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By Brian W. Aldiss
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1964 Brian W. Aldiss
All rights reserved.
The River: Sparcot
Through broken reeds the creature moved. It was not alone; its mate followed, and behind her five youngsters, joining the hunt with eagerness.
The stoats had swum a brook. Now they climbed from the chill water, up the bank and through the reeds, bodies low to the ground, necks outstretched, the young ones in imitation of their father. Father looked out with an impersonal hunger at the rabbits frisking for food not many feet away.
This had once been wheatland. Taking advantage of a period of neglect, weeds had risen up and had their day, choking the cereal. Later, a fire spread across the land, burning down the thistles and giant grasses. Rabbits, which prefer low growth, had moved in, nibbling the fresh green shoots that thrust through the ash. The shoots that survived this thinning process found themselves with plenty of space in which to grow, and were now fair-sized young trees. The number of rabbits had consequently declined, for rabbits like open land; so the grass had its chance to return. Now it, in its turn, was being thinned beneath the continuing spread of the beeches. The few rabbits that hopped there were thin of flank.
They were also wary. One of them saw the beady eyes watching in the rushes. It leaped for shelter and the others followed. At once the adult stoats were covering ground, twin stretches of brown rippling across the open space. The rabbits bolted down into their warrens. Without pause, the stoats followed. They could go anywhere. The world — this tiny piece of the world — was theirs.
Not many miles away, under the same tattered winter sky and by the banks of the same river, the wilderness had been cleared. In the wilderness, a pattern was still discernible; it was no longer a valid pattern, and so it faded year by year. Large trees, to some of which a raddled leaf still clung, marked the position of ancient hedges. They enclosed tangles of vegetation covering what had once been fields: brambles, lacerating their way like rusty barbed wire towards the centre of the fields, and elders, and prickly briars, as well as a sturdy growth of saplings. Along the edge of the clearing these unruly hedges had been used as a stockade against further growth in a wide and ragged arc, thus protecting an area of some few hundred acres that had its longer side against the river.
This rude stockade was patrolled by an old man in a coarse shirt of orange, green, red, and yellow stripes. The shirt furnished almost the only splash of colour in the entire bedraggled landscape; it had been made from the canvas of a deck chair.
At intervals, the barrier of vegetation was broken by paths trodden into the undergrowth. The paths were brief and ended in crude latrines, where holes had been dug and covered with tarpaulins or wooden battens. These were the sanitary arrangements of the village of Sparcot.
The village itself lay on the river in the middle of its clearing. It had been built, or rather it had accumulated in the course of centuries, in the shape of an H, with the crossbar leading to a stone bridge spanning the river. The bridge still spanned the river, but led only to a thicket from which the villagers gathered much of their firewood.
Of the other two longer roads, the one nearer the river had been intended to serve only the needs of the village. This it still did; one leg of it led to an old water mill where lived Big Jim Mole, the boss of Sparcot. The other road had once been a main road. After the houses petered out, it led in each direction into the stockaded wilderness of vegetation; there it was dragged down like a snake in a crocodile's throat and devoured under the weight of undergrowth.
All the houses of Sparcot showed signs of neglect. Some were ruined; some were uninhabited ruins. A hundred and twelve people lived here. None of them had been born in Sparcot.
Where two of the roads joined, there stood a stone building that had served as a post office. Its upper windows commanded a view of both the bridge in one direction and the cultivated land with wilderness beyond in the other. This was now the village guardroom, and since Jim Mole insisted that a guard always be kept, it was occupied now.
There were three people sitting or lying in the old barren room. An old woman, long past her eightieth year, sat by a wood stove, humming to herself and nodding her head. She held out her hands to the stove, on which she was warming up stew in a tin platter. Like the others, she was wrapped against a wintry chill that the stove did little to dispel.
Of the two men present, one was extremely ancient in appearance, although his eye was bright. He lay on a paillasse on the floor, restlessly looking about him, staring up at the ceiling as if to puzzle out the meaning of the cracks there, or at the walls as if to solve the riddle of their damp patches. His face, sharp as a stoats beneath its stubble, wore an irritable look, for the old woman's humming jarred his nerves.
Only the third occupant of the guardroom was properly alert. He was a well-built man in his middle fifties, without a paunch, but not so starveling thin as his companions. He sat in a creaking chair by the window, a rifle by his side. Although he was reading a book, he looked up frequently, directing his gaze through the window. With one of these glances he saw the patrol man with the colourful shirt approaching over the pastures.
"Sam's coming," he said.
He put his book down as he spoke. His name was Algy Timberlane. He had a thick grizzled beard that grew down almost to his navel, where it had been cut sharply across. Because of this beard he was known as Greybeard, although he lived in a world of greybeards. But his high and almost bald head lent emphasis to the beard, and its texture, barred as it was with stripes of black hair sprouting thickly from the jaw line and fading out lower down, made it particularly noticeable in a world no longer able to afford other forms of personal adornment.
