Authors: R. F. Delderfield
Tags: #Fiction, #General
PRAISE FOR THE WRITING OF
R. F. DELDERFIELD
“R.F. Delderfield is a born storyteller.”
“[Delderfield] built an imposing artistic social history that promises to join those of his great forebears in the long, noble line of the English novel. His narratives belong in a tradition that goes back to John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett.”
“Sheer, wonderful storytelling.”
on the saga A Horseman Riding By
“A thoroughly good story … His pace is excellent and his spacious chronicle completely absorbing.
fills a heartfelt need.”
“Recaptures with refreshing simplicity the awkwardness, excitement and delights of youth … A charming novel.”
The New York Times Book Review
My dear Olive and Cyril,
In the brave old days of the three-decker novel authors wrote their dedications in the form of an amiable, rambling letter. This is old-fashioned but then so am I, so make no apology for reverting to the practice.
Time and again you have been lured from that overcrowded, frenetic south-eastern corner of the island in which you live and work, to this less populous, more leisurely south-western corner, seeking rest and refreshment. I invite you here again, without leaving your fireside.
This book is an expression of my thanks to you both for all the years of encouragement you have contributed, not only to me personally, but to our way of life “downalong”.
R. F. D.
Hit and Run
he gull, canting uncertainly into the wind, rose from its ledge a hundred feet above the landslip and flew along the tideline before turning inland over the first cottages of Coombe Bay, searching for its first circling point, Smut Potter’s tall brick chimney, near the foot of the steep village street.
From the elevation of the Bluff the Valley was seen as a great gauntlet, a green and russet gauntlet of the kind falconers used centuries ago. The glove was left-handed, with the knob of the Bluff, the highest point of the coast, as the thumb. The forefinger, pointing due north, was the wooded Coombe, with its three farms showing as blood or rust stains. The less-soiled middle and third fingers were the green inroads of Shallowford Woods and the more open coppices of French Wood and Hermitage Clump. The little finger, crooked at a wide angle, was Blackberry Moor, now almost obliterated by the Royal Marine Camp and showing slate-green on the far side of the silver streak that was the River Sorrel. The back of the gauntlet, a great flatfish wedge extending between the Bluff and the western crest of the moor, was not as blotched as the fingers but seamed with age, here stubble fields showing as regular brown patches, there a pantiled roof or a sheet of corrugated iron suggesting older bloodstains, blood shed when the gauntlet was warm from the hand of a Tudor falconer.
The entire Valley was there, five miles across, six miles deep, and at two hundred feet it did not look over-populated, although the gull, foraging through its fifth winter, could detect many changes since the day it had made its first circuit. The centre of Valley activity had shifted. Before the war, when men still fished off the sandbars, and families picnicked on the white sands between Coombe Bay and the landslip, it had been unnecessary to fly inland in search of food. Gutted fish were abundant near the stone quay and the flotsam of picnic parties was taken out by the tide and washed round the Bluff to Tamer’s Cove, where the sodden paper soon shredded away and strips of ham-fat and shards of crust caused squabbles among the herring gulls. But now these larders no longer existed. Nobody fished off bars that were laced with barbed wire and iron poles and picnickers were forbidden a beach reserved for the military. The younger gulls had taken to foraging further out to sea round the shores of Nun’s Island, leaving inland picking to the lazy and the handicapped.
The handicapped gull had learned to exist on these pickings ever since the blob of oil had hardened on its wing tip, causing it to fly in a curiously lopsided fashion, as though permanently battling against an offshore gale, and when it landed and spread its wings, it staggered slightly, not only because its braking power was limited, but also because its left leg had puckered and bent under the stresses of the years. For all that it had survived. Like the Valley folk below it had come to terms with its limitations and it had forced the war to show a profit, for the presence of the great camp on the western flank of the estate meant waste and waste kept the painted bins behind the cookhouse and N.A.A.F.I. filled and overflowing.
