Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fleur de Lys Part 14


They sat on the deserted strip of sand that night and watched the boats go out. By dawn, some were already returning, the crates of fish were being swung up onto the quay side as the light came up. Alick nudged Dev and woke him out of his stupor.
“We’ll be seen here.”
Dev stumbled after him, up the alleys where the smell of oak chip fires was already hanging in the streets from the kipper smoke house, and around the side of the whitewashed building to the cellar door.
“Is this your parents’ house?”
“Christ no.” Alick shut the door behind them and looked bleakly at the filthy little room. “If my mam saw this I’d be floating face down in the harbour. They live ont other side of the bridge.”
”Doesn’t she know you’re here?”
“She thinks I’m lodging with some of the foreign crews. Christ knows what I’ll tell her when winter comes and the crews go home.” Alick found the heel end of a loaf, tore it in half and threw a half across to Dev. It was hard, stale and virtually inedible.
“It’s the herring season this. Crews come from all over the place to fish and sell to the dealers, it’s the most money some crews’ll see all year. Most of the houses up this end rent rooms to four or five men at a time. There’d be a crew in here, but there was a death in this room int spring and crews are a superstitious lot. Won’t stay where a man died.”
Deverel snorted. In Lys they’d lived alongside death until the barriers and taboos had slipped entirely away. They’d slept in dugouts that were graves, slept and eaten alongside the rotting and the skeletal, seen graves and shellholes bombed, tossing cadavers around like children’s puppets . To be afraid of memory of a death was ridiculous. Alick looked at him and Deverel thought his eyes looked hunted. 
“See what I mean? You can’t live here. No decent man would house a pig in this room.”
Something’s happened to him, Deverel thought abstractedly. Something awful, and he can’t tell me.
Alick swore as someone battered on the door and went to open it. He blocked the doorway, but Deverel heard the child’s voice, a girl’s, high and casual.
“Me Grandad wants you, our Alick. The coble’s up in our yard and he says the beam needs doing, but he ain’t the strength to bend it out, is that an Eytie? Me mam said you were rooming with Eyties!”
“No it ain’t, it’s a friend of mine.” Alick said shortly. “How did you find me?”
“Our mam told me where you was. Hello.”
The little girl peered around Alick’s legs and beamed as she caught Dev’s eye. Large eyed, with the same dark sandy hair as Alick roped untidily back in a plait, and in a dark dress with a sacking apron tied over it. She was barefoot. Alick pushed her back onto the street.
“You tell my dad I’ll come as soon as I can, and if you tell him or your grannie where you found me, I’ll bloody skelp yer. Got it?”
Deverel heard her giggle. Alick shut the door on her.
“My sister’s kid. Got a mouth on her like a bloody foghorn. I’ll have to go, Dev. There’s no men free around this time of day but our David, and he’s no good for heavy work.”
”I’ll come with you.” Dev got up off the table and opened the door before Alick could object. He looked flushed and miserable.
“Dev this won’t work-“
”No reason to tell them anything.” Deverel put an arm through Alick’s and pulled him into the street.
”Nothing to tell,” Alick said mutinously. “You ain’t staying.” 
The house was in a steep street above the harbour, one of four houses backed onto a high fenced yard. A selection of kids at various ages were playing over the piles of ropes and timbers in the yard, one small boy climbing perilously on the roof of a makeshift shed. Alick quickened his pace and swiped him off with one big hand, dumping him unceremoniously on the cobbles.
“Jimmy Cowan you stay off there, you’ll bring it down and then your grandad’ll kill you.”
”He says the coble’s warped.” The boy informed them, skipping beside Alick as they crossed the yard.
“I know, get out from under.”
”Who’s this?” The boy paused in front of Deverel with frank curiosity. He was filthy from head to foot with sand and the dust of the yard, the natural grime of playing. Deverel thought briefly of his own life at this age: an immaculate nursery, sailor suits and velvet collars, Nanny Grey saying so often it was ingrained, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness. They don’t take dirty faces into heaven.”
He never would have been allowed to be in half the state this child was candidly standing in.
