Hurry Please

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June, and a perfect day for this visit, which I had promised myself for many years. I had a childish sense of excitement as I drove towards the cottage, through the lovely countryside of Cornwall. My route took me past the church that I had heard so much about. I decided it would be a good idea to stop there on my way. The day was blue and bright and welcoming as I parked my car just outside the church. Away on either side of me rolled farmed fields. There they were, the family graves.

It was just as I was looking at them reading the inscriptions and thinking over the fact that so many of the males of the family bore his name, that I heard a burst of fine, lively music coming from the church. I went to the door and could hear clearly the sound of a violin and a cello, and a sweet, rough singing of country voices. I opened the door slowly, not wanting to intrude on a service but eager to hear the music more clearly. The sounds stopped at once. I pushed open the door fully and went in. There was no one there.

Yet there was still the echo of music that lingered still, as though the singers and musicians had only paused, and were waiting for me to leave. I crept round, listening to the silent church and went out again glad of the warm embrace of sunlight. I closed the door behind me and waited, half-expecting the music to start up, but there was nothing. Yet I was certain that I had heard it earlier. I wanted to take time, even then, to stroll around the churchyard and look and the many graves, but something was tugging me away from them. The music had certainly disturbed me, but there was no more than that.

I had the nagging feeling that something had been left undone. I couldn’t relax there. For a moment, as I stood hesitating in the church porch, it seemed to me that the far horizon was breaking up. Instead of fields of neat farmland there seemed to be a vast dull wilderness. But as I came out of the churchyard I realised I had been mistaken, the sun had slipped behind the clouds and dulled the light, that was all. I returned to my car and set of on the last part of my journey, to the cottage. I parked my car and walked half a mile of so along a woodland path. Even though I had lost the full sun now, I was sticky with heat.

Patches of sunlight dappled through the leaves and lit clumps of bluebells and around them flies lumbered heavy with noise. A strange feeling of urgency hurried me on. Of course I was anxious to arrive. At last, there it was, after so many turns and twistings. I saw first the great beech tree at the back of the cottage. I had seen pictures of it so many times that I could have drawn the cottage for memory, with its long thatched roof arching over the latticed windows, and it’s three tall chimneys. I hurried round to the front. No, this surely was the wrong place.

Here were two buildings, leaning against each other, but separate dwellings, surely. I stepped back a moment to look at he sign but was reassured that I had indeed come to the right place. Then came a drumming of hooves on the lane behind me, of a horse and cart being driven with great urgency. It pulled up so close to me that I was knocked of my feet and into the hedge behind me. A man in a long-coated lack suit jumped down from the cart and reached up for a black bag. He hurried past me without acknowledging my surprised greeting, down the path and into the house and into the front door.

Almost immediately the door of the smallest house opened and a white-haired woman came out. She too was dressed in black, in the long skirts of the last century. She followed the man quickly into the main house. I stood at the gate very confused and curious. Perhaps it was some sort of play, especially for the visitors. In that case I had arrived just in time. I heard someone coming up behind me. “Would you hurry, please,” a woman’s voice said. I turned and saw no one. “Hurry. ” I looked the other way, and distinctly felt a slight moving of air as if someone was brushing past me.

I stepped back, then heard the click of the gate behind me. A faint sweat of fear came over me, yet there was still the nagging sense of urgency and purpose. I opened the gate and closed it, tried it again and it gave the exact same sound I had heard. Someone had come through it. Very gently, I closed it again and turned to the house. There, in front of me, was the cottage I had always expected; a long single building, with a long stone path winding through the garden on tulips and lavender to the one front door. There was no sign now of the cart and horse, of the hurrying people.

I had imagined everything. I had spent years wanting to come look around the gardens, explore the house and rooms. But now all I wanted to do was turn around and walk straight back out through the woods and drive straight back home. Yet I have travelled so far, for something I have longed to see for years, I cant just leave. The women’s voice I had just heard echoed in my head. “Would you hurry, please. ” I had heard it, and the click of the gate, the scuff of her boots on the path. I had not seen her but she had seen me, I had to go in.

