by l.e. butler
The Beautiful Protectors
My purpose is to recount the end of the world. This happened several decades ago, when my hair was still red as Christmas.
From the hinterland I live in now, I can see that some life has crept up through the stones again. When the wind shifts I hear the far-away hum of dogged peace-time motors. Once a red truck appeared on the other side of the valley, carrying a load of hay if you can believe that. The wireless ticks and gutters, sometimes bursting into song. Children appear at the bottom of my garden. They're real, but there's something strange about their skin; they're not just pale but translucent, like cave fish. They speak a language that sometimes sounds like English.
But the quality of living things has changed. The grass is grey, the birds sparse. The few adult humans I encounter are docile as cabbages. They creep rachitic and grinning along the causeways, their chins tight against their chests. I suspect they're all blind. Do they sleep?
Who would have suspected we'd all live for so long in this limbo, under the low pewter sky? For I'm convinced we are still alive; a dream couldn't sustain such monotony, such blindingly dull detail.
And while I'm alive, ideas and impulses still gather around me like surprising varieties of moss. Lately, for instance, I find myself speaking out loud as I go about my day. Holding forth, as I grapple with my vegetable patch or pump my water or fix the west stone wall. And not in a doddering sort of way, but with purpose. Setting the record straight, laying it all out, as we used to say.
Like a tapeworm. A long long time ago a man told me that a story was like a tapeworm—esurient, unsleeping, consuming everything in sight. All I have of value are the fetishes I keep beside my bed: a postcard with a cloud of blackbirds on the front, a map to a treasure I once buried, my warmest quilt. Shall I offer these up first?
The postcard's pencil script has rubbed down to watermarks. The date is still visible—3 or 8 August 1916. And Ada's furious signature, which seemed to break the pencil's tip. It was the only thing that could have lured me back to Todmorden.
I traveled in from Manchester five days after receiving the postcard, on the hottest day of the year. Once the train emerged from the Summit Tunnel, the valley glared around me. Nothing had changed. The chocolate canal still teemed, the mill chimneys smoked. Close above them were the ochre hills, where sheep clung like nits. Higher still, the cliffs and the moorland.
As I walked down from the station to the market, the church tower struck noon. Mill whistles blew. Why on earth had Ada wanted to meet here?
The Corner Café was empty. The proprietress curtsied when she took my order for a lemonade and a bun. Once seated, I took out Ada's postcard from my pocket again. Here, in memory the blackbirds are sharp, the script brusque and vivid: Meet me in Corner in Tod for lunch this Saturday. Don't respond, just come. Ada.
The last communication I'd received from her had been eleven months before. A letter on tissue paper about her new husband Jack and the house they'd rented in Bacup. Now I'm no longer Ada but Mrs. Lee. We're right on the omnibus line. I might go to Manchester anytime you say. Your rooms sound dead nice! A photograph of them, arm in arm in front of a rose bush: Ada hatless and stunned, Jack in uniform, his head otter-slick, his left hand blurred into smoke.
I wrote back, My dearest Mrs. Lee. I pushed hard for an invitation to lunch, or tea. I would have given anything to see Ada kneading bread, wearing a pinafore, on her knees rubbing a dry stone along her doorstep or scrubbing the privy seat till the wood gleamed white.
The proprietress cleared her throat, clasping her hands before her. I was still the only one in the café. I ordered another lemonade and moved to a window table. The town was different after all, wasn't it? Subtle changes that gnawed at you till they became plain. There were hardly any men, for instance, in all that crowd. One man with white hair standing in the queue for the butcher's. A beggar, squinting to himself. Then two young men in uniform—one of them missing his arm.
There were of course people even then who said these were the first signs of the end. But canny oracles have been making those warnings since the beginning of time, haven't they? And you only pay attention if you're in the mood.
“Anything else?” asked the proprietress. She stood close, pouting with distaste. Had she recognized me?
“I'm supposed to meet a friend,” I said.
“We close at half twelve now,” she said, closing her eyes as if she couldn't bear the sight of me. I laid my coins on the table and hustled out. My eyes stung; I had to lean against a bench and rub them hard.
“New York Peggy?” a male voice screamed. “Short-cake strawberry Peggy, it can't be.”
Ely Two-Times sat in the brassy weeds beside the market hall, fanning himself with his hat. His forehead was ham-pink in the sun, his one good eye winked. A hand-cart lay beside him, and a few dirty sacks tied up tight.
