[I decided to read this 1983 novel in four sections, writing about what I had read in each section before reading further. Spoiler alert: If you read this running commentary, you will find out everything that happens in the book as I read it.]
17 December 2021
‘Fairy-tale words…. But we lived in a fairy-tale place.’ Re-reading this novel after something like 37 years is a big thing for me. I first read it shortly after moving to Fenland for a few years, and I was still finding the landscape very strange. I’ll come back to Swift’s description of it in these early chapters—which, after all this time, I still think is spot-on. But it isn’t why I thought this was one of the best novels I had ever read, which has much more to do with the way Swift tells it. The fractured, intersecting timelines perfectly match his narrator’s obsession with how the ‘here and now’ of personal experience coalesces over time into one man’s own history. The ‘fairy-tale’ idea is there to prepare us for a version of history he wants to confront head-on. He doesn’t reject it, but offers other ways of presenting history and histories. It’s a random-seeming, fortuitous process, but he wants to fit it into both a coherent story of a life and into the bigger history that it’s his job to teach.
He is the 50-something Tom Crick, and the framing device is that he is addressing all this to the young people in his classes. At least, they are there in his imagination. ‘Children,’ he addresses them, ‘before whom I have stood for 32 years … but before whom I am to stand no longer.’ It’s a part of his story that his own circumstances have conspired to have him pushed out of his job, so that he’s going to have to take early retirement. ‘We’re cutting back history,’ says his progress-obsessed headmaster, so this novel is, in part, valedictory. His boss believes, or pretends to believe, that history is only about the past, while a pupil asserts that ‘it’s a fairy-tale.’ This is page 5, and the rest of the novel seems to be Crick’s reply to both of them. He never denies the truth in what they assert—I lost count of how many times he comments on the fairy-tale qualities of what he describes—but, nonetheless, he wants to prove beyond any doubt that it’s the past that defines us.
This is true at more than one level. These chapters are about Crick’s own personal history—along with a lot of other personal histories—and, always, the broader social/historical context. The first chapter narrates an event in Crick’s childhood, the second is where we find out about the trouble he’s in at work in the current timeline—and the third, About the Fens, consists of eleven pages of the history of the region up to, and including, his father Henry Crick’s appointment as lock-keeper. Such historical context-setting is much more than a series of asides. Chapter 9, which I’ve just finished reading, is a 37-page history of the (fictitious) family that was largely responsible for draining and developing this part of Fenland. Like Chapter 3, it’s largely a fictional account, but the detail in it makes it clear that Graham Swift knows what he is writing about. The speculative, piecemeal drainage of the Fens was an aspect of the region’s history I knew nothing of before I read this novel.
It’s before we even get to this, in Chapter 2, that we realise that it isn’t really the headmaster’s prejudice about history that is easing Crick out of his job. His lessons have become a little strange lately. In the imagined words of his bemused pupils, he describes how in the middle of a lesson on the French Revolution ‘he breaks off and starts telling—these stories. Something about living by a river, something about a father who trapped eels. … And then it dawned on you: old Cricky was trying to put himself into history. … he’d flipped, he’d gone bananas.’ He refuses the head’s offer of a few months’ leave—because, ‘children… you listened, all ears, you listened to those new-fangled lessons’—until something else happens. We don’t know the details yet, only the stark newspaper headlines: ‘Schoolmaster’s wife admits theft of child. Tells court, “God made me do it.”’
Fractured timelines, I called them, but I don’t know if that’s the right image. This is more of a collage, disparate elements of different narratives being brought together to make a new picture out of material from the past. This narrator makes it all immediate again. It’s the headmaster who had insisted, still on page 5, on the importance of ‘the here and now.’ It isn’t difficult for Crick to start to build his argument from that very phrase… but not yet. First, a page later, he sets out his stall. ‘Your history teacher wants to give you the final version. / And since a fairy-tale must have a setting … let me tell you’—cue new chapter—‘About the Fens.’ Not so much the here and now as the there and then.
This ‘low-lying region of eastern England’ with the ‘shallow shifting waters’ that half-covered it before a Dutchman came to drain it is known to most people born in the country, even hundreds of miles away. Our narrator corrects some oversimplifications—Vermuyden, the Dutchman who arrived in the mid-17th Century and has a huge water-system named after him, only continued on a bigger scale and in a more systematic way what others had already begun. And he by no means completed the work. The progress of the project was constantly hampered both by the unexpected natural consequences of the industrial-scale drainage of countless square miles of peatland, and the lack of co-operation on the part of the locals. They wanted things to stay as they were…
…and out of this waterlogged terrain arose the Cricks, as our narrator begins to weave threads of his own genealogy into three centuries of its history. Phlegm, that cool and aqueous humour, characterises the Cricks as water characterises their Fenland heritage. They move slowly with the tides of history and, inevitably, find themselves carried along. Within a few generations, they no longer try to hold back the work of the entrepreneurs draining the land. They work for them, managing the wind-pumps, sluices and lock gates. As a boy, Tom Crick had been the lock-keeper’s son, and he tells us he was always destined to be educated in order to make up for what his older brother Dick could never achieve. Dick’s special needs in the 1920s had been deemed far too severe for any meaningful schooling. To Henry, his father, he is a ‘potato-head.’ I’m guessing he has Down’s Syndrome.
