The Bull Singer
The drop dead gorgeous blonde glared at me as she flung the front door open, one hand clutching her baby blue dressing gown closed. "If you're from the school, he isn't here. I'm sick and tired of running round after him. He's a big boy now; he can damn well make his own excuses."
The door began to close and I put my hand on it. "I'm not from the school; I've come to see Mr Alton."
Blue eyes grew round, as did a very kissable mouth. "Oh! Sorry, my mistake. Mr. Alton doesn't live here anymore. He lives with his sisters in Lower Farm."
"Oh, I didn't know." I studied her, as she looked me over with growing interest. "I haven't been in touch with my dad for a while. I got a call two days ago telling me he was ill."
The woman's face lit up with a smile. "Ah! You'll be Mags. Say hello to your dad for me will you? And pop in for coffee sometime." Her fingers waggled a friendly farewell as she closed the door, promising future liaisons of a kind I had tried to avoid for several years.
I got back into my Peugeot 405 and drove back down the winding lane to Lower Farm, disappointed that my hopes of seeing the house of my birth again had come to nought. The last time I heard from my dad, he had moved from his bungalow, back to Home Farm because the bungalow needed serious repairs and he didn't see the point in spending on it when Home Farm was still in good condition, and would be for a good many years to come. Now it looked like he had moved again, down to Lower Farm. I wondered how long the blonde had been in residence. I pulled up in front of the front door of Lower Farm and received a loud reception from the biggest bobtail I have ever seen; reminding me of a similar dog I used to know but had been killed so tragically. "Hello Major, don't you remember me? Come and have a sniff then; here, boy." He had grown a lot since I had last seen him, and here he was, guarding the house from the front steps. His deep loud barks and threatening stance indicating he had forgotten about me.
A shout from inside the house ordered him to silence. "Major, you silly dog; if you've woken your master you'll get a paddling, so help me." The door opened slowly and a grey haired woman peeped out. "Yes? Can I help you?"
"You certainly can, Auntie Cissy. You can move this shaggy hearth rug from your doorstep or I'm going back home."
"Mags? Is that really you?" The grey head disappeared and I heard her shriek, "Mabel, it's Mags. Mags is home."
"Cissy will you stop making such a row, you're worse than Major." The door whipped open to reveal a tall, sour-faced old lady who scowled at me. All the years I have known her, my Aunt Mabel had never been known to smile. "Well, I suppose now you're here you might as well come in." From Mabel that was as welcoming as the fatted calf.
I stepped into the world of a farm from the Edwardian era, full of dim wall lights and the smell of home baked bread, freshly washed and dried washing hanging up to air on a rack high above the kitchen table, and the aroma of beeswax, saddle soap; and dog. I let myself be sniffed all over by Major before he sat back and looked me in the eye. He rewarded me with a gentle woof, which seemed to say, 'okay, I know you now; I'll let you stay but no funny business.' I leaned down and patted his head. He was so like Jake; I just filled up.
"Well?" I looked up and found my aunts standing side by side; Mabel with her arms folded in a no nonsense pose, her face as cold as a frozen bag of peas; but she didn't fool me one bit. She was just as pleased to see me as Aunt Cissy a typical chubby faced farmer's wife, wringing her hands and smiling her welcome and wishing her sister would let her fling her arms round me. That wasn't done in Mabel's house.
"I heard Dad was ill, so I thought I'd better come and see him." I said.
Aunt Mabel's chin lifted and she looked down her nose at me. "About time too; not that he'll be too pleased to see you."
"Oh, don't be silly, Mabs." Aunt Cissy flapped her hands at her. "Eddie will be so pleased to see you, dear. Why don't you go on up, he's in the front bedroom."
Aunt Mabel snorted her disbelief and turned away to open the door of the cottage range oven. The smell of hot bread wafted round the kitchen as I made for the stairs set along the wall opposite the fireplace. For all my aunt Mabel's sour looks, I knew some of that bread would be set by my place when we sat down for afternoon tea, along with currant bread and dairy cream cakes. Old sourpuss had always had a soft spot for me despite her hiding the fact. She just wanted to rule everyone. "Wipe your feet before you go upstairs." was her parting shot. I always thought she should have been a baker; Cissy did all the rest of the cooking and baking but Mabel made the best bread in the district and always had people dropping by with some excuse to visit, and going home with some of her crusty rolls or the odd farmhouse loaf. I don't know how she had the time, trudging the length and breadth of the farm in her wellington boots and waterproofs as she supervised the shepherd and the husbandman.
