With The Aimer Gate, Alan Garner brought to an end his chronicles of the history of his family. The book is the third of four, in chronological terms, and is placed as such in the collected volume, The Stone Book Quartet. To come is the story of William, a quarter century and another War on, but Garner chose to write this book last, giving the story a curious, split role, as continuation and terminus simultaneously.
And it’s that latter role that is most significant in The Aimer Gate, as has been identified by reviewers when the book first emerged. For this stage of the story is about Robert, father of William to come, named for his Great-Grandfather, that bazzil-arsed old devil as his father Joseph calls him. And Robert is destined to be the lost boy, whose story turns round to belong to someone else, someone older.
It’s a hot day in summer. Robert’s Uncle Charlie, Mary’s legitimate son, is home on leave from the Western Front. It’s the last day of his leave, but before he goes, he and Ozzie Leah, and Young Ollie Leah, have a job to do. They are the reapers, a practiced team of three scythemen working together in precision. Leah Bank is not normally planted but there’s a War on. Leah Bank is familiar: it consists of two steep fields, with a gate in the corner letting one into another.
Uncle Charlie’s a soldier. Ozzie Leah refers to him half-affectionately, half in acknowledgement, as Sniper, for that is his role. His mastery. As he will tell his nephew, at the end of the book, when the rabbits are driven in fear from the last shelter in the top field, he stops rabbits skriking. If you don’t understand what that means you must read the book.
Joseph is the Smith. He got aback of his Grandfather, aback of everyone. He’s risking ruining his mastery by the war imposed obligation to make horseshoes and nothing but, but once a week he takes the time from the telegraph to the clock in the Church steeple. Today is one of those days.
Robert follows his father up inside the clock, and beyond to the highest point within, his secret place, known only to him and his pigeons. Like the hidden cave in The Stone Book it is full of footprints, a multitude, but these are all Robert. And inside the highest point of the steeple, where he can wear the Church like a hat, young Robert finds a mark, and a name: his own.
Or rather, Old Robert.
It’s an amazement to the boy, but it’s a demonstration of mastery, that here, where no-one will see and any old codge might have done, the old mason kept faith to his craft and would not skimp, but stayed true to his trade.
And what has young Robert got? Charlie’s old bassinet that will end as William’s sledge is now a cart, with oiled wheels and axles. Robert uses it to fetch Faddock Allman, the legless Boer War veteran, who breaks stones for the roads, uses it to fetch stones for him. Even from what was once a cottage whose foundations can still supply the yellow Dimension stone that was the best of Chorley.
But Robert has nothing more. His great grandfather was aback of the village, his father got aback of him but there is no room left for young Robert, nothing to get aback of. His days sees him find his name but not his name, and by taking a measure of Uncle Charlie’s fine oil that he uses to constantly oil his rifle, Robert can make his cart, Wicked Winnie, roll so fine it can travel by gravity alone across the crest of the road.
And that is all. His name mimics old Robert, his attentions to Wicked Winnie mimic Uncle Charlie. But these are things for children. They give him nothing to build upon as a man. And he has no greater ambition than fetching for Faddock Allman, who left more than his legs in Mesopolonica. Joseph resents him: I intuit that his mother who could not bring him up herself because he was illegitimate married an Allman, and that Charlie’s solicitousness towards Faddock is more than just of that to a comrade but also a relation.
There is nothing to justify that connection, but just as Alan Garner in writing these four stories made connections that turned out to be true without his knowledge, it may well be so.
This is Uncle Charlie’s last day of leave. We know already that he doesn’t return from the War. Alan Garner had written that, had sent Charlie off before learning that an Uncle removed had died that very way. And we feel it as much as we see it, and before Charlie turns into the cold-eyed and cold-hearted sniper who stops rabbits skriking, in his words that foresee for himself that this last return to the War will this time be the last, that he might just this time go by the aimer gate.
Like ‘Tom Fobble’s Day’, the phrase appears to have no existence in Google outside the book’s title but just like that book, I cannot believe for a second that it is an invention by Garner. It is too deeply integrated into the pictures he draws, the histories he links to be anything but real, true.