Saturday, 7 August 2010
This story was published in the NTU Creative Writing MA student anthology Kapow (Laundrette Books. 2009) and originally titled The Farmer's Last Breath.
By Pat Nurse
Jane took a deep breath and paused to steel herself before entering Henry’s bedroom. She could hear his whistling gasps sucking in and blowing out air. She pushed through the door and saw his hollow, grey and ashen face as she went in. His sunken eyes were wide. Her once strong, proud and honourable husband looked like a weak and terrified child.
Henry knew death would claim him soon. Each laboured, agonising breath could be his last. He had to make sure his conscience was clear and repent or he would burn for eternity in hell fire's damnation. Jane knew nothing of his secret. He had been so clever in keeping it to himself but now the time had come to confess.
“Here you are , dear,” Jane said gently. She put a tray down on a bedside table, and fluffed up her husband’s pillows, chattering as if it was a normal day and he had nothing worse than a cold. Thoughts circled her mind and she tried not to think the worst. She couldn’t bear to lose Henry after 35 years of marriage.
“You’ll be fine, my dear heart. Everything is being taken care of until you are well. Ned is doing a grand job on the farm so you don’t need to worry.“ She gently eased sips of soup into his mouth.
Changing the subject will cheer him up, she thought, before launching into the latest village gossip : “Oh, and Mrs Thomas’ boy James has gone to the Somme. She’s rightly proud but she’s wept every day since he left. So many young men dead already. We can only pray for them.“
Henry’s eyes bulged though paper thin lids at the mention of death. He was afraid. He grabbed Jane’s collar as she bent over him. “Listen… I have something … I must tell you …” His words were buried in a choking cough and drowned in phlegm that wouldn‘t shift. Jane watched his pathetic effort to breathe. Her heart was breaking but she couldn’t let it show.
“There, there, dear, don’t trouble yourself. Save your energy and use it to get better,” Jane eased him back onto his pillow. She put the soup down and sat on the edge of his bed.
Henry fought to sit up with surprising strength for a man dying of cancer. “I must tell you …. I must … “
“Why Henry, what is it, my love? It‘s as if the devil has got you!“
Holding on to her as if his soul depended on it, he drew in a breath as big as he could before bursting out a complete sentence in a rush : “Don‘t let the devil take me for what I did to May Wrangle.” The effort of speech was too much. Exhausted he lay back on his pillow.
Jane soothed his brow with a cold cloth. “Sleep, my love. Have no fear. You did what you could.” It must be his fever revisiting the ghosts of his past, she thought to herself.
Henry closed his eyes and drifted back 30 years to the summer of 1886. The harvest was ripening in the fields and the Wrangles were taking hay from him, if they paid up. That scoundrel Jack Wrangle never paid his debts and he owed rent. Henry would have thrown him out but for May and her son Ned. They didn’t deserve to go to the poor house.
As he walked towards the Wrangle’s small cottage homestead, Henry saw May churning butter. He watched her work for a while. Sweat slid down her pretty face. She was 40 but still with good looks. He tried not to notice the buxom shape that once drove him mad with passion which ended when she took Jack Wrangle into her bed. Jack stole her heart, married her and then treated her worse than a pig. Henry never regretted marrying Jane who had been a devoted wife, but May had broken his heart and he never really recovered.
He walked up to May who turned her head to speak as she worked: “Oohh, this job’ ll kill me one day but I got to gerrit t’market tomorrow. I’m almost dun.”
“Where’s Jack, then, and my rent?” Henry was angry.
“He took it. Sed he wuz tekking it to you. That bastard.” May pushed the churning handle away in temper and flopped on the floor in tears. Henry watched her crying and his heart melted. He took a hanky from his pocket and handed it to her. She wiped her eyes, stood up and went back to making butter.
“If I dunt get this dun, I’ll be fur it when ‘e gets ‘ome. Most likely ‘e be having a brick in his hat. A slave to ‘is bottle, that one. Damn that cursed drink! “
May began to package some of the butter ready for the next day. She wiped the sweat off her brow, and squinted her eyes to look up at the dying sun in the first throws of evening.
Henry hated to see this fine woman worked so hard for Jack to take the money : “You tell that drunkard that I’ll be back tomorrow and I expect him to be here.” He marched off without looking back.
Henry walked through the golden fields of his past as he drifted towards the last hours of his life. The heat of hell fired in his throat and jolted him awake. He coughed and puked. His throat felt like parched sand. His mind soared like a condor back in time and over the Wrangle’s cottage. Memory drew him back to the door and he heard himself knocking. It opened and the light that had flooded over Henry was blocked out by May who stood in the doorway, her hand partially hiding her face.
“What is all this? What has that scoundrel done to you? Where is he?“ Henry demanded.
May swung around and moved her hand away to her side. She pointed to some pudding set on the stove. “Made this fur ‘im, I did and he said ‘e dint wannit. Gunna go to waste coz we dunt like it, me and Ned. Dun it fur ‘im, special.”
Henry could see her eye was black and bruised. He moved swiftly towards her but she backed off. “It’s nowt, really, just dun it me sen. Hit the door with me eye as I went into the pantry… it’s nowt, really, nowt …” May picked up the basket of fresh butter. “I gotta geroff t’market. Tek sum of that pudding if you wanna to the missus. Needs using. Rest can stay theyar til ‘e ‘as it.”
May left the house leaving Henry alone with the pudding. He sat at the table for a while brooding and then he moved towards the pan. He dipped his finger into the mixture and tasted its sweetness. It reminded him of his first kiss with May.
