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Authors: Tim Pears,Prefers to remain anonymous

1993 - In the Place of Fallen Leaves

BOOK: 1993 - In the Place of Fallen Leaves
3.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


In the Place of Fallen Leaves


Tim Pears




This overwhelmingly hot summer everything seems to be slowing down in the tiny Devon village where Alison lives, as if the sun is pouring hot glue over it. “This idn’t nothin’,” says Alison’s grandmother, recalling a drought when the earth swallowed lambs, and the summer after the war when people got electric shocks off each other. But Alison knows her grandmother’s memory is lying: this is far worse. She feels that time has stopped just as she wants to enter the real world of adulthood. In fact, in the cruel heat of summer, time is creeping towards her, and closing in around the valley.



t was the summer the world stopped turning on the spiral of history, the summer we spent waiting for the world to begin again, when the sun hung above the village and poured a hot glue that slowed everything down.

“This idn’t nothin’,” said grandmother in June, recalling the drought of 1976, when the earth swallowed lambs, and the electric summer after the war when people got shocks off each other whenever they touched. By August, though, both those things had already happened, and even she had to admit it was worse.

Shadows were pushed back into awkward corners, and it was there I first noticed things being moved around, as the spirits of the house made space for themselves in their diminishing refuge. Gradually, though, objects themselves took on a life of their own and moved without the spirits’ help, rising from the surfaces of furniture through empty air that the heat had squeezed even gravity out of.

Mother was unable, eventually, to ignore the autonomous flight of pillows on the landing, and salt and pepper pots that raced each other across the kitchen table. But she couldn’t tell anyone because the same thing was said to have happened around Rosemary, an aunt who’d thrown herself into the quarry pool long before I was born, so the village was deprived of another exorcism, last seen when one of the newcomer families claimed that their brand-new house was possessed by an incubus who was tampering with the children’s dreams. A large crowd had gathered with candles. At first they felt let down as the Rector simply traipsed through the house with his mind on other things, and whispered some diffident prayers. But then the spirit, bored with so feeble an adversary, swept out of the house in a miniature cyclone of sugar and dust and soared off towards Dartmoor, leaving a faint nutmeggy odour in the porch.

Worried should a surprise visitor discover that our home was turning into an aviary of household utensils, mother went through the house methodically sticking the ashtrays to table-tops, Ian’s chess medals to the mantelpiece and even fruit to the fruitbowl with double-sided tape, a makeshift arrangement which proved successful, the house becoming calm again right up until the period of confusion that came much later on.


Throughout that summer there were hours and hours between first light and the actual appearance of the sun, and they were the only habitable ones in the day until the fleeting relief of dusk eighteen hours later, when the droopy rich purple of love-lies-bleeding would come back to life by the kitchen door and the air be filled with the aroma of sweet-smelling tobacco plants that grew beside the stream.

Our farm was the last dwelling along the lane going out of the village towards Haldon Forest. Opposite us was the Old Rectory with its thatched roof, in which grandmother could remember putting fragrant grasses to soothe the troubled dreams of a previous occupant’s child. Next door to us was another old house owned by outsiders, who themselves lived on the other side of the world and rented it out to summer visitors. It had a small pond inhabited by goldfish, which used to jump out of the water whenever someone slammed the front door, but which when the pond dried up in July had disappeared off the face of the earth, leaving no trace except for a mysterious quiver in the whiskers of our cats.


It was Thursday morning, 6 September 1984. I lay in bed, ignoring mother’s shouts from below. I’d turned thirteen just the week before and Pamela, my older sister, had given me a rather useless multicoloured glass mobile which I hung in the window: I stared at the colours which hovered on the wall in front of me, and wondered if I could risk closing my eyes without slipping backwards into sleep.