“It is you, love,” said Ely as I approached. “What a hat! Why's your hair short, you been poorly?”
“It's the style, Ely.” I held out my hand but he ignored it, wiping his potato nose.
“Thought you'd go back to New York,” he said.
“I will,” I said. “I've got almost enough for my passage. Just came to say good-bye to Ada. You remember Ada?”
“I remember all of you blameless children,” he said, pulling a face, then laughing. He could never laugh for long without collapsing into a coughing fit. His cough had grown worse; he thumped his chest and a vein squirmed in his temple. I laid a hand on his shoulder.
A few women gave us the stink-eye. Ely waved at them, then patted his cart enticingly. “Ribbons. Scraps of lace. Seedling potatoes. Come have a look?”
When they turned away he gave them two fingers.
“Bad man,” I said.
“Nice walk up to Ada's.”
“You know where her house is?”
“Everyone knows where Brink House is. You've only been away three years. Don't tell me you've forgotten.”
I stepped away from him. I had, in fact, been away exactly three years. Ely stole moments of clarity like that. But he couldn't be right about Ada at Brink House.
“Go up if you don't believe me,” he said, bouncing and grinning. “Wave to old Beggar Town on the way, would you? Tell them I'll be in by sundown, and that I've drunk nowt but milk.”
I gave Ely a few pennies and left him, slanting through the crowd, suddenly chilled. I never should have come. What a phenomenal waste of a day. I'd resolved when I left that I'd never clap eyes on Ada again. We were living then in a lousy flat in Lumbutts with some fast mill girls. Ada and the others woke early one morning and dressed their hair; there was to be a concert at the park. I was going to Manchester to see a man about a typing job. Ada tarried before she left and sprayed perfume—Parma Violet—on the back of my neck. We both knew I wasn't coming back. It was better that way, an abrupt cleaving, like whacking off a gangrenous thumb. The pain blinds you but then it's quickly over, isn't it?
I took two turns about the market and out of sheer perversity resolved to walk up to Brink House. It was something to do, it was better than taking a train straight home. It might give me an appetite.
The horses on Halifax Road were thin and badly shod. It had grown so hot that even the children were sluggish, clustering under the shop awnings and batting their paper fans.
On Kilnhurst Mount the road was shaded. Wild poppies and pale blue orchids grew sideways from the stone walls. After an hour my dress shields were soaked through. I peed in the woods, removed my underskirt and wadded it into my satchel. Once I emerged on Causeway Wood Road I leaned on a stile, panting, and took in the view. In the unfamiliar heat the pastures were dry as an African plain. I could just see the top of the Beggarington workhouse chimney.
Dad and I only ended up in Beggarington because we'd been thrown off the train. Dad's smile was lovely but he didn't have the fare, and he smelled of whiskey. We'd come a long way together—New York to Liverpool to Manchester. I suppose we were on our way to Halifax or Leeds, I don't remember. Dad kept chuckling to himself, asking whether I was happy to be “home,” forgetting that I'd left Lancashire while in utero.
Todmorden had been so dark, the station littered with rags and bones; to my shame I began to weep there on the platform. And though I was a great girl of twelve, Dad let me get up on his back.
“Come along piggy,” he said. “Hold my neck.” I was already linking my fingers under his whiskers. He stumbled a little—he'd drunk a good deal—but walked into town. I rested my eyelids in his hair.
I woke the next morning on a cot that stank of sulfur. On the ceiling someone had stenciled: The full soul loatheth an honeycomb; but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet.
Ada lay beside me. Her muslin cap had come loose, showing her shaved scalp all sticky with iodine. “Your dad were put i' vagrants' wing,” she whispered. “Butter John's going to steal his boots. Was you really born in America?” Then she said something that sounded like seh soomat.
“Don't you know English?” She lifted herself on her elbows to stare at me.
“Here, love.” A wagon stopped beside me and the driver nodded. “Hot enough for a stroll, I guess. I'm going to Shepherd's Rest if you want a ride.”
I hefted myself up and leaned against the milk cans, swinging my legs, watching Beggarington take shape below—first its turrets, then the thousand beady windows of its holding cells. I waved for Ely.
“How far you going?” asked the driver when we arrived at the Shepherd's Rest.
“I'm just walking,” I said. “I was to meet a friend.” And because he kept looking at me I added, “My old friend Ada.”
