He tentatively tries the stairs. A couple of creaks but they seem solid enough. A bit of woodworm on the treads, but they’re not going to give way under him.
Two rooms open off the cramped landing. Stevens ducks to the right under a lintel low enough to scalp the unwary, and straightens to look around. Nothing to excite him here. Just a room with sloping ceilings, empty except for a few sheets of newspaper and a broken plastic toy on the sill of the low window.
He notes a storage heater on the wall. Yes, a child’s room would need some heat, and though the end wall is almost completely filled by the bulk of a massive chimney, the fireplace has been boarded up by a sheet of plywood. The pale pink woodchip wallpaper has bubbled and ripped on the rough edge of the ply and has curled back, revealing the paper beneath. Startling paper. Lurid orange and turquoise, caught glaringly by a stray sunbeam, incongruous in this drab farm labourer’s cottage.
Which is surely all this place is. Early twentieth century Stevens had guessed when viewing it from the lane, although he knows from experience that outward appearances can be misleading. Concrete rendering, rusting metal windows, grey tiled roof, a glazed door standing open onto curling linoleum that is seeing daylight for the first time in decades, now the latest carpets have been ripped away. There are shreds of carpet still, caught on stubborn staples in odd corners. Red, with flecks; an attempt to add a splash of vibrancy to the place, just as someone had done a few decades earlier with the wallpaper under the pale pink woodchip.
Stevens peels back a little more of the pink, amused by the garish 1970s psychedelia beneath. It isn’t dissimilar to some he’d chosen for his own room in his first bid for adolescent independence. He can still picture his mother’s wince of pain as she caved in. The same scenario had played out here, no doubt, when this lurid outrage went up. For certain it was some teenager who had chosen it…
…chosen it himself, but it isn’t enough. Not any more. Not the wallpaper, not his Easy Rider and Sergeant Pepper posters that cling to the ceiling over his candlewick bedspread. Not his piles of LPs on the shelf that is thick with a thousand layers of paint. None of these tokens of the wide world is enough to disguise the fact that this room, this house has got nothing to offer Dave.
What do they want him to do? Spend the rest of his life driving someone else’s tractor, cleaning out someone else’s hen shed for a pittance, waiting for his pension? And that’s if he’s lucky.
No, he’s had enough. He’s got to get out of here, head for the city, make his own way. Okay so his mum’s upset, can’t get it, can’t understand why he doesn’t want to rot and die in this hole, but he’s out of it. He picks up his guitar, shoulders his bulging bag, shoves his thin wallet into his jeans pocket and rattles noisily down the stairs.
She’s there where she is every day, in the kitchen, ironing the endless piles of clothes and bedding. Never has leaned that you need a cooler iron on nylon. Half their sheets have puckered scorches.
‘So you’re going then.’
‘Got to, Mum.’
‘Don’t see why. There’s jobs round here if you look hard enough.’
He could argue, but what’s the point? She doesn’t like change, that’s all. Never has. Refuses to have a washing machine like Russell’s mum; still sweats every Monday over the mangle and the old copper. Landlord installed a gas cooker and she stands back when she lights it, expecting it to blow up. She wants the old range back, because it was old, wants everything back just the way it was, when everything was out of the ark and change wasn’t making terrifying demands on her. She won’t watch the rented television; says it hurts her eyes. She prefers the old Bakelite wireless on the sideboard, standing exactly where it stood when she was a girl, listening to Winnie addressing the nation. Above it the cupboard with her mother’s best china, never touched, even on Sundays. The ugly clock her grandfather used to wind, chiming the hours, days, years away. Above it, on the uneven wall, screwed firmly into the hard beam behind the wallpaper of dun-coloured roses, fixed forever as if nothing had moved on, the black-framed memorial picture of great uncle Wilf in his uniform…
…in his uniform, which makes him look so smart. Not like the hand-me-down work clothes that Flo has scrubbed and patched over the years while Wilf worked for a pittance on Dawson’s Farm. Not that she will utter any complaint against the Dawsons. They’ve been decent landlords, compared to some. She can remember the cottage as it had been, tumbling into ruin, before the Dawsons repaired it, patching the walls, tiling the roof, putting in proper windows upstairs. It’s respectable now. It and all the others where the Dawson labourers live.
