The Devil's Coach-Horse
By Neil Grimmett
It was a simple action: my wife, silently, pulling on too many layers of clothing in an attempt to keep out the cold: but it caused one of those complex random reactions that made us human in the first place and lingers, like some illogical fear of the dark to remind us what we once paid for any light, and in less time than it took for one of her buttons to be fastened, I was transported back, without warning or choice, to a connection made twenty-two years before.
I was in a line - double-file, boy next to girl, hands brushing occasionally but definitely not held. Our march along cold, gloss-painted, polished corridors had been halted. We gave way, as in all matters to age: the elder class went past the junction on their way to school assembly; clutching hymn books or dreading the discovery of its loss.
Standing and waiting - silence the rule - my attention, as always in this location, no matter how hard I tried to avoid it became focussed on the large painting hanging above the archway. (Twenty-two years ago a painting was just a painting - so no name I'm afraid.) There were soldiers in it, red and blue coated with gold braid and sabres drawn. A cavalry charge caught and frozen in the moment of its glory. And though the painting was fading - desquamated flakes of pigment mysteriously appearing in your hair sometimes - the deed itself was as fresh for me in blood and fury as on the day it had been recorded.
The thing that never stopped puzzling and frightening me then - awake or in dreams - was how could such a thing be so respected, admired, even, it felt at certain moments, worshipped ? My eyes could not detect one glimmer of honour or bravery in it: they saw only the fear. Overwhelming panic and terror caught by the artist in every brush stroke; exactly the same on the faces of the men as on the horses they rode. But there was a stronger more vital emotion that I felt I could detect in the men's expressions, something that even the painter may have not known was there, or had, but still found it impossible to disguise. Anger at their betrayal. They knew for the first time exactly what all that pomp of the parade ground had led them to. But now that the snare drums and bugles had been drowned by screams and cannon it was too late to turn or hold back. I decided something for myself: the ones that did survive, the great heroes that we were on our way to sing about and were encouraged to emulate, might have been those that had seen it all coming and were prepared - whatever the cost to survive. My father had spilled some of his unhappiness into my life by then about his own battleground: the car factory. I drew my own analogy: Cannon fodder or factory fodder were turned out in the same place for the same purpose; both carried the same lack of realization, often until it was too late, and went bitterly right into the grave with them.
The teacher, Mr. Wilkes, moves in my mind and makes this link,
"What have we got here ?" Mr. Wilkes snaps, grabbing hold of my arm and dragging me out of the line. "There must be about a million layers over this body !"
I can still remember my bowels loosening as he shouted and prodded; my father had never raised his voice or believed in any form of physical punishment.
"Look at this," he squeals, lifting first my blazer, then my pullovers (two or three), finally my shirt and vests. I can hear boys and girls nervously giggling. Still see Mr. Wilkes' face as the smell of my fear reaches his nose. "School uniform is," he continues: "blazer, black; shirt, white; shorts, grey; matching socks and shoes black."
"Please Sir, I was cold," I am telling him.
"We're all cold laddie," he says, not shouting now though, moving back leaving me alone dishevelled and trembling. Trying, perhaps to understand what he has done. "But we have to stick it. Tomorrow, I don't want to see you looking like a big baby in swaddling. I have always thought of you as one of the tough ones."
I stand watching my class march away before limping off to the toilet to get myself cleaned and tidied. And stupidly there was a glow of pride at his parting compliment.
For a moment, lying in bed after my wife has left the room, I can still sense that feeling and need it to find some dignity from the event. To be able, at the slightest mnemonic to travel a lifetime, then touch and recall all those emotions again, seemed a wonderful strength and gift of the mind; then to be able still to be fooled by someone's guilty lie an equal weakness and curse. "What computer," I ask the empty room: "would dare to evolve in such a way?"
My memory random, often inaccessable - once switched onto recall, does not behave and go off instantaneously at the press of a button; or even with desire to escape into something less threatening. Now it demands to continue for a while. Searching unstoppably for another connection that may tie everything together neatly so dust may settle on these files.
