He was there again: the new man. Crouched on his haunches, as usual, smoke curling from a cigarette held lightly between two fingers, eyes narrowed as he gazed across the village green, over the blue-grey rooftops of the colliery to the sea. Thrillingly, through her binoculars, Nell could see the tiniest of details: there was no wedding ring on his right hand and he wore no watch. His dark hair was in need of trim and was streaked with strands of silver as if he had walked under a spider’s web. His mouth was drawn in a straight, tight line. He’s sad, she thought. And thin. As if the hours spent in contemplation of the sea left him no time to eat. In that way, the new man was the complete opposite of her grandmother. Mealtimes provided the framework for Grandma Annie’s day, as well as a reason for living. While eating breakfast, Annie would rhapsodise about her plans for lunch. While eating lunch, she would scribble a shopping list of ingredients for dinner on the back of an old Christmas card. Grandma Annie was pink and round and soft, as if formed from the salt dough Nell remembered from nursery school. She was always moving, full of busyness and industry. The cushiony, dimpled flesh on her arms wobbled when she dusted a picture rail or rubbed butter into flour. By contrast, the new man was gaunt and still as a December dawn.
Nell did not accept hugs from her grandmother, or anyone else for that matter, but sometimes she did wonder what it would feel like to be enveloped her plump, creamy arms. From what she had observed at the school gates, grandmothers were expected to hug and squeeze and fuss. Annie did none of those things. Whether that was because it was not in her nature to do them, or not in Nell’s nature to inspire them, Nell could not be sure. Annie showed her fondness through food not fuss. Love was a blackberry pie sprinkled with caster sugar, served with custard that moved with a glacial slowness when poured from the jug, or a tray of crumbly ginger biscuits heady so much syrup and spice the mouth-watering fug would linger in the kitchen for days. Love was the warm crust of freshly baked loaf, eaten over the bread board, slathered with thick yellow butter. The crust was the best bit of a new loaf, everyone knew that. Annie always left it for Nell. Always. The crust of the new loaf, the slice of chicken with the crispiest skin, the piece of cake with the most cherries – all of these wonders were presented to Nell with the silence of sacrament, but their tender message of love was incontrovertible.
Annie’s colour was red: geranium red. Red could be warming and passionate, like an autumn bonfire or a crayoned love-heart, or could be dangerous and destructive like a warning sign or a poisoned apple. The thing with Grandma Annie was you could never be sure which shade of red you were going to get. Her fiery temper could certainly flash and flare. That was the bad news. The good news was you never went hungry. After two years living with Annie, Nell’s memories of days and weeks blighted by hunger were beginning to fade. In dreams, she occasionally still saw herself as she had been in her father’s house: a filthy child desperately searching through bins, cupboards and fridges for the tiniest scrap of food. Such remembrances faded, they were diminished by sunlight through sparkling windows, by buttered crumpets and line-dried sheets: but they never left completely. They governed from afar like a cold, dispassionate planet, threatening return.
The crouching man, according to Grandma Annie, was their new neighbour. A famous policeman, no less, now retired. The man was grey in colour. Nell had diligently surveilled him for two weeks now. Not once had she seen him smile. Nor had he had any visitors. Annie would certainly approve of that. She said unexpected visitors were as welcome as fleas on a dog. As for expected visitors, well, they were to be despised even more. Annie would spend the hours of anxious anticipation before their arrival fretting and fidgeting and dreaming of the minute of their departure when she could wipe off her lipstick and put her slippers back on.
Nell would like to see the Grey Man smile. Grey people were curious. She had always thought so. They should never be underestimated. Upon close inspection, grey people were often unexpectedly radiant. They brought to mind pebbles on the beach; drab and dreary at first sight, but shimmery and opalescent when slicked with water from the sea. On her visits to the beach, Nell had often selected a particularly lustrous pebble for her collection, only to discover by the time she had carried it home it was pocket-dry and dull. Still, Nell knew that grey was special. It was the colour of quiet and shyness and modesty, but it was also the colour of withheld beauty and hidden riches. And so the man was interesting to Nell, special. He was new in her world, her familiar landscape. Usually, this would make her jittery and anxious but the longer she watched him and noted his quiet greyness, the more intrigued she became. His stillness and silence was a stage upon which she was compelled to gaze. She would continue her observations. She would learn more. She needed to be sure. She took out her moss-green notebook, glanced at her Snoopy wristwatch and noted: Sunday 1stSeptember: 7.26 am. First sighting of The Grey Man. Today, soft mid-grey – fuzzy like wood-smoke. Looking at the sea again. Checked shirt. Buttoned up wrong. Collar inside out.
