I have been writing about John Hirst for a while. A solitary young man in his his early twenties, Hirst feels miserable about the relentless rate of change in his village and uncomfortable in his own skin. Not much happens in the following exract. Lee Child it ain’t.
Late morning. Hirst wakes with a mouthful of fur. He chokes then thrashes an arm across the bed clothes. Timmo squats astride his chest, their noses not four inches apart. Hirst wriggles but Timmo sits tight, riding the blanket waves.
He arches his back and the cat traces a miniature arc across his master’s cheek with the point of a claw, its touch light as a feather. Still comatose, Hirst misses the warning, digs his elbows into the mattress and raises his body, stretching his muscles to bring them to life. The cat’s claw extends and retracts again in the space of a second, and Hirst slumps back down into the pillow, nursing his cheek. The welt burns, pain running down his jaw as if along a fuse.
Hirst has never thought of Timmo as a friendly cat, let alone a companion. Whenever he has felt the need for blood warmth and scooped the creature up and cradled him in his arms, Timmo has struggled as if for his life. It seems that the thought of giving something of himself to order, forfeiting his independance for even a second, is beyond what he considers a reasonable barter for his keep.
It’s significant that the cat wants his master now, as a motionless hump warming the bedclothes. Hirst, drained, and not immediately comprehending, draws his hand out from under the covers and goes to stroke the cat’s fur. As his fingertips make contact Timmo jumps, as if he has been expecting the violation, and seconds later the cat flap in the kitchen rattles.
As the distance in the bedroom finally resolves itself into wardrobe, cupboard, chair and lamp, he understands that his relationship with his cat is one with very little give, and still less take. But, he reflects, as he pulls on his trousers and tucks in his shirt, it is the only one he has.
Hirst pushes open a wicket gate, which is almost invisible in the hedge. Brambles take swings at his head as he treads a path to the cottage alongside a crumbling cob wall. At the far end he turns a corner and steps on to a cracked flagged terrace. Thatch drips overhead and a dormer winks at him from under its brown lid.
At the open porch Bobby is feeding a robin. He sits at a settle facing the cottage door. Blue tits forage for crumbs in cracks in the flagstones.
‘Hurt your eye, Bob?’
Bobby looks up, showing an eye patch.
‘Prim, John’s come! Sit down, boy – here, by me. You dispense cake for young Pinky here and his friends. Prim’ll bring us a drink.’
The old ex-army major shuffles along and taps a celebratory tattoo on his knee. Hirst wriggles in alongside him until they are sitting like two schoolboys at a desk.
‘What happened to you?’ Hirst nods at Bobby’s eye patch.
‘Cork. Prim’s just made a batch of banana. Special stuff – you know Prim when she puts her mind to it. I was checking one of the bottles – close up – see if it had cleared. Damned cork hit me slap in the eye. They pack a punch, those buggers.’
‘Serves him right, John. Pure greed. He’s an old soak – no, Bob, there’s no other word for it.’ Primrose scuttles in on worn carpet slippers and reaches up to Hirst on tip-toe. He feels the old lady’s wrinkled kiss against his cheek. ‘He’s never got the right corks for the right bottles, so he got what he deserves.’
‘Don’t start, woman. A drink for our neighbour and one for your lord and master.’
‘So how’s my favourite John? What shall we give him, Bob?’
‘Fancy a glass of poison, John?’
‘Course he will, Prim.’
‘It’s all very well killing ourselves, Bob, but it’s only fair to warn the neighbours. John’s a young man, a handsome young man. I’ll give him what’s left of the elderflower.’
Hirst blushes and watches Primrose shuffle off with a glass in each hand. He peers into the gloom. Hope Cottage sprawls against a steep bank. The living room is tiny and square. There’s another beyond it, still smaller, and then a lean-to outshut kitchen, deep in shadow. Upstairs is reached by scaling a tier of steep wooden steps.
‘Hope you’re careful on those stairs with that eye, Bob. You’re not a spring chicken any more.’
‘I was once, John. But those stairs are lethal. Whenever I wanted a bit of slap and tickle in the old days I needed a rope and crampons to get Prim up to the bed. By the time we got there I’d lost the urge.’
‘Don’t believe him, John. He was a dirty old devil. No wonder I look old and haggard.’ Prim calls from the kitchen.
‘She may be old and wrinkly but there’s nothing wrong with her ears. Careful what you say, John.’
Tongue and groove lines the walls. A single casement lets in a square of sunlight. There are wilting flowers everywhere, clogging mantlepiece, sills and shelves. Bits of brass shine like stars in the half light. Two armchairs with well-worn hollows face each other. On the table are wine bottles, old and squat with rolled lips. Some have embossed seals. Bobby’s fond of telling visitors if they don’t have vintage wine they have vintage bottles. He’s already on his second glass of daffodil.
‘Just watch it, John, pours like engine oil.’ Bobby drains his glass. He holds the bottle out to John for a refill. ‘All the wine books in the circulating library …’
‘Which is one suspect looking paperback,’ cuts in Prim.
‘… Say you have to be careful with daffodil. Bulbs can be poisonous.’
