A New Beginning
A New Beginning
'She looks like she's asleep,' the boy said.
He was in the parlour with his Uncle Ben.
There had been more people in and out of the seldom used room than he could remember in the whole of his life. The Eldridges from up the lane had been. Mr and Mrs Jones had been. Billy Rider's father had been. He'd brought Billy's mother with him and a big wreath. Mrs Askle had been. So had Henry and Daniel.
All the people from the town had come, most of them walking the three miles. He couldn't think of anyone who hadn't come. It made him sad that she'd missed them all. He hadn't known she had so many friends, but he wasn't surprised.
Flowers and wreaths filled every corner. You couldn't see the piano for them. It was a fortune in flowers. The room was sickly with the scent of them. On the table Gran's geraniums weren't looking too flash. No one had watered them, even though he'd asked them to, and they wouldn't let him do it.
This was the first time he'd been allowed into the room since they'd laid Gran out.
He stood in silence. She looked happy in her coffin, as if she'd found peace. He'd never seen her so much at peace. So often in the past when he'd snuck a glance in her direction she'd had that harassed look about her. Full of care and fearful. As if she was about to burst into tears.
She'd had that look forever, as far as he knew. Except when she'd been looking at him. Then her face would soften, her eyes would flash with sunshine and, as she wrapped him in her arms, the world would be at rights for both of them.
But it never lasted.
This past year she'd had that look so often. It had got worse as the year went on. He'd sensed something was wrong, but at first he hadn't understood.
He hadn't known that Grandpa beat her.
But he did now though. He should have guessed from all the shouting and the bruises, but he hadn't.
She must have been afraid of dying.
He'd been afraid too, but not of dying.
He had never thought about dying, not once, but he did now. He wondered what it was like to die, but he wouldn't ask. No one would tell him. They'd say he was too young.
He'd been afraid often, but they'd been different fears to hers. All except for one.
He'd been afraid of the cows, but only when he'd been little. Silly really, to be afraid of the cows when they were more afraid of him. He knew that now, but he hadn't known it when he'd been afraid. He'd been afraid of the horses too, but not any more. Silly to be afraid of the animals, especially the horses. They were so big and he had been so little, but how gentle they'd been with him. He loved the horses and could tell that they were afraid too.
Not of him.
They were afraid of Grandpa.
Just like Gran.
Just like him.
Just like everything on the farm.
Everything was afraid of Grandpa, except the pigs.
The pigs weren't afraid of anything.
The horses were so afraid that sometimes they wouldn't do what Grandpa wanted and that made him mad. He'd belt them as hard as he could with the harness so that they squealed in pain. He felt sorry for the horses and when Grandpa wasn't around he'd take them carrots and rub the marks that the harness had left on their backs. They'd turn their big soft eyes on him and nuzzle him with their noses.
The horses were lovely and they'd do anything for him. He didn't need no harness.
He thought back to the first time he'd been afraid, really afraid. He was only four. It was a week after his birthday party. That's why he could remember being four so well.
They were all sitting at the table about to start their Sunday dinner. Grandpa was in a good mood and they were laughing at something. Grandpa leant over and tapped him on the knee. Well, two can play at that game, he thought and tapped on Grandpa's knee.
It was only gentle, but Grandpa turned like a shot. He was all red in the face, just like the turkey cock when it's strutting about chasing the lady turkeys. Grandpa had lifted his hand in a big fist. It was coming down fast, but it never hit him.
Gran grabbed him by the shirt and dragged him from the chair so that when Grandpa's fist hit, he wasn't there. Just as well. The chair was shattered. Smashed into little bits.
There were pieces all over the place.
He'd just looked from under Gran's arm. He couldn't believe it. If he'd still been there, he'd have been smashed into little bits instead of the chair. He snuggled up to Gran, but he didn't make any noise. It was best not to make any noise.
'What's got into you, man?' He'd never heard Gran sound so angry before. She was shouting. That was the first time he'd heard her answer back to Grandpa. 'Control yourself. He's nothing more than a bit of a lad. Hardly more than a babe.'
'He'll not hit me,' Grandpa said.
'The lad was only playing. You started it. There's no need to lose your temper.' Gran pulled her arm tighter round the boy's shoulders, her fingers gentle on his neck.
'Ah'll play him.'
Gran swooped down at the fire.
'You'll keep your hands off this lad.' Gran's voice was very soft, almost a whisper. 'You touch him in temper and I'll bury this in your head.'
The boy looked up. In her hand she clutched the poker. She was holding it high over her head. A great iron rod with a knob on the end.
He'd never heard her speak like that before.
Not to Grandpa.
Not to anyone.
She was always so gentle.
Grandpa said nothing. He just stormed out. When he slammed the door the boy thought the house would fall down, only it didn't.
'Is she really dead?' the boy asked.
'Aye, lad.' Uncle Ben nodded.