I was greeted at the door, and was invited straight into the parlour to the left of the porch. “You’ve had a lot of visitors this morning,” I said lightly. “Not at all. You’re the first to come today,” I was told. “And the play? ” I felt foolish saying it. “Has it started? ” “What play do you mean? ” The warden shook his head and smiled. I went through the parlour feeling a little anxious. Yet the room was peaceful and calm. It smelled of polish, and had the quiet and ordered appearance that rooms acquire after they have not been lived in for a great deal of time. It was a show room.

I glanced casually around, recognising the room from descriptions I had read, the floor ‘hollowed and thin’, the one long beam bisecting the low ceiling, and the deep blossoming fireplace. I crossed over to the two windows. I could almost hear his voice then chanting in my head: ‘Here was the former door, where the dead feet walked in. ‘ I tried to shake the words away. He had come from a family of builders – all kinds of changes would have been made to this house. At the far end of the room was a thin wooden door leading, as I knew, to his fathers office, and through there to the stairs. I was unwilling to go that way yet.

I felt I wanted to be out in the sunlight. It was cold. I touched the glass of the window where the flowers pressed against it and there it came again, as clear as it had been in the garden outside, the agitated stir of hurrying feet, the scuff of boots on stone. I felt the cool sensation of someone brushing past me, and heard the words again. “Would you hurry, please,” and knew that they were being spoken to me. But the room was empty, the only sound was the birdsong in the garden outside. I called out. “Who’s there? ” The house was silent. And now at the same time, it was full of movement, of panic even.

I ran to the porch, shouting, “Didn’t you see someone then, a woman did you let her in? ” The porch was empty. I was just at the point of walking out the front door and into the garden when I heard the sound of a woman crying out in pain from one of the upstairs rooms. The sound echoed round the house, rolling from room to room. Frightened though I was, it was my instinct to turn back to the porch and run right through the parlour and up the stairs. I went straight into the main bedroom of the house. This, I was sure, was where the cry had come from. There was not a soul to be seen there.

I was about to go to through to the further room when I heard a sharp intake of breath, a gasp here, a sigh from the other side – all around me, it seemed unseen people were breathing. Then the sounds quietened down. I steadied myself, and made myself take the time to look around me. The room was light, having windows at each side, but cool because of the low thatch which kept most of the sunlight out. The floorboards were of fine old chestnut, and a large bed took up most of the room. There was certainly nobody in the room. As I crossed over to the next room, the gasping started again.

I pressed by hands against my eyes, wishing myself well and sane again, heard footsteps on the stairs, and looked round. I had not been aware before that there was a large fire lit in the fireplace, setting the room moving with the flickering dance of flame and shadow. Surely I would have noticed that, and been grateful for its heat. Someone was pushing past me, breathless, as if they were carrying an awkward burden. I heard the slop of water, and saw then in the firelight’s shads, half in and half out of real light, the old white-haired woman setting down a large and steaming bowel by the bed.

Now other shapes came dimly into view. They were fragmented and unfocused, shapes and shadows first, and then they began to take form and a degree of colour. There were several people in the room. A young man was over by one of the windows, substantially blocking out the light. He had his back to the room. Th older man who had arrived in the coach was bending over the bed. By his pose I could tell he was a doctor. In the bed was a young woman. She was pale, lying back as if exhausted. A mop-capped nurse on the other side of the bed leaned across and wiped her face with a cloth.

The young woman gave another gasp of pain, and I turned away from the other window to the reassurance of sunlight cutting out a small gold square on the floorboards. Musical instruments were leaning against the wall, a violin and a cello, put down as if carelessly, in a moment of anxiety. I wanted to touch them, to make sure to myself that they were real. Without realising it I was walking on tiptoe. I hardly dared to breathe. As I moved, I put my hand out carefully to touch the bed, to touch the figures there, to touch the instruments. There was nothing.