‘So what’s Bob gone and done? He’s made bluebell, tulip and daffodil, all in one go. All bulbs, mind you. Stupid man’s got a death wish.’
‘Just trying to get away from you, you old hag.’
‘Listen to him! Him get away from me!’
Primrose ambles to the kitchen and comes back with a colander and a folded newspaper. She unwraps it and starts shelling peas, flicking them one by one into the colander where they rattle to the bottom. For five minutes or more this is the only sound.
‘Been drinking a lot of daffodil, Bob?’ John’s concerned, he loves these two old people.
‘Too much, the silly old fool.’ Prim flicks a pea which catches Bobby on the chin. ‘Between you and me, the old devil has been a bit odd of late. Tummy troubles.’ She prods Bobby in the belly and he roars with laughter. ‘There’s my old pot calling the kettle black! Anyway, we grew the bulbs for free. Stupid not to use them.’
Hirst shakes his head and sips his wine. He settles back, lets the sun play over his face, and stares out at the garden. A cat stalks leanly by, squats on the terrace, turns its back on them, then washes its fur with long licks.
Hirst nods at it. ‘How’s the stray doing?’
‘Bugger ate my breakfast,’ says Bobby.
‘And your lunch,’ adds Prim, and perches on the end of the settle, like a delicate bird.
‘Take that, you little devil,’ shouts Bobby, flicking peas in the direction of the cat. ‘He likes his saucerful of daffodil.’
‘Bob, you didn’t!’
‘Ran out of milk. Forgot to go to May’s. The hedgehogs love it, too – bread and daffodil.’
‘Beans coming up, Prim?
‘Haven’t planted any, John. Ran out of time.’
Hirst smiles at the idea of Bobby and Prim running out of time. At Hope Cottage time doesn’t figure much. To Hirst the two old people have all the time in the world.
‘So what are you up to, boy? Found a girl with a good strong pair of thighs?’
‘Bob! Leave the boy alone.’
‘Stay and help me eat Prim’s lunch. Can’t offer you mine now.’
Hirst closes his eyes and lets the wine dose his depression. Thank God for Bobby and Prim. Suddenly he’s happy, conscious only of bird song, the popping of pea pods, and the rustle of breeze in the thatch. Bobby leans clumsily across him, grabs a handful of pods and starts shelling, tossing the peas half a dozen at a time in the general direction of the colander. The mound swells.
‘What’s the time?’ Hirst is struggling to stay awake.
‘Tummy rumbling time. Time we ate Prim’s lunch.’
‘No, really, Bob – but thanks for the offer. I’d better be off.’
‘Come back when you’ve done whatever it is.’
Hirst staggers off, bouncing off the cob walls until he reaches the lane. Since Hirst’s father died Bobby and Prim have been like parents. He always means to have a serious talk about what he’s doing with his life, but each time the opportunity slips away. He’s finding it hard to focus.
‘Thee want a day’s work, Jarn?’ Jack Ridout’s mangold head pokes out of his tractor cab. ‘Tomorrow, boy?’
Hirst is always short of money. Jobs in the village are few and far between, and his benefit seems designed for a four day week. By Friday he’s ripe for coercion. But he has mixed feelings about working for East Farm. Helping old Edlin muck out his shippon is one thing, but working for Jack Ridout feels like signing on for the enemy. He stands in the street with the tractor engine thundering over him, his head thick with wine and his eyes smarting in the sharp light.
‘Well, boy?’ Jack’s invisible, a voice from on high. The tractor quivers, impatiently.
‘Kind of you, Jack. I’ll thi…’
‘Eight o’clack, tomorrow, then. Sharp, mind you.’
There’s a gust of diesel and a rattle of chains. The tractor bounces down the lane on the uneven camber. Hirst totters, his legs threatening sabotage. As he catches hold of his front gate an airhorn blasts a discordant jingle a yard from his ear.
‘What you reckon, Jarn? Like it?’
It’s Laurie, Hirst’s next door neighbour, leaning against the bonnet of his van. Hirst shakes his head, unable to make the effort to think.
‘New horns, you berk. On the van, you pissed sod. Where you been drinking, boy? Not down Cross Keys. Josie and me just come back from there. What about this, then?’ Laurie’s lank hair swings as he ducks inside the van window. The CD player whirrs and the speakers blare out a deep bass thump.
‘What you think, then?’
Hirst stares at the path to his kitchen. Can he make it?
‘Now or Never. Now or Never, for Christ’s sake. Wake up, boy. Elvis! The king!’
Hirst knows it is now or never and forces his legs forward.
‘You coming down Cross Keys tonight? Josie’s got a mate – Sal. Good bit of fanny. You think it over, boy. If not, Saturday?’
Hirst plods up the path.
‘You take life too serious. Come and have a giggle. Game of arrows. I tell you, boy – I’d give Sal one if Josie weren’t looking.’
Right now the only thing Hirst is taking seriously is the prospect of sleep. Yet even in his daffodil stupor he cannot believe that an ignorant sod like Laurie can be such a skilled thatcher.
Back at the cottage he keels over, vomits on the hearth rug and spends the rest of the afternoon flat out on the kitchen lino. The tabby Timmo sniffs the pile with interest.