> The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

Bridge at War: Chapter 10

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Tom had found the farm work every bit as heavy as Alistair had predicted, but he was not someone to shirk from hard tasks. Indeed, working on the farm during that hot summer was the perfect antidote to the horrors and perils of the War, as well as the cold and boredom of post-War Berlin.

It seemed that Bram too lived up to his promises, especially his glib statement about being good with animals. There was a smithy in the village, manufacturing the traditional products of rustic ironworks and horseshoes. The smith, a stereotypically large and taciturn man and, Tom was unsurprised to learn, a distant cousin to Farmer John, seemed to have taken a shine to Bram.

The young man frequently volunteered to help out at the smithy, taking it upon himself to lead the working horses down the hill to be re-shod. More often than not, he was somehow able to calm the nervous, even frantic horses while the smith and his apprentice hammered the red-hot horseshoes into the correct shape for the animal's hooves. The re-shoeing of horses was just one of numerous tasks which had to be completed in readiness for the forthcoming harvest. During harvest-time, there would be no time for non-essential activities.

Horse and cart on farm The harvest duly arrived, and Farmer John announced the order of fields for cutting and drying. Inevitably, the three young men worked very hard from dawn to dusk, as did everyone else for miles around.

The bulk of the cutting itself was performed by mechanical harvesting machines, drawn by tractors. Even so, there were a few fields which were too small or, more likely, too steeply-sloping to allow the machines access, and which were still cut by hand scythes.

Shire horse The cut wheat was gathered by hand, and Tom and the others spent long hours with pitchforks loading horse-drawn wagons. The wheat was separated from the ears by a threshing machine powered by a steam traction engine, with much noise and plumes of smoke and steam. This added to the clouds of dust from the wheat which caught in the throat and got everywhere inside their clothing.

The grain was bagged and loaded with more back-breaking labour onto wagons - sometimes motorised, or perhaps drawn by a team of shire horses - and taken back to the granary at the farm. But there was always more to do in the fields: the stacking of straw to dry in the sun, loading wagons with sheaves of straw and the building of hayricks.

In this part of the country, it seemed that the old tradition of gleaning was still observed. Once the harvest had been collected from any particular field, it was opened to the gleaners. Typically old women, these people could be seen every day, bent double as they carefully walked the stubble fields, collecting by hand any ears of wheat or barley that had been left behind. It was their right to keep anything that they found. Tom was given to understand that this might mean the difference between survival and starvation for some of the oldest and poorest people hereabouts.

During his occasional break, Tom found himself watching the gleaners. The old women in particular were always dressed in dark clothing and would, he considered, have represented a concise definition of "wizened hags" in any dictionary.

Tom noticed that several of the elderly ladies would periodically stop and perform a strange ritual. At first, he thought that they were merely easing their backs after long hours bent double but, on closer scrutiny, there seemed to be something else going on. Every now and then, one of the women would stand up straight and very still, looking around for a surprisingly long time - long after their companions had returned to their menial task.

One of these women, standing closest to Tom, appeared to be clutching something at her throat with one hand, something that she had kept well hidden beneath her clothing. As he watched, she stretched out her other arm in what looked like an imploring motion, while turning bodily to-and-fro. Seeming satisfied, she tucked whatever-is-was around her neck back into her clothing, and returned to her searching. A few moments later, she stood up - almost triumphantly, Tom thought - clutching a previously-hidden cache of ears of wheat.

Tom would not have given the antics of the weird woman another thought if he had not, just at that moment, noticed certain glances from some of the other gleaners. He was not sure how to interpret their expressions, but it seemed to him to be some strange combination of pity and jealousy.

Tom could see that Bram was interested in this ritual as well, looking on with that faintly amused expression he so often wore and making a few notes in the little book he always carried around with him. Alistair, on the other hand, did not seem to have noticed anything unusual.

Tom and his friends had spent a fair time traipsing the tracks and byways in the area. The fields and lanes were linked by a network of tracks and paths, all deeply rutted, with dry gravel in the ruts and long grass growing between the cart tracks. And there was dust, so much dust in the heat of the day, which made the men appreciate their water bottles and flasks of cold tea, not to mention their evening beer ration.

Apart from the wheat and barley, there were fields planted with other crops. In one area close to a stream that was nearly dried up in this season, there was row after row of cabbages, punctuated with the ever-present fluttering of Cabbage White butterflies. Tom knew that their caterpillars were a huge pest, but he liked to see them anyway. At the farm itself, a secluded area had been set aside as a herb garden, with rosemary planted as a hedge between the garden and the pathway that led to the kitchen door. One stony corner was overgrown with straggly buddleia bushes, around which congregated an incredible number of Red Admiral butterflies.

