[Was my writing better seven years ago than it is today? The following is an episode from an unpublished novel which I wrote in 2006. I recently hunted the novel down and rewrote the scene to furnish an ending for the short story “Nocturne.” The novel was set in Northamptonshire, England and it depicts a village which is outraged by an influx of (possibly-imaginary) gypsies. The hero Natty Daws owns a gardening-centre – hence the conversation about lawns. “Nocturne,” on the other hand, is set at a flat party in twenty-first century Edinburgh.
I naturally assume that my writing gets better over time, so it is rather sobering to find that the original scene is simpler and funnier. By comparison, the corresponding scene in “Nocturne” seems overwritten. I would have almost assumed that “Nocturne” was written by a novice in their twenties, and the novel-episode by a more confident author in their thirties.
Incidentally, both stories are based upon a brief anecdote which I read as a child, possibly in John and Anne Spencer’s Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits. A lady encountered a man at a dinner party in New York, and she was unable to conceal her impression that he had previously killed somebody. Later in the evening, the man returned to her and admitted that he had indeed killed another man whilst fighting in Burma. Here the facts ended and my fiction began. Ed.]
Natty Daws had taken the bus to the school fete, as Joy had appropriated their car to deliver an abundance of home-reared pot plants and jars of homemade jam and the latest specimens of her watercolour paintings to the fete’s ostensibly grateful organisers. Joy had been at the fete for over an hour and had already bought many new house plants – more, in fact, than she could carry – and thus when he met her, Natty was presented with an ancient cactus, which he would be lumbered with for the rest of the day. Joy informed him that it possessed “character”. Natty glared at the large, phallic-shaped growth; it exuded a sharp whiff of rotting and a small plague of sticky, lice-like creatures dotted its trunk. A fine dust leaked from its rattling flowerpot, pattering in a trail behind him, and over his trousers and shoes. He considered, and reluctantly discounted, the possibility of allowing the cactus to somehow go missing during the fete. He could leave it somewhere; but everyone had seen him carrying it around, and the plant would be inevitably returned to him.
Natty drank a pint of cider, and he and his cactus went to watch a display of Morris dancing in the school car park. Unfortunately, the school had neglected to close its car park for the dance – indeed, the car park was under heavy use as parents from across the village ferried their children to the fete. The ancient ritual of the dancers – who leapt and pranced to their stark primal drumbeat with grotesque facial contortions, waving ribbons and papers and bells – was perpetually disrupted as the ranks of the dancers had to open and close to allow cars through. The drivers began to blare their horns in vexation, and the air grew foggy with the honks and squawks of angry cars. Soon the dancers were reduced to a bedraggled, faintly-jangling band, joshed together on a patch of green by the car park’s entrance. They were forced into the front row of their small audience, and before too long the confused spectators became intermingled with the uncoordinated dancers. Natty abandoned the scene, carrying his phallic companion, feeling utterly depressed.
He wandered for a while over the school playing fields. The grass was slick with mud and dotted with countless stud marks from football boots. Natty concerned himself with trying not to slip. Lost in his thoughts, he was roused when a small hand was slipped into his.
“Hello doctor!” Joy crooned. “Why don’t you come back to the fete, eh?”
“Sorry my dear,” Natty smiled. “I was feeling a bit low. I sometimes wonder what the world is coming to…”
“I’m sure it will survive!” Joy beckoned to him, and he bent down so that she could kiss him; a dry peck on the lips. “Now, we have to go and have our palms read,” she told him, matter-of-factly. “I’ve been waiting to hear my fortune all day…”
Many of their friends from the Coach and Horses were lined up before the gypsy caravan. Pete Howling called to Natty, having saved him a place in the queue. The gypsy was an elderly woman in garish oriental garb, who sat in one of a pair of deck-chairs placed beside the caravan. She wore gold earrings and her tiny skeleton paws were coated with gleaming jewels. The caravan was a cute, ribbed wagon of pine, crouched on four rickety wheels, with roses arranged prettily around the doorway and little steps leading up to its darkened, mysterious interior. Those waiting to have their palms read may have half-guessed that the caravan was incapable of movement. It was assembled and dismantled at every funfair or car boot sale by a gang of surly-looking men, who now sat slugging whisky in their truck.
The gypsy delivered her prophesies in a thick, vaguely Eastern-European accent. Those assembled were all far too polite to question her powers, although they occasionally exchanged significant glances. Earlier in the day, Gareth Mabbutt had – before a baying crowd of youths – sniggered that her reading was “fucking unbelievable.” The gypsy had pursed her lips and discreetly pressed a button on her pager. Her gang of heavies had materialised with clubs to chase Gareth and his friends away, whilst she had sat shaking her head sadly.