The sun had woken up in a valley beyond the ridge with the church on it, across the village from us, and yawned a slow, luxurious breath of blue into the sky. That was when the work was done: Ian and Tom had been sleepwalkers in the darkness, but the light found them and grandfather repairing fences or docking lambs’ tails, imbued with a senseless optimism that this day might be different. But it never was and, drawn out of bed by the steam from mother’s bread that wafted through the house, I’d find my brothers as always sitting glumly by the stove, drinking their mugs of tea, for the sun had again come rising behind the steeple and let go its dragon’s breath into the steep combe of the village, burning off the tenuous morning mist that clung to the stream still trickling along the groove it’d scored, in more abundant times, through the heart of the village, while the sun’s rays shafted into the kitchen upon the customary pandemonium of women at that hour of the day. While Ian and Tom sat by the stove, immobile as bulls, we darted around them.

“I called you twice, girl,” said mother as I came in the door. “You’ll be late for school.”

“Had ‘er nose in some bloody book again, shouldn’t doubt,” said Tom.

I searched for my stuff in the confusion of the kitchen, but piskies had come in the night and hidden them.

“Where’s my swimmers, Mum?” I moaned.

Pamela swept into the kitchen in a flurry of bags and clothes and make-up; her perfume floated in behind her, without ever quite catching up. Lipstick bouncing on the tiled floor and keys and coins and bracelets jangling, she gulped half a glass of apple juice without pausing for breath and grabbed a slice of buttered toast as she passed the table.

“I might be late back, Mum. Rehearsal tonight,” she muttered breathlessly on her way to the door.

“And how’ll you get ‘ome, might I ask?”

“I’ll get a lift,” she replied, stepping outside; and then, over her shoulder, “Don’t you worry.”

Her scent lingered in the kitchen as she scattered the chickens, all except the cockerel, who’d galvanized them hours before with his crowing and then strutted foolishly around the farmyard, courting the resentment of his beady-eyed brood as they waited for the sun to rise behind the church, and pecked at the grit and dust.

“Where’s our breakfast, mother?” Tom demanded.

Mother was at the stove, elbows a blur at her sides, into which tomatoes and mushrooms were sucked, and from which eggshells came spinning into the bin. The boys lifted their heavy limbs from the easy chairs on either side of the range and lumbered over to the table as mother turned with the enormous frying-pan and slid sizzling food on to their plates. She cut thick slices of bread; steam escaped from the loaf and vanished.

“Hurry up, girl, the van’ll be gone,” she exclaimed.

“My swimmers is disappeared.”

“They’s underneath the newspapers in the corner there.”

She was the only one who could outwit the piskies. I went back upstairs to get dressed. Already the sun was squeezing the air out of the house; now and again a slate would crack above my head, and timbers creaked as the last traces of sap were sucked out of them, moaning as they warped. The Honeywills’ donkey brayed in a distant field. I looked out of the window. Ian and Tom tramped across to the barn, heads down, to join grandfather, who always carried his mug of tea out of the house and into the yard when he heard the rest of us getting up.


Back in the kitchen the smell of fried food thickened the air and settled on the walls. Mother was feeding the cats; she lifted a fishy hand, licked her handkerchief, and wiped a smudge of jam off my cheek.

“Let’s ‘ope there’s school today,” she said, and I left the house.



y that time in the morning the tar in the road had already gone soft and chips of gravel floated on it like hundreds and thousands on top of trifle; some of them came loose and stuck to the soles of my shoes as I walked up the lane between the high hedges people kept up around their gardens.

The others were all up at the Green, which we called the Brown: the year before, the Rector had purchased it from Joseph Howard with Parish funds and organized a work party to clear the brambles, lay turf and erect climbing frames, so that children would have a recreation park like in other villages, but the boys dismantled the climbing frames to make goalposts and they played football all day till after dark, crying: “Use the free man, Platini!” or “Hoddle’s on his own!”, frightening their wilting parents with the madness of their exertions. What few hardy tufts of grass on the Brown had survived their battering were killed off by the sun. Even now, waiting for Fred’s van, they were dashing red-faced after a plastic football, like a herd of bullocks chasing a sheepdog. Nan Dyer leaned against the doorway of her almshouse, a cigarette in her mouth, gazing out at the younger girls turning cartwheels in the dust, showing their white knickers. The older girls stood around the telephone box, whose thick red paint was blistering. I wanted to turn cartwheels too.

