christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: countryside

The Hay-Man and the Scarecrow Princess

A princess danced in the middle of spring
in ragged white skirts with her heart on a string.
She had a sheep bone jaw and stones for eyes
a cornflower gown and a tiara of flies.

She had perched all winter through frost and thaw,
heard the song of the robin, the old crow’s caw,
dreaming of fox gloves, poppies and teasel,
a friend to the badger, the field mouse and weasel.

In bog beans and brambles a hay-man stood
as lonely as a beech tree away from the wood.
His heart cried out for the princess of straw
who he watched from the hill and loved her more.

Through summers of heartache, winters of grief,
they were divided by ditches, bracken and heath.
Fixed to the earth, staring up at the sky
friend of the birds, he wondered why,

they could not be together and dance in the wind
their rags flapping gently, even though they were pinned,
he wanted to know if she felt the same way
or if she was happy alone in the hay.

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So he called for a swift who was quick through the air
and sent her a stitchwort to slip in her hair.
He waited ’till dusk for a gift in return
but nothing came back, no flower or fern.

So he spent the next day feeling sorry and flat
while a sparrow made its nest in his old top hat .
It left speckled eggs in his old jacket pocket
while his eye came loose in his old eye socket.

The princess meanwhile watched each setting sun
as the world slowly turned and she had begun
to wonder if ever a prince would see
her dance in the clover, and say, marry me.

For though she was not but a mile away
from the man on the hill, she faced the wrong way.
She could not look upon his scarecrow face
or see how he longed for her soft embrace.

Then one day the clouds turned black
a barn door blew open and then blew back.
The rain clattered down, on the rooftops it beat,
it splattered the mud and darkened the wheat.

But when the storm passed, it was then they found
the wind had blown the princess around.
As the sun crept out of its cloud hideaway
the scarecrow gazed upon his princess of hay.

Their love grew strong, that pearl of a summer,
and at every night’s end they danced for each other
and so all that was left, was one last thing:
she sent over at last her heart on a string.

But it was carried in the beak of a mean-hearted swallow
who dropped it down into a tree’s dark hollow.
The hay man waited for the heart to arrive
as a blood-red sun set in the blood-red sky.

Until at last he sent out his old friends the crows
who rescued the heart and dropped it down at his toes.
And the moment it fell there, a strange light shone,
a real man stood and the hay-man was gone.

He strolled down the hill, his shirt flapped in the breeze
and holding wild flowers, he went down on his knees
at the feet of the princess, now warm to the touch
and said, ‘do you love me’; she said ‘yes, very much.’

And so they married in a field of white flowers
in the eyes of the birds, in the cool evening hours.
A confetti of petals were dropped from the sky
then they slept in the poppies, the orchids and rye.

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Looking for Absalom

On little more than a family rumour, four of us pile into a jeep late afternoon and head off into the gold edged Norfolk countryside in search of a long lost relative.

A name on a scrap of paper, and a subsequent search of the records had revealed that my Great Great Grandfather Absalom (d. 1798) and Tabatha (some time after) – both good fire and brimstone Old Testament names – were agricultural workers in the small village of Wickmere, near Alysham, Norfolk.

Finding a village in East Anglia, without a map or phone is a little like collecting water without a container. For every helpful sign post, the next sign along has no mention of it whatsoever, as if it assumes you now have the general idea. You soon find yourself doubling back on yourself, driving into someone’s garden or heading towards Norwich, sometimes all three at the same time. We bump around the sharp, blind corners, churning up mud from the recent rains.

Norfolk

We know from a painting that we are looking a for a church with a round tower and so resort to navigating by sight. Eventually Roberta spots the church, some way away from the village itself. Like many other small, ancient villages in the area, presumably the people moved away from the church and its yard around the time of the plague. It transpires we are not the only ones who found the church difficult to locate, as reported on the Seven Church website:

‘To find Wickmere is something of a challenge. The nearer one gets, not only do the signposts become disconcertingly vague as to its whereabouts, but its splendidly named Regent Street nestles in a fold in the land.’

The road leads us to Wickmere church, described beautifully as one of the ‘high and lonely churches’ where we split up and search for our ancestral family name ‘Carr’ in the graveyard.

A shriek from my mother tells us she has found a Carr, in this case a Horace, perhaps a great uncle, and also an Elizabeth Carr, a Maria Carr, as well as a Henry and another Horace – the ubiquity of the name we suspect is due to the enduring popularity of local boy Horatio Nelson. The graves are covered in white and orange lichen, and are almost undecipherable, but we get the dates and a few words. These people’s lives feel frustratingly opaque and the record of their memory is fragile as the names fade from the stones. As the sinks lower on the horizon, we decide to continue our search for Absalom himself another day.

1798

I am Absalom
father of the fields,
friend of birds,
master of the soil
This is my world:
the clouds above me,
the sea around us.
At dusk, the sky
is like a lid of gold;
old windmills
are thimbles
on the horizon.
Churches are
ships at anchor.
I think of the past,
of Tabatha at the hearth
of the sun burning
through the pine trees.
Jewels of light
are scattered
across the land
I think of the future –
my son, still
scratching the earth,
spinning in space,
in seventeen
ninety eight.

 

The House in the Clouds

We woke to starlings at the window
pecking at the glass; a rainbow sprang
through one wall and out the other.
Clouds slipped through our bedroom,
and brushed against the sheets.
We let blue sky paint the doors
and left the leaves to carpet the floors;
that summer we nested in the air.

It was a house perched in branches,
as if flung there by a storm,
or borne on the shoulder of a giant.
Watchman of Suffolk, arrow to the stars
we spent days adrift in the mist,
the sun like a bail of hay in a field.
Come winter and our shadow
was like a giant’s against the snow.

Rain scudded against the roof; the wind
shook us like a die in the palm of a hand.
Each morning, we imagined the Witch
of the East, crushed beneath us:
the striped stockings, the ruby slippers.
It was the house that thought it was a bird.
We dreamt of the sea, the windmill our
a companion where X marked the spot.

House in the Clouds 2