A Christmas drink with Nathaniel. A Somerset man I wrote about twenty years ago, an ex-farm worker and relic of a village England between the wars.
A Visit to Nathaniel
He had made the round-topped table under the front window from beechwood. At its centre, rooks flew over a stand of winter elms, and in a broad belt around the edge of it, a carousel of small animals ran and tumbled in demented, secret delight.
Nathaniel touched each animal in turn, and as if for the first time, named them: Rabbit, Stoat, Hare, Shrew, Mole, Squirrel, Rat, Otter, Fox and Badger.
On top of the television and a sideboard and hung on the walls were displayed some of his other wood carvings. Among them a Romany vardo, with a couple of tethered ponies cropping the verge; a retriever with a plump pheasant in its mouth; a team of two Shire horses, the drag and weight of the plough cut into their shoulders; and a vixen, head up to the wind, her mask tight with concentration and need.
And on a round plaque on one of the walls, a small bird encircled by thorns. The bird, Nathaniel told me, was a robin, the thorns those of the hawthorn, from which was made the Crown of Christ.
The breast of the robin, Nathaniel said with an edge of impatience, as if he'd had to explain this many times before, was, in the beginning, white. But it went to our Lord bleeding on the cross, holding water for Him in its beak. And came away from Him with His blood on its face and on its breast. That is why the robin is said to be so confiding in man, and why its winter song sounds of lament.
We sat down by the fire and refilled our glasses.
We were drinking cider laced with gin because it was Christmas Eve. In the small tiled fireplace ash logs burned steadily, helped along by Nathaniel who gave them a poke now and then with his stick, sweetening the air with their scent.
There was a refugee air about the old man, sitting with his wood carvings in that neat and otherwise featureless room. A man who had left the rest of his past behind, who had been fed and numbered and was waiting now only for some sort of collection.
We were sitting in the front room of his old people's bungalow, one of a cul-de-sac of them tucked away in a corner of the council estate on the edge of the village, their modern oblong windows giving them a vacant look, the small clipped lawns in front like bibs for mouths.
Nathaniel was touching ninety, a big man, his physical decline sitting on him like an ill-fitting suit. Over half a century had weathered his body, his muscles hard with knots, which pained and held him stiff.
In a worn leather-framed photograph on the mantelpiece a young Nathaniel posed with his new wife outside a terraced cottage, their first home together, one arm hugging her to him, and looking straight into the camera with a smile as confident as a wink. His wife, Flora, had the look of a woman pulled laughing in protest from the kitchen, taking off her apron perhaps and tidying herself as she went, and half resisting now, as if in the sudden company of strangers, the teasing arm around her, composing herself for the serious business of having a photograph taken.
''We were married near sixty years, me and Flora. Sixty years along o' me. She's dead now. Yes.''
He reached for his tobacco tin and papers on the mantelpiece, the edges of the tin showing though silver, a scratched and faded picture of a bearded Tar of the King's Navy on the lid.
''She were a good mate to I, my Flora. My mommet. We had some good times together. And some bad, mind. Oh, yes. And some bad.''
Nathaniel teased a thin line of tobacco along the cigarette paper, his movements slow and a little shaky, his large, blue-veined hand knotted and stained with age, the little finger bent with an old break. The result, he'd told me earlier, of a fight with Big Willie Boswell, a travelling man up for the apples. They'd followed the Romany rule, stripped to the waist on a fighting mark made that day nearly sixty years ago by the heel of a boot in the grass behind one of the cider orchards. A mark to which the loser, Big Willie Boswell, afterwards failed to come up to.
''A girt big bastard, 'ee were. Used to wear a woman's scarf round his neck, and a gold pin, a horseshoe, near as big as a pony's. Rings on his fingers. His brother, Nelson, made him take 'em off first. I can see 'ee now, Willie. Built like a Shire, prison tattoos up his arms, standing there. I got a hold of him straight away, went to him like a lover and rammed my head up into his nose. I had my work cut out, I can tell you that day. We got drunk together afterwards together, me and Willie. Big Willie Boswell. I can see 'ee now…''
Nathaniel sealed the cigarette paper with his tongue, and looked at me, the lacquer of age on his dark eyes like the crust of old fires. ''And times could be bad, could be hard. Oh, yes. Hunger, cold, worry. You got to know 'em all.''
He struck a match to his cigarette, his hands cupped around it as in a gale. ''And I were what they used to call a useful man. I could plough, pack a good straight furrow, sow, reap, mow.'' Nathaniel's low, warm breath of a voice blew on the words, rekindling them down the years, coaxingly, with an old confidence.
