the heft and the edge 10/6/2020
There you have it: the dream and the reason for it. I'm glad that's out of the way.
Back to the story, back to reality - ho ho! Dream or reality, what's the difference? Not that much actually, as I have come to realize, but it's no use trying to explain that just yet. Time to hear about Cold Slaughter.
I woke up screaming. If you remember, a ball-bearing the size of a football was whizzing at my face: no doubt it is simple enough to understand that the adrenalin surge is what woke me. You can wake like that from a dream.
I woke alone in a tangle of sweaty sheets in an otherwise orderly and pretty country bedroom. The window was open and the sun shone in through a garden of blooms and scents, fresh green grass, morning dew wisping away in the gently warming air. Birds sang. A whistling kettle answered them and the aroma of toast and bacon drifted up from the kitchen below.
A more delightful morning, a more pleasing setting you couldn't wish for. I went in search of breakfast hardly bothered that both the morning and the setting were highly improbable. After my night-borne horrors this was reward beyond relief.
I skipped down the stairs to find an open door leading me out into a small front
garden. The cottage was archetypal. There were roses climbing a trellis and arching the door. There was a wicket gate in the bank and beyond it a leafy lane. There was a pungent herb garden to one side of the house, apple trees on the other and the pargetted walls were a mild Suffolk pink, the roof a sculptured
thatch. In the meadow across the lane a milker and her calf and a goat and a donkey ambled amiably together.
It was all wonderful. I spent five minutes just looking and breathing.
The flower beds surrounding my small patch of lawn were heavy with colour. Made me wish I knew something about flowers, but I'm not much use beyond daffodils, tulips, snowdrops and clover. Oh yes, and forget-me-nots, though Sarah always mocks me for getting them mixed up with... with... Here we go again. She must have told me a hundred times and I still can't remember the bloody name. It's got a little blue flower, like a forget-me-not, but it crawls along the ground instead of those spindly stems. It's a really common name. Give me a second. Nope, won't come. If you're bothered, look it up. It's not that I'm not interested: I love flowers. I just don’t want to get involved involved in growing them.
Sarah loves gardening, loves weeding! She spends hours in her garden, so determined to have it looking just how she wants it. She likes to be in charge. It reminds me of the Ents and the Entwives: If you remember, the Ents walk about watching things, listening to stories etc., but the Entwives spend all their time getting things in order: tending orchards, growing gardens, making everything neat. And that's supposedly why the Ents and Entwives grew apart. Not sure about that idea - actually, I think the difference between them would be more
likely to keep them together. But who am I to question Tolkien? I wonder if Tolkien's wife was a gardener?
Where was I? Slight diversion there. Right, yes: the garden. It was sooo perfect that I suddenly worried I might still be dreaming. I bent to pick a blade of
grass, popped it into my mouth and spat it out. No, that was definitely real cat
pee. I looked at the trees down the lane. The edges of this reality seemed very well defined. In dreams, the edges are blurred, and in fact it’s because the definition is so hazy that all dream realities inevitably fall apart and you wake up.
I learned that much at the cottage. Eventually. No, everything about the cottage,
I decided, was very real, including it's inhabitants. A notion some people may
find faintly disturbing.
I found Adam at a table on the patio to the rear of the house, polishing off the remains of what must have been a hearty breakfast. He was crunching bacon
rind with his remaining teeth, unconcerned, clearly, that the noise he made was disgusting. I would soon discover that he was a man whose private pleasures came first.
"Well, sit down then. Breakfast won't wait forever. Burnt black already I shouldn't wonder."
"No it won't. Pay him no mind Mr. Cowell. I'm just putting your eggs on now, and the bacon's just nice."
This last came through the open kitchen window. I couldn't see the owner of the voice but it's warm country accents had a wonderfully calming effect.
"I'll be through in a minute. Help yourself to orange juice. You'll get nothing if you wait for the old man to offer."
The old man pulled a face and muttered: "Nag, nag, nag. What can you do with them I want to know."
I laughed and so did he, ruefully.
"Well, are we sitting or not?" He picked up the panama that occupied my seat and waved it at me as if he was herding cows.
"Thank you, I will."
"Glorious day," he said, looking everywhere save at me, "Glorious. I don't think we've had a better. Cricketing weather! We'll go and watch them if you like."
"Oh, only the village match. There's an eleven over from Bedding today. They've some good bowlers apparently but they'll have to be on their game: our Dolly's quite a handful. Top of his form. Saw him hit 148 last week."
"Ah yes. Our young Basil will be known to you, I suppose, or are you too young? I've got him as a twenty year old, just arrived from Cape Town."
