To coincide with the publication of her debut novel by Hutchinson, an exclusive extract from Sarah Ridgard’s Seldom Seen
BACK OF BEYOND
I should never have started crawling around in ditches, kicking up people’s secrets. I used to be afraid that if I tripped and fell, I’d crack my head open and they’d spill out everywhere. The stuff I knew, the secrets. That they’d lie on the road in shock for a moment, trying to get their bearings, until some got caught up in a gust of wind while others went crawling off under hedges, into ditches to wash up in people’s back gardens, or in the gutter outside the village shop for all to see.
‘Dolly, you’ll never guess what I’ve just heard,’ Sadie Borrett would say over the fence, looking over her shoulder towards the back garden where a secret has just landed on her buddleia like a Peacock butterfly. ‘That Pam White has been carrying on with Bernie from the garage. Been at it for years, apparently. They were seen in the back of a van which was brought in for repairs from out Bedfield way.’
Or further up the road by the council houses a gang of kids would be skipping and chanting, ‘We know who went with the Peaman.’
I got too good at being able to disappear, that was the problem. It took years of practice, this trick of the breath. I breathe in deep, hold it, then let it out, slow, flat and even. I breathe out through my skin, all over. That’s the way animals do it. Rabbits, hares, rats. They breathe out and flatten into the sides of verges, become part of the field. It’s like the edges of me begin to fade away and the colour behind leaks through. I can take on the pattern of cowslips in a ditch, or a shelf of tins in the shop, all the time feeling safe down there, tucked away behind my ribs.
That’s how I found out about Pam and Bernie long before anyone else. I’d seen them a couple of miles out of Worlingworth parked up in a layby one evening. You couldn’t see them from the road. The Ford van was on the concrete next to the ditch, hidden behind a ten-foot-high pile of sugar beet, its lights turned off except for a small one inside above the windscreen. I was on my way home, walking the ditches between two fields with the faraway names Malaga Slade and the Back of Beyond, remembering where to avoid the drainage pipes and the small fridge that somebody had tipped down there months ago, now invisible in the dark. I was on a level with the van’s tyres, the suspension. The near right looked a bit soft as the van rocked around, its chassis creaking, the springs pinging up and down. I wanted that clamp to give way and a ton of sugar beet to come crashing down on to the pair of them. He didn’t do that to me. Bernie Capon didn’t make the car rock and roll for me. He’d never even given me a lift home after pushing into me against rubbish bins out the back of the village hall.
There’s a stack of them in my head, other people’s secrets, solid up to the roof like hundreds of straw bales wedged in tight. Take one or two out from the bottom and they’ll all come tumbling down, bales exploding all over the place. Like when you cut the bailer twine if they’ve been baled too tight and the straw busts out the middle, becomes twice, three times the size, dust flying up everywhere.
Our house stood out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by fields that stretched for miles. A Suffolk prairie, some people called it. There were no trees or hedges left. They were grubbed up when the smaller fields disappeared, so that even the spindliest elder stood out like an oak tree.
Every time I slid down a bank, it felt like I was slipping into a crack in the earth, a place where I could hear and see things properly. Where everything above ground grew to three, four times the normal size. Boxing hares could look like two grown men having a stand-up fist fight in the middle of a field, and the underbellies of vans could look as big as juggernauts seen from a ditch. It was the only place where thoughts slowly trickled back into me, where I could hear real sounds – like that noise the clay makes after it’s been raining, a soft sucking noise, a bubbling from underneath as if the field is smacking its lips.
The best ditches were the ones over at World’s End on the edge of Worlingworth. Three brothers and a sister worked the farm: Walter, Edgar, Hubert and their sister Ivy. They’d always kept cows and pigs, a few red hens. The water ran clear into their ditches and was thick with pondweed and frogspawn by the start of spring. Ducks came over from the drinking pond to feed there sometimes, wading down banks full of primroses and oxlips.
But then there were ditches like the ones either side of Tannington Straight, deep lifeless ditches full of rubbish. I never went in them if I could help it, tried to avoid going down the road altogether.
I’d found some bad things in those ditches. Porno mags with their pages all stuck together. Used johnnies. Stained mattresses that were tipped straight in, some left to stand there on end. With hundreds of acres of flat field either side, people knew they wouldn’t be caught out, surprised by cars swooping round a bend or people out for a stroll, because nobody ever walked down the Straight, not even with the dog for a stretch of the legs. People only walked down it for a purpose, like me or Walker. Car drivers had a clear view in every direction and if they couldn’t see anybody, then nobody could see them. An open road, a clear throw, so they wound the windows down, or stopped to open the boot, just long enough to lob something into the ditch. Like a baby.
Everybody was talking about it. I could hear them wherever I went.
‘Have you heard? There’s been a baby found. Up by Tannington Straight.’ On the streets, in the village shop, over garden fences. It reached as far as Fram where people whispered about it in Carley & Webbs.
‘A newborn baby, dumped right out there in the middle of nowhere. Who would ever do such a thing?’
‘Nobody’s been carrying round here, not that we know of. It must have been someone from outside. Poor little mite.’
On and on they went. What was its mother thinking of? How a poor little defenceless creature didn’t deserve an end like that. I knew what they were on about. It was me who found the baby down there in the ditch that day.
