The whole village soon knew we’d been caught drinking and simply assumed, as I did, that that was it. What first got people asking questions was that the ‘innocent’ James had immediately been sent away to stay with Sir William’s sister in Brighton; supposedly to concentrate on his revision. There was also gossip about the ‘guilty’ Peter not been summonsed to the police station for an offical warning with the rest of us. That was largely put down to his father being a local JP and so was seriously resented in some quarters. Our parents collectively grounded us all for varying lengths of time and then either restricted our socialising together or, in Hamish and Peter’s case, banned it. Kate, when I saw her, kept resolutely silent about the whole event. All this was incomprehensible to me. But with Lizzie, Peter and Kate silent, I could only guess that perhaps something else had happened about which I knew nothing.
Contradictory rumours abounded. Then Mr. and Mrs. Oliver were not invitated to the pre-Christmas cocktails at the Big House, seen as a direct attempt at public ostracization that supported the rumour that Kate had led ‘young Master James’ astray. In mid-January it became public knowledge that Lady Aitcheson was divorcingSir William for adultery, followed by renewed gossip about his relationship withthe doctor’s wife, an excellent shot who had often joined the summer shooting parties. This seemed vindicated when the doctor and his wife sparated and moved away from the village. Sir William now spent most of his time in London. LadyAitcheson was increasingly staying in the family’s second home in York, where she was said to be consulting lawyers. Peter spent the summer holiday with his mother in York and did not come north. James came up for the shooting in August with his father but we didn’t see him to speak to. Cat and I started using the term ‘the Judgement’ for all this after a thunderous sermon from Hamish’s father on that topic which, in addition to drawing attention to the terrors of the last Judgement, contained a number of references to poor parenting and the dissolute behaviour of the young.
All this felt to me like a very painful, drawn-out ending to my childhood and a bitter withering-away of my sense of belonging. Our close-knit group simply evaporated. Kate left school early to study photography at a sixthform college in Newcastle, made new friends, and spent as little time as possible at home. Her absence led to new rumours, the most lurid being that she’d left because she was pregnant with James’s child. Lizzy, meanwhile was trying to get a place at Durham to read history and had her own worries. And I was starting to focus on my my interest in art, and all the practical problems trying to pursue that interest would throw up. At that time I knew very little about the larger consequences of the Judgement; that Mr. Oliver’s business declined due to a number of significant accounts, including those of the estate and most of its tenants, being switched elsewhere. Nor that Arthur Bell, a very capable man but now increasingly left in limbo by his absent employers, was heard to say that he felt like a man fighting with one hand tied behind his back. Since the estate is central to the village economy, everyone soon shared his anxiety.
I went on a short walking holiday organised by the parents of school friends down in the North Pennines that summer. One day we came across a series of big sink holes off to one side of the path. I was impressed by them and, weeks later, they came back to me in an extraordinary dream, an emblem of how things now were.
A last tryst
My last tryst with Hamish required lengthy and maticulous planning, but by that time I was desperate to keep his attention and prepared to go to any lengths. I had absolutely no understanding then of the contradictory causes of my desparation or that I was trying to ward off the inevitability of changes that, unconsciously, I think I probably longed for. And I had no sense of how confused Hamish and I were by our various conflicting desires. What I did intuit was that my relationship with Hamish was midwife to my trying to be an artist. Anyway, in the event I got Hamish spectacualary wrong.
I’d had great difficulty contacting him and making plans, but was encouraged by the fact that he did at least want us to meet. I forged a letter to get him off school early on the Friday. I engineered circumstances that required an early lift for myself and invented a good reason for a friend’s mother to drop me off before we got to the village. That enabled me to double back to my arranged meeting-place with Hamish, the old bus shelter at the little crossroads where he would naturally get off. All this so that we could spend about fourty minutes alone together before his expected arrival home. Above all, I had made sure to obtain the one personal item critical to my plan, (aquired with considerable difficulty and at substantial cost).