The plot of the novel really gets going in Chapter 5, A Bruise upon a Bruise. We’ve already had the beginnings of it at the very end of Chapter 1. In 1943—Crick is keen to let us know what is happening in the War at this point in late July—a body has been carried down by the current to the sluice outside the cottage. ‘And the body belonged to Freddie Parr, who lived less than a mile away and was my age, give or take a month.’ Now come the details of how his father clumsily hauls the body from the water, so that new injuries begin to hide what is visible at first, a big bruise on the face. Is it a murder mystery? If it is, it appears to be solved in the next chapter or so… and this is one of many clues to the reader that this novel isn’t about solving a mystery, but about explaining how something happening in the ‘here and now’ can affect the rest of a person’s life. By the end of the next chapter, we are beginning to understand how Crick and his wife, in their mid-50s as Crick tells it, might still be feeling the repercussions.
Plot. Everybody knows Freddie couldn’t swim, and the autopsy reveals a high blood-alcohol level. So nobody except Tom Crick and Mary Metcalfe, the girl he will later marry, have any suspicions. Hours after the police and ambulance men have left, Tom makes his usual mid-afternoon cycle-ride to meet Mary in their secret place—he tells us all about secret places in this and a later chapter, Holes and Things—and she is looking anxious. Dick had also been in the habit of making his way to see Mary, in the evenings after work, and she had told him not only that she was pregnant—I’ll come back to that—but that the father was Freddie. Dick wonders if it could have been his, but she assures him he couldn’t be. It wasn’t for lack of opportunity—Mary is full of what Crick happily calls her almost endless curiosity—but, she frankly tells him, ‘it was too big.’ She means that the local kids’ stories about Dick’s huge penis turned out to be true… but, she also tells him, Dick didn’t know really how conception works. Freddie did but, she assures Tom, she had never given him the chance.
Dick doesn’t know that, but he knows about other things. He’s very good with anything practical, and his brother assures us that if he’d been brighter he could have made it as a professional engineer. He also knows, apparently that if he were to take a bottle of the special brew he can find in the house and offer it to Freddie, it wouldn’t be difficult for Freddie to end up in the water. A blow to the head with that same, old-fashioned bottle would definitely help things along, and it would account for the ‘dark, oval bruise’ Tom had seen, wondering as he does so whether Dick and his father had seen it too. He imagines the scene the previous evening, his brother asking, ‘“Freddie want drink?” They sit on the footbridge. For good measure, before pushing him in, Dick hits him with the empty bottle.’ Tom surmises all this because after seeing Mary, he had noticed a beer bottle of a very particular type floating downstream, towards where the body had ended up.
It might have happened like that. Mary is sure that Dick did it, and she blames both herself and Tom. He has been spending the summer afternoons with her exploring every last detail of their sexual development. Crick describes his first discovery of female anatomy, from the coppery hairs that have appeared recently down to the folds inside that have the extraordinary capacity to cling first to one finger, then another. Soon, although we don’t know how soon, another part of him is fitting perfectly inside. Nobody sees them—Tom Crick’s route to their meeting place is carefully planned so that nobody is around to see him riding there—but always, in the background, is that mixture of wide-open landscape and other-worldliness: ‘everything is open, everything is plain, there are no secrets, here, now, in this nothing-landscape. Us Fenlanders do not try to hide—since we know God is watching.’
His father used to say as much—and Mary has been raised a Catholic. So it has come as no surprise to the reader that she tells Tom with complete certainty that Freddie’s death is her fault, and that it—as well as the pregnancy she has just told him about—is now a problem for both of them. The confused circumstances of the death, and the narrator’s bland allusion to the fact that the pathologist never looks closely enough to notice the earlier bruise on Freddie’s temple, are irrelevant to her. This is the moment, the narrator tells us, when childhood ended for both of them, and all of Mary’s unbounded curiosity left her. Whatever happens next, including three years that she seems to have spent as a nun—a time she never refers to later—and, no doubt, the abduction of the child, we know that this is where it all started. It doesn’t feel like the working-out of a murder mystery. It feels like the set-up for a tragedy.
But this narrator likes to take his time. His description of his circuitous route to his trysts with Mary incorporates anecdotal-sounding descriptions of the day- and night-time activities of Freddie, his signalman father and another local, Bill Brown. This last is independent-minded and eccentric enough to be thought of as a ‘wise man’ (Crick’s father’s words, I think), and he poaches wildfowl which the other two spirit away to airfields up the railway line where bomber crews would pay for them with bourbon and anything else they could supply. It’s a world in which local men make a living from whatever comes their way, from well-rationed American airmen to the eels swimming downstream.
This, the story of how Fenlanders have learned to live, is a parallel history to another, the development of the region by outsiders over centuries. Chapter 9 is the longest in the novel. About the Rise of the Atkinsons takes up 37 pages, and is the history of the dynasty whose capable menfolk are 18th- and 19th-Century archetypes of entrepreneurial creativity. We’ve heard the Atkinson name before now. Crick’s father Henry is the keeper of the New Atkinson Lock. But the Cricks aren’t like the Atkinsons. In their watery Fenland world, they are archetypes of a different kind, phlegmatic and doggedly prepared to carry out whatever needs doing to keep body and soul together. In the 17th Century the Cricks had opposed the first efforts to drain the fens, because they were fine with things as they were. But there’s a certain historical inevitability to the way later generations find themselves working for the men who really start to transform the landscape. Every chapter presented by this narrator encapsulates how ordinary lives are inseparable from history. Somehow—and I don’t know how Swift achieves this—there’s a historical inevitability about every single thing his characters do.