“Dev Standen.” Alick said curtly to the child. “And you’re too bloody mucky to shake hands. Where’s your mam?”
The boy jerked his head at an open door off the yard. Dev followed Alick into a stone kitchen, unpleasantly hot from the stove burning against the wall, but more immaculately clean than any room at Fyling Abbey. Two women looked up, one in her mid twenties, the other in her mid forties, and the younger flung an arm around Alick’s neck to kiss him.
“About time. You look like you’ve been up all night.”

”Just up early.” Alick gave her a brief hug and Deverel saw the handful of silver coins  he slipped into the older woman’s pocket as he kissed her cheek. “Hello Mam.”
“Hello love. Who’s this?”
“Dev Standen. Lodging with me. ”
”On the crews are you?” the woman gave him a piercing look, then a warmer smile.
”Looking.” Dev said lightly.
“Your dad’s gone up to Barker’s yard to look for timbers.” Alick’s mother wiped her hands on her apron and surveyed him. “Did anyone teach you to wash in the army our Alick? You’re filthy. Have you two eaten this morning? It’s barely seven now and Emily doesn’t start work until eight, you might as well have breakfast with us.”
Alick glared at Emily as soon as his mother was out of earshot, and his sister glared back with the same square jaw.
“Don’t look at me like that, I haven’t told anyone.”
”How did you know I was in Church street ?”
“I followed you, you eejit.” His sister said calmly. “How else would I know? You want our dad to break his back when you’re in shouting distance? Besides, he was worried sick about you. I told him you were lodging with crews. None of my business if you want to live like a dog.”
Alick’s reply was stymied by the return of his mother. Dev stood close enough to brush against him and Alick gave him a quick, sidelong glance with something of a twisted smile in it.   
“Where’s our David?”
“Walked up with your dad to Barkers. He’s better since you came home, he won’t talk to us like he will to you.” His mother was banging plates down on the table and Alick went mechanically to help her, taking items down from the battered and polished dresser.  
“He’s bored. Ought to go looking for work up on the docks again. Tallying maybe.”
“This time of year he’s got no hope.” Emily said sadly. “They’re fighting for work on the docks up there, there’s plenty of men straight from demob, all standing around waiting for a place.”
”You’d better sort your three out and stop gassing if you want them in school today my girl,” Her mother told her, taking a kettle off the stove with her hand wrapped in her apron. “Jimmy already looks like he’s been out on the flats.”
”Jimmy always looks like that.” Emily said, exasperated. “The only way to keep him clean is to tie him to a chair, and my dad won’t let me.”
“Soap and water’s all he needs.” Mrs Cowan put the kettle back on the hook and folded her arms to look from Alick to Deverel.
“How long have you been out of the army lad? You look worse than our Alick did and he was just skin and bone. They told us the army fed their men proper, it was in the papers, about all this money put into feeding our soldiers, and I haven’t seen one of you yet that didn’t look like a ghost. Did you know our Alick in the army?”
Deverel nodded meekly.
“She thinks everyone in the army knew each other and we were all in the same place.” Alick said under his breath. His mother ignored him.
“Where do you come from?”
”Never been further than York , me.” Mrs Cowan admitted. “Our Alick being in London frightened me to death.”
”I liked London .” Alick said grimly.
“Never any idea of where you were or what was happening to you. At least in the army I knew someone knew where you were.”
”No one in France ever knew where we were Mam.” Alick fiddled with the cruet on the table, twisting it in his hands. “A friend of Dev’s went back in the clear up and HQ said they’d lost them. No idea where they were for weeks.”
Mrs Cowan nodded at the window, unmoved by the failures of the British Army. “Here’s your dad with the timbers, look.”
Alick went out of the door on the word, and Dev heard him break into a run in the yard. Mrs Cowan put bread down on the table and lifted a frying pan off the fire.
“You sit down lad. Dev is it? You look like you need to.”
