The Keffer Hills

To see them on a winter’s morn…

The Keffer Lantyn Fells are works of the godhead to be sure, with their high peaks wreathed in shawls of cloud; and though cloaked white in winter they may be, they nurture certainty of coming Spring,  when the crystal waters tumble from the whin stone shelves, their rich red silt bringing sweetness to the Lantyn valley, the like of which is never seen in other lands.   I have watched from afar, both in the December chill and the Spring running, and I would love them if I could.

But there is a devil in those hills.   Oh, I have heard folk tales from many lands, lurid legends of hideous creatures that lurk in rivers, or run screeching among the bare canyons of the high tops, of forest spirits and venomous sprites, but none to compare with this.  And none to have such dominion as this.  For beautiful as the sun-blessed Lantyn Vale may be, with its jewelled water and its willow scented glades, no human lives there, and no human ever will.

There were people once.   There was a village of fisher folk among the trees that line the upper reaches of the Lantyn waters, shy people nested like secretive birds who took succour from the river and huddled together when the snows came. 

Their lives were filled with superstitious tales, of mythic birds and forest ghosts, and one legend, that of Watake, the fish-god of the river, that gave substance to their being.  They honoured their protector, taking from the river only according to their needs.  And they were honest folk, before the coming of the fated child.

He who did the deed, they say, was a stranger to any charted shore – a ragged, rugged, rabid soul so oddly girded in shark-skin some would have it he was no land-born creature at all.  Yet he was a fisher by instinct, and he had learned of the riches that swam in the Lantyn River.  The woman?  She was daughter to a kindly village man who invited him to share their hearth, and come the autumn the fisher had shared much more.  All winter he taught those simple folk his ways with nets that they might plunder the river of its silver children, and come the spring when the woman’s belly was full he took his own harvest and went his way.

It is said the fisher man’s wiles led those honest villagers astray, and that winter greed was born.  It is said the spirits were already angered when summer came and his child entered the world.  That is as may be, but even the spirits could not have been ready for such a child as this.

For all his poverty, the village man shared with his daughter and her child such as he had, and his grand-daughter had no want or lack of love.   Yet from the very start it was clear she was of the fisher’s roving blood, given to straying alone into the upper forests, playing for solitary hours among the stony becks and brooks that fed the Lantyn’s waters in the valley far below.  At first she dutifully returned with evening, to sup at her mother’s table, and help prepare her grandfather’s nets.  She did this because she was taught that such was the way of the village, yet to learn the cruelty these implements of her natural father’s craft wrought upon the free-swimming fish of the river.  

As the child grew she passed all her hours wandering in the woods.  She began to learn the ways of the wild creatures living in darkest corners among the trees, even, some would have it, to speak in their tongue.  A wood-cutter from the village swore he came upon her once in earnest conversation with an otter that had built a holt in the bank of a stream:  she was crouched before the animal, he said, giving forth little chucking grunts and whistling sounds so perfect he could not tell girl from beast.  And it seemed to him the otter perfectly understood her.    Of course, such tales grow in the comfort of a warm winter fireside, yet there are always some who are ready to believe.

The villagers began to walk in awe, or even fear of the fisher’s child.  In her turn, she came less frequently to her parents’ home, but stayed day and night in the forest.  There were those who attested they had seen her amid a company of wolves, and some who said that one summer evening as she visited the river to drink she met with Watake.  These witnesses spoke of a creature larger and more powerful than any salmon – of scales that flashed all the colours of a rainbow as it leaped before the rose of the setting sun – yet in its great display of strength and beauty it caused not a splash or a ripple in the water, and thus did it affirm it was, indeed, a god.

Though fearsome in appearance, its eye was gentle.  It came to the girl to offer its wisdom.  She listened, she talked to it – she, seated upon the river’s bank, the fish-god idling in the shallows, long into that night.  A friendship was struck, something so deep and so sacred only death could break it; and thereafter her life belonged to the forest and the river.  She would never return to her village home.

From time to time down the years came word that the girl was seen, either swimming in the river or deep among the trees, but no-one could get close to her, or hear her speak, until it came at last to the summer of the Great Flood.

