Crybbe aka Curfew
In Crybbe, night did not fall. Night rose.
It welled out of the bitter brown earth caged in brambles in the neglected wood beyond the churchyard, swarming up the trees until they turned black and began to absorb the sky.
Collecting the shadows of graves, the night seeped out of the churchyard and across the vicarage lawn, where Murray Beech stood, knowing he was the wrong vicar for this parish but not knowing there couldn't be a right one.
Murray, with a certain distaste, was wondering how you went about an exorcism.
In the centre of the town, patches of night gathered like damp about the roots of timber-framed buildings. They'd been turned into shops now, and offices and flats, but they still shambled around the square like sad old drunks.
Puddles of night stained the boots of Jack Preece, plodding across the cobbles to toll the curfew bell from the parish church, as he did every night and would go on doing until – as, being a farmer, he expected – arthritis got him and young Jonathon took over.
When Jack went to ring the old bell, he walked alone. Nobody else on the streets, the town holding its breath, even the sagging old buildings seeming to tense their timbers.
Nobody went into the Cock; nobody came out. Same with the Lamb down the street.
There was a passageway a few yards from the steps of the Cock, the pub's upper storey bellying out above it. This was another of the places where the night was born, and the only place from which, in the minutes before the curfew, you could sometimes hear distinct sounds: moans and squeals and panting.
Silly young buggers. To prevent this kind of thing, there used to be an iron gate across the passageway, with a lock. But when they turned the building at the bottom of the passage into a radio studio, they took the gate off.
This was a matter of some concern to the town council, of which Jack Preece was a member (his father, Jimmy Preece, was the Mayor), and negotiations were in hand with Offa's Dyke Radio and the Marches Development Board to get the gate replaced.
Same reason as old Percy Weale had given, back in the sixteenth century, for the institution of the curfew: to safeguard the moral welfare of the town.
What other reason could there be?
Minnie Seagrove, sixty three, a widow, had no doubts at all where the night began.
It began in that thing they called the Tump.
She could see it from the big front window of her bungalow on the Ludlow road. Nobody else could see it better.
Not that she wanted to. Ugly great lumps like this were ten a penny in the North and the Midlands where Mrs. Seagrove had lived. Only, in those areas, they were known as industrial spoil-heaps and were gradually removed in landscaping and reclamation schemes.
However, this thing, this Tump, wouldn't be going anywhere. It was protected. It was an Ancient Monument – supposed to have been a prehistoric burial mound originally, and then, in the Middle Ages, there might have been a castle on top, although there were no stones there any more.
Mrs. Seagrove didn't see the point in preserving just a big, unpleasant hump with a few trees on top. It was obviously not natural, and if it was left to her, the council would be hiring Gomer Parry with his bulldozers and his diggers to get rid of it.
Because that might also get rid of the black thing that ran down from the mound in the twilight and scared the life out of Minnie Seagrove.
All right, she'd say to herself, I know, I know… I could simply draw the curtains, switch on the telly and forget all about it. After all, I never noticed it – not once – when Frank was alive. But then, there didn't seem to be so many power cuts when Frank was alive.
How it came about, she was watching telly one night, coming up to News at Ten, and the power went off, and so she automatically went across to the window to see if the lights were on across the river, in the town.
And that was when she first saw it.
Horrible. Really horrible. It was… well, it was like the night itself bounding down from the Tump and rushing off, hungry, into the fields.
But why can't you just stop looking? Why can't you stay well away from that window when it's going dark?
I don't know.
That's the really frightening thing. I don't know.
Yes, I do.
It's because I can feel when it's there. No matter what I'm doing, what's on telly or the radio or what I'm reading, ever since I first dashed to the window during that power cut, I've always known when it's on its way down from the mound. Without even going to the window, I know when it's there.
And the reason I look – the reason I have to look, even though it scares me half to death – is that I have to know, I have to be sure that it isn't coming this way.
Crybbe: a small one-time market town within sight of Offa's Dyke, the earthwork raised in the Dark Ages to separate England from Wales.
A town like a dozen others on either side of the border; less distinctive than most.
Except that here, the night rose.
Some persons have super-normal powers not of a
magitien, but of a peculiar and scientific qualitie.
Dr John Dee,
Letter to Lord Burghley, 1574
Sometime – and please, God, make it soon – they were going to have to sell this place. And on evenings like this, when the sky sagged and the bricks of the houses across the street were the colour of dried blood, Fay would consider how they'd have to bait the trap.
On a fresh page of the spiral-bound notepad, she wrote:
Bijou cottage in small, historic town amid spectacular
Welsh border scenery. Close to all amenities, yet with
lovely open views to rear, across pastoral countryside
towards Offa's Dyke. Reasonably priced at…
… what? You couldn't make it too cheap or they'd be suspicious – and with good reason.
She'd suggest to her dad that they place the ad in the Sunday Times or the Observer, under 'rural property'. These were the columns guaranteed to penetrate the London suburbs, where the dreamers lived.
They probably wouldn't have heard of Crybbe. But it did sound appealing, didn't it? Cosy and tucked away. Or, alternatively, rather mysterious, if that was what you were looking for.
Fay found herself glancing at the bookshelves. Full of illusions. She saw the misty green spine of Walking the Welsh Marches. The enigmatic Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins. And the worst offender: J. M. Powys's The Old Golden Land, which suggested that the border country was full of 'secret doorways', through which you could penetrate 'ancient mysteries'. And lots of pictures taken through lenses coated with Vaseline and wishful thinking.
She would really hate doing this to somebody, selling the house and perpetuating the myth. But not as much as she'd hate having to stay here. And you couldn't let your conscience run away with your life, could you?
Anyway, there were some people – like, say, the Newsomes – who rather deserved what this town was doing to them.
'Off to the pub,' the Canon called merrily from the hall. 'Fay, can you hear me? I said, I'm off to the boozer.'
'Spot of social intercourse.'
'You'll be lucky.' Fay watched him stride past the window towards the town square. The old devil still looked deceptively fit for someone who, ever so slowly, was going mad.
He would put on a wonderful performance for the prospective purchasers, always assuming they caught him on one of his better days. That Santa Claus beard and the matching twinkle. They'd love him. More importantly, they'd trust him, the poor sods.
But before she could unleash this ample bundle of ecclesiastical charm on the punters, there was just one minor difficulty to overcome.
The Canon didn't appear to want to leave Crybbe. Ever.
This was the central problem in Fay's life. This was what kept her awake at night.
Christ, how could he? He didn't tramp the hills, wasn't much interested in peregrine falcons or otters or bog-orchids. How, for God's sake, could he bear to go on living in this no-hope town now that the woman who'd brought him here had been dead for nearly a year?
Other recent settlers kept saying what a little haven it was. Convincing themselves. A handful of retired people – most of them rather younger than the Canon – drifted into the town every year. The kind who told themselves they needed to be closer to nature. But nature, for them, amounted to a nice view. They came here not to die, but to fade out. To sit amid soft greenery until they grew frail and lighter than air and the wind blew them away like dandelion seeds.
What happened in reality was that an ambulance eventually took them off, rattling along the narrow lanes to Hereford General, twenty-five miles away. Taking too long to get there because all the roads were B roads, clogged with tractors and trailer-loads of sheep, whose milky eyes showed that they had no illusions at all about fading into a green heaven.
'Don't do it, Dad,' Fay said, just to create a new sound – three minutes' walk from the so-called town centre and all you could hear was the clock on the mantelpiece and the wheezing of the fridge. 'Don't leave your mind in bloody Crybbe.'
The Canon seemed, perversely, to revel in the misery of the town, to relish the shifty, suspicious stares he encountered in the post office and all the drinks the locals didn't buy him in the pub.
His mind was congealing, like a fried egg on a cold morning. The specialists had confirmed it, and at first Fay had refused to believe them. Although once you knew, the signs were pretty obvious.
Decay was infectious. It spread like yellow fungus in a tree stump. Fay realized she herself had somehow passed that age when you could no longer fool yourself that you were looking younger than you felt.
Especially here. The city – well, that was like part of your make-up, it hid all the signs. Whereas the country spelled it out for you. Every year it withered. Only the country came up green again, and you didn't.
Fay took a deep breath. This was not like her at all.
On the table in front of her lay a small, flat, square box containing fifteen minutes' worth of tape she'd recorded that morning. On the box was written in pencil:
Henry Kettle, dowser.
Later, Fay would create from the tape about six minutes of radio. To do this she would draw the curtains, switch on the Anglepoise lamp and the Revox editing machine and forget she was in Crybbe.
It was what kept her sane.
She wondered what kind of reaction she'd get if she told it like it was to the perusers of the property columns.
Fay picked up the pencil and wrote on the pad:
Faded terraced house in godforsaken backwater,
somewhere in damp no man's land long disowned
by both Wales and England.
Fully modernized – in 1960.
Depressingly close to bunch of run-down shops,
selling nothing in particular.
Backing on to infertile hill country, full of dour farming
types and pompous retired bank managers from Luton.
No serious offer ignored.
In fact, she added, we'd tear your bloody hand off…
Close up, she was like a dark, crooked finger pushing out of the earth, beckoning him into the brambles.
When he looked back from the entrance to the field, she'd shrivelled into something more sinister: a bent and twisted old woman. A crippled crone.
Or maybe just the broken stump of a fence post. Maybe only that.
She hadn't been visible from here at all until, earlier that day, Mr. Kettle had put on his thick gloves and pulled away the brambles, then pruned the hedge around her so that she stood naked, not even a covering of moss.
Now he'd brought Goff to see his discovery, and he should have felt a bit proud, but he didn't. All the time he'd been cutting away the undergrowth something had been pulling at him, saying. Leave it be, Henry, you're doing no good here.
But this was his job, and this stone was what showed he'd earned his money. It made a nonsense of the whole business if he didn't reveal the only real evidence that proved the line was there, falling sure as a shadow across the field, dead straight, between two youngish oak trees and…
'See that gate?'
'The metal gate?'
'Aye, but he's likely replaced generations of wooden ones, Mr. Kettle said, his voice rolling easy now, like the hills around them. Even without the final proof he'd have been confident of this one. Wonderful feeling it was, when you looked up and everything in the landscape – every hill and every tree, every hedge, every gateway – suddenly smiled at you and nodded and said you were right, you done it again, boy.
Like shaking hands with God.
Happening again, so suddenly like this, everything dovetailing, it had taken his mind off the doubts, and he'd been asking himself: how can there be anything wrong, when it all falls together so neatly.
He indicated the gate again. 'Prob'ly the cattle chose the spot, you following me?'
'Because they'd always go out that way! Out of the field, right?'
'You're learning.' Though it was still warmish, Mr. Kettle wore a heavy tweed suit. He carried what once had been a medical bag of scuffed black leather, softened with age. The tools of the trade in there, the forked twigs and the wire rods and the pendulums. But the tools weren't important; they just made the clients feel better about paying good money to a walking old wives' tale like him.
Max Goff had a white suit, a Panama hat and the remains of an Aussie accent. For a long time Mr. Kettle had found it hard to take him seriously, all the daft stuff he came out with about wells of sacred power and arteries of healing energy and such.
The New Age – he kept on about that. Mr. Kettle had heard it all before. Twenty years ago they were knocking on his door in their Indian kaftans and head-bands, following him out to stone circles, like Mitchell's Fold up in Shropshire, where they'd sit smoking long, bendy cigarettes and having visions, in between pawing each other. Now it was a man in a white suit with a big, powerful motor car, but it was the same old thing.
Many, many times he'd explained to people that what he did was basically about science. Wonderful, yes – even after all these years the thrill was there all right. But it was a natural thing. Nothing psychic about dowsing.
What sun there'd been had all but gone now, leaving a mournful old sky with clouds like a battle-flag torn into muddy, blood-stiffened strips. It hadn't been a good spring and it wouldn't be a good summer.
'Now look up from the gate,' said Mr. Kettle.
'Yeah, that… church steeple, you mean?'
'No, no, before that. Side of that bit of a hedge.'
'Oh… that thing.'
The old girl was about a hundred yards down the field, separated from the hedge now, blackened against the light, no more than three feet tall. But she was there, that was the point. In the right place.
'Yes,' Mr. Kettle said. 'That thing.'
It was no good, he didn't like her. Even if she'd proved him right he didn't like the feeling coming off her, the smell that you could smell from a good distance, although not really.
'Is it a tree stump?' And then, 'Hey, you're kidding, it can't be!' The little eyes suddenly sparking. He'd be ruthless and probably devious in his business, this feller, but he had this enthusiastic innocence about him that you couldn't altogether dislike.
'Jeez,' Goff said. 'I thought they'd all gone!'
'Why don't you go over and have a look at 'er?' Mr. Kettle put down his bag and sat on it under the hedge and patted the grass so that Arnold, his dog, would sit down, too. And they both sat and watched this bulky, bearded bloke making his ungainly way across the tufted meadow. Impatient, stumbling, because he'd thought they'd all gone, the old stones of Crybbe…
Mr. Kettle, too, had believed they'd all gone, until this morning when they'd finally let him into the field for the first time and he'd located the line and walked slowly along it, letting it talk to him, a low murmur.
And then the tone had altered, strengthened, calling out to him, the way they did. 'I'm here, Henry, the only standing stone left standing within a mile of Crybbe.'
Or vibrations to that effect. As megaliths went, she wasn't impressive, but she hadn't lost her voice. Not a voice he liked, though; he felt it was high and keening and travelled on a thin, dry wind.
But it proved he hadn't lost his capacity to receive. The faculty.
'Still there, then, Arnold. Every time I goes out I reckon it isn't bound to work any more,' He scratched the dog's head. 'But it's still there, boy.'
The only conclusion Mr. Kettle could reach about why this stone had survived was that there must've been a wood here and the thing had been buried in brambles. And if they'd noticed her at all, they, like Goff, might have thought it was just an old tree stump.
He could see the figure in the white suit bending over the stone and then walking all around, contemplating the thing from different angles, as if hoping she'd speak to him. Which, of course, she wouldn't because if Goff had possessed the faculty there'd have been no reason to send for Henry Kettle.
An odd customer, this Goff, and no mistake. Most of the people who consulted dowsers – that is, actually paid them – had good practical reasons. Usually farmers looking for a water supply for their stock. Or occasionally people who'd lost something. And now and then those afflicted by rheumatics, or worse, because they'd got a bad spring under the house.
'Why am I still thinking he's trouble then, Arnie?'
The dog considered the question, looked serious.
Well, hell, he didn't want to think that. Not at all, became this Goff was the first person who'd ever paid him to go ley-hunting.
'Mr. Kettle,' he'd said, coming straight to the point, which Mr. Kettle liked, 'I've been advised that this used to be quite a centre for prehistoric remains, and I wanna know, basically, what happened to them. Can you find out where they used to be? The old stones? The burial mounds? And I'm told you can kind of detect ley-lines, too, yeah?'
'Well,' Mr. Kettle had said carefully, 'I know what you mean. It do sometimes seem they fall into straight lines, the old monuments.'
'No need to be coy with me, Mr. Kettle. I'm not afraid to call a ley-line a ley-line.'
Now this had, at first, been a joy, taking the old chap back nigh on seventy years. He remembered – a memory like a faded sepia photo – being on a hazy hilltop with his father and other members of the Straight Track Club. Mr. Watkins pointing out the little bump on the horizon and showing how the line progressed to it from mound, to stone, to steeple. The others nodding, impressed. The picture frozen there: Mr. Watkins, arm outstretched, bit of a smile under his stiff beard.
Now, remarkably – and loathe as Mr. Kettle had been, at first, to admit it – this Goff had stumbled on something Mr. Watkins would, no question, have given his right arm to know about.
So it had proved unexpectedly exciting, this survey, this ley-hunt. Bit of an eye-opener. To say the least.
One morning, knowing there had to have been a stone in a particular place in Big Meadow and then digging about and finding part of it buried nearby, Mr. Kettle had got a feeling that something about this was not regular. In most areas, old stones were lost gradually, over centuries, plucked out at random, when exasperation at the damage done to a plough or a harrow had finally overcome the farmer's inbred superstition.
But at Crybbe, he was sure, it had been systematic.
Like a purge.
Mr. Kettle's excitement was dampened then by a bad feeling that just wouldn't go away. When he dug up the stone he thought he could smell it – something faintly putrid, as if he'd
unearthed a dead sheep.
And, as a man who lived by his feelings, he wondered if he ought to say something. About the purge on the stones. About the history of the Court – John Dee, Black Michael and the hangings. And about the legends, which travelled parallel to history and sometimes, if you could decode them, told you far more about what had really happened than the fusty old documents in the county archives.
Mr. Kettle, who kept his own records, was getting more and more interested in Crybbe – wishing, though, that he didn't have to be. Wishing he could ignore it. Detecting a problem here, a serious long-term problem, and wishing he could turn his back on it.
But, as the problem was likely to remain long after he'd gone, he'd taken steps to pass on his fears. With a feller like this Max Goff blundering about the place, there should always be somebody who knew about these things – somebody trustworthy – to keep an eye open.
He supposed he ought to warn Goff, but the thought of 'something sinister' would probably only make the place more appealing.
'And, anyway, you can't tell these New Age types anything, can you, Arnold?' Mr. Kettle was scratching the dog's head again. 'No, you can't, boy.'
Ten minutes later Goff was back, puffing, the flush in his cheeks making his close-mown beard seem even redder. Excitement coming off him like steam.
'Mr. Kettle, let me get this right. According to your calculations, this is line B, right?'
'And by following this line, as you dowsed it, we suddenly come across what could be the only remaining stone in the alignment. Is it exactly where you figured it'd be?'
'Well… Mr. Kettle got to his feet and picked up his bag. Max Goff eyed it.
'Got the rods in there? Can we dowse the line some more, maybe find another stone?'
No, we bloody can't, Mr. Kettle thought. You might as well ask, how about if we grabs hold of this electric cable to see if he's live?
He saw, to his dismay, that Goff was looking at him in some kind of awe; he'd found a new guru. It was not a role Mr. Kettle fancied. 'Getting late,' he said. 'I ought to be away. Don't like driving in the dark these days.'
'When can you come again?'
'Look,' Mr. Kettle said. 'I'm an old man. I likes my fireside and my books. And besides, you got it all now. You know where they all are. Or used to be.'
This Goff was a man whose success in business had convinced him that if you knew a source, knowledge and experience could be bought like… what would this feller buy?…
cocaine? Mr. Kettle, who still read two newspapers every day, knew a bit about Max Goff and the kind of world he came from.
'Maybe your role in this is only just beginning,' Goff said. 'How about I send a car for you next time?'
Money was no object for this bugger. Made his first million by the time he was twenty-seven, Mr. Kettle had read, by starting his own record company. Epidemic, it was called. And it had spread like one. Now it was international magazines and book publishing.
'Well,' Mr. Kettle said. 'Isn't much more as I can tell you, anyway. You've got the maps. Nothing more to be found, even if you excavates, I reckon.'
'Hmmm.' Goff was making a show of being unconvinced, as they followed what Mr. Kettle now thought of, wrote of in his journal – but never spoke of – as the Dark Road, the Thoroughfare of the Dead. Returning at dusk, back into Crybbe, a town which had loitered since the Middle Ages, and probably before, in the area where England hardened into Wales.
On the very border.
It was the seventh bell they always rang, for the curfew. Almost rang itself these days. Seventeen years Jack had been doing it. Didn't need to think much about it any more. Went regular as his own heartbeat.
The bell clanged above him.
Jack let the rope slide back through his hands.
His hands closed again around the rope.
He hadn't been counting. At any point during the ringing Jack could tell you what number he was on. His arms knew. His stomach knew.
One hundred times every night. Starting at ten o'clock. Newcomers to the town, they'd asked him, 'Don't you find it spooky, going up there, through that graveyard, up all those narrow stone steps, with the church all dark, and the bell-ropes just hanging there?'
'Don't think about it,' Jack would say. And it was true; he didn't.
There were eight bells in the tower, and that was reckoned to be a good peal for this part of the country.
For weddings, sometimes in the old days, they'd all be going. Even fairly recently – though not any more – it had been known for some snooty bride from Off to bring in a handful of bell-ringers from her own parish for the big day. This had only been permitted for weddings, sometimes. On Sundays, never. And not Christmas. Not even Easter.
And also, every few years some bearded clown in a sports jacket would pass through. And then the church or the town council would gel a letter from the secretary of some group of nutters that travelled the country ringing other people's bells.
The town council would say no.
Occasionally – this was the worst problem – there'd be somebody like Colonel Croston who'd moved in from Hereford, where he was reckoned to have been in the SAS. He liked to keep fit. Jogged around the place.
And rang bells, as a hobby.
He'd been a pain in the neck at first, had Colonel Croston. 'No bell-ringers apart from you, Jack? That's appalling. Look, you leave this one to me.'
Jack Preece remembered the Colonel putting up posters inviting all able-bodied folk to come to the church one Friday night and learn the ropes. 'Give me six months. Guarantee I'll knock them into shape.'
Jack had gone along himself because he didn't like the thought of youngsters running up and down the stone steps and swinging on his ropes.
When the two of them had been waiting around for nearly an hour he let the despondent Colonel take him for a drink.
'Doesn't deserve these bells, Jack, this town.'
'Aye, aye,' Jack had said non-committally, and had permitted Colonel Croston to buy him a large brandy.
He hadn't bothered to tell the Colonel that even he only knew how to ring the curfew using the seventh bell. Well, no point in buggering with the others, see, was there? No point in making a show. They could have pulled the other bells down and flogged them off for scrap, far as Jack Preece was concerned.
Anyhow, what they'd done now, to save a lot of bother and pestering was to take down all the ropes. Except, of course the one that rang the seventh bell.
Some nights, Jack would be real knackered after a day's dipping, or shearing, or lambing. He'd stagger up them steps, hurting all over his body, dying for a pint and aching for his bed. Some nights he'd grab hold of that rope just to stop himself falling over.
Still the hundred would be done. And done on time.
And it was on nights like this that Jack felt sometimes he was helped. Felt the belfry was kind of aglow, and other hands were pulling on the rope beside his own.
Well, he didn't think about it. Where was the point in that?
They walked slowly into the town over a river bridge with old brick walls which badly needed pointing, the river flat and sullen below. Past a pub, the Cock, with flaky paintwork and walls that had once been whitewashed but now looked grey and unwashed.
A dark, smoky, secretive little town. There was still an afterglow on the fields, but the town was already embracing the night.
Mr. Kettle had never been to Paris or New York. But if, tonight, he was to be flown into either of them, he suspected he wouldn't feel any more of a stranger than he did entering Crybbe – a town he'd lived within twenty miles of all his life.
This town, it wasn't remote exactly, not difficult to reach, yet it was isolated. Outsiders never had reason to pass through it on the way to anywhere. Because, no matter where you wanted to reach, there was always a better way to get there than via Crybbe. Three roads intersected here, but they were B roads, two starting in Wales – one leading eventually to Hereford, the other to Ludlow – and the other… well, buggered if he knew where that one went.
Max Goff, almost glowing in his white suit, was striding into the dimness of the town, like Dr Livingstone or somebody, with a pocketful of beads for the natives.
They'd take the beads, the people here. They wouldn't thank him, but they'd take the beads.
Henry Kettle didn't claim to understand the people of Crybbe. They weren't hostile and they weren't friendly. They kept their heads down, that was all you could say about them.
A local historian had once told him this was how towns and villages on the border always used to be. If there was any cross-border conflict between the English and the Welsh they never took sides openly until it was clear which was going to win. Also, towns of no importance were less likely to be attacked and burned.
So keeping their heads down had got to be a way of life.
Tourists must turn up sometimes. By accident, probably. Mr. Kettle reckoned most of them wouldn't even bother to park. Sure the buildings were ancient enough, but they weren't painted and polished up like the timber-frame villages on the Hereford black-and-white trail. Nothing here that said 'visit me' with any enthusiasm, because there was no sense of pride.
From the church tower, above the cobbled square, a lone bell was clanging dolefully into the musty dusk. It was the only sound there was.
'What's that?' Goff demanded.
'Only the curfew.'
Goff stopped on the cobbles, his smile a great gash. 'Hey really…? This is a real curfew, like in the old days?'
'No,' Mr. Kettle said. 'Not really. That's to say, people are no longer required to be off the streets by nightfall. Just tradition nowadays. The Preece family, it is, performs the duty. One of 'em goes up the belfry, God knows how many steps every night, summer and winter; nine-thirty, or is it ten?'
He looked up at the church clock but it was too dark to make out where its hands were pointing. He was sure there used to be a light on that clock. 'Hundred times it rings, anyway.'
'Might only be a tradition, but there's still nobody on the streets,' Max Goff observed. 'Is there?'
'That's 'cause they're all in the pubs,' said Mr. Kettle. 'No, what it is, there's some old trust fund arranges for the bell to be rung. The Preeces get grazing rights on a few acres of land in return for keeping up the custom. Passed down, father to son, for four hundred-odd years. Being farmers, they always has plenty sons.'
They stood in the square until the ringing stopped.
'Crazy,' Goff said, shaking his big head in delight. 'Cray-zee. This is the first night I've spent here, y'know?'I've always stayed in Hereford. It's magic, Mr. Kettle. Hey, we still on the line?'
'I suppose we must be. Aye, see the little marker by there?'
A stone no more than a foot high, not much more than a bump in the cobbles. Goff squatted next to it and held his palms over it, as though he expected it to be hot or to light up or something. The dog, Arnold, watched, his head on one side as if puzzled by a human being who went down on all fours to sniff the places where dogs had pissed.
Two middle-aged women walked across the square talking in low voices. They stopped talking as they walked past Goff, but didn't look at him, nor Mr. Kettle, nor each other.
Then they went rigid, because suddenly Arnold's head was back and he was howling.
'Jeez!' Goff sprang up. The two women turned, and Mr. Kettle felt he was getting a very dark, warning look, the women's faces shadowed almost to black.
'Arnold!' With some difficulty – beginning to think he must have a bad spring under his own house, the way his rheumatism had been playing up lately – Mr. Kettle got down on his knees and pulled the dog to him. 'Sorry, ladies.'
The women didn't speak, stood there a moment then turned and walked away quickly as the howling subsided, because Mr. Kettle had a hand clamped around Arnold's jaws. 'Daft bugger, Arnold.'
'Why'd it do that?' Goff asked, without much interest.
'I wish I knew, Mr. Goff.'
Mr. Kettle wanted some time to think about this. Because for a long time he'd thought it was just a drab little town, full of uninspired, interbred old families and misfits from Off. And now, he thought, it's more than that. More than inbreeding and apathy.
He unclamped the dog's jaws, and Arnold gave him a reproachful glance and then shook his head.
There were lights in some town houses now. They lit the rooms behind the curtains but not the square, not even a little, folk in this town had never thrown their light around.
'OK?' Goff said, feet planted firmly on the cobbles, legs splayed, quite relaxed. Wasn't getting it, was he? Wasn't feeling the resistance? Didn't realize he was among the descendants of the people who'd pulled up the stones.
Mr. Kettle was getting to his feet, one hand against the wall, like his old bones, the brick seemed infirm. The people here, they cared nothing for their heritage.
And their ancestors had torn up the stones.
Goff was just a big white blob in the dim square. Mr. Kettle walked to where their cars were parked in a little bay behind the church overhung with yew trees. His own car was a dusty VW Estate. Goff had a Ferrari.
'Come to dinner, OK?' Goff said. 'When I've moved into the Court.'
'You're going through with it, then?'
'Try and stop me.'
'Can I say something?' Henry Kettle had been thinking about this for the past fifteen minutes or so. He didn't much like Goff, but he was a kindly old chap, who wanted at least to put out a steadying hand.
Mr. Kettle stood uneasily in the semi-dark. 'These places…' he began, and sucked in his lips, trying to concentrate. Trying to get it right.
'I suppose what I'm trying to say is places like this, they – how can I put it? – they invites a kind of obsession.' He fell silent, watching the buildings in the square hunching together as the night took over.
A harsh laugh came out of Goff. 'Is that it?' he asked rudely.
Mr. Kettle unlocked his car door and opened it for Arnold 'Yes,' he said, half-surprised because he'd thought he was going to say more. 'Yes, I suppose that is it.'
He couldn't see the dog anywhere. 'Arnie!' he called out sharply. He'd had this problem before, the dog slinking silent away, clearly not at ease, whimpering sometimes.
He hadn't gone far this time, though. Mr. Kettle found him pressed into the churchyard wall, ears down flat, panting with anxiety. 'All right, Arn, we're leaving now,' Mr. Kettle said patting him – his coat felt lank and plastered down, as if he was the first dog ever to sweat. This was it with a dowser's dog – he'd pick up on the things his master was after and, being a dog and closer to these matters anyway, his response would be stronger.
Slipping his hand under Arnold's collar, Mr. Kettle led him back to the car and saw Goff standing there quite still in his white suit and his Panama hat, like an out-of-season snowman.
'Mr. Kettle,' Goff took a steep breath. 'Perhaps I ought, explain. This place… I mean, look around… it's remote, half-forgotten, run-down. For centuries its people lived from the land, right? But now agriculture's in decline, it doesn't provide extra jobs any more, and there's nothing here to replace it. This town's in deep shit, Mr. Kettle.'
Mr. Kettle couldn't argue with that; he didn't say anything. Watched Max Goff spread his hands, Messiah-style.
'And yet, in prehistory, this was obviously a sacred place,' Goff said. 'We have this network of megalithic sites – a dozen or so standing stones, suggestions of a circle or a henge. And the Tump, of course. Strong indications that this was a major focus of the Earth Force. A centre of terrestrial energy, yeah? Do you see any signs of that energy now?'
'People pulled the stones out,' Mr. Kettle said.
'Precisely. And what happened? They lost touch with it.'
'Lost touch with what?'
'With the life force, Mr. Kettle! Listen, give me your opinion on this. Whaddaya think would happen if…?'
Max Goff walked right up to Mr. Kettle in the ill-lit square and looked down at him, lowering his voice as if he were about to offer him a tip for the stock market. Mr. Kettle felt most uneasy. He was getting the dead-sheep smell.
'Whadda you think would happen,' Goff whispered, 'if we were to put the stones back?'
Well, Mr. Kettle thought, that depends. Depends on the true nature of leys, about which we know nothing, only speculate endlessly. Depends whether they're forgotten arteries of what you New Age fellers like to call the Life Force. Or whether they're something else, like paths of the dead.
But all he said was, 'I don't know, Mr. Goff. I wouldn't like to say.'
How old was the box, then?
Warren Preece reckoned it was at least as old as the panelling in the farmhouse hall, which was estimated to be just about the oldest part of the house. So that made it sixteenth century or so.
He was into something here all right. And the great thing, the really fucking great thing about this was that no other bastard knew about it. Lived in this house all his life, but he'd never had cause to poke about in the chimney before – well, you wouldn't, would you? – until that morning, when his old man had shouted, 'Put that bloody guitar down, Warren, and get off your arse and hold this torch, boy!'
Piss off, Warren had spat under his breath, but he'd done it, knowing what a bastard the old man could be when a job wasn't going right.
Then, standing in the fireplace, shining the torch up the chimney – the old man on a step-ladder struggling to pull the crumbling brick out – a bloody great lump of old cement had fallen away and broken up and some of the dust had gone in Warren's eye.
'You clumsy bastard. Dad!' Warren fell back, dropping the torch, ramming a knuckle into his weeping eye, hearing masonry crumbling where he'd staggered and kicked out. If he made it to college without being registered disabled through living in this broken-down pile of historic crap, it'd be a real achievement.
'Come on. Warren, don't mess about! I need that light.'
'I'm f… Hang on, Dad, I can't flaming see.' Hunched in the fireplace, scraping at his gritty, watery eye.
And it was then, while picking up the torch – flashing it on and off to make sure the bulb hadn't broken when he'd dropped it – that Warren found this little tunnel.
It was no more than a deepish recess in the side wall of the fireplace, about eighteen inches off the ground. Which would have put it on a level with the top of the dog grate, when they'd had one. Must have been where he'd kicked back with his heel, hacking off a cob of sixteenth-century gunge.
Warren shone the light into the recess and saw what looked like carving. Put a hand inside, felt about.
Hey, this was…
'Warren! What you bloody doing down there, boy?'
Quickly he shoved bits of brick into the opening, ramming them tight with the heel of his trainer. Then shone the torch back up the chimney for the old man pretty damn fast.
In fact, for the rest of the day he'd been a very willing labourer – 'You stay there, Dad, I'll get it.' 'Want me to mix the cement down here and pass it up, Dad?' 'Cuppa tea, Dad?' Anything so the old man'd get the job done and bugger off out of the way.
The old man had been surprised and pleased, grinning through a faceful of soot, patting Warren on the shoulder. 'We done a good job there, boy. He won't set on fire again, that ole chimney. Fancy a pint?'
He'd never said that before. Well, not to Warren. Most nights, sometimes with Jonathon, he just went off to the Cock without a word.
So Warren, too, was surprised and almost pleased. But wasn't going for no pint with the old man tonight. No way.
'Told Tessa I'd be round, Dad. Sorry.'
The old man looked quite relieved. Warren had watched him tramping off up the track, eager to wash the dust out of his throat. So eager he hadn't bothered to clean up the mess in the hearth and so hadn't noticed anything he shouldn't.
Warren got himself a can of Black Label from the fridge and went back to the fireplace to pull out them old bricks.
He'd got the box out, was squatting on the hearth, dusting off, when he heard Jonathon's car. He'd tucked the box under his arm – bloody heavy, it was, too – and got it out through the back door and round the back of the barn, where he'd hidden it in the bottom of an old water-butt.
And gone up to his room and waited for Jonathon to piss off.
The way he saw it, you didn't seal up an oak box like this and stash it away in a secret compartment in the chimney unless there was something pretty damn valuable inside. And, as he'd discovered, just about anything a bit old was valuable these days.
Warren had a mate, a guy who got rid of stuff, no questions asked. He could be looking at big money here on the box alone, it was in good nick, this box, sealed up warm and dry for centuries. Warren looked at the box and saw- a new amplifier for the band. He looked harder and saw this second-hand Stratocaster guitar. Felt the Strat hanging low round his hip, its neck slippy with sweat.
The curfew bell was tolling in the distance. His dad had sunk a swift pint and plodded off up the tower to do his night duty, silly old bugger.
Why do you keep on doing that. Dad? Don't pay, do it? And no bugger takes any notice 'part from setting their watches.'
'Tradition, boy. Your grandad did it for over thirty year. And when I gets too rheumaticky to climb them steps Jonathon'll do it, right, son?'
Jonathon nodding. He was always 'son', whereas Warren was 'the boy'. Said something, that did.
What it said was that Jonathon, the eldest son, was going to get the farm. Well, OK, if Jonathon wanted to wallow in shit, shag sheep all his life, well, fair enough.
Warren didn't give a toss about going to college in Hereford either, except that was where the other guys in the band lived.
But Crybbe – he could hardly believe this – was where Max Goff was going to be.
Max Goff, of Epidemic Records.
He'd seen him. Been watching him for days. Somehow Max Goff had to hear the band. Because this band was real good – he could feel it. This band fucking cooked.
The box was in one of the sheds on the old workbench now. He'd rigged up an old lambing light to work by, realizing this was going to be a delicate operation. Didn't want to damage the box, see, because it could be worth a couple of hundred on its own.
Now. He had a few tools set out on the bench: hammer, screwdriver, chisel, Stanley knife. Precision stuff, this.
OK, if it came to it, he would have to damage it, because he hadn't got all bloody night. But better to go in from underneath than cut the lid, which had a bit of a carving on it nothing fancy, like, nothing clever, just some rough symbols. Looked like they'd been done with a Stanley knife. A sixteenth century Stanley knife. Warren had to laugh.
Round about then, Crybbe had another power cut, although Warren Preece, working in the shed with a lambing light, wasn't affected at all.
But Fay Morrison was furious.
She'd always preferred to do her editing at night, especially in the days when she was producing complete programmes, there'd just be her and the tape-machine under a desk-lamp, and then, when the tape was cut together, she would switch off the lamp and sit back, perhaps with a coffee, and play it through in the cosy darkness. Only a red pilot-light and the soft green glow of the level-meters, the gentle swish of the leader tape gliding past the heads.
This was what made radio so much more satisfying than television. The intimacy of moments like this. And the fact that you could do all the creative work on your own, only going into studio for the final mix.
Fay really missed all that. Hadn't imagined she'd miss it so much.
Tonight, she'd waited until her father had wandered off to the pub for his nightly whisky and his bar-supper. And then she'd gone into her office, which used to be Grace Legge's sitting-room.
And still was, really, in the daytime. But at night you could switch off the G-plan furnishing and the fifties fireplace, and the front room of Number 8, Bell Street, Crybbe, became more tolerable, with only a second-hand Revox visible in the circle light from the Anglepoise.
Fay had a package to edit for Offa's Dyke Radio. Only a six-minute piece to be slotted into somebody else's afternoon chat-and-disc show on what was arguably the worst local shoe-string station in the country.
But it was still radio, wasn't it? After a fashion.
And this morning, doing her contribution for a series on – yawn, yawn – 'people with unusual hobbies', Fay had actually got interested in something. For a start, he was ever such a nice old chap – most of the people around here, far from being quaint rural characters, were about as appealing as dried parsnip.
And he'd actually been happy to talk to her, which was a first. Until, she'd come here. Fay had encountered very few people who didn't want to be on the radio: no cameras, no lights, and no need to change your shirt or have your hair done. But in this area, people would make excuses – 'Oh, I'm too busy, call again sometime.' Or simply refuse – 'I don't want be on the wireless' – as if, by collecting their voices on tape you were going to take their souls away.
Yes, it was that primitive sometimes.
Or so she felt.
But the water-diviner, or dowser, had been different and Fay had been fascinated to learn how it was done. Nothing apparently, to do with the hazel twig, as such. Simply a faculty you developed through practice, nothing as airy-fairy as 'intuition'.
And it definitely was not psychic.
He kept emphasizing that, scrutinizing her a bit warily as she stood there, in her T-shirt and jeans, wishing she'd brought a sweater and a wind-muff for the microphone. It had been bit breezy in that field, even if tomorrow was Midsummer Day.
'Do you think I could do it, Henry?' she'd asked, on tape. You always asked this question, sounding as if it had just occurred to you. There would then follow an amusing couple of minutes of your attempting to do whatever it was and, of course, failing dismally.
'You could have a try,' he'd said, playing along. And she'd taken the forked twig in both hands. 'Hold it quite firmly so it doesn't slip, but don't grip it too hard. And, above all,
'OK,' she'd heard herself say through the speaker. And that was when the power went off.
'Bloody hell!' Fay stormed to the window to see if the other houses in the street were off. Which they were.
It was the fourth power cut in a month.
'I don't believe it!'
OK, you could imagine that on some distant rock in the Hebrides, even today, there would be quite a few times when the power got waylaid on its way from the mainland.
But this was close to the epicentre of Britain. There were high mountains. And they were not in the middle of an electric storm.
She couldn't remember if it was South Wales Electricity or Midlands Electricity. But neither could be up to much if they were unable to maintain supplies to a whole town – OK, a very small town – for longer than a fortnight without a break.
Hereward Newsome, who ran the art gallery in town, had complained to his MP and tried to get up a petition about it, but he'd given that up in disgust after collecting precisely fifteen signatures, all from newcomers, including Fay and her dad.
Of course, the Newsomes' problem did appear to be somewhat more serious. Not only were they having to suffer the power cuts but they were affected by other surges in supply, which, Hereward swore, were almost doubling their electricity bills. He was getting into a terrible state about it.
Actually, Fay was a bit dubious about the huge bills being caused by a fault in the system. She grinned into the darkness, it was probably Jocasta's vibrator, on overdrive.
There was a bump and the sound of two empty spools clattering to the floor.
'Pushkin, is that you?'
Grace's cats got everywhere.
Fay decided she didn't like this room very much in the absolute dark.
She felt along the wall for the tape-recorder plug, removed it and went to bed.
Living in Crybbe would drive anybody to a vibrator.
Warren should have known.
Sixteenth-century lock. Not as if it was Chubb's finest, was it? Stanley knife into the groove, sliding it around a bit, that's all it took. Then the screwdriver pushed into the gap. Hit just once with the palm of his hand.
It didn't exactly fly open, the box. Well, it wouldn't, would it?
Being as how it had turned out to be lead-lined.
Fucking lead! No wonder it was so heavy. Good job he didn't tried to cut into it through the bottom.
'Course that lead lining was a bit of a disappointment. Warren had been hoping the box weighed so much because was full of gold coins or something of that order. Lead, even antique lead, was worth bugger all, he was pretty sure of that.
Well, not that funny. Old, it smelled old and musty. He moved the lambing light closer, poked a finger in.
Cloth, it was. Some sort of old fabric, greyish. Better be a bit careful here, bloody old thing might disintegrate.
On the other hand, he couldn't afford to waste any time. His old man – who wasn't much of a drinker – might even be on his way back from the church. He might, of course, have called back round the pub for one with Jonathon and his mates. (If Warren was in the pub with his mates and the old man came in, he'd turn his stool round, pretend he hadn't seen him, but Jonathon would call him over, buy him a pint; that was the kind of smarmy git Jonathon was.) But most likely he'd come home, getting a few early nights in before haymaking time and dipping and all that rural shit.
And as he came up the track he'd see the light in the shed.
Warren pulled the lamp down, away from the shed window. He couldn't see much through the glass, with its thick covering of cobwebs full of dust and dead insects, except that it was very nearly dark and there was a mist.
He was feeling cold now, wanting to get it over with and go back to the house. It was going to be no big deal, anyway. Old papers probably. Some long-dead bugger's last will and testament.
He prodded the cloth stuff with the end of the Stanley knife and then dug the blade in a bit and used the knife to pull the fabric out of the box in one lump.
What was underneath the cloth was whiteish and yellowish like brittle old paper or parchment crumpled up.
He gave it a prod.
And the Stanley knife dropped out of Warren's fingers – fingers that had gone suddenly numb.
Warren caught his breath, voice gone into a choke.
The knife fell into the box and made this horrible little chinking noise.
Mr. Kettle raised a hand to Goff as he drove away. He was thinking, well, somebody had to buy the place. Better this rich, flash bugger – surely – than a family man with a cosy wife and perhaps a daughter or two, with horses for the stables and things to lose. Good things. Peace of mind. Balance of mind.
He left the town on the Ludlow road which would take him past the Court. It wouldn't be Goff's only home. Well, he'd move in and stride around for a while, barking orders to battalions of workmen, changing this and restoring that in the hope it would give the house some personality, a bit of atmosphere. And then he'd get tired of the struggle and go back to London, and the Court would become a weekend home, then an every-other-weekend home, then a holiday home, then just an investment.
Then he'd sell it.
And the process would begin all over again.
Dead ahead of him at this point, the Court crouched like an animal behind the Tump. The Tump was a mound which at some stage may or may not have had a castle on top. Trees sprouted from it now and brambles choked the slopes. The Tump was a field away from the road, about two hundred yards, and there was a wall around it.
Arnold whined once and crept into the back seat where he lay down.
Behind the wall, the Tump loomed black against the dull, smoky dregs of the dusk. All the more visible because there were no lights anywhere. Nothing. Had there been a power cut?
It had always been obvious to Mr. Kettle that whether or not the Tump had once had a castle on it, before that – long, long before that – it had been a burial place of some importance. He'd been up there but found no sign of it having been excavated. Which was not that unusual; mounds like this were ten a penny in the Marches.
The business of the stones. That was unusual.
What would happen if he put them back, the same stones where you could find them, substitutes where they'd vanished entirely? Well, probably nothing. Nothing would happen. That was what Mr. Kettle told himself as he drove in the direction of the Tump along a road which vaguely followed the ley he'd marked on the Ordnance Survey map as 'line B'. The mound, of course, was on the line.
He was relieved when the road swung away from the ley and the shadow of the Tump moved over from the windscreen to the side window. Now, why was that? Why was he relieved?
He slowed for the final bend before the town sign and glanced in the mirror, seeing in the dimness the dog's intelligent eyes, wide, bright and anxious.
'He don't know really what he's takin' on, Arn,' Mr. Kettle said, his voice softening as it always did when he and the dog were alone.
He put out his left hand to switch on the headlights. Towns ended very abruptly in these parts. Full street lighting and then, in the blink of an eye, you were into the countryside, where different rules applied. But tonight there were no lights; it was all one.
People said sometimes that the Court must be haunted, whatever that meant. Atmospherics, usually. The couple of times he'd been in there it had been cold and gloomy and had this miserable, uncared for kind of feeling. In Mr. Kettle's experience, so-called haunted houses were not normally like that – they could be quite bright and cheerful in the daytime, except for those cold bits. There were always cold bits.
But what was wrong with the Court was more fundamental. It was a dead spot. Nothing psychic, though, you understand? Just nothing thrived there. Indeed, he couldn't figure out why it hadn't been abandoned and left to rot centuries ago, long before it had become a 'listed' building, deemed to be of historic interest.
Arnold sprang up on the back seat and growled.
'And what's up with you now?'
The dog had his front paws on the back of Mr. Kettle's seat, his furry head against- his master's cheek, lips curled back, showing his teeth, white and feral in the gloom.
Mr. Kettle tried to follow Arnie's gaze, thinking maybe the dog had caught sight of a badger ambling out of the hedge. But all he could see was the yellow of the headlights thrown back at him.
He rubbed at the windscreen. 'Bugger me, Arn, that mist's come down quick tonight, boy.'
But there was nothing moving in the mist. No noise, no lights, no badgers, not even tree shapes.
Only the Tump.
He was up in the highest field now, but at the bottom end by the wood, the lambing light at his feet, the grass wet and cold, the sweat on him mingling with the mist, the spade handle clammy with it. He didn't care; he'd never felt like this before.
Warren scraped the earth into the hole and pulled the turf back over it, slamming it down with the spade, jumping on it, getting it tight so nobody would know. Not that anybody came here; only the sheep, and the old man once or twice a year.
Beneath the turf and the soil and the clay was the old box, buried good and deep, with the Stanley knife still inside it. It seemed right, somehow, to leave the knife in the box.
Or it seemed not right to put his hand in the box and take the knife out.
Not with the other hand in there.
'Where did that come from?'
The dog snarled.
The Tump was off-centre in the mist. But it shouldn't have been there at all because he'd passed it, he must have, couple of minutes ago at least.
'Now just you sit down, you daft dog.' And then he looked up at the Tump and said suddenly, softly, 'You're not right, are you?'
At that moment Arnold was thrown to the floor, as, without warning, the car lurched off to the right, the steering wheel spinning away so fiercely it burned the palms of Mr. Kettle's hands when he tried to hold it.
