Unfinished Symphony, page 3
His large brimmed hat hid his features and kept his face in shadow despite the bright sun. No one bid him good morning, no one said hello. No one dared interrupt the steady pace he had set.
The song guided him back to the small cottage. He reached down, unclasped the gate and walked up the garden path. The bees fled, the birds ceased singing, even the trees in the forest held steady in the morning breeze. He paused, something was different. He listened. The silence was broken by a deep guttural sound. The sound of oil boiling and bubbling as his laughter became louder and louder.
His brother had been here, interfering again. So that was why she had fled. No matter. He turned from the cottage and his long legs began to eat up the ground, faster and faster not even pausing to open the gate as he took it in one giant bound. Into the forest he ran.
Polly and Archie followed the path through the centre of the forest, it was approaching midday and the strong sunlight pierced through the canopy overhead. Ahead of them smoke from the gypsy camp curled up into the sky before drifting and joining the clouds.
Polly and Archie both turned at the shout.
“WHAT HO I SAY!”
Racing up the path was an old cart, out in front, straining at the bit was an angry looking horse. Straining with the reins, trying to get the horse under control was the fattest man Polly had ever seen. His rolls of fat undulated with every bump and his ponytail swished out behind him as he struggled to get the cart under control.
“OUT OF THE ROAD!” the large shirtless man shouted as Archie reached down and pulled Polly off the path.
The shirtless man pulled hard on the reins as the cart wheel rolled over another large bump, his belly swung with the momentum and pitched him over the side of the cart.
“OOOMPH.” He landed flat on his back and lay there as the horse and the cart vanished down the Old Huntsman path, the horse naying his victory.
Polly walked over to the man, the second she had found flat on his back. This was starting to become a regular occurrence and one she could very easily live without. Polly was pleased to see that at least this one was conscious.
“Good morning, I suppose you need some help?” Polly asked with her fists balled and placed on her hips.
“That I do but I’m thinking it might take more than a little girl and an old man to get Skinny Pops back on his feet. It’s my back you see.” His large laugh shook all seven of his bellies, the rolls of fat rolling like waves and crashing against his ginormous chin. “Oh ah, it even hurts to chuckle. Now be a love and run along, my camp is not far, just carry on down that lane and tell them Skinny Pops has come a cropper.”
“Polly” Archie said “I shall wait here with good Mister Pops, now run along and summon help.”
Polly turned and started heading down the Old Huntsman. She knew the camp wasn’t far and soon she could hear the sound of children playing and dogs barking, men arguing and women cackling. She could smell the cooking pots, simmering away cuts of old mutton and earthy vegetables and her mouth started to water.
She came out into the clearing known as Harlicks hollow. The gypsies wooden caravans painted in every imaginable shade, sprouted up out of the grass like giant colourful mushrooms. Half-naked children, their bodies the colour of dark chestnut ran in between the caravans, dogs snapping happily at their heels. Groups of young men stood around, glaring, looking sullen. Impressing the teenage girls with their cool indifference as they described imaginary battles, fights they had won. The teenage girls making daisy chains, acting with the same indifference to the boys they would no doubt marry one day.
Old men, their heavily muscled hairy arms resting on their substantial paunches as they sat dealing cards, talking about imaginary battles, fights they had won when their hair was less thin and their bones less weary. Old women sat in a circle stitching, knitting and watching, allowing the men the fallacy of their youth.
Polly walked into the camp, invisible in the hive of activity; she walked past the horses grazing and headed towards the first caravan. Not as brightly painted as the other wooden carts she placed her foot on the bottom of the three steps that led up at the back of the wagon. She raised her hand to knock.
“I wouldn’t do that my lady.”
Polly’s hand paused an inch from striking the wooden side of the cart. She turned her head and caught sight of a young boy walking out from between the horses
CRUNCH. He took a bite from the apple he carried and flicked his head to clear a strand of hair that had wandered across his face. The boy reached out and stroked the nearest horse, a large grey gelding and he opened his other hand offering the remainder of the apple. The horse nuzzled his hand and crunched loudly as he took the treat.
“That cart is belonging to Charlie the tooth. You don’t want to be waking him this early, he can be most unpleasant even at the best of times and this is most definitely not the best of times.” His welcoming smile looked bright against his chestnut skin as he offered his hand. “My name is William and this here is my camp, how can I be of service my lady.”
Polly took his hand and shook it. “I’ve come to get help, Skinny Pops has fell off his cart and …”
“Skinny Pops is hurt?” William asked before placing his fingers in his mouth. He blew a whistle loud and long, followed by three quick whistles. All activity in the camp stopped. The small children stopped, not moving an inch. The old women placed down the darns of wool and quickly rounded up the young ones, shepherding them into the wooden carts. Even the dogs fell silent and ran obediently up the steps into the caravans. The older children vanished as if by magic.
The group of men playing cards rose as one and produced clubs, knives, even a couple of shotguns. No longer looking like tired old men, their eyes danced with menace.
Polly took a step back.