For days the Keffer Lantyn HIlls were buried in livid storm clouds.  Lightning flickered about the forest’s upper reaches, and the rain came like vengeance:  for a day, then a night, then another day.  The languid waters of the Lantyn River swelled to torrential fury;  fallen branches, whole trees rushed past the little village, frantic hands hauled upon the painters of escaping boats, gathered in nets mauled by the tumult.   Only the bravest or most hungry attempted fishing in such a storm.  Fortune for good or ill, they say, favours the brave.

As the legend is told, at the very moment Watake was taken by a villager’s net, the storm ceased.   The waters calmed and in wonder the people gathered around to see their deity laid low.  They stared, they muttered primitive prayers, watched by its eye, and its look might have told them, had they been wise enough, that it understood.  But the greed that was their nature now would not release them, so within minutes they set about hacking and slicing the great fish.   

Which is how the god of the Lantyn River died.

From his perch among the tall trees a redstart relayed the tragic news and by this means the wild girl heard of her beloved companion’s ignominious end.   Her wails of grief echoed and re-echoed through the valley;  the screams of her anger turned the river to blood.   There and then she uttered a sacred spell that was at once a curse and a death sentence upon the village and its people.  There and then she gathered about her all the creatures of the forest, all the denizens of the river and its banks and she made with them a pledge; that never more would men set foot in the Lantyn Valley, unless they should vanquish her first.

It was early the next morning when the villagers, fat with their spoils, woke to the sound of hooves.  Staring from their doors they probably never really believed what they saw – the onrush of wild deer, antlers tossing, trampling their huts and barging their walls to the ground; of thirsting wolves, rats swarming, sharp-toothed otters, badgers snarling like rabid dogs, each picking a throat and striking deep.   Birds, no matter how humble, that were become raptors, swooping and pecking at mouths and eyes.

A very few escaped, bringing to the outer world their story of the wild plague that erased their village.  The rest died.  Those who survived spoke of a demonic woman running naked through their compound with fingers of fire, setting roofs ablaze, making bonfires of their nets, and commanding the wolves to hunt them down.  In no more than a few minutes their homes were razed to the ground, and one by one, as though they were walking creatures, the trees advanced, and spread, and thrust new roots into the ground.  Before a seventh dusk the forest had taken back all it had yielded to the villagers.  There were no huts, no boats, no nets.  Sated wolves, well fed, slumbered where once the fisher’s steps had trod.

All sorts of rumours prevail, but no-one has ever returned to that valley to learn the truth, for  to set foot in those forests is to be attacked:  be warned should you ever try, for many have.  All wild life there is vicious, the wolves will hunt you down, the deer trample you beneath their feet,, the badgers and even the otters keep watch.  The trees themselves will reach down to strangle you, and even though you turn away, your dreams will haunt you for years thereafter.  Their general, it is said, is a wild girl who is immortal, and some claim to have seen her, and proclaim her very beautiful, but these are old men’s dreams.

For myself, I stay away.  Although I live not far from that devilish valley I would not travel there.  Far from it, my fear will always be that the contagion might spread, for once the wild ones have seen the product of their power, why should they not attempt much more?   I tell myself such thoughts are foolish, but I have seen how, in the last year or so, my own dog, though he sleeps at my fireside still, regards me differently.   And last night, catching a fox among the bins, I could not escape the snarl of his teeth, or the malevolence in his eye.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo Credits: Christel Sagniez and Gloria Peters from Pixabay

Of Canford Bluff

From those archives again!

  Don’t think us rude if we stare, stranger.  We get so few who visit here, you see.  Same weathered faces, same laboured jokes, but the beer’s good.  Arthur, he knows how to keep a good cellar, don’t you, Arthur?  Stay for a drink.  We’ll entertain you.  

Hartwood Farm?  Take the Brompton road a brace of miles, where it runs by Bretton Oaks, up Malton Hill, and if you turn left where you see the Wishing Stone there is a drovers’ track; it is there you may find it.  A mile or so.  A short mile, no more.

