Artwork by Robert Hoover
John sat close to the fire, eating porridge from a dish which was no more than a piece of hollowed-out wood. There was bread too, Sally had promised, and he wanted it now. Bread and porridge and sour ale. Stuffed into his mouth and swallowed as a mush, it was a reasonable meal which would fill his stomach.
He had been cutting furrows in heavy soil from sunrise to sunset. The horses had groaned and buckled against the stubborn land and John had given up a dozen times, collapsing inwards onto the plough and half-lying there, trying to wish himself into sleep. Finally he would have to haul the blade out of the earth and re-set everything and whip the horse onwards. He had covered no more than 400 yards all day and his neck and shoulders were hunched with the soreness and his palms were blistered. It had been a fine day but now it had turned into a hard and cold night more like Autumn. He could have done without the cold because that would do his aching no good and he wouldn't be getting a hot bath until the end of the week.
"There's a bit more porridge," said Sally, who had eaten her own bread and was warming her ale over the fire.
He nodded and she scraped out the last of it. As he started again, stuffing in the food, he heard a small community of night birds sing out nearby.
"Someone's coming," he said, without looking up or stopping eating.
"I don't know."
He wasn't expecting anyone to come. He worked alone and for most of the year he and Sally were the only people in the cottage. Everything social was done at the church or at the tavern. Church was only on Sunday and the tavern at this time of year he hardly saw at all. A visit from anyone was unusual.
"Good evening," said John. He didn't know the man coming through the bushes, not in the dark at least.
"It's a cold one."
The man was carrying a branch across his shoulders from which hung a few dozen fish.
"You've had supper," he said. "But this is fresh fish."
"It's from the Atlantic," said the man.
"Not that fresh then," said John. The sea was a day away, if he had walked.
"Fresh enough. Not rotten anyway. And from the Atlantic." He smoothed the scaly skins as if they were velvet. "Herring. Rich herring."
"I've no money to spend," said John. He liked the look and the thought of the fish but it was true, he had nothing to spend.
"Cereal? Bread?" John grunted. "I don't think that's what you would want.
"I might. Maybe some cheese?"
"We don't have cheese." He wished they did. Bread with cheese and some better ale would have put him to sleep so much more easily.
"Hard times," said the man. He still seemed to be in a good humour even though it was obvious there was no trade to be done here.
"I'll tell you what. If your wife will cook us a few fish and you'll give me some bread, that'll be a good trade."
John suddenly felt himself hungry again in anticipation. It was only herring but it was a treat against what they had been eating for the last month.
"I'll get more wood," he said. " Sally, get these ready to roast."
"Three fish will it be?" said the stranger to Sally.
John went out to the small copse and cracked off some low wood. He couldn't be bothered to gather twigs and his back would hardly let him go down that far or at least not come back up. He was in a rush for his fire and for the smell of fish and for the oily juices he could soak up with the bread. A sliver of moon revealed itself from behind cloud. John felt suddenly happy with this unexpected twist in events. For some bread and the use of the fire, they were getting three fish, almost as fresh as the stranger had promised.
John returned to the fire where Sally and the stranger were bending over the fish and gutting them with their fingers.
"Plenty of wood," said John. "This will get us a good blaze for ten minutes at least, maybe fifteen. How long does it take for fish?"
"No more than ten," said Sally. "This gentleman is called Jack, by the way." She stepped back and looked at the two men in turn. "My husband is John."
They shook hands.
"I was once a John," said Jack. "I was christened John, but always called Jack. Were you ever called Jack?"
"No. I can't remember ever being called that," said John. He stretched his memory back to another smoky cottage, to a game in a meadow, to a tiny
schoolroom. No voices ever said Jack. Nor Johnny or any nickname. Just John, which was fine.
"You won't need ten minutes for these," said Jack. He smiled at the couple. "Fresh fish don't want a lot of cooking. Two minutes either side in your skillet will be plenty. If you cook them too long herring lose their flavour."
Sally nodded and set about building up the fire while Jack finished preparing the fish.