5 January 2022
…which Crick narrates as though to confirm the inevitability of everything he has ever lived through. That collaging of different timelines, the doubling back of the narrative to earlier points in those same timelines—for instance, to the summer’s day when a game of dare played by Tom Crick and his friends at the age of thirteen introduced them, and Mary Metcalfe, to the imperatives of their own sexuality—means that everything they do seems almost pre-programmed. It isn’t, of course, but it might look that way to somebody who, through his own choices, has brought about something life-changing. Crick knows perfectly well that nobody’s life is predetermined, but he’s setting out his interconnected stories to make it seem as though it is. Tragedies always seem inevitable as they unfold.
Among other things, the adult Crick likes to go into detailed explanations of how universal and futile nostalgia is, and that dreadful phrase, ‘If only’. He is satirical about his own need to explain—and so is that ever-sceptical student of his, Price—but it doesn’t stop him speaking in the universal, portentous generalisations beloved of a certain kind of mid-20th Century teacher. It’s become clear, as the half-way point of the novel has been passed, that his pronouncements are really all about himself. He knows he can’t change a thing, has explained why he isn’t wasting his own time with ‘if only,’ but he is relentless in spelling out what it has left him with. At one stage, not very long before Mary’s breakdown, he describes theirs as a ‘Fenland’ marriage. And we know how scathing he is about the endless nothingness of the landscape he grew up in. It’s enough to turn a man’s thoughts to suicide, because its emptiness offers no comfort. The man contemplating it isn’t Crick, but Freddie Parr’s father, and I’ll come back to him. It’s a part of the collaging of stories that this one, from 1943, contributes to our understanding of exactly what a ‘Fenland’ marriage would be like in the early 80s.
We’ve known about that life-changing choice of Tom and Mary’s since Chapter 6 or 7, and in these later chapters we come to understand some of the consequences. It starts, but not necessarily in the narrative’s fractured chronology, with an inquest and a verdict: accidental death. Tom feels his life transformed by those ‘magical’ two words: there will be no legal consequences as far as he, Mary and Dick are concerned. But when he arrives at their old meeting-place to share his almost overwhelming sense of relief with Mary, she is scathing. Nothing has changed for her, because a verdict doesn’t mean they aren’t guilty. Tom isn’t happy, and paces around kicking the tussocks of grass. But I can’t remember whether he actually reminds her that he wasn’t the one who made the false claim about Freddie being the father. He doesn’t know what to do, and he defers to her judgment now. Perhaps her new, closed-down mindset since the moment she found out that Freddie was dead makes Tom reluctant to cross her. And, the most pressing practical problem being her pregnancy, he defers to her in this when she tells him she knows what to do….
We don’t know what her plan turns out to be, because the next thing is Mary’s decision, in what must be the following year, to lock herself away for three years. She isn’t in a convent, but at home with her mortified father… and Crick is offering no details about the year’s gap. They were sixteen in 1943, and, after two years of study, Tom does his National Service in war-ruined Germany for two further years until 1947. She sequesters herself for three years until his return and, by then, letters have finally been exchanged. With the full approval of both their fathers, they will be married
The wedding must have been quiet, and soon they move to South London, near Greenwich. Tom qualifies as a history teacher, and it’s the beginning of their lives together. Mary has been told in the meantime that only a miracle would allow her to become pregnant again. Which, Swift will be expecting his readers to surmise, means that Mary must have lost the baby in a way that has led to a lasting problem. It wasn’t quietly adopted, or anything of that sort. OK. Was she desperate? Did she somehow bring on a miscarriage? We’ll see…
…and 30 barren years pass. Barren in the sense, as Crick narrates it, of what might have been promising lives coming to nothing. We learn almost nothing of their lives, either individually or together—Mary is almost a cipher now, hardly a rounded character at all—beyond the routines of their conventional-sounding theatre trips and holidays, and their Sunday afternoon walks to Greenwich Park. Mary takes a job in the field of the care of old people, and somebody in their acquaintance makes the unfunny joke of their only ever dealing with those at the beginning or end of their lives. I’m sure that Crick mentions this because he agrees, and makes no comment when Lewis, his headteacher, asserts forthrightly—he shares that habit with Crick—that nobody can truly work with children who hasn’t been a parent.
Crick constantly refers to his students as being his children, and explicitly refers to this. He knows that they are too important to him, fill a space in his life he never describes as having been brought about by his childlessness. And one of them, Price, has begun to assume too big a significance for him at this time. As we already know, Crick is trying to do something in his lessons that cannot possibly succeed—‘to put himself in to history,’ as he imagines Price or some other dissident voice to assert. Perhaps the dissident voice is inside his own head. He must know that his endless explanations of how and why his life turned out as it did are a kind of extended therapy session. It’s a talking therapy, but it seems unlikely that it will ever lead to any cure…
…because I’m not sure Crick realises that he might be in serious need of help. It would be easy for him to assume that only Mary does, and not him, because ‘in her fifty-third year’ she starts to behave strangely. It starts small: ’she suddenly and deliberately stops work with her old people, leaving herself with no occupation but to survey the flat and uniform terrain of thirty years of marriage while he surveys his rows of teenagers.’ This third-person version of events isn’t unusual, as Crick narrates the story, or history, of this unfulfilled couple. And, soon, things have moved on. Mary is sometimes not in when he gets home from work and, for a few weeks, she misses their Sunday walks—with the dog they’ve now got, like a guilty admission of their childlessness. She begins to talk about having found God again, brings home pamphlets with titles like If Jesus Returned. And then, as they sit on their usual bench in the park one Sunday, comes the thunderbolt. Suddenly she announces, ‘I’m going to have a baby. Because God says I will.’