Eric Leech dropped into the deck-chair facing the gypsy. He looked very uncomfortable and tried to ignore the tittering of his friends in the queue behind him. He crossed her palm with the requisite three pounds fifty fee. Her frail little paw took his hand with surprising force.
“What do you see?” he whimpered unhappily.
“I see that you are a man of passion… of real English passion and desire.” This produced the intended roar of laughter from the queue and Eric squirmed with embarrassment. “I see that you love your wife with the fire that only an English gentleman can muster.” There was an even greater cheer than before. “I see that you will have happy times with your sweetheart… a long life of love… although if you do not give presents to your lady… much presents… on your anniversary…” here she leered at him, her eyes canny, “then her love will fail. I see a man visiting the house? A man in messy clothes?” she looked up at him sharply.
“Err… I can‘t say… the window-cleaner?” Eric spluttered, not knowing what to think.
“The windy-cleaner!” She seized upon this. “I see your darling watching this man, Every day she watches him more and more. Then she begins to undress him with her eyes…”
The queue exclaimed, aghast.
“Presents!” the gypsy concluded firmly. “You must give your wife many presents, and then there will be eternal happiness!”
The consequent cheer could be heard throughout the village.
White and shaking, Eric whispered an inaudible “thank you” to the gypsy. He was bundled off, to be replaced with Pete Howling.
“A man of work!” the gypsy declared fiercely. Pete nodded appreciatively. “A man of great work… a proud man… a man of the land?”
“That’s right!” Pete agreed. “I am, as a matter of fact, a farmer!”
“I see a tractor… a mighty, great tractor of the land!”
“Well, yes, now that you mention it, I do own a tractor,” Pete reflected.
“I see…” the language seemed to fail her, “… those animals with the… which make a noise like…”
“Cows!” Pete nodded briskly.
“Yes! Cows! But… what is this?” she blinked in astonishment at his ruddy palm. The queue knew what was coming and chuckled. “The cows go crazy…. they go mad… they dance around…” she made a silly face, and gesticulated to indicate insanity. There was applause, although Pete’s mood seemed to be checked and he frowned. With a sudden movement, she clasped his hands and shook them in encouragement. “It’s okay! The doctor comes and he makes them all better!”
“Oh! Oh!” The crowd’s roars of astonishment at this apparent vetinary miracle swelled to joyous applause. The gypsy sat back, nodding modestly, unaware of the hole that had been revealed in her research.
Next Natty Daws dropped into the deck chair. He crossed her palm with the fee and she took his hand gently.
An almighty shriek ripped through the fete, as loud as a thunderclap. One man in the queue dropped his pint with a shout of surprise, as if it were red hot. The gypsy’s cry was harsh and curdled with strange, savage emotion. She jerked upright, casting the back of her hand across her forehead in a pose so stiff and melodramatic that it may have been thought affected, if not for the pain clenched in her face.
“THIS IS THE HAND…. OF A MURDERER!”
The gypsy swung on her heels and fell to the floor. For a moment, the queue stared at the lifeless body in the grass and Natty shaking and mumbling in his deck-chair: a scene of utter unreality. Then the heavies blundered in, brandishing their clubs, ordering the onlookers away.
“Closed! We are closed now! The show is closed!”
Joy took Natty’s hand and helped him to his feet. Old ghosts were banging pots and pans in the cellars of his memory. A murderer? Natty whimpered to himself and Joy clenched his hand tightly.
“Pull yourself together,” she hissed.
“Natty! Err… interesting goings-on back there…um…” Eric Leech battled wildly for a way out of this embarrassment. “I don’t think that woman was entirely sound in her mind, to judge from my reading anyway. Window cleaner indeed!”
“Natty!” the vicar barged in, determined to save the day.“I must ask you about my lawn… It’s being ravaged by plantain and my wife is despairing. I don’t want to make her spend the whole afternoon on her hands and knees, picking it out of the grass again…”
“I enjoy weeding the lawn by hand. A pleasant afternoon in the garden, what?” one villager contributed dimly.
“It is difficult,” the vicar reflected. “Some of my parishioners are now complaining that the graves of their loved ones are clogged up with weeds. You know the sort; those who want a grave to be a piece of Astroturf laden with plastic flowers and teddy bears. I myself prefer a grave to be wild and romantic, covered with ivy… you know the thing… err…”
“A murderer, eh Natty?” Arnold Davis asked gleefully.
“Natty! Thank goodness! We need your help!”
[And so the story went on its way…]