Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Berkshire Flash

To pay my respects to National Flash Fiction Day the Berkshire suite of three pieces from my Work in Progress, American Daughters: Advent, can be read individually or in a continuum. The time is December, 2001. Enjoy these glimpses of West Berkshire with me!

John turned off the M4 on to the A34 to go south on the Newbury by-pass, telling his daughters of the local struggles against it and the nearby American base. They were sympathetic to the diehard female protesters who had refused to be cowed by the police in their on-going protest. At least this interest seemed to their father the smallest of victories. Three cheers for the women of Greenham Common, he silently offered up as he took them off on the by-roads north of Whitchurch where the story of Watership Down commenced. 
They drew up on the outskirts of Overton so that they could inspect the River Test where the rabbits had made their escape from General Woundwort’s troops by boat. The girls looked bemused at the narrow, manicured trout stream, its banks fortified with planks and the chalky almost weed-free bottom.
‘I hadn’t imagined it would be like this,’ Robin murmured, barely concealing her disappointment.
‘It’s not very big, is it?’ John had observed. ‘The scale is almost a miniature of what I’m sure you were expecting. However, the Downs are something else.’
He took them up on to the top of Watership Down and they went into a ploughed field to view the distant horizons shrunk closer by the grey sky. The wind was more powerful here on the exposed expanse and reminded them it was very much winter. Robin tramped off a couple of hundred yards in her new green wellies and purple Burberry beanie, a now much appreciated welcoming present from Livia. She stood looking south to the farm where the dog had been awakened to divert the attackers at the warren. Hilary helped her search for rabbit holes while John leaned against the Freelander and watched their every move.
He had to admit to himself a profound regret, that things had come to this pass with his daughters. He had seen it coming but not like this, not so soon. He felt the ground had been taken from beneath his feet. He needed to find a way to reach them but every avenue seemed closed. They flared up at the least provocation and he could not determine how to pass through the minefield unscathed. He further recognised that he did not deserve to pass through heart whole. At least they were civil to Livia and had seemed to respond to her surprisingly well. That was so much of a relief to him.
They came tramping back, their Hunters well baptised with the mud of England.
‘It’s not pretty up here, hadn’t seen it as quite this barren.’
‘Well it’s not Death Valley, Hilary. But for the south of England it can be pretty bleak at this time of year.


Hilary and Robin did not need goading up the steep hillside. It was just the walk to stretch them after their flight. They pushed on determinedly for the top with John initially leading but then a few steps behind as they got nearer to the summit. They had been partially sheltered on the path going up the east side of the Beacon, but once at the top the full strength of the wind, which seemed to have increased to near gale force, drove them to a stop. They looked down the north side to a small herd of bedraggled sheep sheltering disconsolately in the lee of what John informed them was an Iron Age hill fort. He was not to be deterred, however, and pushed on a little way down the exposed west side side on the scrubby, uncared-for grass, weaving between the dried stalks of dead thistles under the darkening sky, until he reached an isolated grave  surrounded by tall, solid iron railings. 
‘What is it?’ Hilary asked
Robin stared uneasily, then switched her gaze to look more hopefully at the well-tended farm below and the small village further to the west.
‘It’s a tomb. It’s the resting place of Lord Carnarvon.’
‘The discoverer of Tutankhamen?’ Robin asked.
‘The same.’
‘I thought Howard Carter made the discovery,’ Hilary interjected.
‘Well, yes. You’re right. But Carnarvon financed the expedition. He was an amateur enthusiast. Carter was the professional.’
The blackened railings held off the curious or the vandalous at a safe distance. But the lichened catafalque seemed monstrously neglected.
‘That village below was part of the family seat. That’s the stately pile of Highclere Castle over there to the north you can just see through the trees. And he asked to be buried up here. To avoid bringing any evil down on his family. His life was not a happy one.’
‘The curse?’ Robin looked at her father expectantly.
‘Yes. Cursed by his findings. He was dead within two months of the opening of the inner tomb.’
‘I don’t believe any of that.’ Hilary poured scorn on his assessment. ‘I read that he died of pneumonia following blood poisoning from an insect bite that became infected.’
‘Then how does it feel to you up here?’
‘Cold, windy, isolated, for sure.’
‘Not forlorn?’
‘I’m not sure about that,’ she continued, ‘not the way I see it. He wanted to be up here, didn’t he?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘There’s something else up here, though, Lar,’ Robin countered. ‘I think there is a weirdness. I don’t like it. It’s creepy. I wouldn’t want to be up here at night. It would give me the shivers.’
She walked solemnly all the way round the tomb of the forgotten explorer, as if marking the narrow perimeter of his abandonment, watched by her father and sister. Then they returned to the Freelander.


