Authors: Lindsey Barraclough
Said my lord to my lady as he mounted his horse:
“Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the moss.”
Said my lord to my lady as he rode away:
“Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the hay.
“Let the doors be all bolted and the windows all pinned,
And leave not a hole for a mouse to creep in.”
The doors were all bolted and the windows all pinned,
Except one little window where Long Lankin crept in.
“Where’s the lord of this house?” said Long Lankin.
“He’s away in fair London,” said the false nurse to him.
“Where’s the heir of this house?” said Long Lankin.
“He’s asleep in his cradle,” said the false nurse to him.
“We’ll prick him, we’ll prick him all over with a pin,
And that’ll make my lady to come down to him.”
So he pricked him, he pricked him all over with a pin,
And the nurse held the basin for the blood to flow in.
“The nurse how she slumbers, the nurse how she sleeps.
My little son John how he cries and he weeps.
“How durst I go down in the dead of the night
Where there’s no fire a-kindled and no candle alight?”
“You have three silver mantles as bright as the sun.
Come down, my fair lady, all by light of one.”
My lady came down then, all fearful of harm.
Long Lankin stood ready, she fell in his arm.
Here’s blood in the kitchen. Here’s blood in the hall.
Here’s blood on the stairs where my lady did fall.
“O master, O master, don’t lay blame on me.
’Twas the false nurse and Lankin that killed your lady.”
Long Lankin was hung on a gibbet so high
And the false nurse was burned in a fire close by.
There’s too much sky, and the farther out of London we go, the more of it there is.
I twist round in my seat and rub the back window with a wet finger until the skin goes brown. I lick it again, and it tastes bitter. Through the smear on the glass, I see the edge of the city moving away. In the grey rain, the crowded buildings that filled my sky at home stick up like rotten teeth.
Mr. Bates didn’t want to bring Mimi and me all the way out here. He was only doing it to pay Dad back a favour.
Somewhere past Barking, we stop to get petrol. Mr. Bates starts arguing with the garage man, saying he hasn’t filled the tank right up and he’s fiddling him. The man wants his money. Mr. Bates gets out of the car but only comes up to the man’s nose. A gust of wet wind catches Mr. Bates’s hair and blows it sideways off his bald patch. The garage man says Mr. Bates’s petrol pointer can’t be working properly because he can’t get any more ruddy stuff in and he can ruddy well try himself if he doesn’t believe him.
The garage man looks over at us and raises his eyebrows. He thinks Mr. Bates is our dad. Mimi smiles. I slide down the back seat and stare out at the road. Our dad would have had a laugh with the garage man — if we’d had a car, that is; if we had, it wouldn’t be a dirty old Austin like Mr. Bates’s; it would be a nice two-tone job like the one parked outside Farrows and Atkins every morning. Anyway, our dad looks like Tyrone Power in
not like Mr. Bates, with a safety pin through his braces holding up his trousers, and hairs on his stomach that I can see because two of the buttons have burst off his shirt.
The garage man says he’s going to call a copper. Mr. Bates makes a hissing noise through his teeth, then slaps the money in the man’s hand, gets back into the car, and slams the door so hard that the window handle falls off.
Fewer and fewer houses slip by until there are hardly any at all. The fields stretch away on both sides of the road, flat and a dull grey-green. I try playing I Spy with Mimi, thinking it will help her learn her letters, but give up after a while because there’s only
and she’s not bothered anyway.
I notice the big hand on Mr. Bates’s watch has gone right round twice since we started out.
A small run-down old pub called the Thin Man comes up on the left, set back a bit off the road with a bench outside. Mr. Bates parks in front, then goes inside with his scrappy bit of paper. He takes half an hour to ask for directions while Mimi and I stay in the back of the car.
The engine clicks as it cools. We breathe in the stale smell of Mr. Bates’s armpits. The windows steam up.
We’re hungry. Dad gave us the same sandwiches he’d made on Saturday when we were supposed to come, but even then the cheese was the cracked bit off the end, and today the bread was all curled up, hard enough to do your teeth in. We ate them ages ago, going through East Ham. I’ve still got a lump in my throat from a crust that didn’t go down.
Through the misty glass, I see Mr. Bates coming out again, buckling up his belt. He burps so loudly we can hear it ten feet away with the windows up. He hasn’t brought us any peanuts, or a cream soda with two straws, like Dad would have done.
When he opens the door, I smell wet grass and soil. The rain has stopped. Mr. Bates squeezes his big stomach in behind the wheel and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Ain’t we there yet?” I ask.
