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An exclusive short story from the author of EDITH & OLIVER!

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Jess Htay - January 25th, 2018

Today on the blog we have something very exciting to share. To celebrate the publication of EDITH AND OLIVER in paperback, a ‘tender and vivid novel about a failing marriage set in the milieu of the Edwardian music hall’ (SUNDAY TIMES), author Michèle Forbes has written an exclusive short story for you to enjoy. Called BOGLAND VIGILANTE, it has all the atmosphere that characterises Michèle’s writing – we hope you enjoy!

 

 

BOGLAND VIGILANTE

I sit on an upturned steel bucket in my dark, sodden, wind-torn garden. My body is curled over like a conch, my feet are shrunken cold in my wellington boots, my gloved hands clasp a baseball bat. Eleven o’clock at night and I wait for them to come.

Three nights in a row it has happened. They’ve stolen carrots, lifted celeriac and chard, pulled the last of the white turnips hastily from the ground. They even tried to break the lock on the greenhouse door, but something must have frightened them off. Not Kathleen’s dog, I know that much. It was poisoned two weeks ago. Found like a discarded stolen handbag in Kathleen’s bed of hardy drumhead cabbage. All my ex-husband said when he telephoned as usual on a Friday evening was ‘You must be delighted. Didn’t the bloody dog wake you up at six thirty every morning!’

All the suburban gardens round here have become a scavenging ground – the ‘mud flats’ as they’re now known as – and plot burglaries are commonplace. Lawns practically disappeared overnight when, five years ago, the government offered grants to people who would ‘grow their own’. But what were they thinking? For with only a marginal sun in the sky growth slides away like a piece of scalded skin from a wound before it even gets a chance to take. Don’t they know this? Didn’t they see this?

Some of us have found interim solutions, albeit small ones. Raised beds have been raised even higher. Redundant solar panels have been ripped from off the roofs to provide cover for young plants. We stake and tie and secure as best we can. Anything that does grow we protect.

I squeeze the baseball bat in my hands. I haven’t thought much about how I will react if they do come.

I prefer to think about my daughter, when she became aware of the night sky for the first time. She was three. Then there were stars. And a moon. I remember how she let her head tilt back upon her shoulders, the garden solid beneath her feet, and out of her mouth came a high delicious laugh at the skirmish of night pearl above her in the velvet blue. The beauty of witnessing that. Now she’s twenty three, lives with her two cats and trusts nothing.

You see, the weather has unanchored itself, or we have let it loose. The year, now, is a constant cruel March. Each paltry dawn arrives disguised in thick black-grey clouds, which hang like heavy, immodest thoughts above the earth, and it feels like night is always falling. At best, perhaps when temperatures edge up a little around midday, the clouds yield for a moment to reveal a sky of white parachute silk, just enough to show us that there is no more blue. And the sea has swollen. It is just too big.

Beyond us Wicklow drifts. The crops rot and the farmlands fester under their own juice. Cattle can no longer stand in the flooded fields, besides there is no grass, or barely any.

Normally that kind of soup would bring great benefits and Nature would take advantage of the swill. But Nature is tired and cold and it cannot see what use to make of it.

And the fierce, relentless wind has wiped names clean from the earth. No more delicate long-stemmed verbena, no more cherry blossom, no more camellia, they cannot hack it. Our rugged firethorn hedge at the front of the house can, just about, folding in the wind like a big slab of soft cake, but birds no longer nest there.

I hear a low rumbling noise and a fist of panic twists in my chest. I pull my sopping wet woolly hat over my ears as though to deny I have heard anything at all. This was a bad idea. What am I doing sitting on a bucket in the perishing cold with a baseball bat? A baseball bat? They’ll probably batter me to death with it. What was I thinking? I have no hope in stopping whoever it is that steals the vegetables from my God-forsaken mire.

The rumbling grows bigger. I can feel the vibrations through my wellington boots. The air changes against my skin as though the temperature of the night is opening a chink to let something in. What is that with impendence? With the sensing of something? Despite the panic and fear there is always that moment of stillness offered before the real thing comes.

I catch something moving from out of the corner of my eye. I turn slowly to look, hardly daring to breathe. The pluck which desperation had given me has gone. I am now terrified that I will be attacked at any moment. I see a shape suddenly loom up beside me, large, unruly, as though it has risen up from the earth and made itself. And I realise it is the shape of a man. His body compost and earthworm. The roots are his shredded hair. Fearfully I look up at him from my bucket and I cannot tell if he is young or old or what he is wearing or why he stands so still beside me. Just the shape of himself in the dark, unfazed by the whip of wind, the slick of rain. He is huge. Biblical. I look at him and say nothing. If I speak it might happen. He might club me with my own baseball bat. I think about Kathleen’s dog, how it would never have been aware of its own demise. But me, now, I am very aware, so much so I feel paralysed.

His upper body lurches over me. His bottom half stays put. I look at his head, a dark, wet oddly shaped thing. Where has he come from? The nearby Ballyrowan Estate? The other side of town? I feel sure that I should beg for mercy before it’s too late. Or spout some deal to pacify him, to make him feel that he has already won without the need to throttle me. I pray that it’s too dark for him to see the baseball bat. I lower it as slowly as I can between my knees.

In the gloom it seems that he creates a mouth for himself out of his own dark flesh. The mouth opens into a black yawn and he speaks.

I cannot understand a word he says. It is terrifying. Too much tongue perhaps, too little intelligence. I feel I’m dissolving into the black rain.