The welcome warmth of the log fire was echoed by a huge black Labrador that lumbered to its feet and planted its muzzle unerringly and indecorously into Robin’s groin, while John looked for a table. It brought a smile to her lips as she gently but firmly stroked its head behind the ears and pulled it back. The pub was busy as many of the weekenders in the village and surrounding area were already in situ, getting an early start to the holidays on this last Friday before Christmas, catching up with the locals and the rural gossip. At a table near the bar a couple of pretty, dark-haired girls nearly the same age as Hilary and Robin were snorting stertorously, engrossed in some private joke over their bottle of white wine. From their Sloaney accents and smart country garb John guessed they were either senior students at Marlborough or some other similar institution or freshers at one of the posher universities. 
An inviting smell from the kitchen wafted towards them, encouraging them to look forward to choosing something from the specials on the chalk board, as Hilary and Robin stripped off their parkas and sat down. John ordered drinks after playing hide and seek with the barman behind the red brick centrepiece that divided the bar, and was relieved to hear they could still be served at the late hour if they ordered right away. Robin wanted a pint of diet Coke, John had the same, while Hilary expressed an interest in trying a local brew. After a brief discussion on the merits of the West Berkshire ales John accepted the barman’s recommendation. Hilary and Robin were talking about Carnarvon by the time John handed them their glasses.
‘So are you trying to say you’re cursed too?’ Hilary looked up at him.
‘Accursed? I don’t know. Somehow I should be feeling blessed but . . .’
‘So you should. Your life has worked out.’
‘And yours?’
‘It’s getting there. I’m still trying to figure out if I’m cut out for scientific research.’
‘Well, science runs in the family. My grandfather was a pharmacist, you know. My Dad should have been one too by all accounts but he left his schooling to go out to work as his Dad died in his early teens and his Mum when he was seventeen.’
‘And you?’
‘I was never going to be interested in pharmacology. But I did have a fascination with forensics which I applied to both archaeology and anthropology.’
‘Me too,’ Robin chipped in. ‘I’m interested in forensics. I’ve been thinking of working for the FBI when I leave college.’
‘That would be a waste.’
‘Would it? I don’t know. It seems we always need to solve problems.’
‘Robin’s also got the idea that big government is a solution to problems,’ Hilary added helpfully. ‘Not me, though. I’m all for little government.’
‘I’d have to agree with you, there,’ John added. ‘That leaves you as the odd one out, I’m afraid, Robin.’
She shrugged and half-smiled to herself.
‘Have a look at this government we’ve got here as a good example. They’re making laws for fun. The statute books have doubled in size, and they’ve brought in so many regulations to amend the laws when they’ve got them wrong the only people benefiting are the lawyers.’  
Hilary had picked up the menu and focused her attention on choosing her lunch. John directed them to the specials board near the open fire, which was burning cheerfully. Perhaps, he thought, he would be able to ride out the solstice after all. He sustained this hope with an ample ploughman’s lunch while Hilary chose the bangers and mash in onion gravy and Robin took the game pie.
By the time they left the Old Boot the afternoon had darkened with heavy clouds threatening the onset of an early winter night. The village street was deserted. As they got in the Freelander they heard a distinctly tinny peal of bells brought down the wind. John thought the word tintinnabulation highly appropriate for this knell of parting day.
‘That’s probably from the bell tower of the Stanford Dingley parish church of St Denys. Or St Denis as they say en Paris. Very old. A twelfth century rebuild surrounds the remains of a Saxon site of worship which would, of course, have been made of wood.’ He thought it appropriately symbolic. After all St Denis had had his head removed after an invasion and warbled on walking for several miles with his head in his hands.
‘That’s impossible,’ Hilary retorted after hearing the legend. ‘No scientist would accept that.’
‘I know what you mean. But miracles do happen.’ Please god, yes, he prayed silently, though his faith in south-east England manifesting a magic realism was sorely tried. What next, one of the Sloanes in the pub would be wooed by a Prince Charming?

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