Winter Journeyby Isabel Colegate
His reverie is broken by a January visit from
His wild years at last behind him, Alfred Ashby, a celebrated photographer now in his late fifties, has returned to where he was raised, the family farm in rural England. The old house in the valley, little changed by the years, provides him an agreeable darkroom, necessary solitude, and a link to a more tranquil past.
His reverie is broken by a January visit from his older sister, Edith, a former Member of Parliament and the survivor of two disastrous marriages. To her Alfred's bachelor life is undesirable, his appearance careless, his current worka series of manipulated images of his late lover, Lydiaobsessive and disturbing. She has plans for Alfred, for the farm and for the future, plans she hopes will help the two of them mend their frayed relationship and forget their past sorrows, past mistakes.
Published in the UK to great acclaim, Winter Journey is Isabel Colegate's first new book to appear in America in nearly a decade. The London Times called it "a sonorous, muted masterpiece," a book whose intelligence shines through the page like the bright winter sun, illuminating these characters and the turbulent histories that have shaped them. "I suppose you might say it's a novel about Britain," said the Financial Times. "On a simpler level it's about a brother and a sister, and it reads true."
About the Author:
Isabel Colegate is the author of eleven previous novels, the most recent of which are The Summer of the Royal Visit, Deceits of Time, and the international best seller The Shooting Party. She lives near Bath, England.
The Washington Post
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By Isabel Colegate
Thorndike PressCopyright © 2001 Isabel Colegate
All right reserved.
Having travelled, Alfred now lived where he had spent his childhood. The house, the nearby farm buildings, the wood beside, the valley behind, were all to him like consciousness itself, much deeper than appearance. Even when he had been away for several years and had come back, he had not seen them as separate from himself. They were his essence, as the high grassland into which the valley narrowly reached was the essence of the Mendip hares who frequented it. The photographs which filled the attic rooms at the top of the house bore witness to the close scrutiny to which he had subjected his relationship with the place, as well as to his occasionally desperate attempts to escape it. He had overlaid its soft English contours with the drama of the Apennines, imposed on its green watery light the high lucidity of the Himalayas, the black on white shadow of summer in a Mediterranean side street, the dry red rock of a cave in the Atlas mountains. In one of the rooms a woman danced, and jumped into the air, and perhaps flew.
The house sits with its back to the hill, and the land looks as if it rises uniformly behind it towards the higher ground, but in fact the woods to the right of the house conceal a declivity, which is reached by walking across a field,usually full of grazing sheep, and climbing the fence into the belt of tall beeches beyond which the ground unexpectedly slopes down to where the valley, half wood and half pasture and watered by a small fast-flowing stream, inserts itself between the hills, leading nowhere in particular and having therefore no road nor even much of a path. Access being difficult and the slopes steep for ploughing, the fields here have never been anything but pasture, and of late years not much used even for that; wild flowers grow in profusion as a result.
Between Christmas 1992 and the early part of the following January the temperature never rose above freezing. There was hardly any wind, and on the days when the freezing fog failed to lift at all there seemed hardly any light either. These muted, motionless days were interspersed with others, motionless too, but sunlit, the distances clear, the shadows long and dark. Even then the ground was frozen hard, the still branches of the trees were white with frost and the ice remained on the puddles on the path through the wood and on the edges of the little stream. Alfred, looking through the lens of a camera, could see the world on another scale; he could track a torrent through a wild valley in the far Pamirs, where the dark current ran thin between frozen shallows and forced its way through huge rocks out on to the valley floor where bears might fish or eagles hunt. When his half-breed collie hopped the stream and spoiled the illusion, he widened his view to show only a quiet field or two among much milder hills, already, though only mid-afternoon, obscured by the returning fog.
Edith, reaching the familiar stretch of straight Roman road off which she had to turn to reach her brother's house (which was also the house in which she herself had grown up) was thankful to have left London in such good time; she would be there before the fog closed in. She had turned the volume of her car radio down because the baritone had been singing some settings of A.E. Housman which she thought were too sentimental, but hoping they were finished by now she turned it up again to hear the quiet opening chords of her father's setting of John Drinkwater's poem about fallow deer.
'Shy in their herding dwell the fallow deer,' sang the baritone, calm above the piano's agitations.
Edith thought how odd it was that after all these years she could still be made to blush by her father. It was ridiculous; and also, when she came to think of it, it was not her father who embarrassed her, so much as herself when young. She had been so keen, and probably rather fat, standing up in front of the whole school, singing Thomas Arne's 'Where the bee sucks'. And how she had shouted in the choir, his favourite child, belting out the choruses as he furiously waved his arms. 'Raise the roof!' he would mouth at them as the fortissimos approached, 'Raise the roof!' in draughty churches and village halls, keeping people's spirits up in the war. There had been one of the Elgar Pomp and Circumstance marches with words put to it, 'Sing then, brother, sing,/Giving everything ...' Had it been some sort of pageant? She had been dressed up, she was sure of that. Or was she muddling it with the time she had written a play about German spies and they had produced it in the Third Form and there had been a lot of smoke and battles and she had worn Jane Smiley's riding breeches which were rather too small and a tin hat borrowed from one of the air-raid wardens? The parents had laughed so much they had had to repeat it the following night for the ones who had missed it.