As the river runs about the foot of Hartwood Fell it leaves a basin of green land, not so large as you might think it, nor so green as you might wish it, but a farmer’s living once.  I knew him, the man. He who farmed that pasture – who lived there.  Sair, he was, with cheeks scoured black by the north-blown rain.  His name was Borden; Isaac Borden.

His home is standing, still, you’ll see it there, afore the narrow band of trees that skirt the Fell.  Of random stone it is, bare-laid on clay, and it might not be a house to make you proud, with no boards to warm your feet or plastered walls, yet when the easterly blows its flagstone roof holds firm against the worst, and when the river runs high from the fells in the spring rains it stands above the flood.  And there he spent all his years, did Isaac.

When I knew him he was old and he was broken.  But he was husband and father once, and inasmuch as a farmer is ever happy in these hills, he was contented with his lot.

What happened?  What was it led to his misery and his downfall?  Arthur, this man would like to buy me a pint, so my throat shall not dry.  I have a tale to tell.

He met her at the Wishing Stone.  She was waiting hooded in the snow for something she said would never come.  And he thought at first she was a wayward girl, but she was as hungry as she was cold, and so he took her in.  She warmed by his fire, she ate the hot soup he kept beside the hearth.  She pushed back her hood, she put her cloak aside.

They were married in the spring, Isaac and Mirabelle.  She bore him a son, she bore him a daughter, she stayed beside him through the years, but although he loved her best and knew her as well as any man can know a woman, there’s some would say she loved him not at all.

Now the daughter, Naomi it was, who paved their downfall.  A lonely child, as any child so raised must be, but with a yearning that might not be answered and a song in her head she could not name.  As she grew towards womanhood that song became more insistent, the words sweeter, until at last she took to wandering in the hills as if to search for it.  One summer forenoon when the heat was on the gorse and the curlews mewing she discovered what she sought.  Faint at first, it was, the music; the entice of rhyme but very near to silence.  Yet Naomi turned her steps to follow the tune:  she followed because she was curious; that at first.  Then, as the song grew louder, she followed because she must; because the music would not let her go.

Her head swam with the melody; her feet danced to the tune.  She climbed higher and higher, some said as high as Canford Bluff, and there she found upon the summit of the moor, as she thought, a fissure in the rocks whence the music came.   Such was the magic in her dance that she could go where no human might, and though the cut was no wider than the thickness of an arm, she slipped inside it.  She stepped through, into another world.

Isaac Borden waited, Jacob his son waited, hour upon hour all of that day, for Naomi to return.  You may not think of them as idle, for there is always work for poor farmers such as they, but they fretted and worried.  Mirabelle meantime, going about her tasks, she made no sign of worry.  As she worked she sang, a song neither man nor boy had ever heard her sing.  And when Isaac her husband spoke to her of Naomi’s tardiness, she smiled and made no answer.

Come that eve a thunderhead was building.  Jacob could contain himself no more.  Bearing his crook to guide his arm and setting his cowl against the lancing rain he set out, the boy, to find his sister.  In gathering dark, over rocks made slick by the downpour of the storm you might think his task was hopeless, yet he did not stumble and his stride did not vary.  Once and again bright lightning revealed his path, but a dozen times he might have slipped and fallen, were there not the strangeness of a pale green light that seemed to dance before him; and that light it was that beckoned him upward, until the music found him and drew him in thrall to the rocks of Canford Bluff.

Jacob saw his sister there, in a land beyond.  Through the narrow cleft he saw her figure dancing in a resplendent ballroom, with a score of courtiers all about her.  Jacob knew at once that he had stumbled upon the palace of the Fairy King.  He saw musicians in frenzy thrashing out the tune that had enticed him, fine ladies whirling to their rhythm, and watching over them all, upon his high crystal throne, the Monarch of the Wild People himself. His Majesty, he was as impressive a figure as you might expect – his stout body, too heavy for his wilted wings, clothed in rich silks and ermines, his round legs clad in white stockings, his feet in velvet slippers buckled with gold.   And the moment – the very second – Jacob set eyes upon him, the King’s frog-like stare matched his own!   Instantly, the boy felt a furious buzzing in his head.  White flashes skittered before his eyes and the stinging thrusts of a thousand fairy swords prickled upon his skin.   What could he do?    He called, he shouted as loud as he might to his sister:  “Naomi!  Naomi!”  But though she may have heard she paid him no attention.  He was too large to pass between the rocks; he could not reach her.  The stabbing swords became spears – they probed deeper, drawing blood – and try as he might, there was no riposte.  His assailants were too quick, their intent would all too soon become mortal.   Reluctantly, then, he turned away, but with one last vision in his head.  Utterly disbelieving, he saw his mother there among the dancers, looking up to meet his eye, and she was laughing!

