Ten minutes from the farm, the sun sinking in the west, the American girl dozing on the back seat, at least she wasn’t arguing now.
If Helena hadn’t gone with him to meet Lena at the hotel in Hungerford, where she had stayed for the last three days, the girl wouldn’t have come. Her time away from London, living in comfort, had revitalised her confidence, made her feel an illusory security again, buried the compliant desperation which would be her salvation. Like so many people in her position, she had no sense of perspective, no ability to step outside herself and think things through beyond the personal; such a pity, so immature and so impulsive, despite her years. But Helena had finally convinced her, had talked about choices, remaking herself, holding on to offered chances, love, friendship, trusting Matt and not looking back; at one point it had almost sounded as if Helena was trying to persuade herself.
He had held off telling her he would be away until Monday until the girl was safely in his car and they were parting; what a coward. He had expected her to remind him of his promise, say that she had made no plans for the weekend because of him, that she would be alone, to reproach him. She hadn’t, she had just looked at him sympathetically, sadly, said she understood and in parting had kissed him softly on the side of his cheek, too close to the edge of his mouth for comfort, then turned and walked back to her car. That was the worst of all; he would rather have had her anger than that.
He pulled into the farmyard behind the house and got a rucksack out of the boot. Things she had bought Lena to take with her, clothes mainly, Lena’s own small backpack with her own effects and a bag containing suitable clothing and boots for the night hike across the moors. He smiled inwardly, she really was amazing, she thought of everything; he hoped the girl would be able to properly thank her one day. He woke Lena and took her into the farmhouse kitchen where hot food was brought out of the range cooker, marching food, no time to waste.
Mark the Seigneur was there with a couple of his team, discreetly armed, along with Sam. He explained they were going to take her to join a smuggling party meeting a lorry on the moorland road and join them for the hike through the barrier.
Mark was experienced, had done this many times, but was nervous too, looking at the girl as if doubting her mettle, her strength for what lay ahead, explaining quietly that the barrier was weak at the moment, the land was expanding, ‘they’ were becoming more of a threat. Such a large party should be fine but was more noticeable; at least the weather was poor, blustery and raining, which should keep passing strangers away.
Sam was just talking quietly to the girl who seemed to have lapsed into that mute helplessness that had been her previous state of mind. He smiled at her frequently, reassuring her, explaining the upsides of his new life.
He asked Mark where he was taking the girl to stay.
“Well, she can’t stay with Martha and Iltud, they have no more room, so it’s either a choice between a couple in the next village who have looked after incomers with similar problems, or the nuns’ guest house. She looks like she’ll need a lot of attention, but I thought a loving family might work the best, at least at first. Besides, Sam will only be a little distance away, at least until he goes back. What do you think?”
“That will be fine I’m sure. Can you send this note to the Council when you get back? Sam, have you got a moment? Lena, good luck, don’t worry, you’re in the best of hands.”
Seven hours later, the girl was out on her feet, her stamina long spent, wasted by her former life. Sam had supported her at first and was now carrying her for the final couple of miles along the valley floor; that was the trouble, these days every journey seemed somehow longer than the one before. But he was nearly home. How did he feel about going back so soon? He understood better now, things were black and white, he had work to do, wrongs to be avenged, enemies to be put down.
The apartment felt emptier than usual when she awoke on Sunday morning, like a vacant tomb, but at least the contractors had finished. Perhaps it was that analogy that had impelled her to go to church for the first time in twenty years, she couldn’t think of any other reason. When he had told her he wouldn’t see her again until Monday, at the earliest, it had been all she could do to retain her self-composure, not embarrass them both in front of Lena; he had enough on his plate as it was.
She didn’t trust herself to call him, didn’t take his calls, just replied by text. Petulance? No, it was more about the way she was in danger of dissolving inside. The more time she spent with him, the harder it got. Wasn’t that what you wanted, wasn’t that the deal? No, that’s not it. Then break the ties before we both get hurt. Too late, talk to him again on Monday. Try not to be so needy, so selfish. No, that’s not it either, let’s see on Monday evening.
