The Pecking Order
‘How was your day?’ and sigh, and cast off work
And is the drudge less vicious, when unseen?
The rat race shadows lessened, when we shirk?
A lifetime now, we’ve railed against the path
Of money, spend, no money, spend and spend.
The debt mounts up, at times we even laugh
(Will our mountain mortgage mill stone ever end?)
And in the office, twenty years have passed
You duly check in, do your daily grind
You call me to discuss the darkness cast
The way they always leave you undermined.
I wish, so fervently, a different world
Where cash was not contingent on abeyance
Where all your quiet genius unfurled
And promotion not depend upon this séance.
Of death creating openings to fill
The vile step up of management to show
that desperation to pay every bill
creates a ruthless, vengeful, cunning low.
This pecking order, then, has a honed beak
It breeds a devious appetite to destroy
And as you wield the dagger, this I’ll seek:
You’ll murder corporate men, not inner boy.
Perhaps one day our Western world will turn
And true talent will revolve its own reward
I guess until that day, we work, and learn,
that life requests a trade, we ill-afford.
Dag always eats first. That’s the rule, and has been ever since he got here. The daily ritual is always the same. They come to the gate with the chute and stick it through, while Dag stands ready with his bowl. When the gruel starts running down the chute, he waits until his bowl is almost brimming over before he moves away and lets his deputies take their turn. There are three of them, all nearly as big and mean as Dag, but not as clever. After they are done getting their food, it’s pretty much a free-for-all, with everyone else scrabbling to get access and get away with at least a few mouthfuls before the flow stops. I’m one of the unlucky ones - since I don’t even have a bowl. So, I wait until right at the end and scrape up what I can with my fingers. Sometimes, I don’t time it well, and they take the chute away before I get the chance to get any gruel. Those are the bad days.
That suggests there are good days, which isn’t true. There may have been before I came here, but it’s difficult to remember a time when my world consisted of anything other than this cave system and those in it. Some die and are taken away, and sometimes there are new faces to replace them, but mostly the days are the same endless struggle with hunger and boredom. The tedium is occasionally punctuated with moments of fear or pain, especially when Dag and his deputies want to play but, overall, time is meaningless. I wonder sometimes if there’s anything actually outside this limited existence at all, or if the entire universe has shrunk to these rough walls and twisting tunnels.
And then she comes.
It’s a day like any other. The darkness of the caves is only relieved by what little light filters through the gate, and the faint luminescence of the moss that grows on the walls. I am sitting in my usual spot, a small hollow in the rock that gives me a view of the whole main cavern. It allows me to watch the others, tracking the daily conflicts and shifting alliances, without drawing attention to myself. Dag is in fine form today, strutting about as if he owns the place and laughing as his deputies torment others smaller than themselves. I shrink back as far as I can within my hollow, and hope his attention doesn’t wander my way.
There is a commotion over by the gate; the sounds of shouting and footsteps approaching. Everyone’s attention swings towards the noise, to see that they are bringing a new face to join us, but it’s a face unlike any that has come before; it is a woman. She is wearing torn trousers and a stained shirt. Her feet are bare; they will have taken her shoes, as they do everyone’s. She is struggling against the vice-like grip on her upper arm and she is shouting.
“You can’t do this! I’m a United Nations Aid Worker and I’m here on official business! I demand to speak to someone in charge!”
She must have angered the wrong people if they have brought her here. This is no place for a woman, and I imagine she won’t survive long. Even if she isn’t killed, she will be broken.
She doesn’t get any response, other than to be shoved roughly through the gate and in amongst us. They lock the gate again, and leave. The woman watches them go for a moment, then slowly turns to take in her new surroundings. I can see the fear in her eyes as forms emerge from the shadows all around her, but she stands tall, defiant.
Dag steps forward and circles her, looking her up and down appreciatively. I jump down from my alcove and start to turn away. I don’t want to watch this. But, something in the woman’s expression catches my attention and I stay. She doesn’t cower away from Dag, but looks him in the eye, standing her ground. And then, when he reaches out to grab at her, she catches his hand, twists it around and forces him to his knees. I hear a sickening crack and he collapses, howling, cradling his arm to his body. The others are stunned for a moment, but it’s difficult to know what their reaction will be. The woman has defeated our leader, and with ease, which should now put her in charge, but her gender raises other questions that may have more unpleasant answers. The mob could go either way.