But now he’s more than just a labourer. Mr. Dawson will have to make do without him, and five others too, for a while. Flo’s heart wants to burst with pride at the sight of Wilf done up so smart. Looking so keen too, so eager to be off with the other lads from the village, off to do his bit for King and Country in Flanders. It’s a fine thing, that’s what they say, what the vicar preached last Sunday in St.Matthew’s. An honourable calling.
Somewhere inside her, Flo hides a howl of grief. She doesn’t want her Wilf to go, however smart he looks. He’s all she has left, now her Bert’s gone, and young Victor succumbed to the lungs and the girls are off and married.
But Wilf mustn’t see her grieving or anxious. His uniform makes him a stranger in his own home; gives him a dignity he never had before. He stoops to let her kiss him. ‘Don’t worry, Mum. We’ll give the Boche what for and be home before you know it. You just keep the kettle ready for me, eh?’
‘I will,’ she promises, following him out to the gate, where his pals, equally fine in their uniforms, are waiting. Girls and mothers and old men are out waving flags, and Flo clutches her own, trying to smile bravely as he marches away.
She can’t bear to take her eyes off him, but she must. So much to do. She’s got to keep the place going for him, feed the hens, dig the vegetable patch, tend the house that will one day be his by rights…
…his by rights. By ancient rights. William is not budging from his cottage that he had from his father and his father’s father.
Cottage and acres – but not the same acres he had before. Not the good strips in North Field. They’ve gone into the parson’s share. The squire has his hay, and the commons where he used to graze his cow and his geese. Everything parcelled up, acres allotted and his are scarce worth the cost of fencing, with the rent rising. But this is his cottage and he will not be moved, though King George and all his men descend on him.
‘Jonathan Grouse is going.’ His wife Bessy leans to wipe the baby’s nose. ‘No choice, he says.’
‘More fool him.’ William stands bullish, blocking the light from the open door, staring out at the rain. Heavy rain. Seeping through the thatch into the upper rooms, puddling on the creaking boards, leaving green stains down the walls, soaking the lime plaster off the laths. The thatch is rotten and another gale like the one last month will rip it apart. He needs to see to it.
But then he needs to see to so much, here in the house, out there in his miserable fields, feeding endless mouths. Five children now and Bessy already thick again. But Hannah won’t be long for this world. He can hear her wheezing and coughing upstairs. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. The Lord and the Squire and the Parson.
‘They’re going to the mills,’ says Bessy, reaching for the wool basket, her foot maintaining its rhythm on the wheel. Keeping them all in warm hose. No other use for her spinning. It’s all done in the mills now, on engines. Engines that devour men, or rather their women and children. William’s neighbour Jonathan Grouse is a fool if he thinks he’ll find a full belly in the mills. It’s no life for a man, choking and slaving over grinding machinery for all the hours of daylight and more. A man and his land, good soil on his fingers, that’s how it should be.
Except that there’s precious little soil and none of it so good. But work still to be done, drains to be cleared if the bottom acre is not to disappear in the mire. Shrugging a sack over his shoulders, William trudges out into the rain, with his spade and billhook. Turns to look at the sagging black thatch, the wisp of smoke rising from the chimney. Barely a wisp. With the common land gone, and all the free fuel with it, there’s scarce enough to keep a few embers on the brick hearth…
….embers on the brick hearth flare up under the poker. A hearth laid by Thomas’s father; a great brick chimney from the profits of his wool. It’s a good house, comfortable enough for any man. A roaring fire, and a bread oven, and a chamber above. A low chamber, true, under the thatched eaves, and criss-crossed by the heavy rafters, but no need to keep those rafters open for the smoke now the house has a chimney.
He’s doing well, is Thomas. One day, perhaps, he’ll put the shutters down and have glittering glass panes in his windows, like Sir Edward has commanded in the Abbey grange. Mighty big changes there, now the monks are gone and Sir Edward has bought it from the king. It’s a new world and why should Thomas not thrive as well as any man? He’ll marry Joan and maybe buy more sheep.
He adds another log to the fire to feed his daydreams, seeing a golden future – just as long as his new landlord looks kindly on him; as long as the market goes well and the harvest is bountiful; as long as the parish is not overrun with too many beggars.