At the same school, a short while later, a new boy arrived. Children were arriving all the time. It was an age of hope and expanding population. The offspring of an empire in decline trying now to conquer its own land. Mostly they came already formed, willing and able to fit easily onto our canvas. This boy did not. He sat alone in class, brought his own food to eat at school dinners, and at break, took no part in any of the character developing games we were encouraged to play: 'British Bulldog'; 'Fives' or to prepare us for the event where maybe brute force did not conquer: 'Ring a Ring a Roses we all Fall Down'. Most of the time he was either staring out of the window or up into the sky. At the end of the day, when parents arrived to collect their children, he left alone, shuffling off down the street - his jacket too short, trousers shining and tight. I noticed that he never looked at any of the grown-ups and was hunched and tense in their presence.
His contribution to all the classroom activities was non-existent. Until one day: the day of our nature walk.
We started out, double file, boys next to girls, hands gently brushing
Until, as if in some minor concession to what survived of the surrounding countryside, we were permitted to break ranks and Children revel in your green and pleasant land. The majority though still clung to the shadow of Mr. Wilkes, picking up sticks and leaves, pointing at plants and birds. The short, squat man, puffing on an untipped cigarette was rejoicing as much in his power of naming as in being named Sir so many times. Since the corridor episode we gave each other distance - me through absolute fear and humiliation; his reason, unclear and probably without reason. Then someone shouted out, "Sir. Sir, look at this." And we ended up side by side in a circle around the caller. On the ground a large black beetle was dancing a solitary pavane. We had seen the real dance done recently by some players at school, before their version of Macbeth, in which a fight scene went wrong and the future king of Scotland was stabbed for real and I got sent out for clapping. Now I was going to stay silent and let someone else catch it.
"Stand well back," Mr. Wilkes ordered. Already wishing, I could hear in his voice, that the boy had shown the usual propensity of city folk and ground the thing under foot. "Please Sir," came lots of voices at once, asking the question I had determined not to ask: "What is it ?"
"Very good question, children," he said: "we'll have to look it up in our book."
I heard them all sigh and felt him squirm. I was just about to risk a grin when the new boy spoke. Hed been nicknamed, 'Hedgehog', by one of the school bullies. The boy claimed to his usual ally, Mr. Wilkes, that it was because of the way Hedgehog's hair stuck up and the master - pleased to accept the explanation - joined in calling him it from then on. It would be many years before I realized that the boy had carried the name in from his parents - jumped-up middle-class, living in one of the most pretentious houses on our new and ever-spreading housing estates - and that it had everything to do with prejudice and nothing to do with appearance. "It's a devil's coach-horse beetle," Hedgehog said: "they say that when it comes the Devil will be sure to follow."
A silence fell with that name. Some stared toward the remnants of a dark forest; others gathered closer to the teacher. Mr. Wilkes looked as if his saviour had arrived.
"It doesn't sting with its tail," Hedgehog told us. The insect kept arching its back like a scorpion at any noise or disturbance. "But it can bite hard with its jaws."
We all moved back, then away, leaving that benighted creature to return to its master's harness and whatever wheels of fire legend had laid as a burden for it to carry.
For the rest of our trip, with the indulgence of the teacher, Hedgehog was our guide. He knew the names of many plants and herbs, animal tracks, birds' nesting places and calls, even, when we reached the pond, the location of the different species of fish. He was allowed to tell us that the Tench was called the doctor fish and other sick fish would rub against its slime for a cure; how a pike could swallow a young duck or moorhen whole; and how the golden carp was so old and wise it could read the minds of men and tell the future.
Then the walk was over.
Within a day or so everything had returned to normal. The slight frisson of a different wisdom brushing against us had been mostly forgotten or refuted. Hedgehog was back outside with no more to say or offer, it seemed. Only Id made a decision: I wanted him for a friend. I began to make sure that I always ended up behind or just in front of him on our way to assembly. I edged closer to his desk in the classroom and noticed that he could not write letters; though when he saw me looking he covered up the page of strange images as if I was cheating and trying to steal his answers or secrets. Finally, I just walked over to him in the playground.
Id found, some time earlier, what I already knew to be an owl pellet, and had been saving it for the right opportunity to use as my introduction card. "Hey Hedgehog," I said, holding the cocoon-shaped object on the palm of my hand: "what's this ?"
