Table Talk : an old story

The old man’s whistling faltered; the young one took it up, moving briskly about the kitchen.

My world is weight and sound, things laid on me, voices around me, arms leant on me, legs stretched under. I know my place, so central that I am taken for granted, my absence unthinkable. Stories are told over me, and I bear the blows with fist or flat of the hand that anger with others directs at me as I bear the burdens, usual and unusual, that are laid on me: with patience and, as a rule, incuriously.

Sparse routine had so lulled me that I did not understand at first the bustle of excitement, the sudden assault with a hard-bristled scrubbing brush, the laying-on of the crisp weight of cloth, the speedy piling of plates and trenchers, jugs and glasses well beyond their common number, freighted well beyond their common weight – yet it was familiar: somewhere, far back, this had occurred before.

And more than once: down the years a lost world came back to me, a world of gaiety and noise, of music and frequent celebration; a different world in this same place, when the day was rarely without voices and activity of some sort, the woman humming to herself as she chopped vegetables, singing snatches of song while kneading dough, clashing pans in the sink; or deep in conversation with her neighbours dropping by to pass the time of day. Every evening, after the evening meal, conversation long into the night, a mixture of voices, older and younger, the clink of glasses, frequent laughter – and every week, it seemed, a feast or party of some sort.

Long gone now: all that ended with my first experience of a body, the woman’s, laid out on my length while family, friends and neighbours mourned. No other woman was brought to the house: there was only the man and his sons. Through the day they were elsewhere: at night they gathered round me for their meal, in silence as often as not. No more parties, no more neighbours dropping by: I dreamed the empty days away, the sun at morning through one window, at evening through another.

The boys were not alike: one, the younger, was all plans and dreams; the other dour, taciturn, addicted to work. He thought his brother shiftless, lazy; did not like the way his father indulged him, sharing his dreams and crazy notions. Did not like either his father’s generosity, which he saw as waste:

– You’d give everything we have away if I let you, to the first tinker comes to the door with a tale to tell. I wonder you are so gullible.

The younger brother had a notion: he talked his father round. The old man told his first-born son,

– I’ve a mind to give your brother that bit land, between the dyke and the trees, for his own. You’ll not mind that? There’s plenty left for you.

– There’s small hope of him doing anything with it, unless you count sitting on a rock staring at passing clouds a gainful activity.

– He’ll maybe be different if he’s something to work on his own account: we’ll see.

– I’m sure we will.

The older son turned out to be right; the parcel of land did not flourish under new management. Every night the older brother made sarcastic enquiry about his progress: were the crops in yet? Or was it to be beasts? Was he thinking of breaking the ground this year at all? Which boulder had the best view of the sky? The father listened in pained silence; the younger son did not respond, until one night he announced:

– Father, I’m thinking I haven’t made the best use of that land you gave me.

This drew a big horse-laugh from the brother. He spluttered broth all over me. His brother carried on, undaunted.

– Sooner than try to work it, I should make it work for me. My mistake has been to think myself a farmer – I’m just not cut out for it. With the money that land would fetch I could get myself an education.

– In what? Drinking and whoring?

– Hush, let your brother speak. He’s maybe right – a man should use his talents. An education’s a rare thing to have.

– With him it’ll stay rare. The bottom of a drinking glass is all he’ll study – that and flaunting city women.

– You’re over hard on the boy. His nature’s different from yours.

– That I can agree with. If he wants to leave, let him go – he’ll not be missed, for all the use he is round here. But don’t sell good land to pay for it. Let him make his own way

– The land’s his. I made it over to him.

– But not for this!

He brought his flat hand down hard. His father brought down his fist.

– Enough! Your brother can do what he likes with his own. He’s his own man now.

His father grieved to see him go, exacting oft-repeated promises to write and say how he was getting on. He parted with a glowing vision of the future:

– You’ll see. I’ll come back a made man, with gold in my pocket enough to buy that land twice over. Then I’ll settle down, and marry a wife and you’ll have grandchildren to cheer your old age.

– Goodbye, son – remember and write!

– Goodbye, dad – I will!

– Good riddance, said the brother, under his breath.