Once my shoes were considered suitably clean, I climbed the creaking stairs and made my way along the landing towards the two front bedrooms. Knocking on the door to the right, I opened it and walked in to a room reeking of camphor and liniment. The person in the brass frame bed was a mere lump beneath the quilt, but steely eyes were alive with venom as my dad raised his head to send the intruder packing. "Hi, Dad."
He scowled at me. "Oh, it's you. What hole did you crawl out of?" He spoke with a voice devoid of strength, and talking made him cough. I moved to his side and offered him a drink from the jug of water on the bedside cabinet. I slipped my arm under his shoulder and lifted him so he could take a drink, then lowered him down. After he was settled, I took off my topcoat, drew up a bentwood bedroom chair and sat down.
"What's the matter, Dad?"
"What do you care?"
"I'm here aren't I? Now, tell me what's wrong?"
"Who told you?"
"Blast the nosy old bugger."
"Now, Dad, he's one of the best friends you've ever had, otherwise you'd never let him look after your bulls."
"I'll kill him, I will; should never have phoned you. He had no right."
"He's worried about you, that's all. Who else could he call?"
"Mabel doesn't need any help."
"She looks tired, so does Cissy."
"Bah! Tuff as old boots, Mabel is."
"Come on, Dad, I'm not here to have an argument."
"Well, what have you come for, to see if you're still in my will?"
"You've helped me in the past, now it's my turn."
"Oh, yes? What with? Pennies? Garrnya! You only come back home when you want something. Come to pick up the bits and get my money, that's what."
"No Dad, that's not true."
"You don't fool me. You always only wanted my money."
"I'll prove you wrong."
Dad scowled at me again. I reached into my hip pocket and drew out a cheque. Holding it up by the top corners, I snapped it and let him see it. "Ninety thousand quid? Who did you steal that from?"
"I didn't steal it; I earned every penny of it. I reckon this is the total sum you've paid me over the years. Eighteen years at five thousand pound a year. That's ninety thousand, right?"
For once my dad was speechless. He took the cheque, looked at it and shook his head. At last he shoved it back at me. "No, no. I can't take this off you. I only did what any dad would do. Here, take it."
"But, Dad I-."
"I said take it." Dad's eyes had turned angry. "I don't need it. When a dad pays for his son's keep it isn't a loan to be paid back. Paying it back is an insult."
"Okay, Dad, I hear you loud and clear." I stuffed the cheque back into my pocket and grabbed his hand before he could move it out of reach. "Now, tell me what's wrong or I'll go and pay a visit to your bank."
Dad wilted, his eyes closing. "What isn't wrong? Arthritis, Angina, Kidneys, and on top of it all I have pleurisy. Now, you tell me, how did you get that money? Not from busking, I'll be bound."
"Like I said, I earned it, honestly and without debt to anyone. I've had a good two years thanks to my partner."
"You married? You never said."
"No, Dad, I'm not married."
Dad opened his eyes and stared at me. "Oh no. Oh My God no. Not you!"
"Sorry, Dad, you always said I seemed different to other kids. Now you know why."
"Oh well. It doesn't matter to me; I'll be dead and gone soon. Why should I care? But for Heaven's sake don't tell them two downstairs. Cissy might understand but Mabs will make your life hell."
I breathed a sigh of relief. "I thought you'd disown me."
"I should do," Dad snapped at me. "What am I going to do for grandkids? So, when do I get to see him?"
"If you come downstairs tonight you'll be able to see him on the 'Later with Jools Holland' show."
"I don't watch that kind of rubbish."
"Will you watch it just this once? It's on at eleven thirty."
Dad pursed his lips. "Those two will be in bed by then. No need for them to see this...partner of yours. All right then. I'll be down for supper. That'll shock 'em! Trying to keep me a bloody prisoner up here with their coddling and fussing."
"Just let me handle things," I said with a grin. "She hasn't said, so but I think Aunt Mabs is pleased I'm home; I know Aunt Cissy is."
While I sampled the delights of Aunt Mabel's baking and Aunt Cissy kept my teacup filled, I got reacquainted with Major and enquired about the woman living in Home Farm. Both my aunts went very quiet, exchanging guarded looks.
Aunt Mabel sniffed disdainfully over her teacup. "Some woman your dad knew from years ago. That's all he'll tell us, and we don't ask."
