Nigel Jarrett – Onslaught

Nigel Jarrett is a former daily-newspaperman and a winner of the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. His first story collection, Funderland, was published to wide acclaim, notably in the Guardian, the Independent, and the Times. A poetry collection, a novel, and a second story collection have recently appeared. He reviews poetry for Acumen magazine and jazz for Jazz Journal, and lives in Monmouthshire.


Onslaught

By Nigel Jarrett                              

Marjorie had done her best to make herself presentable for the court case, not easy for a woman whose cheekbone had been pulverised and twice operated on, leaving her face slightly lop-sided. She’d lost the sight of one eye but the surgeon said it would return: a flickering eyelid would be the sign. Her features were marked not only by the evidence of physical injury but also by the pain that beamed at you from some deep and corrupted core. It was difficult to forget the police photographs: her face was like a panda with first-degree burns. Such a small woman, such lumbering violence; so much blood and bruising. They said it was a miracle she’d survived. She was dressed in black but not funereally. To the lapel of her jacket was attached a small mink brooch in the shape of a butterfly: a free, fluttering thing yet grounded, and camouflaged as if for protection against its sombre background. So we sought that flicker, a movement, some sign of restoration.

But her house felt a little as though there’d been a funeral. Something had died. Sandwiches had been fanned out and covered with foil; family members had loaned crockery, cutlery, freshly-ironed tablecloths; neighbours had congregated in silence.  A faint smell of fish paste hung in the air. Some of us who’d not filed into the public gallery to hear the verdict were waiting at the house and talking again about the only thing we’d discussed for weeks, months; speaking quietly and considerately as if someone had gone forever – ‘departed this life’, as the saying goes. Maybe Marjorie herself had gone, leaving a  fragile shell.  A friend who’d embraced her outside the court said she’d detected a tremor of the sort exhibited by a small terrified creature.

Once she’d returned with her family and close friends to affect the pretence of a new start, those of us in the other room who’d stayed behind had begun talking idly about Llangammarch, the birthplace where she’d been brought up. We could see her through the open door, taking the first faltering steps towards normality with smiles, the odd half-giggle at something someone had said. In black she looked like a younger and not much taller version of Edith Piaf. We waved when we caught her attention by holding up a hand and wiggling our fingers, and she responded in the same way. Llangammarch. Someone had just read a newspaper report that said it had changed. These days, it had the highest proportion of senior citizen households in the region, at  forty-six per cent of the population. The report had concluded that this was undesirable. ‘Deep rural areas’ these places were called. They were where the old and ageing sat sentinel, at the tipping-point of a decline co-terminous with their own.

What follows might not be worth a mention but now we look back it seems to have taken its place on that afternoon of reckoning: ‘reckoning’ in the sense of speculation yet again and the collecting of stray thoughts, rather than anything entailing vengeance – such a threatening word for those few, restorative hours.

We had spread throughout the ground floor of the house and the four of us in the lounge were joined by a chap called Ted just before Marjorie’s return. Each of us has forgotten exactly what Ted’s connection with Marjorie was: a friend of her mother’s family, or something like that; someone rural anyway, to judge from the Shirley Temple curls soapsudding over his forehead and the muscular frame straining against what used to be called one’s ‘Sunday best’.  A man in a room full of women, Ted still lived in Llangammarch. It was obvious he  worked the land: his hands, huge and scarred and scrubbed to bleeding point, clasped his knees or rested on them through force of gravity, as if in brief respite from labour. Although wearing a shirt and tie, he’d spoiled his sartorial efforts by pulling on a gaudy tank-top at least one size too small. We couldn’t help picturing his struggle in front of a bedroom mirror. If dressing up for an occasion or out of respect had revealed too much undirected effort, his smile was easy and natural – too easy, too natural; simpering even.

Marjorie entered the room at one point to offer more food. We’d had our fill but Ted’s appetite for Victoria sponge appeared  insatiable. He held his plate high on his chest and had tucked the serviette under his chin. It looked comical. Around his feet was a circle of crumbs from previous visits to the kitchen. He wore old brown boots, buffed to a conker shine. Marjorie asked if he were bothering us, a joke whose meaning immediately curdled, like so much said innocently at that time.

It’s difficult to know how to put this without sounding superior, but – well, we’d got out and got ahead and left the Teds of the world behind.  Some kind of travel had been involved, a movement away on so many levels.  Aside from pleasantries, he had nothing to contribute to our conversations. When he first entered the room, a mite awkwardly, we were talking about Le Boucher, the film by Claude Chabrol that had just come out on DVD. Ted said it had been years since he’d gone to the pictures, a comment so inconsequential as to find us looking at each other in bewilderment and wondering if we’d missed out on something profound. The atmosphere became even more strained, none of us wanting to talk any more about you-know-what. Ted too must have sensed this because as soon as the depopulation report was mentioned, he launched into a recollection about Llangammarch’s oldest inhabitant, some retired farmer, whose name sounded familiar, but not before we were startled and brought to our feet by Marjorie’s voice raised in anger or distress about something or other. We strained but couldn’t see anything either, except a few people converging on her. There were a few audible sobs.  Anyway, it was all over quickly, because within minutes we heard her laughing again. She didn’t want people fussing over her. As the laughter tailed off, a kettle bubbled to the boil. More tea. Ted picked up his rattling cup and saucer and went to the kitchen for a re-fill. Afterwards, we all agreed that we’d each been been tempted simultaneously to offer to get it for him ourselves but that the reflex had been suppressed.