''I could lay an 'edge, work all day with a scythe. I could lamb, shear, ditch, thatch. Work as a horseman, cowman. Do most carpentry. Do most anything. Yes. That's all gone now, of course. Well, no need for it, see. Noa, no need for it.''
He thought about that for a moment, leaning back with his glass and cigarette, and then said: ''You can't blame they today, though. No. Took near a week then to turn a five-acre field, huddled behind a team of them big old boys, working through whatever the good Lord happened to send down. Now 'tis a morning's work with a tractor, and you can shut yourself up in the cab with a wireless while you'm doing it. Noa, you can't blame they these days.''
Nathaniel took a drink and studied me. ''And I'll tell 'ee something else. You could be out there in winter with nothing in you all the day but maybe a slice or two of fat bacon or a bit of bread and cheese. And your wife at home going without to keep the kids quiet.''
With an old man's sudden anger he went on, ''You had to get out a bit at nights, see! Get out a bit and take some off 'em. Oh, yes!''
Nathaniel turned his face to the fire. ''I had a good old dog then, a lurcher,'' he said after awhile. ''And an A 410. A poacher's piece. No louder than a sheep's fart.''
He looked up, his eyes gleeful with memory. ''And you could break it in two, see …'' he put the glass to show me, miming the actions, his hands young again ''… tie the butt under one arm, the barrel under the other, and your coat buttoned-up over it. With a new moon on its back, and that old dog of mine slipping ahead …''
Nathaniel growled with delight. ''My Flora, she'd be up at all hours burning the feathers, nagging I out to the back garden to bury the carcasses. The kids hanging out the bedroom window, whispering and giggling, and Flora, holding up the lamp, standing at the kitchen door in her night things.''
He grinned across at me, a brown, cracked grin of teeth, his eyes moist with drink. ''I were a wicked bastard, sometimes, I must tell 'ee that. I were no angel. Noa, no angel.''
We freshened our glasses and drank to that.
It was growing darker in the room now, and Nathaniel, with the aid of his stick, limped over to the light switch, and then drew the curtains.
Returning to his seat, he paused in front of the plaque on the wall, the robin ringed with thorns, and swaying slightly, mock-punched the air in front of it, across the face of it. A gesture which had something in it of the rough, teasing, almost puzzled affection that big men will sometimes show to women and small children. A gesture that speaks not only of strength and weakness, and of experience and innocence. But also, somehow, of wistfulness.
We saw off the last of the cider and Nathaniel got down to the singing, 'The Blackbird', the 'Pleasant and Delightful', and 'The Painful Plough', deftly threading the words through the intricate rhythms, his smoky old voice needing no accompaniment.
''We used to sing a lot in the old days. Sing at work. Sing in the pub. Sing going to work and coming home. Sing to the horses. Sing in the fields, sing in the sheds. Sing everywhere.''
One of his sons was due to take Nathaniel back with him to spend Christmas with the family, and we mustn't be drunk, noa. But just a small one for the road. And because it's Christmas.
Nathaniel lowered his gin and water, and studied me for a few moments, head back, chin pushed out.
And then, as if a challenge, said: ''When I were a lad, father and mother used to tell us that on Christmas Eve, near midnight, the cattle would kneel in their stalls.''
He aimed a forefinger at me in a sudden movement. ''Now that were old Christmas Eve, mind. January the fifth. And on Christmas Day, January the sixth, the white thorn, the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury, flowered. The thorn planted by the man who buried Christ. Joseph of Arimathea. Come here to bring the good news. Yes!''
He studied me again, and then smiled, slowly. ''Let you and me have another drink. A small one. For the road.''
I told him he was a wicked bugger. And he laughed, a sudden shout of a laugh, and slapped his hands together hard, like a horse dealer. ''Yes!'' he grinned. 'Yes!''
He saw me to the door after that, standing stiffly and limping his way across. And waited in the doorway until I had reached the gate, the light from it seeing me down the path like a lantern.
There was frost on the air and the smell of fires, the sky torn with stars. Merry Christmas and spray-on snow and the lights of trees, and television sparking behind drawn curtains as I walked down through the estate.
I took the road which ran along the valley side, and back up into the village, the stiffening fields falling away one side into the night, the glimmerings of lights from scattered farmhouse windows almost drowned in the dark flood of the valley.
And then, walking up into the lampless High Street, the bells of St Mary's broke above me, their simple rough strength shaken from its ancient tower, ringing out clear across the valley. Ringing out, rising and triumphant, the sound of them in the darkness like the sudden bright comfort of lights.