A wise man adapts himself to circumstances, as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it.
- Chinese Proverb
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After school, the boy’s task was to scour a section of the beach for driftwood. From the houses a grassy track ran above the shore, and he took the path rather than the barnacled sea-rocks. To his bare feet the green road was pleasantly velvety, and he liked the rough protection given to its softness by the lichen-cheeked drystone walls. As he ambled along, a physical need made itself known, and he stopped, looked quickly behind him along the empty track, then turned to face the dyke. Pulling up the wide leg of his short trousers, cut down from a man’s blue serge, he aimed his stream against the long grass and dandelions fringing the base of the wall. Eyeing his effect benignly, he saw amid the wet grass blades a shining something: round, golden. He bent to pick it up, rubbing it dry on his fingers. In his hand it felt heavy, a coin with a face on one side, a horseman on the other. He knew what it was – wealth beyond imagination. A golden sovereign, sent to him by God.
He was certain God had sent it, because he did not know that the universe specialises in coincidences. The day before, in the window of the shop in the adjacent, larger village, he had seen a bottle with a diamond pattern of little raised glassy blobs. Its sides curved out, then inwards, like a woman’s hips. Red fruits and a woman’s smiling face decorated the label, and curly letters spelled out ‘Cherry Cordial.’ Surrounded by nondescript articles, it stood alone, offering the riches of the unknown world. Beside it, a hand-written label read: ‘Non-alcoholic. Reduced to 6d.’ Instantly he wished he could buy it, for his mother.
But he had no money at all; he had never had money. He had never bought anything.
Now he floated along in sublimity. By a rusty, half-fallen gate in the wall, he saw a length of old, salt-whitened rope. Truly it was a day of gifts and discoveries. Grasping the coarse fibrous strands, his thought was to secure his bundle of wood. But he stood there, letting his new opportunities eddy around him. He would buy the cordial. But also a pencil case, and one for his sister too, and a pocket knife with a folding blade … Laying the rope down, he formed it into a circle, then began to dance around it, on the grass. Slow, ceremonious, absorbed, letting his feet make the pattern of celebration, he spread his arms, bent his head back, and gazed up into grey-blue endlessness. When he shut his eyes, it was as if a great bright funnel, narrowing as it came, reached down to him; its upper end unimaginably remote, but open all the way. Lost in movement, he saw and heard nothing, completely unaware that someone was watching him.
“What are you doing?”
Black-whorled cheeks, black coat, black hair to the shoulders, black brimmed hat, dark eyes in a pale face: someone he only knew as the Man. He had appeared in the village a few weeks back and was seen to stand praying by the drawn-up salmon cobles, in pouring rain. Recognised as a godly person, he was speedily invited inside the nearest house to get dry in front of the fire. He told them he had heard that this village was a special place in Goshen, and now he knew it to be true. Since then he had stayed, given the room of two daughters who were relegated to the shed. Each day he took his meals in a different house. The first time he ate at the boy’s house, the potatoes were piled high and there was a dish of butter, but when the boy stretched his hand out, his mother slapped it away. ‘For the Man,’ she said, and watched with indulgence as the long, pale hands reached out to help themselves. The Man’s youthfulness seemed to please the women, who gathered in rustling anticipation to hear his extempore prayers and meditations. He thanked God for saving him from a sinful life, for making him not as other men, and for leading him to this place. Only the women, old and young, came. The old men looked on impassively as the Man walked by, his Bible or expository text clasped in thin black gloves. Daringly, the boy had asked his mother why no men came to hear the Man.
“Not all men were made to go out in boats,” was all she said. Her look was not angry or reproving, but as if he were only part-known to her, with an impenetrable otherness residing in him; and in that moment, he felt something lost to him. A whole dimension of his being had fallen away, leaving a raw space in which a strange, tender grief welled up, infused with tantalising shreds of the essential, unreachable femaleness at the base of everything.
The Man did not concern himself with children, but he seemed to recognise the boy.
“What is the son of good people doing, dancing like a heathen and muttering to himself?”
One black glance was not enough to dissolve the exaltation that had made a shaft of brightness between the richness of the earth and the favour of the sky. Reaching into a deep pocket, he brought out his gift.
“See what I found.” Like a magnet, it drew the Man’s face down.
“Where did you get this?”
“I found it, back there.” The wondrousness seemed not to strike the Man.
“I walked that way, not half an hour ago,” he said. “I never saw it.”
The boy forbore to say exactly how he had come to see it. The miracle, he was beginning to feel, was a personal one, meant for him alone. The sovereign still lay in his palm, and suddenly the Man’s fingers seized on it. He looked up in sudden anxiety, as if in another hand it might turn into a little pool of liquid. But it glittered there.
“I will take charge of this,” said the Man. “It was put by the devil, to tempt you. Be grateful, that I came along when I did. I will put it in the collection plate on the Sabbath. That way, it will be given to God, and no harm can come of it.”
As the sovereign disappeared into the black coat, tears prickled in the boy’s eyelids, but the Man looked down at him in a calm, considering way, as if assessing his worth. Again, the pale face swooped, the dark, brilliant eyes on a level with his own.
“I should report your wickedness, this dancing, but as you have handed over the token of corruption, this need not go beyond you and me. No-one else need know.”
Noiseless as a spirit, he went on his way back towards the village. Setting his back against the stone wall, looking out to the sea’s blank horizon, the boy was speared by his thoughts. It was not God, but the devil. He was damned. His soul was ugly, like a dried fish, hard, eyeless, eviscerated. For a long time he remained there, two intense eyes glaring inside his mind; then he remembered he was supposed to be collecting wood. Hastily gathering a few sticks, he forgot about the rope and carried them home under his arm.