When he spoke, the woman stopped her humming without giving any other sign she had heard. The man on the paillasse sat up and put a hand on the cudgel that lay beside him. He screwed his face up, sharpening his gaze to peer at the clock that ticked noisily on a shelf; then he squinted at his wristwatch. This battered old souvenir of another world was Towin Thomas' most cherished possession, although it had not worked in a decade.
"Sam's early coming off guard, twenty minutes early," he said. "Old sciver. Worked up an appetite for lunch strolling around out there. You better watch that hash of yours, Betty — I'm the only one I'm wanting to get indigestion off that grub, girl."
Betty shook her head. It was as much a nervous tic as a negation of anything that the man with the cudgel might have said. She kept her hands to the fire, not looking around.
Towin Thomas picked up his cudgel and rose stiffly to his feet, helping himself up against the table. He joined Greybeard at the window, peering through the dirty pane and rubbing it with his sleeve.
"That's Sam Bulstow all right. You can't mistake that shirt."
Sam Bulstow walked down the littered street. Rubble, broken tiles and litter, lay on the pavements; dock and fennel — mortified by winter — sprouted from shattered gratings. Sam Bulstow walked in the middle of the road. There had been no traffic but pedestrians for several years now. He turned in when he reached the post office, and the watchers heard his footsteps on the boards of the room below them. Without excitement, they listened to the whole performance of his getting upstairs: the groans of the bare treads, the squeak of a horny palm on the hand rail as it helped tug its owner upward, the rasp and heave of lungs challenged by every step.
Finally, Sam appeared in the guardroom. The gaudy stripes of his shirt threw up some of their colour onto the white stubble of his jaws. He stood for a while staring in at them, resting on the frame of the door to regain his breath.
"You're early if it's dinner you're after," Betty said, without bothering to turn her head. Nobody paid her any attention, and she nodded her old rats' tails to herself in disapproval.
Sam just stood where he was, showing his yellow and brown teeth in a pant. "The Scotsmen are getting near," he said.
Betty turned her neck stiffly to look at Greybeard. Towin Thomas arranged his crafty old wolf's visage over the top of his cudgel and looked at Sam with his eyes screwed up.
"Maybe they're after your job, Sammy, man," he said.
"Who gave you that bit of information, Sam?" Greybeard asked.
Sam came slowly into the room, sneaking a sharp look at the clock as he did so, and poured himself a drink of water from a battered can standing in a corner. He gulped the water and sank down onto a wooden stool, stretching his fibrous hands out to the fire and generally taking his time before replying.
"There was a packman skirting the northern barricade just now. Told me he was heading for Faringdon. Said the Scotsmen had reached Banbury."
"Where is this packman?" Greybeard asked, hardly raising his voice, and appearing to look out of the window.
"He's gone on now, Greybeard. Said he was going to Faringdon."
"Passed by Sparcot without calling here to sell us anything? Not very likely."
"I'm only telling you what he said. I'm not responsible for him. I just reckon old Boss Mole ought to know the Scotsmen are coming, that's all." Sam's voice relapsed into the irritable whine they all used at times.
Betty turned back to her stove. She said, "Everyone who comes here brings rumours. If it isn't the Scots, it's herds of savage animals. Rumours, rumours ... It's as bad as the last war, when they kept telling us there was going to be an invasion. I reckoned at the time they only done it to scare us, but I was scared just the same."
Sam cut off her muttering. "Rumours or not, I'm telling you what the man said. I thought I ought to come up here and report it. Did I do right or didn't I?"
"Where had this fellow come from?" Greybeard asked.
"He hadn't come from anywhere. He was going to Faringdon." He smiled his sly-doggy smile at his joke, and picked up a reflected smile from Towin.
"Did he say where he had been?" Greybeard asked patiently.
"He said he had been coming from up river. Said there was a lot of stoats heading this way."
"Eh, that's another rumour we've heard before," Betty said to herself, nodding her head.
"You keep your trap shut, you old cow," Sam said, without rancour.
Greybeard took hold of his rifle by the barrel and moved into the middle of the room until he stood looking down at Sam.
"Is that all you have to report, Sam?"
"Scotsmen, stoats — what more do you want from one patrol? I didn't see any elephants, if you were wondering." He cracked his grin again, looking again for Towin Thomas' approval.
"You aren't bright enough to know an elephant if you saw it, Sam, you old fleapit," Towin said.
Ignoring this exchange, Greybeard said, "Okay, Sam, back you go on patrol. There's another twenty minutes before you are relieved."
"What, go back out there just for another lousy twenty minutes? Not on your flaming nelly, Greybeard! I've had it for this afternoon and I'm sitting right here on this stool. Let it ride for twenty minutes. Nobody's going to run away with Sparcot, whatever Jim Mole may think."
"You know the dangers as well as I do."
