The Blue Man
A short story
by Gillian Clarke
Every Friday I'd wheel my bike up the path and lean it against the wooden steps that led to the door. By that time, the wetter and colder I was, the happier. My paper sack was empty, and a saucepan of cawl was steaming for me on the ancient Aga. I can still see it. Vivid bits of leek, carrot and turnip bobbing in the bowl, and home-made rolls, all shapes, freckled like the old ladies' hands. One of them would stoop to lift the rolls from the oven with a tea towel, leaning her other hand against her knee to help her straighten up as she turned, smiling, wiping the flour on her pinny. Her sisters would take my coat, give me a hug, sit me down at the table. My mother didn't approve. Weird, she called them. I never got bowls of lamb cawl or hugs at home.
It was the last call on my round, last house on the beach road before it fizzled out in a track between sand dunes. Villagers called it the Last House, but at school it was known as Finches' Cottage, a rambling wooden bungalow with a veranda that ran all around it. It boomed like a dull drum, thudded, rattled and breathed. Every footstep echoed on the boards of the long central corridor, filling the rooms with vibrations. The house crackled in frost and creaked in the sun. In winter the wind off the dunes shook and thumped it, sand-blasting the paint from the walls. Outside you could hear the wind whistling in the marram grass, stinging the windows, and a deeper sound like waves breaking in the elms at the edge of the convent lawn. I'd forgotten the elms. Dutch Elm disease must have got them by now. Ghost trees. Does the Angelus bell still hang in a dead tree? And the nun who used to pull the bell rope morning and evening? Where has she gone? It gives me the creeps to think about things like that.
The autumn after my twelfth birthday, when my mother moved to live in town after the split, I became a boarder. It was a brand-new life. There were only twenty boarders, and to my delight three of us were lodged at Finches' Cottage. It wasn't like being a proper boarder. I had a room of my own, and I was allowed to keep my paper round. My sister went with my mother. The only snag with sleeping at Finches was the walk back from school in the pitch dark after homework. Through the orchard, past the log-shed where the headless nun lurked, through the gap in the wall, down steps cut in the rock on which the convent was built, and a scurry down the paved path to the bungalow door. We never thought of torches.
Two Misses Finch and Mrs Price. Three sisters. They had been teachers and had travelled the world. One used to be a missionary till she had her doubts about God. I didn't let the nuns know this, as I wasn't sure about God myself and I didn't want a sermon. On the board floors of their wide wooden house, painted green and cream like a shelter in the park, were rugs in old deep reds and inky blues. There were ivory elephants, which I didn't tell my friends about, carved African heads, and a case of wonderful butterflies. The butterflies on the dunes were like little flags in the wind and you couldn't see them properly. The ones in the case were brilliant as stained glass, so real they might be quivering. I stopped telling my mother about the Finches. She despised their 'untidiness', what she called 'all those things'. But I was going to have a house like theirs. It was the most beautiful house in the world. I looked at the treasures on Sunday nights by the fire as I ate the treats they saved for me when the younger girls had gone to bed. They had a book of Welsh poetry bound in green leather. It was hand-printed on hand-made paper with rough edges, and on every sheet you could see a pale pattern like a little sickle when you held it against the light. I loved paper. I went in for fancy writing paper, mauve, scented, bevel edged, for long letters to pen friends full of not quite true descriptions of my life. The initials to the poems in the book were printed in dark red, but best of all were the pictures: engravings of waterfalls, woods, whirlpools and lovers. They made me ache. I had a book that made me feel like that when I was little, but my mother threw it out. I liked the poem book's mysterious language, like a secret code. I knew some of the words, remembered from long-lost Taid who died when I was three. My mother kept her meanest voice for Welsh, probably because of her and Dad not getting on. She had a specially snobbish way of saying 'Welsh!' So one day I intended to learn it.
Elder Miss Finch had collected the books, younger Miss Finch the rugs and butterflies. The Finches were thin and blue-eyed and wore their grey hair in plaits. The elder divided her hair in a single parting from forehead
to nape and her plaits began behind her ears, their ends united in a coronet on top of her head. The younger made her plaits into a bun like a pile of rope. They all had red cheeks and wore dark blue fisherman's jumpers for walking through the dunes to the sea. Mrs Price was the youngest, and had white curls. She was plumper than the Finches, untidier, prettier, and jollier. They were all untidy according to my mother, their hair flying like silver grasses, especially when they came up from the beach in the evenings with the sun behind them, flat sandals scuffing the sand, after an afternoon at the summerhouse.
The summerhouse! The bungalow was the last real house on the road, but half a mile on at the very edge of the sea stood a wobbly row of salt-and-sand-blasted huts, leased to fishermen and summer visitors. The Finches had one. They gave me a key and said I could use it to 'study'. I went there once to do my homework. I drank a flask of tea, sat in a whiskery old wicker chair, and waited for something marvellous to happen.
I felt scared. Neglected buildings are sad. When they're a bit scruffy they're friendly, then the roof or the windows go and the ghosts move in. I don't want gardens to get all brambly, houses to have broken windows, or people to die. I didn't want Taid to die, or Dad to leave, or my favourite book to be given away. I was scared of the salt-stained glass, the faded cloth at the window, the blistered paint, bladderwrack, rope, driftwood, bird-skulls and oily feathers which cluttered the creepy spaces underneath its legs. It was good when the sun shone, but when shadows came I was glad to scuff home through the soft sand for school tea, jam sandwiches and choir practice.
