Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Christmas with Mohammed – Vince Ford


Every Christmas the boy’s father would fashion a candlestick on the spring pole lathe. Some were simple, others elaborate, depending on how much work he had to complete on the lathe or in the homes of other men. On Christmas Eve he would light a candle before his family and thank the Lord for the year and the lessons it had given them. He never pleaded for an end to their struggles or grieved for a child lost to disease. He only gave thanks.

The boy clenched his jaw and was silent. He thought his father a fool. If he truly believed that God listened or cared then he would tell Him of the times they went to bed hungry or complain of the hip pain that left his wife grinding her teeth in her sleep. He would ask that the villagers paid for their work in gold rather than vegetables or chickens when there was plenty or weevil- infested flour when there was not.


The boy, Rowan Wright loved the rhythm of the pole lathe. He’d transfer his weight to the treadle and apply the chisel to the green wood, unravelling long curls that writhed against his arms. There would be a momentary pause as the billet halted and the shavings continued to spin into aromatic drifts on the dark earth. Then the pole would flex back, the treadle would rise like a friend against his foot and the billet would spin away from the chisel. He would set himself, watching the spinning slow as the treadle’s pressure eased. It would stop for a fraction of a breath then he’d push again and ease the chisel back into the fleshy wood.

The great house at the estate had ordered a set of six stools. There were eighteen legs to turn and young Rowan settled into a rhythmic trance that allowed another part of himself to think. He wondered idly if he were perhaps a prophet. On some anointed day the Truth would be revealed to him and he would astound the townspeople with miracles and great words. If so, he wondered, would he have to suffer like the Christ? Surely a second prophet wouldn't be subject to the ordeal of the cross.

He realised there was nothing to indicate his prophecy apart from the occupation of carpentry that he shared with the Christ. No wise men bore gifts to his birth and the occasional grunting that emanated from his parents litter made him doubt any immaculate conception. He grinned, perhaps only he was divine and not his younger siblings.

Rowan glanced up and saw his father watching him curiously from the shave horse where he was rounding oak billets. Rowan nodded soberly and frowned back at his work, trying to focus on turning each billet to a smooth-faced cylinder. He wished his face would not display his thoughts so easily.

They heard the snorting of horses and the jangle of tack at the same time. Rowan stepped off the treadle and stilled the turning of the half-formed leg with one work-stained hand. His father tilted his head and froze, holding his breath for a moment before he released the billet, letting it drop onto the pile of shavings. He brushed the delicate wooden curls off his tunic as he stood. Rowan placed his chisel carefully onto the bed of the lathe.

Two men rode toward them through the soft light of the woods. Guthrey, steward of the nearby estate, nodded a greeting while the second rider reined his prancing horse sharply around and called to Guthrey in rapid French.

“Oui,” Guthrey nodded. He dismounted and held the reins out expectantly. Rowan’s father nudged Rowan and he stepped forward to take the reins, eyes fixed on the big bay. It seemed placid enough, but he was glad the Frenchman stayed mounted as his horse, a tall black, continued to fret and wheel.

Guthrey gestured toward the other rider. “My lord was impressed with the wheel hubs you turned for the Estate.”

“Oh aye,” Rowan’s father glanced suspiciously at the noble. The man’s neatly trimmed beard and the fine cloth of his clothes were a stark contrast to his own rough woollens.

“He wanted to ask...”

A quick outburst from the Frenchman cut Guthrey off.

“Oui,” Guthrey nodded to the noble. “He asks if you would consider returning to France with him for a period. He has carpenters on his estates but no-one with your skill on the lathe.”

Rowan’s father frowned. “I’m a freeman, you know that. He has no call on me.”

“Aye,” agreed Guthrey. “Even if you were a villein he could not take you from the land. He is offering to pay for your time and trouble.”

Rowan’s father crossed his arms. “I’ve a wife and children t’ look after. I can’t go harin’ off across the Channel.”

‘On account of some French bastard,’ thought Rowan. He’d heard his father rail against the French often enough. It had been 28 years since the Norman’s invaded England. They’d replaced or killed off most of the Anglo Saxon nobility in that time and subjected the peasants to the cruel yoke of the feudal system. While Rowan’s father occasionally worked at the estate he did so grudgingly. ‘They take so much from our land they’re the only ones left with ‘out to pay me.’