It’s only while looking back that I realise that it comes quite early on in the chapters I’m dealing with in this section. I had no idea, thinking it was much further along—and, in fact, the account of Crick’s reaction has to wait for a whole lot of other chapters. Again, this isn’t unusual. This time, the intervening chapters cover his Histrionics (Chapter 13) when, at sixteen, reacts badly to Mary’s refusal to be comforted by the ‘accidental death’ verdict; De la Revolution, concerning Paris in 1789 in particular and the awkwardness of history in general: ‘It goes in two directions at once. It goes backwards and it goes forwards. It loops.’ (He could be describing his own narrative. In fact, he is, all the time.) We also see Crick finding Price more and more difficult to contain as, he asserts, history might soon be coming to an end. This is the 1980s, with that era’s atmosphere of fear brought on by the seemingly never-ending Arms Race.
And so on, for another long chapter, About the Ouse, until we are back where we were fifteen pages ago, at Longitude 0˚. And Crick, perhaps in order to distance himself from the unbearably harrowing turmoil her words must have caused in him, describes it from the outside. It’s a master-stroke on Swift’s part to have this desperate man resort to a kind of narrative sleight of hand, a trick. He, Crick, imagines an onlooker witnessing the scene and trying to guess its meaning: ‘A couple on the bench, striking intense attitudes (she, passive but tenacious; he, on the edge of the seat, indignant, importunate) which suggest, despite the trappings of advanced years (thick winter coats, scarves, a begrudgingly docile retriever …) a lovers’ tiff.’ And he lets the observer carry on second-guessing, wrongly, for another page.
It’s a scene from a film, but as it draws to a close we’re nearer to the action. We’re no longer forced into the role of unenlightened lookers-on, but can now begin to understand the poignancy of his situation: ‘he is constrained to utter those often-used yet mystical, sometimes miracle-working words, “I love you, I love you.” He is constrained’—‘constrained’? whose word is that, exactly?—‘to hug his wife as though to confirm she is still there. For in the twilight it seems that, without moving, she is receding, fading, becoming ghostly.’
It might be some sort of breakdown for her, but it’s a terrible trauma for him. Only a few months before, he knew her to be the one who was ‘realistic. Who did not [like her husband, he means] to go back to school. Who did not believe any more [like him] in fairy-tales.’ She was the rock in the endless, drifting search for answers that his life has become. And now what? We don’t know, beyond the fact that she is now in the kind of hospital that ‘they used to call an asylum.’ Meanwhile he tries to assert his will on history, and, following an exchange in class he would have dealt with easily in the past, he tries to assert his will on Price. His, Crick’s, behaviour seems to be coming closer and closer to desperation. And, during an after-school detention, when he thinks Price might need his help in some way, Price pushes him off. It’s as though everything Crick has ever been able to offer is now of no use to anybody. His school, his students, his wife with her shattered reason—there seems to be nothing he can give.
My goodness. I hadn’t remembered—even as I began to write about this section—that everything in this novel confirms Crick’s desperation. The confident self-belief of the teacher determined always to explain is nothing of the sort in his case. He seems to be analysing, but all he is really doing is playing with words. In that after-school detention, before he thinks he can see a neediness in Price, he had been trying to beat him down with clever arguments. Like all of it, it’s hopeless.
I realise as I write that that the present-day timeline relating to Mary’s breakdown and Crick’s extemporised coping mechanisms—this whole narrative is an extemporised, desperate search—is really made up of its own overlapping threads. There’s the story, in the recent past, of Mary’s gradual withdrawal from reality and into the altered state that Crick never calls a breakdown. There’s his decision, if it ever was a conscious decision, to feed elements of his own history and that of the Fens into his teaching, elements which, he asserts, are well-liked by his students. This started before Mary’s complete collapse into psychosis, as we gather early on in the novel, but leads to the crisis of his employability following the sensationalised reporting of it in the press. (He hasn’t recounted the details of this yet, having only reached the point where she has revealed to him what God has told her.)
We’re now getting the increasingly angst-ridden details of how he senses he is losing ground with his students, represented by the ever more emblematic Price—who, I didn’t mention, wears white face makeup in response to government warnings about radiation. This whole narrative—i.e. the whole novel—which purports to be written at this same time, seems more and more to reveal a crazy-seeming determination to prove that all of this was out of his control, that there was nothing he could do. In a different timeline, in the chapter called Histrionics relating to his inability to cope with Mary’s real pregnancy in 1943, his sense of powerlessness turns into a question. As Henry Crick paces up and down the towpath, trying to come to terms with his own sense of guilt over Freddie’s death, it’s the sixteen-year-old Tom who silently cries out, as he uselessly gouges the skin of a raw potato, ‘And what am I to do?’
Is this how the collaging technique works? It’s the single most consciously artistic aspect of the novel, and for me, after nearly 40 years, this is what I remember most vividly about it. I don’t know why it never seems to present a difficulty that this supposedly real-time narrative is clearly nothing of the sort. It’s really a very carefully crafted artistic product. This is the highest praise I can offer, because there’s nothing more admirable in a novelist than having total control over the narrative. Crick thinks he is curating all the different elements of his multiple timelines—but, in his case, it seems to be the outcome not of artistic control, but of a desperate need to discover meanings. He might know where all the timelines are leading, and the way he’s telling it might show that he wants to be in charge of how each element in all of them unfolds. But it doesn’t mean he has any real control at all.
