The Low Road

By Katharine Quarmby

The Convictions of Hannah Tyrrell

The sound of it in the darkness, a thudding, the fracturing next, then silence before a screaming fills the air till it is quite full. I am held in a grip that defeats me.

The man on the black horse is quite still. The constable looks at him. He nods. The stake descends again.

I am screaming again, wet with tears is it or sweat is it and I can feel that I am held and I cannot break free.

The grip releases as my eyes open and they are on each side of me and their voices are low, reassuring. I look at them in the candlelight and slowly come back to here, to now. He helps me up for a moment, I rest against him. She makes the bed and I lie down on cool cotton. Between the two of them.

I wasn’t always like this. I think if I tell the truth it will help me, and so, as the light moves across the swept wooden floor, I make a start. The worst comes first. There will be gaps I don’t doubt. I will tell what I can when I can.

Here I am when it started, as dusk falls at the end of a late spring day. I hear the sound of many footsteps outside the doctor’s house. I stand on my tippy toes and peep out of the attic window and as far as I can see there are people, a great crowd of them, processing slowly down the Thoroughfare. As they come closer I see that John Wypond is at the front.

Then I see my mama lying on a cart. The sacking that should have covered her nakedness has slipped. The great concourse moves on and my eyes are scarred with this, as if a knife has seared my eyeballs.

The birds do not sing so that the only sound is the trundling of the wheels, for the people are quite silent, their heads are bowed.

I tear my sheet from my bed and I run down the backstairs in my linen shift, the one I had won. I keep my head down, join the back of the concourse.

The light has nearly left the sky when we arrive at Lush Bush, where our parish ends and another begins. Everyone halts, and I bend down, creep between their legs. They are spattered with mud I see, blood on the butcher’s apron, the reek of unwashed people at the end of a day’s work.

I see a great deep hole, hard by the willow tree. I hear the sound of a horse, trotting, and there is the Reverend Olderhall, on Black Bessie. He pulls on her bit and she walks through the crowd to the centre. To the hole.

Two men lift my mama from the cart. I see now that she is dead, they spoke true. And then I am whirled upwards and Jem Summers is smiling at me and he hoists me to his shoulders and grips me there so I cannot move. Olderhall nods, once.

The men tip my mama in the hole and it is then that I scream and try and throw my bed sheet in to shroud her, but I cannot reach her. Summers laughs and then is silent. Although Olderhall does not give a blessing all at once we all kneel and the people remove their hats. Olderhall high above us on Black Bessie, frowning.

He nods again.

The parish constable takes a stake and places it between my mama’s breasts and then another man drives it home. A long sigh comes out from all of us, and then he nods once more, the stake makes sure. My mama will not wander on the parish boundary, she is fixed there forevermore.

The screaming around all of us and it comes from me, a child of ten years old and then it is cut off quite sudden and I am silent too.

It wasn’t always like that. I was a girl living with my mama on Wypond’s Farm, in the village of Weybread, in the Waveney Valley, in the lee of the valley near the market town of Harleston, in the Earsham Hundred, in the fine old county of Norfolk. The farmer, Joseph Wypond, grazed his cows and sheep on the water meadows. I could see them, moving slowly from spot to spot, if I stood right straight on my tippy toes and peered out of the small bedroom window. If I looked the other way, stretching out as far as I could until my neck ached, I saw nothing but fields, flat and far until at last they met the big old sky. Joseph Wypond and the good wife, Phoebe, grew barley for the brewery, oats, wheat and some smaller fields of rye and sugar beet. But the good wife loved her milk cows most of all.

When I turned five years of age I learned to milk and I helped mama and Phoebe, every morning and evening, sitting each of us on our wooden stools. I could do it with my eyes half closed, leaning against a flank, teats in my fingers, one two one two. When we were finished and the cows turned out or settled in, depending on the time of day the good wife would take up her wooden scoop and fill a cup each of the warm milk, and then kiss me as I drank it down.

Some days I could hardly climb up into the attic, I was that tired after the evening milking and the day’s work. Mama would push me from behind, step by step and round the curve, and then we would step into our room and take off our clothes and put on our nightgowns, her hand on my head as we prayed, then into bed. Then the best time of the day came, for every night mama would tell me a story.

Sometimes I would beg her, to tell me about how she had grown up, by the sea, up on the coast, Great Yarmouth way it was. I never heard the end of a tale, for I would fall fast asleep, curled up like a teaspoon inside my mother’s warmth, her breath on my neck as she talked. Her stories come back to me still, until I wake. They were sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes happy, sometimes sad and sometimes I have woken since and something has fallen into place as I slept so that it makes sense for the first time, years after she first told me or something has shaken loose and I wish that she was here, with me, so that I could ask her what she had meant.

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