[“The Hill to Bedfordshire” is an old story which was first written several years before Tychy came into the world. It was previously posted as a standalone “long short story” on Tychy in 2010 and it now returns in a serialised form, with a few cosmetic improvements. I always remember this story as being tremendous fun, but I found the ending to be uncomfortably bleak this time. ]
“Major. I got wind of which way the fellow went, and –
’Squire. You did!
Major – and I went right off to the stable –
’Squire. Humph! Good Lord!
Major – and catch’d my horse –
’Squire. Humph! And catch’d your horse!!!
Major – and I flung the saddle and bridle on him –
’Squire. The Lord!
Major – and mounted him –
’Squire. Good Lord o’ mighty!!!
Major – I rode down to the branch –
’Squire. The Lord! And rode down to the branch!
Major – and stopped to let my horse drink –
’Squire. That – oh yes – In the branch.
Major – and while he was drinking –
’Squire. Well – but – oh, yes, yes – humph!
Major – and while he was drinking –
’Squire. But stop there – did n’t – ah – emphem
Major – and while he was drinking –
’Squire. The Lord! And what did he say?
Major. Why I’ll swear point-blank you’re asleep.
’Squire. Well, s’pose’n I am; what’s that to you?”
Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, “Dropping to Sleep.”
Over the eighteen years in which Mary had been married to Pete Howling, he had imperceptibly lapsed into something sparse and mechanical – a certain number of constantly repeated functions – which could no longer surprise her or do anything which was even in the slightest way unfamiliar to her. There were entire days when they did not exchange any words; the half-knowledge of her presence in the house, or of his out on the farm somewhere, was sufficient. The soft wildness had faded from Pete’s eyes and his body was no longer buoyant with power – with that physical bounce which had come from continuous labour and from never having allowed himself or his body to truly settle. Pete now presented that overdressed and too-carefully dressed appearance which characterises middle age. He needed more sleep now, he dozed during the day, and on some nights he went to bed even whilst the sun still flamed on the horizon. Like many ageing men, he met the world with the rueful manner of somebody who is resigned to losing a card game, but conscious of the need to do so with good humour.
Was Mary surprised, therefore, when Pete called her into his office one morning and told her that he was going to Salt Lake City?
“Look.” He pointed to the noticeboard, where a faded photograph torn from a newspaper was pinned over the lists of telephone numbers. Skyscrapers, snow-capped mountains, and a blue lake shimmered in the desert heat.
“It looks really good,” Pete mumbled, shrugging.
“But…” Mary seemed to empty of all sensation. “What are you going to do there?”
“I don’t know… Drink in the bars, drive around the mountains… I need some… time?”
“Pete!” Mary hissed, although everything that she could and should have said to prevent him leaving was at once hopeless. She wanted to remind him that they would have to harvest within the next three weeks, but she was so scared that her mouth could not seem to produce any useable words. Her jaw just flapped in the air. Pete had risen and he was walking hurriedly out of the house, towards the car. He had no suitcase – not even a jacket. Mary’s frantic investigations later that evening would establish that he had spent over eight hundred pounds on the plane ticket.
There was no time to reflect on what Pete’s desertion meant. Mary was now in charge of harvesting the farm’s three hundred or so hectares of wheat. The combine harvester awaited in the barn, a diabolical contraption which rattled like a gigantic sewing machine. Previously, Pete had driven the combine harvester, whilst four assistants on bicycles, manoeuvring a kind of canvas tent between them, had collected the grain which had flowed out of its chute. The harvester was second-hand and they had been unable to afford a tractor and trailer to go with it. Pete had been peevish throughout the harvest, constantly worrying that his assistants would crash their bicycles and overturn his tent. He had always insisted upon employing four “good men” for the job. If one of them was too hungover to turn up for work, then the others had to revert to the horrific “Plan B.”
This required an assistant to drive alongside the harvester in Pete’s battered Land Rover. The sunroof would open. The grain would pour into the sunroof until the car was finally full, and then the harvester would stop and the car would bumble off on its way towards a nearby barn. Here, the doors would be opened, the grain would pour out in every direction, and the breathless assistant would be dug from the car, to be replaced with a new man.
Mary sat up in the cab of the harvester, her fingertips wandering hopelessly over the controls. Mary was her husband’s intellectual superior since, unlike Pete, she had a college education. Whilst her days and years had been eaten up by all the work of the farm, there had always remained an irritated sense of sophistication at the back of her mind, like a pristine tea service which has grown dusty from disuse. But the combine was too alien, too much. She would never be able to drive this thing.
