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The days are short, the light is low,
It bounces on the water like a skipped stone.
Ripples in the gravel become waves on a sea,
Casting shadows in lines, semi-regularly.
Reeds hang o’er the river, wheaten gold,
The mud gleams and shimmers and doubles each gull
Which waits while the tide returns and the sun struggles up
To a low zenith.
This quiet eve of Christmas is a short day
And a little work goes a long way.
Warm in the sun but cold on the breath,
The air catches clouds in mysteriousness,
Holding them still, for a moment, till they disappate,
And I, like the gulls, reflect and wait.
While preparing for the soon-to-be-announced Kickstarter for Steam Highwayman II, I’ve also completed a revision of Volume I: Smog and Ambuscade, incorporating further map labels, typography corrections and fixes for broken links. That should mean that any copies printed from now on (identified by ‘Revised July 2018’ on the copyright page) will include all these revisions.
Thanks to everybody who identified mistakes and errors in the gamebook. I’ve learnt a lot about how to work with proofreaders and playtesters in the process and hope to provide a cleaner, more correct Kickstarter print of Volume II. If you’re still confused by some of the broken links in your copy, take a look at the corrections page I created a while ago.
With this done, I’m confident about including Steam Highwayman I: Smog and Ambuscade as an add-on reward in the Volume II Kickstarter. I’m excited to think what it will feel like for a newcomer to the series receiving both books through the post together.
Proofreading for Volume II is about to begin, as I’ve prepared a draft copy for printing as well as e-versions, so do get in touch if you feel like helping out.
I’ve been experimenting today with different styles of illustration and layout, using Microsoft Publisher and my own two hands (though mainly the right one). Result: a mockup that resembles a page of my finished gamebook. Illustrations all my own, with Mitsubishi uniball micro. Font is Georgia: nicely serifed, not too full-on.
Only go beneath a Southwark railway bridge, look up and stand,
See every straight rib rivet-plugged and patterned by hand,
See flanges and box-girders painted pigeon-white and blue,
Only wonder at what we used to do.
I hate double-minded men,
But I love your law.
How can we have anything but the strongest antithetical reaction to men – and that part of all men – when they are changeable, deathly, deceitful, unintentional, when we profess to love a living word that is secure, alive, honest, purposeful and good?
You are my refuge and my shield;
I have put my hope in your word.
God is a cave – an overhanging tree – a windbreak – a stormwall – a dam, a cordon, a barrier. My belief for the good in tomorrow resides entirely within his word, nestled inside it. You have to unfold the flaps of God;s voice and there, beautifully hidden, you see your hope – your own belief. Find it!
Away from me, you evildoers,
That I may keep the commands of God!
Harsh words – but the price is great. You cannot save a drowning man unless you are secure in the boat. Distance is important – it brings clarity and freedom of sight – and allows me to keep God’s commands – not simply begin them.
Sustain me according to your promise, and I shall live;
Do not let my hopes be dashed.
This strength to see things through to the end is to be found in God’s promise to us. Life is when something is being continued, sustained, not otherwise. Your hopes – all of them – are secure in that single word – undashable.
Uphold me, and I shall be delivered;
I shall always have regard for your decrees.
Keeping God’s law is prominent, upheld like an offering in the sight of the people – but for delivery – and this is eternal life – satisfaction in his word!
You reject all who stray from your decrees,
For their deceitfulness is in vain.
Shortcuts are a waste of time – self-defeating. Attempts to trick God are folly. Those who stray are choosing a path that will be harder and less profitable.
All the wicked of the earth you discard like dross;
Therefore I love your statutes,
Here, there is some fear – not to be discarded – but you can see the poet’s value on his relationship with God. I do not want to be unnecessary to the purpose, for wickedness makes us unusable – cannot be forged into good tools.
My flesh trembles in fear of you;
I stand in awe of your laws.
For his word is like a furnace – burning, changing, melting – on a vast scale. More terrifyingly hot that a furnace crucible – than all the molten metal in the world – the process is on such a scale and is so effective. This is what the word of God does – refine!
So we might learn distaste for the company of evil, but God effects our separation. This verse of the Psalm is a window into his process in our hearts, convincing us through shows of strength and mercy. The mercy is in his sustenance – we can only keep his laws because he hears our prayers and does his will.
You word, O Lord, is eternal;
It stands firm in the heavens.
God’s word is eternally alive. It is timeless, neither running out of effects nor of time for its effects to take place. It stands in the heavens like the sun, moon and stars – eternal, unchanged, but how differently we see it day to day and month by month, when we care to pay attention.
Your faithfulness continues through all generations;
You established the earth and it endures.
Like the legends of the sky, told to grandchildren, tales of God’s faithfulness are intended to be told over and over again. But earth, sun, moon and stars exist in imitation of his Word, and not vice versa!
