I entered unnoticed that evening from an outside that the night was already encasing in frost. The freeze now lay everywhere on the outskirts of the village even though the sun had only recently – perhaps little more than one hour ago – fallen ragged beneath the drab horizon of the ‘flatlands’ to the west (the ones which Brierley liked to make out I was from – either through humour or through simple mistake!). Even a matter of half an hour beforehand there had been little, if any, frost as I had witnessed. But, suddenly, it was not even slippery on the surface of those last few feet of the track, simply hard. It crackled beneath my worn boots even though it also bit right through the soles (or rather, what little remained of soles at that time of the year for endless trudging on snow and ice almost instantly takes its toll on footwear as well as every living being) into the base of my feet and created a white numbness in my chilled toes. I do not know how I remained unnoticed given that that door always creaked – although perhaps it did not do so greatly under particular weather conditions? It had continued to feel loose so, perhaps, that accounted for it? Or perhaps simply everything was creaking as the evening outside froze and one additional creak made little difference and attracted no further attention?
I was met by a wall of warmth, the stifling smell of heated tallow and an orange glow in the interior darkness that played patterns across the mottled, mould-ridden and uneven walls: part hearth, part tallow and a strengthening mix of herbal stenches. Ahead of me but with his back to me sat a tired and unaware Brierley. The ‘day’ (such as it is in winter; a thing of part-darkness!) was far from over for him but I could tell simply from the buckled shape of his silhouette that exhaustion had already set in upon his frame – the result, no doubt, of that time of the year for it succeeds in freezing the muscles …if not the will. However, even his back was invisible to me as that chair totally encased his body with its blunt wooden edges. He reached down to his aching legs that, even in that dull light (which was particularly insensitive to the colour blue), I could see around the corner of the chair had become night-blue on account of the cold. As the light from the hearth a few foot beyond flickered across them it sent them into intermittent shades of grey and Archbishop’s purple. He moved his hand to rest on the side of the chair but palm up and open. This gave me a curious angle, almost an apparition: Brierley appeared to be holding the burning light of the fire in the palm of his hand. He sat there, motionless, whilst it flickered in his grip, seemingly either unaware of his dominion or else blissfully at ease with it. It is rare for a man to hold such fire in his tired yet still confident grasp but then, as I have told you, he was a rare man, the like of which we have seldom seen since.
I must have been standing in a part of the room which appeared to the rest to be in absolute and complete darkness as the godly view of the North itself for Anne now entered my field of vision from my left, not looking around and seemingly not even sensing me. In fact, she must have been little more than a couple of yards away in that place. The sounds of any motion seemed dulled out by the thick atmosphere creating only a fluid, orange stillness. That early evening I was reminded just how Spartan and basic the furniture was in that dwelling even by the standards of the time, even by strictly Puritan standards for a distrust of excess for Anne moved into a space that was essentially empty, like an internal abyss. I was an intruder in their interior, private Commonwealth, the one that was set apart from the world in which Brierley had to dwell when in the chapel or when engaged with his studies. She was carrying a large bowl that was obviously heavy as her wrists strained under the weight. Had the light been more reasonable I should have been able to see the blue of her veins through that pale, translucent skin. Instead, the tallow-orange glow took those veins around her wrists and only contorted them stricter still into some new reddish-brown relief. It seemed to twist them together far tighter and more painfully than would otherwise have been the case. The bowl was steaming amidst the air which had felt warm to me but which must still have been relatively icy and which added to the strange effects created by the flame on the wall. These two patterns interacted with one another to forge an illusion that seemed to compress distance in the already small, cramped living area. I knew that Brierley could afford better had he wanted to but, instead, he chose to live humbly without even simple items that I was sure could have been spared by his parents (admittedly, perhaps a little less so by Anne’s parents but that could have been less acceptable anyway). Even the table and bench, which between them, ran along the length of the right-hand wall, were smaller than would have been expected and now seemed foreshortened further by the effect. If I had have been him, I might not have stuck it!
