The Lammas ghosts
by Barendina Smedley
‘It’s going to be a hard winter.’
There are few joys known to the Norfolk-born so profound as the joy of well-informed pessimism. The three of us were standing in the kitchen courtyard, looking ruefully at the hawthorn tree that grows in the centre, at the edge of the old dipping pool. Brian’s face, lean and wizened through a life lived largely in the open air, had a rapt look, mirrored exactly by that of his much younger cousin Benjamin, who was helping that day.
‘The start of August, and the hawthorn haws gone red already — whoever heard of that?’
‘Well, it’s the lack of rain, isn’t it? Or the heat, maybe. It’s brought on the autumn early. The sloes in the hedge are so ripe that they’re falling, and the Michaelmas daisies have been out for weeks now.’
Brian and Benjamin listened politely to my contribution, but the little silence that followed was a reminder that although this was my kitchen courtyard, my old parsonage, my land, I was still an outsider, having only lived in the village for a dozen years or so, hence there was a great deal I didn’t know about the place — a great deal I didn’t know about, full stop.
‘Well, it’s a strange old year, no doubt about that,’ said Brian, gently. ‘Best enjoy the sun while we can.’
Brian and Benjamin were there to help lift the pump out of our well. The pump engineer, who drove up from Norwich, had long ago learned that he needed an extra pair of hands, or maybe more, when dealing with our well, which was much older and deeper than most of the others around here.
‘It’s near one hundred foot deep, your well’ he would say with gloomy relish. (He was Norfolk-born, too.) ‘Imagine being the poor sod who had to dig it out at the bottom, with someone else at the top hauling up the earth in a basket — that’s how they done it back then. Imagine being all that way down in the dark.’
‘Hope they thought to haul him up again at the end’ opined Benjamin, pleasantly. ‘Hope he ain’t still down there.’
‘Fancy goin’ down to have a look then, do you?’
Instead, though, the men hauled up the pump together, straining and sweating and swearing a bit, because even at ten in the morning it was already about 25C in the shade. A cursory examination allowed the engineer to confirm what I’d already suspected, which was that over the past month, there had been times when the well, which was fed by an aquifer running through the limestone somewhere deep below our hill, had actually run dry. That explained, perhaps, why the pump-house fuse kept blowing, as well as a periodic raspy shrieking sound coming from the courtyard, and also why the water had started to taste so bad — not muddy, exactly, but somehow dull and unrewarding.
‘It’s done a lot of damage to the pump, unfortunately. I’m sorry it took us so long to get someone out to you.’
‘Don’t worry about it. Everything seems to take a long time at the moment.’
‘The thing is, a lot of our work is on agricultural boreholes, and with all the field fires …’
The phrase ‘field fires’ hung in the air. The engineer couldn’t have known it, but Benjamin and his family were staying with Brian because their own house had been damaged by a field fire a few weeks before.
‘Really, don’t worry about it. It’s only a pump,’ I said. And then we started talking about the detail of how long it would take to order and install a replacement pump. Also, from here on out, I’d have to be a lot more careful about how much water I used, especially during dry spells.
Every now and then, when the wind blew the right way, we could hear the sound of the combine working its steady, ineluctable, satisfying way across the fields just to the west of us, on the other side of our meadow.
‘They’re starting late’ said Benjamin.
‘I don’t know what’s going on with those fields’ said Brian. ‘Should have been done last week, really.’
For once, it seemed as if I knew a little more local news than Brian did. ‘Sam’s mother was taken ill. The boys tried to take her to Norwich but the unit there was closed so in the end she had to go to Addenbrookes in Cambridge. They’ve been going back and forth all this time. And then they have the salad crop as well, that and the courgettes, and no one to help with that.’
The men shook their heads. ‘Poor Sam. That’s bad luck.’
‘There’s a lot of bad luck about right now’ said Brian, crisply. ‘Well, if that’s the pump done, let’s see to clearing that shed.’ And off they vanished into the blinding sunlight.
The pump engineer was just packing up his things before driving back to Norwich.
‘How old you reckon this place is?’
