A novel of short stories set in Wimborne Minster, Dorset, in the 19th century.
Crow Court is the tale of a small community in the aftermath of a choirboy’s suicide and the violent death of the choirmaster. Set in Victorian Dorset, the novel is told through fourteen episodes, each one a story in its own right with a unique narrative voice—sometimes modern, occasionally antique and often featuring rich Dorset dialect.
The stories: a choirboy is drowned by the oppression of the Minster’s choirmaster; crows gather and murder one of their own; the choirmaster dies and a young gentleman and his groom run off to join the army; a sleep-walking cordwainer wakes on his dead wife’s grave; a merchant meets his future spouse while she is evading a past lover; desperate farmhands emigrate; a composer mourns her lost song; a smuggler pulls off a trick; a young boy finds an old tin bath; a brother returns from India; a London theatre company performs at a wedding; a sailor plans to murder his Captain; a wager is agreed (the first to make old Art laugh); the Alderman of Wimborne walks out in the snow to make amends, and a priest seeks proof of the existence of fossils. All the while, the past is catching up with the murderer, and the Victorian age is transforming the life of a Dorset town.
The Victorian period is talked of as though it was a single cultural movement, but beneath its broad, sweeping term, there was a huge variety of change, uneven, messy and cruelly unmitigated. The railways brought easy, fast communication, but made the world smaller. Universal education benefitted millions, but began the swift eradication of local dialects, denigrating the Dorset tongue that Williams Barnes considered every bit as logical and grammatical as Westminster English.
Crow Court explores the asymmetry of change. It imagines how, in a small community, one side of the town could have been celebrating the arrival of brilliant new gas-light, while the other side was struggling to find enough food. It delves into the otherness of poverty and the marginalisation of disenfranchised voices among the would-be compassionate middle-class, exploring a disappearing world through a language that had not yet sloughed off its skin from the Anglo-Saxon age.
Concerns for Henry Cuff
Wimborne Minster, Dorset, May 1840
Louisa Chilcott is in the dressmaker’s by the Corn Market. Taken up residence there according to her father.
White silk, layered over taffeta and fringed with so many yards of lace that her mother winces each time the dressmaker stretches her arms. Louisa, stood on a wicket for access to her hems, has to press her skirts flat to see what is happening on the floor.
“Harriet—darling sister—if you want to touch the silk, please, please use your gloves.”
Sisters—three in number—comprise two bridesmaids-to-be and one dearly beloved who looks likely to stand and tremble with envy. They have already argued the strengths and weaknesses of silk over lace, of white over colour: another skirmish in a lengthy war of wills, and a barren debate. Louisa has chosen to follow the fashion set by the newly married Queen and the cloth is cut; the thread of the conversation has spooled on to a subtle attack on the inspiration for Louisa’s choice; Kings, it is suggested, reign more supremely than Queens. Louisa defends her monarch, her sex and herself.
“They don’t go into battle anymore, anyway,” she says. “King George didn’t fight at Waterloo. Was it King George, Mama?”
A nod of confirmation from Mama is interrupted in a sister’s rush to dispute.
“Well it doesn’t matter now,” claims Miriam, next eldest sister, whose envy will turn to drowned ashes, “She’s married, so the King will take over.”
“Ah, but you are quite wrong. He is the Queen’s consort. A mere Prince Albert.”
“What’s a consort?”
“Like a concubine, but male.”
“Yes, thank you, Louisa!” says her mother, acting umpire for decorum.
“If you could be a-lifting your foot ma’am?” asks the dressmaker’s assistant.
Louisa does so, glancing up at the window in anticipation of the arrival of…
Samuel Portman, the affianced. Proud as a poppy and about the same proportions. Riding into town in a pony and trap. Chin up, reins held high, large-headed and thin as a wheel. Rounding the long slope that arcs down from Furzehill past solemn oaks and Celtic hedgerows. A recent acquirer of superfluous but bountiful knowledge about Queen Victoria’s wedding dress, he told his father over breakfast;
“It was adorned with orange blossom, you know.”
“Was it?” came the grumpy answer.
The Peacock Shawl
Wimborne Minster Spring 1849
I thought only of India, dead choir-boys, and of lovers separated by oceans and injustice. After two days locked in the music room, all others barred, it was hard to believe I had nothing at all to show for it. And this after weeks of the same; it seemed I could neither write words nor compose music.
So one morning I thought I might fix on the key. I chose A-flat major because it can sound so wistful, and by defining a specific aspect of composition I hoped to constrain my imagination and thereby force some product from it. Yet after the morning’s effort, the key was still all I had.
“Quite maddening,” I told Harriet over lunch. She smiled and patted my hand.
“Oh, Evelyn,” she said. She is the wise old owl who knows how all ills shall be resolved. She suggested I should take myself away from the piano and let my mind settle.
