In the aftermath of the Great War, Shirley Fearn dreams of challenging the conventions of rural England, where life is as predictable as the changing of the seasons. The scarred veteran Mr. Tiller, left disfigured by an impossible accident on the battlefields of France, brings with him a message: part prophecy, part warning. Will it prevent her mastering her own destiny? As the village prepares for the annual May Day celebrations, where a new queen will be crowned and the future will be reborn again, Shirley must choose: change or renewal?
We’re pleased to share the full US cover and a preview excerpt from Aliya Whiteley’s The Arrival of Missives, publishing November 6th with Titan Books!
I cannot sleep.
Today I overheard Mrs Barbery in the street gossiping with the other mothers. She said, ‘He isn’t a real man, of course, not after that injury.’ I walked past and pretended not to have heard. He limps, a little, but it does not constrain his activities. Sometimes I wonder what is under his shirt and waistcoat. I imagine something other than flesh to be found there: fine swan feathers, or a clean white space. No, Mr Tiller is not what passes for a real man in these parts, and all the better for that.
My feelings for him have infused every aspect of my existence. My heart leaks love; it seeps out and gaily colours the schoolyard, the village green, the fields I walk and the books I read. My father comes back from his work at times and finds me in the armchair by the front parlour window, curled up in thoughts I could never dream to share with him. It has become a ritual with him saying, with a smile, that I have a talent for wool-gathering and that he’ll sell me to the shepherds.
My mother sometimes brings me tea, creeping into the parlour as if she does not quite belong there. She bears a curious expression in these moments, perhaps best described as a mixture of pride and worry. It troubles me. I think she knows my mind, even though we have never spoken of it. She was once an uneducated version of me, of course—the raw clay from which I am formed. But then she returns to the kitchen, and there she is a different woman, bustling to and fro, laying out plates for the workers at the long oak table. The workers are the remains, and the reminder, of the war, but they work hard, as does everyone on the farm, including the animals. Apart from me. I am marked for something else.
This is a different age, a new era, and my feelings are all the finer and brighter for my luck in having the time to explore them. The upward path of humanity, out of the terrible trenches, will come from the cultivation of the mind. And women will have an important role in this, as teachers, as mentors, to the exceptional men who will grow from the smallest boys, with our guidance.
Once I asked my father if, once all the young men were dead, they would send women to fight at the front, and he said I had the mother of all imaginations. Well, that is what is needed now. After such a war people must think new thoughts, give birth to lofty emotions, and love is surely the best place to begin. I am in love. I am in love: Shirley Fearn, landowner’s daughter, is filled to the brim with love for Mr Tiller.
Look how love coats me in a shiny slick that no grim thought can penetrate. It lights the dark, and distinguishes my being. I am set alight by it. Great deeds no longer belong only to Field Marshal Haig and his like—to the real men, as Mrs Barbery would have it; it is now within the province of schoolgirls and cripples to act as heroes. Greatness is, for the first time, universal.
Besides, I am not so very young, and could have left school two years ago if my father wished it. I am about to turn 17 years of age, and Mr Tiller only limps a little.
Outside my window, the owls screech and the leaves of the trees murmur and hush. I can picture the branches swaying in the breeze. The fields have been sown and the crops are growing, slowly pushing from their hidden roots. The worms and moles are there, burrowing blind, busy busy busy in the earth. Such thoughts of dampness in the dark quiet my mind, and lead me down to my sleep.
* * *
The land is green and sweet. The walk to school—a few miles from the farm to the outskirts of the village—is easy in late spring, and these are my father’s fields upon which I tread. I grew up with them, and I know their rotations and their long, ploughed lines. In summer they can be headstrong, and fight my progress along their hedges with thistles, nettles and squat, tangling weeds. When winter comes they turn into a playful mess of mud, determined to swallow my boots. In such weather, by the time I reach the school I feel as if half the field has come with me; on one occasion Mr Tiller looked at me and said, ‘Out!’ upon my arrival, before I made a state of the flagstone floor. The others laughed when I sat outside and tried to prise the knots from my laces with frozen fingers, blushing at my own incompetence. But Mr Tiller came out to me then. He knelt by me, and helped me to cast off my boots and forget his harshness.
