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By Tom Wall
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Tom Wall
All rights reserved.
Like an attentive, perhaps even obsessive chronicler, Bill Rowe knows these bricks. He knows their rough calluses and crumbling lime mortar veins. He knows their dark pockmarks and dusty scars. Nothing escapes his lingering eye and grafflin hand; he knows every last imperfection and blemish.
In the dead of night, when his coughing wakes him, he runs his fingers over them, tracing the marks left by his fellow outcasts and sinners. Some have hacked mindlessly away to pass the time or exorcise inner demons. Others have painstakingly etched their own name or the name of their hinny or eked out declarations of innocence or pious pleas for forgiveness.
George McKibben 1922.
I never laid a hand on her.
God loves all his children.
When Bill arrived six months ago he added his own name with the hard end of a bootlace. The waxy tip eventually bent and frayed under the pressure of his shaking hand but he didn't give up.
Bill Rowe 1941.
The voices and visions came later.
An unanswered cry for help. A man running. Flames gathering in his clothes. Skin breaking and weeping.
Two pale heads rising and falling with grey waves. The warmth leaching from their hearts and salt stinging their lips.
A heaving mob intent on doing harm to a child. Lovers perched at either end of a single bed. A constable digging his dirty fingernails into a collar bone. A pile of belongings on a doorstep. A mother turning away in disgust.
And the question always the same: why? The guns keep firing and the bombs keep dropping. And the bodies of innocent men, women and children continue to pile up in cities with familiar names and others with strange names. Coventry. Liverpool. Mannheim. Chongquin.
His fingers locate familiar lines; he explores each one, reliving those first days and nights. To begin with he liked the ritual of marking the wall each evening, it reminded him that his ordeal would not go on forever, but the more he did it, the more he realised that recording the passing of time only slowed it down.
Something wriggles in his hair and punctures the scaly skin covering his scalp. He holds it up in the moonlight seeping through the small slits above his bed. The creature's spindly, alien legs twitch hopelessly as it dangles in the air. Its tiny body is bloated and dark with blood. He flicks it towards the jerry.
He's always had an eye for detail and a way with words. As a boy he used to watch gangs of starlings peck the frozen earth in their tiny yard while Ma chopped and cooked over a smouldering cooking range. When her back was turned he'd press his nose against the steamy glass and follow their search for food. Everything else – the bitterly cold draft and the smell of sinewy meat and onions simmering – he blocked out. Their purple and green dinosaur faces and darting black eyes intrigued him.
'How do they survive the winter, Ma? Where do they go to escape the cold?'
'I haven't the time to think, Bill.'
He would stay there mulling over these questions until he was clipped round the ear by his Da returning home, with the rich, stale fug of cheap ale and baccy smoke on his breath.
'Sit down for your supper.'
Clouds obscure the moon and the cell falls dark. He turns over in search of a more comfortable position but as usual it ends in defeat. The flock mattress is stuffed with a few rags and some wool. It offers little protection against the hard board below. His bones, which these days jut out of him at painful angles, chaff on the wood.
The screws pretend not to notice he is wasting away, they insist everyone is getting the same. The truth is most men, even men who are accustomed to living on next to nothing, would struggle to survive on the rations they bring. When he feels clear-headed and brave, which is rare these days, he points out that his body is giving up, that he needs more food. They snigger behind their clipboards and say no one else is complaining.
Even the older, kinder screws cannot help. One of them, Rogers, who works in the store, advised him to ask to be moved to the infirmary when he saw his pillow case, which was speckled with tiny red droplets. But the officer in charge of the wing, Fry, a tough bastard with a squashed nose and red puffy ears, refused.
'You look fine to me, Rowe. You're just scared of a hard day's work.'
Another lie – in an age of lies. On bad weeks he cannot even make it out into the exercise yard. On good weeks he hobbles around the yard like a crooked old gadgie. He feels like a man of sixty, not a fit twenty-two-year-old who used to swim bare-buff in rivers and wander over the wild, purple-crowned Cheviots.
Moonlight again fills the cell. He closes his eyes; outside he can hear half-starved prison dogs barking and somewhere in the far, far distance the soft rumble of aeroplanes, possibly bombers. But he concentrates on the bleached, lunar interior of his eyelids. And before long he is somewhere else entirely.
* * *
Bare oak branches creak, and heaps of dry, brown leaves crackle in a light breeze. Bill opens his eyes and blinks furiously. It is early autumn and the sun is high in the pale sky. He is perhaps ten. The other lads are hunting for blackberries in another part of the wood or playing Cowboys and Indians. He really doesn't care because this moment is perfect. He feels part of the spongy moss beneath his head: he listens to worms churning the forest's fibrous, woody debris and watches ugly great crows strut and squawk. The city with its constables, taverns and smoky chimneys seems far away. The air here is fresh and clean, the sounds natural and peaceful.