The moment it became aware of the chimney of the Potter bakery it dipped, coasting down on the edge of the wind and making a clumsy landing on the wall that separated Smut Potter’s premises from the old brickyard at the bottom of his garden. Smut saw it land and grinned. Lame himself from two machine-gun bullets received in an ambush east of Valenciennes on the last day of the 1914–18 war (the ‘First War’ as they now called it), he welcomed a fellow cripple. He called, cheerfully, ‘Youm scrounging again then’ and tossed it half a pork pie that he had been munching whilst stocktaking in the store. Unfortunately for him his frugal French wife Marie saw the fragment soar through the air and came out of the kitchen screaming protests in her guttural English. The pie was only one of four dozen, surreptitiously baked from portions of a pig delivered after the blackouts were up by the genial Henry Pitts, of Hermitage, and a crate of eggs, delivered an hour later by Jumbo Bellchamber, joint master of Low Coombe, but they had cost her more than twice the price of pre-war raw materials. Even though the baking represented a net profit of something like six hundred per cent, she was not disposed to waste it on gulls, reasoning that if Smut did not want it now he could put it by until he did. For nearly a minute she stormed at him without effacing his grin and when she paused for breath he said, tolerantly, ‘Giddon with ’ee! The poor bugger’s gammy-legged like me! ’Er’s got to veed on zummat, so get back to what youm at woman and stop your ole chatter!’
Marie obeyed, as she invariably did when Smut issued an order. Honour satisfied by her protest she retreated to the steamy kitchen, while Smut watched the gull dispose of the piece of pie and fly away in the general direction of the Coombe. It flew, he thought, like a damaged fighter-plane but not one of those seen nowadays skimming south from the Polish station ten miles inland. Its speed was more that of one of the banana-crate aircraft he remembered crossing the Somme trenches in 1916. The comparison brought him satisfaction for it led him, as he returned to his stocktaking, to weigh the hideous discomforts of the last war against the unimagined profits of its successor. He remained cheerful for the rest of the morning whistling ‘Over the Rainbow’ as he checked the strategic reserves of Marie’s shelves.
The gull flew on up the deep Coombe to the nearest of the three farms built on the eastern side of the seam. Long ago, long before the gull was hatched, the old Potter homestead at Low Coombe had been a ready source of titbits for inland flying birds. The Potters of the previous generation had been a lazy, shiftless lot and their holding was habitually strewn with everything from drying washing to unscoured pigswill troughs. Nowadays it had order, for Brissot, the cork-footed French Canadian who had married one of the Potter harlots and shared the farm with his Cockney chum, Jumbo Bellchamber, was a conscientious farmer. All the gull got here was a glowering look from the plump, plodding Violet Bellchamber, née Violet Potter, who was feeding hens and paused defensively when she saw the gull hovering, so it flew on to the southern meadow of Deepdene where it saw old Francis Willoughby leaning on one of his gates and apparently feeding himself with a short tube, attached to a bulb. It seemed an odd way to take food and the gull made a sprawling landing on the handle of a plough close by in order to watch. It had no way of knowing that Francis suffered from asthma and was not eating but inhaling as he cast a lugubrious eye at his Red Devons grubbing among the kale. There was a stillness about Deepdene that was becoming more apparent as the winter passed. The gull could remember a time when this had been a noisy, bustling farm, with men calling to one another as they worked, but now there was only this silent man standing by the gate, feeding himself with a tube. No discarded scraps were visible so the gull gathered itself for flight again, took off into the wind, and circled slowly over High Coombe, the northernmost and largest farm of the cleft.
