King Arthur and the cavern of jewelled fishes

Eve Stockton Woodland Landscape II

Image reproduced with permission from Woodland Landscape II (36″ x 72″, woodcut, ed. 5), © Eve Stockton 2005.

This began with a wager—write a children’s novel in six weeks. I didn’t win, but then there’s this adult short story instead. It’s something of a curiosity, a period piece and a Great War not-coming-of-age tale.

© Paul Fishman 2009

From time to time someone — my mother, say, or one of the masters at school — would ask why Arthur was unpopular with other boys. It was a useless, fishing sort of a question, or perhaps it was meant as a hint of some kind or other. You might as well have asked why we didn’t like to eat the thin, watery, acrid stuff they called cabbage.

Once, during prep, a prefect had stopped at my desk and said ‘You’re Crankshaw’s little crony, aren’t you? I expect you’re a little tick.’ The boys from my form relished that; I could sense them afterward in the enforced quiet saving it for later, as they might an iced bun. Crankshaw was, of course, Arthur. Most of the boys called him Crankers or The Crank; I found out later that his Housemaster called him The Old Maid of the Upper Third, sometimes to his face. In my family he was Cousin Arthur, as in ‘Cousin Arthur is coming to stay.’

There had been a time when I looked forward to his visits; he was older than me and for a while that was almost enough in itself. Back then he would always bring a paper bag of peppermint sweets, carefully stored to keep them from sticking together, and every day he would dish out one apiece — a ritual performed with grave enjoyment on both sides — making me promise to finish my dinner and clean my teeth for an extra minute that night. He used to tell me things: facts, precepts, things he had read, things he had heard, and at that age, like most young children, I loved to know things, to be told things, however useless or, as it turned out, wrong. He was a good friend for a three- or a five-year-old, but by the time I went up to school things were different. When my father left to join his regiment in France he’d said ‘Cousin Arthur will be here to look out for you all,’ and had given me a private wink.

‘Are you going to come in?’ said Arthur. ‘It’s snowing.’

There was some trouble with Arthur’s sinuses that did things to his voice as well as making him breathe loudly through his nose much of the time. When he was going to speak there was a quiet pause and then sometimes a sort of nasal click.

‘If you stay out any longer you’ll look jolly well like a snowman,’ he said.

‘You’ll catch cold,’ he said.

‘It’ll still be there tomorrow,’ he said.

Arthur was standing in the porch with the front door ajar behind him. My dog, Joe, was inside snuffling in the hall and his muzzle had appeared a few times, trying to nudge a way through; Arthur had a grip on the door handle, using it like a boat’s tiller to keep the door more-or-less steady. I stood quietly chewing my lip and thinking.

‘I think I can smell something good brewing up,’ said Arthur. He had turned and looked behind him into the house before looking back at me with a coquettish leer.

It was too much. I muttered something and slipped from the porch into the fading early evening light. Arthur called after me as I moved quickly across the lawn, through the bushes and over the garden wall into the lane at the bottom. Never look back when being chased, that’s what my father always said, just keep your eyes open for your escape.

I scrambled over the dry stone wall at the far side of the lane, changed direction a few times to throw off pursuit, and then manoeuvred my way back parallel to the road. If I followed it to the turning towards the village I could then cut through Caddleback Wood to the big pond, Whitmere. If Whitmere had frozen I could walk on the ice — strictly forbidden — and that’d be one in the eye for Arthur. If I stopped somewhere on my way back to smoke one of my father’s cigarettes, that’d be one in his other eye.

By the time I reached the wood the snow had eased and the light had almost gone. There was a glimmering spot in the clouds where the moon was part-hidden; it glowed like a cobwebbed lamp. In the wood there were shadows — blots of greater darkness — and glints of snow. The air was clotted with small noises, blurry as if coming from a long way off. From time to time I stopped to listen, thinking that my crunching footsteps might be hiding something. Several times I almost ran.

When I came through, not very close to where I’d thought I’d be, it was all wrong. I lit a match and moved slowly down the slope that led to Whitmere’s edge, feeling my way with my boots until I lost my grip and took a sliding arser right down and on to the water. It was ice and I didn’t go through. I was still holding a match in one hand and the glove I had taken off to light it in the other, but I was lying on my back, panting. I threw away the match and, absurdly, shook my fist.

