Burnehorpe: the search

  1.  the search

 

It was a Friday, the last day of the half-term holiday.  Easter had been early and the summer term was a long drag with only that short break to get out of school.  Even then us kids should have been doing something more useful than hanging round the Waddle-stone on it’s little island where the New town road crosses the ‘T’ with the Old town’s road.

It wasn’t a big space but it was chained-off and a bit of grass with the stone big enough to climb and sit on.  Not that anyone was supposed to be there!   So there was also the opportunity to play chicken getting to the chip-shop and back.

Usually there were five of us, maybe not the same five, depending on the folks at home pressurising us to do some revision for the exams.  Us at the Comp. were better-off as we never really got blamed for not working.  My parents probably moaned after speaking with teachers or opening any school letters they managed to find in our dufflebags.  They usually got stuffed in the dustbin if no one was looking.  My parents did care; it was me that couldnt be bothered!

Anyway, we’d just eaten our chips, thrown the last few at each other and tried to sneak away leaving the empty bottles or chip-papers when we noticed the copper standing over the road, watching us.  He had his arms folded, looked like a navy-blue statue.   It’s odd how we suddenly started clearing-up.  He was a good bloke but would give us a rollikin’ and promise a ‘quick-march to the nick!’  If we didnt start behavin’.  We didn’t believe him but, just in case………

Like good boys and girls, I suppose, as Jessy was with us, we waited for a gap in the traffic that was doing its usual diving round the corner without a care in the world.  It was ‘Old Penny’, officially Sargent Copper since his promotion; to ours and the cars’ surprise who stepped out and raised his hand to stop them.  Then beckoned us across and said, “Wait!” to us.  Sheepishly we did.

We stood there, wondering what we had done wrong, ready to defend ourselves to the death.  Or at least have a moan back at him.   Jessy must have fancied him as she pushed herself to the front.

“You goin’ out with the vicar’s daughter!  Seen ya!” She retreated a pace with the comfort of a lad each side of her.

He smiled.  “Thanks for tidying up?  Nice to see how responsible you all are.”

That hurt, that did.  Who wants to be responsible?  There was a pause and we waited for more.  He scrutinised us and wiggled his lips as if rehearsing.

“Can we go now?” Jessy got her spirit back as her blush lessened.

“Can you do me a favour?”  Another pause before assuming we would, “Have you seen Candy?”

Now Candy was often out on the street with us and always got excited by our rushing across the road and back.  She was the florist’s dog.  Named after Candice Bergman, I reckon.  Most of the time she would lie under the tables that were placed outside blocking half the pavement.  There was some sort of hairy green cloth that was supposed to be grass, I suppose, covering them and hanging down half-way to the pavement.  The big green buckets sat there, each one with a different bundle of flowers depending on the season.

We used to feed her chips when we had them.   The owner wrapped a lead round a table-leg so they could attach it to Candy’s collar in case she barked too much or tried to follow us across the road.    We would untangle it sometimes, didn’t want the owner blaming us for no accident.

Our turn to pause, look down in unison to where the dog should have been.  No dog.  Jessy made a point of lifting the grass up to look right under the tables.  Still no dog.  In fact no lead, only the clunky water-bowl.

“Someone’s nicked it!”

“Scuffed it more like!”

“Lead’s gone!”

“And the dog!”

“Bleedin’ obvious!”

Anyway, we just stood looking at the space where the dog used to be.  It was funny, well, odd, really.  You could sort of feel a deflation as we looked at the empty space.  It felt like the dog had died.

“The owner’s taken it for a walk.”  Hoped Arthur.

“No, she’s out looking.  Asked me to help so I’m asking you lot to help.”  He looked at each of us, we sort of nodded when he did. “You know the dog, she knows you.  And most importantly there’s five of you and one of me.”   His radio crackled and he pressed a button to cut it off.  “Well, can you help?”

I reckon that was the first time I was actually asked to help, except at home or school where it was more of an order and expected.  He, a policeman, was just asking us kids for a favour, no strings.

“Okay, yeh,” we muttered a bit defensively, not wanting to seem too eager.

He looked a bit sheepish, said, “I know the dog but it, Candy, doesn’t like me.  It might be the uniform but it always hides when I get near.  So I need one of you to walk with me.  If the others split into pairs stick together and walk around this end of town looking for an hour it would be great.   Meet back here at…..”  He looked at his watch, “three o’clock.  If you find the dog come straight back to the florist and tell Doris inside.  Or the owner if she’s back.”

He took a large white paper bag from his tunic pocket.  “I’ll go with…?”  He waited for a volunteer.

I accidentally volunteered, “Nicky.”

“Nicky.” He held out the bag to us,  “Take two each.  The dog loves American Hard Gums apparently. They might work to keep Candy friendly enough to come to you.”

We each took two. “Don’t eat them until after the dog is home.”  We stuffed them in pockets.  “If the dog is with someone you know you could explain the police are looking for it because it is lost. That you are helping me. Tell them my name, Sargent Walter Copper, and the dog is from the florist.  You can offer to bring him back here.”

He went on a bit, talking safety, sticking together, repeating himself and reassuring us; thanking us again and finally, “Let’s go.”

………………………………………..

I walked a bit self-consciously at first, kept a few steps behind, to the side, as we walked up the gradient.  The others went their two ways scouting each direction of the New Road.  Normally I kept a healthy distance from any copper, habit, I suppose.  Not that I was worse than any other kid, just wary of getting caught out.  It was quite a long street, always slightly uphill and with the slow speed he went it seemed endless.  I spent a lot of time head-down, watching his boots pacing along a few yards then stop.  I would look around, pretending I wasn’t with him the first few times he stopped.  He spoke to someone every time.  He usually knew their name!  Spoke like he was a friend, even laughed and did the odd feeble joke.  Always asked if they had seen the dog, Candy, followed by a brief description.

Obviously I was like a stray dog myself, loitering every time he stopped and got a bit fed up with it.  We were halfway up the street, could just see the pub sign at the top of the road;  ‘The Jolly Puritan’ on the corner, at the top.  I was kicking my heels on the kerb while Old Penny was talking to yet another person.  Mind you, she was a bit of alright, I seem to remember.  Not that I can say that these days.  What was I, thirteen?  I remember he called her ‘Angel’.  Used to see her around after that.  I just got struck by her name and how beautiful she seemed.  She was much older than me, obviously, but that was a secret crush that stayed for years.  Well, still there in a way.

Sorry, got off the subject.  There I was, watching the two of them talking when she looked at me and smiled.  Naturally I just looked away, up the street, pretending not to notice, or care.   I kept looking away, trying to listen to what they were saying when I saw the little girl and a dog turn the corner by the pub and walk down-hill towards us.  It was probably a hundred yards away so I had to wait for them to get nearer.  A woman followed the girl round the corner, probably her mother, I could see her guiding the girl with a spare hand.  The dog was trotting happily with them.  I could tell it was the same sort of dog as Candy and when they got nearer I was convinced it was the very same border collie, I could see it’s markings clearly by then.

I actually got quite excited at the prospect.  Moved over to the PC, keeping my eyes on the girl and dog.  I think I annoyed him when I bashed his arm to attract his attention but I quickly pointed up the road and stammered out the words.  All three of us stood and watched as the little child marched firmly towards us with the dog moving smartly at her side.  The woman, her mother as it did turn out, keeping pace a step or two behind.   By that time they were only yards away and I was ready to pounce on the dog before it ran away.

Okay, that sounds a bit melodramatic but it was more interesting than most things at half-term.

Actually, there was no need for anyone to move.  The child walked straight up to us and stopped.  The dog stood wagging its tail, mouth part-open and tongue lolling out like a slice of bacon.  You could tell from its eyes it was happy.  Or rather, happy being with the child who held the lead, who also had a cheery smile and happiness in her eyes.  No lolling tongue, I am glad to say.

“Sit!” She ordered the dog.  It sat and looked up adoringly at her.

“Hello.”  Said Old Penny, bending, or rather bowing, towards her.

“Candy went for a walk.  I told her she was naughty when I found her.  She was going up towards the Vicarage.”