'Oh no you don't, you bugger.' Addressing, through his teeth, neither the dog, nor the car, for he should have been half-expecting this, bloody old fool. Wrenching at the wheel, as the black mound rose up full in the windscreen.
From behind his seat, the dog's growl built to a yelp of terror.
'I know, I'm sorry!' Cursing the part of him which responded to nonsense like this; mad as hell at his bloody old, slowing body which no longer seemed to have the strength to
loose it out.
Arnold cringed on the floor next to the back seat, shivering and panting. Then Mr. Kettle felt the bumps and heard the clumps under the car, and knew what must have happened.
'We're in the bloody field!'
Common land. Unfenced. Flat and well-drained enough where it met the road to offer no obstacles to car wheels.
No obstacles at all, until you got to the humps and ridges.
And then the wall.
They said the wall, which almost encircled the mound, had been built centuries ago of stones taken from the old castle foundations. It was not high – maybe five feet – but it was a very' thick wall, and as strong and resistant as ever it'd been. He'd never thought about this before, but why would they build a wall around it?
Behind the wall, the Tump bulged and glowered and Mr. Kettle's faculty started leaping and bounding the way his body hadn't managed to in thirty years.
The wild senses were rising up, leaving the body hobbling behind and the old car trundling across the field, going its own sweet way.
And something in Henry' Kettle, something he used to be able to control, locking into the Tump's wavelength with a long, almost grateful shudder. As if it was going home.
Going back, rolling down.
'Silly young devil.' Mr. Watkins chiding him when he rolled over and over, down from Clifford Castle, coming to rest at the feet of the stern old man. 'One day you'll learn respect for these places, boy.'
Mr. Watkins, face in shadow under his hat.
One day you'll learn.
But he hadn't.
Hadn't been able to connect with it at all when he was up there with Goff, looking round, seeing where the Tump stood in relation to the stones.
Had it now, though, too bloody much of it, filling him up, like when they'd sent him to the hospital for the enema, colonic clean-out, whatever they'd called it, pumping this fluid through his backside and he could feel it going right up into his insides, terrible cold.
Something here that was cold and old and dark and…
… was no home to be going to.
'Oh Christ, Arnold,' said Mr. Kettle. 'Oh Christ.'
Knowing it for the first time. Why they must have built a wall around it. Knowing a lot of things about the stones and the leys and why Mr. Watkins had not…
Knowing all this as the car went over a ridge in the field – maybe one of the old ramparts when it had been a castle – and began to go downhill, and faster.
'I can deal with this, don't you worry!' 'Course he could.
Nothing psychic here. Understand that.
Stamping down on the brake – frantic now – but the car going even faster, ripping through the field like a tank. A muffled bump-clank, bump-clank, then the rending of metal and the car ploughing on like a wounded animal, roaring and farting.
In the windscreen, the trees on the Tump were crowding out of the mist, a tangle of black and writhing branches, spewing like entrails from a slashed gut, the centremost trees suddenly flung apart as if blown by a sudden gale, as if the wind was bursting out and over the mound like a fountain of air.
And he could see it. He could see the wind…
And as it rushed down, it took the form…
nothing psychic, nothing psychic, nothing…
of a huge black thing, a dog… hound… bounding down the mound and leaping at the car, an amber hunger smoking in eyes that outshone the headlights because…
'… you're bloody evil…'
Arnold screaming from behind. Not barking, not whimpering, but making the most piteously distressed and upsetting noise he'd ever been forced to hear.
All the time thinking – the words themselves forming in his head and echoing there – I've seen it. It was there. I've seen Black Michael's Hound.
And when the illusion of the wind and the thing it carried had gone he saw the headlight beams were full of stone.
Nothing to be done. Bloody old fool, be thought sadly, and suddenly it seemed he had all the time there was to ponder the situation and realize he hadn't touched the brake pedal, not once. The car having automatic transmission – only two pedals – what had happened was his foot had plunged down hard, time and time again, on the other one.
Well he did try to pull the stupid foot off, but his knee had locked and he saw through the windscreen that the thick, solid stoic wall was being hurled at him by the night, and the night would not miss.
There was a hollow silence in the car and that seemed to last a very long time, and Mr. Kettle could feel Arnold, his faithful dog somewhere close to him, quiet now. But his eyes'd be resigned, no light in them any more.
Mr. Kettle put out a hand to pat Arnold but probably did not reach him before the impact killed both headlamps and there was no light anywhere and no sound except, from afar, the keening song of the old stone.
A few minutes later the electricity was restored. Bulbs flared briefly, sputtered, died and then came back to what passed, in Crybbe, for life.
Business had not been interrupted in either of the two bars at the Cock, where, through past experience, a generator was always on hand. When the lights revived, closing-time had come and gone, and so had most of the customers.
Few people in the houses around the town realized the power was back, and the wavering ambience of oil lamps, Tilley lamps and candles could be seen behind curtained windows.
One electric light blinked back on and would remain needlessly on until morning.
This was the Anglepoise lamp on Fay Morrison's editing table. She'd unplugged the tape-machine before going to bed but forgotten about the lamp. All through the night it craned its neck over her desk-diary and a spiral-bound notepad, the one which often served, unintentionally, as a personal diary, especially when she was feeling angry and hopeless.
Across the page, in deeply indented frustration, the pencil lettering said,
… we'd tear your bloody hand off…
Although I have been able to divine water and do other
simple things of that kind for many years… I had not
thought that this faculty might be related to the formation
T. C. Lethbridge,
Ghost and Divining Rod (1963)
No, no… don't hold him like that. Not so tightly. You're like a nervous kiddy riding a bike.'
'Oh, sorry. Like this?'
'Better. Don't think of him as an implement – he's an extension of your arms. Be comfortable.'
'I think I've got it. What do I do now?'
'Just walk across towards the tree – and don't be so nervous, girl.'
'Well, I've never done it before, Henry. I'm a virgin.'
She thought, shall I leave that?
Nah. Maria will only chop it. She'll think I'm trying to be clever. Too clever for Offa's Dyke Radio, God forbid.
Fay marked it up with a white Chinagraph pencil, sliced and cut just over a foot of tape with a razorblade cutter, spliced the ends, ran the tape again.
Crunch, crunch. Rustle, rustle.
'All right, now, Fay, ask yourself the question.'
'Huh? Oh, er… is… Is There Any Water Under Here? I feel a bit daft, to be honest, Henry. And there's… nothing…happening. Obviously haven't got your natural aptitude, if that's the word.'
'Course you have, girl. Anybody can do it as really wants to. It's not magic. Look, shall I help you?'
'Right, now, we'll do it again. Like this.'
'Oh, you're putting your hands…'
'Over yours, yes. Now relax, and we'll walk the same path and ask ourselves the same question.'
'OK. Here we go. Is there any…? Fucking hell, Henry!'
'Caught you by surprise, did it?'
'You could say that.'
'Look, Henry, do you think we could do that bit again, so I can moderate my response?'
Fay marked the tape. Fast forwarded until she heard her say, 'OK, Take Two', made another white mark after that and picked up the razorblade.
Shame really. Never as good second time around. All the spontaneity gone. 'Whoops' had been the best she could manage the second time, when the forked hazel twig had flipped up dramatically, almost turning a somersault in her hands, near dislodging the microphone from under her arm.
'Whoops'… not good enough. She started to splice the ends of the tape together, wondering if she had time to go into a field with the Uher and do a quick, 'Gosh, wow, good heaven I never expected that,' and splice it in at the appropriate point.
The phone rang.
'Yes, what?' The damn roll of editing tape was stuck to her hands and now the receiver.
'Yes, sorry, you caught me…'
'This is James Barlow in the newsroom.'
'Which newsroom?' Fay demanded, being awkward because the voice somehow reminded her of her ex-husband, who always called people by their full names.
'Offa's Dyke Radio, Fay.' No, not really like Guy. Too young. A cynical, world-weary twenty-two or thereabouts. James Barlow, she hadn't dealt with him before.
'Sorry, I was editing a piece. I've got tape stuck to my fingers.'
'Fay, Maria says she commissioned a package from you about Henry Kettle, the water-diviner chap.'
'Water-diviner, James, is not an adequate term for what he does. He divines all kinds of things. Electric cables, foundations of old buildings, dead bodies…'
'Yeah, well, he obviously wasn't much good at divining stone walls. Have you done the piece?'
'That's what I'm…'
"Cause, if you could let us have it this morning…'
'It's not for News,' Fay explained. 'It's a soft piece for Maria. For Alan Thingy's show. Six and a half minutes of me learning how to dowse.' Fay ripped the tape from the receiver and threw the roll on the editing table. 'What did you mean about stone walls?'
'Tut-tut. Don't you have police contacts, down there, Fay? Henry Kettle drove into one last night. Splat.'
The room seemed to shift as if it was on trestles like the editing table. The table and the Revox suddenly looked so incongruous here – the room out of the 1960s, grey-tiled fireplace, G-plan chairs, lumpy settee with satin covers. Still Grace Legge's room, still in mourning.
'What?' Fay said.
'Must've been well pissed,' said James Barlow, with relish, 'straight across a bloody field and into this massive wall. Splat, actually they're speculating, did he have a heart attack? So we're putting together a little piece on him, and your stuff…'
'Excuse me, James, but is he…?'
'… would go quite nicely. We'll stitch it together here, but you'll still get paid, obviously. Yes, he is. Oh, yes. Very much so, I'm told. Splat, you know?'
'Yes,' Fay said numbly.
'Can you send it from the Unattended, say by eleven?'
'Send the lot, we'll chop out a suitable clip. Bye now.'
Fay switched the machine back on. Now it no longer mattered, Take Two didn't sound quite so naff.
'… whoops! Gosh, Henry, that's amazing, the twig's flipped right over. If your hands hadn't been there, I'd've…'
A dead man said, 'Dropped it, I reckon. Well, there you are then, Fay, you've found your first well. Can likely make yourself a bob or two now.'
'I don't think so, somehow. Tell me, what exactly was happening there? You must have given it some thought over the years.'
'Well… it's nothing to do with the rod, for a start. It's in you, see. You're letting yourself connect with what's out there and all the things that have ever been out there. I don't know, sounds a bit cranky. You're, how can I say… you're reminding your body that it's just part of everything else that's going on, you following me? Never been very good at explaining it, I just does it… You can mess about with this, can't you, Fay, make it sound sensible? Fellow from the BBC interviewed me once. He…'
'Yes, don't worry, it'll be fine. Now, what I think you're saying is that, in this hi-tech age, man no longer feels the need to be in tune with his environment.'
'Well, aye, that's about it. Life don't depend on it any more, do he?'
'I suppose not. But look, Henry, what if…?'
She stopped the tape, cut it off after 'Life don't depend on it any more.' Why give them the lot when they'd only use four seconds?
Anyway, the next bit wasn't usable. She'd asked him about this job he was doing for Max Goff and he'd stepped smartly back, waving his arms, motioning at her to switch the tape off. Saying that it would all come out sooner or later. 'Don't press me, girl, all right?'
Later, he'd said, 'Not being funny, see. Only it's not turned out as simple as I thought it was going to be. Something I don't quite understand. Not yet, anyway.'
She hadn't pressed him. Very unprofessional of her. She had, after all, only approached Henry Kettle about doing six minutes for the 'people with unusual hobbies' spot because she'd heard Max Goff had brought him to Crybbe and it was her job to find out what Goff himself was doing here.
But she'd ended up liking Henry Kettle and actually liking somebody was sometimes incompatible with the job. So now nobody would know what he'd been doing for Goff unless Goff himself chose to disclose it.
Fay sat down, she and the room both in mourning now. He'd been a great character, had Henry, he'd leave a gap.
But if you had to go, maybe Splat wasn't a bad exit line at the age of – what was he, eighty-seven? Still driving his own car, too. Fay thought about her dad and the sports cars he'd had. He'd prefer Splat to arterial strangulation anytime.
Talking of the devil, she caught sight of him then through the window, strolling back towards the cottage with the Guardian under his arm, looking at ladies' legs and beaming through his big, snowy beard at people on either side – even though, in Crybbe, people never seemed to beam back.
The cottage fronted directly on to the street, no garden. Canon Alex Peters pushed straight into the office. He wasn't beaming now. He was clearly annoyed about something.
'Don't they just bloody love it?'
'Love what?' Fay joined some red leader to the end of the tape, deliberately not looking up, determined not to be a congregation.
'A tragedy. Death, failure – 'specially if it's one of the dreaded People from Off.'
'What are you on about, Dad?'
'That's what they say, "From Off. Oh, he's from Off." I've calculated that "Off" means anywhere more than forty miles away. Anywhere nearer, they say, "Oh, he's from Leominster" or "He's from Llandrindod Wells". Which are places not near enough to be local, but not far enough away to be "Off".'
'You're bonkers, Dad.' Fay spun back the finished tape. 'Anyway, this poor sod was apparently from Kington or somewhere, which is the middle category. Not local but not "Off". So they're quite content that he's dead but not as happy as they'd be if he was from, say, Kent.'
'You're talking about Henry Kettle.'
'Henry Kettle. The dowser I interviewed yesterday morning.'
'Oh God,' Canon Peters said. 'That's who it was. I'm sorry, Fay, I didn't connect, I…'
'Never mind,' Fay said soothingly. Sometimes, on his good days, you were inclined to forget. Her father, who'd been about to sit down, was instantly back on his feet. 'Now look… It's got nothing to with Dr Alphonse sodding Alzheimer.'
'Alois Alzheimer. Anyway, you haven't got Alzheimer's disease.'
The Canon waved a dismissive hand. 'Alzheimer is easier to say than arteriosclerotic dementia, when you're going gaga.'
He took off his pink cotton jacket. 'Nothing to do with that anyway. Always failed to make connections. Always putting my sodding foot in it.'
'And stop being so bloody considerate.'
'All right then. Belt up, you old bugger, while I finish this tape.'
'That's better.' The Canon slung his jacket over the back of the armchair, slumped down, glared grimly at the Guardian.
Fay labelled the tape and boxed it. She stood back and pulled down her T-shirt, pushed fingers through her tawny hair, asking him, 'Where was it, then? Where did it happen?'
Canon Peters lowered his paper. 'Behind the old Court. You know the tumulus round the back, you can see it from the Ludlow road? Got a wall round it? That's what he hit.'
'But – hang on – that wall's a bloody mile off the road.'
'Couple of hundred yards, actually.'
'But still… I mean, he'd have to drive across an entire field for Christ's sake.' When James Barlow had said something about Mr. Kettle crossing a field she'd imagined some kind of extended grass-verge. 'Somebody said maybe he'd had a heart attack, so I was thinking he'd just gone out of control, hit a wall not far off the road. Not, you know, embarked on a cross country endurance course.'
'Perhaps,' speculated the Canon, 'he topped himself.'
'Cobblers. I was with him yesterday morning, he was fine. Not the suicidal type, anyway. And if you're going to do yourself in, there have to be rather more foolproof ways than that.'
'Nine out of ten suicides, somebody says that. There's always an easier way. He was probably just confused. I can sympathize.'
'Any witnesses?' Above the tiled fireplace, opposite the window, was a mirror in a Victorian-style gilt frame. Fay inspected her face in it and decided that, for a walk to the studio, it would get by.
Canon Peters said, 'Witnesses? In Crybbe?'
'Sorry, I wasn't thinking.'
'Wouldn't have known myself if I hadn't spotted all the police activity, so I grilled the newsagent. Apparently it must have happened last night, but he wasn't found until this morning.'
'Oh God, there's no chance he might have been still alive, lying there all night…?'
'Shouldn't think so. Head took most of it, I gather, I didn't go to look. A local milkman, it was, who spotted the wreckage and presumably said to himself, "Well, well, what a mess," and then wondered if perhaps he ought not to call Wynford, the copper. No hurry, though, because…'
'He wasn't local,' said Fay.
Fay said it for the second time this week. 'Why don't you get the hell out of this town, Dad? You're never going to feel you belong.'
'I like it here.'
'It irritates the hell out of you!'
'I know, but it's rather interesting. In an anthropological sort of way.' His beard twitched. She knew she wasn't getting the whole story. What was he hiding, and why?
Fay frowned, wondering if he'd seen the spoof FOR SALE notice she'd scribbled out during a ten-minute burst of depression last night. She said tentatively, 'Grace wouldn't want you to stay. You know that.'
'Now look, young Fay,' Canon Peters leaned forward in the chair, a deceptive innocence in the wide blue eyes which had wowed widows in a dozen parishes. 'More to the point, there's absolutely no need for you to hang around. You know my methods. No problem at all to find some lonely old totty among the immigrant population to cater for my whims. In fact, you're probably cramping my style.'
He raised the Guardian high so that all she could see was his fluffy while hair, like the bobble on an old-fashioned ski hat.
'Anyway,' he mumbled. 'Early stages yet. Could be months before I'm a dribbling old cabbage.'
'Dad, I'll…!' The phone rang. 'Yes, what…? Oh, Mrs. Seagrove.'
All she needed.
'Serves you right,' rumbled the Canon from the depths of the Guardian.
'I saw it again, Mrs Morrison. Last night. When the power was off.'
'Oh,' Fay said, as kindly as she could manage. 'Did you?'
'I can't bear it any more, Mrs Morrison.'
Fay didn't bother to ask her how she could see a huge coal-black beast when all the lights were out; she'd say she just could. She was one of the aforementioned lonely old Midland immigrant widows in a pretty cottage on the edge of town. One of the people who rang local reporters because they needed someone to make a cup of tea for.
'I'm at the end of my tether, Mrs Morrison. I'm going out of my mind. You wouldn't think anything as black as that could glow, would you? I'm shivering now, just remembering it.'
In other places they rang the police for help. But in Crybbe the police was Sergeant Wynford Wiley and nobody wanted to make a cup of tea for him.
'I've tried to explain, Mrs Seagrove. It's a fascinating…'
'It's not fascinating, my love, it's terrifying. It's no joke. It's frightening me out of my mind. I can't sleep.'
'But there's nothing I can do unless you're prepared to talk about it on tape. I only work for the radio, and unless we can hear your voice…'
'Why can't you just say someone's seen it without saying who I am or where I live?'
'Because… because that's not the way radio works. We have to hear a voice. Look,' Fay said, 'I really would like to do the story. Perhaps you could find someone else who's seen it and would be prepared to talk about it and have it recorded.'
Mrs Seagrove said bitterly, They all know about it. Mrs Francis at the post office, Mr Preece. They won't admit it. They won't talk about it. I've tried telling the vicar, he just listens and he smiles, I don't think he even believes in God, that vicar. Perhaps if you came round this afternoon, we could…'
'I'm sorry,' Fay said, 'I've got several jobs on the go at the moment.'
'Ho, ho,' said the Guardian.
'Look,' Fay said. 'Think about it. It's quite easy and informal, you know. Just me and a portable recorder, and if you make any fluffs we can keep doing it again until you've got it right.'
'Well, perhaps if you came round we could…'
'Not unless you're prepared to talk about it on tape,' Fay said firmly.
'I'll think about it,' Mrs Seagrove said.
Fay put the phone down. Of course she felt sorry for the lady. And ghost stories always went down well with producers, even if the eye-witnesses were dismissed as loonies. Local radio needed loonies; how else, for instance, could you sustain phone-in programmes in an area like this?
But ghost stories where nobody would go on the record as having seen the apparition were non-starters. On that same basis, Fay thought ruefully, a lot of stories had been non-starters in Crybbe.
The windscreen was in splinters. There was blood on some of them, dried now. And there were other bits, pink and glistening like mince on a butcher's tray, which Max Goff didn't want to know about.
'What are you saying here?' he demanded irritably. 'You're saying it's a fucking omen?'
He looked up at the hills shouldering their way out of the morning mist, the sun still offstage, just.
He turned and gazed at the Tump. A prosaic, lumpen word for the mystic mound, the branches of the trees on its summit still entwined with tendrils of mist.
A thing so ancient, so haunted, yet so benign. Yeah, well, he believed in omens, but…
There was some kind of awful creaking, tearing sound as the breakdown truck hauled the car out of the wall. A heavy crump and a rattle as the VW's shattered front end came down on the turf, its radiator ripped off, car-intestines hanging out.
Max Goff winced. Beside him, Rachel Wade, his personal assistant, was saying in her deep voice, 'Don't be silly.' Spreading out her hands in that superior, pained, half-pitying way she had. 'All I'm saying is it's not exactly an auspicious start, is it?'
Goff stared coldly at Rachel in her shiny, new Barbour coat and a silk scarf. Knowing how much he'd depended on her judgement in the past, but knowing equally that this was an area where she was well out of her depth. A situation where the smooth bitch couldn't be relied upon to get it right. No way.
She didn't, of course, want him to go through with it. Nobody whose opinion was worth more than shit had been exactly encouraging, but Rachel was subtler than most of them. She hadn't said a word about the nylon sheets in their room at the Cock. Had made no comment about the coffee at breakfast being instant, just sat there, languid and elegant and at ease, refusing everything they offered her with a professional smile. Yeah, OK, under normal circumstances Goff himself would have insisted on different sheets and ground coffee and some kind of muesli instead of Rice Krispies. But he might need the
Actually, he might need to buy it.
He'd been pondering this possibility, deciding not to discuss it with Ms Wade just yet, when the local Plod had turned up, waiting respectfully in the lobby until he'd finished his Nescafe, then asking, 'Are you Mr Goff, sir? Mr Max Goff?' as if they didn't recognize him.
The body had been taken away by the time they got to the scene. Max Goff only hoped the poor old bastard had at least one surviving relative. He didn't really feel like identifying the Kettle corpse in some seedy white-tiled mortuary where the atmosphere was heavy with obnoxious smells and bodily gases.
If it came to that, Rachel could do it. She'd hired Kettle originally. And nothing ever fazed Rachel, just as nothing ever blew her mind – there was even something suspiciously nonchalant about her orgasms.
'Right, Tom,' somebody shouted, and the breakdown truck started across the field, the broken car on its back, a smashed coffin on an open hearse.
Then the truck stopped for some reason.
And, in that moment, the sun came out of the mist and the land was suddenly aglow and throbbing with life force.
And Goff remembered what day this was.
He turned towards the light, head back, eyes closing and the palms of his hands opening outwards to receive the burgeoning energy.
I am here. At the zenith of the year. I am in a state of total submission.
'It's the solstice,' he whispered. 'I'd forgotten.'
'Oh,' said the uncommitted Rachel Wade. 'Super.'
As if guided. Max Goff turned back to the open field, opened his eyes and saw…
… reflected, quite perfectly, in the rear window of Henry Kettle's smashed-up old Volkswagen on the back of the truck, he saw the venerable mound, the Tump at Crybbe Court, and the sun above it like a holy lamp.
And the connection was formed.
The truck started up again, moved off towards the road.
Goff pointed urgently at the mound, talking rapidly, forefinger stabbing at the air between him and Rachel. 'Listen, when they built these things, the old Bronze Age guys, they'd, you know, consecrate them, according to their religion, right?'
Rachel Wade looked at him, expressionless.
'What they'd do is, they'd sacrifice somebody. I mean, the remains have been found, sacrifices, not burials – they have ways of telling the difference, right?'
Rachel freed a few strands of pale hair from the collar of her Barbour, flicked them back.
'And sometimes, right,' Goff surged on, 'at very important sites, the high priest himself would be sacrificed. Without resistance. Willingly, yeah?'
Rachel said, 'How would they know that?"
'"a", that he died willingly. And "b", that the fragment of bones or whatever belonged to a high priest?'
Goff was annoyed. 'Jeez, they know, OK? Doesn't matter how, I'm not a flaming archaeologist. But what it meant was the sacrifice would put the seal on the sanctity of the place. The dead priest would live on as its guardian. For all time, right?'
A police sergeant came over, the same one who'd fetched them from the Cock. Big moon-faced guy, didn't strike Goff as being all that bright. 'We'd just like you to make a statement if you would, sir.'
'Everything Max Goff does is a Statement,' Goff told him and grinned. 'Who was it wrote that?'
'Time Out' said Rachel automatically and a little wearily. 'August 1990.'
The police sergeant didn't get it. 'You appear to have been the last person to see Mr. Kettle alive, sir. You'll probably be called to give evidence to that effect at the inquest.'
'Shit,' Goff said. 'How…? No, that's OK. That's fine. I'll join you back at the house. Ten minutes, right?'
'If you wouldn't mind, sir.'
'Point I was making,' Goff said, impatiently turning his back on the departing Plod, 'is that Henry Kettle was about as close as you could find to a kind of high priest these days. Get in tune with the earth and its spirit, responding to its deeper impulses. Shamanic, yeah?' Closing his eyes, he felt the holy light of the solstice on his face. Carried on talking with his eyes squeezed tightly shut. Talking to himself really, letting his thoughts unravel, the connections forming.
'So Henry Kettle – how old was the guy? Eighty-five? How long did he have to go, anyway? So, OK, we have this old man, the shaman, homing in, a dead straight line across the field – straight at the mound, the Tump, right – and…'
Goff opened his eyes suddenly and fully, and was dazzled by radiant blobs of orange and blue spinning from the top of the mound.
'… and… whoomp!' He clapped his big hands violently together. Smiling hugely at Rachel Wade. 'Listen, what I'm saying, we're not looking at some bad omen here. It's a positive thing. Like the high priest going almost willingly to his death, sacrificing himself all over again to put his life energy into my project. Whoomp!'
Rachel said, 'That's really sick. Max.' But Goff was looking up at the mound with a new pride, not listening.
'I bet if we mark out those tyre-tracks across that field we'll find they correspond exactly to line B.'
'The fucking ley-line, Rachel.'
Goff looked hard at Rachel. She shut up.
Jesus, she thought.
'Bit for level, Fay.'
'OK, here we go…'
Mr. Kettle said, '… All right then, we know there's got to be water yereabouts…'
'OK, that's fine, Fay… I'm rolling. Go in five.'
She wound back, set the tape running and took the cans off her ears, leaving them around her neck so she'd hear the engineer call out if he ran into problems.
Leaning back in the metal-framed typist's chair, she thought, God, I've been shunted into some seedy sidings in my time, but this…
… was the Crybbe Unattended Studio.
Ten feet long and six feet wide. Walls that closed in on you like the sides of a packing case. A tape-machine on a metal stand. A square mahogany table with a microphone next to a small console with buttons that lit up. And the chair. And no windows, just a central light and two little red lights – one above the door outside to warn people to keep away in case whoever was inside happened to be broadcasting live to the scattered homesteads of the Welsh Marches.
This studio used to be the gents' lavatories at the back of the Cock, before they'd built new ones inside the main building. Then some planning wizard at Offa's Dyke Radio had presumably stuck a plastic marker into the map and said without great enthusiasm: Crybbe – well, yeah, OK, not much of a place, but it's almost exactly halfway up the border and within couple miles of the Dyke itself… about as central as we can get.'
Then they'd have contacted the Marches Development Board, who'd have told them: No problem, we can offer you a purpose-built broadcasting centre on our new Kington Road Industrial Estate at an annual rent of only…
At which point the planning wizard would have panicked and assured them that all that was required was a little room to accommodate reporters and interviewees (one at a time) and for sending tape down a land-line to Offa's Dyke main studios.
All self-operated. No staff, no technicians. Very discreet: You walk in, you switch on, and a sound-engineer records your every word from fifty miles away.
Which was how they'd ended up with the former gents' at the Cock. A tired, brick building with a worn slate roof, at the end of a narrow passageway past the dustbins.
The original white tiles with worrying brown stains had gone now. Or at least were hidden behind the black acoustic screening which formed a little soundproof module inside the building.
But sometimes, especially early in the morning, Fay would swear she could smell…
'That's lovely, Fay, thanks very much.'
Thanks, Barry,' Fay told the microphone on the desk. All engineers were called Barry.
'It's Elton, actually,' he said. 'Hang on, Gavin's here, he'd like a word.'
Elton. Jesus, nobody in this country who was called Elton could possibly be over twenty-one. Even the damned engineer at Offa's Dyke were fresh out of engineering school.
Gavin Ashpole came on the line, the station's news editor, an undeveloped rasp, unsure of whether it was supposed to sound thrusting or laid-back. He wanted to know if Fay was any closer to an interview with Max Goff about his plans for Crybbe Court. Or at least some sort of statement. 'I mean, is it going to be a recording studio, or what? We going to have enormous rock stars helicoptering in? We need to know, and we need to know before we read about it in the bloody papers.'
'No, listen, I told you, his PA insists he doesn't want any publicity yet, but…'
Calm down, woman, don't rise to it.
'But when he's got things together,' Fay finished lamely, he says they'll tell me first.
I… I've no reason to think she's bullshitting.'
'Why can't you doorstep him? Just turn up. Put the fucker on the spot.'
'Look, isn't it better to try and stay on the right side of the guy? There could be a lot of mileage in this one for us, in… in the future.' Hesitating because 'in the future' she wasn't going to be here, was she?
Absolutely no way she could tell him about the late Henry Kettle being hired by Goff to do some dowsing around the Court. Partly because she hadn't been able to persuade Mr. Kettle to tell her what he was supposed to be looking for. And partly because loony Gavin Ashpole would start wondering how he could implicate the famous Goff in Henry's death.
I don't know, Fay.' Ashpole switching to the Experienced News Editor's pensive drawl. 'I'm not into all this pussyfooting about. We're gonna lose out, here. Listen, try him again, yeah? If you don't get anywhere, we'll have to, you know, reconsider things.'
He meant if she didn't get him an interview soon they'd send in some flash kid from the newsroom to show her how it was done. Nasty little sod, Gavin Ashpole. All of twenty-four. Career to carve.
You've got to stop this, Fay warned herself, as the line went dead. You're becoming seriously obsessed with age. Good God, woman, you're not old.
Just older than almost everybody else connected with Offa's Dyke Radio. Which, OK, was not exactly old old, but…
What it is, she thought, your whole life's been out of synch, that's the problem. Goes back to having a father who was already into his fifties when you were conceived. Discovering your dad is slightly older than most other kids' granddads.
And yet, when you are not yet in your teens, it emerges that your mother is threatening to divorce your aged father because of his infidelity.
Fay shook her head, playing with the buttons on the studio tape-machine. He'd given up the other woman, narrowly escaping public disgrace. Eight years later he was a widower.
Fast forward over that. Too painful.
Whizz on through another never-mind-how-many years and there you are, recovering from your own misguided marriage to a grade-A dickhead, pursuing your first serious career – as a radio producer, in London – and, yes, almost starting to enjoy yourself… when, out of the blue, your old father rings to invite you to his wedding in…
'Sorry, where did you say…?'
'Where the hell is that. Dad? Also, more to the point, who the hell is Grace?'
And then – bloody hell! – before he can reply, you remember.
'Oh my God, Grace was the woman who'd have been cited in Mum's petition! Grace Legge. She must be…'
'Sixty-two. And not terribly well, I'm afraid, Fay. Moneywise, too, she's not in such a healthy position. So I'm doing the decent thing. Twenty years too late, you might say…'
'I might not say anything coherent for ages, Dad. I'm bloody speechless.'
'Anyway, I've sort of moved in with her. This little terraced cottage she's got in Crybbe, which is where she was born. You go to Hereford and then you sort of turn right and just, er, jus carry on, as it were.'
'And what about your own house? Who's taking care of that?
'Woodstock? Oh, I, er, I had to sell it. Didn't get a lot actually, the way the market is, but…'
'Just a minute, Dad. Am I really hearing this? You sold that bloody wonderful house? Are you going senile?'
Not an enormously tactful question, with hindsight.
'No option, my dear. Had to have the readies for… for private treatment for Grace and, er, things. Which goes – now, you don't have to tell me – goes against everything I've always stood for, so don't spread it around. But she's really not awfully well, and I feel sort of…'
'Sort of guilty as hell.'
'Yes, I suppose. Sort of. Fay, would you object awfully to drifting out here and giving me away, as it were? Very quiet, of course. Very discreet. No dog-collars.'
This is – when? – eleven months ago?
The wedding is not an entirely convivial occasion. At the time, Grace Legge, getting married in a wheelchair, has approximately four months to live, and she knows it.
When you return to a damp and leafless late-autumnal Crybbe for the funeral, you notice the changes in your dad. Changes which a brain-scan will reveal to be the onset of a form of dementia caused by hardening of the arteries. Sometimes insufficient blood is getting to his brain. The bottom line is that it's going to get worse.
The dementia is still intermittent, but he can hardly be left on his own. He won't come to London – 'Grace's cats and things, I promised.' And he won't have a housekeeper – 'Never had to pay a woman for washing my socks and I don't plan to start now. Wash my own.'
Fay sighed deeply. Cut to Controller's office, Christmas Eve. 'Fay, it's not rational. Why don't you take a week off and think about it? I know if it was my father he'd have to sell up and rent himself a flat in town if he was expecting me to keep an eye on him.'
'This is just it, he doesn't expect me to. He's an independent old sod.'
'All right. Let's say you do go to this place. How are you supposed to make a living?'
'Well, I've done a bit of scouting around. This new outfit, Offa's Dyke Radio…'
'Local radio? Independent local radio? Here today and… Oh, Fay, come on, don't do this to yourself.'
I thought maybe I could freelance for them on a bread-and-butter basis. They've got an unattended studio actually in Crybbe, which is a stroke of luck. And the local guy they had, he's moved on, and so they're on the look-out for a new contributor. I've had a chat with the editor there and he sounded quite enthusiastic'
'I bet he did.'
'And maybe I could do the odd programme for you, if freelancing for a local independent as well doesn't break some ancient BBC law.'
'I'm sure that's not an insurmountable problem, but…'
'I know, I know. I'm far too young to be retiring to the country.'
'And far too good, actually.'
'You've never said before.'
'You might have asked for more money.'
Typical bloody BBC.
Fay spun back the Henry Kettle tape – why couldn't you rewind your life like that? – and let herself out, throwing the studio into darkness with the master switch by the door. But the spools were still spinning in her head.
She locked up and set off with a forced briskness up the alley, an ancient passageway, smoked brick walls with a skeleton of years-blackened beams. Sometimes cobwebs hung down and got in your hair. She wasn't overfond of this alley. There were always used condoms underfoot; sometimes the concrete flags were slippery with them. In winter they were frozen, like milk ice-pops.
She emerged into the centre of Crybbe as the clock in the church tower was chiming eleven. Getting to eleven sounded like a big effort for the mechanism; you could hear the
There were lots of deep shadows, even though the sun was high, because the crooked brick and timbered building, slouched together, like down-and-outs sharing a cigarette. Picturesque and moody in the evening, sometimes. In the daytime, run-down, shabby.
People were shopping in the square, mainly for essentials, the shops in Crybbe specialized in the items families ran out in between weekly trips to the supermarkets in Hereford or Leominster. In Crybbe, prices were high and stocks low. These were long-established shops, run by local people: the grocer, the chemist, the hardware and farming suppliers.
Other long-established businesses had, like Henry Kettle, gone to the wall. And been replaced by a new type of store.
Like The Gallery, run by Hereward and Jocasta Newsome, from Surrey, specializing in the works of border landscape artists. In the window, Fay saw three linked watercolours of the Tump at different times of day, the ancient mound appearing to hover in the dawn mist, then solid in the sunlight and then dark and black against an orange sky. A buff card underneath lid, in careful copperplate
THE TUMP – a triptych, by Darwyn Hall.
Wow. A snip. Fay wondered how they kept the place open, then walked on, past a little, scruffy pub, the Lamb, past Middle Marches Crafts, which seemed to be a greetings-card shop this week. And then the Crybbe Pottery, which specialized in chunky earthenware Gothic houses that lit up when you plugged them in but didn't give out enough light by which to do anything except look at them and despair.
'Morning, Mr. Preece,' she said to the Town Mayor, a small man with a face like a battered wallet, full of pouches and creases.
'Ow're you,' Mr. Preece intoned and walked on without a second glance.
It had been a couple of months before Fay had realized that 'How are you' was not, in these parts, a question and therefore did not require a reply on the lines of, 'I'm fine, Mr. Preece, Ow're you?' or, 'Quite honestly, Mr. Preece, since you ask, I'm becoming moderately pissed off with trying to communicate with the dead.'
Brain-dead, anyway, most of them in this town. Nobody ever seemed to get excited. Or to question anything. Nobody ever organized petitions to the council demanding children's playgrounds or leisure centres. Women never giggled together on street corners.
Fay stopped in the street, then, and had what amounted to a panic attack.
She saw the spools on the great tape-deck of life, and the one on the right was fat with tape and the one on the left was down to its last half inch. Another quarter of a century had wound past her eyes, and she saw a sprightly, red-faced little woman in sensible clothes returning from the Crybbe Unattended, another masterpiece gone down the line for the youngsters in the newsroom to chuckle over. Poor old Fay, all those years looking after her dad, feeding him by hand, constantly washing his underpants… Think we'd better send young Jason over to check this one out?
And the buildings in the town hunched a little deeper into their foundations and nodded their mottled roofs.
'Ow're you, they creaked. 'Ow're you.
Fay came out of the passageway shivering in the sun, tingling with an electric depression, and she thought she was hearing howling, and she thought that was in her head, too along with the insistent, urgent question: how am I going to persuade him to turn his back on this dismal, accepting little town, where Grace Legge has left him her cottage, her cats and a burden of guilt dating back twenty years? How can I reach him before he becomes impervious to rational argument?
Then she realized the howling was real. A dog, not too far away. A real snout-upturned, ears-back, baying-at-the-moon job.
Fay stopped. Even in the middle of a sunny morning it was a most unearthly sound.
She'd been about to turn away from the town centre into the huddle of streets where Grace's house was. Curious, she followed the howling instead and almost walked into the big blue back of Police Sergeant Wynford Wiley.
He was standing facing the police station and a woman, who was hissing at him. Who was half his size, sharp-faced, red-faced, sixtyish, back arched like a cornered cat.
'What you want me to do?' Wynford was yelling, face like an Edam cheese. 'Shoot 'im, is it?'
'I don't care what you do,' the woman screeched. 'But I'm telling you this… I don't like it.' She looked wildly and irrationally distressed. She was vibrating. 'You'll get it stopped!'
The dog howled again, an eerie spiral. The woman seized the policeman's arm as if she wanted to tear it off. Fay had never seen anyone so close to hysteria in Crybbe, where emotions were private, like bank accounts.
'Whose dog is it?' Fay said.
They both turned and stared at her and she thought, Sure, I know, none of my business, I'm from Off.
The ululation came again, and the sky seemed to shimmer in sympathy.
'I said, whose dog is it?'
FROM A wicker basket in the pantry Mrs Preece took the fattest onion she could find. She crumbled away its brittle outer layer until the onion was pale green and moist in the palm of her hand.
She sat the onion in a saucer.
'Stuff and nonsense,' commented Jimmy Preece, the Mayor of Crybbe. The sort of thing most of the local men would say in such situations.
With a certain ceremony, as if it were a steaming Christmas pudding, Mrs Preece carried the onion on its saucer into the parlour, Jimmy following her.
She placed it on top of the television set. She said nothing. 'A funny woman, you are,' Jimmy Preece said gruffly, but not without affection.
Mrs Preece made no reply, her mouth set in a thin line, white hair pulled back and coiled tight.
They both heard the click of the garden gate, and Jimmy went to the window and peered through the gap in his delphiniums.
Mrs Preece spoke, 'Is it him?'
Jimmy Preece nodded.
'I'm going to the shop,' Mrs Preece said. 'I'll go out the back way. Likely he'll have gone when I gets back.'
What she meant was she wouldn't come back until he was good and gone.
Jocasta Newsome, a spiky lady, said in a parched and bitter voice, 'It isn't working, is it? Even you have to admit that now.'
'I don't know what you mean.' Her husband was pretending he didn't care. He was making a picture-frame in pine, the ends carefully locked into a wood-vice to form a corner. The truth was he cared desperately, about lots of things.
'You,' Jocasta said. 'Me. It. Everything.' She was wearing a black woollen dress and a heavy golden shawl fastened with a Celtic brooch at her shoulder.
'Go away.' Hereward started flicking sawdust from his tidy beard, 'if all you can be is negative, go away.'
On the workbench between them lay the immediate cause of this particular confrontation: the electricity bill. He'd let sawdust go all over that deliberately. 'We'll query it,' Hereward had stated masterfully. 'Yes,' Jocasta had replied, 'but what if it's correct? How long can we go on paying bills like that?'
The worst of it was, they couldn't even rely on a constant supply. He'd never known so many power cuts. 'One of the problems of living in a rural area, I'm afraid,' the electricity official had told him smugly, when he complained. 'Strong winds bring down the power lines, thunder and lightning, cows rubbing themselves against the posts, birds flying into…'
'I'm trying to run a business here!'
'So are the farmers, Mr, ah, Newsome. But they've seen the problems at first hand, up on the hills. So they, you see, they realize what we're up against.'
Oh yes, very clever. What he was saying to Hereward, recognizing his accent, was: 'You people, you come here expecting everything to be as smooth as Surrey. If you really want to be accepted in the countryside you'd better keep your head down and your mouth shut, got it?
Hereward growled and Jocasta, thinking he was growling at her, looked across at him in his new blue overalls, standing by his new wooden vice, and there was a glaze of contempt over her sulky eyes.
'The rural craftsman,' she observed acidly. 'At his bench. You're really rather pathetic.'
'I'm trying to rescue the situation,' Hereward snarled through clamped teeth, 'you stupid bitch.'
Jocasta looked away, walked out, slammed the studio door.
And in the vice, the newly constructed corner of Hereward's first frame fell symbolically apart.
Hereward sank to his knees.
Very deliberately, he picked up the two lengths of moulded wood and set about realigning them. He would not be beaten. He would not give up.
And he would not let her disdain get to him. If they couldn't sell enough original works of art they would, for a limited period, sell a number of selected prints at reasonable prices. And the prices would be kept reasonable because he would make the frames himself. Dammit, he did know what he was doing.
And he had recognized that there would be problems getting a new gallery accepted in a lesser known area. Obviously, places like Crybbe had fewer tourists – all right, far fewer. But those who came were the right sort of tourists. The intelligent, childless couples who didn't need beaches, and the cultured newly-retired people with time to construct the quality of life they'd always promised themselves.
Slowly but emphatically, The Gallery would build a reputation among the discerning. They would travel from as far away as Shrewsbury and Cheltenham and even Oxford and London. The Gallery would expand, and then other specialist dealers would join them, and pretty soon it would be Crybbe for fine art, the way it was Hay-on-Wye for books.
'Of course, it took time,' he would say at dinner parties. 'Good Lord, I remember, in the early days, when, to save money, one actually made one's own frames…'
'Festival, is it?,' Jimmy Preece's eyes were like screwheads countersunk into old mahogany. 'We never had no festival before.'
'Precisely the point, Mr Mayor.' Max Goff tried to smile sincerely and reassuringly, but he knew from hundreds of press photos that it always came out wide and flashy, like car radiators in the sixties.
'No.' Mr Preece shook his head slowly, as if they were discussing water-skiing or first-division football, things which, transparently, were not part of the Crybbe scene. 'Not round yere.'
Goff leaned forward. He'd given a lot of thought to how he'd sell this thing to the townsfolk. A festival. A celebration of natural potential. Except this festival would last all year round. This festival would absorb the whole town. It would recreate Crybbe.
'The point is, Mr Mayor… You got so much to be festive about.' Go on, ask me what the hell you got to be festive about.
The Mayor just nodded. Jeez.
'Let me explain, OK?' White-suited Goff was feeling well out of place in this cramped little parlour, where everything was brown and mottled and shrunken-looking, from the beams in the ceiling, to the carpet, to Jimmy Preece himself. But he had to crack this one; getting the Mayor on his side would save a hell of a lot of time.
'OK,' Goff said calmly. 'Let's start with the basics. How much you heard about me?'
Jimmy Preece smiled slyly down at his feet, encased in heavy, well-polished working boots with nearly as many ancient cracks as his face.
Goff flashed the teeth again. 'Never trust newspapers, Mr Mayor. The more money you make, the more the c… the more they're out to nail you. 'Specially if you've made it in a operation like mine. Which, as I'm sure you know, is the music business, the recording industry.'
I've heard that."
'Sex, drugs and rock and roll, eh?'
'I wouldn't know about those things.'
'Nor would I, Mr Mayor,' Goff lied. 'Only been on the business side. A business. Like any other. And I'm not denying it's been highly successful for me. I'm a rich man.'
'And now I want to put something back. Into the world, if you like. But, more specifically… into Crybbe.'
Mr Preece didn't even blink.
'Because you have a very special town here, Mr Mayor. Only this town, it's forgotten just how special it is.'
Come on, you old bastard. Ask me why it's so flaming special.
Goff waited, keeping his cool. Very commendably, he thought, under the circumstances. Then, after a while, Jimmy Preece made his considered response.
'Well, well,' he said. And was silent again.
Max Goff felt his nails penetrate the brown vinyl chair-arms. 'I don't mean to be insulting here, Mr Mayor,' he said loudly, with a big, wide, shiny smile – a 1961 Cadillac of a smile. 'But you have to face the fact that this little town is in deep shit.'
He let the words – and the smile – shimmer in the room.
'Terminally depressed,' he said. 'Economically sterile.'
Still the Mayor said nothing. But his eyes shifted sideways like the eyes of a ventriloquist's doll, and Goff knew he was last getting through.
'OK.' He pulled on to his knee a green canvas bag. 'I'm gonna lay it all down for you.'
Yeah, there it was. A hint of anxiety.
'Even a century ago,' Goff stared the old guy straight in the eyes, 'this town was home to over five thousand people. How many's it got now?'
Mr Preece looked into the fireplace. Breathed in as if about to answer, and then breathed out without a word.
'I'll tell you. At the last census, there were two thousand nine hundred and sixty-four. This is in the town itself, I'm not including the outlying farms.'
From the canvas bag, Goff took a pad of recycled paper opened it. Began to read the figures. 'Crybbe once had a grammar school and two primary schools. It's now down to single primary and the older kids get bussed to a secondary school eight miles away, yeah?'
Mr Preece nodded slowly and then carried on nodding as his head was working loose.
'Even as recently as 1968,' Goff said, 'there were four police men in Crybbe. How many now?'
Mr Preece's lips started to shape a word and then went slack again as Goff zapped him with more statistics. 'Back in the fifties, there were three grocer's shops, two butcher's, a couple of chemist's, and there was…'
Mr Preece almost yelled, 'Where you gettin' all this from?'
But Goff was coming at him like a train now, and there was no stopping him.
'… a regular assize court earlier this century, and now what? Not even petty sessions any more. No justices, no magistrates. Used to be a self-sufficient local authority, covering wide area from Crybbe and employing over seventy people. Now there's your town council. Not much more than a local advisory body that employs precisely one person part-time, that's Mrs Byford, the clerk who lakes the notes at your meetings.'