‘Well, we had some of the timbers dated, so the main bit is about 500 years old, but of course it might be a bit older, because there isn’t a very accurate way to date the flint. But then quite a lot of it is younger, because the parsons who lived here kept building onto it. So it’s all sorts of ages.’ I had said this so many times, over the years, to so many people, that I intoned it like a litany, almost without noticing what I was saying.
‘It’s a big old place. Big old barn, too.’
‘That used to be the tithe barn. The parson here basically got ten percent of everyone’s wealth and put it in his barn. I can’t imagine that was very popular in lean years.’
‘Haha, no, not very popular — and there used to be a lot of lean years, too. Well, good thing that’s the past, and this is now. I’ll get the office to send you a quote for the new pump.’ And with that, he got into his van and drove away.
* * *
Brian and Benjamin were still working on the shed, on the other side of the big barn, towards the meadow. The sun was at its zenith now. The sheer brightness of the light made seeing things difficult. Or rather, it made seeing things that weren’t there all too easy. Wherever I looked, out of the corner of my eye, there was inexplicable motion, a sense of things happening that was furtive and faintly unnerving.
So I went inside.
Whatever else one might say about this Old Parsonage, it’s reliably cool on a hot day. Condensation blackened the limestone flags in the hall. The air there carried more than a hint of beeswax, camphor, last winter’s wood fires, cats and indistinct antiquity. Well, it was and is an old house, in which many long generations of people had weathered summers and winters, droughts and famines, wars and pestilence. It’s a house no longer capable of being surprised. With its thick flint walls, small windows and warren of miscellaneous rooms, it still takes its job of shelter and defence very seriously.
On a day like that one I particularly loved its ineradicable, inscrutable darkness. And then, walking through the hall, I tripped over a fallen fire-screen and fell heavily against the edge of the big basket that holds logs, kindling and anything else anyone wants to burn.
This was, surely, the fault of the cats. We have half a dozen cats at the Old Parsonage. We would have fewer cats, were it not for the fact that our elderly neighbour Chloe has learned that I am a pitifully soft touch when it comes to cats unwanted by others.
Anyway, on that particular day the cats — usually a lethargic, lazy bunch, given to napping in odd corners and doing very little else — had been a nightmare, dashing up and down all the stairs with pointless urgency, hissing and snarling at each other, leaping and crashing into things, knocking ornaments off their shelves and sending furniture flying.
I picked myself up from the floor and rubbed what would obviously soon be an actual bleeding gash across my knee, then went off to fetch a plaster for it. In the kitchen the cupboard doors were open, which I also blamed on the cats. Also, we were out of plasters because last time I’d been to the village shop looking for them, there were no plasters available.
And that is why, when someone knocked at the door, I answered it with blood all over my hands and dripping down one leg. But because the person at the door was Chloe herself, her white hair standing out like a halo in the blinding sunlight, it didn’t much matter, as she is used to fishing feral kittens out of bramble hedges in the dark of night, and she’s from Norfolk too and doesn’t always expect everything to turn out well.
Chloe had come because she needed wormer for a recently rescued kitten, but the Holt vet had run out of kitten wormer, as had the North Walsham vet Well, I had some left-over wormer, so I gave it to her, while she told me more about Sam’s mother’s illness and I told her more about the problems with the well, and we agreed that it was going to be a hard winter. And then to make conversation, I complained to her about how bad the cats had been all day — all that running about and wailing and fighting.
‘It’s the moon,’ said Chloe. ‘It’s full tonight. And the harvest coming in. And, well, all the rest. They know.’
‘What do you mean, “they know”?’
She chuckled. ‘Haven’t you seen it before? Oh you surprise me, you do, being a mad cat lady yourself. When it’s Lammas and the harvest is on and there’s a big bright full moon, all the mice and voles and such as have lost their homes, they’re all about, and the cats in the fields hunt them, but even the cats such as are inside can hear them, all the squeaking and crying, and it crazes them.’ She lowered her voice a little. ‘And my old nan used to say that the ghost mice and voles come up from the fields too, under the harvest moon, and the ghost cats hunt them. And that crazes the living cats even more, because they can hear the hunt going on, and sometimes it comes inside, too.’
As she imparted this information Chloe’s pale blue eyes, wrinkled at the corners, were wide with delight. Not for the first time, I was unsure whether she was winding me up, so I played along.
