Blackened beanfields said it all, decimation and drought; a most unusual drought so that no more could to be added to the catastrophic fact. Most normality, as we had known it, was turned upside down. People were behaving in mad ways, unpredictably, throwing themselves off bridges, wandering across the A12, bereft and lost. We were all shaken, not knowing if we should cry or laugh at a Tory government stuffed with incompetent amateurs. Droughts happen, floods happen, but this was also the year that had thrown up the Covid plague. The world had changed within the seasons. Everyone was asking apocalyptic type questions; like, what would happen to farming after a year of the worst grain harvest in living memory?
For weeks the thermometer hovered around 30, winds buffeted the scorched wheat and beat the trees about their crowns, socking them one, then flinging them this way and that. Down on the coast trippers moved in solid phalanxes, going up one way, coming down the other in Market Street Southwold, licking ice-cream cones. There was no intention to buy. They glanced in a desultory way at the tired faded window displays that shopkeepers had stopped bothering to refresh.
Away from the beaches in the hamlet with barbecued fields, a Saxon church showed a red and white St George, tattered from flapping in the south westerly, the graveyard brown and dusty, the studded oak door of the church locked and impervious to touch.
“I speak to him sometimes,” Binnie put down her glass of rose. Her front teeth took off the end of a cheese-straw. “He was very difficult poor darling at the end, went right into himself. Withdrew you know. He was a charming man before his diagnosis. Funny, interested in everything, a gentleman, a gentle man.”
The dusty graveyard was opposite the garden gate, the grass studded with green windfalls, most of them burrowed through by maggots. It would have been an idyllic setting- the low yellow painted Suffolk house, the church with a thatched porch opposite, the manor house on the green, the rusty antiquated farm machinery in the field and magnificent rolling clouds in an endless sky.
But Binnie wasn’t part of the landscape and didn’t seem to care about the beans that had never ripened to harvest. She preferred lunches with friends at the Lighthouse restaurant in Aldeburgh, bridge in the evening, dinner parties with neighbours.
“I would love to be with someone, but I’ve nearly given up since he died. I’m selling the house, too many memories. Had two lots who seemed keen, but the agent didn’t put her heart into it, I could tell. Probably talking about herself. What is it about the young-? Only interested in themselves. Narcissism.”
She opened another bottle, this time white from Lidl.
“My daughter always said this house was spooked after Bob died, but I can tell you there was a poltergeist thing here long before.”
She traced lipstick over her mouth, which she had a habit of doing. The little gilt cylinder lived on the kitchen table beside her tablet and phone and her glass of wine.
” One morning I came downstairs to make breakfast and there had been a hoar frost in the night. White outside, you know. The window was wide open and on its catch.”
“On that sill was a saucer, which I had never put there, and in it was a handful of dried flowers. Bob died soon after. Things went missing, a silver christening spoon that I had polished the night before. Never found it again.”
“Now tell me something about yourself. Where did you meet your ex? How long were you married?” I don’t much like talking about my past. What’s gone has gone; things have moved on and I have changed in the process. So I gave her the bare bones. Just the outline.
She was happy when she returned to her narrative to grumble about her children. They didn’t seem to pay much attention any more. “I rang Ralphie about the sale and this awful agent girl, but he just laughed it off and said he had to put his children to bed. I tell you they are so self-absorbed. That’s why I am selling- a fresh start, which is what they want for me- come on Mummy where’s your old zing?”
I followed my hostess through the back door into the garden, caught my foot in some bindweed and went flying through the air and I could feel my ribs bruising.
“Oh my God, oh my God, are you alright?” She kept asking if I was alright, but something in her manner gave me the feeling that she knew what had caused me to trip and that it was more than bindweed.
I had thought before I came to Suffolk that it would be rich material with which to fantasise, to play with dreams about leaving the city, but if I lived here it would only be with other people who had dreamed about leaving the city. Everywhere was like that now, from Cornwall to Scotland. Folk songs and tales had been filed away and archived; there was no more rural.
When I played the old Shirley Collins songs like “Where are you going to my pretty maiden?” they were painfully poignant. I remembered how I had first noticed a change coming in the late eighties. Then quite suddenly litter appeared in the sacred open spaces, in woodland glades, along country lanes. It became harder to practise the willing suspension of disbelief with poems about the English landscape and rural life. It had started a slow overtaking of depression about the way things were going. There was a foreboding of the end of a familiar and recognizable era.
Now the countryside was supposed to thrive on tourism- bed and breakfast and foodie pubs. Even its de-mythologised state provided useful nourishment, reminder of how things were, maybe even how things should be; but it was still a backdrop to urban activities. Huge SUVs and healthy air to be breathed by city folk; heart-breaking, really. But ghosts hadn’t retreated and the winds kept their vigil in beanfields and among the leaning gravestones.
Driving home, before I got to the notorious A12 where the man had pitched himself off the bridge, I noticed a home made sign, “ Pop up café. Organic lunches” so I came off the country lane on to a rough drive that arrived at a grassy car park. Over a little stream was a country house with a yurt like appendage. A slim young woman who could have been Indonesian, Chinese, Malay or even Burmese, flitted by. She was dressed in a green uniform with a mandarin collar with a red logo on the pocket. I saw a swimming pool beyond the stand of pine trees and two women on sunbeds. A large man with an Australian hat with corks ambled by, lurching in the way people with knee problems do. He looked as though he might have owned the place. He was wearing sand coloured combat shorts with many buttoned down pockets that came below his dodgy knees and a blue and white checked shirt. “You looking for some lunch? Go in there and my wife will look after you.”
We chatted a little. He was from the East End and wanted to live in the country and run a little spa and B&B. He seemed nice enough in spite of his rough manner.
His wife must have had a hand in the spa idea. She was from somewhere in south-east Asia and beautiful. “What can I get you? We have Nasi goreng, sushi, fish curry, coconut rice.” She smiled and was genuinely hospitable.
The food was delicious. We ate outside and watched some small children playing on the swings. Beyond the wooden fencing was a spacious field with a donkey who looked hopefully at our plates. Beyond the field a gentle hill was wooded with beech and young oak. It came back again- that feeling that life could be good out in the Suffolk countryside, near the woods and close to the sea. It might even be possible to block out the A12 and look instead at the wide open skies and rolling cloudscape.