This story is set against a background of milling by wind, which is a highly specialist trade demanding considerable expertise. Technicalities are therefore unavoidable, but if they go over your head it does not matter a hoot. While Braunston and Writtle are real places, their mills are fictional but typical of their regions.
The inter-war years in Britain, which saw much social change and increasingly liberated attitudes, were an interlude of relative safety between the hysteria that surrounded Oscar Wilde’s trial and the witch-hunts that followed World War Two. There were worse times to be gay.
My thanks as usual to Ben, Hilary, Pryderi, Roger and Jonathan.
9 April 2015
As the view unfolded ahead, my heart began to sing. Alongside a tall church spire which pricked the sky were turning the sails of a windmill — and not of a tower mill as I had half-expected, but of a post mill. Even if I were not allowed inside, nothing could prevent me taking a closer look. Down the hill I coasted and over the bridge across the canal, sparing no more than a glance at the junction and the boat-thronged wharf. At other times I would have stopped here to investigate, but today my priorities were clear-cut. A right turn where the finger-post pointed to Braunston, a few yards to the church, a few more to a steep side-lane. At its head stood the mill, perched on a knoll and presiding over a village street of thatch and tile, of orange sandstone and red brick. Scrawny chickens scratched in the yard. Close by were the mill house and stable.
Leaning my bike against the gatepost, I drank in a sight which quite took my breath away. Braunston is about as close to the centre of England as you can get, and the Midlands, unlike East Anglia and the South, are not real windmill land. Regional variations, moreover, are only to be expected. No great surprise, then, that this mill differed markedly from those of my home patch.
The small body, clad in crudely patched weatherboarding and dingy with time-worn creosote, seemed of venerable age. Instead of a fly there was a tail-pole for turning it into the wind, as was common enough. What was strange was the narrow tapering roundhouse from which the body sprang, its masonry laid bare where the rendering had fallen away. It had no roof as such, but a flared skirt projected down from the body. The poll end, too, was not of iron but of wood, a practice I had heard of as ancient history but did not know still existed. And the sails were of the simple cloth-covered type that I had met on derelict mills at home but had never witnessed in action. They were tatty, with several of the cross-bars broken and the cloths torn and much repaired. But as they gently turned they uttered that inimitably soothing swish that sails always do.
While to the casual observer windmills may seem to be no more than bulky and inanimate machines, all much of a muchness, anyone in the least familiar with them knows better. On closer acquaintance they verge on the human. Every one has her own individual character, just as every ship does — and, like a ship, we speak of a windmill as ‘she’ rather than ‘it’. Habakkuk’s mill might be drab, she might be battered, she might wear a sullen scowl and even hold a hint of menace. Yet behind her run-down facade I could sense — or thought I could — a kindly dependability.
Such a notion may sound whimsical and conceited, especially for a boy. But, much as other friends had become bird-watchers or railway buffs, I had always been a windmill enthusiast. As far back as I remember I had been in love with them and their beauty and craftsmanship and complex simplicity, and by now I was a devotee. I knew the writing was on the wall. Economics and modern technology were taking an ever-increasing toll, and in the whole of Britain no more than a hundred or so windmills had sails still turning.
I had joined the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings which tried to record and preserve them. I had cycled round Essex and even into Suffolk and across into Kent, searching out all the examples I could find and wherever possible poking my nose inside. In our home village of Writtle outside Chelmsford I had made friends with dear Alf Hutchins the miller, and for five glorious years, at weekends and in the holidays, I had worked at his mill: a spacious post mill of typically East Anglian design, immaculate, white-painted, with a two-storey roundhouse and all mod cons such as shuttered sails and a fly. Alf was getting on and his strength fading, and I helped him out as best I could. In return he taught me his skills and gave me ever more responsibility. By this time, though I say it myself, I was pretty well qualified at milling.
In the course of that summer of 1935, however, while Dad’s attitudes remained as bracingly pragmatic and permissive as ever, the other departments of my life had seen major upheavals.
First, I had taken my School Certificate and, not being enthused by the thought of two more years at the grammar school, had decided to leave. That generated no sorrow, only a welcome revolution in routine.
Second, my best friend and bed-mate Colin had left school too and his parents had whisked him off to India, stranding me with no immediate prospect of a replacement. That was distressing; but Dad, well aware that I was a queer, was sympathetic and supportive.
Third, and much the worst, Writtle mill had been struck by lightning and burnt down. Old Alf, though uninjured, was desolated. Ten days later he died, officially of a stroke, in reality of a broken heart. That double disaster brought me, even at the supposedly stoical age of sixteen, to tears.
No school, no companion, no work. What to do with myself? A stop-gap solution came from Dad, who suggested I take a holiday. He was a radio engineer at Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Co in Chelmsford, and had been seconded to the BBC for a month or two to help set up its Empire Service’s short wave transmitters at Daventry. My plan was to share his lodgings and explore an area brand-new to me, hunting out not only wind and watermills but canals too, which were another interest. And so to Daventry he drove me, bike and all, in his company van.
That evening, then, once we had installed ourselves, I asked Mrs Dodford our landlady about windmills within cycling distance. She was helpful but not well informed.
“Well, there’s one on the hill at Napton, and one at Burton Dassett” — I already knew of both — “and I think there’s one at Hellidon. But the nearest must be Habakkuk’s mill at Braunston.”
“Oh, about four miles away, just off the Dunchurch road.”
Handily close. I had heard of Braunston as the busy junction of the Grand Union and Oxford Canals, worth seeing in its own right, but the mill was news to me.
“Still at work?” I asked without much hope.
“It was, last time I saw it. Though that was a year or so back.”
“Oh, smashing! What sort?”
Silly question. Post mill or tower mill, I meant; but not surprisingly it flummoxed her.
“Oooh, I don’t know,” was her vague reply. “It’s just a windmill like any other. But Habakkuk Farthingstone who runs it, he doesn’t care for visitors. Back in the days when I worked at Gaytons — that’s the big bakery here — I used to bump into him when he was delivering flour. He’s a grumpy little man. I doubt he’d let you in.”
Not promising. Next morning I pedalled off along the Dunchurch road, hopeful yet with never an inkling of what else my quest might bring me. I was standing in the gateway, still gazing spellbound at the mill, when a horse and sack-laden cart came plodding up the lane from the village. As I stepped aside to let it pass, the driver reined in. He was about my age, too young to be the miller — perhaps his assistant, or a farm hand delivering grain. His first expression was of surprise at me being there. Then it shifted to what was evidently interest and even approval. Meanwhile, as my own mind changed gear from one of its preoccupations to another, I was staring at him as well. This was a handsome lad; but he seemed uncertain how to deal with me. I don’t know how long we stared before he spoke. No doubt it was only a few seconds, but it felt an age.
“Hullo?” he said, with a large question mark at the end.
“Hullo. I was wondering if I might be allowed to look at the mill. Even inside her.”
“You’ll be luck ...”
But before he could finish there was a bellow from the mill. A man had appeared on the steps.
“Jack! Who’s that?”
“Dunno, Dad. He wants to look at the mill.”
“Kick him out then ...” The man gave me a more careful scrutiny. “No, bring him here.”
With an apologetic glance, Jack drove on, giving a wide berth to the sails which came to within a foot of the ground. He stopped near the steps and jumped down. The man examined me as I approached. He was short and swarthy and middle-aged, though perhaps younger than he seemed. He wore a flat cap and dirty clothes. He fitted Mrs Dodford’s description of little and grumpy. Pretty certainly, then, this was Habakkuk Farthingstone the miller.
“You’re no local,” he growled. “What you doing here?”
I nodded across the undulating landscape to where the array of antennae broke the distant horizon. “My Dad’s got a temporary job at the transmitter at Danetree.” Mrs Dodford had told me that while the BBC pronounced Daventry as it is spelt, natives had their own version. “And I’m staying with him and biking round looking at windmills.”
“Where you from?”
“Essex. A place called Writtle. I used to help out at the mill there, till she was burnt down last month.”
“Uh.” His eyes turned calculating and even sadistic. “Well, help Jack get these sacks into the roundhouse. Can’t do it meself. Summat wrong with me heart. Won’t let you look round unless you do that proper. Want Jack to show you,” he added nastily, “how to carry a sack?”
He was setting me a test which he expected me to fail. But to me it was easy.
“No thanks. I know.”
I let down the tailgate of the cart, turned my back to it, bent down a little, slid the nearest sack onto my left shoulder while holding the top corners with both hands, and straightened up. Sacks of wheat are heavy. They hold four bushels and weigh well over two hundredweight. When I started with Alf at the age of eleven I had no hope of lifting one, let alone of carrying it. By the time I hit fourteen I could, just. Now that I had reached six foot and twelve stone it was second nature to me, as it clearly was to Jack when he shouldered the next. The roundhouse door was high enough to enter without ducking, but inside it was cramped and the crosstrees low, which made it awkward to stow the sacks neatly. Habakkuk, hiding any surprise, watched dourly. There were only a dozen sacks, half a dozen each, and the job was soon done.
“Hmph,” he grunted. “All right. Jack’ll show you round.”
First hurdle crossed. Jack was dusting his hands and looking pleased. Not as tall as me but stockier. Curly fair hair under his flat cap, wide mouth, high cheek-bones, blue eyes. A dogged expression, bordering on the weary. Don’t ask me how, but already I knew that we clicked. As Dad might have put it, we were on the same wavelength. Could it even be that we were the same way inclined? A further and vastly more ambitious plan swam almost fully-formed into my head.
“Thank you very much,” I said. “And as you’re not fit, would you like me to help out for a few weeks? Only by day, not overnight.”
On Jack’s face, from the corner of my eye, I could see astonishment and hope. On Habakkuk’s I could see a conflict. He was naturally hostile to strangers, but he was acknowledging that help was needed.
“Couldn’t pay you.”
“Oh, I don’t expect any pay.”
“Ar. What did you do at this mill of yours?”
“Everything. Sometimes I ran her single-handed. She was a post mill, big, three pairs of stones, though she did have patents and a fly. I can even dress stones.”
“Hmph,” he said again. Suddenly he looked up at his mill. “What’s wrong with her? Right now?”
This was another test. I looked up too, to feel the breeze on my cheek.
“The wind’s backed. She needs turning a bit, to get the best.”
“Go on then.”
Although Writtle had a fly, more than once I had been allowed to wind the mill at Mountnessing, and knew the drill. With the talthur I lifted the steps off the ground and pinned them up. Then I pushed on the tail-pole, not facing forwards — if you slip you fall and crack your nose — but with my shoulders, walking backwards. It was easier than at Mountnessing. After about ten degrees I checked the wind again and lowered the steps.
“She turns very sweetly,” I remarked.
“Ar.” He rounded on Jack. “Why haven’t you winded her?”
“Come off it, Dad. I’ve only this minute got back.”
Habakkuk grunted and swung back to me. “More cloth or less?”
The wind was not strong, but the sails were turning less fast than I thought they might. Still, play safe.
“I’d guess she could take more. But I don’t know. I’ve never worked with cloths.”
“Honest. Come inside.”
With much panting he climbed the steps, and we followed.
“Keep it up!” Jack muttered as we went.
Inside, to the ear, it was quietly noisy. That was normal. All mills rumble at work, and all post mills creak. But to the eye, much was abnormal. I stared in amazement. The mill was indeed small. Above me there were tail stones, not currently at work, driven by gear wheels with ordinary teeth. But — my God! — driving the head stones were a trundle wheel and lantern pinion. I had no idea that such things still survived anywhere. And in front of my nose, carved in large letters on the main post, was the inscription H. F. 1619. Exactly three hundred years older than I was. The miller followed my gaze.