I don’t wait to find out. I step in, tap the woman on the wrist and beckon frantically before backing quickly towards one of the tunnels. Her eyes dart from me to the others and back again, and I see her trying to calculate her options. Evidently, my actions have labelled me the safer bet, as she moves to follow me and manages to clear the crowd before any of them can decide what to do.
I turn and run, trusting that she will be able to keep up. The tunnels twist and turn, away from the gate, and I keep going until we are well away from the areas most commonly travelled. I can hear one set of bare feet scuffling behind me, but no others, so it looks like we have made our escape.
Eventually, we come to a much smaller cave, one I’m not sure any of the others know about. I spend long periods of time here, until even the company of the others seems preferable to the relentless solitude and I find myself returning to the main cavern once again. Now, though, it provides a welcome haven. I turn to see the woman standing hesitantly in the doorway. I cross to a small pool of water, fed by drops that trickle down the wall. There are many such pools throughout the cave system, but this one I consider mine. I dip a hand in, collect some water, and hold it out to the woman.
She comes forward, takes my hand and brings it slowly to her lips to drink, her eyes fixed on me the whole time. When she has finished, I drop my hand to my side and just stand there, looking at her.
“Thank you,” she says.
I don’t know if she’s talking about the escape or the water. Perhaps both. I shrug.
“Do you understand me?” she asks.
“My name is Sarah,” she says. “What’s yours?”
I shrug again, this time a little helplessly, and look away.
“You don’t know or you can’t tell me?”
I point to my mouth, where they cut out my tongue, and shake my head. I think being silent has helped me survive this place so far, but I would dearly love to be able to talk to this woman. Instead, I kneel on the ground, dip my finger in the water and trace a single word on the dusty ground.
I have not heard anyone speak my name in longer than I can remember. I nod and smile.
She smiles back.
“Well, thank you, Tam. Things could have gone quite badly back there.”
I nod again.
“How long have you been here?”
I just look at her. Even if I could speak, I wouldn’t be able to answer that. There is no way to tell the time in this place, other than by the daily food delivery, though I’m only assuming that comes daily. It could be twice a day or every other day, for all I can tell. I do know that my body has somehow become attuned to the timing of the food, so I can tell when it it time to return to the main cavern. It will not be long now, and I failed to get any food last time, so I do not want to miss it today.
While all this has been going through my head, the woman has been regarding me solemnly. She seems to accept that I’m not going to attempt to answer her question, and just starts talking again.
“A long time, I’d guess.” She sighs. “Well, I don’t want to sound self-important, but people will come looking for me soon, and this place will be discovered and most likely shut down. I don’t know what will happen to you and the others, but I can guarantee it’ll be better than this.”
In and of itself, I’ve always thought this little cave is quite pretty. There are patches of moss that provide some low ambient light, and the trickle of the water into the pool provides a kind of background music. It’s quiet here, and safe from the potential dangers of the others. But getting out of here would surely be preferable to staying, even if I don’t have anywhere to go. Still, we both have to survive until the woman’s friends come for her, before I can think about what I might do in the outside world.
I put my fingers to my lips and mime eating, then raise my eyebrows in a question.
“I don’t have any food on me, I’m afraid,” the woman says, apologetically. “They took everything.”
I shake my head, then mime eating again and point back the way we came. I touch my wrist, in an attempt to convey the idea of a specific time.
She’s very quick. “Oh, I see!” she says. “It’s nearly dinner time, but we have to go back for it.”
I nod emphatically. She looks apprehensive.
“I’m not that keen to test the other men again yet,” she says, “and I’m not that hungry, either.”
I point to myself. It may be selfish, but I don’t have the benefit of her recent healthy diet. I need to eat. I would offer to go and bring something back for her, but I have no way to carry the food. If she doesn’t want anything, though, perhaps I could just leave her here for the time being. I point to her and then to the ground, then to myself and the way out.
“I stay here while you go?” She shakes her head. “I don’t like that idea any better. I’d never find my way out of here again. And I guess I have to face whatever’s waiting for me out there at some point.”
She gestures at the doorway, a clear indication that I should lead the way. The woman walks very close behind me, her presence awakening sensations in me that I had thought long dead. I ignore them, concentrating instead on where I am going and who might be around us.
