The Fabric of the Truth
The Fabric of the Truth
They gravitated towards each other now. It was very easy to feel lonely during those days, spend too much time on your own and you could easily convince yourself you were the only living being left on the planet. A tradition had been born on the day that the other villagers had cleared out. Peter and Isaac gathered everyone in the village hall once everyday just before it started to get dark and then the pair of them would scour the circumference of the village to ensure there was nobody lurking, waiting to pounce. They checked on their precious wire that encircled the place, checked no one had discovered it and severed it. It remained intact and once a day they would give it a hard tug which would in turn ring the bell which would in turn let them all know that they were just that little bit safer.
“Bloody good idea that,” Isaac’s father, Henry, would mutter every time. His harsh father would soften slightly in that moment, a chink appearing in that armor he had welded shut around him since his wife and half of his children were slaughtered. Isaac’s remaining siblings, Posy, Anna and Albert would too give curt nods and then they would go back to sitting in fretful silence. His brother and sisters hadn’t survived the onslaught in the way that Isaac had. Perhaps it was because they were older and remembered more of it or maybe because they didn’t have someone like Jane to help them forget. There was something about them that seemed faded. If you compared them to their brother they lived in black and white whilst Isaac thrived in vivid luminosity.
The rain continued to fall in heavy bed sheets. The upset below had been felt from above, and was replying with never ending tears for them. But Jane refused to see it as a sign of compassion. She saw it like things were unbelievably rubbish and the only thing that could make it worse was the rain, which was happily supplied to them in bucket loads.
The Protectors returned to them every day, sodden through to the bone shaking their heads despairingly. Oddly, it was as though no news was bad news and every day that they received no news was another day they were waiting in purgatory.
They always intended to return home before darkness fell but they never did. They pretended they were waiting out the rain, Nora, saying “Let’s see if it stops. No point getting drenched.” But it never stopped and they would all inevitably get drenched on the walk home anyway.
But it was those hours whilst they were waiting that were the secret highlight of everyone's days. Jane and Lilia would sit with their heads together and she would quietly tell Jane how much she missed Billy and how she had loved him secretly but had always been too afraid to tell him and now he was gone and would probably never come back and it was all too late. Jane squeezed her hand and tried to make it better for her best friend but there was no way to do that. She wished they could go to their river and hang bare in the water as they used to but even Jane knew that was out of the question now.
Isaac would sit across the room with Henry, Frank and Brian. Jane would catch him looking at her from time to time but he always looked away swiftly as though it had been a passing glance around the room. They didn’t speak and now even catching eyes felt like too much contact.
Sometimes they stayed there all day in that tiny village hall, drinking away the wine people had left for them and eating the food that was sparingly consumed now that it was drawing upon winter.
Of course Tim never came to these gatherings. He was glued to Sophia's bedside. And poor Sophia was not getting any better. The cold weather was getting into her bones and she developed fever and shivers that alternated on an hourly basis. Nora was doing her best but she did not know how to fix an ill that she could not see. She had taken to slipping Sophia shots of rum and brandy on the sly, when Tim took rare breaks outside. Sophia winced as it passed down her throat but at least the shivering would abate for an hour or more.
During the long and tiresome daytimes, Nora had taken to showing Jane things like how to make bread, or how to get the well working again if the mechanics of it breaks, or how to kill a chicken or how to know which mushrooms will poison you and which ones won't, or how to look after burns or how make tea using nettles or where to find berries that grew wild even in the winter. Every time they were tramping through the fields, soaked through with rain and shivering enough to shake flesh clean from the bone, Jane would ask miserably, “Why are we doing this?”
To which Nora would reply, “It is time that you learned!”
Throughout these expeditions Nora would be outrageously perky, passing on the information to her daughter with an inane smile on her face. She would repeat everything twice and then say, “Now, do you understand? Repeat everything I have just told you.”
At night she would teach Jane to cook the mushrooms and fish and wild winter onions they found. She was cooking less and less food everyday and preserving pounds and pounds of vegetables in a large storage cupboard under the stairs. These peculiar trips stopped shocking Jane after a while; she too tired and hungry to argue with it anymore.
Days became weeks, people became a year older, Jane being one of them. Her seventeenth birthday was celebrated with the killing of a rabbit and the baking of a cake. Her mother presented her with a necklace made of pearls that had used to belong to her mother. Jane had thanked her very much and then buried the necklace at the bottom of a drawer. Pretty things were not something Jane felt she needed.
The air took on a different feeling one day, bleak and clean, and whilst they were outside, her father lifted his nose to the air and said, “It's going to snow.”
The next morning they awoke to piles and piles of the stuff, sitting in clumsy drifts, barricading the door shut. Peter had to climb out of the kitchen window and dig the door free with a shovel before they could get out.