There was a crash behind her. The door to the cart was flung open and Polly turned, an old man stood there in the open doorway. His skinny arms wrestled with the braces on his pants as he tried to hook them over his shoulders. Giving up he let the thin pieces of elastic fall over his pants describing an x over his groin, as if marking his and every-man’s weakness.
The few strands of white hair he owned stood up wild and wispy as he began to dance around waving his fists as his eyes bulged.
“Charlie’s here. I’ll fight the lot of ye’s. Come one, come all, form a line. Who’s brave enough to do the old dance with Charlie the ghost?” He began dancing in the doorway, shadow boxing and smiled revealing the one tooth he had left.
“Right then, looks like I’ll be coming to you.” Charlie the tooth took a step forward, his leg caught in one of his braces and he raced down the three steps on unsteady legs. The ground came to greet him faster than he expected and he landed straight on his face. Polly felt well prepared to deal with another unconscious old man. She started to walk towards him when William placed his hand on her shoulder. He raised his finger and pushed forward his ear, indicating to Polly to listen. She could hear gentle snores and Polly looked at Charlie’s chest as it rose and fell with each snore.
“Charlie’s moonshine liquor is the best there is. He won’t even remember this when he wakes.”
“Was’appenin young William? Why did you sound the alarm?” Polly turned as the group of men approached, unfriendly and stern looks on their faces. The man in front looked at Polly, his features all squashed and mashed to his face.
“It’s Skinny Pops, this here young miss said he has come a cropper. Fallen from his cart no less, he took that frisky mare out early doors trying to break her in.” Polly watched William as he addressed the adults with his chest puffed out. “Reckon she’ll be halfway to Babylon by now.”
“Skinny Pops is always the same with drink, thinks he’s the man he was twenty years ago.” The rest of the group nodded and grumbled their agreement and Polly noticed that the assortment of weapons had vanished as quickly as they had appeared. “Come
William raised his eyebrows at Polly signalling for her to lead the way. She turned away from the camp and headed past the snoring prone figure of Charlie the tooth. The small party headed back down the old huntsman and the man with the squashed face whistled a tune. William jogged a little to catch up with Polly, falling into step alongside her.
“I’ve not never seen you round these parts young miss, how come you happen to be down this way.” William said giving his head a flick, dislodging the stray strand of hair that had fell over his eye. His habit of flicking his head had begun to irritate Polly.
“Why don’t you cut that?” she asked.
“Cut what my lady?” he asked looking puzzled.
“Your hair, it just seems to me that if it was a little bit shorter you wouldn’t have to keep flicking it back all the time.” Polly smiled, pleased to be able to offer him some advice after all his help.
“Erm, I was, erm just trying to grow it is all. I thought it looked …”
“My father says only girls should have long hair and anyway I think it makes your head look too big” she said just as a matter of fact. Polly turned and smiled at William and saw the hurt in his eyes as she realised the weight of her words. This seemed to happen every time she spoke to boys, she had a terrible habit of saying the wrong thing or the right thing in the wrong way. She watched Williams’s cheeks colour.
“It does make you look awfully skinny though” she said with a big smile.
William mumbled something about heading back to the camp, he turned and ran off down the path. Polly shook her head, no doubt she had said the wrong thing again. Boys, she would never understand them.
Polly could hear voices and loud raucous laughter coming from down the road. They walked around a coppice of trees and Skinny Pops and Archie came into view. They sat on the floor, resting their backs against one another, propping each other up. A bottle was being waved around by Archie, the dark green liquid sloshing around inside like an angry sea. He passed the bottle over his shoulder to Skinny Pops who made a quiet remark about drink and beautiful women. Together they erupted into laughter and Skinny Pops drunk deep off the foul green liquid.
The leader of the group had stopped whistling and leaned down, whispering into Polly’s ear. “Looks like Skinny Pops is not the only one in drink.” He stood and shouted. “Come on boys let’s get the old general back on his feet.”
It was then Archie noticed Polly and her small party. He began to stand, without his prop, Skinny Pops fell flat on his back.
“Ah my dear your back” Archie said clambering to his feet. “Polly you’ll be pleased to know that Good Mister Pops has offered to share the warmth of his fire. Tonight my dear we shall join them for a feast unsurpassed anywhere in the three counties. Gentlemen” he said addressing the advancing troupe of gypsies. “Please allow me to introduce myself. The name in which I now travel is Archie, a wonderful name, don’t you think. Very indicative of the times I dare to add. My young companion who stands before you is Miss Polly and we are both delighted to make your acquaintance.” He leaned forward bowing as deep as his protesting knees would allow. As he stood, his eyes swam, and he reached out with his arm to steady himself.
“Oh dear” he said as he stumbled towards a hedge at the side of the road. He collided and vanished into the shrubbery.
Skinny Pops had managed to get himself up into a sitting position and his laughter filled the air, Archie’s head popped up like a startled daisy and soon his laughter joined that of his drinking companion. Polly turned, not the least bit impressed with her so called guardians behaviour.
Her anger carried her down the lane back towards the camp; she had no intention of staying with Archie, the bumbling old fool. He was more of a hindrance than anything else. Tomorrow, she would go home, she would get her sling shot and she would look for this man who wanted her song.
