Read The Levels Online

Authors: Peter Benson

Tags: #Winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize, #first love, #coming-of-age, #rural, #Somerset, #countryside

The Levels

BOOK: The Levels
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ALMA BOOKS LTD

London House
243–253 Lower Mortlake Road
Richmond
Surrey TW9 2LL
United Kingdom
www.almabooks.com

First published by Constable in 1987
This edition published by Alma Books Limited in 2012
Copyright © Peter Benson, 1989

Peter Benson asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

Cover image © Scott Davis

Printed in Great Britain

Typesetting and eBook design by
Tetragon

ISBN
: 978-1-8468-8191-6
eBook ISBN: 978-1-8468-8223-4

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the publisher.

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not be resold, lent, hired out or otherwise circulated without the express prior consent of the publisher.

The people characterised and houses detailed in this book are fictional.

The passage marked in Chapter 18 is taken from
Churches of Somerset
by A.K. Wickham, published by David & Charles Ltd.

‌
1

I riddled the stove, stoked it, and carried the ash to the heap. A breeze came off the sea, miles away, a flooding wind.

I stood on the back porch with a cup of tea. My mother and father took up all the room in the house, we hadn't had breakfast, they were washing. The moor stretched out; here and there, rows of pollard willow, the odd cow, Chedzoy's whistle and his dog. Dogs remind me of Dick. Dick and I used to stand on one side of the river, throwing stones at Chedzoy's father's cows. Old man Chedzoy watched them bolting up the bank, and came to see us throwing, but he couldn't do anything but swear, we were on one side of the river and he was on the other.

I carried my tea to the workshop, and soaked enough sorted willow for the morning. Some people soak the night before and mellow their rods under sacking, but they work as well straight out of the tank; besides, some mellowed stuff goes mouldy. I was by the door, staring at a tree I'd planted against the wall, but it looked dead. Though it looked dead months ago, I can't dig it up; I get a feeling that something might happen.

‘Bacon?'

‘Two.'

‘Let the chickens out!'

‘Now?'

‘Now!'

I could hear them in the coop, scratching at the floor and beating their wings against the perches. They went wild when I let them out, and though they knew I wasn't going to feed them, they bustled around my feet, while I tried to get back, through the run, to the gate. I didn't talk to them, who feels like talking? I didn't look for eggs. I didn't give them any straw, anything at all. I just left them and went in for breakfast.

Eaten in silence, usually, my father slopping his bacon almost damn raw down his neck, greasy and dripping, almost too much to sit by. From my chair I could see Chedzoy in the distance, ducking in and out of his parlour, the gentle buzz and pump of the machines floating in the wind. A pair of ducks flew towards the river and disappeared behind a stand of poplar trees. My mother told me always to wash the dishes before the gravy dried, else the devil will come for it, so now I do the washing up without thinking, though I know I'm doing it against myself.

It's spring. In the meadow beyond the bottom of our orchard, the first bulldozers are finding the ground firm enough to perch on and rip out a line of trees. Chedzoy will find the luxury of an extra quarter of an acre cancelled out when he's down there next winter with a shovel, trying to clear the rhine (a drainage ditch). The roots of the trees keep the bank from collapsing; he gets rid of them and the devil will eat his gravy. Tough lumps on Chedzoy. I threw stones at his father's cows, but I'm sorry for that.

My father sat in a chair by the vegetable garden while I went to the workshop. Years ago, he shovelled tons of muck into the ground, cart load and cart load. On a still day you could smell Blackwood in Langport. The patch sits off its original level like a mattress, vegetable seeds just have to look at it. It's like this: two plants of the potato Arran Banner filled a log basket. He said, ‘Come here, pick him up and crack your spine!'

He grew a parsnip for show, Tender and True, two foot and six inches tip to top. He made a hole with a crowbar, three foot deep, filled it with compost, and the seed just saw green lights all the way down. To get it out in one piece he dug a small grave right round it, and treated it like a baby. He washed it in warm water with a lint-free cloth, and wrapped it in a sheet for the night before the show. He won second, but you couldn't eat it, nobody wanted it, and it stank like a fish as it rotted out back.

The chickens' mash has never been flooded because my mother keeps it in a bin, raised on blocks against vermin. They recognized the sound of her footsteps, and the galvanized lid banging open against the wall, and started a row. I fetched the willow from the tank, drained it off on my bench, and sat down to work. I have rods tied in small bundles of 31 cut rods and enough uncut stuff for making what I call a stake-up. I've done all this cutting and tying the night before. I used to soak all sorts, like my father, but found lately I could sit in the evening and save time for the morning by sorting the stuff then. I don't know why I save the time when I only use that time to save more time to never do the things I want anymore. My father moans about it, but what have I got to do now? He doesn't work anymore. His back's gone.