‘Hmm, interesting! So do I need to do anything about the ghost mice, or do I just leave them to the ghost cats? Is there anything else I need to do about this situation — other than being a bit more careful about fallen bits of furniture?’
‘Oh, you’ll be fine, my dear. This is an old parsonage, after all. You’ll be perfectly fine here. It’s only in really bad years …’ Something suddenly crossed Chloe’s face — a sort of inward look, a fleeting shadow, before her habitual sunny smile returned. ‘You’ll be fine. And thank you for the wormer. I meant to try to pick some up in Norwich when I went for my scan but it was cancelled again so I didn’t. Third time lucky, maybe? Well, I must be on my way. My old neighbour’s carer hasn’t been replaced yet so I need to look in on her. She’s a dear old thing but between us, don’t repeat this, but I think she’s a little bit dotty these days.’
* * *
‘It’s probably another field fire.’
Brian and Benjamin had already cleared away most of the collapsed shed, but had paused to listen to the sirens coming from the general direction of the coast road.
I had been fond of the old cattle shed. As an outsider, I found the sun-silvered timber, the rusted iron and bits of shattered glass rather picturesque. I liked the owls and bats and heaven knows what that lived in it. Brian, in contrast, had for years been itching to replace it with something neater and smarter — possibly more useful, too — and occasionally lobbied my husband to that effect. This summer, though, the shed had finally collapsed, and the ruins were deemed to be unacceptably dangerous.
‘Just think what would happen if some little ones got in there — I don’t mean local kids, but holidaymakers’ kids who ain’t got no sense about nothing — and then they cut themselves on the glass or a sharp nail — or got tetanus, what about that? — and it’s a long drive to Norwich too …’
So the glass and the rusted iron had gone into a mini skip, the ground beneath had been raked to a sort of gravel-strewn tidyiness, and the rotted old timber was neatly piled up to one side. The one problem, though, was that under the circumstances, a bonfire was clearly impossible.
‘Set light to that and your house and barn and probably half the village would be gone within the hour’ said Brian, looking meaningfully towards Benjamin who was pushing a wheelbarrow far enough away that he couldn’t hear them speaking. ‘And I’m not sure any of us need any more of that sort of thing. Well, you can have a bonfire with it later, once things are normal again.’
Now that the sirens had gone, the sound of the combine was louder than ever — or perhaps there was a baler, too, travelling behind, dropping the bales with a periodic thud. I made a mental note to go down and have a look later on. Having watched that field over the course of the year — seen it harrowed, ploughed, observed the first growth of the crop cast its uncertain glimmer of green across the dark earth, until it matured into the elegantly shimmering white-gold if slightly stunted corn of recent weeks — I suddenly felt a need to mark this latest chapter in its development. The impulse to see the harvest was strangely intense — almost a sort of pain.
I must have frowned slightly, considering this, because Brian, misinterpreting my look, was quick to try to cheer me up. ‘Don’t worry too much about the well. They do that, sometimes, in a bad year. It comes back again, the water does.’
‘It does’ agreed Benjamin, who had returned. ‘That’s a deep aquifer — it ain’t just rainwater. Or if it is, it’s rainwater from a very long time ago. Whole thousands of years ago, someone told me.’
I put on a stoical look. ‘I’m sure you’re right. It’s just odd, isn’t it? I mean, you get used to water. It’s quite basic. You turn on the tap, there it is, job done. And that well has been here for centuries, hasn’t it? It’s been here as long as the parsonage has, and that’s more than five hundred years. So you get used to water, and then one day, it isn’t there. And then you have to think about how you’d get by without it.’
So the three of us just stood there, in the blazing sunshine of the early afternoon, in the middle of the parched kitchen courtyard, where even the wild marjoram and rosebay willow herb were faded and brown from the lack of rain, and contemplated with a degree of luxuriousness this scenario of disaster, until the mewing of a buzzard, circling on a thermal hundreds of feet above, intervened.
‘They’ve been up there all day’ said Benjamin, who had a keen eye for the natural world. ‘It’s the harvest. All them creatures that live in the corn, once it’s mowed, they get driven out, and so the buzzards have their chance — the kestrels too — all the raptors. It’s like a feast for them, the harvest is.’
‘Are there ghost buzzards?’