In the weeks before the main crops were ready for harvesting, the three companions had been put to work on a wide variety of jobs. Tom had grown to appreciate for their peacefulness the twin tasks of digging ditches and cutting hedges. Alistair had speculated aloud that a lot of this work was actually catching up on tasks not done during war-time, because of lack of man-power.

Of course, at this time of year and with little rain for weeks, the ditches were nearly dry, and the task of digging out the accumulated muck of half a decade was relatively straightforward, or at least mostly dry. It seemed that the hedges had got badly overgrown during the last few years, and seemed to have grown several feet both upwards and outwards. The young men were required to use spades, pickaxes and mattocks to dig the ditches, as well as ruthlessly cut away at the undergrowth with sickles and scythes.

Alistair had managed to acquire a whetstone to sharpen the tools. He showed the others how to get a really good edge on the blades, which Tom particularly appreciated; he could see how much easier the work was when one had the right tool for the job, and the tool was beautifully sharp.

All this rural activity was rather familiar to the ex-soldiers. It put Tom in mind of the fields of Normandy where he and Alistair had first met Bram. Even Tom, a townie by upbringing, was beginning to appreciate the scenery, and even began to learn the names of the trees and plants around him. He had grown to love the hedgerows with their scattering of holly and hawthorn, and the single trees that stood out along the line of the hedges. He particularly enjoyed the sight of the stands of trees on rocky hillocks and outcrops, the dark green of the pines and firs contrasting against the gold of the crops in the fields beyond.

The young men had come across all sorts of unexpected objects in the ditches that they dug and cleared. On one occasion, Tom unearthed what looked like a skeleton. After a few worried moments, he was relieved to discover that it was not human at all, but was that of an unlucky sheep. The poor creature got trapped in the mud and undergrowth one winter some years ago, Tom imagined, and had not been found by the shepherd.

It was another of those long hot days, and the lads were once again digging ditches and pruning the hedgerows. They had been allocated a stretch of hedge that meandered alongside a rutted track which looked that it had once been quite heavily travelled, but now seemed entirely deserted.

Tom was attacking a dense patch of stinging nettles with a sickle, reminded of Alistair's admonishments that such a growth would never have been tolerated on a well-managed farm. Bram was trimming the branches of a hawthorn bush, trying to wrestle it back into something closer to a straight hedge.

A little further down the lane, Alistair was digging out a ditch. His spade struck something solid and, expecting another tree root, he began to dig around it. Muttering a curse, Alistair struck again. Rather than the thud of a root, the blow created a sharper sound, tinkling against the metal of the spade - something, not metallic, but almost as if it was some kind of pottery or perhaps glass.

He looked up. He could see Bram and Tom further up the road, working at their own sections of the overgrown hedgerow. The object he had just found was quite large, and he thought it might be an old stoneware bottle. Placing aside his spade, Alistair knelt down and used his hands to loosen his find from the dried mud.

"Hey, lads," he shouted, "I've found something."

Tom and Bram laid down their tools and converged on his position.

The object was a square flat box. At first glance it looked as if it was made of metal, but it soon became clear it was some kind of glazed earthenware. The container had at one time been brightly-coloured, with pictures and some sort of writing, but it was now far too faded to be able to make out anything.

"What is it?" Tom asked.

"It's some kind of a pottery box," Alistair replied, "Let me see if I can open it."

He took out his pocket-knife and using the blade to scrape the dirt from the crease under the lid. After a few moments, he was able to find a point to ease the tip of the sharp knife into the joint and to prise the lid up by a fraction. He slid the blade further around, repeatedly levering up the top until it came free with an audible squeak.

Diamond-shaped pendant The three young men peered inside. The box contained what Tom thought might have been tissue paper, now long since decomposed to dust. Alistair put his fingers inside, stirring the dust and pulled out a small pendant, which he held up to the light.

The ornament was contained within a metal setting, which might have been silver, but was now very tarnished and damaged. The setting still held a flat trapezoidal stone, polished on both sides and with curious markings upon both surfaces. It was clearly intended to have been hung around the neck by a cord, although the string seemed to have rotted away to nothing along with the wrapping.

"Do you think it's valuable?" Alistair asked, as he turned the strange pendant over and over in his hands.

"I doubt it," Bram responded, "Doesn't look like gold or diamonds to me!"

They all laughed at this quip.

"So what should I do with it?" Alistair pressed, as Tom stepped closer to take a look.

"Well, if I were you," Bram suggested, "I'd hang onto it - finder's keepers, loser's weepers, and all that."

"I'll clean it up later on, then," Alistair concluded, returning the pendant to its container, and putting both into the pack that had contained his lunch.

As they returned to their tasks, Tom had the nagging feeling that Bram somehow recognised the ornament, or at least knew more about it than he was letting on.


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