'Look, what… what's all this about?' Jimmy Preece was shrinking back into his chair, Goff leaning further towards him with every point he made, but deciding it was time to cool
things a little.
'Bottom line, Mr Mayor, is you got a slowly ageing population and nothing to offer the young to keep them here. Even the outsiders are mostly retired folk. Crybbe's already climbed into its own coffin and it's just about to pull down the lid.'
Goff sat back, putting away his papers, leaving Jimmy Preece, Mayor of Crybbe, looking as tired and wasted as his town. 'Mr Mayor, how about you call a public meeting? Crybbe and me, we need to talk.'
In the gallery itself – her place – Jocasta Newsome was starting to function. At last. God, she'd thought it was never going to begin. She walked quickly across the quarry-tiled floor – tap, tap, tap of the high heels, echoing from wall to wall in the high-roofed former chapel, a smart brisk sound she loved.
'Look, let me show you this. It's something actually quite special. '
'No, really,' The customer raised a hand and a faint smile. 'This is what I came for.'
'Oh, but…' Jocasta fell silent, realizing that a £1,000 sale was about to go through without recourse to the skills honed to a fine edge during her decade in International Marketing. She pulled herself together, smiled and patted the hinged frame of the triptych, it is rather super, though, isn't it?'
'Actually,' the customer said, turning her back on the triple image of the Tump, I think it's absolutely dreadful.'
'Oh.' Jocasta was genuinely thrown by this, because the customer was undoubtedly the right kind: Barbour, silk scarf and that offhand, isn't-life-tedious sort of poise she'd always rather envied.
The woman revived her faint smile. 'I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be rude. My boss thinks it's wonderful, and that's all that matters. I suppose it's the subject I'm not terribly taken with. It's only a large heap of soil, after all."
Jocasta mentally adjusted the woman's standing; she had a boss. Dare she ask who he was? 'I'll pa… I'll have it packaged for you.'
'Oh, don't bother, I'll just toss it in the back of the jeep. Haven't far to go.' How far exactly? Jocasta asked silently, directing a powerful ray of naked curiosity at the woman. It usually worked.
The door closed behind him. Max Goff stood a moment on the sunlit step, Crybbe laid out before him.
Jimmy Preece's retirement cottage was a fitting place for the Mayor to live, at the entrance to the narrow road off the little square, the one which led eventually 10 the Court – Jimmy Preece being the head of the family which had lived at Court Farm since sixteen-something at least.
It was fitting also for the Mayor because it was at the top of the town, with the church of St Michael on the right. And you could see the buildings – eighteenth, seventeenth century and earlier – staggering, gently inebriated, down the hill to the river, with its three-arched bridge.
From up here Goff could easily discern the medieval street pattern – almost unchanged, he figured. The newer buildings – the school, the council housing and the small industrial estate – had been tacked on and could, no doubt, just as easily be flicked away.
It was bloody perfect.
And this was precisely because it was not a wealthy town, because it was down on its luck and had been for a long, long time. Because it was not linked to the trunk roads between Wales and the Midlands and was not convenient, never would be. No use at all for commuting to anywhere.
And yet, beneath this town, the dragon slumbered.
She was going to ring Darwyn Hall, the artist, immediately but Hereward walked in, still wearing his artisan's outfit and carrying a mug of coffee. The mug was one of the misshapen brown things they'd felt obliged to buy from the Crybbe Pottery.
'Who was that?'
Jocasta was sitting at her desk in a corner of the gallery, putting the cheque away. It was a customized company cheque, the word Epidemic faded across it like a watermark. 'A sale, of course,' she said nonchalantly.
'Good God.' Hereward looked around to see which of the pictures had gone. 'Picking it up later, are they?'
'You should be looking in the window.' Jocasta just couldn't hold her cool any longer and an awful smirk of delight was spreading over her face like strawberry jam.
'You're joking,' Hereward said, stunned. He strode to the window and threw back the shutters. 'Good grief!' He turned back to Jocasta. 'Full price?'
'This is not a bloody discount store, darling.'
'Stone me,' said Hereward. 'The triptych. Just like that? I mean, who…?'
Jocasta waited a second or two, adjusted the Celtic brooch at her shoulder and then casually hit him with the big one.
'Gosh.' Hereward pit down his cup. 'So it's true, then. He has bought the Court.'
'Sent his personal assistant to collect it,' Jocasta said. 'Rachel Wade.'
'This is far from bad news,' Hereward said slowly, 'in fact, this could be the turning point.'
Mrs Preece waited across the square with her shopping bag until she saw the large man in the white suit stride out past the delphiniums. He didn't, she noticed, close the garden gate behind him. She watched him get into his fancy black car and didn't go across to the house until she couldn't even hear its noise any more.
Jimmy was still sitting in the parlour staring at the wall.
Mrs Preece put down her shopping bag and reached over Jimmy to the top of the television set, where the onion was sitting in its saucer.
'You'll be late for your drink,' she said.
'I'm not going today. I 'ave to talk to the clerk before she goes back to the library.'
'What was he after?' demanded Mrs Preece, standing there holding the saucer with the onion on it.
'He wants us to call a public meeting.'
'Oh, he does, does he? And who's he to ask for a public meeting?'
'An interferer," Jimmy Preece said. 'That's what he is.'
Mrs Preece said nothing.
'I don't like interferers,' Jimmy Preece said.
There was nothing his wife could say to that. She walked through to the kitchen, holding the saucer before her at arm's length as if what it had on it was not a peeled onion but a dead rat.
In the kitchen she got out a meat skewer, a big one, nearly a foot long, and speared the onion, the sharp point slipping easily into its soft, moist, white flesh.
Then she took it across to the Rayburn and opened the door to the fire compartment. With a quick stab and a shiver – partly f revulsion, partly satisfaction – she thrust the onion into the flames and slammed the door, hard.
This may seem an odd question,' the vicar of Crybbe said after a good deal of hesitation, 'but have you ever performed an exorcism?'
The question hung in the air for quite a while.
Sunk into his armchair in Grace's former sitting-room, Canon Alex Peters peered vaguely into the thick soup of his past. Had he done an exorcism? Buggered if he could remember.
The sun was so bright now – at least suggestive of warmth – that Alex had stripped down to his washed-out Kate Bush T-shirt, the letters in Bush stretched to twice the size of those in Kate by the considerable belly he'd put on since the doctor had ordered him to give up jogging. On his knees was a fiendish-looking black tomcat which Grace had named after some famous Russian. Chekhov? Dostoevsky? Buggered if he could remember that either.
'Ah, sorry, Murray. Yes, exorcism. Mmm.'
What should he say? East Anglia? Perhaps when he was in charge of one of those huge, terrifying, flint churches in Suffolk… Needed to be a bit careful here.
'Ah! I'll tell you what it was, Murray – going back a good many years this. Wasn't the full bell, book and candle routine, as I remember. More of a quickie, bless-this-house operation. Actually, I think I made it up as I went along.'
The Revd Murray Beech raised an eyebrow.
Alex said, 'Well, you know the sort of thing… "I have reason to believe there's an unquiet spirit on the premises, so, in the name of the Management, I suggest you leave these decent folk alone and push off back where you came from, there's a good chap." '
The Revd Murray Beech did not smile.
'Expect I dramatized it a bit,' Alex said. 'But that's what it boiled down to. Seemed to work, as I recall. Don't remember any come-backs, anyway. Why d'you ask?'
Although he wore the regulation-issue black shirt and clerical collar, rather than a Kate Bush T-shirt, young Murray Beech didn't seem like a real vicar to Alex. More like the ambitious deputy head of some inner-city comprehensive school. He was on the edge of one of Grace's G-plan dining chairs, looking vaguely unhappy about the can of lager Alex had put unceremoniously into his hand.
'You see, the way you put it then,' Murray said carefully, as though he were formulating a point at a conference, 'makes it seem as if… you knew at the time… that you were only going through the motions.'
'Well, that's probably true, old chap. But who knows what we do when we go through the motions?' A sunbeam stroked Alex's knees; the cat shifted a little to make the most of it. 'Do I understand, Murray, that someone has invited you to perform an exorcism?'
'This appears to be the general idea,' the vicar said uncomfortably. 'The central dilemma is, as you know, I'm not into sham. Too much of that in the church.'
'Absolutely, old chap.'
'You see, my problem is…'
'Oh, I think I know what your problem is.' Perhaps, Alex thought, it used to be my problem too, to an extent. How sure of our ground we are, when we're young ministers. 'For instance, Murray, if I were to ask you what you consider to be the biggest evils in the world today, you'd say…?'
'Inequality. Racism. Destruction of the planet due to unassuageable… I'm not going to say capitalism, let's call it greed.' He eyed the Guardian on Alex's chair-arm. 'Surely you'd agree with that?'
"Course, dear boy. Spot on. Look, Tolstoy, would you mind not sharpening your claws on my inner thigh, there's good cat. So who wants you to do this exorcism?'
'Difficult.' Murray smiled without humour. 'Difficult situation. It's a teenager. Lives with the grandparents. Think there's some sort of – his mouth pursed in distaste – 'disruptive
etheric intrusion. In the house.'
'Poltergeist, eh? What have the grandparents got to say?'
'That's the difficulty. I'm not supposed to speak to them. This… person is rather embarrassed about the whole thing. Having read somewhere that so-called poltergeists are often caused by, or attracted to, a disturbed adolescent. You know that theory?'
'Rampant hormones overflowing. Smart boy. In my day, of course, the vicar would just have told him to stop wanking and the thing would go away.'
Murray said, 'It's a girl.'
'She wants me to go along when her grandparents are out and deal with this alleged presence.'
'Oh dear.' Alex opened his can of Heineken with a snap 'You're right, my boy, it is a difficult one. Erm…' He looked across at Murray, all cropped hair, tight mouth and steely
efficiency. 'Do you suppose this youngster might have something of a… crush on you?' Well, it wasn't entirely beyond the bounds of possibility; there were some pretty warped kids around these days.
'Oh, I don't think it's that, Alex. That would be comparatively easy to deal with.'
'Glad you think so. What have you said to her, then?'
'We had a long discussion about the problems and insecurities of the post-pubescent period. Made more difficult in this case because she has no parents to go to – mother dead, father in the merchant navy. You see, I don't want to fail the kid. Because, you know, so few people in this town ever actually come to me for help. Especially with anything of a non-material nature – i.e. anything that doesn't involve opening jumble sales. It's obvious most of them find me an institutional irrelevance most of the time.'
'Wouldn't say that, old chap.'
'Wouldn't you? Oh, certainly, they're always there on Sunday. Well, enough of them anyway. So no congregation problems, as such, but…'
'That's what it's all about, old son. That's the core of it, bums on pews.'
'Is it? Is that what you think?' The dining chair creaked as Murray hunched forward, chin thrusting. 'Have you ever looked out over your parishioners and seen all the animation, all the commitment, of a doctor's waiting room or a bus queue?'
Alex nodded. 'They're not expressive people in this town, I grant you. Perhaps a chap like you ought to be working in a more happening situation, as they say.'
Murray clearly thought so too. But Alex could see the difficulty. He'd been lucky to get a parish this size at his age, still in his twenties. Could be a key step on the way to the bishop's palace before he turned forty if he made the right impression…
They heard footsteps on the path, a key in the front door. Ah, here's Fay. Look, Murray, why don't we ask her about your problem? Used to be a teenage girl herself not awfully long ago.'
'No!' Murray Beech jerked on the edge of his dining chair. 'Not a word, if you don't mind, Alex. I don't want this turned into a joke on the radio.'
'Good God, Murray, I hardly think…'
'OK, if that's how you'd prefer it. I say, what's wrong with old Chekhov?'
The cat had leapt on to the chair-back next to Alex's shoulder, looking even less at ease than the vicar of Crybbe.
'Dad,' Fay called from the hall. 'You haven't got Rasputin in there, have you? If you have, just hold on to him.' There was a patter of paws. 'We may have a minor integration problem.'
The cat hissed in Alex's ear.
'I must go,' Murray Beech said, putting the unopened can of lager on top of Grace's little nest of tables.
The door opened and a dog came in, followed by Fay. The dog was straining on the end of a clothes-line. It was a rather bizarre dog. Black and white, the size of a sheepdog. But with a terrier's stance and enormous ears, like a donkey's.
The dog ignored Rasputin but sniffed suspiciously at Murray Beech, as the vicar came to his feet.
'Sorry about this, Dad,' Fay said. 'But you and Rasputin have to make allowances, show a little charity. Oh, hullo Murray, I'm quite glad you're here.'
The dog ambled over to Alex. 'He's had a bereavement,' Fay said. 'Listen, Murray, do you know Mrs Byford?'
Halfway to the door, the vicar stiffened. 'The Old Police House?'
'That's the one, yes. Is she all right?'
'I'm sorry… What do you mean, "all right"?'
Alex, patting the dog, observed how inhibited Murray Beech became when Fay was around. Partly, he thought, because of what she did for a living and partly, no doubt, because he couldn't help fancying the arse off her. Open to that kind of thing now, too, since his engagement had gone down the toilet
'This Mrs Byford,' Fay said, 'was throwing the most amazing wobbly. He' – looking at the dog – 'was howling in his cell at the nick, and Mrs Byford was reacting as if it was the four-minute warning or something. Really going for Wynford, the copper. "Get it stopped! I'm not having it! I don't like it!" Way over the top."
'Perhaps she simply feels she has a right to peace and quiet,' Murray said tightly.
'Living next to the cop-shop? Drunks getting hauled in on a Saturday night? What the hell does she know about peace and quiet?'
Murray shrugged. 'I'm sorry, I have to go. I'll talk to you again, Alex.'
'Yes, call in any time, old chap.'
When the vicar had gone. Fay said, 'Creep.'
'No, just a duck out of water,' Alex said, stroking the rigid Rasputin. 'He'd be far more at home in Birmingham, preaching peaceful coexistence with Islam. Who's your extraordinary
'Um, yes. I'm sorry to spring him on you, but it all happened very quickly, what with this loopy woman – definitely something wrong with her.' Fay knelt down and detached the clothes-line from the dog's collar. 'He's called Arnold. He was Henry Kettle's dog. He seems to have been in the car when it crashed. Must have got out through a window afterwards. They found him this morning, sitting by the wreckage like the Greyfriars Bobby. Breaks your heart, doesn't it?'
Arnold rested his chin for just a moment on Alex's knee. There was a savage hiss from Rasputin. 'Poor old chap,' Alex said. He thought the dog had strangely kind eyes. 'But he can't stay here.'
Arnold glanced at Rasputin with disinterest then padded away. Fay said, 'I was afraid, to be honest, of what Wynford might have done to shut him up.'
'Oh, surely not.'
'I don't know, the police round here are… different. Wynford had him in this concrete coal shed kind of place. Hard door, no windows, no basket or anything. A metal bucket to
drink out of. Barbaric. So I thought, that's it, he's not staying here. Then Wynford and I had this terrific battle.'
'Oh dear,' Alex said. 'Poor chap.'
' "Oh, we has to let the RSPCA deal with it. We has to abide by the Procedures." "Bollocks,'' I said. "Send the RSPCA round to see me." '
'No contest,' Alex said.
'Listen, that guy is seriously weird. His features are too small for his head and they never alter. So I just opened the shed door and walked off, and the dog followed me. Wynford's left standing there, face getting redder and redder, like a pumpkin with a light inside on Hallowe'en.'
Arnold was pottering around the room, sniffing uncertainly, huge ears pricked.
'It's remarkable really, he doesn't seem to have been injured at all, though I don't suppose bruises would show up on a dog. Psychologically, though…'
'Yes, it's a damn shame. But Fay…'
'… psychologically, he could be in pieces.'
'But he can't stay here, Fay.' Alex sat up, trying to look authoritative. 'Grace would have a fit. She wasn't at all fond dogs. And neither's old Rasputin.'
'Dad' – Fay was wearing that expression – 'Grace is bloody dead. Anyway…' She squatted down beside Arnold, and cradled his black and white snout in her hands. Long black whiskers came out between her fingers. 'If he goes, I go too.'
Canon Alex Peters took a long swig of cold Heineken.
'Splendid,' he said.
People kept looking at her.
This was not usual. Normally, on these streets, even if you were greeted – 'Ow're you' – you were not looked at. You were observed, your presence was noted, but you were not directly examined.
Maybe, she thought, it was the dog. Maybe they recognize the late Henry Kettle's dog. Or maybe they'd never before see a dog on the end of a thin, red, plastic-covered clothes-line that the person on the other end was now wishing she hadn't adapted because, every time the dog tugged at the makeshift lead, her right hand received what could turn out to be third-degree burns.
'Arnold, for Christ's sake…'
With Henry Kettle he'd appeared ultra-docile, really laid back. Now he was like some loony puppy, pulling in all directions, wanting to go nowhere, needing to go anywhere. And fast.
You had to make allowances. He was disoriented. He'd had a bereavement. In fact, the worst thing that could happen to a one-man dog had happened to Arnold. So allowances definitely were called for. And one of the people who was going to have to make them was Canon Alex Peters. In Fay's experience all this cat-and-dog incompatibility business was grossly exaggerated. Even Rasputin would, in time, come around.
But another animal was another root in Crybbe. And you don't want that, Fay, you don't want any roots in Crybbe.
Bill Davies, the butcher, walked past with fresh blood on his apron, and he stared at them.
Fay was fed up with this. She stared back. Bill Davies looked away.
Maybe they were all afflicted with this obsession about dogs fouling pavements. She'd have to buy one of those poop-scoop things. On the other hand, did that kind of obsession really seem like Crybbe, where apathy ruled?
'For God's sake, Arnie, make up your mind.' They'd come to the square and he seemed to want to turn back. He circled miserably around, dragging the clothes-line and winding it round the legs of a woman bending over the tailgate of a Range Rover, shoving something in the back.
'Oh hell, I'm really sorry. Look, if you can stand still, I'll disentangle you. I'm very sorry.'
'No problem,' the woman said, looking quite amused. She was the first person who hadn't stared at them, which meant she must be from Off.
Of course she was – she was Max Goff's PA, Ms Coolly Efficient.
'We're not used to each other,' Fay explained, it's Henry Kettle's sheepdog, the poor chap who… I'm looking after him.'
'Oh, yes.' Rachel Wade stepped out of the loop of clothesline. 'You're from the radio.'
'We all have a living to make,' Fay said and then, making the most of the encounter, 'Look, can I talk to you some time? I'm being hassled by my boss to find out what's happening to the Court.' That hurt, referring to Gavin Ashpole as a boss, which he wasn't and was never going to be.
'Sure,' Rachel said, surprising her.
'Now if you like. We could go over to the Court, Max is out seeing people.'
'Hop in then,' Rachel said. But Arnold didn't want to. In the end Fay had to pick him up and dump him on the back seat, where he flattened himself into the leather and panted and
'Sorry about this.' Fay climbed into the passenger seat. 'He's – not surprisingly – more than a bit paranoid. He was in Henry's car when it… you know.'
'Oh dear, poor dog. I didn't know about that.' Rachel started the engine, 'it's rather a mystery, isn't it. About Mr Kettle. Do you think he'd been drinking?'
'I didn't know him very well. I think a heart attack or stroke or something seems more likely, don't you?'
'He was a nice old man.' Rachel swung the Range Rover off the square into the street that wriggled down past the church, the graveyard on the right, a few cottages on the left. The street narrowed and entered a wood, where the late afternoon sun was filtered away and the colours faded almost to grey, 'I don't believe all that dowsing stuff. But he was a nice old man.'
'Don't you? I thought…'
'Oh, Max does. Max believes it. Good God, yes. However, I don't get paid to share his wilder obsessions. Well, he thinks I do…' Rachel exhaled a short, throaty laugh.
They came out of the wood. A track to the left was barred by a gate with a metal sign. COURT FARM. Where the Preece farmed. Jack, son of Jimmy, the Mayor, and Jack's two son She'd seen Jack once, slinking almost furtively out of the church, his nightly duty accomplished.
'And what exactly is Mr Goff's obsession with the Court?'
'I'll show you in a minute,' Rachel said affably.
This was too easy. Fay was suspicious. She watched Rachel Wade driving with a languid economy of movement, like people drove in films, only you knew they weren't in real, moving vehicles. This was the kind of woman who could change a wheel and make it look like a ballet. Made you despair.
Rachel said, is that your father, the old clergyman? Or your grandfather or something?'
'Father. You've met him?'
'In the Cock. We got into conversation after my lighter fell off the bar and he picked it up.' Rachel smiled, in fact, if he'd been considerably younger, I'd almost have thought…'
Fay nodded wryly. 'The old knocking-the-lighter-off-the-bar routine. Then he carries out a detailed survey of your legs while he's picking it up. He's harmless. I think.'
'He's certainly a character.' Rachel pulled up in a walled courtyard amid heaps of sand and builders' rubble. Before them random grey-brown stones were settled around deepset
mullioned windows and a dusty oak door was half-open.
Fay took a breath.
'Crybbe Court,' Rachel said. 'But don't get too excited.' She snapped on the handbrake. 'Leave the dog in the car, he won't like it. Nobody does, really, apart from historians, and even they get depressed at the state of it.'
She wondered what had made her think it was going to be mellow and warm-toned like a country house on a Christmas card.
'It's old,' she said.
She felt cold and folded her bare arms. Outside, it was a fairly pleasant midsummer's day; in here, stark and grim as dankest February.
Somehow, she'd imagined rich drapes and tapestries and polished panelling. Probably because the only homes of a similar period she'd visited had been stately homes or National Trust properties, everything exuding the dull sheen of age and wealth, divided from the plebs by brass railings and velvet ropes.
In Crybbe Court these days, it seemed, only the rats were rich.
The room was large, stone-floored and low-ceilinged, and apparently fortified against the sun. The only direct light was from three small, high-set windows, not much more than slits. Bare blue sky through crossed iron bars.
Fay said, 'I suppose it's logical when you think about it, the period and everything, but I didn't imagine it would be quite so…'
She became aware of a narrow, stone staircase spiralling into a vagueness of cold light hanging from above like a sheet draped over a banister.
'Ghastly,' Rachel said, 'is, I think, the word you're groping for. Let's go upstairs. It's possibly a little less oppressive.'
The spiral staircase opened into a large chamber with mullioned windows set in two walls. Bars of dusty sunshine fell short of meeting in the middle. It had originally been the main family living-room, Rachel explained. 'Also, I'm told, the place where the local high sheriff, a man named Wort, held out against the local populace who'd arrived to lynch him. Have you heard that story?'
'I've heard the name, but not the story.'
'Oh, well, he was a local tyrant back in the sixteenth century. Known as Black Michael. Hanged men for petty crimes after allowing their wives to appeal to his better nature, if you see what I mean. Also said to have experimented on people before they died, in much the same way as the Nazis did.'
'In the end, the local people decided they'd had enough.'
'What? The townsfolk of Crybbe actually rebelled? What did they do, write "Wort Must Go" on the lavatory wall?'
'Probably, for the first ten years of atrocities. But in the end they really did come out to lynch him, all gathered out there in the courtyard, threatening to burn the place down with him in it if he didn't come out.'
'And did he?'
'No,' said Rachel. 'He went into the attic and hanged himself from the same rafters from which he'd hanged his offenders.'
'And naturally,' Fay said, 'he haunts the place.'
'Well, no,' Rachel said. "He doesn't, actually. No stories to that effect anyway. And when Mr Kettle toured the house, he said it was completely dead. As in vacant. Un-presenced, or however you care to put it. Max was terribly disappointed. He had to console himself with the thought of the hound bounding across his path one night.'
'Black Michael's Hound. Nobody ever sees Michael, but there is a legend about his dog. A big, black, Baskerville-type creature said to haunt the lanes on the edge of town. It comes down from the Tump.'
Fay thought at once of the old lady who kept telephoning her, Mrs Seagrove. 'I didn't know about that.'
Rachel looked at her, as if surprised anybody should want to know about it.
'When was it last seen?' Fay asked.
'Who knows. The book Max found the story in was published, I think, in the fifties. One of those "Legends of the Border" collections. The more recent ones don't seem to have bothered with it.'
Fay wondered if it would help Mrs Seagrove to know about the legend. Probably scare her even more. Or maybe Mrs Seagrove did know about it and had either invented or imagined her own sighting, which would explain everything. The problem with old ladies was you could never be quite sure of their state of mind, especially the ones who lived alone.
She asked bravely, 'Are we going up to the attic, then?'
'Certainly not,' Rachel said firmly. 'For one thing, it's not terribly safe. The floor's pretty badly rotted away up there and Max isn't insured against people breaking their necks. Unless they've been hanged.'
Fay shivered and smiled and looked around. 'Well,' she said. It could be wonderful, I suppose. If it was done up.'
'With a million pounds or so spent on it, perhaps.' Rachel prodded with a shoe and sent a piece of plaster skating across
the dusty wooden floor, 'I can think of better things you could do with a million pounds.'
'Has it been like this since – you know – Tudor times?'
'Good God, no. At various times… I mean, in the past century alone, it's been a private school, a hotel… even an actual dwelling place again. If we had a torch you'd see bits of wiring and the ruins of bathrooms. But nothing's ever lasted long. It was built as an Elizabethan house, and that, in essence, is what it keeps reverting to.'
'No big secret. Max is a New Age billionaire with a Dream.'
'You don't sound very impressed.'
Rachel stood in the centre of the room and spread her hands. 'Oh God… He wants to be King Arthur. He wants to set up his Round Table with all kinds of dowsers and geomancers and spiritual healers and other ghastly cranks. He's been quietly infiltrating them into the town over the past year. And there'll be some kind of Max Goff Foundation, on a drip-feed from Epidemic, hopefully with the blessing of the Charity Commissioners. And people will get ludicrous grants to go off an search for their own pet Holy Grails.'
'Sounds quite exciting,' said Fay, but Rachel looked gloomy and rolled her eyes, her hands sunk deep into the pockets of her Barbour.
'Money down the drain,' she said.
'What's a… a geomancer?'
'It's some sort of spiritual chartered surveyor. Someone who works out where it's best to live to stay in harmony with the Earth Spirit, whatever that is, to protect yourself and your
family against Evil Forces. Need I go on?'
There were passages leading off the big room and Fay took one and found herself in a dark little bedchamber. It was the first room she'd seen that was actually furnished. There was an old chest under the pathetically inadequate window and a very small four-poster bed.
'Like a four-poster cot, isn't it?' Rachel had drifted in after her. 'People were smaller in those days.'
It was no more than five feet high and not much longer with very thick posts and an oak headboard with a recessed ledge. On the ledge was a pewter candle-holder with a candle stub in it. The drapes were some kind of cumbersome brocade thick as tarpaulin and heavy with grease.
'It seems they'd leap into bed,' Rachel said, 'and draw all the curtains tight. And then blow out their candle. Having first read a passage from the Bible – you see there's space on the ledge for a Bible. Because they just knew that on the other side of the curtains, the evil spirits would be hovering en masse. Cosy, isn't it?'
'Claustrophobic' Fay had never liked four-posters.
'However, if you want a real scare…' Rachel held out a box of matches,'… light the candle and look in the chest.'
She stood there holding the matchbox, not much more than another shadow in the dim, grimy bedchamber, only a crease of her Barbour at the elbow catching the light. The coat's dull waxen surface looked right for the period, and Fay had the alarming sensation that the dingy room was dragging them back into its own dark era. Was Rachel smiling? Fay couldn't see her face.
She found herself accepting the matchbox.
'Go on,' Rachel said. 'Light the candle.'
'OK.' She tried not to sound hesitant, asking herself. You aren't nervous, are you, Fay?
No, she decided. Just bloody cold. It might have occurred to me to wonder why she was wearing a Barbour on Midsummer Day. And she might have warned me about the temperature in this place.
She reached beyond the post at the bedhead and pulled the candle-holder from the recess. Struck a match. Saw the candle-tray was full of dead flies and bluebottles. Turned it upside down, but not all of them fell out.
Yuk. Fay lit the candle.
'The chest under the window?'
She could see Rachel Wade's face now, in the candle-light, and it wasn't smiling. 'Look,' Rachel said, 'forget it. Come on. I was only joking.'
'No you weren't.' Fay smelled wax, from the candle and from Rachel's coat perhaps. 'I'd better open the blasted thing before this candle burns away.'
Rachel Wade shrugged. Fay crossed to the window which left only a smear of light across the top of the chest. Obviously not Elizabethan, this chest; it had black lettering stamped across its lid and was carelessly bound with green-painted metal strips.
Fay lifted the lid and lowered the candle.
She recoiled at once. 'Oh,' she said.
'What is it?'
Its eye-sockets were black and two upper teeth were thin and curved. A small cobweb hung between them. The mouth was stretched wide in a fossilized shriek.
'It's a cat, isn't it? A mummified cat?'
'Tiddles. Max calls it Tiddles.'
'Cute,' Fay said and shuddered.
'Not very. It was found in the rafters. It may have been walled up there alive.'
'Practical geomancy,' Rachel said. 'The spirit of the cat acts apparently, as a guardian. They found half a horse behind the kitchen wall. Come on, let's go.
Asleep in his armchair, Canon Alex Peters dreamed he was asleep in his armchair. Tucked up in a soft blanket of sunbeams, he awoke in time to watch the wall dissolve.
It began with the fireplace. He was aware that Grace's dreadful see-through clock and the gilt-framed mirror were fading, while the black, sooty hole of the fireplace itself was getting bigger.
Gradually, the hole took over, becoming darker and wider and then spreading up through the mantelpiece, almost as far as the ceiling, until the whole chimney breast dissolved into a black passageway.
There formed a filigree of yellowish light, and then, dimly at first, Grace appeared in the passageway. Standing there, quite still.
'What happened to your wheelchair?' Alex asked. He was glad, of course, to see her back on her feet.
'No you're not,' Grace said. Her lips did not move when she spoke but her body became brighter, as if the spider web of lights was inside her, like glowing veins. 'You were glad when I died, and you'll be glad to know I'm still dead.'
'That's not true,' protested Alex. But you couldn't lie to the dead, and he knew it.
Grace turned her back on him and began to walk away along the passage. Alex struggled to get up, desperate to explain.
But the chair wouldn't let him. He shouted to the spindly, diminishing figure. 'Grace, look, don't go, give me a hand, would you?'
The chair held him in a leathery grip.
'Grace!' Alex screamed. 'Grace, don't go! I want to explain!'
Just once, Grace glanced back at him over her shoulder, and there was a pitying smile on her face, with perhaps a shadow of malice.
Goff did not, of course, have any immediate plans to live in Crybbe Court itself, Rachel Wade said. Good God, no.
Well, perhaps one day. When it was fully restored.
'You mean,' Fay said as they walked out into the sunlight, restored to what it would've been like if the Elizabethans had had full central heating and ten-speaker stereos.'
'You're getting the general picture,' Rachel confirmed, and showed her the place where Max actually would be living within the next week or so.
It was an L-shaped stone stable-block behind the house. It already had been gutted, plumbed and wired and a giant plate-glass window had been inserted into a solid stone wall to open up a new and spectacular view of the hills from what would be the living-room.
At least, the view would have been spectacular if it hadn't been semi-obscured by a green mound, like an inverted pudding basin or a giant helmet.
'His beloved Tump,' Rachel said. And there wasn't much affection there, Fay thought, either for the mound or for Max Goff.
'Is it a burial mound or a – what d'you call it – castle mound… motte?'
'Probably both. Either way it's pretty unsightly, like an overgrown spoil-heap. And decidedly creepy by moonlight. I mean, who wants to stare out at a grave? Whoever built this place had the right idea, I think, by putting a blank stable wall in front so it wouldn't frighten the horses.'
Fay realized the Court itself was built in a hollow, and the Tump was on slightly higher ground, so that it seemed, from here, higher than it actually was. It loomed. The stone wall which surrounded it had partly fallen down on this side, revealing the mesh of dense bushes and brambles at the base of the mound.
'Poor Mr Kettle,' Fay said, reminded by the wall.
Rachel fingered a strand of pale hair, the nearest she'd come in Fay's presence, to a nervous gesture. 'The bitter irony is that Max plans to move that wall. He calls it a nineteenth-century abomination. Some experts think it's older than that and should be preserved, but he'll get his way, of course, in the end.'
Rachel stepped on a piece of soft plaster and ground it in the newly boarded floor.
'He always does,' she said.
It was clear now to Fay that this was not the same Rachel Wade who, a week ago, had briskly swept her down the steps of the Cock with vague promises of an interview with Goff
when his plans were in shape. Sure, on that occasion, she'd had a tape recorder over her shoulder. But even if she'd carried one today, she felt, Rachel's attitude would not have been markedly different.
Something had changed.
Fay said cautiously, 'So when is he going to talk to me? On tape.'
'Leave it with me,' Rachel said. 'I'll fix it.' She spread her arms to usher Fay back towards the wooden framework evidently destined to be a doorway.
'I hate having to ask this sort of question.' Fay stopped at the entrance. 'But he isn't going to be talking to anyone else, is he, first?'
'Not if I can help it. Listen, we've been walking around this place for the last forty-five minutes and I've forgotten your name.'
'Fay. Fay Morrison.'
'Would you like a job, Fay?'
'Quite ludicrous salary. Seductively fast company car. Lots of foreign travel.'
Fay stared at her.
'Silly expenses,' Rachel said. 'Untold fringe benefits.' She'd turned her back on the big window. From the far end of the room, the hills had been squeezed out of the picture; the window was full of Tump.
'How long have you been doing this?' Fay asked. 'As Goff's PA.'
'Nearly four years now. I think I've done rather well on the whole. Although the physical demands are not too arduous, Max's bisexuality goes in alternating phases. During his DC periods he can leave you alone for months.'
The grey eyes were calm and candid.
'Jesus Christ,' Fay said.
'Oh, don't get me wrong – I don't mind that. I almost became an actress, anyway. And with Max, there's rarely anything terribly tiring. And never anything particularly bizarre. Well, except for the crystals, and he only ever tried that once. And anyway, one always has to weigh these things against the benefits. No, it's just…'
Rachel dug her fists deep into the pockets of her Barbour until Fay could see the knuckles outlined in the shiny, waxed fabric.
'.. It's just I don't think I can go through with it here,' Rachel said. 'Do you know what I mean?'
Grace Legge came here to die. Dad came to go slowly loopy, and I came to watch.
'Yes,' Fay said bleakly, 'I know exactly what you mean. I'm beginning to realize how hard it is to get anything positive to take off here.'
She'd read somewhere that nobody could say for certain where the name Crybbe came from. It was obviously a corruption of the Welsh, and there were two possible derivations:
crib – the crest of a hill (which seemed topographically unlikely, because the town was in a valley).
crybachu – to wither.
It appeals to him, you know,' Rachel said. 'The fact that failure is so deeply ingrained here. Brings out the crusader him. He's going to free the place from centuries of bucolic apathy.'
'The first story Offa's Dyke got me to cover,' Fay remembered, 'was the opening of a new factory on the industrial estate. Quite a lively little set-up producing chunky coloured sandals – in fact I'm wearing a pair, see? They were providing eight local jobs and the Marches Development Board were predicting it'd be twenty before the end of the year.'
'Closed down, didn't it? Was it last week?'
'I'd have ordered another pair if I'd known,' Fay said.
They stared at each other, almost comically glum, then Rachel tossed back her ash-blonde hair and strode determinedly through to the room which would soon be a kitchen.
'Come on, let's get out of here, he'll be back soon.' She picked up two tumblers from the draining surface next to the new sink, and Fay followed her outside, where she dug a bottle
of sparkling wine from the silt in the bottom of an old sheep trough – 'My private cellar.'
And then they collected a grateful Arnold from the Range Rover and wandered off across the field, down the valley to the river, where you could sit on the bank fifty yards from the three-arched bridge and probably not see the Court any more nor even the Tump.
On the way down the field Fay looked over her shoulder to watch the Tump disappearing and saw a man among the trees on its summit. He was quite still, obviously watching them.
'Rachel, who's that?'
'On the Tump. I don't think it's Goff.'
Rachel turned round and made no pretence of not staring.
'It's Humble,' she said. 'Max's minder. He loves it here. He used to be a gamekeeper. He prowls the woods all the time, supposedly organizing security. I think he snares rabbits and
'Very Green, I must say,' Fay said.
'Max's principles tend to get overlooked where Humble's concerned. I think he sometimes serves the need that occasionally arises in Max for, er, rough boys.'
'I think I'm sorry I asked,' said Fay.
There was pressure on his chest. When he was able to open his eyes just a little, with considerable difficulty, he looked into blackness.
Oh lord, he thought, I've actually entered the dark place, I'm in there with Grace.
Yet he was still in the armchair. The chair was refusing to let go of him. It had closed around him like an iron lung or something. He was a prisoner in the chair and in the dark and there was a pressure on his chest.
'Grace?' he said feebly. 'Grace?'
The darkness moved. The darkness was making a soft, rhythmic noise, like a motor boat in the distance.
Alex opened his eyes fully and stared into luminous amber-green, watchful eyes. He chuckled; the darkness was only a big, black cat.
'Ras… Ras…' he whispered weakly, trying to think of the creature's name.
The cat stood up on his chest.
'Rastus!' Alex said triumphantly. 'Hullo, Rastus. You know, for a minute, I thought… Oh, never mind, you wouldn't understand.'
He wondered if it was teatime yet. The clock said… what? Couldn't make out if it was four o'clock or five. Around four, Grace always liked a pot of tea and perhaps a small slice of Dundee cake. She'd be most annoyed if he'd slept through teatime.
Fay, on the other hand, preferred a late meal. Women were so contrary. It generally saved a lot of argument if he ate with them both.
Alex chuckled again. No wonder he was getting fat.
Rachel put the bottle in the river and took off her Barbour. 'I'll be thirty-six in January.'
'Happens to us all,' Fay said.
'I was… very much on top of the situation when I took the job. Nothing could touch me, you know? I was chief Press Officer at Virgin, and he head-hunted me. He said, you’re your price, so I doubled my salary and he said, OK, it's yours – can you believe that?'
She handed Fay the glasses, pulled the bottle out of the water and shot the cork at the bridge. It fell short and they watched it bobbing downstream. 'Does that count as pollution?' Rachel wondered.
'Why was Goff so attracted to Crybbe?'
Rachel poured wine until it fizzed to the brim of both tumblers. 'Magic'
'Magic?' Fay repeated in a flat voice.
'You mean ley-lines?'
'You know what all that's about? I mean, don't be ashamed, it's all speculation anyway.'
'Tell me what it means in the Crybbe context.'
'OK, well, presumably you know about Alfred Watkins who came up with the theory back in the 1920s. Lived in Hereford and did most of his research in these hills. Had the notion, and set out to prove it, that prehistoric sacred monuments – standing stones, stone circles, burial mounds, all this – were arranged in straight lines. Just route markers, he thought originally, on straight roads.'
'I've got his book. The Old Straight Track.'
'Right. So you know that where four or five sites fell into a straight line, he'd call it a ley, apparently because a lot of the places where these configurations occurred had names ending in l-e-y, OK?'
Rachel grinned. 'Well, he didn't know about Crybbe, or he'd probably have called them Crybbe-lines. You read through Watkins's book, you won't find a single mention of Crybbe.'
'I know. I looked. I was quite disappointed.'
'Because, apart from the Tump, there's nothing to see. However, it seems there used to be bloody dozens of standing stones and things around here at one time, which disappeared over the centuries. Farmers used to rip them out because they got in the way of ploughing and whatever else farmers do.'
Rachel waved a dismissive hand to emphasize the general tedium of agriculture. 'Anyway, there are places in Britain where lots of ley-lines converge, ancient sacred sites shooting off in all directions. Which, obviously, suggests these places were of some great sacred significance, or places of power.'
'Sure. And Glastonbury Tor. And Avebury. St Michael's Mount in Cornwall. And other places you've probably never heard of.'
'But not Crybbe. You're really not going to tell me Crybbe was ever sacred to anybody.'
Rachel swallowed a mouthful of wine and wiped her mouth with a deliberately graceless gesture before topping up her glass. Down on your knees, woman, I'm afraid you're on holy ground.'
The bridge carried the main road into town and behind it Fay could see chimneys and the church tower. Wooded hills – mixture of broadleaf and conifer – tumbled down on three
sides. From anywhere at a distance, Crybbe looked quite picturesque. And that was all.
'So how come there aren't bus-loads of pilgrims clogging the roads, then? How come this is close to being Britain's ultimate backwater?'
'Because the inhabitants are a bunch of hicks who can't recognize a good tourist gimmick when they get one on a plate, I mean, they did rip out the bloody stones in the first place, that's why Max brought in Henry Kettle. He had to know where the stones used to be.'
'Henry divines the spots?'
'Sure. He pinpoints the location, then what you do is stick pole in the ground at the exact spot. And if you're as rich and self-indulgent as Max Goff, what you do next is have lots of lovely new stones cut to size and planted out in the fields, prehistoric landscape-gardening on a grand scale.'
'Gosh.' Fay was picturing a huge, wild rock-garden, with daffodils growing around the standing stones in the spring. Crybbe suddenly a little town in a magic circle. 'I think that sounds rather a nice thing to do… don't you? I mean, bizarre, but nice, somehow.'
'Except it's not quite as easy as it sounds,' Rachel said. 'And it's going to cause trouble. Within a couple of weeks Kettle'd discovered the probable sites of nearly thirty prehistoric stones, a couple of burial mounds, not to mention a holy well.'
'And fewer than a quarter of the sites are on the eight and a half acres of land which Max bought with the Court, so he's going to restore Stone Age Crybbe he's got to negotiate with a lot of farmers.'
'Ah. Mercenary devils, farmers.'
'And awkward sods, in many cases.'
'True. So how's he going to handle it?'
'He wants to hold a big public meeting to tell the people how he plans to revitalize their town. I mean, obviously you've got the considerable economic benefits of tourism – look how many foreign trippers flock to Avebury. But also – unwisely in my view – he's going to explain all the esoteric stuff. What ley lines are really all about, and what they can do for the town.'
'Energy lines,' Fay said. 'I've also read that other book, The Old Golden Land.'
'By J. M. Powys, distant descendant of the great mystical writer, John Cowper Powys. Max loves that book. Coincidentally – or not, perhaps – he's just bought the company which published it. So he owns it now, and he likes to think he owns J. M. Powys… for whom He Has Plans.'
'He's coming here?'
'If he knows what's good for him. He'll have plenty of like-minded idiots for company. There are already nine New Age people living in the town in properties craftily acquired by Max over the past few months. Alternative healers, herbalists, astrologers.'
'Can't say I've noticed them,' Fay admitted.
'That's because some of them look quite normal. Only they know they are the human transmitters of the New Energy about to flow into Crybbe.'
The idea being that ley-lines mark out some kind of force field, channels of energy, which Bronze Age people knew how tap into. Is that right?'
'The Great Life Force, Fay. And so, naturally, re-siting the stones will bring new life flowing back into Crybbe. Max reckons – well, he hasn't worked it out for himself, he's been told by lots of so-called experts – that Crybbe is only in the depressed state it is today because all the stones have gone. So if you put them back, it'll be like connecting the town for the first time to the national grid. The whole place will sort of light up.'
Fay thought about this. 'It sounds rather wonderful'
'If you like that kind of fairy-tale.'
'Oh, well, sure, what does it matter if it's true or not, it'll bring in the crowds, be an economic boost, a psychological panacea, create a few jobs. But you see, Fay, I know this guy.'
Rachel held up the bottle, but Fay shook her head and Rachel poured what remained into her tumbler. 'I don't think I can stand to watch him being baronial at Crybbe Court, with his entourage of fringe scientists and magicians and minstrels and sundry jesters.'
'Is that the central point, at which all these ley-lines are supposed to meet? The Court. Or is it the church?'
'The Tump,' Rachel said, it's the Tump. It's not a centre, it's a sort of axis. The lines come off it in a fan shape. The Tump is like this great power station. Get the idea? I mean, really, isn't it just the biggest load of old rhubarb you ever heard?'
Rachel brought an arm from behind her head and lobbed the empty wine-bottle into the air. Arnold tensed, about to spring after it, until he saw where it was going.
There was a satisfying splash.
'Now surely,' Rachel said, 'that's got to be pollution.'
Fay walked back to the cottage, for Arnold's sake and to clear her head, although she hadn't drunk all that much wine – not compared to Rachel, anyway. Arnold, however, looked as if he'd been drinking heavily, veering from side to side on his tautened clothes-line. He was hopeless.
Goff had not returned when they arrived back at the Court. She'd left Rachel carrying the triptych into the stable-block where it was to be double-locked into a store-room. Nearly a thousand quid's worth of less-than-fine art. Hereward and Jocasta Newsome would, for once, have good reason to appear appallingly smug.
'Whichever way you look at it, Arnie,' Fay said reflectively, 'our friend Goff is making waves in Crybbe.'
No bad thing, either.
Could she understand the guy's obsession? Well, yes, she could. A man who'd made his first million marketing anarchic punk-rock records in the mid-seventies. Waking up in the nineties to find himself sitting on a heap of money in a wilderness of his own creation. All the cars and yachts and super-toys he'd ever want and nothing to nurture the soul.
Not exactly a quantum leap, was it, from there to the New Age dream?
And, the more she thought about it, the proposed mystical liberation of an obscure Welsh border town from years of economic decay was a story that deserved a bigger audience than it was ever going to reach through Offa's Dyke Radio.
In fact, this could be the moment to approach her old chums at the BBC. How about a forty-five-minute radio documentary chronicling Goff's scheme to turn Crybbe into a New Age Camelot? She could hear a sequence in her head, lots of echoey footsteps and tinkly music, the moaning of men and machinery as massive megaliths were manoeuvred into position. It sounded good.
On the other hand, she had an arrangement with Offa's Dyke, and the little shit Ashpole would want first bite at every snippet that came out of the Goff camp.
… or we'll have to, you know, reconsider things…
And while Radio Four was the interesting option, a chance to prove she could still make national-quality programmes, Offa's Dyke was bread and butter. Of course, if there was a
prospect of getting out of Crybbe and back to London or Manchester or Bristol in the foreseeable future, she could make the BBC programme and bollocks to O.D.
She passed the farm entrance and followed Arnold and the road into the wood, where the sudden darkness brought with it a wave of loneliness and resentment towards her dad. Why did the old bugger have to stay out here? All that cobblers about his having to sell the house in Woodstock to pay for Grace's treatment.
Somehow, Dad, Fay thought, all your money's gone down the pan. And tonight, the close of what appeared to have been one of his better days, seemed as good a time as any to make him tell her precisely how it had happened.
A bush moved.
It happened on the edge of her vision, just as she'd passed it, and she thought, it's the wind, then realized there was none.
Fay froze. 'Who's that?'
