by Philip Brian Hall
If it is true that the Devil makes work for idle hands, then the Devil never met Old Joe. For as long as anyone could remember, Old Joe had been well past working age; indeed no-one in Micklethwaite could really recall his former trade.
Mavis Claythorpe, who knew everyone’s business and could not bear to admit to ignorance of anything, claimed her grandfather had worked with Joe as a thatcher, but Janet Armstrong, the blacksmith’s widow, who had comfortably exceeded her biblical span, was prepared to swear Old Joe had already been ‘Old Joe’ when she was a little girl. To the best of her recollection, the fallen tree beside the duck pond on the green, into which a seat had been roughly hewn by the removal of a quarter-round section, had always been the vantage point for the graybeard’s observation of the slow rhythms of village life.
The old man’s complexion was weather-beaten. Into a skin the color of oak, time and exposure to the elements had carved deep furrows, leaving something resembling the wizened turnip head from last year’s scarecrow. His hair had turned iron gray and bedraggled strands poked out from beneath a battered and sweat-begrimed deerstalker. His once black suit was now greenish, as though it, like the man, was moldering away, whilst unraveled threads of woolen jumper poked out through holes in the jacket’s elbows. His boots had been so often repaired it was difficult to know how much, if any, of the original leather remained.
Alone in the picture of slow decay, the eyes were alert, missing nothing as Joe kept his daily vigil over the village. In all except the most inclement weather, he sat there throughout the daylight hours, greeting the postman and the milk cart at the crack of dawn; still there to wave acknowledgment of the tired salutes of the homeward-wending farm laborers in the twilight.
Unlike Old Joe, the professor was a newcomer to Micklethwaite. Mavis Claythorpe said he had recently retired from the Chair of Medieval History at Oxford, or it might have been Cambridge, but she distinctly remembered that he had possessed a chair. Mavis thought this denoted a superior sort of university don, the kind they allowed to sit down, whereas the inferior kind had to deliver their lectures standing up.
The professor had performed a public service of sorts by reopening the old shop that shared with the post office one half of a modest building in the village High Street, though since he had reopened it as a bookshop he did even less trade than the former sweet shop that had closed for lack of business. The professor seemed to prefer his own company, for he was always immersed in his books. He even responded to the shop bell with discourteous reluctance, unless the new arrival turned out to be one of the old folk, of whom he was always asking questions about how the village had been in the days of their youth.
Mavis Claythorpe said that the professor was writing a book of his own. It was to be all about Micklethwaite through the ages and even though the professor was an incomer it would not do to get on his bad side, because you might end up not being included in his book and that would be a matter of great shame.
Old Joe never came into the professor’s shop and he never appeared in any other location where the professor might have the opportunity of quizzing him about the past. By the time the professor had spoken at least once to all the other elderly folk of the village, he had heard enough of the response, ‘Why don’t you ask Joe? He’d remember.’
The professor testily decided that if Joe would not come to him, he must go to Joe. One warm summer day, having furnished himself with a couple of pasties from the grocery and a flask of tea, he walked over to the duck pond.
The village pond was a decent sized expanse of water, occupying perhaps half an acre, surrounded by sedge and bulrushes. Here and there the tall spikes of wild iris burst into bright yellow flower, whilst around the margins patches of marsh marigold concealed the nests of a moorhen and two families of coots. The mallard duck and drake were paddling gently around in the shallows, instructing a train of eight half grown ducklings in the important art of standing on their heads and stirring through the the silt and roots below for food. A gentle breeze occasionally shivered the surface, splintering into brightly sparkling shards the mirror reflections of inverted ducks cruising an inverted pond. The old man was there as usual, watching the waterfowl with interest.
The professor walked over to the tree seat and sat down. “You’ll not mind if I join you,” he said brusquely.
“‘Tis a free country these days, so they say,” Joe responded.
Seating himself a few feet along the trunk from Joe, the professor poured himself a cup of tea and took a bite out of a pasty. When Joe remained silent, the professor decided to offer him some tea. Joe politely accepted.
“My name is Michael Bishop,” the professor began, “I’m fairly new to Micklethwaite, but I’ve a strong interest in local history and I’m hoping to write a book about the village.”
“I’ve been waiting for ‘ee,” Old Joe said quietly.
“Ah,” said the professor, “You’ve heard about me. I do have a world-wide reputation. Perhaps you’ve been told about my interviews with the other old folk hereabouts, Mr…?”
“Joseph Freeman is my name,” Old Joe responded, “But not because of no interviews; I’ve been waiting for ‘ee for years.”
The professor was only slightly taken aback; in a working lifetime dealing with every misunderstanding ill-prepared students could contrive, he had long ago formed the habit of showing amused condescension when confronted by foolish error. Rarely did he come across a student even close to being worthy of his teacher. However the old eyes now turned towards him met his gaze so steadily it was hard to believe they masked any great confusion.
“I don’t think I can have kept you waiting all that long,” the professor said less than politely. “I’ve only lived here three months.”
“Oh, I was waiting for ‘ee long afore that,” Old Joe wheezed softly. “Almost a hunnerd years I’ve lived in Micklethwaite, though I weren’t born here, you know.”
“Ah,” said the professor. “You’re not a native of the village then?”
