Short Story 'The Long Man': Response to My Challenge, Chalk Figure on a Hillside; Background Information
The Long Man
There he stands, stands out in chalk, supported by white canes. He walks through downy grass, surveying the Sussex Weald.
I saw him once, in my dreams.
He came to our house. Late one evening there was a knock at the kitchen door, more a rasping as chalk sticks scrape-squeaked down the wood.
“Who would that be at this time of night?” asked my mother. My father went to investigate.
All he saw was a shadow the other side of the glass panel, outlined in white. The shadow had a tinge of green and seemed familiar. The white rap was repeated as Dad peered through the opaque window.
Due to the familiarity, Dad decided to open the door. There stood an outline of a man, the tallest I had ever seen, towering above the gutters. He stooped, the better to converse with my father. His voice, soft and porous, with the faintest tinge of dusty irritant in his throat, came across the threshold with deep resonance,
“I’m sorry to bother you at this hour. My name is Will. I’ve been watching this house from my hillside and there seems to be a welcome in it, as people young and old come to your door. So I chose you to help me with my problem.”
“Well…,” Dad hesitated, though intrigued. He had a quick mind, a trusting disposition, a practical inclination. He sensed deep within that this was a one-off encounter he couldn’t ignore. A feeling of awe with glowing contentment infused his body. He had seen this figure high up on the Downs near our home.
“I’m Robert. You’re welcome to come in but I’m not sure you’ll fit! Maybe you could sit on the door sill; I’ll find you a cushion. Then you can explain and we’ll see what can be done.”
The long man smiled, his eyes gentle with a touch of melancholy. His outline shimmered in the moonlight, like northern lights shifting with the palest green.
“I was right in thinking there was kindness here.”
My mother brought out a cushion, a pretty home-made patchwork of remnants. She smiled her calm hello and left Dad to it.
Will perched the cushion across the doorstep and carefully folded himself upon it, legs outstretched to the fence. He was not used to bending.
"This is so comfortable for my old bones,” he said.
“I’ll come straight to the point. I’m already a few hundred years old but I don’t tolerate the cold ground so well now and even chalk can be rough when one lays one’s head to sleep. I thought you might have a solution to cradle my head on that hillside. Your ancestors didn’t have the foresight for that.”
His direct gaze implied his faith in my father, who would doubtless solve the problem. By this time, Dad had perched himself close to Will and, man to man, they talked of life, of history, of the community which my father served as local optician. One surveyed the land, inspiring nature and history. The other respected that land, loved nature and worked to make sure others could see it all in focus. Both gentle souls displayed a deep empathy evident to all whose paths they crossed.
“This problem of yours; sounds like you need a pillow, soft as grass, to hasten your slumber. My wife is a seamstress. She could make one to suit you to a T, as soft as down, as deep as dreams and as broad as an oak branch. We’ll deliver it when it’s ready, if you like.”
Will inclined his head in acceptance, a mere notion of a tear in his eye.
“I see many kind people as I survey this weald below my hillside, even though a film sometimes fogs my old calcareous eyes. You are of the ilk whose approach to others will keep mankind on his true path. You partake of knowledge, you listen, you understand and then you give. I shall keep a special eye on you during your time on this earth.”
The long man unfolded himself with the help of his canes, leaving a little chalk dust, said “Goodbye for the moment” and strode unnoticed back to his patch of chalkland.
With magic speed (as happens in dreams), my mother fashioned the customised pillow. It swirled with shades of green, from lime to holly, flecked with dabs of chalk-cream, its linen texture laid to fine horizontal lines.
The next day found my Dad on the slopes of the Downs. He placed the pillow precisely within Will’s outline. It happened that my mother was not alone in her gift-making. My father had been troubled that the Long Man’s sight was fading. On the pillow, Will would find lenses tinged with green to soften any bright sunlight.
Dad turned towards home with a spring in his step, a smile playing on his lips and a feeling of well-being. A whisper rode the breeze as he reached the path below,
“I offer my thanks. My protection goes with you.”
Let’s look at some of the background to this story, starting with information about the Long Man then a few relevant facts about my parents.
The Long Man of Wilmington
The Long Man of Wilmington is a hill figure on the steep slopes of Windover Hill, part of the South Downs, near Wilmington, East Sussex, England. It was formerly often known as the ‘Wilmington Giant’ or locally as the ‘Green Man’. He is 235 feet (72 m) tall, holds two ‘staves’ and is designed to look in proportion when viewed from below.
Formerly thought to originate in the Iron Age or possibly the neolithic period, the figure may have been cut in the Early Modern era - the 16th or 17th century AD - according to an archaeological investigation in 2003.
From afar the figure appears to have been carved from the underlying chalk (as it was originally) but the modern figure is formed from white-painted breeze blocks and lime mortar.
The Long Man is one of two major existing human hill figures in England; the other is the Cerne Abbas Giant, north of Dorchester, in Dorset. Both are Scheduled Ancient Monuments.
It is one of two hill figures in East Sussex; the other is the Litlington White Horse.
My father was the village optician (now referred to as an optometrist). He trained, worked for others and finally had a practice of his own, having converted the smallest of our bedrooms into a consulting room. Many of the villagers came to our door for eye tests and the appropriate spectacles if necessary. Occasionally, he picked up on a medical issue indicated by something not quite right in a patient’s eyes; two people were diagnosed with a brain tumour in time to give them a better chance.
Away from work, he liked to walk, always with his camera. He had a talent for composing wonderful photos which he developed in his dark room.
His walks took him, often all of us, over the South Downs close to our house, along wooded paths, over open grassland and beside hidden rills*. He loved nature, he had an open disposition and our home resounded with his humour and our laughter. Popular with the villagers, he was successful in business. He also loved to write and draw.
I inherited his love of life, nature, drawing, photography and of cars! He taught me all the makes and models of what was then a form of transport that not all households possessed.
My mother was his support, our homemaker as well as a creator of interior covers and most of my and her clothes, particularly dresses. She was speedy on her treadle sewing machine. I admired her artistry and her eye for colours and style. Like my father, she could draw and write. Her forte, though, was as a pianist with an eclectic appreciation of music, especially Chopin, Rachmaninov and the Beatles! She was gentle, tolerant and saw humour in so many things. We giggled a lot.
I inherited her love of flowers, fabrics and sense of colour. Sadly, I have no talent for playing any musical instrument though I do appreciate music and I have a good sense of rhythm.
Both my parents taught me the love of books and reading, something for which I am eternally grateful.
My love of the South Downs, where this story is set and where I grew up, is also part of my soul; my roots are strong.
Sources & Terms
*rill - a Sussex term referring to a stream in a steep-sided gully
Have you seen any chalk figures like this one?
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Ann Carr