The Old Man

by Barendina Smedley

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.’ 

This was unarguable, but it was also rather odd. I pulled my dressing gown more tightly around me and tried to regain the initiative.

‘I’m sorry, but why, precisely, are you in my wood? The footpath goes the other way.’ 

We have a public footpath that runs through our land. It is not unusual for strangers to miss a particular fork in the path and to end up in the drive that leads up to the house. I assumed, I suppose, that the old man had taken a wrong turning. 

‘I am very well aware of the orientation of your path,’ he said, cooly, setting the little beetle down gently into the gloom of ivy and dried-out alexanders. It was almost completely dark now. ‘I had a little business here, very nearby as it happens, but when I saw the wood — an old beech planation being anomalous in this part of Norfolk, so near the coast; I am really quite confounded by their ability to tolerate such arid conditions — I could not ignore the opportunity. But now the light is failing, and also, what is worse, I am unnerving you — well, this is unsurprisingly too. So I shall take my leave. Good evening. I expect we shall meet again soon.’ 

It was a moonless night, and the wood was very dark, even near the path, but if I didn’t know better, I’d have said that he actually vanished.

* * *

The next time it was in broad daylight — the sunshine was, in fact, literally blinding. 

I had been strimming out some of the various paths that led away from the main lawn. These ran either west towards the pine wood, or, alternative, south towards the fields that lay to the landward side of us. There was a hedge that separated us from these fields, across which there were long views: a scatter of red roofs denoting the next village, the little tower of their flint-built church, the whole tucked into the old fold of a formerly estuarial river. 

A year or so previous, and for many years before that, there had also been paths that ran off the lawn to the east, up into the beech wood, but I no longer maintained these.

Still, walking back across the lawn with my strimmer slung to one side, banging against my thigh, out of habit I glanced that way — only to see, rather to my surprise, that same old man, beckoning to me with some urgency from the edge of the beech wood. This time he was wearing a green jacket and a polo neck jumper. His hair looked even whiter in the dappled episodic sunshine. 

‘Good afternoon’ I said, for lack of anything better to say.

‘Good afternoon. I shall tell you my dream from last night. There was a woman walking among broken stones, the wreckage of some violent conflict. In the ruins there grew a great number of flowers. Amongst these I noted papavers of the cultivated sort, Meconopsis cambrica, aquilegia, campanula and various salvias, which attracted butterflies of some interest. I will not enumerate them. The woman was weeping. She gathered up fragments of stone from the ruins. She cradled them against her like this.’ With his arms he mimicked cradling a baby. ‘The scene was at once beautiful and terrible. Terrible, for the sorrow that was consuming her. Sometimes these things are too much to be borne. But beautiful, because to live so intensely, to feel things so deeply, is something few are granted. She was born under a happy star.’

There followed a short silence. I was about to say something, but it must have been unnecessary, because the old man promptly changed the subject. 

‘So, I have found no beetles today. Well, that is all right. The shade is very nice. Also, I saw several roe deer, a hare, and a nest of pheasant poults. I had hoped to see an adder, but I have seen none.’ And his brown wrinkled face was suddenly very open in its disappointment, like that of a small child denied his promised treat.

‘I’ve only once seen an adder here,’ I said. ‘Well, not here. There.’ I gestured behind him, across the extent of the beech wood, toward the new house that stood in the land adjoining ours. It has been built two years before. Its construction had occasioned the demolition of an older house which I had cared about very much, and had tried, in vain, to save. ‘Before they built — well, that. After they tore down the old house, but before they built the new one.’

‘Adders take delight in sunbathing upon the stones and the rubble.’

‘There’s nothing living there now, though,’ I said, surprising myself at how much anger there was in my voice. ‘Well, those people, I suppose. But they cut down half the trees, they scraped up the lovely old garden, they put down that idiotic fence so that not even a hedgehog or a dormouse could pass from here to there. Did you know, by the way, that there was meant to be a curse on anyone who put a fence there, who separated our house from the old house there? But they went and put the fence there anyway, because they are the sort of people who don’t care about old curses, any more than they care about old houses.