“Ada at the Brink?” he said, stroking his horse's neck and smiling. “Poor lass, she won't be long there, will she?”
I scarcely kept myself from running to Brink House. Uphill from Shepherd's Rest, it was the only man-made thing on that steepest bit of moor, an old farm house with annexed follies, its front obscured by a bank of struggling pines. As I neared the wind grew cooler.
I was wheezing when I reached the door and rested my hand on the licorice-dark wood. It sounded like there was a beehive in the eaves. Should I knock?
A girl tackled me from behind; she must have been watching from the hedge. I screamed but straightaway recognized the strong arms, the yeasty scent.
“Ada,” I said, grabbing her shoulders. My knees tingled. We were always playing pranks like that, long after everyone else outgrew them. Frightening each other out of our wits.
“What are you doing here?” said Ada. Her cheeks were rounder, and sunburned. “Thought I wouldn't see you till Saturday. Who told you I were up here?”
“Ely Two-Times told me. Just by chance. He saw me in the market after you'd jilted me. And today is Saturday.”
She looked from side to side, scowling. “It ain't.” She counted on her fingers. “Oh it ain't.”
“I swear to God, Ada,” I said, hugging her. “It is, I guarantee. Never mind. Now you have to take me home, to pay me back for my troubles. When are you finished?”
When she stiffened I stepped back from her. Her cap was of organdy, and over her crisp blue calico dress she wore a matching organdy apron. Her black hair was coiled in a snail-shell bun.
“Don't look at me,” she said, taking my arm. “Every day is the same bloody day up here. An afternoon can last a month. Here, mustn't wake Madam. Come in and we'll have a word. No, round the back.”
Ada rushed me through the kitchen door and up a child-sized stairwell to an attic room. The one window was narrow; through its triangles of leaded glass we saw only sky. The mattress ticked as we sat on it. The shelf was crowded with novels and old copies of Blue Book.
“But you have a room here?” I said, looking round at the trunk, the stockings soaking in the basin. “You stay over? What about Jack? Is he fighting?”
“He died in Ypres,” said Ada. “A wound to his shoulder went septic. Only there a month when his name went on the roll.”
“I hardly knew him,” she said, rocking a little. “Look how my hands are shaking. We only knew each other for a fortnight before he gave me a ring.” She had the same stunned look as in her photograph. “Got married at the town hall in Burnley.”
“I'm not. I can't. My face dries up when I think of him. But it were lovely. He danced in the living room. He said I made him gay. He went off and I waited. I knew that once he came back we'd feel normal together. Life would get boring, in a nice way. And then I saw his name on the roll and before I knew it I were back up here on the tops.”
“You should have come to me.” I imagined her arriving in Manchester in a grubby black frock and a picture hat. The shop girls would laugh in her face as soon as she opened her mouth.
She stood and paced about. She was still slim then but she looked improbably large to me in that small room—distended and bright, like an early-rising moon. I wanted her to stop moving so that I could get a proper look at her. “I should have come to you,” she said. “You thought I were too busy with married life. You thought I were in a house, playing the piano, growing potatoes in a barrel. You probably thought we'd have a baby. I liked to think of you looking at my photograph, imagining that.”
“You should have at least written. You were all alone.”
“Thought you'd be having a good time,” she said. “You wrote me about your room, with all the chintz.”
“All I did was work in Manchester, though,” I said, wiggling my fingers. “You know, the typing. I worked like an idiot. Three different offices. The money was good but then I'd just go home and have nightmares about ink ribbons and clocks and the posh men always shouting and going red. And when I wasn't working I was alone. I had forgotten how alone you can be in a city. Not that I minded it necessarily, but I feared sometimes it was making me queer.”
Ada sat again. She stared at her knees and said, “You fancy something different then?”
“Yeah, I do,” I said.
A bell rang below.
“There's Madam awake and wanting a cup of tea,” she said. “Stay here tonight, all right? I'll tell Mrs. Stanfield you're my sister. Try not to have an accent.”
“I don't anymore.”
“You sound just as American as you did six years ago. Like something from a minstrel show. Keep quiet.” She rubbed her cheeks before descending.
Mrs. Stansfield, a lady of sixty, stood in the kitchen as we descended. Her scrimshawed face was beautiful in an old-fashioned way, her eyes dark and bovine. When Ada waved a hand to me and began an awkward introduction, Mrs. Stanfield winced.