The other timelines seem to offer a tangential commentary on the present-day story that is causing Crick so much grief. Things happen in them that prefigure or echo what is going on in the here and now. Like, how can a wife be a rock for a needy husband? We see both before and after Freddie’s death, with his near-alcoholic father. Even before the arrival of his American suppliers of bourbon, he was often drunk enough for his wife to have to take over all his signalling duties for hours at a time. After the coroner’s verdict, he can’t take it any more—and this is when the empty Fenland terrain offers no help at all. At night, he sits on the railway line with a bottle of whiskey, waiting for the next train to roll right over him. Except it doesn’t, because she’s there again, making the right emergency calls about an immovable blockage on the line, so that rerouting and cancellations take place, passengers miss important connections—it’s just like Crick to go into this sort of detail—and, in the morning, her husband thinks he’s been saved from certain death by a miracle. He’s saved in another way—he never drinks again. What Crick doesn’t say, because he wouldn’t be so lacking in taste, is that there’s a wife who knows how to cope.
In a different chapter, a follow-up to the one about the epic successes of the Atkinson family, we get to know how the decline of the little empire was finally confirmed. We also get to find out that the Atkinson heir who brought it about was Ernest, the father of Crick’s mother Helen. Did we know she was an Atkinson? If we did, we’d forgotten—Crick is so keen to contrast the phlegmatic Cricks, his ancestors, with the enterprising Atkinsons—and we realise he’s performed another bit of sleight of hand on us. Tom isn’t only a Crick, he’s an Atkinson too.
It’s Ernest, Crick’s grandfather, who unwittingly brought about the end of something, first by proving the family’s waning local influence by spectacularly failing to be elected to Parliament, and then by making a comeback that ends in chaos and destruction. His ‘special’ brew, created for the Jubilee, turns the town’s celebrations into a drunken farce which brings about, accidentally or deliberately, the burning down of the brewery, that great symbol of Atkinson power. There’s even a historical fairy-tale touch with the alleged sighting of the long dead, brain-damaged wife of an earlier Atkinson reciting the ‘something is burning’ line that was the only thing she ever used to say after the life-changing injury inflicted by her husband. It’s as though Crick, or some historical imperative, is reminding us all that women have a power that men ignore or marginalise at their peril. And for good measure, we are reminded that ancestral lines pass through mothers as well as fathers.
Enough? There’s so much going on that all I feel I can offer is an impression. But if I’m giving the impression that I’m full of admiration for what Swift is able to do, I’m OK with that.
Poor Tom Crick. The last time I wrote, I was coming to realise how Mary’s breakdown was an almost unbearable trauma for him, concluding that ‘the whole narrative is an extemporised, desperate search’ for understanding. This was around the half-way point of the novel, and things have only become more desperate in the meantime. Or, rather, so many layers are being added to his description of the trauma that I’m beginning to wonder whether he might be writing this from a psychiatric ward himself. His tone often continues to be that of the confident schoolmaster, the tone that had made me mistake him for one of those confident, opinionated middle-aged men the 20th Century seemed to be full of. It’s an act. The more I read, the more I’m convinced his main reason for telling this story is to stop himself going mad.
I’m not sure it’s really helping. Sometimes the way he adds details to stories we already know—those layers I talked about—seems almost obsessive. Maybe it is, but only in his determination not to leave anything out that might be important, or in some way helpful. At different points in these chapters he goes over the desperate day when he arrives home to discover Mary with the baby she says God has promised her, a different day when, by placing the incriminating bottle in plain sight in Dick’s room, Dick’s reaction proved that he really, really didn’t want anybody else to find it… and he describes a deep trauma from 60 years before, when his father Henry was nursed out of his own breakdown by Helen, the daughter of Ernest Atkinson, now a nurse in the hospital that had been her family home.
I’m doing what Crick does, offering thumbnail versions of events in the knowledge that there’s a lot more to be told about them. But not yet… because I haven’t mentioned the single most poignant moment in any of these chapters. Crick has been telling the story of how, over some time, he had tried to put things right with Price. It hadn’t been going well, the after-school detention ending in some embarrassment when Crick had suggested he might be able to help Price if he had anything to confide. But he doesn’t want to give up. Following his meeting with the head, after hearing he would be forced into early retirement and having accepted ‘a couple of cupfuls’ of the head’s whiskey, he had met Price leaving the school. They had gone to the pub and when the landlord asks him if he can vouch for Price’s age, he says that he should know the age of his own son. Price blushes. It’s an awkward moment—and, unknown to the boy, it picks away at a wound going back nearly 40 years.
Crick says nothing of this, and the moment passes. But we know why it’s there, remember how Crick had sardonically commented on his own habit of referring to his students as ‘my children.’ And we remember how, right from the beginning of the novel, he has insisted on how a moment in the ‘here and now’ can echo down the years. I’m paraphrasing, but it’s becoming ever more clear that it’s what the whole book is about. A faux-innocent game played by thirteen-year-olds next to a fenland river leads, step by undeniable step, to a man coming home to discover that his wife has stolen a baby from the local supermarket.
But that is never how he tells it. Often, it seems to me that Crick is a prisoner of time. He can’t stop thinking about the past, and while he’s sarcastic about both nostalgia and any wistful thoughts of ‘if only,’ what imprisons him is his knowledge that there’s nothing he can do about it. He doesn’t tell us that this is going to be a narrative about the implacability of regret because he seems to have made a decision to prove—to the reader, to his students and, most impossibly, to himself—that his life, like everything else that has ever happened, is a matter of historical inevitability. I’m guessing that my sense—any reader’s sense—of his growing desperation is down to the fact that the project was doomed from the beginning. All that historical context? It’s fascinating, a historical feast for the reader that has led to it being compared to Moby Dick. But it’s completely useless in offering Crick any comfort at all.
