Marc saw lights burning behind the trees. The wood was close about him, the smell of dampness with a tang of iron, old leaves like rust flaked from the branches, the dusk stillness thick as earth, a clogged silence that only the brown-red stain of the stream leaked through. The path rose and fell among ferns and moss-clad trees. The stream was louder now, cutting through the roots and rocks beside him, hurrying to the flatter land where the wood ended and the marsh began to curve round the headland, its pools and dykes grey with sky, its secret streams emptying finally into the smooth, brown, shining mudflats of the estuary where the river flowed heavy with silt and swell, rolling broken trees and rubbish on its surface, scattering the mudflats with weed-hung shapes of wood and bright, torn scraps of litter. Rising between marsh and river, the headland’s weave of fields, woods, lanes and isolated farms dipped gently towards the restless spreading of the sea.
Marc lived by the marsh, in a cottage facing the estuary at the point where it met the brown-grey waves. Behind the cottage, beyond the rush-crowded pools, woods covered the lower hillside’s ghylls and gullies until the land became even enough for grazing stock whose small fields led up to the old religious retreat. Deserted for years, its orchards and meadows overrun, rats scuttled its carcass of fallen beams and tumbled masonry, and nettles congregated its exposed rooms, and the wind roamed, forlorn, among the ruins.
When new owners had bought it, the shock of machinery ground through each day, wrecking the waves’ faint echo, tearing at crow call and the hanging song of skylarks. Diggers forced their metal, scraping and gouging the hilltop. Marc would creep up to the overgrown orchards till he could hear the blaring radios and smell the engines and the faint tang of cigarette smoke as the men took their breaks in the sun. He went back at night, slipping through the security fence to walk among the pallets of materials and the humped silence of the machines, their mud-scabbed forms shining in the moonlight and the stink of diesel.
After the builders had left, gardeners arrived, terracing and planting. The earth scars disappeared. New trees rose in the sun, new shrubs and flowers speckled the spaces between. New hedges marked out the house and gardens from the orchards and from the surrounding sheep fields. Last of all, the great hall was added to the western side of the house, its frame of oak beams slotted together, its glass skin fitted, scale by scale, till it shone in the sun. The week after it was finished, they had the first party there, the hall lit inside and out, the guests wandering through the new gardens and dancing in the warm evening air or sat at the long table inside, their glasses throwing golden light out into the thickening dark.
Marc crouched behind an oak. Looking up, he could see, above the last hedgerow, the roof of the house, its chimneys and upper windows still clear against the bruise-blue distance of evening sky. A blackbird called in alarm and the nearest sheep stared at him as he rose and edged round so that he could move up the hill hidden by the hedgerow.
He paused before he jumped the fence but could hear nothing except the sheep calling and an owl’s broken hoot from the trees behind him. Keeping low, he moved up the far side of the hedgerow. Where it thinned, he could still see glimpses of the house and the occasional flash of light breaking through, framed by the fence’s wire squares. The knotted barbs on the top strand were hung with tufts of wool and the smell of dung was strong near the ground. The sheep ran away when they saw him, stopping at a safe distance, calling to each other, the bolder ones stamping the earth in warning. Another hedge met the one he was following at right angles and he paused in the corner they formed, hidden from everything above him, but able to look back over the wood down towards the marsh, its grey pools still visible in the dying light.
He edged along the lower side of the hedgerow across the hill, away from the house. He climbed a gate into a second field, following the far side of another hedgerow back up the hill towards the house until he reached another right angle of cover where he rested again. This was the last field before the house grounds began. There was no gate, so he had to climb over where the stubby blackthorn was thinnest, forcing his way through, scratching his shins and dragging his arm across the half-hidden barbed wire as he dropped. A crow rose, cawing, to circle away from him, down the hill.
He was in a small meadow that led to the orchard. There were no sheep; the grass was longer and studded with thistles. Suddenly he heard shreds of laughter and music. Crouching, he moved along the cover of the hedge as it curved up to intersect the orchard fence where he tucked himself into the crook of their junction. As his breath slowed, he looked back down over the wood; much more of the marsh was visible now, though he couldn’t see his own house, only the estuary mouth and the lights of houses lining the road above the broad river that silvered still beyond the darkening land.
It was the road he took twice a week to see his mother in the home. On his visit, the weather had been good and they sat in the gardens overlooking the river.
“You’re lucky to have this, Mum, you know. None of the other homes have this view.”
“You get bored o’ it.”
“But still, you’re lucky.”
“How can I be, if I ’ave to be ’ere, eh?”
She shook her head, pursing her lips in a crushed sneer, bitter with a lifetime’s sense of loss. Something more permanent than an expression, it had become the armour she wore to face the forces of dispossession she saw everywhere.