“My grandson shall stop here again tonight, my dears,” she said, twisting her fingers. “He enjoys a pheasant.” She wandered out again, chatting mildly to herself.
“Her son?” I said.
Ada looked at the ceiling. “A pheasant. Maybe they've got some bird parts at the Shepherd's Rest.”
“You have to act like you're in church,” Ada whispered, taking up the serving tray. I followed her into the hall with the soup tureen. Being with Ada again was surreal enough. But to be dressed as a couple of maids, gliding about Brink House with trays—that really took the cake.
Mrs. Stansfield and her son sat on opposite ends of a long table. An oil lamp smoked from the rafter above them. Portraits hung on every wall, most of them so coated with soot that only a hand was visible, or a jeweled throat. Five blades of topaz sunlight slanted to the carpet. The air was so dense and brown it looked as if the room had sunk to the bottom of a pond.
“Useless,” said Mr. Stansfield. He was a man of twenty or so wearing a day suit with a tangerine tie. “Hopeless. The people out there have no work ethic, no sense of right.”
“Where?” I asked Ada once back in the kitchen. She shook her head and hurried out again with the fricasseed chicken wings.
“And there is no society in St. Petersburg anymore, Grandmother,” Mr. Stansfield said.
Mrs. Stansfield whispered something, lowering her eyes. She'd changed to a high-collared velvet gown. A tiara was fixed in the dun meringue of her hair.
Ada and I made another pass through the kitchen, this time for the roasted potatoes. “Why do they talk so softly?” I whispered to her.
“That's how people like them talk,” said Ada. “Didn't you know that? Look at Mrs. Stansfield. She doesn't move her lips at all. She's a marvel.”
As we arranged the chicken and the potatoes on the sideboard, we watched Mrs. Stansfield's head in the foxed mirror above us.
“Your father weathered worse in Moscow but of course you know best.” Her lips only trembled as she said it. “I'm sure it's foolish of me to fret.” Her jaw moved from side to side.
I covered my mouth just in time. Ada's nails dug in my wrist as she led me away.
“Is that ginger one ill?” said Mr. Stansfield.
Summer evenings last forever in Todmorden. At half-past ten the sky was still light. Ada and I sat on the roof outside her bedroom window, a blanket over our shoulders, eating the leftover potatoes. The heather darkened to cobalt.
“It's like being on the moon,” I said.
“Don't tell me you've missed Tod,” said Ada, stretching her legs out on the cool slate.
“When I was away I only remembered the unhappy times,” I said. “I would lie there at night playing them over and over in my head. But now that I'm here I keep remembering the fun times. I think my mind's playing tricks on me.”
“There weren't any fun.”
“We sneaked away from the laundry room and camped in the sheep-folds. Remember?”
“We hid in the tower, under the water-tank. We used to tell ghost stories.”
She laid her cheek on her knee. She'd taken off her cap; her hair was coming unraveled. When I put my arm around her shoulder she leaned on me, resting her head on my shoulder. Her skull was like a sun-warmed stone.
“Dead chuffed you came,” she said. I felt her voice buzzing in her jaw. “I were afraid that you might go back to America, like you said.”
“I will,” I said. “I meant to go this summer. There was a price war among the shipping companies. I might have bought a one-way passage for five pounds.”
Yet the night before my departure I dreamt I couldn't get my feet to stay on the ground anymore; instead they floated to the ceiling. I tried to grab the bedposts but my hands were fading to ether. If I went outside I knew I would be gusted up into the sky like a scrap of ectoplasm.
“But you didn't go?” said Ada.
“It was too hot. Also I hadn't enough money saved. It's better to travel in autumn.”
“Do you remember traveling when you were little? Were it nice?”
“Sometimes it was the pits. But when it was lovely, it was stupidly lovely. The best things were the small surprises, like colors you'd never seen before. New kinds of candy, new kinds of birds. It made you feel like you were really living.”
She grabbed my hand and looked into my face. “I called you here for a reason. I called you.”
“I know,” I said.
She smiled then, her cheeks going redder. “You've guessed.”
She wanted to come to America with me. I should have known. We might go together. I wanted that, didn't I? Why hadn't I asked her?
“Come with me to Russia,” she said, kneeling up. “Don't say no. You heard Mr. Stansfield talking about it. Don't you want to?”
Had she said Russia? I backed away from her, sending a cataract of gravel down the eaves. “And what, be governesses?”
