Coping Stones – by Christina Eagles
Second place in the Aurora Prize for Writing 2019 – Short Fiction category
Winner of the East Midlands Regional Prize
I lift a stone from the heap that sprawls across the pale winter grass and angle it as I look for a place to fit it into the half rebuilt wall. It is a dark grey slab of Derbyshire, a gritstone chip off Stanage Edge. Even through Dad’s second-best work gloves it is chilling my hands. I pause, hugging the weight against my stomach, and straighten my back. Down the valley, Mam Tor, Lose Hill and the rest are layered ahead of me in the contours that marked my childhood. Clean, damp air eases into my lungs.
I heft the stone round and about again, but I still can’t see a place where it will fit. A shaggy ewe interrupts her nuzzling for food to gaze up at me.
“You’re right,” I say to her. “I am a pathetic amateur.”
When I was a little girl, the walls strode straight and strong across our land, keeping the stock safe. As we drove on family trips, my parents would point out a well-made wall to each other. I have always known how the stones should nestle together, shapes and sizes graded and placed just right. And on the top a row of vertical coping stones, side by side, straddling the whole.
But winters freeze the ground, spring and autumn rain turns the soil to mush. Trees send out burrowing roots and their swelling trunks shoulder stones aside. As my father has got older, his walls have bulged and buckled, the coping stones meandering drunkenly along the crest. In places they have tumbled down altogether, are not much more than a heap of rocks. Dad has looped up wire across the gaps to keep the sheep in. It doesn’t always work.
The ewe drops her head back to the ground. She doesn’t look impressed by my efforts.
“Do you want your lambs to go gallivanting over the hills, end up swimming in Derwent reservoir?” I ask.
She ignores me. Perhaps she would prefer it if her lambs did run away and leave her in peace. That is what my brother and I have done to our parents, but we know it’s not what they would have preferred. He and I made a pact this Christmas that we would each do more to help. I am hoping to get back for one weekend a month. It will not be not enough.
I am tempted to put the stone back down and find another, one that would fit in more easily. But that would break the golden rule of walling, drummed into me by my father. It followed me into my first day at work.
“Never leave an opened e-mail in your in-box,” my boss said to me. “Once it’s opened, deal with it.”
“Like walling,” I said, pleased to have found familiar ground in this strange Birmingham office. My shiny new degree counted for nothing here against my ignorance of where the envelopes were kept.
As I tried to explain, my words stumbled into the void of her incomprehension. “You must never put a stone back down on the ground,” I told her. “Once you’ve lifted it, you have to find a place to fit it into the wall.”
From then on, in that office they called me ‘Walls’. I didn’t stay long. It was when I joined my next firm that I learnt to love my work, the challenges of new projects, the cut and thrust of making deals. But every time I sit down at my desk and click on the day’s messages, I still think of walling.
Dad is pouring postcrete round the bottom of a wobbly gatepost. He leaves it to set and comes across to look at my work. It makes him smile to catch me standing there with the stone in my hands. He casts an eye over the heap on the ground, lifts one and puts it in place.
“There. Now yours.” He has made a space which fits my stone perfectly and I slot it in.
“I’m on first name terms with all the stones on this farm,” he says.
Dad goes back to his gate and I carry on with the wall. It is not a job to hurry. By the time we are packing up, my back aches and my knuckles are bleeding, even under the gloves. I look along the solid stretch of wall where I have worked, the march of the coping stones on top, pointing regular and upright to the sky.
“Well done, lass,” Dad says. “That’s good work.”
And I know that it is. It is only one wall, one small part of one wall. There are many other tumbled heaps to fix. All the same, it is good. Dad laughs at me as I take a photo on my phone to send my Birmingham friends who won’t understand.
Back indoors I want to soak in a bath until my muscles have stopped screeching. But I go into the kitchen and help my mother, as I have always done. I peel the potatoes that she tips into the sink, push my feet into her wellies to go out to pull carrots that I set on to boil. Our actions weave together in familiar patterns.
Dad pops in and out of the kitchen as we work. He used to sit down to watch the news while Mum cooked, but now he is there to reach a pan down from the top shelf, to open a jar of pickle, to take the lamb out of the oven. She smiles her thanks and he mouths a kiss at her. I don’t think I am supposed to notice.
Mum talks as she cooks, asks me have I found a boyfriend yet, tells me again that my brother’s kids need cousins. I steer her onto local gossip and she talks of how the village pub is up for sale. She tells me three times that Maisie Matthews is engaged, twice that Donald Seymour has crashed his motor bike. When she starts to tell me again about the pub, Dad cuts across her.
“Look.” He picks up a picture of my brother’s son bottle-feeding a lamb. “Young Alexander is a natural. Has a way with animals. He wants to be a farmer when he grows up.”
After we have eaten, Mum insists on coming with me to wash up. She says she doesn’t trust me to put things away properly. She reminds me of when I was four years old and took a bundle of cutlery out to the chickens so that they could eat nicely.
“I’m glad your father’s sitting down,” she says. “He’s done too much today. He doesn’t want you seeing how he’s slowed down since that heart thing.”
I ought to use that opener to talk about retiring. My brother is sure they should sell up. But what would happen then? I hesitate too long and she is reminiscing again, prompted by the Peter Rabbit mug without a handle that she uses to mix flour and water for gravy.
When we go back into the sitting room Dad is asleep. When Mum wakes him he is confused. She holds his hand as he comes round and then almost leads him up to bed.
At breakfast, I swallow hard and ask them.
“Do you think about retiring?”
Dad frowns at me. “Don’t be daft. Where would your mum and I be if we weren’t on the farm?” The skin on his face sags this morning in tired folds.
I could mention the nice bungalow in Bakewell that my brother thinks would do them nicely, but I don’t.
“Besides,” he says, “there’s Alexander. We need to keep things ticking along until he’s ready to take over.”
Alex is seven. When we were seven my brother and I loved feeding the lambs too and told anyone who asked that we wanted to be farmers.
“Your brother’s been on at you, hasn’t he?” Mum says. “Don’t listen to him. We cope, you know.”
I hug her. “Yes, Mum. I know.”
That morning, I go out with Dad around the farm. There is a ditch that needs clearing and I jump down with the spade before he can object. Later, I walk up the hill on my own to check the water in the top field. The gate is off its hinges and tied shut with a loop of rusty wire. I pause beside it and gaze over the land that wraps around our valley. The white farmhouse over there is Carr Bottom Farm. That double curve of birches leads to Banktop Hall. I can name every hill and know each house and farm shed that they shelter.
How did those hunks of gritstone feel when I lifted them out of where they had settled in the long grass? Did they regret what they were leaving? Or did they smile to recognise the places they were made to fit?
When I wave goodbye to Mum and Dad, they stand together at the door like coping stones, surfaces worn smooth against each other.