‘And now look at it! Just that so-called ‘lawn’, and that plastic table, whatever it is, and the fake meadow all in the shade sown with seeds from packets, and charging-points for their endless automobiles. And that awful gate to the road that they keep closed all the time. It’s unbearable!’ I could feel my heart beating so hard in my chest that I folded my arms in front of me as if to hold it in.

The old man laughed until tears came into his cornflower-blue eyes. 

‘It isn’t funny.’ 

Did I stamp my foot at him? I might have done. He did not, however, seem to care in the least, for he was still laughing.

‘On the contrary, it is extremely funny. Have you seen the inside of their house? Of course you have not. Yet if I asked you, I expect you could describe it perfectly. Not one thing in it is more than perhaps two years old. The materials from which it is constructed are those of the Titans — metal, glass, smooth surfaces, sharp edges. There are perhaps two dozen books there, sorted by colour, unread. Further, it resembles, my wife said to me when she first saw it, the first class lounge in an East European provincial airport. And do you know why you could describe it perfectly?’

He was waiting for me to answer, his face expectant, possibly even slightly smug round the edges, like a child trying very hard not to blurt out the clever answer he holds in reserve.

‘No, I don’t understand those ghastly people at all. Why would I be able to describe their ghastly house?’

‘Because they are simply the opposite of you in every possible way. Fate was very lazy when she decided to present them to you as antagonists, because they are simply you, but inverted. Please do not shake your head at me. You have an ancient house, full of old furniture, rare things, important pictures. Everything in every corner has a meaning. One might drown, happily so, in the generosity of it all. For you, weather is a thing of poetry and portents. Every grove has its  genius loci. In every implausible occurrence some god nods to you, and you, politely, nod back.

‘Yet epitomes, all of them, naturally throw up their opposite. Your sorrow, my dear, is that in your case it did so literally, and you have allowed the spectacle to unnerve you, rather than amuse you. And yet really, you should have been amused.’

‘Why should it have amused me? You really have no idea. You weren’t here. It so nearly broke my heart.’

I didn’t pause to wonder why he knew exactly what was in my house, or indeed why we were having this conversation, because I was trying not to cry.

‘My dear. It should have amused you because it is, objectively, very funny.’

I tried again. ‘Their ghastliness is, admittedly, funny. I see that. I sometimes do try to think of what it would be like if I were just reading about this in a light-hearted novel, rather than living through it. Sometimes that even helps. But the old house …’ 

‘Well, you were attached to it.’

‘Yes, I was. I know some people thought it was ugly or ordinary, but …’

‘You were attached to it.’


‘Well, that is the problem of attachment, is it not? No house lasts forever.’

‘It should have lasted longer.’

‘Should it? Are you certain of that? Being destroyed as it was not only gave you the chance to show what you were willing to do to defend that — it also made you love it more than you would have, had it never been threatened. That is correct, is it not?’

I had to admit, wordlessly, that it was. 

In truth, in those happy days before it seemed possible that anyone would ever try to demolish the house, I had not thought much about it one way or the other. I had simply taken it for granted. 

It was, in fact, only when the house became obviously, perhaps inevitably doomed that I needed to visit it every day, take photos of every beautiful evanescent detail, sit in the baking late afternoon sunlight on its south-facing terrace watching my hot tears spatter onto the tiles below my feet. There were things that I saw there — a dead blackbird, perfect as an heraldic emblem, emphatic against the hot pale stone of the terrace, or the white rose that suddenly bloomed, for one last time, at the wrong time of year — these will stay with me, perhaps, when much else has faded.

‘It is time that distills the beauty from things,’ the old man said, rather gently. ‘Time and loss. That is a thing I have learned.’

