Lamb in Loveby Carrie Brown
In the tiny English village of Hursley, two lifelong acquaintances have never given each other a second glance. Until, on the very night of man's first moon landing, a precipitous passion alights on their middle-aged existence. Out for a stroll, Norris Lamb--postmaster, stamp collector, and church organist--spies spinster Vida Stephen dancing with glorious,… See more details below
In the tiny English village of Hursley, two lifelong acquaintances have never given each other a second glance. Until, on the very night of man's first moon landing, a precipitous passion alights on their middle-aged existence. Out for a stroll, Norris Lamb--postmaster, stamp collector, and church organist--spies spinster Vida Stephen dancing with glorious, uncharacteristic abandon by the moonlit fountain of the mansion where she tends the mute, retarded son of an absent employer. Norris senses a buried bravado and romance, a fragility and loneliness, that match his own. And he sets out, covertly, to woo her.
But both Norris and Vida are innocents in this endeavor. His courtship blunders down many wrong turns before it finds its unlooked-for catalyst in Manford, the gentle young man who is Vida's charge...and blossoms as a force to change three lives.
In luminous prose laced with quiet humor, Lamb in Love shows how love transforms the most ordinary and imperfect mortals.
Vida, unaware that Norris is in the throes of a wild--but unvoiced--passion, must herself decide whether to remain in the small English village where she has lived her entire life, or strike out on her own in search of a grand adventure.
Watching these two people surprised by love is Manford, the young disabled man who has been in Vida's charge for the last twenty years. Possessed of a strange and gentle intelligence, it is through Manford that Norris and Vida finally come to recognize each other and themselves. Heartwarm- ing, madcap, utterly beautiful, LAMB IN LOVE celebrates the strange and mysterious brilliance that is love. And it confirms Carrie Brown's status as an important and luminous talent.
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Sometimes, when he is hiding behind the horse chestnut and spying on Vida, Norris dares to lean slightly to the east and watch for Manford.
Since he has been pondering Vida and the circumstances of her life, Norris cannot decide for himself whether Manford is blessed or cursed. Certainly Manford has been lucky to have Vida, he thinks, though of course it is an unwelcome blessing to need a nanny all your days, no matter how charming and dependable she may be. And blessed, too, after a fashion, by his state of permanent innocence. But surely in all other ways it is a curse to be as dim-witted as Manford, unequipped to consider the marvelous complexities of the world, to tarry awhile in the amusing company of one's own thoughts and the genius of society's inventions. Does Manford, grown to manhood now, a strapping twenty-year-old fellow recently employed at Niven's Bakery to stuff the doughnuts with jam, have even a single thought? Something that might be described as having a beginning and a middle and an end, with a little flash of revelation glowing in the center of it? What does he think as he fills those doughnuts? Norris can't say for certain that Manford thinks anything at all, and the notion perplexes him.
Whenever he's there in the lane, hoping to catch sight of Vida, Norris prepares himself for the sound of her voice, for the frisson of delight that runs over his body. He hears her, of course, for Manford does not speak, has never been known to speak. Every time, Norris listens for the receding murmur of Vida's voice as she receives Manford's staggering embrace and inquires after his day (but isn't it pointless to ask if you can't be answered?) and leads him back down the lane to Southend House.
At that moment, after they've gone, Norris always thinks: It is so pretty in the lane. And he raises a hand delicately as if toward a work of art.
Along with serving as Hursley's postmaster, Norris is also amateur organist for St. Alphage, an entirely voluntary situation inherited from his grandmother, who, until she lost her sight, was pleased to be the only woman in Hampshire, she imagined, to hold the position of organist. As a consequence of her gender, she had begun offering her abilities free of charge, some vague understanding between her and the church committee that hers was a temporary service until the original organist was returned--safely, they all prayed--from the war. He was not, however. And by the time Norris was sufficiently proficient, the job was thought to be a sort of family office. He's never had a shilling for all his Sundays, though his repertoire is, he acknowledges, somewhat limited.
A philatelist and bachelor and collector of obscure reveries, Norris has never in his whole life had what might be described as a love affair. But he still remembers the name--Mary--of the sweet-faced girl who sat in front of him in the third form and whom he tried to kiss one day after school, darting out from behind a monkey puzzle tree and grabbing her to him. He remembers the feel of her upper arms within the circle of his hands, the slight yield of her flesh. But the girl had pulled away from him in horror, wiped her hand across her mouth, and burst inexplicably into tears, a response that mortified Norris so powerfully that the memory of it haunted him forever after, the scene replaying itself over and over again in excruciating detail, just when it seemed he might be free of it.
