A Hundred Years To Arras

By Jason Cobley

From a Somerset farm to the trenches of France: one man's coming of age through land, love and blood

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

A Goose for Christmas

Well, hello! Thank you for your continued patience, ladies and gentlemen. Edits are well underway - the structural edit is more or less completed, and then the manuscript will be in the hands of the copy editor. Conversations have taken place with regard to cover design and things along those lines. Unbound have their own go-to source for cover design, so that's all very exciting indeed.

A by-product of the editing and drafting process is sometimes that you need to say goodbye to sections that you're quite fond of, but it's invariably the right decision. There's a small section that involved an ancestor or two of our main character which I've now excised. As luck would have it, it sort-of works as a mini short story on its own. So, by way of a Christmas gift from me to you, here's a first draft...

 

‘A Goose for Christmas’

A short story by JM Cobley

 

In 1668, the court was in session. With no official court buildings in this corner of the parish, the visiting magistrate had taken temporary command of the back room of The Boot Inn. The ancient parish of Taunton St James covered a wide area, but neither the plaintiff nor defendant were willing to travel. Magistrate Bellweather was a wizened yew tree branch of a man who was hot in his black tunic and the fashionable but inconvenient frills. He placed his heap of papers on the scrubbed table and took a seat. He declined the proffered cup of ale with a glare, despite it being a warm June day.

‘Most people being here now come to town, I call this court to session. Be advised, gentlemen, I am not best amused by having to call court to order in this inn. I therefore expect this to be concluded in short time and we can all go on to wherever we intend to sup tonight. I have not eaten all day, so my patience must not be tried,’ he said. ‘I will see the first witness now.’

His cap wrung like a rag in his hands, Augustine Sellwood took the stand, which is to say he stood up. He did this with some effort, for he was a sweaty, rotund man with a leg that trailed behind him whenever he walked from inn to stile and back again. Introductions done, Bellweather said, ‘I am given to understand that you are the plaintiff, Mister Sellwood?’

‘Aye.’

‘Do speak. Don’t let me hold you back.’

‘Well, the light were a bit dimpsey at the end of the day. It were a gurt job, taking down my standing.’

‘This was at Taunton fayre?’

‘Aye.’

‘Go on.’

‘It were in the way of where Henson wanted to go, so he started spuddling. I just wanted to pack up and go home.’

‘This is Roger Henson?’

‘Aye.’

‘So, what did he do, man? Get to it!’

‘He kicked over the posts and ripped all my cloths and that.’

‘With one kick?’

‘Aye.’

‘And you are seeking compensation?’

‘Sir?’

‘You want money,’ Bellweather sighed.

‘Aye.’

Sellwood was relieved to be able to sit down. Roger Henson, a broad man with gnarled hands from heavy work, strode in late. He quickly recovered his breath, apologised to the magistrate, and stood to attention. Bellweather was easily impressed by less easy manners, so resolved to end things quickly. ‘You are a carpenter, Mister Henson?’ he asked.

‘Yes, sir. I have taken employment in carpentry this past ten year or so in and around Taunton St James.’

‘I gather your workmanship has been praised by many.’

‘I hope so, sir.’

‘Yet, you attacked Mister Sellwood’s standing, splintering his wooden posts.’

‘Aye, sir. He had employed me to build it for him but did not pay. He were selling brawn and pies and I think all his money went into that, so he never paid me. I went to see him at the end of the day to see if he would pay me what he owed from his earnings. He said he had none. It were a gurt liberty. I’d done a proper job and all. I admit he made me angry, he did.’

‘So, you decided to teach him a lesson?’

‘Not exactly. I just got angry, sir. It weren’t right. There’s right and wrong, and this was wrong, in my eyes.’ Roger Henson was unapologetic.

Bellweather took no more time to deliberate than it did for him to finally accept a cup of ale and drain it to the dregs. With a belch, he said, ‘Sellwood, you will pay the man or spend a day in the stocks and then still have to pay him. Henson, you will moderate your temper and rebuild the standing for no additional coin after Mister Sellwood has paid you.’

Roger Henson left the back room of the inn that day with a measure of dignity but a sense of injustice that he passed on through his family.

*

In 1784, Roger’s grandson James Henson was born. James married Mary Gooding, and together they had nine children. The eldest, John, was born in 1809 and, on the penultimate day in December 1861, the rhythm of history took an extra beat as he stood before the Justices of the Peace at Combe Flory, charged with stealing one goose. The bird in question was the property of George Webber, a local farmer. As if that were not enough to face, on the same day he was simultaneously charged with stealing one live sheep from William Dibble of West Bagborough, another farmer.

John Henson wept with anger, his fingers wrapped up in his hair, as he stood in the dock. Justice of the Peace Carew addressed him directly.

‘State your name and profession,’ he said.

‘John Henson, farm labourer.’

‘How do you plead, Henson?’

*

John pounded the door of the cottage with his fists. He wrenched at the latch to no avail; his fingers could get no purchase in the dark, and his pockets were empty of keys. He hammered with the side of his fist. It was a dull mallet that thudded against the door but achieved nothing except pushing his wife’s patience to the edge.

‘Jane,’ he said. ‘Let me in. It’s John.’

‘I know who it is,’ came the reply from the other side of the door. ‘Stop your banging. You’ll wake the baby.’

‘Let me in.’

‘No. You’re drunk again.’

‘No, I’m not. I mean, aye, I probably am, but I got something.’

There was the rattle of a key from inside, and the easy creaking of the door as it swung inwards. Mary Jane Henson, in her nightgown and threadbare cap, held a candle in her hand. Six-year-old Harriet, already learning to look at her father with disdain, stood with her mother. Two-year-old Albyn was inside with baby Tom, a protective arm around his brother of four months.

‘What is it?’ Jane said, wearily.

With a flourish, John revealed the sheep, a docile young ewe, standing beside him. A rope was loosely tied around her neck, with the other end looped around his wrist. Under his arm was tucked a much less conscious goose, its neck drooping heavily like a wet sock.

‘Dinner,’ he replied, proudly.

Young Harriet echoed her mother’s words when she put her head in her hands and sighed, ‘Not again.’

On the thirtieth day of December, John, with his best shirt an inch too short on the sleeve and without a collar, bowed his head humbly when the Justice of the Peace asked him to state his name and occupation. Justice Carew asked him for his plea. Only a fool would have denied the goose feathers swept into corners on the scullery floor; only a fool would have denied the sheep that grazed, tied to a post outside the cottage all night into the morning.

‘Not guilty,’ John pled. He spent New Year in Taunton gaol.

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