When Jacob returned, bloody and torn, to his home, he discovered his father sitting in the pasture by the rushing river with tears upon his face.  And when they spoke and took some mead together the old man told how Mirabelle had left her wedding band upon his table, then walked without a word from his house; and how he knew at once what had happened, for these hills are rich in fairy lore.

“She was a child of the woods, my son.  I met her by the Wishing Stone and always knew in my heart it was so.  Your sister was destined; it was marked upon her.  Much as I have dreaded this day, it had to come.”

Now Jacob, he grieved for his father, but he puzzled how it was his mother’s seed had grown in his sister, yet not in him.  The years went by, and father and son struggled with the land each season in its turn.  The wild call did not visit Jacob’s ears again, though he worried greatly that it should.

Then one even, when the blackthorn bloomed snow white on the bough, and Jacob in his thirtieth summer, was returning from market on weary feet he discovered a maiden seated by the Wishing Stone.  Her head was cowled and her body wrapped in a gossamer cloak, so he knew her at once for what she was.  Nevertheless a wood nymph’s beauty intoxicates and a wood nymph’s voice is sweeter than song, so when she drew her veils aside; when she told him he was the one for whom she waited, he could not deny her.  

One winter they spent together in the cottage by the river, Jacob and Linantha, his bride.  And before they left in the spring Jacob learned how his wife well understood the wild blood that ran through his veins, for Mirabelle his mother it was who sent her to him.   

You see, upon that long-ago time when Isaac Borden met with Mirabelle at the Wishing Stone, she was waiting for her prince, rightful heir to the throne of the Fairy King.  He had not come, therefore she knew the usurper Malegon must have slain him.  When she lay with Isaac her purpose was plain.  She should bear two children with an earthling – the one a girl, who, with her wild blood, must become of age as a nymph.  The other a male child in whom the father’s seed was the stronger – who would remain with earthling kind until she sent a key.

So Mirabelle stirred the music in her daughter, and firm in her resolve, joined Naomi at court.  Together they charmed the fat usurper Malegon.  Naomi tempted and cosseted him, Mirabelle plied him with her sweetest wine, until he grew too fat and dissolute to defend his crown.  Among the courtiers was a girl so lovely all the courtiers fell upon their knees before her, and she was Linantha, Mirabelle’s niece.  Therefore Mirabelle selected Linantha as her key.  

Let Linantha and Jacob but lie together once, and Mirabelle knew the music would begin.  Jacob’s wild blood would be awakened.  Came the spring, and it was so.  Jacob bade farewell to his father, and with Linantha made his journey to the court upon the high fell.  The slaying of Malegon would be a simple thing.  Jacob would take his crown with Linantha as his queen, and Mirabelle, though thwarted in her wish to wear the crown, would be content to be the Queen Mother. 

And there the tale ends. These things the old man revealed to me when I spoke with him; when he was old and broken and alone. He knew their purpose when they left that Spring, Jacob and his nymph bride.  As he believed, they had gone to take their place on the throne of the wild people, and he died believing his son was a king.  He never saw them again.

What really happened?  No-one knows – or no-one knew until today.  This very day, come to think of it.  Go to the house.  You may find what you are seeking there.   You will find the old man’s grave, in the field by the river.  But I think you know what you will find, just as I think I know you, because I see in you your grandfather’s face, your grandfather’s eyes.  And at last, the truth.  The coup failed.  Malegon still reigns as fairy king.