Jane and Lilia played endlessly in the snow during the gathering that day, even though they had been told not to by at least six different people. But they argued back that The Crookeds couldn’t possibly be on the prowl in this weather, the snow would make for a thick, slippery obstacle course. And they wouldn’t be able to cover their tracks! And they wouldn’t be able to burn anything down to the ground because it was all covered in snow! And in the end nobody could be bothered to fetch them back inside and besides, it was quite nice to see somebody enjoying themselves for a change.
Eventually, once they could resist it no more, Oliver, Martin and Freddie came and joined in with the girl’s games. Oliver proved to have a wicked throw with a snowball and the poor boy was mortified when Lilia collapsed in a heap after being winded by what could only be described as a snow boulder. He lifted her effortlessly from a great heap of snow and although it was quick, Jane spotted that look that boys get on their faces once they see something that they hadn’t thought to look for before.
Despite their best efforts it was Martin who was the artist when it came to snowmen, lifting and sculpting heavy mounds of snow into works of art. His snowman was complete with a walking stick, waistcoat and cape.
“I’m speechless!” Jane cried, hugging Martin rather violently when he was finished. Martin looked ruffled but pleased all the same.
The whole afternoon reminded her briefly of how things used to be, when Jane didn’t know about The Crookeds, when they weren’t constantly straining to hear frantic telltale birdsong.
As they walked home that night, slipping in the snow, Oliver sighed, “Today has been the best day I’ve had in years.” Jane reached happily for his hand in agreement.
But that night the persistent snow fall was beginning to be something of a problem. First of all the water in the well froze over and a window shattered unexpectedly in the living room. Then the wood wouldn't light in the grates because it was so drenched through. Then Tim ran down the stairs in a state of utter terror and announced that Sophia's lips had gone blue and her heart was barely beating at all.
Nora ordered him to get into bed next to Sophia and hold her, she needed the body heat and she needed the encouragement to live. Then Nora bought up blankets and tea which Sophia wouldn't drink. She never ate or drank anything not provided to her by Tim. Her stubbornness was beginning to aggravate Nora.
“Tim, I feel I have done all I can here at this moment in time,” she would say, crossly, holding up her hands. Then she would sit on her own in her bedroom, breathe deeply for ten minutes and then return to try some other method of persuasion.
Jane watched as Tim stroked her hair throughout the night, sobbing into her shoulder. She sat close by for support with her mother’s hand in hers.
At one strange moment, when Jane was drifting in and out of a fitful sleep, she thought she saw Sophia's soul separate from her body. In that moment both body and soul looked more peaceful than she had ever known Sophia's haunted face to look. It hovered, thin and cobwebby and then fluttered reluctantly back in. Shamefully, Jane thought it might have been better if Sophia just gave up, at least she would stop living the nightmare over and over again. But then Jane remembered Tim who was always, always willing her to survive and knew that with that kind of encouragement, she couldn’t possibly give up.
Sophia required constant surveillance. Jane climbed into bed with her the next afternoon after instructed to by Tim who was needed to help the others collect wood. Sophia struggled and scratched at Jane with her razor like nails, drawing thin strips of blood to the surface of Jane's pale skin but she was weak and Jane was strong and restrained her easily. She only minded this a little bit as she reminded herself that her brother was the reason she was doing it and she loved him and so that was enough.
Jane lay awake that night, listening to the snow creaking ominously on the roof. She thought of the villagers that had jumped ship, outside in this weather. At best they would have been taken in by a kindly village that had also managed to avoid attack, which was unlikely because nobody trusted strangers anymore and almost all the villages had been threatened by now. At worst they would be curled up under leaves, trying not to die. At the very worst they would already be dead.
A strange sensation blew over her then. Something was different and she couldn't put a finger on what that something was. It was deeply unsettling. She pulled herself reluctantly from her bed, her feet hit the freezing floor boards and her body instantaneously started to shake. Maybe it was from the cold but it was mainly because she was terrified. Because there was someone in her house.
Bravely, she found her way into the kitchen. She could just see the echo of something moving frantically around the room. It was pale and ghostlike in the darkness. But as they moved past the fire where a few embers were still smoldering, she saw that it was Sophia, darting about in her white nightgown.
“Sophia?” Jane whispered to her. The waif stopped abruptly. Her empty eyes focused in on Jane. The dim light made her look manic, possessed.
“Let me get Tim,” Jane said, starting to head up the stairs.
“Don't leave me alone,” she said. It was the first time she had ever heard Sophia speak. Despite the fright in her voice, it was light and lyrical. She would have a beautiful singing voice, if she could remember what a song sounded like.