The years went over and they heard nothing. The son worked all day and the father grew old. No-one came to the house except the occasional beggar. If the son saw them first, he chased them away, but the father was always keen to hear their talk, just in case they brought some word of his other son. One day a travelling man leant in at the half-door to tell a queer story:

– It was like this, your honour, the man was no more than a heap of rags, covered in blood and dust. Plenty passed him by, thinking him dead already, or not wanting to get involved. But this young fellow he calls out to me, here, you, lend a hand – this man’s hurt. So we pick him up between us. Take him to that inn, says the young man. You can bet the innkeeper is glad to see us. What’s that? He says. None of that now, says the young man, very sharp like. This man’s hurt and he needs attention. Fetch some hot water and some bandages! That’s all very well, says the innkeeper, but who’s going to pay? I will, says the young man, as cool as you like, and takes out a purse full of coins. Well, that makes a difference, as you can imagine: the innkeeper can’t do enough now, sends his girls scurrying, fetches the water himself, helps the young man dress his wounds. They see him up to bed in one of the best rooms, and the young man says, here, take this for now, and if it costs any more I’ll settle up next time I come by. And he slips me something too, before he goes. As it turned out, the man in the bed was a rich merchant that was set upon by thieves, so he was well able to pay his own way, once his relatives turned up looking for him. Just as well, because the young man never did come back.

The old man, moved by the tale, had the beggar describe the young man to him, and at every detail he said: I knew it, I knew it! And whether because the tramp got the drift of what he was thinking, or because it was true, he said,

– Do you know what it is, your honour, he had a gliff of yourself about him, not a word of a lie, he might have been your honour as a younger man, he might indeed!

– I knew it, I knew it, repeated the old man, it’d be just like him to do a thing like that!

The tramp went away well-rewarded, but the other son was sceptical.

– Away, father, he could see that’s what you wanted to hear. These tramps aren’t daft, you know. Not like some, he added in an undertone.

All the same, the old man cherished the story, and never failed to tell it to any passer-by, in the hope it would bring fresh word of his son, but it never did. The evenings took on a ritual quality: the elder son would come in from the fields, they would eat, exchange predictable conversation, then at some point the old man would say:

– I wonder what your brother’s up to now?

To which the son would not respond. Then the old man would paint some scene in which the absent brother featured: a professor at the university perhaps, maybe a government minister; or a literary man, an artist, a musician; perhaps a merchant prince, with his own fleet of ships upon the sea, his caravans coming and going on the Silk Road. It was obvious from the variety and detail of these imaginings that they were what he spent his every waking hour thinking about. Sooner or later, however, they all led the same way:

– You know, I never can forget that story the tramp told about your brother – do you remember?

At this point the brother would stiffen: I felt it in his arms, resting on me, in his long legs stretched underneath. He said nothing, but I knew what he would like to say, because after the old man was gone he said it to himself, alone in the dark kitchen:

– Do I remember? Precious God, will you ever let me forget!

Then he would carry on in a wheedling, mincing tone, a mockery of his father,

– I’m always thinking how your brother helped that man, how like him it was to do a thing like that, if there’s one thing I can be proud of in my life, it’s having a son who’d do a thing like that. The way he dealt with that inn-keeper! O, my brave boy!

And he would slap down his hand in exasperation and disgust.

– Brave boy,  indeed – the wastrel!

One night, the father had just embarked on his usual course when instead of stiffening the son responded:

– I remember fine, father. But do you remember this?

And he put on his wheedling, old man’s voice:

– “Goodbye, son – remember and write!” “Goodbye, dad – I will!”

He left a pause, to let it sink in, then resumed his own voice:

– It’s been how many years now?

The father mumbled something indistinct.

How many years? Ten is it? How many letters in all that time?

Another mumble.

How many? A hundred? Twenty? O, surely one a year at least, surely one a year from your brave boy? No?

A sound now like sobbing.

– What? Not one? Not one letter in all that time?

More sobbing, something mumbled.

– What do you say?

An indrawn breath, a voice controlled with difficulty.

– What are you saying, son? Do you mean you think your brother’s –     … dead?

If he meant that, the son did not say so. He kept silent, letting the old man work out his agony alone, as if talking to himself.

– He did say he’d write – he promised – the first few years, well, maybe he was busy – but after all this time…

After a bit the old man got up. He went and stood a long time by the window, looking out.

– I fear you’re right, son – your brother’s dead, he said at last. Why else would he not write?

