Miriam, having chanced upon a crossing point to a Moorhens 39 years before her birth,
is exploring the badly-flooded area beyond the grounds that she knows so well in 2005.
MIRIAM RAINEY, 1945
Rising from all the water that surrounds it, the grassy mound known as The Green looks like a small island. Half a dozen years from now, if I have the dates right, it will be bordered by pebbledashed Council houses, and a few decades on from there be nothing more than a parking place for a fish and chip shop and a pub. Here, though, here and now, in 1945, there are only a few small houses and cottages to one side of it, and it's just a bump at one corner of a waterlogged Coneygeare whose boundaries are the river down there and another smattering of properties up that way. Even under water the openness is somehow cheering. No ugly cheek-by-jowl housing, no cars and vans jammed into every space, no satellite dishes on wall after wall, no sauntering gangs leering at young women with babies in push-chairs. I shouldn't hang about, I know, but I'm drawn to the grey stone obelisk in the middle of The Green, the war memorial, whose military angles and pointed top are yet to be sullied by abuse and age.
Taking care not to slip on the rising grass, I approach the memorial, where the names of fifty-three local men who died in the first world war are recorded. The names are etched into three of the monument's sides, the fourth being devoted to the words 'They Shall Not Be Forgotten', which they will be of course. I've never (in the future) bothered to read the names of men who didn't return from that old war, but today, in spite of the need to do a lightning tour of all this, I somehow feel that I must pause a minute and skim them. A few of the surnames sound familiar – family names from hereabouts even in the next century – but only one really leaps out at me: Rainey. In full the inscription reads PRIVATE RODERICK B. RAINEY. It takes a moment, but then I remember his photo, in uniform, in the old family album. Apart from that picture and the name written beneath it, I know nothing of Roderick B. Rainey.
RODERICK B. RAINEY, 1917
The manner of nineteen year old Roderick's death was never recorded, and thus never known back home. Like so many advancing on the village of Passchendaele that autumn, he had fallen foul of the heaviest rainfall in thirty years, and the conditions it fomented on the ground. The rain had come down in sheets, unceasingly, day after day, each and every night, sapping morale, resolve, humour. The prayers of many for the rain to cease had had no more effect than those asking for lives to be spared or agony relieved. Despair and misery ruled in that hellish landscape, that vast quagmire of stripped black trees, water-filled shell-holes, shattered gun-pits and dugouts, littered with the corpses of men and horses. When, around noon on a certain October day, Roderick slipped off a slimy duckboard, he plunged to his knees into the accommodating mud. Comrades reached for him, but the suction was too fierce, the mud too predatory, for them to pull him out before they were driven back by enemy bombardment.
No shell or bullet struck Roderick during the relentless assault, but the mud was pitiless, and little by little, inch by inch, it drew him into itself. In hours it had him to the waist, screaming for help from comrades-in-arms, God, even his parents. But no relative fretting at home came to his aid, no harried soldier darted forward to drag him out, no fanciful deity magically intervened on his behalf. By late evening he'd sunk to his chest in the gurgling mire, alternately wailing and whimpering now, all hope gone. At dawn next day all that could be seen of him was the top half of his head. The mud filled his mouth. He was quite insane.
Roderick's death, which destroyed his doting mother, was a turning point in Rainey family chronology. If he had survived the rapacious Passchendaele mud, if he had returned unscathed at the end of the Great War, Moorhens would have eventually gone to him instead of Ned, his younger brother, and an alternative branch of the family would have dwelt there over the years. Because different meetings, liaisons and connections would have occurred in the line that subsequently occupied Moorhens, Lena Marie Hoth would not have met Joseph Charles Rainey in 1983 and the following year had a child by him – and neither Cal nor Miriam would have been born.
The following is an unsigned note, written on a typewriter some years ago, which Miriam finds in a hole in the old oak known as The Family Tree
You are a junior editor at a small publishing house in Oxford. You are single. You live alone. It's Saturday morning and you're off to do the week's shopping. About to get into your car you decide to go back and check that you locked the door. By going back you leave a minute later and miss the parking spot you would have found at the supermarket and are forced to park in a nearby street instead. There are parking meters in this street, but drivers are only allowed to leave their cars there for thirty minutes. While placing your ticket inside the windscreen someone calls your name. It's a friend – Laura – who you haven't seen for a while. Laura introduces you to a neighbour of hers, Harry, to whom she's given a lift to town. You and Harry are mutually attracted, but as he's married you part company. Or you don't. Two possible scenarios present themselves.
Scenario 1. After leaving Laura and Harry you go to the supermarket, fill your trolley, and join a queue at the checkout – a longer queue than the one you would have joined if you'd not stopped for a chat in the street. By the time you get back to the car you find a 62 year old recovering alcoholic (a traffic warden) writing a ticket. Annoyed, you have a go at him, ruining his day. When he gets home after work the traffic warden takes it out on his wife. His wife has been feeling very put-upon of late and her husband's harsh words are the final straw. She packs a bag and goes to stay with her sister eighty miles away. In the weeks that follow, the lonely traffic warden starts drinking again. He takes booze to work and loses his job. One night at home, very drunk, he decides to do himself a fry-up. The frying pan catches fire, the fire spreads, the house is gutted. So is the ex-traffic warden. His widow collects on his life insurance and passes the rest of her life in comfort, praising his memory.
And all because you went back to check the door.
Scenario 2. Instead of saying goodbye to Harry in the street where you parked the car, you go and have a coffee with him. You still get a parking ticket, but you don't mind too much because you really enjoyed Harry's company. Over the next few weeks the two of you meet regularly. You start an affair. Harry's wife finds out and comes after you. She attacks you. Defending yourself, you lash out. She falls and cracks her head open. You are arrested, tried, and sentenced to four years in prison. By the time you get out you've lost all ambition and confidence and have no job. You very nearly go to pieces, but instead go to the island of Santorini in the Aegean, where you spend your days walking the beaches and wondering what's going to become of you. One day you meet a handsome American law student on vacation. He thinks you have a cute accent and offers to share his sleeping bag with you. When you part, you exchange addresses, but it's not until you return home that you realise you are pregnant. You write to the law student to inform him of this but he doesn't reply, and in due course you give birth to a son that you do not name after him. Time passes. Your son becomes a man. He meets a girl. They bring three children into the world, the first of whom becomes an accountant, the second a roofing contractor, and the youngest an Elvis Presley impersonator. The youngest is also a serial killer who over a two-year period butchers twelve teenage girls while singing 'Are You Lonesome Tonight?'. If they had lived, the twelve girls, between them, would in time have given birth to 29 children, who between them would have co-parented 68 children, who would have had 176 children, who altogether would have produced 442 children, two of which – female twins – would have been the first humans to be beamed to an Earthlike planet in Alpha Centauri.
And all because you went back to check the door.