by Mick Haining
Digger ran out of the gate ahead of them and ran back, shouting happily.
“No, Digger, stay here!” called Painter. “Stay here!”
Digger stopped and looked at Cobbler, rain streaming down his face. Cobbler tucked the binoculars into her armpit and shook her head.
“Stay here, Digger,” she said quietly. “Maybe next time. Stay here now. Come back in.”
Digger walked in through the gate, his burly shoulders hunched. Weaver and Little Fisher stared ahead up the road.
“He could carry the fish,” called Grandad from the inner wall. His voice was almost drowned by the drumming on his umbrella.
Weaver looked round at Cobbler and nodded. Painter seemed about to speak but said nothing.
“Weaver, you have to go,” said Cobbler. “Painter wants to. Little Fisher?”
“I’m more use in a boat,” he said.
Cobbler nodded. As the basket of fish was strapped to Digger’s back, she scanned the road and beyond with the binoculars.
“OK,” she said at last.
The trio – Weaver, Painter and Digger – set off up the wet slope of pot-holed tarmac, laid maybe as many as eighty years before when there were machines and a society to do such work. Cobbler and Little Fisher lowered the heavy crossbeam into place on the outer gate before Cobbler climbed back up onto the wall to watch through the binoculars.
The rain gusted into their faces for the first few hundred metres until the road turned more to the north; on the bend Weaver glanced back towards the Nab and saw Cobbler give her the thumbs up. Digger strode on, grinning, Weaver carefully watched the road ahead as they walked, and Painter kept his head down. The road bent away from the sea again and brought the rain back to their faces. Weaver hurried to catch up with Digger and pointed for him to stay behind her.
Nearing the abandoned farmhouse where the lane dipped slightly, she slowed and held her arm out to stop Digger from overtaking her. Painter slowed even more so that the distance between himself and the other two widened steadily. Despite the initial embarrassment, he was glad now that no-one had suggested he carry the fish – in the event of an ambush, he’d be able to run unhindered back to the Nab.
At the dogleg by the ruined farmhouse the road joined what had once been a much busier road. Weaver glanced continuously from the building to the bend as she moved cautiously forward. She recalled helping, years before, to strip the farmhouse of its roof-tiles – they now covered two houses on the Nab. By the second bend, the farmhouse was at her back and Painter scuttled past it to join them. His burst of speed startled a flock of parakeets into flight from the tree in the yard and Weaver stopped. Digger watched her for a signal and Painter glanced round wildly, as nervous as the parakeets. The parakeets circled for a while to calm themselves and settled back among the branches. Weaver set off again and the others followed.
The wider road sloped more steeply uphill now but Digger’s stride did not change. They passed the rusting bus and into a narrower road again that led off to Soulby. Steady streams of rainwater ran down both sides of the cracked tarmac. High, unkempt hedges hid the land on either side and offered them slight shelter from the rain. Ahead of them, the barrier of logs, thorn branches and skeletons of old bus seats was guarded by four men, two of whom had bows with arrows already nocked. Weaver and her companions were well within bowshot when she shouted: “Fish from the Nab!” though she knew that they would already have been recognised.
“Digger, Digger, Digger!” called one of the men.
“Oi, oi, oi!” chorused the other three.
Digger laughed and ran awkwardly ahead.
“Walk, Digger!” called Weaver, but one fish had already bounced from the basket and slapped heavily onto the road. “Get it, Painter,” said Weaver, keeping her eyes on the men at the barricade. Digger resumed his walk, twitching with excitement.
The guards waited until they reached the barricade before moving to drag a tangle of thorns aside.
“Now then, Painter,” said one. “What you got?”
“Now then,” said Painter. “Cod, haddock and shark. A few crabs.”
Weaver watched and listened calmly, glad that she did not live among such men. She had only once walked the mile up to Soulby.
After a little more banter and gossip with Painter and some Digger-teasing, they were allowed to move on up the hill. Sheep were grazing on both sides. Weaver noted that some of the land facing south-west was being terraced before the first decrepit shacks on the summit hid it from view and the first few dwellers had begun to gather. Some children and a couple of dogs ran alongside them. A boy called “Digger, Digger, Digger!” and a couple of others shouted “Oi, oi, oi!” Digger turned from side to side, grinning widely. Weaver noted that the girls were all silent. The three visitors from the Nab carried on to the Vicarage and into its garden. Two women looked up from where they knelt in the rain, weeding between the soaking vegetables.