They are out there now, the beggars. He can see them in the lane, just beyond his beehives, two old women, hobbling along, thin as reeds, bewildered still. Seems like an endless stream of them these days, demanding, desperate, the dross from the abbeys and monasteries and nunneries. He’ll keep his head down, tending the fire, so they won’t look his way.
They have no business looking to him. They’ve had it easy long enough, with nothing to do but eat and sleep and pray. They can work for a change, can’t they? Some of them. Maybe not the old men and women, the feeble-minded, the frail, the scared, but some of them can work. Just as he has to work. No call to come to him for charity. Especially if charity no longer buys him a respite from Purgatory. Or does it? He’s too busy making his way in this world to remember what the priest is telling him of the next. It seems to be a different message every week. No matter. Thomas will nod agreement, whatever. Let others go to the stake over it. Let others whip the beggars on. He’ll content himself with his sheep and his acres and his cottage.
Maybe glazing in one window. That would impress Joan. She’ll see that it’s a good sound house…
…a good sound house that will survive the winter storms, not tumble down each year and have to be rebuilt. John stands back to survey his work, stretching his aching spine, wiping grime from his calloused hands. Reeds are still piled high in the yard, though half the roof is thatched now. Great oak crucks and sturdy timbers, pegged securely into place, a louvre for the smoke above the old cobbled hearth, which is all that remains of what stood here before.
Yes, it will last, this house. His forefathers in their turf hovels thrown up around that same hearth would have envied him.
But they wouldn’t recognise this world. The old unchanging ways have run adrift, the certainties dissolving on the wind. Men who would once have been flogged for mere thought of escape have silently vanished, to towns or to other lordships hungry for their labour and willing to pay. There’s land now for the asking. Land that John pays rent for, instead of the service his father did.
It was the great pestilence. That was what wrought the changes. A third of the parish dead, eight of them his own kin. The priest was one of the first to go and the abbey locked its doors, too terrified to send another to say the rites over the mounting dead. Survivors were hard pressed to bundle the stinking corpses into the pit on the dark side of the abandoned church, too few left to bring in all the harvest, whole strips of wheat and barley left to rot.
The black hand of death had receded at last, and people resumed their lives, sheep to be shorn, cows to be milked, meat to be salted, crops to be sown and grown and gathered, but the old resignation had gone – the humility and reverence and pious acceptance. Why stay enthralled to lords and priests, when their authority had failed to keep the plague at bay? God had struck down the highest with the low. People muttered as they worked; better to look to their own salvation, and their own fortune.
That is why John will prosper, make what he can, shake off the shackles of the old obligations, buy freedom from his old duties and trust in God, not the church. That is why he is building this house, a house to last when so little else has done, making a claim to permanence where his forefathers had been content to shuffle along, obedient as dumb beasts…
… beasts crowding with the family under the bracken thatch, their dung feeding the fire on the cobbled hearth, the clay pots cluttered round the blackened stones…
… stones rolled into place to mark the boundary of this homestead, thorns grown to keep out marauders and wolves…
…wild beasts…. the clash of swords… the new god Christ… spears… alien tongues… a good bronze pot… shards of flint….
Stevens, idly ripping, observes behind the psychedelic wallpaper a more conventional cabbage rose. Behind that, faded dots stencilled on old plaster that crumbles to reveal the split laths beneath. All very fascinating, no doubt, but he doesn’t want to enquire further. God, no. Enquiries are the last thing needed now. He pats the paper back into place, just as a gesture, to hide any hint of the past buried there, then he clomps back down the stairs, past the cavernous fireplace that the last resident had attempted to update with chequered tiles and a cooker hood.
Out of the front door, clamping on his hard hat, he strides clear, radio in his hand. ‘Okay, all clear. Go ahead.’
The great concrete ball smashes through and half the cottage crumbles under its assault. From a safe distance, Stephen peers through the rising dust. What’s that behind the shattered brick and rendering? Cruck beams, blackened rafters? Hell, he knows what the suddenly revealed woodwork implies. Relics from a time of open hearths. Just how old is this place? Best move fast before some conservation busybody stops to watch and recognises the tell-tale signs.
Quick. On his orders, the bulldozers are moving in. The blackened beams are safely buried in rubble, to be scooped up into the heavy, grinding trucks. Work fast and it will soon be over. In a few months, when a thousand cars and lorries an hour are roaring through on the new by-pass, no one will even suspect a cottage had once stood here.