The adults crowded into the tiny kitchen for breakfast. The children, three of which seemed to belong to the family, sat on the doorstep and Emily perched on a stool near them by the door, her plate on her lap. Mr Cowan, in the biggest of the three mismatched chairs around the table, looked just like Alick would in twenty years time. As big, as broad but beginning to stoop, his sandy hair greying and shaggy above piercingly blue eyes and a lined, weathered face. The brother, David, looked older than both of them. His right arm ended abruptly at the elbow and his other hand was a claw with only two fingers, with which somehow he managed to use a fork. He took his plate to the foot of the stairs in the corner of the kitchen and ate there, silently. They both accepted Deverel’s presence without question. Mr Cowan smiled at him as he sat down- Alick’s smile exactly- and Alick pushed a half sized barrel from the corner of the kitchen to the table, taking the place beside Dev and leaving the last chair for his mother. Deverel had no idea what they ate, other than it was strongly flavoured, scaldingly hot and good in a way that food hadn’t tasted in a long time.
Long after the two oldest children had run up the street to school, still clutching a last piece of bread in their hands; and Emily had gone towards the town to work; and after Alick had simply and efficiently ripped the beam out of the small two man boat stood in the cobbled yard; Mrs Cowan disappeared hand in hand with the smallest child towards the harbour and David came out of the kitchen and sat on the step, watching his brother and father work. Deverel did what he could to help, following Alick’s lead and using his smaller, quicker hands for the more fiddly parts of the carpentry, relying on his vague memories of boats from rowing, years ago at school. The job was nearly done when Alick’s face suddenly lifted to his, frowning, alerting him.
“Dev sit down.”
Dev looked back at him, startled, then looked down at his hands and stifled the urge to swear as he realised his hands were shaking. The familiar blue was starting at his fingertips, colouring the nails holding the plank Alick was working on.
“Aye, I’ve been waiting for that all night.” Alick said, putting the timbers down and coming over to steady him. “Sit down, get your head down.”
”It isn’t a bad one.” Dev moved, not wanting to make a fuss in front of Alick’s brother and father, and Alick put an arm around him, steering him to the doorstep where David silently moved, giving Deverel his seat in the bright sun. Deverel sat and leaned his head down on his arms, furious and embarrassed.
“What the hell started this one off? I’m all right Alick. If I sit still for a minute it’ll go off.”
”Make him a cup of tea lad.” Mr Cowan said to David, who stepped past into the kitchen. Alick tousled Dev’s hair and sat down with him to make room for his father. The big man looked anxious.
“You all right lad? Hurt yourself?”
“No.” Deverel took a deep breath, fighting off both the shivering and the nausea, and lifted his head. “This is a left over from an accident at Lys . It doesn’t happen much now.”
”He was blown up and buried.” Alick said quietly. “Played merry hell with his nerves.”
Mr Cowan nodded, leaning on the wall by his son. After a moment he dug in his pocket and took out a pipe, poked meditatively at its contents, then lit it. The smell of his tobacco was deep, pungent and somehow comforting. David emerged with two mugs of tea in the crook of his arm and his father took them both from him, saying quite firmly,
“We’re going to have to re tar the inside when we’re finished here. Alick you’d better go back to Sam Barker and tell him what we need. David you go with him, it’s a lot to carry.”
”Are you going to be all right?” Alick said quietly to Dev, who nodded, raising his fingers in mute reassurance. The blue tinge was fading, the waves of shivering and numbness receding under the heat of the sun.
“I’m fine.”
”I won’t be long.” Alick left the yard with his brother, and Mr Cowan sat down on the step his son had vacated, handing Deverel one of the mugs of black tea. Just as they’d drunk it at the front, just as Alick made it at Fyling. Strong, dark, oddly sustaining.
“Our David used to get just like this when he first lost his hands.” Mr Cowan said matter of factly, drinking his own tea. “Long time ago now. Crushed in the ropes while he and Alick and I were out fishing in a storm, it were so bad the doctor had to take one hand off and three fingers from his other hand, and he weren’t much more than a lad then. For months afterwards he’d go stiff, staring at nothing, like he was back in that storm again.”
Deverel shuddered once and hard, all over. Mr Cowan gave him a steady look.