Brian and Benjamin both looked at me a bit oddly.
‘It’s very hot out here, isn’t it?’ I said.
And then we heard the sound of more sirens moving along the coast road, and in a minute or two I went back into the cool, forgiving darkness of my enigmatic old parsonage, where the scampering and hissing of cats continued to punctuate the relative silence. But once again, all the cupboard doors were open in the kitchen.
- * *
Brian and Benjamin left in the late afternoon. Normally, when I’m here by myself — when my husband is away, when the people who help around the place have all gone back to their homes — there is the most immense calm, a sense of real peace and solitude that is as tangible and welcome as an old friend’s embrace. I know that not everyone feels like this. Chloe, for instance, knows the Old Parsonage well, but has said to others that she couldn’t possibly live here. ‘I need people around’ she would say. ‘Normal, living people.’ Chloe lives in a bungalow in the village with her niece living next door on one side and her son living next door on the other. Whereas, I love being in this house on my own.
On that particular day, though, the sense of peace failed to materialise. The house felt unsettled, on edge. My knee hurt, the cats were so bad that I had to separate two of them and put them in different rooms, and the need to ration water use — to have to think carefully about running a load of washing or watering the tomatoes — felt irksome. Odder still, and probably because I’d spent too much time out in the very bright sunshine, I kept seeing things out of the corner of my eye that just weren’t quite right.
The cloth bag I used to collect kindling from our wood — because it’s never too early to start preparing for winter, is it? — recently abandoned by the back door, kept turning into the curled, recumbent form of a large black dog. A reflection on the kitchen window kept making me think that there was a tall, pale man standing motionless in our drive.
Worst of all, though, I kept smelling smoke. And while I knew this was simply the smell of last winters’ wood fires, which in old houses often hangs around just to reappear at odd times, the fear of field fires was such that I couldn’t, try though I might, entirely ignore it. So while I tried to get on with routine tasks — paying a few bills, chasing up progress on neglected projects, or even scanning the news headlines, which were all uniformly dire — every now and then I had to get up and check that the house wasn’t actually besieged or burning.
How to distract myself, bounce myself out of this bad mood, which was surely just a symptom of the hot weather? It occurred to me that, as I now had nothing that I particularly needed to do, I could walk down to the fields and look at the harvest. And so that is what I did.
By now, of course, it was early in the evening. The sun was still bright and very hot, but the angle at which it stuck things carried with it unanswerable portents of the changing of seasons, a sharp sense of time running out, of darker and colder times ahead. The leaves on some of the beech trees were already beginning to turn to copper and gold, although perhaps that was less a sign of autumn than a hint that the old trees themselves, with their shallow root systems, were dying. The wood pigeons in the pine wood looked thin and anxious. The ground underfoot in the lane, although only bare earth, felt as hard as a gravestone.
Ahead of me, at the end of the lane, the fields rose in a gentle curve of tilted hillside, all blond stubble and bareness, punctuated here and there with a bale of hay casting hard shadows alongside it. The corn had gone, and this was what was left in its place. The whole scene had an air of finality about it, just as the cleared-away shed had done after Brian and Benjamin had finished with it. Everything nourishing, everything essential, had gone elsewhere. This was landscape as dry husk.
By the edge of the field, some way in the distance, I could see my neighbour’s cat — one of Chloe’s rescue projects, as it happened — waiting silently, her body taut and alert, ready to pounce. There were still buzzards overhead, too.
Then by my feet, on the road, I noticed a broad spill of harvested grain. It must have fallen from the combine as it was coming back up the road towards Sam’s farm. On an impulse, I bent down and picked up a handful of it. So this was what all that effort, the preparation and care and expenditure, had been about! In the bowl of my folded palm, it looked for all the world like the fancy feed I gave to my hens as a treat last thing in the evening, so that they’d go to bed on full gullets.
Rather whimsically, I slipped a few handfuls of the stuff into the pocket of the shorts I was wearing, intending to offer it to the hens later. I say ‘whimsically’, by the way, because it crossed my mind that there was time when gleaning like this was a matter of life and death for some families — not so long ago, either.
And then I turned and set off for the Old Parsonage again, turning once or twice because I thought I heard something behind me — not that there was anything actually there, of course.