“Habakkuk Farthingstones ever since,” he said, a touch of pride showing through. “Father to son. I’m the tenth.” He abruptly changed tack. “What about the meal?”
I put my hand into the trickle of wheatmeal falling out of the chute from the stones, caught some in my palm, squinted at it in the sidelong light from the door, sniffed it, and rubbed it thoughtfully between finger and thumb. I had no idea what answer he wanted.
“It’s good,” I ventured. “A bit coarser than we ground at Writtle, but good.”
“Hah! There you are, Jack!” crowed Habakkuk. “If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times. Grind finer!”
If he had been at school, Jack’s tone of weary resignation would have earned him a detention. As he reached up to give a turn to the tentering screw I managed to throw him a covert glance of apology.
“All right, lad, I suppose you’re on,” said Habakkuk, some reluctance still evident. “Week’s trial. Seven to five. No pay, but the missus’ll bring you a bite of dinner. What’s your name?”
“No, your first name.”
“Hodge. It’s a nickname really, but nobody calls me anything else.”
Habakkuk grunted and hobbled off down the steps, calling “Turn the horse out, Jack. Put more cloth on. Then show him what’s what.”
The moment he was out of the way, Jack was quick to stand up for himself.
“You were sort of right,” he said earnestly. “Usually we grind finer. But this lot’s for Gaytons, and they like it coarse. But He’s the boss” — you could hear the capital letter and the emphasis — “and God! don’t we know it!”
He reached up again to return the tentering screw to where it had been before. Then he leant back against the main post, muscular arms folded, to inspect me thoroughly and unashamedly. His wide mouth widened into an unpractised smile.
“Well I’ll be buggered!” he said in a wondering voice. “Didn’t expect the old pisspot to let you in, not in a month of Sundays. Never happened before. No callers allowed, aside from the postman and milkman. And as for taking you on ...”
Jack shook his head in bewilderment. He had only a slightly provincial accent, nothing like as strong as Habakkuk’s. He was free in his language, which bothered me not at all. And he showed precious little respect for his father, which was wholly understandable.
“Know what brought him round? I reckon it was what you said about the meal. But Christ! Am I glad you’re here!”
To lighten his workload, was the obvious meaning. But I could have sworn there was more to it than that.
“And am I glad to be here!” I replied, inspecting him in return and no doubt grinning like another Cheshire cat. “I feel I’m back home. Back where I belong. But hadn’t we better deal with the horse before He starts bellyaching?”
“Yes, we’d better. Hold on, I’m sweltering.”
It was very warm and he was in shirtsleeves, but he was wearing a tie, presumably because he had been representing the mill in public. He pulled it off and undid a few buttons to reveal a tantalising glimpse of a smooth chest. Then we went out, and he showed me what to do with the horse and cart. I had done much the same with Alf’s, before he got a motor van.
Next, the sails. On old-fangled ones such as these, the heavy canvas cloth is spread like a long narrow curtain over a lattice framework, its rings running on a rail at the inner end. To catch all of a gentle wind you draw it fully across. In a moderate wind you spread only part of it, reefing it with cords much as you do a ship’s sail. To stop work you draw it fully back and roll it into a long bundle. The big snag is that all this has to be done from the ground, and one sail at a time. Jack applied the brake by tugging the rope which hung down from the mill’s side, and stopped the sails neatly when one was at its lowest. He spread out more of the cloth by pulling on a cord, which he tied up.
“Simple like this. But sometimes in winter the bloody pointing lines freeze solid and you have to climb up to free them.”
He released the brake enough to take the sails a quarter-turn and applied it again.
“You do this one.”
I imitated his action. Easy enough. But before releasing the brake once more I tried pushing on the sail. With some effort I could move it.
“Brake’s not that good,” said Jack to my raised eyebrow. “No problem like this. But if the wind gets up and you have to take cloth in, she can be a bastard to stop.”
“So what do you do?”
“Sit on the brake lever. Flood the stones with grain. Even turn her sideways to the wind.”
“And if you’re halfway up a sail and the brake fails?”
“You go round with it. Happened to me once.”
I pointed to a broken cross-bar. “And did that give way under your weight?”
“Why, yes. Gave me the hell of a fright.”
We finished the last two sails and set her going again. Small wonder cloths had been replaced, almost always, by safer and less laborious methods. It was hardly the new boy’s place to criticise, but ...
“Seems to me you need new sails,” I said as we went back in.
“Couldn’t agree more. But He’s such a bloody miser. What are these patents you were on about?”
“Sails made up of shutters, like venetian blinds. Linked together on all four of them — all open, or closed, or anywhere you like in between. Sprung by a weight so they spill the wind by themselves when it gets too strong. And all without stopping the mill. Saves a heck of a lot of faff. You’ve never seen them?”
Jack, it turned out, had never been further than Northampton. He was obviously intelligent and no doubt a good miller, but his wider experience was minimal. One day I must take him to East Anglia and show him what could be done. The thought was quite stimulating.
At that point a bell tinkled, the automatic signal that a bin was nearly empty of grain, and we had to fill it. In the intervals between hoisting sacks, filling bins, taking down bags of wheatmeal, weighing on the great scales, pushing the tail-pole, and taking cloth in again when the wind strengthened, he gave me a conducted tour. I need not repeat our technical discussions. Some of the equipment was primeval, and all of it fascinating. While the routine was well known, the details were strange. I was in familiar tune with the powers of nature, and in exciting new tune with Jack. Rarely had I enjoyed myself so much.
Our labours were enlivened by a cold dinner, but hardly interrupted because a miller’s work verges on the incessant and there is little chance to sit down. It was brought to us in the mill — bread, cheese, pickle, fruit-cake, tea ready-milked in a vast enamel pot — by an attractive lady of maybe thirty-five.
“Oh thanks, Mum,” said Jack, looking past her to the door. “Is he ...?”
“Snoring in his chair.” She turned to me. “And so you’re Hodge! Very glad I am to see you. You’re more than welcome.”
She held out her hand and, floury though mine was, I shook it.
“Thank you, Mrs Farthingstone.” I glanced once again around the delights of the spout floor. “And I’m more than glad to be here.”
I had not meant my eyes to linger on Jack, but they did. She seemed to notice, giving him a hint of a smile as if of approval and encouragement.
“Oh, please don’t call me that,” she said. “You’d better call me Emily.” And off she went.
Work carried on. Not much meaningful conversation is possible between a pair of millers at work. They are rarely close enough for long enough — one might be down in the roundhouse hitching sacks to the chain, the other up on the bin floor working the hoist to haul them up. So we said little but got on with it. When the time came for me to knock off I did not dawdle, as I had to be back for tea at six and needed time for a quick bath and a change. You don’t wear your best clothes when grubbing round dusty and cobwebby mills, but I hadn’t taken a hat and my hair was no doubt prematurely white.
“Thanks, Jack. I enjoyed that. I’ve got a book with pictures of patent sails, and I’ll bring it over. See you tomorrow at seven.”
“But tomorrow’s Sunday. No milling. He never allows it.”
I had heard of such god-fearing millers. But Alf’s philosophy had been that if God was kind enough to send millers a decent wind on Sunday, it was a sin for them to turn down a gift from heaven.
“What do you do on Sundays, then?”
He pulled a face. “Chapel. He insists. And church with Mum. She doesn’t insist, but I don’t mind. I like the vicar.”
“Church at eleven, chapel at five.”
“Mind if I come too? To both?”
His face lit up. “Welcome! But I doubt you’ll like the chapel.”
Not being into religion, I doubted I would like the church either. But the rest of the day at leisure with Jack ...
“Doing anything else?” I asked.
“No. Have dinner with us. I’ll square it with Mum. He won’t like it, but damn that.”
“Put me across as the dutiful apprentice spending an improving Sabbath with his godly master.”
He laughed. “That might actually work.”
“Thanks, Jack. See you about ten, then.”
He still had the bearings and the gears to grease, but I leapt onto my bike, waving at Emily who was visible at a window in the mill house. I was thinking deeply as I rode. The day had thrown up all kinds of surprises. The mill was a joy. Jack was a potentially greater one.
A month’s separation from Colin was already hurting, in body and in mind. After all, every dyed-in-the-wool young poof like me lusts for another young body to explore by eye and by hand and to plumb the depths of intimacy; which will no doubt set you thinking of me as a standard adolescent, horny for sex at the drop of a hat. So I was, but yet I wasn’t. Horny, yes, but hardly promiscuous, for I had bedded nobody but Colin. And what I was missing even more was the togetherness, the companionship. That was the void that hurt the most. Could Jack fill it? Things seemed to be moving remarkably fast. Was it too fast? Should the brake be applied and cloth taken in?
Back at our digs they were happy for me.
“Looks like a successful day,” Dad observed, eying my scruffy clothes as I hurried in. “Tell me over tea.”
“He let you in, then?” asked Mrs Dodford as she set the pie and veg on our table. “That’s good.”
“Will it be all right,” I asked her, “if I’m a bit late for tea tomorrow?”
“Well, it’s at seven on Sundays anyway, dear.”
“Oh good. I should be back by then.”
“What’ll you be up to?” Dad enquired.
“You’ll hardly believe this, but I’m going to chapel. And to church in the morning.”
Dad, who was no more a church- or chapel-goer than I was, raised an eyebrow high.
“There has to be a very good reason for that,” he said. “I wonder if my guess is the right one?”
I smiled. He knew me pretty well.
So I told him everything; or as much as was good for him.
Once in bed, I thought hard. I wondered if hard thinking was also under way at Braunston.
* * *
On a job like this Dad worked every day in order to get home the sooner, and I was under no obligation to spend time with him, even on a Sunday. This was one of the joys of our relationship. We were like a pair of suburban semis, joined together yet independent.
It was again hot, without a breath of wind, and not even Alf could have milled today. This time, the urgency being less than yesterday, I paused at the canal bridge. A narrow boat was approaching, engine thumping slowly. It was a gaily-painted Josher — one of the fleet of a large carrying company — with a gaily-painted butty in tow. Beyond question a noble sight, and surely a good omen, for the boat’s name was Jack. The steerer wagged his head when I raised a hand in greeting. But windmills still took precedence.
I found Jack at the trough by the stable, naked to the waist, sluicing himself. The sight was yet more noble, and the mill looked as if she was enjoying it too.
“Hullo!” he spluttered, shaking water out of his hair and picking up his towel. “Wondered if you’d get cold feet. Specially over chapel.”
“Can’t say I’m exactly looking forward to it. But ...”
He seemed to understand precisely what I meant, that this was a golden opportunity to get to know each other better. At least, while his head was buried in his towel, I could study his seductive torso at quite close quarters, not to mention the wisps in his armpits. As he re-emerged I averted my eyes only just in time.
“Don’t you have water inside?” I asked, nodding at the trough.
“Fat chance. When the mains arrived, He was too mean to pay for a connection. Same with electricity and the phone.”
“How do you get water, then?”
“Rain off the roofs. When that’s gone, from a god-damn well. Pumped up. By me.” He sighed. “Must go and tart myself up. Mum’s in the kitchen.”
I found the kitchen, where Emily was getting dinner ready for the oven.
“Morning, Hodge! Jack says you’re coming to church with us. That’s nice.”
“And chapel too. Do you go to that as well?”
“Oh yes. It’s the price we pay for being allowed to go to church. He wouldn’t be seen dead in church.”