Here, by contrast, there was promise. The new man at High Coombe, a townsman with a large family, had none of the built-in prejudice of the traditional soil-grubbers against scavengers and ignored the gull when it settled on the angle of the farmhouse roof to make a brief survey. The blonde wife of the farmer was at her usual occupation, a strange one for a housewife with innumerable children. She was sitting on a canvas stool in the front patch sketching and two or three of the children were pottering about the yard, one of them clutching a jam sandwich. The farmer himself had just finished feeding the pigs so the gull watched where he dumped two buckets at the entrance to the barn and the moment he had turned his back flopped across the yard and spent a busy five minutes scooping swill from the rims. Then one of the children spotted it and shouted a welcome so that the gull, uttering one of its short, derisive laughs, took off again and drifted down the eastern sweep of the Valley and across the dense thickets of Shallowford Woods to the Mere, a long, oval lake with a smooth surface that looked forbidding in the absence of sunlight.
There were plenty of fish in the Mere but there was also competition so the gull did not descend in the vicinity of the forester’s cottage as it sometimes did in summer, when Sam Potter, the woodsman, was at work hereabouts. Sam was tolerant with gulls, not ranking them as vermin, and in its time this gull had been given scraps in and around the henhouse. Today neither Sam nor his wife Joannie was around, so the bird set course south-west, crossed the Mere and the steep escarpment of oaks, beeches, sycamores and limes and drifted down into the paddocks of the Big House where it lurched to a standstill on the iron fence and studied the landscape. In the Home Farm meadows, between house and sea, no-one was ploughing so there was no hope of worms and up here, near the house, there was no livestock to be fed apart from the two horses, Squire Craddock’s grey and one pony, and both were in the stableyard. There were, however, scraps sometimes to be found in the forecourt, for in previous seasons the gull remembered that the gravel turn-around had been a busy place, with any number of cars coming and going and sometimes large flakes of pasty dropped by talkative huntsmen when there was a meet in the forecourt. No hunters had gathered here for some time, however, and the old house sat on dreaming of the lively past, its red creeper hanging in tatters along the entire façade sadly in keeping with the winter landscape.
It was puzzling and a little disturbing to guess at what had happened over here lately. No more than half-a-dozen people seemed to inhabit the great, rambling place, the Squire, his wife, a small boy who appeared and disappeared at intervals, and two or three servants. A kind of decline had set in over the past two winters. It seemed to be waiting for something to quicken it into life again and even the old Squire himself had lost something of the spring in his step when he came out of the garden door of his library and stood on the terrace looking south to the sea. Leaves fluttered down from the ranks of avenue chestnuts and the gull, sensing failure, took off again and flew due east as far as Hermitage Farm where the ground began to dip towards the Sorrel. Here, on a long, sloping field, David Pitts was breaking soil with a chain harrow and showed no interest at all when the gull plopped into a shallow furrow and picked up a worm or two.
It was not much for such a long, circular flight but there was luck awaiting it at Periwinkle, the next farm on, where the Squire’s daughter and her husband lived in their neat little house. Their child, Jerry, who seemed to live in the open, had been collecting eggs. Stalking his progress the gull picked up half a cropful of grain before the exertions of the morning began to advertise themselves and it rose and flew low over the edge of the plateau, across French Wood, across the Sorrel to the sprawling buildings of Four Winds, then due west to the camp, the area where, of late, the main activities of the Valley seem concentrated.
Unhurriedly, for no-one ever bothered it here, the gull patrolled the vast rectangle, giving vent to an occasional sardonic
as though to echo the distant shouts of the drill-sergeant bellowing at recruits on the square. Smoke rose from the kitchens and as it watched the gull saw a white-overalled cook emerge from the big hut and empty slops into one of the bins. Using the angle of the cookhouse as cover, it dropped down and made its lopsided landing on an iron bracket, slithering madly until balance was restored. Then, wondering perhaps why it had not flown here direct, it began to gorge itself on offal, ignoring the staccato shouts flung into the wind by the sergeant fifty yards further west. Take-off, on a distended crop, was a slow, difficult business but when the cook came out with more waste it managed it somehow, taking advantage of a slight shift in the wind to flap south to its private crevice above the landslip. Reconnaissance over for another twenty-four hours it made its clumsy landing and perched, staring bleakly out across the shallows to the unsightly criss-cross of rusting iron that garnished the sandbanks.