I work in silence. I listen for the pump pump of Chedzoy's machines to clack off. I'm ramming the pointed ends of the rods into a base. The door is open. I can see the orchard. She lived in that direction. Imagine what I feel like. I have a good memory. I remember everything. Clear as a bell, ringing over the moor on bird's wings. My memory. I work without thinking. My mind wanders. I think about people who visit. I have interested women here, watching, from that association or that guild. They are the kind of people who first came when my father asked them years ago, and I have inherited them. He comes and stands behind them in the door, but can't be bothered to say anything, who can blame him? Why he ever asked them is a mystery. They have nothing in common with us, other than the word ‘common', which they think we are. They always ask how many baskets I make in a day and say how nice the workshop smells. I have to tell them about willow. They bore so quickly. They always look lost between something they forgot to do when they were younger and something terrible that is going to happen one day. I try to say things that will make them think I've wits, and some things old basketmakers say, like ‘Never stand to the right of a basket-maker'. I tease them. They wear work shirts with ironcreased sleeves. They never buy anything, though say they're lovely and I'm so clever. One or two ask to have a go, but I tell them I can't stop. They will crouch and stare at me.

In the morning, the sun climbs higher in the spring day, it flattens the lands so the trees seem to disappear into the blueness between ground and sky. A haze hangs so close you could touch it. I prick the stakes up. I put a hoop of cane over them, and a brick on the base, lower my seat so I'm sitting on the floor, and pick four of the uncut rods for the first group of four. I weave them in front of three stakes and behind one. When I'm halfway round the base, I add another four rods, when the first four are woven out, I weave these out to do the same with four sets of three rods, and bang them all down with an iron. This is a wale.

The workshop is dark, and cool, on purpose. It has one window, facing south, and the door looks west onto the orchard. Herons often fly over the garden and past the window to the rhine and hardly move all day. Then, in the evening, they'll stand in the river pretending to look straight ahead, feeling for the movements of fish through their feet. The river is called The Isle. I got up and went to the kitchen for some tea.

‘What you doing?' My father, still sat in a chair, watching the vegetable garden.

‘Slocombe's.'

‘All right?'

I walked past him, into the house, and filled the kettle.

‘Twenty to go,' I shouted.

‘He collecting?'

I made the tea while we carried on this conversation, which was about Slocombe being tight as well as bent.

‘You made me one?' My mother banged the front door shut, I heard the egg man's van in the road. Her smell in the hall; she smells of Ajax and chickens — bomb material.

‘In the pot, got to work ...'

I still think about Muriel. I remember her walking in the orchard. I saw her on the river bank with a book. She sat in the grass and smoothed her dress down her knees. Because it was summer, many butterflies flew around her, and swallows wove arcs the size of storms in the sky. I saw her on a bicycle, along the lane, going to the post office. I saw her bent over a tap in the yard at Drove House, cleaning her teeth. She drove an ambulance. Dick said that was bloody stupid for a girl.

I just did more stake-ups and wales, half an hour before lunch my father wandered down. It's his business, so he pretended to pretend to do something useful. It's a joke, but I don't mind, he can come up, it's his workshop, he taught me, I like his company. When I was a boy, we got into real trouble, here and at other places. He didn't care then, but of course he never had my reasons. My mother has always had him.

‘You're quiet,' he said.

‘Problem for you?'

‘No.'

He sat down with a clunk, his back's gone, the doctor ordered him an iron vest, but he wouldn't look at it. A basketmaker's vest.

‘You're quieter than ever, it was never like this.'

‘No?'

‘Your mother said something.'

‘A miracle!'

‘Don't talk like that! If she said something she's been thinking!' I didn't need this, I was tired, didn't want shouting, much, so I said, ‘I'm all right,' and ‘just let me get on.'

Dick turned up, looking for his dog, Hector.

‘Found him?' I said.

‘No.'

‘No what?' said my old man.

‘Found Hector.'

‘Lost him?'

‘Would he be looking for him if he knew where he was?'

‘Just being friendly,' he turned to Dick. ‘Bring him a cup of tea and it bites your head off.'

‘You don't have to tell me.'

‘What've I done?' I said. ‘You have an off day!'

‘Off day?' My father laughed. ‘Off bloody year!'

‘Right!' said Dick.

‘Thank you.'

‘Welcome,' he said.

See what it's done to me? They took their tea out and left me alone. A flock of lapwings blew out of the moor, and the sun dipped behind the Quantocks, the sky faded from blue to pink. When I'd finished work, my mother came out to see to the chickens. She threw them some corn and started looking for eggs. ‘Where are they?' she screamed. They just stood around, used to the mad woman who fed them. ‘You might as well tell me now, I'll only find them later.'

From my place at the supper table, I could watch the road. A waxing moon slid up the sky, a clearing sky, a gloomy evening mist eased itself into the spaces between the trees that bank the rhines. We ate a tin of apricots and I washed the dishes while they sat down.

When I'd finished, I left the house by the back door, walked through the orchard, and followed the river where it straightens. I walked over South Moor towards Drayton. As the sun grew bigger, it sank, the pink deepened in the hour to an orange and bloody red. I could see Langport and Muchelney Abbey. Many of the houses here are built from Hamstone. They were glowing in the evening. We walked this way once, but all she said was, ‘There are ten people in the world, and eight of them are hamburgers.' I hated that.

BOOK: The Levels
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