Sally and her son were up early, just after dawn, to find Martha and Iltud already drinking tea at the kitchen table, their porridge slowly bubbling away on the range. They smiled at her as she came in. It was a big day.
“Don’t worry dear,” Martha was always faster to the start than her husband, “they will be pleased to see you. It’s more about welcoming you and understanding your needs, what you can contribute, and answering any questions you might have. If I know you by now, you’ll keep them busy there for quite a while. Iltud here will take you down and bring you back afterwards, he can help you prepare on the way, explain the sort of questions they will ask, who will be there, that sort of thing. I won’t be able to come with you now,” she spread her hands in mock despair, “now that he’s come back with her. It’s probably better anyway; I can look after Josey here for you if that’s alright? You’ll have to leave well before eight o’clock to get there for eleven, it’s over an hour on the train to St. Josephs, and you’ve got to walk to the Town Hall.
She was starting to get the feeling that her son wouldn’t mind a bit, at least during a busy day. She thanked them for their thoughtfulness and said it was fine, and, by the way, how were Sam and the girl? She had still been in the bathroom when Sally went to bed, to the consternation of a near frantic Sam, who seemed to fear that she had drowned herself. In the end Martha had got the spare key, unlocked the door from the kitchen side and had told the men to stay out while she went in alone. There she was, in about three layers of clothes and the dressing gown, spark out in a corner of the bathroom floor looking like a played-out animal. At least she had had a bath and the food and drink left in the room had gone.
Sam had insisted on picking her up, so gently that she didn’t awake, and carrying her upstairs to bed. Martha, following, had had tears in her eye: She could see that all he could feel was a powerful compulsion to atone for the things he had done. He lay in the room next to hers, with his door ajar one ear, pricked like a dog, for the slightest hint of movement until even he could fight sleep no more. “Gillian and Brother Peran are coming around at noon to see if they can help,” Martha had said, “if anyone can get her talking it’s the monk.”
If one thing renewed the child in her, which had been on the point of extinction as a consequence of her life in London, it was that little train ride down to the bay, steam and cinders flowing past the carriage window in its wake, nine stations, eighteen rural parishes before the final terminus at St Josephs. Docco had seen her clamber aboard and stoked his brother-in-law’s ire by sitting by them between halts, explaining every facet of his little command and the places they rode through.
It was just like the pictures of the old pre-war countryside she thought, something out of the Titfield Thunderbolt before the full advent of the mechanisation and medication of the countryside. Small fields, high hedges, wild flowers and a plenitude of other life; farm hands working in the fields, working horses everywhere, windmills and watermills churning away.
Hard work, totally inefficient by modern standards, but so human in scale.
All the while Iltud talked like a man possessed, cramming her with information like an anxious teacher with his star pupil before a scholarship paper, derailed occasionally by a beaming Docco trying to be helpful; almost as useful to her in her preparation as all of Iltud’s extraneous facts.
Then St Josephs, a small stone and timber station with two platforms, one never used, Docco explained, it was there just in case; he didn’t know what for though. The little town, which she now knew had about three thousand inhabitants, was cradled on the shore of the bay between the main valley river and one from the lowest tributary valley, and so was effectively confined to a small peninsular. It was like all other small traditional fishing towns, white washed and plain stone buildings and cottages, a minster church built in a basilica style on the highest ground in the town, a Town Hall beside it and a main street that led from the main road entrance past the two civic buildings to the quayside, lined with shops and inns. What looked like a small low-scale industrial area with a few warehouses and water-mill buildings, among others, lay between the station and the adjoining main river.
The streets here were stone-paved with small, partly enclosed watercourses running down their sides in places. All very scenic, but Iltud was in no mood to tarry, seemingly still irritated by his brother-in-law’s chatter he hurried on, leaving Sally to keep up in his wake. In what seemed no time at all they were in the Town Hall waiting room as other people came and went, some looking at her curiously on their way past. The little room’s walls were covered in large aged oak boards carrying the stencilled names of civic worthies dating back centuries, all very Ruritanian.
Iltud motioned Sally to her feet and they were led through double doors up to a large plaster walled room that ran along the entire front of the building, with windows facing out on to the main street below. The room contained a huge ancient looking oak table with over a half century of oak chairs around it and a small oak throne in the middle of the far side; two chairs stood on their own on the opposite side, facing the throne. Iltud gestured to her to sit in one, taking the other beside her. He leaned conspiratorially towards her, “Don’t be nervous, neither the Duke nor the old man will be here; the others will arrive shortly.”