She knew nothing of the reasons for my troubled thoughts, but I followed her advice and walked around to Purkis’s shop on the square. It seemed a pleasant enough diversion, although not in the least settling because there were still notes in my head and I kept worrying away at them like a mad old maid picking and re-sewing the same stitches.
Upon arrival at Purkis’s, I asked whether he might have any new songs ‘from London’ and to my delight he had three by Eliza Cook. I bought these immediately (for four shillings each) and then turned for home.
So it was as I was leaving, with the bell of his shop door still ringing, that quite suddenly, and to my utmost surprise, I began to hear my tune. It was not as if I were creating it; rather, it was as if I were remembering a composition I had learned long ago, even though it showed itself to be entirely new.
The whole first section played out exactly as I had hoped it might, with its centre on the A; curling around it, venturing away to explore musical curlicues and arabesques, but always returning, like a contented lamb, to its musical home. This came entirely without effort on my part, it simply flowed into my thoughts ready-formed, and it was exhilarating—a bracing wind on a clear day—to have the music display itself to me; it was such a divine melody, as balanced, flowing and poised as any Italian sculpture.
I had heard it all the way through before I was halfway home and so I set about trying to repeat it in my head but I realised immediately that if anything resembling another song should enter my thoughts, it would displace my inspired composition. It was in great danger. I scuttled back down West Street directly, keeping my face lowered for the precise purpose of avoiding an encounter with any other person. And that was when Harriet’s niece saw me.
I knew it was Anne by her hems; she was standing on the corner of Church Street, and she offered me a greeting but I closed my eyes and carried on by. Yet I think that did for it. I could sense it was lost, even though I continued in hope.
Since no-one was home, I told Mary I was not be disturbed and went directly to the piano and I even managed to catch the first few bars. But what came after would not reveal itself to me a second time. Not in the same way at all. Worse still, once I had corrected what I thought were my notation errors in the opening, I could not reproduce the same freshness and life when I re-played it. More revisions only took me further from the original, scrawling over the inky notes, so that eventually even that small section was gone.
It was indeed, incontrovertibly lost. It had drained through my hands in the time it had taken me to walk home (a period that would barely register on a presentable pocket watch) and no matter how I tried to recreate it, what came out of the piano was unutterably dull in comparison.
I cannot think I ever experienced a failure more distressing. It was made worse because, even as I was suffering it, I was aware the impression on my emotions was quite out of proportion to the weight of the event. It might have been ridden out with perfect equanimity by someone more hardened to such sensations, but it is a weakness in me to feel with such alacrity. I stood among the blotted shreds of wasted music sheets, weeping. And whenever a tear-drop hit the paper, it sounded like the death of another crotchet.
That was how Harriet found me: standing still, considering whether the slenderest bones in my fingers might actually snap if it proved impossible for me to relax my fists. She placed her hand on my shoulder, and waited for me to speak.
Harriet is my Grace Darling, forever rowing out to retrieve me from whichever storm-tossed rock I have wrecked myself on.
“It was beautiful,” I told her. We stood quietly for a moment, then I explained the only other thing I knew about the song I had lost. “A-flat major.”
Anne Ellis, the orphaned daughter of the late Barnard and Florence Frampton and niece of my companion, Harriet Frampton, called on us late in the afternoon of the day after I lost my song. Her visit threw me into a distressed state of alarm, but to explain quite how, or why would make no sense without first explaining the moment’s ancestry.
The Voice O' Strangers
Atlantic Ocean, May 1871.
The table by John’s bunk was built into the fo’c’sle bulkhead leaving only one end supported by a thick, dented leg. The retaining lip was chipped and rough from the attentions of bored sailors’ knives and there was a tally carved along it’s length—reaching thirty-two in sixes—with the outline of mermaid near the corner.
As the Pilgrim pitched in the Atlantic swell, Jansen’s tin mug slid the length of the table, chimed against the end, and slid back. Since the rest of the port watch was asleep, the mug troubled no-one but John and above the creaking of the timbers and the snoring of the watch it was no sound at all. Still, he pulled himself up and when the mug next skated across to him he caught it. From the bunk above, Jansen grunted gratefully then returned to his slumber, but John still stared into the darkness. Mug or none, how should he sleep now the Captain needed killing?
Art’s Last Laugh
Wimborne Minster, Dorset, October 1872
T’were a wager, zee. ‘Twix George and I. George were the type to take a wager on most anythin’ but I wanted to zee Art laugh again. It come about beens they wooden vences out on Netherwood Leaze had rotted away zo I tol’ Squire Guthrie how I’d take George an’ Art Pugh to help I fix ‘em up.