“Alright, Sophia. I won't leave you but I think I should get Tim. You need to be in bed, it’s cold,” Jane hushed.
“He's not here. He’s gone.”
“No, he’s upstairs,” Jane whispered.
“I wish they’d killed me,” she murmured, repeating the phrase over and over like a prayer. She beat her hands against her forehead. Jane rushed forward and pulled her hands into her own. She was stronger than she looked after all, strength she’d been hiding somewhere, allowing it to lie dormant. But then of course she'd had to be strong. To fight them off.
“I wish they'd killed me. I wish they'd killed me. I wish they'd killed me,” she repeated over and over to herself as Jane took her in her arms. Jane did not argue or try to convince her any differently because had it been Jane, she would have wished for death too.
“I know. I know.” Jane could feel brittle bones beneath her clothes. She slithered to the floor, taking Jane down with her. Jane did not know what to do with the hysterical girl in her arms except carry on holding her. It wasn't long before Tim had woken, realising she was gone from the bed and had raced downstairs to find her on the floor.
“We'll talk about this tomorrow,” he said to Jane. She wasn't sure if he appeared to be angry or thankful. He scooped her into his arms and held her like he was frightened she would break.
“Silly girl. I wondered where you'd gone.”
“He's gone. He's gone. He's gone,” she whispered into his chest as he took her upstairs.
It wasn't until Jane was on her way back to bed that she noticed the carving knife glinting menacingly, like a villain, on the table where it hadn't been before they went to bed. Apparently, Jane wasn't the only one who thought it would be better if Sophia was dead.
Jane decided not to tell Timothy about the knife. She thought Sophia deserved to end it all if she wanted to. She had been through enough to be granted death if she wished for it. Nevertheless, Jane woke up the same time every night like clockwork and made the icy journey to the kitchen. She never saw Sophia out of bed again, she slept soundly on.
One evening, while the snow was still mounting, Isaac arrived on their doorstep, looking oddly sheepish, with a dead pheasant swinging from his arm.
“Dad and I caught a few in some traps. I wanted you to have one,” he said.
Bemused, Nora replied, “Thank you very much. But there are just as many people in your house as there is in ours.”
“We're managing,” he looked at Jane. She was knitting by the fire. Desperate times had called for desperate measures and she no longer had any socks without holes.
“What’s that meant to be?” Isaac asked, pointing to the mass of wool on the end of Jane’s needles. It was the first words he had said to her in weeks.
“A sock,” she replied without looking up, trying not to appear like her heart had just tried to somersault out of her chest.
“Come in out of the cold! You shouldn't have walked up here on your own; you of all people know that!” Nora asked, ushering him in. He sat down bashfully in the already too full kitchen, he looked shy, flustered, not like himself at all. Nora and Peter chatted to him inanely about things that didn't matter and were of no consequence. It felt like everyone was beating around the bush about something. All the chatter was making her cross and she wanted to curl up in her bed because they were pretending that there were no problems and all the world was bright and breezy when they all knew that nothing had ever been further from the truth. However, she had the feeling that Isaac had turned up to talk to her parents about her and she did not want to give them the satisfaction of leaving them alone so they would be able to do so.
The hour grew later and later. Oliver first went to bed, yawning and apologising profusely, followed by Peter and then her mother. Finally Frank got up and said, “Shall I walk you back down to the village?”
“Thank you Frank, but I think I’ll stay a moment or two longer,” Isaac mumbled.
Frank raised an eyebrow at the pair and wished them both a pleasant evening before ending the procession up the wooden hill.
Jane had furiously started on a new sock, having made a real hash of the last one and she was still getting each row wrong and having to go back and start all over again. She was not good at knitting. It was a woman’s hobby. And Jane didn’t have time for such things. She had never had the inclination to learn properly but now her mother was enforcing it on her. “You can never have enough pairs of socks. You'll need a good pair of gloves as well,” she had said, thrusting the needles into her hands earlier that evening.
“You're not getting very far with that,” he observed.
“At least I'm trying.”
“I’d give up if I were you,” he suggested. “You’ve never been very practical.”
“If you never practice something you'll never be any good at it.”
“Your mother’s got you saying that, hasn’t she?” he laughed.
“Yes, she has,” Jane replied.
“I’ve not seen Tim for a while. How is Sophia doing?” he asked, leaning towards her over the table top. He was silhouetted in the light left over in the room, picking out gold tints in his hair she had never noticed before.
“Badly. She takes new turns for the worst every day. I don't know how much longer he can will her to stay alive for,” she sighed.
“He will. If he loves her enough she won’t give up.”
