Read by Kevin Potton
This is what I remember.
The bruising rain pocking my face, the torrent in my ears. Opening my mouth to drink, stinging the back of my throat- the metal-sour stench of the machine – opening my eyes to wash pain from my mind.
The dark mood still snapping around me, though I had done my best to break it – and it had done its best to finish me.
Despair: most of all despair…
Listening to the mud suck and gurgle like a piglet at the teat: suck, gargle, snort; as the tractor sank lower and I sank with it. Waiting for death or rescue; half-knowing death for a preference.
Standing over me in black-blue dusk, the glow of his pipe stark red against storm cloud. Jennings, pulled on the baccy, corner of mouth turned down, eyes darting about, fingers rubbing the cloth of his jacket.
Jennings’ fingers and the smell of damp baccy; rough tweed brushing my face as his knees sink in beside me, his face turned sideways, mud-brown eyes measuring- Jennings’ fingers splayed upside my eyes, above the shifting mud. His thumbs turned out above his topmost knuckle, a great sickle of bone and flesh, against the bowl of his pipe. Mud on white clay. He pulls and the soft red leaps once more.
The hooves of the Percheron, hot puffs of breath like ostrich feathers on the hats of fine ladies.
The shouts of men.
Jennings hushing; calm, steady.
Hating Jennings. Hating his gentle not-touching as the rope is passed from hand to hand and the excitement and self-importance of the youngest boy is quelled by the first shifting.
Jennings crouching at my head, the lantern at his knee, his hand held out level just above my face; the light making plough lines of his palm. His teeth clenched round the stem of his pipe.
His words to me:
This is all I remember.
I don’t recall the gate hauled from its hinges, nor the doctor, nor the child – hysterical, weeping,
… I tell myself I don’t.
This is what I was told, often, by the doctor-
“You’re a lucky man, Alan, you might have died…
… might have been crippled,
… might have lost that leg.”
And once, by Jennings-
“Doctor was for amputating then and there, Mister. I said you’d want to wait a little to see how you did.”
This is what I was told, incessantly, by my neighbours-
My too heavy tractor and too steep bank and too full river and too late into the storm and darkness.
“You’re a luck man, Alan, to have Jennings as foreman.”
And be sure I was told-
“All your own fault Alan, what were you thinking?”
This is what I was thinking.
I was thinking mortgage and foreclosure. I was thinking motherless child. I was thinking wages I could no longer afford to pay.
I don’t know what I was thinking.
This is what I imagined.
I imagined my folly purchase, my too heavy tractor – I imagined it killing me.
That is where I came from, and this is where I have come to: helpless in my cold, empty marriage bed.
Mother Jennings coming up from the village to care for the child and coming up from the kitchen to lay fires I can ill afford.
The spoiled tractor seeping diesel in the yard, and Jennings hither and yon, seeing to pigs and horses and men, his calm voice buffeting the barn and in at my open window as clear as if he stood leaning against the yellowing plaster.
This is what I dream.
Martin lying in mud; fire raining into ears and mouth, burning into his eyes, bleaching out the pain.
Gunfire still snapping about him.
Fear: most of all, fear…
Martin, listening to the mud suck and gurgle like a piglet at the teat: suck, gargle, snort; as the dead sank lower and he sank with them. Waiting for death or rescue; half-knowing death for a preference.
Martin, lying crater deep and sinking, legs blown away, sinking into foreign mud, foreign death.
This is what wakes me.
Jennings in chapel-best, high hard collar and brushed coat, standing at the foot of the bed, bare head almost grazing the ceiling. The child at his elbow, clean-pinafored and big-eyed with awe at her felled Da.
What were you thinking, Alan? Ellie asks through her daughter’s grey eyes.
This is what wakes me, with tears acid-hot in my hair.
Mother Jennings and Jennings turning my splinted body, pulling soiled sheets from under me.
The child singing, down in the yard, a song that Martin used to sing. Wanting to slap her to silence- wanting the travesty of his joyous words in her shrill piping silent. Wanting to reach out to her, for the sake of her dead mother. Wanting to hold her for the sake of her brave foolish baritone uncle whom she still calls out for some nights, not understanding she’ll not duet with him again.
This is what wakes me.
Jennings and the child, scuffling on the landing, dragging furniture about. Jennings, husky with laughter and secretiveness.
She can’t have helped him pull it up the stairs, but between them they drag the mirrored over-mantle from the parlour into the bedchamber.
Jennings and she push and pull and tilt and prop, and Janey runs in and out and out and in until Jennings is pulled away by one out-turning thumb. Rat scuttles and thumps above my head. The child brings her oval looking-glass, held before her like a platter, like a head of John the Baptist.
Jennings reaches for the platter and the Baptist vanishes. The looking-glass, back in its frame, perches atop the wardrobe and of a sudden, I see.
This is what I see.
Low autumn sky, dark wooded hills, the end of the barn, roostered and sunlit.
Janey crouches, her head next to mine, as she directs the manoeuvring of mirror and glass. Her left and her right tangle quickly, but eventually I can see part of my small world.
Jennings grins in satisfaction and reaches a broad hand to take the child away.
“Now you can watch the road to Camelot,” she says.