George and me is a-comin’ up on Art’s place when I tells en. “He’s had a right rare time over the years,” I zays, “Lost a child to the pox, another to the fever, his two daughters gone into service, never hears vrom his son. And o’ course Jane died last winter, and cap it all there’s no work. He gets dribs and drabs here an’ there, but there bissen no life to be had no more. Ain’t heard Art laugh in years.”
George don’t answer, zo I zays, “Reckon not even you could make en laugh.”
“Oh ar?” he zays. Full o’ hisself is Georgie. Zo avore we gets to Art’s place, we’ve a tanner on it. Virst to make Art laugh.
Zo we’s standin’ by the gate an’ out comes Art, then George—beggin’ your pardon’—but George let’s rip this baggin’ girt vart. No doubt it were rude, but George’s laugh is a-catchin’—a right hobble—an’ it were that loud, zo he an’ I are near weepin’ wi’ laughs.
Art—poor trimmer—he’s a-lookin’ at us through they thick old eyebrows of his, a-scowlin’ an’ zerious an’ that old poppy of his is stood azide en not knowin’ whether to bark or ‘owl. Art just takes his ‘andcart by the ‘andles. He zays, “We a-vence-mendin’ or not?”
Us headin’ up the road in the thin Autumn zun. George and I still a-gigglin’. Art an’ his dog, grave as a tomb.
I offers en a chunk o’ bread. “Dewbit?” I zays. I were a-thinkin’ how skinny he’s lookin’ and vrom the way he tears into that loaf, zeems he’s not had much to eat lately. ‘Course, I never know’d how bad it were. George offers en an apple an’ all, an’ aver he’s scoffed that too you can zee the change in en. Different vace. I thinks to myself—Don’t mess with an ‘ungry old farm hand.
“You remember The Stickman, Art?” George axes en. Art grumbles back. He remembers. Donald Stickman. Were the Pastor who taught us all our hornbook. Zome o’en had Ellis, but he were a different cup o’tea. Zundays in the hall. Spindly little gawk-hammer Art calls en.
“Gawk-hammer were he?” George zays, an’ he reminds us how funny Stickland looked that time his pony took lame and he zaddled up his nirrup. “Remember en ridin’ round town in that gown-coat of his, veet scruffin’ the groun’?”
I laughs at the memory, and George is a-chucklin’ to think-tell of it, but Art stays grim. “Man were a ninny,” he grumbles.
Zo George remembers the time ol’ Healey got stuck up a tree. He thinks it good enough f’ra laugh, but Art counts Healey a vool for gettin’ hisself up there. “Only had one leg. Should ha’ stayed stood on it.”
George don’t give up though. He brings back zo many old stories. Zome folks I’d forgotten an’ all the daft things they done. But Art—he don’ think much on any o’ em.
Zo we gets to the leaze an’ all the way across we’s a-dancin’ round avoidin’ they cow-pats to get to the other side where we starts work on the vence.
Then me an’ Art’s layin’ the lugs out an’ George starts up with tellin’ gags. One av’er t’other. The wife what never varts in her husband’s lap, all that zort o’ stuff. Molly and Jim, this and that. Gag av’er gag. Not a zingle one on ‘em raises zo much as a smile vrom Art. He just looks at George like he’s de-da.
Hours this goes on. We’m vixed about of ten lugs o’vence an’ we’re packin’ up—still dancin’ round they cow pats. We’s pilin’ broke lugs back in the cart an’ George zays how he could ha’ been in the army on account of how strong he was. He lifts one of they lugs wi’ one hand—I couldn’ a done it—but Art rolls his eyes like George was makin’ his brags.
Zo I waves George back a step, axin’ if he could lift it over his head—an’ he takes two steps back and raises the lug. Can he do another? He steps back again and—sure enough—he trips an’ valls backwards. Ends up on his arse in a cow pat.
George gets up a-swearin’ an’ a-cursin’ an’ vor a moment I was a-feared it’s all gone riggy. Then the stench reaches us.
“Aw!” cries Art, “Aw my! You don’ half pong!”
That’s when Art starts laughin’. George is ruddy in the vace, he’s that angry.
“That weren’t funny!” he zays. but Art disagrees.
“Oh it were!” he zays, “It really were!”
An’ George is chuckin they lugs in the barrow, covered wi’ muck an’ a tanner down an’ Art’s laugh gets louder an’ louder. The more he laughs, the more George looks ruddy, an’ the more Art laughs. Carries on all the way home, it does. George cheers up a moment, Art chuckles and George comes over all mad again. Quite the day it were.
Zad though. Weren’t more ’n a week av’er that, Art took to his sick bed.
We buried en on a Monday in the rain. Zad day. Zad as ‘ey come.
There were only one thing I were glad of. I were stood there watchin’ the rain a-patterin’ on his canvas and I ‘appened to recall that look on his vace—the light in his eye—when George landed in the muck. It were Art’s last laugh, but I were glad of it.
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