IN THE SUMMER, while their shells are still a pale colour, you may eat the white kernels of unripe hazel nuts. You extract their sweet, nutty juice while crushing with your tongue the pulp which in a few weeks would have become hard and brown-skinned. You take the fruit of the tree and deny it its maturity, its purpose.
Adelaide Oxley preferred to wait until September, when the nut shells turned tan, and the bracts from which they hung shrivelled until they looked like tortured butterflies. The nuts were easy to find when the leaves fell from the tree. They hung exposed in clusters on the bare stems. Addie and her husband collected them by the handful, while nuts which had ripened early crunched beneath their feet. They reached among the branches and filled a basket each.
“No need to collect more” Arthur said. “We have enough here to see us through till next year.”
But Addie was not satisfied.
“There are so many. It seems a shame not to collect them. Let’s empty these into the boot and fill the baskets again.”
Arthur smiled and shook his head at her enthusiasm.
“We’ll never eat them. But if that’s what you want…”
“That’s what I get.” She finished the familiar phrase for him as they rustled through ankle-deep leaves to the car, parked with open windows at the edge of the sunlit woods. Adelaide looked at the car, which had a leatherette top which folded back like a pram hood when the weather allowed. Her sister had thought it funny, but to Addie it seemed perfect. The hood had a small oval window in the back, so that when it was in place she felt enclosed, as if she sat safe in a moving money box, looking through its tiny mouth at the receding world. When the hood was not in place they glided the countryside with wind swooping into the back seat to make the travel blanket flap like the wings of a tethered bird. Then she felt glamorous. Yes, she knew the Pathfinder was no sports car, and she knew they were only cruising. But it was their very own car. He was her very own husband.
She looked at the car and she looked at Arthur: a man some years older than she was, with slicked-back hair and a moustache, a man with his own business. He was a barber who employed nobody but himself, but was answerable only to himself. If he chose, he could stay in bed till nine in the morning and open the saloon at ten. He could take the afternoon off to go nutting, He never did either of these things. Although nobody in the saloon’s history had presented himself for a haircut before ten o’clock in a Monday morning. Arthur always hovered behind the glass of the front door from eight thirty, sharp, like a wraith with a comb in its top pocket. And nutting was saved and built up to be the highlight of their Sunday.
Adelaide looked beyond the car, and beyond Arthur, and she saw rolling hills wrapped in hedges of brambles and honeysuckle, with scattered thickets from which pheasants ventured, a distant bilberry-thronged heath, and the end of a great pine wood, forming a widow’s peak in a fold of the golden scene. She felt suddenly that this instant was the high point of her life, and attempted to fix it in her memory, wondering why she, who was noted only for her beauty, should have such a profound thought.
Nobody in her family had ever owned a car. None of them had lived in the south. None of them had been to the south. They had not experienced life beyond earshot of the colliery yards where heavy, metallic things clanged against each other for unexplained reasons, and coal cascaded into echoing wagons, and whistles blew, around the clock, to tell the men when to come and go, when to start work and when to stop. Nobody in Addie’s family had looked up from emptying hazel nuts in to the boot of a car to see heaven unfolded in every direction.
Adelaide had married Arthur after meeting him at a holiday camp. When he described the countryside outside Bournemouth, and the quiet life he led, Addie adored both of them. It was not the strangeness of his world which enraptured her, but its familiarity. She always knew that something lay there, over the southern horizon, waiting for her to arrive. When Arthur spoke of the birdbath on the lawn, and the front porch with coloured glass, and of the gravel drive to the wooden garage, she felt a thrill of recognition.
“Yes,” she said “Yes, of course I will.”
Her family was not surprised. They too had always known that she was destined to slip from their grasp.
