Nick Fairclough: Something to Say
Image: Unsplash, downloaded (https://unsplash.com/photos/VdVWZzfnYrU) 20.2.2022.
THE MAN BEHIND THE FENCE
Under the soles of my winter boots, I feel my feet fall on uneven ground. The Lane is a mosaic of small, square bricks. There’s a flattened frog on the ground like a pressed leaf. It’s common after rain. Dark purple, grey, blue spots. The crunch. Grains of soil between my shoes and concrete pavers. Is this the grit they put on the icy winter road to stop slips – reminding me winter has not long passed?
I continue to tread and crunch. The smell is stagnant. There’s slight but ever-present farm stench – animal breath, damp dog hair, dew settling in meadows, manure, chicken shit, logs lying on the muddy ground waiting to be split. There are also wafts of other odours, harder to place: the smell of a cardboard box, for example.
The church bell tolls. Time for mass.
Clack, clack, clack. I haven’t heard that for a long time. The storks are already in their nest. Clacking away. Is late March too early for their arrival? Has it really been so long since I’ve been here that I’ve forgotten the routines, the seasons, the habits?
At the end of the lane, I steer clear of the area underneath the storks’ gigantic nest to avoid treading on shit and being shat on. Turning, then, onto a tar-sealed road: The Street. Ring, ding. I hear a bicycle behind me. That’s my cue to move aside to make way for the cyclist.
Heading a little farther north up The Street, I come to a wooden fence. It has a dirty blackish-brown colour and is splintering, tired and faded. Rickety and derelict. It’s about chin height. The wooden rail that runs horizontally along the top has rotted in a few places where nails, exposed to the elements, poke out like bones out of flesh.
There’s a man behind the fence. I slow and look in. A dog’s bark from across the road is persistent. Due to the gentle downward slope inside the fenced property, the gate is up to the man’s nose. He wears a crinkled cap with the earflaps pulled up. Under the cap, a face, its skin like a reptile, containing a set of wild grey eyebrows that are as bristly as a worn brush. Under the eyebrows, small, slanted eyes that observe whatever happens to be coming and going along The Street. The old man stands there, beat and hunched, with his eyes he follows objects as they move right to left or left to right.
It’s winter’s side of spring. There’s a consistent layer of white cloud overhead. A sheet, a blanket would be too thick. The sun is in the west, behind the cloud, at the man’s back. A lamp, projecting hazy light onto the stage in front of him.
The dog must have grown bored of me and has ceased yapping. It’s mostly still apart from a few interruptions from time to time: a pigeon’s coo, a tractor’s engine. And the clack of the storks up the road.
I’ve heard about this man — the villagers seem to know a lot about him. But this is my first sighting, I want to see for myself.
Apparently, ever since his wife died, he has been mute. All his children, apart from his middle-aged bachelor son, abandoned him. His son is quiet, works at a factory and keeps to himself. He chooses not to speak to his father. Since the old man has no one to speak to, he chooses not to speak at all. Not even to himself!
He comes out, most days, if it’s not raining, about the same time, about three in the afternoon, maybe earlier in winter, later in summer — whenever the sun is at his back. He stands in that same place, for an hour or two watching people. Why? God only knows … He makes no secret of it. He’s not discreet, not in the slightest. It’s as if it’s his duty. His unquestionable duty.
I think of what he sees.
He would see those on bikes (everyone seems to ride bikes here it’s so damn flat).
He would see the cars. The old Fiats. The family Skodas. The fancy German ones: Audis and so on. Some driving excessively fast and some excessively slow, not much in between.
He would see people carrying fishing rods: they often bike with rods in hand as though they’re medieval knights with their jousting sticks, ready to unhorse their opponent. Also rakes. The locals go to the cemetery for the almost daily upkeep of graves which includes raking the soil around the graves.
He would see lovers, immersed in each other, as if nothing or nobody else exists.
He would see church processions. Groups of neatly dressed people heading to the town hall for a wedding or some occasion.
He would see the factory workers commuting to and from work. Teenagers up to no good. Families on outings.
He would see the village down and outs. Stumbling past, making their way home from the shop, having used their only money, which they got from selling the coal that was given to them by social services, on booze.
He probably sees stuff no one else would even think of.
Now, finally, I enter his story. Behind the fence, I detect a shadowy figure. Under his cap, if I look hard, I can make out a wrinkled face. It’s like a well-used leather football, the old-fashioned kind. His eyes meet mine. I slow my pace, without moving my eyes from his. His eyes widen slightly: sudden awareness. Then, for the briefest moment his gaze loses mine but returns in an instant.
I greet him. “Hi there.”
He looks at me. He’s as still and cold as a stone. I slow down more and keep looking him in the eye. I start to wonder if he’s heard me.
Then: “Hello.” He gives a nod of his head. An acknowledgement.
We look at each other for a few more seconds, I smile, he remains emotionless, and I continue down The Street.
Later that evening I’m at the dinner table with my wife and her family. My wife pours water from the jug. My brother-in-law spoons potatoes onto his plate and passes the bowl. My mother-in-law, sitting patiently as usual, waits to make sure everyone is served before she helps herself. “Did you know,” my wife begins, “Jeremy spoke to Mr. Luff today?”
“Really, what?” They turn and look at me. “What did you say to him?”
“I said, ‘Hi’.”
They go quiet but their chairs squeak while they process the news.
“What did he do? Did he respond? Make any gestures?” They all seem to ask at the same time. “How did he react?”
“He said the same back,” I told them. “That is, after a long, solemn pause; he simply kept his glance right on mine and replied, ‘Hello’. And, while doing so,” I added, “he gave a slight nod of his head.”
Again, there was silence.
“No. It’s not possible,” my father-in-law finally said, a discerning look in his eye. “He can’t speak. What a load of rubbish.”
They spoke, to each other, not me. Once more all at the same time. They smirked and giggled, dismissing me like I was a child: they knew better.
“That’s it? Nothing else.”
“What did you do then?”
“I walked on down the road.”
That night, I’m over-tired, I can’t sleep. This still, quiet village, slow night. Not a breath of wind. So unsettling. Not even an insect chirping. I feel like getting out of bed, but I’ve nowhere to go, nothing to do. I listen to my wife softly breathing and think of my children in the next room snug in bed, sleeping, dreaming. The light from the moon, which is full or close to, illuminates the curtain and at the edges there’s a sharp glow and the house creaks as though it has something to say. I listen.
About the Author: Nick Fairclough is a writer on the cusp. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions. He’s been shortlisted and longlisted but he’s not quite there, not yet. He lives in Aotearoa New Zealand with his family.