The following stories are by the Cumbrian writer Susan Cartwright-Smith, and are inspired by those her father told her when she was growing up. They are a moving and powerful tribute to him, and a fitting way to mark Father’s Day.
We planted potatoes on Good Friday.
We rushed to do it, but it was important to be able to say,
“Your Granddad always planted potatoes on Good Friday, as well.”
Little things: phrases, actions, traditions. It all helped keep him alive; keep alive a man my two boys had never met. They would’ve enjoyed him.
His wry sense of humour, and delight in harmless mischief.
His star-gazing, his insistence on wearing socks with sandals; and his big broad hands which would unexpectedly reach out to be held.
They were lucky to escape his illness. Spared seeing him waste away to an empty shell. It took me a long time to remember who he was. But then a memory would come creeping back. Maybe the smell of pipe tobacco lingering amongst battered hardback books; maybe a tang of creosote on a damp day, or the gentle chink of a sandal buckle as sunshine danced on bare arms.
Whatever the small, sensory fragment, it jolted him back into life, and chased the sickness away.
So he lives again. And we plant potatoes on Good Friday. And keep the memory of him growing, like a well-tended garden.
“You’ll need to dig the soil over, lay the ground,” Dad had suddenly announced.
His stronger episodes always came as a shock, as exhaustion made him easier to deal with. Taking a deep breath, and meeting his eyes, I said hoarsely,
“Do you mean the potatoes?”
“Yes. Dig deep. Turn up the weeds. You need room for the tatties to stretch out and grow.”
I smiled and reached to hold the big broad hand that had stretched out to me. I let my thumb stroke the calluses on the palm, which were softening. I felt an emptiness, at odds with the physical fullness of new life inside me. As the boys charged about, getting muddy, trampling the remnants of the winter greens, I surveyed the task ahead of me. And dug in.
Digging over, loosening soil packed hard by winter, I bent again and again to remove the weeds. Words came back to me – “best to remove the rot”, “you never know what you will find when you lift the soil”, “sort out the problems before you plant fresh”. I gritted my teeth against the difficulty, and pressed on. Stones, broken glass, bed springs…these were usual items dug up time and again on our wasteland. But today a surprise – a giant potato! A relic from previous plantings. It was the size of my foot and I called the boys over to see it.
“Can we eat it?” asked the eldest.
“We could cook it,” I answered, then rubbed the mud off with my thumb. This split the potato, which was eaten away inside, and stank of dead flesh. I dropped it, unable to conceal my disgust.
“Sometimes,” Dad said, “sometimes it is hard work. Backbreaking. But you reap rewards. And whatever you grow, the previous year, it is all anew. You move around. You lay the past year to rest, and your yield will be stronger. Dig up the rot, tend to your problems, and grow strong.”
“What do you mean? Are you still talking about the allotment?”
He let his eyes travel away, and a stillness descended upon him.
“Yes. Yes I am.” And he closed his eyes to rest. His hand squeezed mine, but this time not in pain.
It was the smell of Dad’s shed that reminded me.
The acrid smell of old pipe smoke overlaid everything due to the stack of tobacco tins he kept to store nails, screws and washers. One day, when visiting Mum for something, I had reason to go into the shed. By the neat piles of old timber, next to his lathe and vice, I saw a roughly carved circle of wood he used to use as a coaster, for his dimpled, handled pint mug, the dregs of home brew clinging to its side. I picked up the coaster, and smiled as I saw “Dad” daubed on it, in red, enamel paint. The smile froze on my face as I remembered what had happened in the last few months. I stroked my hand over the smooth, wooden handle of the garden spade, the blade once clean and sharp, and left the shed without a backward glance. The aroma of tobacco and creosote stayed with me for the rest of the day. It was a welcome change to the cloying smell of a body decaying slowly from within. For a moment, in the sunshine, I had remembered who my dad used to be.
Back in the house, unchanged for a lifetime, the cold floor evoked strong memories – the loo used to be the pantry, before modernisation, and was colder than death. It had been floored with lino, so retained the chill beautifully. It was a cold house anyway, and it was not unknown for me to go to bed wearing a hat and gloves, as well as a jumper, socks and thick pyjamas. I would stay up late, watching the black and white horror films on BBC2, and would have to screw up my courage to go to the loo during the films, and to brave the chill of that floor. Both these factors contributed to the speed of my visits to the loo – and my dexterity in taking a flying leap from the carpeted hallway, performing a pirouette mid-air, and landing on the loo seat. That, also, would cause muffled screams of surprise from the chill of it.
