The Javelin Thrower
They had been promised sunshine and scattered showers on the local early morning forecast. They both wore waterproof anoraks and walking boots. Sally helped him out of the car and glanced up at the overcast sky. The east wind blew hard into their faces. She took his arm and they tottered up the steep hill to where the footpath began, past the stone-built bus shelter where newspapers and bottles of milk were still deposited for villagers, past the barbed wire fence from which they had once rescued an entangled ram.
They shouldn’t have come, she thought. It looked as if it might rain, hard. She had forgotten how steep the incline was. How long did it used to take them, this, their favourite family walk, to the Swan? An hour at most. Now, each few steps they took seemed to take ages.
“It’s freezing, isn’t it? I’m sorry, dear, I thought it was going to be sunny. Do you want to go back?”
Geoff shook his head, dislodging the hat she had knitted for him when he began to lose his springy hair. He was grey and threadbare on top now, and the hat too had lost its colour and elasticity. She would have to start another one, get it done in time for next Christmas. She didn’t want to think about next Christmas.
She settled the hat back on his head and wiped his nose with the cuff of her sleeve. He submitted to her ministrations like a well-behaved three-year-old. He turned back to the stile. Again the hat slid down over his eyes. He pulled it off.
“Bloody thing,” he muttered. “I won’t wear it!”
She was relieved. This was the old Geoff speaking. Somehow she had to keep this alive, this indefinable essence of her husband, keep it alive for both of them while his body continued on its steady decline. She knew that men were weaker than women in all but physical strength, their identity delicate and very complicated. What happens to them as their strength disappears?
“OK, give it to me, I’ll put it in the backpack.”
She stood on the grassy verge, tucking away the spurned hat, fishing out her new digital camera from her heavy bag. It used to be Geoff who took all the photographs. He poured scorn on the ones she took; wouldn’t let her near his state-of-the-art German camera.
Now she was looking forward to learning how to improve her skills. Not just in photography but in all kinds of things, now she had retired from her long career, teaching English literature to mostly unresponsive teenagers. Now she had time. She had learned to drive after he’d been given his diagnosis. She paid her own credit card bill these days. She hoped to start Poetry classes in the autumn; Poetry and Bird Watching, and maybe she would join a choir, as long as they didn’t insist on an audition. Maybe, someday in the not too distant future, she would finally get to visit Jess and the grandchildren in Melbourne.
He was having difficulty with the stile. She gave his bony bum a shove and left him to it, turning away to focus on a clump of pale primroses. She remembered the way he had bounded over walls, hedges and fences when they lived here, years ago. She had always been left to draw up the rear, clutching the tethered dog, and a child or two.
He plunged his walking stick into swampy ground on the other side of the stile, with no thought for the yolk-yellow marsh marigolds underfoot.
“Take care with that stick, Geoff. You don’t want to lose it. This bit always was soggy, wasn’t it? How is your hip today dear?”
His answer, if there had been one, got lost in the wind. They persevered slowly upwards, until they reached the birch copse. She was puffing hard; he must be on the point of collapse. There was no mobile phone reception here.
“No more uphill, thank goodness. Let’s have a little rest.”
Again he ignored her. The path was flattish but still tricky enough. She watched him as he clouted the trees, one by one, like enemy soldiers, as he manoeuvred his way through the muddy wood. His walking boots landed on fragile primroses and she started to demur; then stopped herself. The flowers had grown here for generations. They would be back next spring.
She was relieved to see that the next stile had been replaced by a fine wooden kissing gate.
“Do you remember how we could never get Rover to go through these kind of gates? No amount of pushing and pulling… remember? She leapt over the stile, no trouble, didn’t she?”
He grunted, his good eye scanning the wide-ranging Northumberland landscape which had now opened up before them. Heath, forest, river, fields, hills, and more hills, flecked with bright patches of gorse. This had been their mushroom picking field.
We’ll be all right now, she thought, as they meandered down the smooth green meadow, scattering snowy white lambs and their shabby mothers as they went. The wind had dropped. She strained for sounds of curlews. Too early, probably. It was Geoff who knew all the birds, who could imitate their songs.
Geoff whacked at tufts of nettles whilst she continued to click away on her camera. An intoxicating smell of fresh gorse wafted up the hill from the river bank.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked.
“Remember how we got chased by that furious farmer down there when Robbie dropped Rover’s lead, that time?”
“Farmers are always furious. Ever come across a contented farmer? Even with all those damn grants they get from the EU for doing fuck all.”
She laughed. He had enough breath to chat now they were going downhill.
“I suppose they are a moany lot. Is that why they can’t get wives?”
“The Farmer wants a wife…” he hummed, and she joined in. He never remembered the words of any song. Why was that? Was it a gender thing? Such an easy nursery rhyme to recall. They always sang it in the car, when the kids were small.
The farmer’s in his den,
The farmer’s in his den,
EE- I- AD-I-O,
The farmer’s in his den.
The farmer wants a wife….
The wife wants a child….
The child wants a nurse….
The nurse wants a dog….
The dog wants a bone…
We all pat the bone!
“I’m glad we had a dog,” he said. “Hard work. But good for the kids. I wonder how she got on, with that family over at Rothbury.”
“Yes, it was so hard leaving her behind,” she said. “I still miss her…..we never understood that bit about patting the bone, did we?”
“Well at least it was unpredictable,” he said. “Such a boring song. These days the kids all have their separate earphones…”
They were close to the river now. A heron posed on the opposite bank. The familiar sounds of screeching oystercatchers on their way upriver from the Coquet estuary filled the air.
She had forgotten about the bridge. This must be a new one, much higher, stronger. It had been given a name as well, “Cow Pasture Crossing”. A local map and chart about wildlife to be observed in the area had been framed and hammered into the ground. There was even a warning about the perils of playing in the water. All new.