"Because of your mum, dear," Cissy said. "It was something that happened when you were a baby. We're not sure where, but...I suppose it's safe to tell you now; your dad left your mum, only for a few months mind, and your mum took him back. We never asked him where he went or what he did, but this woman is something to do with that. That's what we believe any way. She came here about six months ago with a young lad. I was living with your dad at home farm at the time and she comes in demanding to see your dad. They were shut in the lounge for about half an hour. When they came out, your dad announced she was moving in with us. She needed a home and he needed to repay a favour to her father, whoever he was; someone your dad knew a long time ago apparently. That's when Mabel offered us a home here at Lower Farm."
"It was after then that your father took ill," Aunt Mabel chipped in. "Whatever was said in that lounge made him go downhill right enough."
"What about the lad?"
Aunt Mabel snorted. "Trouble with a capital T; fights in school, chases my sheep when Major isn't around. Always hanging around outside, late at night; sullen little brat."
I felt my eyebrows reach my hairline. I had never heard my stiff and starchy aunt use those terms unless she was really riled. She tolerated kids because they knew she was the boss and had no time for the softly-softly touch. 'Give 'em a clip on the ear', she used to say when I was a kid. If there was more than one, she'd threaten to 'crack their heads together' but she'd love them while she did it. They asked me to take Major for a walk and I jumped at the chance to stretch my legs; a long drive and Aunt Mabel's baking needed neutralising. I let Major dictate the direction we were headed and found myself trudging up the fields towards Home Farm. As I followed Major's meanderings I was aware of the similarities between this house and the one once owned by my partner, and now by me. It had once been surrounded by farmland and stood on a rise. The neighbouring farmer in Bingford needed the land but didn't want the house so had sold it to my partner's father. Being a drummer, Bill D'Marco needed a place where he could practice and not annoy the neighbours.
When Dad moved to his bungalow, the land at Home Farm had been adjoined to Lower Farm to enable my aunts to keep both farms going, and the house had been let to a series of tenants when Dad wasn't using it. According to Aunt Cissy, when Dad became too frail to live on his own, she had taken him back to live with her at Home Farm, so that she could still help Aunt Mabel with the farm and care for Dad. Then the woman from the past had turned up and they had moved in with Aunt Mabel. Dad's bungalow was situated half way between Home and Lower Farms, along the access lane. Major and I were near enough for us to take a look at it, and I decided to see what state it was in, in case I could restore it for myself. I didn't think Aunt Mabel would want me cluttering up her squeaky clean and orderly home, even if in reality, dad owned the bricks and mortar and half the land.
The bungalow, or cottage as it should be called, was an ancient stone built sprawl of three living rooms and a kitchen with a built on extension housing two bedrooms and a bathroom. This had once been the home of the Alton family when my great-great-grandfather, Richard Alton was alive, and it was his son, Edward senior who had built the Home Farm house in 1892 after a brief trip to the United States, and created a fairly successful business rearing sheep and prize bulls. He became well known in the area as The Bull Singer because he used to calm his troublesome beasts by singing to them. I think he must have thought himself a bit of a cowboy. Anyway, Edward's son, Edward Junior's eldest daughter Millie stayed in the family home when the others followed my Grandfather into the farming business at Home and Lower Farms; and she had set up her own dance school in the cottage by turning one room into a studio complete with full wall mirror.
I stepped through the old wrought iron gate, ducked under the dying honeysuckle growing over the porch, and wondered if the mirror was still there. It was then that I heard the tapping; both rhythmic and halting. I froze; no one was supposed to be in the cottage. I tried turning the old knob but the door was securely locked; and Aunt Mabel had the only set of keys. All I could do was to look through the windows. I thought Major would be a problem but he was a well-trained sheep dog and sat at the gate on my command, and stayed there while I crept up to the window of the lounge the mirror was in. Suddenly, I heard the music, and the tapping coinciding with it. I recognised the famous Raph Burns hit, "All that Jazz." The window was crusted with years of dirt but I managed to clear a small space big enough for me to put my eye to, and I was treated to the sight of a kid dancing to the music and watching himself in Aunt Millie's mirror.
He was dressed in a sleeveless top and a pair of denim jeans cut off below the knees. He was slim, almost too thin, and had a wild mop of black hair; I guessed he was about fourteen. Something bothered him and he stopped dancing. He disappeared to the right, and the music stopped. He reappeared drinking from a water bottle and wiping his face with a piece of towel. He kept on moving about, probably keeping his muscles warm. It looked like he knew a thing or two about dance and I wondered if he was a pupil of Aunt Millie's. As far as I knew, she still ran a dance studio but on a voluntary basis for underprivileged kids. I watched him for about twenty minutes till Major wined. At that moment the boy stopped dancing, definitely not happy with his performance. He stared at his reflection, thinking, and he must have seen me move to relieve a muscle that threatened to cramp up. His head whipped round for an instant, and then he disappeared.
