Read Apples and Prayers Online

Authors: Andy Brown

Apples and Prayers

Andy Brown
Apples and Prayers

‘An orchard itself is neither a true field, nor a true wood, but a holy conjoining of the two.'

Servant girl Morgan Sweet spends her life in and around the sixteenth-century apple orchards of Buckland in Devon. It is an existence inextricably joined to the land, the animals, fruits and flowers signalling the passing of each season, detailed so lovingly by Morgan in her story. Life for Morgan and her friends is sometimes merry, sometimes brutal, but always dependent on the obligations of the peasant folk, the patronage of their Lord and Ladies, and the sureties of the Latin prayer book used in church where they worship each week.

But in 1549 ominous change is coming to Buckland, as the familiar rituals of life start to tear apart in the bloodiest fashion. Morgan finds that not even the ancient ways her people have known and cleaved to, can safeguard against revolution and the terrible measures the powerful are willing to take to quash it.

Andy Brown's debut novel is fiercely imagined, rich and wise, while Morgan is a moving and ultimately heartbreaking narrator who reminds us, above all, that we must treasure what we value most.

 

Praise for
Apples and Prayers

‘A richly imagined novel. Andy Brown evokes a world which is both beguiling and filled with danger.'
SUSANNA JONES

‘Playful, vicious and loving, reminiscent of John Clare and H.E. Bates.'
ROB MAGNUSON SMITH

For my mum, Ruth, and my grandmother, Mavis,

quis dedit mihi scribere et legere

‘What wond'rous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head.'
Andrew Marvell

‘At least some of the reasons for the apple's special position in the economy, traditions and cookery of Britain… lie in the religious history of sixteenth century Europe. When Protestantism appeared in Germany early in the century, it set off a series of religious struggles which eventually changed not only the moral and political geography of the Western World, but also gave apples a new significance as the fruit favoured by God's Elect.'
Morgan & Alison
, The Book of Apples

I

My name is Morgan Sweet. 

Sweet was the name the village gave my father. Richard Sweet of Buckland. He lived a year or so longer than my mother – may God's Love enfold her, His Light shine upon her – although in the short time he alone cared for me, I came to know him little. 

They say his fields produced the most abundant, sweet hay in our parish, year on year without fail and so they named him after the produce of his land. Those fields of my childhood were golden and florid, like the Land of Cockaigne, where a child could disappear and while away her hours in reverie. 

My mother took her name from her own mother and she from her mother before her: Gillian, or Gilli for short. She was the prettiest flower that ever grew round here. That's at least as I remember her, for all the little time we had together on this earth. She was born in the quiet settlement of Buckland, where I myself was born and where I've lived this whole, fleeting life.

I was born some twenty-something years ago, when King Henry was still young, commanding his throne with fairness and wisdom. I hardly remember my early years, save for the presence of three brothers and two sisters, all of whom preceded me and looked after me, youngest as I was in our country home. 

My infancy and childhood flown by, our family number gradually became fewer. Both my sisters died untimely deaths, God protect their immortal souls. First went Caroline – so proud and haughty, we used to mock and call her ‘Queen', carried off by the plague these many years past. Hers was a dreadful death and it tore our hearts to see it. The boils and eruptions turned her flesh from soft and girlish blushes to the puckered skin like that around a rotten fruit. Then there was Victoria, who turned crimson with the fever and terrified us all exceedingly, she looked so fearful in her quaking agues. Victoria too is gone. 

My brothers left the village shortly after my sisters died and left me here alone with our father, to keep the hearth and save the family name. My older brothers, Wat and Ellis, had taken off to new estates, wandering to Whimple and Payhembury, beyond Exeter. There they laboured until they could afford a tenancy of their own. They also took wives for themselves. Wat's woman was an Endsleigh, whose family was famed in the wool trade. Ellis's wife was a Moore, whose father was scribe to the Justice. I seldom saw them after they were married.

My third brother, Pip, jumped upon a wool cart heading north and rode away to a new life aboard the trading ships. No doubt he made something of himself, one of those sailors who brings back the spices with which I baked my Lady's sweets and ginger breads, though once he went off on the wool cart that was the last I ever saw of him. With no Pip left to hold our family together, I was left alone in Buckland. 

My father was a villein of moderate means, tenanted here to farmland on Lord Ponsford's estate. We were never the poorest of families – my father earned a good, steady income from the arable he farmed – but neither were we wealthy. Sometimes he could be a kind man, letting me play on the church green, or in his hayfields with the other children from the neighbours' homes when, in truth, we should have been helping to bring in the animals, or harvest the season's crops. But then again he could often be stern, with the quickest of tempers and would frequently swill down more than his fill of ale or cider.

When he was in his cups, he used to fight with my mother. Then he treated her roughly, in wicked, hurtful ways; she who always worked attentively to keep her children clothed and safe and fed. If it hadn't been for her, each and every one of us would have quit this world much sooner, uncared for and neglected, like famished stock in a run-down barn. The name my father went by was Sweet, but in truth he was a bittersweet man and everybody knew it, even he.

My father had survived the smallpox in his youth and his face remained pitted and red until the day he passed on. So profuse were the marks on his face, that the young ones of the village used to taunt him in childish ways and called him Spotted Dick, a name he bore well, most of the time. 