* * *

Just beyond the edge of the lawn, right before our land meets the thorn and bramble hedge that forms the boundary with the fields to the south, and just within the periphery of the beech wood, there was a little thicket of holly. It sat on the edge of a strange landscape feature that no one, I think, had ever properly managed to explain, if they had even noticed it — a circular area, with a circumference of perhaps thirty feet, in which nothing much ever grew except snowdrops in the spring, a few alexanders in summer, and all the year round, a small, handsome beech tree. The circle had clearly been there for some time, because even on old maps, the field boundaries always conformed to it. And yet there was no explanation for it. 

I had once tried to interest the county council’s archaeology department in the circle, only to be told that as it wasn’t marked as anything of significance on the Ordnance Survey maps, it evidently wasn’t significant and possibly didn’t exist at all. 

So it was that I gave up on trying to interest anyone in the circle. Instead, I dragged an old garden chair right to its edge. From there, with my back to the little beech tree, I could look out across the fields, hidden by the screen of the holly thicket. It was a good place the watch the weather, the sky — sunsets in particular — and the great turning wheel of the seasons.

Behind me, of course, no great distance away, was the new house, all that rusted Corten steel and gleaming glass, and sometimes the voices of the people who lived there, or the sounds of their automobiles, and then the busy road beyond. But the holly, or something about that circle, imparted a sense of seclusion. 

I was sitting there one morning at the start of autumn, very early, well before the break of dawn. The darkness around me was very still. I was wearing that towelling dressing gown over a nightdress, and had those same old slippers on my feet, and I held a mug of milky coffee in my hands. 

There were many things flitting through my mind, none of them important, but whatever they were, a moment later they were scattered by the ghostly, silent, unmistakeable gliding flight of a barn owl, radiantly pale, sailing past only a few feet ahead of me, just along the line of the hedge, making me catch my breath, sending a shiver through everything, as barn owls seen in the dark always do. In that moment, I wanted intensely to share with someone what I had just seen — and then, there in the near-dark, all alone, I felt the pressure of warm hands on my shoulders.

It was, of course, the old man, whose mysterious appearances and vatic declarations had, by now, ceased to surprise me.

He looked younger than I remembered, and a little more serious, although clearly he, too, was completely distracted by the owl. Now he was standing next to me, leaning against the tree. He began to recite something in German:  

Und meine Seele spannte,

Weit ihre Flügel aus,

Flog durch die stillen Lande,

Als flögen sie nach Haus.

‘Von Eichendorff’ he concluded briskly. ‘But you should know this.’

And the odd thing was that, as in a dream, as soon as the old man spoke, I immediately understood not the words themselves — because I don’t actually understand German, particularly German spoken quickly — but the point of them, the point about a soul flying on wings through a silent land, homeward — the terrible yearning, the nostalgia, the beauty and sadness of all of it — and also, perhaps more immediately, the strangely sensual, greedy joy to be had from that sadness. 

Again, I shivered, but this time it was because I had moved from one stage of my life onto the next, and the air felt cooler and cleaner.

There was a bit more light now. I could see that the old man was smiling, although less with the childlike joy of previous encounters than with something more defined and purposeful.

‘You do not need them any more. Good.’

‘What do you mean?’ 

‘It is not good to have enemies whom you despise. You must be proud of your enemy, because then your enemy’s triumph only exalts you. Those people — they have no history, they cast no shadows. It is right to hate the powers that acted through them — powers as old as time — but as actors themselves, they were ultimately disappointing. You are right to forget them.’

‘I wish I understood what you’re talking about. You do have a rather indirect way of expressing yourself sometimes. Other people must have mentioned it. Anyway what do you mean?’

‘There is a limit to what words can do — they are only echoes. You have not guessed?’

I shook my head. It was light enough now that the owls were no longer flying. In the field before us, the pheasants had begun their admonitory perorations; perhaps there was a fox about, too close to my hens for comfort; certainly, though, the ordinariness of day was imposing itself upon our increasingly clear surroundings. 

