An Arabesque: the Lamping, by David Swann


An Arabesque: The Lamping

The old shepherd’s been looking out of his blue eyes for almost a hundred years. And they’re perfect, all the experts agree. But neither of them even flickers when the Doctor shines in his torch.

I’m watching from a leather-seat, across the doctor’s surgery. I feel far away, in a different century. The seat’s been worn and cracked by hundreds of nervous patients.

Above, a gentle drizzle patters on the surgery’s window-light. I glance up into its grey well, wishing the rain would either stop or grow harder. Anything but this weary swirl. Flurr, as they called it in Grandfather’s valley, where the hill-folk spoke with a Swedish lilt, preserving Scandinavian distances in their habits.

Most of the people who spoke that dialect are dead now. And the valley where they lived is long gone, its narrow crack filled with water these last 70 years, a reservoir that’s still slaking the thirst of Blackpool’s tourists.

I realise I’m whistling through my teeth, a nervous family trait that I’ve never liked. All day, Grandfather whistles like that, as if to remind us he’s still there.

The doctor peers into Grandfather’s eyes, as if he’s trying to find something down there, a coin glinting in the depths. “Not the eyes…” he hums, “it isn’t the eyes…”

“Pardon, doctor?”

He goes on peering down the ray of light, nodding. “Apologies, Mr Harris – professional madness. Talking to myself…”

Our eyes meet. That’s what eyes do: meet. But noses run and ears prick. And tongues tingle and skin crawls.

It’s hot, the cracked leather chair pushed against a radiator. I loosen my shirt, treating the doctor’s gaze like a bright light. I’m daunted by his knowledge, afraid the truth will hurt.

“His eyes,” the doctor murmurs eventually, “they’re fine, as far as I can tell. It’s the arteries… They harden in old age, Mr Harris.”

Grandfather stares across the room. “Is yon fellah finished yet?”

I nod, for all the good it will do. The only way to communicate these days is to speak slow and loud into his ear. It’s the one thing I can find to like about old age: the need for closeness. Not that it was ever much use up on the rugged hills where he was raised. You could get tapeworms just by touching the animals. Closeness. What would a fellah ever want with it?

Distance. That was the answer.

 

The valley-folk got more distance than they bargained for after the Water Board claimed ownership of their rain. Those who refused to go had the slates pulled off their roofs, the milk tipped over their fires.

By the time I was born, my Grandfather’s village existed only in stories. His old home was a lake that glinted like a wound. He took me there as a child to show me the slopes he’d once farmed, now covered by the reservoir’s grey trough.

“Yonder,” he pointed. He was old even then, in my boyhood – already past retirement. But after they’d cleared his croft, he found work as a shepherd, treating hooves, healing cracks.

There was a slowness about his working methods that I liked, particularly when he ran the stones through his hands before deciding their fate, like a grocer testing fruit.

“Yonder,” he pointed. “That’s where we lived.” He scooped up a brown grit-stone. The wind shook the grass, a wind from the West that smelled of salt in the Irish Sea, that smelled of fish and birds and rain.

“Razed it,” said the old man. “Roof first, slate by slate. Then every last stone. Till there were nowt left, lad. They were tough lads, them Navvies. They were that.”

I scanned the side of his face, saw the farmer there – that age-old admirer of strong, self-reliant beasts.

“But what did you do, Grandad?”

He replaced the stone where he had found it, in the turf. “Do, lad? We were nobbut tenants. They’d getten a thirst on in Blackpool. Thousands lived down yonder by the sea and only a handful of us up here on the moors… it were eviction, lad. Eviction or prison.”

A wave of heat passed through me. I said a ridiculous thing. I said, “I’d have chosen prison…”

The old man stared over the water that had washed away his home. “Aye,” he said. “But it were prison both ways. A prison whatever we chose.”

The wind blew between us. It blew hard enough to drive the clouds like sheep and allow sunlight through the gap. The light felt good, something better than words. I let it search all the secret places in my face.

But when I opened my eyes, Grandfather was still raking the lake with his gaze.

The wind blew down harder. The light faded.

*

The doctor switches off his torch.

“Is he done yet?” the old man asks.

“Not long,” I tell him, close enough maybe for him to make out the outline of my face.

The old man nods. “I’m an old sheep. I’ve been on the go too long. Yon moor’s worn me out.”

The surgeon pats his shoulder fondly. “There’s a good bit of grazing left in you yet, Mr Harris.”

“What’s that?” asks the old man.

“The doctor says you’re fit for a few more winters, Grandad.”

The doctor weighs the torch. “Mr Harris,” he tells me with quiet urgency, “if I’m right – if it isn’t the eyes, if it’s the arteries… well, it’s possible your Grandfather’s sight may return periodically. Or” – he lowers his voice – “more disturbingly, he may suffer….”

“Suffer?”

“Visions, Mr Harris. When the synapses fire, your Grandfather may become prone to hallucinations.”

My Grandfather is whistling through his teeth, kneading one hand in the other as if it’s a stone.

“What kind of hallucinations, doctor?”

The doctor shines the torch it into the creamy white skin of his palm. “That depends, sir.”

“On what?”

“Well, images are passed around dozens of places in the brain, many of them located in the memory…”

“And if the memories are bad?”

The doctor puts me in the headlights of his eyes. “We’ve all got a few of those, Mr Harris.”

“I’m famished,” the old man interrupts. “I need my nose-bag, Douglas.”

“Nearly done, Grandad.”

“Famished like a fox,” he tells us.