“That’s where I live,” said the woman called Angel.

The girl ignored that and continued, “I know she lives at the flower-shop so we are taking her back.  Mummy said we should call a policeman but I want to walk her home.”

Her mother standing patiently behind her daughter, shrugged and smiled at as.

“Well, the owner is very worried Candy is missing.  Thank you very much for finding her and bringing her all this way.  It is still quite a long way down to the florist and you and your mum might have lots of things to do.  I can take the dog back and save you lots of time.  Mrs Thomas will be so pleased to see Candy  and if you give me your name and address I think she will bring you a little reward for being so clever in finding Candy.”

“Yes please,” said mother, “We should have been home ages ago.”

“Okay,” said the policeman, “I will write down your name and address so she can say thank-you properly”.  He held his hand out for the lead then realised it would be awkward to hold it while he wrote in his notebook.  He retrieved his hand and put it onto his radio then looked at me and said,

“Take Candy off the child, nice and easy.”

So I did.   And that was it, really.  We took the dog back.  I fed it the American Hard Gums. We spoke to Mrs Thomas who promised to send flowers and sweets for the little girl.    Then we waited for the others to show up and told them the good news.  Jessy asked if the dog was hurt or scared and the answer seemed, “No.”

“How did she run off?”  Was the other obvious question.  That was quite easy to answer.  The lead was always wrapped around the table-leg and then through the loop of the lead and clipped onto the dog’s collar.  For some reason the loop had broken; come unstitched,  so when she pulled at the lead it came away.  She had wandered a long way before she was seen and recognised by the little girl.  I am surprised nobody noticed the lead dragging along the ground.  If they did they did nothing about it.

border collie, royalty free

So our little search-party, that policeman and me; the little girl and her mum, all helped in finding a missing dog.  And that simple little half-hour in a boring half-term planted a seed in my mind that really changed my ideas.

Eventually it had me standing here now as a policewoman, having this career-chat at my old school.  And I must say it gives me a nice warm feeling to be back.

That’s my introduction, now let’s talk real crime!……….

 

 

 

tag    It Happened in Burnthorpe

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The Blue Lagoon

After Jimbo died, after his funeral,  we felt it right to miss a couple of meetings of our Whittlestreet Crime Writers’ Circle but life must go on, well, mostly.  Though if you write about crime these days it usually involves an excessive number of deaths.

Anyway:     We had a simple ceremony.  The five of us.  We did leave his chair, the sixth, in the circle, it seemed appropriate so soon after Jimbo had left us.

I suppose I should be formal and call him Jim, or rather James if you want to be really formal.  But no, he was Jimbo to us all.  At least those that actually used his name.   Amy never used it as far as I remember.  Mostly because she doesn’t use anybody’s name directly, just looks at them and speaks into their faces.  Somewhat disconcerting if you are not aware of her system.  She just sits and taps away at the tablet on her lap, eyes glued to it.  Goodness knows what she does on it.  I  assume she takes notes but it could be anything.   Oddly I just don’t have the nerve to ask.  She sits opposite me, leaning over, fiddling with it.  She glares if she deigns to raise her head and talk at you.  I can’t get Medusa out of my mind whenever she does that.

Amy sat next to the empty chair, Tom the other side of that.  Next to him was Harry then me.  Marie closed the circle, as it were, therefore sitting between Amy and me.

The ceremony:

It was quite brief. We had agreed at his funeral for each of us to give a short eulogy at the next meeting of the Burnthorpe, Whittlestreet Crime Writers Circle.   So there it was.

Tom and Harry dipped into a couple of drunken episodes with Jimbo.  I read the last two pages of his  published crime novel, “the end” being the final words.

Marie said a few words about being a journalist then quoted the first sentence from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’.  Finally, Amy read a poem by Emily Dickinson about death.  “Fair enough,” I thought.

Of course we opened a bottle of his favourite whiskey and raised our glasses at the end in a chorus of “Jimbo!”  and sipped or glugged to his memory.  Some of us accepted seconds and then we sat in silence as we had planned no further.

A Crime Writer’s life can be fraught with difficulties and this vacuum was no stranger to us.  We are always eager to learn and offer advice, even criticism, as long as we don’t have to reveal any potential plot lines or vital clues. This is why we like to have an agenda, so we can plan our secrets, as it were.   To cover our group embarrassment we began to talk about the pub we were holding the meeting in.  The publican was a friend of ours so he lent us the room for meetings.  A good excuse for a drink too, we also use the library and bookshop but no drinking allowed there.   Writer’s block can sometimes be oiled by drink, or hide it for a while.

There we were, breaking into a sweat of gossip when the door opened  enough for a head and shoulder to appear.     “Is this the book club?”

“No!” Several voices, not quite in time, responded.  “Crime Writing!”  A lone voice continued.

“Oh, good.” The door opened fully and the young woman came in, carefully shut it, saw the empty chair and dived into it.  “Hello everyone, I am Nyree, sorry I am late.  Have you started”

We vaguely looked round at each other then the young woman.  She was literally like a breath of fresh air, maybe a gust, possibly a gale.  Energy seemed to flail out of her as she fumbled through her large flowery shoulder-bag.  Amy sat erect. (Was this the first time,ever?) Half turning to look at the newcomer.  Amy’s white Goth facade a contrast to the ebony of the stranger.

Tom sat immobile as the bag landed on his lap as well as the owner’s and wriggled as her hands riffled through it.  We others just watched.

“I’ve got the book.” She said and dragged it out.  Dropped the bag with a clatter to the floor and waved the book in the air.  She settled, held the book on her lap, looked round at the little group holding a smile as she looked at each of us.

“You were expecting me, weren’t you?”

A cross between silence and murmurs of “no,” filtered out as she continued.

“Uncle Jim sent me a list of dates and venues.  He wanted me to come but I never did.”  She looked around again. “But I have now.”  She looked down, collected herself.   “I brought the book.”

With that she lifted it, face forward so we could see the cover.

Still surprised, we looked at what she held.  The cover-photo was of a small lake surrounded by overhanging trees.  The water, steely grey and in the foreground, viewed as a high-shot, a small building on the edge that may have been a wooden boathouse with a short jetty part-collapsed in the water.

“Can you see the title?” she said proudly, “The Haunting of Blue Lagoon.”

“It’s not very blue.” Said Amy.

I have to admit to being stuck on the “uncle Jim” words but I did look at the book and had to agree with Amy.

“Well, I think it’s atmospheric!”  Was her non-apologetic, enthusiastic, response.

I could feel the gently sinking of all spirits round me.  An odd thing to say as no one had been particularly ‘up’ in the first place.  It was the first meeting we had managed since “Our Jimbo” had been duly buried and mourned.  Two months that had been. Two meetings missed.   We had all arrived, settled and looked at the empty chair respectfully.

Nyree broke all that.  An interloper!  A mystery from her uncle Jim, our Jimbo!  And goodness me she was so young and exuberant the air was suddenly sucked out of all of us.  The pause to study the book’s cover extended until Marie broke the silence.

“I can’t actually see it. Can you turn it my way?”

Immdiately apologetic, Nyree turned the book to Marie and placed it face-up on her lap.

“We didn’t know Jim had a niece.  You’re his niece?”  Tom popped the question we all worried about.

“Sure.  I’ve two brothers; nephews, as well.  We’re all from Kingston.”

Oh-oh, someone stepped in something when they asked, “Jamaica?”

“on-Thames.”  She kindly managed a little laugh as she spoke.  Feet safely extricated all round!

“We never knew.”

“No worries, you lot never existed until he died.  Then I got this book sent to me, with his letter and instructions.”  She waited for any responses.  I have to admit she was a good listener.  She had to wait a fair old time while we digested.

Tom took up the reins again,  “Well, your very welcome, Nyree.  Hello from all of us.”   He assumed we all nodded in agreement,  “Why the book? I haven’t seen it before. Has anyone else?”   More assumption.  “What does you mean, instructions?”

