bracken: chapter 4
This is the first draft of a novel which I have decided to publish on the blog chapter by chapter as a work in progress. Any comments, suggestions, etc will be much appreciated. It will only be up temporarily.
Bracken Hill Farm was bought by my mother and father in 1965. She was a psychiatrist and he was a historian who late in life found fame writing popular history books about the ancient world, which culminated in a television series in 1983 which was broadcast on the BBC and is still noted today as a late reassertion of the Reithian principles of the corporation.
My mother’s work was celebrated in a less flashy manner and because of this my father believed her work to be much more important than his. Indeed, my father always felt uncomfortable with the fame that his television programmes brought him, almost as if they cheapened him somehow. There was much self-deprecation when we watched them as a family and he would be difficult and snippy with his television producer and colleagues, careful to let them know that this was an activity which he disparaged in comparison to the university conferences, the articles and books which touched far fewer but were more authentic, according to his own ossified frame of reference. Mother, on the other hand, was considered a leading expert in her field and travelled constantly. On a few occasions, taking myself or one of the girls if the trip could fit in with school holidays.
I first saw Paris at fourteen. My mother would breakfast with me and then give me a map of the city, some money for lunch and leave me to wander the city until I would rendezvous with her much later at the restaurant circled in red on the map. I marvel now at the freedom we were allowed and the apparent lack of angst on the part of our parents. We were afforded such opportunities and trusted implicitly not to get into trouble and most the time, if not all the time, we never did.
Mother was always writing something down, or reading something, or talking on the phone. She would occasionally take her shoes off and rub her head and turn to regard one of us and then the laser like focus could be too much to bear.
‘So…’ she would say. ‘What?’
It was always difficult to know. She never gave you much to go on and it was expected that you gave everything in return. We were not babied. Even when we were babies. Don’t worry. I’m not complaining. This isn’t going to be one of those bawling screeds about how mummy and daddy didn’t love us. They loved us well enough and they were kind and intelligent and warm when the fancy took them. I have no complaints. We were free and we soon grew up.
The farm stands on a hill overlooking the falling farmland that tumbles down in a series of folds towards the Irish Sea. Like most farms it has its back to the gorgeous views of the estuary and the sunsets, preferring to face the barn with the tractors and the mud slick oblong of the yard. It’s a tall old house leaning into the hill, so that you have to climb stairs from the ground floor in order to get out of the main door and the porch. The room with the piano was converted and new windows put in to make the most of the panorama, which is distractingly beautiful.
There is an old fashioned pantry and a large kitchen, where we always took out meals.
When we were growing up the farmer, Toby MacKeith, lived in the old green and cream static caravan that stood on bricks beside the massed back bin liners of hay bails and white sacks of animal feed. He was the previous owner of the farm and he still rented the land of us and farmed it, using the money we gave him for the house and land to buy a new tractor. He deeply resented us. He knew what we were. Outsiders, interlopers. Middle class academics who saw the farm as a retreat. A long, long, long drive up the M6 to get far from deadlines and colleagues and meetings. Mother worked from home, but drove to Lancaster three times a week for her consultancy. Father would go away for weeks at a time and the rest of the time he would potter about the house. Or sit at the piano and play Schubert or Mozart while the rain pelted the windows.
Caroline, Elaine and I were the real owners of Bracken. My mother and father were people who came for extended visits. We cooked and cleaned. We walked the hills and explored the forest. We walked down to the sea and swam in it all year round despite the cold and the madnesss of the waves. I built a series of camp. And we walked down the hill in the early morning and caught the bus to school. When we went back to Cambridge, we felt torn, even as my parents I knew felt they were returning home. For us Cambridge was their youth. Their families were there. And when we stayed with our grandmothers and grandfathers we could feel their disapproval and lack of understanding. My father never fully expressed why they had bought the house, but I believe that both he and my mother had a notion, an imaginary idea about what it would be like to own the farm and live there, and gradually they became disenchanted with the idea.
