain.  The woman turned away, staring out across the damaged field.

“It was quite clear.”  She said bitterly.  “Your people assured us they would not start to build until after harvest.  We had three weeks, they said.  Look at all this!   Have you any idea, young woman, how much we’re going to lose?”

Jen shook her head, feeling instantly sorry for the woman.  “In the strictest sense, I suppose, they were right.  We aren’t building – we’re just doing the archaeology.   But you should get compensation?”

The woman laughed.  “Compensation!”

Jen said:  “look, I only work here:  I would love to help but I can’t?  My manager will be back soon, and if you wouldn’t mind waiting, I can….”   

Her voice tailed off as the woman walked away, shoulders hunched in a manner which suggested that, had she less pride, she might be weeping.  The Land Rover drove off. 

When Jen told Tim about the woman he looked puzzled.

“Park View bought this land off a Sir somebody-or-other.  He lives in Barbados, I think.  At a guess you had a run-in with a tenant farmer.  Poor woman’s probably had the land sold over her head and the landlord told a few whoppers to smooth the deal.   It happens a lot.”

“Will she get compensated?”

“Doubtful.  She can try, of course, but I suspect her claim should really be against her landlord.  The damage isn’t too bad, anyway.  Give this stuff a week and it’ll be sitting up and looking perky again.  For her sake I’m glad we didn’t find anything – the big boys’d be all over this site like a rash; then she’d really have something to complain about!”

Jen looked at the ‘stuff’ and decided it would take more than a week to persuade it to look even remotely ‘perky’.

The angry woman was not the site’s only visitor that day.  Around half-past two a Mercedes saloon bumped and lurched its way up the lane.   A pair of unsuitabtly dressed men in shiny shoes and dark suits emerged – one was the man who had been picked on by the drunk the previous night.   They were clearly known to Tim, who moved to greet them as they stepped gingerly over unforgiving scenery.   Jen was working with Mel at the far end of the trench by this time, but she could tell that their conversation was fairly lively.   After they had gone, Tim came over.

“Park View men.   Usual pfaff.   They want us out by the weekend.  They’ll come to see us off, no doubt.”

“Why?”  Jen remembered her earlier conversation.  “They aren’t starting for three more weeks, the woman said.”

“Really?  I get the impression they’ll be in next week.  The urgency is all about finding something.  Our paymasters are extremely anxious that we don’t.  The longer we’re here….”

Jen had heard this story too often.  When she had become an archaeologist, she had never imagined she would spend so much time being paid not to find anything.

Thursday.   Just one more day….

In the pub that night Jen shared a table with Mel and Paul.  Conversations drifted by;   boy- and girl- friends, rents, places.

“I’m a wheel-less gypsy, me.”  Mel said.   “In the past two years I’ve shared four houses and three flats – with somebody different each time.   I’m starting to forget my own name.”

“You’re not attached, though?”  Paul tried to sound disinterested.

“Down boy!   No, no-one at the moment – how about you, Jen?   Anyone in your life other than Tim?”

“Tim is so not in my life!” Jen protested.  “But no, I’m single too.”

“Not that she gets grumpy or anything!”  Said Mel in an aside to Paul.

“I don’t!   Do I?”   Jen felt herself going slightly pink.

“No, no.   No girl, not much!”  Mel’s eyes widened.   She nodded over Jen’s shoulder.  “Speaking of absolute hunks – which I wasn’t, but never mind – is this a dream walking or what?   Sorry Paul, if I offend.”

Jen tried to turn; Mel stopped her.

“Don’t look!”   Then, in a hiss: “oh-my-god-he’s-coming-this-way-play-dead!”

“Excuse me.”  It was a dark, drawl of a voice, high above her shoulder.  Jen looked up – a long way up – into a pair of hazel eyes, a keen, strong face.  “I wonder if I could talk to you?”

“Er –yes.”  Jen tried to make sense of her thoughts. Mel made fainting noises across the table.  “How can I help?”