“Well, we’ve all got to be somewhere, and here’s as…”
“The rubbish you speak! Like your father… make the best of it, don’t complain, ’ead down, crack on… blah, blah, blah. Peasant’s way, the way that’s lost us our land. A bloody shame o’ a way!”
“You haven’t done badly, Mum.”
“This…” and she flicked the back of her thin, blue-veined hand unsteadily across the garden and the view beyond, “… is a bribe, a bloody cheap bribe. ’Ow can you not see? Just like ’im… ’e was beaten… inside of ’im… a whole life of givin’ up, givin’ in. That’s why we got nothin’! That’s why they…” and this time her clawed hand shot out, scratching across the view of houses lining the glittering river, “… got it all now… all of what should be ours… what was ours, before they came.”
“Things change, Mum. Things move on.” He leaned across and placed his hand on her arm.
“Oh, it’s like ’earing ’im! You ’ave to fight for yours, else lose it! Look at you now… pushed into the marsh where even stock won’t live, while outsiders got your family’s land.” She pulled her arm away sharply, leaving his hanging, useless, in the air. “You gonna wait till they push you into the sea, eh? You ever gonna do anythin’?” This last was hissed through clamped jaws before she turned her face away from him, her gaze fixed across the river on the large houses gleaming in the sun.
His arm was bleeding where he’d caught it on the wire. It ached along the dark wound. He wiped it with some leaves from the hedge. An owl called faintly from the wood and a bat looped above his head, its wings a thrumming whisper. He edged along till he came to a narrow wooden gate leading into the orchard. He opened it carefully. Paths had been cut through the long grass. Some of the trees were the original ones, silver-barked and speckled with lichen, canted over or grown crooked through years of indifference, but most were new: slight, fruitless forms protected by stout wire surrounds. He could even see the labels round their trunks. There were poppies in the orchard, too, their red almost black now in the gloom, and the white glance of oxeye daisies like stars among the dim grass. The sounds from the house were louder. He moved from one large old tree to another, waiting a while behind each before moving to the next, zigzagging as he had across the fields, a dark shape in the dark.
The hedge bordering the far side of the orchard was higher than the field hedges; it protected the house from winter winds blowing up from the sea. Beyond it were the gardens, themselves divided into sections by smaller hedges and gateways, ornamental arbours and trellises of climbing flowers and fruit trees. Rising beyond these, the golden stone of the old house pushed into the sky, the lights from its upper windows spreading down the walls and over the black guttering into the topmost foliage of the ancient, shadow-strewn wisteria that still covered much of the original front. Through the hedge, Marc could see the nearer side of the house glowing more brightly than the rest. He moved, looking for a way into the gardens, shards of light from beyond the hedge breaking through, patterning the long grass of the orchard, blazing the nearest daisies and the mottled argent of the trees’ gnarled bark.
He came to an arch cut into the foliage, a sweet smell round it, the sounds from the house spilling through. His heart was beating faster, his shirt sticking to his skin. His fingers tingled and he felt light-headed. He crouched, pushing his hands into the grass, grasping it as if to steady himself, to lock himself to the earth. His arm was still bleeding, the blood mixing with sweat and running down to his fingers. Tipping forward onto his hands and knees, he crawled until he could peer round the base of the arch. A wooden, flower-thick trellis funnelled his sight towards the hedge enclosing this section of the gardens, where two torches were stuck in the ground, the skittish light from their flames playing on an empty white bench nearby.
He stopped under the trellis, then crept across the open ground, keeping as far from the torches as he could. The sounds were much louder now. He could hear the music clearly and voices, lots of voices, so close. Laughter. The light, too, had grown, golden above the hedge behind which he crouched again, just beyond the flittering torchlight. As he waited for his heart to calm, he made out the sound of water. He stole towards it. A gap he hadn’t seen in the hedge was suddenly in front of him. He slid through and found himself at a fountain, its yellowed skirt of torch-lit drops shedding into the dark pool beneath, throwing the nearby hedge into deeper shadow. A whispered giggle froze him.
His breath held, his heart punching into his chest, he backed silently through the gap and crouched by hedge, his stomach turning with fear, his throat tight and his jaw bitten shut. What was he doing? What the hell was he thinking!? His arm throbbed, the blood still running down over his hand. He felt trapped, like an animal. He wanted to be away, back in the woods, in the darkness of the trees and the silence of the ferns around him and the stream leading back to the marsh and his home. A wave of voices broke from the house. A surge of laughter splintered away. Someone shouted a name. He felt sick. He wanted to move but couldn’t. He tried to think of something else, somewhere else, somewhere without fences and hedges and darkness to trap him. He closed his eyes to the torches dancing across the empty bench, shut out the sounds of voices and music and laughter, folding his arms over his head to deaden all of it.