*

The whole world is famished when it comes to sheep. Grandad explained as we trudged back over the moors after my first sighting of the reservoir. If it wasn’t tics, it was foot-root. If not tapeworm, snowdrifts… “Everything wants to kill them,” he said. “Kick one, the whole flock limps.”

He told me about the great snow-storms, when he was forced onto the moor to dig out his flock, testing the depths with a stick, hoping the creatures had taken shelter behind dry-stone walls, where air flowed between stones.

“I took a flask of brandy. Dabbed a tot on their tongues. Man alive! They kicked a bit then. They did that!”

Other sheep, he dug out dead. And some seemed to recover, but later took badly, eventually falling into a ditch, where they brightened the fortunes of crows.

Grandfather was still instructing me in the moors’ savage ways when we came down into the home-field and glimpsed the first of the dead chickens.

I knew the countryside only from fleeting weekend visits to his home, a hut neighbouring the farmhouse of his employer. Death was new to me. Faced by it, I drew close to my Grandfather, hoping to find shelter from the slaughtered creatures. I knew that their heads had been torn off and their bowels pulled out. I knew this without looking, even though I was scarcely eight years old and a stranger to killing. Some knowledge is inside us all along.

The old man gestured into the sycamores, planted as shelter for his employer’s home. “It’ll have to be one of yon lads,” he said.

I’d no idea what he was talking about, simply sensed from the stiff angles of his body that, whatever he intended, he’d already planned it. He gathered up the dead chickens and ushered me homewards. The birds must have dangled at his side as we marched back to the hut, must have dripped their blood. I couldn’t look. I walked through the quivering grass with my eyes shut, probably whistling through my teeth, a calming habit learned from the old man.

When I stumbled awkwardly, my Grandfather must have put the chickens down. All I recall is the hard, shepherd’s hand around my wrist as he pulled me from the turf and checked the blood wasn’t running too freely, the wound not so deep.

 

*

 

“One final test,” says the doctor.

I stand beneath the surgery’s ceiling-window. Above, rain swirls.

Grandfather peers upwards into the light.

 

*

 

The electric light, he must have hired from an agricultural supplier in Preston. It was connected to the farmhouse by a cord longer than a liver-fluke. Whatever a liver-fluke was. Half the words he used, I never understood.

Anyway, the cord stretched through the farmhouse, high into the tree. And all afternoon I sat there watching my Grandfather assemble his gear.

As night fell, his attention sharpened. “Never much fun in the next part,” I heard him tell the farmer.

“Aye. Got to be done, though, lad.”

“It has,” he said. “It has that.”

“What are you doing, Grandad?”

“Never thee worrit, lad.”

“Are you making a light for that tree?”

“Later, happen. After thy bed-time.”

“Like at Blackpool illuminations,” I said, thinking in my townie way of the resort’s annual light show.

“Aye,” said the old man. “Blackpool.” The word was like a stone in his hand, measured and precise. A word he’d tested before using. I followed his eyes into the sycamore, where he’d lashed ropes and straps. The lamp was like an eye, the colour of fog. It peered down upon us.

 

*

 

Above my head in the surgery, the window-light is cloud-grey. The rain washes down upon us in waves.

We could be at the bottom of a lake, covered by water.

 

*

 

 

The first scream sent me tumbling in terror for the window. The pane was cold and dark against my nose. My grandfather’s cottage seemed to have been flung sideways, turned in a new direction. Beyond, nothing. Only blackness. Then, slowly: a point of light far above the shoulder of the moor.

“It’s all right,” I said, aloud. My voice startled me, a sound almost as strange as the scream that had pitched me from bed.

I put my ear against the glass and listened. I listened as hard as Grandad said he’d listened the night when the Water Board’s navvies came to his door with their hammers and axes:

Waiting, we were, your Grandmother and me. Waiting the whole night for that gang of lads.”

It came again, the sound of a terrible agony. Now at last I saw figures at work in the field beyond the cottage.

They were staking a creature in the grass. It was a goose, I knew – one of the long-necked, hissing monsters that sometimes chased me through the farmer’s yard. They had crippled the bird and tied it to a stake beneath the sycamore, making it easy prey for the moor’s famished beasts. I stared upwards into the sycamore, where I was almost certain I could see my Grandfather.

“Got myself a decent perch,” I heard him whisper to the farmer. “Thee go back indoors now, lad.”

The silence beat like a drum. I stared up into the dark sycamore. Somewhere in there, my Grandfather would be squeezing a perfect eye into the sights of his gun.

When the goose screamed again, the lamp came on. In that blinding instant of illumination, I saw the fox lift its head from the goose, saw the lack of understanding on its face as my Grandfather pulled the trigger.

 

*

 

Outside the surgery, the old man widens his eyes, as if confronted by a terrible vision. He takes off in a head-long rush for the car.

“Not so fast,” I warn. “You’ll…”

He falls against the car. I manage to cram my body like a pillow between him and the vehicle.

“A tall fellah with an axe,” he mutters. “Tell him he’s not to enter. Tell him this is our home.” Breath struggles through his chest. I clamp a hand to his arm, shocked to find the bones in its wrist.

“Hold on,” I mutter.

He can’t hear me. He can’t see me. But I’ve got him; he isn’t going anywhere. We lean together, the car taking our weight now, closer than we’ve been since the day I fell, since the day he pulled me out of the grass.

Above, the clouds part: a tiny crack. Wide enough to admit a portion of warmth.

“Feel that,” I tell the old man, holding him until his breathing steadies.

We tilt our heads and let the light cover us. For a few seconds, we stand in the car-park behind the surgery, both of us shining.

 

An Arabesque, in the manner of A.E. Coppard.

 

2,191 words

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © Short Story Competition 2014