"You know you'll never get any sense out of me, not while I've got this bad back. These blinking guard duties come around too often for my liking."
Betty and Towin kept silent. The latter cast a glance at his broken wristwatch. Both he and Betty, like everyone else in the village, had had the necessity for continuous guard drummed into them often enough, but they kept their eyes tracing the seamed lines on the board floor, knowing the effort involved in thrusting old legs an extra time up and down stairs and an extra time around the perimeter.
The advantage lay with Sam, as he sensed. Facing Greybeard more boldly, he said, "Why don't you take over for twenty minutes if you're so keen on defending the dump? You're a young man — it'll do you good to have a stretch."
Greybeard tucked the leather sling of the rifle over his left shoulder and turned to Towin, who stopped gnawing the top of his cudgel to look up.
"Strike the alarm gong if you want me in a hurry, and not otherwise. Remind old Betty it's not a dinner gong."
The woman cackled as he moved towards the door, buttoning his baggy jacket.
"Your grub's just on ready, Algy. Why not stay and eat it?" she asked.
Greybeard slammed the door without answering. They listened to his heavy tread descending the stairs.
"You don't reckon he took offence, do you? He wouldn't report me to old Mole, would he?" Sam asked anxiously. The others mumbled neutrally and hugged their lean ribs; they did not want to be involved in any trouble.
Greybeard walked slowly along the middle of the street, avoiding the puddles still left from a rainstorm two days ago. Most of Sparcot's drains and gutters were blocked, but the reluctance of the water to run away was due mainly to the marshiness of the land. Somewhere upstream debris was blocking the river, causing it to overflow its banks. He must speak to Mole; they must get up an expedition to look into the trouble. But Mole was growing increasingly cantankerous, and his policy of isolationism would be against any move out of the village.
Greybeard chose to walk by the river, to continue around the perimeter of the stockade afterwards. He brushed through an encroaching elder's stark spikes, smelling as he did so a melancholy-sweet smell of the river and the things that mouldered by it.
Several of the houses that backed onto the river had been devoured by fire before he and his fellows came to live here. Vegetation grew sturdily inside and out their shells. On a back gate lying crookedly in long grass, faded lettering proclaimed the name of the nearest shell: THAMESIDE.
Farther on the houses were undamaged by fire and inhabited. Greybeard's own house was here. He looked at the windows, but caught no sight of his wife, Martha; she would be sitting quietly by the fire with a blanket around her shoulders, staring into the grate and seeing — what? Suddenly an immense impatience pierced Greybeard. These houses were a poor old huddle of buildings, nestling together like a bunch of ravens with broken wings. Most of them lacked chimneys or guttering; each year they hunched their shoulders higher as the rooftrees sagged.
And in general the people fitted in well enough with this air of decay. He did not; nor did he want his Martha to do so.
Deliberately, he slowed his thoughts. Anger was useless. He made a virtue of not being angry. But he longed for a freedom beyond the flyblown safety of Sparcot.
Beyond the houses were Toby's trading post — a newer building that, and in better shape than most — and the barns, ungraceful structures that commemorated the lack of skill with which they had been built. Beyond the barns lay the fields, turned up in weals to greet the frosts of winter; shards of water glittered between furrows. Beyond the fields grew the thickets marking the eastern end of Sparcot. Beyond Sparcot lay the immense mysterious territory that was the Thames Valley.
Just beyond the province of the village an old brick bridge with a collapsed arch menaced the river, its remains suggesting the horns of a ram growing together in old age. Greybeard contemplated it and the fierce little weir just beyond it — for that way lay whatever went by the name of freedom these days — and then turned away to patrol the living stockade.
With the rifle comfortably under one crooked arm, he made his promenade. He could see across to the other side of the clearing; it was deserted, except for two men walking distantly among cattle, and a stooped figure in the cabbage patch. He had the world almost to himself — and year by year he would have it more to himself.
He snapped down the shutter of his mind on that thought, and began to concentrate on what Sam Bulstow had reported. It was probably an invention to gain him twenty minutes off patrol duty. The rumour about the Scots sounded unlikely, though no more so than other tales that travellers had brought them — that a Chinese army was marching on London, or that gnomes and elves and men with badger faces had been seen dancing in the woods. Scope for error and ignorance seemed to grow season by season. It would be good to know what was really happening ...
Less unlikely than the legend of marching Scots was Sam's tale of a strange packman. Densely though the thickets grew, there were ways through them and men who travelled those ways, though the isolated village of Sparcot saw little but the traffic that moved painfully up and down the Thames. Well, they must maintain their watch. Even in these more peaceful days — "the apathy that bringeth perfect peace," thought Greybeard, wondering what he was quoting — villages that kept no guard could be raided and ruined for the sake of their food stocks, or just for madness. So they believed.
Excerpted from Greybeard by Brian W. Aldiss. Copyright © 1964 Brian W. Aldiss. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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