After some crouching and shuffling I found a decent spot with some firmly rooted plants to pull myself up by and for a while after I lay on my side in the snow breathing heavily and feeling cold and aching and spent. I knew it was late and that I’d be in trouble. At length the moon was clear for a few full minutes and I pushed to my feet and looked out over Whitmere. As far as I could see there was snow over the ground — Whitmere must be frozen all over. On the far bank the slopes were thick with black and white pines, neat and sharp in outline but massy, like one of my grandmother’s woodcuts. Another time I might have stayed and tried to fix it in my mind, but I pushed off to find the easy path back to the lane, skirting Caddleback Wood.

My teeth chattered off and on and I’d gone beyond hunger; I felt sick. As I trudged along muttering ‘Pull yourself together, man, pull yourself together’ the light was uncertain, dependent on moon and clouds; sometimes it was uncannily bright, other times almost dead black except for the snow. I hadn’t a watch and in the dark fretted a little about what time it might be. Sometimes it can feel like midnight at six o’clock if it’s dark and quiet enough. Then I nearly walked into a woman.

She was close, nearer than an arm’s length in front. I reacted as if she’d crept up on me but she was standing quite still. I’d just not seen her. She was wrapped in some huge shapeless bundle of dark indistinct garments with a scarf covering her head except for her face, which was square, flattish, big-boned and featureless; like an old stone prophet’s whose fine detail has been eroded by millennia of weather. Her eyes were very pale blue, deep-set and bright like gems, and these fidgeted, moving this way and that without seeming to fix anything. I didn’t recognise her from the village.

Neither of us moved or spoke until she unexpectedly brushed my cheek with her fingers, which felt like dry old nutshells. After another moment she started to move forward as if to say something in confidence, leaning slowly and her mouth slightly open and working as if she needed to chew her words before she spoke them.

When her mouth was almost next to my cheek and her frozen breath was drifting into my face I bolted, twisting right and running toward the woods. As I ran I heard a dog barking and for a horrible moment thought it was her, but she was behind me and I was certain that it was coming from my left, away toward the lane. And it wasn’t close enough to be her, unless she barked with a sort of echo.

It distracted me enough to think of stopping and then, not quite in the wood, before the trees got thick, there was an old tree with massive roots showing and enough of a gap in them to tuck myself in; I climbed in carefully without looking back. The moonlight was now so full in the clear that it wouldn’t be easy to see me in the shadows and I could see back clearly enough.

Arthur was there now, seeming to talk to her distractedly while watching Joe run round them in frantic circles. I couldn’t hear it, but I knew Joe would be giving out the half-growling pant he had when very excited. In that black and white and silver landscape it was almost like watching a silent film, comic or sinister depending on the music

I sat in the roots muttering ‘Bloody buggering bugger, sodding stinking sod.’

Arthur managed to pick Joe up and hold him against his chest. He was talking, but I could only see the woman’s back. He seemed to stop talking and shortly after the woman came close to him. His arms were both holding on to Joe and he looked vulnerable with no free hands to ward away whatever he might want to ward away. I thought she was talking close to his ear, but I couldn’t be sure. It was only perhaps half a minute later that she turned and moved away toward Whitmere. Arthur stood for a few moments and then turned to walk back the way he’d come with Joe still in his arms.

If the woman hadn’t leaned toward my left ear, I would have run to the left and straight into Arthur coming over the stile from the lane. Whether that would have been a good or a bad thing I didn’t know. Arthur had then missed a trick by not letting Joe sniff me out. Presumably he’d brought him to help track me, unless he’d brought him as a sort of prize or temptation. Or perhaps he wanted the company; I would’ve liked it. There were a lot of thoughts after that, jumbled and brooding. I’d lost my bearings and didn’t know what to think. I cursed Arthur for using my dog against me, and I didn’t like to think that he could pull a surprise on me, but that wasn’t really it.

I pulled my gloves off and fetched out the cigarettes. It took two matches to get one going and then I sat back and smoked. This was what people did after things had happened. I wanted a measured, steadying, private ceremonial, a gathering of thoughts, but instead I got the big magic, a huge, swelling, giddy high.

About two-thirds of the way through my cigarette a sudden gust blew through the woods at my back and I thought I heard whispering in it. For a moment I sat quite still and then I jumped up to run. There was a rush to my head and my knees went cottony; I fell forward onto my hands and knees and grovelled helplessly for a few long seconds. Then I ran away without looking behind me. I ran to the path and then towards the lane, scrabbled over the stile, and then ran down the lane towards the house, stepping heavily in the snow.

Some way along I caught up with Arthur and Joe. Arthur stopped to wait for me but Joe ran back, tangling himself in my legs and jumping up. Not far from Arthur I tripped over Joe and fell; Joe kept buzzing around me trying to play and I kicked him. That was the limit. I felt my eyes get a little blurry. Arthur had started to laugh when I fell but stopped abruptly. I pushed myself up and we walked back in silence.