Your laws endure to this day,
For all things serve you.
God’s will – it is impossible for sun, moon or stars to disobey them, or move outside the realm of their control. Even human manipulation will only exist within God’s given physical and spiritual laws. And his law is so fur us, as people. To know him is to love and obey him – this is the unavoidable physical and spiritual law. We see his law by its effect on things, but not on a few things, rather on all things in all time. Therefore we know his law must be everywhere and eternal.
If your law had not been my delight,
I would have perished in my affliction.
The Psalmist says “I would be dead” if it weren’t for you – and depends on a joyful delight in following God’s self, not a grudging acceptance of doing what we are told. Death is to serve without love, to follow without understanding or to participate without any ownership. Gdo offers us something quite different in his Word.
I will never forget your precepts,
For by them you have preserved my life.
I won’t – can’t – it will not happen – for this experience of God’s precepts is indelible, physical, imprinted on me, body and soul. Brain is hard-written, spirit is changed. Continued life involves remembering. [Re-reading this in September 2015, originally noted 26-4-14, I am amazed that God showed me this and that so much of what I currently experience and understand can be traced to the effect of God’s word on my life as I studied Psalm 119.]
Save me, for I am yours;
I have sought your precepts.
I want to live in salvation – in being saved. That is the same as being yours, Father. And it increases my taste for instruction. I have gone looking for teaching to be changed by it. [Seeking God’s precepts marks us out as His. We belong to him because we seek him – what a privilege. What easy access to the Holy of Holies! Seek.]
The wicked are waiting to destroy me
But I will ponder on your statutes.
Every day, they are there with their temptations and a breath of death, but your law cannot be touched by such things – it is above the heavens. By even wondering at what you have said – by simply thinking to myself, “What does this mean?”, I allow you to preserve me from destruction, from falling into temptation, from giving into sin.
To all perfection I see a limit
But your commands are boundless.
Oh, Hallelujah! Ah! High,mighty and eternal are you, O God! Your very Word with us, eternal, perfect, all-encompassing, all-embracing, breathing through all, teaching through all… I praise you, God!
The curtains and the curtain poles are down,
The grips that held them plaster over, pale
But just discernible. Another leave
Now taken from a room and sight I need –
The branches, budding, of the roadside trees.
I’m realising this is my default –
To choose a room, then place the bed to look
Direct into the branches of a tree.
First ash, in my childhood home, then holly
In an arch, then sycamore, now common lime
And weeping horse-chestnut, struggling to leaf.
And it is not coincidence – my taste?
That next I’ve found a place that looks onto
A stately park with planes that wobble up,
Those hesitant trees that ponder problems
Then peer down to find they’ve out-grown their place!
So tall – they can’t be native! Oddly-hued
By a passing decorator using up
His tins of remaindered household colours.
From Spain, half-bred Greek and American,
His disparate parents lend him several strengths,
But he hasn’t yet won my heart. Ah, let
The morning tell him to me as I rise
And every day see buds a-breaking out,
Little moleskin fruits achieve their sphere.
Still remain a novelty – I know you’ll
Begin where someone sets you, wary tree,
Too quickly noticed growing in a waste
All spindly-shooting with those palmy spreads.
I’m growing generous in spending love
Now all my natural children are bound close
And coppiced into useful poles, ideas
And metaphors that show me how we are,
So now come time to welcome even planes –
A tree I had no feelings for before.
‘You’ll have to clear the brook again,’ he said from his chair. ‘Always grappling with those willows, I was. You’ll never get the hay barge up there if you don’t cut them back.’
‘I hear you father. That’s a long week’s work, and I can’t spare the time.’
The old man snorted. ‘Won’t, you mean. Won’t! Sheer idleness is all. A son of mine to shirk so shamelessly, on his own land. Send Buck and Milton, if you won’t do it.’
‘There’s time yet before hay-making. Buck won’t do it this week, and I won’t let Milton down by those trees. He’s no respect for them.’
‘And what about you? You talk as if you weren’t a working man yourself. I never hired a man to do what I wouldn’t.’
‘I’ll stay by the calving, as well you know, this week and as long as those cross-breeds are birthing. Not one of them has borne a live calf yet, and we’ll not suffer another year’s losses for a little patience.’
‘You talk as if you blame me, son. You’ve already made me admit a fault, but you can’t leave it. You may not have bought them, but there’s no sense in disowning an inheritance like I’ve given you. But I tell you, if you don’t clear the brook this week you’ll be ruing your sloth come haytide. The weather’ll break, and you know that I know it.’
