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Up The Wooden Hill: a short story

It was better to be safe than sorry, he decided. He put the money-box under the stairs, and covered it with an old blanket. They would not find it in the dark.

Thomas could not be sure that he was right, though he’d certainly heard the sound of someone running away. But whether they’d come into the house, perhaps even into the bedroom, he could not be sure.

moneyboxHe gathered the “equipment” from various boxes and cupboards. First, he laid pieces of sticky tape around the front door, across the gap between the door and the frame, and then tied a length of thin yarn between the two chairs, which would be broken by anyone going into the kitchen. At the back of one of the cupboards, among some half-empty envelopes of herbs and spices, he found a bag containing a pound of plain flour. As he climbed the stairs, he scattered the flour in a trail behind him. If they came back tonight, he would certainly know.

The air was damp. It was a still, overcast, summer evening, low clouds making everything slightly moist to the touch. Outside the full moon was beginning its slow climb, lightening the thinner patches of cloud, glazing the leaves of the two old cedars that stood guard on either side, at the end of the garden path, and highlighting the laurel hedge. The only occasional movements were in the upper branches of the cedars, and seemed to be prompted by the cries of a fidgeting wood pigeon. Otherwise, all was still.

As he closed the bedroom door, however, a worrying thought crossed Thomas’s mind: suppose the intruder were to attack him? In that case, he resolved, the burglar would get what was coming to him. Hanging in the wardrobe, and ready for just such an eventuality, was the army rifle he’d kept since the Great War. He took it up, dusted it off, slotted a couple of ball cartridges into the breech, and held it to his shoulder. On the soldier’s jacket that still hung in the wardrobe, a row of medals glinted in the moonlight.
 
                                                *            *            *            *            *

As a farewell treat for the village’s young fighting men, Squire Carthew had announced a “Grand Dance”, to be held “in the Great Barn this coming Friday evening – All Welcome!” The volunteers were to leave next day.

The entertainment got off to a merry start, with a demonstration of the skills of the local Morris dancers. Most of the Morris men had already volunteered, and the remainder would do so later that evening. When their display was over, a young boy played some rousing songs on a concertina, finishing with “It’s A Long Way to Tipperary”. The whole village joined in, clapping, singing and stamping their feet. And soon it was time for the Dance proper to begin.

Betty Corbett sat quietly in a corner of the huge barn, her eyes following young Thomas Briggs, who looked resplendent in his new uniform.

She little realised that, in the moments when she looked away, Thomas was watching her, too. But it was a matter of mere time before their eyes met.

Having ventured to request the pleasure of a dance with her, Thomas considered that anything he was ordered to do at the Front would be child’s play by comparison. He held her as close as he dared, and neither spoke a word as they glided round the floor. But there was no need for words. As they waltzed, they spoke, silently, through hands and eyes. And, while the remaining volunteers were signing the Roll, on the large table at the end of the hall, Thomas and Betty walked out into the lane.

“Will it be a long war, Thomas?”, she said, breaking their silence.

“Not if I have anything to do with it”, he replied. “But we’ll just have to keep at it, until they see what’s what”.

“You’re very brave, Thomas …”

“Oh, I don’t know. Can’t tell till you’re in the thick of it. I do know one thing, though, Betty: it’s worth fighting for, all of this …”

As they strolled, the full moon gleamed down on them, reflecting in the moisture of newly-mown grass.

“You must be careful, Thomas”, said Betty, as they began to climb the hill to their homes. “Be sure to take no unnecessary risks, while you’re over there”.

“Well, they say your fate’s in the stars, Betty”, he said. “What must be, will be …”

At length, they reached the gateway to Betty’s cottage, and paused for a last goodbye.

“Now you promise me you’ll be careful”, she said, “then we can say au revoir, and not goodbye”.

“I promise”, he said, as their eyes met once more.

“Then au revoir … my love”, she said. He bent to kiss her, and they embraced.