Bloody hell, the phantom flasher of Crybbe. Well, there had to be one. Fay laughed. Nervously.
There was also Black Michael's Hound.
You wouldn't think anything as black as that could glow, would you?
Thank you, Mrs Seagrove.
There was a snigger. An involuntary cry was snatched from Fay, and then he was off. She saw him vanish behind a tree then reappear, moving in a crouch, like a spider, up the field, in the direction of the farm, an unidentifiable shadow. Perhaps it was that man Humble, Goff's minder.
'Have a nice wank, did we?' Fay called after him. But it wasn't funny, and that was why her voice cracked. She was discovering that back alleys in the city, full of chip-wrapping and broken glass, could sometimes be less scary than a placid sylvan lane at sunset.
Because there was the feeling, somehow, that if it did happen here, it would be worse.
Hereward Newsome couldn't wait to get home to tell his wife what he'd learned in the Cock.
Hereward went off to what he described to visitors as 'my local hostelry' perhaps two nights a week and stayed for maybe an hour. He considered a local hostelry was one of those things a man ought to have when he lived in the country, if he was to communicate with the locals on their own level.
'Why bother?' demanded Jocasta, who made a point of never going with him to the Cock. 'Why on earth should I learn about sheep and pigs? Why can't the locals learn about fine art and communicate with us on our level?'
'Because it's their town,' Hereward had reasoned. 'Pigs and sheep have been their way of life for centuries, and now the industry is in crisis and they feel their whole raison d'etre is threatened. We should show them we understand.'
And he did his best. He'd started reading everything he could find in the Guardian about sheep subsidies and the Common Agricultural Policy so he could carry on a respectable discussion with the farmers in the public bar. He'd commiserate with them about the latest EC regulations and they'd say, 'Well, well,' or 'Sure t'be,' in their quiet, contemplative tones and permit him to buy them another couple of pints of Ansell's Bitter.
However, he was always happier if Colonel Croston was in there, or even old Canon Peters. He might not have much in common with either of them, but at least it would be a two-way conversation.
Tonight, however, he'd found common ground… in a big way.
Lights were coming on in the farmhouse as Hereward parked the 2CV neatly at the edge of the slice of rough grass he called 'the paddock'. There was a Volvo Estate in the garage, but he never took that into town unless there were paintings to be shifted.
'It's me, darling.' Hereward hammered on the stable door at the side of the farmhouse. He kept telling her there was no need to lock it; that was the beauty of the countryside. But every other week she'd point out something in the paper about some woman getting raped in her cottage or a bank manager held to ransom in his rural retreat. 'But not in this area, Hereward would say, looking pained.
Even though she'd have recognized his voice, Jocasta opened only the top half of the door so she could see his face and be sure he wasn't accompanied by some thug with a shotgun at his back.
'It is me,' Hereward said patiently, when his wife finally let him in. 'Listen, darling, what did I say about the turning point?'
'Coffee?' Jocasta said. Hereward frowned. When she was solicitous on his return from the pub it usually meant she'd just concluded an absurdly lengthy phone call to her sister in Normandy. Tonight, though, he'd let it pass.
'Sorry,' Jocasta said, plugging in the percolator. 'Turning point? You mean Goff?'
'You remember I told you about that guy Daniel Osborne, the homeopath? Who moved into a cottage in Bridge Street? With his wife, the acupuncturist? Now I learn that next door but one to him – this is quite extraordinary – there's a hypnotherapist who specializes in that… what d'you call it when they try to take people back into previous lives?'
'Regression.' Jocasta turned towards him. He thought she looked awfully alluring when her eyes were shining. He had her full attention.
'The fact is…' Hereward was smiling broadly. 'There're lots of them. And we didn't know it. All kinds of progressive, alternative practitioners and New Age experts. In Crybbe.'
'Look, I've just had this from Dan Osborne himself, they can talk about it now. Seems Max Goff's been secretly buying property in town for months and either selling it at a very reasonable price or renting it to, you know, the right people. What we're getting here are the seeds of a truly progressive alternative community. That is, no… no…'
'Riff-raff,' Jocasta said crisply. 'Hippies.'
'If you must. In fact, it's the sort of set-up that…well…the Prince of Wales would support.'
'There's got to be a catch,' Jocasta said, ever cautious, 'It seems remarkable that we haven't heard about it before.'
'Darling, everybody's been ultra discreet. I mean, they don't look any different from your ordinary incomers, and there's always been a big population turnover in this area. Look, here's an example. You remember the grey-haired woman, very neat very well-dressed, who was in The Gallery looking at paintings a couple of days ago. Who do you think that was?'
'Jean Wendle," said Hereward.
'The spiritual healer! She used to be a barrister or something and gave it up when she realized she had the gift.'
'Oh.' Jocasta digested this. 'Are you saying Crybbe's going to be known for this sort of thing? With lots of…'
'Tourists! Up-market thinking tourists! The kind that don't even like to be called tourists. It's going to be like Glastonbury here – only better. It'll be… internationally famous.'
'Well,' said Jocasta, 'if what you say is true, it's really quite annoying nobody told us. We might have sold up and moved out, not realizing. And it's still going to take time…'
'Darling,' Hereward said, 'if Goff can pull off something like this under our very noses, the man is a magician.'
The solemnity of the curfew bell lay over the shadowed square by the time Fay and Arnold came back into town, and she found herself counting the clangs, getting louder as they neared the church.
Fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine…
There was something faintly eerie about the curfew. Was she imagining it, or did people make a practice of staying off the streets while it was actually being rung, even if they came out afterwards? She stood staring at the steps in front of the clock, willing somebody to walk in or out to prove her wrong.
Nobody did. Nobody was walking on the street. There was no traffic. No children played. No dogs barked. Only the bell and the cawing of crows, like a distorted echo.
Seventy-three, seventy-four, seventy-five…
Every evening the curfew would begin at precisely ten o'clock. You could set your watch by it, and people often did.
How the custom had survived was not entirely inexplicable. There'd been a bequest by one Percy Weale, a local wool-merchant and do-gooder back in the sixteenth century. He'd left land and money to build Crybbe School and also a further twelve acres in trust to the Preece family and their descendants on condition that the curfew bell be rung nightly to safeguard the moral and spiritual welfare' of the townsfolk.
Should the Preece family die off or neglect the task, then the land must be rented out and the money used to pay a bell-ringer. But even in times of plague or war, it was said, the curfew bell had never been silenced.
Because hanging on to those twelve acres would be a matter of pride for the Preeces. Also economics. Fay was learning that farmers in these parts would do almost anything to hold what land they had and would lay in wait for neighbouring death or misfortune to grab more. When a farm was sold, the neighbours swooped like buzzards, snatching up acreage on every side, often leaving a lone farmhouse marooned in the middle, condemned either to dereliction or sumptuous restoration by city folk in search of a rural retreat. The Newsomes lived in one, with a quarter acre of their own surrounded on all sides by other people's property.
Ninety-eight, ninety-nine. One hundred. Although the sun's last lurid light was spread like orange marmalade across the hills, the town centre wore a sombre gown of deep shadows.
Fay noticed Arnold's clothes-line had gone slack.
He was sitting on the cracked cobbles, staring up at the church tower, now overhung with florid cloud. As Fay watched him, his nose went up and, with a mournful intensity, he began to howl.
As the howl rose, pure as the curfew's final peal, with whose dwindling it mingled in the twilit air, Fay was aware of doors opening in the houses between the shops' and the pubs on the little square.
No lights came on. Nobody came out. Arnold howled three times, then sat there, looking confusedly from side to side, as if unsure he'd been responsible for the disturbance.
Fay could feel the stares coming at her from inside the shadowed portals in the square, and the air seemed denser, as if focused hostility were some kind of thickening agent, clotting the atmosphere itself.
She felt she was being pressed backwards into the church wall by a powerful surge of heavy-duty disapproval.
Then someone, a female voice, screeched out, 'You'll get that dog out of yere''
And the doors began quietly to close, one by one, in muted clicks and snaps.
By which time Fay was down on her knees, clutching Arnold to her breast, squeezing his ridiculous ears, warming her bare arms in his fur.
Finding she was trembling.
Jack Preece came out of the church and walked away in the direction of the Cock, without looking at them.
Grace's house was just an ordinary cottage in a terraced row which, for some reason, began in stone and ended in brick. Fay could pick it out easily because it was the only one in the row with a hanging basket over the front door. As hanging baskets went, this one wasn't subtle; she kept it bursting with large, vulgar blooms and watered them assiduously because this hanging basket was a symbol of something she was trying to say to Crybbe.
There was no light and no sound from inside, and she thought at first there must have been another blasted power cut. Then a light blinked on and off next door, and she heard a television from somewhere.
'He's gone to the pub,' she told Arnold. Most nights her dad would stroll over to the Cock for a couple of whiskies and one of their greasy bar-snacks.
She would wait up for him. Because tonight they were going to have this thing out. By the end of the week, no argument, there was going to be a 'For Sale' sign next to the hanging basket. And she would start work on the Goff documentary, which Radio Four were definitely going to commission. And Offa's Dyke Radio, the Voice of the Marches, could start looking for another stringer to justify the Crybbe Unattended.
But when Fay marched into the office, she found a note on her editing table informing her that Canon Alex Peters had escaped to bed.
Not feeling terrifically well, to be honest. Having an early
night, OK? So if you must have that dog in the house,
keep the bugger quiet!
Fay smiled – she knew he'd come around – then frowned at the postscript.
Oh yes, Guy rang. Wants you to ring him back.
Bloody Guy. Did she really need this on top of everything?
She turned the note over in case there was an addendum re Guy. Eight years ago, her dad had been the only person with the perception to warn her off, everyone else having congratulated her, in some kind of awe, before they'd even met Guy in the flesh – one friend (you never forgot remarks like this) saying, 'You… You and Guy Morrison'
Never mind. All in the past. Especially Guy.
You had to be kidding.
Except he would keep phoning. As if she were just another one of his contacts – Oh, hey, listen, I'm going to be in your part of the world next week. Buy you a drink?
Fay sat down at the editing table. Rachel had drunk most of the wine with no discernible effects, while Fay had consumed less than a third of the bottle and now the room was sliding about. In the light from the Anglepoise it still looked very Grace, this room: H-shaped tiled fireplace and, above it, an oval mirror in a thick gilt frame. On the mantelpiece was a clock with a glass case revealing a mechanism which looked like a pair of swinging testicles in brass.
This room – the whole house – was frozen in time, in a none-too-stylish era. Round about the time, in fact, when Fay's dad had split up with Grace and returned to her mother. It was as if Grace had given up after that – certainly she hadn't married until the Canon had come back into her life. She seemed to have lived quietly in Crybbe with her sister, until the sister died. Worked quietly in the library.
A quiet woman. A Crybbe woman. As Fay understood it, she'd been working in Hereford, for the diocese, when she'd had her fling with Alex.
'How could she come back here'' Fay said aloud, and picked up the phone to call Guy. Then put it back. She'd caught sight of Arnold, who was looking up at her in his unassuming way, one ear pricked, the other flopped over.
'Arnold, I'm sorry… What do you feel like for dinner?'
He may have wagged his tail, but she couldn't be sure, it was that kind of tail.
The kitchen had knotty-pine cupboards and pink-veined imitation-marble worktops, one of which bore her dad's beloved microwave. Arnold accepted stewed steak from a can, served on one of Grace's best china plates. When he'd finished. Fay let him out in the small back garden, where it was almost fully dark. There was no sign of Rasputin or Pushkin, his lieutenant. They'd be out hunting in the endless fields beyond the garden fence.
And in this pursuit they were obviously not alone. Somewhere out there a light-ball bobbed, possibly following the line of a hedge which was said to mark the old border between Wales and England. (Nobody in this town ever spoke of being English or Welsh because, at various times in its undistinguished history, Crybbe had been in both countries.)
Fay watched the light for several minutes, listening. Illegal badger-digging was, she'd heard, one of the less-publicized local recreations. Nasty, vicious, cruel. But nobody had ever been prosecuted locally. She'd often wondered how Sergeant Wynford Wiley would react if she rang him up one night and directed him to a spot where it was actually taking place: spurts of squealing, scuffling and snuffling as the terriers were sent into the soil to rip the badgers from their set. There was a man who kept a pack of terriers on a farm two or three miles away, ostensibly for hunting foxes. Fay wished she could nail the swine.
But she suspected that, even if it was three o'clock in the morning when she rang, Wynford would claim a prior appointment.
The countryside. Where so many pastimes were sour and furtive. And tolerated.
Arnold trotted in from the garden.
Fay was very tired. She laid out a thick mat under her editing table and folded an old blanket on top it. 'I don't know what you're used to, Arnold, but the management will listen sympathetically to any complaints in the morning.'
Arnold sat quietly next to the mat. Apart from the episode in the square, he hadn't seemed a very demonstrative dog.
Fay brought him a bowl of water. 'I'm going to shut you in, Arnold. Because of the cats. OK?'
She scribbled a note to pin on the door, telling her father not to go into the office, if, as happened occasionally, he couldn't sleep and came down. And don't let any CATS in there!
Then she went to bed.
She never put on the bedroom light; the room looked squalid enough by daylight. It was almost as claustrophobic as the Crybbe Unattended Studio, and its wallpaper had faded to brown. Fay would have redecorated the place, but she wasn't staying, was she?
They weren't staying.
The bathroom had been modernized, with characteristic taste. A bath, shower and washbasin in livid pink and black.
She looked in the mirror as she wiped the face people had been amazed at Guy Morrison falling for.
Guy used to say she should spell her name F-e-y, because she looked like a naughty elf. It had seemed like a kind of compliment at the time – she used to be naive like that. Especially where Guy was concerned.
And she wasn't going to waste any time speculating about what Guy might want, because the answer was no.
Snapping off the bathroom light, she found her way back to bed by the diffused rays of the midsummer moon – very nearly full, but trapped like a big silver pickled onion in a cloud
She lay awake for a long time in her single divan, thinking about the curfew and the furtive figure in the hedge, about Henry Kettle and Arnold and the wall. Splat.
How did it happen? There'd be a post-mortem, forensic tests and an inquest, but only Arnold would ever really know, and he was only a dog.
'… You'll get that dog out of yere... '
Very sympathetic people in Crybbe. Very caring. Wonderful, warm-hearted country folk.
Eventually, Fay fell asleep with the moon in her eyes – she awoke briefly and saw it, all the clouds gone, and she remembered that sleeping with direct moonlight on your face was supposed to send you mad. She giggled at that and went back to sleep and dreamed a midsummer night's dream in which she was lying in bed and Arnold was howling downstairs.
Fay flung the covers aside and sat up in bed.
Arnold's howling seemed to filter up from below, like slivers of light coming up through the cracks in the floorboards. It probably would be even louder from the Canon's bedroom, which was directly over the office.
She got out of bed and crept to the top of the stairs, hissing, 'Shut it, Arnold, for God's sake!'
Bare-footed, Fay moved downstairs. It was bloody chilly for a midsummer's night, especially when you were wearing nothing but a long T-shirt with several holes in it.
At the bottom of the stairs she stopped and turned back, picking up what she hoped was the sound of her dad's snoring. She ran a hand over the wall in search of the light switch, but when she found it and pressed, nothing happened. Everything Hereward Newsome had ever said about those cretins at the electricity company was dead right.
When she opened the office door, Arnold shot out and she caught him and he leapt into her arms and licked her face. 'Don't try and get round me,' she whispered. 'You are not
sleeping on my bed.'
But when she carried him back into the office, he whimpered and jumped out of her arms and she went back and found him standing by the front door, ears down, tail down, quivering.
Did dogs have nightmares? Had he been reliving last night: an almighty crunch, an explosion of glass, his master's head in a shower of blood?
'I know, Arnold.' Patting him. 'I know.' His coat felt matted, almost damp. Did dogs sweat?
Christ, he couldn't be bleeding, could he? She picked him up and lugged him back into the office, automatically tipping the light switch by the door.
Damn! Damn! Damn!
'Arnold!' He'd squirmed out of her arms again and run away into the hall.
Fay clutched helplessly at the air. Torch… Candle.. Anything. God, it was cold. Moonlight was sprinkled over the room, like frost. The light twinkled on the twisting testicular mechanism of the clock on the mantelpiece, fingered the mirror's ornate, gilt frame, quietly highlighting everything that was part of then, while the now things, the trestle editing table and the Revox were screened by shadow. As though in another dimension.
Everything was utterly still.
Get me, she thought, out of here. Out of this sad, forsaken house, out of this fossilized town.
Then a sudden, most unearthly sound uncurled from the fireplace. Like a baby's cry of joy, but also, she thought, startled and shivering, also like an owl descending delightedly on its prey.
It came again and it sang with an unholy pleasure and she saw Rasputin sitting massively in the hearth like an Egyptian temple cat on a sarcophagus.
Rasputin's emerald eyes suddenly flared, and he sprang.
Fay gasped and went backwards, clutching at the wall involuntarily closing her eyes against imagined flashing claws.
But the huge cat was not coming at her.
When she looked again, he'd landed solidly in a beam of pallid moonlight on the varnished mahogany arm of the fireside chair, and he was purring.
In the chair Grace Legge sat rigidly, her brittle teeth bared in a dead smile and eyes as white and cold as the moon.
A car's steering wheel, like a dowsing rod, is designed to
amplify small movements of the driver's hands; so a reflex
twitch in someone who slips unconsciously into a dowsing
mode would be enough to send a car travelling at a fair
speed into an uncontrollable spin.
Needles of Stone
Memory is circling like a silent helicopter over these soft, green fields, strung together with laces of bright river. It's a warm day in June or July, a Friday – the day you heard they'd sold the paperback rights to The Old Golden Land.
Directly below, throwing a shadow like a giant sundial at three clock, is the Bottle Stone.
It's about five feet tall and four thousand years old. Nobody seems to know whether erosion or some damage long ago left it shaped like a beer-bottle, or whether it was always like that.
It seems now – looking down, looking back – to be as black as its shadow. But there's an amber haze – Memory may have created this, or maybe not – around the stone. Also around the people.
Six of them, mostly young, early twenties. They're sharing a very expensive picnic. You paid for it. You led them on a raid to a posh high-street deli, then the wine-shop. And then you all piled into a couple of cars – old Henry Kettle too, although he says he'd rather have a cheese sandwich than all these fancy bits and pieces and you came out here because it was the nearest known ancient site, an obvious place to celebrate.
Memory hovers. It's trying to filter the conversation to find out who started it, who raised the question of the Bottle Stone Legend.
No good. The voices slip and fade like a radio between nations, and it's all too long ago. The first part you really remember is when Andy says… that there's a special chant, known to all the local children.
Johnny goes round the Bottle Stone.
The Bottle Stone, the Bottle Stone,
Johnny goes round the Bottle Stone,
And he goes round ONCE.
And the Big Mac went round and round the toilet bowl, and Joe Powys watched it and felt queasy.
He'd walked back to the Centre in a hurry and picked up the mail box. He hadn't looked at the mail, even though it seemed unusually profuse. Just ran into the shop and dumped it on the counter. Then he'd gone into the lavatory and thrown up.
The Big Mac had been everything they'd promised it would be. Well, big, anyway. Never having eaten – or even seen at close hand – a Big Mac before, he'd decided on impulse this morning that he should go out and grab one for breakfast. It would be one more meaningful gesture that said. Listen, I am an 'ordinary' guy, OK?
Not a crank. Not a prophet. Not a hippy. No closer to this earth than any of you. See – I can actually eat bits of dead cow minced up and glued together.
But his stomach wasn't ready to process the message.
He washed his hands, stared gloomily at himself in the mirror. He actually looked quite cheerful, despite the prematurely grey hair. He had a vision of himself in this same mirror in ten years' time, when the grey would no longer be so premature. In fact, did it look so obviously premature now?
He flushed the lavatory again. Felt better. Went through to the kitchen and made himself a couple of slices of thick toast.
Fifteen minutes before he had to open the shop. He put the plate on the counter and ate, examining the mail.
There was a turquoise letter from America. It might have been his US agent announcing proposals for a new paperback reprint of The Old Golden Land.
It wasn't; maybe he was glad.
'Dear J.M.,' the letter began.
Laurel, from Connecticut, where she was newly married to this bloke who ran a chain of roadside wholefood diners. Laurel: his latest – and probably his last – earth-mysteries groupie, once lured spellbound to The Old Golden Land. Writing to ask for J.M. for a copy of his latest book,
What latest book?
Then there was an unsolicited shrink-wrapped catalogue from a business-equipment firm. It dealt in computers, copiers, fax machines. The catalogue was addressed to,
The Managing Director,
J. M Powys Ltd.,
Watkins Street, Hereford.
In the head office of J. M. Powys Ltd., the managing director choked on a toast crumb. The head office was a three-room flat in an eighteenth-century former-brewery, now shared by an alternative health clinic and Trackways – the Alfred Watkins Centre. The business equipment amounted to a twenty-five year-old Olivetti portable, with a backspace that didn't.
Powys didn't even open three catalogues from firms with names like Crucible Crafts and Saturnalia Supplies, no doubt offering special deals on bulk orders of joss-sticks, talismans, tarot packs and cassette tapes of boring New Age music simulating the birth of the universe on two synthesizers and a drum machine.
The New Age at the door again. Once, he'd had a letter duplicated, a copy sent off to every loony New Age rip-off supplier soliciting Trackways' patronage.
This centre is dedicated to the memory and ideas of Alfred
Watkins, of Hereford, who discovered the ley system -
the way ancient people in Britain aligned their sacred
places to fit into the landscape.
Alfred Watkins was an archaeologist, antiquarian,
photographer, inventor, miller and brewer. He doesn't
appear, however, to have shown any marked interest in
ritual magic, Zen, yoga, reincarnation, rebirthing, primal
therapy, Shiatsu or t'ai chi.
So piss off.
He'd realized when he sent it that Alfred Watkins's work, had he lived another fifty years, might have touched on several of these subjects. Perhaps the old guy would have been at the heart of the New Age movement and a member of the Green Party.
The recipients of the circular obviously realized this too and kept on sending catalogues, knowing that sooner or later Joe Powys was going to give in and fill up Trackways with New Age giftware to join the solitary box of 'healing crystals' under the counter.
Because if he didn't, the way business was going, Trackways would be closing down within the year.
There were only two envelopes left now. One was made from what looked like high quality vellum which he'd never lave recognized as recycled paper if it hadn't said so on the back, prominently.
A single word was indented in the top left-hand corner of the envelope.
Powys finished his toast, went to wash his hands, came back and turned the envelope over a couple of times before he opened it. It contained a letter which didn't mess around.
Dear J. M. Powys,
As you may have learned, Dolmen Books, publishers of
The Old Golden Land, have now been acquired by the
Shit, Powys thought, I didn't know that.
I am writing to you on behalf of the Group Chairman,
Max Goff, Powys thought, aghast. I've been acquired by Max bloody Goff.
Mr Max Goff, who has long been an admirer of your
work and would like to meet you to discuss a proposition.
… And from what I've heard of Max Goff s propositions to personable young blokes such as myself…
We should therefore like to invite you to a small reception at
the Cock Inn, Crybbe,
… I may have to invent a prior engagement…
on Friday, 29 June at 12.30 p.m. I'm sorry it's such short
notice, but the acquisition of Dolmen was only confirmed this
week and I obtained your address only this morning.
Please contact me if you have any queries.
Please contact me anyway.
PA to Max Goff
Powys sat and looked around the shop for a while, thinking about this.
He could see on the shelves, among the dozens of earth-mysteries books by Alfred Watkins and his successors, the spine of the deluxe hardback edition of The Old Golden Land and about half a dozen paperback copies, including the garish American edition with the Day-Glo Stonehenge.
On the counter in front of Powys was a token display stand: dowsing rods and pendula. Mr Watkins might have been able to dowse, but he didn't have anything to say in his books about 'energy dowsing'. Or indeed about earth energies of any kind.
But all that was academic; the dowsing kits were selling well. Soon wouldn't be able to visit a stone circle without finding some studious duo slowly circumnavigating the site, dangling their pendulum and saying 'Wow' every so often.
Under the counter, because Powys hadn't had the nerve to put them on sale, was the box of 'healing' crystals which Annie – his new assistant with the Egyptian amulet – had persuaded him to buy. 'Got to embrace the New Age, Joe, and let the New Age embrace you. Mr Watkins wants you to let the New Age in, I can feel it. Sometimes I even think I can see him standing over there by the door. He's holding his hat and he's smiling.'
Powys reached into the crystals box and helped himself to a handful of Sodalite (for emotional stability and the treatment of stress-related conditions).
Max Goff, he thought.
Clutching the crystals, he discovered he was holding in his other hand a small, creased, white envelope, the last item of mail.
Mr J. Powys,
The Alfred Watkins Centre,
Handwritten, not too steadily. Inside, a single sheet of lined blue notepaper.
Dear Mr Powys,
If you have not already heard I am sorry to have to
inform you of the death of my neighbour Mr H. Kettle.
He was killed in a road accident in Crybbe where he was
working and did not suffer.
Mr Kettle left an envelope with me to be opened after his
death in which he stated what he wanted to happen to his
possessions as he did not trust solicitors. The house and all the
contents is to be sold and the money sent to his daughter in
Canada but he wants you to have his papers and his dowsing
rods. If you would like to come to the house I am in most of
the time and will let you into Mr Kettle's house.
Gwen Whitney (Mrs)
J. M. Powys put down the letter. He ought to have opened the shop ten minutes ago. The Sodalite crystals (for emotional stability and the treatment stress-related conditions) began to dribble through his fingers and roll across the wooden counter.
Rachel noticed that Denzil George, licensee of the Cock, had several shaving cuts this morning. He'd obviously overslept, unused, no doubt, to rising early to prepare an 8 a.m. breakfast for his guests. What a torpid town this was.
'Parcel come for you,' the licensee said, placing a small package by Max's elbow.
'Thanks.' Max tossed it to Rachel.
'No stamp,' Rachel noticed. 'Obviously delivered by hand.'
'Better open it,' Max said, digging into some of the muesli he'd had delivered to the pub.
Rachel uncovered a tape cassette and a note. 'Who's Warren Preece?'
Max looked up.
'He's sent you a tape of his band.'
'Delivered by hand, huh?' Max put down his spoon thoughtfully. 'I dunno any Warren Preece, but the surname has a certain familiar ring. Maybe you should find out more, Rach.'
'Yes,' Rachel said, pushing back her chair. 'I'll ask the landlord.'
The Anglicans' Book of Common Prayer had nothing to say about exorcising spirits of the dead.
The Revd Murray Beech knew this and was grateful for it. But he was leafing through the prayer book anyway, seeking inspiration.
Murray was following the advice of Alex Peters and attempting to compile for himself a convincing prayer to deliver in an allegedly haunted house.
He came across the words,
'Peace be to this house and to all that dwell in it.'
This actually appeared under the order for The Visitation of the Sick, but Murray made a note of it anyway. Surely with an alleged 'haunting' – Murray recoiled from the word with embarrassment – what you were supposedly dealing with was a sick property, contaminated by some form of so-called 'psychic' radiation, although, in his 'exorcism' – Oh, God – the prayer would be aimed at the troubled souls of the living. In his view the health of a property could be affected only by the attitude and the state of mind of the current inhabitants, not by any residual guilt or distress from, ah, previous residents.
He looked around his own room. The neat bookshelves, the filing cabinets, the office desk with metal legs at which he sat, the clean, white walls – feeling a twinge of pain as he remembered the walls being painted by Kirsty exactly a fortnight before she'd said, 'I'm sorry, Murray. This isn't what I want.' Murray looked quickly back at the prayer book, turned over a page, came upon the following entreaty:
'Oh Lord, look down from heaven, behold, visit and
relieve this thy servant… defend him from the danger of
He breathed heavily down his nose. He abhorred words like 'enemy'. The duty of the Church was to teach not opposition but understanding.
He was equally uncomfortable with the next and final paragraph of the prayer book before the psalms began.
Denouncing of God's Anger and Judgements
The first page ended on an uncompromising note.
'Cursed are the unmerciful, fornicators and adulterers
covetous persons, idolaters, slanderers, drunkards and
'Not many of us left uncursed,' Murray muttered.
The curse of the modern minister's life, in his opinion, was the video-hire shop. Infinitely more alluring to teenagers than the church. And full of lurid epics in which members of the clergy in bloodied cassocks wielded metal crucifixes with which
they combat scaly entities from Hell.
One result of this was that a few people seemed to think they should summon the vicar in the same way they'd call in Rentokil to deal with their dampness and their rats.
The telephone bleeped. 'I'll ring you when they're out,' she'd told him. He hadn't replied. At the time, he was considering going to her grandparents and explaining his dilemma. But he'd concluded this would not only be a cop-out, it would be wrong. Because she'd come to him in confidence and she was no longer a minor. She was eighteen and would be leaving school in two or three weeks.
Murray closed The Book of Common Prayer and picked up the phone. 'Vicarage.'
'They're out,' Tessa said.
Barry, the overweight osteopath from upstairs, was between patients, eating a sandwich – herbal pate on whole-wheat.
'I've been taken over by Max Goff,' said Powys, disconsolate.
'Dolmen has, yeah, I read that. He can't do you any harm, though, can he? You're out of print, aren't you?'
'Between impressions,' Powys corrected him. 'Barry, are you really proposing to realign somebody's slipped disc with hands covered in soya margarine?'
'Beats olive oil. And cheaper. Hey, Mandy says she saw you coming out of McDonald's this morning.'
'Couldn't have been me.'
'That's what I thought,' Barry said dubiously.
'Anyway,' Powys said, 'Goff wants to see me. In Crybbe.'
'I thought you were going to say "in the nude" for a minute,' said Barry, wiping his hands on his smock. 'No, from what I hear he's surrounding himself with people sharing his own deep commitment to the New Age movement. If it's this lunch in Crybbe on Friday, several people I know have been invited and nobody's turning him down, because if he likes you, he invites you to join his Crybbe community, which means – listen to this – that you get offered a place to live, on very advantageous terms. And all kinds of fringe benefits.'
'Why aren't you there, then?'
'Bastard's already got an osteopath,' Barry said. 'Gerry Moffat. You believe that? He could have had me, but he went for Moffat. Moffat!'
'Dan Osborne, the homeopath, he's moved in already, Superior bastard. Paula Stirling. Robin Holland. Oh, and this little French aromatherapist who was in Bromvard, remember her?'
'I can still smell her. Listen, do these people know who Max Goff is?'
'Used to be, Joe. Used to be. This is the new user-friendly ozone-fresh Max Goff. Play your cards right and he'll let you feel his aura.'
'I wouldn't feel his aura with asbestos gloves,' said Powys.
'And he's got some pretty heavy mystical types as well,' said Barry. 'Jean Wendle, the spiritual healer, some guy who's reckoned to be Britain's biggest tarot hotshot and Andy Boulton-Trow. All converging on the New Age Mecca.'
'Andy?' Powys said. 'Andy's involved in this?'
'And there's a single kid,' says Andy, 'moving round the stone, very slowly at first, while all the other kids are sitting in a circle, clapping their hands, doing the chant. And by the time they finish the chant he's back where he started. Got to be a "he", it doesn't work for girls.'
Andy Boulton-Trow, lean and languid, lying back in the grass, spearing a quail's egg from the jar beside him. His voice is deep and lazy, like a stroked cello.
'And then he goes round again… only this time it's just ever-so-slightly faster…'
Johnny goes round the Bottle Stone
… and he goes round TWICE.
'And they keep on repeating it. And it gets faster and faster, building up the momentum, and the kid's got to move faster each time to maintain the pace.'
Johnny goes round the Bottle Stone
… and he goes round THRICE.
… goes round FOUR times.
… FIVE times.
'And how long do they keep it up?' Rose asks. She's looking radiantly happy today (this memory is agony). 'How many times…?'
'Oh' There's a gleam in Andy's eye. 'Thirteen. Thirteen times.'
'Must be jolly dizzy by then: one of the others says – Ben Corby's girlfriend, Fiona Something.
'Ex-act-ly,' Andy drags out the word for emphasis. 'The kid's completely confused. He's not thinking properly. And it's then that his mates all leap on him and, before he knows what's happening, they hustle him across to the fairy hill. Over there… see it?'
'Not much of a hill,' Rose observes.
'Fairies are not very big,' you tell her. 'You could fit a couple of dozen on there.'
Andy says, 'So they lie him face-down on the fairy hill… and that's when it happens.'
'What?' you ask. 'What happens?'
'Whatever happens,' says Henry Kettle, searching in the cardboard picnic box for something uncomplicated and British, 'it's all in the mind, and it don't do anybody any good, meddling with that old nonsense.'
'Oh yeah,' Barry, the osteopath, said. 'Andy's right at the centre of things. As was old Henry Kettle. I suppose you heard about that.'
'Just now,' Powys said. He hadn't planned to mention Henry. 'I had a letter from his neighbour to say he was dead. I don't know what happened, do you?'
'Have to wait for the Hereford Times for the full story, but apparently it said on the local radio that his car went off the road and ploughed into a wall around Crybbe Tump. I don't know that area too well, but…'
'Crybbe Tump? He hit the wall around Crybbe Tump?'
'Killed instantly. Bloody shame, I liked old Henry. He helped you with the book, didn't he?'
'The buzz is,' said Barry, 'that Henry was doing some dowsing for Max Goff.'
Barry shrugged. 'Whatever he'd been doing, he was on his way home when it happened. There was a power cut at the time, don't know whether the streetlamps were off, that may have thrown him. Bloody shame.'
'A power cut,' said Powys.
'Just a thought.' Powys shook his head, his mind whizzing off at a peculiar tangent, like a faulty firework
Fay awoke late. She'd lain awake until dawn, eyes open to the bedroom ceiling, Arnold a lump of solid heat alongside her on the bed.
It was nearly nine before she came downstairs. Outside it was raining. The rain on the window was the only sound. There was no mail on the mat, no sign of the Canon.
The door to the office was closed, as she'd left it last night. The note to her father still pinned to it. And don't let any CATS in there!
He must still be in the office.
She opened the door but did not go in.
'Rasputin,' she called. A morning croak in her voice – that all it was. Really.
But she could not bring herself to go back into that room, not yet, though Arnold didn't seem worried. She left the door ajar, went through to the kitchen, let the dog out in the back garden.
When she turned back to the kitchen, Rasputin and Pushkin were both in the opposite corner, waiting by their bowls. Fay opened a can of Felix. The two cats looked plump and harmless. Perhaps it really had been just a horrific dream, conditioned by her own desperation.
She forked out a heap of cat food, straightened up.
'Right,' she said decisively and marched out of the kitchen and into the hall, where she tore the note off the office door and hit the door with the flat of her hand so that it was thrown wide.
She walked in, eyes sweeping the room like searchlights. She saw the Revox, two spools leaning against it. Her desk-diary open. Her father's note, about Guy's phone call. She raised her eyes to the H-shaped fireplace and the mantelpiece, to the see-through clock with the mechanism like a pair of bails still jerking obscenely from side to side.
The fireside chair was empty, its scatter cushions plumped out. If someone had been sitting in it the cushions would have been flattened.
Unless, of course, that person had tidily shaken them out and…
Oh, come on!
She made herself cross to the mirror and look into it at her own face.
The first shock was the incredible childlike fear she saw in her eyes.
The second was the other face. She whirled around in alarm.
The Canon was standing in the doorway. He wore pyjamas. His feet were bare. His hair was standing up in spikes, his beard sprayed out in all directions, like a snowstorm. His bewildered blue eyes were wide and unfocused.
He stared at Fay as if she were an intruder. Then the eyes relaxed into recognition.
'Morning, Grace,' he said.
While Max drove, Rachel took the cassette box from shoulder bag.
'Go ahead,' Max said.
Rachel slipped the tape into the player and studied the plastic box. The band's name was typed in capitals across the plain label: FATAL ACCIDENT. She wrinkled her nose.
Drums and bass guitar blundered out of the speakers. Rachel lowered the volume a little. By the time the first track was over, they were parked at the back of the Court, next to the stable-block, where builders were busy.
Rain slashed the windscreen.
Max turned up the sound to compensate. He was smiling faintly. They sat in the Range Rover for two more tracks. The only words Rachel could make out on the last one were 'goin' down on me', repeated what seemed like a few dozen times. She consulted the inside of the label; the song was called 'Goin' Down on Me'.
'That's the lot,' she said neutrally. There're only three numbers.' Remembering where the Max Goff Story had begun, in the punk-rock era of the mid-seventies, she didn't add 'thankfully'.
Max began to laugh.
Rachel ejected the tape, saying nothing.
Jeez,' Max said. 'Was that shit, or was that shit?'
Rachel breathed out. For a couple of minutes there, watching him smiling, she'd thought he might actually be enjoying it.
'You want me to post it down to Tommy, get him to send it back in a fortnight with the customary slip?'
What…?' Max twisted to face her. 'You want us to give the official piss-off to Mayor Preece's flaming grandson?'
'But if you tell him it's good you'll have to do something with it, won't you?'
Max shrugged. 'So be it. One single… not on Epidemic, of course. Coupla grand written off against tax.
Then he thumped the top of the dashboard. 'No, hey, listen, I'll tell you what we do – you send this kid a letter saying we think the band has promise, we think it's a… an interesting sound, right? But we're not sure any of these three tracks is quite strong enough to release as a debut single, so can we hear a few more? That'll buy some time – maybe the band'll split before they can get the material together. How's that sound to you?'
'It sounds devious,' Rachel said.
'Of course it does, Rach. Do it tonight. I mean, shit, don't get me wrong – they're no worse than say, The Damned, in '77. But it was fresh then, iconoclastic.'
'It was shit then, too.'
'Yeah, maybe,' Max conceded. 'But it was necessary. It blew away the sterile pretensions from when the seventies went bad. But now we're picking up from the sixties and we won't make the same mistakes.'
'No,' Rachel said, in neutral again.
A heavy tipper-lorry crunched in beside them. The rain had washed a layer of thick, grey dust from the door of the cab and Rachel could make out the words '… aendy Quarry, New Radnor.'
'Hey…' Max said slowly. 'If this is what I think it is…'
He threw his door open, stepped down into the rain in his white suit and was back inside a minute, excited, raindrops twinkling in his beard.
'It is, Rach. The first stones have arrived. The Old Stones of Crybbe, Mark Two.'
'Oh,' said Rachel, pulling up the collar of her Barbour for the run to the stables. 'Good.'
But Goff, Panama hat jammed over his ears, made her watch while the stones were unloaded, pointing out things.
'Different sizes, right? Even where they'd vanished entirely, Kettle was able to figure out how tall they'd been.'
'Using his pendulum, I suppose.'
'Of course, what we're seeing here gives an exaggerated idea of what they'll look like in situ. Half of the length'll be under the soil. Maybe more than half. Like giant acupuncture needle in the earth.'
'Who's going to advise you about these things now Mr Kettle's dead?' Rachel wondered, as men in donkey jackets and orange slickers moved around, making preparations to get the grey and glistening monoliths down from the truck. One stone had to be at least fifteen feet long.
'And how do you know it's the right kind of stone?' Things were moving too fast for Rachel now. Max was an awesome phenomenon when he had the hots for something.
'Yeah, well, obviously, Kettle was good – and he knew the terrain. But Andy Boulton-Trow's been studying standing stones for nearly twenty years. Been working with a geologist these past few weeks, matching samples. They checked out maybe a dozen quarries before he was satisfied, and if he's satisfied, I'm satisfied.'
A clang came from the back of the truck, a gasp of hydraulics, somebody swore. Max called out sharply, 'Hey, listen, be careful, yeah? I want you guys to handle those stones like you're dealing with radioactive flaming isotopes.'
He said to Rachel, 'Andy's moving up here, end of the week. He's gonna supervise planting stones on our land. Then we'll bring the farmers up here, show 'em what it looks like and go into negotiations. Hey, you had a call from J. M. Powys yet?'
'He'll only have got my letter this morning. Max.'
'Give him until lunchtime then call him. I want Powys. I don't care what he costs.'
The customer was short and fat and bald. He wore denims, a shaggy beard and an ear-ring.
'You're J. M. Powys, right?'
Teacher, Powys thought. Or maybe the maverick in some local government planning department.
'You are, man. Don't deny it. I recognize you from the picture on the cover. You've gone grey, that's all.'
Powys spread his arms submissively.
'Hey listen, man, that was a hell of a book. The Old Golden Land.'
'Thanks,' Powys said.
'So what are you doing here, running a shop? Why aren't you writing more? Got to be ten years since Golden Land.'
'Even longer,' Powys said. 'More like twelve.'
You could count on at least one of these a week, more in summer. Sometimes they were women. Sometimes, in the early days of the Watkins Centre, friendships had developed from such encounters. The Old Golden Land had hit the market at the right time, the time of the great mass exodus from the cities, couples in their thirties in search of meaning and purpose.
People were very kind when they found out who he was. Usually they bought something from the shop, often a paperback of the book for him to sign. Most times he felt guilty, guilty that he hadn't followed through; guilty that he'd written the thing in the first place and misled everybody.
'I did that one that takes a new look at Watkins's original leys,' he offered, a bit pathetically. 'Backtrack.'
The bald, bearded guy waved it way. 'Disappointing, if you don't mind me saying so, J.M. No magic.'
'Wasn't really meant to be magical.' Powys said. 'The idea was just to walk the leys and see if they were as obvious now as when Watkins discovered them.'
'Yeah, and you found some of them to be distinctly dodgy. That's not what we want, is it?'
'Well, it's not, is it? People pouring scorn on the whole idea, your archaeologists and so on, and here's J. M. Powys defecting to the Establishment viewpoint.'
'Not exactly. What I feel is, we might have been a bit premature in explaining them as marking out channels of earth energy. Why not – because they connect so many burial mounds and funerary sites, even churchyards- why not simply paths of the dead…?'
The customer stepped back from the dowsing display he'd been fingering. He looked shocked. 'Paths of the dead?" he said. 'Paths of the dead? What kind of negative stuff is that?'
Halfway through the door, he turned round. 'You sure you're J. M. Powys?'
'Oh. Hullo, Guy.'
'You didn't return my call.'
'No, I didn't, did I? Well, Dad's having one of his difficult days.'
'He sounded fine last night.'
'Well, he isn't now,' Fay said testily. Maybe he thought she was making it all up about the Canon going batty. Maybe she ought to produce medical evidence.
'No, I'm sorry. It must be difficult for you.'
Oh, please, not the sympathy. 'What do you want, Guy?'
'I want to help you, Fay.'
'I'd like to put some money in your purse.'
Fay began to smoulder. Purses were carried by little women.
'As you may know. I'm currently on attachment to BBC Wales as senior producer, features and docos.'
Guy had been an on-the-road TV reporter when she'd first known him. Then a regional anchorman. And then, when he'd realized there'd be rather less security in on-screen situations after he passed forty or so, he'd switched to the production side. Much safer; lots of corners to hide in at cut-back time.
'And I've got quite a nice little project on the go on your patch,' Guy said. 'Two fifty minute-ers for the Network.'
'Congratulations.' But suddenly Fay was thinking hard. It couldn't be…
Guy said, 'Max Goff? You know what Max Goff's setting up?'
'He's developing a conscience in his middle years and putting millions into New Age research. Anyway, he's bought this wonderful Elizabethan pile not far from you, which he plans to
'And where did you hear about this, Guy?'
'Oh… contacts. As I say, we'll be doing two programmes. One showing how he goes about… what he's going to do…how the locals feel about him, this sort of thing. And the second one, a few months later, examining what he's achieved. Or not, as the case may be. Good, hmm?'
'Fascinating.' The bastard. How the hell had he pulled it off? 'And you've got it to yourself, have you?'
'Absolutely. It means Goff will have this one reliable outlet to get his ideas across in an intelligent way.' Fay seethed.
No Radio Four documentary. Not even any exclusive insider stuff for Offa's Dyke. So much for Rachel Wade and her promises. All the time, they'd been negotiating with her ex-husband – obviously aware of the connection, keeping quiet, leading her along so she wouldn't blow the story too soon.
'So what I was thinking. Fay, is… Clearly we're not going to be around the whole time. We need somebody to keep an eye on developments locally and let us know if there's anything we should be looking at. I was thinking perhaps a little retainer for you – I can work it through the budget, we producers have full financial control now of a production, which means…'
Black mist came down. The smug, scheming, patronizing bastard.
When Fay started listening again, Guy was saying, '… would have offered you the official researcher's contract, but one of Max Goff's conditions is that we use the author of some trashy book which seems to have inspired him. Goff wants this chap to be the official chronicler of the Crybbe project and some sort of editorial adviser on the programmes. Of course, that's just a formality, I can soon lose him along the way…'
Fay put the phone down.
The clock ticked. Arnold lay by her feet under the table. The chair where, in her mind, the smug, spectral Grace Legge had sat, was now piled high with box files. Nothing could sit in it now, even in her imagination.
Fay picked up the phone again and – deliberate, cold, precise – punched out the number of the Offa's Dyke Radio News desk.
'Gavin Ashpole, please. Oh, it is you. It's Fay Morrison. Listen. I can put you down a voice-piece for the lunchtime news. Explaining exactly what Max Goff intends to do in Crybbe.'
She listened to Ashpole asking all the obvious questions.
'Oh yes,' she said. 'Impeccable sources.'
Fay put down the phone, picked up the pad and began to write.
The police station was at the southern end of the town centre, just before the road sloped down to the three-arched river bridge. Attached to the station was the old police house. Murray Beech strode boldly to the front door and rapped loudly with the knocker, standing back and looking around for someone he might say hello to.
He very much wanted to be seen. Did not want anyone to think there was anything remotely surreptitious about this visit, indeed, he'd been hoping Police Sergeant Wynford Wiley would be visible through the police-station window so he could wave to him. But he was not. Nobody was there.
As a last resort Murray had been round to Alex Peters's house, hoping to persuade the old man lo come with him as adviser, witness and… well, chaperone. There'd been no sign of Alex or his daughter, no answer to his knocks.
But Murray didn't have to knock twice on the door of the old police house. She must have been waiting behind it.
'Good afternoon, Tessa,' he said loudly, putting on his most clergymanly voice.
Tessa Byford looked at him in silence. Eighteen. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, pale-faced. Often seen leather-jacketed on street corners with the likes of Warren Preece.
But not an unintelligent girl. A talented artist, he'd heard. And more confident than most local girls. Born here, but brought up in Liverpool until her mother died and her father had dumped her on his parents in Crybbe so he could go back to sea.
Murray could understand why she'd never forgiven he father for this.
He thought: sullen, resentful and eighteen. Prime poltergeist fodder… if you accept the tenets of parapsychology.
About which Murray, of course, kept an open mind.
He smiled. 'Well,' he said, 'I'm here.'
