The Wet Afternoon of Ravilious

It had become a daily treat. Someone was placing images of Eric Ravilious paintings on Twitter, and I was among hundreds who had registered likes and sometimes retweeted, expressing admiration for an artist who had been dead for almost eighty years. Some were familiar to me, others new, then came one that held me staring at the screen. Wet Afternoon, a man walking away down a narrow country lane on a drizzly day. He was a small figure seen from behind, but the lines of his legs conveyed steady stride, a young man with somewhere to go. It was so like the memory of the last time I had seen my dad, walking off down another country road and never seen again. My eyes stayed on the picture, placing it within the old bewilderment, until the ringtone from my phone prompted me to close the screen.

That night my mind drifted into the painting. I was on the muddy lines of the path, between the brown strokes and dappled greys of the banks and hedgerows, feeling the faint squiggle of rain on my cheeks. The man was there, still with his back to me and walking towards the trees further along the lane. I began to follow, first at a walk then a run. My feet squelched on watercolour mud and the rain sprayed my face. The man kept walking, maintaining the gap between us even as I tried to run faster. He didn’t look around but I sensed he knew I was there. Then I felt my feet slide, spluttered in the drizzle and called out. “Dad!” That was when I woke up.

I went to the bathroom, returned to bed, then fell into another uncomfortable drowse, in and out of the painting. In the middle of the night I arose again, sat in the kitchen, read a magazine and drank camomile tea. That brought some sleep, but over the next few days the painting kept slipping into my mind, dragging out confused memories of my dad.

He had problems for a long time before he disappeared, even before I was born. My mum had fallen for a handsome oddball, telling herself he was eccentric but charming and quite loving in an off the wall way. She was having second thoughts even before I was born and acknowledged the delusion the day he had left me alone on a sudden compulsion to go out to buy a tennis racket. There was erratic behaviour, brief obsessions, ideas about threats that nobody could believe. By the time I was two she had encouraged him to move out but promised he could still see me if somebody else was with us. I was four on the day that we went for a walk in the country with his sister. The weather turned wet and windy, we were hurrying back to the village where the car was parked, and he suddenly insisted that he had to look at something, turned and walked away. My aunt and I began to follow, struggled to keep up with his pace, then the rain grew harder and she decided it was better to get me back to the car. She called out that he could find us there. He didn’t turn around, and we didn’t see him again.

My childhood turned out OK. After a while Mum met a decent man who moved in, gave me a sister and made me comfortable with calling him Dad. Once my real father had been gone for long enough they married. I had friends, did well in school and had a decent start in life; but it was always there, that I was the son of a man with a messed up head who walked away from his whole life. My memory of him was patchy, but strong enough for the questions to stay in the back of my mind. Where had he gone? Was he still out there? What were his memories of me?

The dream pushed me back towards the country lane in Kent. I had been there a handful of times over the years – once each with Mum, my wife and my son – walked along the lane, stared into gaps in the hedgerows, over garden fences and across fields. A couple of times I found people who had remembered when the police asked questions about a disappearance and shown photos of a young man, but none had seen him or anything unusual on that day. This time I paused at a couple of cottages and a farmyard gate, thought about knocking on doors, but knew it would be a waste of time. Instead I walked a couple of miles, came to another village and a point where the road went in three directions, and couldn’t think of a reason why my dad would have taken any of them. I made do with a pint in the village pub and telling myself that I shouldn’t do this again.

That night the dream returned. The country lane from the painting, the mild streaks of rain, the lines of mud and dapples of hedgerow, the man walking away and me trying to follow. Then I remembered that I had done this before and would never be able to catch him, so I stopped and watched, and he paused. He was close to the point where a small chapel stood behind the hedge to his left and half turned, prompting a moment of excitement in expecting to see his face. But instead he looked into the hedge, or a gap which led into the chapel’s grounds, and took a step to examine something on the other side. I began to follow again – then woke up. This time it woke my wife as well, and she followed downstairs and listened as I told her about the dream. She had always been sympathetic about what had happened, believed it had left traces of anxiety in my mind, and suggested it might be time for a few sessions with a counsellor. I reminded her I had done that before but said I would think about it. Next day I found the painting on the internet, noted the name and location of the chapel and looked it up on the map. Then I asked the family to excuse me because I was going to Wales for the weekend.