Her accent was no more pronounced than Jack’s, and she had a similar turn of phrase. It was already clear that in this household a plain ‘He,’ with emphasis and a capital, always meant Habakkuk, and that neither wife nor son had much time for him. She took off her apron and looked me in the eye.
“Thank you for being here, Hodge. Jack’s been a different boy since yesterday. He needs friends. We all do. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must get myself ready. Make yourself a cup of tea. The kettle’s just boiled and the milk’s in the larder.”
I did so, and soon Jack came cantering down the stairs, dolled up in jacket and tie, and earning a growl from somewhere within about loud noises disturbing the peace of the Lord’s day.
“He’s even grumpier than usual,” he explained. “A chicken’s missing. He thinks it’s the boat people. Much more likely a fox.”
We sat down at the kitchen table, close but not that close, where I showed him my book. He studied the photos of windmills — and especially the ones of patent sails and flies — with deep interest and intelligent questions, and I drew diagrams to explain what was not clear. Then Emily came down and we set off for church. It was only two or three minutes’ walk away.
“You’ll like the vicar,” she said. “He used to be married, but his wife died.” How on earth was that relevant? “And he’s a bit of a Bolshie. He says things I’m sure the bishop wouldn’t approve of. But I think he’s absolutely right.”
If I’m told that I will like someone, I usually end up disliking them. But if the vicar was a bit of a Bolshie, and Jack had also said he liked him ...
As it turned out, I liked him too; and in time I came almost to worship him.
I was not at home in a place like this and had to follow Jack and Emily’s lead. The congregation was surprisingly large for a smallish village. The service was lively, and through it there seemed to run a theme of love. The vicar was an old man who came across as not exactly jovial, but genial. Eventually he climbed into the pulpit.
“‘There is neither Jew nor Greek,” was his text, “there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one.’
“What St Paul is saying is that all of us are the same, women and men, high and low. That all of us deserve equal treatment. That discrimination is wrong, whether in favour of some or against others. That equality should rule.”
It made me sit up. There was virtually nothing theological about this sermon. The message was political, and radically political. It was very much the line taken by my socialist Dad, which I fully shared. It was very much the line taken by the Fabian Society, of which he had long been a member because it promoted not revolution but a system that was fair and egalitarian.
“Yet inequalities are everywhere,” the vicar was saying. “Take pay. Perhaps it isn’t unfair for a master or a landowner to receive more than an unskilled labourer. But a hundred times more? So that the master lives in luxury and the labourer in poverty? When the labourer makes the master rich but reaps little benefit himself? Like so many labour disputes, the General Strike nine years ago was about wages. It may not have succeeded, but it was wholly justified. When the Tory government slanged the miners as revolutionaries, the king himself was moved to object. ‘Try living on their wages before you judge them,’ he said. But even that, needless to say, cut no ice with the fat cats.”
The phrase was new to me, but it was obvious what it meant, and it fitted.
“Then take inequalities between the sexes. Men, I need hardly say, have nearly always had the better bargain. Look at the right to vote in general elections. After 1884 six men in every ten had a vote, but not a single woman. In 1918, when the vote was given to all men over twenty-one, the heroic struggles of the suffragettes at last secured a vote for women. But only for six of them out of every ten, and only over the age of thirty. It wasn’t until 1928, a mere seven years ago, that every woman over twenty-one was enfranchised. High time too, you will say. Yes, and what a day that was!” Emily beside me was nodding vigorously. “But why had it taken so long to overcome the prejudice?
“And take the church. Only men may be ordained as priests. Yet there were women priests in the early church, so why not now? They would be just as good at the job. Prejudice again. St Paul says there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one. So why one rule for one gender and another for the other? Sometimes I despair at the laws which the blinkered church — yes, my own church and yours — sees fit to lay down, slavishly followed by the blinkered state.
“And inequalities persist the other way round as well. Within certain limits such as age, any man and any woman may marry each other. And so they should. Of all relationships, marriage is the deepest and the best.” Emily was nodding hard again. “Yet while women may legally cohabit with women, they may not marry. Why not? And men are not allowed to cohabit with men, let alone to marry them. Why not? Prejudice once more. Love is good. Nobody here, I think, would deny that. And if there be love, let there also be the right to express that love as your nature dictates, with its pinnacle in marriage. One day change may come — the freedom to cohabit with whoever you like, the freedom to marry whoever you like. Change has to come. But I fear it will take time.”
It echoed exactly what Dad had said two years before when I told him I was a poof. That was when he had given me an extraordinary book to read, The Intermediate Sex by Edward Carpenter, who had been another Fabian. In showing that I was far from alone, its message — like Dad’s — had buoyed me up then and it buoyed me up still; not merely because it endorsed what I felt about myself but because, like the rest of their Fabian principles, it made every logical and moral sense.
There was more to the sermon, but the vicar kept it short and sharp. A final hymn, and we were done. Lost in our thoughts, we were slow to leave our pew. Jack had also been nodding, in his case at the part about men and men, which gave me extra food for speculation. When we reached the porch we were the last in the queue to shake hands.
“A new face!” cried the vicar. “We don’t often see new faces. There are always boatmen coming and going, of course, but if they go anywhere they go to the Mission at the wharf. So you’re especially welcome.”
“This is Hodge,” Emily introduced me. “He’s just started at the mill, helping out. But if you’ll excuse me, I must go and see to the dinner.”
“That’s good to hear,” said the vicar, presumably not referring to the dinner. His eyes flickered between me and Jack. There was little, I reckoned, that this man missed. “Did the sermon say anything to you?”
“A great deal,” I assured him. “It was what my father always says.”
“All of it?”
“Every bit. He’s a Fabian too, as I imagine you are.”
He nodded, interested. “Yes, I am. And are you one yourself?”
“Yes. Not signed up, though I suppose I ought to be. But everything you said rings true with me.”
“Good.” We were being cautious, the vicar and I, but we understood each other. He turned to Jack.
“Same here,” said Jack. “But there’s still that snag.”
“Yes. Sadly, there is that snag. Patience, lad.” And he patted him on the arm.
I hardly understood. Perhaps I was not meant to. Nonetheless, the picture was becoming clearer, and the pace was still breakneck.
Dinner was subdued. It began with an interminable grace in which Habakkuk gave individual thanks for almost every meat and vegetable known to man, and I was tempted to protest when he quite unfairly omitted cauliflowers. The food was therefore none too warm, and modest in quantity as if Emily’s housekeeping allowance could run to no more. And very little was said by anybody. Garrulous was the last thing that Habakkuk was, and no mention was made of the church service, let alone of the sermon. Just as well. The miller and the vicar would be unlikely to agree on anything.
Jack and I, having done the washing up, retreated to the grassy slope of the mill hill where, out of sight of the house, we shed our jackets and ties. We had over three hours to ourselves before chapel.
“What does He do with himself on Sundays?” I asked, unsure how to broach more important subjects.
“Reads his bible, I think.”
“Has to be the Old Testament, with a name like that. I’ve never met a Habakkuk before.”
Jack laughed. “Not the friendliest of names, is it?” He picked a grass-stalk to poke remains of dinner out of his teeth.
“No. You wouldn’t think names matter much, would you? But I’m sure they do. I mean, my Dad’s a Victor, which suits him down to the ground. Jack always sounds sturdy and reliable. And all Habakkuks have got to be Old Testamenty and gloomy. But at least that tradition’s been broken now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Why, that after ten Habakkuks in a row he called you Jack instead.”
“Damn it! He isn’t my father!” Jack burst out. “Sorry. You weren’t to know. But it gets my goat. And Mum’s too.”
He cast me an anxious look, as if wondering why he was spilling family secrets to an almost-stranger. I was wondering too.
“Hell, now I’ve blurted out that much, I’d better tell you the rest. But keep it under your hat. Please. He’d murder me if it got out. He was mad with Mum for telling even me.”
“It’s safe with me,” I assured him. “Anyway, I don’t know anyone here to tell.”
“Well, it’s complicated ...”
Habakkuk, he explained, was unmarried. Early in 1919, mentally wrecked by the war and in the throes of being demobbed, he heard that his father had died of the influenza and that he was now the miller. On his way home, while changing to the branch line at Weedon station, he bumped into a young woman who was begging for money. She poured out a tale of woe. Though she was a church-goer and well brought up, she had carelessly allowed a local man to make too free with her. They fully intended to get married, but before they could do anything about it he was killed by his traction engine while threshing. Her parents, when she found she was pregnant, were horrified. They allowed her to stay at home to give birth and, a few days later, to have the baby boy baptised. At that point, considering their Christian duty to be done, they gave her a pound and kicked her out. Virtually destitute, she was desperate. Her name was Emily.
Habakkuk’s mother was long gone. He was now alone in the world, and he needed a housekeeper. There and then he struck a bargain with Emily. In return for board and lodging — for a roof over her and her son’s head — she was to look after him. But if she had any more affairs, he warned, she would lose the job. What he insisted on was a quiet life with no more than the three of them in the house. No visitors would be allowed. As some defence against advances by the lusting youth of the village she was to masquerade as his wife.
It was a lifeline of a sort. In her hour of need Emily could only grab it. And so when Habakkuk reappeared at Braunston with a young woman and baby in tow, they were taken at face value. She was unquestioningly known as Mrs Farthingstone. The boy, insofar as a surname was ever attached to him, was known as Jack Farthingstone, which was encouraged by the fact that he came to address Habakkuk as ‘Dad.’ And as Jack Farthingstone he was enrolled, when the time came, at the village school, and later at the secondary in Daventry.
He was forbidden to brings friends home or waste time with them elsewhere. When the village school came out in the afternoon, Habakkuk from his vantage point would keep an eye on the street, and if he spied Jack playing conkers or marbles he tore a strip off him, or if he was a few minutes late in getting home from Daventry without good excuse. When the boy incautiously relieved his bruised feelings with swear-words picked up from schoolfellows, he was walloped. His life was not only tied to the mill house but made a deliberate misery.
“So he isn’t my father,” Jack repeated aggressively. “Mum told me the real story when I was ten. I still call him Dad because I called him that for years, and what else can I call him? Habakkuk? Mr Farthingstone? Huh! And she isn’t Mrs Farthingstone either. That’s why she told you to call her Emily. Her surname’s really Stowe, and always has been. And mine’s really Harpole. That’s who my father was, William Harpole. It’s on my birth certificate.”
Rural millers are rarely popular figures. The hoary old myth persists that they habitually diddle their customers by keeping a thumb on the scales or by adulterating their flour with chalk. In the case of Habakkuk, I learnt, he was respected as an honest miller if as nothing else, and his customers remained faithful; but now he did not even try to be popular. Reasonably well liked before the war, he returned with his mind scarred by the horrors of the Front, and became a surly and miserly recluse who had as little as possible to do with the outside world. Never did he go to the pub. On weekdays his only public appearances were on his cart as he collected from farms or delivered to customers. On Sundays his only public appearance was at the chapel, whose congregation was as dour as him.
Mother and son were close, each the only anchorage for the other. They were trapped by the bargain she had struck. Her code of honour prevented her from breaking it, and therefore prevented him. In any event jobs and housing were even harder to find in 1935 than they had been in 1919. While she was the mill’s go-between with the village at large and became well regarded by the shopkeepers, she was no more allowed to develop friendships than was Jack. They were effectively serfs, if not prisoners. The only parole they were granted was to attend church, provided they also attended chapel.