"Basil D'Oliviera playing village cricket?"
"Splendid isn't it. I'm glad to say I'm allowed a few concessions. I've Cowdrey as well. But I must be confusing you. It'll keep till after breakfast. Look here's Eleanor with the grub now."
I was happy enough to be distracted. Eleanor, plump, rosy-cheeked, carpet slippered and smiling, fetched a tray piled high with eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, fried bread and toast.
"I'm that sorry," she said, "But I've no black pudding for you. Guzzle-guts here finished it off yesterday and I'll not be shopping till tomorrow morning. There's more sausage though, if you like. Now, is there enough toast? Not take a
minute to do another bit."
"No thank you, Mrs. .."
"Babbage, my love, Eleanor Babbage." She said it kindly enough: the glare was for her husband. "I don't know. Adam Babbage, have you no manners at all?"
"But Eleanor you were so quick we hardly had chance to say 'Good Morning'."
"I bet you didn't even get that far. Talking 'bout cricket again, if I know you."
"I'm sure that was my fault,” I said, “I was too caught up in the promise of
breakfast. I must say this looks fantastic, Mrs. Babbage, and more than enough."
"Well I always say: Start the day right and right it'll be. And you can't beat a good breakfast. Tuck in, you must be hungry after all that sleeping. We'll leave you to it. Come on old man, you can help me with the washing: give Mr. Cowell a bit of peace."
Mr. Babbage rolled his eyes heavenward, glumly crammed the panama onto his balding head and trooped off dutifully. As I started on the heaving plate they manhandled a huge wash basket out to the clothes line. A constant stream of chatter and instruction from Mrs. Babbage interspersed with groans and grizzles from Mr. Babbage drowned out the bird song but I enjoyed it just as much. Normalcy had resumed and I hoped it would last. I tried not to think about the Ministry.
They were quick with the washing, Babbage being rather a dab hand with the pegs, but they weren't as quick as I was with the food. I stuffed myself. It was all so good I eat every last scrap and regretted refusing the extra sausage and toast. Even the tea was perfect.
Not a bad life the Babbages', I thought, not bad at all. I'd never heard of Bedding and, at this stage, he hadn't told me the name of this village - I presumed there must be a village down the lane - so I hadn't a clue where in England I might be, but I was sure it was somewhere in the Home Counties. It was glorious summer weather, the cottage was charming. They had the best that life can offer - or that's how I saw it then. As I sat at the breakfast table I was content to let that be the truth, to let it all be real. I refused to speculate about why they had let me leave
the Ministry, I was just grateful they had. It didn’t occur to me to wonder why the Babbages knew my name without me telling them.
Of course my desperate complacency couldn't last.
I had escaped from a day of wonders and places: fairies in a magic garden; wild Irishmen in a Dublin pub; dinner at the Savoy; the future in my own living room. And all this happened within the confines of the Ministry building. Just because I could see the sun and clouds this time, all with those clear edges of reality, right down to the warm breeze and the ladybird crawling on the table cloth, it was not any sort of proof that the Ministry had been left behind.
Adam Babbage told me the truth about the Ministry, or at least his version of it, with some relish.
"Come for a walk up to the village with me," he said when they'd finished with the washing.
"Yes, off you go, the pair of you. Give you an appetite for lunch, a bit of a walk,
but don't you be drinking too much, Adam Babbage, and make sure you're back for two."
"But Eleanor, the cricket'll be in full swing by then."
"Moaning again?. As bad as a schoolboy. I'm not cooking this dinner just to burn in the oven waiting for you. Back by two or there'll be trouble. Now get out from under my feet. I'm that sorry, Mr. Cowell, but he's like this all the time. You go and enjoy yourself, and never mind his grizzling."
She shooed us through the gate and Babbage muttered something like: "Every damn Sunday she does that. Will she never learn? What was the point, I ask
"Pardon?" I said.
"Oh, nothing," he sighed, "Well, everything really. Do you know where you are?"
I decided to sound clever: "The Ministry, I suppose."
"Not at all. Where you are is the mythical village of Cold Slaughter. Made up the name myself. Made it all up, come to that. With Hal's help of course, I
constructed what I thought would be heaven. What a joke that turned out to be. Living bloody nightmare!"
"Sorry? All this a nightmare?" I said, waving my arm at the scenery, "It looks pretty good to me."
He licked his lips nervously. "Not exactly what I meant, but let me explain the Ministry to you. And it'll take a bit of explaining: history of the place, main players and such. I'd better start with the war, I suppose."