“Don’t forget us,” they begged, laughing. But she did. Dorset was so narcotic. She was so drugged by the sensation of ease which enveloped her, from the moment she emerged from the train and breathed the different air, that she seemed to lose both the memory of her past life, and her sense of passing time. She did not positively dismiss thoughts of her father and her mother, and her brothers and uncles, squashed into their tiny parlour before a terrifying grate of flaming coals. It was simply that she postponed remembrance of that life. Her own living room was so open and so quiet that sometimes the clock chimed five only minutes, its seemed, after Arthur had left in the morning, and in the interim she had breathed quite shallowly, while watching the sparrows and repeating innumerable times:
“Dorset, Dorset, Dorset…”
Addie corresponded with her sister, who acted as a conduit for the rest of the family. Through her she learned of her uncle’s triumphs in chrysanthemum shows, her mother’s acts of diplomacy among warring cousins, the elderly neighbour’s fortune as a backer of horses, and her brother’s dismemberment somewhere in the crystalline tunnels below her old home. It was as if she continued to live her former life, without the necessity of experiencing its inessential details. And just as well, since not a great deal happened in Dorset.
When she sat to reply, she found that she soon ran out of occurrences to report, and she moved on to her thoughts about what she had read in the newspaper, and her continuing amazement at the weather in the south, and the variety of bird life, and the view which she had from the edge of town to distant hills and woods. Sometimes a particular sequence of words appeared on the paper without her assistance, and she realised she had used it before.
“You really must, must come down to stay some time,” was a frequent closing entreaty, while her sister always concluded abruptly with news that the kettle was boiling, or the dog demanded entry.
“Must end now: the sun has come out,” Adelaide smiled at the guileless illogicality of her sister’s leave-taking.
The idea that a person living in the rim of Bournemouth should travel north for a holiday seemed nonsensical. In any case, the distance west to Exmouth was about as far as anyone could bear to be cooped up in a car. Addie declined her sister’s invitation for the umpteenth time, and postponed thinking about the coalfield which she loved and hated in favour of a week’s leisure at the mouth of the Exe, as she did every year. There she strolled between the lido and the shops surrounding the Jubilee Gardens, and back again, repeatedly. Arthur sat in a deck chair and chain smoked, and when her circuit delivered her to his vicinity, she paused to visit him for an interval, before waving farewell as she moved on, like a cruise ship departing a port of call.
Back at home, they had friends round to view their photographs. Then they sat at a table and played whist. While Arthur poured glasses of port, a visitor reached a stand of nuts from the sideboard, and was about to break into one when Adelaide swooped like a bird of prey and snatched them away.
“They’re just for display Try these. They’re fresh.”
She smiled, but for an instant her composure was disturbed. The hazel nuts, which had been dusted a thousand times since their picking, formed a decorative, conical mound, perfectly centred on the porcelain fruit stand. They were the remnants of the basketfuls they had picked years before, in their first autumn together. Addie had spent two days selecting the most handsome clusters of shells, arranging them in a picturesque heap. When she and Arthur had eaten the remaining nuts, she was loath to upset the symmetry of the arrangement on the fruit stand, and decided to preserve it as a memento. Over the years its status changed to that of an icon. She polished the nuts until she could almost see reflected in their lustrous shells a vision of rolling hills wrapped in hedges of bramble and honeysuckle, scattered thickets, pheasants, a distant heath, and the end of a great pine wood.
A person would think that when one had little to do, time would pass slowly. But this was not the case. Adelaide’s years in Dorset seemed to become amalgamated into a single afternoon, during which she focused her eyes on the skyline beyond their unnecessarily long garden, and drank a cup of milky coffee while listening to a radio programme designed for women. Later, she wafted through her domain to see if the cleaning lady had completed her chores efficiently. Then she sat to wait for the clock to chime five, and when it did, the years were gone.
“We never talked about having children,” Arthur murmured from his death bed, as if this was something he had meant to bring up earlier.
“Shush,” Addie answered.
Although Arthur had always been away from home in the day, she had known that he was in place, not far away. When he had gone, finally and absolutely gone, she found the solitude disquieting. The peace of the still house became oppressive, and the mellow chiming of the Westminster clock, every fifteen minutes, seemed like the beating of a hammer on her skull.