Jack, from a very early age, was put to work in the mill, which reinforced his loneliness. He learnt all the skills of the miller, taking on ever more responsible tasks, until at fourteen he left school to become the full-time assistant, carting, sharing the workload, and fully capable of operating the mill single-handed. This came at an opportune time, for Habakkuk was suffering more and more from breathlessness and pains in his chest, especially when the work was heavy. Emily became worried enough to disobey him and summon the doctor, who diagnosed angina. It could lead to a heart attack, he said, and the only remedy was to take it easy and avoid exertion.
“Nincompoop of a quack,” was Habakkuk’s verdict when he left, “expecting a miller to take it easy! Why can’t he give me pills or summat to make it better?” He had said the same, only slightly expurgated, to the doctor’s face, at which the doctor had shrugged in resignation.
“So nowadays,” Jack ended, “he spends most of his time piffling around and getting under my feet, and all the hard work comes my way. Don’t get me wrong, I love it. But I don’t love Him. And God, it’s lonely, without friends. But that was the bargain. At least it’s given us a roof over our heads. At least it’s given me this job. But if He finds I’ve blabbed, I’ll be out on my ear. So will Mum. And with this slump, what else could we find?”
What a prison sentence! A far cry from my semi-detached life with my own tolerant Dad. I ached with sympathy, and said so. But we had been avoiding another important issue which the sermon had thrown up.
“Jack, the vicar. Does he know about this?”
“Most of it. That Mum isn’t married to Him, that I’m not his son, that he keeps us on a short rein. But if he tried to argue him out of it, he’d be sent off with a flea in his ear.”
“But what the vicar said after church. What you said. I didn’t understand that.”
In obvious embarrassment, Jack leant back and gazed at the sky. There were clearly more beans to be spilt, but if he wasn’t ready to spill them it would be wrong to apply pressure. He shied away from a direct reply.
“That was, um, personal,” he said in a low voice. “Sometimes you tell your vicar personal things, don’t you?”
If I could not pry into his personal things, I could at least set my own record straight.
“Not me. I’ve never spoken to my vicar.”
“You mean you don’t go to church?” With his upbringing, he found it astonishing.
“Never. And if I’ve got personal things to tell, I tell them to Dad — Mum’s been dead these five years. Or to a friend. Things like ...”
The sun was highlighting Jack’s curly hair and prominent cheek-bones and glinting off his blue eyes. He was very beautiful, and his trouser legs had rumpled up to expose the soft fuzz sprouting on his shins. It was distracting, but not irrelevant. It decided me, there and then, to reveal my own personal things: not actually to drop my trousers — though little persuasion would have been needed — but to put all my cards on the table. It might be forcing the pace. It might be a risk. But not, as I read it, a great risk. Better than shilly-shallying.
“Look, Jack. A couple of years ago I realised I was queer.” I had a sudden qualm that, given his solitary life, this might be gibberish to him. “You know what that means?”
He nodded, face taut. “Heard it at school.”
“Well, I was a bit worried, so I told Dad. He’s wonderful. He wasn’t shocked or disapproving. It’s a natural state, he said, not a perversion or a disease. And now that I was well on into puberty, he was going to treat me as an adult, capable of making up my own mind and being responsible. And he went on to say much the same as the vicar said this morning. And that made all my worries disappear.
“So then I told Colin, who was my best friend and the boy I’d fallen for. Told him I was queer, not that I’d fallen for him — that came later.”
“But not very much later, because he told me he was queer too, and had fallen for me, and within an hour we found ourselves in bed together. A few of our friends got to know, and a teacher or two, but nobody minded. They don’t crack down on queers these days, especially not on boys. Well, I’ve heard they do in big cities, but in the country it’s safe enough, so long as you don’t shout it from the rooftop. But I certainly haven’t told our vicar, who looks as if he’d throw a fit. Not like yours, who’s obviously on the right side.”
Jack had been listening with open mouth and dazed expression.
“Oh Christ!” he said at last.
He might have learnt not to take the Lord’s name in vain when Habakkuk was around, but he made up for it when with me.
“I thought you might be,” he muttered. “I hoped you were, but dursn’t ask. Because I’m queer too.”
For a moment my heart sang. A new boyfriend as well as a new windmill?
“But damn it to hell! ... Look, Hodge. We’re friends, aren’t we? Already?”
My heart began to sink again.
“Of course we are.”
“But we can’t be anything more. Because there’s a spanner in the works.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh God, it’s another story, but you’ll have to hear it. It’s like this. When I was fourteen I realised I was queer, just like you. I heard boys at Danetree yattering about it, and knew straight off that was what I wanted. I was looking at boys ... you know, that way. Never girls. And I was panting to do something about it, but never a chance.
“Then one day out at Blagg’s Farm their young Frank was helping me load sacks. Well, as soon as we’d done he slunk off into the haybarn, with his hand in his pocket as if he was stroking himself. So I sort of followed. You know, half-hoping. But then there was a screech. He’d got a girl hidden in the hay, damn him, and that was that.” He gave a mirthless little laugh. “The last thing I wanted was to watch him grind her, so I scarpered. Just as well, perhaps. If he had been a queer we wouldn’t have had any more than a quick tumble either, and that wasn’t what I was after. Well, I suppose it was, but it’s not what I’m really after. Frank’s a good looker all right, but I don’t like him. He’s got precious little between his ears, and whatever he may have between his legs can’t make up for that.
“But the point is, I was so randy I was frantic, and the moment I got home I tossed off. And Christ! Mum had to catch me at it.” He laughed mirthlessly again. “Better her than Him, I suppose. With anything like that he’d go off the deep end.
“Anyway, she gave me a talk, and she talked very straight. She doesn’t mind me tossing off, thank God. It’s natural, she says. The vicar’s always saying people are too po-faced about sex, and she thinks he’s the cat’s whiskers — she’s right there. She goes along with him about equality too, that men and women ought to be treated the same. So she’s got no problem with blokes having it off with blokes. Not with the idea of it. Her problem’s different.
“You see, Hodge, she’s never been married. She’s never known married life. She’s never gone to bed with anyone except my father, and she’s bitterly ashamed about that, because it was outside marriage. That’s why her family kicked her out, and she’s never really been happy since. If they had been married, none of that mess would’ve happened. So she’s got this thing about marriage, this ... oh, what do you call it?”
“Fixation?” I offered. “Obsession?”
“Yes, obsession. No sex outside marriage. That’s where she puts her foot down. Friends, yes — she’d like me to have friends — she’d like friends herself — if only He’d let us. But not sex. Not outside marriage. She made me promise. And that’s what’s put me in the corner. I told her I’m not after girls, only boys.
“‘That’s all right by me,’ she said. ‘Marry who you like, girl or boy.’
“‘All very well,’ I said, ‘but the damn law won’t let me marry a boy.’
“I told her over and over, but it didn’t make a ha’porth of difference. ‘Just marry in God’s sight,’ she said, ‘with a proper certificate to prove it, and you’ll have my blessing. But not otherwise.’
“So that’s the line she takes,” Jack was almost wailing. “It’s god-awful crazy. I know it’s crazy. But that’s how it is.”
Crazy, yes, but with a logic to it.
“I’ve tried to budge her,” he ended. “But I can’t. I’ve told the vicar and he’s tried to budge her, but he can’t. That’s what we meant after church, about a snag.”
“Oh God,” I said. “Oh God.”
Being a person who likes to touch as well as look, I put an arm round him by way of comfort. But he shook it off and bent forward as if he had something to hide.
“No!” he cried. “Don’t tempt me, Hodge! There’s nothing I’d like better than ... you know. With you ...”
“Nothing I’d like better either.” I meant it with all my heart.
“... but one thing leads to another, doesn’t it? I mean, I’m randy right now” — he was blushing beetroot-red — “and if you start touching me I’ll go over the edge.”
So after a bare twenty-four hours in my company, Jack thought he had at last found friendship and love; which made every sense to me because I had as well. Like me, he was another standard adolescent, horny for sex at the drop of a hat. But yet, like me, he wasn’t. He had his principles — he knew that however attractive the packaging, what matters is the contents. He had his modesty too — he labelled his desires not in crude terms but as a bashful ‘you know.’ And his opportunities were firmly blocked by a puritanical pseudo-father, by a strange-thinking mother, and by a robustly ingrained sense of honour.
“You see,” he said, “if He caught us, it’d be the end of me. Well, I suppose we could find somewhere safe. But what I can’t do is break my promise to Mum. I love her. She’s been through so much already. And I’m not as religious as her, not by a long chalk, but a promise is a promise. If I broke it, I couldn’t live with her. Yet I’m all she’s got. She’s all I’ve got. Except you, Hodge, now. Just be my friend. Nothing more.”
Tears were on his cheeks.
“Don’t worry, Jack,” I said. “I’m your friend whatever happens. The only difference between us is that I’m allowed to be myself, thanks to my Dad, and you aren’t. But may I tell Dad about it? He’s on our side. He might be able to see a way through.”
Jack agreed, despondently. For the rest of the afternoon we soaked up the sun. He asked about me, and Alf’s mill, and Dad. He asked why Colin had swum out of my life, and seemed relieved that we might never meet again. There were intervals of thinking in mournful togetherness as we watched the traffic on the canal below, carrying coal from Coventry, ironware from the Black Country, pottery from Staffordshire, the boats happily married to their butties, crewed by a self-contained population ever on the move, better off than Jack and Emily because they were not imprisoned but their own masters.
Then it was time for chapel. Love was not on the menu there. It was all hellfire and damnation, and the minister preached non-stop for an hour. I rapidly lost interest and was glared at for fidgeting. It was another sermon I had no wish to discuss with Habakkuk, and when at last we were released I biked straight off, deep in pity for Jack, for Emily, for myself. But as I looked back, the mill’s sails seemed to be raised in benediction.
Dad listened, and sympathised, and said he would like to meet Jack. Not that he had any solution to the problem of blokes marrying blokes, but simply that the lad sounded interesting. I had a knack, he added, of making interesting friends, like Alf and Colin.
Yes. And then of losing them.
* * *
On Monday morning Jack was subdued and somewhat the worse for wear.
“Up three times last night,” he explained. “Wind shifting.”
The miller of an old-fashioned windmill has to have a sixth sense. It tells him, even when asleep, that the wind is shifting and the mill needs to be turned. Small shifts involve no danger, but big ones do. A mill can take wind only from the front. If it blows from behind it may turn the sails in the wrong direction. In extreme cases it tears the windshaft — which is the axle that carries the sails — clean out of its bearings. This plays havoc with the machinery and wrecks the sails if not the whole mill. It is called tail-winding, and it is disastrous. Three times last night, then, the wind had changed enough to get Jack out of bed in a hurry to heave on the tail-pole in his pyjamas — assuming that he wore them, but I suppressed a titillating fantasy about that. Not perhaps too penitential in high summer, but in midwinter gales or snow ...
“I’ve had an easy life,” I commiserated. “Writtle had a fly.”
A fly or fantail does away with all that bother. It is a small subsidiary set of sails mounted at right angles behind the body, usually on a frame above the steps. So long as the wind blows square from the front the fly is in shelter and does not turn. But as soon as the wind shifts to one side, it rotates. By high-reduction gears it drives a pair of wheels on which the steps are carried, and thus it turns the body back into the wind. It amounts to an automatic tail-pole, and it is a blessing.
“Wouldn’t mind a fly,” said Jack. “Wouldn’t mind one at all. But He would. Flies weren’t ordained by God, he’d say. As if tail-poles were! Same with patents.
“Anyway,” he moved on to business and headed for the paddock, “now we’ve got to deliver to Gaytons. And before that we’ve got to catch the flaming horse and harness him up. He can be a bugger to corner. You go round that way and I’ll go this.”