“Au revoir”, said Thomas, and then turned quickly away, and walked on up the slope. Betty watched him for a while, and then went thoughtfully in to supper.

Two hours later, she was lying in bed, her eyes full of Thomas in his smart army uniform. Suddenly, there was a tap at the window. It was Thomas! She quickly jumped from her bed, and opened the window.

“Quiet!”, she whispered, “you’ll wake my mother!”

“Betty!”, he pleaded, obviously under the influence of his mother’s elderberry wine. “Will you marry me when I return?”

“Why, yes, of course I will”, she said at once, “though you must learn more self-control than this, you know. Now quickly, be off with you! I’ll catch my death with this window open. Here”, she said, handing him a small card, “take this, and be off with you …”

“Au revoir, my love”, said Thomas, staggering a little, as she made to close the window.

“Au revoir, Thomas”, she whispered, ” and mark my words: take no unnecessary risks”.

“I won’t, I won’t …”, he began, but the curtains were already closed. He looked down at the card, and saw that it was a photograph of Betty. He put it to his lips, and then headed back up the hill.
 
                                                *            *            *            *            *

Thomas was between the sheets now, listening to catch the slightest sound of a break-in. The gun lay at his bedside. He would be ready for them, when they came.

He had been ready to fight before, long ago, with his comrades in a trench on the Somme. Once more his mind wandered back.
 
                                                *            *            *            *            *

“Keep yer ‘eads down, or you’ll get ’em blown orf!”, bellowed the Sergeant.

The rain came at them like iron rods, the line of men and boys crouched in a foot of clinging mud, bitterly cold. The duck-boards had vanished under the slimy soil, and the rain wore a thousand tiny channels of running mud into the side of the trench.

A momentary calm was shattered by a burst of German machine-gun fire.

“Right, lads, get ready!”

Thomas hooked his rifle over his shoulder. It was time to move into the next trench.

“One at a time, now!”, called the Sergeant. He stopped each soldier as he passed, telling him the latest news. Soon, it was Thomas’s turn.

“Yer see that ‘ill with them trees over there, Briggs?”, said the Sergeant, indicating with a nod of his head.

“Yes, Sarge”, nodded Thomas, seeing the wooded slope from which the German fire had been coming.

“We’re going to take it, lad, OK?”

“Yes, Sarge”, said Thomas, and with a firm slap on the back from the Sergeant, he clambered up over the top of the trench.

At once, the machine-gun opened up again. Thomas ran for all he was worth, skidding along the slimy ten yards that separated the two trenches, and flinging himself headlong into the new trench. As he did so, a shell exploded just behind him. He scrambled to his feet and looked back. But where the sergeant had been, there was now only a gaping shell-hole. Slowly, he rose, stunned. The machine-gun began to fire again, spattering the mud around him, bringing him to his sense, and again he dived for cover.

As he lay huddled there, he put his hand inside his jacket, and pulled from his shirt pocket the photograph of Betty.

“Take no unnecessary risks”, she had said. But to win this war, thought Thomas, every risk is necessary. To keep Betty safe, they would have to take that hill. And the next one …
 
                                                *            *            *            *            *

Betty Corbett drank her nightcap slowly. Little rivers of wax ran down the candle before her, and froze in strange patterns.

Her soldier would be arriving soon. She wondered what tales he would tell this time, although she had heard them all several times over.

The new generation of villagers had nicknamed him Tommy Gunn. Beneath a full moon, someone had seen him on his midnight march, in full battle-dress, with his rifle hooked over his shoulder. The rumour had gone round quickly but was just as quickly quashed by the few who spent until the small hours of the following night hidden in the bushes, waiting to see him for themselves.

In fact, suspicion had soon fallen more on the young lad who claimed to have seen Thomas, and investigations were begun, over the counter of the local post office, into precisely why Peter Patterson should have been out on the hill at all, at that time of night, let alone how he came to see a soldier marching about.