“Oh, he loves her enough. That’s not the problem. The problem is that love cannot heal a person’s wounds. Love cannot make her forget what she has seen. She wouldn’t be in this situation is love was all she needed. None of us would be, we wouldn’t have lost…we’d still have…,” she fumbled for the words that couldn’t begin to describe what she was feeling.
“You can’t blame yourself for the others leaving. It was their decision.”
“A decision they made because of me.”
Their eyes met for the briefest of moments, he cocked his head at her as if to say, “You’re impossible,” and then she looked down again.
“I think you’re wrong. I think love can fix things. I think it’s the only reason anybody is trying at all. Without it, we’d find all this a lot harder. Nobody needs much more than somebody loving them to keep them alive. You are alive because your parents didn’t give up on you, because the village loves you and wants to keep you safe. You can’t deny that.”
“Are you listening to yourself? Everyone abandoned the village because I stayed here. There’s no love lost there,” she snorted.
“I wish you'd stop picking fights with me.”
“What fun would that be?” she grimaced.
“When you choose to act like this, I thank heavens that Rupert changed his mind about picking you,” Isaac said, calmly spreading his hands out on the table.
“You know, I think you were wrong,” Jane began. “I think I could have been a Protector, and I think you know that too. I would have been better than you anyway. You’ve got your head in the clouds if you believe that love is going to play any part in winning this war.”
“Maybe. Maybe my head is in the clouds. But at least I haven’t lost all sense of the things that actually matter. It feels like you’ve just given up, Jane! And that frightens me. The last time you were like this, I kissed you and it all went away. But I don't know what is going to fix this for you now.”
“You haven't changed at all. That arrogance is why we stopped talking in the first place and right now I can't imagine why we ever started again,” she stood now and he followed suit.
“I wasn’t the reason we stopped being friends,” he said.
“Yes you were! You suddenly realised you were too good to be friends with me, there were far more interesting girls than me to be friends with. You made it very clear how you felt about me!” she yelled, her voice too big for the tiny room.
“No, you know that isn’t true. Here is what I think happened. I think you were starting to love me and you were afraid of what you were feeling. So to avoid getting hurt you pushed me away. Tell me I’m wrong,” he said, moving closer to her.
She shied away, getting as much distance from him as she could, “I don’t… I don’t know.”
She looked at him guiltily, struggling to find anything to say.
“I’m sorry that we stopped talking. But this was not my fault. You meant the world to me,” he said, shaking with anger. “You mean the world to me. Everything I have done is for you. For your safety.”
She took a moment, trying to unscramble what he was trying to say. Following her to the river, telling her father about it, convincing Rupert not to make her Protector, closing the school. All of it was for her. Not to make her miserable, but to save her. She stood, open mouthed staring at him.
“I’ve been stupid enough to imagine how this conversation might go. And the Jane I used to know would never have stood there, staring at me like you’re doing right this second. Staring at me like I do not matter to you. As if we are nothing to each other,” he said shaking his head.
“I'd like for you to go now,” she huffed.
“I think that's best,” he replied moving toward the door.
“Why did you come here”' she asked, when his hand was on the door handle.
“Honestly?” he asked, with his eyes full of sadness and regret and longing and maybe something else but she couldn't decide what.
“Yes, it'll be strange for you, telling the truth for once instead of your usual rubbish.”
“Well, the truth is that I'm in love with you and I came to tell you so. Before it’s too late,” he sighed.
Jane's ears were making a whooshing sound, like she had been submerged in water. She'd dropped the knitting needles on the floor and they had fallen with a clatter that she hadn’t heard. Her heart was beating in her mouth, the voice she held in her head was screaming at the top of its lungs. It was that moment, right there, the one that has just been written about, that the penny finally dropped and Jane realised that all of her hostility and anger she felt towards him was neither of those things. It was love and being cruel to him was the only way she knew how to deal with it. She was in love with the boy she met that day in The Dark Woods after all. Just like he was in love with her.
“But it all seems rather foolish now,” he smiled sadly, opened the door and shut it behind him with a snap. Boys have been telling girls that they love them and then walking away since the beginning of time.
It took her a few minutes to shiver at the draft that he had let in as he left. It had blown the embers of the fire out and she was stood alone in near darkness.
“This is how it’s always going to be, isn't it?” she admitted to herself. Her voice seemed loud in the emptiness. He had wanted to love her and she had pushed him away as hard as she could. She held him at arm’s length, afraid to let him get too close. She could see it now, now that it was too late to fix it. It was the price she paid for being headstrong. She paid with him. With never having him in her arms. With never knowing what his body felt like next to hers. With never feeling his weight on her. With never knowing how it felt to put her hand on the patch of his back between his shoulder blades. With living with 'maybes' and 'what ifs'. With living the rest of whatever was left of her short life without him in it.