“No, no, far away it is, the place I were born. I’ll go back there in the end, when he returns. But meanwhile, sithee, there be others I’ve to see. ‘Ee be one. I’ve been waiting for ‘ee. And now, sithee, here ‘ee be.”
“I see,” replied the professor, who did not see at all but felt it desirable to humor a man whose wits had clearly been turned by a combination of age and isolation.
“Let me top up your tea, Mr Freeman,” the professor smiled in a superior manner. “Where was it you were born? Somewhere else in the county of Lincoln?”
“No, outside Lindum Colonia. I were born afore it were even built.” Old Joe replied. “In another province of the Empire, in the East.”
“Indeed!” said the professor, his interest piqued by the use of the Roman name for Lincoln despite the absurdity of the claim. “So you’re a son of the Raj are you? Whereabouts in India was that?”
“India?” queried Old Joe. “No, no, not India. Judea. Caesarea Maritima.”
The professor was beginning to entertain doubts of extracting useful information from the scatterbrained old man, but nevertheless impressed by his knowledge of obscure Roman towns. Joe must be well educated. Why such a man would become a recluse was a mystery.
“And who is it for whom you are waiting before you can go back?”
The piercing eyes of the old man now bored like gimlets into the professor, who found himself disconcerted by their unwavering regard. “Why,” said Old Joe, “the same as ’ee be waiting for, in course.”
“Am I waiting for someone? Who do you think that might be?”
“The same as everyone else be waiting for.”
The professor sighed in exasperation. The conversation seemed to be proceeding in circles. “I’m not sure I understand, Mr Freeman. If we’re all waiting for the same person, why is it other people can return home but you can’t?”
“The difference is, sithee, I have to wait until he comes, whereas others can go home afore that.”
“Indeed! But, forgive me, I don’t see what all this has to do with waiting for me?”
“I mocked him for a fool once, sithee, but I know better now. That’s why they call me Freeman. ‘Ee could be a free man too, so ‘ee could, if ‘ee so chose. But ‘ee’s too proud and ready to mock, just as I were then. I’m supposed to tell ‘ee that, so I am.”
The professor shook his head sadly and abandoned hope of extracting any sense from Old Joe at a first meeting. He knew the senile often suffered less delusions in the early mornings, so he resolved to return the next day as soon after dawn as he could rouse himself and try again to penetrate the fog that shrouded the knowledge he sought.
Leaving his three-quarters full flask with the old man as a peace offering, he promised to return the next day. I’ll see you again then,” he said to Old Joe.
“Happen as ‘ee will, happen as ‘ee won’t,” Joe replied.
When the professor returned to his bookshop, the first thing he did was to pour himself a small glass of scotch. As he drank, he sat down in an old carver chair positioned within the shop at just that point where the strong rays of the afternoon sun, divided by the stone mullions of the window, fell in stripes across the floor. There was a gentle pop-popping sound as air escaped slowly from the valves of the glass demijohns in the back kitchen where his home-made wine was busily fermenting. A sweet smell drifted down from the drying herbs hanging from the rafters.
He tried to recall the weird ramblings the old man had uttered. Did they contain any grain of sense at all? As the professor sat there in the sunshine, the glow of the whisky, the heat of the sun and the murmur of the wine containers combined to make his eyelids heavy and eventually he dozed.
When he awoke, things seemed suddenly clear. He searched for and found a book of reference, placed it on the counter and leafed rapidly though its worn pages. Finally he found the entry that he was looking for.
Joseph, called Cartaphilus, (Greek = ‘beloved paper’; name given to the emancipation certificate of a freed slave or ‘freeman’.) In legend, the baptismal name given upon his conversion to Ahasuerus, also known as ‘The Wandering Jew’. Allegedly a gatekeeper in the house of Pilate who mocked Jesus on his way to crucifixion and was condemned to wait among the living for the Second Coming. By repute, wherever he dwells he carries a message of repentance to one person and then vanishes.
“I don’t believe it!” exclaimed the professor.
But there was not a moment to lose. He ran from his shop and out to the green. Skepticism vied with incredulous hope in his mind as his breath came in short gasps and his stride, unaccustomed to such vigorous exercise, began to shorten. Long before he reached the pond he was reduced to a shambling trot and casting despairing glances ahead.
There was no sign of Old Joe on the tree-seat. It was occupied by nothing but the professor’s flask. There was no sign of Old Joe at his cottage, nor in the shops in the High Street. From that day onward, the old man’s craggy face and lively eyes, his worn out suit and much patched boots were never seen again in Micklethwaite.
The professor wondered at it all. Had he simply encountered a deranged old man or failed to recognize the chance of a lifetime? Frustratingly, he would never know.
A graduate of Oxford University, Philip Brian Hall has been a diplomat, teacher, amateur jockey and web designer. He also claims to have sailed around the Adriatic on a windjammer; the truth is he was just a passenger, though he did manage to climb to the crow’s nest.
Having decided to settle down and put all this experience to good use as a writer, he has had short stories accepted by a number of magazines and has published a novel, The Prophets of Baal, which is available both in paperback and as an e-book.
Like The Old Man On The Green, his novel is also largely set in rural England, though Philip has now moved to a small farm in Scotland where he lives with his wife and assorted animals.
Philip Brian Hall blogs at http://sliabhmannan.blogspot.co.uk/