“First, can I get you all something to drink?”  The stranger was tall, well-proportioned,and confidence exuded from every pore.  “What would you like?”

“Thanks, but I don’t know you…”

“I’ll introduce myself.  I’m Peter Horsley.  I’m afraid…?”

“Jenny – Jennifer Thwaite.”  She knew she was babbling: “I’ll have an Archers, please?”

“We were just leaving,” said Mel.   “Otherwise…”

“Why?”  Paul asked peevishly.  “I haven’t finished my drink!”

The stranger smiled.  Jen melted.  “I’ll just be a moment.”  He said.

Mel watched Peter Horsley’s retreating back with a low moan escaping her lips.   “Oh Jen, you lucky cow!   Paul – hurry up!”

By the time Peter Horsley brought drinks Jen’s friends had deserted her.   “I hope I haven’t broken up your evening?”

“They had to leave – they said.”  Jen struggled to compose herself.  “So:  what can I do for you, Mr. Horsley?”

“Peter, please.   That was my mother you met this morning.”

“Ah!”  Jen paled. “How did you know it was me?”

“She described you well.  Oh, it’s alright.  I promise I’m not going to have a go at you.  In fact, I’m here to apologise.  It must have been difficult.”

He sat across the table, sipped at the pint he had brought for himself.  “Look, I ought to explain…”

“There’s no need.”

“Please?   My father has a small farm.  After he lost his herd to Foot and Mouth, mother wanted him to retire, but he saw it otherwise.  He re-stocked:  in fact, he built the herd up so he needed more land for fodder.  That’s when he rented those fields – three in all – from Sir Robertson.  He’d just put new fertilisers down, planted them out to silage, when the letter came.  It caught him at just the worst time, you see?  He’d put all his money back into the land, and if he couldn’t at least get the crop in….”

“We’ve been here for two weeks!   Why didn’t he come and see us sooner?”

“He wouldn’t.  He’s not good at communicating.  It made him – well, it made him ill.  Mum, she’s different, but she was away.  There was talk of separating.  Then last night she came home.”

“And you?”  Asked Jen.  “Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but are you not ‘good at communicating’ either?”

“I don’t live here.  I came back when I realised something was wrong –  picked mother up on the way from the airport.  Doesn’t the sunburn give anything away?”

She had to admit she had been looking at nothing else.  Everything about his face, in fact: the way his lips moved when he talked, the wisp of hair that fell obstinately forward, the acute depth to those eyes.  “You work abroad?”

“Spain.”  He acknowledged.  “Andalusia, mostly.  I’m a land agent for a property company out there.  So you see, I understand how these things work.   I know that nothing can be done.”

“I’m just an archaeologist.  If I could do anything, I promise I would.”

“Yes.”   His gaze searched her deeply, personally.  She felt so, so challenged by him!  “I believe you really would.  Well, I said what I came to say:  I apologise on my mother’s behalf.”  He paused, hesitating.   “I don’t suppose you’d like to come to dinner with me, would you?  I mean, I don’t want to seem forward, and if you’ve already eaten?   Please feel free to refuse.”

Jen laughed at this sudden desertion of self-assurance.  “Thank you.”  She said.  “I’d love to.”

Thus began an evening that was magical.   There was nothing about Peter that was not entertaining, or funny, or whimsical, or sensitive, or masculine, or all of those things at once: of all of that evening, only the food was ordinary, and that passed unnoticed.   At times, Jen found herself riding on the warmth of his voice, so engaged by his words she lost all sense of what he was saying.  It seemed not to matter; in fact, those moments when he caught her just gazing vacuously into his eyes and they both broke down laughing for no real reason, were the best of all.  The hours flashed by.   When parting came, it took all of Jen’s good sense to walk away.

He did not insist, though she knew he wanted more.  “Don’t make this ‘goodbye’.”  He urged her.

His kiss burned her cheek for an hour, after just half of which he sent her a text which read:  ‘Had a wonderful evening.  Sleep well’. 

