Making the best of what the forecast warned might be the last of the hot weather before days of rain, I gave up working on the garden and took to the recliner. The sun beat down from a clichéd clear blue sky, with the obligatory cooling breeze and the sound of birdsong from hedge and tree.
And I thought of H.E.Bates’ short story A Great Day for Bonzo. It’s in the 1959 collection, The Watercress Girl, and at 65 pages in my Penguin edition it is by far the longest of the bunch.
It was the heat pressing against my closed eyelids, reminding me of childhood summers, which brought the story to mind, for this story, like all the others in the collection, is told from a child’s perspective. Set in the heat and stillness of a long July day in rural England, the narrator is a five and a half year old child, who along with two friends encounters a man going about the business of hanging himself. The eponymous Bonzo is his dog, desperate to get into the barn where children and man have discovered each other.
In order to get rid of them and the distressed dog, the man gifts Bonzo to the children and they take him away. But, as dogs will, he escapes and goes back to his master, drawing the children back into an unfolding story that they cannot understand, but which we see clearly.
The first person perspective limits the writer to telling only what the narrator can know, by having seen in person, or by report, within the time frame of the events, or subsequently. But for there to be a subsequently, time must have passed between the happening and the telling, and this becomes an important feature of where we understand the narrator to be positioned in relation to the tale he or she tells.
It’s not all restriction though, for that first person narrator can be presented by the author with blind spots and limitations of their own that we, the readers, can see beyond, and nowhere is that more obviously the case than when the narrator is a child caught up in adult events.
The heat that sparked my memory of the story is present right from the beginning: ‘That July morning’, it begins, ‘it was so hot and quiet that every breath of chaff-dust….. looked like smoke’. Heat, stillness, and emptiness not only keep our attention on the protagonists, but give the story a heavy, intense ambience. It’s not a heavy-handed treatment though. Bates dribbles in his atmosphere intermittently, repeatedly and throughout the tale, which stretches over the long, hot day.
‘..it was the coolest place in the heat of the sun’
‘..and the house martins flying high in the sun..’
‘my eyes, coming out of the brilliant morning sun, were dazzled.’
Not quite understanding what they are experiencing, the child narrator is constantly veering off what we know is the real focus of the tale towards the minute details of what he sees and hears about him: the sights and sounds and smells of a more or less abandoned farmyard. Arthur Miller, writing about the form in an introduction to a collection of his own short stories talks of the ‘events and character development’ in a short story being ‘held frozen… to see things isolated in stillness’, and this story of Bates’ does just that:
‘..it wasn’t a house any longer but was used instead as a barn for storing straw. The windows never had any glass in them and straw stuck out of the holes…’
There are few peripheral characters in this story. A labourer is scything grass in the distance, and later recaptures the wayward Bonzo. Parents are briefly mentioned as they refuse to accept responsibility for the dog. A pair of farm workers pour scorn on the animal as the children pass, and their opportunity for reporting the unfolding tragedy to an adult is not even recognised from that childish perspective.
In the closing scenes two more characters are introduced, the girl and her father from whom the suicidal man is on the run. Still oblivious to what is going, the narrator tells us enough to piece together the back-story of this triangle. The children reluctantly have come to return the dog to its home, where father and daughter argue about the man and her relationship with him. Despite his threats and off-stage violence – with the subtlest of references to the back-story of one of the children: ‘..he recognised a familiar sound; the swish of a strap and the sound of a buckle beating.’ – the girl escapes and is led by the children to the abandoned farmhouse where the man still waits.
Bonzo is reunited with, and reunites man and girl, and the three, watched from an over-bridge by the children, depart on a period piece steam train: ‘The train began to draw out of the station, its smoke dark yellow against the sun.’ But the ending of the story is when the narrator takes home his lessons from the day’s events and questions his father before drawing conclusions crisply summarised in a single sentence:
‘Now I knew that you didn’t always die when you thought you would and that often, after all, there was no need to be afraid.’
When and where, I wonder, during Bates’ life did he learn, or become aware of that lesson? How close to the date of publication was the story written? How soon after the war that Bates, and everyone else, a decade and a half before that publication, had come through?
The now of a story’s telling interests me, both as a reader and a writer. This story is written in the past tense. How far from childhood, how far into recollection does Bates intend or expect us to imagine that telling? To what extent is the narrator aware of the limitations he faced as the child whose story he is narrating? The layers of understanding, and of meaning – the child’s, the narrator he becomes, the author’s and the reader’s – are what give this tale its complexity, and of all the Bates tales that I have read this one, I think, might be the one I would most like to question him about.
Yet it was undoubtedly the heat, and the stillness, and the relative emptiness of its landscape that brought it to mind as I lay in the sun on my recliner. I’ve wondered why a story written probably no later than 1958 should linger in my memory. In the July of that year I was 7 years old, the age of one of the children.