If the son thought there might be another reason he did not say so. It was a quiet house after that.

The old man’s footsteps altered to a slow dragging shuffle. He no longer sat at the window during the day; I would hear him muttering the tramp’s story to himself, but he never mentioned it again before his son. The years went over and in the Summer he sat by the half-door, dozing in the sun. In his waking moments he talked to himself in a low, barely audible drone, a sleepy sound like a bee.  I grew so accustomed to it that I only noticed its absence; as one bright morning, when the door clattered open and I heard his footsteps scampering away like a boy’s down the road, and coming back to me on the breeze inarticulate shouts and whoops of joy.

At the feast in his honour the returned one preserved a modest, self-depreciating demeanour. No, he didn’t quite make it to college; he squandered his substance, and soon found himself in difficulties. Pride would not let him write to tell of his predicament, the mess he had made of things. Eventually he came to his senses when he found himself competing with the pigs for something to eat. The rueful, humorous way he told it won everybody round – the more he reproached himself, the more they inclined to forgive him: they clapped him on the back, telling him how good it was to see him again, how just seeing him there made them realise how little it mattered what he did before, that was all behind him now.

Two things I missed in all that clamour: his older brother’s voice, and any mention of the old tale of the man rescued on the road. A few days later the older brother came into the kitchen to find the younger one already sitting there, in the first grey light.

– You’re here.

– I couldn’t sleep. It kept going through my mind what you must think of all this. I never expected it, you know. I made sure father would disown me, turn me out – I was ready to beg to be taken on just as a hand on the farm, a servant, anything. Instead he comes dashing down the road to meet me, lays on a hero’s welcome. I didn’t even get the chance to ask his forgiveness – he just waved it away. But I reckon you must find it pretty hard to take.

– Well, that depends – there was one thing I meant to ask – a story a tramp told father years ago – about a young man helping someone that had been beaten up: he always thought it must have been you.

– Well, I’ve been in a few scrapes in my time, I’m not sure I can remember them all.

– But this young man insisted on taking the injured man to an inn, and paying to have him looked after.

A sudden laugh.

– O, that! I remember now – it was ages ago, not long after I left here, as a matter of fact – I was really pretty green, just a simple country boy. This man is lying all of a heap on the road, so I did what I thought anyone would do – well anyone round here, at least – I went and picked him up. I just assumed that if we took him to the inn, someone there’d look after him – well you know how dad would always have people in that were passing by and looked in need of a square meal. Anyhow, it soon becomes clear that people didn’t act that way in those parts – the landlord just stands there, doesn’t so much as lift a finger to help us. “Who’s going to pay?” he says. Well, I was just about to get ripped into him about his social responsibilities – you’ll remember how I was always a great one for telling other people what they ought to do – when this girl appears in the doorway – his daughter, maybe, or a servant – and a prettier face and figure you never saw in your life. So all at once I wanted to do something to put the landlord in his place and impress the girl, so before I knew what I was doing I had my purse out and was ladling money onto the counter as if there was plenty more where that came from – as a matter of fact, it was just about all I had, but it was worth it just to see the change in the old villain’s face and the look I got from the girl. I got really carried away with myself. “Give him your best room,” I said, “ and if that isn’t enough, I’ll pay the balance next time I’m passing” – which was easy to say, as I didn’t plan to come back that way at all. Of course the irony was that I couldn’t afford to hang around, so I never did get any more than an admiring glance from the girl. I wonder if she still remembers me?

As the younger brother told the story, I felt the older stiffen in that same way he always did when his father told it – as if he could hardly bear to hear it. For a long time after, he said nothing, then

– Do you want to come and see that land of yours? The man we sold it to made such a poor fist of working it that he ended up having to sell it back to me, at half the price.

The two of them went out into the grey morning. A while later, the older one came back alone – I knew his step. He had a shovel with him that he set behind the door. The old man was in the kitchen, whistling.

– Where’s your brother?

– Why ask me? He’s his own man. As like as not he’s away again, now that the party’s over and there’s work to do. You know what he’s like.

The old man’s whistling faltered into silence. Then after a pause young man took it up, moving briskly about the kitchen.

© John Ward 2001

As you can see from the date, I wrote this a while ago. For a note on it, see here.

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