Read Limestone Cowboy Online

Authors: Stuart Pawson

Limestone Cowboy

Limestone Cowboy

STUART PAWSON

To Doreen

Thanks to the following for their unfailing help, advice and encouragement: John Crawford, Donna Moore, Dennis Marshall, Dave Mason, Clive Kingswood, Margaret Lawrenson, Dave Leach, Kath Gibson, Geoffrey Gibson, Alison at Huddersfield Geological Society (with apologies for introducing a few fault lines where none exist), Mark Crossley and last but by no means least, Teresa and David.

So which was it to be: Balmoral Castle or Sandringham House? This was the sort of decision she hated. Should she choose Balmoral, with its pine trees and purple mountains, or Sandringham, with that impossibly blue sky?

“Oh, for God’s sake! Make up your mind,” she snapped silently to herself, but still no decision came. Never mind, perhaps she’d do better with the
light-bulbs
. She turned to go, turned back again, reaching out her hand, then withdrew it and almost fled into the aisle marked Electrical. Her heart sank when she saw the stacked shelves. A lightbulb was a lightbulb, she’d always thought, so why were there so many different types? She read the labels in mounting panic: sixty watt, forty watt, a hundred watt, and so on. Then some were plain and some were pearl, whatever that meant, and others had screw caps and bayonet caps. She felt like screaming. “I only want a lightbulb. A common or garden lightbulb. Any friggin’ one will do.” Another woman muscled alongside her, picked up a pack of four sixty watts and moved away. For a moment she thought of asking for help, then realised the stupidity of that and gave an involuntary giggle. How could she possibly have explained what she wanted it for?

A female store detective casually walked round the end of the display and watched her. Only two weeks into the job, but she recognised the type: early
twenties
; hair pulled back and fixed with a rubber band;
spotty complexion from chips with everything but usually by themselves. And wearing a cheap quilted jacket with Michigan emblazoned across the back, even though it was a fine summer’s day. Single parent, no doubt, living in one of the project flats after her boyfriend walked out. She’d fill her basket, and
perhaps
those pockets, with toiletries and hardware here in Wilko’s, then walk round to Lidl to buy groceries. Then she’d have to splash what she’d saved by taking a taxi home because she’d never manage everything on the bus. The bus station was half a mile away and the service erratic, whilst there was a queue of taxis right outside the store waiting for fares such as her.

A gaggle of schoolgirls came into the shop and headed for the toiletries, noisy as geese. Wilko’s are good at toiletries, often charging half what the more fashionable stores charge for the same branded items. The detective sighed and looked at her watch. There were still three more shops to be visited before she could go home and make the kids’ teas. She gave the woman in the Michigan jacket a last look and headed in the direction of the noise.

It was easy, the woman in the Michigan jacket realised. Why hadn’t she thought of it before? Choose the cheapest; it was as simple as that. She picked up a bulb – 25p, size and type irrelevant – and placed it in the wire basket she was carrying. What about the tea towels, though? They were the same price, so how would she overcome that hurdle?

She’d choose the nearest. She’d walk round the
corner
, reach out and pick up the first one. She couldn’t remember which it would be, the Balmoral or the
Sandringham, but it didn’t matter. Tomorrow it would be a long way away, in the landfill site, so it didn’t
matter
at all.

It was Balmoral. She almost changed her mind because she’d seen a programme about Sandringham on TV when it was the Queen’s Jubilee, but she
summoned
what little resolve she possessed and grabbed the Balmoral. At the end of the aisle she checked in the big convex mirror that nobody was following her and stuffed the towel into one of her pockets. At the end of the next aisle she did the same with the lightbulb.

The schoolgirls were taking the tops off bottles and sniffing the contents, alternately pulling faces or expressing approval. She pushed between them,
saying
: “Excuse me” and felt a pang of regret mixed with jealousy as their perfume assaulted her nostrils. She wanted to warn them, tell them that there was more to life than boyfriends and pop music and the latest
fashion
, but she knew that she wouldn’t have listened and they wouldn’t, either. She picked up a bottle of Revlon shampoo – 95p here, £2.35 in Boots – and dropped it into her basket. Fifteen minutes later she was on the bus home, with a receipt safely in her pocket saying that at 11:59 she had purchased one item costing £0.95.