I thought we’d been very careful after our meeting, emerging onto the path from the little abandoned building on the edge of the wood some time apart. But because things had not gone as I’d hoped, we had argued and so were running late. He must have followed me sooner than he should. I don’t know who rang the vicar. (Although later it did occur to me that Mrs. Purvis’ kitchen window virtually overlooked the end of that path.)Nor do I understand why they rang the vicar and not Dad. I do know that when I went to change out of my school clothes, there were traces of dirt on the back of my skirt and blouse. In a village now alerted to the moral terpitude of the young, someone must have speculated on cause and effect. In the ten or so minutes it took Hamish to walk home that person rang his father. Weeks later Mike would tell me that what frightened Hamish the most was his father’s insistance that any further disobedience about seeing me would result in his damnation. It’s no wonder then that Hamish dumped me.
At the time I thought the business of him joining the church was just a lame excuse, but it turned out that he did, and even became something of a radical. I must assume his God really does move in mysterious ways, although I can’t help wonder whether it was damnation or my offering to have sex with him that scared him more. Anyway, when we parted I sensed deep down that my offer had been a last straw.
What astonishes me now is what I can and can’t recall from that day. I remember almost nothing of our meeting itself. Of course I know factually exactly what happened (or rather didn’t), but it feels unreal, stilted, like a scene caught in an old, hand-tinted photograph. Yet I can vividly recall my long wait for the bus, all of twenty odd minutes hunkered down among the fag-ends and litter behind the bus shelter. It felt like several lifetimes.
I can feel the rough wooden planking of the bus shelter against my lower vertibra as I shift my weight; there’s even a slight tenderness from my bra strap rubbing a patch beneath my left armpit. Under the smell of creasote from the shelter there’s the faint, sickly-sweet odour of rotting flesh that comes and goes with the breeze, probably a dead ewe in the next field. There’s a low hum of insects and the persistant trickling sound of water, making me wonder if I really need to pee or am just rediculously nervous, or both. Then there’s the sound of a solitary car going slowly along the top road, a sound that, as it fades, blends into the bird song. While I listen to all this I’m rubbing the little scars and scabs on my right knee where it sticks out beyond the hem of my skirt, trying to distract myself from my butterflies. I’ve now convinced myself that Hamish’s bus will never come or, if by some miracle it does, he won’t be on it.
At some point my nervous fingers find a little swollen bump on the inner side of my knee that’s tender and, adjusting my weight again, I begin to rub it harder. To my horror a long curved black shape then suddenly pushs its way up through my skin. For a second I think it’s some awful parasite, then take courage and gingerly tweezer it from my flesh. A fat drop of blood and milky pus wells from the exit point. It’s a big thorn. I then remember the thicket of brambles Dad and I’d cleared away the previous weekend.
It had been fun attacking the brambles and discovering the junk they’d been hiding for years. I’d had a bill hook and worn work gloves, Dad’s old leather jacket, and my thickest jeans. We worked all afternoon, clearing and burning the dense bramble patch threatening to take over the sunniest corner of the back garden. (Afterwards I watched the pale grey circle of ash from our fire darken and lighten each day in response to the changing weather). But all my precautions that day had been in vain. I found myself caught on a long, arching, thorn-encrusted caneand, half falling, it ripped a short but bloody gash through my jeans on the inner side of my right knee. I could see thorns embedded in this wealt and went into the house to remove them. I clearly missed one. That thin black arc rising inexorably from my flesh is almost as vivid now as when it happened.
I had very little warning that Cat was leaving for France, a move her parents told her they’d been contemplating for a while. She and I wondered, of course, whether it was just another consequence of the Judgement. For a while after she left we wrote each other increasing stilted letters, each shorter than the last, until we finally agreed to stop. She had tried to give me the impression that all was well with her, but I could tell that everything had changed for the worse.
Cat was always a little in awe of her Mama, but on easy terms with her Papa. That didn’t stop her from belittling him to me for not standing up to his wife. Cat, like her relationship to her parents, was as lively as she was complicated. What I remember most often now is her singing, the quality of her voice. I also remember the girl with the long chestnut pigtails I first met, her big dark eyes flashing with excitement at some story or game. An excitement just held in check by the sense of personal dignity she’d absorbed from her Mama. Her ready excitement, her smile, and some of her physical gestures were her father’s, but in most other respects she took after her mother. This was most obvious in her neatness and sense of her own worth. So much comes back now from the period when we were close. Stuff I forgot, or maybe turned away from, for years.
