The Land


The Land



Sunshine. Midsummer. The trees were full of doves and the hedgerows full of the chattering of sparrows that fell silent every time the planes flew over.


“It’ll all be over, this time next year,” Sybil, a plump young woman who never seemed to actually do anything, but who, despite her lack of doing, was the authority on most, if not all things.


Margo rolled her eyes, pushed the end of the spade far enough into the earth so that she could lean on the handle and rested her head against Ginia’s shoulder.


“If anyone’s going to get bombed, please let it be her,” she whispered.


“I heard that,” Sybil shot her a withering look, the sort of look one might give an unruly child, turned her back and continued preaching to the women within earshot.


“She’ll murder you in your sleep,” Ginia said quietly, feeling Margo grin against her shoulder before she stood up again, stretched her arms up into the air, tanned and freckled against the sky with her white sleeves rolled up past her elbows, before letting them fall against the tough brown breeches, her green knit jersey with the fraying cuffs tied haphazardly around her waist.


“Let her try,” she said, catching sight of Iris carefully stepping over the furrows of soft brown earth while carrying a tin tray full of jam jars filled with water that glinted in the sunshine.


She stopped next to them, held out the tray, the red scarf tied in her hair catching on a momentary warm breeze and fluttering out like a streamer behind her.


“Mrs Jessop’s on the warpath,” she said, holding the tray steady while they took their jars and drank too quickly.


“Why? What’s happened now?” Ginia asked, setting the glass jar back down on the tray.

Iris leaned closer, sweet quiet Iris who barely said a word to anyone but Ginia and Margo, who was too weak to dig and plant long lines of potatoes or thresh hay but deemed strong enough to carry trays of water in and out every two hours.

“The postman. She’s just found out he’s been beating his wife again. She could see it on his knuckles when he delivered the post. She’s ever so cross. Said something about going down there herself and sorting him out.”


There was a brief pause wherein each woman clearly imagined an enraged Mrs Jessop with her white hair and her floral apron, marching down to the post office and waving her little plump arms about.


“Iris!” Sybil called, waving a hand to catch her attention and gesturing over toward the others, a staggered crowd of sweating flushed faces, pushed-up sleeves and mud-caked boots.


Iris set the tray down on the greying yellow bale of straw they used as a make-shift table.

“Come with me,” Margo pressed herself between the strawbale and Ginia, shoulder to Sybil who’s panting breath she could hear approaching.


“Where to?” Iris asked, looking at her, her eyes the same blue as the sky behind her and the blonde of her hair sticking to her forehead.


“Secret. You, me, Ginia.” was all Margo said, raising her eyebrows and flashing that wide sudden flash of a smile that so often gave her away.


“Where are you three off to?” Sybil asked, knowing all too well that the lowered voice of Margo Russell was very rarely a good sign.


“It’s lunchtime!” Margo answered, leaning back on her elbows against the side of the strawbale, head to one side, her dark fringe nearly long enough to get in her eyes.

“That’s not what I asked,” Sybil said pointedly, taking a sip of her water deliberately slowly.


“We’re off to the next field,” Margo said, moving lazily from the strawbale, untying her jersey, “Topless sunbathing,” she added, hanging the jersey on the handle of the spade, a pretence at nonchalance while Sybil emitted a noise somewhere between chicken and turkey.


“You can’t do that!”


Margo cocked her head again, the twitch of a smile just at the very edge of her mouth, “Why not?” she asked, innocently.


Sybil gestured with her arms, spilling water as she did so, “I shall be able to see!” she cried, but Margo just smiled, slowly, with a purse of her lips and a slight nod of her head with Ginia and Iris behind her.

“Only if you’re looking,” she said as she turned, leaving Sybil to her spluttering and the murmur of the women behind them.


“Where are we really going?” Ginia asked, stopping quickly to pick a buttercup and then running a few steps to catch up with Iris and Margo across the second field toward town.

“Down by the old Abergavenny Inn,” Margo said, glancing back at her, “a girl down there’s got some butter and honey for us.”


Both Iris and Ginia stopped abruptly.


“How did you manage that?!” Ginia lowered her voice despite there being no one else around.


Margo drew in a breath, “you know the other day when the postman delivered that telegram to Mrs Jessop by mistake?” She asked, and Iris and Ginia began following her again as she spoke, “and I cycled all that way in that storm to give it to them? Mrs Woolf, that’s her name, she was so relieved to hear the news that she said she’d just have to give me something in return for my kindness. She had extra, she said, from some socialite friend of hers, Lady something, who has cattle,” she paused, swung around mid-stride so that for a few steps she was walking backwards, “and bees!” she added, widening her eyes, grinning, her hair flying loose from her plait.