His mind opened suddenly onto the beach at the mouth of the estuary, the brown sands smooth at low tide, the thin tin of the water calm except for small waves spilling their shine onto the shore, the gulls crying overhead, the sea’s salt-rot smell of shells and weed, the forlorn intimacy of driftwood and litter and the torn rags of life laid on the bleak, indifferent beach. Where the river ran broadest, past the worn groynes and the first rockpools, lay the wrecked boat, its smashed spars tipped towards the once-thriving river port inland. He thought of it there, as broken as the trade it had brought, its black ribs cracked, heaped with sludge and weed, a humped, decaying form harried by the wind, its name plate worn to only the last letters …ROPA, echoing for him the ending of his own name.
He heard another giggle, then whispers, movement and laughter fading. He crawled through the gap again to listen. Only the voices from the house, the music. He crept forward. A patch of whiteness on the black ground caught his eye. Picking it up, he held it into the light thrusting through the leaves. It was an invitation to tonight’s party. They must have dropped it. He read the elaborate wording on the stiff, gold-edged card, the names refined by its elegant script.
He thought of the letter he’d received, the one evicting him, the one he’d had to show his mother, the one he took to the lawyers, the one he’d kept ever since. He thought of its plain unadorned font, its business-cold efficiency, the brief empty politeness of its Dear Mr Steppa… He’d read its three short paragraphs so often that he knew them by heart. He could repeat them, like a spell he’d learned, a spell that had made the house he’d grown up in disappear: its rooms and smells, its garden, the view from his bedroom, the memories of his life there. He’d had to load them all into his head and carry them around like a refugee. And when he placed the handful of items he’d saved into his new house, he found they didn’t recreate his past; they just seemed out of place, as lost as he was in what had happened. That new house hadn’t lasted long. Nor the next. None had since. He stopped expecting them to feel like home. His few belongings sat in them like relics, things not meant to preserve but to haunt, tokens of exile, holy with regret.
He lowered his arm. He felt the centre of him stilling, the nerves quieten, slowing, becoming solid, then contracting, hardening into a certainty. As he crouched by the hedge, he felt that certainty grow, filling his gut, his chest, his arms and legs. It quickened his heart again, starting his ribs’ rhythmic gulping of breath after breath. It flooded his veins, flushing his face with blood, his hands with a restless urgency. His fear was gone. He felt back in control now: of his body, of being here, not out of place anymore, not hounded by his surroundings but a part of them, not a trapped animal but one moving freely in its element, its senses tuned to the opportunities of the night. He lifted the invitation into the light again. Lines of blood from his hand ran across it now, cutting through the elaborate names and the shining gold surround. He dropped it into the dark.
He rose, listened for a moment, then stepped through another arbour into a small enclosure of ornamental shrubs and delicate little trees. Without pausing, keeping low, he moved quickly towards their first patch of shadow, then swiftly on from each veil to the next. The sounds from the hall were growing. Thick, crystalline rods of rich light jutted through the hedge and the final arbour before the house itself. Where it lay, the grass ran golden, blackening the last stains of shadow. When he reached the hedge, the anger was through all of him, everywhere in his body. Thrilling with its power, every movement seemed effortless, a huge strength filled his limbs. He felt he could tear down what stood between him and the light. His breath quickening but steady, he stepped towards the arbour and in one swift movement thrust his face into the light.
The hall burned white and gold as a crown, its windows shimmering and luminous. Inside, spread the length of the long table at which the guests were now seated, tall candles shone above wine glasses glinting with flames that jewelled again in the huge mirror running along the wall behind. Through the open doors, voices crowded, laughter and music surging out with the rich smells of food and the sour-sweet promise of wine. Two rows of torches led from the doors into the gardens, ending twenty feet from the arbour. Between them and him there was just one broad stubby tree, barely his height, throwing a thick black cloak onto the gilded grass. Beyond that shadow was only the blaze of gold everywhere, pouring from the house along the torches, lighting the path he would take to where the bright hall lay like some offering to the distant kindred of stars.
His crouched form moved fast but sure towards the last darkness. And as he stepped from it, past the nearest torch, his eager shadow leapt ahead of him, its profile hunched, its arms held low to the ground, its clawed hands readying themselves.
Craig has had poetry and short fiction published in various US, European and Asian magazines. He lives in the UK, works for the local council library service, and when he’s not working, writing or failing to cook, he likes drinking wine and reading. He’s currently working towards his first collection of poetry.
© 2022, Craig Dobson