Next morning, Henry woke to the sound of frantic banging on his door. “Alright, alright, I’m coming.” He pulled on some clothes and went downstairs. Behind the door was May and Jack’s 12 year-old son Ned.
“Come quick mister! Ma’s in trouble. They think she killed our ole man. She never dun it. She wunt do it. Poison in the pudding they said… but she never, she never wud a dunnit. “ He began to cry and Henry led him into the parlour.
“Here, lad, sit down, let’s see if we can sort this out with the police.”
The local bobby, PC Hunter , told Henry that Jack had died in excruciating agony the night before : “Dun got the doctor down theyar and he dun said she dunnit. She musta put arsenic in his pudding what ‘e ate when he gor ‘ome las’ night. She never ate none so she musta dun it and he sed she did. “Hates me the wench does,” he sed, did Jack. Condemned her with his last words, he did. She be before the judge tomorrow but it’ll be a hanging, I’m bound.”
Henry’s face reddened. The news outraged Jane.
“We will write to the bishop and ask him to pardon her. We’ll tell him what that Jack was like. They can’t hang a mother surely to God they won’t?” Jane said. She knew of Henry’s young romance with May but that was years ago. She shared his pity for the poor woman now.
When the case got to court, May sat silently with her head bowed in the dock listening passively as accusations abounded about her hatred of her husband. It was as if she wasn’t really there. In her mind she revisited the meadow she played in as a child with Henry. For a moment she had her feet in the stream that cut through the cornflowers, buttercups and daisies and she was laughing. She looked up to see the judge donning the black cap and the water turned murky and dark.
“You will be taken to prison and from thence to a place where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead. You are a wicked woman and the world is better without harlots like you. Take her down!”
“I never killed no-one, I dint. I dint kill him..” she screamed as she was dragged down to the bowels of the court.
Henry, sitting in the public gallery, could hear the echo of her cries and screams for “Justice, justice, Lord gimme justice,” carried on hollow air . He hung his head and stared at the floor.
Jane began to petition for her release with Henry’s less than enthusiastic support. He is so busy with the farm and the tenants, she told herself, that he hasn’t the will for this sort of fight. She rallied round friends, family and even the local clergyman to secure a stay of execution. She wouldn’t give up on May. Jack was a bully and if May killed him, then there was good reason. She visited May in the condemned cell as often as she could. She campaigned tirelessly for her cause, writing letters to anyone with influence who would listen.
“Keep hope, May, Salvation must come,” Jane told her.
May seemed cheered by this news. “I‘m not gunna die. All‘s gunna be well,” she told Ned after Jane arranged his visit. “They‘ll see it wunt me whut dunnit.”
Singing happily to herself, May knew it would only be question of time before she would be free. God loved her and he wouldn‘t give her soul to the devil. But without warning, her cell door was thrown open early the next morning and the priest, the guards, and the hangman stood behind it.
The priest spoke : “May Wrangle, you were sentenced by the court to hang until you are dead. Your appeal failed and now the time has come for you to confess your sins and enter the Kingdom of Heaven with a clean soul,”
“Nooooooo ! No, no, no! This is murder. I never dun it why dunt you listen!” The guards dragged the poor woman out of her cell as she kicked and struggled with all her strength and little hope. The priest chanted as he walked behind her and prayed for her soul. She could barely breathe such was her terror and panic. Fighting for her life was futile but she gave her all to the battle.
“’Urry up and get ‘er on the scaffold. We don’t want her passing out with fright. The public ‘as to see this evil harridan get what she deserves…” said a guard.
The hangman supported a weak and trembling May as he slipped the noose around her neck. Within a minute, there was a bang, a crack and a snap. Silence fell upon the crowd as May swung lifeless from the creaking rope. Jane couldn't bear to watch but Henry was there. He moved forward and watched the macabre scene. A tear fell down his cheek. He lowered his shame, put his arm around Ned, and moved him away. An hour later May was cut down and taken off to be buried in the prison churchyard alone. Henry and Jane took Ned in and treated him like their own son. They had no other children and loved him dearly. Jane was content and happy with her new family. Even though it came to her by foul means, she felt complete and she was indeed a good mother and grandmother.
Henry’s eyes opened and the past was gone. He looked at Jane sitting on the edge of his bed. There were others there now as well. The rev Hipplecote was saying prayers, Dr Puddick was feeling his pulse. A wave of panic ran through him and he knew this was his final chance. His Salvation depended on the truth. In a weak, barely audible and hoarse voice, he whispered and motioned the clergyman to come near. The priest put his ear so close he could feel the warmth of Henry’s breath. His nose turned up at the putrid smell coming from Henry’s mouth.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned…” he began.. “ The devil will have me ... I must speak. . .. I should have saved May ..” Henry began to puke and wretch and cough as if he was turning inside out : “Damn, damn …” he said in frustration that he could not confess and save his soul.
“There, there dear,” said Jane. “Don’t upset yourself. It wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have stopped her. You couldn’t have saved Jack.” Jane turned to the clergyman. “He always blamed himself for what happened but it’s not as if he put the poison in the pudding is it..?
Henry’s eyes widened so much, it looked like they would explode. He tried to speak but nothing but air came from his mouth. When it was all expended, he was gone. The priest closed his eyelids and put pennies over them : “He was a good man. God rest his soul,” he said.
Jane cried and buried her face in her hands.