By the Saturday afternoon I was walking down that narrow country lane that Ravilious had painted. I probably wouldn’t have recognised it – trees had grown, others cut down, parts of the hedgerow chopped and tarmac laid on the road – but the damp murk hung in the sky and the roof and spire of the chapel rose above the growth to the left. I had kept a steady pace from the village but began to slow down, feeling a drizzly wind on my face and realising this was ridiculous. I was in a wet country lane a hundred and fifty miles from home, not knowing what I was looking for because a picture on Twitter had muddled into my dreams. But I kept going to within thirty yards of the chapel, around the point where the artist had placed the figure, then stood and stared. I could see hedges, trees, the slate roof of the building and a couple of plastic bottles that had been dropped beside the road. I thought about looking at the chapel more closely but expected another disappointment and wondered if it was time to give up. Then I heard a voice.

“You lost mate?”

A man with a dog had come from behind.

“No, just don’t know whether to go forwards or backwards.”

“Sounds lost to me.” He had a broad Welsh accent and a friendly smile. “Just looking at the chapel I suppose. You an admirer of that artist?”

“You know about him?”

“Yeah. We get a few people come down here, just like to see in real life what they’ve seen in the painting. Funny, I saw you walking down the road and couldn’t help thinking of the bloke who’s walking away from the artist.”

Like I had thought of my dad. That brought a smile out of me.

“The chapel’s likely locked,” the man said. “But we can have a look around the graveyard. If you’re into that.”

I agreed. The guy was about my age, with the grey streaks and stubble to match, and now he had appeared I was glad to have some friendly company. He led us a few yards further to a break in the hedgerow and a gate that led into the ground around the chapel. It was on a mild slope towards a clump of trees, freshly mowed grass contrasting with the battered angles and worn faces of the headstones. The guy pulled the dog towards the side, clear of the graves.

“Don’t want her cocking her leg up a headstone; mark of disrespect.”

“You from around here?”

“Yeah. Grew up a mile down the road. Went to uni in Cardiff, stayed there until about three years ago, had a little health scare then worked it out with my company that I could cut the hours and work from home. The wife comes from around here as well, so we thought it would be good to move back.”

We fell into an easy conversation about ourselves, two middle aged men who had done OK over the years, had families, felt content and still had small ambitions. I didn’t include anything about my original father or the dreams that had led me there. The guy kept the dog a few yards away while I wandered between headstones, reading inscriptions that had faded over hundreds of years, taking in names, ages, when they died and the fact that most had been younger than me. Then I came to one that looked relatively recent, the stone a much paler shade than most others and the lettering more clearly defined. It had a simple inscription: A BRAVE MAN, and a date of death in September 1972. The other guy noticed me looking.

“There’s a story behind that one.”

“Didn’t he have a name?”

“Must have had, but no-one around here’s ever known what it was.”

He moved a little closer, keeping the dog a few feet from the grave.

“Three kids were climbing on some trees on the river bank, about half a mile on from here, right at a spot where it gets steep and some of the branches overhang the water. There had been a few days of bad weather, with a downpour that morning, so the steep parts of the bank were really slippery. One of the kids was working his way along the side by hanging onto a branch, but it snapped and he went down into the water, still hanging onto it, and it got stuck on the side. He tried to claw his way back but the branch was all tangled and he got his leg stuck – couldn’t pull himself free – and the river was running really hard and it looked like the branch wouldn’t hold and he would be swept off at any time. Him and his mates were terrified he was going to be pulled under, so one went tearing off home to get help while the other stayed with him.

“It took twenty-odd minutes, and by the time his dad had driven him back his mate was out of the water, standing by the bank with the other boy, but they were going frantic trying to see something in the river. They said some weird looking guy, big beard and scruffy clothes, had come along, slid into the river then dived under water. Kid who had been trapped felt him working his leg free of the branches so he could claw his way to the bank and grab at a tree root, but neither of them saw the bloke come up behind him. Then the branch broke away from the bank and floated off with the current.”

He paused, long enough for me to ask a question.

“Did they find him?”

“Nearly a mile away. The branch stuck at a bend in the river but the poor bugger had drowned.”