Tessa Byford did not smile back. Without a word, she led him into a small, dark sitting-room, entirely dominated by an oppressive Victorian sideboard, ornate as a pulpit, with many stages, canopies and overhangs.
Murray felt it was dominating him, too. He was immediately uncomfortable. The room seemed overcrowded, with the sideboard and the two of them standing there awkwardly, an unmarried clergyman and a teenage girl. It hit him then, the folly of what he was doing. He should never have come.
She looked down over his dark suit.
'You've not brought any holy water, have you?'
Murray managed a weak smile. 'Let's see how we get on, shall we?'
It occurred to him that, while she might be an adult now, this was not actually her house. He'd allowed himself to be lured into somebody else's house.
'You should've brought holy water,' she said sulkily.
Murray tried to relax. His plan was merely to talk to the girl, say a helpful prayer and then leave. He found a straight-backed dining chair and sat on it squarely – always felt foolish sinking into someone's soft fireside furniture, felt it diminished him.
'I still wish your grandparents were here.'
'Gone shopping,' she said, still standing, 'in Hereford. Won't be back until tonight. I only stayed to wait for you. I was going to give you another five minutes. Wouldn't stay here on me own. Not any more.'
Why did he think she was lying?
'I wish you'd felt able to discuss this with them.'
She shook her head firmly. 'Can't. You just can't.' Her thin lips went tight, her deep-set eyes stoney with the certainty of it.
'Have you tried?'
Tessa's lips twisted. 'Me gran… says people who are daft enough to think they've seen a ghost ought to keep it to themselves.'
'So you have tried to talk to her about it.'
Tessa, grimacing, went through the motions of wiping something nasty off her hands.
Murray tried to understand but couldn't. Neither Mrs Byford nor her husband appeared to him to be particularly religious. They came to church, if not every week. He'd watched them praying, as he did all his parishioners from time to time, but detected no great piety there. Just going through the motions, lip movements, like the rest of them. A ritual as meaningless as Sunday lunch, and rather less palatable.
There was no Bible on the shelf, no books of any kind, just white china above a small television set. No pictures of Christ on the wall, no framed religious texts.
And yet the room itself stank of repression, as if the people who lived here were the narrowest type of religious fundamentalists.
Tessa was standing there expressionless, watching him. The next move was his. Because he was trying so hard not to be, he was painfully aware of her breasts under what, in his own teenage days, had been known as a tank top.
'I know what you're thinking,' she said, and Murray sucked in a sharp breath.
'But I'm not,' she said. 'I'm not imagining any of it. You don't imagine things being thrown at you in the bathroom, even if…'
Her lips clamped and she looked down at her feet.
'If what?' Murray said.
'Show you,' Tessa mumbled.
Murray felt sweat under his white clerical collar. He stood up, feeling suddenly out of his depth, and followed Tessa Byford into the hall and up the narrow stairs.
All right, Fay?'
'I don't know.'
She was going hot and cold. Maybe succumbing to one of those awful summer bugs.
All she needed.
'Give me a minute… Elton. I want to make a few adjustments to the script.'
'OK, no hurry. I've got a couple of pieces to top and tail. Come back to you in five minutes, OK?'
'Fine,' Fay said, 'fine.'
She took off the cans and leaned back in the studio chair, breathing in and out a couple of times. Outside it was still raining and not exactly warm; in here, she felt clammy, sticky, she pulled her T-shirt out of her jeans and flapped it about a bit.
The air in here was always stale. There should be air-conditioning. The Crybbe Unattended itself was probably a serious infringement of the Factories Act or whatever it was called these days.
And the walls of the studio seemed to be closer every time she came in.
That was psychological, of course. Hallucinatory, just like… She slammed a door in her mind on the icy Grace Legge smile, just as she'd slammed the office door last night before stumbling upstairs after the dog. She wondered how she was ever going to go into that room again after dark. She certainly wouldn't leave the dog in there again at night.
How primitive life had become.
'Fay!' A tinny voice rattling in the cans on the table. She put them on.
'Fay, tell me again what he's doing…'
She told him again about the New Age research centre, about the dowsers and the healers. She didn't mention the plan to reinstate the stones. She was going to hold that back – another day, another dollar.
'No rock stars, then.'
'All a bit of a disappointment, isn't it, really,' Ashpole said.
'Is it?' Fay was gripping the edge of the table. Just let him start…
'Nutty stuff. New Age. Old hippies. Big yawn. Some people'll be interested, I suppose. When can we talk to the great man in person?'
'Goff? I'm working on it.'
That was a laugh. Some chance now. I'll ask my ex-husband – he owns all the broadcasting rights. God, God, God!
'Hmm,' Ashpole said, 'maybe we should…'
Without even a warning tremor. Fay erupted. 'Oh sure. Send a real reporter down to doorstep him! Why don't you do that? Get him to claim on tape that he's the son of God and he's going to save the fucking world!'
She tore off the cans and hurled them at the wall, stood up so violently she knocked the chair over. Stood with her back to the wall, panting, tears of outrage bubbling up.
What was happening to her?
'See that mirror?"
She was pointing at a cracked circular shaving mirror in metal frame.
'It flew off the window-ledge,' Tessa Byford said. 'That's how it got the crack. 'Course, they accused me of knocking it off.'
'How can you be sure you didn't?'
It was a very cramped bathroom. Murray moved up against the lavatory trying not to brush against the girl.
Ludicrous. He fell completely and utterly ludicrous; he was suffocating with embarrassment.
"Look,' she said, oblivious of his agony, 'I just opened the door and it flew off at me. And other things. Shaving brush, toothpaste. But it was the mirror that started it. I had to look in the mirror.'
'It could have been a draught, Tessa.' Appalled at how strangled his voice sounded.
'It wasn't a bloody draught!'
'All right, calm down. Please.'
'And when I picked it up, the mirror, there was blood in the crack.'
'The old man's.'
'No, the old man! He used to live here. I saw him. I could see him in the mirror.'
'You're saying he's dead, this old man?'
'What do you think?' Tessa said, losing patience with him. Tension rising. The girl was disturbed. This was not what the Church should be doing. This was psychiatric country.
'And you think you saw his face in the mirror.'
'And other mirrors.' She sighed. 'Always in mirrors.'
'Tessa, listen to me. When you first told me all about this you said you thought it was a poltergeist and you thought it was happening because you were at that age when… when… But you're eighteen. You're not an adolescent any more.'
He saw something moving in her dark eyes, and there was a little dab of perspiration above her top lip. Murray began to feel soiled and sordid. She said softly – and almost euphorically, he thought later – 'His throat was cut. When I saw him in the mirror, he'd cut his throat. Put his razor through the artery. That was where the blood…'
Murray swallowed. There was an overpowering smell of bleach.
'Would you mind,' he said, 'if we went back downstairs?'
When the studio phone rang it was Gavin Ashpole being soft-spoken and understanding. They all knew these days that if a woman dared up uncharacteristically it had to be a spot of premenstrual tension. Tact and consideration called for.
'So, when you're ready, love,' Ashpole said amiably, 'just give us the fifty-second voice-piece. And then you can play it by ear with Goff. I mean, don't worry about it – long as nobody gets him first, I'll be happy. Must go, the other phone, thanks Fay.'
She shouldn't have exploded like that. Most unprofessional
Fay put on the cans, adjusted the mike on its stand.
Bloody thing was hot.
Surely that wasn't possible with a microphone, even if there was an electrical fault. She didn't touch it again but looked round the back, following the flex to where it plugged into the console. Nothing amiss.
There was nothing to come unscrewed on this mike. It was a standard American-made Electro Voice, about six and a half inches long, gunmetal grey with a bulb bit enlarging the end, like…
Well, like a penis, actually.
Fay put out a finger, touched the tip, giggled.
Sex-starved cow. Pull yourself together.
'You ready now, Fay?'
'Oh yes. I'm ready, Elton. I really am.'
'Bit for level, then…'
She picked up the script, which would take up the story from the newsreader's link.
'It's widely known,' Fay enunciated clearly into the microphone, 'that Max Goff has been involved in setting up a charitable trust to…'
'Yeah, fine. Go in five.'
Fay composed herself. Not easy in this heat. The T-shirt was sticking to her again. Have to put in a complaint. Four, three, two…
'It's widely known that Max Goff has been involved in setting up a charitable trust to finance so-called "New Age" ventures – such as alternative healing techniques and the promotion of "Green" awareness.
'He's also interested in fringe science and the investigation of ley-lines, which are supposed to link standing stones, Bronze Age burial mounds and other ancient sites across the landscape…'
Most times, when you were putting in a voice-piece – especially if, like this, it wasn't live – you weren't really aware of the sense of it any more. Only the pattern of the words, the balance, the cadence and the flow. It was conversational and yet completely artificial. Automatic-pilot stuff after a while. Easy to see how some radio continuity announcers simply fell in love with their own voices.
'The project will be based at sixteenth-century Crybbe Court, for which Mr Goff is believed to have paid in excess of half a million pounds. It's expected to be a major boost to the local economy, with…'
'Whoah, whoah,' Elton shouted in the cans. 'What are you doing, Fay?'
'How close are you to the mike?'
Fay tasted metal.
Her eyes widened, a movement went through her, like an earth tremor along a fault line. Her hands thrust the microphone away, revolted.
The mike fell out of its stand and over the end of the table where it dangled on its flex. Fay sat there wiping the back of a hand over her lips.
'What the hell…?' said the voice in the cans. 'Fay? Fay, are you there?'
'Oh Lord, we humbly beseech you, look down upon us with compassion…'
Eyes tensely closed, Murray was trying to concentrate. He could still smell bleach from the bathroom, although they were downstairs again now, in the sitting-room that was full of repressed emotions, deep-frozen. In the shadow of the pulpit-sideboard.
Churchlike. More churchlike, anyway, than a bathroom.
But the Church was not a building. He, in this dark little parlour, at this moment, was the Church.
Two feet away… an eighteen-year-old girl in holed jeans and a straining tank top. A girl he didn't think he liked very much any more. A girl with a glistening dab of sweat over her upper lip.)
And, because there was nothing to help him in The Book of Common Prayer, he must improvise.
'… look down with compassion, Lord, on our foolish fancies and fantasies. Lift from this house the burden of primitive superstition. Hold up your holy light and guide us away from the darkened recesses of our unconscious minds.,.'
His voice came back at him in a way he'd never experienced before in prayer. Not like in church, the words spinning away, over the congregation and up into the rafters. Or muted, behind bedside screens, against the chatter and rattle and bustle of a hospital ward.
Here, in a room too crowded with still, silent things for an echo, it all sounded as slick and as shallow as he rather suspected it was. He was stricken with isolation – feeling exposed and raw, as if his veneer of priestly strength was bubbling and melting like thin paint under a blowlamp.
Murray ran a damp finger around the inside of his clerical collar. He realized in horror that the only ghost under exorcism in this house was his own undefined, amorphous faith.
As if something was stealing that faith, feeding from it.
His collar felt like a shackle; he wanted to tear it off.
He knew he had to get out of here. Knowing this, while hearing his voice, intoning the meaningless litany.
'Bring us, Lord, safely from the captivity of our bodies and the more insidious snare of our baser thoughts. Lead us…'
Her voice sliced through his.
'I think it likes you. Vicar,' Tessa said sweetly.
His eyes opened to a white glare. The girl was holding the cracked shaving mirror at waist-level, like a spot lamp, and when she tilted the mirror, he saw in it the quivering, flickering image of a cowering man in a dark suit and a clerical collar – the man gazing down at his hands, clasping his rearing penis in helpless remorse, in a tortured parody of prayer.
Murray screamed and fled.
A few moments later, when he tumbled half-sobbing, half-retching into the street, he could hear her laughter. He stood with his back to a lamppost, sob-breathing through his mouth. He looked down and felt his fly; the zip was fully fastened.
He felt violated. Physically and spiritually naked and shamed.
A door slammed behind him, and he still thought he could hear her laughing. At intervals. As if whatever had got into her was sharing the fun.
THE bitch doesn't get in here again. Not ever. Under any circumstances. You understand?'
Max was pulsing with rage. Rachel had seen it before, but not often.
Offa's Dyke Radio had run the item on its lunchtime bulletin – from which, Rachel had been told, the story had been picked up by a local freelance hack and relayed to the London papers. Several of which had now called Epidemic's press office to check it out.
And Goff s secretary in London had phoned Goff in time for him to catch the offending Offa's Dyke item on the five o'clock news.
'That report… from Fay Morrison, our reporter in Crybbe,' the newsreader had said unnecessarily at the end.
'Fay Morrison? Guy Morrison?' Goff said.
Rachel shook her head. 'Hardly likely.'
"Yeah,' Goff accepted. And then he spelled it out for her again, just in case she hadn't absorbed his subtext. When he wanted the world to know about something, he released the information in his own good time. He released it.
'So from now on, you don't talk to anybody. You don't even think about the Project in public, you got that?'
'Maybe,' Rachel said, offhand, tempting fate, 'you should fire me.'
"Don't be fucking ridiculous,' Max snapped and stormed out of the stable-block to collect his bags from the Cock. He was driving back to London tonight, thank God, and wouldn't be returning until Friday morning, for the lunch party.
When she could no longer hear the Ferrari arrogantly clearing its throat for the open road, Rachel Wade rang Fay, feeling more than a little aggrieved.
They shouted at each other for several minutes before Rachel made a sudden connection and said slowly, 'You mean Guy Morrison is your ex-husband?'
'He didn't tell you? Well, of course, he wouldn't. Where's the kudos in having been married to me?'
Rachel said, thoughtlessly, 'He's really quite a hunk, isn't he?'
A small silence, then Fay said, 'Hunk of shit, actually.'
'Max was right,' Rachel said. 'You're being a bitch. You did the radio piece as a small act of vengeance because your ex had pushed your nose out.'
'No, you look. Guy's programmes wouldn't have affected anything. You'd still have had the stories for Offa's Dyke Radio, and you'd have had them first. I do actually keep my promises.'
Fay sighed and told her that the truth was she was hoping to do a full programme. For Radio Four. However, with a TV documentary scheduled, that now looked like a non-starter.
'So I was cutting my losses, I suppose. I really didn't think it'd come back on you. Well… I suppose I didn't really think at all. I over-reacted. Keep over-reacting these days, I'm afraid. I'm sorry.'
'I'm sorry, too,' Rachel said, 'but I have to tell you you've burned your boats. Max has decreed that you should be banned from his estate forever.'
'I can try and explain, but he isn't known for changing his mind about this kind of thing. Why should he? He is the deity in these parts.'
In the photograph over the counter, Alfred Watkins wore pince-nez and looked solemn. If there were any pictures of him smiling, Powys thought, they must be filed away in some family album; smiling was not a public act in those days for a leading local businessman and a magistrate. It was perhaps just as well – Alfred Watkins needed his dignity today more than ever.
'Don't forget,' Powys said, 'he'll be watching you. Any joss-sticks get lit, he'll be very unhappy.'
'No he won't,' Annie said. Annie with the Egyptian amulet, still living in 1971, before the husband and the four kids. 'He fancies me, I can tell by the way he smiles.'
'He never smiles.'
'He smiles at me,' Annie said. 'OK, no joss-sticks. If you're not back by tomorrow I'll open at nine, after I get rid of the kids.'
'I'm only going to Kington.'
'You're going back to the Old Golden Land,' Annie said, half-smiling. He'd shown her the letter from Henry's neighbour, Mrs Whitney. 'Admit it, you're going back.'
'What happens?' Andy says- 'Well, you go around the stone thirteen times and then you lie on the fairy hill and you get the vision. You see into the future, or maybe just into yourself. According to the legend, John Bottle went round the stone and when he lay on the mound he went down and down until he entered the great hall of the Fairy Queen with whom he naturally fell in love. It was so wonderful down there that he didn't want to leave. But they sent him back, and when he returned to the real world he became a great seer and prophet.
'Of course.. – Andy ate a black olive -',.. he could never settle in the mundane world, and he knew that one day he'd have to go back..
Powys drove his nine-year-old Mini out of the city, turning off before the Wye bridge.
In essence, Alfred Watkins had been right about the existence of leys. Powys felt this strongly. And Henry Kettle had been better than anybody at finding where the old tracks ran, by means of dowsing.
'After all these years,' he'd said once to Powys, 'I still don't know what they are. But I know they're there. And I know that sometimes, when you're standing on one, it can affect you. Affect your balance, like. Give you delusions sometimes, like as if you've had a few too many. Nothing psychic, mind, nothing like that. But they do interfere with you. Sometimes.'
They might interfere with you when you were walking along them, with or without your dowsing rods. Or when you were driving along a stretch of road which happened – as many did – to follow one of the old lines. Many accident blackspots had been found to be places where leys crossed.
Of course. And you could go crazy avoiding stretches of road just because they happened to align with local churches and standing stones. Nobody really went that far.
Certainly not Henry. Who, you would have thought, was too experienced a dowser ever to be caught out that way.
But when an experienced dowser crashed into a wall around an ancient burial mound, it demanded the kind of investigation the police would never conduct.
He didn't expect to find anything. But Henry Kettle was his friend. He was touched and grateful that Henry had bequeathed to him his papers – perhaps the famous journal that nobody had ever seen. And the rods, of course, don't forget the rods. (Why should he leave his rods to a man who couldn't dowse?)
Powys left Hereford by King's Acre and headed towards the Welsh border, where the sun hung low in the sky. During his lunchbreak, he'd spent half an hour with the OS maps of Hereford and eastern Radnorshire. He'd drawn a circle around the blob on the edge of the town of Crybbe where it said:
He'd taken a twelve-inch Perspex ruler and put one end over the circle and then, holding the end down with one finger, moved the ruler in an arc, making little pencil marks as he went along, whenever he came upon an ancient site. When the ruler had covered three hundred and sixty degrees he took it away and examined all the marks- haphazard as circles and crosses in a football-pool coupon.
And stared into the map like a fortune-teller into a crystal ball or the bottom of a teacup. Waiting for a meaningful image or a pattern to form among the mesh of roads and paths and contour lines… mound, circle, stone, church, earthwork, moat, holy well…
But from a ley-hunter's point of view, it was all very disappointing.
There was a large number of old stones and mounds all along the Welsh border, but the Tump didn't seem to align with any of them. The nearest possible ancient site was Crybbe parish church, less than a mile away. He looked it up in Pevsner's Buildings and established that it was certainly pre-Reformation – always a strong indication that it had been built on a pre-Christian site. But when he drew a line from the Tump to the church and then continued it for several miles, he found it didn't cross any other mounds, churches or standing stones. Not even a crossroads or a hilltop cairn.
The ley system, which appeared to cover almost the whole of Britain and could be detected in many parts of the world, seemed to have avoided Crybbe.
'Bloody strange,' Powys had said aloud, giving up.
What the hell was there for Henry Kettle to dowse in Crybbe? Why had Max Goff chosen the place as a New Age centre?
Powys came into the straggling village of Pembridge, where the age-warped black-and-whites seemed to hang over the street instead of trees. Driving down towards Kington and the border, he felt a nervousness edging in, like a foreign station on the radio at night. He rarely came this way. Too many memories. Or maybe only one long memory, twisted with grief.
Fiona, Ben's girlfriend, laughing and burrowing in one of the bags for the bottle of champagne. 'Better open this now, warm shampoo's so yucky.'
Ben holding up a fresh-from-the-publisher copy of the book. On the cover, a symbolic golden pentagram is shining on a hillside. In the foreground, against a late-sunset sky, a few stars sprinkled in the corners, is the jagged silhouette of a single standing stone. Across the top, the title. The Old Golden Land. Below the stone, in clean white lettering, the author's name, J. M. Powys.
And below that it says. With photographs by Rose Hart.
Rose looks at you, and her eyes are bright enough to burn through the years, and now the pain almost dissolves the memory.
Ben saying, 'A toast, then…'
But Andy is raising a hand. 'There remains one small formality.'
Everybody looking at him.
'I think Joe ought to present himself to the Earth Spirit in the time-honoured fashion.'
Forget it, you think. No way.
'I mean go round the Bottle Stone. Thirteen times.'
Fiona clapping her hands. 'Oh, yes. Do go round the stone, Joe.'
Henry's place was the end of a Welsh long-house, divided into three cottages. The other two had been knocked into one, and Mrs Gwen Whitney lived there with her husband.
Powys arrived around eight-thirty, driving through deep wells of shadow. Remembering Henry coming out to meet him one evening round about this time, his dog, Alf, dancing up to the car.
That night, twelve years ago, Powys pleading with Henry: 'Come on… it's as much your book as mine. The Old Golden Land by Henry Kettle and Joe Powys.'
'Don't be daft, boy. You writes, I dowses. That's the way of it. Besides, there's all that funny stuff in there – I might not agree with some of that. You know me, nothing psychic. When I stop thinking of this as science… well, I don't know where I'll be.'
And an hour or so later: 'But, Henry, at the very least…'
'And don't you start offering me money! What do I want any more money for, with the wife gone and the daughter doing more than well for herself in Canada? You go ahead, boy. Just don't connect me with any of it, or I'll have to disown you, see.'
Silence now. The late sun turning the cottage windows to tinfoil. No dog leaping out at the car.
Mrs Whitney opened her door as he walked across.
'Mr Powys.' A heavy woman in a big, flowery frock. Smiling that sad, sympathetic smile which came easily to the faces of country women, always on nodding terms with death.
'You remember me?'
'Not changed, have you? Anyway, it's not so long.'
'Twelve years. And I've gone grey.'
'Is it so long? Good gracious. Would you like some tea?'
'Thank you. Not too late, am I?'
'Not for you, Mr Powys. I remember one night, must have been four in the morning when we finally heard your car go from here.'
'Sorry about that. We had a lot to talk about.'
'Oh, he could talk, Mr Kettle could. When he wanted to.' Mrs Whitney led him into her kitchen, 'I think it looks nice grey,' she said.
Later, they stood in Henry's cell-like living-room, insulated by thousands of books, many of them old and probably valuable, although you wouldn't have thought it from the way they were edged into the shelves, some upside down, some back to front. On a small cast-iron mantelshelf, over the Parkray, were a few deformed lumps of wood. Local sculpture, Henry called it. He'd keep them on the mantelpiece until he found more interesting ones in the hedgerows, then he'd use the old ones for the fire.
Mrs Whitney handed Powys a battered old medical bag. 'This was in the car with him. Police brought it back.'
A thought tumbled into Powys's head as he took the bag. 'What about Alf?'
'Oh, old Alf died a couple of years back. He got another dog – Arnold. Funny-looking thing. I says, "You're too old for another dog, Mr Kettle." "Give me a reason to keep on living," he says. Always said he couldn't work without a dog at his side. Arnold, he was in the car with Mr Kettle, too. He wasn't killed. A lady's looking after him in Crybbe. She'll have her hands full. Year or so with Mr Kettle, they forgot they was supposed to be dogs.'
'Daft about animals, Mr Kettle was. He's left half his money – I didn't put this in the letter – half his money's going to a dog's shelter over the other side of Hereford. Daughter won't like that.'
'Henry knew what he was doing,' Powys said. 'What's going to happen to the house?'
'She'll sell it. She won't come back, that one. She'll sell it and it'll go to some folks from Off, who'll put a new kitchen in and one of them fancy conservatories. They'll likely stop a couple of years, and then there'll be some more folks from Off. I don't mind them, myself, they never does no harm, in general.'
Powys opened the medical bag. The contents were in compartments, like valuable scientific equipment. Two remodelled wire coat-hangers with rubber grips.
Mrs Whitney said, 'There's a what-d'you-call-it, pendulum thing in a pocket in the lid.'
'I know,' Powys said. 'I remember.'
'Mr Kettle had his old dowsing records in… you know, them office things.'
'Aye, box files. Must be half a dozen of them. And there's this I found by his bed.'
It was a huge old black-bound business ledger, thick as a Bible. He opened it at random.
… and in the middle meadow I detected the foundations
of an old house from about the fifteenth century. I got so
engrossed in this I forgot all about finding the well…
He could hear Henry chuckling as he wrote in black ink with his old fountain pen, edge to edge, ignoring the red and black rules and margins.
He turned to the beginning and saw the first entry had been made nearly twenty years earlier. Out of four or five hundred pages, there were barely ten left unfilled. End of an era.
Powys closed the ledger and held it, with reverence, in both hands.
'His journal. I doubt if anybody else has ever seen it.'
'Well, you take it away,' said Mrs Whitney. 'Sometimes I had the feeling some of them things Mr Kettle was doing were – how shall I say? – not quite Christian.'
'Science, Mrs Whitney. He was always very particular about that.'
'Funny sort of science,' Mrs Whitney said. 'There's a letter, too, only gave it to me last week.'
A pale-blue envelope, 'J. M. Powys' handwritten in black ink.
'Oh, he was a nice old chap,' Mrs Whitney said. 'But, with no ill respect for the departed, he'd have been the first to admit as he was more'n a bit cracked.'
For Fay, there would be no secret pleasure any more in editing tape in the office at night, within the circle of Anglepoise light, a soft glow from the Revox level-meters, and all the rest into shadow.
For none of what dwelt beyond the light could now be assumed to be simply shadow. Once these things had started happening to your mind, you couldn't trust anything any more.
That evening, she and the Canon watched television in what used to be Grace's dining-room at the rear of the house and was now their own sitting-room. Two bars of the electric fire were on – never guess it was summer, would you?
Arnold lay next to Alex on Grace's enormous chintzy sofa. The dog did not howl, not once, although Fay saw him stiffen with the distant toll of the curfew. He'd be sleeping upstairs again tonight.
She watched Alex watching TV and sent him mind-messages. We have to talk, Dad. We can't go on here. There's nothing left. There never was anything, you ought to realize that now.
Alex carried on placidly watching some dismal old black and white weepie on Channel Four.
Fay said, at one point, 'Dad?'
Alex kept his eyes on the screen, where Stewart Granger was at a crucial point in his wooing of Jean Simmons.
'Dad, would you…' Fay gave up, 'care for some tea? Or cocoa?'
'Cocoa. Wonderful. You know, at one time, people used to say I had more than a passing resemblance to old Granger.'
'Really?' Fay couldn't see it herself.
'Came in quite useful once or twice.'
'I bet it did.'
Fay got up to make the cocoa, feeling more pale and wan than Jean Simmons looked in black and white. In one day she'd hung up on Guy, betrayed Rachel, demolished relations with Goff before she'd even met him. And caught herself about to give a blow job to a microphone in the privacy of the Crybbe Unattended Studio.
What I need, she thought, is to plug myself into a ley-line, and she smiled to herself – a despairing kind of smile – at the absurdity of it all.
The box files wouldn't all fit in the boot of the Mini. Three had to be wedged on the back seat, with the doctor's bag.
But the ledger, the dowsing journal of Henry Kettle, was on the passenger seat where Powys could see it, Henry's letter on top.
Just past the Kington roundabout he gave in, pulled into the side of the road and, in the thinning light, he opened the letter.
I'm doing this now, while I feel the way I do. If it all
sorts itself out you'll probably never read this letter. None of
it will make much sense to you at first and if it never does
make any sense it means my fears will be groundless.
What it comes down to is I've been working out at Crybbe
for a chap called Max Goff who's bought Crybbe Court.
The nature of the job is dowsing some old alignments
where the stones and such have all gone years ago, and it's
been giving me the shivers, quite honestly, that whole place.
Don't get me wrong, there's nothing psychic or any of that
old rubbish, but it's not right and as far as I can work out
it's a long-term kind of thing. I intend to keep an eye on the
situation in the weeks and months and, God willing, the years
ahead and keep on revising my notes, but I'm not getting any
younger and you could go any time at my age and I feel as
how I ought to inform somebody. You have had some daft
ideas in your time but you're a good boy basically and the
only person I can think of who I can trust not to dismiss this
out of hand as an old fool's rumblings.
God knows, I'm not infallible and I could be wrong and
I don't even know as yet the nature of what's up in Crybbe,
only I get the feeling it's long-term, and I'd like to think there
was somebody who could keep an eye on what that Goff's
Now my daughter, we've grown apart, no kidding myself
any more. She's out in Canada and she's VERY WELL
OFF. So I've written to my solicitor in Hereford informing
him that as well as all the papers my house is to be left to
you. Consider it as a token of my confidence.
'God almighty,' Powys said.
He could see lights coming on in Kington, through the trees on the other side of the road, darkening hills. Somewhere, on the other side of the hills, Crybbe.
Leaving him the house was ridiculous. He'd probably have changed his mind by now, anyway.
But the letter was dated 19 June.
Only two days before Henry's death.
Powys opened the ledger at the last completed page. It also was dated 19 June.
Quite a successful day. Located three more old stones.
One of them would be eleven feet above the ground, which
would make it quite rare for the Crybbe area, the nearest one
as high as that being down near Crickhowell. I have been
over this twice to make sure. It is very peculiar that there
should have been so many big stones in such a small area. I
tried to date this big one, but all I could come up with was
1593 when it was destroyed. It seemed certain to me that this
was done quite deliberately, the whole thing taken out and
broken up. This was all quite systematic, like the burning
down of monasteries during the Reformation.
What intrigues me is how this Goff could have obtained
the information about there having been stones here when even
I had never heard of them. Sometimes I feel quite excited by
all this, it is undoubtedly the most remarkable discovery of
prehistoric remains in this country for many years, even if the
archaeologists will never accept it. At other times, however,
I do get quite a bad feeling that something here is not right,
although I cannot put my finger on it. I have always disliked
the Tump for some reason. Some places are naturally negative,
although perhaps 'natural' is not the word I want. The Welsh
border is a very funny place, but I am sure there is a good
The last entry. Neatly dated and a line drawn under it. Two days later Henry Kettle was lying dead in his car under Crybbe Tump.
It was dark when Powys got back to Hereford. He lugged the box files up the stairs to his little flat above Trackways and left them in the middle of the floor, unopened. It would take months to explore that lot.
Bui he was committed now.
He went down to the shop and put on the lights. From his photograph, Alfred Watkins frowned down on the counter, Powys could see why: Annie had put the box of 'healing' crystals on display.
He wrote out a note and left it wedged under the crystals box.
Please hold fort until whenever. I'll call you. Don't light
too many joss-sticks.
Feeling a need to explain, he added,
Gone to Crybbe.
P.S. Don't get the wrong idea. It might be old, but it's
When he put out the lights in the shop, he noticed the answering machine winking red.
A woman's low, resonant voice.
'J. M. Powys, this is Rachel Wade at Crybbe Court. I wanted to remind you about Friday. I'd be grateful if you could call back on Crybbe 689, which is the Cock Hotel or 563, our new office at Crybbe Court. Leave a message if I'm not around. Things are a little chaotic at present, but we'd very much like to hear from you. If you can't make it on Friday, we could arrange another day. Just please call me.'
'I'll be there,' Powys said to the machine. 'OK?'
He went upstairs to bed and couldn't sleep. He'd seen Henry barely half a dozen times in the past ten years. If the old guy really had left him his house to underline his feelings about Crybbe then they had to be more than passing fears.
'What have you dumped on me, Henry?" he kept asking the ceiling. And when he fell asleep he dreamt about the Bottle Stone.
The following day was overcast, the sky straining with rain that never seemed to fall. After breakfast, Jimmy Preece, gnarled old Mayor of Crybbe, went to see his son.
He found Jack tinkering with the tractor in the farmyard, his eldest grandson, Jonathon, looking on, shaking his head.
'Always the same,' Jack grunted. 'Just when you need it. Mornin', Father.'
'I been telling him,' Jonathon said. 'Get a new one. False economy. This thing gets us through haymaking, I'll be very surprised indeed.'
Jimmy Preece shook his head, then he nodded, so that neither of them would be sure which one he was agreeing with.
'Got to take an overview,' said Jonathon, this year's chairman of the Crybbe and District Young Farmers' Club. 'Goin' from day to day don't work any more.'
'Break off a minute, will you?' Jimmy said. 'Come in the 'ouse. I want a bit of advice.'
He knew that'd get them. Jack straightened up, tossed his spanner into the metal toolbox and walked off without a word across the farmyard to the back door. 'Warren!' he roared. 'Put that bloody guitar down and make some tea.'
In the kitchen, waiting for the kettle to boil, Warren whipped the letter out of his back pocket and read it through again. He'd thought at first it might have been Peter, the drummer pulling his pisser again. But where would Peter have got hold of Epidemic headed notepaper?
Dear Mr Preece,
Thank you for sending us the cassette of FATAL
ACCIDENT, which I return.
Max Goff has listened with interest to your songs and
believes then could be considerable potential here…
It was signed by this Rachel Wade, the snooty tart Warren had seen driving Max Goff around. It had to be genuine.
Well, fuck, what had he got to be surprised about? Max Goff hadn't got where he was today without he could spot a good band when he heard one.
Have to get working, then. Have to get a few more numbers together. Get on the phone to the boys, soon as the old man and bloody Jonathon were out the way.
Warren took their tea. They were sprawled around the big living-room, grandad getting his knackered old pipe out. Looked like the start of a long session, and the phone was in the same room. Warren was nearly grinding his teeth in frustration.
Stuff this, he'd walk into town and use the phone box by the post office. He left the tray of mugs on a stool and cleared out quick, before the old man could come up with some filthy old job for him.
Out in the hallway, though, he stopped, having second thoughts. Warren liked to know about things. He tramped loudly to the main door, kicked it shut, then crept quietly back and stood by the living-room door, listening.
And soon he was bloody glad he had.
Fay had decided that what she must do, for a start, was get her dad out of the town for a few hours so she could talk to him. Really talk.
It seemed ridiculous that she couldn't do this in the house but that was how it was. Often, in Crybbe, you simply couldn't seem to approach things directly. There were whole periods when everything you tried to do or say was somehow deflected.
In the same way, she felt the place smothered your natural curiosity, made the urge to find out – the act of wanting to know – seem just too much trouble.
It wasn't that the air was in any way soporific, she thought unlocking the Fiesta. Not like the famous country air was supposed to be, or the dreamy blue ozone at the seaside that sent you drifting off at night on waves of healthy contentment.
Here, it was as if the atmosphere itself was feeding off you, quietly extracting your vital juices, sapping your mental energy, so that you crawled into bed and lay there like a dried out husk.
Had the air done this to the people? Or had the people done it to the air?
Or was it just her, living with an old man whose mind was seizing up.
Fay gave him a blast on the horn. Come on. Dad, you're not changing your mind now.
In the local paper she'd found a story about people in a village fifteen miles away receiving some kind of conservation award for adopting their local railway station, planting flowers on the embankments, that kind of thing. Ashpole had agreed it would probably make a nice little soft package. End of the programme stuff, keep it down to four minutes max.
From the back seat, Arnold barked. It was a gruff, throaty bark, and his jaws clamped down on it as soon as it was out. It was the first one Fay had ever heard him produce. He must be settling in. She leaned over and ruffled his big ears, pleased.
Alex emerged by the front door at last. It had been far from easy persuading him to come with her, even though he did seem much better today, more aware.
He sat with his hands on his lap as she drove them out of town, on the Welsh side. 'Hope you know a decent pub over there, my child.'
'We'll find one.'
The sky was brightening as she drove into the hills, the border roads unravelling through featureless forestry, then open fields with sheep, a few cows, sparse sprinklings of cottages, farm buildings and bungalows.
The little railway station was on the single-track Heart of Wales line, which went on to Shrewsbury. It wasn't much more than a halt, with a wooden bench and a waiting room the size of a bus-shelter.
Fay had arranged to meet the Secretary of this enthusiastic committee which existed to defend the unprofitable line against what seemed to be a constant threat of imminent closure by British Rail. He turned out to be a genial guy and a good talker, and he'd brought along a couple of villagers who spent their weekends sprucing up the station surrounds, cutting back verges, planting bulbs. They were friendly and self-deprecating.
In Crybbe it would have to have been the newcomers who took the job on. But Crybbe didn't have a station, anyway. Only B-roads.
Interviews done, she stood for a moment at the edge of the line, looking out towards the hills and thinking what a quiet, serene place this actually was. Untampered with. All the old patterns still apparent.
A buzzard glided overhead, then banked off like a World War II fighter, flashing the white blotches under its wings.
She thought, it's me. All this is wonderful. It isn't mean and tight and stifling at all. I'm just a sour bitch who thinks she's had a raw deal, and I'm blaming the poor bloody border country.
Alex was in the car, white beard brushing his Guardian as he read, still managing without glasses at pushing ninety. He was wearing a baggy cardigan over his Kate Bush T-shirt. Fay thought suddenly, I wish I knew him better.
… and Mrs Wozencraft's cottage – old Jessie Wozencraft – that's his as well, he's bought that.'
'Good luck to him,' Jonathon said. 'Old place is near enough falling down.'
'That's not the point, Jonathon,' said Jack Preece. 'Point your grandad's makin' is…'
'Oh, I know what he's sayin' – and he's dead right. What bloody use is an acupuncturist in Crybbe?'
'What do they do, anyway?'
'They sticks needles in you, to cure things.'
'Wouldn't stick any in me, boy, I hates them injections.'
'It don't matter what they does!' Warren heard his grandad say, thumping the chair-arm. It's the principle. Retired folk I don't mind so much, give 'em a bit of bird watchin' and a library book and they don't bother nobody, and they always dies after a few years anyway. What I object to is these clever-arsed fellers as wants to change things to what they thinks they should be, if you know what I'm sayin'. Everything pretty-pretty and no huntin' the little furry animals. And no jobs either, 'cause factories spoils the view.'
'Market forces, Grandad. You can't do nothin' about market forces.'
'Nine properties, 'e's had so far, I counted. Nine! Everything for sale within a mile of town, he's bought it.'
'Many as that, eh?'
Warren didn't like the way this conversation was going. He fingered the crisp Epidemic notepaper in his pocket.
Jonathon said, 'Well, nobody else'd've bought 'em, would they? Not with interest rates the way they are. All right, it's speculation…'
'It's not just speculation, Jonathon. There's a purpose to it, and it's not right. You heard that woman on the wireless. New Age and psychic powers. I don't know nothin' about any of it and I don't want to, and I don't want him doin' it yere.'
'Woken a lot of people up to it, that bit on the radio,' Jack said. 'Everybody talkin' about it in the Cock last night, the post office this morning. Lot of people's worried it's going to bring the hippies in.'
'What are any of 'em but hippies? Quack healers, fortune- tellers…'
'Who is she, Father? Somebody said it was that girl who lives with 'er dad, the old feller with the beard.'
'Fay Morrison,' Grandad said. 'Nice enough girl. Comes to council meetings.'
'Tidy piece,' Jonathon said.
Warren knew who they meant. Seen her the other night, coming back from the Court with that dog. Followed her behind the hedge. Spying, most likely, she was, nosy cow.
'I admit I never wanted 'em to put that radio studio in,' his grandad said. 'But if it 'adn't been for this girl nobody'd've believed it. They years it on the wireless, it brings it 'ome to 'em, isn't it?' Warren heard the old feller sucking on his pipe. 'Ah, but he's a crafty bugger, that Goff. Comes to my door tryin' to get round me, all the things he's goin' to do for the town. Get the Mayor on his side, first – tactics, see.'
'Well, we can't stop him. Can't block market forces, Grandad.'
'We can stop him takin' our town off us to serve his whims!'
'And how're we supposed to do that?'
'He wants a public meeting, we'll give him one.'
'What are you savin' here. Father? Give him a rough time? Let him know he isn't wanted?'
Behind the door, Warren began to seethe. This was fucking typical. Here was Max Goff, biggest bloody independent record producer in the country, on the verge of signing Fatal Accident to Epidemic. And these stick-in-the-mud bastards were scheming to get rid of him.
Jonathon was saying, 'See them stones he had delivered? Bloody great stones, dozens of 'en.'
'No, just great big stones. Huge buggers. Like Stonehenge, that kind.'
Things went quiet, then Warren heard his grandad say, 'He's oversteppin' the mark. He's got to be stopped.'
Warren wanted to strangle the old git. He wanted to strangle all three of them. Also that fucking radio woman who'd let it all out and stirred things up. The one who shouted after him through the hedge that night, called him a wanker.
Every pub they'd tried had stopped serving lunch at two o'clock – so much for all-day opening – and so they'd wound up at this Little Chef, which didn't please him. 'Bloody cooking by numbers. Two onion rings, thirty-seven chips. All this and alcohol-free lager too. And these bloody girls invariably saying, "Was it all right for you?" as if they're just putting their knickers back on.'
'At least they're there when you want them,' Fay said. getting back on the A49. 'Would you like to see Ludlow?'
'Like to go home, actually.'
'God almighty! What is it about that place?'
'Left my pills there.'
'I know you did. But luckily, I brought them. What's your next excuse?'
Alex growled. 'Wish I'd had a son.'
'Instead of me, huh?'
'Sons don't try to manage you.'
'Dad, I want to talk to you.'
'Was that the first time Guy rang, the other night?'
'Hard to say, my dear. Once I put the phone down I tend to forget all about him. He may have rung earlier. Does it really matter?'
'I don't mean just that night. Has he rung any other time when I've been out?'
'Can't remember. Suppose he could have done. I didn't think you cared.'
'I don't. It's just Guy's coming down to make a documentary about Max Goff, and I was wondering how he found out there was something interesting going on. I know you tend to absorb local gossip like a sponge and then somebody squeezes you a bit and it all comes out, and then you forget it was ever there.'
'You think I told him?'
'Did I? God knows. Say anything to get rid of him. Does it matter?'
Fay glanced in her wing mirror then trod on the brakes and pulled in violently to the side of the road. 'Of course it bloody matters!'
'I think you're overwrought, my child. You're young. You need a bit of excitement. Bit of stimulation. Country life doesn't suit you.'
'Crybbe doesn't suit me.'
'So why not simply…?'
She said carefully, 'Dad. You may be right. There may be nothing at all wrong with Crybbe. But, yes, I think it's time I left. And I think it's time you left. You've no reason to stay, you've no roots there, no real friends there.'
He said sadly, 'Oh, I have.'
He wasn't looking at her. He was looking straight out at the A49, lorries chugging past.
'Who? Murray Beech? He'll be off, first chance of a bigger parish. He's got nothing to thank Crybbe for – his fiancée didn't hang around, did she?'
'No,' Alex said. 'Not Murray.'
He didn't reply.
Fay fiddled with the keys in the ignition. Alex talked to everybody, old vicars never changed. A friend to everyone, essence of the job. But how many did he really know?
'What are you saying, Dad?'
'Grace,' he whispered, and Fay saw the beginning of tears in his old blue eyes.
She put a hand on his arm. 'Dad?'
'Don't ask me about this. Fay,' Alex said. 'Please. Just take me home.'
On top of the Tump it all came clear.
You could see over the roofs of the stables and Crybbe Court itself, which was sunk into a shallow dip. And there, only just showing above the trees, was the church tower. But then the trees hadn't always been so high – or even here at all.
The church was at the high point of the town, the main street sloping down to the river. From here you couldn't see the street or the river – but you could see the fields on the opposite bank, rising into hills thickened now with forestry. And, at one time, before the introduction of the voracious Sitka Spruce from Alaska, that might have been bare hillside, and there would have been other markers to pick up the line.
Joe Powys looked all around him and saw how clearly the Tump had been positioned to dominate the town, even the church, and draw in the landscape like the corners of a handkerchief.
That old feeling again, of being inside an ancient mechanism. At the centre of the wheel.
Identifying the line took an act of imagination because there were no markers any more. But Henry Kettle had discovered where upright stones had once been aligned to guide the eye from the Tump to the distant horizons.
But there was something about it that Henry Kettle didn't like.
Powys moved away from the highest point and stood next to a twisted hawthorn tree. The sky was a tense, luminous grey, swollen like a great water-filled balloon, and he felt that if it came down low enough to be pricked by the tree's topmost thorns, he'd be drowned.
It was his own fault. Places like this could ensnare your mind, and your thoughts became tangled up with the most primitive instincts, old fears lying hidden in the undergrowth like trailing brambles.
As quickly as he could, but still very carefully, Powys came down from the Tump, climbed over the wall and didn't look back until he was well into the field, heading towards the road, where he'd left the Mini. Halfway across the field, there was a bumpy rise, and it was here that he found the hub-cap.
He sat on a hummock with the disc on his knee. It was muddy and badly rusted, but he could still make out the symbol in the centre – two letters: VW.
'Still the same car. then, Henry. How old is it now? Twenty-two, twenty-three?'
Holding Henry's hub-cap, Powys looked back at the Tump.
I have always disliked the Tump for some reason. Some places are naturally negative.
Powys thought, sinister bloody thing that must once have appeared as alien as a gasworks or a nuclear reactor. He looked down at the wall, realizing that the section he'd climbed over was just a few yards from the part where the stonework was so obviously scraped, but hadn't collapsed because it was too hard for that. Harder than the rusting heap of twenty-year-old tin Henry Kettle drove.
From the foot of the wall, shards of broken glass glimmered like dew in the trodden-down grass.
Christ, Henry, how could this happen?
Henry, can you hear me?
Although perhaps 'natural' is not the word I want… But I am sure there is a good scientific explanation.
You misled us, Henry- nothing psychic, you kept saying. We should have realized it was just a dirty word to you, a word for phoney mediums and fortune-tellers at the end of the pier. Ancient science was your term, because it didn't sound cranky.
He could see the tracks now, grass flattened, lumps of turf wrenched out. The field was unfenced and the car must have cut across it diagonally, ploughing straight on instead of following a sharpish left-hand bend in the road.
Powys left the metal disc on the hummock and scrambled up to the road, collecting a hard look from a man driving a Land Rover pulling a trailer.
Now, if Henry was driving out of town, he'd be pointing straight at the Tump, then the road curved away, then it was directed towards the Tump again, very briefly, then came the left-hand bend and you were away into the hills.
But Henry never made the left-hand bend. The car left the road, taking him into the field. He might not have noticed what he'd done at first, if it was dark. And then the field went quite suddenly into this slope, and… crunch.
Not so far-fetched at alt, really. There'd be an accidental death verdict and nobody would delve any deeper. All the rest was folklore.
He went back into the field, walked down towards the Tump, skirting its walled-in base, not knowing what he was hoping for any more.
Come on, Henry. Give us a sign.
It began to rain. He ran to a clump of trees to shelter and to watch the Tump, massive, ancient, glowering through the downpour, as magnificently mysterious as the Great Pyramid.
Powys turned away and wandered among the trees, emerging on the other side into a clearing beside a building of grey-brown stone.
No, not the Court itself, the stable-block – now seriously renovated, he saw. There was an enormous oblong of glass set in the wall – a huge picture-window, facing the Tump.
Behind the building he could see the corner of a forecourt, where two men stood in the rain looking down on four long, grey, jagged stones.