Next day, at the table, his mother said: “I hope you’ll find more sticks today than you did yesterday.”
His father looked up.
“There was no shortage of wood on the shore,” he said. “Why did you not bring back a proper load?”
A fisherman, he wore his wool guernsey though it was a hot day. His right hand, half a forefinger missing, was thick, the skin on its back red and blue, scraped of hairs. Closed up, it had the flat curve of a crab shell, but it could move faster than an angry crab: the boy knew its speed and weight, and saw the knuckles tap softly on the table-top. Neglect of his chores was perilous.
“I-I was talking to the Man,” he stammered.
His father frowned, but his mother was interested. “The Man? What would you talk to the Man about?” Cornered, he told them; a cut-down version of events. Opposite him, his sister’s eyes sharpened the sense that he was in trouble.
“Well, the Man did right,” said his mother.
“How did the Man know you had the coin?” asked his father.
He looked down at the scrubbed deal surface, while his face grew hot in shame.
“He asked me why I was – dancing. He said it was wicked, like a heathen,” he whispered. “Dancing! Out there? Your father will make you dance.”
Looking up furtively, he saw glances pass between his parents. His mother’s eyes said, ‘This is for you to deal with’. She was very small, less tall now than he was, but nobody mistook her signals, or doubted who ruled household affairs. His father’s face was less easy to read, but he recognised a glint of anger, and the right hand tapped the table again. The meal finished, his father stood up, and jerked his head meaningfully at the boy, who followed him, out into the little garden with rows of onions and carrots, that looked out on the sea, down to the black wooden shed at the end. Inside was cobwebby, dim, smelling of tar and musty old nets. There was a tool-cluttered work-bench and a workman’s trestle.
“You danced, did you? If I found a sovereign lying in the grass, I might dance myself,” said his father, seating himself on the trestle. “Tell me, what did you think you would do with it?”
“There’s a bottle of cherry cordial in Ross’s shop window. I was going to buy it, for my mother. And pencil cases … ” it all sounded too trivial; the exposed grubby, drably functional edge of some abstruse and complicated apparatus of sin, and to his shame, he began to cry.
“Cherry cordial? Why did you want to buy that for her?” “I don’t know,” he snuffled, unable to separate the confusion of impulses, the fact that he was taller than her, the separateness of men and women, the seductive bottle’s promise, the forlorn urge to reach back across a gap within himself that seemed to widen of its own accord. His fingers went in dismal supposition to his belt-buckle.
“None of that, now,” said his father. “We’re going to see the Man.”
The Man appeared at the door of his lodging, in white shirt-sleeves, wearing fine black silk gloves, holding a small, black-bound book. He loomed over the fisherman, who was not tall, but burly and solid: a man of no concern with preambles.
“The boy here says you took a sovereign off him yesterday,” he said.
“Indeed I did,” said the Man, “and I hope he told you why, and what I said I would do with it.”
“He said what you would do with it, and I am not disagreeing with that. But I think it will be right for you to give it back to the boy, for himself to put the money in the plate.”
“Why not leave it with me?” said the Man. “It is for the boy to do.”
The Man said nothing for a moment, then: “But I have not got the coin with me, right this minute.”
“Then, go in and get it.” “No, but what I mean is, I have used it, only temporarily. For gloves. My old black gloves had holes in them, you see. They were not suitable for holding the holy books. I will repay it, of course. At an early stage. I – ”
His voice died on a blue stare. Words came, sharp as slate.
“You are a thief. What is worse, you have stolen not just from the boy, but from the Lord.”
“Do you dare say that!” cried the Man. “I walk in His footsteps.” Half an instant later he took a stagger backwards, his hand to the black curls on his cheek. The blue and red hand had struck him with its open palm and fell back even as the flat echo of the blow came from the cottage wall.
“Be gone from here before tomorrow,” said the fisherman. “If you are not, you will run out on the end of a pitchfork.”
One hand on the boy’s shoulder, he steered him back to the house. She backed swiftly from the door as they came through. He stood between them, eyes round and uncertain as a trapped calf’s.
“What have you done?” she asked, her hands clasped, her eyes ominously bright, on the cusp of some strong, though not yet selected, expression of feeling. From under bristly brows, his father returned not a typical swift or sidelong glance, but an assured steady look which said, don’t challenge me on this.
“There will be one hungry rascal the less in this place,” he said, and then: “Give the boy sixpence from your tin.” Her eyes went wide and her mouth shaped an ‘o’ of astonished, indignant refusal.
“What in the world – ”
His air of heavy calm did not change, but tiny lines around his eyes tightened, and the boy saw her face take on an expression which he recognised as clearly as if he were looking in a mirror. But in her he sensed something far beyond his own sulks and half-willed disobediences. An entire, though abraded, precious ideal of existence, the passionate wish to set the values of life above a material level, with whatever needful economies of emotion and indulgence freely made. And a hint, high, fine, and bitter, of its tragic aspect reached through to him – the endless erosive, opportunistic activity of the sex to which he belonged, like bullocks in a garden, restless, trampling, rubbing, rearing, snatching, competing, spoiling. Without a further word, she took down a small tobacco tin from the dresser shelf. It clunked heavily, as though almost full. His hand closed on the coin, then she gave them her back, taking herself with quick steps into the other room. The boy felt his father’s hand light on his shoulder again.
“Buy the cordial,” he murmured, “though whether she’ll touch a drop of it, I don’t know.”
Grass and dirt fled under bare soles as he ran, hurling himself out on the turning edge of life, speeding through air, consigning the events of the last two days to the past like puffs of vanishing steam. One thing only was a certainty, held in his mind by a faith all the more perfect for having been tested – the glamour of the world was still in the shop-window, waiting for him.