“Put it down, Digger,” said Weaver as the door opened. “We’re after fleece and a couple of hides,” she said to the gaunt woman in the doorway. Without a word, the latter turned and walked back into the house. A piece of dirt struck Digger on the shoulder and he ran towards the children, laughing. The boys scattered, the girls stood and watched.
“Digger! Back!” called Weaver and he stopped. A boy raised his hand to throw more mud but dropped it suddenly instead. Weaver turned to see the Vicar at the door.
“Now then, Painter,” he said. “Let’s have a look at these fish.”
“There’s a couple of crabs, too,” said Painter, uncovering the basket. “Big ones.”
“And you want fleece and hides?” said the Vicar. “For just these?”
“Well…” said Painter uneasily. “Whatever’s fair.”
“Just the fleece then, maybe,” said the Vicar, lifting a large cod and smelling it.
“A sack of fleece and two hides is what we want,” said Weaver, her heart pounding.
The Vicar dropped the fish into the basket and studied it for a moment. “Painter,” he said slowly and clearly, “I’ll give you a sack of fleece. Alright?”
There was a brief silence. Painter shifted uncomfortably.
“Digger,” said Weaver. “Pick it up. We’re going home.”
Digger reached for the straps and hoisted the laden basket around to his back. Weaver turned and began to walk back to the gate. The two women had not stopped weeding but were glancing at her.
“Wait a minute,” said the Vicar. “Bring them in and we’ll have another look. They fresh?”
Weaver turned. An odd thrill was running through her, as if she had won something. The Vicar was staring straight at her.
“You’ve got nostrils,” she said. “A sack of fleece and two hides otherwise there’s no point.”
“I could have you fucking whipped,” he said.
“And the Nab could cut the fucking throats of every one of your sheep,” she replied, matching his stare. He looked away at Painter and shook his head. The women had stopped weeding, their mouths open.
“Fair enough,” said the Vicar. “Bring them in. And you two! What you staring at?”
The two women resumed their weeding and Weaver nodded to Digger. She let Painter lead the way into the house and, dripping, they walked down the muddy hallway. Weaver glanced at a picture of a bearded man with light around his head. She sniffed deeply as she passed an open door. The smell of apples was intense. She paused briefly to inhale the glorious odour but moved on when she noticed that the Vicar had turned and was watching her. They passed into a kitchen where a man was humming as he chopped a carcass on a heavy wooden table. Below a crucifix on the wall, the gaunt woman was now silently cutting meat into small pieces which she threw into a pot on the ancient stove. The Vicar nodded to the man at the table and opened the back door.
“You can put your fish out here,” he said.
“No, Digger,” said Weaver. “We’ll keep it with us.”
The other man stopped humming and stared at her, his cleaver poised at his shoulder. The Vicar gave her another hard look. Painter cleared his throat and the men glanced at him but Painter did not speak. He looked away instead at the crucifix, as if he found it interesting.
“You!” said the Vicar. The thin woman looked at him. “One fleece – from inside the door.”
Weaver watched the woman carefully put her knife on the table and hurry out into the yard.
“Your lip wouldn’t last long here,” said the Vicar. “We have a deal with the vikings. We feed them and they let us live. We feed them a few women, too – the lippy ones.”
Weaver gazed unblinking back at the Vicar.
“Why are you terracing the land to the south-west?” she said.
There was a brief silence.
“Rice,” said the Vicar. “One of the women has got some to grow.”
“I’m impressed,” said Weaver. “Rice!”
“Yeah, who’d have thought it, here in North Yorkshire?” said the Vicar.
“You won’t be giving her to the vikings, then,” said Weaver.
For a moment, the Vicar looked as if he might smile. He turned away and stepped to look out the back door. Again, Weaver felt a little surge of triumph. Through the open door, she could see the thin woman, dragging a bulging sack behind her.
“Keep it off the wet, you twat!” shouted the Vicar.
“Digger, get the sack,” said Weaver, pointing. He put down the fish basket and went out into the yard.
The thin woman stared at Digger, not perhaps because he’d so easily picked up the sack and carried it into the kitchen. He had also smiled at her.