Jack was taking me with him to show me the geography and the ropes. Near the canal bridge we passed a grey-haired man whom I recognised from church. Jack acknowledged him with a lifted hand and told me it was the village doctor whom Habakkuk had called a nincompoop. That reminded me.
“He’s all right, is he?” I asked as we went. “Habakkuk, I mean. Being left by himself to mind the mill?”
“Oh yes. After all, he ran her without any help till I was old enough. And even after that he had to, whenever I was delivering. No alternative till you turned up. All right, some of the work’s too hard for him now, but we’re only away for a couple of hours, and he can still wind her and take off cloth if he has to. He’s not likely to have an emergency to cope with.”
The delivery proved straightforward enough, and next time I would be able to handle it by myself.
The following day, Tuesday, was not a good one. First, I got drenched while biking in. Then we had to use the tail stones. Whereas the head stones were cullins for wheatmeal, these were peaks for grinding animal feed, and were in use less often. Unlike the head stones with their antediluvian trundle wheel, they were clearly a later addition and had ordinary bevel gears. But the noise of these gears didn’t sound quite right, and on checking I found that one cog had somehow got badly chipped. Each cog was a separate piece of tough-grained wood — apple, probably — shaped to the right profile and mortised into the wooden rim of the tail wheel. This one would still work, but if it broke any further it would put extra strain on its neighbours, which would break too. Old Alf had taught me to replace earlier rather than later, and the job should be simple enough. Provided there were spares.
First I showed Jack, who agreed but doubted they had spares. Then I told Habakkuk, who grunted and said no, no spares. They would have to be ordered from the millwright near Peterborough at the far end of the county and would take a good week or two to come. Meanwhile we had to grind. Luckily the chipped cog held. But Alf had had spares at Writtle which, from memory, were about the right size. They were kept in the little workshop beside his yard and would have escaped the fire. They were probably still there. Old Mrs Hutchins, Alf’s widow, who was a sweetie, would surely let me have them. And Dad was planning a quick trip to Chelmsford later in the week to pick up equipment from Marconi’s. Perhaps I should beg leave of absence and go with him.
The next incident, in the afternoon, decided me. White flour is produced in a machine called a bolter. It separates out the bran from the wheatmeal by means of a revolving and inclined frame which is covered with a seamless woollen sleeve. This acts like a sieve. The wheatmeal is fed in at the top and the fine flour passes through the cloth, while the coarser bran and middlings fall out of the lower end. Today the flour was coming through unsieved. Inspection showed that the sleeve had split.
“Hell and damnation!” cried Jack. “Now Mum’ll have to mend it again.”
We took it off. It was already heavily darned. Again, no spare. But the bolter was of a pretty standard pattern, no great antique and probably a bare century old. It looked very much like the bolter at Writtle, and the sleeve might well be the same size. Old Alf, prudent where Habakkuk was short-sighted, had certainly kept spares.
I checked with Dad, who confirmed that he was going to Chelmsford and back on Friday — less than a hundred miles each way — and would willingly take me. From Daventry I phoned Mrs Hutchins, who assured me that nothing had been touched at Writtle and I was welcome to whatever I wanted, because none of that stuff was any earthly use to her. I broached the matter with Habakkuk, who rather to my surprise agreed.
“I reckon he’s getting to see how useful you are,” Jack said.
So Wednesday and Thursday passed. If my presence was easing Jack’s workload, it was easing Habakkuk’s yet more. Now that I could collect and deliver by myself, no longer did he have to be left alone to mind the mill. Nor did he make much of a nuisance of himself by piffling around, as Jack put it. Instead he spent more time in his chair in the house and thus got on Emily’s nerves rather than ours. He had decided, it seemed, that we were to be trusted, which was a pleasant change.
By now I was wholly at home in the mill and was growing closer to Jack by the day. He was utterly competent at his job and an immensely reassuring person to be with. It was almost telepathic. I might be in need of an extra pair of hands, and there he would be, unbidden. Somehow I knew without telling that he could do with help, and went to him. Already there was full understanding between us. But the physical barrier remained. In obedience to his plea that we be no more than friends, I did not touch him and he did not touch me. Much against our will we stayed in enforced abstinence. Nor did we even say a word about love, or how we yearned to team up. Those were facts that we simply knew, and to voice them would only fan the smouldering fire.
On Friday Dad and I drove down to Essex. He threw me out at Writtle and went on to the works, while I dropped round to Mrs Hutchins who welcomed me like a long-lost son. The debris from the fire had been cleared away, but the roundhouse still stood there roofless and battered, the charred main post poking forlornly from the ruin. The workshop was intact. Under the bench was the box of spare cogs. I had measured Habakkuk’s and, with a bit of shaping and some careful shaving of the shanks, Alf’s would work fine. Equally good news, there were no fewer than three new bolter sleeves, and they would also fit. Rootling around, I found a number of other bits and pieces that might come in useful, and helped myself to Alf’s set of woodworking tools. Every miller does his own small running repairs, and Alf’s tools were in far better nick than Habakkuk’s rusty and blunt ones. I purloined an empty sack to carry my loot. Then another thought crossed my mind.
When the lightning struck, Alf had been in the throes of replacing his sails, which like him were becoming elderly. The old striking gear had been stripped for reuse and was lying in a shed, The new frames had already been made and delivered by John Bryant the Colchester millwright, and were stored under tarpaulins in the yard, along with great piles of new shutters. Could the complete components of four patent sails be of use to us?
To us? Was I already claiming a stake in Habakkuk’s mill? Only over his dead body would she be fitted with patents, as Jack had pointed out. Still, you never knew. I did some more measuring. Alf’s sails would fit. They were about the same width as ours (again, ours?), though they would need shortening. I asked Mrs Hutchins about them too. Take them, ducky, she said, if they’re any good to you. Alf would have wanted you to. They’ve been paid for. All you’d need is a lorry.
That, however, was for the future. Probably the very distant future. But I had this inescapable feeling in my bones that my personal future was bound up with Braunston and, of course, with Jack. With Writtle gone, with Colin fast fading, the whole of my allegiance had already been transferred. It was admittedly frustrating to be so close to my heart’s new desire yet so far from physical fulfilment; but I am an optimist by nature. As we drove back to Daventry, my sack of loot stowed alongside Dad’s crate of valves, I raised the whole matter.
On both aspects Dad was supportive, as I knew he would be. He had never wanted me to follow him into a well-paid job simply for the sake of the money. All he ever advised was that I find something that suited me, something that fulfilled me; which was indisputably true of work in a windmill.
As for Jack, he hadn’t yet met him and was eager to do so — he suggested coming over to Braunston one day next week. But Dad was still as permissive as ever. Judging by the example of Colin, he said, he respected my good taste in boyfriends, and he had no objection whatever to me setting up with a new one. The fly in the ointment, of course, was Emily’s embargo on a full relationship short of marriage. At sixteen, I was the same age as my sister had been when, with Dad’s ready consent, she tied the knot. I was on the same footing. He equally gladly gave his consent to my new relationship, and would equally gladly give it to my marriage if that were possible. But it wasn’t, and there was no way he could make it possible.
As things stood, he pointed out, the best I could hope for was a chastely platonic friendship. But would it, however close, satisfy my needs? That was the rub. It was what I was asking myself.
“Give it time, Hodge. It’s already been a whirlwind romance. Wait and see how things emerge.”
So it was left. On Saturday I biked to Braunston as usual. The previous day, Jack reported, had been uneventful. Dad was hanging on to my bulky sack until he came over because the cog could only be changed when the mill was at rest. It would have to wait until a windless day, and all I took with me was a bolter sleeve. Having fitted it, a matter only of minutes, we were producing flour again. Habakkuk, for once, was actually if grudgingly grateful, and told me that my trial period would be extended. I did not raise the question of new sails, not even with Jack, preferring to follow Dad’s advice and ponder the future more deeply.
Then Sunday came round. This time I found Jack not at the trough but in the kitchen with a bowl of hot water in front of him and lather on his face, shaving.
“Bloody waste of time this, isn’t it?” he said. “It hardly shows. But He’s been grizzling at me. As if he set an example himself!”
Fair comment. Habakkuk’s face resembled a permanent stubble-field of several days’ standing.
“Never mind,” I comforted him. “I shaved this morning too. Not that I really needed to either, and I wouldn’t bother at home. But here, Sundays seem somehow special.”
Jack gave me a smile that turned my heart over. “They are, now that you’re with us.”
But at that point Emily came in and we had to drop the subject.
“Looking black over Bill’s mother’s,” Jack remarked as we left for morning service.
He chuckled. “It’s what one of our teachers used to say. She came from Itchington, and from there you can see clear across to Stratford.”
I worked it out and chuckled too. It did look as if dirty weather was moving in from the south-west; but no matter, because the mill was already facing that way. The service was much as before, but this time the sermon, though political again, interested me less, for it dwelt on the need to raise standards in Voluntary Controlled schools. Judging by what it had taught Jack, Braunston school seemed a good one already.
During the last hymn the church, always dark with its stained glass, grew darker. The door started to rattle furiously, even above the singing, and Jack exchanged a glance with me. Hold it, our eyes said, we’ll be out in a minute. But a verse later the door burst open of its own accord and a gale swept up the aisle, whisking sheets off the organist’s music stand and blowing the altar candles out. This time we ran.
From the porch we could see the tops of the sails, and they were turning. None, as it rose into sight, had any cloth spread. Until the fourth, from which the canvas was streaming horizontal like a banner. And on that sail was a figure spread-eagled head downwards against the lattice. As we paused aghast, it fell. Jack ran on. I ran back inside. Half the congregation was looking at the door, which people were trying to force shut. I pointed to Emily and the doctor and beckoned them urgently. Then I raced after Jack, battling against the wind.
If you have to have a heart attack at all, the best place to have it is surely in hospital, with doctors standing by. About the worst place must be on the sail of a windmill, upside down, forty feet above the ground. Habakkuk lay crumpled on the grass like a jettisoned rag-doll, his neck bent at an impossible angle. Emily and the doctor rushed to him. The wind was still blasting viciously and, even though Jack was heaving at the brake rope, the sails were still turning. On three, the cloths were properly furled. On the fourth, the wind had evidently found its way inside the rolled-up bundle, probably though a tear. It had ballooned it and ripped it off the cleats. Even as we watched the cloth broke free of its last anchorage and soared away high over the village.
The storm subsided as abruptly as it had arisen. The brake took hold and the mill stood still and defiant. It was all over.
“Brake was off,” said Jack flatly.
Habakkuk must have spotted the cloth giving way. Even to him, the safety of his mill took precedence over the Sabbath. He had released the brake to bring the offending sail down, failed in his haste to reapply it, and climbed the sail to get the cloth in. And then the wind had intensified and the sails begun to turn.
“Instantaneous,” the doctor announced, rising from his knees. “No doubt about it. It wasn’t the fall as such. It was acute myocardial infarction, brought on by angina and over-exertion. Jack, have you something to cover him with? And Mrs Farthingstone, if you feel up to it, come to the mill house and we can talk about the next steps.”
There was shock on her face as she looked down at the body, but not a trace of grief. As Jack emerged from the roundhouse with an armful of empty sacks, the vicar arrived, panting from climbing the hill and still in his surplice; he must have skipped the hand-shaking. He went to Emily’s side to put an arm round her, and they watched as Habakkuk disappeared from view beneath the sacks.
“Don’t think too badly of him,” said Emily suddenly. “He wasn’t a bad man inside. It was the war that made him that way. Shell shock. That wasn’t his fault.”
It was the best obituary that poor Habakkuk ever received.