One of the men was dark and thin and was talking to the other man in a voice which, had he been able to hear it, would probably have reminded him of a stroked cello.
'Least you can do, mate,' Andy tells you. 'Look at all the money the book's going to make. Think of it as a kind of appeasement of the Earth Spirit.'
Fiona claps her hands. 'Oh, go on, Joe. We'll all sit here and chant and clap.'
'Bastards.' You look at Rose, who smiles sympathetically. Reluctantly you stand up, and everybody cheers.
Well, everybody except Henry. 'Don't wanna play about with these old things.' Quaint old Herefordshire countryman.
Andy leaning on an elbow. I thought you weren't superstitious, Henry. Ancient science and all that. Nothing psychic.
'Aye, well, electricity's science too, but you wouldn't wanna go sticking your fingers up a plug socket.'
Thankful for his advice, you make as if to sit down.
'Not got the bottle for it, Joe?'
Ben starts clapping very slowly, and the others – except Henry – pick up the rhythm. 'Joey goes round the Bottle Stone, the Bottle Stone, the Bottle Stone…'
Crybbe was forty-five minutes away. Minor roads all the once they'd left the A49. Neither of them spoke; Fay thinking; hard, bringing something into focus. Something utterly repellent that she hadn't, up to now, allowed herself to contemplate for longer than a few seconds.
A woman in a cold miasma, frigid, rigid, utterly still. Not breathing. Past breathing… long past.
She looked in the driving mirror, and there was Arnold, the dog, sitting upright on the back seat; their eyes met in the mirror.
You saw her, Arnold. You saw something. But did I?
Did I see the ghost of Grace Legge?
Ghost. Spirit of the dead. And yet that image, the Grace thing, surely was without spirit. Static. Frozen. And the white eyes and that horrible smile with those little, thin fish-teeth.
That was her. Her teeth. Tiny little teeth, and lots of them, discoloured, brittle. The memory you always carried away, of Grace's fixed smile, with all those little teeth.
She'd been nothing to Fay, just Dad's Other Woman. No, not exactly nothing. Twenty years ago, she'd been something on the negative side of nothing. Somebody Fay had blamed – to herself, for she'd never spoken of it, not to anyone – for her mother's death. And she'd blamed her father, too. Perhaps this was why, even now, she could not quite love him – terrible admission.
She had, naturally, tried hard for both of them when she came down for the wedding. Water under the bridge. An old man's fumbling attempts to make amends and a very sick woman who deserved what bit of happiness remained for her.
Perhaps her dad thought he'd killed them both. Both his wives.
Compassion rising, Fay glanced sideways at Alex, sitting there with his old green cardigan unbuttoned and ATE USH in fading lettering across his chest.
What this was about – had to be – was that he, too, had seen something in the night.
And what must that be like for an old man who could no longer trust his own mind or even his memories? If she wasn't sure what she'd seen – or even if she'd seen anything – what must it be like for him?
Fay clinched the steering wheel lightly, and goose pimples rippled up both arms.
That's why you can't leave, Dad. You've seen something that none of your clerical experience could ever prepare you for. You're afraid that somehow she's still there, in the house you shared.
And you're not going to walk out on her again.
Henry Kettle had written.
It is very peculiar that there should have been so many big stones in such a small area.
Long after Andy and the other man had walked away Powys still stood silently under the dripping trees, staring in fascination at the recumbent stones in the corner of the courtyard.
And Andy Boulton-Trow, whom Powys hadn't seen for twelve years. Designer of the cover of The Old Golden Land. Painter of stones, sculptor of stones, collector of stone-lore.
The stones lay there, gleaming with fresh rain. Old stones,' or new stones? Did it matter; one stone was as old as another.
Stones didn't speak to him the way they spoke to Henry Kettle, but he was getting the idea. Max Goff, presumably, intended to place new stones in the spots identified by Henry.
And the obvious man to select and shape the stones – an act of love – was Andy Boulton-Trow, who knew more about the nature of megaliths than anyone in Europe. Powys had met Andy at art college, to which Andy had come after university to learn about painting and sculpture… with specific regard to stone.
From beyond the courtyard, he heard an engine start, a vehicle moving away.
Then all was quiet, even the rain had ceased.
Powys slid from the trees and made his way around the side of the stone stable-building to the comer of the courtyard where the stones lay.
Fay drove into Crybbe from the Ludlow road. The windscreen wipers squeaked as the rain eased off.
She thought. We're never going to be able to talk about this, are we, Dad? Not for as long as you live.
She stopped in front of the house to let him out. 'Thank you,' he said, not looking at her, it's been… a pleasant day, hasn't it?'
'I'll put the car away. You stay here, Arnold.'
She backed the car into the entry, a little tunnel affair in the terrace, parking too close to the wall; there was only just room to squeeze out. 'Come on, Arnold.'
Alex was waiting for them at the back door. His face was grave but his blue eyes were flecked – as they often were now – with a flickering confusion.
'Got the tea on. Dad?'
'Fay.. '. I..
He turned and walked into the kitchen. The kettle was not even plugged in.
He walked through the kitchen, into the hall, Fay following, Arnold trolling behind. At the door of the office, Grace's sitting-room, he stood to one side to let her pass.
'I'm so sorry,' he said.
At first she couldn't see what he meant. The clock was still clicking away on the mantelpiece, the fireside chair still piled high with box files.
'The back door was open,' Alex said. 'Forced.'
They must have used a sledgehammer or a heavy axe because it was a tough machine, with a metal top.
'Why?' Fay felt ravaged. Cold and hollow and hurting like a rape victim. 'For God's sake, why?'
Her beloved Revox – night-time comfort with its swishing spools and soft-glowing level-meters – had been smashed to pieces, disembowelled.
A few hundred yards of tape had been unspooled and mixed up with the innards, and the detritus was splattered over the floor like a mound of spaghetti.
The women who had, in recent years, been powerfully attracted to Joe Powys had tended to wear long, hand-dyed skirts and shapeless woollies. Sometimes they had frizzy hair and sometimes long, tangled hair. Sometimes they were big-breasted earth-mother types and sometimes small-boned and delicate like Arthur Rackham fairies.
Sometimes, when Powys fantasized – which was worryingly rarely, these days – he imagined having, as he put it to himself, a bit of smooth. Someone scented. Someone who shaved her armpits. Someone who would actually refuse to trek across three miles of moorland to find some tiny, ruined stone circle you practically had to dig out of the heather. Someone you could never imagine standing in the middle of this half-submerged circle and breathing, 'Oh, I mean, gosh, can't you feel it…can't you feel that primal force?'
The woman facing him now, he could tell, was the kind who'd rather see Stonehenge itself as a blur in the window of a fast car heading towards a costly dinner in Salisbury.
But even if she'd been wearing a home-made ankle-length skirt with a hemline of mud, clumpy sandals and big wooden ear-rings, he would, at this moment, have been more than grateful to see her.
She said, 'I think you could let him go now, Humble. He really doesn't look very dangerous.'
'Find out who he is first,' said the hard-faced bastard with a grip like a monkey-wrench, the guy he'd first seen frowning at him through the window of a Land Rover when he was checking out the Tump.
He made Powys bend over the vehicle's high bonnet, which tossed another pain-ball into his stomach.
This man had punched him in the guts with a considered precision and such penetration that he was seriously worried about internal bleeding.
'Ta very much.' Deftly removing Powys's wallet from the inside pocket of his muddied jacket. Not a local accent; this was London.
'If this is a mugging,' Powys said awkwardly, face squashed into the bonnet, 'you could be…'
'Fucking shut it.' His nose crunched into the metal, Powys felt blood come.
'Don't even twitch, pal, OK?'
'Right, then, I'm going to have a little butcher's through here, see what you got by way of ID, all right?'
'Humble, if you don't let him go I'm going to call the police.'
'Rachel, you do your job, I do mine. Our friend here don't want that. Ask him. Ask him what he was doing on private property. Ain't a poacher. Ain't got the bottle.'
He cringed, expecting Humble to tap him in the guts again to prove his point. But the pressure eased and he was allowed to stand. His nose felt wet, but he didn't think it was broken. He looked at the woman, who must be close to his own age, had light, mid-length hair and calm eyes. 'I'm sorry,' she said. 'Humble's used to dealing with the more urban type of trespasser.'
'Trespasser?' Powys wiped off some blood with the back of a hand. 'Now, look… You tell this bloody psycho…' He stopped. What could she tell him? He wondered where Andy Boulton-Trow had vanished to.
'All right now, are we?' Dipping into Powys's wallet, Humble smiled with the lower half of a face which had all the personality of a mousetrap. He pulled out a plastic-covered driving licence and handed it to the woman. She took it from him reluctantly. Opened it out. Gave a little gasp.
'Oh dear,' she said.
'Yeah, don't tell me. One of Max's bits of fluff.' Humble smirked, in which case, no problems, he'll have been enjoying himself.'
Rachel closed the licence and held out her hand for the wallet. Very carefully she put the licence back, then she handed the wallet to Powys.
'Not entirely accurate, Humble,' she said. 'And when he hears about this, Max, I suspect, is going to have you strung up by the balls.'
Police Sergeant Wynford Wiley was shaking his great turnip head. 'Mindless.'
'Mindless?' said Fay. 'You think it's mindless?'
'We always prided ourselves,' Wynford said, thick blue legs astride the wreckage. 'Never suffered from no vandalism in this town. Not to any great extent, anyhow.'
Only vandalism by neglect, Fay thought dully. She wondered why she'd bothered to call the police now. Wynford was just so sinister – like one of those mean-eyed, redneck police chiefs you saw in moody American movies set in semi-derelict, one-street, wooden towns in the Midwest.
'Think somebody would've seen 'em, though.' The gap narrowed between Wynford's little round eyes. ' 'Course, Mrs Lloyd next door, deaf as a post, see. Knock on the door, she don't answer. You got to put your face up to the window.'
Fay imagined Wynford's face, flattened by glass. Give the poor old girl a heart attack.
He said, 'Scene-of-crime boy'll be over later, with his box of tricks. I'll knock on a few doors along the street, see what I can turn up.'
He paused in the doorway, looked back at the wreckage. 'Mindless,' he said.
Fay turned to her dad for support, but Alex, gazing down his beard at the Revox ruins, had nothing to say.
'Doesn't it strike you as odd,' Fay said clinically, 'that this tornado of savagery appears somehow to have focused itself on one single item? I'm no criminologist, but I've witnessed my share of antisocial behaviour, and this, Sergeant, is not what I'd call mindless. Psychopathic, perhaps, but mindless in the sense of randomly destructive, no.'
Wynford's big, round face was changing colour. Nobody, she thought, contradicts Chief Wiley on his own manor.
'What you sayin' 'ere, then? Somebody wants to stop you broadcastin'? That it?'
'It's possible. Isn't it?
'And is it gonner stop you broadcastin'?'
'Well, no, as it happens. I.. I've got a portable tape recorder I do all my interviews on, and I can edit down at the studio in town, there's a machine there. But would they know that?'
'Listen.' Wynford was row wearing an expression which might have been intended to convey kindness. Fay shuddered. 'He – they – just came in and smashed up the most expensive thing they could find. Then, could be as 'e was disturbed – or, thought 'e was gonna be disturbed, maybe 'e yers somebody walkin' past…'
'Maybe he wasn't disturbed at all,' Fay said. 'Maybe he just left because he'd achieved what he set out to do.
'I think you're watchin' too much telly.'
'Can't very well watch too much TV in Crybbe. The power's never on for longer than three hours at a stretch.'
Wynford turned his back on her, opened the office door. Arnold walked in, saw Wynford and growled.
'See you've still got that dog Didn't leave 'im in the 'ouse, then, when you went out?'
'What? Oh. No, he came with us,' Fay said. 'What happened with the RSPCA, by the way? Does anybody want to claim him?'
'No. I reckon 'e's yours now. If 'e stays.'
'How do you mean?'
'Well. If 'e don't take off, like.'
He was wearing such a weird smile that Fay pursued him to the front door, 'I don't understand.'
Wynford shrugged awkwardly. 'Well, you might wake up one day, see, and…'e'll be… well, 'e won't be around any more.'
Fay felt menaced. 'Meaning what? Come on… what are you saying?'
Wynford's face went blank. 'I'll go and talk to some neighbours,' he said, and he went.
'Dad,' Fay said, 'I've said this before, but there's something very wrong with that guy.'
"Sorry, my dear?' Alex looked up. His eyes were like floss.
'Sit down. Dad, you've had a shock.'
'I'm fine,' Alex said. 'Fine. If there's nothing I can do here, I'll probably have an early night.'
Fay watched the policeman walk past the window, imagined him peering through it with his face squashed against the glass, like a robber in a stocking mask.
She recoiled, stared at the gutted hulk of the Revox, a bizarre idea growing in her head like a strange hybrid plant.
She turned to Arnold, who was standing placidly in the doorway gazing up, for some reason, at Alex, his tail well down.
'Christ,' Fay said.
Something had occurred to her that was so shatteringly preposterous that…
'Dad, I have to go out.'
'OK,' Alex said.
… if she didn't satisfy herself that it was completely crazy, she wasn't going to get any sleep tonight.
'You go and walk off your anger,' Alex said. 'You'll feel better.'
'Something…' Fay looked around for Arnold's plastic clothes-line. 'Dad, I've just got to check this out. I mean, it's so…' Fay shook her head helplessly. 'I'll be back, OK?'
She took J. M. Powys to her room at the Cock. The big room on the first floor that she shared with Max. But Max was in London.
The licensee, Denzil, watched them go up.]. M. Powys looked, to say the least, dishevelled, but Denzil made no comment. Rachel suspected that if she organized an orgy for thirty participants, Denzil would have no complaints as long as they all bought drinks in the bar to take up with them.
Rachel closed the bedroom door. The room was laden with dark beams and evening shadows. She switched a light on.
So this was J. M. Powys. Not what she'd imagined, not at all.
'Don't take this wrong, but I thought you'd be older.'
'I think I am older.' He tried to smile; it came out lop-sided. There was drying blood around his mouth. His curly hair was entirely grey.
'Er, is there a bathroom?'
'Across the passage,' Rachel said. 'The en-suite revolution hasn't happened in Crybbe yet. Possibly next century. Here, let me look… Take your jacket off.'
It was certainly an old jacket. The once-white T-shirt underneath it was stiff with mud and blood.
Gently, Rachel prised the T-shirt out of his jeans. The colours of his stomach were like a sky with a storm coming on. 'Nasty. That man is a liability.'
'I've never…' Powys winced, 'been beaten up by a New Age thug before. It doesn't feel a lot different, actually.'
Rachel said, 'Humble has his uses in London and New York, but… Just move over to the light, would you… really don't like the way he's going native, I caught him laying snares the other day. Look, Mr Powys, I don't know what I can do for bruising, apart from apologize profusely and buy you dinner. Not that you'll thank me for that, unless you're into cholesterol in the basket.'
'I don't mind that. I had a Big Mac the other day.'
He sounded almost proud. Perhaps J. M. Powys was as loony as his book, after all.
Addressing the fireplace, Alex said, 'Why? You've always been so houseproud. Why do this?'
He mustn't touch anything. Fingerprints. Couldn't even tidy the place up a bit until they'd looked for fingerprints. Waste of time, all that. They wouldn't have Grace on their files.
Alex started to cry.
'Why can't you two get on together?'
A tangled ball of black, unspooled tape rustled as he caught it with his shoe. Like the tape, the thoughts in his head were in hopeless, flimsy coils and, like the tape, could never be rewound.
All the way up the High Street, Fay kept her eyes on the gutter. She saw half a dozen cigarette-ends. A crumpled crisp packet and a sweet-wrapper. Two ring-pulls from beer cans. And a bus ticket issued by Marches Motors, the only firm which ran through Crybbe – twice a week, if you were lucky.
But neither in the gutter nor up against the walls did she find what she was looking for.
When Arnold stopped to cock his leg up against a lamppost, Fay stopped, too, and examined the bottom of the post for old splash-marks.
There were none that she could see, and Arnold didn't hang around. He was off in a hurry, straining on the clothes-line as he always did on the street. She'd have to get him a lead tomorrow.
Now there was a point. Fay steered Arnold past Middle Marches Crafts and the worn sign of the Crybbe Pottery, which her dad said was about to close down. There was a hardware shop round the corner.
Hereward Newsome was emerging from The Gallery. 'Oh, hi, Fay. Out on a story?'.
'You're working late.'
'We're rearranging the main gallery. Making more picture space. Time to expand, I think, now the town's taking off.'
'God, yes, you must have noticed that. Lots of new faces about. Whatever you think of Max Goff, he's going to put this place on the map at last. I've been talking to the marketing director of the Marches Development Board – they're terribly excited. I should have a word with him sometime, they're very keen to talk about it.'
'I will. Thanks. Hereward, look, you haven't got a dog, have you?'
'Mmm? No. Jocasta had it in mind to buy a Rottweiler once – she gets a little nervous at night. Be good deal more nervous with a Rottweiler around, I said. Hah. Managed to talk her out of that one, thank God.'
'Do you know anybody who has got one?'
'No, any sort of dog.'
'Er… God, is that the time? No, it's not something I tend to notice, who has what kind of dog. Look, pop in sometime; there's a chap – artist – called Emmanuel Walters. Going to be very fashionable. You might like to do an interview with him about the exhibition we're planning. Couple of days before we open, would that be possible? Give you a ring, OK?'
She nodded and smiled wanly, and Hereward Newsome walked rapidly away along the shadowed street, long strides, shoulders back, confident.
Fay dragged Arnold round the corner to the hardware shop. Like all the other shops in Crybbe, there was never a light left on at night, but at least it had two big windows – through which, in turn, she peered, looking for one of those circular stands you always saw in shops like this, a carousel of dog leads, chains and collars.
There wasn't one.
No, of course there wasn't. Wouldn't be, would there? Nor would there be cans of dog food or bags of Bonios.
The streets were empty and silent. As they would be, coming up to curfew time, everybody paying lip-service to a tradition which had been meaningless for centuries. She was starting to work it out, why there was this artificial kind of tension in the air: nobody came out of anywhere for about three minutes either side of the curfew.
Except for the newcomers.
'Fay. Excuse me.'
Like Murray Beech.
Walking across the road from the church, one hand raised, collar gleaming in the dusk.
'Could I have a word?'
When he reached her, she was quite shocked at how gaunt he appeared. The normally neatly chiselled face looked suddenly jagged, the eyes seemed to glare. Maybe it was the light.
Fay reined Arnold in. There was a sense of unreality, of her and the dog and the vicar in a glass case in the town centre, public exhibits. And all the curtains parting behind the darkened windows.
Sod this. Sod it!
'Murray,' she said quite loudly, very deliberately, 'just answer me one question.'
He looked apprehensive. (In Crybbe, every question was a threat.)
Fay said, 'Do you know anybody with a dog?' The words resounded around the square.
The vicar stared at her and his head jerked back, as if she'd got him penned up in a corner with her microphone at his throat.
'Anybody,' Fay persisted. 'Any kind of dog. Anybody in Crybbe?'
'Look, it was about that I…'
'Because I've been scouring the gutters for dog turds and I can't find any.'
'Not one. Not a single bloody dog turd. Surprise you that, does it? No dog turds in the streets of Crybbe?'
Fay became aware that she was coiling and uncoiling the clothes-line around her fingers, entwining them until the plastic flex bit into the skin. She must look as mad as Murray did. She felt her face was aflame and her hair standing on end. She felt she was burning up in the centre of Crybbe, spontaneous emotional combustion in the tense minutes before the curfew's clang.
'No dog turds, Murray. No dog leads in the shops. No…' The sensation of going publicly insane brought tears to her eyes. 'No rubber bones…'
Murray pulled himself together. Or perhaps, Fay thought, in comparison with me it just looks as though he's together.
'Go home. Fay,' he said.
'Yes,' Fay said, 'I will.'
With Arnold tight to her legs, she turned away and began to walk back in the direction she'd come along the silent street. It was nearly dark now, but there were no lights in any of the houses.
Because people would be watching at the windows. The woman, the vicar and the dog. A tableau. A little public drama.
She turned back. 'It's true, though, isn't it? Apart from Arnold here, there aren't any dogs in Crybbe.'
'I don't know,' Murray said. It was obvious the idea had never occurred to him. 'But… well, it's hardly likely, is it?' She couldn't see his face any more, only his white collar, luminous like a cyclist's armband.
'Oh yes,' Fay said, 'it's likely. Anything's likely in this town.'
'Yes, well… I'll just. -. I'll just say what I've been asked to say before… before you go.'
There came a heavy metallic creak from the church tower. The bell swinging back.
It had never sounded so Loud. The peal hit the street like a flash of hard, yellow light.
Arnold sat down in the road and his head went back.
Fay saw him and fell on her knees with both hands around his snout. As the first peal died, Murray Beech said, 'I've been asked… to tell you to keep the dog off the streets.'
'Especially at… curfew time. People don't… they don't like it.'
Rage rippled through Fay. She looked up into the vicar's angular, desperate face.
Her hands unclasped. She came slowly to her feet.
She watched as Arnold swallowed, shook his head once and then quivered with the vibration from the tower as the great bell swung back.
Arnold's first howl seemed to rise and meet the peal in the air above the square with an awful chemistry.
'Who?' Fay said quietly.
'Go home!' the vicar hissed urgently. 'Take the thing away.'
'Who told you to tell me?'
There was a shiver in the night, the creak of the bell hauled back.
Fay shrieked, 'Who told you, you bastard?'
The bell pealed again, like sheet-lightning. Arnold howled. The old buildings seemed to clutch each other in the shadows.
And she was hearing the muffled clatter of his footsteps before she was aware that Murray Beech was running away across the square, as if Hell was about to be let loose in Crybbe.
You really didn't have to go to all this trouble,' J. M. Powys said. 'Chicken in the basket would have been fine.'
Rachel said, 'Care to send down for some?'
'Forget it.' He was remembering how she'd massaged the bruises on his stomach with her lips. What happened? How did this come about?
The room, overlooking the cobbled square, bulged from the Cock's aged frame above an entryway. Once, they'd heard footsteps on the stones directly underneath.
Lights shone blearily from town houses, and the room's leaded windows dropped a faint trellis on the sheets.
They lay in complete silence for a long time before he turned to her and said, 'Er… well…'
'Don't look at me' Rachel said. 'I certainly didn't intend it to happen. I know I'm hardly the person to claim she isn't a whore, but we didn't even know each other until a couple of hours ago. And I'm not actually promiscuous. Most of the time these days I can take it or leave it.'
It had been the curfew which had seemed to shatter the idyll. They'd fallen apart, Powys feeling bewildered, Rachel looking almost perturbed.
He didn't even remember getting into bed. They hadn't drunk anything, or smoked anything and it was not yet ten-thirty. He'd quite fancied her, certainly, but there'd been other things on his mind. Like serious pain.
He thought she was smiling. It felt like she was smiling. In her deep and opulent voice, she said, 'Perhaps we should think of it as one of those whirlwind passions.'
'Well, I'm glad you're not annoyed,' said Powys. He couldn't remember much until the curfew, crashing in like an alarm clock hauling him out of a hot dream. 'That curfew,' he said. 'Kind of eerie, don't you think? Did you hear a dog howling at the same time, at one point? Or was that me?'
'No, it was a dog all right. Really rather spooky, J.M.'
'Why do people keep calling me J.M.?'
'It sounds classier than Joseph Miles.'
He remembered the circumstances in which she'd seen his driving licence. Suddenly his stomach was hurting again.
Tell me,' she said. 'Are you really a descendant of John Cowper Powys?'
I wouldn't entirely rule it out.' To take his mind off the pain, he flicked aside a few strands of fine, fair hair to admire the curve of her long neck. 'Hey, look, what would Max Goff say if he found out I'd been in his bed with his…?'
His… what, exactly?
'Don't worry about that, he'd be honoured. I'm only a minion; you're his inspiration. But he isn't going to find out.' Rachel turned her face towards him. I won't even tell him you were trespassing on his property.'
'I wasn't trespassing. It was what you might call an exploratory tour.'
'Quite,' said Rachel. 'You were snooping.'
'Well, probably. Look, I really am sorry about…'
'J.M., I'm not a virgin. The unwritten part of my job description includes ensuring that the boss goes to sleep fully relaxed.'
'What?' He was shocked.
'Routine,' Rachel said dismissively. 'Like winding up an alarm clock.'
'Stone me.' He found this impressively cool and candid. And rather sad. He felt a faintly surprising tenderness coming on.
'I must say.' Rachel said, 'I was genuinely surprised to find out who you were. I was rather expecting]. M. Powys to be a vague, if benevolent old cove in a woolly hat and half-moon glasses. By the way, I think your book's a dreadful sham. Do you mind?'
'Golden Land?' He started to smile. He'd been right about Rachel. Nothing Arthur Rackham about this woman. 'Why do you think that? No, I don't mind at all. I don't bruise as easily is a cursory examination might suggest.'
'Well, let's not talk about that now.'
'No, go on. Talk about it.'
'Really?' Rachel faced him across the bed, not touching. OK. Well, the central premise, if I have this right, is that there's a hidden link between us and the earth, a link known to our remote ancestors, but which we've forgotten about.'
'The psychic umbilicus.' As time went on, Powys had grown less and less convinced he'd written this crap.
'And, by going to the various ancient shrines, stone circles, holy wells, places like that, we can unblock the doorways and find our way back, as it were, into the Old Golden Land. Which seems to be your metaphor, or whatever, for this kind of harmony with the environment, feeling a part of one's surroundings. Us and the earth feeding each other?'
Powys nodded. 'What's wrong with it so far?'
'Nothing at all,' Rachel said. 'Perfectly commendable. Except it's translated itself into all these old hippies staggering about with their dowsing rods and holding up their hands and feeling the Earth Spirit. I mean – let's be realistic about this – if these are the people with the keys to the cosmos, then God help us.'
Powys was impressed. 'I think you could be my ideal woman."
'Jesus,' said Rachel. 'You really are mixed up.'
After a minute or two, he said, 'I got a lot of it wildly wrong. It was nearly thirteen years ago, that book. I was too young to write it. I'd like to do it again. Or better still, I'd like not to have done it in the first place.'
'It's a bit late for that,' Rachel said. 'You do realize you're largely responsible for Max's very costly fantasies?'
'What does that mean?'
'It means he's going to be the first king of the Old Golden Land, and he wants you to be the Royal Scribe and tell the world about it.'
'Oh, my God. You think I should disappear?'
Rachel pulled his left hand to her breast. 'Not just yet. If you really have found the flaws in your own arguments, I can't help wondering if you ought not be the one person who can bring him to his senses.
Jocasta Newsome didn't know which was worse: spending a night in with Hereward or being alone.
She thought about lighting a fire, but, like most aspects of country life, it had lost its magic.
Could she ever have imagined there'd come a time when a log-fire in an open fireplace would not only fail to induce a small romantic thrill but would actually have become, a drag? In the end, she'd been forced to admit that logs were messy, time-consuming and not even very warm. The only one who got overheated was Hereward, chopping away and coming in covered with sweat – nearly as damp as most of his logs, which were so full of sap that when you threw them on the fire they just sat there for hours and hissed at you.
And the Aga, of course. Very attractive, very prestigious for dinner parties. But it wasn't made to run all the radiators one needed for a barn like this. If they wanted proper oil-fired central heating, they'd have to install a boiler – electric heating was, of course, out of the question with all the power cuts and Hereward turning white when the quarterly bill arrived.
It had now become Jocasta's ambition to make sufficient money out of The Gallery to sell it and acquire premises somewhere civilized. With or without Hereward, but preferably without.
This morning Rachel Wade had phoned to say Max Goff had been terribly pleased with the Tump triptych. And would they please look out for more pictures of ancient sites. Or any local landscapes by local artists.
Local artists! There were none. Even Darwyn Hall was Birmingham-born.
This afternoon, just before closing time – after school, presumably – another 'local' artist had called in. A girl of seventeen or eighteen. An odd, dark, solemn girl. Would they like to put on an exhibition of her drawings?
Well, God forbid it should ever come to that. Children's drawings!
The girl's portfolio was now propped against the antique pine dresser in the kitchen – 'Yes, of course we'll look at them my dear, but our artists do tend to be experienced professionals you know.'
She'd let Hereward examine them when he returned from his weekly attempt to become accepted in the public bar of the Cock by proving he could be as boring as the natives. If they only knew how far ahead of them in the boredom stakes he really was, he'd never have to buy his own drinks again.
Jocasta stretched like a leopard on the sofa.
She herself was bored out of her mind. Farmers were said to shag sheep in these hills. Maybe she should go out and find a ram.
'Sex magic.' Rachel was telling Powys the sordid story of her life as Goff's overpaid PA. 'That was the other thing that almost pushed me over the edge.'
'Isn't all sex magic?' Thinking, particularly, of tonight.
'Certainly not,' said Rachel.
'Yeah, I know. I do know what you're talking about. Aleister Crowley, all that stuff?'
Rachel said, 'Fortunately, it didn't last. Though Crowley was about the same build as Max, Max couldn't summon Crowley's stamina. Not too pleasant while it lasted, though. Lots of dressing up and ritual undressing. The idea appeared to be to build up the power and then direct it at the moment of orgasm. He was the Great Beast, I was…'
The Scarlet Woman?' Powys vaguely remembered Crowley's autobiography, remembered not finishing it.
'Terribly tawdry,' Rachel said. 'Needless to say, it didn't work – or I presume it didn't. Point is, Max isn't a wicked man, it's just a case of what you might call Bored Billionaire Syndrome. You've got all the money you'll ever want, all the women and all the boys. But you're not… quite… God.'
'What can one do about this minor shortfall?'
Rachel said, 'He's doing it.'
And Powys nodded, resigned, as she told him about Goff's plans to restore the prehistoric legacy of Crybbe. 'Crybbe's Max's psychic doorway. His entrance to your Old Golden Land.'
'As identified by Henry Kettle.'
'And how reliable was he? Is dowsing for real?'
'It was in Henry's case. Henry was red hot.'
'The modern equivalent of the Stone Age shaman.'
'Who said that?'
'Figures,' Powys said. He sighed. 'Last night I went round to Henry's house to pick up his papers, his journal. Apparently he wanted me to have them. Anyway, it was pretty clear Henry had a few misgivings about what Goff was asking him to do – well, not so much that as what he was finding. He didn't like the Tump.'
'I don't like the Tump,' Rachel said.
'And leys – we don't really know anything about leys. All this energy-lines stuff is what people want to believe. Henry was quite impatient with the New Agers and their designer dowsing rods. He used to say we shouldn't mess with it until we knew exactly what we were messing with.'
Powys watched the lattice of light on the bedspread. 'A more plausible theory says leys are spiritual paths to holy shrines, along which the spirits of the ancestors could also travel. Evidence shows a lot of psychic activity at places where leys cross, as well as mental disturbance, imbalance.'
'Obviously the place to bring out the best in Max,' Rachel said drily. 'Excuse me, J.M, I need a pee.'
In the end, Jocasta had gone ahead and lit a fire, for what it was worth. The logs fizzed, the flames were pale yellow and the smoke seeped feebly between them, as she lay on the sheepskin rug enjoying, in a desultory way, a favourite fantasy involving the Prince of Wales in his polo outfit.
There was a crack from the logs and something stung her leg. Jocasta screamed and leapt up. A smell of burning – flesh probably – made her beat her hands against her thigh in panic.
She switched on a table-lamp with a green and yellow Tiffany shade and stood next to it, examining her leg.
Nothing visible, except a tiny smudge, Jocasta licked a finger and wiped it away, pulled down her skirt and was swamped by a sudden mud-tide of self-disgust.
From the living-room window she could see the lights of the town through the trees at the end of the paddock. The paddock itself was like a black pond. She fetched from the kitchen the portfolio of drawings brought in by the girl. If the kid was any good at all, she might sell them very cheaply. Not in the gallery itself, of course, but in the small gift section they were setting up in a little room at the side.
Jocasta sat on the sofa and opened the portfolio by the light of the Tiffany lamp.
At first she was simply surprised. She'd expected landscapes and she'd expected an immature hesitancy of touch.
So the things that surprised her were the strength and vigour of the drawing in Indian ink, spatters and blotches used for effect, boldly controlled in the manner of Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman.
And the fact that they were not landscapes, but interiors with figures.
An old man shaving.
The eyes, wide open, magnified in a shaving mirror to alarming effect. The chin tilted, the throat uplifted to the razor.
A tumbler on a window-ledge collecting the blood.
At first she was simply surprised.
Then the shock set in. The realization, with a rush of bile to the throat, of what was depicted in the drawing. She tore her gaze away, covering the drawing, in horror, with her hands.
Then the lights went out.
Through the window, she saw that the lights of the whole town had gone out, too.
Jocasta didn't move. She was sitting there on the sofa staring into the sputtering half-dead logs in the grate, but seeing, swimming in her mind, the image of the thing on her knee, still covered by her hands, an old man cutting his own throat with
She thought she was sweating at first.
Under her hands the paper felt wet and sticky and, like the sap oozing from the green logs on the open fire, something warm seemed to be fizzing and bubbling between her fingers.
Jocasta let the portfolio fall to the floor and shrivelled back into the sofa, almost sick with revulsion.
J. M. Powys stood by the window, bare feet on bare boards. Looking down on the street, at a few customers emerging from the main entrance of the Cock directly below. The last he saw before all the lights went out was a couple of men stumbling on the steps and clutching at each other, obviously drunk but not conspicuously merry.
He'd been here several times, but never at night. Never heard the curfew before. And now, as if the curfew had been a warning that the town would close down in precisely one
hour, somebody had switched off the lights.
Such coincidences were not uncommon on the border.
He remembered manufacturing the phrase The Celtic Twilight Zone as the title for Chapter Six of Golden Land.
The border country – any border country – has a special quality. Two cultures merging, two types of landscape, an atmosphere of change and uncertainty. In such places, it used to be said, the veil between this world and others is especially thin. Border country: a transition zone… a psychic departure lounge…
Rachel returned, slipped out of the robe, joined him at the window, naked. The moon was out now, and her slender body was like a silver statuette.
'You get used to it,' Rachel said, 'living in Crybbe.'
'It seems we're on the end of a power line, or something. So whenever there's a problem elsewhere it trips a switch and the whole valley goes off. Something like that. It'll be back on in a few minutes, probably.'
Powys put out a hand to her then held back and put the hand on the cool window-ledge. Things to sort out first, before he allowed himself to forget.
'Henry Kettle,' he said. 'His car went out of control and crashed into the wall around the Tump. Freak accident. What did Goff have to say about that?'
Rachel said, 'You don't want to hear that. Come back to bed, J.M.'
They did go back to bed. But she told him anyway.
'The nearest thing to a Stone Age shaman. I mentioned that.'
She lay in the crook of his arm, his hand cupped under her breast.
Powys said. 'Nobody knows a thing about Stone Age shamans or what they did.'
'Maybe it was Bronze Age.'
'Know bugger all about them either.'
'Max said they would sometimes sacrifice themselves or allow themselves to be sacrificed to honour the Earth Spirit or some such nonsense.'
'Theory,' Powys said.
'He said it must have been like that with Henry Kettle. Getting old. Knew he was on borrowed time. So he… consciously or subconsciously, he decided to end it all and put his life energy into Max's project. Max was standing there looking at the wreckage of Kettle's car. "Whoomp!" he kept saying. "Whoomp!" And clapping his hands.'
'OK, you've convinced me,' Powys said. 'This guy's wanking in the dark, and he has to be stopped before it goes all over everybody…'
Arnold whimpered. Fay awoke, feeling the dog trembling against her leg.
Although the bedroom light was out, she knew somehow that all the lights were out.
Knew also that in the office below, the little front room that had been Grace Legge's sitting-room, she was in residence. Pottering about, dusting the china and the clock. The empty grin, eye-sockets of pale light.
And would she see, through those resentful, dead sockets, the hulk of the wrecked Revox and the fragments of its innards sprayed across the room?
Or was that not a part of her twilit existence?
Oh, please… Fay clutched Arnold.
Probably there was nothing down there.
Most of the natives once stood in superstitious awe of the
ancient standing stones which are dotted up and down
Radnorshire. Even today there are farmers who prefer to
leave the hay uncut which grows round such stones and
some people avoid them at night as they would a
W. H. Howse,
History of Radnorshire
Around mid-morning. Fay picked up the phone and sat there for several minutes, holding it to her ear, staring across the office, at nothing. The scene-of-crime man had just left, a young detective with a metal case. Lots of prints on the Revox and the desk, but they'd probably turn out to be her own and her father's, the SOCO had said cheerfully, fingerprinting them both. Everybody was a bit of a pro these days. He blamed television.
Fay held the phone at arm's length as it started making the continuous whine that told you you'd knocked it off its rest. She looked into the mouthpiece. The SOCO had fingerprinted that as well.
She tapped the button to get the dialling tone back. Could she really make this call?
… And what's the story. Fay?
It's very bizarre, Gavin. The fact is, I've discovered there are no dogs in Crybbe.
No dogs in Crybbe.
None at all. That is, except one.
Just the one.
Yes, mine. That's how I found out.
I see. And how come there are no dogs in Crybbe, Fay?
Because they howl at the curfew bell, Gavin. People don't like that.
That figures. But if there are no dogs in Crybbe, how do you know they howl at the curfew?
Well, I don't. I'm assuming that's the case, because Arnold howls at it. That's Arnold, my dog. Least, I think he's my dog.
Yes, well, thank you very much. Fay. Look, this illness your old man's got. This dementia. Anything hereditary there, by any chance?
Fay crashed the phone down.
Arnold lay at her feet, an ungainly black and white thing with monster ears and big, expressive eyes.
The only dog in Crybbe.
This morning, Fay had gone out soon after dawn into intermittent drizzle. She'd followed a milkman, at whom no dogs had barked no matter how carelessly he clanked his bottles. She'd followed a postman, whose trousers were unfrayed and who whistled as he walked up garden paths to drop letters through letter-boxes and on to doormats, where they lay unmolested by dogs.
She'd walked down by the river, where there was a small stretch of parkland with swings for the children and no signs warning dog owners not to allow their non-existent pets to foul the play area.
Finally, at around 8.15, she'd approached a group of teenagers waiting for the bus to take them to the secondary school nine miles away.
'Does any of you have a dog?'
The kids looked at each other. Some of them grinned, some shrugged and some just looked stupid.
'You know me, I'm a reporter. I work for Offa's Dyke Radio. I need to borrow a dog for an item I'm doing. Can any of you help me?'
'What kind of dog you want?'
'Any kind of dog. Doberman… Chihuahua… Giant wire-haired poodle.'
'My sister, she had a dog once.'
'What happened to it?'
'Ran away, I think.'
'We 'ad a dog, we did.'
'Where's it now?"
'I was your dog, I'd run off,' another kid said and the first kid punched him on the shoulder.
'Listen, what about farm dogs? Mr Preece, has he got a sheepdog?'
'Got one of them Bobcats.'
'Like a little go-kart thing with four-wheel drive. Goes over hills. You got one of them, you don't need no sheepdog.'
'Yes,' Fay had said. 'I think I see.'
She didn't see at all.
Powys left Crybbe before seven and was back before ten, a changed man.
He wore a suit which was relatively uncreased. His shoes were polished, his hair brushed. He was freshly shaven.
He parked his nine-year-old Mini well out of sight, in the old cattle market behind the square, and walked across to the Cock, carrying a plausible-looking black folder under his arm. Taking Rachel's advice.
'Don't let him see you like that. You have to meet his image of J. M. Powys, so if you can't look older, at least look smarter. Don't let him see the car, he mustn't think you need the money – he's always suspicious of people who aren't rich. And you don't know anything about his plans.'
'Isn't Humble, the New Age minder, going to tell him he caught me nosing around?'
'I think not.'
He entered the low-ceilinged lobby of the Cock, where all the furniture was varnished so thickly that you could hardly tell one piece from another. It was like sitting in a tray of dark chocolates left on a radiator. Powys wedged himself into what he assumed to be an oak settle, to wait for Rachel.
Guy Morrison would be here, she'd told him, starting work on a documentary. He'd once worked with Guy on a series of three-minute silly-season items on Ancient Mysteries of the West for a Bristol-based regional magazine programme – J. M. Powys hired as the regular 'expert interviewee'. His clearest memory was of the day he'd suggested they look beyond the obvious. Taking Guy down to Dartmoor to see a newly discovered stone row believed to be orientated to the rising moon. He remembered the TV reporter looking down with disdain at the ragged line of stones, none more than eighteen inches high, barely below the level of his hand-stitched hiking boots. 'Let's move on,' Guy had said, affronted. Tm not doing a piece to camera in front of that.'
Presently, the Cock's taciturn licensee, Denzil George emerged from some sanctum and glanced across. He displayed no sign of recognition. Still been in bed, presumably, when Powys was sliding out of a side door into the alley just after six-thirty this morning.
'…do for you?" Denzil said heavily. Powys thought of some shambling medieval innkeeper, black-jowled, scowling, lumpen-browed.
'Nothing at all, thanks, mate. I'm waiting for… ah, this lady, I think.'
Rachel had appeared on the stairs, sleek in a dark-blue business suit. 'Mr Powys?'
'Good morning. Am I too early?'
'Only a little. We're terribly glad you were able to make it. Mr George, I'm taking Mr Powys along to the Court, so if Mr Goff calls in, tell him we've gone on ahead, will you? And lunch as arranged, OK?'
Rachel tossed a brilliant smile at the licensee, and Denzil stumped back into his lair, where Powys imagined him breakfasting on a whole loaf of bread without slicing it.
'Very svelte,' said Rachel, surveying Powys on the steps outside.
'You're surprised, aren't you? You thought I probably hadn't worn a suit since the seventies. You thought it was going to be the wide lapels and the kipper tie.'
'Had a momentary fear of flares, then decided you were too young,' Rachel said flatteringly. 'Come along, J.M.'
A few minutes later he was admiring her thighs pistoning in and out of the dark skirt, as she drove the Range Rover, impatiently pumping the clutch, long fingers carelessly crooked around the wheel.
'We're going to the Court?'
'Couple of hours before they all arrive. I thought you'd like to see the set-up, or lack of one.'
She drove directly across the square and then thrust the vehicle into a narrow fork beside the church. Powys remembered coming out of this lane last night in the same seat, nursing his nose, feeling foolish.
The nose still hurt. But this morning, he thought, with a kind of wonder, he was feeling more… well, more focused than he had in years.
And he wanted to know more about Rachel.
She swung the Range Rover between stone gateposts, briefing him about today's lunch. 'Informal gathering of the people at the core of the venture. New Age luminaries. A few supportive locals – newcomers, mostly. And Max's advisers.'
Rachel parked in the courtyard. 'Of course, you know him.'
'All earth-mysteries people know each other. Andy – we were at an college together, which is where The Old Golden Land started. Both got into mystical landscapes. Auras around stone circles, Samuel Palmer moons over burial mounds on the Downs. Andy was a mature student, he'd already been to university.'
'He seems a very deep guy. Laid-back.'
'I suppose so,' said Powys.
Rachel parked outside the stable-block. 'Max says Boulton-Trow's knowledge of stones and prehistoric shamanic rituals is second to none.'
'But you wrote the book,' Rachel said.
Powys smiled. 'Andy professes to despise commercial books on earth mysteries. Comes from not needing the money.'
'Inherited wealth. Something like that. Never discussed it.'
Rachel said, 'And who's Rose Hart?'
'She took the pictures for the book,' Powys said quietly.
Rachel made no move to get out of the vehicle.
'There were four of us,' Powys said, looking straight through the windscreen. 'Sometimes five. Andy and me and Rose, who was studying photography, and Ben Corby, who thought of the title – comes from an old Incredible String Band song – and flogged the idea to a publisher.'
He paused. 'Rose was my girlfriend. She's dead.'
'Don't talk about it if you don't want to,' Rachel said. 'Come and look at the crumbling pile before the others arrive.'
Rachel had keys to the Court. One was so big it made her bag bulge, 'watch where you're stepping when we go in. It's dark.'
Not too dark to find Rachel's lips.
'Thanks,' he said quietly.
Rachel didn't move. The house was silent around them.
Back from the town, around mid-morning, Fay came in quietly through the kitchen door; Arnold didn't bark. He was shut in the kitchen with Rasputin, who was glaring at him from a chair. Arnold seemed glad to see her; he wagged his tail and planted his front paws on her sweater.
'Good boy,' Fay said.
Then she heard the wailing. A sound which clutched at her like pleading fingers.
'Stay there,' she hissed. 'Stay.'
Wailing. The only word for it. Not the sound of a man in physical pain, not illness, not injury.
She moved quietly into the hallway. The office door, two yards away, was ajar. Little was visible through the gap; the curtains were drawn, as they might be, she thought, in a room where a corpse is laid out.
Her movements stiff with dread, Fay removed her shoes, padded to the door, and peeped in.
In the office, in the dead woman's sitting-room, the drawn curtains screening him from the street. Canon Alex Peters was sobbing his old heart out.
He was on his knees, bent over the slender wooden arm of the fireside chair in which Grace Legge had seemed to materialize. His head was bowed in his arms and his ample shoulders trembled like a clifftop before an avalanche.
Fay just stood there. She ought to know what to do, how to react, but she didn't. She'd never known her dad cry before.
When he'd displayed emotions, they were always healthy, masculine emotions. Bluff, strong, kindly stuff.
In fact, not emotions at all really. Because, most of the time Alex, like many clergymen, was an actor in a lot of little one-man playlets put on for the sick, the bereaved and the hopeless.
He'd be mortified if he thought she'd seen him like this.
Fay crept back across the hall. It was so unbearably sad. So sad and so crazy.
So desperately wrong.
She moved silently back into the kitchen and attached Arnold's clothes-line to his collar. 'Let's go for a walk,' she whispered. 'Come back in an hour and make a lot of noise.'
As she slowly turned the back-door handle, a trailing moan echoed from the office.
'I will,' Alex sobbed. 'I'll get rid of her. I'll make her go.'
His quavering voice rose and swelled and seemed to fill the whole house. A voice that, if heard in church, would freeze a congregation to its pews, cried out, 'Just – please – don't hurt her!'
Fay walked away from this, quickly.
This really was a rope dangling from the steepest part of the roof. Powys could just about reach its frayed end. 'Careful,' Rachel warned. 'You'll fall into the pit.'
The rope felt dry and stiff. 'This is a touch of black humour?'
'Well, it's obviously not the original rope, J.M. Somebody probably put it there to hold on to, while doing repairs or something. Creepy up here, though, isn't it?'
The attic was vast. There were small stabs of blinding daylight here and there, signifying holes in the roof or missing slates. Underfoot, jagged gaps through which you could see the boarded floor of the room beneath.