My eyes returned to the figure of Anne, part illuminated by the fire now. She was a dark shadow with a radiant, red leading edge. Placing the bowl before Brierley. She knelt down beside his feet. She spoke not a word; he neither although, of course, I could not see any change of visual, facial expression that he might have registered whereas Anne would have been able to do. So, in a sense, my ability to read him relied entirely on her. She was my only glass upon him. My sense of time seemed to shift so that all movement became gentler and slower still and regulated only by the time divisions that separated one crackle from the fire from another from the incandescent hearth as the logs spat out moisture that had long since turned to ice and laid there buried, embedded within them and fractured in two. A short walk away the mill would still be turning but I was well out of earshot, completely oblivious to its mechanised, regulated rhythm. Beyond the hearth it seemed that there was nothing here that could be split asunder into two; there was only a unity and even an eternal unity at that, one that existed almost outside time itself. Brierley raised his left foot with some evident effort – one might go so far as to say some blistered pain – and brought it back down in the hot, oily water. Clearly, it either burned right through him or bit straight into the blistering skin for he let out a distinctive noise somewhat reminiscent of a startled and hissing cat in the night, only wearier than any feline might ever have proved. I was to learn only later that his feet were giving him pain because he had stumbled out on the fell and sprained his ankle – an injury which weakened his foot as a whole for a time. I could not, of course, see his face but his moans reflected immediately in that of Anne and the movement of concern registering in her eyelids cast strange and unexpected shadows across her eye sockets and cheeks beneath the band across her forehead – for she was still wearing that. Her eyes fell now (seemingly terribly slowly) to the lolling surface of the water and she inserted her hands into it thereby sending clouds of ripples across every wall of the room and, even, it felt, over me as though I had been washed by that very water, bathed in it by her. Those elemental sounds: the crackle of fire and the movement of water filled the space and were alone together in it. They were all that I could hear in the cramped, empty space which – somewhat ironically – suddenly seemed vast to my perception; it encompassed my whole world then. That was perhaps why the bleak void of that interior registered so forcefully with me that evening.
Then, before she commenced washing him, she took the opportunity to remove her foreheadband, ready for work in such a private space. It served to bring home to me that I should not have been there. Her hair stayed where it had been momentarily – just for a few seconds – then fell forward a little, gradually generating a lethargic flux of its own. But then a breeze – or perhaps more honestly, a draft – arrived from nowhere and caught it so that it then fell at a different angle and lit red from the fire …but a flickering and unstable red; a red in motion. Her hands cupped the water and rubbed it into Brierley’s calves. Then she swivelled around on one crouched foot, the coarse, cracked, swine-dung encrusted leather of her boot stubbornly unyielding to her movement, and picked up the leaves of some herb that she had earlier deposited adjacent to the hearth. These she also applied and rubbed into Brierley’s damp legs. I could not make out from my distance what those leaves were; most of my sight was focused on the intensity and concentration of her expression as she performed the task; the strange light forcing her skin into an unwilling and unwitting blotchiness. I could smell it though and did so without obvious recognition.
I was sure now that I should depart, that I did not belong there amidst such a scene and that this was nothing less than an invasion but I did not know how to move – let alone leave – without making a sound and being noticed. Still everything seemed to be taking place at a reduced pace, in an elemental Stillstand in which the only sounds were created by fire and water and I felt my feet heavy as though they could in no way partake of normal motion, almost sinking sullenly into the floor beneath me – perhaps I could not even move from that entrenched position. I would not know because, in the end, in spite of all my better intentions, I made no actual effort to do so. In reality, the transition from iciness to warmth (albeit only a relative warmth) had probably melled my muscles with the floor upon which I stood.
Then I focused on Anne again and found, to my surprise, that she was staring directly back at me. I had to blink involuntarily at that moment as the unusual mix of reflections caught me directly in the eyes – blindingly, like an explosion yet one that was completely silent. Again she said nothing but a warm smile broke across her face in the half light and sent her usually pale complexion into a shade of less familiar warm yellow like a field of wheat ripe for harvest, even though nothing could have been further away in the annual cycle in that ice-gnawed January. There was not the slightest degree of surprise registered in her expression regarding my presence in the same room. She looked back to Brierley and then nodded as though he had asked her a question …which he had not – I was certain of it. I heard the old, wooden box chair (a new addition to their possessions since my arrival there – new in that it must have belonged to someone else up until that point) groan slightly, moan like his muscles would have done as well, shuffle miserably in its contact with the cold, bare floor and then Brierley turned around to acknowledge me. I half expected some sort of admonishment for having stood there so long and in secret, in dishonesty, both tacit and unannounced. However, there was nothing of the sort: he too smiled, although his face was still to me completely in darkness and I could barely make out the smile itself, relying instead on its imputation from the changed shape of his cheekbones that I knew so well, even by then. Anne leaned back and raised her dripping hands to push back her hair that had fallen over her face in a chaotic manner since the removal of her sweat-soaked foreheadband. She probably felt obliged to do that but she made no effort to put her headwear on again. It actually gave her more of a dishevelled appearance. Brierley turned back around, the silence at that point still unbroken but then Anne laughed slightly in a manner that only people born and raised in Lancashire do. In fact, she gave away her place of birth and raising more through the rhythm of her laughter than through anything she might say in spite of her clear Bury accent. Her laughter echoed off the uneven, water-illuminated walls oddly and the room seemed to fill with the smell of that herb. It was so familiar to me: why could I not place it again? All logic told me that it almost by rights should have been sage oil for the remediation of winter aches and joint paints. However, it was simply not; it was something that one breathed in far deeper whether one wished to do or not; something which forced itself deeper into the frame of the body.
