I wrote this over several weeks for a short story competition for which I didn’t even make the long list. I was miffed, to say the least, but in the essence of enhancing my writing style, please feel free to be brutal in your feedback so I can improve for next time — thanks, Harry
The man finished work for the day and ducked out of the shed, weaving his fingers together as he reached his arms over his head, stretching out the sedentary hunch of the day. A thin ripple of cloud on the horizon was dappled with pewter bruises and nestled snugly under an otherwise cerulean sky as he ambled through the orchard that early evening in August. The ordered columns of apple, plum and cherry trees were progressing well, but the latter were immature — their tart fruit yet to offer a return on his time invested.
Biennial bearing meant flowering only occurred every other year, so this season his cherry trees lacked the beauty for which he’d originally admired them. He was, however, a sanguine man to counterbalance his numerous frailties, so he was still able to enjoy the last vestiges of pure sunshine flittering through the branches, casting undulating shadows across the long grass below.
“That needs a mow” he noted to himself out loud — a useful recall technique he’d picked up in fighter training when he’d first arrived in Nairobi at the start of the war, twenty-one years earlier. The memory of the memory nudged his subconscious and he instinctively put his hand through what was left of his thinning hair, feeling for the scar that would never fully heal.
Past the orchard at the end of the garden he enjoyed the ranging views across Buckinghamshire. To the right, Angling Spring farm with nothing but fields, livestock and woodland beyond, mercifully lacking unnecessary disturbance. To the left, the Misbourne school and behind that, a river of the same name. His daughter Olivia was soon to start her first term and his son Theo, only a few days old now would, no doubt, become a pupil there in a few years’ time.
He enjoyed the thought, gleefully looking forward to walking them to and from the school gates in all seasons, wandering into Great Missenden when the weather allowed, stopping at the sweet shop for illicit treats that would no doubt get him in trouble with Pat.
The thought prompted a characteristically mischievous chuckle.
He pruned some of the more errant and hard-to-reach branches, his significant height a genetic inheritance from his Nordic lineage not without its uses and plucked a juicy plum from the canopy. There was a time, twenty years before, when he couldn’t have dreamt of such simple pleasures.
He enjoyed them immeasurably now.
He let the bittersweet juice dribble down his chin, catching the overflow in a handkerchief before it stained his shirt.
Having hung his shears in the shed and deposited the clippings he languidly walked towards the house. Seeing Pat feeding Theo at the table, he waved. She was trying to help Olivia cut up her supper with her spare hand and his daughter, his first child and apple of his eye, cried out in delight.
“Daddy!” — she flew out of her chair to her mother’s consternation and ran, all arms and legs as five-year-olds do, down the path and into her beaming father’s arms.
“Hello, my darling — and how are you?” he said as he swung her by the armpits, her hair, already tousled, flailing across her elated face.
She giggled and squealed as he tickled her. “Stop it daddy. STOP IT!” But the laughter continued through her redundant appeals. He kissed her on both cheeks and set her back on the ground, smoothing down her pink Gingham dress, retying the bow at her front and turning her towards the table to assuage her mother’s dismay.
Pat, smiling herself whilst trying to act the role of the serious parent, called her back. “Olivia, your dinner’s getting cold. Leave your father alone and come finish up”.
His daughter folded her arms and rolled her bottom lip in faux dismay but a smile, raised brow and a nod from her father was enough to send her scurrying back to the table where she gently stroked her new baby brother’s head before messily resuming her bangers and mash.
His heart swelled, blessedly unaware of the pending tragedy that was written in her future, not two years hence.
He kissed his wife as she looked over her shoulder and gazed adoringly at his first-born son, suckling greedily with his thin strands of dark hair weaving across his amaranth-pink head, still endearingly conical. Tickling his button nose, his son impatiently shooed his finger away. Such bliss was unquantifiable.
He strode purposefully round the side the house, then paused before turning back.
“I was going to knock up one of my stews — what d’you think?”