Still in a pride of place position, in my old bedroom, were the Swedish clogs. These had come from a family holiday to Sweden when I was four. Never a good traveller by road, I was a dreadful one by sea. We stayed with my “Auntie” Jean (my mum’s bridesmaid, known to us as auntie), and her family. The house seemed peculiar and exciting: it was a schoolhouse, and Yngve and Jean were teachers. The attics were labyrinthine, and full of extraordinary things – sleds, skis, ropes and chains. It was summer, and we took trips to the lake, ten children piled into the low boot of a Saab, with the door open so we could trail our feet along the road. In my favourite “Nessie” t-shirt, and bathing suit, we dug sand, orienteered, sailed, fished and swam. My father hired a bike with a seat on the back, and cycled me around. You had to pedal backwards to slow down. We didn’t know what to do with the fish once we had caught it. We all just stared at it and then threw it back. We dug a hole in the sand as long as our arms, and reached water.
Other days were spent at the schoolhouse. I would swing on the swing, and climb on the climbing frame, while my sister was at the school. I was allowed to wear my best dress, with an apron, but had to borrow some of Cousin Paul’s knee-length red socks, to keep my clogs on, and to keep covered from the sun and mosquitoes. I remember being at the top of the metal climbing frame, all alone as usual, watching the electrical storm dance in the sky, and wondering why my father was running towards me so quickly.
The bedroom where my father had spent his last days had been aired, was still my mother’s room, and had reverted back to being a warm, comforting place, smelling of fresh laundry and talc.
The low roar of the airing cupboard, which I used to feel a little afraid of, was something which kept me in a sort of permanent childhood, mentally, whenever I heard it. It always reminded me of the phase I went through of reading Famous Five books in my parents’ bed, when I was too afraid to sleep in my own room (probably brought on by overactive imaginings, probably from reading too many Famous Five books). My father would tell me stories. Not always restful ones. We had started telling each other stories towards the end, as he needed excuses to rest more, and not admit that he was tired. We used to walk together through the woods near his house; the walks were shorter in length, but longer in time as the days went by, and we would remember…
“Tell me again, about the hare,” I said.
I was aware that our walk was slower-paced than normal, and Dad was struggling to breathe.
“Why don’t we sit awhile then?” he said, and walked deliberately to a bench. I looked around, disgusted at how tame the woods were now. Gone was the wilderness of my youth. Here instead was a beast brought to heel; the council paths laid through the woods, ostensibly to encourage family walks, but in reality to provide a place for thoughtless people to conveniently empty their dogs. Dad got his breath, and surveyed the field in front.
“These fields were once part of the Wild Wood,” he said.
I remembered being gripped with thrilling terror at being lost forever in the woods, the merry mix of oak, birch, beech, thorn, holly and ash, with occasional rowans and elder marking the way. The paths hadn’t then subdued the forest floor, and as children we would return home after an entire day away, scratched from brambles, stung from nettles, and bruised and scraped from climbing trees.
“The Wild Wood is a magical place. Witches would come to gather plants, to meet, to swap knowledge. The magical animals ran free; their homes were safe.”
Having never so much as glimpsed an adder in a wood supposedly renowned for them, I said nothing.
“And where you find witches, you will always find people who speak ill of them,” he said, giving me a glance. “And so it was with one young witch. Young, for the time, and pretty. She spurned many men’s advances, but welcomed almost as many. And people didn’t like her free ways, fettered by yokes of their own making.
When the Witchfinder came, he did not have to look far. People led him there, in case he found them. At first the Witchfinder offered her freedom, in return for certain favours, but the witch spat at his feet and laughed in his face. He struck her down, and told her to pray for her immortal soul. While the crowds gathered in the town square, thankful that the noose was not for them, the arrogant old fool hunted this wood. This Wild Wood. Careless of the natural way of things, he let his hounds roam free, worrying the nesting birds, terrifying the small creatures of the woods, and fouling the paths. The fat old fool rode his horse through the Wild Wood, the iron-shod feet gouging furrows in the land.
A hare, fearful of its form being discovered, darted out of the meadow. The hounds took scent, and gave chase. The hare was leading them away from the leverets and the future. At the same time the witch was being led up to the scaffold – hanging being more popular than burning in this area. Not that many witches were hanged – until a Witchfinder found them.