'Bill, you there? Come on you gormless bastard? Harry's cooking up a brew. Bill? Bill?'
The shout disturbs his daydream. 'Aye. I'm over here, man. By the old oak tree.'
Len Weaver looks down at him; older, gangly, wild messy black hair, crooked teeth. The others call him Tatie-Boggle the scarecrow. He lives on the same street as Bill and goes to the same school but his parents are odd sorts. Len's father is a sometime piano tuner and journalist and his mother is a school teacher and dress maker. Their house is full of newspapers, pamphlets and vegetarian cookbooks. And the church they go to doesn't have vicars or priests – anyone can stand up and say what they like. Some of the boys at school say the whole family walk around with no clothes during the summer months.
Len grins. 'What you doing on the floor, like?'
'Don't know – just like this spot.'
Pushing their way through brambles and low-hanging branches, they head towards the den. In a grassy clearing there are two other boys: Harry Bags and Walter Kelly. A blackened metal kettle is suspended above a little fire.
Walter, his hands stained purple from sorting berries, says, 'Where was he?'
'Having a kip by that oak tree, like.'
'I knew we shouldn't have invited that dozy little clot up here. We should have left him playing hopscotch with the girls.'
Laughing, Harry passes round tin cups. He is shorter than Len but with thick, muscular arms and legs and a square jaw. There is even a sprouting of brown hairs on his top lip.
He says, 'You going to see the King open the bridge? Me Da says he coming with Queen Mary.'
Bill realises there are only three cups; Harry doesn't even offer him one. 'I've seen the posters, like,' he says quietly.
Walter ignores him. 'Might do, there'll be horses and a band, won't there?'
'Aye and probably a dreadnaught on the river too.'
Len pointedly passes his half-full cup to Bill. 'It's a lot of old rubbish, man.'
'I says it's a lot of old rubbish.'
Harry screws up his face. 'If me Da heard you say that, he'd clip your lug. He helped build that bloody bridge. Your family are always doing things down.'
Walter sides with Harry. 'Aye, pipe down, Tatie.'
Bill watches him closely; Len's a clever devil but he can come across as a know-it-all.
Len inspects the mud on his boots. 'I was just going to say they are a bunch of ...'
'Well, what does that King George do? He don't give a bugger about the likes of us.'
Bill smirks behind his hand; the cane would be used if such a thing was uttered at school.
'He does more for us than your lot —' Len shakes his head but Harry continues regardless '— go on what've you lot done for Gateshead —' Before he can finish his sentence a shot rings out.
Walter yelps. 'It must be shooting season. If that gamekeeper catches us again he'll give us a hiding.'
Harry stamps on the flames sending a plume of sooty smoke up into the sky. Walter drops the berries and starts running. Len is next up and then Bill. Soon they are all tearing through the wood, jumping rotting trunks covered with moss and landing in boggy puddles. Bill feels water seeping through the holes in the soles of his boots.
'Me boots are soaked, Len.'
As more shots ring out, Harry pushes past Bill. 'Leave him, Tatie. He's slowing us down.'
Len is having none of it – he grabs Bill's wrist and pulls through the last of the trees. 'Come on, kidda.'
The wood gives way to rolling hills of freshly ploughed, purple-brown fields. Rows of tightly packed houses line the other side of the valley.
Beyond them are the dim outlines of tenement chimneystacks, church spires and dockyard cranes.
'Nearly there, Bill.'
'Me legs. They're like dead weights.'
Once they reach the Gut, Len slows down. They check along the nettle-carpeted banks and back up the hill. The others have scarpered but there is no sign of the hunting party.
'We're safe now, they'll not come this far.'
Bill sits down on a clump of earth and empties the water out of his boots. 'Sorry for slowing you down. These old things have had it.'
Len looks confused. 'Do you know where we've ended up, Bill? I don't want to go back up there and run into those shooters again.'
Bill knows from his own wanderings there is a fallen tree trunk they can get across about a mile away. He swells with pride as he points the way out to Len. It is like the story in The Champion where Private Jack Oil leads Flight Lieutenant Rockfist Rogan out of an enemy jungle.
When they get to the trunk, they whip down the surrounding nettles with thin branches torn from a willow tree.
Len says, 'What's your Ma feeding you? I could feel your bones through your shirt when we were running.'
They inch across the silvery bark on their bottoms. The water slops underneath with its cargo of dead cats and garbage.
'What'd you have last night?' 'Ma boiled up a sheep's head with some veg.'
'Did you go to bed hungry?'
