‘Barney’s Tricks’ was written in October 1937, when the novelist, poet and autobiographer Jack Clemo (1916-1994) was 21 years old, and was published in Saundry’s Almanack at the beginning of 1939. Clemo was a late bloomer and his dialect tales should probably be considered juvenilia. However, they are an important part of his life story and literary output, and show a sometimes overlooked aspect of regional identity through a shared working language. Cornish dialect is a kind of borderland idiom between the English and Cornish, a point of conflict or compromise, where English was imposed on or adopted by the Cornish and then adapted, turned into something regionally characterful and variable.
Clemo’s tales come from the china clay country of Mid-Cornwall and were all written in the interwar period. They are lively, intimate portraits of day-to-day village and working life, defined by the clay pits and sand dumps. The stories are light-hearted farces of a type popular in the region until the Second World War, when paper-rationing and conscription forced many almanacs and magazines to close. Before then, during the 1930s, there were several annuals and weekly newspapers publishing dialect stories, sketches, opinion and poetry. It was a period of growing interest in the identity and culture of Cornwall, with the Celtic Revival movement having gained momentum. Old Cornwall Societies were formed, then the Gorsedh Kernow, and the Cornish language was being reconsidered and reinvigorated.
Jack Clemo is best known for his powerful symbolic poetry, and is associated with dark religious brooding in his rural-industrial clayscape. He was deaf and blind for much of his life, and at the time of writing ‘Barney’s Tricks’ his sight was fine though his hearing was bad and painful. The tales are unusual in Clemo’s oeuvre as being cheery and light entertainments intended to amuse a Cornish readership in the middle of winter.
‘Barney’s Tricks’ is from a collection of 21 dialect tales to be published by Francis Boutle later in the year. It appears courtesy of Francis Boutle and Wheal Martyn China Clay Museum and Country Park.
Barney Nance was setting on the edge o’ the clay-pit, all be hisself, swinging his legs out over the side. Twas ten o’clock of a winter’s evening, nearly dark – moon jist beginning to peep over the sand-burra behind un, and some wind was gittin’ up. But Barney did’n seem to feel the cold. He had a coat on, and a cap, and kipt his head lowered, glaazen straight down the bottoms to a greeny pool o’ water a hundred feet below.
Bill Parkyn come of a sudden round the end o’ the ingine-house not far back from the pit. He was a young chap and was thinking about a maid; he’d jist put her home for the fust time and he wad’n noticing much o’ what was round un. But all to once he stopped short and glaazed. Fore there by the pit – what was it? He gived a lil jump and squeaked, catching back his breath.
Barney did’n turn around, but wriggled his legs a bit and leaned fore fu’ther over the pit. His hands was spread on each side of’n, flat on the turf, and his coat was flapping like a gurt black wing.
Bill was fitty scared – he’d never seed no sich sight afore, and hardly knowing what he was doing he beginned to run straight for the pit, shouting as he went.
‘Hi! Hi, you! You must’n… Hi!’
Barney’s head jerked up, the face white as a sheet, and his eyes red as ferrets’. His hands clinched, and be time Bill got close he was thumping away on the turf like a maazed man.
‘Barney!’ says Bill, recognising of’n. ‘Wot-ever – ! Look ’ere, wot be doin’? Who be waitin’ for?’
Barney grind his teeth and said: ‘Nobody.’
‘Well, ’en – squabbed there like that! Ted’n saafe, Barney.’
‘I knaw that.’
‘Caan’t ee git up? Wha’s matter? Be ee bad?’ Bill stooped as if he meaned to catch Barney’s shoulders, but Barney whizzed around and shout:
‘Go ’ome, you! I’m oall right.’
‘’Ow long be goin’ stay ’ere?’
‘Till I move, s’spose.’
‘But look, if you bean’t careful you’ll lost yer balance an’ – an’ that’ll be the end of ’ee.’
‘I ’ope zo,’ says Barney, very bitter.
And then Bill understand, and his mouth dropped open – proper horrified.
‘Barney!’ he says in a hoarse whisper. ‘You ded’n main to do away wi’ yerself, ded ee?’
‘An’ if I ded!’ snaps Barney, edging back a mite and stiffening his legs out straight. ‘Wot odds is that to you? Wait till you do fall in love…’
‘Ah!’ says Bill, and he gived a jump, glaazen over his shoulder at the moon on top the sand-burra. ‘Maids is alw’ys behind everything. Woan’t she ’ave ee?’