She walked into the camp, not even registering the staring faces or the yapping dogs that nipped at her heels. She walked past the horses and past Charlie; who was now sat up, leaning back against one of the giant cart wheels, drinking from a large plastic bottle filled with the same green liquid. He slurped, he burped, then continued his conversation. Talking to no one in particular, he made every effort to stress his point and validate his argument.
She stormed past him; at what point do adults suddenly become idiots? Does it happen overnight? She felt her eyes starting to sting and knew that tears where coming, she wouldn’t cry, she mustn’t. Polly started to run heading towards a row of trees. She charged into the undergrowth and dodged the trees.
Polly stopped as she left the last of the trees behind. A gentle slope of grass led down to the start of a vast river. Pebbles bordered the edge of the water and welcomed each wave as an old friend.
Polly slowed down and wiped the tears with the back of her hand. She took a deep shaky breath and then lashed out with her foot kicking the nearest pebble and sending it flying into the lake. Why do they always let you down? They were always so selfish.
“ARRGH.” Polly lashed out at another larger rock and sent it hurtling into the water. Then she bent down and sat on the pebbles. She removed her shoes and started to rub her bruised toes, they had already turned an angry red and the nail on her big toe was bent back, broken and bleeding. She dipped her toe into the cool bubbling water at the edge of the river and felt the pain ease.
“Excuse me young miss. Do you mind if I join you?”
Polly turned around and William was stood on the pebbles behind her. He smiled at Polly and she realised that his fringe had been hacked off in a rather crude manner. His messy hair looked like it was perfectly suitable for a bird to nest in. Polly also realised that she was quite pleased to see him. She patted the floor beside where she sat and he stepped forward and stooped down, joining her at the edge of the river. Her honesty had done nothing but hurt William’s feelings so she decided to be more tactful.
“Your hair looks nice” she lied.
“Thanks, if I’m being totally honest I hated my stupid hair. I was only growing it because all the older boys have long hair. Are you okay Polly? You seem to be mighty upset.”
“I’m just getting sick of being let down all the time. Every adult seems, I don’t know, they. I thought they were supposed to look after us.”
“Well, young lady allow me to offer my services.”
Polly couldn’t help but laugh at his earnest offer, he looked so serious. He was so small and skinny that he looked like a gust of wind would blow him all the way to the moon. She didn’t wish to offend him but the laugh just slipped out like a bit of excess wind. This time he didn’t seem offended and he joined in with her laughter.
“Really Polly, sometimes it can help just to talk through your problems.”
Polly looked at him and could see the warmth in his eyes. She began to tell him everything, about her mother, the farm, her father and her recent adventure with Archie. It all came out in a rush of words, as she listened to herself her problems didn’t seem as bad. Nothing had changed she just knew she wasn’t alone. She even laughed when she told William how Archie had fell into the bush. He sat there and listened and laughed till Polly was all talked out.
“My father died two years back now” William said “I still think about him, all the time really. Sometimes I am so frightened, so scared that I will forget his ways and I try to hold onto him. But still his memory seems to fade. Not in a bad way. I can still remember all the good things we did its just now the remembering doesn’t bring the pain.”
Polly smiled and her heart did feel a touch lighter. She threw a stone that skimmed across the top of the surface of the water. It bounced once, twice, three times and then splosh as it sank.
Polly lifted another pebble and started turning it over in her hands as she started to speak “My father once told me a story. It was about a goldfish and an elephant. You see th
“Anyway” Polly continued “one day an elephant and a lion were drinking at the water’s edge, keeping cool in the morning sun. The elephant and lion were good friends and often spent their time in the company of each other. As they drank, a little fish swam up alongside them, a little goldfish, and he jumped in and out of the waves.
‘Good morning’ he shouted and seemed delighted to have met the elephant and lion.
‘Are you having a good day’ the goldfish asked.
The elephant answered he was having a fine day and bid the little fish good morning. They discussed the weather and exchanged pleasantries before saying their farewells. The goldfish swam off. The lion and the elephant began to stroll around the edge of the lake and five minutes later up swam the gold fish. The same conversation was repeated and again the gold fish swam off to the centre of the lake. Confused the elephant turned to the lion that was both old and wise and asked if that was the same gold fish.
‘It was’ the old lion answered and then the goldfish appeared again.
The same conversation was repeated and again the goldfish swam off. By now the elephant was beyond confused and bordering on exasperation. The elephant shook his head and his giant ears cooled the lion as he remarked on the stupid and dim witted fish. The wise old lion laughed.
‘Why?’ he asked ‘Why was the goldfish dim witted and stupid?’
‘Ignorant’ said the elephant ‘Ignorant of the past, forgetful. Has a memory like a, well like a goldfish.’
‘Elephant my good friend, you have an excellent memory, the finest in the animal kingdom. Now think, and think long and hard. What wonders have you seen this past week?’
The elephant thought about the events of today, then yesterday, then the day before. The silence stretched on and on until it was disturbed by the gentle laughter of the lion.