'I don't know why I brought you up here, really.' Rachel said, 'I usually avoid this bit – not that I'm superstitious.'
She was spotlit by two thin beams from roof-gaps. He remembered her standing next to him, naked, in the window last night, pale, slim, silvery. She'd brought a small flashlight, and he shone it to the upper extremity of the rope, where it was tied around a beam.
'How many poor bastards did the Hanging Sheriff dispose of up here?'
'Hard to say, he was only sheriff for a year. But you could be hanged for most things in those days. Stealing cattle or sheep, picking your nose in church…'
That's how Wort got his rocks off, do you think? Watching people dangle?'
Rachel wrinkled her nose in distaste. 'They say he was obsessed with what you might call the mechanics of mortality, what happens the moment the spirit leaves the body. Him and his friend, John Dee.'
'Not the John Dee?'
'The guy who was Elizabeth I's astrologer. His old family home's along the valley.'
'Of course it is,' said Powys, remembering. 'It's a farm now. I went over there when 1 was doing Golden Land. Somebody told me Dee had been into ancient sites and dowsing.'
'Well, he must have been into hanging, too.' Rachel said. 'If he was a mate of Michael Wort's.'
A jet of wind flew across the attic with a thin whine like a distant baby crying. The rope started to sway, very slowly.
Powys said, 'He was certainly into magic, but back in the sixteenth century magic and science were filed in the same drawer.'
He put out a hand to stop the rope swinging. He didn't like this rope with its dangling strands – somehow more disturbing than if there'd been an actual noose on the end. A sense of something recently severed.
'Anyway,' said Rachel, 'the last hanging up here was Wort's own. There was some sort of peasants' revolt in the town, and one night they all gathered outside wielding flaming torches and threatening to burn the place down unless he came out.'
'We know you're in there…' Powys said flippantly, still holding the rope, not feeling at all flippant.
'So he shuffled up here and topped himself. That's one story. Another says there was a secret tunnel linking this place with Crybbe church and he escaped.'
'Where was he buried?'
'I don't know,' Rachel said. 'I never really thought about it. Probably at some crossroads with a stake through his heart, wouldn't you think? Naturally, they say he haunts the place – or rather his dog does.'
The town. The outskirts. The quiet lanes at sunset. Over the years, according to Max, people have claimed to come face to face with this big black dog with glowing eyes. And then they die, of course. Like in The Hound of the Baskervilles.'
Powys took his hand away from the rope, and it began to swing again, very gently.
'Rachel, luv,' he said, 'can you hear voices?'
'Shit.' Rachel moved to the stairs. 'Nobody was supposed to be here for another hour.'
She went swiftly down the steps, Powys following, not wanting to be left alone up here, where Rachel believed the only danger was the unstable floor. Blessed are the sceptics. For they shall be oblivious of the numinous layers, largely unaffected by the dreary density of places, unbowed by the dead-weight of ancient horror.
While people like me, he thought, would no more come up here alone than pop into a working abattoir to shelter from the rain.
Only a short way down the stairs, Rachel disappeared.
Powys shone the torch down the twisting stone steps. The beam just reached to the great oak door at the bottom.
'Rachel!' He felt panic in his throat, like sandpaper. There was a creak to his left; he spun round and the beam found a shadowed alcove he hadn't noticed on the way up here.
Suddenly, white light blasted him and he hid his eyes behind an arm.
'This,' Rachel said, from somewhere, 'is the only part of the house I really like.'
'What's known as a prospect chamber.'
The window directly facing them, almost floor to ceiling, was without glass. In fact, it wasn't really a window, simply a gap between two ivy-matted gables. A rusting iron bar was
cemented into the gap at chest-height.
The prospect chamber was tiny, too small for any furniture. But it had a view.
Powys's eyes widened.
He saw they were directly above the cobbled forecourt. Then there were the two gateposts and then the straight road through the wood. Over the tops of the trees he could see the weathercock on the church tower.
Without the wood, the town would be at his feet.
And everything – the gateway, the road, the church – was in a dead straight line.
He'd seen this view before.
In fact, if he turned and looked over his shoulder…
He did turn and looked only into blackness.
But if he could see through the walls of the house, what he would see behind him, following the same dead straight line… would be the Tump.
'Is this opening as old as the house?'
'I presume so,' Rachel said. 'Spectacular, isn't it?'
'Which means Wort had it built. Maybe this is why John Dee came here, nothing to do with the bloody hangings. Rachel, have you ever actually seen a ley-line?"
'It's textbook. In fact…' He leaned across the iron bar, not pushing it because it didn't look too steady. This is the strongest evidence I've seen that the ley system was recognized in Elizabethan times. We know that John Dee occasionally came back to his old home and during those times he studied dowsing and investigated old churches and castle sites. He called it, in his records and his letters, treasure hunting. But what kind of treasure, Rachel? You know, what I think..
He stopped. There were the voices again.
'Humble,' Rachel said. 'And somebody else.'
Powys's stomach contracted painfully.
'I don't think Humble actually got round to apologizing to you, did he?' said Rachel.
'l owe him one.'
'Don't even contemplate it. He's a very nasty person. Ah, they were waiting for Max.'
The black Ferrari hit the gravel with an emphatic crunch. Humble stepped out and opened the driver's door. Andy Boulton-Trow was with him.
'I don't like the company he keeps either,' Powys said.
'Humble? Or Boulton-Trow?'
Rachel said, 'Is there something I don't know about you and Boulton-Trow?'
Joey goes round the Bottle Stone,
The Bottle Stone, the Bottle Stone,
Joey goes round the Bottle Stone,
Ana he goes round…
They all look at Andy.
'It's widdershins,' he says.
'What?' says Ben.
'Widdershins. Anticlockwise. You're going round the wrong way, Joe.'
'Because that's what you have to do. I was watching a bunch of kids. It's traditional. Widdershins, OK?'
You shrug, but you aren't entirely happy about this. Old Henry Kettle gets up, turns his back and walks off, down towards the river.
'OK,' Ben says. 'Start again.'
Sod it. Only a game You start to tramp slowly around the stone. There's a smile on your face because what you're thinking about is how much you love Rose and how glad you are that they managed to get her name on the cover.
And he goes round… ONCE.
When Guy came to the door, Fay simply pretended there was nobody in, knowing it had to be her ex-husband calling in on the way to his lunch date with Max Goff and his cohorts.
Knowing, also, that if Guy was in the mood he was arrogant enough to have lined her up as today's emergency standby leg-over. Fay, hi! (Long time, no bonk!)
Behind the bathroom door she clenched her fists.
There was a second ring.
Fay sat on the lavatory with the lid down. The lid was still topped by one of Grace's dinky little light-green candlewick loo-mats.
Grace. Her dad thought that Grace Legge, dead, had smashed the Revox. Somehow. It was insane. And there was no way they could talk about it.
There was no third ring.
Arnold sat at Fay's feet and wagged his tail. He never reacted to the doorbell.
Only the curfew bell.
'Arnold,' Fay said, 'do you want to talk about this?' Arnold looked at her with sorrowful eyes. Even when his tail was wagging his eyes were sorrowful.
She held his muzzle between her hands. She couldn't remember ever feeling so confused, so helpless. So completely wiped out.
The phone rang in the office. Fay drifted down to answer it, not in any hurry. She wished she'd put on the answering machine, but the thing had been disabled so many times by power cuts that she'd almost abandoned it.
There was a hollow silence at the other end.
'Mrs Morrison?' A local accent. Male.
'Yes. Who's that?'
'Mrs Morrison, you been told.'
'Have I? Told what?'
'So this is your last warning, Mrs Morrison. You 'ave till weekend.'
'To do what?'
But, of course, she knew.
'And what if I don't?' Fay said grimly. 'What if I say I have no intention of even considering getting rid of the dog? Especially as nobody seems prepared to explain what the hell this is all about?'
'You been told,' the voice said. 'And that's it.'
Gomer Parry did plant hire.
He operated from an old wartime aircraft hangar up the valley, outside the village where he lived. In this hangar he had two lorries, the heaviest tractor in the county, a big JCB, a small JCB and these two bulldozers.
You didn't hire the equipment; what you hired was Gomer Parry, a tough little bloke with mad, grey hair and wire-rimmed glasses.
Been a farmer for nearly twenty years before the magic of plant hire had changed his life. sold most of his land to buy the old hangar and the machinery. Gomer Parry: sixty-four now, and he never looked back.
Gomer could knock buildings down and make new roads through the forestry. He could dig you a new septic tank and a soakaway that soaked away even in Radnorshire clay. And during bad winters the highways authority always hired him as a snow-plough.
This was the only time that other people recognised the truly heroic nature of his job. They'd pour out of their homes, dozens of them, as he busted through the last snowdrift to liberate some remote hamlet that'd been cut off for a fortnight. Big cheers. Mug of tea. Glass of Scotch. Good old Gomer.
But last winter had been a mild winter. Bugger-all snow anywhere. And only Gomer saw the heroic side of the other things he did.
A few months ago he'd done this broadcast about the perils of digging drainage ditches and such. Explaining it to that little girl from the local radio. How, for him, it was like a military exercise – although not modern military; more like in these epic films where the knight gets into his armour, which is so heavy he has to be winched on to his horse. It was in these terms that Gomer Parry spoke on the radio of his life at the controls of the JCB.
Probably gave the listeners a good laugh. Certainly didn't bring him any more work. He couldn't remember a worse year, the local farmers – his regular clients – tighter than ever. Constipated buggers sitting there waiting for a laxative from Brussels. Farmers wouldn't fart these days unless they got an EC grant for it.
So Gomer Parry, feeling the pinch, had been very near excited when he had a phone call from Edgar Humble.
He'd played darts with Edgar Humble in the public bar at the Lamb in Crybbe. Edgar didn't say much, which was unusual for a Londoner; he just kept beating you at darts. But Gomer knew who employed him, and that was why he was very near excited when he got the call, because from what he'd heard here was a bloke who was going to need plenty plant hire.
'Knock walls down, can you?' Edgar Humble asked.
'What kind of walls?'
'Stone wall. Victorian, I'd say. Thick, solid. Five, six feet high. Couple of feet thick in places. Too much for yer?'
Gomer had almost laughed down the phone. 'Put it this way,' he said, if I'd been in business round Jericho way, all those years ago, they wouldn't have needed no bloody trumpets.'
'Max,' Rachel said, 'this is J. M. Powys.'
Max Goff put on his Panama hat. Bizarre, Powys thought. Eccentric. But not crazy. Those are not crazy eyes.
Goff looked at Powys for a good while. He had a beard like red Velcro. 'How long you been here?'
'Since last night,' Powys said steadily. 'I stayed at the Cock.'
'Yeah? Shit hole, huh? I hope you put it on my tab.' Goff grinned at last and stuck out a stubby hand. 'Hi, J. M. Welcome to Crybbe. Welcome to the Old Golden Land.'
Powys took the hand. Goff's grip was flaccid. Powys said, 'You think this is the Old Golden Land?'
The countryside was colourless. Mist was still draped around the Court like grimy lace curtains.
'Not yet,' Goff said. 'But it will be. Listen, if I'd known you were here I'd've driven back last night.'
'That's OK. Ms Wade was looking after me.'
Rachel was standing behind Goff in the courtyard. Powys deliberately didn't look at her. Neither, he noticed, did her boss, the man who overpaid her for little extras.
Goff jerked his Velcro chin at the two men at his side. 'This is Edgar Humble, my head of security.'
'Mr Humble,' Powys said tightly.
'And Andy Boulton-Trow, who of course you know, yeah?'
Andy wore a white shirt and black jeans. Close up, he looked even thinner than he'd been twelve years ago. You could see the bones flexing in his face as he smiled. It was a quick, wide smile.
It made Powys feel cold.
'Andy,' he said quietly.
'Long time, my friend.' Andy's hair, once shoulder-length, was shaven right to the skull, and he was growing a beard. It would be black.
They hadn't met since Rose's funeral.
Goff said, 'Now Henry Kettle's gone, Andy's my chief adviser in the Crybbe project. Andy knows stones.'
Chief adviser. Jesus.
There was a big difference between Andy Boulton-Trow and Henry Kettle. What it came down to was: Henry would have said, don't mess with electricity until you know what you're doing. Andy would say, sure, just hold these two wires and then bring them together when I give you the nod, OK?
'So you lost Henry,' Powys said.
Andy dropped the smile.
'Tragic,' Goff said. 'There's gonna be a Henry Kettle memorial.'
A memorial. Well, that was all right, then. That made up for everything.
'We haven't decided yet where it's gonna go.'
'But somewhere prominent,' Andy said.
Powys didn't say a thing.
'J.M.,' Goff said, 'we need to talk, you and I. At length. I have a proposition. Hell, we all know each other, I'll spell out the basics. I want you to write me a sequel to Golden Land for Dolmen. I want it to be the Crybbe story. The – hey, what about this? – The New Golden Land.'
Goff beamed and looked round, Powys thought, for applause.
'What I'm talking here, J. M., is a substantial advance and the quality republication in under a year's time of the original Golden Land, to pave the way. Revise it if you like. New pictures. In colour. Whatever.'
Sure. Scrap Rose's pictures, Powys thought dully. Get better ones.
'And there's a place for you here.'
'A place to live. A beautiful house with a view of the river. Part of the deal. Rachel will take you there after we eat.'
'Mr Goff…' He wondered why people kept giving him houses.
'I have a place already. I run a little shop in Hereford called Trackways, which…'
'I know,' said Goff.
'… which is more than a shop. Which is a kind of museum to Alfred Watkins as well, the only one of its kind in Hereford, which…
'But it doesn't need to be in Hereford,' Goff said. 'And it doesn't have to be a little shop. Come over here.'
He led Powys to a corner of the courtyard and pointed across the field behind the stables, about a hundred yards from the Tump, where the trees began to thicken into the wood.
'As befits the stature of the man, the Watkins Centre needs to be a major development in, let's say, an eighteenth-century barn.'
On the edge of the wood was a massive, tumbledown barn complex, beams and spars poking out of it like components of a badly assembled dinosaur skeleton.
'Place needs to be big enough to house a huge collection of Watkins's photographs and ley-maps, and scores of original paintings of ancient sites. And it needs to be here. In Crybbe.'
Powys felt like a cartoon character who'd been flattened by a steam-roller and become a one-dimensional mat.
Lowering his voice, Goff said, 'I know your situation, J.M. I know you put all the money from Golden Land into Trackways, and I know how difficult it must be keeping Trackways afloat."
He clapped Powys on the back. 'Think about it, yeah?'
Goff strolled back to the silent group of three standing next to the Ferrari. 'Rach, there's been a slight change of plan. We have lunch at two, we spend the afternoon in discussion groups then we assemble, early evening, at the Tump.'
Powys saw part of a cobweb from the attic floating free from a padded shoulder of Rachel's blue business suit.
'A ceremony,' Goff said. 'To launch the project. We're gonna knock down the wall around the Tump. Maybe that's where Mr Kettle's memorial should be. We're gonna finish what he began. We're gonna liberate the Tump.'
Andy Boulton-Trow nodded.
Goff grinned massively. 'It's the beginning,' he said. 'Come on, let's get back to the Cock, see who shows up.'
From the top of the farmyard there was a fine view of the river and the Welsh hills behind. But Jimmy Preece and his son Jack were looking, for once, the other way, up towards the Court. This was a view Jack had been conditioned, over the years, to avoid – as if, when he emerged from the farmyard gates, he was to wear an imaginary patch over his right eye.
This afternoon a great black cloud hung over the Tump.
Below it, the bulldozer was bright yellow.
'Gomer Parry's,' Jack said.
'Sure t'be," Jimmy said. 'And only one reason 'e's down there.'
'So what you gonner do, Father?'
'No choice, Jack. I shall 'ave to 'ave a word with 'im when 'e gets back.'
The two men stood in silence for over a minute.
Then Jack mumbled, almost to himself. 'Sometimes… sometimes I wonders, well, so what? What if 'e do come down, that ole wall? An' the ole bell… what if 'e don't get rung some nights?'
Jimmy Preece was too certain of his son even to reply. Jack was like him. Jonathon was like Jack. And Warren – well, Warren was only a second son, so it didn't matter, anyway, about Warren.
The Mayor was about to walk away, back into town, when he heard Jack saying, '… And the ole box. If the ole box is gone, do it matter?'
Jimmy Preece stopped and turned and walked back very slowly to where Jack stood, a bigger man than Jimmy, habitually in dark-green overalls.
'The ole box?'
'I don't know, Father, 'e's gone. Maybe. Might've gone. Hard to say, isn't it, without pulling the whole wall out?'
Jimmy Preece said, 'Can't 'ave gone, Jack. Sometimes them ole bricks subside. I told you, anyway, leave 'im alone, that old box. Keep 'im walled up. Tell Jonathon when 'e's thirty and married. Never tell Warren.'
'Found some bits of plaster and stuff in the fireplace,' Jack said. 'Poked about a bit and the bricks fell out the cavity.'
'Put 'em back, block 'em up.'
'That's what I was doin'. Cavity, though, see, cavity was empty, Father.'
'That case, you got a job to do, Jack. You get in there and find where the box's fallen to, then you put 'im back on the ledge and you seals the bugger up proper. And another thing, Jack, you get that dog seen to. Last night…'
'I know. Yeard 'im from the belfry even. I phoned 'er up. I give 'er till weekend.'
'This is the weekend,' said Jimmy Preece. 'Get Jonathon to do it.'
Jack Preece looked down at his boots. 'Gets to me sometimes, Father, that's all. Why us?'
He walked off without saying goodbye, because none of the Preeces ever said goodbye to each other; only 'Ow're you' on Christmas morning.
The one time Rachel had seen Guy Morrison, at a preliminary meeting with Max in London, he'd been wearing a lightweight suit with sun-glasses in the breast pocket and carrying a briefcase and a mobile phone.
Today, Guy was in director mode. He wore denims and a leather pouch, like a holster, on his belt. He had blond hair and craggy features. A TV man from central casting, Rachel thought. At his shoulder stood a dumpy, stern-faced girl with straight black hair and a waterproof clipboard.
Hustling J.M. off to the Cock, Goff had told Rachel over his shoulder, 'Morrison wants to do a few exterior shots of the Court with nobody about. Stick around till he shows, Rach, keep an eye on him.'
'Who is this, Catrin?' Guy Morrison asked the black-haired girl in Rachel's hearing. 'Remind me.'
'Guy, this is Rachel Wade, Max's PA.' Catrin's accent had a clipped sibilance Rachel identified as north-west Wales.
'Of course, yes.'
Rachel offered him a languid hand. 'We've spoken on the phone.'
Guy Morrison look the hand and held it limply for an extra moment, looking steadily, unsmiling, into her eyes. 'You're almost everything your voice implied, Rachel Wade.'
'Good,' said Rachel, with a tight, tired smile.
Guy Morrison dropped Rachel's hand, stepped back, looked around the courtyard then up into the sky again, where clouds and mist still formed a damp canopy.
He frowned. 'I wanted some GVs today. Establishing shots. But this weather's not conducive. At all. So I've told the crew, Rachel Wade, to set up in that stable-place. Acceptable to you, yes?'
'Because what I thought I'd do after lunch is bang off a brief opening interview with Max Goff. Background of sawing and rubble everywhere. Traces of sawdust on the white suit, emphasizing the hands-on approach. May not use it, but I'm not happy unless there's something in the can on Day One.'
'You'd better see how he feels about that.'
Guy Morrison nodded and turned away. She watched him pace the courtyard, looking up at the hills fading into mist and at the Court itself, grey and spectral in us small hollow, like an old galleon half-sunk into a mud-flat.
When they arrived back at the Cock, close to 1 p.m., a car was being parked on the square, close to the steps: a silver-grey Ford Escort with an Offa's Dyke Radio sticker on its windscreen.
The driver got out and came over.
'Rachel, is it? Could I just have a word?'
Guy Morrison, peering at the car-sticker and registering it was only local radio, went ahead, up the steps, with his assistant.
'I'm from Offa's Dyke Radio. We carried a report yesterday without checking the details with you.'
Rachel had never seen this person before He was a shortish, muscular man, about twenty-five, with a half-grown moustache.
'Word reached me you weren't happy about what went out, and I just want you to know I've looked into it. Gavin Ashpole, News Editor. You'll be seeing more of me.'
'Good,' said Rachel dismissively. 'Now if…'
'Problem is, we've been using a freelance. Fay Morrison, in Crybbe, but it hasn't been working out.'
'Apart from this one instance,' Rachel said, 'I don't think…'
'So, from now on, any major stories in this area, we're going to handle direct. What Mr Goff's doing amounts to a major story, naturally, so if there's anything you want to say, anything you want to get out on Offa's Dyke Radio, you call me direct. Here's my card.'
'In fact – this is off the record – we're considering putting a staff reporter into Crybbe. Especially if your thing takes off and the population starts to expand.'
'In which case' – Ashpole spread his hands, palms down in a flat, cutting movement – 'we'd simply stop using Morrison altogether.'
'I see,' Rachel said.
What an appalling little creep, she thought.
Over a bland buffet lunch – carnivores catered for, but strictly no smoking – Max Goff explained his plan to publish, in perhaps two years' time, The Book of Crybbe.
'Gonna be an illustrated record of the project,' said Goff. He paused and looked into his audience. 'And a blueprint for the Third Millennium.'
Warm applause. They'd needed extra tables in the dining room at the Cock.
Goff said, 'I've asked J. M. Powys to write the book. Because his work remains, to my mind, the most inspiring evocation of a country still able to make contact with its inner self.'
Powys smiled modestly. The magical, mystical J. M. Powys. Too old, he thought miserably, to become someone else. Too young not to want to.
About forty people were there, some from London and elsewhere, to hear about the project and consider getting involved. Thin, earnest men in clean jeans and trainers and women in long skirts and symbolic New Age jewellery. Powys didn't know most of them. But he felt, dispirited, that he'd met them all before.
There was a delicate-looking tarot-reader called Ivory with a wife old enough to be his mother and big enough to be his minder. A feminist astrologer called Oona Jopson, in whose charts, apparently, Virgo was a man. She had cropped hair and a small ring through her nose.
After Goff sat down, Powys listened idly to the chat. He heard an experimental hypnotist talking about regression. 'I've got an absolute queue of clients, mostly, you know, from London, but what I'd really like is to get more of the local people on the couch…'
Apart from Andy Boulton-Trow, the only person he'd actually encountered before was the spiritual healer, Jean Wendle, from Edinburgh, who was older than the rest, grey-haired with penetrating eyes.
'This really your scene, Jean?'
'This? Heaven forbid. Crybbe, though… Crybbe's interesting.'
'Well, goodness, Joe, you said it. If you hadn't revealed what a psychically charged area this was, none of us would be here at all, would we?'
'You're very cruel.'
She narrowed her eyes. 'Come round one night. We can discuss it. Anyway… She smiled at him. 'How are things now?'
He looked around the room for Rachel, couldn't see her.
'I think things are finally looking up,' he said.
Later, Goff took him into a corner of the dining-room and lowered his voice.
'Confidentially,' he said, 'I need somebody who understands these matters to make sure this arsehole Morrison doesn't screw it up. Part of the deal, he uses you as script consultant. No J. M. Powys, no documentary. J. M. Powys disagrees with anything, it doesn't go out.'
That'll be fun.'
Goff put a hand on Powys's arm. 'Hey, you know when I first knew I had to have you write the book?'
Powys smiled vacantly, beyond embarrassment.
'See, when I first came to Crybbe, the very first day I was here, I look around and suddenly I can see this about the border country being a spiritual departure lounge. I'm standing down by the river, looking over the town to the hills of England on one side and the hills of Wales on the other. And that other phrase of yours, about the Celtic Twilight Zone, I'm hearing that, and I'm thinking, yeah, this is it. The departure lounge. It just needs a refuel, right? You know what I'm getting at here? You can feel it in this room right now. All these people, all reaching out.'
'Maybe they're reaching out for different things.'
'Ah shit, J.M., it's all one thing. You know that. Down to generating energy and throwing it out. What you put out you get back, threefold. Jeez, pretty soon, this town is gonna glow'
'Seems to me there are things you need to work out, Joe,' Andy Boulton-Trow said. 'Maybe this is the place to do it.'
Those lazy, knowing, dark-brown eyes gazing into your head again, after all these years. I can see your inner self, and it's a mess, man.
Andy was probably Goff's role-model New Ager. He had the glow. Like he'd slowed his metabolism to the point where he was simply too laid-back to be affected by the ageing process.
'Let's talk,' Andy said, and they took their wine glasses into the small, shabby residents' lounge just off the dining-room.
Andy lounged back on a moth-eaten sofa, both feet on a battered coffee-table. Somehow, he made it look like the lotus position.
He said, 'Never got over it, did you?'
Powys rolled his wine-glass between his hands, looking down into it.
'I mean Rose,' Andy said.
'It was a long time ago. You get over everything in time.'
Andy shook his head. 'You're still full of shit, Joe, you know that?'
'Look,' Powys said reasonably, trying to be as cool as Andy. 'We both know I should never have gone round the Bottle Stone. And certainly not backwards.'
'Bottle Stone?' Andy said.
'And certainly not backwards. I should have told you to piss off.'
'I'm not getting you,' Andy said.
'What I saw was.. Powys felt pain like powdered glass behind his eyes. 'What I saw was happening to me, not Rose.'
'You had some kind of premonition? About Rose?'
'I told you about it.'
Andy shrugged. 'You had a premonition about Rose. But you didn't act on it, huh?'
'It was me.'
'You failed to interpret. That's a shame, Joe. You had a warning, you didn't react, and that's what's eating you up. Perhaps you've come here to find some manner of redemption.'
Andy shook his head with a kind of laid-back compassion.
If it was a big job, Gomer Parry worked with his nephew, Nev. Today Nev had just followed him up in the van and they'd got the smaller bulldozer down from the lorry, and then Nev had pushed off.
No need for a second man. Piece of piss, this one.
Unless, of course, they wanted him to take out the whole bloody mound.
Gomer chuckled. He could do that too, if it came to it.
He was sitting in the cab of the lorry, listening to Glen Miller on his Walkman. The bulldozer was in the field, fuelled up, waiting. Not far away was a van with a couple of loudspeakers on its roof, such as you saw on the street at election time. Funny job this. Had to be on site at one o'clock to receive his precise instructions. Seemed some middle bit had to come out first. Make a big thing of it, Edgar Humble had said. A spectacle. No complaints there; Gomer liked a bit of spectacle.
With the Walkman on, he didn't hear any banging on the cab door. It was the vibrations told him somebody was trying to attract his attention.
He took off the lightweight headphones, half-turned and saw an old checked cap with a square patch on the crown, where a tear had been mended. Gomer, who was a connoisseur of caps, recognized it at once and opened his door.
'What you doin' yere, Gomer?' the Mayor, Jimmy Preece, asked him bluntly.
'I been hired by that Goff,' Gomer said proudly. 'He wants that bloody wall takin' out, he does.'
'Does he. Does he indeed.'
'Some'ing wrong with that, Jim? You puttin' a bid in for the stone? Want me to go careful, is it?'
Jimmy Preece took off his cap and scratched his head. Even though it was still drizzling, he didn't put the cap back on but rolled it up tighter and tighter with both hands.
'I don't want you doin' it at all, Gomer,' he said. 'I want that wall left up.'
'Oh aye?' Gomer said sarcastically. 'Belongs to you, that wall, is it?'
The Mayor's eyes were watery as raw eggs. 'You're not allowed, take it from me, Gomer, that's a fact. Been there for centuries, that wall. He'll have a protection order on 'im, sure to.'
'Balls,' said Gomer. 'I was told he was Victorian, no older'n that.'
'Well, you was told wrong, Gomer. See, I don't want no argument about this. No bad feeling. Just want you to know that we, that is me and Jack and several other prominent citizens of this area, includin' several farmers and civic leaders, would prefer it if the wall stayed up.'
Gomer couldn't believe it.
'Just 'ang on, Jim, so's I gets this right. You're sayin' if I falls that thing, then…'
Jimmy Preece tightened his old lips until his mouth looked like a complicated railway junction.
'You bloody well knowed why I was yere, di'n't you?' said Gomer. 'You knowed exac'ly.'
'I been invited,' the Mayor said sadly. 'That Goff, 'e phoned me up and invited me to watch. Silly bugger.'
'So what you're sayin', if I brings him down, that wall you'll…'
'I'm not sayin' nothin',' the Mayor said firmly. 'I got no authority to order you about, and I don't intend…'
'Oh no, Jim, you're only bloody threatenin' me! You'n sayin' if I starts workn' for Goff, then I don't get no work nowhere else around yere. Right?'
Gomer levelled a grimy forefinger at the Mayor. 'You bloody stay there! Don't you bloody move! I'll get a witness, an' you can say it again in front of 'im.'
The Mayor said calmly, 'You won't find no witnesses in this town as'll say I threatened you, Gomer, 'cause I 'aven't. You can do what the hell you likes for Mr Goff.'
' "Cept pull that wall down, eh?'
' "Cept pull that wall down,' the Mayor agreed.
What have you got to lose?' Rachel had asked him, and he wondered about this.
The cottage was on a little grassy ridge, overlooking the river. Rachel told him Max had been so taken with the little place he'd thought of spending nights here himself until work on the stable-block was finished. But, with extra builders, overtime, bonuses, it looked as if the stables would be habitable within the next few days. And Max had to spend a long weekend in London, anyway.
'So it's yours,' Rachel said, if you want it.'
It had only four rooms. Kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and this small, square living-room, with a panoramic, double-glazed view downstream.
'A writer's dream,' Rachel said non-committally.
'Furnished, too,' Powys said.
'It was a second home. The first thing Max's agent did was acquire a list of local holiday homes and write to the owners offering disproportionate sums for a complete deal, basic furniture included. Just over a third of them said yes within two days – boredom setting in, wouldn't it be nice to have one in Cornwall instead? Then, out of the blue, here's Fairy Godfather Goff with a sack of cash.'
'And you say he's in London for the weekend?'
'That's the plan,' Rachel said. 'But – you may be glad to hear, or not – I'm staying.'
Powys kissed her.
'Mmm. I'm staying because there's a public meeting to organize for next week. The people of Crybbe come face to face with their saviour for the first time and learn what the New Age has to offer them.'
'Should be illuminating. You think any of them know what New Age means?'
'J.M., even I don't know what it means. Do you?'
'All I was thinking, if it involves having big stones planted in their gardens, country folk can be a tiny bit superstitious, especially stones their ancestors already got rid of once.'
Rachel perched on the edge of a little Jotul wood-burning stove. She licked a forefinger and made the motions of counting out paper money. 'Rarely fails,' she said. 'And if they're really superstitious, they can always move out and sell Max the farm for…'
'A suitably disproportionate sum,' said Powys. 'It's another world, isn't it? So, er, you'll be on your own this weekend.'
Rachel moved a hip. She was wearing tight wine-coloured jeans and a white blouse. Max suggests I move out of the Cock and into the stables.'
'But nobody'll be there to know one way or the other, will they?' Powys had been quite taken with the reproduction brass bed upstairs.
'There's Humble, in his caravan. He doesn't like me.'
'Does he like anybody?'
'Debatable,' said Rachel.
'I'm sure we can work something out. What's the rent on this place, by the way?'
'I think it's part of the advance against royalties. There'll be an agreement for you to sign. This gives you a small – small to Max, but not necessarily to you – lump sum as well. If you don't finish The Book of Crybbe he gets the cottage back. He also reserves the right to install standing stones or other ritual artefacts on your lawn.'
'Rachel, luv, help me. What do I do?'
'My advice? Take it, but ask for a bigger lump sum. He won't double-cross you. He's a very determined man. The town does not know what's hit it. Not yet. I'd feel better if you were here as some sort of fifth column. He'll listen to you.'
Powys shook his head, bemused.
Perhaps you've come here to find some manner of redemption.
All he had to do was make one phone call and Annie would dive on the chance of taking over Trackways for an unspecified period. Just her and Alfred Watkins and an ever-broadening selection of New Age trivia. It might even start making a reasonable profit.
Rachel said, 'One more thing. If you'd like a word processor, please specify the make and model, to match your existing software.'
Powys thought about this, chin in hands, patched elbow on the pine dining-table. 'New ribbon for the Olivetti?'
When they reached the Tump, they split up, for the sake appearances. It was 7 p.m. The rain was holding off, but the evening was very still and close, the sky hanging low, looking for trouble.
Rachel looked around and saw quite a big semi-circle of people, many more than had been at the lunch.
Word had got around that something was going to happen. Word very soon got around in this town, she'd found.
'What's going on, Ms Wade?' Jocasta Newsome was posing dramatically against the lowering sky in a glistening new ankle-length Barbour, conspicuously more expensive than Rachel's.
'Max is going to get rid of the wall around the Tump.'
'Oh,' said Jocasta, disappointed. 'That's all?'
'It's a major symbolic gesture,' Rachel said patiently.
'Is that a television camera?'
'They're making a documentary about Max.'
'Oh.' Jocasta brightened. 'That's… er… oh, Guy Morrison, isn't it? I think he's rather good, don't you?'
'Yes, excellent,' Rachel said absently. 'Excuse me.'
She'd seen Fay on the edge of the field, with the dog still on the end of a clothes-line. Fay looked forlorn in a royal-blue cagoule that was too long for her. She wore no make-up and her hair was damp and flattened.
'I know,' she said. 'Don't tell me. He's here.'
'Do you mean Guy? Or the Offa's Dyke man?'
Fay raised both eyebrows. 'Surrounded, am I?'
'I'm sorry about this. Fay, I really am.'
'They rang me,' Fay said. 'Offa's Dyke rang and said, don't bother with it, we're covered. I think they're trying to edge me out.'
'Ashpole's a tedious little man.'
'Poisonous,' Fay said.
'Fay, look, perhaps there's something…' If she could somehow turn Max round, fix it so he'd only talk to Fay. Most unlikely.
'Not your problem, Rachel, if I can't function here. Tempted to blame it on the town, but that's the easy answer, isn't it?' Fay grinned, if you really want to do something, I suppose you could suggest Ashpole might get some terrific actuality of the wall coming down if he stood directly beneath it…'
She wound the end of the clothes-line more firmly around her hand. 'Come on, Arnold, we'll go down by the river.'
Max Goff was on the summit of the Tump. He had a microphone on a long lead. The dripping trees were gathered around him.
Crouched under a bush, Guy Morrison's cameraman was shooting Goff from a low angle. It would look very dramatic, this apparition in white against the deep-grey sky and the black trees. On his knees next to Goff, as if in worship, Guy's soundman held a two-foot boom mike encased in a windshield like a giant furry caterpillar.
There were two big speakers on the roof of a van at the foot of the mound.
'This has been a dramatic and tragic week,' said Goff.
'Yeah, not too bad for level,' the soundman said.
'It fucking better be, pal,' the assembly heard, 'I'm not saying it again.'
Behind the speaker van, Powys smiled.
Guy Morrison said, 'I'm not pleased with him, Joe. He dropped this on me without any warning at all. A spontaneous idea, he said. He's got to learn that if he wants spontaneity we have got to know about it in advance.'
I have always disliked the Tump for some reason.
Powys thought, What does the wall mean, Henry? Why is there a wall around it?
He scrambled across the field, away from the crowd, unable to shake the feeling that perhaps getting rid of the wall was not the best thing to do – but wondering whether this feeling had been conditioned by Henry's misgivings about the mound.
Halfway across the field he saw the hub-cap from Henry's Volkswagen, glinting in a bed of thistles. It reminded him that his own car was still parked in a layby alongside the road at the end of this field.
Henry's journal was in the car.
Bloody stupid thing to do. Anybody could have nicked the car, gone off with the journal.
Behind him Goff's voice boomed out of the speakers. 'I'm glad-ad that-at so many of you were able to come today-ay.'
Powys moved swiftly through wet grass towards the road. He reached it at a point about fifty yards from the layby. The white Mini was there; it looked OK.
'Is that your car?'
A lone bungalow of flesh-coloured bricks squatted next to the layby, and at the end of its short drive stood a stocky, elderly woman in a twinset and a tartan skirt, an ensemble which spelled out: incomer.
'Yes, it is,' Powys said, taking out his keys to prove it; unlocking the boot.
'You arrived just in time, dear, I was about to report it to the police.'
'Yes, I'm sorry, I got delayed.'
Actually, I was beaten up and then went to bed with a woman I'd never seen before but whose voice I'd heard on my answering machine, but you don't want to hear about all that.
Henry Kettle's journal lay where he'd left it, on top of the spare tyre.
'What's going on over there?' She had a Midlands accent.
'They're pulling down the wall around the mound.'
'Why are they doing that?'
Did she really want to know this? 'Well, because it's a bit ugly. And out of period with the Tump. That's what they say.'
'I'll tell you one thing, dear, that wall's never as ugly as the thing in the middle. I don't like that thing, I don't at all. My husband, he used to say, when he was alive, he used to say he'd seen prettier spoil-heaps.'
'He had a point,' Powys said, opening the driver's door.
'I'm on me own now, dear. It frightens me, the things that go on. I'd leave tomorrow, but I wouldn't anywhere near get our money back on this place, not the way the market is. It wouldn't buy me a maisonette in Dudley.'
Powys closed the car door and walked over.
'What did you mean, it frightens you?'
'You from the local paper, dear?'
'I'm a writer. My name's Joe Powys.'
'I've never heard of you, my love, but don't take it to heart. Mrs Seagrove, Minnie Seagrove. Would you like a cup of tea? I'm always making lea for people in that layby. Lorry drivers, all sorts.'
'I won't put you to that kind of trouble,' said Powys. 'But I would like to know what, specifically, frightens you about that mound?'
Mrs Seagrove smiled coyly. 'You'll think I'm daft. That girl from the local radio thinks I'm daft. I ring her sometimes, when it gets on top of me, the things that go on.'
'What things are those? I'll tell you honestly, Mrs Seagrove, I'm the last person who's going to think you're daft.'
Following the river. Fay walked Arnold down the field, towards the bridge, close to where she and Rachel had gone with the bottle of wine on a sunny afternoon that seemed like weeks and weeks ago.
It was one of Fay's 'thinking' walks. She wanted, as someone once said, to be alone.
Before leaving, she'd pored over some of the books in her small 'local' collection – Howse's History of Radnorshire, Ella Mary Leather's The Folklore of Herefordshire, Jacqueline Simpson's The Folklore of the Welsh Border. Not quite sure what she was looking for.
Anything to do with dogs, really. Dogs and bells.
There'd been separate entries on both. Two books referred to the Crybbe curfew, one of only a handful still sounded in British towns – purely tradition – with two of them along the Welsh border. There was all the usual stuff about the bequest of Percy Weale, wealthy sixteenth-century wool merchant, to safeguard the moral welfare of the town. One book briefly mentioned the Preece family as custodian of the tradition.
Fay untied Arnold's clothes-line. He snuffled around on the riverbank, going quite close to the water but never getting his paws wet. Interested in something. Perhaps there were otters. The river looked fat, well-fed by rain.
Not raining now, but it probably would before nightfall, the clouds moving in together like a street gang, heavy with menace.
It was only since coming to Crybbe that Fay had begun to regard intangibles like the sky, the atmosphere, climatic changes as… what? Manifestations of the earth's mood?
Or something more personal. Like when a mist seemed to cling to you, throwing out nebulous tentacles, as if you and it… as if it knew you.
And the atmosphere hereabouts – threatening or blandly indifferent – was not an expression of the earth's mood so much as… She stopped and stared across the darkening river at the huddle of Crybbe.
Not the earth's mood, but… the town's mood.
This thought came at the same moment as the shot.
The riverside field was empty, the clouds united overhead, thick and solid as a gravestone. There were no more shots and no echo, as if the atmosphere had absorbed the shock, like a cushion.
Everything still, the field unruffled, except for a patch of black and white – and now red – that pulsed and throbbed maybe twenty yards from Fay.
'Arnold?' she said faintly. 'Arnold?'
From where Rachel was standing. Max Goff, arms folded, resembled an enormous white mushroom on the Tump.
In tones which, roughed by the speakers, didn't sound as reverent as they were perhaps intended to, Goff paid a brief tribute to Henry Kettle, said to be among the three finest dowsers in the country, killed when his car crashed into the obscene Victorian wall built around this very mound.
'No way we can know what went through Mr Kettle's head in those final moments. But I guess there was a kind of tragic poetry to his death.'
Rachel closed her eyes in anguish.
'And his death… began a minor but significant preliminary task which I intend to complete today.'
Max paused, looked down at his feet, looked up again. The cameraman could be seen zooming in tight on his face.
'The Victorians had scant respect for their heritage. They regarded our most ancient burial mounds as unsightly heaps which could be plundered at will in search of treasure. And to emphasize what they believed to be their dominance over the landscape and over history itself, they liked to build walls around things. Maybe they had a sense of the awesome terrestrial energy accumulating here. Maybe they felt threatened. Maybe they wanted to contain it.'
Or maybe they didn't fool themselves it even existed, Rachel thought cynically.
'But whatever their intention.' Goff began to raise his voice. 'This wall remains a denial. A denial of the Earth Spirit.'
He lifted an arm, fist clenched.
'And this wall has to come down as a first symbolic act in the regeneration of Crybbe.'
People clapped. That is, Rachel noticed, members of the New Age community clapped, raggedly.
'Only it won't be coming down today,' Humble said.
Rachel's eyes snapped open.
'We got a problem, Rachel. This is Mr Parry. The bulldozer man.'
A little man in wire-rimmed glasses stuck out a speckled brown hand. 'Gomer Parry' Plant Hire.'
'How do you do,' said Rachel suspiciously. 'Shouldn't you be down there with your machine?'
'Ah, well. Bit of a miscalculation, see,' said Gomer Parry. 'What it needs is a bigger bulldozer. See, even if I hits him high as I can reach, that wall, he'll crash back on me, sure to. Dangerous, see.'
'Dangerous,' Rachel repeated, unbelieving.
'Oh hell, aye.'
'OK. So if it needs a bigger bulldozer,' Rachel said carefully, 'then get a bigger bulldozer.'
'That,' said Gomer Parry, 'is, I'm afraid, the biggest one I got. Other thing is I got no insurance to cover all these people watchin'.'
Rachel said, very slowly, 'Oh…, shit.'
'Well, nobody said it was goin' to be a bloody circus,' said Gomer Parry.
Goff stood there, on the top of the Tump, still and white; monarch of the Old Golden Land.
He was waiting.
He came across the field in loose, easy strides, the twelve- bore under his arm, barrel pointing down. He wore a brown waterproof jacket and green Wellingtons.
It was darker now. Still a while from sundown, but the sun hadn't figured much around here in a long time.
'Sorry, miss.' Cursory as a traffic warden who'd just handed you a ticket. 'Shouldn't 'ave let 'im chase sheep, should you?'
It was only afterwards she realized what he'd said. Fay, on her knees, blood on her jeans, from Arnold.
The dog lay in the grass, bleeding. He whined and twitched and throbbed.
'Move back, miss. Please.'
And she did. Thinking it had all been a horrible mistake and he was going to help her.
But when she shuffled back in the grass, almost overbalancing, he strolled across and stood over the dog, casually levelling his gun at the pulsating heap.
Fay gasped and threw herself forward, on top of Arnold, feeling herself trembling violently, like in a fever, and the dog hot, wet and sticky under her breasts.
'Now don't be silly, miss. 'E's done for, see. Move away, let me finish 'im off.'
'Go away!' Fay screamed. 'Fuck off!' Eyes squeezed closed, lying over Arnold. The dog gave a little cry and a wheeze, like a balloon going down.
'Oh no,' Fay sobbed. 'No, please…'
Lying across the dog, face in the grass, blind anger – hatred – rising.
They both saw the dog fall, not far from the river, a blur of blood. The woman running, collapsing to her knees. Then the man wandering casually across the field.
'The bastard. Who is he?'
'Jonathon Preece,' Mrs Seagrove said, white-faced, clinging to her gate. 'From Court Farm.'
'What the hell's he think he's doing?'
'I wish I could run,' Mrs Seagrove said, her voice quaking with rage and shock. 'I'd have that gun off him. Look…'
She clutched his arm. 'What's he doing now, Joe? He's going to shoot her, he's going to shoot the girl as well!'
Incredibly, it did look like it. She'd thrown herself over the dog. The man was standing over them, the gun pointing downwards.
'Do you know her?'
'Too far away to tell, Joe.' Mrs Seagrove began to wring her hands. 'Oh, I hate them. I hate them. They're primitive. They're a law unto themselves.'
'Right.' Powys was moving towards the field. Common land, he was thinking, common land.
'Shall I call the police?'
"Only if I don't come back,' Powys said, shocked at how this sounded. For real. Jesus.
He slipped and scrambled to his feet with yellow mud on his grey suit. 'Shit.' Called back, 'What did you say his name was?'
'For God's sake, be careful. Preece, Jonathon Preece.'
'Right. You stay there, Mrs Seagrove. Get ready to phone.' Jesus, he thought, realizing he was trembling, what kind of place is this?
Guy Morrison was about to tear his hair. This was a two-camera job and he only had one. How was he supposed to shoot Goff and the destruction of the wall with one camera?
What this needed was a shot of the bulldozer crashing through, with a shower of stone, and a cut-back to Goff's triumphant face as he savoured the moment from his eyrie on the Tump. It would be a meaningful sequence, close to the top of the first programme, maybe even under the titles.
But now was ne supposed to get that with one crew? If he'd known about this beforehand, he'd have hired a local news cameraman as back-up – Griggs, for instance. But he didn't know about it in advance because this arrogant, fat bastard was playing his cards too close to his chest.
At least the delay was a breathing space.
'Which you want to go for, then?' the cameraman, Larry Ember, asked him, pulling his tripod out of the mud close to the summit of the mound.
Guy pushed angry, stiffened fingers through his blond hair. 'Whichever we go for, it'll be wrong,' he said uncharacteristically. 'Look, if we set up next to Goff, how much of the bulldozer stuff do you reckon you can shoot from here?'
'Useless,' Larry Ember said. 'You're shooting a wall collapsing, you got to be under the thing, like it's tumbling towards you. Even then, with one camera, you're not going to get much.'
'Maybe we can fake it afterwards. Get the chap to knock down another section of wall round the back or something. We've got no choice, I need to get his reactions.'
'Could always ask him to fake it afterwards.'
'Perhaps not,' said Guy.
'Fucking cold up here,' Larry said. 'What kind of summer is this?'
A swirling breeze – well, more than a breeze – had set the trees rattling around them.
'Going to rain, too, in a minute.' Larry Ember looked up at a sky like the inside of a rotten potato. 'We should have had lights up here. I told you we needed a sparks, as well. You can't cut costs on a job like this.'