Barney shaked his head, and looked down again into the pit. All dark and dismal twas – the ole crags could hardly be seed in the gloom, and the pool was shining faint in the moonlight.
‘Life bean’t wuth living, Bill,’ he says, very dreary. ‘Maid woan’t be satisfied till I be gone out o’ the way. She towld me yes’day, an’ I mained to git out o’t afore, only I tho’t I’d slaip on it. It’ve only made me more detarmined. You better move off, er they’ll pull you up as well when tis over.’
Bill hanged out his tongue for a minute, and then he ax: ‘Who is it, Barney, makin’ so bould? P’raps I’d be able to help ee.’
Barney took off his cap and rubbed his noase with the peak. ‘I ’spect you could,’ says he, sullen. ‘Iss, you could if you mind to. But you woan’t – you’ve ’ad yer chance oalready.’
‘Howzat?’ demand Bill, trembling all over. ‘Who is she, Barney? Quick! Who’s this ’ere maid wot woan’t ’ave ee?’
‘Who is she? Caan’t ee guess? Tis that maid wot’s in saarvice to your houzs – Carrie Dannin’.’
Barney glanced up in Bill’s face again. He had a shock. The chap had gone white as a sheet o’ paper and his legs shivered under un like if he could’n stand up. Barney reed the signs and flied into a fresh rage.
‘Wot! Is that of it? You’m in love with her yerself, be ee? An’ she want you! Tha’s why I’m in sich fix, is et?’
He made to scramble up on his knees, and Bill knawed he must do somethin’ quick. He was too waik to run far, and Barney was maaze ’nough to push un in the clay-pit.
‘No,no, Barney,’ he says, spreading out his hands. ‘Maid’s there in sarvice, tha’s oall. I doan’t zee much of her. Nothin’ like that between us, Barney.’
‘She doan’t think nort about ee?’
‘Not so far as I knaw. Anyway, I doan’t think nothin’ o’ she. Taake my word vor et, Barney.’
Barney ded’n said nothing. He set back on edge o’ the pit. In moving he knocked out a stone with his toes, and there come a splash from the pool down under as the stone falled. Bill shivered.
‘Still,’ he went on, ‘if she ’ave got another chap – ted’n me, Barney, I zay that again – trew as I’m ’ere ted’n me – but if she’s courtin’ zome other fella I’d git her out o’ me mind. She caan’t be wuth troublin’ about. Try an’ vind another maid – ther’s plenty around ’ere.’
‘No,’ ansers Barney; ‘She’s the only one ver me, Bill. There could’n never be no other. You doan’t knaw wot tis like to be in love, Bill. Laive me.’
Bill turned around, but ded’n move away. He was in a fix and scratched his head for braave while, standing still with his back to Barney, blinking at the moon. When he whizzed about again Barney was setting as before – had’n made no move to drop hisself over, or git up.
‘Doan’t ee think there’s no ’ope at all?’ ax Bill. ‘I bet there is. Maids make outs they doan’t care, when oall the time they’m daggin’ for ee. ’Ave another shot, Barney.’
Barney put on his cap again. ‘Will you do wot you can, Bill – spake a good word vor me when she’s around – zay wot a nice chap I be – never fly in no temper – never stingy ’bout money – never…’
‘I’ll tell her oall that,’ says Bill. ‘Though ted’n trew, as she’d vind out.’
‘Wot!’ Barney shout, but next minute he was cool again and trying to raise hisself. ‘It may work,’ says he, under his voice.
‘Well, ther’s a good chance, anyway. Better’n makin’ a vool o’ yerself like you mained to. Lucky I come along.’
Barney laffed grim. ‘Twoan’t be zo lucky unless she chaange her mind. If she woan’t ’ave me I shell chuck meself in there.’
A minute later the two of ’em was traipsing around the end o’ the sand-burra towards the village, not spaking much, but thinking a brave bit. Bill had got hisself in a pickle, and was feeling vexed and miserable about what he had to do next. He’d jist seed Carrie home and promised her they’d soon start courting in front o’ everybody, and now – if he ded’n take back his words Barney would be chuckin’ hisself in the pool. Barney was dotty about her – must be – though Bill had never knawed afore to-night that the chap ever had a tho’t of her. He could’n laive Barney drown hisself; but how could ’a give up Carrie? Things would sort their-self out somehow, he s’poased, but twas a purty ole tangle.
