Melissa Harrison is the author of the novels Clay and At Hawthorn Time, which was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize, and one work of non-fiction, Rain, which was longlisted for the Wainwright Prize. She is a nature writer, critic and columnist for The Times, the Financial Times and the Guardian, among others.
Darkness fell a little sooner now than it had done on the night of the village fete, but as I hurried along the field path towards Back lane there was still light left in the sky. A rich green aftermath had grown on great ley and over it a white owl floated, wings motionless, the disc of its face turned down to where tiny creatures doubtless crouched and shook. Home Field was invisible beyond a line of field maples and dog-roses on my right, but as I crossed into Greenleaze the view opened up to the stark corn stubble and the clump of alders, black as pitch against an opaline sky, that marked where the horse-pond was.
I stood a moment, my arms folded across my chest against the evening breeze, listening to a robin spill its plaintive song down from somewhere in the hedge. I couldn’t have said why, but I wanted to see the pond again; I wanted to stand on the bank where I had stood two weeks ago in the moonlight, utterly possessed by the conviction that I had to go in. It would only delay me by a few minutes, I calculated; and the soil was dry around the shorn wheat stalks and strewn with flints, so I did not think the earth would cling to my sandals.
I can’t rightly say what I was searching for there at the edge of the dark water; but what I found was Edmund’s body, flyblown and stinking, his breast torn open and his heart removed from its bloody cavity, his once-bright eyes picked out by crows.
As soon as I emerged from the cut onto the street I could hear Connie’s meeting. The Bell & Hare was rowdy with voices and hubbub, and there by the green, Elmbourne darkening around me, the sound of it brought me up short. But I couldn’t turn and walk home again, not now, for the discovery of Edmund’s body had left my blood singing strangely in my ears. Compulsively, I traced a witch-mark on the goose-bumped flesh of my hip.
I took a breath and let it out slowly. I knew there was likely a door at the back of the inn somewhere, but I didn’t dare try it; it seemed even worse to me to be caught trespassing in the private part of the inn than to risk making a spectacle of myself by going in where everyone could see. So, heart thumping, I crossed the road, thumbed down the iron latch and pushed open the door.
The air was hot and humid, and thick with the smell of hops and tobacco smoke. No-one turned to see me slip in, or seemed to feel the breath of night air I brought with me. I latched the door behind me and stood a moment to try to understand what was taking place.
All the tables in the tap-room on my left were taken, and men were standing between them, holding their mugs of beer; I had never seen the inn so full. I was glad to see some women at the tables: Elisabeth Allingham from Copdock, Mrs Godbold and one or two others. There was my father, red-faced at a corner table with grandfather next to him, and my stomach lurched as I saw Alf rose, laughing, on Father’s other side. Frank and Sid sat on stools with their backs toward me; none saw me, I felt sure, as I ducked back quickly and stood once again just inside the inn door.
The bar-room, on the right, had had its tables entirely removed, and all I could see at first were backs, so that for a moment it looked almost as though I had arrived late for church: jackets and waistcoats, shirtsleeves, a press of men. But unlike the reverent atmosphere in St Anne’s there was a loud clamour of voices, and it was clear that this was where the meeting itself was being held – or perhaps had been held, for nobody seemed to be making a speech. I realised that in delaying at home I had probably missed it, and that I might as well just slip out again and walk home.
But just then I heard Connie’s voice rising easily over the crowd and saw that she was standing in the entrance to the snug at the back, which was raised up a little by a step from the floor of the main bar-room. Six wormy, vertical timbers were all that remained of the snug’s long-gone stud wall, and she stood in the gap where once there must have been a door. I craned to see her between all the men’s heads; her height, and the step she stood on, gave her an advantage. She was wearing what looked like a shepherd’s smock, but in silk, tucked into a narrow grey skirt; her hair had been set into loose waves and was held at the side with a barrette adorned with a yellow oxlip. She looked wonderful.
‘Dear friends and neighbours, thank you again, and let me beg just one more moment of your time,’ she called out. She looked happy, perhaps almost tri-umphant, and as the hubbub died down, she gave one of her dazzling smiles.
‘You’ve been kind enough to listen as Mr Seton Ritter set out the great need in our country now for the Order of English Yeomanry, and explained a little to you about our beliefs and our aims. The Order is made up of honourable patriots, people like Hugo – like Mr Seton Ritter here – and myself, and growing numbers of farmers like your own George Mather, too: ordinary Englishmen who believe in progress and in fairness, who decry the enthronement of international money-lending, the centralisation of markets, and modern urban industrialism. People who are not afraid to question the high-handed edicts of the league of nations or the P.E.P., and who above all understand the irreplaceable value of our rural traditions, and wish to protect the health and the purity of our English soil.’
There was a rumble of assent from the crowd. Connie was doing rather well, I thought; it all seemed eminently sensible, though I wondered what the P.E.P. Was, and resolved to ask her later if I got the chance. It was a surprise to hear that Father had joined her club, or party, or whatever it was; I wondered if mother knew.
‘Many of you here belong to an agricultural union. The Order of English Yeomanry does not require that you give up these loyalties, for while there are important concerns to be raised about the evil of Bolshevism, we believe that the re-creation of a vigorous indigenous peasantry – one with a true stake in the future of this country – is by far the more pressing goal.
‘Therefore, if you have agreed with our speeches tonight, I would ask you to consider joining your neighbour George Mather in this, the local chapter of our order. The cost is a shilling; but tonight you need only give me your names. I shall be here until closing time – oh, and before I forget,’ she said, holding up a copy of a magazine, ‘I’ve more copies of our weekly publication here, The English Pioneer; it’s usually a penny, but tonight they’re free for you all to take away, so please help yourselves, if you haven’t taken one already. I write a regular piece in each issue myself, and I think you’ll agree it’s a good read for all the family.’