“Well!”  The pause and intake of breath signified one of two things;  nervousness or a lot to say.   It turned out to be the latter.    It also turned out to bear only part relation to the title of the book and its cover.  In fact the book was a collection of mysteries that had been dolled-up to read like ghost stories, or what goes nowadays.  Apparently the title and the cover, so obviously mis-matched was at the insistence of the author.  And, low and behold, the author was not the mystery.

“The author is my dad!  He was from Jamaica, not Kingston though!  One of the first students at Surrey University.  Got his degree and all that, married mum and they had us kids while they both worked at the uni..  He worked around and about, post grad, doctorate and then we all up-staked and moved to Kingston.”  She just had to pause and rub it in with,  “-on-Thames!”

This is the short version I give here, won’t bother with Nyree’s extended version, interesting as it was, at times.  Jim had never mentioned a daughter let alone any other family.  We knew a wife had been and gone.   ‘Excess work and drink’ he had said, meaning his, not hers.

“Soon after our move he got this published.  We all pointed out the odd jacket and he just said  ‘it had to be’. And that was that.  Then he went to work one day to research at the library.”  She stopped, tone flattened. We waited, expectantly.

“When he came back in the afternoon.” Pause again

Okay that was something of an anticlimax, you could feel the little circle settle back into relax-mode.

“He packed a ruck-sack with whatever, and said he had to visit uncle Jim about the lagoon story” This time she really had lost her exuberance. “And got run over near a Zebra Crossing on the way to the railway station!  Uncle Jim never saw him.  He went to meet him off the train and waited for the next but, of course, he never turned up.”

The atmosphere changedyet again but Nyree continued before anyone could find any words.

“Anyway,” she pulled some smile back into her voice. That was years ago!  Five years now.  The police agreed it was a stupid accident.”   She emphasised the last sentence, you could see her energy coming back.  “Uncle Jim was at his funeral and we did all the reminiscing, and crying, and read some of this damned book.”     She  passed it to Marie as if it were hot.

You could see her clench her jaw to regain control and she held Jims letter to her   “Uncle Jim’s instructions were to come here and find out why the jacket and title were so important to my dad.  And to sit in your circle and ask for your help.”  She stopped, all out of steam.

You can imagine the hush that came after that.  We had all those internal questions I won’t bother with writing here.

Here is where Amy proved herself. She simply moved over to the young woman and gave her a hug.  That gave Marie the example to react, “Of course we’ll help.” She looked over to the one consoling the other then at us men opposite to encourage our responses.

Trouble was, what could one retired detective and two as good as gone policemen do with that story?   Worse, none of us could recall any crime or detail of a local mystery or lagoon, blue or grey!   And why did Jim not nag us when it happened?  We looked across at each other.  Three policemen without a clue!

Only one thing we could say, “Of course!  Whatever we can!  Absolutely!”

We adjourned to the bar to sit round a table of drinks and introduce ourselves properly. Hear more about Nyree and her family and exchange bits of memory and stories about her uncle Jim.  Plus a little digging into her parent’s, especially father’s lives. All for the sake of investigation, be sure.

So that’s how our memorial meeting to Jim went.  Threw us all into a mixture of excitement and concern that we had somehow agreed to do a ‘proper job’!

………………………

So why would a man want to rush like that for no real reason?  Well, one that we could fathom?  He had got published and was rushing off to research something……….    That was where we came back to;  his library visit the day before he left and his mis-matched jacket and book.   “Maybe he just managed to grab a couple of days holiday and decided to go!” was suggested.    And why visit Jim in Burnthorpe?     We even prodded carefully about his death and had to accept it was a cruel accident and not suicide.     You have to admit it might have been!

Nyree was staying at Jim’s old place.  In fact he left it to her as the eldest child, it seems, so we had no worries about where she lived while we all went to our separate homes that evening.

…………………..

It was late.  Too late to just go to bed so I sat in my chair with a gin and tonic and looked at the book  borrowed from Nyree.  She had read it and found nothing in there to suggest a mystery.  Jim’s letter was headed ‘instructions’  how to find his friends at the Whittlestreet Crime Writer’s Circle’,  i.e. at the pub or the Library!     So back to the book again.

The cover photograph was nowhere I , or the others recognised.  The photo was copyrighted by an Eric Johnson.   The contents list had fourteen titles and thirteenth was ‘The Haunting of Blue Lagoon’.     “Unlucky thirteen,” I found myself muttering.  Then, “What would Jim have done?”

“Read the bloody story!” I heard him say….. in my head, of course.    So I did.

A typical story of the late 80s.  Bright lights appearing and disappearing over the water, voices in a strange language chanting and shadows flitting through the trees.  And then, of course, everything just stopped and no sign of anything having happened.  Written in the third person by someone, it seemed, who tried to make something out of nothing, and failed.  It could have been any number of activities or pure imagination.

Unsatisfied by it I finished the drink, abandoned the book and went to bed.  There, in the dark with only the odd car swishing along I had another thought. “If the story wasnt interesting, what was?  What was researched?  The place or the photographer?  Both?”  Sleep took those thoughts from me.

………….

I telephoned Jim’s number.  It was odd when she answered with her name.  Jim’s response was usually a disappointed “What!”      We arranged to meet at the library.

It was small, like the town, but had local newspaper archives and directories.  Marie was there, as usual, as librarian.  We each had a subject; the photograph or report in a newspaper, the address of the photographer.   Largescale Ordnance Survey maps to find a ‘blue lagoon’.  Something must be on file or Nyree’s dad wouldn’t have been fired up.  We started looking in the mid-seventies and worked backwards. Based on the fact that none of us Burnthorpe residents had recalled anything we were looking for over the previous eighteen years!  I suspect Marie and I just hoped our memories were still sound.  Jim would have been proud of us!

We had books and opened maps flooding over the tables while Marie strode in and out with heavy binders containing the huge A3 and A2 newspapers of the area.  Despite their size they were useful in that they covered quite a few square miles of assorted villages, hamlets and solitary farms.  If there was anything to find it ought to be covered. After that it would have to be the microfiche and none of us fancied shuffling and peering on that wretched machine.

I suppose we should just have looked in the telephone directory first.     Nyree copied out half a dozen  E Johnson names plus their address and numbers. Thank goodness for directories.  A couple were ‘Eric’ but those with just the ‘E’ might have been too and the system also had a couple of Mrs. E Johnson’s so they had to be included as it was still common for the wife to be called  ‘Mrs Eric Whatever’ in an unnecessary, historical way.  Officially an addendum to the man rather than an individual in those days!

Poor Marie, she had opted for the hardest job and only ended up with smudged fingers from old inky papers from one of the binders.   I scanned the maps systematically for all the ponds and lakes for names.  It wasn’t until Nyree moved across to me with the list of names and addresses that we made real progress.  We matched addresses to the map in the vague hope that it would prove something.  It did.   One Mrs E. Johnson lived a stones throw from a series of gravel pits, right on the edge of a map. In the real world it was about seven miles away, Royton Farm House.  Others lived in the town or generally around but only that one lived near lots of water.    This 1946 map only called them pits but we were hoping they had glammed them up since then.

Nyree rang the number for Royton farm.  In my old job we rarely got it right first time.  But you have to win the lottery some time and this, it would seem, was it.  Her conversation was a bit ragged, emotional for her part and the other party who turned out to be the widow of the photographer.  Yes, she would be happy to see a visitor.  Nice to have a little chat.  We arranged a time to visit.   I agreed to contact the others and decide who went with Nyree.  We couldn’t all go, it would be too much like a trip to visit a curio.    In the end I drove and Amy would keep Nyree company. The others had to stay gainfully employed.  Especially Tom and Harry as they were on standby for a shift of picket line duty at some factory lock-outs near Sheffield.

……………………….

We drove in the old Mondeo.  It wasn’t that old, I kept saying, just needed attention.  Something it never really got from me!  Bronze was a trendy colour but my bronze was blurred by the dust and mud that accumulated between services,  the garage gave it a birthday-treat wash.  I think they were  disappointed at my laziness and sorry for the car so cleaned it.  Still cost me a few extra quid each time.