“So that’s him?” I looked down at the headstone.

“That’s him. Local police tried to find out who he was, but no luck. He didn’t have anything that could identify him, and there was stuff in the papers around Wales but it didn’t bring up anything. But the boy’s family, name of Coleman, didn’t want him in an unmarked grave. They paid for a proper funeral and the headstone. A good few people from around here turned out to see him off.”

“Nice gesture.”

I took another look at the headstone, acknowledging that whoever the dead man was, he had deserved that tribute. Then I spent a few more minutes in the graveyard, looking at other memorials and taking in the view while the guy let his dog sniff around the edges. Then the drizzle turned to rain and I felt a chill.

“I reckon that’s enough,” the man said. “Time to get back inside.”

We walked back towards the village, telling each other our names and keeping up an easy conversation. I liked him and was grateful to accept an invitation for a pint in the pub. We got into talking with a couple of other guys and I felt this was a decent way to spend a wet Saturday. After an hour I needed to use the toilet and walked to the other side of the bar, noticing a bunch of old framed photos on the wall, little scenes from the life of the village going back the best part of a hundred years. One by the door was in colour, showing a group of about twenty people outdoors, most with plates of food or drinks and in clothes and hairstyles from the early seventies. It was a little blurred but a figure off the edge of the group caught my eye for a moment. When I was done in the toilet I took a second look, squinting at the figure, a not quite young man under a canvas hat with a large brim and a thick beard. The face was looking down and too small to show much detail, but the eyes, nose and what I could see of the mouth, were weirdly familiar. Something in it reminded me of my dad.

My friend appeared behind me.

“You looking at the guy to the right? He’s the one I was telling you about.”

“The one who saved the kid?”

“That’s right. This was a bit earlier the same day, village barbecue. He had wandered along and cadged a feed – the woman in charge reckoned he needed it – and hung around for a little while. A couple of people tried talking to him but he didn’t have much to say and had a weird look, as if his mind was off somewhere else. They reckoned he was a tramp, but harmless. Then he was gone, until they found him in the river. The man who took the photo realised a couple of weeks later that was him, and the publican at the time decided he deserved his place of honour on the wall. They say someone tried having the detail of the bloke’s face blown up to stick in its own frame, but it came out such poor quality they didn’t bother. So that’s all there is. I don’t think anyone would recognise him.”

He went into the toilet and I looked again at the photo. There was no definition in the man’s face, but I couldn’t help feeling it had once been close to mine, felt my breath and smiled. Was I looking at my dad? I was still staring when my friend reappeared.

“He’s got your attention.”

“Oh yeah. Looks a bit like someone I knew.”

We returned to the bar and I asked another question.

“Is that boy who was saved still around? Or his family?”

“Don’t think so.”

The men looked at each other and shook their heads.

“Heard the boy did OK for himself, university lecturer up in Liverpool last I heard. Both parents passed away. He had a couple of sisters, but neither of them live anywhere close these days.”

“What about the people who spoke to the weird guy?”

Again they looked at each other, again they shook their heads.

“Long gone. And I know one of the other boys died young, some illness, and the other one went abroad. It’s just a bit of the local history now.”

The subject changed, my mind drifted around the idea of mentioning my dad but it seemed an indulgence when I couldn’t be sure. So I enjoyed the company and got a little bit drunk.

Everyone went home, I went back to my bed and breakfast and slept for a couple of hours, but in the evening returned to the pub for a feed and another couple of pints. I found a table in a quiet spot where I could look at the wall with the photo. I still couldn’t be sure, but there was enough to keep me thinking it was possible. Did my dad end his life as a clumsy hero? I grabbed a photo of the photo on my smartphone, looked at it on the screen and saw the quality was even worse. It wasn’t going to prove anything but I wasn’t disappointed.

Before I went to bed I pulled up the Ravilious picture on my phone, looked at it for a while and felt an odd sense of contentment. Then I slept without the dream.

Next morning I had breakfast, considered a final visit to the pub but decided against it. I had looked long enough at the photo the previous evening and couldn’t be sure of anything, and I didn’t really want to get into a long investigation. But I had found something, heard a story that might have included my dad, and given me something good to think about him. That was enough.

I drove home, eager to spend some of Sunday with my family.

Image: public domain