'... The fallow deer keep
Delicate and far their counsels wild.'
He could do a long flexible line of melody; she had always liked that.
'Lightfoot, and swift, and unfamiliar,
These you may not hinder, unconfined
Beautiful flocks of the mind.'
Yes, well, not so bad, she thought, everyone's of their own time, aren't they? What else can we be?
'"Merrily merrily shall I live now",' she sang loudly, '"under the blossom that hangs on the bough".'
She had sung in the Bach Choir in London for a time, when she was first married, but that was a long time ago; quite different activities had taken over. Perhaps it was a pity.
She slowed down as she approached the turning, partly out of caution because of the icy road and partly because she was not much looking forward to seeing her brother. She expected to find the house a mess and Alfred annoying; at the same time, with Alfred as with her father, nothing was ever as simple as it seemed. Before she came to the turning, a big brown hare suddenly emerged from the hedge beside the road and ran unhurriedly in front of the car for a few yards before loping through a gateway into a field. There had always been hares on the Mendips, though one tended not to see them so much in the winter, and the sight gave her a familiar pleasure.
'A fine Jack hare,' she said aloud.
That reminded her, because she had just been thinking about his music, of the canon her father had composed for the school choir. 'Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick.' On and on it would go, at each 'Jack' a new group joining the song, and the whole thing getting faster and faster until the supposedly unanimous if breathless ending. The tune had a jauntiness she had loved at ten, been maddened by at thirteen.
She turned off the road through tall stone pillars and immediately the ice scrunched on the puddles in the rutted drive. The pillars marked the entrance to a vanished house, whose few remaining stones, overgrown by grass and brambles, lay scattered beyond the tumbledown farmyard where the farmer on whose fields it abutted kept a tractor and failed to mend the roof. The old drive led along the side of a copse of hazel; then on the left, before the farmyard, another track turned down to the plain stone farmhouse, embellished only by a shell-shaped hood of stone over the front door, which Arthur Ashby, talented son of a shoemaker from nearby Street, had bought in the late nineteen-twenties on his marriage to the gently born Janet.
Before Edith came in sight of the house, while she was still bumping slowly along the track with the wood on one side and a hawthorn hedge with a field beyond it on the other, all white with frost, she saw a figure emerging from behind the farm buildings ahead, and with her immediate recognition came familiar emotions, quick pleasure and almost as instant irritation. Such a useless thin jacket, he must be frozen; and of course no gloves, because what was the use of gloves when you might need your fingers for something, like taking a photograph? She had knitted him mittens once; he'd never worn them. That was not strictly true; it had been in the war when everyone was supposed to knit for the troops and though at eleven she hated knitting and was not at all good at it, she had wrestled with four needles to produce some misshapen mittens in air-force-blue wool, one pair of which had been rejected on account of the number of dropped stitches. It was these which in turn the eight-year-old Alfred had despised.
He walked unevenly through the frozen mud towards her, followed by what seemed to be even more dogs than usual.
'How lank you look,' she said as he got into the car.
'No lanker than usual surely,' he said, pushing out an eager mongrel and banging the door.
'No. How are you?'
'Very well. You've done well to get here so early.'
He shouted at the dogs, who were jumping up at Edith's new car, doing no good to the paintwork. Edith accelerated and they ran beside, too close, too cheerful.
'Lucky for them I didn't bring my fierce cat.'
'Luckier cat, I'd say.'
At the end furthest from the house the valley narrows into a wood, the stream here busier than lower down, tumbling over a series of miniature waterfalls between the overhanging trees. The path beside the stream leads through the unkempt mixture of ash and hazel, sycamore and thorn, up on to the grassland of the western Mendips, which is patterned by low stone walls and grazed by sheep.
Emerging from the trees and leaving the stream to their right, Edith and Alfred turned towards silence, their horizon limited by mist.
'It's so different, in this weather,' said Edith. 'No huge sky. No larks. No sheep.'
'You haven't been for a bit.'
'It was the summer before last. Or was there a weekend since then? I think there was.'
'It was summer when you came with Sarah and the children.'
'The children loved it. I must bring them again some time. I quite often have them on my own now, it's more fun.'