You might have expected a solid old farmhouse but we arrived at a 50s bungalow.  It was next to a couple of small barns that were built of the solid chunks of age-blackened stone more akin to the area.  They had corrugated iron roofs painted in red-oxide for rust-proofing.  Sitting beside them was a little black Renault, which I parked beside.

She was so old!  Born in the early Twenieth Century!  Her husband, the photographer had died ten years before.  They had lived in the bungalow since it was first built in 1954. (Good guess eh?).    Apparently the photograph was one of a reel he took when they first arrived.  There had been trees all over the area where the gravel pits had been excavated and as the site expanded trees were felled.   The back of their garden once had a paddock behind it.  From the edge of that had been the woods leading on to the excavations, with that gap, which was originally a fire-break, not an avenue to the water side.

She told us what she and her husband had witnessed in the sixties; the story that he had written for the local newspaper and the photograph.  “Yes, that’s the one.” She responded to the image.

“It was black and white, they have made it much greyer, perhaps the negative was damaged.”

The story had appeared in the local newspaper (We hadn’t gone back far enough) and had been written up as a mystery.  The nice old lady said they had written what they had seen and the editor had turned into a little piece about aliens.

“Aliens indeed!” She brushed the idea away.  “I think it was anarchists, or IRA, or them Russians. We’re having a Cold War, you know?”

We could only agree.

“We told the police but they decided it was aliens.  Agreed we were potty more like.  After they wrote it that way in the papers.”

Always nosey I looked out of the window while she made us all another pot of tea with Nyree’s help.   I could see the trees and the gap but not much else, just more trees further back, the other side of the lake.

Mrs Johnson came back, Nyree carrying the refreshed teapot on a tray.  Amy was going through the old photos.   The old lady poured more tea and came for my empty cup.

“It’s changed a lot.  Much tidier now they have….. what do you call it….. conserved it?   For the birds and animals.  The shed thing has gone and lots of trees and bushes planted.  Grown quite big now some of ‘em.”     She took my cup to refill.

“Landscape!  That’s it. They had to landscape it.  All the old gravel pits when they finished digging out.”  I collected the filled cup. I went back to just standing, looking out.  Feeling it had all been a waste of time. However, it was sunny and not too cold for the end of October.

“It’s still there though. Not the boat-house.  And the jetty seems to have rotted away.”

I assumed she meant the lake. “Yeah, I can see” I suppose I didn’t seem bothered.

“Not from here!  You have to go round to the side a bit.  Not much like the photo now. But then you cant see it in the photo either.   Another biscuit?”

That got my attention.  “What?”  Not the biscuit!

“The pile of stones.”  She went and sat. I followed.

“Go on.”  We all listened.

“Eric called me to see the lights flashing over the water.  We saw it from here.  Reckoned it was kids with storm lanterns having a drink.  It was late.  We were a lot younger then, kids ourselves, really.  Eric, bless ‘im, was worried they would swim and drown or some such.  It was a rough old hole in them days  and wasn’t pretty.  All the other pits still working were further on. Look alright now.”

She stopped, casually went off the subject. “ He was lovely you know, always taking pictures in his spare time. We often went for a bus ride just to take his photos.  He took one of that pit before he died.  Lake, lagoon or whatever you call it.  It’s in the box somewhere, it’ll be written on the back.  Prints off slides as well. He took a lot of slides.” She shook her head gently while  remembering.  “I remember him saying that it looked more like a blue lagoon now than it did then.”

That was the first time she called it Blue Lagoon.  “Go on,” prodded Nyree.

“Well, we wandered across the field, it was ploughed in those days.  Following the flickering lights.  Off and on, they were.  We crept quite close but stopped when we heard low grumbly voices.  Not children at all.  They were speaking a foreign language but we only heard snatches.

“We sort of hid. It was almost exciting.  Then we saw this light float up from the middle of the lake and float to the side. It was like a fuzzy moon with its reflection in the water. Or a bright ballon, I suppose, close to the surface.   It sort of fizzled out on the bank opposite.  We watched and it was only when it got dark again we realized all the noises and lights had stopped.”

“What happened next?”

“Nothing. It was all silent except for the rustling trees.  No voices.  Not a single person came out of that place. They had to pass us, or at least come out the way we went in.  We would have seen anyone moving, had sharp eyes in those days.  No other way to get to the lake.  Not like now.  Dog walkers, cyclists and all sorts use the paths they’ve built round the lakes.  Five of ‘em now, you know.”   She said proudly.

“The photo. The one on the cover on the book?”

“Oh yes. He took that the next morning.  I was with him. It was a rainy, miserable day that’s why the picture is poor. And, of course, it’s all been cleared up and made pretty now.”

Nyree spoke again,”I can understand  you called it a lagoon but why blue?”

“Ah, yes.” She smiled sweetly. “ I think there was a film or a book.  A book, all the rage, called Blue Lagoon or whatever.  Eric called his picture that, thought it would catch the editor’s eye. Topical and ironic, he said.  Anyway the water was blue, petrolly when we saw it, so it was sort of true. Just invisible in the black and white photo. So he added ‘Haunting’ to make it like a ghost story.  Just for fun.”

“So it wasn’t a mystery or haunting really?”  Amy spoke disappointedly.

“I must say I like your make-up dear.  I used to have it like that when I was a girl.  All that white powder puffing everywhere. Like chalk-dust!”  She recomposed her hands in her lap.  “Well, the odd thing was that pile of big stones we found.  Someone must have put them there.  Piled like one of those little monuments.  By a tree a yard or so from the edge of the water.  We truly thought it was Russians up to no good.  The police just ignored it.  Well, it’s all different now, very pretty.  A few ducks but no swans, as far as I know.”

“Are the stones still there?”  I just had to ask.

“As far as I know, dear. Go and have a look. It’s a lovely day.  Walk that way to the lake,” she pointed out of the window, “ when you get to the edge move to your right.  You will see them.  By a pretty white tree. Birch, silver birch, it is.”

lake in autumn

c.  wordparc

And so we went.  All three of us at the behest of Mrs Johnson.   A little lake, curving round like a banana, or should I say “an oxbow” as the designers called it.  We didn’t expect to find anything.  Nyree’s dad never got there, he never said what to look for and we had just heard it wasn’t really a mystery except for someone dumping some old stones.  Fly-tipping obviously not as new as all that.

We reached the edge, moved back a bit as it was soggy then walked to our right as instructed.  Saw the stones, or rather small boulders in a little mound covered in leaf mould, lichen and almost hidden by ferns.  I trampled it down a bit to study the stones and nearly lost my foot down a hole.  It hit another rock or something  and I grabbed a sapling to stop falling over.  Twisted my foot to escape and it brought out some strips of decaying material.

I didn’t know what dug that hole. Some biggish or enthusiastic rat, rabbit, badger?  But I had to peer into it.  Assumed it was empty and got out my trusty torch to let a little light in.  It’s odd how surprised you can be looking into a gun barrel in the darkness, even if it is a buried one!

It was such a shame to ruin that almost idyllic scene, even though nature would have its way eventually.  After we had all squinted down the barrel of the gun, rifle?  We returned to the house.  Called the police.  Two cars and two layers up and they called the army and they called their bomb squad, who eventually arrived at dusk.   They drove their truck over the paddock and up to the waterside. Headlights on and tentative investigations made.   At that stage we were confined to the bungalow.

A couple of hours later and the lights of the truck bounced and the rear lights bobbed and gently waved their way backwards along the track at the side of the field to the edge of the road, where it stopped.   By this time we were all waiting at the front door for the soldier who was wandering our way.

He was a sargent and was immediately offered tea but refused saying he had to take everything back to camp.

“Everything?   What was found? Russian guns, bombs?” The Cold War seemed closer than ever.

“Nothing like. More boring but odder.  I shouldn’t be telling you this but as you found them!”  He tapped his nose, signifying we should keep a secret, at least for his sake.   “They were guns. You probably saw that. A couple of rifles, a light machine gun and rounds of ammunition.  And half a dozen stick grenades.  All carefully wrapped in a tarpaulin.  Oiled most like to keep the weapons safe. mind you, the tarp had well-rotted.”