But the name had stuck, nonetheless, and the old soldier who lived up there was now known as Tommy Gunn.

Betty watched the yellow moon shimmering through the smoky haze above the candle. The clouds had gone now, and the night was a little colder.

What had been done could not be undone. She’d known that for years. She had put out Thomas’s flame for good, and no-one could re-light it.

And yet he had already been so different on the day he came home from the war. No longer the eager, carefree young soldier, with the occasional thoughtful moment, but a hardened, emotionless Man, frozen within a strange shell of indifference. He still claimed that he loved her; but it was a cold love, expressed in a matter-of-fact way which left her feeling confused and disheartened. She could not, would not bring herself to marry this man, for he was not the young warrior who had set out for France to fight for her.

They’d never spoken a word in all the years that followed. Betty looked after her ailing mother until her death, and then carried on alone. She managed to keep the family home by selling eggs and garden vegetables in the village. Thomas took over his father’s farm, and spent his days ploughing, sowing and reaping. Eventually, they both came to be living alone, within a stone’s throw of each other, yet never speaking.

Never, that is, until twelve months ago, when Thomas had decided to give up the struggle against the elements and to let Nature reclaim her property. Now, his fields were all overgrown.

She was asleep one night, when she was woken by a knock at the door. Drowsily, she rose and opened it. There, to her amazement, stood Thomas Briggs, in full military dress, a rifle over his shoulder, with a strange, faraway look in his eyes. She was so taken aback that she let him in, and quickly realised that he was in some kind of trance. She dared not wake him, but could only sit watching, as he spoke in a strange, boyish voice, evidently from his dreams.

He rambled on for almost an hour, often stopping and nodding his head, as though hearing someone answer him. Betty sat before him in complete silence.

When he left, it was with his face wreathed in smiles, as though he’d heard exactly the words he’d come hoping to hear. This visit had been repeated twice every month for the past year, but Betty had found no way to stop him coming, and feared that he might act violently if she woke him or refused to let him in.

She was used to it by now. He had come last night and he would come again tonight: whenever there was a full moon, in fact. She put on the kettle.

The candle’s flame danced drunkenly, as the wind blew more strongly between the cracks in the door, and the crazy waxen shapes became more complicated.
 
                                                *            *            *            *            *

Thomas’s father outlived his mother by five years. No-one had more pride in a son, and so, to mark his own recognition of his son’s bravery in battle, old Mr. Briggs willingly handed over to him the running of the farm.

“They’s bin ‘ard days you’ve seen, Tom. Like as not you’ll be dwellin’ on ’em, if you don’t ‘ave some work on your ‘ands”.

“You’re very kind, father”, was all that Thomas could say. For he had more on his mind that day than anyone could have understood. He felt so terribly betrayed, as though he’d won a competition but been deprived of the prize.

“You’ll be lookin’ out for a young lady now, no doubt?”, queried the old man. “She’ll be welcome here, you know, whoever she be. Any young girl my son wants ‘ll be good enough for ‘is father”.

His parents never found out the reason for Thomas’s apparent indifference to the village girls. But his mother could feel, though not understand, the special sorrow that was etched out in the young man’s face. She never questioned him, but, in her last years, noticed the furrowing of his brows whenever she commented on the price of Betty Corbett’s vegetables or remarked on the marvellous roses that grew in her garden.

And so, as time went on, Thomas became more and more involved with the farm, and grew to love the seasons, and the changes they wrought on the countryside.

But, as he walked away the years, behind an old grey mare, the deep trenches made by the plough were a constant reminder of a different sort of life, and a strange world where spring never followed winter, and the promise of seeds sown was never fulfilled with a harvest.
 
                                                *            *            *            *            *

Betty sat by her window, waiting and watching, a blazing fire keeping out the wintry cold. It was possible to see the whole hillside on nights like this. The hill was a lonely place, but the bitter wind made this night even more uninviting. The trees were swaying more strongly now, and, as they waved to and fro, Betty found it difficult to keep her eyes open.

