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Authors: Esther Freud

Mr Mac and Me

BOOK: Mr Mac and Me
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For my daughter, Anna Kitty


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53



A Note on the Author

By the Same Author

Chapter 1

I was born upstairs in the small bedroom, not in the smallest room with the outshot window, where I sleep now, or the main room that is kept for guests – summer visitors who write and let us know that they are coming and how long they plan to stay. Sometimes, after a night’s drinking, folk may rest there, although Mother always takes their money off them first. If she doesn’t they wake up and protest they don’t know how they came to be lying in that fine wide bed, say they’ve been apprehended and held there, in comfort against their will. But that is at harvest time, when men and boys come to wash away the wheat chaff tickling their throats, or in high summer when they’ve spent the day thinning out the wild oats from hay. But I was born in winter, the sea storming on the beach beyond, roaring through the night, louder than my mother, whose ninth child I was.

My father was over at Sogg’s Fen searching out a rabbit, and when he came back in he brought with him news that three fishermen from Dunwich had been lost at sea. The bell was ringing in the church there, Mother swore she could hear it through the storm, and she laid me against her chest and cried so hard she nearly drowned me with her tears. ‘What is it?’ my sister Mary was tending her. ‘Will he not feed neither?’ But Mother said she knew someone had to be taken that night, and sinful as it was, she was just so very grateful that it wasn’t me.

My father gave the rabbit to Mary to skin and gut, and he climbed into bed himself, knocked sideways with the spirits he’d drunk to keep away his fright.

‘We can’t both be lying down,’ my mother shoved him, ‘or this boy will have survived for nothing.’ And when he didn’t rouse himself she got up and careful as she could she climbed down the ladder, and leaving me beside him, she laid a fire in the public bar in case anyone should come in for a sup.


It was Mother, more than anyone, who had the village in her blood. Born and reared up near the common where her father was a pig man. She’d never wanted to leave, never planned to, but one afternoon she was out on the street when a man pedalled by and winked his eye at her. ‘Knives to grind,’ he sang over his shoulder and she smiled right back at him. He was an older man, halfway to her father’s age, with a ragged look as if he needed someone’s caring. But he was smiling as he wheeled around, smiling as he asked her name, and soon he was offering to sharpen the family knives half price. He had his own grinder, made a fair profit if he worked all hours, and when he and Mother married he carried her away to Dunwich where he set himself up as a pork butcher. Mother said she hadn’t known how much she liked the pigs till then, their bristly grey bodies, rootling and bathing in the sun, the happy way they let their babies snuffle round them, and it pained her to hear their screams rising up from the slaughterhouse beside the shop. She’d never imagined either how much she’d miss the village. She missed the washing flapping on the green, the geese that guarded it, the paths that led away towards the river and the sea. She missed the bracken unfurling in the spring, the pheasants that rose out of it, strolling glossily across the land. ‘There’s bracken here,’ my father told her. ‘Up on the heath, and pheasants too, and there’s deer as well that come out of the forest.’ But what he couldn’t know was that they weren’t the ones she recognised, they weren’t the ones she’d always felt were hers.

On Sundays, in that first year, he gave in to her desire to be back home. He’d sit her on the seat of the old knife-grinding bicycle, and pedal her back across the marshes, through mud and sedge, along sheep paths less than a foot wide, screaming as they nearly tipped into the river. They had to get off to lift the bicycle over a stile at Bridge Farm and wheel it across a cattle grid at the start of Dingle Marsh, but once she was heavy with her first child, they took to walking, stretching their steps against the drawing in of evening, until the days grew too short and she too large. Then, often as not, they stayed in Dunwich where they went to the lepers’ church up by the turning. She knelt by her husband’s side, pressing her swollen knees into the wood, and wished herself thankful for everything she had.

Chapter 2

Father took on the lease of the Blue Anchor Inn when my sisters, Mary and Ann, were little more than babies. ‘It’ll bring us luck,’ Mother told him, ‘bless us with a boy,’ although why she thought it might be lucky I don’t know when the landlord before him, a Mr Frederick Easy, had fallen so far into arrears with his rent that there’d been a sale of his effects out on the street. Mother bought a tablecloth, embroidered, she was told, by his daughter Grace who’d drowned herself the year before in the water butt, and whenever she spread it out I’d think of that girl and the strength she must have had to hold herself under. What I didn’t know then was how much more strength you’d need to hold yourself afloat, and the first thing I did when I remembered how I’d heard the well shaft sighing in the darkness and decided it was most likely a ghost, was I took that tablecloth and I dug a hole and buried it in the garden.