The soldier had said they weren’t Russian, it led to a more local, ominous thought.

He continued  “It’s odd, very odd.   They were German.  Old weapons.  Must have been from the war.  There was a label on the tarpaulin, just readable.”

We had to wait while he took out a notebook he had written in, “Fallschirmgruppe Drei”,

He tucked it away, “ That’s Parachute Group Three.  Someone must have buried them during the early part of the war, maybe ‘39 or ‘40.  At least before we were able to round every one up.  I can guarantee they have been there seventy-odd years.”   With that he offered thanks and goodbyes and strolled back to the truck where a couple of his men waited.  He climbed in and they reversed onto the tarmac and skidded away quickly.

That then was the end of our search, story and acquaintance with Mrs Eric Johnson.  We had the shortish drive back to Burnthorpe and it was when we had stopped to drop Amy at her family’s house, in the silence before you work out how to goodbye.  Amy spoke into the dark of the Mondeo.

“If those things were buried in 1939, what did the Johnsons see in that very same spot in 1965?”

She got out before we had a thought.  Nyree and I just looked at each other then Amy hurrying up the path and knocking on the front door.  The warm light appeared and disappeared, as did Amy.

Nyree and I both shivered as the chill of late October infiltrated the car.

I turned the key, the engine turned and we headed off into November still oblivious as to what Nyree’s father had got so excited about!

 

 

from: ‘It Happened in Burnthorpe’                       copyright  Wordparc, J Johnson Smith

 

 

 

 

 

Avalon

Acolyte, Eblow and Anvil go to Avalon.

The temple was massively built in a style that would eventually be called ‘Romanesque’ but was designed by the gods.  One of the rare periods where they played together and laughed and built their homes and created favourite places to have fun.

The question that bothered them towards the end of its construction was its dedication.  All the gods in the town (factually it was the entire town that was inhabited entirely by gods) had agreed at the planning stage that the building would just be a centre-place for them all to enjoy.  It had taken some time for the design to be agreed in order for all to have their own secure space within ere the confines of the building in addition to the wide open aspect for community gatherings such as singing, magical music, feasting and fornication.

Admittedly the furnishings were basic slabs of granite and sandstone scooped into armchairs and bar stools arranged around the enormous rectangular marble tables that were placed at irregular angles on three sides of the enormous hall. Splendid pillars sat on all edges of the building, each topped with a giant as if waiting for release.   Similarly the multicoloured marbled slabs of table-top were supported by humans. Some standing, arms akimbo and supporting the table like an army surrendering, while others had humans kneeling, crouching or lying in various positions upon another to support  the sheets of marble on their backs.   Luckily they were spelled to remain still and dumb or they would have created a degree of chaos with their moaning and wailing that would have severely taxed the gods.  Dragons laboured in the kitchens, aprons twitching under wings and waiters waited; ever waiting, waiting, waiting.

So, the giants looked down and the humans looked up to all the different gods that partied or argued over who possessed whom throughout the inauguration of the most exotic and profligate building ever. Finally, after the wildest partying and hilarious tricks played on lesser gods by the higher they had to decide on the naming of the Hall.   Many of the serving nymphs, imps, nyaed, and even cherubs had been spelled into unnatural phenomenon like trees, brooks, flowers, maybe statues or even animals and worst of all, humans.

For generations the gods tussled and argued, tricked and joked with each other.  They failed time after time. Eventually they decided that as they were themselves the fiction of man’s imagination and need that they required the naïveté of a human to choose a name for the building.  But there they came unstuck. Humans were entailed to so many different gods that jealousy became rampant both in their table-hugging ranks and within the gods that needed humans’ belief in them.

Eventually, tired from the continual wrangling, body-transforming interludes and the boredom of tricking each other they each wrote a suggestion of name on a stone and cast them into a finger-bowl they called the Adriatic.  The first name called out would be the one.

They called upon Anvil, the youngest in their midst to stir and mix the stones at random.  She put one finger in the water, circled it once and the waters streamed and stirred and sank as a spinning vortex.  The stones span and clashed together. Rubbing side against flat, slate against marble, gneiss against schist until the waters slowly rose again, receding from the lip of the bowl to settle like the ebb tide.

They asked Eblow, next in age, to plunge his hand into the bowl and retrieve a stone, which he did, testing the texture with his rasping fingers. Then passed, as instructed, to Acolyte, next in line to read the random chosen name

Acolyte took the stone, guarded against the light by Eblow’s hands so none of the gods could catch a glimpse or read the chosen word.  Acolyte held the rounded stone, worn smooth now by Anvil’s whirlpool spin and searched the letters to read the word aloud.  He tried.  He held the stone at angles, up to the light and in the shade.  The writing, hieroglyphs or Arabic or some other godly form he couldn’t tell.

The silence around him was palpable. A word he never used but this once.  All eyes upon him, he felt the frustration of decision weighing heavily on his neck.  Unable to read the word clearly, correctly sensing a thunderbolt about to fall he collapsed and decided to ask for help.  He passed the stone to the nearest god and asked:

‘Avagander?’

“Avagander!”  Came the response. The whisper slid from ear to mouth and like the ripple of lava from a volcano the word repeated and repeated. Volume and excitement spread around the mountain hall of the gods until the eruption of a myriad vocal chords exclaimed “Avagander! Avagander! Avagander!”

And so was set the name of the most famous site in the mysterious world of the gods.

No-one took the stone, no-one claimed the laurel of that written name to last as long as humans cared, so Acolyte kept it in his pocket.  Sometimes in the night when he thought about it, of the time he asked for help in the reading of the stone, he wondered if he should tell.  For later, when alone, he looked again at that writing on the stone and made the letters out to read, ‘Avalon’.

 

a myth-mix      also  the Frinks

The Man Who Wrote the Story

The man who wrote the story.

I suppose I regret it now.  Maybe that is the wrong thing to say.  So many people have read it.  You might almost assume ‘everyone has read it’.

I pottered about for years, writing articles, developing ideas. Formats kept changing and I even considered stopping altogether.  I did.  It kept niggling at me so I started again.  I think it was three years, no three and a half. Just after I retired, and this writing game kept eating back into my time.

All those new novels sitting in the wings.  All planned and blocked into chapters, bibliographic details noted, asterisked and carefully tucked away at the end of the computer file.  Even the poetry I liked to dabble in when so-called inspiration for imagist or metaphysical scribbling took hold.   I decided I had to focus on one genre.  As much as I liked the escape into all the realms of big fiction, with or without detailed historical fact I had to let it go too.

I was still young, hale and hearty, as they say, when I was lucky enough to retire. Having money is a godsend!  Thus, ambition and drive were sitting on each shoulder, watching what I did.

Focus.  I sat at that computer day and night.  Typing, re-phrasing.  The words failing to convince me.  I knew my final destination, the direction of the lines, as it were.   Just getting there, as a wordsmith, was not the true goal.  How!  That was it, how!

Well it happened.  I refused to move from that room, that desk, almost.  Only to drink coffee or collapse on the bed in the next room, or have a piss.  I didn’t eat.  No need, I was following the lead of other writers, of course.   Except I didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, didn’t dope or coke.

Yes. As I said, and shouldn’t, I regret it now.  It was written.  It was emailed. 12 point, Helvetica, double spaced.  (Why do they still want it like that?  They can play with it to their hearts content from any old font or size!)

And picked up, published. Carried along, promoted, shouted about.  Hailed!  Loud-hailed!  Again and again.

It was like a crazy forest fire that ripped over the country, jumped the Channel, the Atlantic. Unstoppable.  Continent to continent, language into language.  My format was bought, the rights to everything snapped up in a frenzy of bidding rites.  Even bloggers worldwide emailed with desperate pleadings to be allowed to include it on their sites.  Worldwide press coverage on its success!  Even the Korean lady thumped her desk in excitement, and smiled!

Interview after interview, invitations, quiz programs, Arts; trailers, voiceovers and adverts threw themselves at my feet.  Fanzines, one set up in my name my image.  Endless.