The flat was on the third floor and she had to rest twice on the way up the stairs. Whoever lived below her was still piling stuffed bin-liners out on the
landing
, and somebody had peed in the corner. The
incessant
dum-dum-dum of a drum machine came from the ground floor flat where Heckley’s aspiring answer to Bob Marley lived, and the smell of somebody’s curry competed unappetisingly with that of stale urine. She
leaned out over the wall, took a deep breath of slightly fresher air, and tackled the last flight.

As soon as she opened the door she heard the baby’s whimpering. His tears had dried long ago and his crying was reduced to a low keening noise that grated on her nerves like a fingernail across a
blackboard
. He hesitated for a moment as she loomed over him, but started again almost immediately with renewed energy. She swatted away the flies that were flying and crawling around the carrycot and picked him up.

“It’s OK,” she said, matter-of-fact, as if talking to an adult. “Mummy’s brought something home for you.”

The baby wasn’t placated. He had a flat face with small eyes, and sweat had pasted his hair to his head. She rested him awkwardly in the crook of her arm until the wetness seeped through and she had to dump him roughly back in his carrycot, her face contorted with disgust. The whimpering escalated to full-blown bawling and she fled from the room, slamming the door behind her.

With the television turned up loud she could hardly hear him. The bin men were due in less than an hour so there was no time to waste. The woman laid the tea towel on the work surface alongside the kitchen sink, the picture of Balmoral surrounded by symmetrical pine trees face down, and laid the lightbulb on it. She folded the cloth once, covering the bulb, and stooped to bring a pan from a cupboard.

The first blow was half-hearted and the bulb didn’t break. The second shattered it and the next one reduced the pieces to smithereens. She carefully
unfolded the cloth to inspect her handiwork, the shards of glass that clung to the material sparkling in the dilute sunlight that struggled through the
uncurtained
window. Some too small, most still too large, she decided. Another two blows and she was satisfied with her handiwork.

The bin men came dead on time, the roar of the lorry’s engine announcing its arrival as it emptied the dumpsters and compacted their contents deep within its interior. She stood on the landing, watching, as the evidence of her thieving was engulfed by the collective waste of this end of the housing project. Balmoral Castle and lightbulb were swamped and smothered by waste food, empty cartons, disposable nappies and all the other jetsam of modern society. Cabbage stalks and cereal boxes were mashed and compressed with
takeaway
trays, rotten fruit, chicken bones and used cat
litter
. Jam jars and cigarette packets were mixed with ice cream cartons, ketchup bottles and potato peelings in a stinking stew fit for nothing beyond dumping under the earth, out of sight, out of mind. Powerful hydraulics compressed the tea towel between a
semen-stained
copy of the Littlewood’s catalogue and an unwanted hamster cage, but no one would ever know that. No one at all.

The baby was still whimpering, his throat too dry to cry, his narrow eyes too tired for tears. She picked up a plastic spoon and the tin of peach and banana baby food she’d opened earlier and went into the bedroom. He looked at her, wary and confused, lifting his arms as if reaching for her, then dropping them again. She picked him up, sat him on her knee and let him nestle
against her breast. When he was comfortable she dipped the spoon into the gooey mix of fruit and brought it out piled high.

“’Ere,” she said, touching the mixture against the child’s mouth. “Eat this. This’ll give you something to cry about.”

The baby felt the moist, sweet fruit against his thin lips and liked the taste. He stopped whimpering, opened his mouth wide and gratefully took in the spoon’s contents.

 

When the Earth was still an infant planet its surface was covered by a vast ocean which teemed and boiled with life. A continent arose out of the ocean and the creatures of the sea came out of the water and colonised it. The ocean was called Tethys, and the land was called Gondwanaland.

No, these are not the ramblings of some would-be J.R.R. Tolkein but a rough approximation of modern geological theory, as I remembered it. The sea was alive with a brew of creatures beyond anything that haunted the worst drug-induced nightmare. Primitive
planktons
and algae competed with and supplied food for life-forms which existed in their billions and have
vanished
without a trace. Some of them floated on the
currents
, others developed the means of locomotion. They wriggled and squirmed or flapped protuberances until they moved into more favourable locations, while
others
squirted about on jets of water. They mated to reproduce, or simply divided, then ate each other and their own young. Many were merely a mouth with a digestive tract hanging behind it, while others were
ornate filigrees that hung and hovered in the water, catching the sun that gave life to everything. Some pulsed with luminescence while others had eyes that dwarfed the rest of their bodies. Evolution was
practising
. Most were in blind alleys, doomed to extinction in a handful of generations, because they were not fast or clever enough, or because they tasted too good. Other’s held tenure for aeons, making Man’s visitation on the planet appear no more than a footnote.