I waited for him to come out of the front. Daft me; he wouldn't have a key to the front door would he? I sent Major round to the back of the house; he could thread his way through the brambles faster than I could. I was almost there when I heard Major barking; not a warning bark but that of a dog unable to get to a friend.
I fought my way through the wild growth of brambles and finally reached the back yard to find Major standing with his paws up against the six foot panelled trellis and whining; indicating the kid had found a way through it or over it, and Major wanted to go with him. I caught hold of the top to haul myself up till I could rest my upper body on the top. Heading towards Home Farm was the rapidly disappearing figure of the dancing kid. I dropped back down and picked a few splinters out of my hands. At least I knew who the kid was. I told Major to 'go find' and he led me to a small window with no glass in it, not broken out but carefully removed. I just about squeezed through and looked round the place. Devoid of furnishings or furniture, it smelt damp and musty. In the mirror room, I found some of the kids things he'd left behind in his hurry to flee the place; a CD player still playing a Benny Goodman Cd, his water bottle, and the remnants of a packet of sandwiches. Salmon salad! The kid had good taste.
That evening, I announced to Aunt Mabel that Dad was going to join us downstairs for supper. When she protested that he could no longer negotiate the stairs, I simply went upstairs and carried him down. I was shocked at how little he weighed but didn't remark on it. He used to be quite a stocky man, typical farmer material. He seemed to enjoy sitting by his own fireside once more, even if Aunt Mabel remained stuffy and unyielding, and tried to fuss about him till Dad told her off. I noticed he ate very little while Cissy plied me with second helpings of everything. My aunts went up to bed after the ten o'clock news, making me promise I would see Dad had his medication and put him to bed. Fifteen minutes after everything went quiet above, and Dad beckoned to me and told me where Aunt Mabel kept the sherry. He winked at me. "And something else as well if I know your aunt." I went into the kitchen and searched the top cupboard above the cold slab. I found a bottle of red wine and a selection of cans; brown ale, real ale of varying brews, but no lager. Then I remembered. No wonder tonight's stew had tasted so good.
That night, my dad and I had a drink together for the first time in years. We toasted each other then settled down to watch TV. He scowled at it when 'Later with Jools Holland' started, but I turned the volume down a bit and persuaded him he was in for a treat and just be patient. Dad had a decent collection of forties records, a lot of it big band stuff with a good sprinkling of Gene Krupa. As usual, Jools introduced each of his guests in his famous flamboyant manner, before turning to the first act. Three others followed before he stepped in front of the cameras and said, "And now, folks, my last guest and his band have just returned from a very successful six weeks tour of the States where he rubbed shoulders with some of the greatest big band impresarios on the other side of the big pond. He is talked about as being the next Gene Krupa. Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to "BILLY JUNIOR!"
"You see the drummer out in front, Dad? That's my Billy. And that's our band behind him. The guy on the keyboards is Daley. And can you see anyone you recognise?"
I watched Dad stare at the screen, as Billy and the band went into Krupa's most famous drum piece, 'Sing, Sing, Sing.
"Well damn me!" I heard Dad say, and he sat forward with his mouth hanging open. "That's you!"
"Yep, we recorded the show three months ago." Dad's slippered feet began to tap the lovingly polished brass fender bordering the hearth and we both enjoyed the rest of the show. Afterwards, I switched the TV off and we sat in quiet contemplation of what we'd seen; I knew by the look on his face that Dad was wondering how to ask me about Billy; and I dreaded having to answer.
At last it came. "Will I be meeting this...partner of yours?"
"Why not? I'd like to meet him."
"He died three weeks ago."
I turned my face away from him, feeling all the pent up grief surfacing. God! Why now? "Magnus?" I looked at him and saw that he had pulled one of his cushions from behind him and had placed it between his feet; I remembered how he had done that when Mum had passed away and I couldn't let my feelings show for fear he would rebuke me. He beckoned to me and I crossed the space between us, knelt on the cushion and threw myself into his waiting arms. I let him crush me to his chest, and I wept for Billy, for my loss, for the emptiness in my life.
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