“And the girl?” Iris asked, raising a hand to shield her eyes from the sun, spotting a squat looking woman standing by the back wall of the inn.


“Her maid, Nellie,” Margo swung her lunch pail in one long under-arcing rainbow.


“Why didn’t you tell us!” Ginia whispered again, as they neared, and Nellie moved slowly over to greet them.


“I wanted it to be a surprise!” Margo answered, then, without pause, shouted, “Hello, Nellie!” and waved her free hand.


Nellie, without waving back, waited for them to draw nearer before uttering a word,

“Mrs Woolf said to give you these,” she said, handing over a clothed bundle, which Margo took graciously, “she said best be careful, there’s mulberries in there and you’ll squash them if you’re not careful,” she looked suspiciously between the three girls, mud dusted cheeks and thinning, worn and patched breeches.


“Thank you! We’ll bring the cloth back,” Ginia said, noting the way Nellie looked them each up and down in turn.


“She said not to worry about that, but said there’s more where that came from should you want some,” she said, then smiled a slight but very unexpected smile.


“Thank you!” Each one of them dipped their heads in thanks, “ever so! Thank you!”

And Nellie turned and walked back as slowly as she had moved toward them, as though she had all the time in the world.


For the rest of lunch they sat with their backs to the haystack in the first field nearer the house and the potato fields, but just far enough away so that they would not be noticed. The stubble ends of the haystack dug into the backs of their white shirts and caught in their hair, and they sat, legs outstretched, a loaf of bread torn and shared and spread with yellow butter and golden honey that dribbled down the sides of their hands and was sucked from fingers and licked from lips while the hum of bees and summer wasps hovered around the last of the fat pink mulberries that had stained their fingers.


“It’s not all bad,” Ginia said, squinting up at the sun through wide tortoiseshell glasses that she was forever pushing back up the bridge of her nose.


“Mmm?” Margo asked through a mouthful, and Iris waved a lazy hand to usher the flies away.


“The war,” Ginia said, pouring more honey from the jar onto the thick slice of brown bread.


Margo laughed, “all these deaths, destruction, the collapse of civilisation as we know it? It’s marvellous.”


Ginia nudged her sharply with an elbow good-naturedly, “you know what I mean,” she said.


“It’s not so bad, today, right now,” Iris said, like the flower, leaning toward the sun.


That evening, just as the sun was setting across the dales, turning sheep to smudge and hill to stars, they drifted in from the fields, fourteen of them, all lodging with Mr and Mrs Jessop of Far Slack Farm who had all manner of outhouses-turned-homes for the land army women.


Mrs Jessop was standing just inside the front door when they came, watering the geraniums on the window sill with water from a teapot with a cracked lid. She watched them come through, smiling, greeting them by name.


“Margo,” she said, as Margo kicked the mud from her boots on the boot scraper just outside the door and stepped inside, the mud from her soles lose and dry, still leaving footprints.


“Why don’t you just throw a bucket of mud on the floor and be done with it?” Mrs Jessop asked, her blue eyes twinkling with amusement, “always the same, you three.”


“Wouldn’t want to disappoint you,” Margo grinned and both Iris and Ginia kicked their boots against the wall after scraping them to get the last sods of earth off.


“You’re always twice as filthy as that Sybil,” Mrs Jessop said, setting the teapot down next to the last geranium and wiping her hands on her apron.


“That’s because we do twice the amount of work that she does,” she said with a wink, and Mrs Jessop suppressed a smile and ushered the three of them into the dining room.


“I’ll just get the potatoes,” she said, rushing back into the kitchen and returning with a large brown dish, “there we go”, she said, easing the bowl of mashed potatoes down into the middle of the table to accompany the roast pheasant, just as old Mr Jessop came in with what was left of his hair tufted up around the edges from his afternoon snooze.


“I’ll tell you this, Percy. The male animal has a lot to answer for,” she said, without looking up, pushing a serving spoon into the potato with more force than was necessary.


“What have I done now?” He asked, warily, unsure whether or not to risk pulling out a chair.


“She’s still cross about the postman,” Iris whispered.


“All of you. Down through the ages, and it’s the woman who always suffers. You drag her along behind you like a mere thing. An object. A chattel. Never once thinking about the woman, of course. Just assuming we will do as you please,” she sat down at the head of the table with a thud.


“Am I missing something?”


“Don’t interrupt, Percy. Just put that mess you’ve made with the newspapers away and make the tea,” she said, still not looking at him.