I suppose I regret it now. Should never have written it.   I chose the short story genre, a haiku-novel if that is a term I can invent; to write a story where nothing really happens.

 

 

 

Riverside

I look at the blank page.  It is a true copy of my mind at this moment.  You often hear, see or whatever, how writers get it.  Or rather suffer from it, I suppose.  If it’s their living.  I am just trying to type a memory and have no idea where start.

That’s where, I suppose, at the start. The beginning.  There it is, more supposing!

Was it back when I actually wanted to be a journalist?  All those years ago, pretending to be a stringer but already washing myself out by being totally mystified by shorthand. Admitting it, that was the silly thing to do.

I could pretend well enough.  So I thought.  Got an hour in a police station with a young detective talking about river crimes.  My idea for a crime story was about thieving from the boats that moored along the river bank in the summer.  I reckoned that when they were moored and empty they were ripe for picking.  Not the biggest of crimes but an excuse for me to want to talk to river-police.  He was the nearest I got.

There I was, asking about thieving with this detective.  I had forgotten his name until I was reminded recently.  He did help in his enthusiastic way but only after he had given me an ‘off the record tip’.  That a body had been found in a disused church near the river.

“He was flat-out on the floor just in front of the altar.  Had a woollen overcoat.  Looked too small for him really, probably stole it.  It was covered in mud.  Dried so hard it was all crusty and bits fell off when they moved him.  They reckon he was drunk, fell on the muddy footpath outside and crawled into the church.  Then just died.  Cold enough if he was drunk enough.  Old bloke anyway so he shouldn’t have been surprised.”

I remember being unimpressed at being side-tracked.  Unlike the detective who went on to say he had hoped it was murder.  His first case to work on as a detective.  Murder would have been a good start to his arrival at the station!  I had to drag him back to my ‘river-crime investigation’.  Not too successfully.  He led me to a large wooden cabinet that held about two dozen drawers of index cards.  He pulled one drawer out and said I could go through the cards as they were the what I wanted!  I was pleased he left me alone afterwards but disappointed at the cards.  BORING was my take on them but I scraped out ideas for an article on thefts of outboard motors.

I had to sign out. I had been there just over an hour.  So much for journalism!

Back to what comes to mind.

“Detective says it was murder!”  Or roughly that.  A headline a couple of weeks later in the local paper.  The coroner said different, case closed.  I didn’t read any details.  Don’t know if they knew the dead man’s name, I didn’t.

Soon after that I decided to investigate spiritualism.  Well, clairvoyance to be more exact. Though now everyone uses the term ‘Psychic’.  Remember, I was only sixteen or seventeen at that time and was flitting from one thing to another.  No idea what to do for a living, aware I had to do something but more akin to dreaming than doing!

I cant recall how long but I was set up with a visit to a man whose wife was a ‘medium’. They still use that term but don’t put them together as who would want to be a ‘medium psychic’?  Only the best will do nowadays!

Well, it was a visit of little use even then.  I would like to believe in something of that sort but when he showed me a small box with a pristine violet sitting in it and told me it had ‘appeared in the middle of a seance, just recently’,  I lost respect.  I had a few questions, I expect, but water under the bridge has wiped them away.  Funny how memory blurts itself into the present.  I now seem to think he asked me if I was ‘looking at murder’ because I shouldn’t.  If this is relevant I can’t say.  Did it link back to the man in the church, I ask myself now.  It was lost on me back then.

 

That little church I spoke of is still there.  A few years ago it was ‘rescued’ and all its surroundings tidied up, grassed and fenced off.  Its outer walls of flint and mortar were consolidated and put into pristine condition.  Inside must have been similarly treated with almost industrial cleaning and fresh white paint on the plaster walls to give the effect of a small, very small, country church.  Which I suppose it is, with a church service every few months to keep it sanctified.

It must have been a month or two before that headline in the paper.  I remember the weather was miserable and no flowers around so it must have been before the spring bulbs were actually in flower.  So it must be forty years ago this happened and I used to cycle everywhere.  I was rubbish at cycling up hills so usually opted for the lanes and footpaths over the flood plain and therefore met with the river at some point.  I enjoyed cycling along the river footpaths but some places were muddier than others and the path more liable to collapse over the edge of a miniature cliff.  The winter water being something you really shouldn’t get too close to as it was a hefty current when at high-water level.  And it was very cold and full of loose dirt and assorted detritus.  Totally unsafe.  Still, at seventeen I was not overly cautious!

But then you can learn quite quickly.  The lock gates were shut but the sluices were open to allow water to gush through.  The lock-keepers hut was closed.  If one of the small barges that still survived to transport timber locally wanted to get through someone would have to clamber onto the lockside and cross a delicately arched wooden bridge over the runnel to the lock-keepers’ house sitting on the small island.  The other side of which was an impressive weir with its now ferocious water boiling over the drop. Where I cycled, a few yards further was an old metal bridge over a narrow stream that ran into the river.  Or usually did.  On this day I stood and watched the reversal of water flow as the river, in spasm, pushed its way a few yards up this stream in a series of small bores. Each succeeding one taking small bites from the bank.  I watched, leaning on the handrail.  The surging water finally cut away a support and the handrail gave way. I was astride the bike, leaning on the hand rail as it fell away and down.  Me, landing face down in the water, body scrunched on top but legs still hoiked round the bike which was dangling half off the bridge.  It was supported, I reckon, by the hand rail bent by my weight as I fell.  I instantly knew I was trapped.  Head underwater, upended and stuck by the frame of the bike.  I managed to straighten my arms out of pure shock and survival instinct  raised my head out and gasped for a breath.

The clarity of that position remains.  Like the seconds before an inevitable car-crash.

So this is where luck comes into it.  Some say fate or coincidence.  My thinking today is that coincidences happen too often to me!

I never was very strong, arms more than legs but I wasn’t doing well.  A minute, possibly seconds longer but I can still feel the cold and the water rushing down my throat as I sank followed by the effort of forcing myself up enough to sick out the mud and water before another gasp of air.

I felt my legs shaking and the metal banging round my shins and pulling at my feet. Briefly it seemed to take the weight off my arms and the gravel under my hands lost its feel.  My hands were numb, my body was freezing.  I heard my brain shriek, “Hang on mate! Hang on!”
And a comfortable warmth flooded me and I knew I need panic no more.  I could rest now.
The water accepted me gently, darkly.

That was the first time I was in that church.  Back then you could, as I did, look up at the ceiling and see the waving cobwebs lacing across the cruck beams.  Looking around, the beams could almost be touched, they came down from the low roof to the even lower walls of the building.  Two small slit windows cobwebbed by wire each side let in small shafts of soft light and the grimy window where the block-wood table stood as an altar with its heavy square legs allowed a little more light.  Yet there I was, stiff and very damp lying in that grey light with my cheek stuck to the flagstone on which I should be standing.  At least I could see.  I pushed myself up and twisted into a sitting position.  My coat slid heavily to the floor.  I sat like that, knees screwed up, while I rested, arms on knees.  I wiped hands over my face and hair.  Face dry, hair damp and my clothes still cardboard-wet.

Then I realised.  My last memory was dangling in the water.  I must have got untangled, somehow, fallen free and found my way to the little church; I assumed the obvious.  Then of course, I had the idea of rescuing my bike.

Wearily, stiffly, I stood and walked to the old door.  Just a few yards away.  The small square of  light cut into its upper half leading me on.  open church door.jpgThe door opened heavily, drop-hinged and scratching on the flag scooped out by who-knows feet.  I dragged the heavy overcoat as I walked, dazed and too weak to raise it off the floor as it was still sodden.

It was like I had stepped into, or rather out of Rumplestiltskin’s life.  The small porch led into a narrow mud track, worthy of a rabbit-run.  The short walk to the picket gate was overhung and pricked with brambles covering spindly bushes and trees fighting for space.  Oddly I stood and identified clumps of lilac, budleia, and over bearing them, laurel and rhododendrons.  Looming over these was the ubiquitous darkly yew.  After this pause I walked to the gate.  Outside, on the grass was my bike.  I shook my head, thinking how thoughtful I had been!

