In The Hollow Land, by Jane Gardam, an apology plays a foundational role. So much happens in this book, and this happens right at the start, so I don’t feel bad telling you most of this part.
There’s nothing more timeless than people making noise while you’re trying to sleep.
In Cumbria, in the farming and grazing country called the Hollow Land for mines that run under it, a family from London rents an old farmhouse from a farming family. For a summer. At first all’s well.
Early in their tenancy, the farm family mows the hay in the field surrounding the house. Because they expect rain, they mow all day and well after midnight under a bright moon. “It makes a rare clatter our tractor and cutter, louder than their transistors—clatter, clatter, clatter, round and round and round—and after a bit, well maybe two hours, there’s heads beginning to bob from windows.”
The father of the London family comes out to complain to the father of the farm family, and it doesn’t go well.
Shut the gate behind you.
The next day the farm family bales the hay in that field, doing it “first for their convenience, to get it over for them” and not explaining that this is the last of the job and the rest of the summer will be quiet. (Why explain the obvious?) The tenants make a show of silent rage and hike away for the day.
The furious and despairing tenants make plans to go back to London and forget about trying for peace and quiet in the country. It happens that a small son of the farm family falls into conversation with a small son of the London family. They figure out the misunderstanding, but no one has listened to them so far, and they know no one will listen to them now.
The six-year-old Londoner says “My mother wrote a letter to your mother to say she was sorry if we’d given offence, but my father wouldn’t let her send it.” The eight-year-old farm lad comes up with a plan to retrieve the letter from the bin and deliver it, a plan they execute with brilliant results.
No, not hobbits. Shut UP about hobbits.
Impressed by the letter, the farm family goes over with gifts of fresh eggs, new milk, and tea cakes. Not being lavish speakers, they don’t say anything about the letter.
Impressed by the visit and the gifts (and learning the noisy work was over) the tenants drop the plan to leave and say nothing about it. The men shake hands. After the visit, the London woman remarks, “This puts us to shame. I didn’t even send that letter.”
Later, in a conversation with a local man who keeps a fish-and-chips shop, and sweeps chimneys, and coaxes people to go fishing, the subject of outsiders comes up. The London woman says everyone’s been very kind to them. Distinctions are drawn between their behavior and that of other, less-liked, Londoners. One thing is not mentioned, but “he thought of the London mother’s very nice letter of apology two or three years back which everyone had heard about above and below the church and as far away as Mallerstang and Whaw…” He just says, “you’re sociable folk. Which is more than can be said for some visitors and incomers. Did you ever hear of the incomer over Stainmer Old Spital?”
We don’t babble needlessly.
I wish I knew what the London woman might have written. Gardam doesn’t say. The tenants return every year.
It’s a lovely book (it won a Whitbread Prize), written in deceptively simple style. It never makes a mistake about dialect. And I love the disappointing results of the fishing expedition: “four trout, so small and of such depressed appearance that they could hardly have tugged. Fish, one felt, that had been hanging about waiting for death.”
In Mallerstang. They’ve heard.
I also admire the way Gardam flickeringly introduces the future into the eternal pastoral world she describes. Late in the story there are a few mentions of how things have changed since the Crisis. Steam trains are back. Wildflowers grow through cracks in the motorway. “When the oil dried up and we all had to think again” they exhumed a carriage from the old stable, and replaced springs, spokes, and seats, for once more ponies are useful. But they’re putting an electronic latch on the fell gate.
Then it’s back to important matters of inheritance, marriage, and what it takes for incomers to become insiders.
Outside Whaw. They’re aware.