Peter Francomb was a man whose story was seldom told and, most certainly, he liked it that way. The village he had been born in was small and nondescript, just a few small houses fading away either side of a long straight road. The black earth of fenland fell away behind the house, ploughed in straight lines ready to cultivate the fat teardrops of sugar beet that bulged slowly underground. The plump beet pushed the dirt aside as if making their own bell-jar oubliettes of unseen space. Between March and September their green leaves striped the black earth for as far as the eye could see. From September until Christmas the lorries rumbled past Peter’s bedroom window at all hours laden with beet for the sugar factory. As a boy Peter would kick the odd fallen beet along the verge and watch the factory belch steam into grey skies. The autumn air always filled with an earthy tang from the beet being processed. In the evenings he would watch the factory from the back window; giant clouds of steam lit by the security lights as if it the factory were East Anglia’s version of a spaceport. Peter imagined a space shuttle readying itself for lift-off in amongst the massive tubes and buildings beyond the wire fences. The black dirt furrows behind his house stretched away over flatness almost to the horizon, no trees or buildings to break up the view, only the science fiction chimneys and pipes of the factory in the distance. A bleak wind-filled vista.
His real parents hadn’t lived in such a place. They had lived in a big house somewhere else far away. A house long since sold and Peter had never seen it. It had been an accident, a coincidence that Peter was born in the little house in the fens, with its low ceilings and dark rooms. His real mother and father had been driving to the hospital, her labour having come early. An unexpected occurrence that interrupted their weekend away. Their last weekend away. This was in the time before mobile phones and when his mother’s pains had reached a new crescendo his father stopped the car and rapped urgently on the door of the house in the fens. The stout woman at the door explained that they didn’t have a phone but they were welcome to come in if they liked. His mother lay on the worn out sofa panting, her waters dribbling on nylon carpet. His father knocked on each and every one of the other houses but was greeted with no reply, or a simple blank faced stare look as occupant explained that none of the houses had a phone. They were too remote for telephones.
So Peter was born in that cottage on that dark September night, the first night of the season that the beet lorries began to rattle the windows. The rattling that would mix with his mother’s screams. The woman in that house, who Peter would grow up calling ‘mummy’, tried her best to help and her husband, who Peter would grow up calling ‘dad’, made cups of tea as the labour went on long into the night. Until, at long last, Peter was born. But Peter’s squirming difficult delivery had left his mother’s uterus ruptured, a fact that went unnoticed, as nobody present was a medical professional. In fact nobody present had ever witnessed a birth before, so they were unused to such events and simply did their best. What else was there to do? How could they possibly know she was bleeding internally? Her face slowly draining of colour as exhaustion and her imminent death forced sleep upon her body and the others fussed over the new born infant. The woman cut Peter’s coiling cord with the scissors her husband had boiled and held over a sterilising flame and Peter’s real father held him softly. His baby son wrapped in an old striped bed sheet. Like all father’s he had a tear in his eye and he profusely thanked the woman and her husband for their simple kindnesses. These strangers that had helped them so.
But when the dawn began to hint at the sky, the woman pulled a blanket up to Peter’s mother’s neck and she noticed her complete stillness. She was no longer breathing and the woman cried out. Peter’s father was beside himself and tried in vain to rouse her. For an hour or so he tried to push his own breath into her lungs past her cold lips and pressed a rhythm on her ribs, but to no avail. Baby Peter slept oblivious to his sobbing, wrapped in his sheet and a blanket and placed into an empty drawer for a crib.
His father left the house on the fens not long after the sun had finally pushed its rays above the horizon. He walked between the green lines of beet leaves away across the endless fields. The woman and the man and Peter who they took as their own never saw him again. It wasn’t that they didn’t try to find him. Of course they did the right thing and told the police and the authorities but no one could find him. Peter had very few relatives of note and in the end a court allowed them to adopt Peter, as they were good people.
It was thought that Peter’s father had done away with himself, or perhaps died of grief at the loss of his wife. Now, either of these possibilities could be true, but before his father truly disappeared he made a solitary trip to London. Here he met with an accountant and a solicitor, and drew up a trust fund for Peter. A trust fund filled to the brim from the sale of everything his parents ever owned. He gave them the address of the house in the fens and instructed them to pay Peter on his twenty-first birthday. And until that birthday Peter would never really know much at all about his tragic real parents. And when the letter arrived telling him that in effect he was a multi-millionaire, he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
© 2015 Simon Poore