Weekend Fiction: Red Among Em
Usually it’s Pendril and the Celt what bring me the news from the villages tween ere and Croydon. They come to me when they’s passing through Penge on the way to the markets up London Wall way. They tell me who’s sick round their parts, I tell em what I’ll need to make their folk better, and then they fetch it for me from the herb sellers at the Wall. I don’t pay em for their troubles, but Ailsa creates certain protections for em now and then, and that’s payment enough for any man.
What’s the matter with you two? says I when I stepped out to meet em that last time. They was busy tyin up their orses like they normally do, but even in that ordinary endeavour I could see a sombreness about em.
It’s Swayne,Mister Apothecary, says Pendril, when they was done. The Celt took off is cap and came and stood beside Pendril oldin a sack. Pendril just put is ands together in front of isself, all respectful like. E’s in a very bad way, sir.
So says is missus, anyhow, says the Celt. E weren’t quite so downcast, but then e dint grow up longside Swayne like Pendril did. Where d’ye want the guts, sir?
I took the bag of sheep’s innards from im. Ailsa uses em for tellins.
Dyin, is e? says I.
Pendril looked at the ground. E dint want to think about that.
Ah, that’s hard to say, sir, says the Celt. Swayne wouldnae talk about it. He just lay there holdin hisself like this. The Celt bent forward and grabbed is stomach like a woman carryin two armfuls o taters. Truth be told, he didnae want us botherin ye with any o it.
Yet ere you two are goin against the man’s wishes, says I.
Well, it’s for the young wife’s sake, really, says the Celt. It wasSal who insisted we come to ye. We wouldnae listen to her normally, sir, but she’s with child. And it dinnae do to worry a woman who's with child.
Aye, says I, right enough. I made a face like I was ponderin somethin – the herbs for a bad stomach, maybe, or the plants for a general malaise. But there weren’t nothin to ponder. Things ad just come together. It was time.
Still, I pretended I’d decided on a cure. That foreigner still get up there with them spices? says I, noddin northwards, towards the Wall.
Pendril nodded back.
Says I to im, Get me some of that wossname, then – ginger. 'Bout as much as you can fit in your mate’s cap there.
Right you are, sir, says Pendril.
When was it you last see young Swayne then? says I next.
Let's see, says Pendril. What are we on? Wednesday? Woulda been Monday then. Monday evenin.
And ow long till you get back ere with the ginger? says I.
Market's open first thing inna mornin, says Pendril. It'll take us the rest o s'afternoon to get up there anyhow so that don’t make no odds. We'll get in there with the cock’s crow, but still I reckon you're lookin at tomorra evenin fore we darken your doorway again.
Says I, You two better get crackin then, eh?
Yes, sir, says Pendril. Right you are, sir.
Yes, right ye are, sir, says the Celt. And off they went, none the wiser.
I watched em go off up the road. I waited till they was well out of earshot fore I called to Ailsa to fetch me dagger.
That evenin we et our meat and drunk our water and didn’t say a word, for a sombreness had come over us, much as it’d come over Pendril and the Celt earlier. But this was a different kind of sombre. Theirs was somethin like sadness; ours was closer kin to determination.
After Ailsa cleared the table I laid out me medicine sack. Into the bottom of it I dropped a coupla pounds o sawdust wrapped in a old cloth. On top of that went the dagger. Last in was the usual remedies in case any sick folk stopped us on the way to Swayne’s – mugwort and rosemary, garlic and nettles. We planned on stayin well out of everyone’s sight, but it was only sensible to take precautions. You never know when you’ll be needin an alibi in this life.
We left at dusk. Croydon, where Swayne and is missus lives, is three mile south-west of ere, as the crow flies; but it’s more like six if you go round the outside o the wood, as most folks do. But for the sake of speed and not bein seen by anyone, we went right through the middle of it. It was dark as the grave in there, and we ad to make our way by feel. Almost right away we was slippin on mulch and trippin on branches.
You can still turn round and go ome, says I to Ailsa, after she went down for the third time in as many minutes. There ain’t no shame in it.
She was my daughter an all, was all she says back. So on we went.
We popped out that forest all scratched and dirtied, but pop out we did, and straight into Swayne’s village too. There was a great big commotion goin on there – men standin round lookin worried, women yellin and rushin in and out o someone’s ouse with pails o water and rags – and we ad to stay among the trees so’s not to be seen.
Looks like that baby’s on its way tonight, says Ailsa, and fore I could stop er she was off, callin to the womenfolk that she’d eard young Sal was with child so she’d come down to elp, and at just the right time too by the look of it. At first I thought she’d lost er mind, but then I saw what she was doin. In about two minutes she’d be in control in there, keepin everyone busy so’s I could take care o Swayne. A distraction like.
I watched Ailsa send the men away for firewood and hustle the women into the hut where Swayne’s missus was birthin. Then I crept through the village, movin round the back o the ouses, till I came to Swayne’s.
I found im layin on some straw, curled up just like the Celt ad demonstrated. E was sweatin and is eyes was closed and e was whinin like a kicked dog. I put the sack down and dint say nothin, just stood over im. Is sufferin was such that it took im a long time to understand there was another man in the room with im. But when e saw me, e understood everythin quick enough.
That witch wife o yours, e grunts, she put this sickness on me, dint she.
Still I dint say nothing. I opened the sack, removed the herbs and took up the dagger.
Swayne looked at it. E nodded weakly towards the neighbour’s hut, where Sal was screamin. You’re gonna leave a child with no father, are ya? That the kind of man you are?
That cunt. E dint mind leavin a father with no child. I shoved the dagger at is throat.
When e’d finally gone I spilled me sawdust over the blood and kicked it all together with the straw and earth o Swayne’s floor. Then I quickly dragged im out into the trees. It was gettin towards mornin already, and in the risin light I could even see what I was doin as I cut im up for the forest pigs. Swayne was not a well man, but it comforted me not at all to know e was doomed long fore I’d darkened is doorway. Is belly was ard as stone, and when I tore into it, it was nothin but tumours. I ripped em out and threw em far into the trees so’s not to discourage the pigs from eatin the rest of im: even a animal could tell they was poison. Then I covered the remains with leaves and set off ome, just as Sal’s screamin died down and was replaced by the wail of tiny lungs. The baby was out then. Good old Ailsa.
We’d snuck out o Penge, and I ad to sneak back in, cos the villagers was well about their business when I got ome. Only when I closed the door on the world could I breathe normal again. That’s when it all landed on me – the size of what we’d done, the vengeance we’d took. I stood in the darkness wantin to cry, but no tears came. Dint matter. I coulda wept all day and it wouldna brought me any nearer to peace. Them days was well past.
I lit the fire, stripped down and threw my bloody clothes on the flames. I warmed up a pail o water and washed myself clean. With that done, I set another pail to boil ready for Ailsa. I was glad she wouldn’t ave to creep back into the village, like I did. After all, she’d only been off elpin birth a littlun, adn’t she? She’d been doin good. When I’d dressed I went out the front and waited for er to come back up the road. I wanted to see er receivin the people’s praise as she walked among em drippin red.
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