Chronologically, Tom Fobble’s Day is the end of the story begun in The Stone Book, and in every collection of the series as a Quartet, it is placed last, where it comes. But it was the second to be published and that is the order in which I am taking things. By the time it appeared, I was not troubled by the expense of the hardback, and bought it quickly.
Only time has moved on, time and its accretions. We are still in Alderley, but it’s not Chorley any longer. It’s not the 1860s but the 1940s. There’s a War on. And this time there’s a boy, not a girl, named William. He is Mary’s great-grandson.
Obviously, the two books couldn’t be further apart but that doesn’t only speak to their historical placing. Mary’s book was so far removed from us – it was more than a century past when it was published – and the world it depicted was so far from the conditions under which we live that it might have taken place at any time, but that distance meant that it was able to accommodate the fantasy of its conclusion, the magic of the mark and the bull.
Now we have moved to 1944, just round the corner from ourselves. I was born less than a dozen years later and not many more miles from here. Alderley Edge was not East Manchester, even then, but William stands on the same ground that I do: his world is the same as mine, and like the back street terraces I grew up amongst, it has no room for fantasy. Everything in this story is concrete. Except within.
I’ve googled ‘Tom Fobble’s Day’ online but found nothing that doesn’t refer to this book. As such it can be labelled esoteric knowledge, if such a term can properly be ascribed to what was instinctive knowledge amongst a group of boys at play in a specific place. I don’t need to know it. It applied to marbles, after Easter, a way by which you could nick – or was it borrow? – your mates’ marbles for yourself by grabbing them and calling out Tom Fobble.
It’s the key to the story. Stewart Allman, a contemporary but a bigger boy, ‘Tom Fobbles’ William’s rough and ready sled. There’s a field, there’s two fields actually, connected at one corner by a gap that was once a gate and which is guarded by a hump below. The boys are sledging. Mostly they sledge down the lower field, from top corner to bottom, diagonally on the slope. Above it, the slope twists, in the opposite direction. According to their ability, and their bravery, the boys start in the top field, the braver from halfway up. Get up speed, hit the gap, turn the sledge, go fast down the lower field, again and again.
Until Stewart Allman Tom Fobbles William’s sledge, against all the private rules that govern these boys’ lives, except the overarching one about the biggest boy. And he smashes William’s painstakingly made but codge of a sledge.
William goes off to the blacksmith’s forge, trailing the ruins with him. His grandad is the Smith. Whilst they talk, Grandfather dry and disparaging of William’s efforts, his Grandad makes him a replacement sledge. We watch, uncomprehending, as his skills are bent to it, uncomprehending but understanding that magic is taking place. Not until the end do we learn that this gift to his grandson is his Grandfather’s last job: one of his own, for his own. He retires and cycles home.
William takes the sledge back to the field. This time he resists or half-resists Stewart Allman’s attempts to Tom Fobble this sledge: bending but not breaking. But Stewart Allman hasn’t the gift for it. William has. He is the master of the sledge, the master of the hill, starting from the very top corner, outracing everyone, outskilling them. He’s learning what is his place in the world, understanding what he is by becoming part of the hill itself, part of the community his family comes from.
Racing back to exclaim to his grandfather what a wonder the sledge is, William finds the old man’s house crowded with men of his age, silent, shuffling. Grandfather has taken to his bed and his rest. His job done, he sees no reason to waste time hanging around but is ready to depart. William catches his eye once, but the reader understands that the look is one way only.
Ignored, William creeps away. He employs his own version of the illicit Tom Fobble, exchanging newly collected shrapnel for the two horseshoes suspended in the chimney that represent luck for his Grandad and his Grandmother who went on before. In it’s way, it’s a theft, as they are not his, but their purpose has been served and unconsciously he is absorbing himself deeper yet in his family, accepting the superstitions of their time, the history that has borne him, for a time in which, like the mines that destroy the mark and the bull, the scepticism of the modern world and its inability to connect itself to place and past will become overwhelming.
Already, in a sense, the story is over. William’s future belongs to a boy named Alan, who needs to go back and discover what it is the education of Manchester Grammar School took out of him. All of the past, not just beginning and end, must needs do for that.