They started to drift in, introducing themselves as they passed her, fourteen were Seigneurs, among them Mark. Seigneur was a largely hereditary office, with principal authority for security matters, one for each rural parish Iltud had explained. Fifteen were parish Stewards, elected annually by their parish freeholders, plus Iltud, her witness and advocate should she need it. Then came the town’s Mayor, the Abbot of the Abbey church on the main island and finally the High Steward himself, appointed for a three-year term at Easter by the Duke himself from the other Councillors, effectively the prime minister of this little realm. Apparently, for the Council to be quorate, the Mayor, Abbot and High Steward all had to be present, with at least half of each of the other two categories of Councillors. They met once a week on average, usually Mondays, and had to examine all new incomers at the next meeting after their arrival.
And so here she was, so nervous she was shaking gently. Iltud started by introducing her and explaining the facts of her arrival and her background in the ‘outside’ and then Mark, as the receiving parish Seigneur, had to report whether or not she was a person deemed fit to be allowed to stay. They at least had the decency to converse in English before her, rather than their native tongue. What happened if she wasn’t deemed a fit person wasn’t explained; she was asked to confirm what the others had said and then take questions, which were largely perfunctory, the Abbot seeming to act as chairman, his gentle eyes winking at her reassuringly from time to time as if it were just a little act to be played out for form’s sake.
And then suddenly, the questions became serious, focused pointedly on her languages, studies and work for the Foreign Office. Was she fluent in Italian?
Excellent, no one else here is anything like competent. Latin?
“Read okay, don’t speak it, could brush up though.”
Hmm, shame. French?
“Pretty good, little rusty, need to revise.”
Good, good… Spanish?
Very good indeed, valuable. Greek?
“Very rusty, ancient Greek, not to be relied on.”
Shame, but not a disaster, we can get by. Worked for the Logres Foreign Office?
“Low level analysis mostly, trying to understand trends in the countries of the northern Mediterranean littoral, getting to know the motives of the movers and shakers, that sort of thing, certainly too junior for policy or intelligence”.
No matter, no matter, still useful skills. Done any official work on the Vatican?
“No, nothing,” a peculiar specialism that had passed her by. Funny question to ask? No matter. Would she be willing to revise her skills, put her expertise to the service of all if asked?
“Yes, potentially, but would depend on what I was being asked to do. I have principles and would not betray my country.”
Would not be asked, almost inconceivable.
‘Only,’ she noticed.
How did she feel about the export trade, did she understand, object?
“Couldn’t believe it at first, so long as it stops at tobacco and similar, no drugs, guns or the like. Hmmm. Never drugs, no, nor selling guns illegally, nor people smuggling, very clear indeed on that.
And then they veered in another direction.
Did she think she and her son could be happy here?
“Possibly, but my husband…”
Ah yes, we understand from Brother Peran…
Him, has he been reporting on me?
He likes you, thinks you are a real asset; he’s just a character witness, that’s all. Anyway, your husband, a senior policeman?
“Yes, but I would never ask him to betray his duty”
Of course, quite commendable.
“Will you help me see him again, my son… There must be a way”?
In good time, it’s in the Almighty’s hands, we appreciate it’s difficult, tragic even, but we must all be patient.
Had she had chance to think where she would like to settle yet? No? It’s probably too soon, but you will need to consider your future here, we can help, provide you with a house, possibly a means of income.
Here Iltud broke in saying she was welcome to stay with them as long as she needed. Remember her child.
Ah, yes. The boy, he justifies extra help, solicitude, a great boon. A school place would be provided in the next village, a small stipend for her in the meantime, but only when she has seen the Duke, sworn an oath of loyalty. Needs to be on an Easter Day, if not in a fortnight’s time, she will need to wait another year. That’s the rule, no exceptions. Think on it.
“What about being ‘touched’ so I can come and go”?
Out-of-the-question, only if she proved herself over time, an honour that has to be earned by great trust; her skills and training make it at least a possibility in the future, but only if she showed the right attitude.
Good, good, all agreed? Yes? Welcome to the Pocket, blessings on your future lives in your new home!
And that was it, they were already leaving. Before she could gather her wits and recall the many questions she had intended to ask, it was too late. She looked at Iltud in misery, only then noticing the presence of the Abbot by her left shoulder.
© 1642again 2018