Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Hattie Halfbrick


Most of what has been written for the Fekenham Tales has been of a humorous nature; sometimes slapstick with the occasional bawdy bit thrown in for good measure. I didn't want, and still don't, even if my wildest dreams of being a published author fail, to be a one-dimensional writer. This chapter features Hattie Halfbrick, the character of which was floating around my old brain box, unfleshed and unnamed as it were until I heard this wonderful song by Robert Wyatt from his equally wonderful album, ‘Comicopera’. Here is a Fekenham chapter that features Hattie Halfbrick.


Hattie Halfbrick lived on her own in the crumbling cottage that she had shared with
her long dead husband Harry. As far as Hattie could remember, Harry had gone. She
didn’t know where he had gone but the sense of his not being there was a hole that
bore into the centre of her being, a desperate feeling of inexplicable loss. There had
been a time when she had thought he would return; she imagined his head peeking
around the doorjamb and shouting out, as he always did, that he was home. That had
never happened and as the years, not that she counted time anymore lest it was a tick
and a tock of the damnable clock, had evaporated, she had given up on that idea and
now just thought of him, whenever and if ever she did, with a long, lost need.

Hattie was old, very old but again, she had forgotten how old and couldn’t truly recall
when her birthday was although May seemed right somehow. Something to do with
not casting clout's and flowers coming into blossom and cherries, yes, cherries, she liked a
cherry did old Hattie. Cherries and May. Hattie also liked to visit the canal where she
would stare at the canal boats as they passed and sometimes, without any visible
reason, she would hurl abuse at them as they passed, shouting foul obscenities which
she would never have used back when Harry was alive but, without her knowing why,
Harry and the flat, dark waters of the canal were inextricably linked. Bonded by some
mysterious quirk of nature that was a fog of her memory, a depth of hidden
consciousness that welled up whenever she approached the languid waters.
She sometimes visited the railway line as that didn’t invoke in her the feelings of rage and
murderous intent that overcame her when she stood by the canal. The trains speeding by as
flashes of silver upon a green backdrop had a mesmeric effect on her, much like her
childhood, when she sat in front of her parlour fire watching the flames rise and
dance. Often, when the thought occurred, Hattie would go up into the sooty attic of
her home and there, among the cobwebby collection of memories, she would sit,
knees to her chest, huddled like a child, leafing through old photos that carried a myth
of faces, faces that meant nothing to her now although the act of touching them was
deeply reassuring as was the act of leafing through the musty books that lay, scattered,
upon the floor. Scents and touch carried a greater wealth of history than the images she saw.

Few people came to see Hattie now. Once a day Maurice Tinkercuss, who doubled up
as the local postman and milkman, would call on Hattie leaving her a pint of milk and
any mail she may have received, bills mostly, all of which Hattie used as fuel for her
kitchen stove. She rarely sat anywhere in the house apart from the kitchen. The
parlour door had been closed for years shutting away the ghosts of her marital
evenings with Harry. The bathroom she used once a week with clock-work like ritual when she would take her bath: it was the only room she truly cleaned. Her
bedroom creaked with a mass of long-read magazines and newspapers that mounted
the walls in solemn, grey stacks.

Loneliness wasn’t a concept that Hattie thought of consciously but if haunted her
nights nonetheless and only the promise of a new day brought a hint of solace. When
the morning broke she would wander into the village and into the butchers where , as
he did every day, Neil Beefshanks would give her a pie that he had prepared and
baked the night before. She would take the gift from him, without a word of thanks,
only to eat in front of him in total silence. At first, Neil had found the way she looked
at him a little alarming, her grey unblinking eyes that stared at him like a fox
watching a boy with a stick. Crumbs would drift from her jaws and fall onto her chest
where some would float to the floor while the rest collected on her coat like a snowdrift.
Once she had finished she would leave without a sound whereupon Neil always called
out behind her, “Bye Hattie, see you same time tomorrow.”

Hattie didn’t like passing the school, certainly not when it was play time and the
children were gathered in the school yard. The name calling was more childish
mischievousness than calculated malice and the children didn’t think of the harm
or hurt their words might cause. Besides, Hattie was so old now and so distant that
their name calling appeared to have little effect. It wasn’t the names though that hurt
Hattie but the faces of the children. Their faces were like the dark depths of the
canal’s water, a flat reference point that held a forgotten truth, a truth that refused
recollection. No one in the village could remember a time before Hattie not even
Brigadier Largepiece: she had always been there, as much a part of Fekenham as
Metlok Tor or the ancient woodlands. At a guess, and many had tried, the best
estimate of Hattie’s age was around ninety but, if she was that old, and she seemed so
very nimble, then by God was she doing well for her age. November was a cruel time
for Hattie as the nights were long, the days short and the bitter winds of early winter
bit hard into her old bones. To be trapped indoors was an anathema to Hattie as she
couldn’t stand confinement, and if those that thought she was already mad could only
have known how wrong they were, how desperately sad she became when shut up at
home, on the verge of irrational hysteria, then they would have felt nothing but pity
for her. Her only glimpse of joy was to wander free around Fekenham, around the
areas that she had known since a child, the places that had always been there for her
throughout the years which now gave her the constant reassurance that she so needed.

November moved pale and grim into December; a wraith that swept autumn away
with frosty fingers ushering in yet another change in the life of Hattie Halfbrick.
Christmas meant nothing anymore although she liked the Santa Claus that stood in the
post office window and the tree in the high street festooned with gaudy tinsel and
lights. Beyond Christmas another year was waiting but what was one more year to
Hattie when each day was perishing long in itself?


With grateful thanks to Robert Wyatt whose song gave flesh to the bones of this chapter.


PS. My new team blog site can be found here: http://fishyfarts.blogspot.com/
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all words and art are copyright © of C.J. Duffy.

6 comments:

Perfect Virgo said...

One Dimensional? Never CJ! What struck me while reading this piece was how close satirical humour and poignancy really are. Hattie's story is undeniably poignant yet humour seems to be lurking never more than a few words away.

As a teenager 35+ years ago my grandmother used to chastise me for not wearing a coat in spring. "Ne'er cast a clout til May is out," she'd advise.

Thank you for the reminder mate.

weirsdo said...

This reminded me of my dad when he was very old. Great portrait of a mind many would consider opaque.
I got the story. I have a big concert Tues. and will get to it right after, if that is o. k.

C.J. Duffy said...

PV>>>And sound advise too!

Sue hardy-Dawson said...

Nice change of pace CJ, but Oh so sad

C.J. Duffy said...

weirsdo>>>No worries and thank you!

gel said...

This is so full, so colourful- anutterly enchanting tale. You have a gift of naming your characters in ways that catch the reader's attention, poke a bit of satire and humor, yet also describe his/her character.

As I'm sure I've said before, I could paint the scenes you write so deliciously vivid. CJ, you show a keen perception of human nature.