Undoubtedly I prefer these spring days. It’s easier to dream when the mud does not drag me down.
Here is my plan: Mr Tiller and I will marry, and I will become a schoolmistress to raise the finest generation yet known to England.
Well, to be precise, that is the culmination of the plan. First I must go to Taunton and earn my teaching certificate, and I will cram all life into those years so that I can settle with ease when I am married and I return to the village. I would hate to have regrets. Bitterness in a teacher can spoil a pupil, I think.
The last field ends in a stile that intersects with the new road, and I hop down upon it and follow it onwards. It’s easier walking here, but I dislike the sound my boots make on the stone. The village is over the curve of the next hill. I have friends there, other girls my age, but I have yet to find a close companion of the heart. I want to find others who dream, like me. Or perhaps I would rather that this weakening need for company would pass. I do not think mingling with lesser minds would be good for my intentions.
I crest the hill, and there is the village. It seems quiet from here but it will already be alive with tradesfolk, meeting and murmuring about their daily business. I shake out my skirts, square my shoulders, and walk down to the yard, looking neither left nor right.
The younger children are skipping, singing songs. The clock in the steeple ticks down to nine o’clock. I go inside, taking care to wipe my boots clean on the mat, and find the classroom empty, the blackboard wiped, the slates not yet set out upon the desks. Mr Tiller is late. This is not unheard of, and it does not worry me. I go into the small store room, where the rows of shelves hold chalk, beaten books, rulers and other delights of the teaching trade. I take out the slates and start to set them out on the desks, looking at the messages children from then and now have carved into the wood. They must all leave their mark somehow upon this place, even if only their letters remain.
The clock bell strikes, and the children come in. There are 12 of us, of varying ages; I am the eldest. Our desks have been allocated according to age and ability. I sit at the back, on the left, next to the spinning globe of the world—a position of responsibility, since the younger children would spend all day with their grubby little hands upon it. Behind me is a shelf that bears the bound works of great minds that have gone before. ‘If you are seeking inspiration,’ Mr Tiller once told me, ‘take down a book from that shelf, Miss Fearn. You have a keen mind. Let the books take your intellect to far-off places, and who knows what you may find?’
The children are noisy today, even the older ones. The blacksmith’s boy, Daniel, enters with a yell, and sees my frown.
‘I tripped on the step,’ he says.
I take a breath and move to the front of the classroom, putting the blackboard to my back and pulling myself up straight. They pay no attention, so I clap my hands together. They find their desks and fall quiet.
I am about to speak. I am sure some words of wisdom are about to flow from me, to prove that my dream of a scholarly vocation is a worthy one. Wait—nothing is coming—
‘Mr Tiller says go home!’ shouts Jeremiah Crowe, who is nothing but trouble, and the children scream. The smallest ones even start to get out of their seats.
‘No, Mr Tiller does not,’ says that familiar voice, the one that bolsters my faith, and he limps into the room at speed, to stand beside me. ‘You are too impertinent, Crowe, as ever, and you’ll stay late to clean the slates tonight. Right. Let us settle ourselves and prepare for learning about one brave adventurer, Marco Polo, and the wonders of the Orient.’
What should I do? Should I sneak back to my place as if I never tried to take his? I wait for a word from him, but nothing comes; he turns to the blackboard and picks up chalk from the wooden lip of the frame. He wears no coat today, and I watch the muscles of his back bunch together under his shirt as he writes, marking out the M, the A, the R.
‘Sir,’ calls the irrepressible Crowe. ‘You haven’t taken register, sir.’
‘I thought Miss Fearn would have completed that task. Well, no matter, she can rectify the oversight now.’
I am raised high, and all the little faces turn up to me as I move to the teacher’s desk as in one of my dreams. I call out the names and mark the list. We are all here. From despair to triumph in a moment—how unpredictable my life is! I finish the task and look up to find Mr Tiller smiling at me, an expression not just of pride in a student, but perhaps in a future companion? I am moved beyond delight. It is as if he too has pictured our future, and found it pleasing.
Excerpted from The Arrival of Missives, copyright © 2018 by Aliya Whiteley