I took a deep breath and it seemed to me to penetrate my most profound insides in one single moment, just temporarily blocking my usual patterns of breathing, catching me as I commenced exhaling. Then I stepped forward out of the blackness (driven, I am sure, by the momentum generated by that moment of almost choking) and into their shared, glowing space and I too knelt by the steaming bowl. That vast space which had opened up seemed to retreat back into a hugger-mugger warmth. I looked up at Brierley and smiled as much as I could in what still seemed to me to be an awkward situation. He in turn put aside the aching in his feet and legs and nodded. I did not know what to make of it all. Perhaps it was simply that strange herbal smell that now seemed to engulf the whole room, perhaps even the whole cottage but it were as though I was now intoxicated with it and became aware of a Spirit – no less than that, I am sure – with us in the room that asked for no more than recognition and silence. However, I found this silence to be overawing and I plunged my hands – both of them – into the water under some sort of pretence or otherwise to help Anne although actually the motion was almost involuntary. Suddenly I realised why Brierley had hissed so much when his feet had first been submerged in it: it was hot, not merely warm (so much so that it was almost not even obvious that it was hot; it took one so by surprise; it could equally have been a bowl brimful of ice.) It must surely have been hotter still a few minutes earlier and there was something else herbal within it that clung to one’s skin and seemed to attack it, to burn it. It coalesced into a colloidal, tacky film upon one’s fingers; a film that water alone could no longer wash away.
Anne put her hands into the water too and grasped mine tightly. My instant reaction was to retract – both my hands and my bodily frame – but kneeling on the ground like that the latter was impossible and the former was prevented by the surprising strength of Anne’s grip, which initially seemed to push my hands down deeper still. It was the first time that I really noticed that – the first occasion on which I really had the chance to notice – but she had the grip of a farmhand and not of a temporary one either; one who had put in hour after hour. From whence had that come? Perhaps from years of work as a child on the Hardman farm in Bury, protected from the sun by extra layers of clothing so that she had kept that blanched, child-like complexion from the teasing taunts of the sun whilst in her hands she still wore like all the rest in the fields. Then she raised my hands above the surface of the fluid. Brierley now spoke something but so quietly that only his ears were near enough to his mouth to hear his words. Anne hardly seemed to notice but she was probably more accustomed to Brierley’s mumblings in such personal circumstances than I was. It might have been something from the Bible or else perhaps from some obscure, ancient, hitherto untranslated text. I could not even judge what language it was in for it could have been in another tongue. Actually, did she speak other languages too? After all, he had intended that I should help her study Latin. I looked up at him, confused – perhaps genuinely intoxicated by the familiar and yet unnamed and overly-pungent, warm herbal odour – but he now seemed openly joyous; his painful joints now quite forgotten, put to one side for another day. Meanwhile Anne’s hair, now partly damp and with patches that were frankly wet through which she had run her soaking fingers, fell forward again, this time in heavy soaked clumps, and was re-lit by the fire. She leaned further forward, took my chin in one hand with that overarching odour of hot herbs upon it and kissed me quietly and gently on my cheek.
—Dear Matthew! Thou art beloved in Christ amongst us!
I did not know what to say. My eyes fell in silence and my face shaded itself in an isolated and rogue patch of darkness before I whispered, just audibly, ‘Thank you’, for want simply of filling the space which had come to be. It was a foolish thing to say but both Anne and Brierley only continued to smile warmly. The fire in the hearth crackled fiercely once or twice and the walls seemed to be alight with fire. I thought I had understood… but perhaps, as much as anything else, I had really failed to understand.
Meantime, outside, beyond that haze of broiling orange, the grip of the frost was tightening further…