'I didn't know it was going to happen,' Guy hissed. 'Did I? I thought it was going to be a couple of talking heads and a few GVs'
Goff lurched over, white jacket flapping in the wind. 'Some flaming cock-up here. Switch that damn thing off for now, Guy, will you?'
'You the producer, or is he?' the cameraman wondered provocatively.
'Go along with him. For now.' Guy had gone red. His dumpy, serious-faced assistant, Catrin Jones, squeezed his arm encouragingly. Guy knew she'd been in love with him for some time.
Below them, the speakers on the van began to crackle. Goff's voice came out fractured. '… et… chel Wade…up here. Get Rach… ade… up here NOW.'
Catrin zipped up her fleecy body-warmer, 'It's a funny thing…'
'Nothing,' snapped Guy, 'about this is funny.'
'No, I mean it's so cold and windy up here and down there… nothing.' She waved a hand towards the crowd below – some people drifting away now. 'No wind at all, nobody's hair is blowing or anything.'
'OK.' Guy prodded Larry Ember's left shoulder, bellowed down his ear. 'Executive decision. Let's get down there. Take a chance, shoot it from below.'
"… ucking sticks gonna blow over.' Larry clutched his camera as the wind buffeted the tripod. The wind seemed to be coming from underneath. Catrin's clipboard was suddenly snatched from her hands and wafted upwards with a wild scattering of white paper, like a bird disturbed.
She squealed. 'Oh no!' Clawing frantically at the air.
'Leave it!' Guy said.
'It's the shot-list!'
'Just let it go!'
Five yards away, Goff was shrieking into the microphone, to no effect. The sound had gone completely.
'… king weird, this set-up.' Larry's words snatched into the swirling wind.
'One more shot!' Guy screaming down the cameraman's car again. 'Get Goff. Get him now!'
Goff's arms were flailing, the wide lapels of his white jacket whipped across his chin, the trees roaring around him, the sky black. He was out of control.
Guy wanted this.
Powys edged round the field, concealed – he hoped – by gorse-bushes and broom, then crossed it diagonally, approaching the man, Jonathon Preece, from behind, as quietly as he could. Feeling himself quivering: outrage and apprehension. He could see the woman lying not quite flat, spread across the dog, looking up now at Preece.
Heard her harsh whisper. '… done, you bastard?'
'I'm allowed,' Preece said with, Powys thought, surprising belligerence, the shotgun under his arm, barrel unbroken, if a dog's threatening sheep…'
'There are no bloody sheep!'
'There is in that next field,' he insisted. 'Up there, 'e was. I seen 'im before. We 'ad four lambs killed up there t'other week.'
'You're lying! This dog wasn't even here last week.'
'If a farmer got reason to think…' Waving his arms for emphasis, the gun moving about under one.
'You going to shoot me now?'
Jonathon Preece looked down at the gun under his arm and stepped back a pace or two. Powys froze, only three or four yards behind him now. Preece bent down, watching the woman all the time, and laid the shotgun on the grass to one side,.
'See. I put 'im down now, the ole gun. You go 'ome. Nothing you can do.' A bit defensive now. 'I'm within my legal rights, you ask Wynford Wiley. Can't be 'elped. No place for dogs, sheep country.'
The woman didn't move. Powys saw a tumble of tawny hair over a blue nylon cagoule.
A curious thing happened then. Although it was way past 9 p.m. and the sky was deep grey – no trace of sunlight for hours – a shadow fell across the field like an iron bar.
And down it, like a gust of breath through a blowpipe, came a harsh wind.
'What's he doing? What is he doing?'
Rachel couldn't believe it. Max was lumping up and down on the summit of the mound, his white jacket swirling around him, his white trousers flapping, as if he was trying to keep his balance, struggling to stay on his feet.
'Looks like 'e's been caught in a hurricane,' Gomer Parry observed.
But there was no wind. The trees behind Goff on the Tump appeared quite motionless, while Goff himself was dancing like a marionette with a hyperactive child wielding the strings.
He's just angry, Rachel thought. Out of his mind with rage because the wall isn't collapsing and the PA system's broken down. Teach him to hire local firms for a job like this.
She was aware, on the edge of her vision, of Andy Boulton-Trow in his white shirt and his tight, black jeans looking up at the dancing bear on the mound. Andy's beard-shadowed face was solemn and watchful, then it split into a grin and he started shaking his head.
He saw Jonathon Preece look up in sudden alarm as the shaft of wind made a channel of black water across the river, from bank to bank.
There was a strangled yelp from the woman or the dog or both, but he couldn't hear either of them clearly because of the wind.
It came like a hard gasp of breath.
The wind smelled foul. And as Powys, choking, reeled away from it, his senses rebelled and the whole scene seemed to go into negative for a moment, so that the sky was white and the grass was red and the river gleamed a nauseous yellow.
He stumbled, eyes streaming, a roaring in his ears.
And when the noise faded and the halitosis wind died and his vision began to clear, Joe Powys found he was holding the twelve-bore shotgun.
It was heavier than he expected, and he stumbled, almost dropping it. He gripped it firmly in both hands, straightened up.
Jonathon Preece roared, 'Who the 'ell…?' Powys saw his face for the first time – raw pink checks. Age maybe twenty-two or three.
'You give me that gun, Mister!'
'Advise me, Jonathon.' Powys pointed the shotgun in the general direction of Jonathon Preece's groin. 'I've never used one of these before. Do I have to pull the two triggers to blow both your balls off, or is one enough?'
He was gratified to see fear flit, fast as an insect, across Jonathon Preece's eyes, 'I don't know who you are, mister, but this is none of your business.'
Powys felt himself grinning. In his right hand, the barrel of the twelve-bore was comfortably warm, like radiator pipes. The stock fitted into his armpit, firm as a crutch.
'You watch it. Mister. Ole thing'll go off.'
'Yes,' Powys said.
He raised the barrel, so that it was pointing into Jonathan's chest.
'You put 'im down. Be sensible!'
His finger under the trigger-guard, so firm. He thought, this man deserves what's coming to him. This man needs to die. He felt a hard thud of certainty in his chest. An acute satisfaction, the flexing of an unknown muscle.
He drank in the dusk like rough ale, closed his eyes and squeezed.
Saw, in slow-motion, the chest of Jonathon Preece exploding, the air bright with blood, a butcher's shop cascade.
A tiny, feeble noise. He turned. The woman in the blue cagoule was up on her knees now, breathing hard. The tiny, feeble noise came out of the lump of sodden fur exposed on the grass.
'Arnie!' She looked up at Powys; he saw tear-stained, blood-blotched cheeks, clear green eyes and a lot of mud. 'Oh God, he's hanging on. Can you help me?'
Powys's mouth was so dry he couldn't speak.
Jonathon Preece screamed. 'You got no bloody sense? Gimme that gun!'
'Please,' the woman begged.
'Gimme it!' The farmer took a step forward.
From out of the town's serrated silhouette came the first sonorous stroke of the curfew.
Powys looked down in horror at the gun. It felt suddenly very cold in his hands.
'Get it yourself,' Powys said, backing away, far enough away for Jonathon Preece, in this light, to remain unsure of what was happening until he heard the splash.
When the gun hit the water, Powys saw Mrs Seagrove hurrying down the bank towards them and then he saw Jonathon Preece's purpling face and became aware, for the first time, as the farmer advanced on him with bunched fists, that Jonathon Preece was bigger than he was. As well as being younger and fitter and, at this point, far angrier.
'You fuckin' done it now, Mister. Antique, that gun is. Three generations of my family 'ad that gun.'
Powys shrugged, palms up, backing off. He felt loose, very tired suddenly. 'Yeah, well… not too deep just there… Jonathon. Be OK. When it dries out.'
Preece's head swivelled – Mrs Seagrove coming quickly towards them, red-faced, out of breath – and he stopped, uncertain.
Mrs Seagrove stood there in her twinset and her plaid skirt, breathing hard, eventually managing to gasp, 'Did you see it? Did you?'
Powys looked at her, then at Jonathon Preece who'd turned to the river, was glaring out. The river looked stagnant. Preece hesitated, stared savagely into the drab water, started to say something and then didn't.
'Please,' the woman said from the grass.
It began to rain, big drops you could see individually against the hard sky.
Powys pulled off his jacket and knelt down. The dog's eyes were wide open, flanks pulsating. Powys didn't know what to do.
The dog squirmed, blood oozed.
Powys laid the jacket down. 'Put him on this.' He slid both hands beneath the dog. 'Gently. We'll get him to a vet. You… you never know your luck.'
In the river now, almost up to the tops of his Wellingtons, Jonathon Preece bellowed, 'I know your face, Mister. I'll 'ave you!'
'Oh, piss off,' Powys said, weary of him. He heard Mrs Seagrove wailing, 'You must've seen it. It was coming right at you. It went through you.'
Jean Wendle was living in a narrow town house on the square. Inside, it was already quite dark. She put on a reading lamp. Its parchment shade made the room mellow.
Gold lettering on the book spines, the warm brass of a coal-scuttle in the hearth. It reminded Alex of his first curate's house in Oxfordshire, before he'd been promoted into an endless series of vast, unbeatable vicarages and rectories. She'd certainly brought the warmth of her personality into the place.
Jean Wendle made him sit in a smoker's bow chair, his back to the fireplace, with its Chinese screen, facing a plain, whitewashed wall.
'Some days,' Alex said, 'it seems fine. I mean there might be nothing wrong. Or perhaps that, in itself, is an illusion. Perhaps I think I'm all right and everybody else sees me as stark, staring…'
'Shush.' Touch of Scottish in her voice, he liked that. 'Don't tell me. Don't tell me anything about it. Let me find out for myself.'
Yes, he really rather fancied her. Sixtyish. Short, grey hair. Still quite a neat little body – pliable, no visible stiffening. Sort of retired gym-mistress look about her. And nice mobile lips.
Cool fingers on his forehead. Moving from side to side, finding the right spot. Then quite still.
Quite sexy. Would he have let himself in for this if he hadn't fancied her a bit?
Not a chance.
'Don't talk,' she said.
'I wasn't talking.'
'Well, don't think so loudly. Not for a moment or two. Just relax.'
Taken him a few days to arrive into the cool hands of Jean Wendle. Well, a few nights – tentative approaches in the pub. Not a word to Fay. Definitely not a word to Grace.
And why shouldn't he? What was there to lose? The GP in Crybbe was a miserable beggar – hadn't been much to poor old Grace, had he? Drugs. Always drugs. Drugs that made you sleepy, drugs that made you sick. And at the end of the day…
Gradually, he and reality would go their separate ways. Rather appealing in one sense – what did reality have to commend it these days? But not exactly a picnic for anyone looking after him. Alex knew what happened to people who lost their minds. It sometimes seemed that half his parishioners had been geriatrics. They remembered having a wash this morning, when it was really days ago. They peed in the wardrobe by mistake.
Fay, now – that child was suffering a severe case of misplaced loyalty. If he couldn't get rid of her, it was his solid intention to pop himself off while he could still count on getting the procedure right. She'd thank him for it one day. Better all round, though, if he could make it look like an accident. Fall off the bridge or something.
Would have been a pity though, with all these alternative healing characters swanning around, not to give it a try first. What was there to lose?
The first chap he'd been to, Osborne, had not been all that encouraging. Almost as depressing as the doc. Alex got the feeling old age was not what the New Age was about.
And all this 'like cures like' stuff. A drop of this, a drop of that. Little phials of colourless liquid, touch of the medieval apothecary.
'How long before it starts to work?'
'You mustn't expect dramatic results, Alex,' Osborne told him. 'You see, holistic medicine, by definition, is about improving the health of the whole person. Everything is interconnected. Obviously, the older one is, the more set in its ways the body is, therefore the longer…' He must have seen the expression in Alex's eyes. 'Look, my wife's an acupuncturist, perhaps that might be more what you…'
'All those bloody needles. No thanks.'
'It isn't painful, Alex."
'Pain? I don't mind pain!'
Just the image of himself lying there, an overstuffed pincushion.
This kind of healing was a good deal more dignified, if you concentrated on those cool hands and didn't think too hard about what was supposedly going on in the spirit world.
He'd grilled her, naturally.
'Dr Chi? Dr bloody Chi? You don't look like a nutter, Wendy. How can you seriously believe you're working under the supervision of some long-dead Chinky quack?'
'My name's Jean,' she'd corrected him softly.
'Dr Chi!' Alex draining his Scotch. 'God save us.'
'Do you really want to know about this, Alex, or are you just going to be superior, narrow-minded, chauvinistic and insulting?'
'Was I? Hmmph. Sorry. Old age. Senile dementia.'
'Are you really old enough to be senile, Alex? What are you, seventy?'
'I'm certainly way past flattery, Wendy. Way past eighty, too. Go on, tell me about this Peking pox-doctor from the Ming dynasty.'
He'd forced himself to listen patiently while she told him about Dr Chi, who, she said, she'd once actually seen – as a white, glowing, egg-shaped thing.
'The name is significant. Dr Chi. Chi is the oriental life force. Perhaps that's the name I've subconsciously given him. I don't know if I'm dealing with a doctor from the Ming dynasty, the T'ang dynasty or whenever. He doesn't speak to me all sing-song, like a waiter serving chicken chow mein. All I know is there's a healing force and I call him Dr Chi. Perhaps he never was a human doctor at all or perhaps he's something that last worked through a Chinese physician. I'm not clever enough to understand these things. I'm content to be a channel. Good gracious, don't you believe in miracles, Alex? Isn't that the orthodox Anglican way any more?'
Regarding the Anglican Church, he wasn't entirely sure what he believed any more.
Powys found the page, ran his finger down the column headed Veterinary Surgeons. 'OK, D. L. Harris. Crybbe three-nine-four.'
Mrs Seagrove dialled the number and handed him the phone.
The woman in the bloodstained blue cagoule sat in the hall. The dog lay on Powys's jacket on the woman's knee, panting.
'Have a cup of tea while you're waiting,' Mrs Seagrove said.
She shook her head. 'No. Thank you…We may have to take him somewhere.'
The number rang for nearly half a minute before a woman answered.
'Mr Harris there, please?'
'What's it about?' Local accent.
'We've got a very badly injured dog. Could you tell me where to bring it?'
'Dog, you say?' Shrill. As if he'd said giraffe or something.
'He's been shot.'
'I'm sorry,' the woman said flat-voiced. "But Mr Harris is out.'
'Will he be long? Is there another vet?'
'Sorry.' Cool, terse. 'We can't help you.'
A crackle, the line broke.
'I don't believe it,' Powys said. 'She said the vet was out, I asked when he'd be back or was there anyone else, and she said she couldn't help me. Can you believe that? This was a vet's, for God's sake.'
'Wrong,' Fay Morrison said bitterly. 'This was a Crybbe vet's,'
'What the fuck was happening up there?' Max Goff lay on his bed in his room at the Cock.
'You tell me,' said Andy Boulton-Trow.
'I never felt so high. Like, at first I was really angry, really furious at the inefficiency. Why weren't they bringing the flaming wall down, why was nothing happening, why was the sound failing?'
'Then I felt the power. The energy. I never felt anything so heavy before. It took off the top of my skull. That ever happen to you?'
'Once or twice,' Andy said.
'Come to London with me,' Goff said. 'Stay at my place.
'I have things to do here.'
'Then I'll stay here. We'll stay in this room. You got things to teach me, I realize this now. We'll stay here. I'll get rid of Ms Wade. I'll send her back to London.'
Andy placed a hand on Max's knee.
'You go back to London, Max. There's such a thing as too much too soon. You'll get there. You'll make it.'
Andy didn't move his hand. Max shivered.
'Took off the top of my skull. And then the curfew started.'
'Yes,' Andy said. 'The curfew.'
'I don't think I like that curfew,' Jean Wendle said, pouring Earl Grey, after the treatment. 'I don't know whether it's the bell or what it represents. I don't like restrictions.'
'Oh, quite,' Alex said. 'Couldn't stand it if it was a real curfew. But as a bit of picturesque traditional nonsense, it's all right, isn't it?'
'I think it is a real curfew, in some way,' Jean said, 'I don't know why I think that. Well, yes, I do – people do stay off the streets while it's being rung, have you noticed that? But I think there's something else. A hundred times a night is an awfully big tradition.'
'I suppose so.'
Alex would give her the benefit of the doubt on anything tonight. He didn't remember when he'd last felt so relaxed, so much at peace. And him a priest. Best not to go into the implications of all this.
'It's a very odd little town,' Jean said. She drew gold-dusted velvet curtains over a deep Georgian window.
'Aren't they all.'
'No, they aren't. This is. There are – how can I put it? – pockets of strange energy in this town. All over the place. People see things, too, although few will ever admit it.'
'See things?' Alex was wary.
'Manifestations. Light effects. Ghosts.'
'Hmm,' said Alex. 'Good cup of tea.'
'Being on the border is a lot to do with it. When we make a frontier… when we split something physically asunder in the landscape, especially when we build something like Offa's Dyke to emphasize it, we create an area of psychic disturbance that doesn't go away.'
Alex stirred his tea, wishing she'd talk about something else.
Jean said, 'Do you think they've taken on more than they can handle? Max Goff and the New Age people?'
'I thought you were one of them.'
'I like to keep a certain distance,' Jean said, 'I like to watch. Can they control it, I wonder? Or is it too volatile for them?'
'Oh, we can't control anything,' Alex said. 'That's something everybody learns sooner or later. Least of all control ourselves.'
It was well after midnight by the time they came out of the vet's.
'I couldn't stand the way he was looking at me,' Fay said, it's not been his week, has it? He's in a car crash, sees his master die. Saved from the clutches of the Crybbe constabulary, finds he's become a kind of pariah in the town. Then he gets shot.'
The Mini had been parked for over two hours on a double yellow line outside the vet's surgery in Leominster, fifteen miles from Crybbe. The nearest one from which they'd managed to get a response. The vet handling night-calls had been understanding but had made no comments either way about the wisdom of farmers shooting dogs alleged to be worrying sheep.
The vet had said Arnold would probably live. 'Just don't expect him to be as good as new with all that lead inside him.'
One of the back legs had taken most of it. Bones had been broken. The vet had seemed a bit despondent about that leg. Fay had spent half an hour holding Arnold at different angles while the vet examined what he could, removing shotgun pellets. He might have to operate, he said, and got Fay to sign a paper relating to responsibility if Arnold died under anaesthetic.
Now Fay and Powys were standing on the pavement, unwinding. It was very quiet in Leominster, the other side of midnight. No menace here. Fay thought.
J. M. Powys was shaking out his jacket. It was scarcely identifiable as a jacket any more. It looked as if someone had faced a firing squad in it.
'Oh God,' Fay said. 'I'm so sorry.'
J. M. Powys dangled the jacket from an index finger and looked quite amused. J. M. Powys. Bloody hell. 'It's hard to believe you're J. M. Powys. I thought you'd be…'
'Well, not quite.'
'That lady, Mrs Seagrove. She called you Mrs Morrison. You're not Guy's wife, are you?'
'No,' Fay said. 'Not any more.'
She explained, leaning on an elderly Mini in a quiet street in Leominster, lights going out around them. Explained quite a few things. Talking too much, the way you did when you'd been through something traumatic. Only realizing she was shooting her mouth off, when she heard herself saying, 'I've got to get out of that place, or I'm going to implode. Or maybe I'll just kill somebody.'
She pulled both palms down her cheeks. Shook her hair, like a dog. 'What am I going on about? Not your problem. Thanks for everything you've done. I shall buy you a new jacket.'
'I don't want a new jacket.' Powys opened the car door. 'I like them full of patches and sewn-up bits.'
He drove carefully out of the town, dipping the headlights politely when they met another vehicle. They didn't meet many. The lights sometimes flashed briefly into the eyes of rabbits sitting in the hedgerows. Once, J. M. Powys had to brake for a badger scampering – that was really the word, she'd have expected badgers to lumber – across the road and into a wood.
Fay realized she hadn't phoned her dad. He'd be worried. Or he wouldn't, depending on his state of mind tonight. Too late now.
'Arnold!' Powys said suddenly, breaking five minutes of slightly sleepy silence.
'Arnold. Not Henry Kettle's dog? You aren't the person who's looking after Henry's dog?'
'And not making an awfully good job of it, so far.'
'Stone me,' said Powys. 'Sometimes coincidence just seems to crowd you into corners.'
'Especially in Crybbe,' Fay said. She wished she was travelling through the night to somewhere else. Virtually anywhere else, actually.
The bones were very white in the torchlight. There were also some parchment-coloured bits, skin or sinew, gristle.
'Ah,' Tessa said, less than awed, 'I know what that is.'
Warren was miffed. How the fuck could she know anything about it?
'Yeah,' Warren said. 'It's a hand.'
'It's a Hand of Glory."
'What you on about?'
'A dead man's hand.'
'Well, that's bloody obvious, isn't it?'
A hanged man's hand,' Tessa said.
Warren squatted down next to her. The spade lay on the grass, next to a neat pile of earth and the square of turf, set carefully to one side so it could be replaced.
'Which means it's got magic powers,' Tessa said. Where'd you find it?'
'All right, don't tell me! What's that Stanley knife doing in there?'
'Well, I…' Buggered if he was going to tell her he'd been scared to put his hand in and take the knife out. 'I'm seeing what effect it 'as on it. You know, like you puts an old razorblade under a cardboard pyramid and it comes out sharp again. New Age, that.' Warren cackled. 'I'm learnin' all about this New Age, now, see. 'Ow'd you know that?'
' 'Bout it being a hanged man's hand.'
'I think I'd like to draw it,' Tessa said. 'Maybe I'll come up here again.'
'No.' It was his hand. 'Keep diggin' it up, the ground'll get messed up and somebody else might find it.'
'They won't. Do you know why you brought it here, Warren?'
'Good a place as any.'
'What you done with then other drawings, the old feller?'
'Got fed up with him,' Tessa said. 'Passed him on.'
'Dunno where he might end up,' Tessa said mysteriously. 'Part of the fun.' She smiled and fitted a forefinger down the front of Warren's jeans and drew him towards her, across the old box.
'Let's do it here… do it… by the box. Leave it open, see what happens.'
'Prob'ly come crawlin' out an' pinch your bum,' Warren said slyly. 'Anyway, it's too late now, for that.'
Tessa took her finger out of Warren's jeans, 'I waited for you.'
'Had a job to do.'
'What was so important?"
'You'll find out,' Warren said.
Tessa reached out and touched a white knuckle-bone.
'Cold,' she said, it's nice and cold.'
'It was cold in the river, too,' Warren said.
Rachel lay in the brass bed. When he slid in gratefully beside her, she awoke.
'I couldn't put a light on. The power's off again.'
He'd lit up Bell Street with the headlights, watching the small figure in bloodstained blue nylon walking to her door. When she was safely inside, he drove back into the lightless main street, where all the windows were blind eyes. Then down the hill and over the bridge. A tight right turn, and there was the perfect little riverside cottage. He'd almost expected it not to be there, like a dream cottage.
The presence of Rachel in the bed reinforced a sense of home. Before she could ask, he told her where he'd been, poured it all out, the whole bizarre episode.
'Arnold?' Rachel sat up in the darkness. 'Jonathon Preece shot Arnold?'
He told her about the shotgun, how he'd come to pick it up from the grass.
'I really wanted to kill him. I thought I had killed him at one point. I could feel myself pulling the triggers, both triggers, and then his chest… It was as if time had skipped a beat, and I'd already shot him.'
'You're overtired,' Rachel said.
'Then the dog – Arnold – whimpered, and I was back in the second before I did it. Arnold was Henry Kettle's dog.'
'You don't know how badly I wanted to kill that guy.'
'This doesn't seem like you, J.M.'
'No,' Powys said, it didn't.'
There was a window opposite the bed. Across the river, he saw a few sparse lights coming on, like candles on a cake.
'And you're a hero, J.M.,' Rachel said, moulding her body into his. 'Although you'll be a marked man in Crybbe if anyone finds out.'
You won't need to worry and you won't have to cry
Over in the old golden land.
From the album
'Wee Tarn and the Big Huge'
No, don't move 'im yet, Gomer.'
Jack Preece ambled across the field to where Gomer Parry and his nephew, Nev, were preparing to get the bulldozer back on the lorry.
'Don't speak to me, Jack.' Gomer didn't turn round. 'Embarrassed? Humiliated, more like!'
'Aye, well, I'm sorry, Gomer.'
'Sorry? You bloody should be sorry, Jack Preece. Never before have Gomer Parry Plant Hire failed to carry out a contract. Never! I should 'ave told your dad where 'e could stick 'is…
'Only, see, the district council's 'avin' a bit o' trouble on the new landfill site over Brynglas,' Jack Preece said. 'Need of an extra bulldozer, quickish, like. Three days' work, sure t'be.'
Gomer Parry turned shrewd eyes on Jack Preece, standing in the damp old field, between downpours, his back to the Tump and the famous wall – still intact, except for the bits of masonry dislodged when old Kettle had his crash.
'Reckon you can do it, Gomer?'
Gomer shot him a penetrating took through his wire-rimmed glasses. 'Something goin' on yere, Jack. Don't know what it is, but there's something.'
'Aye, well,' Jack Preece said, eyes averted. 'No need to worry about your reputation, Gomer, anyway. You'll be all right. We looks after our own, isn't it.'
He started to walk away then turned back. You seen Jonathon about?'
'Not lately,' Gomer said.
'Boy didn't come 'ome last night.'
'Likely 'avin' 'is end away somewhere,' said Gomer. 'Only young once, Jack.'
'Aye,' said Jack. Sure t'be.'
Powys drove back to Hereford, loaded up a couple of suitcases, a box of books, his Olivetti and two reams of A4.
'Aha,' said Barry, the osteopath from upstairs. 'Ensnared. He's got you. I knew he would. What was the deciding factor Powys. The money?'
Powys shook his head.
Powys said, 'Just hold that door open for me, would you?'
'I knew it! It's the Summer of Love in Crybbe. You always were a sucker for a cheesecloth cleavage.'
'Barry,' said Powys, 'don't you have somebody's spine to trample on?'
'Good luck, Joe,' Annie said wistfully.
'What d'you mean "good luck''?' He'd noticed the crystals had been joined on the counter by a small display of astrological amulets in copper. Where the hell had she found those?
'You're going back,' Annie said.
'I am not "going back".'
Annie and Barry smiled knowingly to each other.
During the return drive it rained. It rained harder the nearer he got to Crybbe. Powys did some thinking, images wafting across his mind with the rhythm of the windscreen wipers.
Seriously unseasonal rain was throwing the river over the banks like rumpled bedclothes. He saw an image of a shotgun getting slowly pushed downstream, its barrels clogged with corrosive silt. Unless Jonathon had managed to retrieve it. Would he ever find out? And would Jonathon report him to the police?
Unlikely. He hoped. Well, it was a question of image: the farmer who let a townie in a suit pinch his gun and toss it in the river. They'd love that in the saloon bar of the Cock, it would go down in the folk history of the town.
Rachel was spending the morning at the Court, organizing workmen putting finishing touches to the stable-block. He thought of going to see Mrs Seagrove.
He carried his suitcases into the cottage. It was a good cottage, a better home than his flat. It had wonderful views over the river – slopping and frothing feverishly, after hours of heavy rain.
He couldn't stay here for long though. Not on false pretences. There was no way he was going to write the New Age Gospel According to Goff.
And the sequence by the river last night kept replaying itself. The feeling of the warm gun, the knowledge that he was not only capable of killing but wanted to kill. The bar of shadow across the grass and the river, all the way from the Tump, where Henry Kettle died.
And Arnold, Henry Kettle's dog. A dowser's dog, Henry used to say, isn't like other dogs.
It wasn't raining any more. Through the large window in the living-room, he saw the clouds had shifted like furniture pushed to the corners of the room, leaving a square of light. Fifty yards away, the river, denied its conquest of the meadow, slurped sulkily at its banks. On the other side of the river, in the semi-distant field – probably Goff's land – Powys saw two tiny figures, one holding a couple of tall poles.
He thought, the dodmen. Alfred Watkins's term for the prehistoric surveyors who had planned out the leys, erecting standing stones and earthworks at strategic points. The surveyors would, Watkins imagined, have held up poles to find out where tall stones would be visible as waymarkers. Now modern dodmen were at work, recreating prehistoric Crybbe in precisely the way it was presumed to have been done four thousand or so years ago.
From here, Powys couldn't even make out whether they were dodmen or dodwomen. But he was prepared to bet one of them would be Andy Boulton-Trow.
Calm, laid-back, omniscient old Andy.
I think Joe ought to present himself to the Earth Spirit in the time honoured fashion…
… the very least you can do, mate…
… think of it as a kind of appeasement.
Now Andy was personally supervising the operation to open up the town of Crybbe to the Earth Spirit.
On past experience of this irresponsible bastard, did that sound like good news?
'I think,' Hereward Newsome said, almost shaking with triumph, 'that I've cracked it.'
'You saw him?'
'He's gone back to London. I saw Rachel Wade. She said go ahead.'
Hereward took off his jacket, hung it over the back of the antique-pine rocking-chair by the Aga, sat down and began to roll up his shirt-sleeves. 'But we need to move fast.'
'Why?' If Jocasta wasn't as ecstatic as she might have been this was because Hereward's news had eclipsed her own small coup.
'I mean a buying trip. To the West Country, I'd suggest and pronto. There's Ernest Wilding at Street, Devereux in Penzance, Sally Gold in Totnes, Melanie Dufort in… where is it now, some place near Frome? All specializing in megalith paintings – or they were. And there have to be more. What happened to the Ruralists? Where's Inshaw these days?"
'Not far from here, I heard.'
"Oh.' He stood up. 'Anyway, I'm going to make some calls now. Strike while Goff's hot. If we go down there this weekend fetch a few back to put in front of him on Tuesday when he comes back.'
Hereward paced the kitchen. Any second now, Jocasta thought, he'll start rubbing his hands. Still, it was good news.
'You ought to see his proposed exhibition hall. Rachel showed me this huge barn he's going to rebuild. It'll be a sort of interpretive centre for prehistoric Crybbe and the whole earth mysteries thing. He's looking for maybe seventy paintings. Seventy! Darling, if we can provide half of those we're talking… let's be vulgar, if we can get the kind of stuff he wants, we're talking megabucks.'
'Why can't we go next weekend?"
'Look… so we close the gallery for a day. What have we got to lose, with Goff out of town? And the way things have been, can we afford to delay?'
'Hereward!' God, he was so irritating. 'What about Emmanuel Walters?'
'Oh.' Hereward sat down. 'It's Sunday, isn't it?'
'Ye-es,' Jocasta said, exasperated, 'it is. And it's a bloody good job one of us is efficient.' Adding nonchalantly, 'I've even arranged a celebrity to open the exhibition.'
Jocasta's lips cemented into a hard line. Even if it was a member of the Royal Family it wouldn't impress Hereward at the moment, still on his Max Goff high.
'It's Guy Morrison.'
'Oh. Er, super. Didn't he used to be…?'
'He's producing and presenting the documentary the BBC are doing on Max Goff and Crybbe. He seems very pleasant, he agreed at once. I think he's at rather a loose end. He's spending the weekend here, getting to know the town. Getting to know the people who count.'
'Not much use coming to The Gallery, then.' Hereward guffawed insensitively.
Jocasta scowled. That was it. 'I know,' she said, 'why don't you go to the West Country on your own? I'll stay behind and handle the private view.'
'Yes, I suppose it makes sense.'
Jocasta knew it made no sense at all. Good old Hereward, always anxious to be accepted by artists as a friend, someone who understood the creative process, would spend hundreds of pounds more than she would. But at least she'd get rid of him for a couple of days. Increasingly, Jocasta had been thinking back with nostalgia to the days when they'd had separate jobs and only met for a couple of hours in the evening…'
Hereward said – a formality, she thought – Will you be all right on your own?'
Just for a minute she thought about last right and those drawings and the sticky feeling on her hands which had proved, when the lights came on, to be no more than perspiration.
'I shall be fine,' she said.
Mrs Seagrove brought him tea in one of her best china cups – as distinct, she pointed out, from the mugs she took out to the lorry drivers in the layby.
'I thought I'd seen the last of you, Joe. How's the doggie.
'We think he's going to be OK.'
'That's good.' She was wearing today a plaid skirt of different tartan. I'm not Scottish,' she said. 'Frank and I used to go up there every autumn, and we'd visit these woollen mills.'
There was a picture of Frank on the sideboard. He was beaming and holding up a fish which might have been a trout.
'He was thrilled when we got this place, so near the river. He joined the angling club. It was a shame. Turned out to be not a very good river for fishing. And the problem was, Joe, Frank could see the river, but I could only see that.'
She sat with her back to the big, horizontal window with its panoramic view across the river to the woods and, of course the Tump.
'About that…' Powys said.
'I thought you'd come about that.' Mrs Seagrove held the teacup on her kilted knees, flat and steady as a good coffee table. 'Well, I'm glad somebody's interested. Mrs Morrison is always too busy. Unless I want to talk about it on the radio she says. Well, I said, would you make a spectacle of yourself on the wireless?'
'Last night, you said something was coming at us. From the Tump?'
'People are fascinated by these things. I'm not. Are you, Joe?'
'Well, I used to be. Still am, in a way, but they worry me now.'
'Quite right. I'm not interested, I've never been interested.
'It nearly always happens to people who are not interested,' said Powys.
'I think I know when it comes now, what time, so I draw the curtains and turn the telly up, but some nights I just have to go and look, just to get it out of the way. I'm scared to death, Joe, but I look, just to get it out of the way.'
'And what time is it?'
'Usually after nine o'clock and before they ring that bell in the church. Not always. It's early sometimes, almost full daylight – although it goes dark all of a sudden, kind of thing, like it's as if it's bringing its own darkness, do you know what I mean? And just once – it was that night the poor man crashed his car – just once, it was later, about half-tennish. Just that once.'
Powys said, 'It's a dog, isn't it? A big, black dog.'
'Yes, dear,' said Mrs Seagrove very' quietly. 'Yes, it is.'
'How often have you…?'
'Seven or eight times, I've seen it. It always goes the same way. Coming from the… the mound thing.'
'Down from the mound, or out of the mound?'
'I couldn't honestly say, dear. One second it's not there, the next it is, kind of thing. I'm psychic, I suppose. I never wanted to be psychic, not like this.'
'Is it – I'm sorry to ask all these questions – but is it obviously a dog? It couldn't be anything else?'
'You ask as many questions as you like, dear. I've been finding out about you, I rang a friend of mine at the library in Dudley. No, that's an interesting point you make there – is it really a dog? Well, I like dogs. I wouldn't be frightened of a dog, would I? Even a ghost dog. Naturally, it'd be a shock, the first time you saw it, kind of thing, but no, I don't think I'd be frightened. Oh dear, I wish you hadn't asked me that now, it's disturbed me, that has, Joe.'
'I don't want to stay here. I'd be off tomorrow, but how much would I get for this, even if I managed to sell it?'
if you really wanted to go quickly,' Powys said, 'I think I could find you a buyer. You'd get a good price, too.'
'Good God, no, not me. I couldn't afford it, even if… Look, leave it with me for a day or two.'
'I don't know what to say, dear.' Mrs Seagrove's eyes were shining, in a way, I'd feel bad about somebody having this place. But they might not be psychic, mightn't they?'
'Or they might be quite interested.'
'Oh no,' she said. 'Nobody's interested in evil, are they?'
Guy dropped by.
She opened the back door, thinking it was the milkman come for his money, as was usual on a Saturday.
'Oh, my God.'
She wouldn't have chosen to say that, but Guy seemed pleased at the reaction. Perhaps he saw it as an urgent suppression of instinctive desire.
'Thought I'd drop by, as I had some time on my hands.' Incandescent smile. 'Spending the weekend here, getting acclimatized.'
New crowns, Fay spotted. Good ones, of course.
'Crew's gone back, but I've been invited to open some shitty art exhibition tomorrow night. Must be a bit short on celebrities in these parts if they want me.' Guy laughed.
Still a master of double-edged false modesty, Fay thought, wishing she'd changed, combed her hair, applied some rudimentary make-up.
And then despising herself utterly for wishing all that.
'Come in, Guy. Dad's gone for a walk; he'll be devastated to have missed you.'
'How is he?' Guy stepped into the hall and looked closely at everything, simulating enormous interest in the chipped cream paintwork, the wallpaper with its faded autumn leaves, the nylon carpet beneath his hand-stitched, buffed, brown shoes.
He wore a short, olive, leather jacket, soft as a very expensive wallet.
'We used to have some fascinating chats, your father and I, when I was in Religious Programmes.'
'I expect he learned quite a lot,' Fay said, going through to the kitchen.
'That was how I swung the Crybbe thing, you know. It cut plenty of ice with Max Goff, me being an ex-religious-affairs producer. Indicated a certain sensitivity of touch and an essentially serious outlook. Nothing crude, no juvenile piss-taking.'
'Tea or coffee?' Fay said. 'Why did you leave Religious Programmes, anyway? Seemed like a good, safe earner to me. Just about the only situation where you can work in television and still get to heaven.'
'Well, you know, Fay, there came a time when it was clear that Guy Morrison had said all he needed to say about religion. Is it ground coffee or instant?'
'Would I offer you instant coffee, Guy?'
'I don't like to make presumptions about people's financial positions,' Guy said sensitively.
'I did tell you, didn't I, that I'd probably have brought you in as researcher, except for this J.M. Powys problem?'
'Thanks, but I doubt I'd've had time, anyway. Pretty busy, really.' The handle came off the cup she was holding – that'd teach her to lie twice.
'He was foisted on me, Fay. Nothing I could do.'
'I met him last night. Seemed a nice bloke.'
Just before lunch, J. M. Powys had phoned to ask how Arnold was. Comfortable, Fay had said, having been on the phone to the vet as early as was reasonable. Stable. As well as can be expected.
Guy crinkled his mouth. 'One-book wonder, J. M. Powys. A spent force.'
Must be a nice bloke if Guy despises him, Fay thought. She began to filter the coffee in silence.
Eventually, Guy, sitting at the kitchen table, said, 'Long time since we met face to face, Fay. Three years? Four?'
'At least.' Physically, he'd hardly changed at all. Perhaps the odd characterful crease, like the superb-quality leather of his jacket. Pretty soon, she thought in dismay, he'll be looking too comparatively young ever to have been married to me.
Guy said, 'You're looking… er, good. Fay.'
What a bastard. She made a point of net replying in kind.
Guy said, 'Quite often, you know – increasingly, in fact – I find myself wondering why we ever split up.'
'Didn't it have something to do with you screwing your production assistant?'
Guy dismissed it. 'Trivial, trivial stuff. I was young, she threw herself at me. You know that. I'm essentially a pretty faithful sort of person. No, what we had…' He pushed Grace's G-plan dining chair away from the table and leaned back, throwing his left ankle over his right knee and catching it deftly with his right hand. He obviously couldn't quite remember what they'd had.
'I often wish we'd had children, Fay.'
Guy's intermittent live-in girlfriend had apparently proved to be barren. Fay remembered him moaning about this to her one night on the phone. She remembered thinking at the time that infertility was a very useful attribute for an intermittent live-in girlfriend to have. But Guy was at the age when he wanted there to be little Morrisons.
'I'm at the Cock.'
'The Cock Hotel,' Guy said, it's an appalling place.'
'Dreadful,' Fay said, pouring his coffee,
'I think I'm going to have to make other arrangements when we start shooting in earnest.'
'Can you think of anywhere?'
'Hasn't Goff offered you accommodation?'
'Nothing suitable, apparently. He says. Though we do have special requirements – meals at all hours.'
Sore point, obviously.
'Still,' Fay said cheerfully. 'I've heard he's going to buy the Cock, turn it into a New Age Holiday Inn or something.'
She brought her coffee and sat down opposite him. If anything, he was even more handsome these days. It had once been terribly flattering to be courted by Guy Morrison. And unexpectedly painless to become divorced from him.
'I've changed, you know, Fay.'
'Hardly at all, I'd've said.'
'Oh, looks… that's not what it's all about. Never was, was it?'
Of course not, she thought. However, in your case, what else is there to get excited about?
'And you're obviously just as arrogant,' she said brightly.
'Confidence, Fay,' he said patiently. 'Not arrogance. If you don't continually display confidence in this business, people think you're…'
'A "spent force". Like J. M. Powys?'
'Something like that. I should have held on to you,' he said softly, a frond of blond hair falling appealingly to an eyebrow. 'You kept me balanced. I was terribly insecure, you know, that's why…'
'Oh, for God's sake, Guy, you were never insecure in your life. This is me you're giving all this bullshit to. Let's drop this subject, shall we?'
He looked hurt. But not very hurt.
'How did you get on yesterday?' Fay asked him, to change direction. 'They never managed to pull the wall down, did they?'
'Don't ask,' Guy said, meaning 'ask'.
'All went wrong, then?' This was probably the reason Guy was here. He was in urgent need of consolation.
'I've just been looking at the rushes.'
'What, you've been back to Cardiff?'
'No, no, I sent Larry to a video shop in Leominster last night to transfer the stuff to VHS so I could whizz through it at the Cock. When he came back, he said, "You're not going to like this," and cleared off quick. I've just found out why. Good grief. Fay, talk about a wasted exercise. First, there's bloody Goff – plans a stunt like that and doesn't tell me until it's too late to hire a second crew and then…'
'But it didn't happen, anyway. The wall's still there.'
'I know, but I had what ought to have been terrific footage of Goff going apeshit on top of the Tump, when the sound system packed in and the bulldozer chap said he couldn't do it. But the light must've been worse than I thought or Larry hadn't done a white-balance or something – he denies that, of course, but he would, wouldn't he?'
'What, it didn't come out?' Fay, who'd never worked in television, knew next to nothing about the technicalities of it. 'I thought this Betacam stuff didn't need much light.'
'Probably something wrong with the camera, Larry claims. First this big black thing shoots across the frame, and then all the colour's haywire. By God, if there's any human error to blame in Cardiff, somebody's job could be on the line over this.'
'But not yours, of course' said Fay. 'Hold on a minute, Guy.' She was listening to a vague scraping noise, it's Dad. He can't get his key in the door.'
Fay dashed into the hall, closing the kitchen door behind her and opening the front door. The Canon almost fell over the threshold, poking his key at her eye.
'Thank God.' Fay caught his arm, whispered in his ear, 'Come and rescue me, Dad. Guy's here, and he's in a very maudlin mood.'
'Who?' He was out of breath.
'Guy, you remember Guy. We used to be married once. I've got this awful feeling he's working up to asking me to have his baby.'
A blurred film had set across the Canon's eyes. He shook his head, stood still a moment, breathing hard, then straightened up. 'Yes,' he said. 'Fay. Something you need to know.'
'Take your time.'
'Tape recorder. Get your tape recorder.' His eyes cleared, focused. 'There's been an accident. A death. Everybody's talking about it. I'll tell you where to go.'
'There'll be no delay,' the dodman said. 'We start tonight.'
'Don't you need planning permission?' Powys asked.
The dodman only smiled.
As expected, he'd turned out to be Andy Boulton-Trow with a mobile phone and a map in a transparent plastic folder.
'There are six we can put n immediately. Either on Max's land around the Court or on bits of ground he's been able to buy. Not a bad start. You're getting one, did you know that?'
'Thanks a bunch.'
'The top of your little acre, where it meets the road. See?' Andy held out his plastic-covered photocopy of Henry's map. 'Right there.'
It was a large-scale OS blow-up. The former location of each stone was marked by a dot inside a circle and the pencilled initials, H. K.
They were standing in Crybbe's main street, just above the police station, looking down towards the bridge. Two of Andy's dodmen were making their way across, carrying white sighting-poles. Powys asked him how long it had been going on, all this planning and surveying and buying up of land.
'Months. Nearly a year, all told. But it's all come to a head very rapidly. In some curious way, I think Henry's death fired Max into orbit. Henry's done the leg-work, now it was down to Max to pull it all together. There are more than fifty workmen on the project now. Stables'll be finished by Monday, ready for a start on the Court itself next week. First half-dozen stones in place by tomorrow night. That's moving, Joe.'
'No, he doesn't piss about, does he?'
'All that remains is to persuade the remaining few die-hards either to sell their land or accept a stone on it. Hence Tuesday's public meeting. A formality, I'd guess. He'll have bought them off by then. Agent's out there now, negotiating. Farmers will do anything these days to stay afloat. Caravan sites, wind-farms, you name it. They take what comes. Most of them have no choice.'
Powys wondered if you could stop people planting a standing stone close to where you lived, perhaps diverting some kind of energy through your house? How would a court make a ruling on something which had never been proved to exist?
'It seems amazing,' he said, 'that there were so many stones around here and every single one of them's been ripped out.'
'Except for one Henry found. Little bent old stone under a hedge.'
'Do you think they destroyed them because they were superstitious?'
'Because you'd think, if they were superstitious, they'd have been scared to pull them out, wouldn't you?'
'People in these parts,' Andy said, 'who knows how their minds work?'
Powys looked up the street towards the church tower.
'There's a major ley, isn't there, coming from the Tump, through the Court, then the church, right through the town to the hills?'
'Line one.' Andy held out the plan.
'I was up in the prospect chamber at the Court. It might have been constructed to sight along that ley.'
'Might have been?'
'You think it was?'
'Yes I think so.' Andy's black beard was making rapid progress, concealing the bones of his face. You couldn't tell what he was thinking any more.
'John Dee,' Powys said. 'John Dee was a friend of Michael Wort's, right? Or, at least, he seems to have known him. We know John Dee was investigating earth mysteries in the 1580s, or thereabouts. Is it possible Dee was educating Wort and that they built the prospect chamber as a sort of observatory?'
'To observe what?'
'I don't know. Whatever they believed happened along that ley.'
Two cars came out of the square at speed, one a police car. Obviously together, they passed over the bridge and turned right not far beyond Powys's cottage.
'Took their time.' Andy observed.
'Body found in the river,' Andy said with disinterest. 'That's why we had to stop work down there. They get very excited. Not many floaters in Crybbe. Yes, I think you could be close to it. But perhaps it was Wort who initiated Dee into the secret, have you considered that? He was a remarkable man, you know.'
But suddenly Powys was not too concerned about which of them had initiated the other.
It was quiet again in the street. The cars had vanished down a track leading to the riverbank.
Fay's fingers were weak and fumbling. For the first time, she had difficulty working the Uher's simple piano-key controls.
Nobody had even covered him up.
She'd expected screens of some kind, a police cordon like there always were in cities. She'd never seen a drowned man before, in all his sodden glory.
Nobody had even thrown a coat over him, or a blanket. They'd simply tossed him on the bank, limp and leaking. Skin blue – crimped, corrugated. Eyes wide open – dead as a cod on a slab. Livid tongue poking out of the froth around his lips and nostrils.