There was that one other time, the sad and mysterious incident with the weeping woman. Why do they all always seem to cry?
This woman's father, a postmaster in Winchester and an acquaintance of Norris's through the stamp league, had asked whether Norris wouldn't play escort to his daughter at a dance held at the St. Jude Hospital, where she was a nurse; her boyfriend, the father intimated, was a doctor who'd recently given her the brush-off. Norris, though nearly sick with anxiety, had dutifully presented himself to the girl at her flat. They had a cup of Pimm's at the dance, meanwhile watching other couples go round and round the large, empty room with its green walls and white plumbing. A steady rain beat dark against the windowpanes.
Norris, his heart racing, had asked the young woman to dance--she was quite pretty, after all. But once in his arms, she had wept so profusely and with such ferocity that she had soaked the shoulder of his suit coat. Eventually, with dismay, he had managed to steer her outside, still pressed to his shirtfront. He had driven her home and there he had left her off, still crying so hard that he could understand nothing of what she said other than, "Do forgive me."
Afterward the woman's father had been oddly nervous around Norris, as though they shared some terrible complicity. So, women--well, until Vida, it all seemed simply too complicated, too important, for words. He has made do without, pushing the idea of the fairer sex, as he refers to them, far, far to the back of his thoughts. He knows other men who seem always to be on their own--Sir Winstead-Harris, for instance. He's done all right, Norris thinks. Pots of money, anyway.
So. He is just a fifty-five-year-old stick whom his neighbors consider a confirmed bachelor. Terrified of women, perhaps? Or maybe a queer? (So careful with his appearance, etc.) He strikes some, in fact, as having the vulnerability of certain animals, the dolphin, perhaps, with its high, blunt brow and the dignity of a captive. With his mournful eyes and sometimes distracted manner, he is a fellow to be pitied, in a way, though he seems satisfied enough, always busy at the post office, full of helpful advice about the mails and so forth. Still, one does feel sorry for him; he's exactly the sort you expect to be taken by surprise by a sudden myocardial infarction. Or to be bitten by a rabid dog. One senses--vaguely--some harm speeding toward him, its target certain, its course unswerving.
But he is more than that now, Norris thinks, walking through Hursley, opening up the post office, mounting the steps to the organ on Sundays, doing his wash or his gardening or his sweeping. He is more than any of that. No one has the slightest idea who he really is, what he's capable of.
He can often be heard singing as he goes about his work these days.
For the first time in his life, he thinks, he isn't harm's foolish target, the idiot about to be turned tail over teacup, the one with egg on his face. He's standing directly in harm's way now, isn't he? He's brave as a soldier, fully prepared. He has everything to risk, and everything to gain.
He is Norris Lamb in love. Lamb in love.
But how really does Norris understand Vida? For that matter, Manford Perry?
Nowadays it's no longer proper to call them idiots or fools, these souls with the strange air of the savant behind their otherwise childlike expressions. Handicapped is how Norris has overheard Vida describe Manford.
"He is neither," Norris once heard Vida say, "a spastic nor a vegetable. Those are two different things entirely."
At the time, Norris took no special notice of her remark, beyond the upsetting nature of its context. It was near Christmas, well over a decade ago, at the annual children's party at the vicarage. The little children were playing pop goes the weasel, all of them arrayed in an uneven circle in the small wooden chairs carried over from the Sunday school into the parlor at the vicarage. The horsehair sofas, the ottomans, and the slipcovered chairs had been pushed back against the wall. The dark glass before the gloomy pictures--of rained-on moors and ruins and abbeys and so forth; what a sad lot of pictures the vicar surrounded himself with, Norris thought--held the reflection of the wavering spire of the Christmas tree. Yellow and red and blue bulbs threaded through the boughs glowed dully. The stiff faces of little wax dollies hanging from its branches, the spheres and spirals of the ornaments, the woolen mittens, the toy autos and lorries parked beneath--all this could be seen in the glass of those dreary pictures.
The children had just finished trimming the tree. The vicar himself balanced atop the wobbly ladder affixing the angel, meanwhile adjuring the children to take their places for the game.
