Caught by the River

Ridge & Furrow: Voices from the Winter Fields

Neil Sentance | 10th January 2020

We were so absorbed in our abundant Shadows & Reflections submissions last month that we never got round to running an extract from our December Book of the Month. In Ridge & Furrow, the follow-up to 2014’s Water and Sky, Neil Sentence continues to explore the little-heard voices of twentieth-century Lincolnshire. From the ‘1979: Milestone Inspectors’ chapter:

Dad, Granny and Grandad on holiday in Norfolk, 1950s

The old man had told me often enough about South Africa and the Great War and life in the King’s Own, so when the county recruiting board came to Gonerby village hall in the autumn of 1939, there I was lining up with all the other fellows. Just past twenty-three, not long married and a young’un still on gripe water at home, in those days I was delivering bread on my bike every morning before the sun had warmed my hands, with only a slice of Mother’s Pride and a dog-end Capstan to get me going. The morning had been proper rough, rain coming down in an onding, as Mam used to say, heavy enough to bow Parker’s shop canopy to the floor. I remember my overalls had been soaked through and the bicycle clip had left a rusty welt round my shins. I got out of my wet things when I got home and left them hanging by the range fire, put on my Sunday suit and, with a lick and a promise, left to meet Alec and Joe by the memorial cross. We larked about a bit, looking up at the clock face on St Sebastian’s church and thinking about pelting a few stones at it, and eyeing the black crow that someone had tamed to land on folks’ heads. Mostly though we just drew on fags and talked about the football last Saturday, when Bob Seneschal had his leg broken in the first half of the village cup game.

Soon enough, St Sebastian’s clock had us down the road, side by side, in time, marching like. We saw a few other fellows going in the village hall, including old Charlie Wright, who had been in the last war, and he must have been over forty. We were made to stand up straight and answer to our names read by this bristly bloke behind the makeshift desk they used as the beer counter at weddings. The bloke had a thick North Riding croak and I remembered when Dad took us for a day out after Granny died and we went to Gaping Gill – big enough down there to fit the whole of Lincoln Cathedral in it, he’d said. After a bit, the military doctor came along the line of us, tapping our knees, getting us to bend over and cough, and then checking our chests with a cold steel stethoscope. It was all we could do not to crease up laughing. It made us feel like we were nippers in school again. But when it came to me, I felt like a badger dug out for the hounds and brimming little soughs of sweat came seeping down my nose. I could hear the cawing of some late-leaving rooks in the big elm in Green Lane and wondered if we were in for more hard wind and rain. The doctor didn’t say anything but scribbled some notes on a pad and the sergeant-major type tapped me on the shoulder and steered me out. His words flew at me straight: You better get fitted up for a coffin, mate. I saw the open door and a low black swoop of rainclouds. Forty years on, I still remember a solitary hooded crow wheeling over the valley head beyond.


Ridge & Furrow is out now and available here, priced £12.00.