As she stood with the noose around her neck, she stared into the distance. As the block was kicked away from under her, the hare did one of its mighty leaps, to throw the scent. The witch hovered in the air, the noose still lying about her neck, and the dogs, in their rampant confusion, stumbled, turning back, snarling the hooves of the horse.
The Witchfinder was thrown, and as his horse slid and stumbled on the half-buried tree roots, his spine broke on impact with the questing fingers of the tree, and his head was smashed in by an iron-clad hoof flailing. The horse and hounds, confused and terrified, ran off into the Wild Wood.
The hare loped back to the Witchfinder. The last thing he saw was the face of the witch, smiling. He wasn’t found until the Wild Wood had reclaimed at least the top layer of him.”
Dad chuckled grimly.
“And what of the witch?”
“As her back broke, so a terrific clap of thunder sent the superstitious fools scurrying. No-one remained to see a slut die, not if they could save their own stupid skin.”
Sometimes I couldn’t weigh Dad up. And he was deliberately unreadable at times. As I held a hand out to pull him up, a lean form sat proud in the field, inclined its head to us, then, with an enormous sideways leap, set off back into the meadow, satisfied that a story had been well told.
“There’ll be lots of hazelnuts next year, Dad,” I said, as we walked back. “We’ll have to come and forage.”
“Aye,” he said stiffly. “You will.”
“Ah, you’re here.”
Eyes fever-bright and dancing, Dad scanned my face, taking in the tear stains, blotching and worry.
“None of that now,” he said, and limply tapped the bed beside him. I sat, and allowed him to pat my tummy, where a new life grew. He grunted slightly; a grimace of pride flickered over his face, but was brief, and replaced swiftly by the twist of pain.
“Oh, Dad,” I said, voice thick with tears. I put my arms round him, alarmed at how little there was left of him, and felt frustrated and guilty at not having visited sooner.
“Now, now,” he said, “you’ve the bairn to think of. Don’t be upsetting yourself.”
I clenched my jaw, and bit back a retort. I had had that “advice” given to me several times now, and it angered me. But I wasn’t going to allow myself to waste a precious moment of my time with my dad. I didn’t know how much I had left.
“So, shall I tell you a story then?” he said.
“A story? Now?”
“Yes, why not? I’ve got nothing else to do now, but lie here, and remember all the stories I haven’t told you.”
“Well, OK. If you think you’re up to it.”
“It’ll take my mind off it,” he said, and I didn’t really feel I could argue with that.
I thought of the stories Dad used to tell me, when I was little. Of the Girl Who Chased Cows, of the Wolf Who Ate Trees, of the Boy Who Ate Bird Food So He Could Fly, of the Doff-Off Goblin…
I wondered what he had remembered now.
“You’ll like this one. It’s about a Witch.”
Dad had, for a long time, pleased himself with the notion that I was a witch. A good witch, mind you. It helped him understand my being a pagan, and it suited his creative mind to think it.
“OK. What about the Witch?”
“Well, people said she was a witch. It happened a long time ago, you know, when people were afraid of such things. She lived in a little cottage, in the middle of a forest, where no birds sang. The witch missed the sound of the birds, but she kept too many cats, and so the birds would not come near. The townspeople, of course, thought it was because of some black magic, but it was just Nature.
Anyway, all those years ago, the young witch ventured into the forest, to go into town, to barter her herbs and vegetables, and her soaps. She took her blanket and her barrow, and began her long walk.
It was very early, normally the time when you hear the dawn chorus, but, of course, the witch did not. What she did hear was the sound of a violin, and it stirred her soul. She tried to locate the source of the music, and eventually came to a clearing. There sat a young man, with wild eyes and tousled hair. He was what used to be referred to as a “travelling man”. His feet were bare and filthy, but gold glinted on his ears and in his teeth. Suddenly he stopped playing, and the witch felt as if her strings had been cut from above. She felt cold and lonely without the music, and she shivered. The man looked up at her and smiled. He beckoned to her and she felt herself walking towards him.
‘Will you sit with me a while?’ he asked. ‘Very well,’ said the witch.
Now, it has never been a very good idea to talk to strange young men in woodland clearings, much less sit with them, and soon the young man had the witch laughing softly while he murmured words of love. Teasing a stray lock of hair behind her ear, he then pulled her to him.”
He threw me a look, seeing me squirm a little, at the adult tone his story was taking.
“Shall I go on?”