But then a figure appeared at Thomas’s front door. There he stood, dressed for battle.

A feeling of great pity, familiar to her from his past visits, brought a tear to Betty’s eye. She watched as Tommy Gunn started his eerie march down the hill towards her, between the marshalled lines of trees.
 
                                                *            *            *            *            *

Peter Patterson waited until Tommy disappeared into old Ma Corbett’s house. He was surprised that his chattering teeth hadn’t attracted the old man’s attention, but now his fears were put to rest. He ran across to the front door of the house, and stepped inside.

He hadn’t dared to bring a torch with him, in case the light was seen from outside. Still, he hoped that the moon would provide all the illumination he’d need.

Everyone knew the old man had money, and Peter Patterson knew just what ought to be done with it. Peter wanted a fast car, and if his father wouldn’t get him one, then he’d just have to get one for himself. After all, what use was money to a mad old soldier?

He decided to begin his search in the kitchen. This time it wouldn’t matter if he collided with anything. Unlike the previous night, when he’d heard the old man coming down the stairs, tonight there was no-one about to notice. And, by calling when the old man was away, he would have time to comb the house from top to bottom.
 
                                                *            *            *            *            *

“And so that was what we did, my love”, said Thomas, staring at Betty, who sat huddled by the fire, watching him intently.

“We climbed up, around the back of the trees, while the other lads kept Jerry’s attention away from us. We wanted to get ’em back for the Sergeant. ‘Course”, he confided, leaning forward slightly, the reflection of the fire lighting up his eyes, “I always had a bit more to fight for than the others, my dear …”

His voice trailed off, and, smiling, he began to nod, as though in understanding of the other’s loving reply. Betty sat stock still.

“And I look forward to that day too, my love”, he said, “but now I must be off. Goodbye, my sweet”. The old man leaned forward again, and this time kissed the old woman gently on the cheek. “I’ll be seeing you again, very soon …”

He rose stiffly, and walked towards the door.

“Give Mrs Corbett my best regards”, he added. And then the sleepwalker was gone, the cold gust of wind being not the sole reason for the shiver that shook Betty’s spine.

She went to the window, and watched him climbing his garden path, as she had done so many years ago.

But suddenly, as he was almost at the front door, another figure appeared, carrying a wooden box under his arm. It was Peter Patterson, the young lad from the village, clearly recognisable in the moonlight. In a flash he was off and into the trees, as fast as his young legs would carry him. Old Thomas just kept on walking.

“He hasn’t seen him”, Betty said aloud, “Oh, I must go quickly, before that young rascal gets away!”

She hurriedly put on a thick coat, and wrapped a woollen scarf around her head. She must run to Thomas Briggs, run and tell him everything!
 
                                                *            *            *            *            *

Thomas lay fast asleep now. He had managed to fall asleep despite his worries about intruders. But the gun was a great comforter, and he would not be afraid to use it.

The creak of a floorboard on the wooden stairs woke him at once, and he called out “Who’s there?” There was no reply, only the sound of someone catching breath, as though caught in the act.

In one movement, Thomas slipped out of bed, pulling his gun to his hip.

“I’ll teach you to break in here!” he cried, and spun around the bedroom door, firing both barrels down the stairs as he did so.

The shot rang out across the hill, sending a wood pigeon flapping and complaining, across the fields and over the village.

“You won’t make off with my money so easy!”, he called, oblivious to the sound of a body thumping down the staircase.
 
                                                *            *            *            *            *

Peter Patterson drove to the court in a style which was the envy of some of the other villagers. It wasn’t quite the car he’d wanted, but a car it was. The old man had let him down somewhat, but he had no real complaints.

Briggs’ defence was that he’d heard someone breaking in, but that didn’t go down at all well. There was no trace of the savings he claimed to have been guarding. And his attempt to explain everything by pointing out the footprints in the flour was just another nail in his coffin; there were all sorts of footprints there, including his own and old Ma Corbett’s.

