BLACKTHORN DAYS  

New Year’s Day 1851. 7 o’clock.

It’s the cold that wakes me from my dreams of Aunt Morag’s house by Crathan beach - an expanse of damp wrinkled sand stretching as if for ever towards the sea and sky. Then the sounds of dogs. Yelping, choking, and when I press my nose up against the icy skin on the inside of my window’s glass, see them straining on their leashes, pulling their handlers in a line across the bare field beyond the Ha Ha - the ditch that stops any stray livestock and the local foxhunt from trampling our garden.

But these dogs are quite different from the hounds I saw here before Christmas. They’re taller, more leggy, more hungry with ribs showing through their fur. I recognise Wolfhounds, Afghans and Borzois - the kind my Papa must see every day - and look, there’s Mr Furniss, our cook’s husband, taking the lead, his face redder than ever as he places the Slipper in the middle.

Now the commotion sounds more like a battle and, if I rub away a bigger patch of ice with my sleeve, I can see the poor brown hare ducking and diving in panic as its pursuers give chase, fangs bared. Too soon the brave creature is cornered. Glistening innards trail from its belly as one by one, all four limbs are ripped free by the Wolfhounds while Mr Furniss’s black lurcher takes its head, now just a mess of blood.

*

Midday and no warmer. It seems the sun that visited us over Christmas, has left for good. Mrs Duff, whom I will never call mother, has the best spot by the drawing room fire as she writes yet another letter to Papa. She seems unable to stop, just like Mr Furniss when he lost control of his pony and trap in Poacher’s Lane, and ended up in a ditch.

I can’t help but ask myself why this activity is so urgent and engrossing. She catches me observing her every move. How her thin hand grips the pen, how her lips purse together so tightly they disappear altogether while those small black letters gobble up the page. I’m surprised Papa can read them. Perhaps he doesn’t want to. Is she describing me to him, reminding him that my pretty dark eyes and matching hair which has grown so long, are gifts from the Devil? My youth too, which isn’t my fault? Who knows? For each time she leaves the room, she locks away her correspondence, inflaming my curiosity all the more. But worse, far worse than either of these, is when she openly declares to myself and Mrs Furniss that I am quite mad. But not my brother Jack. Oh no. Perfect, clever Jack, just two years younger than me.

You see, it all started as a game, but games can so often end in tears. He and I promised to remain silent in her presence until Papa came home. Now I am the one being punished, while he boarded the pony and trap for Rugby School yesterday evening, throwing me a sixpence for good luck.

We have not seen dear Papa since the start of last November. Miss Wood, my teacher at school, and something of a prophet like Mrs Furniss, has warned of war in the Crimea if Russia pursues its designs on the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Papa, a renowned architect, is helping the great Prince Potemkin build a fine summer palace by the Black Sea. She showed me maps of the region, and her tales of Turks and Greeks and Count Vorontsov, transported me from these flat, sea-less Midlands to a world I can only imagine. A world I fear soon to merge with that of Ten Acre field where the English Civil War once claimed two hundred Royalist lives. I know all this because since I am no longer at school, I read everything I can lay my hands on. Prose and poetry, particularly by Matthew Arnold. Particularly about suffering and loss.

But words are merely words, aren’t they? And this scene now in front of me, framed by ice is one I can barely watch…

Yes, Jack has gone, loaded up with all his belongings, back to his friends, his classmates, while I wait, hanging on Mrs Duff’s every acidic word.

“What are you staring at?” She barks. “Cat got your tongue again? Stick it out then, child. Let’s see you still have one.”

I do. And keep it between my teeth for too long.

There’s the brush of her dress against my arm. That thin hand, sharp as a gull’s wing on my left cheek. The mark will stay for the next three days and Mrs Furniss will be sure to remark upon it.

And then I break my two-month silence.

 

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