November 10, 2012 by Whispering Smith
THE LAST COUNTRY SONG
You hear the music and you move and the
new steps you learn twist you around and down
a long forgotten road.
Corn circles, a clarinet and a young girl
in a primrose coloured dress can lead an
old man a merry dance…
I heard the music playing and I followed its sound. I found it in a worn out Sussex cornfield coming from a long-haired young man playing twelve bar blues on a shining black clarinet. Now and then his equally unkempt young companions joined him in the harmonies on cornet, double bass, fiddle and snare drum. But mostly he haunted that cornfield alone, a juvenile god worshipped by the dozens of young people who stood, sat or sprawled on the stubble around him. I leaned on the five-barred gate, its posts overgrown with blackthorn defying anyone to open it, and listened.
It was a sweet enough sound, not as clear as maybe the skylark would have sounded had there been any left after the pesticides and the early harvest had done their work but sweet enough. A familiar introduction to a sound and a feeling I hadn’t experienced for a long time.
On the far side of the field I could see their caravans, the micro-busses and their down-at-heel, gaudily painted VW campervans. There were some green canvas round-topped, sapling-braced camps more like Navajo hogans than tents. Fires were smoking here and there and I could smell the burning fat, bacon, sausages mixed together with the sweet smell of fresh kindling wood. I thought I detected the distant scent of poppies but it was difficult to be certain in that hot and dusty air.
“They do have permission to be here you know.”
She was new-age, fair-haired and pretty about twenty and as slim as a willow with small unfettered breasts brushing against the inside of a thin, yellow, floral-patterned cotton frock. She had naked feet and reminded me of one of those flower fairies I used to see in books as a child. A primrose maybe, the one you would find when looking for spring flowers in the woods above Arundel. I smiled at her from under the brim of my black hat and shrugged my shoulders showing her, I hoped, that it was no concern of mine. I was not a council official even though my moleskins were pressed, my boots clean and my shirt had all of its buttons.
“You a friend of Max then?”
She was speaking to me but looking over my left shoulder half listening to the music but not in a rudeway and I felt her attention was still with me. I frowned away the smile and thought it best to be moving along permission or not.
“Maximillian,” she said, “the clarinet player? Obviously not.”
She had a soft voice almost but not quite a whisper. I had to listen hard to hear it but it was there, a trace of the south, of Sussex.
“No,” I said, catching her grey eyes and holding their attention. She had pretty eyes, smoky grey. She wore no makeup but her cheeks were slightly coloured, a natural blusher.
“You just enjoy the music then.” It wasn’t aquestion.
I wondered why she was talking to me and not joining her friends. Curiosity I supposed. An old fart crashing their gig, a voyeur maybe, someone to have fun with. She could be throwing stones at me next but somehow I didn’t think that likely.
“Yes as a matter of fact I do like it, but why here in the middle of nowhere?” I had turned away from her and had both my arms on the top rail of the gate my chin resting in the hollow of their joining.
“Why not here?”
Why not indeed? I thought to myself but did not answer her question.
“I thought you were someone from the council, we have had three here this morning, one this afternoon and plod along with them for the ride.”
“You don’t appear to be doing any harm,” I offered, “and just so long as you have permission…”
“We do have,” she interrupted me. “Max’s cousin owns the farm. They are safe enough here.”
Safe? I wondered at that but did not pursue it.
“They? You are not with them then?”
“With them, yes, but not part of them.”
It was a fine definition and I wanted to pursue it but I held off I have always found that the young people who follow a different drummer from the most of the rest of us are wary of older people filled with an often derisive curiosity and I did not want to frighten her away.
“Are you from around here?” I asked.
“Not exactly, and neither are you,” she replied.
I smiled at that and turned to face her. She was standing beside me almost as tall although her slightness gave a lie to her height and she had at first appeared to be considerably shorter.
“Just visiting for a few days, a sort of holiday. I came to see the corn circles that were supposed to be in this field but I got held up and when I arrived the harvesters had done their work.”
“They really were something to see.”
“I know, I caught them on the tv. The shape reminded me of a scorpion, its tail cocked.”
“It reminded a lot of people of a great many things.”
“You saw it then?”
“Yes I did. You’re not retired yet are you? I can tell, still working, still up tight about everything.”
I was thankful that she did not consider me old enough to be in receipt of a bus pass although I wasn’t at all sure why that should matter to me.
The twilight had gathered in around us and the music had grown in intensity. Taking over the cornfield, rolling it along almost the way the winds of early July would have waved the yellow wheat from boundary to boundary, the constant waving, a cornfield sea. Now and again there was a refrain I recognised but mostly it was Max improvising a complicated weave of notes barely hinting at their source. It was background music to me and the girl but somehow it was more than that. It was part of our conversation, part of the easiness of our words.
“I’m a writer, we never retire.”I was pleased to tell her.
“What do you write about?”
The inevitable guestion followed by the inevitable embarrassment.
“Westerns, I write western novels.”
“Cowboy books?” There was a hint of laughter in the lightness of her whispered words.
I nodded surprised at the immediate animation of her body as she moved away from the gate and crouched over, dropping her left shoulder, her hand a claw at her waist. The grey eyes were half-closed the full upper lip curled and she bowed her legs slightly. Then the draw, the cocked thumb the smoke blown from the barrel of her two fingers and the wide smile. I wasn’t sure whether or not to be hurt or relieved.
I was surprised she knew the name and told her so.
“My dad loved western books especially Oliver Strange. Sudden does this, Sudden does that and Sudden goes somewhere or other to do what he did in all of the books he was in before he went anywhere. When my father’s eyes got bad he enjoyed reading them in big print.”
“Only Oliver Strange?”
“No, there were lots of writers, maybe even you, how are you called?”
It was an odd way of putting it. “I write under dozens of names, they wouldn’t mean a thing to you.”
“Let me guess, one of them is Hank something or other…”
I laughed and shook my head and she laughed with me and the clarinet and the cornet did something magical together the sound reaching out to us across that dusty cornfield as couples got to their feet and danced on the stubble. The evening had drifted into darkness and the sputtering camp fires took over from the dying red sun and, joining forces with the emerging stars, gave light to the shadows as they moved to the music.
“Do you dance?”
“I used to,” I said.
“Come on then.”
I shook my head but she was astride the gate and then over it her hand reaching out to me and I took it. Grabbed at it really like it was a fading thing and would escape me. I climbed the gate and still holding her hand, followed her across the field feeling I had left something unimportant behind me but uncertain as to what it was. And then we were dancing, the girl with the smoke grey eyes and the middle-aged man in the black hat. Two shadows blending and moving to the clarinet and the beginning of the endless night.
Copyright Chris Adam Smith 2012