Ultimately mother and father became visitors. They complained of the rain leaking in, the draughty windows, the smell of mud and soil and excrement that is an essential part of a farm. They detected hostility in Toby both real and imagined. They would spend longer periods away from us and the famr, usually taking turns so that one of them would be on hand. It was never described as an escape from the farm. They were work commitments, but they were accepted with such alacrity and looked forward to with transparent glee that it was obvious that they would have accepted the merest excuse to be away once more and heading for the warmth and familiarity of the south and its cities.
When we had them at the house together we would make a special effort for them. Cook them food we knew they liked and made sure that the house itself was clean and warm and welcoming. I cut the firewood and helped Toby with the chores. I kept hens and read magazines about how to run a farm. I had my own vegetable garden and Elaine had a herb garden. Caroline was the flighty one at that time. And the laziest.
But it was a happy time. It was a happy childhood.
Over the years I’ve often thought of writing a kind of autobiography. Not for publication but as a way of ordering my experiences at Bracken Hill and trying to establish a chronology. I suppose I am my father’s son and have his love of order and explanation. He loved his stories and he saw history as a long beautiful story. He loved nothing more than beginning with a curiosity and drawing a line to some distant apparently unrelated incident that took place hundreds of years later. I imagine it was for this reason – along with the disreputable fame of TV – that he was increasingly seen as a bit of an old duffer out of step with the new histiographic trends which were then seeping through academia. I would have liked to have done a similar thing, told my stories and organised my chronology and uncovered the unexpected connections, the insistent causality of life. There were good reasons for not doing this. I despised narcissism in my character and was always wary of this aspect of my character. I also thought, quite reasonably, that I had not lived enough or achieved anything of note that would justify such a time consuming and self-important task as writing a memoir. By the time I was of an age when I could comfortably write a memoir safe in the knowledge that it would be seen as a perfectly acceptable foible, my sister Elaine had already achieved fame writing precisely the kind of book I had imagined myself writing.
I was very happy for her.
She is a clean writer. All her sentences are just so and I love reading her books. I told her that she had saved me the effort. I could never have written about Bracken so well. Reading her book gave me such pleasure, such joy. It transported me back to Bracken and revived memories that were so powerful that tears sprang in my eyes when I first read her pages. In fact, I have re-read her books over and over again and they always have the same effect on me.
Elaine and Caroline are eight years younger than me. They were a late accident. The one child – myself – had been deemed more than enough, thank you very much. My mother had no time for maternity leave, had no particular maternal instinct as such. She was forty three when she became pregnant with the twins.
I remember the pregnancy very clearly. I remember life before the twins. I remember their arrival as fraught with worry and long conversations. I was solemnly promised by both my mother and my father in a series of talks that I was not to worry about being cast aside of any such things. These conversations gave me the feeling that I was the proper son and these two who were about to pop onto the scene were to be considered guests in a house that I effectively owned.
Such notions didn’t – as they shouldn’t have – survive the birth of the girls. They immediately charmed both myself and my parents. We had hitherto been a very quiet, perhaps even to outsiders sombre family. So that as babies and then toddlers, the noisy and joyful presence came as a revelation.
I loved my younger sisters and they grew up to be genuine companions. I was their protector and their friend. They looked up to me and I grew to fit their expectations. I strove to win their admiration which they gave gladly anyway.
My schoolwork was averagely good. Never exceptional. University bound, competent, good academic material. Won’t set the world on fire.