Now his vowels clump together, his consonants cling like leeches off their edges. I decipher a ‘you’ a ‘me’ a ‘your’ in his rasp as though he is hewing them out of the claggy earth. I am too afraid to speak.

He groans and shakes his big head, flinging a few heavy wet drops from his hair.

‘Why did you call me into your garden?’ he says slowly. His voice is deep like a slurry pit. It makes me cold, colder.

‘I didn’t call you,’ I say nervously, thinking it more prudent to reply than to remain silent.

‘Why did you ask me to come?’ Bits of darkness are tumbling out of his mouth.

‘No. You’re mistaken. I didn’t call you,’ I say politely, terrified of his clowning.

His body stays rooted. ‘You’re in need of conversation?’

‘Sorry?’ I mumble.

‘I asked if you’re in need of conversation?’ His steadily increasing clarity is intimidating.

‘No. No.’ I say.

‘That’s not so ridiculous a need.’

He moves his head slowly to look around him and I see, as my eyes adjust to his darkness, his neck is as thick as a tree trunk.

I try placating him, not yet understanding his game. ‘How did you get into my garden then?’

‘I told you,’ he turns back to me, ‘you called me in.’

His eyes are two dark pools which own me. After a moment his mouth slides open again. ‘It’s not me who’s stealing your vegetables by the way.’

‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Who’s stealing them then?’ Despite myself it is becoming a conversation.

‘I’ve no idea.’

I still cannot tell where he is from. ‘Everything is ruined, gone,’ I say.

‘Now you’re exaggerating,’ he says coldly.

‘I am?’

‘And you’re scared.’ He lets out a sigh like a bear growl and raises both of his heavy arms in the air. ‘And you killed your neighbour’s dog,’ he continues. ‘You pushed rat poison into a chunk of bread and threw it over the wall.’

That stops me. ‘I did no such thing.’

‘You did,’ he insists calmly.

‘What are you talking about?’

‘You’re scared of everything you used to trust.’

The rain falls in rivulets down my face. ‘Who are you? What do you want?’

‘Your hopelessness is pushing everything away,’ he says softly.

My fear gives way to indignation. His intrusiveness is needling me. His thick smugness. ‘The dog was a bloody nuisance,’ I mutter.

‘Yes, that’s true.’

‘And something had to be done.’ I say, trembling. ‘I’m at the end of my tether.’

‘That’s true too.’ He lowers his big head.

‘There’s nothing left. Everything is falling apart.’ I stare at him.

‘I know.’

‘The weather is crucifying us.’ My voice is shaking.

‘The weather doesn’t care.’ He looks up.

‘And this Bogland that we’re in—’ my voice is rising in pitch.

‘Yes. Some deeper into the Bog than others. Some are way deep in.’

‘What are we to do?’ Tears well up in my eyes.

‘Humiliating, isn’t it?’ He growls again.

I feel the cold rim of the bucket pressing hard against my thighs. My feet are numb. Tears make thin warm lanes down my face. My mind softens like the clay. ‘I’m not proud of doing that,’ I say feebly. ‘I’m not proud of killing the dog.’

‘That’s something at least.’ He twists his bulky torso to the side as though he needs to stretch.

I drop my head. ‘I saw someone hanging out their washing the other day and I felt like crying.’

‘You’re crying now.’ His voice is mulched with tenderness. ‘They were looking for a glimpse of sun. There’s optimism for you.’ He stands motionless beside me. ‘Your spinach is thriving,’ he says. ‘It loves the torrential qualm.’

‘Oh.’

He shakes his big head, then finally, ‘You watch but you don’t see.’ He spits it out. A splutter of earth vowels in the persisting rain. ‘I’d be careful of that.’

He seems suddenly to suck the darkness into himself, an inrush of falling earth. All sense disintegrates and I can no longer make out what he is saying.

Then silence. Long, empty. The rain persists. Is he gone? I wait, afraid to check.

I look around in the dark hoping he’s not. Hoping to catch his ink-black bulky outline, rugged as a knoll, against the gloom. Afraid now to be without him. He is nowhere to be seen.

Only much later I dare to move.  I stand up slowly from my vigil and, without turning my head, I walk with my baseball bat from my dark garden into my house. Nothing follows me from the shadows. Once inside the house I close the door firmly and wrap myself in a blanket to loosen my shocked frozen bones. Eventually warmth moves through my veins like an ooze of red river.

When I wake the next morning I retrace my steps to the end of my garden, as a murderer might feel compelled to revisit the scene of the crime they have committed. The rain lashes against my face and the wind bites my skin. My footprints from the night before now hold tiny reservoirs of doubt. I see the upturned bucket upon which I had crouched the night before still stuck firmly in the mud. Nothing else is disturbed. There is no evidence of another stride. But my eye catches three new green shoots beside the spinach.

Grey-black follows me as I walk to work. I move along the bleak wet street, last night’s shadow still close at my elbow, and I think of the time, as a child, when I kept vigil at the Exposition of the Eucharist. I was only one of a constant stream of parishioners who kept attendance at the church night and day. And I remember feeling totally amazed that people ordered themselves in such a way in the name of the Unseen. That not for one moment did the eye distrust the heart. And I had thought to myself even then, as a child of seven, ‘I don’t know if God is here or not, but I’m here,’ and I had felt my own presence as a value in the world.

As I walk I brace the elements, tasting salt on my tongue as though it is a warning. The sea is coming.

*

Follow Michèle on twitter here, and order a copy of EDITH AND OLIVER in paperback here!

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This entry was posted on Thursday, January 25th, 2018 at 6:26 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

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