Peter was called as the star witness for the prosecution, and told the court of the times he’d been out late at night, collecting firewood, when nobody had believed what he’d seen. The court agreed with him that the old man sounded very peculiar, and thanked him for his cooperation.

And so, as the villagers had expected, the case was open and shut. Tommy Gunn had had an argument with his old lover-girl, and shot her when she walked out on him.

No-one really believed that they could both have lived so near, for so long, without something going on …

 

 

dividers

 

 


Written: 1975
Copyright: Richard Fox 2015
All rights reserved

 

 

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Last of the Line: a short story

“No thanks, ma’am, no thank you! It’s my pleasure! Now there’s your cab …”

The station master, a portly old gentleman with a great white moustache, set the cases down at the pavement edge, where the snow had been cleared away.

“Taxi!” he called.

Vanessa replaced the coin in her purse. ‘One of the last outposts of chivalry’, she thought, taking her first look at Belford Magna.

lastoftheline7The quaint station entrance, with the glow from its ancient oil-lamps reflected in the snow, and the flowery gold lettering of the sign over the doorway – “Belford Magna (for Little Padgett)” – seemed a world away from the bustle of King’s Cross.

“Not many cabs round these parts, ma’am. Reckon my son Maurice here’s cornered the market”.

His breath steamed like an old locomotive.

“Come ‘ome to his Dad, he has …”, murmured the proud father, as the cab pulled up before them. “Reckons he’s goin’ to set me up proper now …”

The young man, dressed for the cold in peaked cap and scarf, wound down the window.

“Maurice, this lady wants Padgett House!” he announced. “I think you know where that is, don’t you?”

Vanessa gathered that there was some sort of understanding between man and boy, seeing the twinkle in the father’s eye as he spoke. She got into the back seat.

“You must belong to Lady Padgett, ma’am?”, enquired the station master, putting his head in at the window.

“Yes, I’m … I’m her niece”, she replied slowly, her eyes lowered.

“Mm, you’ll be the last of the Padgetts then, eh? Very sad business”, he added, shaking his head knowingly. “Used to serve up there at one time, ma’am”.

“Oh, yes?”, said Vanessa, intrigued.

“Long time ago, mind, ‘fore young Maurice ‘ere were thought on. Yes, we was all very fond of ‘er Ladyship – treated us better than he did, anyway”, he went on, darkly. “Served ‘im right to get run over, ma’am, some said, though I wouldn’t know about that myself …”

“Yes”, said Vanessa, “the papers did make rather a lot of it all, didn’t they?”

“Couple o’ years ago now, weren’t it? What was it they said, ma’am? Neither loved nor lovin’ – summat o’ that sort, it were”. He paused a moment. “Still, they’re both gone, now. Mustn’t speak ill of the departed, must we?”

“Thank you for your help with the cases, by the way, Mr., er, Ibbett”, she said, reading the name on his lapel badge.

“Not at all, ma’am. Your servant”, he said, doffing his cap. “All right, off you go now, Maurice! Good night, ma’am”.

“Bye!”, called Vanessa. She turned to wave as the car moved slowly away, the ice crunching under the wheels.

The evening had fallen fast, and light flakes of snow began to tap across the windscreen. Vanessa was pleased to be inside the car, and her ears tingled in its warmth.

“Pleasant journey from London, Miss?”, asked Maurice, cheerfully.

“Well, they could have put the heating on in the train”, she remarked.

“Don’t get many trains along this line. Matter of fact, they’ll be closing the line completely in a few months”.

“Oh, that’s a shame! Your father will lose his job, I suppose?” she said. “He seems such a helpful man, too …”

“Servile, I’d call him, Miss. Always goin’ on about knowing his own station, whatever that means …”

Vanessa giggled.

“Like some music, Miss?”

“That would be nice!”, she said. She took off her gloves, and began to prepare herself for her arrival. The music was suitably stately.