Which brings me back to one of the reasons I love this book so much. In having Crick painstakingly unpacking his own very particular agenda, Swift is able to present the reader with a hybrid version of the unreliable narrator. Crick isn’t out to deceive, to trick the reader into believing something he knows to be untrue. And nor, given this particular narrator’s personality traits, are we simply being offered carefully curated titbits of information that suit the novelistic narrative but not the plausibility of the telling. In other words, Swift isn’t being one of those authors who, for effect, make their narrators hold back some information for no reason that makes any plausible motivational sense. This definitely happens, for instance, in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. It’s a great novel, but sometimes there’s no reason at all for Lucy to tell it like that. The narrative coups sometimes seem to be there in order to fulfil Bronte’s agenda, not Lucy’s.
Where was I? Swift the author, Crick his narrator…. I’m three quarters of the way through the novel, and, despite Crick’s supposed openness, there are things in the past that we still don’t know about. For instance, before the half-way point I was speculating about what Mary did about her pregnancy that left her unable to have children. I’m still speculating, because Crick still hasn’t told us. We might say, so far, so conventional. This is what one kind of unreliable narrator does, feeding us those titbits and only bringing out the big reveal when he knows it will have the biggest effect. If and when it happens—and there are other stories in other time-lines that aren’t fully resolved yet—Swift will have achieved his coup. But if, as I suspect, we can be persuaded that this narrator really would put off the truth (or truths) for as long as possible because it’s all too painful, then it’s another kind of coup.
I’m going to stop speculating, although I think there will be more to say on this after I’ve read the whole novel. Instead, I should concentrate on what Crick has definitely told us. For instance, in terms of the coming-together of storylines, there’s that story of how the seemingly terminally shell-shocked soldier becomes one of the lucky ones to be offered caring support in the Atkinsons’ big house. And, this being the densely-packed narrative it is, that’s not all we find out. Ernest, the final great-grandson (or whatever) of the Atkinson dynasty, had left the town after the debacle of the drunken shambles of a celebration and the burning down of the brewery. He had moved entirely into the big house near a different village, with his only daughter, Helen. She was a looker, so the men of the town regret this… and the gossips of the town, having talked to the servants while there had been servants and making it up for themselves when there were none left, speculate on how loving the relationship between father and daughter was becoming….
This is Tom Crick telling it, so he offers us a plausible version, incorporating the speculation. (It’s impossible to believe that he could ever know for certain. Which of his parents would tell?) The father and daughter, rattling around in the big house, decide to set it up as a recuperation hospital for war veterans. Helen becomes a nurse, which is how she comes to meet Henry, the man who will become Tom Crick’s father. He falls in love with her, while she… what? She reciprocates, even though (or, perhaps, because) there’s another man in her life. Her father. He, having lived alone with her for too long, starts to believe that a son of his is destined to become the next Saviour (capital S) of the world. Helen will be the child’s mother. She loves her father, and they sleep together by now, but she has never let him do what another son of hers will do to Mary Metcalf later in the century.
Tricky. But this is happening just as the recovering Henry is falling in love with her, and she realises that if she marries him, any child who is born will be taken for his. She doesn’t mind if it really is his. And after the marriage, a son is born, whom Ernest tells his daughter to name Richard. If the boy really is her father’s son, it would explain a lot. But we don’t know. Whatever the truth might be, after his daughter and unsuspecting son-in-law move into the cottage next to the New Atkinson Lock, he sends over a box and a key that only young Richard will ever be able to use. Inside it, apparently, will be everything he will need to understand his destiny.
We’ve already been introduced to this box, because it features in a different part of the Dick/Freddie/Mary story that Tom Crick has just been adding details to. (These little echoes over time are like internal rhymes, binding the different threads together in ways we can’t quite define….) Having placed the incriminating bottle in Dick’s room in full view, the sixteen-year-old Tom locks his own door and listens out to find out what Dick will do with it. The older, seen-it-all-before Tom Crick describes the absurd pantomime of Dick’s attempt to hide it secretly up in the attic, the creaking of the steps making it plain not only what he’s doing, but that he doesn’t want anybody to know. The young Tom realises that it’s gone into the box, along with all the other secrets we only begin to hear about later.
But to rewind a bit. Three years, in fact, to that incident on the bank of the river (or drain or whatever) when the boys dropped their pants and… did I mention that Freddie pulled Mary’s knicker-elastic and pushed an eel into the front of her knickers? And that this seems to have both appalled and astonished her, not entirely in a bad way? And that, after Tom appeared to have won an underwater swimming contest, Dick dived in and swam underwater for so long that they had all thought he’d drowned? He hadn’t, in fact, but in the meantime the size of his member—I can’t remember whether the older Crick really calls it that—is quite clearly as big as they all suspected. It isn’t by the time he’s finished his extraordinary swim, leading to all kinds of speculation about why that might be.
Crick never spells it out that the events of this extraordinary evening when they were only thirteen had a direct influence on what came later—Mary’s sexual curiosity, Tom’s own, Dick’s introduction to a world he had previously understood nothing of. He asks his father Henry where babies come from, and Henry says, from love. Which doesn’t help Dick at all. But—and we seem to have moved forward to the crucial summer of 1943 by now—he’s interested enough in it all to concoct a confused plan. And so is Mary. They eye each other across the river and, not on the first occasion but a later one—she’s interested—Mary asks him for an eel from the sack he has. The next time, she has a bucket, and he swims over, holding a struggling eel firmly enough for it not to escape.
