Hemming

by Martin Westlake

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3

part 2

‘Wasson, Mr Griffyth?’

On the other side of the garden gate stood a ruddy-faced man wearing a bright red-and-white hooped woolen jersey and old, patched, faded jeans with rolled-up bottoms and wellington boots. Hanging over his clothes was a dirty overall that had once been white.

‘Oh, hallo, Jimmy. I didn’t see you there.’

‘Were you talking to a crow, Mr Griffyth?’

‘I was, Jimmy.’

‘How come?’

‘I just saved his life. The idiot fell down the ventilation shaft. I had to undo the grille to let him out.’

‘Backalong they’d shoot ’em or gas ’em, you know.’

‘Kill them?’

‘Ess, Mr Griffyth. Farmers and gamekeepers don’t like crows. You knows that.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘Eat everything, crows do. Pheasant chicks. Corn. Lambs’ eyeballs. Nowadays they trap’em.’

‘Won’t you come in, Jimmy? Have a cup of tea?’

‘I don’t mind if I do an’ all,’ said Jimmy, unlatching the gate. He stopped abruptly. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘I catched you summin.’ He pulled back the dirty white overall. Two rabbits hung from his belt. ‘One of these is for you, Mr Griffyth. I got one too many in me traps this morning, you see?’

‘Thank you, Jimmy. That’s very kind of you. Come in and I’ll put the kettle on.’

Griffyth led the way into the kitchen, ever warm from the Aga he stoked and coaxed in winter and summer.

‘Sit down,’ he said.

Jimmy sat at the scrubbed wood table and wiped his hand across his nose.

‘Always got that candle going, haven’t you, Mr Griffyth?’ Jimmy pointed at an old painted tabernacle cabinet on the sideboard. In front of it, in a tall glass holder, a votive light flickered.

‘Yes,’ said Griffyth. ‘For Hemming. Always.’

He filled the kettle and put it on the hob. Then he picked the rabbit up off of the table, wiped up the small puddle of blood that had formed underneath it, and took it to the sink.

‘Skin it for you, Mr Griffyth?’

‘I’ll do it; thanks, Jimmy.’

‘Becoming quite the country boy, now, aren’tcha, Mr Griffyth?’

Griffyth brought two mugs to the table. ‘Got no choice,’ he said, ‘when you live at the far end of a Cornish valley.’

‘Your choice, though, Mr Griffyth, weren’t it?’

‘Aye,’ said Griffyth. ‘It was my choice.’

He looked at the flickering votive candle and the old, curling photograph in the tabernacle behind it.

* * *

After Jimmy left, Griffyth planted out his potatoes and cleared up the asparagus patch. Spring was definitely on the way now, he reckoned. There certainly wouldn’t be another frost. Every time the crows cawed, he looked up to see if he could spot Cracker. But the birds were keeping their distance. Funny, that, Griffyth thought. They’d been all over the house this morning and now they wouldn’t come near it. Still, they’d be back.

He pumped up some water to wash his hands and then walked to the house for lunch. He made a salad and opened a tin of sardines. Afterwards, he started the generator and once it was running smoothly went to the toilet to screw back the grill. He remembered the little thrill he’d got when Cracker fell to the floor, when that small space had briefly contained two beings.

Once he’d stored away the stepladder and the screwdrivers, he got his laptop out of the sideboard drawer and plugged it in. In the afternoons he got good reception; something to do with satellites overhead. He read the news.

Then he went out on the Web and looked for stuff about crows. He was impressed. They were intelligent animals, able to do quite complicated tasks and, apparently, to communicate and calculate and use basic tools. And they could live a long time: fifty or sixty years.

He found an article in the New York Times about a wildlife biologist’s experiments with masks. Crows definitely recognized friends and enemies, the biologist had proven. So maybe Cracker would remember him and maybe he was listening when Griffyth spoke to him. It was an interesting thought, anyway.

He turned off the laptop and the generator. He fetched out his sharpest knife, spread some old newspapers on the kitchen table and started to skin the rabbit.

* * *

The next morning, when he came to the garden door, Cracker was strutting about on the lawn.

‘Hallo, my friend!’ said Griffyth. ‘Do you remember me?’

The bird stopped, tilted its head to one side and made a distinctive cracking noise.

‘Want some breakfast?’ Griffyth asked. He went back into the kitchen and brought a fistful of crusts. Cracker pecked away at one. He cawed, and several more crows arrived.

‘Did you tell them that there was food, Cracker? Was that it?’

The bird looked up, as though it understood he was trying to communicate. Then it returned to its food.

The next morning Cracker was there again. This time Griffyth didn’t give him food straightaway. Instead, he spoke to the bird. Nothing complicated. Just two words accompanied by pointing: Griffyth. Cracker. Then the crust as a reward. And he only gave the one crust. Griffyth reasoned that Cracker would not be so likely to call his friends if there was only one crust, and it seemed he was right.

Griffyth went on like this for two weeks, until one day he deliberately got up earlier than usual. Cracker wasn’t there. Griffyth called, and Cracker immediately swooped down, eager for his food. Griffyth was thrilled.

‘Well done, Cracker!’ he congratulated the bird, throwing it a crust. The crow was definitely learning and seemed to have responded to Griffyth’s call. This could lead on to all sorts of interesting things, he thought. Already, Griffyth realized, Cracker was providing him with a sort of company that he hadn’t known he was missing. Well, maybe missing wasn’t the right word. But now the company was there, he was enjoying it.

‘Wasson, Mr Griffyth?’ came a familiar voice. ‘You still talking to those crows, are you?’

