Inspired by the language of his great-great-grandfather's diaries and the Bible, influenced by authors as diverse as Hardy, Blake, and Faulkner, Peter Hobbs has created a first novel of breathtaking ambition and stylistic innovation, and of enormous emotional power.
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About the Author
The descendant of Methodist lay preachers, PETER HOBBS lives in London. The Short Day Dying is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
Well if happiness were found in a round of duties I should have had my portion today for I have not had much leisure. I am gone down early to St Germans to change the tracts they have not been done since the turn of the year. I found the workers already labouring at the quay loading the barges as the tide rose. The railway viaduct stands immense over the scene it is a remarkable construction one which seems to diminish us in comparison yet still leaves us to wonder at what men can do.
One or two of the men nodded to me as I passed by there are some here who know me. All of us wrapped thickly against the early cold I were glad I had taken an extra layer. The hawsers holding the boats were stiff with ice I have known days so cold that they have snapped robbed by the season of their taut strength the barges sliding from their position at the quay and bringing sudden shouts from the men to hold them there to fasten a new line before they drift out of reach. But the river continues to pour along regardless it has too much mud and salt for it to freeze I think or the tide is too strong and the flow too swift. Just the mill ponds at Newbridge then with a thin layer on them now though one too thin for walking or skating.
Though I have not seen it this year there is a pond on my mother’s farm which often freezes. In the harder winters when I were a child my brothers and I were sent to break into it so the cattle could drink the icy water there. We took long sticks and smashed the clotted surface then carried and threw huge tiles of ice until our fingers grew numb. I remember the hard ache as they warmed so deep and persistent it seemed it would never leave.
Well this winter too has been severe there were days when I could not shake the cold no matter how hard I worked and I have felt for those who are not as strong as I am neither do they have a fire to work beside. I have not always loved the forge it is difficult labour there but the least that can be said of it is that my hands have been kept warm against the frosts. Only the tinners will have been granted similar luxury burrowed deep in the ground warmed by the heat and pressure of rock but I know how things are for them there and I do not envy them.
Still we are just a few weeks into the year and I am a little hopeful that the season is already turning. The easterlies which blew without rest all winter have lost their sharpness and kinder southern winds have swung around to us bearing with them the warmth and weight of the ocean. There is a new feel to the air a touch of cold to it still but no longer one of ice. I have thought too that the first birds are returning though it is early and perhaps my hopes run ahead of the truth of the matter. A broken flock peppered the sky today like seed thrown upwards and scattered by the winds.
I left the quayside to its industry and climbed back up the path towards St Germans. The village proper sits over the lip of the valley tucked beyond the woods a half mile from the river. It is a familiar way and pleasant to walk I have come this road many times and my thoughts tend to drift from the scenery and my particular occupation here. These steps are worn so deep into the patterned memory of my legs that I think if I were to go blind they would find their way with equal ease.
I stopped at the wayside board to post a new tract. The wooden frame supported above the verge by an upright stained with moisture. Some few patchy residues of pitch still visible but no longer enough to keep it from wear. A faint bitter smell of damp from the week’s snow to the wood today though the beams drying in the day’s clear air. On the wooden divider to the glass front of the board there is a tiny keyhole though there were no key that I ever knew of and the doors pull open easily enough to the touch of my fingertips. Inside just the old tract tacked there where I left it at the close of last year.
I kicked from the board the icicles which hung in a bearded row. Took a cloth to the clouded glass. Smoothed a fresh sermon sheet from the packet and fixed it there straightening the paper so that it could be clearly read then I closed the doors the swollen wood squeaking together and holding firm.
In folding the old tract down to take away with me I came to wondering how many had taken the time to stop there and profit by it. I have seen dock workers come home past it and not turn their heads. Perhaps it goes unread. That it is a sight too familiar to them so much so they no longer register it with their eyes the way we overlook much that is close to us. I have thought to mention it at the next distributors’ meeting I wonder what we might do about it. Perhaps if we moved the posts made just a simple change which might encourage people to see them as though for the first time as if they were new and the Word fresh. For I have to ask myself that if it is not the means of saving souls then what good is it? May it please the Lord our God to awaken the poor souls to a sense of their danger for it is late.
I have worked during the day and in the evening I have spent my time visiting the sick it has been a rewarding duty. I have seen two widows at the almshouses Mrs Webber and Mrs Truscott but I found I had disturbed them they had been sleeping through the cold and were not keen to sit with me so I have let them be. Then Mr Blackmore briefly for he were tired his old lungs wheezing still full of dust from the ash pits and lastly Harriet French. She too were very weak her mother told me she had some pain in her chest and sides but she lay quite peaceful during my visit and did not complain of it. She is a kind girl who bears her suffering well though it has already taken her sight and I do not know how much longer she is for the world. She appears very thin with little decent meat on her but then she has survived the passing of another year full of hazards so perhaps we have reason to be hopeful.
She has a cough which scrapes like pain it stretches her face horribly when it comes and the sound of it is bitter reaching out like an infection to take hold of us. Of course we know it is a symptom of that deeper illness that has taken many away from this place and led them to desperation first. In the face of such suffering it is a miracle Harr still has her faith a remarkable sight to witness but then faith is a hard stone I think quite a small thing but powerful and not easily crushed.
Some snow came as we sat and talked but it turned to rain within an hour a soft patter against the window sometimes quite hushed then renewing itself with a squall. Reminded me that there is a leak in the roof there which I have promised to help patch though it is not something I am too sure of I must find someone to ask about it.
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But it were a pleasurable hour. The time glided subtly away and I felt I were called home too soon. So though I have been kept busy with no time for myself and though I do not know how to measure its gain I feel it has been a good day for my soul.
And now that today is already yesterday. I scarcely noticed how it went buried beneath the next day each erasing the last and pushing it further from our memories into oblivion. The Sabbath too has come around and were swiftly lost to us. The poor weather persisted and worsened overnight well I do not mind the rain at all but it made for a miserable walk to preach and there were a disappointing end to my walk attending. I were expecting a congregation but there were just one other there. It is a sad thought if all it takes to keep them away is a little cold and rain.
© Peter Hobbs, 2005
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