I knew that mother and father were mildly disappointed but they always tried to spot things which were in me that were outside of their expectations. For instance, they loved my self-sufficiency and my practicality. I think the proudest moment of my father’s life – in regard to me – was when we got a flat tire going over Coney Fell. We pulled over and looked at the wind whipping the clouds across the tops of the hills. I got the spare wheel out of the boot and changed it swiftly and without comment as my father looked on, marvelling. My father seemed surprised we even had a spare wheel in the boot, such was his divorce from the world of such trivial matters. I was the one who did the supermarket shopping while my mother sat in the car reading the latest Medical Association journal. As I’ve already said, I and later the girls did anything that needed to be done around the farm and our growing array of skills were appreciated by both mother and father. Our cooking, our husbandry, our know how they took every opportunity to applaud. When Caroline became a vegetarian, followed soon after by Elaine, I could see my mother glowing with pride. We could not please them more than by doing things differently to what they were able or capable of doing. My going to university was no source of pride but a run of the mill progress, no more worthy of praise than my ability to tie my shoe laces.
The irony of course was that when they retired my mother and father found themselves increasingly marooned at Bracken Hill Farm, while I was away at Durham and then London and finally Italy. And Caroline went to Cardiff and then London and Elaine went to Cambridge and finally settled in London.
We would reconvene for Christmas. A week in the summer. But the Summers they preferred to travel and they would visit me, staying in Venice or Florence and I would travel to meet them.
I often wondered what their lives were like without us at Bracken Hill. And don’t think they were ever fully happy there and there was talk of selling the farm.
Toby had died in an accident. He had been ploughing the top field when the tractor had turned over. He mustn’t have been wearing his seat belt and when he was thrown from the cab, the tractor irritatingly rolled onto of him, crushing him to death.
‘He was probably “drunk”,’ father wrote and I never understood those quotation marks.
What on earth could drunk be a euphemism for?
I imagined my parents’ life in the farm the way you might telephone home when you know no one is there and imagine the sound of the telephone echoing hopelessly in the empty rooms. When we did return, and in later life I did so less and less, I felt vaguely resentful of small changes, the shabbiness that had been allowed to creep in, the disrepair, the absence of any actual farming. The fields had all been rented out to neighbouring farms, and unfamiliar tractors and unfamiliar fencing appeared. Someone kept a small stable of horses in the triangle field.
After father’s death, mother moved back to Cambridge. Remarkably her mother was still alive – now in her nineties and living in a nursing home. Mother rescued her from the nursing home and the last five years of her life was spent in an orderly round of teas and lunches, with Carlone and Elaine visiting regularly and colleagues and admirers including Clive Beckers, who I always perhaps unfairly suspected of being an amour.
One day mother didn’t get up and grandmother found her dead in her bed. Poor grandmother was reinstalled in her old room in the nursing home, following the funeral.
I missed the funeral.
It was weeks afterwards that I actually got the news. It had been the summer and I had retreated to an island in the Ionian Sea where I had indulged myself with a large pile of books and a lot of the local wine, swimming in the sea and having no contact whatsoever with the world. I was supposed to be away for a couple of weeks, but in the end I was away for two months. I was secretly hoping the university would fire me. I don’t know why. I enjoyed teaching, but I felt that I had become trapped in too comfortable a situation and with no prospect of actual advancement I could just see a long gentle decline to old age. I needed shaking up. So a long forgetful holiday, a reneging of commitments, an ignoring of responsibilities, sunshine, sea salt, blue skies and wine, and all my problems would be solved.
I returned home to find multiple letters and messages and before I even got there, Francesco’s tearful embrace told me something was up.
It seemed pointless to rush back to England now that my mother was buried and the academic year was set to begin. There were exams and – though I knew I could get out of everything with this important family matter as justification – I obstinately fulfilled my duties, perhaps frightened of returning. Frightened of facing the head stone reality of what had happened. Seeing it there chiselled as cold lichen ready fact.
It was a full six months later at Christmas that I returned to Bracken Hill Farm and we sat all together. At which point my sisters had not only decided everything but had – quite rightly – arranged everything. Of course, mother had left a will and we were all to have equal say. There was to be no primogeniture for us. I had already read the will some years earlier. In fact my mother and father were both very open and conscientious about giving us copies of their respective wills whenever they had drafted a new one. So there were no mysteries. I never visited her grave and have not done so to this day. It is a mental block but I feel it is one that my mother would both understand and find interesting.