There was another reason she felt calm, restful even in the grey man’s presence: Ferdinand was utterly undaunted by him. Ferdinand saw people’s true colours even clearer than Nell did. True colours, it was a phrase her grandmother used plenty – especially in gritty muttered tones about Nell’s parents.
Oh, your mother showed her true colours the day she left you when you were nowt but a bairn.
That jury took one look at your father and saw his true colours, oh yes they did!
When Nell had asked what colour her mother was, or her father (because she could not herself remember) she was astonished to learn from Grandma Annie that true colourswas just a saying, an adage and that other people did not see colours the way she did. Nell made the decision then never to mention to her grandmother her ability to see people’s colours. She expected she would not be believed. Just like she would not be believed about Ferdinand. To Nell though, people carried their colours with them everywhere they went. Their colours glowed like fireflies on the blackest night. Most people had many colours which would change according to mood or circumstance, but usually, one colour dominated. This was their true colour. Ferdinand saw colours too, animals were notoriously more sensitive than humans. He loved yellow and green people, but generally steered clear of blue and red. He tolerated Grandma Annie, but would stay hidden when she was around. Nell once asked Ferdinand if foxes had colours of their own, but he had not replied. He could be a puzzling fox, secretive and wily and sometimes he was just plain mardy. And yet she loved him. She loved him so much that she ached. Her love for Ferdinand had a colour all of its own. A colour that no one had seen before; a colour that couldn’t be seen with the eyes, it could only be felt in the heart, the bones and the blood.
That morning, Ferdinand was sprawled on his back with his legs in the air, exposing his pearly white belly to the sun. Every now and then, he would wriggle and squirm contentedly, cooling himself in the glasslike dew. Nell and Ferdinand sat in middle of the village green, under the shade of the rowan tree planted to commemorate the Queen’s coronation. The pinnate leaves were as pale and dry as parchment, but the branches were laden with clusters of gleaming fire-red berries. Autumn was quietly approaching. Ferdinand loved autumn. All foxes did. They could camouflage themselves in the shimmering hues of russet, gold, ochre and terracotta. Foxes are renewed by autumn the way humans are renewed by the first days of spring. Nell knew this: Ferdinand had told her. He spoke to her sometimes. When he had something to say his dark button eyes would flash like fool’s gold and his words would drop into her mind like postcards through a letterbox.
That morning, both Nell and Ferdinand could sense autumn’s tender closeness. The day had started with a cool, grey cathedral hush. The sea was veiled and hazy, the colour of a grubby mirror. As the sun rose, the day would become golden and ripe and the veil would lift to reveal turquoise waters laced with rolling white caps. Crying gulls would wheel in and out of the waves, up and down, and up and down, like silver needles stitching fabric. September. It was Nell’s favourite month. Or it would be. It would be if it wasn’t the start of the new school year.
School was, in fact, due to start the next day. Nell should be entering last year of juniors, but she had already decided she would not go. Although she was not looking forward to telling her grandma of her decision, she knew Annie would not force her to attend. There would be some harrumphing and huffing and a disapproving clattering of pans and plates, but Nell would get her way. School was a strange world full of rules and routines that made no sense to Nell. All those questions. Stupid, meaningless questions. They were exhausting. They made Nell’s head throb.
Do you want to play rope, Nell?
No. Why would I?
Do you know what 8 x 9 is Nell?
Yes, I do, thank you.
What would you like for lunch Nell?
Cheese on toast with tomato soup, two packets of Quavers and blackberry pie and custard.
But we’ve only got fish cakes or mince.
Then why did you ask me what I wanted?
Nell had once tried to explain to her grandma why she hated school so. It was important that she understand. Nell thought long and hard about how to make her see. Finally, she said that getting through a day of school was like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with all of the edge-pieces missing and no box showing the finished picture: it was frustrating, pointless and quite impossible. The old woman had scrutinised her granddaughter’s face with keen, penetrating eyes. She must have been satisfied with what she found there. She nodded crisply and made no further comment.
