The German in the Wood
I don’t think my father ever saw Bella. She was small, so small that her eyes and surprisingly large beaky nose came only just over the top of the kitchen table. Her chin – and a very slack mouth that muttered and dribbled in a kind of singsong language I could sometimes understand – were lost to view, below the rim of the thick, much-scoured, gargantuan table. Her hands, snapping at spinach, rolling a wooden pin in dough, fluttered about the sides of her head as she worked, like dancing ears.
Strong footsteps in the passage could mean my father. He might have a rabbit in his hand, and give it in through a half-window in the passage to Mrs Colne. It was like my Pollocks Toy Theatre – Mrs Colne might be whirling and skipping from the dresser to the iron pots on the old Aga, Sam Grieve the keeper might be back from the woods with birds’ tail feathers as bright as an actress’s plumed hat. Bella at those times was at the sink, invisible in the gloom of the far side of the old kitchen. Her head peered into the sink and her hands were high, shedding a rapid succession of soft fingernails, the oblong and glistening potato peelings that would then go out the back for the pig. Or she was in the scullery, climbing on a chair to cut down a wood pigeon or, very occasionally, a pheasant. In the scullery, with its trough-size stone sinks and dim light from a window that gave out on the cinder heap at the back, Bella looked particularly small. If my father came in, he would be bound to miss her in the uncertain light. But I didn’t think of her as being small then, of course; for Bella was the same height as me.
One day three things happened at the same time. The first was that summer came at last to our Northern valley. We’d been so long in snow and in skies as grey as the heron that kept flapping down by the side of the frozen burn, that it was hard to remember the green on the trees in the wood. We stood staring at it, Mrs Colne and Bella and I. What a lovely sight it was! And I immediately found I couldn’t remember at all what the winter had been like. I said I wanted to go up to the Fairy Ring. For I’d had the fairy stories of James Hogg the Ettrick Shepherd read to me and he’d written of this wood, where it was dangerous to go most of the time, and especially to the Fairy Ring. The toadstools, a pale, hideous necklace of poison round the thick, mossy neck of the Ring, had been people once.
Mrs Colne said we couldn’t go. It was dangerous. And yet I knew she’d been up there with Sam Grieve and her own daughter, they’d been picking bilberries on the heathery hillside above the wood and their mouths and cheeks were as purple as if they’d been drinking wine up there, waiting for the fairies and witches the Ettrick Shepherd had seen. I said I knew it was dangerous. In one of Hogg’s stories there was a boy who’d been wandering harmlessly and he had turned to a three-legged stool. And he wasn’t even in the Ring at all. The silver birches of the Ettrick forest were said to be very ancient. I thought that with their branches and roots they might have lashed at the boy, until he cried out to be made, like them, into a piece of wood.
The next thing that happened – after the astonishing refusal of Mrs Colne to lie in the beautiful mossy circle with the new summer sun coming in through the birch leaves – was that my father came out onto the grass from another door and stood beside us. Bella, as always, had slipped into invisibility behind a wall where once, before the war and the disappearance of gardeners, there had been a peony garden. She knelt on an overgrown path, pulling at dandelion leaves. My father and Mrs Colne and I stood staring right in front of us, as if we were hoping for something to appear on the hillside opposite, out of the wood.
My father said he was going away to the war. He would be in a very hot place, sometimes it was over a hundred. I saw a tent, and men like Ali Baba coming in and standing with my father. He said the dried figs we ate sometimes had probably come from there.
My father and mother must have already left in the old Wolsey for the war when I decided to run away myself – and this was the third thing that happened that day.