Supposing that they all got muddled up and that the assistants cycled into the blades of the combine. Supposing that the tent fell open or that the Land Rover crashed into something, and that all the grain blew away. Pete would be furious and they would be destitute. And she was not sure that she knew where to recruit “good men.” At best the farm hands would laugh at a woman trying to drive a combine harvester. At worst, they would refuse to work with her.
She was thankful for Gareth, the seventeen year old son of the Howlings’ favourite crony Reg Mabbutt, whose farm had folded two years before. Pete was Gareth’s godfather, and he employed the boy from time to time about the farm. Gareth was at an unlovely age, with blotched skin and tangled greasy hair, but he was a hard youth with a clear head. Mary appointed him her deputy. He was reassuringly respectful towards his godmother and he listened carefully when Mary consulted him about the combine.
“You want me to drive it?” Gareth demanded flatly. “I can you know. I’ve driven one before…”
Mary quickly became unsure. “Well… err… “ she floundered. “I mean, it would be good if your father would like to…”
“He won’t!” Gareth laughed, shaking his head. He took a sort of bite from a pint glass of golden syrup. Going through the farm’s kitchen cupboards, eating almost everything which he came across, Gareth had earlier drunk a bottle of cough medicine, because the taste had reminded him of his childhood. Mary had also found him sucking unhappily on a frozen chicken breast. “He’s doing jury service for the next few weeks.” Beheading St Boniface knew, or suspected, that “doing jury service” was a Mabbutt family euphemism for spending several weeks in prison, no doubt after having thieved something from around the back of the industrial estate.
“Can you just look at the harvester and see if you know how to drive it?” Mary pleaded.
And so Gareth climbed up into the cab and he started the engine – and he turned it off – and he started it again – and then he sat there for about half an hour, absorbed in the manual. When he eventually descended, he looked grave.
“Is there something wrong?”
Gareth shook his head. “I can’t get the air conditioning to work.”
“Oh… Well, I think I can drive it,” Gareth admitted, looking troubled. “Though I could really do with some practice… I’ll need to take it for a spin somewhere…”
“Well, there isn’t anywhere…” Mary said testily, although she knew at once that there was.
The meadow – her wildflower garden – was the only available waste ground on the farm where Gareth could practice with the harvester. And so for the next ten minutes, the bees continued to browse amongst the foxgloves; the ragged robin nodded gently in the breeze like somebody awakening in an armchair; the cloying fragrance of honeysuckle stank out the hedgerows; the foliage strewn everywhere belched clouds of pollen and seed and sticky fur, which, in a particular light, made the air look like seawater containing an intricate world of senselessly spinning plankton; warblers piped out music as clear as gin; and then the combine harvester, gliding along rather too quickly, burst through the hedgerow and began to carve a great stripe out of the meadow. Mary could not watch and she went into the house. Outside, Gareth performed handbrake turns and emergency stops and wheelies, whilst a sort of reeking pink sludge – the remains of the “harvested” wildflowers – sprayed out of the machine’s chute.
Gareth strode into the house about half an hour later. “I’ve got the hang of it,” he told her.
Mary smiled weakly. “Your dinner is on the table.”
Mary received the first visitation that night. She was jerked awake with the feeling that she had already missed half a dozen breaths. Her body lay insensible amongst the bedding – reduced to flickering eyes which skimmed around the ceiling like insects on a pond. There was somebody in the room – she could hear them padding about by the window. She tried to call out or to shout them away, but when her voice came it was wondrously rasping and thin. Mary wanted to tear her eyes from the ceiling and to glimpse the figure, but then she was immediately desperate not to attract his attention. It was as if she wished to shrink deep inside her own lifeless body.
The visitor was no longer distant and impassive, but in a great unseen movement he had swooped down into her chest and face. He was so vividly intimate that the tiniest hairs on his face seemed to tickle the end of her nose and the pungency of his body flooded into her nostrils. Perhaps he was pouring into her throat, for the air was now just beyond Mary’s straining lungs and she became fizzy with the need to inhale until it all rose up and up and up and then broke with a dull pop. Her mind melted away like foam.
There had been enough reality to the visitation to convince Mary that it had not been a dream. The next evening, she was jittery when preparing for bed and she took several sleeping pills in the hope of getting through the night without waking. But she received the same visitation, with the same sense of dread and final suffocation.
On the third night, Mary took Gareth to bed with her. Seducing the boy had been excruciating and it had consumed all of her patience. Gareth had cracked jokes throughout dinner – uncomfortable with being made to feel the equal of this very adult lady – and Mary had plied the boy with red wine. She gathered that he had thrown up most of it into the kitchen sink. Mary had no idea of what Gareth made of the evening – she told him that Pete had been on holiday for so long that she had grown lonely – but when they went to bed, it transpired that the boy had a great shopping list of sexual acts that he wished to inflict upon her. She tolerated this for a while, regarding it as a sort of payment, but she eventually suggested that Gareth be quiet and go to sleep. He cuddled up to her and she was grateful for his presence.
When she awoke, she knew – even before hearing the padding by the window – that the visitor was back. The defeat was total. Mary lay amongst the bedclothes, waiting for the terror and the suffocation. But then a cloud blotted out the moon and she was running through familiar rooms, searching for Gareth and for the reassurance of his attentions. The house, however, was dark and empty. Gareth was not in the kitchen – the plates from the evening’s dinner were still stacked up on the dining room table – and there was no noise from the living room, which she had expected to see pulsating in the blue light from the television. Now desperate, Mary broke into the garden – the moist air all over her like a vast cold tongue – her feet wailing naked on the wet lawn – ducking under washing on the line – startling a fox beside the rockery – approaching that untidy area under the trees, which was the last place where Gareth could possibly be…
Mary returned to her bedroom and found Gareth in bed, snoring gently.
“Where have you been?” she screamed.
“What?” Gareth was stirring. “What is it?”
“Where have you been?”
“Nowhere?” Gareth asked. “I’ve been asleep… We’ve been asleep, haven’t we?” He looked around uncertainly.
Mary’s voice was high and unsteady. “Where were you? I needed you and you weren’t here!” In a movement so sudden that it frightened Gareth, she leant forward and pushed him, with a feeble viciousness. He half-fell out of bed – grabbing a pillow to shield his nakedness – but the sight of his thin legs caused Mary to wearily forfeit her anger. She hauled him back into bed and hugged him. Bewildered, Gareth stroked her hair and cooed dismayed encouragement at her.
The next morning, Mary looked out of the landing window and she surveyed the fields wandering massively below. This is lunacy, she thought, as the wheat stirred with a gigantic restlessness. Any normal person would give up and run away. She was then struck with a sudden panic: that she would be unable to hire labourers for the harvest; that they would have to revert to “Plan B”; and that it would be her at the wheel of the Land Rover.
Mary began to imagine what would happen, like somebody forcing themselves to peer over a precipice at a waterfall. The grain would patter through the sunroof on to her head, venturing down the back of her neck and between her skin and her clothing, pouring from her hair and shoulders into her lap and down the sides of the car seat. A pyramid would gradually form in the middle of the car – its weight pushing her forward – until she would have to push back, and she would be buried up to her neck in the grain. “Keep going! Steady now!” Gareth would holler through his megaphone, above the rattle of the machinery. And then the grain would be up to her chin and she would be battling beneath the heap, trying to keep the Land Rover going in a straight line.
She would take a great last breath before the grain passed over her face, and then there would be a minute or so of blind suffocation as she fought to get the Land Rover over to the barn – the grain peeping into the corners of her eyes and the firm line of her mouth – until the vehicle felt smooth over the concrete, she braked, the doors were opened by helping hands, and in a moment the car had half emptied and she was sitting above it all, panting with relief.
She went down to the living room. Gareth and a friend were seated in front of the television with cans of beer.
“This is Joe,” Gareth explained. “He’ll be working at the harvest.”
“Pleased to have you on board,” Mary beamed, eyeing their beer cans with distaste. It was barely eight in the morning. “I hope you’re a good cyclist…?”
“Erm, well… This is a strange thing…” Joe said, looking uncomfortable.
“You see, I’ve never actually learned to ride a bicycle. When I was a kid, my parents never got round to teaching me…”
“Well…” Mary harrumphed. “This isn’t really what we’re looking for…”
“He can learn,” Gareth reasoned. “We’ve got a few days and Joe here will soon get the hang of it.”
“Maybe you can fit stabilisers to the bike, Gareth,” Mary snapped angrily.
“Sure thing, darling.”
To Mary’s surprise, Gareth stood up and kissed her on the mouth. He then shot a significant look at Joe and Joe nodded, suitably impressed. Mary screamed slightly and stalked off into the kitchen.
“Can you make us breakfast, sweetheart?” Gareth called after her. She chose not to answer.