Just over a quarter century before, this same room had been employed during air raids as a general shelter. Then, too, the furniture had been pushed back against the walls in precisely the same way, to make room for them all and provide a sort of buffer against explosion, Norris had thought, imagining feathers and horsehair drifting over their heads in the aftermath of impact. Norris himself had been refused by the British military service thanks to poor eyesight and a weak back, a rejection he'd taken very hard. As a consequence, however, he had remained in Hursley for the war and thus remembered the black shades at the vicarage pulled down before the windows, the yellow lamp shade shrouded in a dark cardboard sheath, so that only a small saucer of honey-colored light fell on the tabletop. Kneeling there beside his trembling neighbors, Norris had made himself believe that the church would deflect a bomb by virtue of its very holiness, that his mother and grandmother and all their friends would be safe. And, in the end, his prayers were answered, for Hursley itself was completely untouched by the war, though it suffered heavy losses among sons and fathers overseas. Norris's own father, Terry Lamb, was killed while on patrol in Winchester with the Dad's Army, when he was struck by a grief-stricken woman on a bicycle bearing home to her children the news of their own father's death in France. In his fall to the pavement, Terry Lamb suffered both a heart attack and a massive blow to the head, though either injury alone would have been enough to kill him.
Though no one ever suggested it, something about his father's death always felt ignominious to Norris. During the war years, no death, unless it was in direct service to the war effort itself, seemed quite justified. Ordinary passings on--by accident or by disease--even seemed vaguely embarrassing, a slacking off, as it were. Though there was a small service held for Terry Lamb at St. Alphage, and enough men were rounded up to carry the coffin, Norris would always remember the occasion as a family humiliation.
A decade went by; much changed in the village. But on the occasion of Vida's comment about Manford and spastics and vegetables, the common room of the vicarage looked very much as it had when the Germans had been bombing London and Norris had been bowed, cheek by jowl, beside his grandmother and a lot of other old pensioners, their anxiety perfuming the close air of the crowded room with a sour potage of fear and apology.
On this particular afternoon, the afternoon of Vida's remark, the vicarage had been stiflingly hot. The radiators hissed and steamed in a musical way. The vicar, perspiration running down his temples and into his clerical collar, had been anxious to move the festivities along. From his place near the Christmas tree, where he was cordoned off now by the circle of children, he held up his hand and raised his index finger, nodding vigorously at Norris. Taking the vicar's cue, Norris bore down on the piano. It was horribly out of tune, as usual, Norris noted, with that same stubborn resistance to the pure tone, especially the sharps.
As the music began, one little boy, young Davey Horsey, jumped up and began to race round the circle of children, stopping at last behind Manford's chair to pat him on the head. At Davey's touch, Manford looked up, his expression one of happy surprise, as though a star had perhaps just fallen and lighted on his head, twinkling there and pirouetting on one delicate point. But when he failed to jump up and give chase to Davey, the boy gave him another tap on the head--harder this time--and then again and again as Manford simply continued to sit there, his expression evolving to anxiety, young Davey walloping away stubbornly at Manford's head.
Manford had raised his arms protectively and cowered in his chair, his mouth wobbling with dismay, tears springing from his eyes. Lacey Horsey, Davey's mother, had rushed forward and slapped her boy. Taking him roughly by the arm and putting her mouth close by his face, she said to him in a loud whisper, "Not the spastic vegetable, Davey! Can't you see he doesn't know how?"
By then a good number of the other children were in tears, too. Davey's assault and Lacey's reprimand and Manford's weeping had upset them all. Mothers hurried into the circle to comfort their children. And so Vida's fiery rebuke to Lacey--about Manford being neither a spastic nor a vegetable, but only a little boy, for God's sake--was lost perhaps to everyone but Lacey and Norris himself, his hands poised above the keys in midphrase.
The mothers hushed their children and led them back to their seats to begin the game again. Vida turned away from Lacey, went to Manford in his chair, and wiped his face with the white cuff of her shirtsleeve. She knelt before him, looked into his face, and said his name quietly. When he raised his gaze, she reached out and touched his cheek. "Mind me now, Manford," she said. "It's easy as anything. When someone taps you on the head, you must stand up and run right after them fast as you can. Run, Manford. That's all you have to do." And then she gave him a brilliant smile and a hug and stood up.