She considered herself as some kind of agnostic, not hostile; she just didn’t see the relevance to her life most of the time. She had sat at the back, alone, while the service’s Palm Sunday rhythms went through the gears; she was hardly paying attention, just musing idly, brain in neutral for once. She could see the appeal though, the promise of a new start, redemption, eternal unity with those we love, the coming together of people from entirely different walks of life, who would otherwise never meet, in a sort of community. Those things prized more than money and gain, things wealth could never buy.
He had never spoken to her about such things, she suspected they were so deeply internalised he had lost the power to discuss them; how could he even begin to share any of it after the things he had seen, had suffered, had lost?
Perhaps, one day, when they were somewhere away from all of this, content, she would raise it with him. Yes, that’s what she really wanted. The realisation was like that beam of sunlight breaking through the window, picking out the polished brass cross on the white altar linen, just like those wartime photos of St Pauls in the Blitz, with the cross at the summit of the dome shining inviolate out of the smoke; dust, death and carnage all around.
She came to from her reverie, the congregation had gone, the sounds faded away. The vicar was standing beside her, looking down.
“Is everything alright? Is there anything you need?”
She smiled and shook her head.
“No thank you, but I’m clear now.”
Bizarrely, Easter was the one Sunday a year when the trains ran, taking people down to the Abbey and Basilica for the festive highlight of their year, guests travelling at the Council’s expense. They were all going, even Narin who, they had been told would receive special treatment, and an exhausted Sam, who had come in just before dawn. He had washed, breakfasted, changed and was now snoring on the seat in the corner next to Martha; the girl sat opposite him next to Sally, Josey already with his new best big friend Docco, playing trains.
Sally had been sent a small booklet, beautifully illustrated in the Celtic style, containing the oath she had to swear in Latin, Brythonic and English. There seemed to be nothing in it to which object, just items of antiquarian interest, allegiance to the Dux of Lethostow, Iltud explaining that it was the old native name for the Pocket, by the Grace of God etc. Narin’s was different, written in very simple, almost babyish English, that she would never disclose the existence of the Pocket, its inhabitants, or act against them, sworn under whatever deity she worshipped, so no act of allegiance for her. Martha thought it ridiculous: how could she swear something she didn’t understand, Illtud just mumbling that he was sure the authorities knew what they were doing and surely it was in her best interests?
A couple of stops down the line Gillian and Petroc got on board, sitting as close to them as they could in the rapidly filling carriage. Gillian came across to admire their long Byzantine silk dresses with fine, almost invisible silk thread stitching which Narin had largely been responsible for making. Sally felt ridiculously over-dressed, like something out of the dark ages, there was no doubting the quality of the materials, cut and workmanship, just her ability to do it, Narin and Thea the real justice they deserved.
Sally could see that all the women in the carriage admired both of them, casting bashful glances; such things were like hen’s teeth in the valley, almost all being exported to the outside. Theophano had chosen well, especially for the girl, whose white silk headscarf and waist band completed her outfit along with the strings of pearls she wore in common with the other two women.
Sam had just stared at Narin in wonderment, at her transformation from a broken thin teenage girl into an attractive young woman, less emaciated, bruises largely faded and whose skin was recovering some of its youthful smoothness and vitality.
Yes, the exuberant colourings of the materials worked for Narins’ darker skin tones better than for Sally’s own, lighter English complexion. She could sense Martha’s alarm bells were ringing fit to burst now, hardly surprising.
On arriving at their destination, they went to see Thea at the café to show off the results of her generosity. Thea and her family had already attended two services at the Basilica and would be returning, at dusk, for a service in the Byzantine side chapel where she had her own benefactor’s seat. The little dynamo had clapped her hands, exclaiming in Greek, “kalliste, kalliste, most beautiful, most beautiful,” dashing inside and coming back two minutes later with a sublimely fine silk cloth of gold headscarf and waistband for Sally, refusing all offers of payment, just arguing that an incomplete gift is no gift at all, and insisting they join her at the café on their return from the Abbey to tell her all about it.
© 1642again 2018