‘Morning, Jimmy, and the answer is yes, I am. I think this particular bird, Cracker, is very intelligent. He seems to be learning, in any case.’

‘Clever birds are crows, Mr Griffyth, but they’ll eat anything and everything. That’s the problem.’

‘Is that a bad thing?’

‘If you’re a gamekeeper and you’ve just put your pheasant chicks out, it is. Or if you’re a sheep farmer and the crows get to the lambs before you can...’

‘I take your point, Jimmy, but I’m quite hoping I can train Cracker up to be different.’

Jimmy laughed. ‘Maybe you can, Mr Griffyth, but a wild bird will always be wild.’

‘Well, I don’t want him in the house or anything like that. Come on, Jimmy. I’ll put the kettle on.’

‘And I’ll bring this in, shall I?’ said Jimmy producing another rabbit from under his dirty white overall.

That evening Griffyth realized the beer cage was running low. The house he’d bought had no cellar. He could have installed a refrigerator, but then he would have had to use the generator all the time and he didn’t want that. So he’d built a shelter on the shady side of the house and installed a cage under it in which to store his beer. He hung strips of old carpet over the cage to keep it above freezing in the winter and as cool as possible in the summer.

The beer was Griffyth’s calculated anaesthetic. No spirits, no wine. No drinking at midday. No drinking before seven in the evening and to bed always by ten. But then three or four beers to cushion the evenings, and not just any beers. Griffyth liked good, strong beers with high alcohol content. German beers. Belgian beers.

* * *

The next morning Griffyth got up earlier than usual. He made his tea then went out into the garden and called Cracker, but this was one of those mornings when the bird decided not to show up. Griffyth realized that he was disappointed. He smiled inwardly. Jimmy would laugh at that if he told him.

When he’d finished his breakfast, Griffyth wheeled his quad bike out of its shed, donned his helmet, kick-started the machine and made his way slowly along the dirt track that led, after some five kilometres, to a gravel track that led, in turn, to a metalled road that led into town.

The farm where Jimmy worked lay back from the dirt track just at the point where the gravel began. Though he saw nobody, Griffyth hooted as he drove past. Jimmy would know.

It was a small rural town, but Griffyth hated visiting it. He felt exposed. He disliked the traffic noise and the smells of car and lorry exhaust. He planned his run carefully so as to be able to spend as little time there as possible.

First, the Post Office to pick up the few letters that were waiting for him, none of them personal; then the bank, though the only movements on his account were interest payments and occasional bank charges. Then the huge supermarket on the outskirts of the town to stock up on essentials that he checked off on a list so as to resist the temptations perched on the fat, heavily-stocked shelves. And then around the ring road to the discount store, where he loaded the quad bike’s barrow, strapping everything in and covering it with a tarpaulin, paid up, and made his getaway.

Jimmy was waiting by the track when he drove back. He gave a mock salute. Griffyth stopped the quad and took off his helmet.

‘All right, Jimmy?’

‘Yeah. And you?’

Griffyth nodded.

‘Beer run, Mr Griffyth?’

‘That’s right, Jimmy. I found an interesting Belgian monastery beer. I think I’ll give it a try this evening with that rabbit you kindly brought. Fancy joining me?’

‘Well, now, Mr Griffyth, that’s ’andsome of you and I don’t mind if I do.’

‘See you at seven?’

‘Seven.’

Griffyth put his helmet back on, kick-started the quad and drove slowly down the dirt track. How would he cook the rabbit? Stew or casserole, inevitably. The wild rabbits were skinny and tough and the meat needed to be softened up and kept moist. But what sort of stew or casserole? Griffyth had got a few big onions still from the last season. He’d use those and make a mash. And he’d add ransoms, if he could find some.

He stopped the bike about a kilometre away from his house and walked into the wood, towards a place where he had picked wild garlic before. Sure enough, he saw several clumps of the distinctive leafs and white flowers in the underwood. He picked a handful of the lush, pungent leafs and was about to turn back when he heard the crows, making an agitated racket. Curiosity piqued, he walked towards the noise.

The wood gave way to a clearing. In the middle of it was a strange wood-framed wire construction with a v-shaped wire mesh roof. Several crows were standing on top of the roof and cawing loudly. Others were crying from low-hanging branches around the clearing.

Griffyth saw three crows flapping about inside the construction, and then he realized what it was: a gamekeeper’s trap. Jimmy had told him about these. As he got closer, he saw some stale bread slices on the ground inside the cage and the inert body of a dead crow, starkly black against the fluorescent green of the moss growing on the bare earth. His heart lurched. And then he saw a flash of white. Cracker!

‘Cracker,’ he called, ‘is that you?’

The bird cawed repeatedly. Now Griffyth could see it properly and it clearly was Cracker.

‘No wonder you didn’t turn up this morning,’ he said.

Cracker seemed to recognize his voice. It fell silent, put its head to one side and made a small cracking noise.

‘Yes, my friend. It’s me, Griffyth, come to save your life again.’

Griffyth studied the cage and saw that it had no bottom and was not attached to the ground, probably so that the gamekeeper could move it around. But some brambles had entwined themselves, growing through the wire mesh walls. Griffyth kicked these away to free the cage and then pushed up one side to make a gap.

The three prisoners soon took their chance and flew out. But Cracker didn’t fly far. He landed about a metre away from the cage and began to caw.

‘I presume you’re saying thank you,’ said Griffyth. ‘See you tomorrow morning, I imagine?’

Cracker tilted his head again, and then flew away. Griffyth made his way back to the quad, savouring a sense of virtuousness.

* * *


Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2016 by Martin Westlake

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