The three adults went to the house, but I held Jack back. The life — the serfdom —that for the last sixteen years had imprisoned him and his mother was clearly over. But what did their future hold now? What part might I play in it?
“Jack, what do you want me to do? Make myself scarce? Or stay and hold your hand?”
Metaphorically, I meant. Though I would gladly hold it literally.
“Oh God, stay!” he pleaded. “Please stay, Hodge. My mind’s a blank. I’ve no idea what’s going to happen next.”
So we followed the adults in. The living room had been Habakkuk’s domain and Emily, maybe afraid that his ghost might be in residence there, took us all into the kitchen. To make myself useful, I put the kettle on. The doctor opened the council of war but did not even sit down.
“Mrs Farthingstone, it’s so straightforward that there’s no need for an inquest. The moment I get home I’ll phone the undertaker and make out my medical certificate. The only information I’m short of is your husband’s age. Forty-three? Thank you. I’ll bring it up this afternoon, and tomorrow you must take it to Danetree, to the registrar of births, deaths and marriages. In return he’ll give you the formal death certificate and a chit that authorises the funeral to go ahead. All right? Then I don’t think I’m needed here any more.”
He bustled out, no doubt to his Sunday lunch. The rest of us sat round the table, Jack next to his mother with his hand on hers, and the vicar took over.
“Emily my dear, and Jack. For the life of me I don’t know whether to say I’m sorry or glad. Both are true, for you and for Habakkuk. Thou knowest not what a day may bring forth. But never forget that you have friends behind you.”
Emily, expressionless so far and dumb, looked up and came to life.
“Yes,” she said. “We know that.” And she smiled at the vicar and at me.
At that point the kettle boiled, and I got quietly up and made tea.
“Did he have any relatives?” the vicar asked.
“None that he ever mentioned.”
“Then it seems that for the time being everything’s in our hands. The funeral obviously takes priority. Although he wasn’t in our congregation, as a parishioner he’s entitled to a place in the churchyard. But he’d have preferred the chapel graveyard, wouldn’t he?”
“Hands down.” Emily was showing spirit now. “And it’ll save you having to think of something to say over the grave.”
The vicar chuckled. “Oh, thank you, Hodge,” he said as I put the teacups on the table. “Just what we need.
“And Emily,” he went on, “the next most important thing is what happens to you and Jack and the mill. Did he ever say anything about that?”
“Never a word.”
“Any idea if he made a will?”
“None. But if he did, chances are it’ll be in his desk. In the living room.”
“Then may we look? And what about some food? You need to eat.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Emily. “I’m all at sixes and sevens. And you need to eat too. Can I offer you a bite?”
“Well, thank you. I was going to have a solitary pork pie, but that can wait. So long as your meal can stretch to include me.”
There was no smell of anything in the oven, and on a day like this Emily shouldn’t be expected to cook. But on the worktop was an array of ingredients lined up in readiness.
“Looks like toad-in-the-hole,” I diagnosed. “Leave it to me. I’m a dab hand at batter, or so my Dad says.”
In reply, Emily gave me a little hug, something she had never done before, and she and the vicar went into the living room with their teacups. Jack hesitated, but stayed behind.
“Don’t want to go in there. Not yet. That’s where he’d take me when I was little, to wallop me for swearing.”
“Lend a hand here, then. Would you peel the spuds and carrots while I get the bangers going?”
Best, I thought, to keep him in some sort of normality. Between us we hammered out the meal, and when it was ready we called them in. Emily ate in silence, a faraway look in her eyes, leaving the vicar to make conversation.
“Food first, business later. This is excellent, Hodge and Jack. Thank you. Vastly better than my humble pork pie. Would you pass the mustard?”
And so forth. Only when we were finished did he come to the point.
“Well, boys, this is the news. Almost everything in the desk is mill accounts and invoices and suchlike. There are bank statements which show a very tidy balance. And there’s his will. It’s straightforward enough, and to my inexpert eye it seems perfectly valid. Apart from a modest bequest to the chapel, it leaves everything to Emily Stowe, otherwise known as Emily Farthingstone, for life. And after her to her son Jack.”
Jack, recoiling as if hit on the chin, put his head in his hands.
Emily too still seemed dazed. “So now, Jack,” she said simply, “you’re the miller.”
“Only,” he muttered, lifting his head for a moment, “so long as Hodge is too.”
Neither thought nor words were needed. Be damned to his qualms about temptation. This was different. I jumped up and hugged him hard. Perhaps too bemused to react, he did not pull away. The vicar looked on benevolently.
“Excellent. But best not run too fast,” he warned mildly. “The will’s still got to be proved, though I can’t see where anything might go wrong. It says it was drawn up by Mr McDuff the solicitor, and he’s the obvious man to handle probate. Emily, while you’re in Danetree tomorrow for the registrar, I suggest you call on him too. Take the will and bank statements and accounts. Would you like a lift, to save you waiting for the bus? And would you like me to come with you to the solicitor?”
“Oh thank you. Yes please, to both,” Emily said. She sighed a deep sigh. “You know, I never expected this. I didn’t think he had anyone else to leave it to, but never once did it cross my mind that he’d leave it to us.” She too gave Jack a hug. “It’s going to take some getting used to, Jack, isn’t it?”
There was the sound of a motor. It was the village carpenter-cum-undertaker, come to cart Habakkuk away. He conferred with Emily about the coffin and agreed to arrange the funeral with the minister of the chapel. Then the doctor popped in with his certificate.
Belated thoughts of mortality were crowding into my brain. Twice before I had brushed with death. I was eleven when Mum had succumbed to TB, and never would I forget the desolation of her funeral. And Alf had been so well-respected that his passing was marked by pretty well every windmill in Essex and Suffolk that was capable of moving. The point was that Habakkuk, if less respected, had been a miller too.
Once the undertaker and doctor had left, we lingered outside.
“Down my way,” I said tentatively, unsure how they would take it, “when a miller dies, his mill goes into mourning until the funeral. There’s a language of the sails. Top sail just short of the vertical for a happy occasion — a marriage or birth — and just past the vertical for a death. So everyone knows what’s happened. And while the funeral’s taking place, his mill’s turned to face the graveyard. Ought we ...?”
Jack and Emily spoke together. “Yes. We ought.”
“Hodge,” said the vicar, “you have a beautiful soul. And now that you’re officially part of the team, what are you going to do? Move in here?”
I hadn’t thought about that. But yes, I should, to lend support in this time of turmoil and to share the full workload with Jack, night-time included.
“I’ll gladly do that, if Jack and Emily ...”
Jack was enthusiastic. So was Emily, but with a qualification.
“We’ve only got three bedrooms,” she pointed out. “You’d have to sleep in Habakkuk’s.”
Definitely not in Jack’s, was the implication. But Habakkuk’s ... well, I don’t believe in ghosts or brooding presences. I shrugged.
“All right by me. My stuff’s in Danetree, though, and too much to carry on my bike. I’ll have to phone with a message to Dad to bring it over.”
“Use the vicarage phone,” the vicar offered. “It’s the nearest. I must get home now anyway. I’ve still got my sermon to write for evensong.”
So I rang Mrs Dodford, told her I was leaving her lodgings, and asked her to ask Dad to drive my things out. That done, the vicar had a parting word.
“Look after them, Hodge. It’s a very good thing you’re here — they’ll be disorientated for a while. And good luck with your difficulty over Jack. I can’t pretend to see a solution. Maybe Emily will come round when she knows your qualities better. We can only cross fingers. And remember, if you have any problems, I’m always here to help.”
What a comforting man. He understood about love.
When I got back, Jack had used the long hook to pull the sails into the mourning position.
“Is this right?” he asked. “I’ve never heard of it, but it’s a good thought.”
The sails uttered a creak as if the mill did not agree.
Jack ignored it. “Maybe I was too harsh about him. After all, he could’ve sold her. He could’ve pulled her down. But he kept her going. And now it’ll be a lot better for us. With a bit of money. With a life. With you here full-time. But still not completely right. Far from completely right.”
This was where we should have had a proper hug, or even kissed. All he did was put a hand on my arm and give it a gentle squeeze.
“God, I wish we could go the whole hog,” he said. I thought his hand was trembling. “But I dursn’t take it any further. Even so, thank you, Hodge.”
A few villagers turned up, having heard the news on the grapevine, to offer condolences, not because they had liked Habakkuk but because they liked Emily. The minister turned up for the opposite reason, and was shooed away as fast as politeness allowed. None of us went to chapel that evening, or ever again. Then Dad turned up with my stuff, as well as my sack of loot from Writtle. He listened to our tale and had a private word with Emily and a private word with Jack. What passed between them I never heard. But as he left he had a private and heartening word with me.
“Good lad, Hodge. You’ve got a good head on you, and a good heart in you. And you’ve made a good catch.”
And so, finally, to bed. The mill house was not perhaps as ancient as the mill, but it was old enough. Most of the furniture was fairly recent, installed maybe by Habakkuk’s father, but some of it was old too; like Habakkuk’s bed, which was vast enough to accommodate a whole family at once. And on the dingy walls of his room hung two dark-varnished wooden panels inscribed in gothic letters.
One read, ‘Where their worm dieth not and their fire is not quenched.’
The other, over the bed, said, ‘From fornication and all other deadly sin, and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh and the devil, good Lord deliver us.’
Deceits of the flesh? No way could I go along with that. I removed both texts and dumped them face down on the floor.
Emily had changed the sheets. I undressed — I never wear pyjamas — and climbed solitary into the acre of bed. At least the previous owner was not in it with me, but I wished that Jack was. True, he was also in bed and a mere couple of feet away; but that was on the other side of the wall. I was thinking hard again, and aching for the ultimate ecstasy of flesh on flesh. Yet one thought came to override the rest, ‘Thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.’ On that reflection I dropped off.
I slept like a log until the small hours, when I woke knowing that something was wrong. My window, like Jack’s, looked straight across at the mill. From the swaying of trees in the moonlight I could see that the wind had not only risen but shifted considerably. There was no sound of movement from next door. Well, I was now a fully-fledged miller and had a duty. I slipped out of bed and dragged on my trousers in case I bumped into Emily. Padding barefoot downstairs and across the yard, I turned the mill. Off with the trousers and back to bed and instant sleep.
I woke again about six — broad daylight in August — and got yawningly up, adorned with my standard morning hard-on. Last night, in taking off my shirt, I had lazily undone only the top button, which left the neck opening rather tight. While I was struggling to pull it down over my head, the door opened. Through the thin cotton I could make out that it was Jack, fully dressed. I was facing him, arms raised, mother-naked below the neck, undiminished dick on undisguised display, and he was gaping goggle-eyed. Call me an exhibitionist, but I confess that I did not hurry to cover myself. Once the shirt collar was down to my eye level he backed hastily out, bright red in the face, and closed the door.
Outside the window, the mill looked smug.
Amused but saddened, I visited the unsavoury boghouse round the back which was all there was, and then the trough by the stable, hoping that mains water and an inside bathroom would materialise soon. No need to shave again because it took several days for anything significant to show. By the time I was in the kitchen and getting the kettle going, quarter of an hour must have passed before Jack put in an appearance. I could guess what he had been up to in the meantime.
He was still embarrassed. “Sorry about that, Hodge. I didn’t know you were ...”
“No harm done, Jack. After all, we’re the same age, we’re friends and more than friends, we live in the same house. Come into my room any time. Why should there be any barriers?”
“Oh, but there are. As long as I can’t ...”
He tailed off. Pity welled up again, that he should be so strait-jacketed; and pity for myself as well.
