(first published in Scribble, Issue No. 80, Winter 2018, pp.69-71)
Kelmscott Manor, William Morris’ former home, lay down a dusty, winding, Oxfordshire lane. Andrew Mariner, on the strength of a brief spell as a boy scout in his teens, scorned the use of Satnav and had kept missing his way. But suddenly the manor loomed in front of him. Andrew revered Morris, that vigorous old Victorian poet, craftsman, scholar and pioneer-socialist. And Morris, in turn, had revered Kelmscott Manor – a quiet, solid, late-medieval structure of burnt-yellow Cotswolds stone. An invitation to take part in a poetry reading in nearby Oxford last night had provided the occasion for the visit.
The poetry reading had not gone well and Andrew, discomfited, had drunk too much white wine afterwards. Several young people had sneaked out as he read out extracts from his still-unfinished (and, truth-to-tell, aborted) long, narrative poem about Fortinbras’ peaceful reign in Denmark, following the death of Hamlet. Andrew had hoped that the visit to Morris’ house would lift his mood, if not his hang-over. As he turned the old Series-I Land Rover into the car park, he saw that space in the car park was at a premium. The old vehicle was not easily manoeuvrable (Andrew wryly estimated its turning circle to be a quarter of a mile), and he was glad that Felicity had decided to head back to her publishing job in London, rather than join him: she hated the Land Rover and was waging a subtle propaganda war in favour of Andrew buying a new car. When he eventually stepped out of the carpark he was sweating freely and feeling a little faint.
He stopped for a moment, steadying himself by resting one hand against the gable wall of the old house: ‘Sorry, John, got to rest up for a moment.’ Since his elder brother, John Mariner, had died suddenly nine months previously, Andrew had found himself talking to John in quiet moments – trundling along the motorway, or staring into the flaming hearth at the cottage in the evenings. John, a bachelor, had left Andrew a substantial sum of money, transforming him from a penurious poet into, in Andrew’s words, ‘a comfortable old fart’. But Andrew would have preferred John’s company to John’s money.
‘OK now, John. First things first: got to empty the bladder.’
The Gents was in a converted outhouse. At the urinal, he began to feel dizzy again. He lurched over to the wash-hand-basin to splash his face, but leaning over the basin made him worse: bright, coloured lights; the sound of the splashing taps distorted and resonant… He wheeled away to the door and the fresh air, and collapsed on the threshold.
Half a minute later, a pleasant, middle-aged woman was helping him to his feet and across the courtyard to another converted outhouse, now a gift shop.
‘It’s alright,’ giving his arm a welcoming squeeze, ‘I’m Dorothy, the first-aider. Come and have a wee sit down in the shop.’ Andrew noticed the Scots accent.
Behind the shop counter was a rush-bottomed wooden chair. Andrew wanted to say that Morris would have approved of the chair, but saying the words seemed effortful and the words themselves rather affected. He slumped in the chair and Dorothy knelt in front of him, staring into his face. She had large brown eyes.
‘You’re a’ wet.’
‘Been splashing my face,’ Andrew muttered.
‘Not to mention your shirt and your nice linen jacket.’ Dorothy smiled and Andrew smiled too.
‘Maybe overdid it a bit.’
‘Overdid it?? I’ve seen drier jackets on my dad’s boat after a Force-10 gale.’ She started to peel off his jacket.
‘Your father’s a fisherman?’
‘Was a fisherman. He sold the boat in the Eighties when the herring disappeared.’ She was putting her hand to his forehead and squinting into his eyes. ‘Why d’you think you keeled over? You’re not running a temperature. Never mind. You stay anchored to that chair for a minute and I’ll get you some hot, sweet tea from the café next door.’
A little later he was sipping hot tea and discussing Morris. He warmed to Dorothy’s brisk manner and friendly interest. He found himself telling her that it was Morris’ poetry that was his own chief enthusiasm.
‘Aye? Well, you’ll know the poem about resting that’s embroidered over his bed in the house here?’
He smiled and nodded. They chorused the closing lines, with Dorothy tapping out the beat on his knee with her forefinger.
‘So rest in that chair a while-y, I’ll just be helping Jean over there to serve a few customers.’
He rested and watched Dorothy: ‘Nothing more enjoyable than watching other people working, eh John? Though she seems to enjoy the work itself well enough. Women always seem to be more deft than men, but that Dorothy’s more deft than most. More vivid, almost. I know what you’re thinking: she’s certainly a damn sight more vivid than Felicity. OK, agreed. But being vivid isn’t Felicity’s thing. Felicity specialises in being languorous, which is quite attractive in its way… at first.’
A tweedy lady addressed him: ‘Excuse me: do you have six mugs in this willow pattern? There’s only a couple on display.’ Dorothy materialised at his side and pointed the tweedy customer to some boxed sets of mugs.
‘Sorry, I’m in the way a bit here. Feeling better now – maybe I’ll do what I came to do and look around the Manor House.’
Dorothy briefly laid a hand on his chest: ‘Well, your shirt’s drying quickly in this heat. Shall I hang onto the jacket til you’ve finished your tour?’
‘Would you mind… Dorothy? What time does the shop close? 5.00, same as the house? Can I reimburse you for the cup of tea?’
‘I didn’t pay for it – medical emergency’. Her eyes shone: ‘Well, you certainly look better – the colour’s back in your face. What would William Morris have advised?’
Andrew thought: ‘You know how he loved those old Icelandic sagas: the stoicism of the heroes struggling with Cruel Fate?’
‘Indeed. So, if you’re feeling suitably heroic, go forth and struggle. As the Great Man put it, Do the deed and abide it.’
With this ringing endorsement, Andrew strode out of the shop and into the lovely old house. Eventually, he found himself in the dormer attic, with its massive, bare roof-timbers. The Morrises had used it as a children’s playroom, but Morris himself had described its original purpose as a sleeping chamber for the manor’s ploughman and the herd boy – a relic of the days before the wealthy cut themselves off from intimacy with the poor. He mused about the creeping apartheid segregating the rich and the poor. His thoughts turned back to his own cottage in the Welsh borders: the tiny study (formerly the larder) where he’d poured onto paper those early love poems; the fifty yards of drystone wall he’d re-built around the garden, stone-by-stone; drunken Haydn Probert in the cottage next door trying and failing, uproariously, to make cider without a cider press; old Mrs Lewis, next-door-but-one, with her cats.
And now, 2 Quarry Cottages had a ‘For Sale’ sign beside it. Because Felicity had persuaded him that a house in the Surrey Hills was ‘far more suitable’. So handy for his poetry readings; the room designated for his study had wisteria growing about the window; the lawns would be perfect for literary parties; Robin and Annabel lived just round the corner; and the bedrooms… He remembered how she’d smiled and twirled her skirts in the master bedroom – ‘No more rumpty-pumpy on damp sheets, Sweetie-Pie.’
‘What an old goat I’ve been, John. And what a price I’ve paid. Paid with your money, John. If only my study-to-be might not be.’
He checked the time (five o’clock) and headed back down the stairs. He saw Dorothy standing in the sunlit courtyard with his jacket under her arm.
‘Done the deed?’ she smiled.
‘Half-done it, I think…’
She spoke quickly: ‘The jacket’s pretty dry now. You’ll need to iron it though.’ There was a pause. He took the jacket – a poet lost for words. She smiled again, turned and walked quickly over to a white-haired woman in the middle distance.
Andrew heard Dorothy say: ‘Can you drop me at the late-night chemist’s, Mary?’ And then they were gone.
Andrew’s Land Rover was the second-to-last car in the carpark. He knew he would be too ashamed to talk to John on the drive home.