Norris had been watching her. She walked briskly back to the edge of the room, where she turned to stare out the window into the darkness of the cemetery beyond the vicar's famous Christmas garden, the bare trees there bedecked with ghostly gray suet shapes for the birds. Norris had found himself staring at her back, but when she turned to face the room again he hurriedly averted his gaze. And as he sat there stupidly at the piano, a memory of an illustration from a picture book he'd had as a child came into his head. The painting had been an allegorical representation of the virtue Mercy, a towering female figure turning the brilliant benediction of her smile on a pastoral depiction of the harvest. In her pale-as-plaster hands, Mercy cradled a young calf; at her knee a tiny farmer had put aside his knife and embraced the lamb. The scene had been painted in minute, exquisite detail, like an illuminated manuscript, and had fascinated Norris. But one day, months after first opening the book, he discovered that one detail had escaped his notice: despite the figure's patient smile, despite the gamboling lambs freed from the farmer's knife, one damning, crystalline tear hung quivering at the figure's eyelash. Norris struggled with the presence of this tear. When he put his own fingertip to the page, he half expected to see the tear come away, with a little shine of wetness. That tear--somehow so real, so necessary--complicated the picture beyond his understanding.
But on the afternoon of pop goes the weasel, when Norris looked up from where his hands rested on the piano keys, the vicar, signaling firmly, caught his eye. And Norris shook himself free of his reverie and set to playing.
Round and round the mulberry bush.
From time to time, he saw Manford's eyes stray hopefully to Vida's back. But no one hit him for pop goes the weasel again. A shame, Norris thought.
Still, he wondered: If not a spastic or a vegetable . . . then what?
Norris sees how Manford, grown into adulthood, has become a handsome man in a way, though he appears like a child in most other respects.
Vida, who began as Manford's nanny when she was twenty-two, has been looking after him his whole life, twenty years, Norris calculates. Before starting work at Niven's, Manford had spent all his time with her. But Mrs. Blatchford, who works at Niven's, has confided to Norris that it is Vida's program to instill something of the "thrill of independence" in Manford now, by coaxing him to walk part of the way home by himself when his work is finished.
Since his infatuation with Vida began, Norris has watched very carefully as Mr. Niven escorts Manford across the Romsey Road, the baker's white apron flapping, his dusty flour cloth waving Manford along.
Stopping in the bakery for a loaf of bread late one afternoon, Norris paused at the door to watch Mr. Niven and Manford waiting at the curb. Mrs. Blatchford stepped outside at that moment and began pinching the brown leaves from the geraniums in the window boxes.
"Having his lesson," she said, following Norris's gaze to the two figures waiting patiently before the stream of traffic. "Vida's depending on us, you know." She lowered her voice, though there wasn't anyone else there to hear. "I do believe she's worrying about what will happen to him when she--you know. She wants to lengthen the reins a bit now, to prepare him."
Norris turned away from the cars on the Romsey Road and Mr. Niven and Manford waiting at the curb. He stared at Mrs. Blatchford, stricken. "When she what?" he managed finally. "What do you mean by 'you know,' said in that way?" He felt himself growing fuzzy around the edges, the beginning of a faint--he was familiar with the symptoms. He'd fainted often when he was younger and doing most of his growing. Something to do with his blood pressure, Dr. Faber had said. "When she dies?" he asked finally, appalled.
Mrs. Blatchford glanced over at him. "Oh, tsk! Norris Lamb!" she said. "Every time someone mentions dying, all you men grow faint in the head! What a pack of ninnies you are! Vida's not going to die--at least, not before her time, we may hope," she said primly. She crumbled the dry leaves of the geranium, put them in her apron pocket. "She's just worrying about the day, whenever it may come. That's what we women do. We must worry. We're the designated worriers, if you will." She leaned over the window box.
Norris felt his heart begin beating again. He licked his lips. His mouth had gone dry.
"Of course, no one's asking me," Mrs. Blatchford went on blithely, "but I think his father might have done a bit more for him over the years. He's left him entirely in Vida's hands, you know. And he's plenty of money, I should think. He might have found a good institution for him! Left Vida to get on with her life."
Norris turned away from Mrs. Blatchford to watch Manford step down from the curb at Mr. Niven's urging, pausing in what Norris thought was a perilous manner to wave back at him. He felt distracted by the danger of their undertaking and wasn't able to pay full attention to Mrs. Blatchford. "He's not very attentive to traffic, is he?" he observed.
"What? Oh, no," Mrs. Blatchford said. "Not yet."
They watched Mr. Niven shoo Manford across. It seemed to Norris, who had little faith or understanding of Manford's dependability, a risky enterprise.
Meet the Author
Carrie Brown was awarded the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award for her first novel, Rose's Garden. She lives in Sweet Briar, Virginia, with her husband and their three young children, and teaches fiction at Sweet Briar College.
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