“Oh dear. Look how steep those steps are! Will you manage the bridge, dear? Or maybe we should turn around now.”
Over their full English breakfast at the B and B Geoff had pushed his almost untouched plate away and remarked that he didn’t care for nostalgia.
“You shouldn’t go back—what’s the point?” he said. “You shouldn’t have made me come. Bad idea.”
“What, not even to see places where you’ve been very happy?” she asked.
“Can’t think of any,” he had said. “And if I could, what would be the point of going there? Who wants to be haunted by happier days? We should have gone to that Vintage Car rally in Bournemouth.”
Sally said nothing. She made a point of devouring every last scrap of her bacon, sausage, egg and tomatoes with gusto.
“Terrific breakfast,” she had said. “I think I’ll have some toast and marmalade now.”
“If you must.” His hand shook as he sipped his mug of tea.
“Take care, you’re going to spill your tea! For God’s sake, can’t you use both hands?”
“Sal,” he said now, “I have to have a pee. Sorry.”
She looked at his moist reddened eyes and stubbly chin. He was dribbling like a small child. Repellent, really.
“But you’ve just been!”
She had stopped at the garage on the way pretending they needed petrol, and had urged him into the gents.
“It’s the cold.” He turned towards the river and started to grope under his waterproofs. “I’m going to pot, aren’t I, Sal?”
“Of course not,” she said. “You’ve not been well, you’ll be well soon.”
This morning she had helped him into the tartan underpants Robbie had given him for Christmas, thinking how small and sweet and powerless his penis was, now that he was old and frail. She watched the wavering urine blow down the river bank and waited for him to do himself up.
“That’s better,” he said, starting to climb the much steeper than she remembered steps, placing the stick carefully as he went. “It’s your fault, you know, for turning me into a soft Southerner. If we’d stayed up here, in the North, I’d have been a proper man, still.”
How unfair, she thought, remembering how depressed he’d become when the shipyard had closed down. It had been up to her to scour the ads for jobs over that awful time. He had been delighted to start work again, even if they’d had to move south. The kids had been ready for a change—what would they have found to do up here during their adolescence? She said nothing.
They stopped halfway across the bridge and leant on the rail, looking back, upriver to the purplish Cheviot Hills. He was the same height as she was now. Where had those extra four inches disappeared? His eyes were as blue as ever, blue as periwinkle. She had noticed them the first time she had met him, on the train from King’s Cross to Newcastle. Love at first sight, they had each always claimed. She had just finished at college; he was ten years older, tall, dark, and handsome. She delighted in showing him off to her friends; this tough but charming older man with his gruff northern accent.
“We used to chuck sticks into the water from here, remember, poor Rover got so distracted with them all coming at her, thick and fast,” he said, fumbling with his stick. “Damn this thing. Pity the pub’s closed down. What happened to that guy, whatshisname, what was it the B and B people said?”
“He went off his head, they said. I’ll hold it.”
She took the stick and pointed with it to a little beach twenty metres upstream. “That’s where the girls used to play that daft Lady of Shallot game—remember—putting those poppy girls into little paper boats. You used to make them. Boats for them, and aeroplanes for Robbie.”
“Wanted to make a man of him. Pointless task. Once a mummy’s boy, always a mummy’s boy.”
“Oh, shut up,” she said.
She sought for Tennyson’s words in her head. She had won an Elocution prize with her oral version of the epic poem. She used to chant it to the kids at bedtime.
Willows whiten, aspens shiver
The sunbeam showers break and quiver
In the stream that runneth ever
At that moment, the clouds permitted a beam of sunshine to break through and glitter on the surface of the fast running river.
“That’s more like it,” he said, holding his crumpled face up to the warmth of the sun. “I’m not surprised, he was a right weirdo, that guy, what was his name? Wasn’t he? Useless. As bad as farmers, pub landlords. No beer at Christmas! What an idiot. Dick! That was his name. Dick Dawkins.” He was triumphant. “What are you going to feed me with then?”
“I’ve got sandwiches, two Kit-Kats, an apple, and an orange. Oh, and some of those seedy things, I know you don’t like them, but they’re very good for your innards.”
“Beef and horseradish sandwiches?” he asked.
“No, of course not, you know we don’t eat meat on weekdays.”
“But this is a holiday!”
“Well, sorry, it’s egg and watercress. Fresh granary bread. Delicious.”
He nodded. He could no longer digest his favourite rare roast beef and they both knew it.
“And I put some brandy in the coffee flask.”
“Now you’re talking, girl. Come on, I’m hungry, for once. Give me that bloody stick.”
He seized it from her, and with all the strength he could muster, threw it towards the stony cove where the many Ladies of Shallot had been launched. She gripped his hand. They watched it swerve to and fro across the river until it got caught up in an overhanging alder tree just below them.
“Remember how I was the best javelin thrower at school? I told you, didn’t I?”
“How could any of us ever forget? You used to quote that bit from your report – what was it…? Even the kids knew it off by heart.”
“With care and practice, Geoffrey will make a first class javelin thrower….I was only twelve when they said that, but I was the biggest boy in the year.”
“Now what will you do? Without your stick, I mean?”
“I’ll hang on to you. You have a lovely face,” he said, peering at her, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth. He looked as if he might be about to kiss her.
“All right, bold Sir Lancelot,” she said, tucking his waterproofed arm into hers. “What you need is a faithful war horse.”
“I am a war horse. Your war horse. Don’t you forget that.”
Slowly they trundled over the slatted bridge. At the far end, he turned for a last look at their valley.
“Don’t reckon I’ll be back,” he said.
Judith Laurance worked for over 30 years as a social work practitioner, manager and educator. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck College, University of London and is currently working on a novel. This is her first publication.