To Miss Gibbons
It is with great humility that I lay these words before you, who previously laid your words at the feet of the inestimable Anthony Pookworthy. You were but a humble disciple of that high master, who illuminated human nature with every stroke of his pen, and I, in turn, am but the humble disciple of yourself.
How I do aspire to even the vulgar and meaningless bustle of the newspaper office which so coarsened your own writing! For in my daily life there are many menial trials which war against my efforts to smith words of lasting import. I am, in fact, no more than an assistant burger flipper (trainee) at the august premises of MacPherson's in Truro. But even in so vile a profession as that of assistant burger flipper (trainee), the soul seeks to break free and lose itself in the sublime light of literature. Such a soul may even, occasionally, draw its own inspiration from the deathless prose of another and seek to thus lay bare the universal constants of human nature in the medium of print.
Such a burger flipper am I, albeit no more than assistant and trainee, and to you I dedicate these humble pages, inspired as they were by your novel of human passion and Substances not Contained in the Outline. While I may be merely a humble assistant burger flipper (trainee), engaged in a profession that stifles the pen and crushes the soul, I nevertheless felt the urge to respond to your novel and to rectify a tiny omission I detected within those sublime pages; to whit, what did Aunt Ada Doom see in the woodshed?
This is, I believe, the great unanswered question of modern literature, one that even a worm-like assistant burger flipper (trainee) engaged in the daily business of flipping burgers in deepest darkest Truro must feel surging upwards in her breast. I have sought to answer this very question by here placing pen to paper.
Taking guidance from your own great work, I too have adopted a three star system with which to mark out the passages which I feel are of particular literary merit, for the assistance of reviewers and commentators alike.
And so, without further, I dedicate this short story to you.
**Ada Starkadder lay in the dark, womb-like enclosure of her room at Cold Comfort Farm. The silence pressed in around her, as smothering as being wrapped in an old mouldy blanket, left long neglected among moth-balls in the dark enclosure of a heavy wooden chest. Her fingers picked idly at the shredded remains of The Milk Producer's Weekly Bulletin and Cowkeeper's Guide. Her hands had clenched about this publication on the night of The Counting. Many nights since she had worried at its pages, the only outward sign of her barely suppressed passion. She could hardly bear to think upon the occasion, and yet her mind, like a carrion crow circling a carcass, came back to it again and again worrying at the bloody red meat of the corpse of her power. She was ever wary for predators.
"There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm," she murmured to herself and her fingers tore at a remaining page of The Milk Producer's Weekly Bulletin and Cowkeeper's Guide featuring an advert for Stork Margarine (Better Cakes, Lighter Pastry and Free Gifts, only 6d per lb). But into the dim and gloomy depths of her subconscious wormed the thought that the Starkadders were fleeing the farm, fleeing the doom that was encroaching like a fog, creeping up the downs towards the barren outhouses. Amos was gone, child of her womb, and Seth beloved grandchild, even Judith, who had taken the Starkadder name and worn it with a fierce pride, was no longer about the house. Soon there would be none left. None but Reuben and he hardly counted.
"I saw something nasty in the woodshed," she added clinging onto that one cold hard fact.
* She remembered the day clearly. She had been as young and carefree as a fresh-fledged marsh-tigget, flitting about the moors with the wind in her hair. Her heart had been full of spring time; of budding and bursting; the vital forces of earth and rain and sun combining within her to emerge blinking into the light. Her feet had flitted over the grass, as innocent and gay as a lamb while the sukebind hung in the hedgerows, its heady scent a promise of the summer to come and the deeper darker yearnings growing within her. The woodshed was then beyond her knowledge. It squatted, dark and forbidding in the shade of an outbuilding and she had paid it no mind, too caught up in the springtime and the sukebind and the sound of mollocking in the lane.
"Something nasty," she repeated firmly and her eyes glinted with a cold and cunning light.
She glanced at the door to her room. None, save Mrs Beetle, had been to see her since Judith had driven away to town with Robert Poste's child. Aye, Robert Poste's child! The wrong, long dormant, had come home to roost. Robert Poste's child would doom the farm, stripping the Starkadders away one by one until only a cold and abandoned shell remained. Amos had followed the call of a terrible and lonely God, drawn by the promise of Hellfire and damnation. Seth had followed a darker call; the siren sweet whisper of fame and fortune. Elfine was lost to the bold and handsome Richard Hawk-Monitor to worship him with her body and let him use it as he please. Judith had fallen into darkness and was lured away by nothing more than a ride to London and the mention of old churches.