When I first played Maddy Prior and June Tabor’s ‘Silly Sisters’, I burst into tears. It was so perfect, sounding just as I imagined, entirely unrealistically, that Cat and I would have done if we’d kept on singing together. Absurd. And then I discovered that there was a wholly other Cat, and another Michael and Patsy too, people I didn’t know as I’d thought I had then.
In the last months before Cat left our friendship had cooled and I saw less of her. I told myself this was because of the Judgement, which was partly true. But I was also increasingly preoccupied with Hamish and, after that finished, with my art homework and working out how on earth I was going to get to a Foundation Course. In any case, after the Judgement, her mother kept Cat away from us all, except Patsy and Mike. That exception was purely pragmatic. Cat was spending long hours practising her fiddle, and this was clearly better done in an empty barn of their aunt’s than in her bedroom at home. We were now mostly in different classes at school, and made no real attempt to find out how things were with each other. My curiosity about what had happened during those last days before she left for France only started many years later, after I bumped into Mike, down from Glasgow for an old school-friend’s silver wedding anniversary.
He’d changed almost beyond recognition and, when I asked after Patsy, he ducked the question and started a long rambling monologue about Cat. He seemed rather drunk and I suggested coffee. Eventually he told me that everything had become increasingly difficult for Patsy when his own hopes of becoming a trainee gamekeeper on the estate were abruptly ended. Sir William, who had initially been agreeable, simply announced that he didn’t want to see ‘that boy’ with the keepers again. Mike’s future evaporated in that moment but, a proud boy, he didn’t tell any of us what had happened. Instead he took his disappointment home with him.
He’d had enough practice driving to pick up an HGV license without too much difficulty and worked for a while as a driver for a local haulage firm. He admitted to me that his anger and frustration often boiled over, making life increasingly difficult for Patsy. He and Cat fell out when she persuaded Patsy to see the doctor, but he also seemed to blame her for going back on a promise. I couldn’t get any sense out of him about the connection between these two things. What I did discover was that, after Cat left and I’d gone to London, their aunt started going into the paddock at night to remonstrate with the unseen dead. Then she had a full-blown breakdown, went into a home, and the house, stables, dogs and ponies were sold off. Patsy went to live with a relative near Wooler, while Mike moved away to Glasgow. It was in Wooler that Patsy started to pick up again. I heard no more because at that point Mike insisted he had to leave for work.
A couple of years after that wedding I got a card care of the estate telling me Mike had died. There were only a handful of us at the funeral. Sarah Kirkwell, Mike’s second cousin and a former nurse, sat beside me, clearly pleased to be in contact with someone who’d known him as a boy. (Due to some protracted family quarrel, she’d seen almost nothing of him then.) All due rites observed, we went for a cup of tea together. She gave me a potted version of what she knew of Mike’s adult life, which had included a spell inside for possession of an unlicensed shotgun used to threaten another lorry-driver, years on the outer fringes of Glasgow’s trade in fenced goods, and increasingly serious alcohol abuse. Mike eventually inherited a relative’s house just outside Wooler and moved back east. By now he had liver trouble. She suspected he’d been borderline depressive for much of his adult life and had dealt with it by drinking.
I asked if she knew anything about his sister.
It appears that after Mike moved to Glasgow Patsy came off antidepressants and started working at a local hotel. She’d met and then married an Australian who’d had a temporary job there and gone back home with him. They had a boy and a girl. Michael had letters from her, all of which he’d burnt before he died, but would never talk about her. Sarah had asked him for a contact address when he was clearly terminally ill but he’d ignored her and she’d been unable to find one among his papers. There was no will. I told her what I knew about Michael, Patsy, and Cat, and my feeling he’d never told me the whole truth about what had happened between them. She was silent for a long time.
‘I think from things he said that maybe Michael and Patsy got a little too close and Cat’s getting involved triggered some kind of crisis between them. Mike once let slip that he’d never forgiven himself for what happened before they moved, something involving a friend. Maybe that was your friend Cat’?
Iain, that’s as much as I know. I told you way back how Cat’s life ended.