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Authors: Robert Edric

Peacetime (11 page)

BOOK: Peacetime
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But there was nothing.

Another customer entered, another woman.

‘Gentleman's looking for – who is it?'

Mercer repeated the name to this newcomer, and it was immediately clear to him that she knew of Jacob.

She screwed up her face. ‘He's the Jew,' she said to the old woman at the counter.

‘The Jew?'

‘The Jew. You know …' She screwed up her face again, as though at a bad smell.

‘He's Dutch,' Mercer said.

Both women turned to him.

‘Oh, is he?' the customer said. ‘Friend of yours, is he? Given him a job out on whatever it is you think you're doing, have you? Given him a job while there's others here not had a day's work since they were demobbed?'

‘No,' he said. ‘He's not well enough to work.'

The woman raised a hand to her mouth and made a remark he did not catch.

‘Do you know where I might find him?' he asked her.

She seemed taken aback at the hostility now in his own voice.

‘I know exactly where he lives – stays,' she said, relishing the power she possessed.

‘I'd be grateful.' He waited.

Seeing that he would be drawn no further, the woman said, ‘Bail's Yard, that's where he
lives
.'

‘Can you direct me?'

‘He doesn't know Bail's Yard?' the old woman said. She gave him directions, mapping out each part of the short journey with a finger pointed only at the door.

‘Thank you,' Mercer said firmly.

‘Don't thank me,' she told him.

He left and the two women came to the door to watch him go.

He followed the first of her instructions until he turned from the High Street and was out of sight.

Bail's Yard stood across a bridged drain, and consisted of a large, muddy, fenced-in yard, in which sat dozens of abandoned and useless tractors and other pieces of farm machinery. Beyond these lay a giant, and equally dilapidated, corrugated iron structure, upon the roof of which was crudely painted ‘Bail's Yard'.

He moved through the rusting, sagging vehicles and implements, avoiding the worst of the mud and the water. The drain was high and flowing. Weed and flotsam snagged the bars of a weir, collected there briefly, broke loose and floated away in clumps. He tried to imagine where the water entered the sea, where it might cross his own unsettled domain.

He was distracted by the voice of a man who emerged from the vast open doorway, holding a spanner as long as his forearm.

‘Help you?'

Somewhere to Mercer's left, dogs barked and rattled the chains which, hopefully, tethered them. Mercer missed his footing at the sound and stepped into a rut which soaked him to his shins. He raised his hand to the man, who remained where he stood.

‘I'm looking for Jacob Haas,' Mercer said, preparing himself for further rebuttal or hostility. But instead, the man lowered the spanner he held and came further into the open.

‘You Mercer?'

‘I am.'

‘He has the room over the forge,' the man said.

‘Are you Bail?' Mercer asked him.

‘One of them. Remaining son of. Last of.'

‘So all this is yours?'

‘Unfortunately. The old man let it run down while we were away.'

‘Overseas?'

‘Tank Corps. Recovery and repair. I'd be there still if it wasn't for this.' He held up a stiff, gloved hand.

‘I see,' Mercer said.

‘I imagine you do.'

‘You said “forge”.'

‘Used to be a blacksmith's. Gas cylinder job. I fire it
up once a week for all the iron-work I still get called on to do. Not much these days. It's mostly salvage, welding, keeping something running that should have been scrapped and replaced ten years ago.'

‘How long were you away?' Mercer asked him.

‘Four years. Long enough.'

The two men looked around them at the dirty, failed enterprise.

‘Has Jacob been here long?' Mercer asked him.

‘Eight months, nine. He came wanting the use of the forge. You know about his glasswork. He's a talented man. He should be doing all this somewhere else, somewhere he'd be better appreciated. I live over there.' He indicated a simple brick house and overgrown garden by the drain. ‘I offered him a room with me, but he said he preferred not to. Said he wouldn't be much company. Shame. My father died in nineteen forty-two, and my two brothers the following year. There were only ever the four of us.'

They stood without speaking for several minutes. The noise of the flowing water could be heard.

‘Is he here?' Mercer said eventually.