“Mind your own bloody business,” he says, and beery spit flies out of his mouth and lands on the windscreen.
He reaches into his pocket for his tin of Golden Virginia and rolls himself a cigarette, thin, bent, and wrinkly, with bits of tobacco sticking out the end. While he’s driving, he can make them with one hand, balancing the tin on his knee. Most of them last only a couple of puffs. When he starts sucking like mad, you know they’ve gone out. He takes his time with this one, slowly blowing out the smoke until it fills up the car and makes our eyes water.
“Bloody cavemen out ’ere,” he says, pushing open the quarter-light to clear the windows.
We turn down a road almost opposite the pub. The name is painted on a piece of wood nailed to a stick —
OLD GLEBE LANE
. The road is narrow and rough, with scruffy hedges on either side.
A high wall and some huge wrought-iron gates loom up on the right. I catch a glimpse of a wide, freshly mown lawn and long, curving flower beds. Mr. Bates lowers his head to look as we drive by.
“And that ain’t Guerdon Hall,” he says, “just in case you was wonderin’.”
After a short while, the car slows and I peer over Mr. Bates’s shoulder to see out. We are at the top of a steep hill.
Below us, a small church steeple rises up out of a cluster of trees standing at the edge of a sweeping wasteland of marshes. Thick fingers of sunlight pierce the clouds and stretch down to the earth in long pale rods that dip in and out of the scattered pools and snake around the reed beds along the silvery ribbons of water, until in the far distance the glittering liquid threads merge into a faintly shimmering line that hovers between the land and the sky.
“What’s right over there, then?” I ask.
“What’s bloody what?”
“Right over there.” I point past his ear to the horizon.
“What do you ruddy well think it is?” he says. “It’s the ruddy river, innit! And over there’s the flippin’ sea!”
“So where does the river stop being the river and the sea start being the sea?”
“How the flamin’ hell should I know!” he says. “Shut up and stop asking bloody stupid questions! I’m givin’ you a lift in me blimmin’ car. It don’t mean I’ve ruddy well got to ’ave a conversation.”
We bump slowly all the way down the hill, with Mr. Bates swerving to avoid the big holes, muttering
’ this and
that. At the bottom, the lane carries on towards the church and the trees, and another, far muddier track goes off to the right. Mr. Bates stops the car and switches off the engine. He looks at his grubby piece of paper again.
“The house is up the end,” he says, pointing down the muddy track with his yellow finger. “But if you think I’m blinkin’ well driving down there, you’ve got another think comin’, and it ain’t Christmas!”
Mr. Bates gets himself out and pulls the front seat forward so Mimi and I can wriggle out with our duffel bags. “That flamin’ hill’s shot me suspension up. You’ll ‘ave to walk the rest of the way yerselves.”
“Ain’t you comin’ with us? What if it ain’t the right house?” I shout as he gets back into the car and bangs the door shut. “Ain’t it against the law to leave kids all by theirselves in a strange place?”
He doesn’t take a blind bit of notice, but quickly turns the engine back on.
“Oi! You could get done for this!” I yell over the noise.
Mr. Bates scrapes the gear into reverse. The car turns, squealing and throwing up lumps of wet earth. We jump out of the way. It roars back up the hill, the rattle of the exhaust pipe growing fainter and fainter, until I’m not sure whether I can hear it or not.
The wind stirs the long grass. Some far-off bird calls, but nothing answers it.
Mimi starts sniffing.
“Put a sock in it,” I say.
She wipes her nose on Sid, her knitted thing, then rubs her finger on the little worn patch on his head, like she does before she goes to sleep. Once, Sid was a fat blue soldier, but now he’s just a woolly grey sausage that smells of sick. Mimi found him in Mum’s drawer at home, and Mum said his name was Sid and Mimi couldn’t have him because he was old and dirty, but Mimi kept getting him out. In the end Mum gave in, but you could see she couldn’t stand Sid lying around. Once I saw her kick him round the back of the chair. I don’t know why she kept him in the first place.
I give Mimi the old hankie out of my pocket. It’s got a half-eaten sherbet lemon stuck to it. She pulls the sweet off and puts it in her mouth.
“Sherbet’s all gone,” she says, sucking.
Thin trees line the side of the track, their spindly trunks bent almost double, whipped over years by the wind blowing across the empty spaces from the river.
A narrow ditch, half-hidden in the grass, runs along the front of the trees, giving itself away only by the sound of the trickling water.