My mother must have been waiting for us; she appeared looking puzzled and cross shortly after Arthur had closed the front door.

‘Well, John, you have made a mess of yourself, haven’t you?’ she said.

Now she was smiling, very nearly laughing. She would at odd times fall into a long rolling half-giggle, all the while talking, doing, carrying on, but unable to stop being amused.

Arthur’s breathing paused and his nose clicked.

‘Now you two just cut along upstairs and clean yourselves up. Then we’ll see about dinner,’ said my mother.

Pause. Click.

‘Quickly. Otherwise granny will be cross. Crosser.’

‘Yes, aunt,’ said Arthur and went upstairs.

My mother stopped me and removed a twig from my hat and then I followed him.

Arthur talked for a while before I heard him. ‘If you can’t show respect for others, you are unlikely to be respected yourself,’ he was saying. When he talked like this, he might as well have been blowing a dog whistle.

‘What did she say to you?’ I asked.


‘The woman by the woods.’

He didn’t say anything, his face was blank. Then he looked suddenly irritated, or even angry.

‘Nothing. It was nonsense.’

‘But what did she say?’

‘Nothing, it was babyish nonsense.’

Arthur’s face changed again. Now he was Mutton, Mutton being the school chaplain. He’d gotten his name after a boy had pointed to the cold white fat on his plate after a particularly disgusting mutton dinner and said ‘The Reverend Dr Semple.’ It had caught on. He had a face, a compassionating face, his eyes half-closed, that was unbearable.

‘There are some people … some very unfortunate people … you must understand there are some very unfortunate people who aren’t quite right. Not quite right in their heads. Through no fault of their own they’re not quite all there.’

He tapped the side of his head.

‘Sometimes it’s very old people who through living for a very long time lose their sense of things.’

‘What did she bloody well say?’

He didn’t speak.

I moved forward into his face and said ‘Bloody well tell me or I’ll bloody well go down to look for her every bloody night till I bloody well find out.’

He turned his back on me and continued to tidy himself and dress. After a while he said ‘You’ve been smoking,’ and then he walked out and down the stairs.

That night we ate in what my grandmother called the drawing room. My mother, who was her daughter-in-law, called it the sitting room. Neither ever made any show of noticing the difference. Every other night of the war a dinner of at least three courses, however makeshift, had been eaten in the dining room. It didn’t matter if the soup was herbs and water or if the pudding was a confection of almost unsweetened substitutes; it didn’t matter if Arthur and I were away at school and it was only the two women; the thing must be done properly or the Kaiser and the German people would rejoice and think we were beaten, as indeed we would be, or so my grandmother thought. It was her house, and so that was how it was.

We ate in chairs pulled up by the fire with blankets on our knees and trays. Far from getting the hot and cold treatment I expected — grilled and then put on ice — there was something unnaturally, uncomfortably festive in the air. I thought, they are making allowances.

After dinner I went to my room and lay in an apathetic torpor; not sleeping, not doing anything, not even thinking. I was almost ill, but not quite. Not long before bedtime, Arthur paid me a visit, bringing Joe with him.

‘He’s been nosing around for you. I thought you’d be glad to see him but I didn’t want to disturb you.’

Bringing Joe was a show of magnanimity; Arthur was turning the other cheek. He was also heaping coals on me, knowingly or unknowingly. And he knew that I had kicked Joe. He knew that I knew that he knew. We both knew I’d done it from vanity, because I had been made to look foolish in front of him. What he didn’t know was that I had also done it out of funk.

Joe had a way of circling his basket at bedtime before getting in. He would go round and round before suddenly picking his spot. We usually said it was because he didn’t want to get in, was putting it off; perhaps that was it, I don’t know, but there seemed something neurotic and ritualistic in it too. At any rate, I thought of that as Arthur walked about my room, occasionally picking things up and looking at them without, I thought, seeing. A few times his breathing stopped and his nose clicked, but he didn’t speak. I made a fuss of Joe and waited.

‘John … look here, John. I know how difficult it is for you with … with … with things. I understand that you’re not always, well, not always quite a hundred per cent. I understand, I honestly do.’ He looked away and then glanced back. He was blushing. My heart went out to him for a moment, he was suffering so much.

‘You remember when your father left. He said, he said that I was to look out for you and your mother while he was away. He said that I was the oldest man in the house while he was away, and that he hoped I’d look out for you all. I feel, I try —’

‘Bugger off. You’re not my father, you’re not my brother, you’re not even my cousin. You’re a milky sponge. Bugger off.’