“It’s the first time,” he admitted, “I’ve ever seen anyone ... you know, like that.”
I hoped he had enjoyed it, and wished I could see him likewise. My pity now was for his shortage of experience. For two years Colin and I had revelled in every square inch of each other’s nakedness. But Jack changed the subject.
“You winded her!” he said.
“Yes. The wind shifted, about two.”
“And I didn’t even notice! But you said Writtle had a fly.”
I hadn’t thought of that, but I knew what he meant. I had never been responsible for Writtle by night and, because she had a fly, even old Alf never had to get up to wind her. It was as if I was developing the sort of symbiosis with Habakkuk’s mill that Jack had long since had.
We could have worked her with only two cloths spread, but she was in mourning. So, to take advantage of her idleness, I set about replacing the cog in the tail wheel. The job would be finicky, but I had Alf’s chisels and the vice on a bench in the stable. Jack headed for the workshop on the wharf which made tarpaulins for the boats and rick-cloths for the farmers, to order a new cloth as a matter of urgency. Then the vicar arrived to take Emily into Daventry.
When they returned, our tasks were done, and over a cup of tea in the kitchen we held a pow-wow. At Emily’s request the vicar gave a report, which was brief and wholly satisfactory. The solicitor saw no difficulty over the will. Habakkuk’s financial affairs were simple and probate should be rapid. Miser that he was, he had a very substantial balance in the bank. Mr McDuff could give no exact figure, but it was in the region of £20,000. Pending probate, Emily could have some on account.
To Emily and Jack such a sum was breath-taking. They knew better, after years of skimping, than to blue it, but as soon as the vicar had gone they fell to debating the priorities. For the house, mains water, electricity and phone came an emphatic top. For the mill ...
“Patents, Hodge? To save us from Habakkuk’s fate? Though they’d be quite pricey.”
“No, they wouldn’t. They’d be free, apart from transport and fitting.”
I could now tell them about the Writtle sails which were ours for the taking.
Jack gasped in delight. “And a fly?”
“And a van to replace the cart?”
Two days later we buried Habakkuk, a dismal proceeding in the dismal chapel graveyard, while his mill watched inscrutably from afar. She may have killed him, but she kept her views to herself. Then the new cloth was completed and we were back in business. Next, the services began to arrive, first the phone which needed only cables stringing up, followed by electricity along with an electrician to wire the house. Water would take longer, but meanwhile a bathroom was being installed. The practicalities of domestic life gradually became more civilised.
So too, freed from the dank dark fog of Habakkuk’s presence, did the atmosphere. The sun shone brighter. The mill seemed happier. Jack, now that he was his own master, blossomed like a flower in spring. His mood changed from suppressed rebellion to cheerful assurance. His swear-words, in the absence of his chief reason for venting them, dwindled. He became more and more fun as a companion. But for anything beyond friendship he remained, for all his self-confessed longings, as untouchable as ever. We stayed, metaphorically by day and literally by night, in our own rooms. I guessed — I hoped — that what was going on behind his closed door was the same as was going on behind mine.
Emily too welcomed my arrival in the household. She proved to be a delightfully easy-going person, except in that one area where a screw was loose. When I ventured to raise the subject, she clung to the illogical logic of her position, that the institution of marriage was sacred and ranked high above the law.
“What does one do, then,” I asked her point-blank, “when the law forbids marriage?”
“Either one changes the law,” she said, “or one breaks it.”
“So you don’t mind it being broken?”
“Not in the least,” she replied. “For the right reasons.”
All very well. But the law was beyond our power to change, and in practical terms it was impossible to break.
* * *
Abstinence was painful, physically and mentally. We were growing ever more desperate. Living together, delightful though it otherwise was, only worsened the temptations. Inside Jack, I could tell, a battle was raging. While his mind was insisting he uphold his promise, his body was frantic to let rip, and from time to time the conflict drove him back into moodiness. I was in a similar state, the demands of my own body competing with reluctance to suggest he break his word. Neither of us could see any solution. Something, before long, was going to have to give way.
Strangely enough it was Jack himself who located the key that finally unlocked our quandary. One windless and workless evening, three weeks after Habakkuk’s demise, we were sitting on the steps of the mill at sedate arm’s length, one on either side of the tail-pole. He was grousing for the umpteenth time about the idiotic prejudices of convention and the law.
“It’s only because we’re boys,” he fumed. “If one of us was a girl there wouldn’t be any difficulty.”
A throw-away remark, but it struck a spark in my brain. At first, a passing whim. Soon, a vague outline. Not very much later, a half-formed plan.
“Hodge!” Jack was shouting. “Come back! Where’ve you been?”
I returned to earth. “Sorry, Jack. Miles away. Because you’ve just said something vitally important.”
“Of course I have,” he protested. “Everything I say is important. What?”
“You’ve hit on the answer.”
“To our problem. How to get married. Which means I’ve got to tell you a secret.”
Nobody else knew, apart from Dad and my sister, and officialdom at school. None of my friends knew except for Colin — and was he still a friend? I had heard nothing from him since we parted. It was high time for Jack to be put in the picture.
“Secret?” He was instantly alarmed. “What on earth?”
“One of the differences between boys and girls.”
“But they’re no secret.” He clearly thought I was barmy. “They’re all obvious.”
“Of course they are.” Yet I could see his mind beginning to tick over. A horrified look crossed his face. “You can’t mean ...?”
“Oh, don’t worry,” I assured him. “This isn’t a dark secret lurking inside my pants. Everything down here is in full working order.” I patted the appropriate region. “You’ve had an eyeful of it yourself.”
“Well, yes ... but ...”
His expression was so ludicrous that I could not resist teasing him, which was probably unkind.
“Not long ago,” I mused, “I read a couple of interesting bits in the paper. One was about chemicals in your body that influence your gender — it’s all above my head, but I think they’re called hormones. The other was about a woman who wanted to change her sex and become a man. So to help her on her way they injected her with this hormone stuff, and maybe they cut off her titties too. And now she’s got married. As a man.”
He was floundering still. “But they could hardly kit her out with a ... you know, thingy ...” He turned horrified again. “For Christ’s sake, Hodge!You’re not suggesting you go the other way and have your, um, thingy chopped off?”
I had mercy on him.
“Not on your life! Nor that you have your thingy chopped off either. Anyway, nobody inspects the bride and groom beforehand, unless they inspect each other. And we’ll have to be married in private, won’t we? Not in public.”
He was reassured. “Yes, of course. But what the heck is it? This secret?”
So I told him something about girls and boys that he hadn’t thought of. What it was, and why from this point onwards the pace and tone of this narrative change, and why it omits a great deal, will all emerge in the fullness of time. You must let me tell my own tale in my own way.
I had been afraid that Jack might laugh at me. Instead he laughed with me, and so hard that I was afraid he would wet himself. Then we set about refining my idea.
“We can only get married,” I pointed out, “in the registry office or a church. But there’s no hope of squaring the registrar. So it has to be done here, by the vicar.”
“Yes. That’s what Mum insists on. It doesn’t matter who, provided it’s in God’s sight, with a certificate.”
“And she’ll give her parental consent. We need it, because we’re miles under age. And my Dad’ll give his too. So we can keep the whole thing quiet, with nobody in the know except them and us and the vicar.”
“The wedding itself, yes,” said Jack. “But don’t forget the vicar has to read the banns beforehand. From the pulpit, three Sundays in a row.”
“You heard one last Sunday. I’ve heard so many I’ve got the whole rigmarole by heart —
“‘I publish the banns of marriage,’ he says, ‘between So-and-so and So-and-so, both of this parish. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in holy matrimony, ye are to declare it.’
“Which gives people the chance to shout ‘Oy! I object! He’s married already!’ or whatever. So our names are made public. Someone could shout ‘Oy!’”
I was much dashed. I had paid little attention to that bit, but Jack knew infinitely more than me about churchy things.
For a while he pondered, stroking his chin. Nowadays, with nobody to badger him, he shaved even less often, and the fluff was becoming positively fluffy.
“But,” he finally said, “I don’t think it matters. It might even help.” And he explained why.
Good thinking. The world grew brighter again. But I had another worry.
“The whole thing will be in the marriage register, though. Who looks at that?”
We had no idea. We would have to find out. We waylaid the vicar and asked for a confidential chat. We told him we had a plan for getting married, but before spelling it out we would like some information, please. He was blatantly intrigued.
What, we asked him, happens to marriage registers after the event?
“Right,” he said. “There are two identical registers. Every three months I have to copy out the new entries and send them to the office of the Registrar General in London, who’s the lord and master of such things. He uses them for his statistics, though I get the impression that he doesn’t bother much with the details. And when the registers are full — which in a small parish like this can take many years — one of them goes to the superintendent civil registrar of the district and the other to the registrar of the diocese in Peterborough. What happens to them then I can’t say. But hardly anyone ever looks at them while they’re still in my care.”
So far so good. And what information, we asked, goes into the register?
“Well, let me show you. I keep one copy here and one in the vestry.” He produced a large volume and laid it on the table. “Here you are. A whole string of boxes to be filled in. Date. Full names. Ages. Condition — which doesn’t mean ‘worn out’ or ‘good as new;’ it’s just a lovely word for marital status. Occupations. Addresses. Fathers’ names. Fathers’ occupations. Couple’s signatures. Signatures of two witnesses. Name of priest.
“And when both registers have been signed, I write out a certificate which repeats exactly the same information. It’s a long green form that the happy couple hangs on to. Does that answer your questions?”
It did. We thanked him and went away to chew over the details yet again. Finally we returned to him and unfolded our whole plan. Interested from the start, the vicar rapidly became an enthusiastic conspirator. He tweaked our ideas and added his own. He was a tower of strength throughout. Our debt to him is incalculable.
From this point we had less than a month more of chastity to endure. I had hoped that, with a solution in sight, Jack might relent enough for at least a hug and a decorous kiss. But no. We were so close to the finishing post, he insisted, that we must not risk throwing the race away. And thus behind our bedroom doors we stayed, impatiently counting down the days. The furthest we went was to prink up my dingy room with fresh coats of distemper in readiness for our honeymoon.
We could also tell our parents, under oath of secrecy. Emily was not bothered about the method, only delighted that her son was to be married properly. Dad was tickled pink on both counts. For three Sundays Jack and I sat side by side at morning service as our banns were read, not daring to look at each other. But nobody shouted ‘Oy!’
And so at last the great day dawned. In the morning we shaved for the occasion. We set the sails to the rejoicing position, the top one just short of the vertical, for nobody else here would understand their language. Dad came over from Daventry. In the afternoon the rest of the village, except no doubt the chapel crowd who were above such foolish frivolities, headed for the boatmen’s carnival at the wharf. But we slunk stealthily down to the church. No frills for us like flowers or fancy dress, no hymns or wedding marches, let alone confetti. Dad gave me away. We exchanged rings, not that we could sport them in public. We were made man and man. We had a modest kiss. We signed the registers. Emily and Dad served as witnesses. We received our certificate. Then the adults discreetly sloped off to enjoy themselves at the carnival.
We boys had something vastly more important to do, and vastly more enjoyable. Weeks of aching desire gave way to tears of anticipation and relief. No sooner had the door of the mill house closed behind us than we were tight in each other’s arms, crotch humping crotch, lips crushing lips, flesh caressing flesh. And so, shedding garments as we went, to the great bed where, from beyond the window, Habakkuk’s mill benignly oversaw our impassioned antics.