The last to arrive was always Jane Ashplant, who would come scurrying up Rattle Street, so steep she had to lean right into it and almost use her hands to clamber up. Those people blessed with a long life cursed the founders of the village, since not a single path ran level for more than five yards, further punishing their arthritic joints. The houses had been built on the irregular sides of a deep gash in the hillside sloping down from Haldon Forest to the Teign Valley and they looked, on the occasion the Rector took Jane and me up the church tower, as if they had been frozen in the midst of tumbling, one on top of the other, into the stream. The village was all lopsided and everyone looked down upon, or was looked upon by, their neighbours.

The old people cursed the village founders, but they’d been clever men and women who chose a site where every dwelling was in as bad a position as any other: those living up on the ridge by the church could amble down to the shop but had to struggle home, while those of us around the stream complained all the way up to the post-box opposite the telephone, and for people in the middle every journey had its trials, so that no one had anything more to complain about than anyone else.

Jane came over to where I was standing by the telegraph pole, and tried to squeeze into its shadow.

“Think there’ll be school today?” she asked.

“In’t no reason to be. ‘Tis still the same, innit?” I replied.

We could hear Fred’s Escort van coughing and rattling up the hill. Girls who’d forgotten not to lean against the phone box came away with red stripes on their white shirts, while the boys emerged from a cloud of dust. Fred leapt out and unpacked his milk crates, stacking them as always in the telephone box; the eight of us at Comprehensive squeezed into the van and we bumped down the hill, sickened by the smell of spilt milk.

Fred shuttled us down to the Teign Valley road in between milk rounds. He kept a cigarette end on his lower lip, and his teeth were stained brown. He had also taken snuff three times daily throughout his adult life, and his nose was ruined: it dribbled, and he was constantly having to wipe it, but if one of us pretended to be congested he’d let us take a sniff, and as you felt those peppery grains tickle your nostrils you understood how someone could become addicted to sneezing.

At the main road we’d spill out and Fred would turn the van with a furious crunching of gears and race back up the hill to collect the Primary School kids, while we waited for what seemed the ever less likely appearance of the school bus.

Slag heaps advancing from the granite works had brought the other side of the Valley right up to the road, and a cloud of grey dust was already rising behind them. The kids from Teign Village, a few hundred yards up the opposite slope of the Valley, joined us at the crossroads. Living that bit closer to the main road connecting the villages of the Valley both to each other and to the world outside, they had a superior stock of new rumours with which they proceeded to indulge us: the teachers’ strike had been dramatically resolved in arbitration on the stroke of midnight; the army were being brought in to supervise the playground; Japanese midgets had succeeded in repairing the air-cooling system. Johnathan Teignmouth too came walking along the Valley road, and stood apart.

Presently Fred came tearing down the lane with ten minnows packed into the van, and we parted to let him through, tyres squealing around the corner, as he drove them off to Chudleigh Primary. We hung around getting bored with each other and annoyed with the wasps that had proliferated in that sultry cocoon of a summer: Sally Green was allergic and she moaned if we didn’t keep guard, batting them off with our pencil cases. We were all willing the coach to turn up half-filled with the Christow and Bridford lot, and take us to the school I hadn’t yet seen, but by the time Fred reappeared it obviously wasn’t going to, so we’d pile back into the van and be taken home. Fred leaned forward to urge the van faster, chewing the cigarette end with his lips, while his milk curdled in the telephone box.

As I walked back with Jane we’d hear the rattle of the crates behind us. She’d been my best friend; we went through Primary and Middle schools together, just as Daddy had gone to school with her father. He was a mechanic down at the granite works now. He spent so much time on his back, under the diggers and dumper-trucks, that at night he slept in a chair.

I used to stay at their house some Saturdays; Jane and I would keep awake talking with a candle. Jane was always the first to drop off, and then she farted in her sleep, silently, as dogs do.

Now we wondered whether we’d ever get to Comprehensive, and I told her of the time, back when grandmother was growing up on Dartmoor and people rode their ponies off the moor to school, when schooling was suddenly made free and people stopped going, suspicious of something that had no value.

BOOK: 1993 - In the Place of Fallen Leaves
3.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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