The Parkyn’s house seemed very quiet the next arternoon. Bill and his father was working, and Mrs. Parkyn had called fore to a neighbours ’bout some knitting what she was doing. Carrie was all be herself, and she had pleasant tho’ts as she worked. Last night! Bill had broke down his shyness at last – she’d felt this coming for months, but Bill was terrible shy and she’d had to lead un on. It had come right arter the worry o’ the evenin’ afore, when she’d mit Barney and he’d ranted away like a fella off his nut, telling as ’ow he’d loved her for ages and tried to kip it to hisself, but could’n hold back no longer. She’d gived un his deserts and he’d went off looking all queer, but had’n said nothing. And then Bill had stepped in, and everything was cleared up.
Carrie stand be the stove in kitchen, smiling like a body in a dream; but sudden she made a move and screeched out loud ’nough to wake half the parish.
‘Aw, darn the cat! If I doan’t take the poker… !’
Carrie’d bin lost in her tho’ts and had’n seed the cat trotting around the room till now. Twas streams o’ rain and the crettur was plastered in muck; and Carrie had jist clained the kitchen floor. There twas – baistly ole paw-marks all over the place. Carrie’s blid boiled. As the cat scoot out droo the doorway she grabbed the sifter from the ash-box and renned arter un out in the passage. Twas nearly dark here and she could’n see toall which was the baist had gone. She geeked here and geeked there, pulling back the curtains, rattling the sifter agin her feet and making all sorts o’ noises to try and git the crettur to shaw hisself.
‘K’ss! K’ss! Shoo! Git ’long out! Boo! K’ss!’
But all her flurrik and hissin’ ded’n drive the cat out o’ wherever he was hiding, and she had to go back to the kitchen and clain up the dirty marks, her purty face twisted into a scowl and her lil red mouth screwed up like a button.
When twas done she feeled easier and minded she had a bit o’ work to do in the bedroom. She could’n ’ford to waste no more time in dreaming, and so she could made tracks for the stairs wi’ duster in hand. Twas Bill’s bedroom what she had to tidy a bit, and as she went in she feeled happy as a lark and beginned to sing. All tho’ts o’ the cat went away as she set to work, dusting the few pieces o’ furniture. Then she had to make the bed, what was placed close agin the wardrobe in the corner. In stooping to the tuck in the bedcloas she backed into the wardrobe and shut a drawer what had been partly open. She ded’n take no notice of it and was soon the way down again, eager to git tay afore Bill come home from work.
When he arrived she had a fright. He wad’n like she’d expected. He ded’n seem happy. He hardly spoke droo tay-time, and his father and mother kipt glaazin’ to un as if they could’n make un up. He ded’n ait much, but soon rised up and went in paalour.
Carrie was in a proper fluster o’ worry, and broke up a cup while she was washing the dishes – never had no thought for nothing but Bill. What had come over un? Something had happened since last night. She must find out what twas. And soon’s she finished cleaning-up she went in paalour to see un.
Only Bill was there – his father was out in the garden, his mother outdoors, too. Bill was squabbed down afore the fire, looking the picture of misery, holding a leg up on his knee and leaning fore with his forehead on his knuckles. The room was gittin’ dum, and Carrie tread across it like a shadow, not making a sound in the soft carpets. Stopping behind Bill she put a hand on his shoulder.
‘Wha’s matter, Bill?’
Bill start and glaazed up at her. He ded’n anser for a minute, and then twas in a queer sort o’ voice.
‘I’m goin’ out d’rectly.’
Carrie’s eyes went wide abroad and she says, some flurried: ‘You’ll git wet.’
‘I doan’t mind that.’
‘Wot do ee mind, then? Zummin’s wrong. Where be goin’?’
‘Into town, I bleeve. No good axin’ no questions. I’m goin’ git out me new zuit in minute er two, an’ clear out.’
Carrie set down opposite to un in a arm-chair. ‘But – Bill! You promised you’d go home wi’ me again, an’…’
‘I knaw oall that,’ says Bill, quavery, putting down his leg. ‘But I’m ’fraid…’
Carrie gaped, and then her eyes went misty. ‘Is et – you bean’t goin’ town to try an’ vind zome other maid? Ted’n that, is et, Bill?’
She ded’n expect Bill to admit it, but he jerked down his head. He looked more miserable than ever, and rised up, moving out o’ the room like if he could hardly put one foot afore the other.