How should I know this?  Because you are still an earthling, for all the cold fire in your eyes. You were born on this earth.  But let us talk of the song playing in your head, son of Jacob.  Perhaps ’tis Canford Bluff you really seek?

© Frederick Anderson 2015.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Hallbury Summer – Episode Nine      Silver’d in the Moon’s Eclipse

The story so far: 

While job-seeking in town Joe Palliser meets Emma, his best friend’s wife, and is reminded of his feelings for her.  When she abjures him to return to London he lets slip that he cannot, which Emma takes to mean he has separated from his wife, just as he – in her view – abandoned her, years ago.

Meanwhile, Joe is melting opposition from his Uncle, who, whilst advising him on village politics suggests he might set up home in Hallbury.  He is considering this when, on a walk past Violet Parkin’s farm, he is hailed by Davy, the local constable, who provides an insight into the complacency of the local force in pinning Violet’s husband Jack for her murder.  Heading up the lane to his local pub, his progress is interrupted…

“Don’t like the police.”  Growled a deep voice behind Joe; “You doesn’t want to be seen consortin’ with they, Palliser.”

Joe’s heart skipped several beats.  The voice was Charker Smith’s.  The presence was Charker’s.  He suppressed a desire to run, which was the one thing he was pretty certain he could do faster than the big labourer.

“It’s just Davy Hallett.”  He said as evenly as he could.  “I’ve known him for years.”

“All same – bastards.  You aren’t moved on, then?”

“Thinking of staying for a while, Charker.”  Joseph said, determined not to be intimidated.  “I grew up here, you know?  It is sort of my home.”

“Ah.  You and those brothers of your’n.  I had a brother once, Palliser.”

“I know.”  Joe responded solemnly.  The more he looked at Charker’s massive slab of a body, his small, almost conical head which rose from a neck that would not have disgraced a Hereford bull, the more he marvelled that this man could have been engendered from the same seed that created Rodney.  “I’m really sorry, Charker.  I still remember that day very well.  There was nothing I could have done – you must believe that.”

“So you said at the time.  ‘Tweren’t like ‘im to drive too fast, see?  He were a good driver, were Rod.”

Joe sighed.  “Look, I know I can never convince you, but I wasn’t responsible for Rodney’s death.  I happened to be the one who found him, that’s all.”

Charker was poised with his hands to his hips, legs astride.  His breath came in regular gusts, like a steam engine at rest – vast and immovable.  “You’re right.  I aren’t convinced.  ‘Tis daylight now, but it won’t allus be, so if I was you, I’d be movin’ on – you got that?”

There was no point in protest.  “I got that.”  Joe said.

Charker’s fierceness suddenly evaporated, though somehow the menace remained.  “That’s right, boy.  Now, you comin’ fer a drink?”

“In a minute, Charker.  I’ll come in a minute.”

“Collect yerself, eh?  Have a think about it.”  Charker nodded approvingly The steam engine puffed into gear and rumbled on, rolling up the lane towards The King’s Head.   Joe watched him, remarking that in spite of his size, Charker had hands that were quite small, with long, sensitive fingers.

He might have accepted the big man’s invitation, had he not caught a glimpse of a tall, slightly stooped figure making its way along the adjoining road.  The sight of Tom Peterkin also bound for the King’s Head jolted his resolve: Joe tucked his chin into his chest and turned quickly, retracing his steps. Whereas he knew he could not ignore Tom, neither could he face him this night.

An official-looking envelope arrived for Joseph in the post the next morning.  He drew it close to his chest as he read the contents before tucking it into his trouser pocket.  “It’s from London.”  He told his aunt and uncle by way of explanation.  “Can I use the ‘phone later?”

As she cleared the breakfast table, Julia said to Owen:  “That was a solicitor’s letter.  He was worried.  Did you see his face?”

Joe read the letter again in the privacy of his room.  He read it three times.  Then he went to the telephone.

“I have to go into Braunston tomorrow morning;” he announced at lunch. “Is there anything I can get for you?”

“No, darling.”  Julia appeared content to let her curiosity take a back seat for now.  “But there is something you can do for me this afternoon if you have time?”