“Anything you say, chattel,” he murmured, passing a bemused look across the table before shuffling back into the living room.


The next morning, just before sunrise Margo was awoken by the persistent shove of a hand on her shoulder, the hiss of her name, over and over as she rose from sleep, thick with dreams,


“Margo!” The voice again, frantic and quiet, like a voice only just heard through the blue of a daydream, “Margo!”


“What is it?” she rolled over, eyes only just open against the light on the landing, “What’s happened?”


“Ginia,” she said, and Margo pushed herself up into a sitting position, “Mrs Jessop just heard it on the wireless, her brother was killed. Shot. Ginia’s brother,” Iris was pale and thin, her long blonde hair loose over the shoulders of her white nightgown.


“He was the only family she had,” she added, quietly.


“Where is she?” Margo asked, suddenly awake, suddenly trembling, “Where is she?” she asked again, without giving Iris time to answer.


“Downstairs. In the living room,” Iris held out a hand to steady Margo as she stepped into her slippers, “Mrs Jessop’s made a fire,” she added.


Downstairs the firelight flickered on the ceiling, casting long black shadows that stretched and flared across the room, and by the fireside Ginia sat, her red hair in a loose plait, her face blotched red and white, breathing through her mouth and just, staring, straight ahead into the empty air.


Margo sat down beside her, rested her hands on her knees and looked up at her, “I’m sorry,” she whispered, “I’m so sorry,” she kissed the curve of her knees where the fabric of her nightgown was starting to thin, paused there, lips pressed against her, breathing in the smell of the earth.


“I’ve made tea,” Mrs Jessop announced her arrival as she bought in a floral tray with a brown china teapot and little stacks of cups, “that’s the last of the sugar I’m afraid,” she nodded to the sugar bowl with barely a spoonful left.


“Thank you, Mrs Jessop,” Iris thanked her as she set down the tray on the small table.

“I shan’t stay, I’ll give you girls peace,” she squeezed Iris’s arm, her face round and gold and kind in the firelight and she took one quick look at Ginia, “Poor girl,” she said quietly, more to herself than to anyone else.


Iris poured tea, stirred the milk and the last of the sugar into Ginia’s cup and set it down next to her.


Margo watched her, her cheek against Ginia’s knees, and Ginia, between hiccuping breaths, whispered, “that’s all of us now,” her voice was strange and quiet, “all of us,” she repeated.


Margo looked up at her, and Iris sat gently down on the arm of the chair and offered out the tea to her, “all of us with no one, no family-” she stopped abruptly, squeezing her eyes shut tightly only for a moment.


“No…!” Margo murmured, adjusting her position on the floor so that she was kneeling, looking up at Ginia in earnest, “no,” she said again, “you’re not alone, you’ve got us,” she rubbed her palms against Ginia’s knees and Iris draped an arm across the back of the chair, “you’ll always have us,” Iris agreed, in that quiet gentle way that she had.


“And,” Margo continued, “aren’t we a family, aren’t we each other’s family? We love and care and look out for each other? All of us, I suppose,”


“Even Sybil?” Ginia asked unexpectedly, and Margo laughed, “even Sybil,” she agreed, glancing to Iris who smiled softly at her in the firelight.


“We’re all family, but us three, you and Iris, we’re family, and I’d have picked you even if I had a hundred brothers and a hundred sisters. It doesn’t take away from the awful, awful….thing of dying, but we’re family, all of us, through everything. Always.”



Natascha Graham


Influenced by David Bowie, Virginia Woolf and Sally Wainwright, Natascha Graham is a writer of stage, screen and radio and lives with her wife on the east coast of England.

Her novel, Everland has been selected for the Penguin and Random House WriteNow 2021 Editorial Programme, and her short films have been selected by Pinewood Studios & Lift-Off Sessions, Cannes Film Festival, Raindance Film Festival, Camden Fringe Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival, while her theatre shows have been performed in London's West End and on Broadway, New York as well as at The Mercury Theatre, Colchester, Thornhill Theatre, London and Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York where her monologue, Confessions: The Hours won the award for Best Monologue.


Natascha is also working on The Art of Almost, a comedy-drama radio series which she both writes and stars in, as well as working together with Queer Colours Theatre on the upcoming production of her stageplay, How She Kills.


When she is not writing, Natascha is co-editor in chief of Tipping the Scales Literary & Arts Journal with her wife and co-hosts the upcoming LGBT podcast, The Sapphic Lounge, with fellow writer, Stephanie Donaghy-Sims.


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