“Let’s wrap this up, people!”  Tim enthused.  “Get finished by lunchtime:  we need the afternoon to clear up.”

True to his leadership style, he uttered this final harangue to his troops through the window of his four-wheel drive as he left.  Whatever field work there was to be done, Tim would take no further part.   As to what he would be doing, back in town on his own, was anyone’s guess.

While ‘Bolly’ drove the digger through the cleared ditch, ready to take one final bite at the end, Mel and Jen waited.

Well?”  Mel frothed with curiosity.

“Well what?”

Well you can’t stop smiling, and well Tim was really annoyed because he said he was going to ‘sort out some soil samples’ with you in your room, but you weren’t in!

“We went to dinner, that’s all.  He’s nice.”

Nice!   Darling we could see nice after two minutes in the pub.  On a scale of one to ten, how nice?”

“Oh, about twelve.”   Jen started giggling and couldn’t stop.  It felt ridiculous.

The morning was warm; there was even an occasional burst of sunshine.  Only the desecration of the land around Jen disturbed her happiness as she worked, and she felt this as acutely as the heat on her back.   At the far end of the last trench, she laboured more or less alone. The others drifted off into pools of conversation.  Paul came to re-check some of his sets occasionally, that was all.

There was that familiar clink of trowel on earthenware that Jen knew intimately.  Drawing breath, she looked quickly round to see if any of the others had noticed, then began to clear the clay. She expected just a shard, but she exposed a third of a vessel which seemed to be intact.  A collared urn, lying on its side, exactly as it had lain for twenty-five centuries or more.

Jen’s heart bumped against her chest.  Without quite knowing why, she scooped loose mud back over the find, then climbed out of the trench, pacing along its edge, looking for something she knew she must have missed; something they all must have missed.   She saw it almost at once and it was a euphoric moment; one which evaporated as she understood what she must do.

The Park View ‘Company Men’ arrived at about eleven o’clock.  Second-in-command in Tim’s absence, it was Jen’s duty to liaise with them.

“No archaeology, then?”  A silver-haired executive, the seniorof the two, assumed the initiative brusquely.  “Finished today?”

“Come for a walk.”  Jen prompted him.

“Good god, why?”

“Oh, a general inspection.”  Jen replied.  “You don’t have to get in the trench, just walk along the side.  Try not to look too interested.”  Near the end of the trench where she had been working, she paused.  “To the right of the ladder: see that darker soil?   Then more, six metres further up?   See those round areas, going across the dig?   I know – they are awkward to pick out.  We didn’t see them ourselves, you know?   The trench was too deep, mostly it was full of water: it was only when I went over it again this morning…..Oh, and I’ve found a pot, too.   I must tell the others.”

The executive had turned grey.  “Alright.”  He said, at length:  “What exactly are we into?”

“An archaeologist’s dream.  My dream, too.”  Jen admitted, sadly.  “All my life…”  She bit her lip.  “Most likely the dark areas were ditches, the light part, a defensive mound.  Those circular bits are traces of post holes – not for a round house, they’re too big for that.  A stockade, the defensive wall of a settlement; late Bronze Age or early Iron Age, I should think – a big one; as big as this field.”

“Very well.   So you’re saying you’ll need further time.  How long – a week?”

“No, much more than a week.  Think of it as a village, twenty-five centuries old.   We’ve got to open up the entire plot.  It’s a significant find, you see, this far north.  The Council have been gagging for a site of historical significance like this.  At least a year, probably longer.”

 “Do you realise what you’re saying?”  The executive snapped.  “ With the housing market as it is, we could lose millions on this.  How do I know you’re qualified to make this judgement?”

“Well, I could prove where and when I graduated, I suppose, but it wouldn’t help.”   Jen broke away.   “Excuse me for a moment.”   She called across to the huddle of her team, hovering at a respectful distance.   Nobody liked ‘Company Men’.   “Bolly!   I’ve finished down there.  Fill the trench up, will you?”

The executive cocked an eyebrow at Jen, who acknowledged him with a trace of a smile.