Joe laughed at the gentle sarcasm.  “Nothing but time.  What was it you wanted, aunt?”

“Do you remember the Forbes-Pattinsons? “

“Up at the top of Church Lane?  The ‘nobs on the hill’?  Of course I do.”

“I have the minutes for the Parish Council meeting ready to be copied.  Emily Forbes-Pattinson normally calls down for them, but she’s a bit tied up today, apparently.  I would take them myself, but it’s such a struggle up that hill in this heat….”

“I’ll be happy to do it.”

“Oh, Joe, you’re such a dear!”

When they rose from lunch, Joseph accepted the package of Parish Council documents from his aunt without any hint that he had seen through her very transparent ploy.

“I’ll just change my shoes.”  He said.  And he climbed the stairs to his room where he made sure that the confidential letter would make his errand with him,  secure in his pocket.

He set out up the lowert part of the hill, a road strewn with memories bitter and sweet.  To his left after the Masterson farm was Staggers, the old house where the Honourable Mrs Palmerston once harangued him from her first-floor windows.

“Keep off my grass!”

“Don’t come in!  The dogs will savage you!”

On the right was Hallows Cottage.  How many times in childhood and youth had he knocked on that door, dragging Madge Peterkin from her comfortable chair?

“Can Tom come out?”

“’Tisn’t ‘Tom’, Joseph dear.  It’s ‘Thomas’.”

She died before he left for London.  Albert, her husband, found her when he returned from work, in the bath she had been taking when he left that morning.  Albert still lived there, and Tom was a dutiful son.

House after house, memory upon memory:  the Pollocks with their sad-eyed daughter –where was Stella now?  The Ravenscourts who never emerged beyond their front door; and on, climbing past St. Andrew’s Church into Church Lane, narrow and steep.

There were three houses on Joe’s left, two close together, whitewashed thatched affairs with split front doors and tiny windows.  Mary and Paul Gayle lived in one of these; he couldn’t remember who owned the other.  Then Charlie Lamb’s home, the house Owen had suggested he might buy.  Charlie had a young family when Joe left years before, and a sharp-nosed, vivacious wife with a penchant for the ridiculous.  When Charlie played the dame in Abbots Friscombe’s pantomime his wife dressed him for the part, in a costume which kept the village talking for years.  The cottage had a red sandstone facade, a good sound roof:  there was a garden at the back (the front door opened directly onto the lane), and yes, that door invited him.  He could see himself living there.

Thus preoccupied, Joe scarcely noticed the sun, though it beat down upon him remorselessly.  Perspiration was beading on his brow by the time he finally arrived at the iron gates of ‘Highlands House’, residence of the Forbes-Pattinsons, which stood at the top of the lane.

Behind a high brick wall, ‘Highlands’ was hidden from the road.  To those who applied a structure to village society, this was the ‘Squire’s Manor’, sufficient reason to open its gates with respectful care.  Beyond the gates, a driveway plunged through a screen of laurel which parted after twenty paces or so, revealing ‘Highlands’ to be a large nineteen-thirties’ construction, faced delicately in faded brick.  Everything about the place exuded permanence, from the mature oaks that bordered the acre of lawn to the Bentley Continental parked before its polished wooden front doors.

All this should have impacted profoundly upon Joseph, and would have, were there not a nearer view that was much more distracting.  For stretched upon the grass in the sun was a girl, her slender form clad only in a pair of brief green bikini pants.  She lay on her back with her head turned towards him, her face. framed by silken ash blonde hair and soothed by the perfect innocence of sleep, in which state she had rolled from her original position –  leaving her unclipped top lying uselessly beside her and exposing a pair of small, invitingly white breasts.

It took Joseph a full five seconds to realise that his eyes were devouring the girl whose horse he had frightened the previous week, and to rebuke himself for staring.  With exaggerated quietness he retraced his steps to the driveway gates which, whistling tunefully, he swung open and closed with an audible metallic clang.  A cry of alarm emitted from beyond the laurels, and by the time he ambled back into view the girl had disappeared.