Confused? I’m guessing we’re supposed to be. Dick’s oversized penis—the young Crick’s worry that she might not have been telling the truth about what he had or had not been able to do with her—and the insistently phallic significance of the eels in these two stories, only seem to make it clear that nothing is clear. Tom Crick aged sixteen and Tom Crick aged 53 seem as confused as each other. Mary had been a mystery then and, following the flat, featureless years of their Fenland marriage, she’s a mystery to him now. To hear the cry of a baby on his return home from work, to hear Mary’s crazed story of this being the child God had promised her, the truth that she had picked it up in a Safeways supermarket…. It’s all desperately poignant.
And I haven’t even mentioned the eight-page chapter, About the Eel. But there are a lot of things I haven’t mentioned, including the way the chapters are becoming shorter and more fragmented-seeming. Too late to start on those now, I’ve a novel to finish reading.
Chapters 38-52—to the end
The only thing I’d remembered about the coming-together of the storylines was how Mary ended up unable to have children. I’d forgotten that she’d tried ‘bouncin’ an’ jouncing’,’ as Martha Clay the so-called wise woman (or witch) calls it, and had only left herself sore and bleeding. Then… well, you know. I remembered as I re-read it the description of the woman, her smell, her stinking cottage like something from a different century. And, with Mary and the toxic old woman—the crude operation leads to septicaemia that almost proves fatal—is Tom Crick, a long way out of his depth. When the old woman is about to perform her operation, having told Mary to put her hand over the candle flame if things get too unbearable, she tells Tom to go outside and make himself useful. The best thing he could do, she tells him—I’m not making this up—is pluck a duck for her.
Things had seemed strange before, but now it’s hard for him to tell what is real. Elsewhere in these chapters he had described a feverish bout of influenza as a nine-year-old, and that experience had been no more hallucinatory than what is going on in his head now. And it’s typical that they are described so closely together. ‘Shoals of stars, silver geese, swim through the sky. His head starts to spin. … He’s sitting in the sunny space between the chicken coop and the kitchen door, where Mother stands, in her apron. But the hen’s not dead, it’s still alive. Its wings start to flap and it starts to lay eggs….’ The connotations of that image are unbearable—we’ve been party to a conversation about Mary’s eggs in those magical times by the old windmill. The present tense makes it feel immediate, but he really doesn’t want to be inside this experience. He resorts to that third-person narration, which there’s a lot of in these final chapters. At other times, both as narrator and character in the present-day story, he’s ‘the history teacher.’ Maybe he doesn’t want to identify himself fully as the person he’s describing.
This being the novel it is, the scene at Martha’s, with night setting in, is looking both ways. It’s both the end of the story of a pregnancy that began near the start of the novel, and the horrific beginning of two unfulfilled, childless lives in a barren marriage. More immediately, after the story comes out and becomes a local scandal, it leads to a new regret to add to the one about his having got Mary pregnant in the first place. His father tells him there was never any need for it. They would have been able to find a way, Henry says—young people have always got married quickly and done their best to make a life of it. This short conversation—Henry Crick is never as talkative after Freddie Parr’s death as he had always been before—is one of those understated moments when an almost perfunctory remark takes on an unbearable resonance. As with everything else, there’s no going back now.
The botched abortion is a harrowing final playing-out of that story, but it isn’t where the novel ends. Nor does it end with the death of Tom’s mother, of the same influenza he had just had, brought by the pitiless East Wind-blown winter of 1937. It doesn’t end with the death of his father at the end of a different pitiless winter, from bronchial pneumonia contracted when the floods brought by the thaw of 1947 reach the roof of his cottage. Tom and Mary have married and moved to the town by now, and as she nurses Henry, he continually mistakes her for the long-dead Helen. It’s another of those clashing little internal rhymes, sitting alongside Tom’s realisation in a different chapter that both he and Dick were looking for somebody like their mother when they courted Mary. Parents and children, and what we seek when they aren’t there, or never existed in the first place…. In a novel about the tragedy of unintended, self-imposed childlessness, it’s extraordinary how central the parent/child relationship proves to be.
As I’ve found before, I’m writing like Tom Crick. Just as he does in connection with his life, I’m finding that everything in this novel is bound in some way or another to everything else. And, while I’ve mentioned some endings, there are plenty of others. Including the final climax, to do with another of the stories about parents and children. I’m talking about Dick, whose own tragedy plays out in the last pages of the novel. I’ll come back to that…
…because there’s a back-story. We know some of this already, including what I had wrong-headedly assumed to be speculation on Crick’s part concerning Dick’s parentage. The whole story, of course, was in diaries kept in that box in the attic, and Tom was always going to get access to it somehow. And he gets it because Dick wants to know what’s in the letter addressed to him. Both he and Tom know it’s important because, on the night before she died, their mother called Dick into her room, alone. And she gave him the key to the box. Tom thinks his potato-head brother—the term becomes, deliberately, both ironic and irrelevant as its inappropriateness is made clear—will never be able to keep it hidden…
…but he’s wrong. As so often, the clue was staring both Tom and the reader in the face. Why would the wily adult Crick describe in such detail the catching and mounting of a huge pike on the last day of WW1, presented to I can’t remember which family member for I can’t remember what reason, and now safely out of the way on the wall of Dick’s room? Merely decorative local/historical colour? In this novel? In fact, Dick keeps the key to all the coming misery in the mouth of this self-same pike.