‘And shall I leave my crippled father to calve those cows, then?’ Young Foxton had been needled enough. Much as he hated to strike at his father’s weakness, the man seemed to refuse to accept his own circumstances. Old Foxton, who had been the bluff, hearty owner of Foxton Farm for the last thirty years, was now confined to the chair by the hearth when he wasn’t being carried to and fro by sons or daughters’ husbands. He had made over the deeds to his eldest, a man too like himself for comfort, but seemed to have forgotten it.
‘If you’ll hear me and choose not to listen,’ said Old Foxton, ‘Then you’re more of a fool than I gave you credit, and that’s all I say.’
The next morning Young Foxton took Milton and the axes down to the low pasture. His wife was with the cows. It had been his hope to overcome the old man’s curse and see those cross-breeds bear something living. He had been born himself with a living touch – animals were all ready to have him close by. As a boy foxes had come out of coverts, ravens down from roosts and milk-cows seemed to have saved their best milkings for his soft hands. But there was something about that his father had suspected – something less than manly, this gentleness and this easiness to feel and stroke. But even he had admitted that there were cows on the pasture who would have been wasted away in the cold winter but for the nearness of those warm, living hands.
The first day was an undifferentiated continuity, slashing at the tangling weed, bramble that stretched from bank to bank, rosebay, sycamore and aspen shoots all twisted and unlikely attempts at trees. They laboured on under summer sun until the dusk came at last, leaving the hay-barge only yards upstream from where the little brook joined the river. Unless they could clear a fair route to the long pasture then all the year’s growth of tall grass would be wasted, and the fields might as well have been stocked for the months they had been held back. Such waste couldn’t be contemplated. Neither father nor son would have any waste on their farm, or ever had. It was the only sin worse than deceit in their stern religion.
By the end of the second day a route had been hacked as far as the row of willows that Old Foxton had staked into the damp soil some fifteen years before. They were all alike, with the same twist to the North about ten feet up, and none keeping an unsplit trunk fifteen feet above the ground, unpollarded though they were. But they were all cuttings from another tree, some hundred yards up the brook. Old Foxton had planted them for the leaf, which made a passable fodder, but also in some trial to placate the original tree, or so he said.
‘Come to the willow row already, Father. A week, you said.’ Young Foxton couldn’t help but crow. ‘We’ll have the brook clear before Sunday.’
Old Foxton shook his head. ‘And you’ll be the one to praise patience! Those willows shouldn’t be misjudged. Roots like cable running into the water. I cut that old willow down over and over, and he wouldn’t be stopped until I cut out the very lowest limb. Rotted then. More alive than you or I, those trees.’
The three men were struggling with the willows from then on. Even though the trees were young, as Old Foxton had said, they had the roots of much larger trees, and a saw had to be brought to rasp away at them underwater. The billhook would strip the lithe branches but only succeed in releasing an inner, vicious springiness. Each of the men were covered in scratches and cuts when they returned to the farm up the hill. The best axe was brought back blunt from those indomitable skins.
Young Foxton blamed his parent. ‘Well, did you anger that tree, Father? I’ll swear those cuttings bear a grudge against me.’
‘Willow is tough, boy. The moving water only toughens it. They gather all the strength of the water and the wind into their knots and hearts. What did you expect? Nothing wants to be cut back.’
One of the cuttings had a limb right across the stream. Alone among its siblings it had seemed to have scorned the sky and preferred sheer contrariness. Even after a few years’ growth the branch was thick and twisted.
Young Foxton was sure that if they could take it off, the hay barge would go clear up to the long pasture uninhibited. He worked hard the fifth day, and kept Buck and Milton with him until the evening star was brighter than the sun.
‘Hand up the saw, Buck,’ he said. ‘And we’ll tell the old man that his job’s done, even before those cows have calved.’
It took the saw to bite into the bark, but the teeth squealed when they started into the living wood. Then the axe, chipping, chipping, pale shreds of wood floating slowly downstream beside the barge. The saw again, and sweat rose on the farmer’s face.
It was hard to see what had been done and what was left to do in the early night, beneath the shadow of those long leaves. He put his weight against the bough to test it, and before he knew his feet had slipped off the mud-layered root beneath him, falling backwards. With a crack the branch sheared off, not where it had been cut and hacked, but right at the trunk and the two fell together into the stream. His head bounced on the hardness of the root and eyes closed as the water covered over him.
Try as they might, the two men floundering in the dark shadows could not lift the branch off from him. Somehow it had caught in the tangle underwater and he was held down. By the time they had cut and wrenched it out, he was a heavy, sodden mass like a still-born calf, and that was how he was taken back up to his father by the hearth.
I wrote this in 2011. I wanted something a bit spooky – and maybe it’s in imitation of Lawrence, too – but I always intended it to fill the third space in my Ghost Story Trio.