'Will she have gone to heaven?'
To the boy it was an age before Uncle Ben spoke. 'Aye. Her will have. It'll be others who won't.'
'Will she be happy?'
'Her'd have to be, lad. Happier anyway. Her had nowt to be happy about here, saving for you. You were all her lived for these seven years past, but her couldn't take any more… Come on with you, lad. Time us went.'
The boy continued to stare. He reached forward and touched her hands that were crossed over her body. The mark where her wedding ring had been was clear on her finger, a thin smooth line against the roughness.
He moved along the coffin and touched her lips. They were as soft as he remembered them, but as cold as her hands had been, and he had to fight the urge to pull away. He didn't want to pull away. He loved her and wanted to show her how much. He moved his fingers up to her cheek and his vision went hazy as he struggled against his unhappiness.
'She's cold,' he said.
'I don't like her being cold.' His voice was choked and he had trouble getting the words out.
'That happens when you die. Her won't feel it,' Uncle Ben said.
'Aye, lad. Come away now.'
This time he allowed Uncle Ben to lead him from the room. Everything was blurred and he moved through the passage from memory.
Aunty Lily was in the kitchen. When he came through, she crouched down at his side and wiped his face with her handkerchief.
When she kissed him he didn't object. For a moment he relaxed, but he felt the tears returning and this time he knew he'd blubber.
He didn't want anyone to see him blubbering.
'I have to go outside,' he said.
'All right, but don't go far. Remember, the cars are coming at one o'clock,' Aunty Lily said. 'We mustn't be late. Gran wouldn't like that.'
It was all he could do to hold the tears back and he dashed from the house. He was half way across the yard before he gave way. He was out of the top gate before the sobs came, but they came with a vengeance.
He didn't cry at the funeral. He was determined he wouldn't cry again. Well, not where people could see him, but he wasn't sure if he'd be able to stop when he was by himself.
On the way to the church and back from the cemetery, he'd sat in the Rolls Royce with Aunty Lily, but he hadn't enjoyed it. It wasn't Aunty Lily's fault. She'd turned out all right, which was just as well, he thought.
He couldn't help thinking of the times he'd been with Gran in the trap. He'd sooner be with Gran in the trap than in any Rolls Royce. It was a pity really because Rolls Royces were real flash.
He thought back to what Gran had said and looked across to Aunty Lily. She was sobbing quietly into her handkerchief. He squeezed between her and Uncle Bert and put his arms around her neck. She leaned her face against his and gave him a smile, but she didn't stop crying.
Uncle Bert dug him in the ribs. When he turned to him he whispered, 'Good lad.' That was all. Just, 'Good lad', in whisper so that no one else could hear.
It had been Wednesday morning when Uncle Willie came and told him Gran wanted to see him. It was just him on his own.
She tried to sit up, but she couldn't. She looked so frail, as if she'd shrunk. She was still like Gran, but… sort of smaller.
She took his hand. 'I've got to go away,' she said in a tiny voice. It must have been getting smaller with her.
'Where're you going, Gran?'
'Somewhere nice,' she said.
'Will you be long?'
'Forever...' she had to stop for breath. 'I can't come back from where I'm going.'
She squeezed his hand, but the boy didn't know what to say. She tugged at him and he leaned towards her, but he didn't put any weight on her. Now that she was so little she might break.
'Give me a kiss,' she said. Her voice was no stronger.
The boy kissed her. She hugged him tight. It was a long kiss and when he drew away she smiled up at him. 'That was lovely.'
'If you can't come back, why are you going, Gran?'
'I don't want to go, but I have to.'
'Can't I come with you?'
She said, 'I have to go on my own. I don't want to leave you, but I can't help it. I want you to go and live with Aunty Lily. She'll take care of you.'
'If you want me to, Gran.'
'I do, Bobbie. Your Aunty Lily will be a good mother to you.'
'But, Gran. She's my aunty, she can't be my mother.'
Gran's voice became stronger and she pushed herself up on one elbow. 'She and Uncle Bert are going to adopt you. I've signed the papers. They've wanted another child since Annie was a baby. They'll take care of you better than I ever could.'
'No, Gran. Don't say that.'
'You need a father. If you want to make me happy, promise you'll be a good boy. They love you. They always have.'
Gran sank back onto the pillow and seemed to shrink even more. 'Promise me,' she said so quietly that he almost didn't hear.
'I promise, Gran.' The boy sat looking at her, not knowing what to say. He should say something. He didn't want her to leave him, but if she couldn't take him, there was nothing he could do about it.
He knew she would take him if she could.
'Yes.' She raised her face to him.
'I love you, Gran.'
She dropped her head and closed her eyes. 'Thank you.' Her voice seemed a long way off. 'I love you too... Don't ever forget that.'
He leaned over the bed and gave her another kiss.