I don’t understand, until she jumps down the stairs two at a time, Tirra-Lirra-ing into a scolding from Mother Jennings.
I call Jennings back from the dark well of the stair.
So much to ask: the pigs, the crops, and the wages… god knows if the men have been paid.
This is what I ask.
“There was a picture.”
This is what I need to see.
- Ellie, in high-waisted dress and veiled hat, her face serious and her eyes shadowed with the death that waited barely a twelve-month on;
- me, collared and long-coated and po-faced,
- Martin, his heart-deep grin made absurd by his brief experimentation with whiskers.
Sister and brother, and my sun and moon, gone within four years of each other, she to sickness and he to foolish pride in the land that needed his hand to plough, not fight- but no exemption was enough to save Martin Hughes from his own need to hold a gun for his country.
This is what I see in that tarnished nickel-silver frame.
This is what I see in my Shalott-world.
Crazy-perfect images too small for the sounds they make, fairy-tale farmers and magical animals shrunk to fit a child’s dressing mirror, and thrown right-side-first to float eerily in the dark framed stretch of glass against the wall.
Janey: waving and jumping to attract my attention, against the sunny wall of the barn, where she knows I will see.
Harold: walking the horses out for my invisible approval, self-conscious and disconcerted.
And they were right, Jennings and the child, I was half crazy with want of seeing.
The season’s close: Jennings pig-killing and Janey, in sacking overall, with the bucket waiting for the blood. Janey, sticky with red: hair and face and shoes, where the pig bucked one great heart-wrench of dying and Jennings could not hold him. Jennings raising his eyes to the pool of light in my darkness knowing I am watching, waiting for my sickly child to shriek and throw the bucket aside.
But she does not. Tirra-Lirra by the river, my brave child, ready for her place in Camelot.
This is what I see.
The doctor’s trap leaving the gate.
Jennings turning up his eyes to meet the mirror.
Jennings at the bed-foot, an old herding crook across his elbow.
Mother Jennings unsplints me. My thin white legs, translucent as eggshell and far, far too long. I shall need every inch of shepherd’s crook to hold me up.
Not a step. Not then, nor for a week. Sitting, bending joints long still, exhausts me. The crook used instead to tilt the mirror so I may see out, whether I sit or lie.
I look into other corners and watch the men about their business- watch Janey chasing hens, hop-scotching with Mother Jennings as she waits for the bread to rise.
This is what I see.
My land nourished and coaxed back to life.
My child, growing firm and brown.
Jennings’ hand spread over all that is mine.
Jennings, with eyes turned up to my glass, as he snicks the gate closed behind him in evening dusk.
Jennings’ eyes watching already, from the corner of the lane’s first-morning-light as he kicks pebbles- not watching his step.
This is my slow journey.
From death’s threshold, to the window.
The Lord of Shalott looks out at a world made real, forced there by the mirror: One push too many from my crook and down it fell, cracked from side to side.
I cannot bend for the pieces.
And it seems the poet was right. I am half crazy for want of the real, unreflected world.
Jennings raises his eyes seeking reflective connection. There is no glass between us.
My heart cracks from side to side.
Jennings collects the pieces.
I stand propped between crook and sill, and this is what I feel.
I feel the silvered glass sharp against his palm, the breath across his moist lower lip, the hairs rising along his forearm, the muscles in his face pulling as he turns his eyes down. His multiple gaze reflects back into mine.
Brown eyes fix on callused out-turning thumb and will not risk my direct gaze.
The mirror rains into a bucket, splintering light and dark across the ceiling.
But what I need to ask, I cannot.
The eyes flicker, not to me, but to the photograph; to Martin, and half an answer. His eyes narrow, brows drawn together.
This is what we both remember.
Martin Jennings, Martin Hughes and me: close as brothers, almost-equals in wealth and standing and age, rowdying about town as youngsters, rivals in love.
Martin Jennings and me, rivals for the attention of Martin Hughes, small god of our village at ten.
Martin Jennings, my rival for the attention of Eleanor Hughes, pale goddess of our village at thirteen.
Then the Jennings farm failed.
This is what I chose to forget.
Pa Jennings, broken, waiting out death supported from Mother Jennings’ cooking and cleaning, and young Jennings hired as a labourer over the border. No more my brother, almost-equal, rival.
This is what I want to forget.
Martin Jennings, conscripted, and Martin Hughes, volunteer; gone to be ploughed into the bloody, muddy cornfields of Flanders, while I ploughed my fields and I ploughed Martin Jennings’ lost acres, bought from rashness I could ill afford; and I ploughed Hughes’ farm for my in-laws. Late into the night I ploughed, turning all the soil from riverbed to road, every field between church boundary and breast of hill.
And one day, as I ploughed, Martin Hughes died.
And one day, as I ploughed, Martin Jennings came home.
This I will never forget.
Martin Jennings, standing here, something near hatred in those mud-brown eyes.
Mirror by Cherry Potts was read by Kevin Potton at the Liars' League Blood & Thunder event at The Wheatsheaf on Tuesday 13 October 2009
Cherry Potts is the author of two collections of short stories, Mosaic of Air (1992) and Tales told before Cockcrow (2008) published by Onlywomen Press. She is a qualified coach and NLP Master Practitioner with her own business Change from Choice, which gives her time to write!