Several years ago, I was standing in the market place of the small South Lincolnshire town where I was born and grew up. It was Thursday, market day, though it was no longer possible for a relaxed sociable crowd to meander through the stalls. Only a few traders still tried to sell their wares in side streets. The piled-up local produce to be auctioned, the ironmonger’s stack of hardware, the cakes and bread, poultry and rabbits in cages, fish from Boston, plants, second-hand books, even a fortune teller sometimes, had given way to lumbering foreign lorries spewing fumes and grinding gears. No one lingered.
I was disquieted and disappointed. The sense of not belonging to a place where I had always been recognised and felt welcome was both new and vivid. Then, too, a great deal that was otherwise fundamentally important to me there had been blocked or destroyed or made ugly. All the grassy openings between houses had gone. There were no ways that led to ponds and water meadows. In their stead were acres of absurdly over-priced houses, some grimly substantial, fenced with high iron railings and accessed only by speaking into a metal box. Commuters and capitalism had moved in. John Clare, born just a few miles away, would have wept.
It was a relief to slip though a pub yard and come out into the shelter and quiet of space between a Queen Anne house and the Abbey Church. This space could not be altered and spoilt because it contained the town’s river. I stepped on to the low parapet that edged the river, and, prompted by the familiarity of this movement from long ago, my thoughts turned upstream, where the flow had been strong and deep and where, as a boy, I’d fished, sailed a homemade raft and, once, was lucky not to drown. I can still recall the pain of the underwater pressure and the huge struggling heaviness as I was dragged upwards to the sky and sun, and I can still see the uncle who, without doubt, saved my life. His white miller’s clothes were clinging to him and his face was working with distress and rage. “That bloody boy! That bloody boy!” he kept shouting. At any moment, he was going to let me know how foolish I’d been by whopping me with his sodden hat, but his younger brother whisked me up, tucked me under his arm and, positioning me so that I was face down and coughing, rode me home on his bicycle. It was said that he could do the same trick with a young calf. No doubt, he’d be whistling at the same time.
Such men are essential to a boy’s education. That must be so because the same uncle not only always knew where the best birds’ nests were but also got the maggots for fishing, unearthed skates from the loft when the pond froze and let me collect the hens’ eggs and drive the piglets round the mill yard. Yet neither he nor his brother had the reputation for being especially perfect. In fact, members of the local Methodist church used to refer to them very disapprovingly.
Well, perhaps these uncles did sometimes take a drink or three and they did laugh rather too raucously and they did put too much money on too many slow racehorses, but, when people needed help, it was often these uncles who were called upon. They rescued Aunt Kate Sandal’s cat from the top of a fir tree, drowned unwanted kittens, helped to manhandle a grand piano into Sir Raymond May’s drawing room, put up the big marquee for the church garden fete, acted as bearers at funerals and bounced my father’s old Austin Princess straight when he got it stuck askew in our garage. Also, far fewer of our itinerant Irish labourers would have gone home singing had it not been for the go-easy generosity of these uncles. Prudes and puritans would no doubt demur. The two men were certainly not devoted to laying up treasure in heaven or anywhere else for that matter.
Perhaps the most exacting memory of them comes back from late one November evening. We were recovering from the usual big helpings of ham and eggs followed by apple pie and custard when there was frantic knocking at the front door. No one seemed inclined to see who was there. My uncles, who had been at work in the mill since 6 a.m., were sprawled in two deep leather chairs. The fire was banked up and glowing. The room was intoxicatingly drowsy. But eventually the call had to be answered. I let in an elderly woman, a member of the Mays family who had always lived not far away along the waterside. The shocked pallor of her face stood out against her lividly dyed red hair. She kept her hands in the pockets of her long coat, but I could see that the material was shaking. Both men immediately stood up to receive her. They said comforting things when she told them that her sister had gone missing again and that she was afraid that she had wandered into the river.
The wanderer, Edith, had always been a stirring figure in my imagination. She lived alone in a small elegant Georgian house near the mill and was said to be mad. Like Boo Radley in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, she rarely ‘came out’, though I had once met her face to face along a narrow pathway called Coggles Causeway. It was a bitter cold early December evening. Intense moonlight gave the scene a hard clarity in which it was only too startlingly apparent that time, season and temperature were of no consequence to her. She was wearing a thin summer dress and a round straw hat. She was carrying an empty shopping basket. Her face was puffy and every few steps she paused as if the mind needed to wait until it could engage the movement it required. Her lips moved soundlessly, but she nodded as if to agree with what she was saying inside her head. At a loss, feeling tense and embarrassed, I stood aside to let her pass. I didn’t speak because I didn’t want to disturb her.
Our search that night was fruitless. We shouted for her and held our storm lanterns high. We poked in the reeds and let our voices echo under bridges. We continued until we could hardly feel the sticks that we were carrying, but all that we saw were our shadows and occasional reflected glimpses of the moon. We were very tired trudging back along the riverbank. Edith hadn’t drowned that night though, but when I was older, I learned that it was about that time that she had finally ‘gone under’ into silence and stillness. When we got home, both of my uncles were very quiet and every now and then one of them went out to look into the millrace.
Of course, it is difficult to find a conclusion for these men, but I can say that it is highly unlikely that either of them made it to heaven. In any case, heaven would have embarrassed them. They couldn’t have worn their working clothes up there. Nor would they have been allowed to tell their jokes. Yet, if the eternal sun does shine beyond the reproving gaze of the strictest Nonconformist angels, I’d wish these uncles a place where they can be themselves, where they can be pleased when the swallows come back to the barn in spring, where they can hear the soughing of the great wing beats as they watch the swans come in to land on the river and where they can still dive cleanly into one of the deeper pools upstream.
Hear David Day reading The River and Two Uncles at the launch of The Real Story project on October 19, 2011 at The Deaf Institute, Manchester: