This week's edition to our Olympia Extracts is a historical fiction called, Sawson's Quest by Charles Gratwicke!
The boy shivered and wrapped his ragged coat tighter about him. Ahead stretched the muddy cart-rutted lane that led down through Henderson’s wood to the coast road. In spring and summer the path through the wood which led off to the right, was an attractive short cut to anyone coming down from the Downs intending to travel onto the road towards Portsmouth or to quench their thirst at the Talbot Arms which lay just beyond the end of the path set back from the road.
The cold wind and rain that had set in from the west showed no sign of abating and at times the gusts of wind caught the boy full in the face, causing him to gasp for breath while the icy rain stung his cheeks. It was not a night to be abroad and as he approached the wood, he bemoaned his ill luck in being out on a night like this, wishing he was at home in the rough stone cottage up in the Downs above. His destination was Malsters Farm that lay about half a mile off the coast road towards the sea. To get there he had to reach the end of the lane and then turn right onto the road a quarter of a mile before turning left onto a track that led to the farm.
Malsters Farm was inhabited by the Sawson family who held it as tenants of Lord Ridgemont, who owned it and much of the land in that part of the country. Edward Sawson had arrived in the area some twenty-five years before with nothing but the clothes in which he stood. He was, in those days, a man of very few words and he had not changed. He was over six foot in height with a mass of black hair now turned to silver. His features were heavy; a large hooked nose seemed to sprout out of the centre of his face as the main branch of an oak might leave the trunk, whilst two large brown eyes, heavily cowled, stood like sentries on either side of a face which, despite the years of toil on the land, still retained the sallow complexion that it had when he first appeared in the neighbourhood. His lips were thick and bulbous and when opened, revealed a strong set of white teeth. It was, however, his ears that were his most distinctive feature: his left ear was pink and fleshy and large, sticking out of his head at a right angle. Its brother on the right was similar in colour, texture and size but the top of it was missing. It looked as if it had been clipped as one might dock the ear of sheep or cattle. How the injury to the ear had occurred, no one knew. When he had first come to the area people had asked, but they soon learnt the question was not welcome and it remained a mystery, as did his earlier life.
In the five years following his arrival, Sawson had lodged at the cottage of old Mrs Barry, a widow who at the time was well into her seventies. Most of the country folk regarded her at best as slightly touched whilst the more simple-minded whispered amongst themselves about strange happenings (always witnessed by others), that were said to have occurred at her home. As a result, children thought she was a witch and the adults gave her a wide berth. In truth, she was just a lonely old woman given to talking to herself and to her animals as there was no one else. How it came to be that Sawson took lodgings with her is not known, but her isolation from others no doubt suited him well.
During the time that he lodged at Mrs Barry’s, Sawson worked as a farm labourer. He was a hard worker and much sought after by the local farmers for he was prepared to work at all times and in all weather, though no matter how hot it became he was never known to remove his shirt. He was not, however, popular with his fellow workers: he declined to enter into any more conversation with them than was necessary to carry out the work in hand. His size and strength was such that that others soon learnt that it was best to leave him to himself. Of an evening, he would, like many of his fellow labourers, make his way to the Talbot. But he would remain apart from them, choosing to sit alone on an old oak kitchen chair in the alcove which commanded a view, during the hours of daylight, of the road from Portsmouth as it wound down from the gap through the Downs. The positioning of the alcove was such that anyone sitting there had a clear view into the centre of the inn and the main door and yet could not be seen immediately by those entering. The regular patrons of the Talbot soon came to realise that that was Sawson’s seat and except when the occasional traveller inadvertently sat there, it was never occupied by anyone else. On those rare occasions when a stranger did sit there, they soon realised that their presence was resented and they moved. Sawson himself would not say anything, but a look from him was enough for them to realise that they were trespassing.
The ale at the Talbot, brewed by the landlord, Tom Merington, was renowned by locals and travellers alike. In a time when most taverns brewed their own, the quality of ale varied greatly and many who were making their way along the Portsmouth road preferred to travel the extra mile to get to “Tom’s” not only to slake their thirst but also to enjoy the mutton pies, roast meats, fresh bread and home-made cheeses and more, all made by Tom’s wife, Kate. As a consequence, the Talbot was far busier than one might have expected given its location.
Sawson would sit in the recess with a pot of ale before him on the rough table along with a quart jug with which he would refill the pot when he had drained it. He drank not like other men: taking the pot into his large hands he would take large, audible gulps from it as if he had not had refreshment for days. As he did so his eyes would remain focussed on the road as an eagle might scour the country below it for its prey. If a strange figure appeared on the road, his eyes would remain fixed on it until the person either passed by or entered into the inn, where Sawson would gaze upon the visitor intently before resuming his watch on the road. On one occasion a Frenchman, who was from the south of that country and dark skinned, came down the road. Sawson watched him as he had watched hundreds of others: as he came closer and his colour and features became clearer, an observer would have seen Sawson stiffen. His right hand which had been nursing his pot of ale grasped it tightly with such force that if it had been a glass it would have shattered under the pressure, his left hand was clamped to the table top, his neck muscles were taunt and protruding as he continued to watch the man approach. The Frenchman entered the inn and approached the pot man. Sawson’s eyes bored into his back. It was only when the man ordered refreshment in a mixture of broken English and his native tongue that Sawson seemed to relax, though he continued to watch the Frenchman throughout the time he was in the inn and when the man left, Sawson stood up and went outside and watched him until he was out of sight.
Five years after Sawson’s arrival, old Jack Cowper, the tenant of Malsters farm, died without an heir. Over the next few months the burning question in the tap room at the Talbot and in many a farmhouse kitchen was who would get the tenancy of ‘Malsters’. The farm was only one hundred and twenty acres. The land was good, though a little neglected in Cowper’s last years, but under the hand of a hardworking farmer everyone agreed it would become again the profitable farm that it had been before sickness and old age had laid old Jack low. Mr Riverston, Lord Ridgemont’s land agent, was of the same view and the rent that was asked for was higher than was expected. Many of the local farmers had designs on the farm either as an addition to their own or to set up a second son, but of course they kept such plans to themselves. At the auction of old Jack’s stock and effects, which took place at the farm, many of them attended ostensibly to bid, but in reality to cast an experienced and calculating eye over the land. At the same time, they all solemnly agreed Riverston would never get that rent. He would have to come down.
Some two weeks later came the news that Malsters was let. The disappointment that many of the farmers felt soon gave way to amazement that was shared with the countryside at large when it was revealed that Sawson was the new tenant. “Sawson, who was only a labourer, how could he afford it?” was but one of the questions asked. In truth there was no mystery as to how Sawson could afford the rent. Five years of working every hour that he could, combined with spending little on himself and nothing on others had left him with enough for the first year’s rent and more. Sawson, as was his wont, said nothing. He left Mrs Barry’s cottage and moved to Malsters as soon as the ink on the lease was dry.
To reach Malsters farm a visitor had to turn off the coast road onto a track through a plantation of young oak trees. The track opened out onto a stony sunken lane not visible from the road. The lane descended gently for a quarter of a mile before turning sharply to the right. Thereafter it dropped sharply down before levelling out at the entrance to the farmyard. The banks of the lane were steep so that the head of a man passing along the lane would be well below the level of the surrounding fields and they were lined by the gnarled roots of the small trees and gorse bushes that marked the boundaries of the fields above. In winter, the lane was frequently blocked by snow drifting from the fields, cutting the farm off. When that occurred, the only way to reach or leave the farm was across the fields providing the level of snow was not too high. In spring, the banks were lined with snowdrops, which soon gave way to a mass of primroses and cowslips and all the time there was a trickle of water down the banks from the fields. When summer was at its height, the smell of the gorse in full bloom filled the lane, and the branches of the trees that stretched over the lane provided welcome shade from the sun high in the sky.