Blackthorn Winter

I wrote this story several years after I and my postgraduate student had visited a farm in Ayrshire, on a bitterly cold day, in relation to our research on the liver-fluke, Fasciola hepatica, whose larvae develop and multiply in snails. (Even parasitologists can figure as characters in novels!). The farmer was very welcoming, but he told me his wife was ill, and there was an air of sadness and hopelessness about him – and the farm – that I have never been able to forget.

****

Madeleine watched as John tugged at his eyebrow and his large, square face furrowed in concentration. He held the ‘phone tightly against his ear, and nodded as he listened.

‘Aye. Aye …. Fluke’s bad round here, right enough.  .. Aye. It’s a wet land, that’s for sure, it disnae drain well.’

He glanced at her and then, seeing that she was listening, looked quickly away.

‘Aye. … That would be fine.  Next Tuesday then. Aye. You’ll come to the house, I’ll be waiting for you.’ It was a statement, and he replaced the phone in its cradle on the wall.

Someone was coming to the farmhouse, but John would wait outside, he wouldn’t let them in. Someone coming about liver-fluke in the sheep: but the sheep were all right, weren’t they? She realised she didn’t know (there were so many important things she no longer knew) and she waited for him to tell her.

He was a big man but, as he stood awkwardly in the doorway, she wondered how she had missed noticing that he had grown haggard, and she felt helpless because there was nothing she could do.

‘Some doctor, from the university. Says she’s doing a survey —’

She?’

‘Aye. A lady doctor. She’s doing a survey or something into liver-fluke, she wants to come and look for herself. She’s after getting the snails, to see if they’ve got the worm.’

He had been going into the scullery to put on his boots when the ‘phone rang, and he stood there in his socks; there was a hole in the toe and she could see his yellowed toenail.

It reminded her: ‘Is your thumb still sore?’

He blinked and was still for a moment, then he looked at his left thumb, and held it out towards her. The nail was black and purple, the skin around it suffused and straining, taut with the pressure.

‘Aye, my thumb is still sore,’ he said, gently.

She reached out and touched it, the rough, hardened skin, wanting to talk about it more, but he withdrew his hand and she saw how his face went blank.

‘A doctor coming,’ Madeleine said. ‘Next week. I had better start and make the house nice, then.’

‘Aye.’

After John had gone out into the yard Madeleine stood by the sink, staring out of the window. The white cockerel was courting the hens, and Madeleine laughed to herself at his ridiculous side-stepping, and the way he dragged his wing, trailing a cloak for his queen of the moment. Why did he think that made him seem desirable? The hen ignored him, staring dreamily into the distance as she scratched the ground, then stepped back a pace or two to interrogate the soil.

There was a blue African violet on the window-sill, its colour dark and vibrant, and  Madeleine lifted the pot and plucked off a discoloured leaf. Curtains and the gathered pelmet, orange-flowered, fringed the view, but the material was speckled grey and green with mould, and condensation trickled down the window and pooled on the sill. The kitchen was warm and humid, ‘like the rainforest’, Madeleine imagined to herself (was that where African violets grew?); but the world outside lacked warmth or colour and it seemed to her that the wind sliced the grey air like a pale cold blade.

The air, or perhaps the ground, pulsed with the revving of the tractor as John shunted it to and fro in the yard. She wondered what he was doing, then remembered that he had mentioned something about pallets, stacking pallets, and although she could only see the top of the red cab above the drystone wall, she imagined the prongs of the forklift, spearing the wooden trays exactly between their bars, carrying them like the plates of pallid vol-au-vents extended at the chapel party.

Her attention was caught by something that flickered in the wall and she re-focussed her eyes, hoping for a recurrence, hoping that it was no illusion, that it was real. Years ago the flickering had begun: tiny rectangles and triangles, ever-shifting patterns of black and white at the periphery of her vision, a kaleidoscope without colour that gradually encroached, creeping inwards until the real world was obliterated for an hour by a changing world of her mind’s own making. Ten, twelve, years ago, a time when she had been unafraid to visit a doctor: ‘visual migraine’, he had pronounced and, in naming it, had dispelled her fear of the unknown. ‘Nothing you can do about it, it’ll come and go.’