Slowly I passed the circumference of the room, frightened of almost displacing the air with my movement. Where the figures had been there was nothing. I felt an overwhelming sense of dread and loss, and into that sensation came the voice which had no doubt belonged to the doctor. “It’s a boy,” he said quietly. “But I am afraid, Jemima, he is dead. ” He lifted up the pale still body of a baby and, rolling it in a sheet, put it aside on the chair and bent to attend the women again. The man at the window, surely the husband, gave a gasp of dismay and came to the bed. It was evident to me that it was too painful for him to look at the baby.

He sat down on the edge of the bed and took the young woman’s hands in his own, murmuring out soft words of comfort to her. The older women, his mother maybe, sighed and crossed the room. The doctor poured water from the jug at the washstand a soaped his hands. He was distressed. He had done his job as well as he could. “I’ll leave you to the monthly nurse and your family,” he said. “I have more work to do in the village. ” Those moments seemed to last forever. There was nothing to be done, nothing anyone could do, it seemed. The family quietened into a sad and exhausted resignation.

Yet now, over the silence I could hear the sound of other voices, rising and falling in echo, clamouring for attention. They seemed to be coming from every corner of the room, from the fields outside, from the air itself. I felt I could drown in the welter of sounds, the voices of men and women and children, soldiers and farmers and country girls, marching and dancing out, their words jostling like the insistent buzzing of summer insects in a garden. Every now and again I caught something familiar in the words they were saying, as if I had heard them spoken before, as if they were shouting to me out of memory.

I was washed in their sea of sadness and panic. And clearly through all the sounds came that first voice again, at my side this time, a woman’s voice speaking to me. “Would you hurry, please. ” None of the family had looked at the dead baby on the chair. I crouched down next to it, anxious to catch a glimpse of what might have been. I knew exactly who it was. I was sure then that I saw just the tiniest movement of its fingers. It was as if a butterfly had moved tiny wings. Surely he was alive. There it came again. It was the slightest flexing of a finger. I put my cheek to his lips, and felt the smallest kiss of air.

He was alive. “He’s not dead! ” I shouted, “Listen to me. He’s not dead! ” But there were no ways of making them hear me. The doctor rolled down his sleeves, the nurse held out his coat for him. Then the old mother stooped to pick up the bowl and carry it away. The husband drew close the curtains so his young wife could sleep. “He’s not dead! ” I shouted into their faces, but there was nothing I could do to make them listen to me. I tried to lift up the child but my hands slipped through empty air. And still the voices clamoured round me, begging for attention.

“He’s not dead! ” I shouted again. Frantic now, I looked round me for some way of attracting the attention of the figures in the room. I felt in my pockets and found there the book that I had brought, and that I had been reading again the night before. Instinctively I flung it on the floor in front of the nurse, just as she was handing the doctor his bag. As if something had startled her, she looked towards the direction of the sound. There was no book there for her to see. She had heard the sound from somewhere in her imagination, I think. Slowly she put down the bag and reached over to where the baby was bundled up in its shawl.

With one hand to her mouth she moved away a corner of the sheet. The baby’s fist unclenched. “Dead! ” she cried. “Stop an minute! He’s alive enough, sure! ” I leaned back against the wall, faint with exhaustion. The voices drizzled around me, too fragmented now to catch. I saw the doctor and the nurse attending to the child, heard it first strong cry, saw him being lifted into the air and put into the young mother’s arms. “Rupert,” her husband said. “Young Rupert Grant is born. ” In the way that the moving shapes cast by firelight around a room and then extinguished, so the figures in the room dissolved.

A great peace descended on the house, and on me. I believe I went into a kind of deep sleep there, standing as I was. Certainly I was startled into wakefulness by the sound of a sudden burst of laughter coming from outside. I looked out of the window, into the dazzle of the sun, and saw that the garden was full of people, visitors, like myself, taking photographs, crouching to smell the flowers. Soon the house would be invaded by them. Already now I could hear voices in the room below me. I went through the narrow doorway and heard footsteps behind me.

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