She grinned at us, said ‘thank you’ again, and sat down next to an elegantly dressed man in spectacles, who I presumed was Mr Seton Ritter; I recognised Mr Chalcott, her friend the photographer, in the snug too. But just as the roar of conversation began to swell again, a fair, stocky man shouldered his way up the step to the snug and turned to face the room. It was John.
‘I have something to say to you all, friends, if you’ll grant me a moment.’
Behind the bar the landlord folded his arms. There came a stillness now to the men’s backs such as hadn’t been there when Connie had been speaking, and again I was reminded of church.
‘We’ve seen a lot of Miss FitzAllen at Wych Farm this summer, and heard a lot about her ideas,’ he said. ‘In fact she’s become a regular fixture – out in the fields, too, where I’ll allow she’s been of some use. Now, you all know me for a fair man, and not one to speak out of turn. But I must say to you tonight that this woman is not all she seems.’
The inn was utterly silent; even the low murmur of conversation from the tap-room had stilled. I saw that Father and Sid rose had got up from their seats and were craning to see through into the public bar. By standing on tip-toe I could just about glimpse Connie’s face in the shadows behind John, wearing a fixed expression. I felt sick with embarrassment, and angry on her behalf.
‘Mr Seton Ritter here has talked to you tonight of patriotism, and duty to one’s countrymen, and the bonds of blood and soil. Now, I don’t hold with everything he’s said – not at all – but I believe him to be a man of honour. In the War he was Lieutenant-Colonel Seton Ritter, and he’s had the D.S.M. and the Military Cross. To my mind, he has taken the wrong course since then, but I respect him nonetheless.
‘Miss FitzAllen, however –’
Connie made as though to get up, but John simply turned and looked at her, and she sat back down again.
‘Our miss FitzAllen here spins a great yarn about her days in France as a V.A.D., but I’ve been asking around and from what I can make out she never even volunteered. Did you know that, Lieutenant-Colonel?’ he asked over his shoulder. ‘Or did she pull the wool over your eyes, too?
‘And there’s more!’ he continued, turning back to us and raising his voice over the sudden hubbub. ‘there’s something else you should know before you decide to throw your lot in with this order, or society, or whatever it is. A few weeks ago Constance FitzAllen took it upon herself to evict a family of indigents living over at Hullets for no reason that I can see other than that they were Jews – them being to her mind responsible for everything that’s wrong with the world these days. Well, I’ve news regarding that family. I was at a union meeting three days ago in Corwelby where all the talk was of a family called Adler not long arrived from our direction, the father carrying a girl by the name of Esther, four years old and no more than a bag of skin and bones. She were dead.’
I closed my eyes as voices roared and bodies surged around me. I felt as though I was floating; I knew I should find the door somewhere behind me and go out to get some air, but I couldn’t leave. I took a deep breath but it was of stale pipe-smoke and men’s sweat. John was wrong, that much was obvious. He was quite, quite wrong in everything he said.
‘Now, I don’t claim the right to tell you how to think, and so I won’t; there’s been enough of that manner of talk for one night,’ he continued. ‘All I’ll say is this: we cannot set our faces against change: it don’t do, it never has. Albert Mather is here tonight, the first and best man I ever took a wage from, and he taught me well. He allus said we must have change – we must have it! For the past is gone, and that’s just the way of it. Change allus comes, and all that falls to a man to decide is whether he’ll be part of it or not.’
‘But it’s change we’re wanting, man! Have you not listened, have you not heard a word –’
It was Father, pushing and shouldering his way through the crowd. I saw men turn, grinning; saw them part to let him through. The tenor of their attention had changed, and I could sense it; this was sport now, master against man. I saw one or two jostle him on purpose, saw men nudge one another and crane their necks ready to see the confrontation. I wanted to get Frank, but he was in the tap-room with the Rose boys and grandfather; I wondered if I should run home and fetch mother, but I knew it would take too long. And then it was too late.
John stood his ground as Father approached, only folding his arms. Connie, behind him in the snug, was standing; I could not see Mr Chalcott or the other man from where I was, but it seemed they had stayed in their seats.
Father stopped a few paces away from John, his red face full of choler. With the advantage the step gave John, they were about the same height, and I realised, with a wash of horror, that they might at any second actually come to blows.
‘Please God, no,’ I said out loud, although I hadn’t meant to. A big man near me turned; it was the wheelwright’s apprentice, a lad I had only ever glimpsed before in his leather apron hard at work among the half-built wagons or forging their wide iron tyres.
‘Well, if it in’t the famous Mather girl herself,’ he said now, and elbowed his companion. ‘Look who’s here!’
‘This is change!’ Father was shouting, pointing towards Connie. ‘This, John, this! We must rebuild the country, we must put our own kind first!’
Despite the confrontation, more men nearby were turning around to look at me; I felt their eyes on me, probing and keen. What had the wheelwright’s apprentice meant by ‘the famous Mather girl’?
‘This in’t change, man, it’s folly – dangerous folly, for all that.’
‘You speak against me, John Hurlock?’
‘In this matter, yes.’
‘You think you know better, that’s it. You allus have. And now you come in here, slinging mud about. Don’t matter if the woman were in the War or not, to my mind.’
‘No, I’ll wager it don’t – to a man who never served.’
Uproar then, the men rushing forward, something like joy surging through them and leaving me weightless and horrified and alone. I stumbled back a few paces, one hand seeking the inn door; I saw Frank, followed by Sid Rose, fighting to get to Father and John through the crowd; and then there on the floor was a discarded magazine, trampled by boots, an image of my face smiling idiotically out at me from the crumpled page.