‘It was lucky you happened to be passing on foot,’ people said. ‘That baby could have been down there for days. Deep ditch out the way like that.’ Then with a shudder, ‘Oh, it doesn’t bear thinking about, does it? Such a terrible thing. Was it a boy or a girl, I wonder?’ All eyes turned on me.
It was a still morning in early-March when I found the baby, the first day of the year that the sunshine felt strong enough to start taking the chill out of the ground. The wind had been in the east for the past week, sheeting across the fields and in through the gaps round the window frames. But overnight it had disappeared, and the morning was so quiet, you could hear voices from miles away: the noise of children playing outside the farm cottages in Brundish, the ducks on Fram Mere. It felt like everyone was coming out of their houses into the sun for the first time that year. Blue sky, no wind, a perfect spring morning. It wasn’t long before the crop sprayers arrived.
By mid-morning the spray was hanging heavy in the air. It soaked into the fields, sank into the ditches to settle on the water.
‘First fine day,’ my dad sighed. The spray booms swung close up to the edge of our garden, a fine wash of pesticide landing on our fence, the edge of the goat shed.
‘I do wish they wouldn’t come so close,’ Mum said, as she made sure all the windows were closed. But still those fumes found their way in. A thick smell like burning plastic crept through every hole and crack till the pesticides seemed to fill the whole house and caught against the back of our throats.
I had to get out of the house, find fresh air somewhere away from all the spraying. In the end I decided to take a bag of feed to the two chickens who were living wild by the side of a field towards Horham. They’d fallen off a lorry some time ago when the driver skidded on ice on a back lane, and ended up in the ditch. Me and Dad came across the crash minutes after it happened, saw broken crates and a mess of chickens spilled all over the road. A few days afterwards, when the road had been cleaned up, we saw the two birds that had got away, sheltering under a nearby hedge.
‘Winter nights will finish them off,’ Dad said. ‘They’ll be dead by Christmas.’ But they did survive. They’d got through the winter, and had plumped up with thick feathers from living in that strip of hedge.
It took me over an hour and a half to walk the few miles. I took the longer route so I could get off the roads and go down the bridleways and footpaths across the fields. The chicken boys were scratching around on the verge when I got there, but scuttled off into the field when they saw me. They were still wary after all this time, but as soon as I threw the feed and moved off a little way, they came over to peck at the corn. They were like an old married couple, sticking close together when they weren’t sure what to do, whether to run and which way, or whether to come and feed. It was the smaller bird who usually took the lead, the other following close on his stumpy tail feathers.
It was late afternoon by the time I started heading home, not thinking clearly about the route I was taking. Before I knew it, I’d rounded the bend and the endless grey stretch of Tannington Straight lay ahead of me.
They were growing rape in the fields either side that year. It was already knee-high, like dull grass. The sky had clouded over and the feel of spring was long gone. I put my head down and started walking as fast as I could.
I was halfway along when I saw Bella Creasy, the last person I wanted to meet out there on my own in the middle of nowhere. She was wheeling her bike in the distance, just approaching the top junction. I slid into the ditch without a second thought and landed by a huge pile of bottles. There were always a few empty cans and bottles in there, Tolly Cobbold, Watneys Pale Ale, but this must have been a pile of at least twenty London Gin bottles. The smell of gin was so strong it could have been running off the field that day, getting mixed in with the ditchwater and the pesticides. It wasn’t long before I started to feel queasy. I took a quick look over the bank and saw Bella Creasey hadn’t turned down the Straight after all and had disappeared from sight.
That’s when I saw it just in front of me. Half in, half out of the water. It was a package, wrapped in pages from a News of the World, lying underneath the land drain pipe. It looked like a bag of fish and chips but for some blood showing through. I was wondering if it might be kittens as I prised the paper open with a stick. A photograph of Prince Charles and Lady Di in her blue engagement suit had been covering the body. The face was blackened in places, blotchy, and some newsprint had rubbed off on to the belly, a faint tattoo of Lady Di’s face on the chest. But she had a lovely sticky-out mouth with perfect lips as if she was about to reach up and kiss someone, and a tuft of dark hair with a slight curl at the end. She had no arms.
‘Nobody’s been expecting round here.’ People were going on and on about it. Suddenly they were noticing me, that quiet White girl, stopping me for a chat, asking me how I was. But underneath all their questions about me, my mother, how Dad was getting on in his new job, I could tell what they really wanted to ask me. What did it look like? What colour was it? Was it black, white, yellow? What about its hair, its eyes? Did it look like anyone round here?
I was a walking lump of clay for weeks afterwards, people pressing questions into me, trying to push their fingers into my head and have a good delve around inside to see what they could find. But I never answered people’s questions.
‘Baby was dead, that’s all,’ I mumbled. I didn’t tell them that some of her was missing. I wanted to bury her deep, keep her down there safe and quiet, where nobody needed to know anything, safe as long as she was down there behind my ribs.
If it hadn’t been for the ditch baby, I often wonder how different life would be now. That maybe none of those terrible things would have happened that summer, or everything that’s happened since. From the day I found her, it’s as if that baby climbed aboard a runaway train and sat astride the engine as it hurtled in all crazy directions, mowing down people and houses in its path, and leaving tracks scorched into the ground behind it. I might not be fourteen any more, but it worries me, the way that train is still going strong after all these years with no way of knowing where it’s headed next.