“He’s a good lad our Alick. Good brother. Not many men know how to face a man twisted like our David was, and Alick does, for all he’ll tell you different.”
”I think he’s only ever told me about David the once.” Deverel said unsteadily. Mr Cowan drew on his pipe, then tapped it out against the wall and began to re stuff it with tobacco from his pocket with long, deft fingers.
“Has he been looking after you lad?”
“Yes.” Deverel said frankly. “No one could have done it better.”
”Then you’ll know our Alick’s temper.” Mr Cowan said mildly. “Had it all his life, from when he was smaller than our Jimmy. Laid the schoolmaster out when he was ten, and after that I kept him with me out on the boats. Hard work and men who understood him and he was as good a worker as a boy that age can be. It’s not ill temper.”
”No.” Deverel drank tea, reflecting on that. “I’ve never seen him seek out a fight.”
”Just hot. A powder keg to a spark.”
”At the Front- it was always in defence of someone else. Always.” Deverel laid the mug down and rubbed his fingers, pushing warmth back into them. “Just once he got started he couldn’t seem to stop.”
”Aye. I’ve seen David and his mates pull Alick out of a pub once or twice before he killed someone who’d got in his way.” Mr Cowan said wryly. “Never at home though. Never in front of his mam or Emily, not since he were a very little boy. Then our David lost his hands in that storm, and our Alick’s temper went like I’d never seen. He were in the boat with me when it happened, and it took him and me near a day to get the boat back to shore, with our David that bad we thought he’d die before we got near shore- and then when we did make it home, the doctor saying he’d have to lose his hands, although nowt wrong with the rest of him. Alick worked on for the best part of a year barely speaking to me or to David, and there were fight after fight on the harbour no matter what I said to him. Then our Emily lost her husband at Mons .” Mr Cowan re lit his pipe and sucked on it several times, puffing the blue smoke up into the air.
“He joined the army when the war started, with all the talk of it being better pay and better prospects than the lads see around here with the fleet. Alick told him straight he was a fool and that he had a family needing him, but off he went.”

Leaving Emily with three children, and a brother unable to work, entirely dependent on his family for support.
“And that were it.” Mr Cowan said more quietly. “Our Emily came and told us he were killed – missing in action they called it. And in the morning our Alick were gone. He joined up at York , and I didn’t see him again until he walked back onto the docks two months ago.”
Because he could send home better pay from the army. Steadier, more predictable pay, and a pension that would be paid to his parents if anything ever happened to him- Deverel looked down at his hands, making sense of several things. Every penny Alick earned came back to this house, to his parents, supporting his family.
“I went into the army because I had to eat. I didn’t give a damn who I was fighting, or what for, so long as I had a shirt on my back and wasn’t starving.”
Except it wasn’t himself that Alick was afraid of starving.
Deverel gave the man sitting beside him another, compassionate look, understanding the plea for information behind the stoically told story. The need to know where his son had been, what he’d suffered, why he’d returned now, four years later, looking haunted and wanting only to be left alone. This old man loved Alick. The concern, the need to know was clear in his voice and it raised all of Deverel’s sympathy.
“He was a good soldier, Mr Cowan.” He said quietly, trying to pick his words and find what could be told without betraying Alick’s right to privacy. “The best. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have lived through the war- he was the one that came back and found me when I was buried. Technically, he deserted the company to come and find me too- he could have been in terrible trouble for that. He rounded up some other men wandering- we were scattered all over the place, in retreat- and he made them dig. He should have been decorated for it, it was one of the bravest things I ever saw.”
“Were you together much of the war?” Mr Cowan asked. The man’s voice was easy, but like Alick, the strain showed in his eyes. Deverel put the mug down, giving him his full attention with an increasing depth of warmth, not just because in many ways it was like looking at Alick, hearing his voice and familiar accent.
“Yes, for the last year and a half of it. He’s been a very good friend to me. Looked after me. I owe him a lot. That’s much of why I came up here to find him when I was free. We’re talking about looking for work together. Finding better lodgings together.”
Relief was clearly visible in the older man’s face, then as Alick and David came into the yard, Mr Cowan dropped a hand on Deverel’s shoulder and got up.