When we reach the main cavern, they are just putting the chute into place through the gaps in the gate. There is already a crowd around it, but everyone looks very uncertain. There is no sign of Dag, but his three deputies are lurking at the edges of the cavern, looking dangerous. One of them catches sight of us and immediately strides over. I cringe back automatically, but he brushes past me and does something entirely unexpected. He holds out a rough bowl to the woman, and then stands back to allow her through. The other two deputies form up in a line next to him, holding back the crowd and ensuring her safe passage. She grabs my hand and pulls me forwards to the chute, handing me the bowl.
And so, I am first to collect my food, while all the others look on. I don’t know what will happen when, or in fact if, anyone comes looking for this woman. But, for now, there’s a new pecking order in this place and I find myself suddenly at the front.
Mrs Pumfrey was a good woman. Whenever one of the villagers fell sick, you could be sure the Squire’s wife would visit and dispense broth or other sustenance. The sight of her carriage outside your door was a sure sign of sickness and often foreshadowed a death in the family. It became so common that a saying grew up in the village;
"The carriage has bin to Jo Gargery's house"
or "Mrs Pumfrey’ll be here soon", meaning a death was imminent.
She never heard the rumour and spent many hours visiting the community while wondering, sometimes, about the meagre gratitude expressed by the lower orders.
Country folk have a good idea of their proper status in life. The Gentry up at the Manor seemed superior to all. The parson's wife had precedence over the farmer's wife and she, in turn, would not consider walking behind the butcher's wife on the way to church on Sunday.
The old order was set awry when a new Vicar came to the village and took up the living at St John's. The village was agog. He was a high Churchman, with a tendency to use "Smells and Bells" in the new-fangled Popeish fashion, but people felt they could not complain since he was the candidate of the Bishop of Ely. The new wife supervised the unloading of the large wagon standing outside the Vicarage. The ladies of the High street could observe every item unloaded without seeming to quiz, as many windows looked out on the road.
"Good Heavens!" said Mrs Perkins, the butcher's wife. "I do believe that is a grand piano! What's wrong with a cottage piano? I'd like to know!"
"And what's that great big table for?" asked Mrs Potts, the baker's wife.
The lady in question seemed unaware of the interest and ordered the men about in a voice which reached the listeners clearly. Her dress was elegantly simple, her figure slim and tall. She wore her auburn hair high on her brow and a perfectly made chignon at the back of her head. There was so much to envy about her immaculate appearance that it took no more than ten minutes for the ladies of Dymchurch to decide they disliked her intensely.
"Gives herself some Grand Airs for a parson's wife." Said Mrs Gethin and the ladies from across the High Road agreed silently. But when the new parson called, they simpered and welcomed him with cups of tea and cake as if they cherished his presence. No one mentioned his wife directly, still their curiosity was acute and Mrs Perkins approached the matter with what she believed was great subtlety;
"Mayhap Mrs Peters has a liking for needle work, Vicar?
"Oh no!" he replied," I'm afraid she has no time to sew, you see she is a novelist." He seemed to believe that was a sufficient explanation, but it mystified the village.
"Readin' and writin' is not hard." said Giles Foster the farrier, "Why, my Nancy can do that and feed the bairns and the chickens as well."
But as the weeks went by, Elizabeth Peters became a force to be reckoned with.
For example, she took the front pew at church as of right. But Mrs Pumfrey had always prayed from her front pew on the other side of the aisle without competition, but now she had to move briskly to ensure she went first to the altar rails for the Communion. Very stressful.
She demanded China Tea from the grocer and white bread from the baker, which combined luxury and mystery. Worst of all, she brought soups of her own making to the homes of the deserving poor.
Mrs Pumfrey could stand it no more.
"My Dear," she mentioned to her husband, "isn't it time we had the parson and his wife to dinner?"
Squire Pumfrey took no interest in the composition of his dinner parties and muttered something in reply. Soon the invitations were posted and the date settled. Of course, the choice of guests and the menu was a work of exquisite labour. The Coulsons of Pembury Park and the Dowager Lady Freeborn had been invited and accepted. Lobsters and oysters from the harbour of Great Yarmouth arrived in baskets of straw, well iced, to preserve their costly contents. The wines, from the best vintages, were brought up from the cellar.
On the day of the dinner party, Mrs Pumfrey made sure the drive had been swept and the gravel walk was brushed as neat as a Japanese garden.
