The delights of a well told story mean that we can come back to it again and again with equal, and perhaps growing pleasure. Even, and perhaps especially, the short story works in this way, and remarkably, even the very short story can.

A.E.Coppard’s Weep Not My Wanton (most recently published as the title story of a Turnpike Books selection) is a case in point.  Only four pages long, it’s a story I’ve come back to again and again, finding something new in it each time – perhaps I’m an inattentive reader – or refining my thoughts from a previous reading.  Weep Not My Wanton featured in Coppard’s very first collection, Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, alongside Dusky Ruth – often quoted as being representative of his work, and Arabesque – The Mouse, one of his most sinister and searching sidelights on the human psyche, and another favourite of mine. Unaccountably, Coppard left Weep Not My Wanton out of his self-selected American collection, and I wish I’d discovered him in time to have asked why!

I’ve written about the story before on more than one occasion, but I haven’t stopped exploring it. The mystery, if that’s the right word, for me, has always been to explain why Coppard tagged on the last paragraph. It could, of course, be an error of judgement, but I doubt that. The paragraph provides a closing frame, returning the reader to the landscape that opened the story, in a lush description of Sack Down, where ‘air and light […] at summer sunset were soft as ointment and sweet as milk’. The closing sentence is as gentle: ‘From the quiet hill, as the last skein of cocks was carted to the stack, you could hear dimly men’s voice’s and the rattle of their gear.’

What has passed between what I think of as the two water-coloured frames of English landscape, is a simple, but brutal story. Into that landscape walks an itinerant labouring family. The father is ‘slightly drunk’ and as they walk he unmercifully berates, and beats, the ‘tiny figure’ of his son. The cause of this prolonged assault is a lost sixpence, but, just before that closing paragraph of landscape, a startling truth is revealed. The sixpence is not lost, but withheld by the boy, to be given to the mother while the father is distracted.

That father is a complex figure, far more complex than four pages of story might be thought to require. Drunk, but wearing ‘two bright medals’, which, the author tells us, in a phrase that seems to push through the detached narrative of the third person and speak intimately to us, were ‘presumably for valour’. This is an important phrase. That ‘presumably’ raises the question of what the medals were for, and prepares us for another phrase, later, in which we are told that he has fallen ‘from the heroic standard’. Readers in 1921, and perhaps since, would know that ‘for valour’ is what it says on the Victoria Cross, the highest award, for valour, that can be made to a serving soldier of the British Army. This bullying father is not quite what he seems.

That ‘tiny figure’ of the son is not what he seems either. He is described at length early in the story and the description is shot through with elements that show he is in disguise: ‘a man’s cap’, a ‘sailor’s jacket’, ‘a pair of women’s button boots.’ Appearances are deceptive throughout this story. The mother, who watches the abuse of her son without seeming to do anything about it, is equally misleading: ‘she seemed to have no desire to shield the boy’. ‘She did not seem to notice them.’ But, at what might seem  to be the climax of the father’s assault, she seems to need to go behind a bush and hands over to him the babe, whom she has been carrying.

Now we see another side of him, as he cooes to and carries the child. The boy falls back, and slips the sixpence to his mother when she reappears. The jolt of this action, on first reading, is immense, and the scales fall from our eyes. The heroism and endurance of the boy, and the cleverness of the mother, and the tragedy of the whole situation are all, instantly revealed. And perhaps, all that seeming, and being dressed in somebody else’s clothes is eclipsed.

There is something else going on in this story. ‘At the crown of the hill’ at a ‘roadside barn’ young boars are being gelded. Their ‘sounds of anguish’ are not illusory. Neither is the singing of the lark, ‘rioting above’. A gypsy man among the workers comments on the father’s beating of the boy – ‘ ‘Selp me, father, that’s a good ‘un, wallop his trousers!’ But it isn’t the trousers, and besides, the father ignores all this. But the pigs, at the end of the story are really ‘bloody and subdued’.

I think a point is being made here, about what is seen and not seen, and what is paid attention to and what is ignored, and how what is real can be misrepresented. And at the very beginning of the story, Coppard has alerted us to the possibility of something very like that, for that luscious opening description, of the peaceful English countryside, with its ‘ointment’ and ‘milk’ is, he quite explicitly tells us, ‘a notion the down might give..[  to  ]…some happy victim of romance’. This brings the story down to being, not about the father and his situation, nor even about the England across which he tramps, but about us, the readers, and what we are capable of seeing, through, and in the stories we are told.

If you’d like to read more about Coppard, about the tales, and the themes that run through them, my collection of essays is available online for Kindle, or as a softback, by clicking on the image, or here.

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