* * *
Up at the house, the power had cut out again. The engineer, to be fair, had told me that the pump had been badly damaged by trying to draw water when the well was dry, and so until we could have it replaced — which was likely to take weeks, as everything takes so long to order these days — an electrical fault might cause the fuse to trip. Well, we’d been living with that problem for about a month without knowing the cause, so the problem didn’t seem to be an important one. I went out to the pump house, reset the switch, and saw the lights go on inside the kitchen, as well as hearing the pump itself resume its familiar reassuring slushing sound.
Chloe had evidently called round when I had been out looking at the harvest. She had left the wormer on the kitchen table. With it, there was a re-used envelope folded around something. Rather to my surprise, it was one of those little religious medals of the sort that people sometimes buy as souvenirs of pilgrimage. The one in the envelope depicted Our Lady of Walsingham. It was executed in a tinny sort of metal, and the blue enamel that had covered one side of it was now cracked.
This was all rather odd as Chloe was, as far as I knew, rather evangelical in her sympathies.
On the envelope, Chloe had written ‘For you xxx’ and drawn picture of a cat with a big smile on its face, surrounded by cheery-looking hearts. I put the medal in the other pocket of my shorts and promptly forgot about it.
Then I heard something in the drive, and steeled myself for it not being something real, but rather yet another of those unreal, unnerving things that had been so pervasive all day. In fact, though, the sound had been caused by wholly unexpected return of Brian.
I went out to see what was going on. Dark was falling fast now. In front of me was the wide, dark expanse of the beech wood, where a slight breeze shuddered through the dry leaves, making a rattling sound. Or at least I assumed that was what was making the rattling sound. To my left was the kitchen courtyard, and then behind that was the big barn. The shed, I should perhaps have mentioned, had been tucked away behind the barn, just at the edge of the meadow. And then behind all of that lay the harvested fields, the sky turning first rose, then ash-coloured, as the sun slipped away below the horizon.
Brian got out of his Range Rover and greeted me with an apologetic sort of half-bow.
I had known Brian almost since I moved to Norfolk. He had done a lot of work around the Old Parsonage over the years, and from what I understood, his family had worked there for much longer. This perhaps explains why, despite his pleasingly old-fashioned good manners, there was always a sense that the Old Parsonage, while clearly mine, was also ever so slightly his, too. And it certainly explained why, despite that fact that he’d done pretty well for himself over the years and no longer needed to do odd little bits of building work, he was always willing to help us here. In any event, his manner was part deferential, part protective. It came as no surprise to learn that most of his more distant ancestors had been either employees of a nearby ducal estate, or, in a few cases, highly-decorated NCOs. On the other hand, I had known him for at least a decade before he felt willing to admit that his mother’s mother’s people had, in fact, been Travellers. Perhaps this, too, explains something about him.
‘Can’t keep away, can you? Let me guess — hauling out that incredibly heavy old pump was so much fun you want to do it all over again?’
‘Ha, much better than putting my feet up and watching the cricket.’ He looked a bit sheepish. ‘Actually, I just wanted to have a quick look at that timber from the shed. Just to …’ he paused. ‘Just to make sure it’s all right where it is. I just got thinking, and …’
We were both conscious of a sound of something moving somewhere nearby, but each of us looked in a different direction, and saw nothing — or at any rate, nothing very clear.
‘Well, that’s all right then,’ I said. ‘You go have a look at the timber.’
Brian stood there, as if there was something else he wanted to say, but then the moment passed, and he headed off towards the meadow, while I went to close the hens into their run for the night.
The hens — half a dozen rescue hens from North Walsham, few of them really up to laying any more — live in the old walled garden, where they enjoy making dust-baths in the lawn and digging up all the herbs I plant there. In summer, they will do this long into the evening, chatting confidentially with each other like old dears at a church social, then occasionally pecking each other on the head with a weirdly unabashed brutality. Hence the need to coax them back into their run with a gift of corn.
But on the night in question, not a single one of my hens was anywhere to be seen in the garden. Eventually, I found them all huddled together in their actual hen house. This was strange, as there was no obvious predator in sight. Hens are, however, whimsical creatures at the best of times. There are better ways to spend a life than in trying to understand why they do the things they do. So it was, anyway, that I closed them into their house, and then closed up the run, and then closed up the walled garden. On the way back to the house, I could have sworn I heard not only footsteps but this time, voices too.