The farmer answered the door himself,so Jen thought she must have come to the wrong address because she recognised him – he was the drunk she had seen thrown out of the pub on Wednesday night; but when the angry woman appeared in the passage behind him she knew her directions had not let her down.  Then Peter came through from the back of the house, and the look of pleasure that lit his face when he saw her was already reward enough.

They sipped coffee as Jen explained the events of the day.

“You’ll get two weeks to harvest the crop;” she told them.  “Then they move in to start building.  You’re getting compensation, too, at the rate of a thousand pounds an acre…”

“A thousand?”  the angry woman was incredulous..

“Isn’t it enough?  It’s for the whole area – three fields.  ”

“Enough?”  Peter cried.  “It’s amazing!  However did you get it?”

“Persuasion.  In return I personally supervise all soil samples we took from that trench.  I’ll be delaying some of the tests until quite late, until after you’ve harvested the fields and cashed your cheque.  If the Park View people don’t keep their word those tests will reveal post-holes and we re-open the dig.  If they do…well, samples can get contaminated, or even mislaid.   I’m hoping the money will be enough to pay for the feed you’ve lost.” 

Later, much later, as they lay on the margins of sleep, Peter wanted to know what the real price had been, and she told him the truth; that she had been to the edge of a dream and that was enough.   Yes, it would have been fulfilling to have a big excavation accredited to her, but it was time to acknowledge that lives were more important than bones.

“So what will you do now?”

“I’m not sure.  Take some space, perhaps; re-evaluate?”

“Do you think you might like your space somewhere warmer, such as… oh, I don’t know….Andalusia, for example?”

“Yes.”  She said, smiling sleepily.  “I think that might be perfect!”   

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

A Quick Comment for Boris, ‘The Hammer of the North’

Dear Prime Minister:

Age does not entitle me to abdicate responsibility.  If anything, old age should have made me wise.

Age does not mean I require protection from decisions I may make.  If I decide to see my son in spite of risk, and if I then contract a potentially fatal virus my illness and my possible death are entirely my fault.   Age and wisdom should preclude that decision, just as it should inform my ability to say ‘No, stay away’.

You see, I’m at an age where I have to start contemplating my death from some cause or another, and I am not so attached to life as to to recklessly pursue immortality.  It’s pointless.

Whatever we do, the COVID-19 virus continues to destroy lives, not through its own rather nasty symptoms, but by impoverishing society, isolating everybody and wrecking economies throughout the world; and because it is rarely fatal or even serious in the age group who work and operate those economies, ‘locking down’ to restrain the infection is needlessly harmful.

In case you hadn’t noticed, old people are a finite resource.  The more of us pop off, the lighter the burden on society.  Think of all the pension payments you’ll save!

I don’t want to be protected.  I don’t want widespread bankruptcy, social unrest and a mental health pandemic to be my responsibility.   If I get the bug, it’s my fault.  I will accept the consequences.

This disease is a tunnel we all have to pass through. If the powers that be want to pursue a policy that will beat this infection, crowd immunity is obviously the way to go.  It’s happening anyway, for God’s sake!   

Free the economy.  Let everybody get back to work, suffer a minor episode if necessary, and start the world turning again.   Don’t waste time and lives in mawkish sentimentality over us.  We don’t need it.  We can protect ourselves, as long as we have the information we need (hotspots, and so on).  If you are so addicted to passing laws that you feel you must do so to restrict us, then do it, but only do it to the elderly.

Let our young people live!

Micah

Bear with me for a while; it has been so long and I forget so many things.   I forget, for example, exactly when I realised Micah was different to other boys I knew.  When the doubts began, or the first glimmer of enlightenment – I really cannot judge.  

Let me see – was it the spider?  Yes, I’ll tell you about the spider.