During the long, lazy summer holidays, school appeared in Nell’s consciousness as a looming tower: huge, terrifying and unknowable. It was torture. Ferdinand felt her agony. He could not understand why humans thought it wise to make their kits sit tethered to desks all day. No fox had ever been forced to run eight times around a field in November drizzle or made to endure the toe-curling agony of ‘team sports’ or spelling tests. Foxes valued freedom and independence and solitude. How Nell wished she were a fox!
During school break and lunchtimes, Nell would retreat to the old air raid shelters where she could fold herself up under the canopy of trembling lime trees. The leaves would swell and dance, and the music of the wind would mask the troubling sounds of the playground. Ferdinand would find her there and lie with her, his head resting on his paws, his calculating eyes alert for approaching teachers who would inevitably scold Nell for her aloneness, her stubbornness, her inability to ‘join in.’
Recently, she had convinced Grandma Annie that she should be ‘home schooled’, and she had persuaded her grandmother that this would require no effort on her part. Nell would trek down to the colliery library every Monday and check out a pile of books – novels, poetry, atlases, history books, books about geology and astronomy and science. She would read them too. Every one. Every word. Every page. It was true that she did not understand everything she read, but she allowed the words and ideas to wash over her like water, nourishing and refreshing her. If one of those ‘do-gooders’ from social services came sniffing around, she could rely on her grandma to send them away with a flea in their ear. Recently though, over the holidays, Annie had begun to cluck like a fat fussy hen about school. Nell decided a three-pronged attack was best. She had noted down her strategy in her moss-green notebook.
1. Read twice as many library books now I am ten (double figures = double books).
2. Keep out of Grandma Annie’s way so I don’t get under her feet.
3. Do more chores around the house.
She was confident she would succeed. To be doubly certain, she had taken to saying a prayer every night, on her knees, by the side of her bed. She knew it was a wicked and selfish thing to pray for personal gain, for the acquisition of material things like a new set of coloured pencils or a holiday in Scarborough. Nell though was praying notreceive something. She wanted, very much, not to receive an education. That was the opposite of selfish; it was selfless. She was allowing another child to take her school place. Ultimately though, there was just too much to do. She was too busy for school. She had her library books to read, her chores to do and she had Ferdinand to look after. And now she had the Grey Man to watch. She would be busy. Busier than if she was at school, that’s for sure.
‘Nell Butler, get in this minute! Breakfast is on the table!’ Nell swung her binoculars to the right. Grandma Annie, a short bilberry-shaped woman in a blue dress and rose-printed apron was standing at the top of the green, her hand shielding her eyes from the morning sun.
Her heart pounding, Nell swung the binoculars left. Hearing the commotion, the Grey Man had stood up and turned towards her grandma. He waved casually at her, but did not smile. Her grandmother nodded curtly in response.
‘Nell, where the devil are you? Your poached eggs are spoiling.’
Nell watched the man carefully through her binoculars. He dropped his cigarette and squashed the butt with his right foot. Then he looked up straight in Nell’s direction. His face was drawn directly to hers as if pulled by a magnetic force, as if he had known she was there all along. Nell felt an electrifying jolt as their eyes met. She stumbled to her feet, standing on Ferdinand’s tail. Disinterested, the man looked away, back out over the hazy sea, waiting for the veil to be lifted and the day to shape itself.
Nell cannoned up the bank towards her cottage at the top of the green.
‘I’m here, Grandma,’ she cried. Her grandmother nodded and melted into the darkness of the cottage. As Nell passed the man, she mustered the courage to glimpse in his direction. Please God, let him not be watching me, she prayed. To her relief, he was not. He was focused only on the sea. Her heart was leaping with adrenaline, or maybe it was just the binoculars that bounced off her chest as she ran. He had not looked at her as she passed. He had not noticed her at all. That was a good sign. That was important. She would add that to her moss-green notebook, she told herself. Later still, she would search where the Grey Man had crouched, looking for his discarded cigarette. It would be a valuable and powerful addition to her collection. She was not hopeful. She had checked every day since he came, without luck. Still, one day he might forget. For the time being, the only memento of her astonishing morning was a sprig of rowan berries, hard and shiny as glass beads. Before she went in for breakfast, she showed the berries to Ferdinand. He grinned at her way that only a fox can, with all of his teeth and all of his big booming heart.