“Oh, thank you.  So you must be Joe?”   Mrs Forbes-Pattinson greeted him, accepting Julia’s package with a glint in her eyes which suggested she had not entirely missed the drama his approach had caused.  She added with a touch of mischief:  “Did you happen to run into my daughter Sophie on your way in?”

“Almost,”  Joseph answered.  Mrs Forbes-Pattinson in a lemon-coloured summer dress was every bit as stunning as her daughter.  At times like these he could easily be persuaded that the very rich were, in truth, a race apart.

“You look awfully warm!  Would you like to come in and have something to drink?”

“That’s very kind, but I must be getting back.”  Joe stumbled over his reply, cursing his ineptitude.

He walked away, carrying with him in an entirely new compartment of his imagination a vivid picture of Emily Forbes-Pattinson and her lovely Sophie.  He was quite sure he wanted to meet them again.

That evening, as Joseph was once more browsing the ‘Situations Vacant’ columns, Tom Peterkin called.

“Yer been avoiding me, lad?”  He nodded towards the gate, beyond which a dark green Cortina saloon car stood waiting.  “I brought the car down, ah?  Thought we might go for one or two in Braunston?”

Joe threw on a coat.

“Nice!”  He approved.  “What did you do with your Sunbeam?”

“Sold it.  Emma made me see sense.  Family man, see?”

Joe was surprised and showed it.

“Oh, no; she’s not pregnant or nothing.  But we got plans, ah?  Been trying for a while, now.   I asked ‘er to come with us, but she aren’t feeling so well, ‘pparently.”  Tom grinned toothily.  “Women, ah?”

Emma had evidently not managed to prevail upon her husband to drive slowly.  The Cortina flew the back road to Abbots Friscombe in minutes.  Once clear of the village, Tom patted the steering wheel enthusiastically.  “Goes well, du’n ‘er?  So how come you’re not driving these days, then?”

Joseph explained that he had driven very little since Rodney Smith’s accident.

“Can’t let it put yer off, Joe.  Somethin’, mind, seein’ an accident like that.  You and ‘e never did get along, though, did yer?”  Tom asked.  It was a rhetorical question, because the conviction with which he threw his car into the next bend put Joe beyond speech.  The next time Joe trusted himself to open his mouth; the Cortina was drawing into a car park outside the Shire Tavern.

“As a matter of interest, Tom, why didn’t we just go to the King’s Head?”

“Ah, you might ‘ave problems at yon’.  I was up there last night, and Charker Smith were getting hisself drunk, and he were swearin’ ‘bout ‘ow he’s goin’ ter get you for Rodney?  I tried to calm ‘un, but you know what ‘eem like when ‘eem drunk?  Steer clear, that’s my rec’mendation.  Anyhow, didn’t I see you change yer mind ‘bout goin’ in there yourself, early on?  Could of sweared that was you in the lane.”

At the centre of Braunston was a square dominated by a mediaeval shire hall, one-time host to the Town Council, and now containing meeting rooms, offices for an insurance company, and the Shire Tavern.  Always crowded, ‘The Shire’ offered sufficient anonymity for self-conscious youth, and so had become a favourite watering place for Tom and Joseph in their teenage years.

The Wheelwright’s Bar on the first floor was unchanged from those days.  Creaking narrow stairs were packed with chattering girls and grunting, recalcitrant young men whose fashions might have altered – no more the long jackets with velvet collars, the flounces and back-combed hair – and the fake beams and cart-wheel tables might have looked a little tired now, yet it retained enough familiarity to make Joe feel at home.  He fought his way through smoke-haze to a crowded counter, emerging with pints of beer.

Tom said:  “We got to get you a car, boy.  There’s a nice Wolsey up Maybury’s – I’ll take yer to look at ‘un on Saturday if yer wants?”

This began an evening which, mainly spent in idle conversation, should have been pleasant and relaxed.  Faces Joe remembered came and went, a few stopping to say hello, like small, dependable eddies in the current of humanity.

Tom did his best to distract.  “That old Ford Pilot of yours?  That’s up Pettisham way.  Emma seen it there, t’other week.  Still looks alright, ‘pparently.”