But it was for bearing of another kind that he was famed round here. Once, he rescued a pair of stranded heifers from the burst banks of the river, the cows in dismal jeopardy of drowning. He put his life at risk to carry them back across the torrent to safer pastures on his own. So, when he wasn't Spotted Dick, the children whispered Stockbearer, although they used these names with caution and only when he might be out of hearing. They knew full well that he could, if he wished, crack the skull of anyone offending him, he was that broad and full of muscle. But he wasn't only thick in the bones, he was thick skinned too and, mostly, bore whatever jeering came his way.

My mother had an altogether different nature and was thin-skinned as a berry, a constitution my father often abused. When she first married him she was, by all accounts, meek in her ways, but soon learned to bear the brunt of her husband's eruptions. She was a Bowden before she married and that family still holds sway round here for their stubborn ways and resolution. I know little more of her past than that. 

Having borne him six children, our mother drowned in the river one day in winter. She must have slipped down a treacherous bank that the herdsmen's sheep had muddied. She banged her head on one of the broad flat stones the village women use for beating clothes on washday. 

She went underneath the waters in a swirling pool. Death bides his time and, of a sudden, claims us. Most never know when.

My father wasn't there to do any rescuing that morning. Cattle he could rescue. Women he could not. 

Later that afternoon, when she failed to return home, a search was organised to scour the fields for mother. The whole village came out to look for her, turning over every stone and sifting the bushes by torchlight, well into the night. Their efforts turned up nothing. 

The next day the miller, Billy White, found her body washed up on his water wheel along the leat by the outskirts of the village. 

In life, my mother was a tall, fair woman, with a thin face that carried the attractive red blush of a pippin. In death she was bloated, her cheeks all washed out, so we hardly recognised her as they pulled her into the village on the bier. 

Coppin, the carpenter, fashioned her a coffin out of floorboards, a box my father paid for with a sack of grain and fist of coins. It was a wretched, though maybe merciful end to an arduous union, a marriage she had borne without complaint, God rest her soul.

When my father himself died, not so many months after his wife's body was pulled from the waters and turned to the earth, I came to the service of my Lord and Lady Ponsford at Buckland Barton. Perhaps my Lord and Lady took me in because of some sense of responsibility, some recompense that my mother's body was caught beneath the water wheel of my Lord's miller, although he could hardly have been blamed for her misfortune. 

However it was that my contract at the Barton came about, it's been as stable a home as any I could wish for. I've happily worked my way through the ranks of service for the past twenty years. Everything I've learned has come through them and I've tried, myself, to pass that learning on to Alford, my help and serving girl. I can bear few grudges or grumbles; this life has, by the Virgin's grace, been mostly free from conflict and misfortune.

It really all began in June, quite fresh still in my memory, although the sad events had been building all year, like layers of stone in an old barn wall. Come June the meadow grasses were growing up good and strong through that stonework themselves: sweet vernal, fox-tail, brome and rye, wild oat, cocksfoot, timothy. Their tall heads swayed through summer days in the undulant breezes that combed the fields and meadows, waiting for their later reaping in the month's haymaking. To the back of the Barton, roses climbed the house's wall in lush display, while others stood singly with perfumed pride in the
parterre
beds of my Lady's garden. The beginnings of fat berries were forming on the fruit bushes already. Peas and beans were plenty for our pot. At the edge of the spinney we gathered in summer mushrooms for stewing – morels, chicken of the woods, summer truffles – copious and earthy, firmly-fleshed. In my Lord's woodlands, the leaves on the oaks were opening, signaling the sovereign rule of summer. In their branches, the fledgling birds had flown their nests. Above in the clear blue air, swifts danced their madrigals. At twilight moths flew in the oak woods, chased by hungry bats, eager for their meal of evening bugs. On a still night you could hear the faint trace of their voices as they hunted on agile wings between the trees, their clicks and chirrups like the whirr of the ratchet turning on my spinning wheel. By sunset, the yard was filled with froglets moving from puddle to garden pond. I went to my truck each night in two minds: delighting in the growth and glut of summer, yet troubled by what might come with this green explosion.

The trouble was accountable enough. 

Within days of the calendar turning, some news was brought to my Lord at the Barton – a gentleman of substantial means appeared with his servant at the manor. It wasn't often that my Lord was given to receiving men of such high standing as this, although he and my Lady entertained knights and other squires from time to time within their home. 

The visitor that day was a well-set man with sturdy hands to grip his mount's reigns and legs like trunks, which bulged in his garters as he dismounted from his mare, one of the expensive and well-known greys from Bickington stables. She had a broad brow and muzzle and wore a long bit between her teeth to give him firm control. I took her reigns and tethered her to the post above the water trough. Her neck and withers were white with heated sweat. He must have pushed her hard along the lanes. 

When she was drinking healthily from the butt, the gentleman brushed past me into the house and I took a moment to admire his plush attire: a velvet doublet with star-shaped slashings, after the European fashion; a jornet round his shoulders and a peaked cap, like one of those exotic pineapples traded from the spice merchants' ships. Perhaps my brother Pip's. He was the most magnificent bird in the roost and his serving man was equally attired in the finest livery. He gave me the look as they entered the hall and I turned to dodge his gaze and loosen the tackle on their animals. Something worth of note was now afoot.

My Lord met in private with the gentleman and his equerry, in the curtained chamber set off from the Barton's great hall. They stayed there in discussion all afternoon until Alford and I were bound to serve them supper in the evening. Then they descended the stone stairs from the garret and arranged themselves around the long elm table. I couldn't help but overhear their discourse. It seemed to me my Lord's face was truly grave.

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