As I heaved the khaki overcoat over my shoulder, arms pushing into the still-cardboard sleeves I looked back at the church and saw it wasn’t only here that the undergrowth, and top-growth was rampant.  It seemed the whole building was being hugged, succoured, by a surrounding plantation.

I got round the gate, picked up and checked the bike.  It seemed alright, a bit scratched and muddy but serviceable once I had re-wound the chain onto the main sprocket.  As I stood up from this I saw the name-board for the church.  Or, as I discovered by reading, the Chapel of Rest.  Here it seemed was where they placed bodies of those lost in the river from the barges that once carried logs from the forests up-river to the city. It must have been quite a notorious stretch of water.  Busy and treacherous with the lock, the steep drop and crashing weir hiding any cries for help.  If nobody saw you slip you would have no chance, even if you could swim.  Which I doubted many could.  Maybe a good place for a killing.

The day had been warm enough for spring but cooling rapidly as the sun dropped away. I got on the bike and cycled unsteadily away.  I looked at the path and ruts as I rode carefully.  The path stopped at the tarmac to lead me towards home.  Here I realised I was not looking at the dark blue woollen overcoat I had expected but some sort of khaki greatcoat.  It wasn’t mine.

Soon after that was when I started my short-lived trail as a journalist, investigating the river and the paranormal.  After I heard about the body and my coat I never did go back and visit that young detective.  Nor investigate the world of psychics.  In fact I steered away from writing altogether.

This is a sort of new beginning.  Memory plays tricks, I think I have played the timings right.  I donated that old army coat years ago.  I wonder who he was?  I still have some blanks there.  Maybe writing will help after all.

from  ‘It Happened in Burnthorpe’                      copyright Wordparc      J Johnson Smith

Noah Smith: Buggy Ride to Somewhere

Noah Smith, Buggy ride to somewhere.      (continuation of:  ‘Abbott’s Road’ stories)

It was a long journey.  Both Martha and Sarah took turns with the reins of the buggy while he soon found it less painful to sit rather than try to lie on the seat behind them.  They talked, he sulked and pursed his lips a lot to hold back the painful grunts as they bumped through ruts in the road.  They camped and used the few provisions Martha had grabbed from the canteen before they left Silver City.

They travelled slowly to be sure the man’s wounds didn’t split or infect and he and the horses could rest.  They called at farms, scattered staging posts and the occasional huddle of buildings hopefully called ‘city’ and the more romantic ‘ville’.

By day three the women had run out of their own conversation and almost abandoned trying to get more than words of acknowledgement from the man.   Sarah was clicking the horse along, he sat beside her, Martha sat behind, a hand on each side of the seat to retain her balance.

“Anyway.”  Said Sarah, breaking through the noise of the wheels, buggy and horse-farts.

“What’s your name? Apart from grunts and groans you’ve said nothing.”  She continued into the silence, “ And if you don’t say, I’ll call you something you really don’t want to be known as!”

Martha was amused at Sarah’s emphatic threat, knew some of the names she could use.  Plus the fact that she, Martha, already knew his name via the papers in his bag, or rather, wallet.

“I’ll count to ten, slowly.”  Sarah looked across at the man, his beard now shaggy and his clothes covered in the dirt and dust of the road.  As were her’s, despite the few changes of clothes she and Martha had brought with them.    She counted, slowly, keeping an eye him each time and wondering what name she could get away with,  “ Come on, it’s no big deal.  I’m looking forward to choosing your new name!”

She only got to “three!”

“Noah.” He grumbled at her.

“That wasn’t so hard.  I even bet you’ve got a last name too!”

“Smith.”

Martha waited for more but neither spoke. He adjusted his position and Sarah clapped the reins to push the horse a little.   She, Martha had looked after this man, argued with him over his wounds and his horse, and his travelling with them but had never asked his name.  He hadn’t offered.  Nor him hers for that matter.  But they had settled into an odd routine of patient and nurse and comfortable companions, accepting each other without much fuss.  ‘or even conversation,’ she thought.

“How far is it to Portland?”  Sarah asked into the air.

“Weeks” he said despondently.   She had no idea how true this was so kept quiet.

Martha agreed, in theory, but hoped the railway had connected in the east-to-west route they had been so loudly trumpeting.  She also hoped the buggy would survive the journey to a town with a railway.  That would save some time on the road but would cost them more than just their precious money.

……………………..

The weather mostly held for those days before they hit a working railhead; with a partly built station building.  Half the joists were still glowing in the sun when they saw it at the edge of Sandpoint.  A single track that straight-lined out of the new station yard then curved into the distance; rust-topped rails that had not had enough wheel-friction to raise their shine.  The only sign of activity when the dust covered buggy and passengers drew close was the water dripping out of the canvas piping of the water tower by the one siding with its huge pile of logs.

They approached.  The women looked at each other.  The man, Noah, took the scene in, shook his head, closed his eyes and just waited.  He had resigned himself to being organised and ordered around by the two women.   Initially he refused to admit to himself that the rush and rattle of the buggy in that first dash out of Silver City had been anything but annoying.  He was almost out of strength to sit up after a couple of hours and finally had asked to stop and rest.  As he climbed down he had fallen, fainted and woke with his chest re-bandaged.  He was lying in the shade of the buggy.  From then he realised he was in the care of two women who were much more capable than he was.  So, he did as he was told over the days they travelled and nights they stopped.

Thankfully, by the time they stopped at the rail-head he felt physically much better. His wound no longer seeped but was an itching scab that he daren’t scratch.  He always felt hungry, a sure sign of improvement.  Lastly, he was well aware that his horse was depressed at having to hitch along with the buggy for endless days and only having cursory attention.

“Now,” he thought as the buggy stopped and the horse in front snuffled.  Grey came to a doleful stop at the rear.  “I can grab a room, wash, eat and get away! “.  And then “Portland!” Shaking his head again.

Nobody appeared from inside the station.  All was as silent as the dust that settled around them.

“There must be people in the town. Let’s go look.”  Martha gee’d the horse into action and they followed the track to the buildings a hundred yards away.

The short street was almost deserted, the chill in the air keeping the boardwalks empty except for those running errands.  The few buildings were mostly new with bright shingles proclaiming  ‘hardware (rooms)’ or ‘dentist/undertaker’ tucked between the obligatory saloon that also added ‘rooms’ to its boast. In between were two other streets where earlier buildings sidled into the new town. These were the original buildings, now working as sheds, stores and living quarters for those people drafted or drifted in to service the new town buildings springing up; and the railhead.

This had been the end of the line so the tents and followers had been decamped to the next promise of work and money.  Unfortunately leaving the station unfinished due to lack of materials and a sudden lack of Company money but a promise to return ‘in-short time’.

They neared the end of the street and heard the gasping tones of a pump-organ working the intro. to a hymn followed by rousing singing.  The last building might have been the Livery Stable but the road curved tightly round it and revealed a pristine-white church from where the singing erupted again, hiding the organ notes this time.

“Well, must be more than one in there,” commented Sarah as Martha turned the buggy  to face back into the town.   The three sat looking at the buildings ahead.

“Saloon or stables?”  Martha wasn’t enthusiastic for either, she had banked on getting some sort of ticket from someone at the station.  All three had spent the recent days, weeks almost, camping or in friendly homesteaders barns and none felt easy at having to re-enter the real world, as it were. Her fantasy had been to get an immediate ride on the train, to anywhere out of the emptiness of the country.

“The church.” Sarah stated. “The minister, or wife if he has one.  We can wait til they finish.”

As they sat a  stillness surrounded them, each in their own thoughts and they failed to hear the  thumping organ overtaken by the final last words sung in a cross match of choral and hoarse voices as a final ‘Amen’.  Nor could they have heard the words of the minister ending the service but they did react a few seconds later to the doors pushed open and the few children bursting out with their exasperated mothers following, each of them followed by the ‘tutting’ of some elders or the unseen smiles of the forgiving.