‘You have a dirty mouth,’ he said, and walked out.

Arthur was right, I did have a dirty mouth. Too much living near barracks, my mother used to say. Before the war whenever possible we had rented a small house or a flat or a cottage near wherever my father had been posted and set up home together, the three of us. It wasn’t till the war that my mother and I went to live at my grandmother’s house in the country.

Arthur stayed with us regularly wherever we were, but most often with my grandmother. Once he was at school he would always spend part of the holidays with us. My parents were his godparents, and his father, John Arthur Crankshaw, had been my father’s closest friend. They’d been subalterns together in South Africa during the Boer War. Sometimes, especially when it was summer or near Christmas, Mrs Crankshaw would also come for a few days before leaving Arthur with us. I remember seeing them from the window coming up the path on one of the later visits, him holding her hand, and thinking it looked like a young girl leading a tame hairless bear. She was small and bird-like, with a definite manner. He was tall and stooping, with a crooked sort of motion, like a marionette with one of the strings cut.

Mrs Crankshaw endlessly chivvied Arthur. Not nastily, but almost absent-mindedly, and she would rarely instruct him directly; she was a narrator, a fortune-teller: ‘Arthur is going to finish his dinner … Of course Arthur is going to bed now … Arthur wouldn’t want to go out now that it’s raining….’

From things he said, I think she privately chivvied him about school. He was there on greatly reduced fees, or possibly without fees. His father was an old boy and had served King and Country; he was also dead, having cut his hand on a rusty wire-fence and died of blood poisoning not long after Arthur was born. Arthur was too young to have any memories of him that weren’t secondhand. He was never much more, to me at least, than a cautionary tale; one of those parables that fascinate children because they suggest that Nature is really like a deadly fairy tale in which the magnitude of an action has no relation to its consequences. Another schoolmate’s father had died after threading his sausage by chance on a poisonous stick to cook it on a camp fire. But Captain Crankshaw’s old school had remembered him; after his death Mrs Crankshaw had received a letter of condolence from them, offering to take Arthur on ‘special terms’ when the time came, in case of hardship. Arthur had obligations.

We were at school when news came through that my father had been posted missing. It was common enough by then — most boys had fathers, cousins, uncles or elder brothers serving somewhere; during Sunday evening chapel the Head would read the names of old boys who had been killed during the week — but it set me apart. Most boys wouldn’t take my eye if they could help it, or spend time alone with me; we were all embarrassed and too buttoned up to work past it. I preferred it that way, on the whole. Arthur was different; he was horrorstruck, but there was an eagerness in his commiseration, a sort of hunger for fellow-feeling, that was uncomfortable and pushed me further into the distance. This was private and not to be shared except in certain largely unspoken ways and at certain times with my mother and grandmother. But then, Arthur and I had a way of treading on one another’s graves.

My father was never found and not long into the holidays he was officially dead.

When Arthur arrived for his summer weeks I was out and he came looking for me. I was sitting with my back to a drystone wall and looking over the fields and beyond to the woods, smoking a cigarette. He must have seen a pillar of smoke rising from behind the wall and been drawn over. Every good scout knows to investigate smoke in the country. We took each other by surprise and we both of us had a bad time of it.

Arthur was slightly out of breath and his thoughts were disordered. He clicked like someone working out a difficult problem on an abacus, rapidly and irregularly. He’d come prepped with sympathy, condolence, fraternal uplift, but it was no good. It was as if he’d packed heavy woollen clothes and arrived to find everyone lolling in the sun. We’d both grown up believing the legend that a policeman could arrest on the spot any boy under fourteen he found smoking. The Boys’ Own Paper told us that boys who smoked would be stunted and go blind; smoking boys were also of low character, weak or wicked. Here was me, with a dead father and a widowed mother, smoking behind a wall. I could sense him trying to be easy on me, but however he put it, he thought I was a traitor to my father’s memory and a poor son to my mother.

My father left a trunk full of spare pipes, tobacco, cigars and cigarettes, together with all the paraphernalia. It was locked, but the key was always in the lock. Without having any sort of clear notion of what I was about, I had one afternoon gone through it, and had taken a pipe, a few bits and pieces, and some cigarettes. This was a sort of shadow memorabilia to go with the official collection, with the medals and the razor and the regimental buttons and the other bits and pieces I’d been given or had picked up.

These things served their purpose, I could turn them over with my hands, look at them, feel a small secret boastfulness at their possession, but they were no good for remembering. Memory is more like a cat than a dog; it won’t fetch to order, and sometimes, unwanted, it’ll suddenly bring a headless rabbit. One can only wait and hope, perhaps setting out a saucer of milk; that’s all.