She had insisted on going for a walk, saying she needed it after sitting in the car for so long. It was what she usually did as soon as she arrived, and Alfred was glad enough to call the dogs and go with her, talking as they went. Her foreign students, her daughter Sarah, local news, mutual friends. Not yet her journalist friend Hubert, or what exactly it was that Alfred did with himself all day, or anything at all to do with money. They were pleased to see each other, and had no wish to explore areas of controversy. Alfred as usual found Edith's confident presence heartening; he was pleased to see how well she looked, striding beside him pink-cheeked in the cold, the grey of her thick curly hair tactfully blended with the still bright brown (at some expense -- Edith's natural look had not been achieved through all her adult years without considerable attention to detail). Edith tended to remember how annoying Alfred was until she saw him, when she remembered also how much he amused and surprised her. There he was, in his tattered old coat, without his gloves, needing a shave, nothing to be proud of, and yet she was proud of him; she always had been. If only that wretched woman had not done that awful thing.
'We ought to turn back,' she said.
At the same moment there was a sound of snarling from beyond the nearby wall, followed by one sharp bark and an outburst of high-pitched yapping.
A woman screamed, 'Get off, you brute! Go away!'
A man's voice made incoherent masterful sounds, and the woman said indignantly, 'Poor Dilly!'
Alfred called his dogs and they scrambled at once over the wall, being more obedient than their riff-raft appearance suggested. Out of the mist two figures appeared the other side of the wall, indicative of hostility.
'You ought to keep that dog on a lead,' said the woman.
'He doesn't mean it, he's got no teeth,' said Alfred. 'Oh, hullo, Hermione, I didn't see it was you.'
'They looked like teeth to me. Oh, Edith as well, how lovely. How can we get across this wall? Look, Johnny, it's Edith.'
'I know it's Edith. How are you, Edith? God, it's cold. What are we all doing up here?' He wore a riding mackintosh and had a large round red face, lightly moustached and surmounted by a brown felt hat.
'There's a gate along here,' shouted Hermione. She was dressed in much the same way as her husband, but with a Paisley-patterned scarf round her head; her face was as red but more heavily veined so that the cheeks looked purple. She still carried one of her two miniature schnauzers, the other meanwhile bouncing provocatively up to Alfred's dogs.
'Dally!' she shouted unavailingly. 'We're trying to walk off our lunch, we had a whole lot of ghoulish neighbours. You should have come.'
'I thought you'd gone,' Edith said to Johnny. 'Sarah told me you'd sold the house.'
'She was dead right, we have,' said Hermione. 'There's a sale in a week or two, most of the furniture and stuff, Sotheby's are doing it. You ought to come. Not that there'll be any bargains, we hope, but there might be a few old lawnmowers or something.'
'I'm sorry,' said Edith to Johnny.
'It's not too bad,' he said.
'We were terrified of not finding a buyer,' said Hermione. 'Bloody Lloyd's has done for so many other people as well as us, we thought there might be no one to buy it. Masses of people came round though, pop stars and so on mainly. They all wanted to know where they could put their recording studios. Of course they were frightfully put off when they realized there wasn't a swimming pool.'
'Did a pop star buy it?' asked Alfred.
'No, a lawyer from Hong Kong. He wants to put in a golf course.'
'We're renting a little house on the Quantocks,' said Johnny. 'She wants to breed schnauzers. They're getting very popular now. I might do a bit of fishing.'
'You'll miss it,' said Edith.
'No alternative,' he said. 'The children are going to have to manage. Sarah's all right with her business and that banker husband. Bit pompous I find him, don't you?'
'I know what you mean, but I've got quite fond of him. What about your boys?'
'Army, nature films and ski-bum,' said Hermione. 'They're fine. Come and see us before Edith goes back, I'll give you a ring. Come on, Johnny, we'll be lost in the dark if we don't go home.'
Alfred suggested they came to tea and let him drive them home but they refused politely and stumped off into the mist.
'What a nightmare,' said Edith.
'That perhaps. But I really meant her.'
'Sarah says she's very kind.'
'Oh yes and sporting and generally agreed to be a jolly good sort. Poor Johnny, he really doesn't deserve it.'
'Perhaps you should have thought of that when you left him.'
'He was so agonizingly boring.'
'Of course. But you must have once thought he wasn't.'
'I only married him to please Mummy.'
'Oh, Edith, you never did anything to please Mummy.'
'To get away from her, then.'
'All I can say is, he was always very nice to me, poor old Johnny. Getting me a job and so on.'
'All you did was go to sleep in an armchair in that awful coffee place in the City.'
'I liked it, Bunty's it was called, you could play chess as well as going to sleep. Besides, that wasn't his fault, it was mine. I'm very sorry he's lost all his money. They've been there for generations, his family.'
'He's too stupid to mind.'
'Being stupid wouldn't stop him minding. Rather the opposite, I'd have thought. And it will be funny to have all these Chinese people playing golf all over the place.'
'I don't suppose he's Chinese, the Hong Kong lawyer.'
'Don't you think so?'
'They mostly aren't, if they come to settle here. It's just that that's where they've made their money.'
'I see. I quite thought he would be Chinese. I think we should ring up Johnny, just to be sure.'
Excerpted from Winter Journey by Isabel Colegate Copyright © 2001 by Isabel Colegate. Excerpted by permission.
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