"Ready?" said Sally.
"Yes," said Jack.
There was a crackle and flames rose and Sally warmed the pan over the fire. John watched their faces, concentrating in the light and sudden shadow.
"Shall we have something to drink?" said John, and he felt reckless for saying it. "We have some gin."
"It's rather old. And bitter," said Sally but she was smiling.
"It'll serve. And wild plums. They're fresh."
"They were picked weeks ago."
"But they'll be fresh enough. As fresh as the fish."
"Sounds fine," said Jack. "Sounds fine John, if you're sure you can spare the gin."
"Of course! Of course! With a meal, a good meal, we should have a good drink." He could hear the ferocity in his own voice as if he was entering an argument rather than proposing a celebration.
"Excellent," said Jack, who was still calm and watching Sally preparing to put the fish into the pan.
The fish fried perfectly in their own oil. John fetched wooden plates, proper plates this time and their three knives. He brought the gin too and filled three goblets and set the wild plums in a bowl. He arranged the chairs near the fire.
"To our excellent health."
They toasted and they ate. The herring was fresh and it was strong and salty. They ate it with bread and drank gin between mouthfuls. For the first time in weeks John could feel warmth in his belly. His body came alive, responding in a way it rarely did. He felt his blood was starting to tingle, maybe revived by the flavour of the herring. He poured more gin. He had intended to save some but now he didn't want to. He was fed up of being so frugal with everything. Three good-sized fish deserved a proper drink. There was three-quarters of a bottle of gin. They finished the food and finally he felt replete. He scraped his plate out of habit rather than hunger. He poured more gin. He was drinking rather more quickly than the others.
"Excellent meal," he said. "Excellent. It's a year or more since I had fish."
"Almost that since we had meat," said Sally.
"Really?" said Jack.
"Do you eat meat often?" she said.
"Sometimes. But mainly fish. I get fresh fish all the time. I'll eat it maybe two or three times a week. What I don't sell or trade, I eat."
"Three times a week?" said John. He wasn't really asking a question. He felt drunk now. Fish three times a week was a luxury. It was an absurd luxury really.
"Where do you live?" said Sally.
She continued conversing with Jack. The conversation fell into the distance and John stared into the fire. He was still warm, still full and comfortable but the feeling was changing somewhere within him. There was already the thought of the next day. The ploughing and the useless horse and the soil which had to be dragged up from the ground, chained down by bindweed and full of rocks. Then he would come home and there would be none of this. There would be porridge and bread again and no gin left because he was pouring himself the final goblet without even asking the others this time. The disappointment and the cold was seeping back into him after less than an hour. That was all you got. An hour of respite and then the world came back at you and everything was all the same again. The fire was beginning to turn to smoke and there was a screen between himself and the other two, who were still talking.
"That must be very grand. Very grand," said Sally.
"It is. Especially in the summer. And you should see me in my Sunday best, dancing like one of those flamenco gypsies."
"No." She laughed.
"I do. I'm quite elegant Sally. I'm as light on my feet as a man half my age."
Then they laughed again and said some other things and John felt sure Jack would show her how to dance. He had caught nothing of the conversation up to that point but surely he would now ask her if she wanted to see what it was like to dance, how it felt, how it felt in whatever grand place it was he had been talking about, to show her there, by the fire, and their laughter would rise through the woods.
Then Jack did say something else and Sally laughed again and John had a cold vision of the next day at his plough, a day longer and yet more wearisome and painful than today. The gin had done its work and now there was a dull ache at the back of his head. If he could have slept for seven nights it wouldn't have left him fresh enough to face the next day with any kind of hope.
Jack said one more thing, Sally laughed again, and John picked up one of the knives and walked over. There were screams but everything was less than real and still distant, as if he hadn't got up at all and was only imagining how the scene might play out. He was aware of a space, which only lasted for a few seconds, between his old life ending and a new one beginning. There was warm blood on his fingers now, but before the burden of the shocking truth fell upon him, he breathed in the cold evening air and tried to pick up the aroma of the cooked herring.