“He is gone gone. He is gone gone. He is gone gone. He is gone gone.”
And then the hours:
“Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone.”
Five o’clock again. It would never be the same.
Like anyone who leaves for a better place, Adelaide knew that is the worst came to the worst she could always return home. She could survive in the coalfield as she had done for more than twenty years at the beginning of her life. But with luck the worst would not come. She stayed in their home for ten years before yielding to the awfulness that had invaded her life, before accepting that her escape was over. Then she returned, no longer a famous beauty, to be near to her sister and the survivors of industry who remembered her youth. When the train pulled away from the station where she had arrived forty years earlier, she sat in a carriage and looked at the ends of her shoes until Dorset was left far behind.
What Addie had not understood, as anybody fails to understand who imagines a return to a childhood home, if the worst comes to the worst, was that the home existing in her imagination was no longer to be found elsewhere. Although she knew that deaths had thoroughly altered the structure of her family, she expected its essence to remain unchanged. She pictured an indestructible web binding together the remnants of her generation with the children of the dear departed: the cousins, nephews, nieces and distant relatives who clung together, in her day, for no good reason beyond the fellowship of their name.
She had expected to dovetail into the world which her sister’s letters had suggested, but it was not there. She had seen a different, hope-filled reality in her sister’s words that had never been intended. And so she returned to a place more lonely even than the rooms she had wandered while waiting for the next chiming of the Westminster clock.
The warmth of the people, which she had missed in the polite avenues on the edge of Bournemouth, seemed to have been replaced by a coarseness which she failed to recognise as precisely the same coarseness she had known as a young woman, and remembered as warmth. When her sister visited Addie once a week, she left with a recitation of complaints ringing in her head, which she placed in a separate, sealed compartments for a further seven days while she got on with her own life. And since Adelaide had acquired a precise way of talking, and of dealing with people during her stay in Dorset, natives of her home town judged that she was a snob, and left her to herself.
Only one kind soul had time for the retuned stranger. The simple woman living in the other half of Addie’s semi-detached home listened with reverence to her stories of Sunday afternoon in Cranborne Chase, and holiday weeks at Exmouth, and shopping mornings in Bobby’s department store. She thought Adelaide was a real lady, and agreed to clean her house from top to bottom, every week, for a pittance. When she had finished her work, she would make a pot of tea for two, and urge Addie to recapitulate every detail she could muster, concerning life on the outskirts of Bournemouth.
Like her sister’s letters about events in the coalfield, Addie’s recollections of the south represented an idealised summary, and like the reading of those letters, they gave her the sense that she continued to live her former life, without experiencing its inessential details. Only now, she wished she could recall them all. She did not regret that she had done so little, but that the little she had done was so quickly forgotten.
One day she called her neighbour to sit the evening in darkness with her, because she always turned off the electricity when there was a thunderstorm, and was afraid to be alone. While she coughed a gentle, rolling cough, like boulders moving along a river bed, and drank pennydaisy tea for the good of her gallstones, she maintained an unending monologue about Dorset, as the cleaning lady watched to see what new expression of longing would be revealed on her face by the next flash of lighting.
After the storm had passed, Adelaide thanked the kind neighbour for her company and searched the house for a token of gratitude, returning with a brown paper bag. At home, the woman found that it contained hazel nuts. When she took a pair of crackers to open one, a cloud of grey dust, like a tiny puff of smoke, appeared in the space it had occupied. She broke another shell, and that too contained nothing but the powdered memory of a nut. Her husband crushed several of the hazels between his thumb and forefinger, as if they were blown thrush eggs.
“People like her are born mean,” he observed.
Next door, the old lady reflected on the joy which a few nuts had brought to the world, and saw on the pink membrane of her closed eyelids rolling hills wrapped in hedges of bramble and honeysuckle, a distant bilberry heath, and the end of a great wood.
Karl Manders is a journalist who has turned to writing fiction. His first novel, “Moths”, is a Vintage paperback.