Judith Butters was on her way to scatter her father’s ashes over Bristol. It was her belief that he would be happy with this decision.
Knott. “I imagine it’s pretty quiet up there.”
“I’ve never been.”
“Me neither. But this is what I imagine.”
The road to Benchcombe was browed first with boxy hedges, then with sodden bungalows that gathered in number, squatting in pool sized puddles, like huge, sullen frogs; olive, khaki and mushroom brown hunchbacks. The bubbles rising around them.
Kid bikes, skeletal, drowned. A black and white football floating on a lawn. Shirts and shifts and sheets on wash lines, sopping. A dispirited dog on a doorstep. They passed a stretch of trembling shop fronts, a paper-poppied memorial, a phone box with a woman and a baby in it, waiting for a call or sheltering there. Three, four cars, a milkfloat, hushed into the rearview. Another frown of bungalows appeared and then Benchcombe withdrew and disappeared and the brown and silvered fields reigned again.
They drove for sometime in the warm, thrumming car. The white lines beyond, beneath, behind. Judith squinting through the hypnotic wipers’ slash, her chin rested on the wheel, singing pop songs as they came on the radio. Knott drifted in and out of a doze. He dreamt he was a Spitfire pilot and when he woke the fields, for a moment, seemed to be the tops of the clouds.
“First, a little detour.” She banked onto a narrow lane, behind the hedges hid the fields. After some miles she stopped outside a dark windowed house shouldered by a large lean-to busy with things draped in tarps. A tractor with muddied skirts in the yard. An indifferent billy stood on the corrugate roof, chewing, watching their arrival.
The rain had collected in the potted yard. Judith skipped or stepped, as best she could, over them. Knott dragged his boots through them. There was a movement in the house, behind glass, a moment passed, then the front door opened. A giant, bearded man contained within green galoshes, dirty denim, matted wool, held the door ajar with one hand, a mug in the other. He filled the frame and asked them if he could be of service.
“Mister Turner? Harold Turner?”
She said that she was Raymond Butters’ daughter and what a lovely day for ducks. The big man grinned. “Of course you are. You got the Butters’ nose.”
“They run in our family.”
“Inherited the daft bugger’s sense of humour, too.”
He never asked for Knott’s name, but he gave it anyway. The old man’s grip was firm. “I’m hitching. With Judith,” he said. And that seemed enough. They sat around a smooth pineboard table in the glow of a glass-faced burner, the flames within consuming white and orange logs. A grey cat, curled, purred on the table, sleeping like a fossil among the loose sheets of a newspaper, the yolk and ketchup smeared morning plate, a big brown, glazed tea pot, a roughly hewn, upended farmhouse loaf, a grinning breadknife with a black taped handle, breadcrumb litter, an ashtray (brimming), a brick of butter in a yellow dish, a salt and pepper duo shaped like a married couple – the cellar was a skinny chap; the pot, a bulbous, big-arsed lass. A scruffy mutt.
The dog scouted at their feet and between the chair legs and round and round the table it slowly threaded, careful to examine every inch of board for dropped tidbits or offers and snouting the unusual scents of the two newcomers. It watched them askance with cautious brown eyes. Turner shooed the dog away with a wellied toe and the bedraggled animal slunk toward the fired glass, wound itself into a circle and settled, with a huff, in a ruffled blanket nest of blue. The kettle whistled, Turner shuffled, brought the steaming vessel from the hob and filled the tabled china pot. He asked of her father’s passing, nodding as she brought the story of his tumble from the pavement to the busy tarmac back again.
“It was a long-drawn summer, up and down from the house to the hospital. He never woke up, but he did chuckle, briefly, one evening toward the end. I was reading him an article about the history of the Bristol balloon race and he chuckled in his sleep. And later I thought of you.”
“It wasn’t a race as such. It was an enthusiasts’ meet. Balloonists gathered from all over. All morning the blue flames burned, filled the canopies. So many colours. Your father never came up, mind.” The mugs were ringed with stains. “The silence up there is indescribable. Pure. Couldn’t get Ray in the basket though. He said you’ll have to kill me to get me up there. Sorry love.”
“Your dad came with me to Bristol the year we finished National Service. And that was the day he met your mother, of course. She was there with her family. By the time I came back down they were nigh-on inseparable.”
“Grandad was from Penn Beacon and Nana was a Beaminster girl, I think.”
The goat was no longer on the tin roof, it was in the meadow at the back of the property, rib-deep, studying them as they stood beneath the lean-to. The air smelled of diesel, of canvas, of rust and was floated with a million motes. The dog watched Turner as he pulled at a tarpaulin. He revealed a large wicker basket with four cornered arms supporting a burner. The basket and the burner sat on a small flatbed trailer. He stepped up onto the trailer and climbed over the side of the basket and, with just his head showing, puffing, said, “It’ll be good to get back up there.” The rain drummed the corrugate and he climbed out again, wiping his hands on his jeans. Another tarp revealed a vast yellow fabric, wrapped many times over, coils of rope and a neat stack of hessian sandbags, empty. “Get the daft bugger up there at last.”