Over past the end of the lawn, by the field boundary, something caught my eye. It was the moon, fully round now and a sort of burnt, dirty gold colour, rising very quickly in the eastern sky.
I’m a bad sleeper. Some people are just made that way.
On a day like the one in question, I had expected that I would have to read in bed for quite a while before I was tired enough to sleep, but in fact I must have dropped off almost as soon as I put my book away. (Since you ask, it was Kathleen Pribyl’s ‘Farming, Famine and Plague’ — highly recommended.) Nor was the sleep into which I descended a particularly light or easily troubled one. Yet just before midnight, I found myself wide awake. And the reason for this was that someone, or something, was smashing itself heavily against the front door of the Old Parsonage.
First of all, I wondered whether I was dreaming. So I looked around my room, and saw all the familiar things there — books, clothes folded over various pieces of furniture, a few pictures on the wall spotlit by the moonlight streaming in through the south-facing window. All of that was as it should be. But still, I heard the knocking. It reverberated through the thick flint walls of the old house — ‘through its bones’ was the phrase that came to mind — so that, sitting up in bed, I could feel it as much as hear it, even above the increasingly urgent hammering of my heart.
In deference to some sort of primal instinct, I then tried to switch on the lights — there is a light pull I can reach from my bed. Nothing happened. The fuse, I realised, must have gone again.
So instead I rose and put on my dressing gown. It was only then that I thought to look out the window — not the south-facing one that oversees the lawn, but rather the east-facing one, almost directly above the front door.
The intensely bright moonlight, as is its wont, bleached the colour out of everything. But what I saw when I looked down was, in any event, impossible to understand.
There were moments when it looked like a crowd of people, except that they were insubstantial, and somehow intermingled with mice or perhaps rats, old bits of cloth, raised sticks, bare bones — the whole thing constantly in motion, seething and writhing, occasionally flinging itself hard against the parsonage door, but in the meantime making a sort of indistinct chattering, oddly plaintive sort of sound, as if, in a wordless inchoate way, it wanted something, needed something — and somehow expected to find what it wanted there inside the parsonage, there inside my house. The crowd stretched as far as I could see — back into the wood, along the drive, out onto the lawn, for all I knew into the kitchen courtyard.
Meanwhile the parsonage itself, instead of feeling powerful and protective, started to feel strangely permeable and transient. It was as if too much moonlight might wear it away, too.
I stood looking out for what seemed a very long time. And then, because this isn’t some story from the romanticised past, I went and got my iPhone from the bedside table, attempted to calm the absolutely frenetic leaping of my heart within my chest, and at last — breathing carefully, deliberately — tried to send a message.
There was no point bothering my husband with this. He was on deployment in Estonia and had enough to worry about, and also — being a rational type — would probably just think I was going mad. Instead, I decided to send a message to Chloe. But it was hard to type, because my hands were shaking and it was difficult to know what to say.
In any event, just as I was trying to frame the words, a message arrived from Chloe.
‘I hear them. U okay?’
After about six tries I managed to reply ‘I am okay but what now?’
There was rather a long wait. And then while I was waiting for Chloe to reply, a message came through from Brian, despite the fact I hadn’t sent any message to him at all.
‘Would suggest fire’ — that was all he said.
While I was trying to understand that, Chloe finally replied.
‘Try corn?’ — and that was the whole message.
The corn from the road was still, as it happened, in the pocket of my shorts, as the hens hadn’t needed it, and as I went to pick up the shorts which I had folded and put on the window seat, the pilgrimage medal fell out and bounced along the floor — and then promptly slid through a gap between the old oak floor boards. As it did so, though, there was a strange feeling as if the house had somehow grown slightly more solid and substantial, the crowd outside slightly less so.
Anyway, I then found the pocket that had the corn in it. Scooping those round brown grains out into my hand, I opened the window and then, blindly, not looking at what I was doing, trying not to listen to that horrible sound, I flung the corn out the window. At this, the chattering and groaning reached a kind of ghastly crescendo — which then rose to an actual scream, so full of hunger and fury and desperation that I cannot possibly begin to describe it.
