19 June 2014

The Aspens

Her mind was elsewhere, yet she was conscious of the pleasure of cycling. The bike belonged to her sister, who used it sometimes to post a letter or save a walk when visiting neighbours or the village hall.
     Before this week, Evelyn had not cycled for many years. At first it had felt odd, the more so because someone else’s bicycle, like a typewriter or sewing machine, acquires an impress of its owner’s muscles and mode of movement. Those ghostly quirks of her sister had now been displaced by her own.
     The lane was deserted. Indeed, she had been passed so far by no more than half a dozen motor-vehicles. She supposed people were indoors, eating their meals or watching television.
     Tonight the urge to get out of the house had become irresistible. She had been invited with the kindest intent, and they had tried to make her feel welcome, but it had been a mistake to come at all, still less agree to a fortnight’s stay. At the supper table, when she had announced her desire to go for a ride, she had detected faint relief. Actually what she wanted was to return to London straight away, but that would be misinterpreted. She had discovered that she did not understand her sister as well as she thought she did. Perhaps they had grown apart; perhaps there were problems in her sister’s life of which she was unaware.
     At this time of year darkness did not arrive till after nine. Evelyn had set out at seven-fifteen. Her little round watch now gave the time as five past eight, which meant she should be thinking about heading back: the bike had no lights, the sky was overcast, and this network of lanes was not wholly familiar. At the insistence of her brother-in-law she had taken an Ordnance Survey map and put it in the basket. She had some idea of the local geography, having been to this district several times before, but her travels then had been by car; and invariably Ferdie had been with her.
     She told herself she should stop thinking about him.
     Even discounting the partiality of her family and friends, she conceded that there was truth in their condemnation. Privately, in the despairing depths of the early hours, she had once gone further, perceiving her maiden self as not only pure but splendid. Bit by bit she had been undermined. At least she hadn’t let him corrupt her, as far as she knew.
     He had denied her any children and now it was too late. She would never marry again. The thought of another marriage like that ... the divorce ... better to face squarely this panorama of loneliness opening up before her. Moreover, any man who looked at her twice was bound to be damaged goods: divorced himself or, more likely, some sort of misfit. The very thought of putting herself back on the market was repugnant.
     At irregular intervals she had passed a scratchy burst of song from these hedgerows, made by some kind of small bird. The fields were vast. She had seen the outsize hose-reels for the sprinklers, which as they turned and pulsed threw out a curved curtain of rain. Here and there smallish gulls patrolled the crops, occasionally and delicately dropping down to seize something edible. Evelyn knew little about the countryside, but just now she had recognized the cry of an oystercatcher, which had surprised her, because the shore was at least five miles away: her younger nephew, during their companionable walk along the beach, had identified that bird for her.
     A derelict flint-and-brick barn passed on the left. She didn’t recognize it, or the distinctive estate agent’s board which proclaimed that the barn had outline planning permission for conversion. In fact, this whole lane was new to her. She saw then that she had been so preoccupied that she had taken scant notice of her route and was now lost. Maybe she had drifted closer to the shore than she had supposed.
     Night was coming. The low canopy of cloud already looked gloomy. Her pedalling became less confident. Was she heading in the wrong direction? How much of her stamina remained?
     She drew to a halt and opened the map but could make little sense of it.
     Biting her lip, Evelyn looked over her shoulder. The obvious thing to do was return the way she had come. Sooner or later she would reach a signpost. The map would do the rest.
     She felt a surge of admiration for the good sense of her brother-in-law. But he would, she felt, ask her where she had been. Rather than lie to him she would have to confess that she had got lost. Anyway the idea of turning back like this, at the first hint of difficulty, seemed to her cowardly and defeatist.
     She returned the map to the basket and continued, albeit less resolutely, on her way. Soon enough, on the right, she came to three pairs of semi-detached farmworkers’ cottages. Beyond them stood a pair of seven-barred steel gates, well maintained, guarding a concrete road that curved away downhill. A sign on one gatepost read “Mehetabel Farm”.
     Out came the map again. The farm was not marked anywhere, as far as she could tell, but on the low hillside to the left, about half a mile away, she could see a square-towered church and a cluster of houses. A suspicion as to the identity of this village began to grow in her mind. If she were correct, the configuration of the lanes placed her in one of two spots, the first being more likely. In that case, she was less than a mile from a road that led directly and almost all the way to her sister’s.
     She wondered whether to knock at one of the cottage doors to seek directions. Or should she ask her sister if she knew where Mehetabel Farm was? But that also would be a sign of inadequacy, and all week Evelyn had felt pitied. Although they were doing their best to conceal it, had not pity been the very reason for the invitation?
     Her phone remained in her pocket. She would go on a little further.
     Apart from the slight noises of the bicycle itself, all she could hear was the freshening breeze. A man, her brother-in-law for example, might know, or at least hazard a guess about, the wind direction; but Evelyn was city bred. “Yes,” she thought, “you don’t know which way the wind blows.”
     Where had that come from? Some deep place. A metaphor. Maybe it was time she found out.
     She came to another small settlement beside the lane, on the left this time. The first few houses fronted an open field; the remainder looked across the road to a line of tall, massy trees which she thought might be poplars. As she drew near she could hear the wind in their foliage, the rush of air swishing like water, the sea, a cataract, but of peaceful heaven rather than the tumultuous earth: mystical almost, pure, and, yes, splendid; and unbidden she envied the people who lived in those cottages opposite.
     Although she did not wish to be observed, she stopped the bike again. She had noticed something odd. The leaves, the thousands upon thousands of them, were quivering in the breeze, rapidly and at random showing and hiding their pale undersides. Each one was dangling from the slenderest, strap-like stalk. She became so lost in this spectacle of shimmer, the sound, this unexpected gift, this profound glimpse into what the real world could be, that for the first time in months, years, she was fully transported out of herself: her suffering was eclipsed, her wounded soul balmed and overwhelmed.
     Welling tears blurred her vision. Never before had she beheld such unassuming magnificence.
     Then she remembered the cottages, from which she might be seen, and her rapture, her tide of emotion, subsided.
     Her fragile state, of course, had brought it on. She’d been divorced for less than ten days. No one of robust mind would have viewed the trees like that. All the same, something had changed. Something important. Her heart had been abused; it might well be abused again, in that unknowable territory of the future, but now there could be no question of turning back.
     The guess about her location had been right. When she came to the crossroads she stopped once more to check the signpost and the map. After that, helped no little by her friend the breeze, she described an unerring line to her sister’s door.

4 comments:

Benjamin Duffy said...

This is lovely! I love the spell a well-crafted piece of short fiction can place on the reader. Some of my favorite books to come back to over and over again are short fiction collections - Hemingway, Maugham, and some more recent ones by Neil Gaiman and Stephen King.

You don't happen to be sitting on an unpublished pile of similarly excellent vignettes, do you? ;)

Richard Herley said...

Thanks, Ben; glad you liked it. Maugham was the Short Story King!

I don't have a pile of these, but I'd like to do some more. Any that are good enough I'll post here.

Moe The Cat said...

I agree with Mr. Duffy. More like this would be very welcome. Perhaps, if a half dozen or so were accumulated, they could be published in one volume, as you did with "Nature Writing".

Richard Herley said...

@Moe

I'll do my best ... am working on some themes, so this one would be Air in a set of the four Paracelsian elements, etc.