Padgett House! Vanessa had been a very young girl when she’d seen her aunt for the last time. She remembered very little about her, except for the silly, childish memory of the way in which her aunt spoke: out of the corner of her mouth, as though everything she said was to be treated in confidence.

“Now you will come and see us again, won’t you, dear child?”, she’d said.

But the scandal had broken soon afterwards: hints of ‘unfaithfulness in high places’, which had made little impression on the young girl other than an awareness that there were to be no more invitations to tea in the country. It eased Vanessa’s grief considerably, now, to reflect that her aunt and uncle had never offered to look after her, after her parents had passed away. She’d received no invitation to her uncle’s funeral. In fact, she’d all but forgotten the existence of Padgett House, when a letter arrived from her aunt’s solicitor, Mr. Benson, concerning the reading of the Lady’s will.

The snow beat down relentlessly.

“How far is it, Padgett House?”, she enquired.

“About half an hour should see us through, Miss”, said Maurice, his eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead. “Have to take it a bit easy, when it’s like this. In a rush, then?”

“Not really. Better to arrive late than not at all, I suppose …”

“Very true, Miss, very true”.

A word jarred in Vanessa’s ear.

“Maurice …”, she began.

“Yes, Miss?”, he replied.

“How did you guess that I wasn’t married?”

The car lurched slightly, as Maurice changed gear to take a hill.

“Easy – no ring, Miss”, he said, flashing a smile at her through the mirror.

“But I was wearing …”

“First thing I noticed, that was”.

“Oh yes”, she said, feeling the wheels slip again, as the car began to climb. She put her gloves into her handbag, amazed at the young man’s perspicacity.

“Do you get much trade around here, Maurice?”, she said.

“Have to watch the train timetable”, he confided. “Like a ferry service, sometimes. People don’t realise there’s no buses. Only two trains a day, so they couldn’t make it worth their while, I suppose”.

“I bet you get some enormous tips, though”, said Vanessa.

“All according, Miss”, he said. “They’re mostly poor people, in these parts – very few with real money, like. Had one stranger, mind, back end of last week …”

He grunted, pushing the car into bottom gear. Vanessa leaned forward, watching the snow falling into the headlights.

“Leastways, I’d never seen him before. Anyway, ten pound fare, five pound tip. Now that’s what I call a real gentleman, that is!”

The lights picked out a sign at the crossroads, on the brow of the hill. Pointing to a small opening, it read: “Little Padgett (Padgett House) – 4 miles”. Maurice took the corner slowly.

lastoftheline6The wooded countryside glistened all around, in the pale blue glow of the moon, the music adding to its fairy-tale appearance. ‘From a bed-sit in Bermondsey to a stately home in the country’, thought Vanessa. ‘I must try to look sad as Mr Benson reads the will!’

“Very smart, he was. Proper toff, like”, continued Maurice. “Had a long chat, me and Mr. Benson. First time I’d been up this way for quite a … ”

“Who?” said Vanessa, startled by the familiar name in unfamiliar surroundings.

“Bit of a business chat, like”, he said, the moon catching his eyes through the mirror.

“But this Mr Benson …”

“Talking all the way from Belford, we was: ‘Ibbett’, he says to me, after a bit, ‘I might be able to fix up some business for you’, he says …”

He turned off the radio.

“But that’s the name of the man I’m supposed to … Maurice!”, Vanessa cried. “What … sort of business?”

The car pulled up suddenly, at the side of the road.

“Oh, quite legitimate, Miss”, he said, turning to face her, unfurling his scarf from around his neck.

It was then that she noticed that he was speaking out of the corner of his mouth.

Quite legitimate …”

 

 

dividers

 

 


Written: 1972
Copyright: Richard Fox 2015
All rights reserved

 

 


Image credits


Speicher Train Station, Germany, by Karl von Kues (Own work) [CC BY 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Tracks in forest snow – http://squattersspeakeasy.com/2013/02/16/snow-valentine/

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