“Yes – yes!”
“Very well. The witch was young, and pretty, but so lonely, and this handsome young man was in the right place at the right time. It could be said ‘he could charm the birds down from the trees’.”
I rolled my eyes, thinking this was perhaps the end, but Dad swallowed, rubbed the back of his hand between his eyes, and licked his lips. He smirked at me, satisfied I had appreciated the pun. A spasm of pain gripped him.
“You don’t have to go on, I don’t mind,” I said, even though I was settling into the story now, and wondered where it was going.
“It’s fine, really. Where was I – oh, yes, so this handsome young bounder and the pretty young witch shared a few moments of great passion. The witch fancied herself to be falling in love. It was so long ago, don’t forget, and people thought love and passion belonged together. She drifted off to sleep, and when she awoke, the young man was gone.
Feeling foolish, and cold, and full of shame, she gathered her clothes and returned home. Again, nature took its course; and as the months went by, her belly grew big with child. But never a word from the young man. When she ventured into town, she would hear the townsfolk muttering, ‘devil’s child’, and ‘demon-lover’. People didn’t accept that some ladies are freer with their bodies than others, and you don’t have to be married in order to get pregnant.
Anyway, as she neared her time for delivery, she had gone into town to try and sell some more goods, to raise a bit more money or to barter.
She heard the enchanting music across the market square, the music which had persuaded her to abandon herself to its player. And she saw him, saw him walking away, playing his violin. And she felt compelled to follow.
There was a dusting of snow on the ground, and the cobbles were icy. It was an early cold snap, and she was in shoes, not boots, and so she lost her footing, and fell to the ground. The next thing she knew she was being helped to sit up on the steps of the market cross. There was no sign of the young man, but a chord hung in the air, like the caw of a crow. She felt a pain in her guts and knew the baby was on its way. The townsfolk backed away, though, still afraid of it being a devil.”
My insides lurched a bit, with the new-found sensitivity impending motherhood had unwittingly imposed upon me. Never broody, never particularly fond of children, now the merest mention of children suffering, or of childbirth “incidents”, sent waves of panic through me.
“Don’t worry, though,” Dad said, noticing my discomfort. “When she started to cry out, an amazing thing happened: the starlings started to wheel in the sky. A late display, but the snow had taken everyone, including the birds, by surprise. They performed their dizzying display, and chattered and bickered overhead. Well, of course the townsfolk thought this was some kind of “sign”, so they all rushed forward to help. They were too late to help the witch, unfortunately; and as her blood poured down the steps of the monument, she passed away. But she gave birth to a son, and he survived, and was cared for by the townsfolk. And when he returned to the cottage of his mother, the witch, the boy who was born to the sound of birdsong made the birds sing once more in the forest.”
“Is that it?” I asked.
“Yes. I suppose it is.”
Dad leaned back, eyes closed, his face a mask of pain once more.
“I suppose the moral of the story is, look at what’s in front of you, listen to your heart, not the birds; never be too disappointed by just how stupid people can be, and never underestimate Mother Nature.”
And with that, he drifted off to sleep, satisfied. Dad never again regained coherence or lucidity, and clung grimly on to the shell of life, until finally his body was too worn out to continue. Leaving us all empty and bewildered, and crippled with guilt at the relief, we felt unusual leaving the house. I found myself wandering aimlessly across the market square. I knew the place, but had never really looked at it, and Dad’s story came back to me. I climbed gingerly up the steps, arms out stiff like a doll to balance my lopsided body, and looked down at the cobbles. I noticed a line of red ones, water pooling around them, which also looked red. I bent down awkwardly, and dipped my finger in.
It was just water, and I smiled at my eager foolishness to believe in the supernatural. Just then, I jolted with shock, as a mass of starlings all suddenly took off from their roosts, and shrieked and clamoured into the sky. I felt a kick from inside, as if my baby was saying he remembered the story too. And I thought of my dad, taking birdsong with him, wherever he went.
Looking around the house, I knew that the memories would go, fade. I knew that the pain would always be slightly raw, a wound that would never quite heal, and the slightest thing could cause an involuntary, shameful tear to sneak out. Stories I will have to read to my own children, stories I will have to remember; walks I will have to make, and habits which unconsciously I have passed on to the boys suddenly showing forth as my father in miniature; all these things will cause me to stop with the shock of grief. But also, allow me to keep alive the man who died; a wonderful man, never to be forgotten.