A Small Kingdom
Dadder Raft, being a scholar of maritime law, insisted that since time immemorial the land between the highwater mark and low water mark belonged to no one. The legal authority for this was cited as Miss Elizabeth the librarian at the harbour branch library. Since she worked for the council this was regarded as a definitive opinion.
Nana Raft (Mammer as she was then), when challenged to verify the opinion, said the librarian was an expert cable knitter and anyone who could read one of those seafaring patterns obviously knew what they were talking about.
Dadder had always fancied a country seat and reckoned that this gave him the means to acquire one in a certain sense. The river also had high and low water marks and, crucially, one crook in the river's bow was dug as an over-flow for the highest of tides. Most of the year it would not be used but just once or twice it filled with water. Unlike the sea shore, this was only flooded for a few days a year. He argued that this piece of land belonged to him as much as it did to anyone else. A tiny estate which was so prone to flooding that it vanished twice a year appealed to his sense of continuity. He said farmers on the Nile had sorted this out thousands of years earlier.
Squire Bragg who owned the adjoining farm land could probably have challenged this but as he would have had to pay the costs and neither of them fancied arguing with the water bailiffs who maintained they owned the river, yes, and the fish therein, he didn't bother. They agreed to differ so long as Dadder would keep the footpath clear and save Squire Bragg the burden. The bailiffs also reached an accommodation on the matter and Dadder was furnished with a rod licence; what for I know not. He was a tickling man.
Dadder therefore established his HQ which was part bothy, part elderberry bush, on the elbow of the river below the built-up bank. The footpath ran along the top of the bank so only people who really wanted to would make it down in to his Shangri-La. The soaring canes of the elderberry were lashed in to order, their leaves pointing outwards as far as possible. A seat was wedged between the stems, a very long seat that he could even lie down on. Beneath this was a long box with a few tools in it, dragged out when necessary for work. They were not over-worn.
When the foliage was pulled over you would not know there was someone in there at all, except if you heard him snoring or arguing a case with himself, invariably winning. A nearby willow wept silver tears at his eloquence. A rowan stood tall and measured his justice in its blood-red pannicles; it balanced perfectly. Summer passed into autumn and Dadder forsook his flowing realm for his leaning-place at the bar of the Harbour Lights.
It suddenly occurred to him that with the leaves falling he shouldn't leave the toolbox lying where anyone might find it. On an unseasonably warm afternoon with the sun beginning to slant long in the sky, he went back to the bothy only to find he had a squatter.
A sandy short-haired terrier gave a yip as Dadder came towards the bothy. The elderberries which had temporarily given it a roof of purple tiles had gone, stripped off by the birds. A pair of smallish cuban-heeled boots wriggled out towards him, followed by a pastry of petticoats, none too clean, and eventually a small torso topped by a grey head wearing a stout hat shaped like cottage loaf.
The terrier rushed back until it was just in front of the petticoats and announced that it would have anyone, do you hear me, anyone, who wanted to make a fight of it.
Dadder was wondering how to approach the delicate matter of trespass when the woman stuck out her none-too clean hand and said: "Madjy Fidjy, house sitting at your service".
"I don't need no house sitting, Madam" replied Dadder, noticing that she didn't seem to be offering service so much as taking it.
"You do. Someone nearly had your tools away. I stopped them".
This may or may not have been true, but Dadder was in no position to argue about it. "What brings you to my property, Madam?"
"Property, is it. Well, my pilgrimage takes me along the road to Walsingham and I'm resting a while. Here, have a cockleshell." She reached in to her apron pocket and handed Dadder a shell as it it were a ticket. "I ain't got much but I'm not bound for charity. How much do you charge?"
"Charge for what?"
"For the roof, man."
Dadder went blank for a moment at the novelty of being offered money. Besides he had no idea what the going rate was for a night in a bush. He looked at the booted bundle of rags in front of him. "No charge, so long as your dawg stops trespassers. I don't want people moving in".
Dadder went back to the Harbour Lights, an absentee landlord. He didn't expect to see much of Squire Bragg or the water bailiff this side of next spring so he couldn't see there was much difference if he or his agent - or steward as he thought of her - stood guard on the property. She had her camp fire, her cooking pot, her shelter and her dog. Once, when the high tides were expected, he went down and warned her to leave in case the elbow filled up. That night Madjy Fidjy visited the raft and they had a State Banquet on board with dancing on the path. She read the fortunes of the Raft children, and they were all going to marry handsome princes. Even the boys. Mammer Raft told them not to mention this to the Vicar.
Madjy looked at Dadder's almanac which contained the tide tables, the moon phases and the great calendar which even gave the names of the future winners at Newmarket races. She looked serious and made counting movements on her fingers, muttering to herself.
It was the early morning of Christmas Eve when Mammer Raft told Dadder to check on Madjy, see if she wanted to come to Christmas Dinner. She had already stuffed duck feathers in to a pillow and the paddling pool floating in the river looked less full than it had earlier in the year. A wooden decoy sat there now, persuading migrating featherheads to come down for a free feed.
Dadder got up in the dark and trudged along the bank, hoping to run into Madjy at breakfast. The white marker stones of chalk ran along the bank like glimmering bubbles. As he got to the bothy he realised that no dog was barking. He scrambled towards the silent willow wands. No boots, no smoke, no smell or sound of habitation. Not even a wisp of condensed breath escaping between the branches. He thrust his head in to the bush, fearing to see a stiff figure like the marble effigies on the tombs in the church.
There was nothing. The space was as empty as the cockleshell which had stayed in his pocket. Dadder watched the silver sun rise in its new position. It conveniently rose between the banks as they pointed north, as if somebody had built them perfectly to cup the rose crown which poured pale blood on the surface of the greysilk river.
Only, his wooden castle was not quite empty. On his throne of old plank there was a heavy earthen-ware jar with a gut lid stretched over it, tied with brown twine. An old bit of card poked out from under it and a childish hand had written in pencil stub:
Zuger, viniger, creb aples, rowen joose
Thenk kew, gorn to Welsinam for the Birth.
Dadder carried the rowan jelly, the colour of the rising sun, back to the raft and gave it to Mammer.
A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.