Micah and I, we had been friends as long as I could remember, because in Ollershaw – in the small village community where we grew up, every possible playmate was friend or enemy.  Naturally, age had a lot to do with this.  Matthew Carrell would be an example.  Matthew was two years older than me – therefore Matthew was my enemy.  So when Matthew tied me to the silver birch tree at the back of The Common, leaving me there in the rain, although I might have been frightened and vocal it was the least I had learned to expect.  It was Micah who broke those old, unwritten rules.  It was he who cut me loose with a penknife his stepfather gave him for his birthday, even though Matthew warned him to desist.  He braved Matthew’s wrath to save me.

We were children.  I was seven or eight, Micah’s birthday was a month before my own.  We all lived by a children’s code which was a part of our growing and as old as time itself, so Matthew was only acting in accordance with that code when he sought vengeance – something Micah surely anticipated.  In a quiet moment, in one of those places only children seem to know, Matthew took Micah’s knife from him, pinned him down while he went through his pockets and found it; then he took the knife along the mill path that leads down to the river (and is there still despite all the new development of houses on the riverbank), and he threw the knife into the water.   And Micah followed him, and Micah watched.

Micah did not cry.  Come to think of it, I can’t remember ever seeing Micah cry.

Now it was after school maybe the Wednesday or Thursday of the following week, when we were playing in the backyard of my house, that Micah and I came upon the spider.   There were empty apple boxes in a stack beside a brick lean-to shed my father always promised he would pull down, but never did.  We liked to fashion all kinds of fantasies from those boxes; they were made of thin wood and they were wide and flat, so we could stack them or arrange them in all sorts of ways to make pretend cars, or boats, or a secret den.  That evening I think we may have had it in mind to construct a spaceship, when, turning over one of the boxes from the bottom of the stack, Micah suddenly paused and gestured to me that I should be very still.

“What?”  I asked.

“Come and see,  Quietly, now.”

I came, I saw.  In one corner of the box my friend was holding, amidst a small nest of dead leaves, was the largest spider I had ever seen.   Wide eyed, I took in its long front legs, its thick grey body, the spread of its six remaining limbs.  I could clearly see the stalks that supported its eyes and two white stripes that ran either side of its thorax and abdomen.  It had no web.  We both understood that the small cluster of leaves was its home.

Micah whispered.  “Get me one of those Cocoa tins from the kitchen rubbish.”

“You’re never!”  I said.   Micah didn’t answer.

I brought the tin, removing its lid as I returned to the boxes.  

Perfectly calmly, as though it did not require as much as a second thought, Micah reached into the box, nipping the creature between thumb and forefinger as he plucked it into the open.   It curled up, tucking its legs so it resembled a ball, and I held the cocoa tin at arm’s length, closing my eyes as Micah dropped the spider inside it, and fastened the lid.

“We’ll have to make air holes.”  He said.

“Are you going to keep it?”  I asked.

“No.”

Micah regularly came home with me after school in those days, because both his parents worked full time and he was not considered old enough to be allowed home on his own.   We became close friends of necessity; two boys of similar age thrown together by circumstances will usually end up that way, even if there are differences.  I knew, right from the beginning, there were differences.

When you are young, with little experience of the world, there are a lot of important things that pass you by.  My mother and father were, I suppose, a satisfactory match:  My dad was an engineer whose work took him away for long periods, sometimes many weeks.  Letters from him would scatter on the doormat.  He always wrote letters when he was away, even if sometimes he arrived home before they did;  and my mother would sit at the kitchen table reading them, her face twitching with a mysterious smile I did not comprehend.   She kept them all.  Much later in life, when she was gone, I found the letters amongst her possessions;  I read only one, discovering with each successive word a side to my parents’ relationship that, as a child, I would have considered  profoundly shocking.  I burned the rest of the letters without reading them.  There was a privacy of language within them I did not want to expose.   At the time, they were just letters from my father with colourful foreign stamps upon them which I collected, in a desultory fashion.

“Does he mention me, Mummy?”

“Of course he does, darling.  He always remembers you.”

I would look forward to his return from those longer expeditions.  There would be a gift – a carving, a wooden toy or a doll, sometimes sweets.