When Ted returned, he continued his tale about that superannuated farmer, a kind of tough rural husbandman like himself who rose at four in the morning and was still working by lamplight eighteen hours later. For some reason, perhaps to impress us or plug the awkward silences, he told us of an incident he’d witnessed as a young boy, when the farmer, almost over-run with rats, began drowning kittens because the cats were supernumerary as well. We were inclined to query this apparently irrational act but waited for an explanation till the end.

Ted told the story with a mixture of bucolic relish and impersonal detail – not deliberately, of course –  that cancelled each other out, seemingly leaving us with nothing.  We heard how this farmer disappeared one Saturday morning  into a barn then came out a few minutes later with six identical kittens,  three in each fist. Letting one fistful fall to the ground, he retrieved a small sack and dropped the other three into it. Then he picked up the fallen trio, which was trying to escape in different directions, though not far, because they were new-born and still almost blind. They went into the sack too, one by one, held and hanging by their tails. Into a large zinc bath filled with water he lowered the sack, with one hand closing the neck tight. He dangled it so that it became soaked up to half way. He called Ted to his side and asked him if he could hear the kittens’ underwater mewling. The sack was lifted and shaken out, the six slimy infants falling heavily to the ground as if weighted. The farmer, he destined to see out a parley of prime ministers, smiled at Ted before throwing them on to a heap of rubble, except the last, which he placed in Ted’s hand. It must have felt like a wet leather bag full of coins, but we weren’t given a description, other than being told that it landed with a slap. ‘The farmer lived to be a hundred and two’. As if an act of routine culling had guaranteed a long life. We allow him those nine words.

We might also have supplied our own imagined decoration to this story, let alone a moral. For instance, the unfed tabby cat appearing at the barn door with a cry of its own and aching teets, and being shooshed to get on with her job of keeping the vermin down, mice presumably. We assumed the rats were too big for the cats and that there would have been other ways of decimating them, such as the nightly setting of vicious traps. We couldn’t be bothered to ask Ted about that after all. Maybe it was inappropriate to question the farmer’s behaviour, which it was tempting to do out of sheer mischief. Censure was being resisted in Marjorie’s house that afternoon.  In fact, as Ted’s anecdote ended, one of us had to staunch a giggle: a small dollop of jam and cream had become lodged at the corner of his mouth and a cascade of icing sugar had pitched itself down the front of his pullover like a flurry of snow on the slopes of Carcwm. At that point we each stared at something different in the room, as one does at gatherings clouded in the kind of uncertainty that rendered lengthy exchanges, or even talk itself, inexpedient. As we gazed and wondered, like all-seeing guardians, Ted stood up and ambled to the kitchen – John Wayne walking into the sunset. He didn’t come back, so we watched the leatherette seat of his chair regain its shape with a life of its own. Perhaps we were thinking about when to leave and what to say when we did.

Soon, we drifted into the kitchen ourselves. One or two supporters remained there, chatting to each other quietly.  They turned towards us and nodded. The rest, including Marjorie, had migrated to the front room. She was sitting on the settee, squeezed in the middle with two either side. She was that tiny.  Turning to acknowledge our arrival, she held out her hand, through gratitude, it seemed, and not fear of being left alone. We took it briefly then she withdrew. We looked around. Ted had gone. We never asked why or where. We’d got rid of him.

It must be twenty-odd years since the Chabrol DVD came out, so we could be forgiven for not remembering precisely how that day broke up. Someone stayed with Marjorie overnight and for the next few days. But we’ve forgotten when it was she began living a life again. She returned to Llangammarch for a while, reducing its average age by a smidgen. It was where she was born. Perhaps she wanted to set out  again from some kind of station reached before things had started to go wrong. She moved away a few years later. But she’s never made a mark, as they say, compared with the ones made on her. But that’s just us being clever and metaphorical. We had to make sense of it, you see. We think it can be said now, even in Marjorie’s hearing, that it had been a bad match.

The cuttings are filed away in an envelope, not pasted into a scrapbook. We’ve all got a set.  They are true mementoes. At least one of us had video-ed the TV news reports, not that we’ve ever watched them again; what we look for now is a motion, a sign of life.  It was an onslaught, the judge had said; nothing less than an unrestrained and cowardly bombardment. Did you see anything? we keep asking each other. Today. Did you notice a spark, a glint?

 


*The Galway Review 6 – Printed Edition, April 2018

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