"Owl," he replied glancing down and then back up to the sky.
I waited for him to continue and after being ignored for a while tried again, "Part of his nest, is it ?"
He laughed softly and held out his hand. I gave him the pellet and watched as he rolled it flat. "See," Hedgehog said: "that is what the owl has been feeding on. Those little bits are vole bones; that is part of a sparrow. I'll bet you it is from a barn owl; they are my favourite; they fly like ghosts through the night."
I tried to picture him standing alone in the darkness watching some white, silent raptor sweeping down onto its prey as I lay in my bed wishing the stair light had been left on or that my parents would hurry themselves to bed. "I would love to see one of them," I said.
Hedgehog let the gray dust fall through his fingers to the ground. "You would have to move quieter than that," he said.
I looked down trying not to notice the heavy workman's boots he was wearing. "I could," I assured him: "if you were there."
We spent the rest of that break and the next together. I saw Mr. Wilkes staring across at us and hoped that he was sending a message out to me - letting me know or believe that he was pleased Id befriended this stranger and that I was doing the correct thing for the school. I tried to move my new friend out the sight of that man; make him recognize this was not some attempt to integrate another type of spirit into the stupid games going on around us and that I was the one proud and privileged to be in his company. This boy would be my teacher; Mr. Wilkes, Sir, had already failed me. I could feel his eyes following every move we made until just as we found a space to be alone he rang that dull, flat bell to summons us inside - early, I judged.
Some time the next week Hedgehog invited me to go and play after school. Maybe, he hinted, if we were out late enough and real lucky we may even see one of those ghost birds in flight. I wanted to go more than anything and it had nothing to do with owls. But I had never asked my parents to be allowed to go anywhere off the estate alone before and understood that it was not the expected thing. So I lied for the first time to them. It was part of a school project to do with the nature walk wed been on - and that, of course, my friend's parents would be meeting us at the school gate and supervising us.
Straight after school the two of us hurried away from the shocked expressions and whispering tongues I imagined I could see and hear. After that we slowed a little, though I felt Hedgehog was still trying to outrun something, at one moment, I even thought it may be me and that he had changed his mind. Also, he seemed unwilling to answer any of my questions. Then we reached a large area of wasteland, known around here as 'The Common' and another source of many rumors and tales. Instead of keeping well to the edge though as all good children had been warned they should, Hedgehog turned onto it and started heading out toward its heart. I followed, afraid to turn back or even speak anymore.
Soon, we reached a circle of caravans with clothes hanging from lines and drying in a haze of blue smoke. There was a rule on our estate that no bonfires could be lit until after eight PM - for some reason that rule came into my head and I clung to it for order and comfort as a pack of large dogs came straight for us. Their arched backs and sideways movements straightened the moment they recognized Hedgehog and I joined in smoothing their gray, wiry pelts.
My friend made a sudden, quick movement and disappeared into the largest of the vans. I waited a moment and then climbed the step after him. Inside, it was beautiful. I recognized at that moment an art of simplicity and style without needing to know any of the reasons behind its development. Once, a guest art teacher had told us that many great artists wanted to paint with the freedom of children again: and that we should be proud of our natural ability and vision. After shed left, Mr. Wilkes went around the class tearing up every matchstick man and purple tree he could get his stubby fingers on. He looked down at mine and said, "You though, have talent: I could do something with yours." I nearly wept.
Now I wanted to laugh out loud. I was standing there with my mouth open when I noticed the man and woman watching me. The woman was large with a mass of frizzy blonde hair and a smiling face that you just knew you would want to trust; the man was much smaller, with olive-coloured skin and a mean darting look that stated just as clearly that he trusted no one. I could not escape the blue, almost arc light intensity of his eyes and I imagined them burning away any attempt of diguise.
Hedgehog came out of a side room and rescued me. The man spoke, his voice as hard and lean as his body, "We'll eat in an hour, stay away from the canal, Granny says the rats have spoiled the water, and Paul: look after your fine new friend."
Hedgehog - or Paul if only Id known the truth or could now really travel back and re-enact the scene - moved quickly away from the caravan, still not speaking to me. We out-paced the few children that had decided to follow us and were out of sight of the camp before we slowed down. "I love your home," I told him truthfully. "And your parents seem very nice. I just wish I could live here like you."
