‘Forty-nine, fifty, fifty-one, fifty-two, fifty-three, fifty-four…’
She gathered the pile of newspapers against her chest, smelling the new print under her chin. She turned to tip them carefully into the print-coloured hemp bag with its long, worn strap that fitted so comfortably over the scarf round her neck.
‘You OK there?’ came a voice from the back room of the little post office and general store.
‘Yes, thanks Mr. Cave, I’m just off now.’
She walked slowly outside into the early morning air, shifting the heavy bag across to the right to stop it banging on her knees. The bike was where she had left it when she went in to count and collect the papers and magazines. It was leaning against the wooden fence where the pink rosebuds were peeping through and thinking about waking. She heaved the bag up into the basket on the handlebars, letting it rest between her hands. Then she and the bike made a big shove up the steep grass verge on to the road.
Like the far reaches of the Great Ouse, the footpath was bounded by a steep grassy bank, so that you couldn’t see the road on your walk to school. It was somewhere up on the right – just like the river. On the Fens, you might travel a road towards Kings Lynn without realising that the steep grassy bank on the left runs alongside you for miles. Your curiosity might suddenly urge you to stop the car and climb the bank to find out what it’s all about and then you see the river. You see and smell the river and notice how vast the sky is and how mud marks the tidal flow along the opposite bank. The Great Ouse lies beneath your feet and you wonder at its watery beauty and long for a boat.
She waited for a lone cyclist to pass, then pushed the bike across the road, veering to the right to face east. It was never easy getting on to the loaded bike and best to get it rolling first. Legs astride, right pedal up to the top and press hard with the right foot, rising to the saddle as the pedal moves downwards – left foot ready to follow through with all the strength she could muster.
Harrowden Road was always quiet at this time of the morning. She rode past the new greengrocer’s shop, Cave’s Stores and quickly thought about Pat, their daughter – the new girl in her class. The road beneath her had a sandy tinge to it, grit embedded in tar – and wasn’t unlike wet sand moving under the edge of the tide around your feet. It fascinated her. The miniscule pieces of gravel in their dark bed – for all the world it was like riding on a chocolate cake with tiny nuts sprinkled on the icing. On a hot day the road was soft and tyres made streaks in the gravel.
Passing Mrs Cole’s shop she noticed how smart it looked with its fresh black paint round windows full of licorice and blackjacks, when a whiff of fresh bread caught her nose and she felt hungry. She could see the baker talking to the van driver as they lifted trays of loaves into the shop where Auntie Betty worked. Almost past the allotments, she turned left at the island where two roads diverged and rode up on to the pavement on Eastcotts Road, lined with the front gardens of private houses. These looked different from the houses where she lived, with their pebble-dash and climbers clinging to their walls. Not many deliveries here – only three letterboxes spaced out between the semi-detached short drives. She moved along the pavement and pulled up gently at the first house. Leaning the bike against the privet hedge, she noticed the little pyramids of cream blossom and put her nose to it. She had helped her father plant the privet hedge at home, but there were rarely blossoms because he was so good at trimming it. She loved sweeping up for him and helping him to leave the paths and hedgerow as neat as a freshly-hosed ship’s deck.
She pushed the newspaper through the letterbox and ran back to the bike. ‘Mustn’t hang about, have to get home to get something to eat before school’, she thought. Two more letterboxes, then a short ride past the barred gate where her Dad used to sit with his infant son on his knee and with Uncle Vic and Pop beside him drinking their pints. The little box camera which had captured them for ever flashed through her mind. The Anchor pub, sitting squatly between houses and the gravel quarry on the corner of Eastcotts Road and Cardington Road, was a mysterious place for her. Men enjoyed their pints there, but she had never even seen inside the garden and no newspaper was delivered there. At this time of the morning all the curtains were drawn and the only movement came from the sign above her head, with its gold anchor on a red and black background, swinging and squeaking in the breeze, like a lanyard straining and flapping against its rigging.
Crossing the road to the right, she was on the way towards Cardington village, aware that old man Hooton’s farm was on her left, with its bull at the gate and its bullish farmer who always carried a gun on his left arm. He didn’t have a newspaper delivered either. Probably didn’t have enough hours in the day to read anything while he was busy keeping intruders off his land. She caught glimpses of the river between the willows, wending its weedy way to Cardington Mill. The farm had small water meadows bordering the river and she could see the tiny chalets the swimmers used and a few houseboats as she pressed on. The sand-coloured road had dark patches in it where the grit had rubbed away with the traffic. Moving patterns emerged from these spots like looking down into a kaleidoscope or whizzing past islands on a map. Now and again the patterns glowed red and brown with the blood of a squashed hedgehog, frog or fox.
The smell of hawthorn filled the air and she rode into its wonder.
The front of the bike wheeled left into the thick gravel of the drive leading up to The Barns. Too hard to pedal here, so she stopped and dismounted, to push the bike. The movement felt like a kind of curtsey in front of the beautiful 17th century manor house nestled between its mediaeval tithe barns, weathered and softened by six or more centuries of storing. Up to the arch over the wide porch was as far as she approached this quiet, ancient beauty. She softly placed the broadsheet and magazines on the large doormat. She had never seen anyone around: the gardening, thatching and gravel-shifting was all done by ghosts as far as she was concerned – and friendly ones – who clamoured silently to gather round and read the news.
She knew there had been a watermill there and fancied she heard its tumbling and splashing as she pushed the bike out on to the road again. In years to come she would always return to this place whenever she heard or read De La Mare’s ‘The Listeners’.