As each one fell away, as each Starkadder vanished from the doomed and echoing hallways, Ada Starkadder felt the icy cold deepen about her heart. Soon she would freeze to death, alone in her room with nothing but the memory of the woodshed. Or else, Robert Poste's child would come for her and then the curse would be complete, its work done.
But there was more to Ada Starkadder than an old promise, an old curse and that dimly-remembered glimpse of something otherworldly, something vast and incomprehensible within the dusty confines of the woodshed. Aye, she might have been damaged and scarred by her experiences, but she was the guardian of Cold Comfort and not without her defences. She picked at the remains of The Milk Producer's Weekly Bulletin and Cowkeeper's Guide and waited. Should Robert Poste's child come for her, there was one final card to be played in the game.
As if her very thought had conjured the doom itself there came a sharp rap on the door. She shivered in her seat, awaiting the ringing tones of destiny, awaiting the pronouncement of the end.
"I have bought your lunch, Aunt Ada. May I come in? It is Flora."
Doom was upon her. The child was at the door. The words dried in Aunt Ada's throat as nameless dread seized her soul. Was she prepared for this? Did she have the courage and the willpower to resist this incomprehensible force that was determined to tear the heart out of Cold Comfort Farm, until there was nowt left but empty and soulless buildings; and Reuben, of course, who didn't count.
Then the door opened and Robert Poste's child entered. Ada Starkadder peered at her through the gloom. Pale light shone on neatly coiled hair and a fresh linen dress. Ada shivered again. There was no passion here, only the cold indifference of fate.
"So you have come for me at last, Robert Poste's child."
"I do wish everyone would stop calling me that. My name is Flora." There was a hint of irritation in the voice and Ada felt a dim stirring of pride. There was hope yet.
"Besides I haven't come for you or anything dramatic like that. I just thought it was high time we had a little chat." Flora Poste's smile was bright and brittle. Her teeth showed white in the darkness of the room. It reminded Ada of the woodshed.
Flora placed the tray across Ada's knees.
"I saw something nasty in the woodshed," Ada assayed, but without conviction.
Flora Poste made a noise that sounded almost like a tut. "So I have been told. I say, Aunt Ada, it is terribly gloomy in here. I hope you don't mind if I let in some light."
"Do as you will, Robert Poste's child. It will take more than a few feeble rays of sunshine to lift the doom from Cold Comfort." Ada was pleased with this. She felt she was getting into her stride.
Flora threw back the curtains and the dazzling sunlight fell across Ada's bed illuminating the extra items on her lunch tray; a copy of vogue, a brochure for the hotel Miramar Paris, and postcards of some actress. In spite of herself Ada's fingers twitched at the photographs, flipping them over to see the name `Fanny Ward' printed on the back. She chuckled grimly to herself. So that was the little minx's game.
"Fanny Ward is a movie star, Aunt Ada," said Flora in a bright and slow tone. She enunciated her words clearly as if speaking to a child. Then she inspected the chair by Ada's bed, tutted once more, pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and placed it upon the seat before she sat down.
Ada shuffled the postcards together and stared hard at Flora. Then she put them neatly on her bedside table with a sharp rap. "Happen you're about to observe that she looks good for her age."
To her credit, Robert Poste's child recovered well from her surprise. "It goes to show that a woman of means, even of uncertain age, has many more options available to her than lying in the dark contemplating doom."
"There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm."
"Reuben will still be here," said Flora firmly.
"Reuben! What is Reuben to me?" Ada wailed. It was a good wail, but then she had had many years of practice.
"I say, Aunt Ada, I really think you, Judith and Amos have all been most unkind about Reuben. He's awfully good at running the farm. Besides, come what may, he is a Starkadder."
Ada sniffed. Reuben might bear the name of Starkadder but there was neither passion nor poetry in his soul. Nor much business sense if the farm books were anything to go by.
"Even the cows know doom is upon us. The milk yield is down."
A most curious expression crossed Flora Poste's face. That of someone faced by an unpleasant dilemma.
Ada stared hard at her. "The milk yield is down isn't it?" Ada asked curiously. She had long ago discovered that few people were prepared to respond to a direct question with an outright lie.
"I really know nothing about farming, Aunt Ada," said Flora with an air of false breeziness. She wouldn't meet Ada's eye.