Carrie set still – could’n follow un, nor say nort. Twas a fair mystery. Bill wad’n hisself at all. He could’n main what he’d said – he must be vexed ’bout something at the clayworks, and twould blaw over. She heard un go upstairs and set staring into the fire, wondering what was goin’ happen next.
There come a rumpus from up over her in Bill’s bedroom. A shout from Bill, then the sound of un running across the room out to the landing. On the stairs she heard a quick scrattling noise – the cat racing down so fast as his legs would carr’ un. White in the face she rised and went out in the passage. Reaching the stairs she climbed up, feeling faint and ’fraid. When she got to landing and geeked in droo the doorway a lil screech bust from her and she flapped her hands.
There was Bill, standing in middle the room, holding up a pair o’ trousers what belonged to his new suit. On the bed was a coat, and though twas brave and dark Carrie seed that there was dirty marks ’pon un. Bill was raging.
‘Look! Who’ve done this? Who shut the cat in my drawer there? Zee my trousers! Zee that cooat! Plastered oall over wi’ muck! Cat bin lyin’ on ’em oall arternoon, s’poase.’ He flinged out a arm as Carrie creeped in. ‘Who done it? Was it you?’
Carrie beginned to screech, rubbing her eyes to and fro on her hands. ‘Aw, Bill, I’m – I ded’n knaw. Never had no idea. The cat must a-went upstairs – I coosed un out o’ kitchen jist now an’ ded’n knaw where he went.’
‘Tha’s a fine yarn,’ says Bill, scoffing. ‘Ded the cat shet hisself in the drawer? Zomebody must a – done it.’
‘Iss, I – twas a accident…’
‘Doan’t bleeve et! You best not go tryin’ to maake gaame o’ me. You done it a-purpose. You could’n shet that drawer without zeein’ the cat there… No, doan’t try to ’splain nort. You’ve rewined me zuit. S’poase you tho’t I’d be goin’ off zomewhere to-night wethout ee, an’ done it ver spite. You’ll pay vor et. Git out the room! I’ve vinished with ee!’
Bill was ramping, dancin’ around on the planchen flurrikin’ his trousers and wavin’ of ’em round his head. Carrie stand be the door and her face went red – she had a temper, and was got worked up to her pitch.
‘That’ll do, Bill. If you think I’d do that a-purpose… You bean’t the only chap in the world – I knaw another one, an’ he’s waitin’ his chance.’
Bill tossed his trousers on the planchen, and beginned to spake terrible quiet.
‘You main – Barney Nance? Well, oall right – git along to un! This ’ave come in ’andy ver me – maade et aisier. I bean’t goin’ to tell ee no details, but this is jist wot I wanted to ’appen. Giss out an’ vind un. I’ll manage ’bout these cloas zomehow, but reckon you’ll be sacked from ’ere.’
Tha maid went down without saying nothing more, and Bill squat on the bed, glaazen out o’ winda. He heard his mother come in, and listened to what Carrie had to say about what the cat had done. Mrs. Parkyn ded’n make much of it and never come upstairs to see what the damage was.
Bill stayed on in the cold bedroom, all by hisself in the dark. Droo the winda he stared up towards the village street, and seed the ’lectric lights on the pavements light up, and people moving along shadowy past ’em. The rain was easing – goin’ to be a fine evening, be the look of it. He’d a-bin able to have a good time in town, and most likely a-found some maid. But now this nuisance had cropped up, he and Carrie had falled out; she seemed to like Barney arter all, and Bill was left without anybody.
There was the door! Carrie now leaving! Bill rised up, hide behind the curtain, and craaned his neck fore towards the misty panes. He seed the lil figure down there moving out the roadway, walking all stiff and yet with her head cocked up defiant. Yes! She was going up to village; the way to her home was down the road and in across the clay-works. She mained to git Barney to put her home, did she? Aw, drat it! Bill grabbed the curtains so hard that he teared ’em—flimsy traade twas; and feeling ’fraid o’ somethin’ he left the bedroom and stalked down.
Carrie was hurt and vexed, but she made up her mind she would’n show it. Barney would be hanging around the village somewhere – he lived up other end the street – and she’d wait around till she seed un, and then give un the glad eye. Twould serve Bill right. He’d played a dirty trick ’pon her, pretending he was serious. But what had ’a meant in speakin’ o’ Barney? He seemed to knaw all about it, and said something was easier for un ’cause o’ what she’d let the cat do to his new cloas. Aw, well, she might be able to find out more from Barney hisself. And she stopped short under a ’lectric lamp and ogled her eyes around to see what they could catch.
