Monthly Archives: June 2022

Go On

“I suppose you’ll be selling the place?”

They were the words that had started it, spoken in the town store the day after the funeral. In her raw, confused grief at the death of a father she had barely known she had taken the words as a sneer, a hint that a city girl like her couldn’t possibly survive in the lone cabin out in the woods.

“Actually,” Sarah had heard herself reply, “I’m thinking of moving up here.”

As she drove home she thought about her throwaway remark. She was nearing forty, bored with her job, newly single – again – and feeling empty. She was curious too, about why her father had come here, leaving her and her mother and moving away from the world. She barely remembered him – a silent man with none of the playful love of other dads. Then one day he’d been gone.

“Your father is a good man,” Mum would say. “He just needs to be alone.”

As she grew Sarah had raged at this absolution. She had had no contact with her father, even when Mum passed, and now never would. The town doctor had found her details among his few belongings, and had got in touch.

Now she found herself thinking of trying his path, to see what was so much better than life with a loving six-year-old daughter. She could move up here, enjoy the peace, grow her own produce. The idea took root.

It had been practically the only thing that had.

The only things that grew that first year had been lettuce, spinach, and dock-leaves, which she had thought were chard.

The townsfolk had been great. The women would arrive, saying that they were just passing – though there was nothing beyond her cabin but deep, dense woods – and bring pie, saying that they had baked one too many.

The men would bring rabbits. These she would bury as soon as they left, as she had neither the skill nor the stomach to skin one.

At the beginning she had marched proudly into the store with her seed orders. Later she had done the walk of shame, buying actual vegetables.

She had stopped driving in to the bar in the evenings. She couldn’t bear the silent scrutiny of her tired face, her thinning body.

But Sarah had come to enjoy the solitude. She felt that she had begun to understand her father’s choice of a life without people, alone with the silence of nature, by which is meant night-time sounds of scurrying, snuffling and occasional howls.

And one day she had caught a fish – she had no idea what kind – and the sizzle, the aroma, and the warmth in her stomach had steeled her resolve.

So here she was at the start of a second Spring, seeds beside her, tugging at the earth with her bare fingers. She pulled at a clump of earth, which wouldn’t move. She pulled harder and a fistful of wet clay came away in her hand, so that she punched herself in the face with it.

She sighed and looked wearily down at the clump. With the section of clay gone she could see the corner of a metal box.

Buried treasure, was her first thought. No, was her second, because you’re not Scooby Doo. She pulled the box from the hole and used her trowel to work the lid open.

There was a gun inside.

It was a service revolver, evidently brought home by her father from the war. People had been supposed to return them, many had not. There were other things in the box. There was a Purple Heart. She had never known that her father had been injured in the war. She remembered his slight limp, but child-Sarah had thought that was because he was old, in his thirties.

There was a photo of him with three other soldiers, all laughing at some time-lost joke, faces filled with the impossible beauty of the young. The other three had dates written beside them in faded biro. All of the dates were in the late sixties.

And there was a photo of her, looking into the camera with a huge smile and huge eyes. Those eyes filled with tears now as she pictured her father – her Dad – looking at this.

Sarah picked up the gun. There was one bullet in it.

She wondered how many nights Dad had sat staring at his lost life, with the gun on his lap. She felt proud of him as she imagined the day he had made his decision, when he had chosen to live, and had boxed up his demons and buried them, settling instead for this solitary existence, away from the loved ones whose hurt incomprehension he could not abide.

She looked up at the cabin, then around at the garden. She knew that she owed it to Dad to go on, so she would.

Sarah put the box back into the earth, and covered it. Then she stood and tossed her trowel far out into the woods.

She would go on by living a real life, with laughter, people, and hopefully love. By living the life that had been stolen from her Dad by a war no-one wanted and after-effects no-one understood.

She was going home.

Not Always to the Swift

An annual Man v Horse race in Wales has been won by a man for the first time in over a decade (Irish Times 18/06/22)…

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A Welsh Cob (image from Wikipedia)

Chestnut was not taking it well.

Being chosen had come as a real shock to him.  He knew well, of course, that the annual Man v Horse race was never between a colt that might one day win the Derby and a pensioner with an artificial hip. He knew that each year they would pick the fittest young man in the village and would run him against the slowest horse.

He had just never realised that he was now that horse. It was a sign that he was past it. He was now a walking sack of future glue and dog-food. He had been put out to stud.

Though sadly not literally, he thought glumly.

Chestnut had once been regarded as the Greatest Horse in the Village, and while it was just a tiny Welsh village with more consonants than people, he had been proud of that. Where had the time gone?  Horse years do move quicker, of course, but in Chestnut’s mind he was still a magnificent young beast, effortlessly able to pull inept young riders over large fences; to gallop through the breaking surf on the village’s flat sandy beach; to perform Dressage, the horse equivalent of Riverdance.

He thought back to how he had watched pityingly, year after year, as some older horse had been led to the start line, lined up beside a lean young man full of fire and protein shakes, and sent off in a ridiculously loaded contest.

But the horse had always won, he remembered suddenly. In spite of the race being rigged against them, each year they had galloped – well, lolloped – to victory.

He would be no different. He would put this human in his place.

So he was full of grim determination as his young owner Katie brought him down to the main street on the afternoon of the race. He snorted as he looked at the young man doing stretches in front of him. The crowd cheered as the two lined up. He looked into their faces. He saw hope and anticipation in their eyes. He saw young children, chattering excitedly as their ice-cream trickled unnoticed onto their wrists. He saw a middle-aged couple, obviously his opponent’s parents, holding a sign that read ‘Come On Gareth’.

He looked at this Gareth and saw only fear, of coming humiliation.

This means so much to them all, he thought.

A starting-gun fired, startling him, so he was slower into his stride than the young man. The volume of cheering rose as Gareth led. Then Chestnut started to gain, to draw alongside, to move ahead. He could hear the cheers grow ragged and falter. He made a decision.

He was going to have a mare.

He slowed his pace. Then slowed it again. Dear Lord, he thought, I could beat this guy if I was towing a haystack. It wasn’t easy to hide the fact that he wasn’t trying, but his years had given him experience. He began to whinny, as if tiring. He lolled his head from side to side, as if struggling. His pace slowed to a trot, as if that was all he could manage.

Yet the finish line was approaching and Gareth wasn’t, as least not quickly enough. If I go any slower, Chestnut thought, I will actually be travelling backwards.

But Gareth was gradually gaining, and the shortening gap excited the crowd. The cheers became wild yells of encouragement and exhortation. These lifted the young man, and he rallied, increasing his pace. The yells became high-pitched screams, urging him on and enraging local dogs.

Gareth overtook Chestnut just a foot before the line.

A great, guttural, primeval roar of joy exploded from the crowd. Gareth was surrounded by well-wishers, their back-slapping hampering his attempts to regain his breath. His parents ran to hug him, both crying unashamedly. A bottle of champagne – which had been brought home unopened each year for over a decade – was noisily popped and poured onto his head.

Chestnut stood quietly in the middle of the street, with a long face. It was the only face available to him

Katie walked up and rested her face against the side of his, gently stroking his neck.

“i know what you did,” she whispered. “You’re still the Greatest.”