He looked hard at me and I could see a mixture of anger and sadness in his expression. Also, I recognized that though - according to whatever calendar hed been witnessed by, we were about the same age - in fact he was a lot older in life than I might ever be. I tried for the rest of our hour to desperately prove myself by wild claims and outright lies. And though he went along, I suspected, even as he smiled and nodded that he was seeing through every one. Then his mother called us back for our food.
"Wash your hands," the man, still seated at the table, told us both and began eating without waiting for us. I heard my mother describing it as appalling manners; here though, it seemed natural and an encouragement to enjoy food.
I would like to say something romantic about it being the greatest meal I have ever eaten, but I can't even remember what it was - except that it definitely was not hedgehog ! Some way into our food, Hedgehog's father asked me if my parents knew who I was playing with ? "Of course they do," I said, and saw the same look cross his face as I had witnessed a short time before on his son's. I was fooling nobody not even myself but felt a desperate need to be accepted in a place where I might, for once, fit. Whatever, he forgave me. The blaze I had seen in his eyes became a pale flame that made you feel warm and welcome. I saw it darken only once, when I called Paul 'Hedgehog', though that too was quickly pardoned or accepted.
Afterwards, Hedgehog became his usual bursting-with-life self. We went through the woods, and ignoring Granny's wisdom, to the banks and locks of the old canal. Some time later his father joined us and showed us some of his magic tricks: lighting strips of silver birch, hypnotizing a stoat with a strange musical note sucked from the back of his hand, and catching eels with a ball of worms but no hook. Then the light began to fade, "See your friend home, Paul," he said.
"I wanted to see a barn owl," I said trying to buy some more time.
"You will not see any around here," he said: "they have turned all the barns into homes for richer plumes than theirs."
I, of course did not know what he was talking about, but could detect a note of sadness and loss in his voice.
Later that night, lying in bed I heard the door bellgo. For some reason I waited for my name to be called, for someone to say, "Get dressed quickly, your friends have seen a ghost bird in flight, you must hurry before it is gone forever."
Instead I heard the unmistakably sly and bitter cadence of Mr. Wilkes: not the whisper of wings announcing a sudden death; but words instead, delivering a slow but terminal disease : gypsies, nits, thieves, petitions signed by all respectable citizens.
In the morning I did not mention his visit, nor was it mentioned. Though I noted that my mother insisted on brushing my hair before school. At school Hedgehog was made to sit well away from everyone. At break times he was kept in under the guise of a false and contrived detention. At the end of the day he was held back again. My mother grabbed me before I had got anywhere near the gate. A few minutes later Hedgehog came out. All of the mothers and fathers appeared to have arrived to collect their children. Everyone stood there and stared at him. He lifted his head high and walked that gauntlet with more pride and dignity than any of us had the right to see.
It was the last time I ever saw him.
He was not at school the next day, nor the next. I took a chance and made my great escape on the weekend. Though, I now realize, even that may have been allowed, because when I reached the common they had gone. The only thing that remained to show anyone had ever been there was a black patch left from a fire: a large, dark circle with a lingering, sulphurous smell. I wanted to believe that it had been their camp fire - a celebration of music and feasting to mark the start of another leaving. But there were things in the ash that I understood marked no such thing.
The front door slams, loud and angrily. My wife is still furious with me for suggesting last night that I might give up my latest attempt at a job in another factory and try and do something again more creative with my life. A undefinable something that has flickered on the periphery of my consciousness for so long, refusing to go out and making its steady demands. That noise, and the memory of our long, sordid and personal row, breaks this connection. It may, I realize, never return. Or maybe in another twenty-two years - like one of those apparitions that is supposed on certain significant occasions to materialize - it will appear to remind me of its legacy and to question what I have done with it. Or perhaps it will be passed onto my children as something inherited. They will stand in front of their own painting and wonder how such a thing can be admired and honoured. Within it they will see their own hero; only this time they will follow.
That is how I still see Hedgehog. Frozen in his moment of glory and victory. And just, with the briefest dying flicker of hope, I would know: how he might still picture me ?