‘Well, I must go in a moment, so I shall be plain. You enjoy what has happened to you, you draw these sporadic crises to you, purely so that you can emerge stronger from each of them. That is why such things continue to happen to you. And that is as it should be. Conflict is our school, our productive coupling, the colocynthic, cleansing draught without which peace would lose its sweetness. But precisely by that token, now you should enjoy what must happen next.’

‘And what is that?’

The old man had been distracted, for a moment, by a small insect crawling up the bark of the beech tree, but when he turned back to me, his pale eyes positively burned, and he looked quite remarkably pleased with himself.

‘Truly, you have not guessed? You, so assiduous in conjuring daimons and composing laments, cannot frame even approximately the terms of your victory? Remember that history is merely an occasion, never a goal. As I said before — you do not need these people any more. You are forgetting them already. So it is that they are free to depart, now that their role is played out.’

* * *

And so it came to pass. A few weeks later, spread out over several days, there was quite a traffic of removal lorries in the busy road that ran alongside the beech wood, intermittently announcing their reversals into the high road with that repetitive, somehow regretful beeping sound. The village was awash with speculative gossip. 

But when I eventually summoned up the nerve to make my way down through the overgrown paths and to peer, at first hesitantly, over the fence, I saw that the old man had, in fact, been absolutely correct.

He had moved into the ugly new house. In this, he was accompanied by his wife who, like him, was very elderly, small, had very white hair and generally seemed inexplicably happy. 

Staring into the windows of the house, one could easily see that the charmless, airport-style plastic furniture had been replaced, delightfully, with a lifetime’s worth of clutter — elaborately-carved oak furniture; a Louis XVI secretaire positively dripping with ormolu; a procession of oversized wardrobes; a collection of hour glasses; old French engravings of vipers, shipwrecks and atrocities; Persian and Turkish carpets; old photographs in silver frames; and of course box after box after box of books — books in a variety of languages — many of these leather-bound early editions, most of them well-read, all of them in some way revealing of the old man’s complicated life.

Like everything that trades primarily on novelty, the two-year old house had aged badly. It was remarkable how easily the old man was able to improve it.

The bleak metallic kitchen, which had previously evinced all the charm of a hospital morgue, warmed up through the addition of heavy brocade curtains the colour of claret, spill-over bookcases, a long library table and an even longer bank of museum-type storage cabinets in which, I later learned, the old man kept his entomological collections. 

Externally, the modishly rusted steel of the exterior was removed and replaced with timber cladding that turned a spectral silver after that first winter. There wasn’t much to be done about the ‘flintwork’ that looked altogether too much like crazy paving, so after some consultation, the old man had it rendered. And then he grew several varieties of grape vines along the south and west-facing walls. Apparently, the vines made good homes for insects. 

Before long, the old man and his happy little wife had also, with some help, dug up the plastic-looking lawn and replaced it with something no one ever had tried in our village — a rather formal garden set out in a grid, with topiary trees and sanded paths — but in the end it was also rather lazily maintained, so that there was a place, too, for wildflowers, weeds and wind-sown surprises of all sorts. 

Meanwhile the plastic lawn below the terrace on the south was also torn up, and in this case, replanted with all sorts of rather Mediterranean, silvery, highly-scented plants that took advantage of the hot, dry conditions on that side of the hill. At the right time of year, it positively pulsated with butterflies and moths. The man and his wife would sit on the terrace, in mismatched fan-back wicker chairs, small glasses of wine in hand, enjoying the summer evening.

Sometimes friends joined them. 

Sometimes I sat with them too. 

Sometimes there were owls — tawny owls, mostly — calling from the wood nearby.

And then one day, as I walked along a path that led through the beech wood — for I had taken to strimming those paths out once again — I found the old man together with the young chap who helped him with his gardening tearing up the wire fence that separated the two properties. Typically, there was no apology — just a broad smile, with only the slightest hint of imperiousness about it.

‘I take very seriously your point about the curse,’ he said. ‘We must not exclude the possibility of the magical, or, indeed, the chance of a happy ending.’