She could still grimace like a demon when crossed. “Who said governesses? We'll find jobs in St. Petersburg—Petrograd—like in any city. Dead interesting jobs, in nice shops or in tea houses. They pay well. And in the evenings we'd be free to have larks. There are palaces, and a zoo. Sledges with bells on them, in the winter. Swank cafés. I've read all about it. The kind of life we'll never have here, ever.”
My mouth was numb. “They speak Russian in Russia.”
She turned away and clenched her fist, clearly torn between the desire to laugh and the desire to smack me. “Peggy, you think Mr. Stansfield speaks Russian? There's a whole English colony in Petrograd. Textile men gone to manage the big mills, and engineers—like your dad, you know—and English lawyers. There's a street called Anglisky Prospect. But anyway we'll learn Russian in time. I've got a chapbook with the letters. I'll teach you.”
“Do you know where Russia is?” I said. “Very, very, very far away.”
“Exactly,” she said, then took hold of my sleeve. “And I know you're going to say what about the war? But how long do you think the Germans will last at Bazentin?” That startled me; she'd never been interested in newspapers. “The war will be over any day now. Everyone's saying so. Leave off making excuses. You like the idea.”
“Wait.” I remembered my dream: the sense of the ground falling away beneath me. “The borders are closed. You can't even send post out there.”
“We'd go through Scandinavia. People do it all the time. Imagine, on the summer nights the sun hardly sets at all. We'll have time to think and chat. Lie in the park, drawing trees.”
And, fatally, I closed my eyes. Straightaway I saw the two of us on a bridge, the river hot saffron in the evening sun. Still I said, “We'll need passports and visas.”
“Sorted! I've got a birth record and we can get something made up for you. I made enquiries.”
“Have you made enquiries?” I said, half-stupefied. I couldn't bear to look at her face any longer.
Across the valley men hollered after their sheep. Any moment now the stars would come out. She sat coiled beside me, breath hitching. The air grew heavy around us, sweet with cooling hay. I realized we were both looking at the same spot on the horizon, a little to one side; we knew just where and when the moon would rise.
“We used to always talk about us running away somewhere,” I said. “Remember when we had that plan to go live in Blackpool? We'd find a cave to live in, and eat oysters.”
I rested my eyes in her hair. I'd tried to run away without her, and it hadn't worked. That was why I'd come back.
“Why Russia?” I said. I closed my eyes and saw the burning river again. I shivered; my breastbone felt like the heated blade of a knife. Unconsciously I covered my chest with my palm.
“Because it's so far away,” said Ada, taking my hand. “Because it's nearly impossible.”
“Because even if it's a dead failure our lives will never be the same again,” I said. The tangy ache in my chest spread to my arms.
“You're shaking so,” said Ada, stroking the back of my head. “Are you as happy as I am? I'm so happy I'll cry.”
Her apple-bright face was close to mine. Her eyes were lighter, almost brackish, as they always were when she was moved.
That night I had a memory dream about the Socialist Sunday School Ada and I went to during my first summer in Tod. A man showed us a gourd full of water at the end of a rope, then swung the gourd round and round, high over our heads. We were astonished when the water stayed put, even when the gourd was upside-down. Why didn't it splash all over us?
“But you remember what gravity is,” he said. “Now the gourd's trapped in its orbit. Like every planet and moon in the universe, it must hurtle along its one path for eternity. Only a catastrophe can knock it from its course.” He was panting; like a cowboy with a lariat he changed gourd's course into a figure of eight. We shrank, gasping. “And then of course the danger is--”
He staggered backwards, tossing the gourd into the air. We hooted with glee as the water poured down over our heads. The carpet was drenched, the fire nearly went out. The empty gourd bounced under a table.
“Again, again,” Ada cried.
When I woke I was alone in Ada's bed. Her window was still open. The sky was ultramarine. In the hallway I found a window overlooking the back garden. Ada crossed into view, wearing her nightgown and a pair of galoshes; her wet hair hung loose, soaking the cloth at the small of her back. She carried a basket of eggs and rubbed her eyes. Then something made her scowl and she retreated to a pen of white-washed walls, where crabapple trees grew around a sundial.
Mr. Stansfield came from the house, following her. The rumble of his voice carried strangely, like a sound conveyed through a tube. I stood on my tip-toes to see better; noticing the movement, Ada looked up. I backed away.
All rights reserved.
So here's the first chap of a novel I'm working on.