He feels a little peeved to be asked the same question again. Isn't his word good enough? He's always been skinny – it's just the way God made him. 'I went back for seconds. Ma's a grand cook.'
They stop at the crossroads beside the King George. There are a few drinkers outside the bar doors pushing coins into the hands of a small boy working for a local bookie. The men stop to whistle and slap the bottom of a young girl carrying a basket of groceries. She escapes down a side street.
Bill nervously glances through the large windows but there is no sign of Da's narrow shoulders and dark coat flecked with flour from the bakery where he works. Len tells him he'll call for him tomorrow because Harry and the others are planning on raiding an orchard.
Bill skips along the pavement, barely able to contain his excitement; he's part of the gang. He gets home as the sun sinks in the sky leaving behind a pale orange, yellow glow – the colour of the tinned peaches he gets from the Mission at Christmas. It's pretty but the warmth goes with the sun. Leaping down the metal steps to the front door, he notices that the mist on the bedroom window is already turning to frost.
Inside, the scene is familiar: Da's slumped on his armchair near the heat of the cooking range. A copy of the Evening Chronicle is open on his lap and a pipe is hanging out the corner of his mouth. His chest shudders; his breathing hoarse and painful. He stares blankly at the cracked ceiling.
Ma's stirring a steaming pot of broth. She looks older than she is: her dainty face is stained with coal soot and wood smoke. A gleaming crucifix hangs around her neck. How does it stay so clean? He sits beside his little sister Peggy. When Ma's back is turned, he peeks into the pot: there is barely enough for all of them but he doesn't mind because he has been eating black-berries all day. He pushes away the ladle as she offers him more.
Da sits up. 'An-An-An ...'
'What the bleeding hell is it, Joseph?'
Da stumbles over his words. They all know what he wants to say – he's going to The George – but he can't get the words out. His hollow grey-and-black studded cheeks shudder. Greasy strands of hair fall about his face. His eyes, ringed with faint red scar tissue, water. It is like he is a volcano ready to erupt.
Ma pushes his hair back into place and holds his trembling hand. Her efforts are practiced and soothing but distant – as if she is dressing a mannequin in a shop window.
'An-An-Annie, I'm off out for a game of dominoes.'
Words never came easily to Da – that's what Ma told Bill. Granda Arth, a huge beast of a Northumberland miner, would hit Da every time he fumbled for a word and call him a bloody imbecile – even though he couldn't read or write himself. Granda Arth would even pay Da's sister a penny for every new word she learnt with never a thought of his son's pride.
Da clammed up and spoke rarely until he left the family cottage to work in a bakery in Gateshead. The owner and the other bakers all thought he was dumb. They teased him and forced him to do the jobs they hated: sweeping the floors and plucking rats from the traps. But Ma, who was working in a tearoom nearby and staying in digs, befriended him and coaxed him into talking during Sunday-afternoon strolls through Gateshead.
She convinced him to jot down his thoughts when his stutter got the better of him. He found it easier than speaking and with that they managed to get by most of the time.
When it was too cold or wet for the park, they sat in Ma's tearoom as the other girls cleaned up. They talked about the Northumberland countryside, their parents and giggled about misunderstandings. Da would scrawl down compliments about her dress or hair or eyes and she would pretend not to notice before correcting his spelling. Sometimes he ran his fingers over the peaks and troughs of her knuckles under the table.
Bill always blushed when Ma told him this part of the story, but at the same time he liked the thought of them shy and happy with not a worry in the world. He only wished he still held her hand under the table.
Then the war began and everything changed. Keen to escape the bakery, Da joined the Durham Light Infantry. Ma was worried of course, but she couldn't help but swell with pride when she saw him marching in his new uniform through Gateshead. Afterward she looped her arm through his and kissed him full on the lips.
Da proposed to her one autumn evening in Saltwell Park. Ma could recite every last detail. Golden leaves were falling. The trees were swishing back and forth like dancers in the throes of passion. The sky was a dark inky blue. Da dropped onto one knee in the middle of the path.
Ma knew what was happening as he had been fretting about speaking to her father for days but she feigned innocence. 'What you doing, Joe?'
'I-I-I want —' normally Ma had to fight the urge to finish his sentences but this time she wanted to hear him speak without help '— to as-as-ask you a question?'
'Will you m-m-marry m-m-me?'
She didn't have to think about it. 'Aye, I will, Joseph.'
The week after his train pulled out of the station she discovered she was blessed with a baby. He was given leave to return for a weekend and they married in the small country church, St Peters, near where she grew up. Granda Arth was too ill to come but Granda Oliver and Grandma Maude sat at the front smiling. They didn't mind Da's stutter because they saw how happy he made their daughter.
Excerpted from The Coward by Tom Wall. Copyright © 2014 Tom Wall. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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