“Whatever you like, darling” his wife replied, paying scant attention. Her husband had many traits, both good and bad, and his singularity of mind was one that could be determined either way, depending on the circumstance. For the most part she found it attractive — his strength of conviction, resilience and obstinance an oddly appealing if occasionally maddening blend of characteristics.
As he rounded the front of the cottage, he saw the hulking shadow of his friend Wally trudging up the half-finished path, a paving slab under each arm. He was a beast of a man, six foot five if an inch, broad as a barn door but quiet — placid, even — unless he’d had a few too many or was being taken for a fool. And woe betide the man who chastised the quality of his craftsmanship…
The men examined the pathway together, the rough-hewn Chiltern stone well laid but purposefully biffsquiggled to maintain a rustic look. It was neatly adjoined by fragrant lavender and associated bees on either side. They nodded in mutual approval of the day’s work as the man gave his friend a firm pat on the shoulder.
“If you’re offering” Wally replied, dropping the slabs where he stood.
They strolled down Whitefield Lane then along the High Street to the Cross Keys pub. At the bar he ordered before turning to the grizzled man hunched next to him, a local purveyor of things gained through not entirely legal means.
“Got anything for me, Willy? I’m planning a stew”.
The poacher grunted before opening his grubby Greatcoat, the hems flecked with thistle heads and goose grass, to reveal three fresh rabbits and a brace of partridge.
“Got a fine buck hangin’ out back if yous be in’rested” he spoke furtively from the side of his mouth.
“Not today thanks, Bill — I’ll just take those rabbits, if it’s all the same” he replied equally tacitly, sliding a Crown covertly along the bar. “And another pint for my friend please Tilly. Much obliged”.
He tipped the landlord’s daughter generously as the three men toasted good health before parting ways, the rabbits being exchanged surreptitiously in the time-worn manner.
Resting on the low wall outside, the two friends supped their ale in silence. Wally was frugal with his words and after many years of friendship, that still suited them both well. After some time and having taken a long draft of his pint, Wally spoke up.
“So, you’ve a stew planned?”
“Yep..” his friend replied, taking a pull on the tankard himself “…something I learnt in Egypt back in the day. Rabbit should work just fine”. Discussion over, they returned to their respective thoughts.
He’d crashed his aged biplane in September 1940 on a supposedly routine transfer from Abu Sueir from where he’d been directed, in error, to the desert — a stone’s throw from the Italian forces. On hitting a rock his Gladiator had cartwheeled, leaving him with a multiple head injuries and temporary blindness.
He’d been fortunate to have been found alive by friendlies and taken via Mersa Matruh to recuperate in the military hospital on the coast in Alexandria, to the north west of Cairo. It was here, months later on his daily ramble around the old city that he’d discovered the Imperial Café on El Ghorfa El Togaria street and struck up a friendship with the owner, a rotund and jovial cusser named Abdiel.
Having pestered him for weeks, Abdiel finally relented, giving him the recipe for his favourite dish, Bamia — a stew traditionally made with lamb, okra (the Arabic for which gave the dish its name), turmeric, ground cinnamon, paprika, cumin, cloves and whatever seasoning happened to be close to hand. It was a warming and homely concoction yet exotic and intriguing — quite unlike anything he’d eaten before or since. Bamia encapsulated all the fragrances and flavours of the city he’d found himself trapped in and if there was one positive to be taken from his otherwise hellish experience, it was this recipe — scribbled in pencil on a torn-up cigarette packet.
The same packet now pinned in perpetuity to the wooden lintel above the stove at Gipsy House.
He bade his farewells to Wally with a nod and a half salute and strutted smartly back home, the rabbits slung over his shoulder as the last of the sun’s beams broke through the upper fronds of hedgerow. His march was only mildly less polished for the twenty-odd years that had elapsed since it was last formerly deployed.
He fumbled in the pockets of his shorts and found, with some glee, the last melting block of Cadbury’s milk chocolate entombed in lint. Blowing it clean, he smiled at the clandestine nature of the treat — despite its scraggy appearance — eagerly anticipating the vice he’d held since childhood and now severely policed by his wife on behalf of his dental health.