That evening, she wore a gown of grey satin, bought that very week from the haberdasher in Norwich. She put on her pearl choker and casually fanned herself with a fan made of peacock's feathers by a French milliner. Her hair had been put up by her maid in what she was told was "ze 'ighest Fashion Madame."
The first to arrive were the Coulsons. Their carriage, drawn by two matched greys, caught the last of the sunlight on its gleaming coachwork and the postillions added colour to the entourage as they jumped down to open the door for the couple. The Coulsons were the oldest family in East Anglia. Many generations had given service to the Crown and everybody knew that they owned more land than the Duke of Norwich. Then old Lady Freeborn made her entrance with the aid of two footmen who carried her from her brougham into the Hall of the Manor House. Other worthies, invited to make up numbers made their appearances in good time. Still, there was no sign of Parson Peters and his wife.
Through the open French windows of the Drawing Room on this summer evening, the party heard the sound of feet approaching across the terrace. The parson and his wife appeared suddenly at the window and walked in unannounced, as if to a picnic or a family occasion.
He wore a simple coat of black with a pure white stock of finest silk and carried his wideawake hat in his hand. His long fair hair was brushed back from his face. He surveyed the company calmly as if accustomed to the highest social occasions and he bowed to Mrs Pumfrey with an elegant short bow.
"Such a lovely evening! We felt it would be a shame to miss the last rays of sunshine, so we walked across."
There was a short silence as the pair arrived, not so much because of their casual entrance but to allow the party to examine the assemblage of the new arrivals. Mrs Peters walked with the confidence of a young princess. She dazzled the men with her enchanting smile and her blue eyes radiated gaiety which filled the room. Her auburn hair fell about her shoulders in glistening folds and quite ignored the fashion that dictated hers should be "up" for such occasions. Her pale skin seemed as fragile as Sevre china with just a touch of pink on her cheeks to hint at a lively spirit.
The ladies noted the dress, fashioned from yellow silk with a style showing the grace of her slim waist and her beautiful shoulders. The men were charmed to catch her attention when she smiled at them; each man felt her eyes were on him alone.
Mrs Pumfrey rose to introduce "The Parson and his wife" and the couple moved round the room with each introduction. The ladies observed more unpleasant details of Mrs Peter's attire; her magnificent pearl necklace; the rings she wore -plain emerald and diamond stones set in platinum. The men stood like simpletons bewitched with the gaiety of her eyes and the charm of her presence.
The party moved on to the dining room and conversation ranged from local matters to the state of the Queen's health. Mrs Peters felt that not enough care was taken with Her Majesty's welfare.
"How thoughtful of you!" said Mrs Pumfrey with a kindly smile, "have you intelligence on the subject?" Her query was noted by Mrs Coulson as an elegant stroke at a social adversary.
"It may be so," chimed in the new parson, “My brother in law Sir Peter Chimes has attended at Osborne on several recent occasions." Mrs Peters said nothing but turned and engaged the guest to her left as if she missed the remark.
Mrs Pumfrey sat in a thunderous silence for a short time and chided the butler over some perceived fault that no one else had noted.
At the same time, Squire Pumfrey leant across the table towards the young wife and invited her to join him when the hunting season started in November.
Her eyes opened with delight. "Nothing would be more exciting," she said, "but at present all we have is old Bones our trap pony who is adorable but no hunter."
"But that's no problem," said the Squire. "I can lend you Bess. She can lepp the biggest brook in the county!"
Mrs Pumfrey broke in; "Shall we ladies adjourn and leave the hunting chatter to the gentlemen?" She looked hard at the Squire and he shrugged in mute submission.
Upstairs, the old Lady Freeborn sat in state upon a gilt chair raised a little to ease her poor aching bones.
"I see you are a lively gel," she said as she caught the sleeve of the young wife, "but watch out, there are more snares in the countryside than just to catch rabbits!"
Elizabeth Peters winked at the old Dowager and pressed her hand.
"You and I think alike, Lady Freeborn, but isn't it fun?"
For once the old lady felt again the thrill of a young girl among the company of her elders, shocking the staid opinions of society; it was fun, as she watched their envy and exciting to turn men's heads.
"Yes, my dear," said the Dowager, “the pecking order needs a jolt from time to time and you and I know it!"
Months after, the Pumfreys and the Coulsons accepted the fact that the Dowager Lady Freeborn was a regular visitor to the Vicarage and they were privileged if they were asked to tea on the same occasion.