Next Year in Vietnam

From Next Year in Vietnam …..coming 2014…


Chapter 1

Childhood Isle of Man 1966


The boy lies in the marron grass staring out to sea, his cheeks are whipped red with the wind twisted sand and his nose is running water from the cold, but he doesn’t notice.  A curlew swoops overhead and takes its cry backwards into the Ayre land becoming an eerie echo in the distance.  The sea is choppy, grey and empty.

—-Mile upon mile of wave scudding ocean.—–

Over there, he can see the rain formations above the Scottish hills, count the minutes before they drop their crescendo of water on him.  Angular slabs of rain moving with staunch rapidity as if pushed by an unseen stage apparatus.

The dog whines at his side and licks his face.  She’s getting cold and wants to be back at the farmhouse sitting in front of the blue Aga, in the blue tiled kitchen smelling the wafts of cooking for the evening meal.  He puts his arm around her, motioning her to be still in an intimate curling gesture and she almost seems to sigh in obeying him. He won’t go back yet, not till the night blows in and forces him inside.

Daniel is eleven, and this is one of his first days of freedom after returning from the Swiss school they had palmed him off to while the machinations of his parents marriage came to its globular, sticky, end. Or so they said, he really can’t take it in yet.  This is the year he is being asked to learn about stuff that knocks on the edge of his consciousness like a painful irritation, and it hurts him physically almost like a sore throat or a broken leg in the happening.

Lying back in the long brittle stalks of the grass he feels the rain soak into him, it is real, corporeal; it comes in icy knobs of hail, slamming on his waxed jacket.  As it comes upon him, the sea is lost from view and standing up, hunching his shoulders, hands shoved into sticky pockets he runs across the flat expanse of heather and into the overgrown pathway leading to Kion Dow, The hidden valley.  This is the ‘’Bone man’s’’ cottage and further back on higher ground rises ‘’Larkhill,’’ the empty cottage his mother has gifted to him from her imposing grey slate Farmhouse in its 100 acres of grazing sheep and browsing Galloway cattle.

As he walks he remembers last year, at just this time, sitting in the manicured gardens of the great white family house in Sussex.  The only place he had ever really known before this; his eyes sweep the desolation of the landscape of the Island.  In Sussex, watching from his vantage point behind the hedge where he spent his free time from the local prep school building his future empire of houses, in small bricks and wood from the nearby forest glade, watching the people come and go, talking of politics and art, talking of the things he would one day come to know so well.  His father, tall and angular with a perpetual stoop in his shoulders, sitting at the big table in the dining room through wine laden lunch times talking animatedly with visiting members of the ANC.  Discussing the future of South Africa, wiping the grease from his large round glasses, blinking like a huge tawny owl and throwing his hands around in voluble explanations that resounded off the walls like clarinet music.    From time to time he and his mother would sit late into the night after the evening dinners, the children quiet and playing under the table, the servants layering food and brushing crumbs, before the nanny came to shoo them off to bed.

His mother, always that vague scent of Turpentine clinging to her clothes, stretching obliquely under her layers of powder and perfume, like the stretched canvases she daubed her paintings on.   His mother tall, regal, his father calling her —-….*My Angel*—-   and that just didn’t fit now in his mind.   How could he want to leave an angel?  Yes, she is an aristocratic Queen living through her Neverland of becoming, and somehow through this separation she seems to have lost control of the major strings to pull, has banished herself to freedom and isolation.  Like a Princess gone to ground she has shut herself away in an Ivory tower and lost the keys to joy.

Yesterday as the ferry pulled away from the imposing skyline of the Liverpool docks, and bounded out over the Irish Sea, he had felt a panic, grip his stomach, lodge in the corner of his eyes bringing the stinging tears he didn’t want to cry. He was losing something; but here today walking in his newly found kingdom he is beginning to form a picture of a future he will live in. A future which he will build, brick by brick, something strong and stable that can’t be blown away by the vicissitudes of another.  A future where he will have his own family that no one can take from him.  The gritty pull of the sand and the wild sting of the rain bind him to an earth that will never change however much the grown ups try to make it.

The mist begins to roll in, a fine sea mist; the sort the fishermen dread, the sort that legend has it drew King Arthur to Peel castle.  He feels the way up the small stony path, the dog trotting along happily in front of him her tail wagging gently, her white body with the black spots standing out against the green greyness of the landscape. The smile she keeps on her face like all Dalmatians telling him that she is there and looking after him.   They make their way up the broken path, the path that’s invisible to those who don’t know where to look: tripping on rabbit holes and getting clumps of gorse stuck in his trouser leg. Suddenly there is a dip in the ground and they are in the Hidden Valley.  The Manx stay away from the cottage and its desolation, the roof is off in places and around the forgotten hearth are piles of animal bones.  It nestles in the lee of the small valley surrounded by an irrigation ditch which the rats leap in and out of in droves of whistling motion.  The former owner kept his hunting dogs chained here.

Daniel sits, his back against the rough stone of the wall watching the birds fly their last minute nesting formations in swoops of carefully orchestrated panic. .  He thinks of his mother, she is never far from him wherever he is.  

    —-She ruffles my dark curls and I want to sit in the old armchair in her studio, watch the light play tricks with the bright watercolours on the canvas.  I want to drive with her to the lighthouse and be a speck on her brush as she paints the misty edge of the sea, placing small graphic figures in the boats that battle the waves, rise in Chagall like ecstasy from the troughs of the underworld, to catch me. I want to sit huddled in the old blankets at the back of the Landover drinking tea from a thermos flask and dream of  desert sands that have blown beneath the wheels, watching the concentration on her high pale face, the way her tongue pokes pink through a crack in her lips as she paints.  Why can’t I? —-

He raises his arms to feel the rain trickling down his sleeves not understanding the brief kisses she blows as she passes him on her escape route from the children, from the house. Leaving him with hispink squalling sister and the hard nosed nanny.  

‘’Who’s my very wonderful boy then? ‘’

.She would say absentmindedly in the evenings turning the pages of her French translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

‘’ Who loves you most?’’

As she waved goodbye at the Prep School gates on her way to another painting trip on her brother’s ranch in Australia, leaving him with his heart fluttering his knees shaking at the thought of all the lonely days ahead, without her.

The dog begins to bark anxiously as the wind draws banshee sounds from the trees and she knows it’s time to go.  Reluctantly he pats her and shivering now begins the slight climb inland.  There are no lights at his cottage, at Larkhill , and tomorrow he will explore its musty rooms and velvet hangings.  A place which he can call his own a place where he is safe, and later, much later he will bring all his friends to stay here in the first home he can really call his own.   For now the wind is against him and nearing the lights of the Farmhouse he notices it as an isolated outcrop of life against a dark inhuman nature.  Its stolid square shape with large rectangular windows are like eyes staring down on him as he approaches the back door. Somehow it’s been built in the wrong position and the wind curves around it with the arms of a python, squeezing the warmth from it.

He will grow to understand that always and forever in this place there is a battle of survival going on between him and the wind, him and the natural world that wants none of him.   He will grow to understand that his life has changed radically and forever and that with the loss of his beloved family house in Sussex he has lost an innocence and belief in other human beings that will never return. He has been irreparably wounded, and this woundedness he will always carry with him.


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