And then — silence. Absolute silence.
I gathered my courage and looked out the window, but all I could see was moonlight on gravel. I did, however, smell smoke — genuine, acrid wood-smoke. It seemed to be coming from the direction of the barn.
And this is the embarrassing bit. I simply couldn’t bring myself to go outside and see what was happening. I couldn’t even bring myself to go as far as the pump house to flip the fuse in order to bring the lights back on.
Instead, still wearing my dressing gown, I got back into bed, wrapped the duvet around me — this, despite the fact that it really was a quite remarkably warm night — and, then, improbably enough, fell soundly asleep.
* * *
I didn’t wake up again until well after dawn had broken.
It was obviously going to be another hot, cloudless, rainless day — the only sort of day we had that summer. Cautiously, I went downstairs, still wearing my dressing gown.
The cupboards in the kitchen were closed, just as I’d left them. The cats had a subdued air, eating their respective breakfasts then vanishing to nap in their usual well-dispersed napping places. It was only after I’d made myself a cup of coffee that I realised that the power was back on, although I hadn’t been out to the pump house to deal with the fuse.
After I had my shower — depressingly short, to save water — I thought to look at my phone. There were no messages on it from the night before — just a new message that came in right as I picked the phone up. It was from Chloe, telling me that the wormer had worked and that the kitten’s runny tummy issues had been resolved. Well, that was good news at least.
Brian and Benjamin, who had some work to do on the doors to the old tithe barn, turned up promptly at 8 am. They both seemed much as they always did. Emboldened by their presence, I went out into the kitchen courtyard.
The air really did smell of smoke. I started toward the meadow. Brian followed me. We reached the spot where the collapsed shed had been. The large pile of timbers, which had been neatly stacked the night before, had burnt to ash, which was still smouldering just a little in the still morning air. The fire must have been ferocious while it burned. Around the spot, however, the bone-dry brown grass hadn’t even been singed. And the barn, with its good mid 16th century roof timbers, was totally unharmed.
‘Well, that was lucky, wasn’t it?’ asked Brian, quietly. For once, though, he didn’t elaborate on what might have happened if we hadn’t been so lucky.
Wordlessly, we walked back together to the kitchen courtyard. Benjamin was looking at the hawthorn again.
‘Just pondering your May tree again. I wonder who planted it?’
‘It was here when we arrived. I can’t imagine it was meant to be there, because it disrupts the planting around that dipping pond. It doesn’t do any harm, though, does it? I don’t like cutting down trees.’
‘No, you can’t ever cut down a May tree!’ Brian and Benjamin both said this at the same time, then fell silent at the same time, then laughed at the silence, as if to drive something away.
‘Seriously, though’ said Benjamin, who was interested in that sort of thing, ‘you really shouldn’t cut down a May tree, quickthorn, whatever you call it. They have such a lot of wildlife value. They are great for pollinators, the haws are amazing for finches and fieldfares, they are such good little trees …’
‘And of course they have protective powers.’
‘Yes, they do. Thorn strengthens old things, weakens uncanny things, and sees off evil things.’ Brian said this decisively, but then looked a bit sheepish. ‘Or so, anyway, someone once said to me. Might be nonsense, mind.’ And then he scratched at the sere grass under his feet with a dusty work-boot.
In the little stillness that followed, we could all hear the combine once again. Sam had finished in the near field, but there was still the upper field to go. With any luck, he’d bring in some sort of harvest, although nothing like what he’d hoped for when he’d sowed it.
All around us the countryside burned in the sunlight, the mud in the riverbeds cracked and furrowed, the days shortened, the shadows lengthened. It was only the start of August, but there was a feeling that something was ending — or perhaps just a feeling that the wheel was turning again, and that something was starting again that had happened all too often before, in this very place, and not so very long ago either.
The three of us stood looking at the red berries, emphatic against the yellow leaves, at once very beautiful but also, if one paused to think about what they meant, rather terrifying. Or was that feeling actually a sort of exhilaration — the exhilaration of the harvest, which has always been celebrated both as an end and as a beginning?
I wasn’t sure myself. I don’t think any of us were sure. So I simply said the thing that one of us somehow had to say at that point.
‘It’s going to be a hard winter.’