The Old Man

Literature is invisible history, not yet lived.

It was late, the tawny owls were calling to each other, dark was falling and I knew that I couldn’t see properly.

’Excuse me, can I help you?’ 

With hindsight, though, my manner conveyed no desire to help whoever it was that I had only just glimpsed, indistinctly in the bad light of a tepid May dusk, doing something in the beech wood that flanked our drive. 

The figure straightened up. He was an elderly man, not very tall, with white hair, wearing a loden-green coat of old-fashioned design. For someone so clearly in the wrong, he had a confident manner.

‘You have already helped me.’ His accent suggested continental European origins, overlaid with a very specific kind of English education. ‘Were you more meticulous in carrying out your gardening tasks, I should not have met this little fellow.’ And he held out something on an upraised hand, but in the unhelpful light, I struggled to see what it was. It looked like a beetle of some sort. It was very small.

I was cross at his intrusion, and wished to challenge him. 

At the same time, however, I was keenly aware that I cut a rather odd figure myself. I had only come out of the house to close up the hens. In late May, in our part of Norfolk, the hens won’t go into their coop until half nine at best, sometimes even later. So I had readied myself for bed then come outside in a flannel night dress, an old towelling dressing gown thrown over it, wearing worn-out hence very comfortable bedroom slippers. And then, just as I was about to turn off the main path into the walled garden where the hens lived, I had noticed the man in the beech wood. 

‘You are closing up your hens’ he said simply, as if reading my mind. ‘This is quite reasonable. I too am an early riser. Please forgive my intrusion into your beech wood. These are, I must say, very fine beeches.’

‘I can take very little responsibility for them,’ I said, more out of habit than anything else. I was still unsure as to who this man was or how I was going to deal with him. 

He laughed, still holding out the beetle towards me. He was a very merry old man. ‘Well, this is so. The beeches are older than I am, although in a few cases, perhaps not so healthy. Well, rotten wood is also a benevolent patron to my little friend here’ — and then he incanted the insect’s Latin name, which I have now forgotten — ’so this is, perhaps, as it should be. Out of death and decay comes life. Every catastrophe is, for something, an opportunity.’ 

Read the rest of this entry »