At Finches Cottage that Sunday night, when I got in from an afternoon ‘studying’ in the summer-house, the my cawl and rolls were ready. The younger girls had gone to bed. I told the sisters I'd done three drawings and my English essay. That pleased them. They opened the cabinet and Mrs Price took out her flints and ammonites and shards of pottery and clay flutes from Peru. I've saved this bit up. Mr Price was an archaeologist. They'd lived in Bolivia and he died there. In Bolivia Mrs Price had money, but their government wouldn't let her bring it home. Which would I have chosen? Bolivia, and all the money and treasures you could imagine? Or the Last House? She enjoyed talking about the Bolivian money she would never have. I planned to rescue it for her one day. She took out the treasures one by one. I held them, read the little labels and replaced them with exaggerated care. I was allowed to hold anything. Only one object seemed to me too wonderful to touch. This I have saved up till last of all to touch, and last to tell. That special evening Mrs Price lifted the object from its place, held it out to me, and laid it in my hands. A figure five inches tall made of a deep blue mineral. How heavy he was! How cold! She showed me how to turn him slowly away, and how he seemed to smile as the light moved from his gaze to his profile. Again and again I turned him, and he smiled, and slowly back to see his smile diminish. Once someone has smiled at you, you can't forget it. The face has chosen you. Under his tiny plinth was a label marked, in the archaeologist's hand-writing, 'Circa 1100, BC, Egyptian'. He was bald, standing with one foot before the other, his arms folded, 'Lapis Lazuli blue', said Mrs Price. 'A grave god'. Lapis Lazuli! What was he like, her young, dead archaeologist? Black curly hair, I decided, and lapis lazuli eyes. That was when I gave up the idea of being a vet, or a famous novelist. I would be an archaeologist.
My birthday came. I was let off maths homework, the cook made me a cake, and they sang Happy Birthday at tea. I had notepaper with a country scene, a five-year diary, a book about horses, David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, and scented soap. And fourteen cards. My mother sent me money. That night there was a little party at Finches. There was a big glass bowl of trifle decorated with tiny silver balls, and a huge chocolate cake on a lacy paper doily on a silver plate. When all the clocks struck eleven, out of tune with each other as usual, I thought it was over and we'd all be sent to bed. The other two girls went to their room, and I was kept back. They wanted a word with me. Footsteps thumped up and down the corridor between the bedroom and the bathroom. Miss Finch with the coiled rope put on Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata'. They'd taught me to enjoy things like that. As I told my friends, you've just got to give it a try. Miss Finch with the coronet took out the book of Welsh poems. Mrs Price poured me a very small sherry in a lovely glass that twinkled like diamonds. 'You're a teenager now!' She beamed at me. They'd never given me sherry before. I wouldn't mention this in school 'We want you to have a present,' she said. I felt hot and excited. I was the favourite. Any minute now a black haired hero with lapis lazuli eyes would arrive. He was already on the road, riding a black horse, or perhaps driving a red sports car.
Mrs Price took the key to the Bolivian archaeologist's case. She opened it. 'I am old,' she said, 'and I know you like these things. Choose something.' I held little pieces of pottery, thinking I would love any of them but for the alluring blue gaze of the little Egyptian grave god. I wished they'd put him away so I could think properly. 'I don't like to say,' I said. 'I don't want to choose something you love too much.' 'Choose!' said Mrs Price. 'It's something we love we want you to have. We can't take them with us when we go.' I felt sick. When they go. Like everyone else they would go. I concentrated hard again. He was already chosen but I dared not say. Last of all I weighed him in my hand until his coldness was lost and he was blood-warm. I looked at their faces. They were twinkling. One Miss Finch knitted. The other embroidered. Mrs Price looked at me.
'I love him,' I said at last.
'And we love you, my dear,' said Mrs Price, reaching beside her chair. She picked up a wooden box, an inch longer than the blue man, lined with cotton wool that fitted him so exactly that she must have known all the time that I'd choose him.
'To remember us,' she beamed.
I couldn't speak. I wouldn't tell anyone about the blue man, or the tears.
That was years ago. I'm in my first year at University now, doing English, Welsh and Archaeology, and I'm off to the museum to have him valued. At least, I think I am. A couple of times I've been on the brink of asking an expert in antiquities to value him. Then he'd ask, 'Have you something to show me?' 'No', I'd say. 'Just looking.'
I have a terrible confession to make. I've lost the Finches, sort of mislaid them. I left school to do A levels in the college. I wrote to them once. I'd given up scented stationery and had found somewhere you could buy hand made paper. The shop was shut. I would write again when the shop was open. After A levels I went to India, trekking with a friend. I wrote from Delhi. I came back to find my letter returned with 'not known at this address' on it.
I was afraid to go back to look for them. In my head is a derelict house full of the sea wind, and round it the world is falling to ruin. I can hardly breathe. I turn away from the museum desk to check, deep in my bag, for the wooden box. I can't wait to get home, take him out of the box, hold him till he's blood-warm, and be forgiven.
Formerly published by Gomer Press in ‘Magpies’, a collection of short stories.