Now that was interesting and no mistake. Milk yields had been below the national average for more than five years, by Ada's reckoning, though they had become far worse recently. Now she thought about it, it were close on five years since Reuben had first taken control of the farm books. Ada picked up the brochure for the Hotel Miramar, Paris, in an idle seeming way and flicked through it with apparent listlessness, looking for a break down of the costs.
"You'll find them on the last page, Aunt Ada," said Flora with an unbecoming degree of smugness. Flora turned to the final page to reveal the prices written in a neat column.
"You could get a plane over there tomorrow afternoon, after the wedding."
Ada closed the brochure with a snap and glared at Flora Poste. She had no intention of making matters this easy for the young upstart. "You are an interfering busy-body," she said.
"Well really, Aunt Ada, the farm was in a terrible mess and you know it. Everyone was sulking and yearning, that's when they weren't flitting or mollocking. I really don't know why you thought you would maximise the milk yield that way."
"And what other way would there be? I saw something nasty in the woodshed when I were but a marsh tigget and now I be owed. They have a duty to me."
"What rot! Do you think they'd throw you out if you hadn't seen something nasty in the woodshed?"
Ada retreated beneath the coverlet. She and the woodshed had twisted about each others' hearts these past decades. Without the woodshed she'd have been just another little woman about the farm, another Susan or Letty or Prue or Jane, and without her the woodshed would have been nothing but an out house. She'd seen inside the woodshed. She'd seen the doom that was to befall Cold Comfort and she had fought that doom with every ounce of her being. She had instilled in every Starkadder the tools with which to fight the inevitable and they had followed her lead. All save Reuben. He had been touched since he were a lad. They had all seen it. He was the canker they must keep at the heart of the farm. But they never paid him mind. Every Starkadder knew him to be a traitor. Ada stood opposed to the woodshed and to Reuben and now to the iron-hard figure of Flora Poste. Oh yes! She had seen something nasty in the woodshed and that was the end of the matter.
"I'm tired. I think I will stay here," Ada announced and she watched Flora Poste sitting on her white handkerchief, in her small pool of sunshine, with the dust of years at her feet.
Flora's eyes narrowed. "Come now, Aunt Ada."
Ada pulled the coverlet up further. She couldn't fight Flora, not with the Starkadders gone. But she could wait her out, she was sure. If she stared here, in her room, the thought of the woodshed held close to her heart, then sooner or later Flora would leave and she could set about putting the farm back the way it was. The narrowing of Flora's eyes told her that Flora knew this as well as she did.
"There's no place for you here," said Flora, clearly attempting to sound gentle.
"There is every place for me here. I am the heart of Cold Comfort Farm. You have come here with your interferin' ways, amusing yourself setting up our lives as they suit you. Why should I do anything to help you?"
"People are happier."
"What makes you think Seth will be happier dolled up like a marionette and put on show to the public?"
"Seth loves the talkies!"
"Seth likes to be free. He's a wild thing, a force of nature, you've turned him into a painted doll in front of a painted set."
Flora's lips pursed. Seth had not been dispatched to Hollywood for his own good and she could see that, in her heart, Flora knew this too.
"Elfine will be happier," said Flora firmly.
"With Dick Hawk-Monitor? Her head full of tea parties and hunt balls where it used to be full of poetry and the beauty of nature?"
"Elfine is a sweet, gentle and above all sensible girl. She was only flitting around the hillside because no one took a sensible interest in her."
Flora was possibly right there. The problem with most Starkadders was that they didn't really know what they wanted. They needed someone like Ada or Flora to point it out to them. It wasn't as if Ada liked spending her life shut up in a darkened room with the family creeping around her. It was simply the only way to manage them. She glanced at Flora and mentally amended that thought. It was the only way to both manage the family and keep them close. Flora had sent away the ones she couldn't control.
"What of Judith and Amos?" Ada asked. "You got rid of them quick enough. You couldn't change their passionate ways and so you had them banished from the farm. You haven't organised them, lass. You haven't fitted them into one of your neat little boxes where everyone is sensible and civilised and never feels an emotion stronger than a faint yearning for a cup of tea. You just moved them out the way where they couldn't inconvenience your plans."
Flora's eyes narrowed and she stared hard at Ada. "People feel emotions, Aunt Ada. They just don't parade them where everyone can see."
"You've done no more than swap out one sort of happiness for another, but I don't know if it's a better kind. More than half of it is artifice. You only think some folk are happy because you have decided they should be so."