‘I think so. He doesn't go out much, and hardly anyone ever comes here. Mathias, but that's about all.'

‘You know Mathias?'

‘Of course. Offered him a job once, but he said he couldn't make any commitments, said he might be sent home at any minute. I suppose we're in much the same boat, me and him,' Bail said. ‘All three of us, when you think about it.' He turned to face Mercer. ‘I saw what they did, you know.'

‘Sorry. Saw what?'

‘What they did. Those places. A terrible thing, terrible.'

‘Oh, I see.'

‘It's not something you can easily take in.'

‘Does Jacob ever talk about it?'

‘Not to me. We have a kind of understanding. We're both the kind of men who like to be left alone. Chances are, he'll be watching us now, wondering what I'm saying to you about him.'

‘Watching us?'

Bail motioned into the dark space behind him. ‘Over the forge. There's a window looks down into the workshop. Anybody comes, he hides himself away up there and watches. Not hides, exactly. He just doesn't like surprises. Can't say that I blame him.'

Mercer wondered if this was intended as a veiled warning.

‘Will he see me, do you think?'

‘I imagine so. He told me he was out at the workings with Mathias. Mathias comes here every other day or so, brings food and whatever.'

‘As do you, I imagine,' Mercer said.

‘Oh, well, you know – fellow man and all that.' He paused. ‘I wish I hadn't seen it, I truly do, but I did and there's nothing I can do about that.' He shook his head and breathed deeply. ‘I daresay you saw a few things yourself.'

Mercer peered through the darkness of the vast structure to where Bail had said the window was. He felt reassured by the man's presence.

‘Anyhow …' Bail said, sensing that Mercer's attention had been diverted. ‘Work to do. Go on through, shout for him. He'll hear you. There's a staircase, but watch your footing, it's as ready to collapse as the rest of the place.'

Mercer entered the building and saw that there was almost as much water on the floor inside as there was out. Wooden pallets had been laid as walkways.
More dismantled vehicles and pieces of machinery lay scattered around. Workbenches lay spread with parts and tools. Here and there lay something freshly exposed and shining silver, but the overall impression was one of grime- and oil-encrusted waste. Coils of rope and chain hung from a girder which spanned the roof.

He made his way through the gloom to the rear of the structure, calling for Jacob as he went.

He came to the stairs and saw the cold forge in an annexe beneath these. Broken fire-bricks and mounds of ash and spent coke littered the confined space. Bundles of iron rods lay stacked against the wall.

He called again.

At the top of the stairs a door opened and a light shone out on to the metal platform which ran the length of the high wall. He saw Jacob looking down at him.

‘May I come up?' he shouted.

‘Of course.' Jacob turned and went back inside, leaving the door open behind him.

Mercer climbed the stairs, feeling them sway beneath him where their fixings had worn loose.

The door led into a room in which a stove had been installed. This heated the room, and the glow of the burning coals provided some further illumination in the dark space. It was not a cold day, but the fire still burned, and looked as though it had been burning for some time. There was a table, crowded with food, crockery and glassware, several chairs, and a worn and much-patched leather sofa facing the room's only external window, which afforded a dull view over the back of the yard and the open land beyond. On a workbench alongside this lay the pieces of Jacob's glassware Bail had mentioned.

Jacob stood at the centre of all this, beckoned Mercer inside and then motioned for him to close the door.

‘Bail told me to come up,' Mercer said, feeling the need to explain. He felt like an intruder in the small, crowded space.

Jacob occupied himself briefly by shovelling more coal into the small stove. The room was poorly ventilated, and as makeshift, it occurred to Mercer, as his own accommodation in the tower.

‘As you might imagine, I don't get many visitors,' Jacob said.

‘More than I receive,' Mercer said.

‘And soon the court and all his creditors will declare Bail as bankrupt and as beyond salvation as he already knows himself to be, and all this will be sold from under him, and we will both be once again homeless.'

‘Do you think so? Does
he
think that?'

‘Look around you. One man. What chance has he got to make a success of the place? You've seen what there is to see; you can easily imagine it.'

Mercer nodded. ‘Is it happening already?' he said. ‘Bankruptcy, the courts?'