Some learned how to convert dissolved gasses and minerals into stone, and developed shells for
protection
, and for a while they held dominion of the sea. But even these, after a moment or two of life, hardly a blink in geological time, sank to the bottom to join the
countless
billions of their ancestors. The land rose and sank, rose and sank, in cycles measuring millions of years. Gondwanaland was pulled apart by forces exerted by the Moon and Sun, and by the rotation of the Earth, into a group of smaller continents much like the ones that exist today. Sheets of ice scoured these lands,
stripping
the soil in some places, depositing it on others, and mountain chains bulged upwards as the new
continents
crushed against each other.

As the climate became more stable Mankind evolved, probably in Africa, and rapidly spread all around the planet. One group, handsomer and more resourceful than the rest, arrived at a place that was as fair as anywhere else they’d seen on their travels. The water was sweet and the climate favourable.

“This’ll do,” their leader declared.

“What shall we call it?” someone asked.

“Yorkshire,” he replied, and so it was.

* * *

Ching-ing! Ching-ing! The sound of steel against steel echoed off the far wall of the quarry as Rosie Barraclough attempted to chisel a particularly fine specimen from the limestone wall.

“There!” she declared as it finally broke free. “Who can tell me what these are?”

She handed the splinter of rock to Geoff, who shrugged his shoulders and passed it to me. It was a cluster of crinoids, but I handed it on without saying so. There were six of us in the group, including Rosie, and we all wore yellow helmets and plastic safety glasses. When I read the brochure for evening classes at Heckley High School that plopped on to my
doormat
, I’d been torn between Geology and Spanish for Beginners. Geology because I was interested and I like to know what I’m looking at when I tramp over the moors and dales; Spanish because it might be useful. I’d decided on Spanish as I walked into the school hall on enrolment night, because I was determined to do more travelling and the learning effort required might keep my brain cells from ossifying. But then I saw Rosie.

She was sitting all alone behind a desk with a label on it that said Practical Geology. I cast a glance at the queue waiting to sign up for Spanish, decided that
holidaymakers
ought to boycott any country that
encourages
the ritual torture of animals, and veered towards Geology. Whether it was a wise move or something I’d regret for the rest of my life is open to debate.

“Charlie,” I heard her say.

“What, Miss?”

“Any ideas what this is, or have I been wasting my time?”

“It’s a fossil.”

“Ye-es. But of what?”

I went off dolly birds a long time ago. Rosie was not too many years younger than me and had grey hair, with silver streaks. But it belonged grey. I couldn’t imagine it any other colour. Her face was strong and mobile, with a mischievous grin constantly playing around her eyes, and she looked great in jeans.

“Um, an ammonite.”

“No, Charlie. You’re about 200 million years too late.”

“Story of my life.”

“Anybody else?”

“Are they crinoids?” Miss Eakins ventured, and as she looked down at the specimen her hard hat fell
forward
and dislodged the spectacles, as it had done
several
times before. There are two Miss Eakins in the class, each a mirror image of the other. Identical
glasses
, identical anoraks and boots, identical hairstyles. Well, style is hardly the word. Frizzy mess is more like it. They did everything together, as far as we could tell, even to the point of speaking in unison. Asking: “Are they crinoids?” was a great departure from the norm for one of them, a blow for individuality. The other Miss Eakin looked horrified.

“Well done,” said Rosie,

The other two members of the class were men. Geoff was a retired building society manager and Tom still worked at something in engineering, he said. Like me,
they both enjoyed walking and wanted to know more about what was underfoot. I think the two Miss Eakins only joined because it was an ’ology. There were twelve of us in the class at the beginning of term, but a
succession
of rainy Wednesdays had washed out most of the fieldwork, so Rosie had gallantly taught theory in the classroom. I didn’t mind, still found it interesting, but numbers had dwindled. I’d have been happy if they’d all stayed away. This was the last class of the summer term, and our only foray out into limestone country, to Bethesda quarry, on the southern boundary of the Yorkshire Dales. It was a long way from Heckley, but geology is all about fossils to the amateur, so we’d met an hour earlier than usual and gone looking for them at the bottom of the quarry, beneath the sandstone. And there was a link with the town, Rosie told us: the stone for Heckley Methodist chapel had been donated by the owner of Bethesda quarry.

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