I started smoking. Not often, perhaps twice a week, if that, and always at home, always my father’s tobacco. It became a ritual, to which superstitions were continually added. A cigarette should never be lit while standing; I should always sit with my back to something; if it didn’t light after three matches I shouldn’t smoke that day; all don’t-step-on-the-cracks-in-the-pavement taboos. This was how I remembered my father, shared a moment with him, tipped my hat, fixed him as solid and enduring. That’s how we trap our cats, I suppose.

A few days after Arthur caught me the key disappeared from the trunk. Nothing was ever said; no one gave a sign. When my current store ran out that would be it. As I say, Arthur and I tread on one another’s graves.

The next morning I was woken several times before I opened my eyes. From time to time hands were placed on my hot forehead and there was soft talk and whispering. At last my grandmother settled it. ‘You must wake him.’

Had I seen Arthur? Did I know where he might be? He was missing; there was no sign of him. His hat, coat, scarf, gloves and boots were all gone.

My mother, grandmother, Thwaites the gardener, and Joe went out to look for him. I was ill. Late in the afternoon a dozen or so old men, women and children from the village made up a search party. In places the footprints were messed up, but there was a clear set leading out on to Whitmere; they didn’t return or stretch to the further shore.

It wasn’t until nearly a week later, after a thaw and after the equipment and enough able-bodied men could be mustered to drag the pond, that he was found. By then, of course, we all knew well enough where he was.

Arthur moving over the ice repeats itself. Sometimes he moves easily, other times he moves uncertainly, slipping and crawling; always he disappears one way or another.

He comes back to me at odd moments. When I was raw — nineteen, twenty, twenty-one — I often thought of him when I couldn’t sleep, especially if I’d been drinking and was feeling seamy and hagridden. He remains a sort of conscience. One time I lay in bed for the hour before dawn thinking about him laughing. His laugh was weirdly like written laughter, which is to say ‘Ho! Ho! He! He! Ha! Ha!’. Even as an older boy he liked what he called ‘funny animals’ and clowns and would watch hugging his knees and giving way completely. It was the most innocent and, at the time, irritating thing I have seen. It made me watery with grief. I also thought this was rather a dirty world, on the whole.

More than once I have been somewhere late at night or in the early morning with people dancing — some stomp or other; the Charleston; ragtime this or that — their palms facing out, moving their hands; some solemnly with studied blankness, but others twisting their faces with grins or intense looks, and I’ve seen Arthur, his face pressed up against the ice and his palms paddling uselessly against it.

I’ve always thought Arthur’s walk on the ice was a gesture, though I’ve never known what it meant. Perhaps he wanted a holiday from himself, from unceasing innocent calculation, from the strain of worrying about what other people were doing. He couldn’t see someone butter toast sloppily without trying to fix it. Perhaps he thought a gesture might break the unsatisfactory present. Perhaps it was against fear, to show he wasn’t afraid. Perhaps there was something in him that we hadn’t guessed at. I don’t know.

The thing is, something else may have happened in the night. In the darkness I heard someone come into my room. I heard Arthur breathing by my bed. I heard him call my name and I felt him squeeze my shoulder through the blankets, shaking me. I kept my eyes closed. He sat at the end of my bed and I could hear him breathing. He moved close again and told me what the woman had said, she had said ‘If you look through the ice you will see something … such a thing … a thing….’ Arthur wanted me to go to Whitmere with him and look. I didn’t open my eyes. He waited for a long time and then he left and I could hear him moving through the house and out.

Whether I was awake or not I don’t know; I don’t know if dreams can also be visions. If someone asks if I believe in the supernatural, I can only say that I don’t know what is natural and what isn’t.

I did have at least one dream the night Arthur went on to the ice. I was walking through the woods. The light had a peculiar quality, like an x-ray; the light was very light and the dark very dark. Beneath me I was aware of a knotted irregular living mesh of roots in the earth; the trees were slowly, very slowly pulling one another back and forth to shrug snow from their branches. I walked out on to the ice. Kneeling, I wiped an elliptical window in the snow and looked down. The ice had a limpid, almost magnifying clarity, as if it were a lens. Below, moving in slow mutual orbit, were shimmering fish, lit as if from within, each a different colour, with scales flashing like jewels. They were coloured lamps floating in a paler liquid light. For a moment I knew everything. This was a sort of living celestial map. It was all there, luminous, simple, harmonious; and cold, perfectly cold.

Paul Fishman (Bristol, 2009)

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