Guthrey leaned closer and lowered his voice. “It’s a good offer man. Ye won’t get another like it. Young Rowan can look after things while yer gone.”

Rowan’s father glanced at the Frenchman. His horse was fighting the bit and the noble dragged it around in a tight circle.

“It’s bad enough livin’ under the smug bastards,’” his father growled. “I’ll not cross the channel to suffocate in the stink of ‘em.”

Guthrey stared at the wright a moment then turned, took the reins and mounted his horse, calling loudly in French. The Frenchman glanced sharply at Rowan’s father then savagely reined his horse’s head around and cracked his whip on its flank. He cried something in his native tongue. The steward gave a laugh, hard as boxwood and kicked the bay after the Lord.

“I could have looked after things ‘ere,” Rowan murmured as they walked the highway, completed legs tied in bundles on their backs.

“Aye,” said his father. “If I’d a mind to slave for some French pig.” They walked off the side of the dirt road and paused a moment to let a bullock team past.

When they moved on Rowan squinted over the waist-high grass of a fallow field. “Guthrie spent time in France didn’t he?”

“He did.”

“He said it wasn’t so bad.”

His father scoffed. “Guthrie’s like a rat, son. If one ship sinks he’ll crawl onto the next one. I’d no trust a word he says.”

“Aye,” murmured Rowan. He glanced at his father then looked away, adjusting the load on his shoulder.

They walked silently through a thicket and crossed a shallow ford, using stepping stones to keep their boots dry.

Rowan’s father broke the silence. “What’s on yer mind son?” he asked. “D’ya think I should of packed off to France?”

“No.” Rowan sighed and fell in step with the master wright. “I turned one of those wheel hubs. When you were fixin’ the waterwheel at Twyford.”

His father grunted. “I had forgotten.”

“I’m not as fast as you, but I can turn or build most anything you can.”

“Aye. I daresay.” Rowan’s father frowned as they walked another dozen paces. He stopped suddenly. “You want to go to France?” He cried. “Is that what yer getting at?”

“P’raps,” Rowan walked on. “I want to see something beyond the town.”

“You’ve been to the fair lad!” His voice rose in indignation.

A group of peasants joined the highway from one of the fields. Rowan pursed his lips and strode ahead, irritably adjusting his load. He was pleased when his father was greeted by them and fell into conversation. The wright had never been beyond a single days walk from their town. The great wonders of his world were a cathedral and a county fair. He’d never understand the feeling of suffocation that constricted Rowans chest when he thought of a lifetime there.

Three days later Rowan’s father wordlessly left the tiny lean-to workshop at the back of their thatch house. Rowan frowned and continued with his work, the man had been surly for days, though the subject of France had not arisen again. When his father returned, late in the afternoon his cloak was soaking wet and his hair was plastered to his forehead. He glanced at his son as he hung his cloak on a peg then moved to examine the bulrush seat that Rowan was lacing across a stool. He pushed the weave to test its tension.

“It’s a bit loose in the damp,” Rowan impatiently tweaked the seat. “It’ll tighten when it dries.”

“It will,” agreed his father. “You don’t want it too tight though, might be hard on their soft French arses.”

Rowan grunted.

“Mind, yours’ll probably be as soft when it comes back in a years time.”

Rowan frowned, the cord gripped in one hand.

“I’ve been talkin’ to Guthrey. You’ll go to France with the Lord Guy de Beauvois for one year and at the end of that time you’ll get passage back.” His father crossed his arms. “There’ll be no pay, but they’ll look after you. You may av’ got more if I’d suggested the idea in the first place or if I’d kept me gob shut about the bleedin’ French, but that’s the way it is.”

Rowan’s eyes were alight. “You mean...”

“You leave in a week,” interrupted his father. “With the Lord’s boat. Be sure to say yer prayers every night and keep your wits about you. You may even learn something useful off the bastards, though I sincerely doubt it.”

“Thank you!” cried Rowan, the grin splitting his face. “I...”

“Hush lad,” his father glanced over his shoulder. “I’ve yet to tell yer mother.”