* * *
Jack and I are now ninety-five, no less. We are reasonably hale — although one department has sadly closed down — and emphatically hearty. Habakkuk’s mill, still known by that name because it is too venerable to change, has survived even better, for she is hale and hearty in every single department. We refurbished her. We fitted the patents from Writtle. We fitted a fly to the tail-pole. When we hit sixty and were beginning to creak, we enlisted a lad named Cliff to help us out, and he brought in his boyfriend Mick. For many years now they have had sole charge of the mill; and sole charge of us too, for we still live in the mill house, in their care. They are already thinking of recruiting a new generation in turn.
And we still go to the church. We owe it so much. One item on our old friend’s wish-list having come true, the present vicar is a young lady, just as vivacious and broad-minded as he was. Her name is Sophie, and we get on famously. Ever since 1967 when homosexuality was legalised — another item on his wish-list — it has been no secret that we are gay, and when in 2013 the Act empowering same-sex marriage was passed — yet another of his items — she buttonholed us after morning service.
“You’ll be taking advantage of this, I expect.”
“No,” we said.
“Oh! I thought you would. You aren’t in civil partnership, are you?”
“Then why not marriage? It’s just the thing for you. To make honest men of each other at last.” She knows us plenty well enough to make jokes of that sort.
We exchanged a glance and nodded.
“Sophie, if we tell you why, will you keep it secret? We know you don’t do the confessional, but as secret as that?”
“Yes, of course.”
“It’s because we’re married already.”
“You mean” — she was fumbling — “you’ve had wives but haven’t divorced them?”
“No, no! We’ve never had wives. We’re married to each other.”
Poor dears, we could see her thinking. Senility really is kicking in.
“But you can’t be. Gay marriages don’t start till next March.”
“Ah, but we’ve been married for yonks. Ever since we were sixteen.”
Total disbelief was on her face. But, good girl that she is, she humoured us.
“OK,” she said. “So tell me how.”
It was already a little after midday. We like, on summer Sundays, to nip down for lunch and a pint at our local, which is on the canal by the junction. But the pub is popular. Get there too late and boaters have taken all the tables in the beer garden, which is aggravating because we like to smoke our pipes after our meal.
“Not right now,” we replied. “We’re off to the Boathouse. But come along too, and we’ll not only buy you lunch but tell you all.”
So Sophie loped beside us as we hummed down on our mobility scooters. Once Jack and I had obeyed the call of nature, we found a free table and ordered. For her, lager and a mini-steak. For us, bitter and egg mayo sandwiches, which are easier on the dentures.
Until our food arrived we watched the boats. These days, commercial traffic is a thing of the past, but the canal is busier than ever with pleasure boats, and a vast new marina has sprung up near the wharf. Plastic cruisers chugged by, which we rather snootily disdain. And plenty of bog-standard narrow-boat-style affairs with long cabins, which are better. And then the real thing, a beautifully restored Josher with a slow-thumping Bolinder which, marvel of marvels, was Jack, the very boat I had seen from the canal bridge all those years ago, just before my introduction to Jack’s seductive torso. It took me back.
“You know,” I told Sophie reminiscently, “the boat people played a part in our marriage. They weren’t aware of it, but they did. We had to keep it totally secret, with only the vicar and us and our two parents. But as you know, weddings have to be held in public, at least in theory, not behind locked doors. So we timed it to coincide with the boatmen’s carnival at the wharf. The whole village would be there, and our proceedings were pared down to the minimum. And nobody did butt in.”
“And even before that,” Jack said, adjusting his hearing aid to accommodate the chatter around us, “the boat people were useful too. It struck us that if the village folk in church didn’t recognise our names when the vicar read our banns, they’d assume we were boat people passing through. You see, the villagers and the boat people didn’t know each other. They didn’t mix. But lots of the boat people counted Braunston as their home, even if they didn’t live here, and they liked to get married here. And because the Boatmen’s Mission couldn’t marry them, they came to the church for it, the only time they did come. So if the village folk didn’t recognise us as Hodge and Jack from the mill, they’d think we were from the boats.”
“You mean you married under false names?” Sophie sounded severely disapproving.
“Oh, good heavens, no!” Jack was quite shocked. “There isn’t a single falsehood in the register. Though one thing,” he did admit, “is a bit misleading. But that didn’t faze the vicar. He was a Fabian, a socialist, dead keen on equality between the sexes, just as my Mum was, and Hodge’s Dad. He argued that since men could go to bed with women, and women could legally go to bed with women, it was nonsense to forbid men to go to bed with men. And since men could marry women, why shouldn’t women marry women, and men men? So he was happy to do it for us. It was in a good cause, even if we were flouting canon law. Flouting the law of the land too, which made us all accomplices in a felony.”
“You see,” I added, “he was fed up with the law as it stood then. So fed up that he’d done some research into similar marriages in the past. He hadn’t met any cases of men marrying men; though there may have been some where nobody found out, and we’d never know about those. But he’d found a couple of cases where a woman posed as a man and duped another woman into marriage. Both times the wife discovered — no surprise — that she hadn’t got what she thought she was getting. Both of them shopped their would-be husbands, and both marriages were annulled by the court. One was back in 1680, when the culprit was let off. The other was in 1930 ...”
“1931,” Jack interrupted.
“Don’t argue about it,” said Sophie. “It doesn’t matter.”
I had a little sulk, so Jack took up the tale.
“Well, that impersonator got nine months for perjury. But the point is that both times it was a deception, and it was bound to come out. This time, neither of us was deceiving the other, so it was much safer. OK, if we’d been found out, we’d have been for it, and so would the vicar. But we were ready to take the risk because as we all saw it we had every moral right to live together in matrimony, and this was the only way we could meet my mother’s stipulation.”
“Hang on,” said Sophie. “You’re losing me. What stipulation?”
We weren’t telling this very clearly. So Jack explained how Emily, though she had no problem with gays as such, did have this weird hang-up about sex outside marriage, and had made him promise to be chaste as long as he was unmarried. But if he got married in the sight of God — she didn’t care whether it was to a boy or a girl — then it was OK by her.
Sophie seemed to be finding all this hard to swallow.
“An interesting line to take,” she said tactfully. “But what about the register? What did you say under ‘condition?’ These days we put ‘single’ because it’s so much more PC, but in the old days it had to be ‘bachelor’ and ‘spinster.’ How did you get round that?”
Jack, struggling to light his pipe in the breeze, was distracted, so I took over.
“Oh, the vicar was far ahead of his time. He was so keen on equality that he always put ‘single,’ even then. He said the Registrar General never complained.”
“And what about occupations? ‘Miller’ would’ve given you away.”
“For Jack we put ‘carrier’ — fine for a boatman, and he’d spent almost as much time carrying grain and flour as he had milling. For me, ‘servant’ — nicely unisex.”
“And what about addresses? ‘Mill House, Braunston’ wouldn’t do.”
“Boat people lived on their boats and didn’t have fixed abodes. For them the vicar always put plain ‘Braunston,’ which kept the Registrar General happy. So for us he put plain ‘Braunston’ too, which was equally true. Anyway, I doubt if anyone’s looked at our entry since. By a stroke of luck we were in the last slot on the page. All the couples after us would use a new page and wouldn’t see our entry.”
Studying her over my specs, I could see doubt lingering on Sophie’s face. She was still suspecting us of romantic fantasies, of geriatric wish-fulfilment.
“O ye of little faith!” I complained. “You don’t believe us, do you? Well, if you’ve finished, let’s go and look at your marriage register. That’ll show you what you really want to know.”
We returned to our scooters, Jack and I by way of the gents again because our bladders are not what they were, especially after beer. From the churchyard we toddled hand in hand to the vestry. We often go hand in hand, on the principle that if one falls, we both go down together. She took the register from the safe and laid it on the table. It was still the same old volume, nearly full now.
“Right, what are our names?” we asked.
Sophie, good girl, jollied us along. “Why, Hodge Robinson and Jack Farthingstone, of course.”
“Both wrong. OK, I’m a Robinson, but I’m not strictly Hodge — it’s a nickname. And Jack is strictly John, and he isn’t a Farthingstone. Old Habakkuk insisted on it, though he wasn’t his father. The pity is that after Habakkuk was out of the way, Jack couldn’t use his real surname because it might have rumbled us. He’s had to be known as Farthingstone for ever more.”
“Small price to pay,” he said, and put his hand on mine.
But she still needed convincing. From our wallets we fished our driving licences and handed them to her. We haven’t driven for some time and they’ve expired, but because they carry our real names and photos we’ve hung onto them as ID, should we ever need it.
“Are these photos of us?”
She scowled at them. Mug shots on licences are microscopic, and rarely works of art.
“Yes, they’re you.”
“So what are our real names, Sophie?”
“This one says John Harpole, and this one says Hilary Lodge Robinson ... Oh!... Oh! ... I’m beginning to see!”
Meanwhile we had opened the register at 28 September 1935. She read our entry. The names were the same. The penny dropped the final inch. She burst into helpless laughter.
“Hilary!” she cried when she had her breath back. “You’re Hilary! How come?”
“Well, Mum and Dad were marvellously even-handed, but they did occasionally go over the top. I had an older sister, and to both of us they gave unisex names. She was Evelyn, and happy with it. And I’m Hilary. The Lodge comes from Dad’s hero Sir Oliver Lodge, the physicist — and incidentally another Fabian — who demonstrated electromagnetic waves in 1894, the year he was born. The year Dad was born, I mean.
“Now while you’re a toddler, names don’t mean much. But just before I went to my first school, Mum and Dad heard that I’d be in the same class as another Hilary. A girl called Hilary. Even though I was only five — maybe because — I simply couldn’t stomach that. I flatly refused to go as a boy Hilary alongside a girl Hilary. And that opened their eyes. It might be a nicely egalitarian name, but in practice perhaps it wasn’t so good after all.
“So they told the school that I was to be known only as Hodge. That’s what my sister already called me, a mixture of Hilary and Lodge. And Hodge I’ve been ever since, and heartily ashamed of the Hilary. I’m all for equality, but there are limits. I never dreamt that having a girl’s name might come in useful one day.”
“Oh, that’s lovely!” Sophie was still chuckling. “Hilarious even — pun intended. And as you say, there isn’t a single falsehood here.” She tapped the register. “Just the one misleading implication.”
She pointed to ‘Hilary Lodge Robinson’ in the box for the bride’s name.
“But the only person it’s misled,” Jack insisted, “is the Registrar General, and we don’t lose much sleep over him. He’s still in blissful ignorance. As far as we’re concerned it was a proper wedding. God wasn’t misled. He knew all about it. We were married in his sight. That was all Mum wanted. And it gave us,” he added happily, “what we wanted too.”
“And don’t forget,” I put in, “your predecessor wasn’t misled either. He knew exactly what he was doing. In fact he encouraged us all the way.”
“If I’d been in his shoes,” Sophie declared, “I hope I’d have done the same. What a good, good man!”
In the churchyard we paused as usual by his grave, to remember him with gratitude. From her hilltop the mill seemed to be smiling. She has always treated us kindly, bless her, more kindly than she treated Habakkuk. We like to think we have treated her kindly too.
* * *
Gay marriages in England and Wales, as authorised by the Act of 2013, began at the stroke of midnight on 29 March 2014. Several couples claim to have been the first to tie the knot. Little do they know it, but none of them was the first. We beat them by seventy-eight years, six months and a day, and we have the certificate to prove it. Cliff and Mick had it framed for us, and it hangs — where more appropriate? — above our bed. It hangs where Habakkuk’s forbidding text once hung, the one about fornication. But ours is far more fitting, because fornication means sex outside marriage. And nobody can accuse us of that.