“You!” said the Vicar, and the woman hurried to the back door. The Vicar caught her by the shoulder and slapped her once across the face. “Two hides,” he said and she turned to hurry off at once. The Vicar faced Weaver again. “Your fleece.”
She walked over to the sack and undid the knots. The Vicar and the man with the cleaver exchanged glances.
“You’ve not been here before,” said the Vicar.
“I came the last time,” said Weaver. “Big Fisher did the talking. The fleece you gave us was rubbish.”
She felt the top staples of wool. She stretched a few fibres. Then she drove her arm deep into the sack and brought out a handful. She rubbed some between her fingers and smiled.
“Like this,” she said. “What did this one die of – old age? OK, Digger, get the fish. No, wait, take this back to the shed first.” She was beginning to feel angry now, but knew she had to be careful.
“You’re not going to go all the way back with your fish,” said the Vicar. “You’re not going to waste all that time.”
Weaver didn’t answer. She walked towards the hall and nodded to Digger to follow. Painter cleared his throat. Nobody looked at him.
“We’ll all go to the shed,” said the Vicar. “You can take your pick.”
As they walked across the yard, he asked her, nodding towards Painter; “Why did you bring him?”
“For the company,” said Weaver.
The Vicar burst out laughing. “The company!” he said at last. “That’s a good one!” He watched her carefully examine sacks in the shed until she was satisfied. “Why don’t I just keep you here?” he said.
“Because you’re smart,” she said. “What would your other women say?”
He laughed again.
As they were passing through the hall towards the front door, he caught her arm lightly.
“Hang on,” he said and went into the first room she had passed. She stood by the picture of the bearded man. She read the words at the bottom, ‘The Good Shepherd’. The Vicar came out again.
“Here,” he said, and handed her an apple. “Come again.”
“You should be so lucky,” she said, smiling faintly.
Again he burst out laughing. He walked towards the gate with her, but she stopped by the two weeding women.
“I bet you’re glad the rain’s stopped,” she said. “Your carrots are coming along.”
They glanced from her to the Vicar.
“Go and get a drink,” he said to them. They didn’t move. “Now.” They rose and went towards the house.
At the gate, Weaver turned. She had not meant to, but it seemed natural. She nodded to the Vicar and set off, followed by Digger with the sack of fleece wedged firmly in the fish basket and Painter carrying the rolled-up hides. She did not look back, so did not see the Vicar watch her all the way to the brow of the hill and out of sight. The children ran beside them. “Digger, Digger, Digger!” called the boys and he joined happily in their chorus of “Oi, oi, oi!” Weaver picked out the smallest, thinnest girl. She stopped and beckoned to her, but the little girl would come no closer. Weaver held out the apple but still the girl would not approach. She did not move away, however, when Weaver stepped slowly towards her, still holding out the apple. Weaver breathed in the sweet odour of the apple one last time before putting it into the little girl’s hand.
“What’s your name?” said Weaver.
The little girl shook her head. “Dunno,” she said.
Weaver nodded. “From now on, it’s Rosy,” she said. “Like the apple. Eat it now, before the others have it.” The little girl instantly bit into it.
Down at the barricade, Weaver waited for the last bit of Digger-baiting to finish and for the guards to have a last gossip with Painter. She led the way through the shadow of the hedge down to the sunshine beyond. The road steamed in parts and the air smelt fresh. They cautiously passed the abandoned farm where the parakeets remained in their tree. As they came within sight of the Nab, Digger broke into an untidy run, the sack bobbing on his back. Painter walked slightly behind Weaver his eyes fixed firmly on the road.
At the gate in the outer wall, Weaver hugged Cobbler and Big Fisher – they had never felt so warm. Painter nodded at both as he handed the hides to Cobbler before heading straight towards the inner wall. They looked at Weaver and she shrugged.
“How’d it go?” said Big Fisher.
“Better,” said Weaver. “They had a real man to deal with this time.”
Big Fisher held up his fists as if to fight and grinned.
“So we were right to send Painter, then,” he said.
She gave him a light slap.
“Time to get weaving,” she said. “Wait up, Painter!” She hurried to join him. “I’m going to make a drink – you want one?”
“No,” he said over his shoulder and walked quickly on.
She sighed. Ahead of them both, she could see Digger running in a zig-zag from house to house.
“Digger, Digger, Digger!” she called.
“Oi, oi, oi!” he answered happily and ran back to meet her with the fleece.