The three in the buggy turned heads as the children’s movement and shouting broke their brief reverie.   For what it was worth, both women smoothed their skirted laps in hope of removing some of the impossible amount of dust and grime they had accumulated over the days.  Noah looked at the open doored church and watched as the minister appeared and cheerfully ‘goodbyed’ his miscellaneous flock.  When the minister was left with the few who might have been his family or enthusiastic sheep, Noah suggested they go over and talk.

Martha gently walked the horse back towards the edge of the path leading to the little church.  Grey, Noah’s horse, was tweaked from his own reverie by the rein tied to the buggy and disdainfully followed on and to stop, having moved the few yards in a three quarter circle.  He snorted at the pointlessness of such small movements and prepared to wait yet again as the two women climbed down.  Noah waited too, he was too stiff to move easily and too proud to show it to the dispersing congregation.

Both man and horse watched as Martha and Sarah stopped before the minister and his wife.  Noah  could see the various movements of the group.  Their hands meeting in greeting, the slight shuffles and nods of heads and half-turns towards Noah in the buggy and what seemed a desolate wave by Sarah towards the freshly built station building.  They were too far away for any sound to carry his way but Noah could see the minister’s eyes contemplating him and imagined the thoughts if not the actual words of the man.  Noah had been sitting erect initially but his chest was still painful.  The wound was healing on the surface but beneath the roughly sewn lower level, was still knitting, and tearing if he moved too much.  And the itching was almost unbearable despite his stoicism.  The bandage was still there, mostly to protect from the dust of their travels but also to stop his scratching.  Infection would kill him, both women had warned, shouted, at times.    His shoulders sagged a little.  He wanted to rest but limited it to gripping the support of the front seat with arms straight and locking his elbows to support the weight of his torso.  It may have looked a little odd to any watchers but he felt it better than collapsing altogether.  “Come on! “ he urged quietly, urgently.

Returned, the women took turns in explaining. “ the store should have a room for you, the minister’s wife insisted the women stayed with them”.  He listened.

People moved past, looking at the strangers in the buggy.  Not that strangers were unusual, just  the transport with its once trim fringe now falling in great loops and the once bright panelling covered in chipped paint and the dust and dirt of the long distance.  And the two filthy carpet bags tied down on the back.   A buggy was for tripping to church and back, or picnic by the river, not the rough-track driving this had received over the last week or so.   Only the chestnut horse standing nonchalantly by the rear wheel looked in good condition, apart from the all-encompassing dust it was covered in.

“And a train is here in two days and leaves the following day.    We can sell the buggy and horses at the stables.    That will pay your room and all the tickets.    And leave some for us.  And a donation to the church.  And the minister.  Same thing.    It stops at Sandpoint and Spokane.  Didn’t they say Walla Walla?    And Pendleton?    I know it goes all the way to Portland now.  Eventually, that is.”

Noah could feel himself wilting under the strain of sitting as well as the two women’s excitement.

“The minister’s house is that one, next to the church, of course.”  Sarah hoisted herself up to the front seat and the springs creaked and see-sawed as she climbed and shifted across to allow Martha to do the same.    “We’d better get you that room first.  Then take up the minister’s offer.  We can see to this old thing and the horses tomorrow.”

She shook the reins. “Hey-up” and they jolted away to the store and room the minister had suggested.  Noah shuddered and gripped tighter, shoulders hunching a little more with the jolt through his scabs.

They left him collapsed on a bed above the hardware shop.  They had pulled his boots off, dropped his saddlebags by the door with a thud.   Next was to drive the few yards to the Livery where they left Grey with instructions for a clean-up, rub-down, food and stabling for two days.  With this agreed, Martha arranged to sell the horses and buggy when the train arrived.  That way she reckoned on having the money for their tickets to Portland.    After this planning episode both women climbed excitedly back onto the buggy and trotted back to the minister’s house and his wife who had promised them a real hot tub to bathe in as soon as they could heat up the water.

Next morning, late, with the sun finally burning the frost away in shimmering steam, Martha and Sarah finished helping with the extra chores they had created. They were in high spirits as they finished rinsing their previously neglected underclothes and squeezed most water out with the heavy wooden rollers of their hosts’ mangle.

“This is what I’m getting as soon as I am settled!”  Sarah enthused as she turned the cogged wheel and watched the water oozing out as the clothes moved through the tight rollers.  “ I needed one of these back at the saloon.  We had to take anything up to the camp laundry for washing if we wanted it mangled.  Never did; no stranger getting his hands on my camisoles.”     She hesitated, “Well, not unless they…..”.  She stopped, realising the minister’s wife might hear and be offended.

With clothes finally pegged and flapping in the sunshine they breezed back into the kitchen for promised coffee and flapjacks with the lady of the house.

They didn’t see Noah walking slowly to the Livery Stable, saddle bags over one shoulder.   Or have a slightly aggressive talk and then write a promisery note in the name of Pinkerton for the owner.  After which he struggled to saddle Grey, was helped by the stable boy.   He rested a few minutes and spoke with the boy.   Gave him his last coin as a tip and another token to give to Martha when she came to sell the buggy.

Finally heaving himself aboard Grey and settling more or less upright, “Okay, thanks” as he held out his left hand and was given the reins of Martha’s horse.   All three then left the dust of the building for the crisp sunshine.   Outside he briefly considered his options, “Damned if I’m going to Portland.”    Spokane was the nearest town with a telegraph.  He could wire Pinkertons to honour his  note.  The rail tracks were the shortest route according to the stable boy so he prodded his heels into Grey and they walked towards the railhead tracks.  And Spokane.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sandpoint, Spokane, Walla Walla and Pendleton with a final train ride to Portland.

School Reunions made compulsory from 2020

School Reunions made compulsory from 2020

 

OFSTACCED  (Office for statistics alongside continuing compulsory education).   have now restructured and issued guidelines for the educational measurement of the population every ten years from the anniversary of students leaving school.   It is understood that some students may have left their secondary school at differing dates, especially between the ages of sixteen and eighteen; because of this all leavers from 2020 will be given the specific date on which they must return to their last Tertiary Educational Establishment, Higher Ed..    To allow for the numbers of people  moving round the country on said specific days, these days will cover as short a period as possible in early August.

Those days  (over a week) will be just after the end of each Final Term, (year’s end) so the students currently still attending school will have left for their holidays.  Therefore this is likely to be the first week in August, unless and notwithstanding.

The structure of the measurements will be based on the following brown paper: Each group has a single day:

A brief introduction at 8 a.m..  Followed by free-time for ex-students to mingle and exhume old friendships and antipathies.  This will be followed by a closely observed period of physical activity  which will be In free-selection mode but must include some heavy-breathing exercise.

Time for relaxation and recuperation allowed (timing to be confirmed), with free bottles of water.

Brief examination outlines will then be given to groups that will be expected to have re-formed their old class numbers and unions. These outlines will concern the nature of the afternoon tests from which the National Data Bank will be able to analyse the physical and mental condition of the participants.

Passage of time will mean testing formulas will alter but anticipated to be based on the previous ten years’ quiz shows.  Under current circumstances, but not necessarily including or excluding any of these examples, or any potential examples not included here, or as yet implied or no longer current, such potential questions and activities may, or may not, be specific examples from such programmes as:

Countdown, QI, The Chase, Generation Game, Sports Quiz, Tipping Point and Mensa.    Old examinations such as GCSE and A levels will be excluded for fear of bias towards students that may have taken those exams.

Results will be pinned on notice boards within those educational establishments in a straight numerical mark order and also in candle-graphs and pie diagrams, for aesthetic reasons.  The original teachers of these students, if ever identified, will receive horizontal colour-coded bar-charts of their various years’ achievements. These will be collated as year-on-year results so eventually all will be on lovely, colourful stripey sheets of A1 paper.

This may seem a large remit for OFFSTACCED but they are persuaded by the Government that all information will be analysed, stored and voided in the best interest of the country as a whole in the vital work of raising the people’s educational level so they may be better qualified to attend and successfully reach the standards set by these new Re-union Tests.