Perhaps this is my final salute to her: giving her a little quirk to puzzle over.
I think the atmosphere at Bracken Hill had been as unpleasant as I ever remember it. The pounding rain did nothing to help the situation. The wind that drove up from the estuary thumped the falling water against the windows and the whole house seemed to shift and move like a galleon in a high sea. We sat in the piano room for a while but we couldn’t make ourselves heard against the howling wind and the rattle of the tiles and the rain against the window that seemed to have the consistencies of very small stones.
In the kitchen it was dark and cold and the ceiling was low but at least we could hear each other. It had been decided. Caroline was to live in the famr and she was to try and make a going concern of it. her then boyfriend Nathanial was to come and live there and help as Caroline’s guest.
‘He won’t pay us rent,’ Elaine said to me, and I felt there had been a conversation that she was effectively reporting to me.
‘Of course,’ I said.
‘The plan is that Caroline get the farm up and running again and then when you want to come back it will be here for you,’ Elaine said.
‘Yes?’ I said. ‘That’s very nice of you.’
‘Of course I would like to come back at some stage as well,’ Elaine said. ‘I already plan to spend some months here every year, work permitting.’
‘Good,’ I said.
‘You seem very non-committal,’ Caroline said. I realized they were both angry with me for missing mother’s funeral and everything else. Especially for the long delay in coming over. But air fares are expensive and the Greek trip had drained my coffers completely as it had been designed to do.
‘No, it isn’t that,’ I said. ‘It’s…’
But what was I going to say?
‘You have no plans to return to England?’ said Elaine. ‘Is that it?’
I coughed. We had lit the stove and though the room was heating up it was also a little smoky. I could hear the wood breaking in the grate.
‘Well, yes,’ I admitted. ‘I do have a life there.’
I swear they both seemed to scoff at this. The feeling I had was that they thought I had been on holiday and I had liked the holiday and I had decided to stay on holiday and not come home. To people totally honest I had to agree with them. That was exactly what had happened but I was in no mood to justify myself to the twins as they both stared at me. Eyebrows cocked and small unhappy smiles on their faces.
‘A life?’ said Elaine.
I didn’t even answer.
I said I was tired and stretched and picking up a paperback novel, one of my old James Bond books I noticed idly, I went to the lavatory. My refuge.
I took one of the more satisfying shits of my life. And as I did I resolved I would leave Bracken Hill Farm and I wouldn’t return. The chapter of my life that it represented was irrevocably closed and it held nothing for me except memories which could only be damaged by my presence there. The wind and the rain, the trees that groaned under their own tremendous weight, the eaves and timbers of the house itself the darkness of the surrounding hills, none of it was simpatico to me. Not as it had been.
The next day the rain had stopped and though the wind still blew dark clouds there was a reviving freshness to the air.
I walked up the old path through the orchards that had become unkempt overgrown woodland.
I followed the trail further up towards the old slate quarries from which the stone had been torn from the hillside which had built all the walls demarking the land and the barn and the old house itself. Slate’s a cold unsatisfactory stone but it is local and convenient. And so that’s what we had.
The bracken was red on the hill from which the farm took its name and I crossed the field where the tractor had killed poor old Tobey. The grass had grown over the half poloughed line bu it was still discernible like a half healed scar.
Up I went to the crest of the hill where the ancient stone circle that was once the centre of my life stands. I scanned the horizon and could see for miles and miles around as the December skies rolled overhead.
And I knew then I was saying goodbye and would never return.
It was foolishly melodramatic I know. Slightly shamefaced, I turned back the way I came and although I had tears in my eyes I blamed them on the wind. And the chances are that was the reason.
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John Bleasdale is a writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.Com and theStudioExec.com. He has also written a number of plays, screenplays and novels.