Father would have been grateful to have been buried in the earth – all his life he feared he’d end up in the sea, ever since he’d been apprenticed, aged eleven, to the captain of the
who’d docked unexpectedly at Southwold when his cargo of rags caught fire. The last boy, it seemed, had perished in the blaze. But my father was from a family of sailors, his grandfather, father, his brother too, gone to sea before him, so when the captain came ashore my father was the first boy to be offered up. I know this although Father prefers to remain silent. His life began, it seems, when he pedalled that knife-grinding bicycle down the lane towards my mother. But I ask him sometimes when he’s soft with drink what work he had to do on board, and how it felt to be sleeping in a bunk when the waves came high and rocked him nearly to the side as I’d seen in pictures in the Sailors’ Reading Room. And he looks at me as if he might tell – a strange, sad look – but instead he talks about his days as a pork butcher and how he was sure he could have made a living if the shrieking of the animals and the smell of blood hadn’t nearly parted my mother from her wits. ‘But an innkeeper is a fine job, if you can make it pay,’ he says and I catch him staring at my twisted foot, and I swear that more than once I’ve seen him smile as I limp away.

Chapter 3

My mother warned me early that I’d never go to sea. She’d caught me down by the harbour looking at the boats, watching and waiting for my chance to get offshore. ‘That’ll never do for you,’ she told me. And she turned my face inland and sent me on my way.

Right from the start she’d been saving and scheming, and by the time I was eight she’d got a place for me with Mr Runnicles at his school in Wenhaston. You’ll need to use your brains, she told me, and every morning I was to wait out on the road up by the Manor Farm for a lift from Mr Button who drove by in his cart. Mother herself had learnt her letters at Sunday School, with a stick and a sand tray out in the churchyard, and on weekday afternoons there was help to be had at the Wesleyan chapel on Mill Lane. ‘Make the most of this chance,’ she told me, fierce, and I stepped away from the flat of her hand.

Even now I’m the only boy from our village at Mr Runnicles’ school. There are three boys there, older, including the son of a glazier, and two boys younger, brothers from the Lodge over at St Cross. Mostly what we have to do is copying. ‘No blots, mind,’ Mr Runnicles tells us, and he sits at the desk and works at his own ledger, copying his own small words into a black book, while we scratch and smudge and stare out of the window at the day going by without us.

Sometimes at Runnicles’, when my copying is finished, I make sketches of the brigs moored up in the harbour. I draw them from memory with their masts and sails, but when Runnicles sees the black marks in the margin his face grows red and his eyes look ready to split open. ‘Spoiled!’ he says and he holds up my page as a warning to the others.

But whatever he says, and however much my mother needs me, after school I go down to the river to see if any new boat has come in. I traipse past the summer visitors with their watercolours set up in the dunes and the wooden huts some rent to store their easels and their turps. I nod to old Danky who stands on the bridge in his cord cap and his fisherman’s boots and accepts payment from anyone who might like to use him in one of their paintings, the way he looks so fetching, with his white beard, and dark jacket, against the old Japanese bridge.

‘Come in and keep me company,’ Danky says, rattling the coins in his pocket, but I never could go into the Bell, even if nothing passed my lips, because if my father heard of it, he’d catch me by the throat and shake me till I wept. The Blue Anchor is the farmers’ pub, and the Bell is for the fishermen. Once there was some kind of battle on the green, near midnight, on a warm clear night, and my father, although he was injured in the attack, still talks of it as a marvel. ‘They had oars and great thick snakes of tarry rope,’ he says, ‘while we carried pitchforks and mallets.’ My father limped home in the early hours of that morning with his shoulder shattered, and for all his talk of marvels he curses every time he has to lift the kegs, for the pain that still shoots through him.

I wait for Danky on the rise of grass outside the inn to come back out with his ale, and when he’s eased his thirst he’ll tell me tales of the sea, and I’ll close my eyes and memorise the words he uses, the boom, the block, the bailer, the clew and cleat and daggerboard, and I wish, whatever my father says about my being a cripple and suited to some other kind of work, that I could be apprenticed like he was, and set off on a voyage that might take me up as far as Newcastle, or further, round the tip of Britain or off across the German Sea.

BOOK: Mr Mac and Me
4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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