But this time the flickering had been a mouse. It reappeared, running delicately between the stones like a child gymnast upon the barre; stopped to sniff the air, nose pointing, tail curled across faded yellow lichen, then disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

‘Maddie! Mad!’

John stood by the side-gate, waving to atttract her attention. He had put on his old blue boiler-suit as a concession to the cold, but the top buttons were undone as though to point out that this was not mid-winter, merely an unseasonal spell of cold in April. ‘Blackthorn winter,’ he called it.

Madeleine opened the back door.

‘Maddie, can you come and give a hand?’

She looked back into the kitchen, undecided, not wanting to leave the security of the house.

‘Please, Maddie — it’s the lambs.’

Usually when he spoke to her his voice was calm and reasonable: she loved his voice, she wanted to catch his words and clutch them to her. But now there was a sharpness to it and she glanced at him quickly.

‘They’ll die if we don’t do something.’

The roughness of his fear frightened her, and she nodded.

‘I’ll get my coat.’

 

He needed her to help him, to carry bales. They built small shelters of pallets and straw, in the open barn, in corners of the yard, and even in the garden. Madeleine’s frozen fingers were nipped by baler twine as she carried the rustling straw and her old tartan coat bristled with the hollow stalks but she helped, uncomplaining and frightened by John’s haste.

The blackthorn hedges bore white flowers, a smirr of snowflakes on black pencilled twigs, but up in the field there was no colour except shades of grey, the sky merging with the sodden land. Her slithering footsteps left muddy trails, and lambs lay huddled and quiet while their mothers nosed at the scanty grass and the biting wind scoured the landscape.

The ewes cantered for the open gate, their fleeces juddering, and lambs panicked bleating amongst them so that the lane to the farm was filled with the roaring of sheep, and they packed the yard with a panting, steaming mass of uncertainty. It took Madeleine and John more than an hour to sort them out and reunite lambs separated from their mothers, and soon the barn and every shelter held pregnant ewes or  ewes with lambs at heel. Then there were hurdles to be carried, and troughs to be moved, while the wind drove stinging sleet into every corner.

John brought her an armful of hay.

‘You take this to the ones in the garden,’ he said, and Madeleine knew he didn’t want her to see how little hay remained in the barn.

The grass was not growing, and soon the hay would run out, and the feed bills had been unpaid so long that they would not be allowed more credit. The ewes were undernourished, and unfostered lambs lay down and did not rise again, but died because there was no dried milk. Madeleine carried the hay to the ewe and wished she could take the twin lambs inside into the rainforest warmth of the kitchen, away from this unforgiving Ayrshire landscape.

 

But they still had eggs. When John came in for his tea she fried eggs and bread on the hob, turning her head to feel the comforting heat on the left side of her face,  and watching surreptitiously as he washed and dried his hands.

‘If only the sun would shine …’ she said.

‘It will take more than that.’

His hair was still dark, though thinning, but on his chin the stubble was pure silver. She liked that, and would also have liked him to grow a beard, but she didn’t tell him so. There was no longer a mirror in the bathroom, because one day a few years ago she had unscrewed it from the wall and taken it down, later telling him that it had broken. He had nodded and after that he had shaved by feel, but more recently he had often allowed the stubble to grow for two or three days.

She pushed aside the unpaid bills and uncompleted forms that littered the table, and sat down opposite him.

‘What shall we do?’ she asked, feeling the hopelessness begin to rise inside her again.

‘We will manage somehow, don’t be afraid, Maddie. Perhaps the doctor from the university will pay us, perhaps we can charge her  for gathering the snails.’

‘Tenpence each. We will make our fortunes.’ She laughed bitterly and, resisting the urge to pluck at her face, knowing how it disturbed and perhaps revolted her husband, shifted on the chair to sit on her hands, leaving her food untouched.

‘We should sell up.’