He rested his rabbits on the garden wall and took time to admire Wally’s handiwork but his peace was rudely interrupted when by a frenzied cry coming from the lane behind him. It was Jim, the grocer’s boy, manically peddling his laden bicycle up the steepening incline.
“Evening Jim. Bit late in the day, isn’t it?” He asked, his smile denying any hint of real angst at the tardy hour.
“I’m sorry sir — I meant to get here sooner…” the flustered boy replied, a sheen of sweat reflecting from under his cap and the suggestion of tears collecting in his rheumy eyes.
“I got a puncture down by the brewery and took me an age to push home to get the repair kit. I’m very sorry”.
The boy looked genuinely perturbed as he pulled the bike and extra-large basket up on its A-frame and started unpacking bags of vegetables and sundries.
“No matter. Really, it’s no bother at all, Jim. Don’t you worry” the man offered gently and with a forgiving smile put a reassuring arm around the boy’s shoulders. “Now, did you manage to get everything I asked for?”
The boy wiped his nose on his sleeve and unpinned the list from the uppermost bag, studying it intently.
“Yes, yessir — everything on there, even that stuff from London. Ogre, wasn’t it?”
“I presume you mean ‘Okra’, Jim?!” he chuckled.
“Yes, yes, sorry sir, that’s the one” the boy flustered some more as he hurried the bags up the newly laid path and into the house. On returning, he’d regained his composure to some extent and with no small measure of excitement he reached for the last bag at the bottom of the basket.
“You won’t believe what my Dad got hold of, sir. Look at this whopper”.
Jim delved deep into the paper sack and pulled out the biggest peach either of them had ever seen, its pink and yellow skin characteristically downy, a single leaf still gripping resolutely to a trunk-like stem. He handed it over proudly.
“Wow, Jim — what the devil have you got there? Must be a pound if it’s an ounce. How marvellous!” He oscillated the enormous fruit in his hand as a bowler would examine a new ball, astounded at its sheer mass.
The lad beamed, all sins forgiven and carried the remaining bags to the house, gratefully receiving his penny tip as he mounted his bike, despite having no expectation.
“Much obliged, Mr. Dahl. Be seeing you next week”.
“Cheerio Jim” he replied, waving the boy on his way down the lane before skirting the house, enjoying the soliloquy of silence, the children’s bath and bedtime having long since been and gone. Only a thin stream of the night light emanated from Olivia’s window above giving him reason to pause and be thankful. Looking through the kitchen window he saw Pat, busying herself with an apple and blackberry crumble.
He paused for a while until she, sensing his gaze, looked up and raised a crumb encrusted hand to blow him a kiss. By return he raised the nest of rabbits and the enormous peach. She waved him away, stifling disbelieving giggles.
Leaving dinner hanging in the porch, he mosied through the garden back to his orchard. Crouching through the cherry, plum and apple trees he stopped to rest his forearms on the fence overlooking the farm beyond. The sun had finally hit the horizon, layers and blooms of pinks, tiger orange and crimson seeping over far away hills under pillowy clouds, a reassuring warmth in the breeze massaging his face.
He looked at the peach, smiled at his fortune and took a bite, just barely managing to gain a purchase with his teeth.
It really was a giant specimen.
On 5th December 1960, four-month-old Theo Dahl was badly injured when his pram was hit by a taxi in New York. As a result, he contracted hydrocephalus (in which excess cerebrospinal fluid collects in the ventricles of the brain). His son’s blocked shunts led to Dahl co-inventing a new type of valve to treat the condition (known as the Wade-Dahl-Till valve). After a significant period of recuperation at home in Great Missenden, Theo recovered back to full health.
In November 1962 at the age of seven, only two years after this fictitious story was set, Dahl’s beloved daughter Olivia died of measles encephalitis. Her death left the author ‘…limp with despair’.