“I’m not supposed to bring these into the country, Sprog.   But they’re delicious, you just have to try them!”  I felt so important then, because he had chanced capture as a smuggler, and he had done it for me!  I would imagine him on the run, fleeing across the windswept moor clutching my little bag of sweets, with police and dogs chasing him; although of course they were unable to prevent his heroic escape.  

As I said, in the innocence of childhood much about the lives of those close to you may pass unnoticed.  Nevertheless I knew that Micah’s home life was neither as happy or secure as my own.  Being ‘comfortably off’ for a child merely means food on your table, a warm bed and toys; Micah may have enjoyed these, but his family was not ‘comfortably off’.   My Dad’s car was new, large and almost silent, my Mum had a car of her own, so when the weather was bad I rode to school.  Micah’s step-dad drove his family’s only car, which was old and temperamental.  He never gave his stepson rides to school, so Micah and his mum would walk the mile from their home to the school gates, and they got wet:  a lot.

Once in a while, usually at weekends, I was invited to Micah’s home; on which rare occasions I was, of course, too polite to mention the paucity of furniture, or the absence of toys.  Micah’s mother would sit us on an aged sofa in their little sitting room, made fiery hot by a blazing coal fire, winter or summer.  We watched, sweating, through hours of cartoons on the ancient television before I could make excuses and leave.  I don’t think Mrs. Pallow (Micah’s surname was Pallow) resented my presence particularly; in all honesty, I sometimes wondered if she even noticed I was there, but neither did she make me feel welcome.  A nervous, shifting quicksand of a woman, I could see her mind churning its way through every waking moment – stabbing a poker at the fire she claimed was necessary to ‘heat the water’, fussing around the inexpensive china statuettes that were her hobby, or crashing and slamming in her kitchen.  Did I ever see her smile?  No, maybe I didn’t.

Personally, I never saw the spider again.  It left my home that Wednesday or Thursday evening in its new accommodation, tucked under Micah’s school blazer.   I believe it must have entered our school the next morning in similar fashion, though I have no specific memory of this.  I certainly remember when it turned up again, although I was not present.

Ours was the village school; albeit quite a smart one.  The uniforms were distinctive, the discipline strict, a burden upon Micah’s family which they must have found extortionate, yet they struggled to provide him with a new uniform each year, and finance the materials we needed.  So they obviously valued their son – something which seems quite curious, when I recall.  Atypical behaviour – not what my own upbringing was conditioning me to expect.   At school Micah and I were juniors: as yet more concerned with basic reading, writing and explorations in clay or cardboard.  Matthew Carrell was in the upper class, among those nine and ten-year-old children ascending the final upslope towards senior education.

We left our lessons at the school gates, Micah and I, whereas Matthew had ‘homework’.   Nothing very specific, though it did involve written exercises in school books, and handing work in to his teacher, the quite lovely Miss Comfort, whose name said everything about her that needs to be said – everything but one very specific thing.   

Quite when Matthew left his homework exercise book unguarded, or why, I cannot say.  Any more than I can explain how someone contrived to cut the centre out of all but the first and the last few pages of that book to make a rectangular space, lidded only by its cover page and a few leaves of carefully written essay.  And how our spider came to be occupying that space when Miss Comfort opened the book to peruse Matthew’s work I would rather not speculate.  I doubt anyone could have known Miss Comfort was an arachnophobe.  Micah and I, we were at music practice in another classroom, bells and triangles and a flat piano; yet we still heard the screams – all of the screams.

Mrs. Carrell collected Matthew that lunchtime.  She was very, very annoyed.  As they passed us by, as we stood in the playground, watching, Matthew turned his hung head to throw Micah a look – a look that was almost fearful.  It communicated an understanding which would spread amongst us all.  Micah did not live by the rules.

Then I remember distinctly how I shared a glance with Micah and saw his face twitch in a mysterious smile.  It was a smile that reminded me for one moment – just that one moment – of my mother.

 © Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

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