They catched sight o’ something right away, and opened abroad like saucers. She stretched out her neck and glaazed hard to the pavement a lil way further up. Two people was standing there, talking under their voice – a man and a maid. Minute later the pair beginned walking away out o’ the village, going fu’ther off from Carrie. They was in the gloom, but Carrie seed that they had their arms round each other’s waists. She hold her breath and clutched tight to the lamp-post. Something about the fella’s walk looked familiar. Surely twas – no, it could’n be! No Barney! She squeezed home her eyes as they got to the next lamp. She could see ’em clearer now, and recognised the maid – Alice Bullen, living here to the village – flighty sort o’ maid. Carrie set her eyes ’pon the chap and grawed more and more certain that twas Barney. And then ’fore they passed out o’ the lamplight the chap turned his head, and Carrie’s last doubt was gone. Yes! Twas Barney! He’d forgot her already! The shock of it made Carrie lean agin the lamp-post limp as a dish-cloth for a minute, and then she turned tail and marched down the road.
That was that! Barney wad’n no cop at all – no good putting her hopes on he. And now Bill’d turned agin her she could’n tell what was goin’ happen next. She’d have to finish her service at Parkyn’s place – could’n stick it there, seeing Bill every day, even if they ded’n sack her for being so careless about the cat. Carrie wanted to git out o’ the village so that she could let out her feelings, and passed the Parkyn’s house without looking up – kipt close in agin the hedge opposite, in shadow, and soon she’d come to the lane cutting in across the clayworks.
There wad’n no moon yet, and twas awful gloomy going in around the sand-burra. Carrie shivered – a cold wind was rising; and she glanced around all ’fraid. She minded last night, how she and Bill had walked along here, and how different it had been. She gived away to her feelings, dabbin’ her face with a handkerchief as she stumbled from the lane along the gravel ridges, tripping over loose stones, till she got out facing the clay-pit. She knawed the way so well that she ded’n have to look careful where she was going – could a-walked around there with her eyes shut, ’most; and she went on sobbing and dabbing her eyes while going along the path near the edge o’ the pit.
Then sudden she had the fright of her life. Lifting her eyes for a minute she seed some black object only a yard or two ahead, hunched on the pit’s rim – something dim and ghastly moving and flapping. Carrie stopped like if she’d been shet to, and gived a scream. The thing turned around a bit, and she seed a face, and a gruff voice come, speaking very slow.
‘You! Aw. Goin’ home be yerself?’
She runned fore and cluffed down lil way behind un – could’n dare go to the edge where he was setting. Reaching out a hand she says, all breathless:
‘Wot be doin’ out ’ere, Bill?’
Bill glaazed down towards the pool and stretched a arm out over the pit. ‘This is a trick Barney taiched me,’ he says, strained like. ‘An’ now he’ll be taichin’ you tricks when you do mit un. You abben had no luck to-night?’
‘Iss, Bill, I ’ave – I’ve seed un. Bill!’ And she broke down in screeches again, flopping fore flat on the turf.
Bill screwed around and his face twicked. ‘Wha’s up? Woan’t – you doan’t main Barney woan’t ’ave ee?’
‘Iss – he got another maid. Alice Bullen. I jist seed ’em together, courtin’, an’ an’ I doan’t want un. Never did want un. You knaw I ded’n Bill. I never knawed wot I was sayin’. I was vexed, an’ could’n make out wot you was like – comin’ home like you did.’ She striggled up and moved closer to un on her knees, grabbing his shoulder from behind. She shaked un.
‘Bill! Wot was ee mainin’ to do? Wot do et oall main? You wanted to try an’ git another maid, ded’n ee?’
Bill turned and edged back from the pit. ‘Course I ded’n!’ he says like if he was ’shamed of hisself. ‘I was a vool to lissen to that owld Barney. But when I feeled I’d lost ee – well, I come ’ere mainin’ to do wot Barney mained to do. I’ll tell ee oall the taale as I putt ee ’ome – this bean’t no plaace ver talking.’
‘Oall right. Taake howld me ’ands ’ere… wait till I git up… Now, you owld zilly, lemme pull!’
The story is introduced here by Luke Thompson. Luke is from Cornwall and currently writing his PhD on the poet Jack Clemo. He also works as a fishmonger in Fowey and has an interest in short fiction.
Images courtesy of Special Collections, University of Exeter and James Hutchings of The Motion Farm. You can find out more about James’s work here.