Manny Parker was a botanist, out in all weathers, lived with his sister that ran the sweetshop, they ate meat Fridays, they were Protestants. Your mother dealt there, found them honest.
They put chocolate aside for her because it was rationed, six bars of plain and six bars of fruit and nut. These she stored in the sideboard along with jams and jellies. The sideboard was dark brown, the keys missing, but since the doors opened with a terrible creak it was nearly the same as having them locked. No one opened those doors without the whole house knowing. When the bitter oranges came from Seville in the spring, Manny Parker’s sister made a marmalade and the pound pots were put to cool on the counter where everyone could see them and compliment her on them. She favored a coarser marmalade than your mother and the shreds suspended in the dark jelly were like seeing pet fish in a tank.
The Wattles were in the gate lodge, across the road from the gates. The gates were green, and speared along the top, the hasp missing. One gate was loose in its pivot and when it slipped out you had to hold on for dear life or you fell, gate and all.
They were named the Wattles because their daughter Lizzie went to Australia and came home, and had yellow jaundice. Before she came she sent snaps of herself and they got the Gramophone mended and bought a record Far Away in Australia but she said that was the last thing she wanted to hear and asked bitterly where the pipers were. She threatened to go back but didn’t. The Wattles never opened gates because they didn’t get paid. The two old people had the pension.
Mr. Wattle called everyone Mister and when Mrs. Wattle bought a cane chair he said Am I in my own house at all Mister? When the cow did number two into the pail of milk, Mr. Wattle who was milking didn’t see it. The women strained the milk over and over again through a strainer and through muslin but it was still yellow and it smelled. The other time when milk had a smell was when the cows were given turnips or the grass was too rich.
That rich grass was called aftergrass and your father prized it for his horses. If the gates were left open, or if the big stone was not put to them, cattle got in or got out and either ways there were ructions, investigations as to who was to blame. Your mother could not bear to see and hear stray cattle dispersing all over the fields because she had a presentiment that they were going to be there forever, fattening themselves for free. Yet they were never turned out. Only the tinker’s stock was driven out. Tinkers’ ponies were canny. They grazed on the roadside, never shied when cars and lorries went by and if they saw a guard coming had the good sense to saunter off. The tinkers settled in the evicted field that belonged to no one because two married brothers fought over it and neither would let the other till it. Some nights there were lots of caravans there with lights shining through the half doors, some nights it was like every other field, dark and empty and dangerous.
Dan Egan was dead but his name lived on because there was a tree named after him, a horse chestnut. Boys shook it for conkers and if they got caught they got a hammering from your father. Dan Egan was buried over on the island where your mother said she would not go because there would be no passers-by to pray for the repose of her soul. You were afraid your mother might die, before you. Over on the island there were birds and ruins. The ruins had metal plaques on them saying what period in history they were built in. Saints and scholars had lived there. One door had a lintel with four recesses and the stones were as brittle as bread crumbs. Visitors went in rowboats and walked around the ruins. On a fine day the surface of the lake glittered like tin but it never happened to be like that for a regatta.
There were cattle on the island belonging to the butcher, bullocks. They made themselves at home on the graves, disentangled the wreaths, trampled on the glass domes and chewed flowers that were supposed to be everlasting. Those flowers were of calcium and looked like bones but no corpses showed above the ground because the graves were dug deep.
If dead people appeared it could only be at night, the way Dan Egan was said to appear under the shade of the tree named after him. Whenever his name was mentioned your father said Poor devil, God rest him. Your father and he got drunk together, played cards and clicked girls. Your father didn’t mention girls but there was a photo of them both on a sidecar, each with a girl, and each couple with a rug over the knees. It was taken at the Horse Show to which they went annually. They went everywhere ttogether although Dan Egan was a lot older. When the lake was frozen they walked nine miles to an all- night dance, and Dan Egan insisted on draaaaagging a boat behind them and your father was bucking, but providential it was because on the way home in the morning the ice began to go. When they got in the boat they found they had no oars and Dan Egan was cursing and blinding and they were bobbing around like that between the floats of ice until a coal boat went by at midday.
Your father met your mother at that dance but didn’t throw two words to her. Your mother was all dolled up, home from America on holiday, had a long dress and peroxide in her hair. Your mother put the eye on him then and got her brother to invite him up to their house to walk the land.
Your father could guess the acreage of any field by walking it. That and horses was his hobby and off nights with Dan Egan for sing-songs and out on the lake shooting duck. Dan Egan and he lived in a big house with an old tiddly nanny and when they got home drunk in the mornings she used to bring up shaving water and whisky, a mug of each. Kept a roaring fire they did in one room and in all the other rooms there were bats, and mice, and dark pieces of furniture.
Your father was an orphan but his old tiddly nanny took care of him and when he wanted shaving water or a headache powder all he had to do was press a bell and when the green gong trembled in the kitchen his old tiddly nanny said Bad cess to you but went to him all the same.
Your father burned the house sooner than let the Black and Tans occupy it as a barracks. Not even a candlestick or a cruet could he take away as a memento because that would have been theft. The house got burned but the old cellar remained and your mother used it as a dumping ground. Your mother dumped ashes there and the empties that were not charged on and broken crockery and the entrails of the cockerels that got killed and drawn every Saturday in summer, in preparation for Sunday’s dinner. She gave herself the worst parts of the chicken, the skin, the Pope’s nose, the posterior bits. She sent one once a month to your sister Emma along with a cake and some butter.
Emma had airs because she was born in New York. Often she slighted you and said you were trash and said Be off, trash. She pedaled fiercely on her bicycle so that you couldn’t catch up.
She was his favorite. He called her Whitehead. She got the watch. The watch made a black rim on her wrist and she told you that was known as oxidization. She had a bracelet too that was expandable. Once it got caught above her elbow and had to be damped and forced down. It got buckled.
There was not much jewelry lying about the house, his gold watch, some necklaces, and loose pearls in a soapdish that were skinless and without glow. Your house had no gongs either, and no cellar, but it had marble mantelpieces in all the rooms and constellations of flowers in the centers of the ceilings.
In the chimneys crows nested. Crows prefer...