‘He refuses to talk about it.'

‘Why didn't you take up his offer and move into the house with him?'

Jacob laughed at this. ‘What, so that we might spend endless evenings comparing our misery and hopelessness. I think not. I think those two things are best contained and held close.'

‘You might be some comfort to each other regardless,' Mercer said. He knew it was the wrong word.

‘“Comfort” is not what either of us seeks. Besides, even if it were, I doubt we would seek it here and from each other. Apart from which, I have everything I need here.' He spread his arms.

A world of men alone
, thought Mercer.

‘May I offer you tea?' Jacob said. ‘Or, if you prefer—' He took a bottle of clear liquid from a cabinet beside the sofa. Holding this out to Mercer, he started to cough, and put the bottle down so that he might press both his hands to his chest. The exertion shook him, and he half-sat, half-fell onto the sofa.

‘Is there anything I can do?' Mercer said.

Jacob signalled that there was nothing.

Eventually, the coughing subsided and he sat with his head down, panting. He took out a cloth and wiped his mouth and then his whole face with this. ‘I'm fine,' he said, making no attempt to conceal the lie. He looked surreptitiously at the cloth before returning it to his pocket. He reached for the bottle beside him and settled it into his lap. He sat shivering for a moment and held his palms to the stove.

Mercer came closer to him and drew up a chair. He examined one of the glass bowls on the bench beside Jacob. It was of the palest blue, with a darker rim and flecked with other colours. ‘One of yours?' he said, but the question did not require an answer. It was clear to him that the pieces were the work of an artist, that there was considerably more than expertise or craftsmanship involved. ‘Bail told me about the forge,' he said.

‘I have constructed a crude kiln there,' Jacob said, his voice dry. ‘A primitive and unpredictable thing, largely uncontrollable, but I succeed sufficiently to go on making the effort.'

‘You ought to show these to someone. A dealer, perhaps. They're beautiful.'

But it was clear by Jacob's evasive behaviour, his fumbling again for the bottle, his searching around him, that he was not prepared to talk about the glass.

‘I mean it,' Mercer insisted.

‘I believe you,' Jacob said abruptly. ‘And you must believe me when I tell you that I have my own reasons for not wishing to do anything other than to make the pieces and to sell what few I am able to sell to pay for my keep here.'

None of which will last
, Mercer thought.

‘Besides which, for every ten pieces I attempt to make, nine are destroyed in the process.' He indicated a bucket beneath the bench that was filled to the brim with pieces of the broken, coloured glass.

‘You break them yourself?'

‘There must be some degree of judgement involved, some control. It might just as easily be dismissed as “artistic temperament”, I suppose, but, believe me, nothing could be further from the truth. Just accept that I have my reasons. I have made perhaps forty or fifty pieces since I came here, and that is enough. If I were back in Utrecht right now, I would probably be inspecting sheets of glass waiting to be cut into panes for factory windows. Believe me, this is preferable, far more preferable.'

‘Just as Mathias prefers to stand up to his knees in mud and rubble than perfecting the shapes and colours of his roses.'

Jacob smiled at this. ‘Hardly,' he said. He handed Mercer the bottle.

Later, Mercer said, ‘Bail told me that he'd seen—' only to be immediately interrupted by Jacob, who said:

‘He told me, too. It is no true connection between us, no true understanding. It is something in which he, of course, wishes to believe, and perhaps I indulge him in this belief, but it is nothing that truly connects us, I will not allow it to. Do you understand me?' He looked hard at Mercer, waiting for his only answer.

‘I think so,' Mercer said. ‘But I still don't understand why you won't allow him to do what he believes he should do and—'

‘For what reason? Guilt? Because it gratifies some uncertain notion of atonement or redemption he may hold?'

‘What harm would it do?'

But Jacob refused to answer him. He covered his face briefly with his hand and shook his head. ‘He's a good man,' he said eventually. ‘I know that. And perhaps that's enough. Perhaps the fault is mine – perhaps I expect too much of people, too much understanding. How am I to explain anything to him – to you, to anyone – when I cannot yet convince myself of the validity or need for that explanation?'

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