Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 12 September 2009

Tall tales

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William was standing alone at the bus stop so I pulled over and offered him a lift into town. He accepted with alacrity. My passenger seat was a long way down, much further than he anticipated, and he lowered himself into it gingerly, and with difficulty and some agonised groaning.

But once he was established and his seat belt was on, he recovered quickly. ‘’Tis lovely to see you again,’ he said, placing four fingers lovingly on my bare forearm and keeping them there. I think the old countryman was hoping I’d lean across and offer him my mouth. The fingers exerted the faintest pressure and I could feel his gaze, intent on my profile. I’ve never given William the slightest encouragement, but he never fails to give me the opportunity to allow him to kiss me. The offer is made in the subtlest manner possible: the lips moving always closer to mine until halted by the first flicker of protest or irritation; the old brown fingers resting lightly on my forearm until it recoils or I withdraw it slightly. He kept his fingers resting lightly on my skin as I let off the handbrake and went up through the gears. His tenderness and desire were palpable, though I still couldn’t make up my mind whether I was on the receiving end of a cynical, well practised art, or an innocent infatuation, or even a late infilling of the Holy Spirit — which is always a possibility with rural, chapel-going folk .

It was his first trip into town for over six weeks, he said. The last time he was there he’d fallen off the pavement and twisted his knee and been a fraction of an inch from being run over and killed. I said I remembered hearing about his accident and he was pleased, touched, that I’d heard. But he wanted to know about me. I was looking well — my goodness, I was looking well. Had I been away lately? Unfortunately not, I said. I’d been here in the village all summer, though I was looking forward to going to Africa quite soon. ‘Very good,’ he said, unimpressed. Not only unimpressed but slightly contemptuous, too, and he switched off his love and looked out of the window and studied the sea and the passing green hills. After perhaps a minute, he said, ‘My parents thought that the earth was flat, you know.’ And then it was my turn to be contemptuous.

Early in our acquaintance I noticed how quickly William noticed how easily I was held by his tales of the hard and frugal life he’d led on the family smallholding before the war. Tales such as how once a week his mother walked five miles to the nearest bus stop with 70 lbs of butter strapped on her back to sell at the weekly market. And how it was his job to keep the family home supplied with water by fetching it in galvanised buckets from a stream half a mile away. And how, once a year, as a touch of wild extravagance, his mother might add a dollop of cream to the wild strawberries he’d gathered for the family tea. And how he never saw a doctor when he was ill but was taken instead to a healer who cured anything and everything with herbs and magic. These tales could be ungenerously viewed as the party-piece caperings of a yokel in a smock. But they are not that. On the contrary, they seem to be a heartfelt cry from one who knows for an understanding of how dramatically our lives have changed. But this unexpected claim that his parents were so little educated that they believed the world was flat, I found impossible to believe and I said so.

He was undeterred. ‘If he was alive today, father would be 113,’ he said. ‘In those days mother and father had no idea about other countries. And who can blame them. Look at it!’ he said. We were cresting a hill, at the top of which we could see Hay Tor on Dartmoor 30 miles away. ‘As far as they knew, England just went on like that — for ever.’

I wasn’t buying this one. The village school opened in 1857. By 1900, literacy was as widespread as now. And every boy and girl was made aware, surely, of the expanding pinkness of the globe, and of Australia, and of Australia being underneath. ‘Cobblers,’ I said. ‘People living around here only had to look out to sea and watch a ship’s mast disappearing over the horizon to know it wasn’t flat.’ ‘Well, maybe my parents were just that bit behind everyone else,’ he said with dignity. ‘We weren’t all clever like you, you know.’

And rather than argue his position further, he decided to leave it at that.