The reason Dick wants to show Tom the contents of the box is to do with new, confusing information coming his way. Together with his dawning sexual awareness—a process that had begun three years before, when Freddie had put the eel in Mary’s knickers—is a driving need to know about fathers and sons, not where babies come from but who put them there. If this sounds cryptic, it doesn’t feel it as we read, because two different, hidden truths about fatherhood make themselves known—because noting in this novel is hidden forever. First, out of a mixture of pity and self-loathing, Tom tells Dick that Mary’s child had not been Freddie’s but his, Dick’s. And second, Henry Crick had stifled any opportunity for Dick ever to learn how to read—we remember a scene early on when he angrily stops the young Tom teaching him—because he didn’t want him to have access to the truth.
If these stories are fairy-tales, it’s Pandora’s box that comes to mind as Dick opens it for Tom, because the hidden truths aren’t the only things that come out. Tom silently reads the letter from Ernest Atkinson to his ‘firstborn.’ By the time he gets to the end of it, he knows that Dick is neither Henry’s son nor his own full brother—and that he, Dick, must never have children of his own. Tom is appalled and confused, and one of the first things he does is put right his lie about who had been the father of Mary’s child. It’s all too much for him. In his own confused state, he is desperate to make Dick understand that he must never have children of his own. He also tells Dick that his real father, also their grandfather—his explanation is a tongue-tied attempt to put it all tactfully—was convinced he was going to be the Saviour of the World.
Of course, it’s all far too much for Dick. Before the box was even opened, he had thought that he had killed Freddie for fathering a child that was really his. (Tom had believed this to be possible when he told him, despite Mary’s denials and his own subsequent realisation that it couldn’t be true.) Now, not only has Dick learnt, having only recently come to understand how babies are made, that the man who brought him up is not his real father. He has also just been told that the ‘lu-lu-love’ that he had felt for Mary had not led to him having given her a child after all.
I said those truths aren’t the only things in the box. The other things are ten of the bottles of specally-brewed beer that had caused all that chaos before Ernest and Helen Atkinson left the town to live in seclusion. Dick knows how strong it is, having tried a bottle before offering another to Freddie Parr. And now he does what desperate young men do. Tom and his father hear him riding off on his motorbike, and know he’s filled his eel-sack with all the remaining bottles. He’s going to get drunk somewhere… and Tom guesses where. He and Henry go, by train and their two old bicycles, to where Dick works on the dredger. It’s a Sunday, so it’s moored at its usual place—and its engine is started up when they get there.
A lot happens quickly. Tom and his father go to the pub nearby for a rowing boat, and Dick’s dredgerman boss is there. He rows them towards the dredger, accompanied by two interested American airmen—whose uniforms, as far as Tom can tell, cause Dick to panic. This leads, in a novel full of irrevocable acts, to the final one of all. ‘For a moment he perches, poises, teeters on the rail, the dull glow of the western sky behind him. And then he plunges. In a long, reaching, powerful arc. … sufficiently reaching and powerful for us to observe his body, in its flight through the air, form a single, and seemingly limbless continuum, so that an expert on diving might have judged that here indeed was a natural, here indeed was a fish of a man.’
And he’s never seen again. As I’ve already mentioned, it isn’t what I had remembered from my first reading of the novel and, somehow, despite Tom Crick’s wondering admiration, I still don’t find it the most gut-wrenching moment. For me, all of those moments are to do with Mary, and the effect they have on Tom. Sitting alongside the scene in Martha Clay’s cottage, there are several little scenes that go to make up the aftermath of the theft of the baby decades later. Crick has to take her back to the supermarket, dwelling in that way he has on the harrowing irony of this return representing immeasurable relief for the mother and immeasurable pain for Mary. The police are there, of course, so Crick’s half-baked hope that the return could be achieved anonymously is instantly dashed. The rest is dealt with quickly: Mary’s being taken into custody, the successful plea of psychological disorder (I’m paraphrasing), her refusal ever to believe that the child wasn’t really hers….
And there’s the winding-up of another thread, Crick’s forced retirement. He brings it all down to one little set-piece scene. It’s the last day of his final term, and he is sitting with his colleagues looking at the back of the headmaster’s balding head as he mouths platitudes to the assembled school about Crick’s wonderful career. He, the head, tries to ignore a disturbance, a growing chant whose meaning isn’t yet clear. Then he insists it is only down to a minority trying to spoil things…. What it really is, of course, is a group of students who care, led by Price, chanting that Crick must stay. It’s no surprise at all that Crick says nothing about how this makes him feel. He doesn’t need to, because it’s clear that whatever he had been trying to do with his ‘children,’ it had worked. The son he couldn’t possibly have had has acknowledged that he doesn’t want to lose him. It’s another of the terrible ironies of these final chapters.
Meanwhile, those other fathers and sons. Specifically, Ernest Atkinson and Henry Crick, and the son they both acknowledge in these chapters. Ernest had never denied it, of course, and neither had Henry ever tried to do anything to let Dick know the truth. On the contrary, he never wanted Dick to know. Which, he guiltily admits when it’s too late, is not the same as treating him genuinely as his own. Tom, as he tells us from the very earliest chapters, was always the favourite. Potato-headed Dick was fine, humming to his motorbike and doing the kind of work suited to somebody like him. But as Henry hopes desperately to stop him doing anything dangerous on the dredger, he shouts to him how things can be different. ‘Dick, we’re coming! We’re coming—to take you home, Dick! Home!’ Then, as they are nearly at the dredger’s side, ‘Dick, it’s all right! Dick, I’ll be your father!’
In this novel’s universe…. Nope. Dick dives into the water, stays underwater so long nobody ever sees him come up, and he is never seen again.