"Aunt Ada!" Flora's eyes flashed and Ada felt a glow of triumph. Ada had had Judith go through Flora's room and she knew about her preferred reading material. But there was a temper in the girl for all her civilised ways and her adulation of the Higher Common Sense.
Ada had had Judith go through Flora's room and she knew about her preferred reading material.
Ada sat herself up a little on her cushions and folded her arms, staring hard at Flora and watching with interest as the girl fought to bring her emotions under control.
"I'm prepared to wait here a lot longer than you are, you know," Ada said quietly. "I've been here all my life."
"We'll see about that." There was a firm set to Flora Poste's mouth.
"I don't think living on a small farm in the Sussex for the rest of your life, just to spite one old woman, would win the approval of the Abbé Fausse-Maigre." Ada watched her closely.
Flora's hands gripped each other in her lap. "How do you know about the Abbé?"
"I had an education you know. I was given The Higher Common Sense myself by a maiden aunt from Tunbridge Wells. I've always thought it rather full of itself. I like to think of myself as a Substance not Contained in the Outline."
Flora blushed slightly.
Ada allowed herself a smile. It seemed Flora had identified her as such as well.
It was at that moment that Ada happened to glance down to where the discarded pages of the brochure for the Hotel Miramar lay open on her bed. Flora, she deduced, was running through a few breathing exercises in order to calm herself. Outside, Big Business the bull bellowed, loud and triumphant. It was the sound of nature, untrammelled and forceful. Ada felt excitement burgeoning within her. It was a long time since anyone had stood up to Ada. She wondered what she would do once Flora had left and she had set everything back to rights. Another decade shut away in her room suddenly seemed terribly dull.
"I will think of some way to handle you, Aunt Ada," said Flora at length.
Ada wondered if she would and if she would remain trapped in her room until such time as Flora did. The pages of the hotel brochure fluttered enticingly at her, showing tastefully decorated rooms full of life and laughter. Ada made a decision. She'd been planning on offering Flora a deal any way, looking forward to it even.
"Happen it would be better if you were to think of flying off after the wedding tomorrow. That young Charles won't wait for you forever you know. I'd say it was about time you made up your mind about him."
Flora's mouth dropped open a moment, before she regained control of her features and shut it firmly. Then what looked almost like a smile of admiration crept across her face. "Aunt Ada, I do believe you have been reading my letters."
"And what if I have? It pays to know your enemy. Determine the parameters of the substance, as the Abbé would say."
"I can't leave after the wedding. You will undo all the work I have done," Flora shook her pretty well-groomed head.
"I have a deal for you, Robert Poste's child. I won't interfere with Elfine's wedding, or Reuben or the farm. I'll fly away to Paris, but you'll take your pretty clothes and your interfering ways out of here as well. We'll leave the Starkadders to get on in their own way without either your Abbé Fausse-Maigre nor my passion. Let them live as substances within or without the outline as they so choose, without any meddling from us."
"I say." Flora sat back surprised.
"I'll live a life of high style and parties, and you fly off with your young man, and we'll leave Cold Comfort Farm to the Starkadders."
Flora Poste blinked momentarily, but Ada Starkadder could tell that, underneath it all, she recognised a good deal when she saw one.
"Very well, Aunt Ada, we will leave the Starkadders in peace."
She held out her hand. Ada Starkadder reached from under the counterpane and shook it. They stared at each other in silence a moment and then both of them burst out laughing.
"Now, you had better help me choose a suitable flying outfit," said Ada and she picked up the copy of Vogue.
***As she flicked through the brightly printed pages, Ada remembered far off days of childhood. The interior of the woodshed should have been dusty and tumbled, the windows begrimed with the honest dirt of the farm. It should have been real and earthy. It should have spoken of the harshness of their lives and the despair in their souls. It connected to everything else, to barn and byre, to field and hedgerow. It was part of the great tangle of life and nature that bound man to animal and plant and earth and stone. But that day someone had cleaned the windows. They had stacked the wood into neat piles. It was artificial. Tamed and contained. The well swept floor did not speak of primal urges, nor did the polished tools carefully hung upon the wall speak of struggle and toil. It sang out that all was well with the world, when all was not. Ada Doom, as she then was, had stared at the order and rejected it. She would champion feeling, and truth, and honest passion, and the dissembling, rigid pretence of the woodshed would be her warning.
In her old age she had failed, but she had won a small glimmer of hope. Even though she no longer ruled Cold Comfort, Flora Poste would not rule it in her place.
In the meantime, she found she was rather looking forward to Paris.