“Some men have a feeling for the land. And some men have a feeling for the sea. Can’t be right without it.”

That first fight we had, he didn’t care who saw him or what happened. Not until he knew I could stop him. And that I’d always stop him even if I had to kill him to do it. And after that, every fight was near me or Dickson- people he knew would interfere and wouldn’t let it get out of control. But he isn’t aggressive.
No wonder he was never worried by me out of my head. He’d gone through it all with David, he knew we’d come out of eventually, like he always said we would.
Alick’s hand closed on his wrist and yanked him to a halt. They were crossing the bridge from the newer side of town into the older, the tide was out below them, leaving boats balanced on the flats, and the pub lights were lit across the water, inviting in the harbour workers who were on their way home.
“You’ve had your head int clouds all afternoon, what did my dad say to you?”
“What did mine say to you?” Dev said bluntly. “I know he talked to you a few times when he came up to my rooms and I couldn’t deal with him.”
Alick hesitated, thrown by that. Big and square against the twilight, his shirtsleeves were rolled to his elbows, his hair untidy in a way that made his eyes look still darker.
“This and that. About you and your brother when you were children. Where I came from.”

How strange that both of them, unable to talk to their own family, had both been able to offer some consolation to each others. Deverel swallowed, thinking of his own father with faint regret, but his mind on something a good deal more important.
“Alick. Were you paid in all that time you spent with me?”
“Yes.” Alick looked still more surprised. He leaned his back against the bridge rail, resting both hands on Dev’s shoulders. “Every week. Not that I wouldn’t have stayed with you whatever, but yes. Winton posted it back to my mam every Friday for me since I couldn’t leave you. What?”
Dev leaned his forehead against Alick’s chest, laughing. Alick shook him gently.
“Winton told me where you were. Where to go and how to find you.”
”He knew you were leaving?” Alick demanded. Deverel raised his head, calming down.
“Yes. I didn’t exactly say where I was going or why, he just dropped it into casual conversation in the way he does. He must have realised what I was going to do.”
”Or maybe he just hoped you’d go to someone who’d kick some bloody sense into you.” Alick said darkly. Dev slipped his hands and leaned on the rail beside him, looking down into the slow eddy of the water below them.
“How far have you paid on your room?”
“NO.” Alick said sharply. Dev shook his head.
”How far Alick? A week? A month?”
”Paid until Friday.”
”Enough time to find somewhere decent.”
Alick growled behind him. “I’ve told you-“
”Your father said that up by the jetsmiths they rent houses a floor at a time.”
”I knew it.” Alick exploded. “I KNEW it-“
Deverel resisted the urge to laugh, turning around to face the glare.

If I can manage a company and a semi demented HQ my boy, I can certainly manage you.

“And enough time to find one of the big crews. You said they were short of men- although your sister said there were plenty of men wanting work.”
”Aye.” Alick said grimly. “But I’d go looking for men I know and who know me, they won’t just take anyone- most of them are families, friends, and there’s plenty of them with men lost or damaged trying to keep the family boats going.”
”And if I’m with you, they’ll trust me?”
Alick didn’t answer. Dev hooked an arm through his, pulling him close, uncaring of who saw them. In this town, where men worked and lived together in their hundreds, two having a row, or rough housing in the street, was not likely to attract attention.
“Aye- especially if my dad’s taken a shine to you. But you can’t do this Dev. You’re going to have to go back to Fyling eventually.”
”I really don’t.” Dev pulled until Alick fell into step with him, still glaring at him suspiciously.
“It’s bloody Hayes isn’t it? He’s the only one who ever upset you this much, what did he do?”
“I’m not hiding from Edward Hayes or anyone else, Alick. Who do we see about the crews?”
Alick growled again for answer, but he changed direction, heading towards one of the pubs where the crews drank when ashore, and Dev felt the rush of certainty fill him again. Mr Cowan was right. This was where Alick needed to be. This was the right place for him, and it was the right place for them, this was a battle they could win.
Continue on to Part 15 of Fleur de Lys
Copyright Ranger 2010

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