‘Don’t talk like that, Mad, you know it’s no use. Where would we go? What would we live on? The ewes’ll get by somehow, we’ll all get by.’

‘You’d be better off without me, you’d find something if you were on your own.’ In her squirming agitation, her hand was released and of its own accord it leapt to the corner of her mouth and began pulling and massaging the growth.

The look he gave her was such a mixture of despair and alienation that she couldn’t stay any longer at the table, but pulled her cardigan around herself and slipped away  (uncaring that her knife clattered to the floor and that she had trampled the fallen teatowel), and escaped to the safety of her little chair in the dimmest corner of the sitting-room.

And so began another of those phases of dark hopelessness when day and night were scarcely distinguishable and she longed even for the precise definitions of a visual migraine to impose some certainty upon disorder. She was barely aware that John came and went, occasionally bringing her a mug of tea, coming and going through the house; if she wondered, she assumed he was with the sheep, or in the yard. Once or twice, smelling hot fat, she thought he might be cooking.

Then there was a time when he stood before her and said, ‘Maddie.’

She raised her head, but didn’t meet his eyes..

‘Maddie, please. The lady doctor is coming this morning.’

‘A doctor?’ She was confused. ‘But I don’t need a doctor.’

‘The university doctor — the liver-fluke woman. Do you think you can tidy yourself — will you tidy the kitchen? She may want a mug of tea.’

‘I don’t want to see her.’

‘No.’ He was, as usual, gentle with her. ‘No, you don’t have to see her if you don’t want. But the place looks bad, it needs tidied. Please, Maddie, we must make a good impression, it may be she can help.’

Gradually his words penetrated the fog that was in her brain, and began to make sense; and after some time she pushed herself out of the chair, feeling the aching stiffness in her legs. What could the snail woman do? Madeleine couldn’t even begin to puzzle out an answer, but washed herself and changed her clothes, and then she set to in the kitchen. It was still early, barely eight o’clock; the gate and wall were rimed with frost and above the hill the sky was a cold, pale blue. Lambs bleated, and the ewe in the garden shelter stood up and stamped her foot when the orange farm cat approached too close.

The African violet was limp from neglect and Madeleine gently dripped water onto the soil beneath its leaves, then began to wash the accumulated mugs and dirty dishes and the frying pan that was opaque with congealed fat. In a haze of incomprehension she put away cutlery, and swept patterned flakes of mud, sinuous as flattened snakes, from the brown lino; she made a neat pile of the unopened envelopes and bills, and squared the short row of cookbooks and manuals on the dresser. After a few minutes’ contemplation she took up the photograph, already twelve years old, of their son in his RAF uniform, and put it in the dresser drawer.

Soon a red car drew up to the gate and John came out from the yard; he was wearing his old tweed jacket over a patterned pullover, and he held the car door open for the driver. The woman had short grey hair, and was sensibly dressed in fleece jacket, jeans and boots. She shook hands, and Maddie watched as she introduced John to a sulky-looking girl in her twenties who came round from the passenger side. The girl had dark wavy hair that was escaping from a shapeless black  woollen hat, and she didn’t smile; but the woman had a pleasant face.

In sudden panic Madeleine filled the kettle and placed it on the hob: the teapot and cups and milk were already waiting on the table. She snatched another quick glance out of the window, ready to flee into the bedroom, but the snail collectors had picked up their rucksacks and John was starting to lead them off along the lane. The grey-haired woman stopped briefly and looked back, staring at the kitchen window as though she sensed Madeleine’s watching presence: the woman waved a hand, then turned away.

For a long while Madeleine stood irresolutely by the sink, gazing out at the minute details of her world. Then, after warming her red tartan jacket and old grey socks on the battered chrome hob-cover, she pulled on her boots and went outside. Although the air in the valley was frigid and still, the sun was already starting to touch the top of the field behind the farm, and the high pasture glowed startlingly green. The ewe in the strawbale shelter snickered softly to her lambs and they ran to her, butting her udder with their heads so that her rump lifted in the air; the shelter and scanty hay were caked with their droppings.