But just the mention of Emma’s name felt like a poniard in Joe’s heart.  Although he disguised the pain he did not altogether deceive his friend.  Tom had known him for too long.

“Good car, ah?  Bet you wish you’d kept that ‘un.  Would have served yer well in London.”

Joe changed the subject hurriedly:  “Tom, do you know more about Violet Parkin than I do?”

“She’m dead, I know that.”  Tom pursed his lips.  “’Pends what you mean, I s’pose.”

“Well, the way I remember her, she never went anywhere much, did anything much.  All I remember her for was the day I disturbed her bloody ducks.”

Tom laughed.  “She were a queer bird ‘erself, mind.  There were always stories.  She were Ben Wortsall’s daughter, weren’t she?”

“Never heard of him.”

“What?  Been in the village all they years and never heard of Ben Wortsall?  You must ‘ave cloth in your ears, boy!  Ben was a witch, that’s what!”

“You mean…pointy hat, and stuff?”

“No!  No!  I mean mad old bugger used to go round cursin’ anybody he took ‘ception to.  Mind, folks swore by ‘e’s spells and potions.  No-one went near no doctors when Ben was around.  He died when I was still a nipper, but some say that Violet…..you ask Aaron Pace about Violet.  He’ll tell yer some tales.  Whether they’re true or not, though…”

There the conversation ended, for Tom was as obsessed with automobiles as ever.  He would always return to the subject; whether in the context of his activities for the week -“Called out to one of those old single-pot Fordson’s.  Wouldn’t start, no matter what.  Told ‘un he’d have to get a new tractor.  Seen them John Deeres?”  – or in his assessment of people:“That maid over there?  She’m a Mini owner – you can see that, can’t yer?  Not much room for it in they, eh boy?”

Joseph was glad when eleven o’clock struck and the evening was forced to draw to a close.  He had joined in the prattle, served his turn as he thought:  but on the way home Tom disabused him.

“Sommat wrong, ain’t there, Joe?  See, I thought if I took yer out, got a few pints past yer, you might loosen up a little, but no.  You got more cards in that ‘and than you’m showin, ‘aven’t yer?”

They had passed through Abbots Friscombe, driving up the narrower back road for the final mile towards Hallbury.  Wednesday Common lay dark and unfathomable on their left, laced with little trackways through the bracken that the farmers used to access the fields beyond.  Tom drove off the road into one of these, switching off his car’s engine.  The headlight beams probed into the darkness through a mass of tiny flying and floating things.

“Now, for sake of your conscience, boy, you’m goin’ to tell me what they are, see?  But first, I got to get shot of some of this bloody beer.”

He got out of the car, unzipped his jeans and urinated copiously into the long grass.  A car roared past on the road behind him and he waved to acknowledge the cheers of encouragement from its occupants.  Joe waited apprehensively for his return, uncertain what to say, uncertain how much Tom knew.  He, Joe, was certain of one thing he must not say:  that he suspected Emma was still in love with him; and of something he must not even think – that maybe he was still in love with Emma.

When at last Tom returned, with a “Well then?” that brooked no refusal, Joe told him the London story; the full London story he had confided to Owen and Julia.  He revealed all he could to his friend, aware even as the words spilled from his mouth that each one could be a word too many;  that although Tom and he were once the closest of allies he had no right to expect that same loyalty again – that he might be arming an enemy.

After he had concluded all that he dared to say he felt at one with those tiny bits of life out there in the headlights; adrift on the wind, rudderless, and lost.

“Well!”  Tom said, staring at his steering wheel.  “There’s a tale!”

Joe nodded.   That genie was with him again, its bottle shaking in its anger.

“So you aren’t married to this Marian, then?”  Tom said.

Why did it slip out?  Did he want it to?

“No.  She was married to someone else.”

For a second or so he thought Tom had not heard him, or noticed.  For a second, two, five, ten, Tom said nothing.  Then:

“‘Was’ Joe?”

The genie’s face became one enormous leer. “She’s dead.”  Joe muttered.  “Marian is dead.”

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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