Dan kneeled down and took a drink from the spring. He felt good. He knew he was going to be a great writer. It wasn’t how he first intended to spend his life. From a small child he was going to be a soldier in a red uniform and round pith helmet, like his Mum's father and grandfather. He was tall enough and strong enough but when he went to the magic lantern show in the village hall last year one of the scenes made him change his mind.
The officer in charge, a Colonel Abram, had just returned from many years in Africa where there had been several uprisings. One picture was taken in a market place where red coats were shooting natives, running them through with their bayonet. It turned Dan’s stomach. He knew soldiering could mean killing people. He wasn’t a sissy but if he had to kill someone he wanted it to be his decision, not having to act on someone else’s orders.
The Colonel was recruiting in the village. The slide show was supposed to tell everyone how exciting life could be in the army. Several young men took the King’s shilling. Luckily Dan was still too young so the sergeant passed him by once he knew his age.
The soldiers marched off the next morning and most of them weren’t seen again in the village. Dan was the one who had to read their letters and write others for his grandmother and other women who had trouble with book learning. Gran had been blind for many years but could still do her bit to help from her chair in the corner of the kitchen. Mum said she was too busy bringing up children to have time to learn to read and writing was just a set of squiggles on a piece of paper .
It was a travelling preacher who taught Dan to read and write. Said it was a sin not to be able to read the Word of God; to write and figure too. He was poor like everyone else, the preacher, so he spent one long, cold winter helping with the hedging and ditching in return for a bit of food and a place to sleep next to the fire. He left once the footpaths dried out in Spring but now Dan could tell his Dad how many eggs the white hen laid, how much the pig was eating and what rent money the Land Agent wanted for the seven acres to be put into corn next Spring.
There wasn’t much time for writing, not with having to help out on the farm every day. Winter was easier, but the lack of heat in his bedroom meant his fingers were too stiff to hold a pen and besides, where was the ink coming from, let alone something to write on? Any paper they found was cut into squares to hang in the privy. No space for writing there, no time neither not with Nelly always banging on the door, telling him to hurry up because she wanted to go.
Then one day he was talking to Seth, the rector’s stable boy. Told him how paper was scarce and Mam wanted a letter written to her sister, Grace, over in Throckmorton Lane. Seth said he’d seen the housekeeper throw out a whole pile of books and papers for the gardener to burn on the next bonfire. The rector’s son was off to serve in Africa with the Queen’s Royal Hussars so his schoolboy things weren’t no use any more.
Amongst the pile were two notebooks, hardly used and a whole pile of clean paper for letter writing. The Gardener agreed there was no point in burning what could be used by someone else and let Seth give them to Dan. He showed the writing paper to his mother and that night, by candlelight, wrote down the message she wanted sent to Aunt Grace.
The notebooks he kept hidden. Mam wouldn’t understand what he needed them for, let alone agree he should waste his time putting thoughts down on paper. Normal folk didn’t write they worked. If they were had music running through their veins they might sing songs and learn new ones but you didn’t write stuff of your own just for the sake of it. Only the gentry wrote.
Dan took the notebook out of his pocket along with the pencil he’d found on the road. His hands were clean after drinking from the spring and the full moon gave him just enough light to see the page. It was such a beautiful moon, shining down on him, cloud kissed. He licked his pencil, took a deep breath and let the words begin to flow across the page.