Madeleine untied the wooden pallets and dragged them aside.

‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Come with me.’

With a long stick in her hand she slowly walked the ewe and her offspring out of the garden, and along the lane; she didn’t hurry, merely allowed the ewe to feel the pressure of her presence, so that the sheep zigzagged calmly in front of her, the lambs jostling and darting at their mother’s flanks. She moved so slowly that the ewe waited patiently in the lane while she opened the field gate.

‘In you go,’ she said, and was sure she felt the ewe’s profound sense of liberation as it galloped off across the frost-whitened grass then stopped to graze.

Liquid notes poured earthwards from an unseen lark, and Madeleine leaned back against the gate, eyes closed, seeing only the shadows of branches patterning her eyelids.

Some time later she heard quiet voices and, unobtrusive as a shy vixen, she slid away from the gate and behind the hedge. There was a strange pleading note in John’s voice and with a dull shock she realised he must be speaking about her.

‘If you could just look at her, doctor … I don’t know any more what to do.’

‘Mr Livingstone, I’m not that sort of a doctor, I’m not a medical doctor —’

‘She has just lost heart … the hopelessness has infected her, and made her ill.’

‘Perhaps then it is in her mind.’ The woman’s voice was gentle. Madeleine wondered whether the sulky girl was listening too.

‘No, no! There’s nothing wrong with her mind, she’s not mad. You will see it for yourself, if she will let you look at her.’

Their voices were closer, the other side of the hedge, and Madeleine pressed against the vegetation, hiding yet wanting to observe the speakers, too.

The woman was walking next to John, looking at the ground as she spoke, but when she drew level with Madeleine’s hiding place she paused and looked up. Her eyes met Madeleine’s through the hedge and she seemed completely unsurprised.

‘I think your wife is just here,’ she said to John. ‘Hallo, Mrs Livingstone.’

Maddie? Mad?’

The girl, hearing his words, laughed a startled high-pitched sound.

‘Is that you? What are you doing there?’ John hurried to the gate.

‘I brought the ewe.’

She stood away from the hedge and saw how the visitors stared at her, how the doctor’s face froze before she glanced away; how the girl stared unashamedly.

‘Did you find the snails?’ She made herself speak, to fill the silence.

She hadn’t looked at her own face for a very long time, but she could imagine what they saw: the growth at the corner of her mouth, like gnarled bark formed around an alien wire that holds a fence; a crumpled lava-flow, petrified, but not grey — the colour of damsons, of thickened jam brought to a rolling boil.

‘No, your husband was just showing us where to look, we’re going back to fetch the collecting equipment.’

Maddie looked away, towards the steeply-sloping field, and saw that sunlight was sweeping slowly across her world. Silver-tipped leaves darkened, and began to drip gold droplets; scarlet fire hung shimmering from thorns; the sunlit grass glistened with moisture and the lambs skipped across frosted shadows cast by trees.The hedgerows steamed.

Suddenly the girl laughed again, and pointed.

‘Look at the sparrows!’

Madeleine looked, and saw two sparrows arguing on a branch. Steam drifted upwards around them but they were oblivious, quarrelling and shouting with fluttering wings.

‘It’s a sparrow sauna,’ the girl said, with a sly look.

Madeleine noticed how the doctor glanced again at her face with compassion in her eyes, but she didn’t care.

Steam almost hid the sparrows from view, and she began to laugh.

‘A sparrow sauna! Yes!

She caught the girl’s eye, and they began to giggle together helplessly, at the absurdity of everything, and when she looked at John, his face so shone with hope that she was dazzled and could not look away.

***

This story, written in 2005, became, in a modified form, the first chapter of my fifth novel The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes.  Madeleine, now living in the Lake District, is one of the three main characters.tebr front coverThe novel can be bought as a paperback or ebook from Amazon

The photograph on the cover of this 2nd edition was generously given to me by my friend photographer Rob Fraser, to whom I am very grateful; it was part of ‘The Landkeepers project carried out by him and Harriet Fraser.

 

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