Gran opened her eyes and smiled up at him. 'That was nice. You're a good boy. Be good for Aunty Lily too.' She closed her eyes, biting her lips before she relaxed again. 'Tell the others to come in please, Bobbie.'
The smile came back to her face.
The boy crossed to the farrowing sty to watch Jessie with her new litter. Nineteen she'd had. She'd always had big litters and Gran always used to feed the runt. With Gran gone away there'd be no one to feed this runt and he didn't think much of its chances.
He watched the piglets until Aunty Lily called him. If she was going to be his mother from now on, what would he call her? And there was Uncle Bert, he wouldn't be able to call him Uncle.
Or would he?
He didn't want to hurt Aunty Lily, and he'd promised Gran. He'd ask Uncle Bert, but later. He was a man and wouldn't mind.
They were all at the table when he went in, except for Grandpa. All frozen faced and no one speaking. Uncle Ben looked up. 'Your Gran has just died, lad.'
The boy turned to go back out. No one stopped him. He went along to the stables, into Mabel's stall. He wanted to be with a friend. For a while he sat on the wooden partition, just watching the shire mare, but she must have sensed his sadness. She came over so he could put his arms around her neck and he burst into tears.
He was still cuddling the horse at half past two when Uncle Bert came for him.
'Time to go, Bobbie.' He lifted his arms to help the boy down.
'Gran told me,' he said as he took Uncle Bert's hand.
'And, what do you think?'
'I think I'm lucky.'
'Nay, lad. It's us who are lucky.'
'What about the horses?'
'Your Uncle Ben will take care of them.'
'But he can't stop Grandpa belting them.'
'No. That's more than any of us can. But we've stopped him belting you. That's what your Gran wanted more than anything.'
Christmas dinner was very quiet.
Uncle Ben and Uncle Willie had come. His cousin Annie was helping her mother. She'd be his mother too soon, and Annie would be his sister. His big sister. He'd like that. They'd decided they'd sign the papers on his tenth birthday, but that was ages away yet.
Not till 1948… Next year…
It was a whole month away.
Then he'd have a mum and dad.
He smiled and wondered what it was like to have a mum and dad.
Uncle Willie was talking. '… he'd fifty-five thousand pounds in't bank.'
'The old miser,' Aunty Lily said.
'Aye. Three equal shares the will saed,' Uncle Willie said. ' He left lad nowt. Not even a share of farm.'
So what do you reckon?' Uncle Bert asked.
'Ah reckons we should form a company,' Uncle Ben said. 'Lily and Willie and me, gi' Bobbie a share too. Make him equal. His Gran would want that.'
'She would too,' Aunty Lily said. 'He should have his father's share. That's only fair.'
'I agree,' Uncle Willie said. 'With money we can buy Aspin's farm. It's been for sale for yonks. With a new tractor we can work both and Ben can live in t'other house.'
'Wouldn't you want him living with you? Aunty Lily said.
'I don't think he'll want to.' Uncle Willie grinned. 'Now Dad's gone, he'll want to marry his girl. Set up his own home.'
Uncle Ben blushed.
'And you wouldn't want to be marrying Mavis Arnold by any chance?' Aunty Lily said. A huge smile spread across her face.
'Happen I might.' Uncle Willie's face went as red as Uncle Ben's.
'If you're getting a tractor, what will you do with the horses?' the boy asked.
'Keep them of course. We'll need both tractor and horses.' Uncle Willie grinned at him, the red fading from his cheeks. 'And they won't get belted either.'
'Can I come and see them?'
'Aye, lad. Course thee can. They're as much thine as ours.'
'What did the police say?' Uncle Bert asked.
'Straight forward… Suicide.' Uncle Willie's face turned grim.
'It's a disgrace. I feel ashamed,' Aunty Lily said. 'Our own father…'
'Aye, but it would have been worse. Police reckoned he saved all on us a lot of bother. They had a report. Post mortem. Some sort of growth on his brain.' Uncle Willie wiped his face with his hands. 'Glad it's o'r.'
No one said a word for a while until Aunty Lily broke the silence. 'Poor Mum. He was always quick tempered… always… but I didn't realise he'd got so bad… so violent. There was only us at his funeral. Shows how unpopular he was.'
'Unpopular. He were hated,' Uncle Ben said with feeling. 'Still, that's end on it, thank goodness.'
'It's also the beginning of something new,' Uncle Bert said. 'A new beginning. Everything will be all right now.'
'A new beginning.' Aunty Lily smiled. 'Come on. Let's drink to it. She topped up the boy's lemonade while Uncle Bert opened more beer and poured some white wine for Aunty Lily and Annie.
'A new beginning,' Uncle Bert said and the grown-ups raised their glasses.
The boy had never seen this before and he hesitated.
'Like this,' Annie whispered with her lips close to his ear, and showed him how to do it.
He lifted his glass, copying the others.
A new beginning, he thought… Gran would like that.
© Jim Ditchfield 1999