Mark Wagstaff was born by the sea and lives in London. Since 1999 Mark has had around sixty short stories published in the US and UK. Mark has also published four novels, a novella and a short story collection. His 2008 novel The Canal is available in ebook and his latest novel In Sparta - a story of radicalism, conformity and terror - is available in print and ebook. Details of Mark’s work are at www.markwagstaff.com.
In the dog days of late August, summer gone, the first blackberries pricked the twisted hedge; the coppice grew future bonfires. Autumn’s seed in the Halloween mist that - sheltered, uncomplaining - idled in wooded hollows to wait out the sun. The single track railway edged through the country, its thin steel headed deep into afternoon light.
I left London on the express, as I do a hundred times a year for conferences, meetings, gatherings of my academic tribe. Always the crowded carriages, noisy ringtones, keyboards clicking, the earnest talk of business. Trolleys and luggage, the surge to be first off the train; busy people with places to go. At Reading I got a cross-country train, new neighbours: summer students and solitary women pensively watching the view. Somewhere in Dorset, behind the grand façade of a faded Victorian station, I caught a two-coach local that groaned and sighed through the country, with chirruping blue-blazered boys, back early to some reassuringly remote boarding school; and silent, corduroy'd men, hitching from stop to stop on their crafty, tinkering business.
The bare concrete platform was an inexplicable moment in hours of empty fields, remote from the scrap of canopy marooned among the nettles where the old station buildings had been. On the express I was everyone: a man with an office, a secretary, with messages needing attention; performance targets and quality metrics to be met. But on that bone platform, as the train barked and chafed across a severed junction, I was something military, an impost, an order dispatched from some distant authority barely felt or heard. My phone found no signal; my laptop stalled, its wireless uselessness heavy in my hand. The dog days of late August, Bank Holiday gone. Days of new shirts and haircuts, of shining neglected shoes. Always, for me, something finished, not beginning: trying to stretch the holidays, prolong the sandy moments, carefree summer gone. A life termed in semesters: still wishing for blazing July in the late August days of quick breezes and failing sun. In the afternoon hour when summer seems to linger, when a promise of warmth and endless hills deceives, before the gloom. When you catch a blue and dazzling sky and think that, for once, summer's lasting. Before the mist rises, before sudden night clouds the weary west.
The loose swing gate took me out into a lane, its grassy banks knitted with trees. A stranger to the country, I was surprised by birdsong, by the slender wind bringing a sense of miles of open land. But my city education knew nothing seen was without intervention: the fields and hedges were trimmed and managed; the island oaks, the diamonds of coppiced woods were products of old choices, as artful as the sheep-cropped hills and butter-pat rolls of straw from the early harvest; the ditches and straight road, older still.
The sign at the crossroads was in the old, black-iron language of miles. A quarter to the village, already in view. I wasn’t afraid: that would have been absurd. I was not intellectually wary. What I tasted was a sharp, brackish edge, a childhood tang of the unfamiliar. My feet stuttered, bound on a thread to the station, the main line, London and home. Bound by knowing I could leave and life would continue the same. But if I stayed, some part of me might cede to a different command.
The village was unremarkable: the row of workmen's cottages; old, rose-grown gardens; shops become second homes; the new houses in recovered stone, sectioned away behind trees. A cross in the square where the market had met; the pub, its yard and upper rooms recalling days as a halt on the lonely turnpike from city to sea. The church on a mound commanding the valley, its tumbledown graves of the hard-working dead scattered by godless time. The church had a small second tower, linked to the nave. Not entirely a house of peace, then: a place where the county militia would have kept its stores; its rumours of renegade armies; its watch on a quiet landscape defined by envy and war.
The landlord of the pub was reliably friendly, predictably interested in why I was there. I'm not proud that I lied to him.
"I'd'a thought they'd'a studied the church to death."
"Well…" I forced the didactic voice I use for undergrads. "It's always important to cross-refer, to return to the findings. Techniques change."
"Like kegs and barrels," he said, getting the room key. "That's all changed. I've put you at the back. Quieter. And there's a view of the church."
Perhaps he thought I’d sketch it like some watercolouring vicar.
"Breakfast's at seven, though we’re up before if you're early. We start sharp in the country."
I smiled, graciously put in my place.
The room beneath the eaves was a Chinese puzzle-box of ceilings, run through with steep, low beams. Coaxing open the leaded window revealed a picnic lawn, a barbecue in the corner, swings and a slide, a path running out through the wall to the back lane beyond. There were flowers everywhere: in an ice-cream palette of careful beds, impasto walls and drapery ledges; peonies and roses, chrysthanthemums' warm gold; while wisteria waterfalls sheltered mullioned glass and rusty bricks. The church tower probed the sky, as its heavy feet anchored the village, bringing a rooted populace the iron grasp of heaven. I'm not a believer: what those old churches say to me is politics, economics, a power to rival the throne; a source for the sorrows of history.
The landlord's wife was the local tourist information: I weathered her enthusiasm for the mill, the folly, goose fair in November; the man with a steam train in his shed. She thought, too, that there were remains, a breath of ancient pavement, a tracing of antiquity beneath the metalled road. The regulars - an unsurprising mix of lairy lads, rusty tweeds and scarecrows - had all heard London come to stay, and I indulged their prejudice for country over city. The pub was the only place for miles and by mid-evening the whole village was there. It took hours, getting to sleep, as laughter shook the sandy walls. Then jolted awake at five by the clang of kegs through the archway. With nothing else to do, I went for early breakfast.
The landlord was checking stock on his PDA, a phone wedged under his whiskers. "I ordered two dozen salted, four dozen cheese, and a box of prawn. I got three dozen prawn. That’ll last till doomsday."
His wife, signing chits for the lorry driver, gave me an up-all-night smile. "You're sharp. It's the air. Hope we didn't disturb you and that. Had a few friends stay after."
I looked around at the dregs and illicit ashtrays, the artefacts of night. "You done now?"
"Dear me, no. We're just starting. We open at eight."
"We don't take money till eleven, mind. It’s all proper. After the first year you stop feeling tired. Now, there's bacon, sausage…"
Her husband looked up. "Don't let her scramble your eggs."
Stuffed with good grease, I went outside, wishing I still smoked. Day began early, not just for mine hosts. An air of activity swept the street. Four-by-fours hurtled through. Kids were out with fishing rods. Everyone had dogs. A tractor chugged by, a horsebox manoeuvred perilously round the cross. Old women swamped a minibus which shot off like a bright dart. I wondered what was the decent time to phone an elderly vicar.
"Vicar?" Old boys at the bar, on their second pint of brown, their cash stacked neatly waiting the lawful hour. "Prob'ly on his rounds."
His housekeeper confirmed it. "Is it a pastoral matter?" She couldn't say when he'd be back: saving souls has no white space.
There was nothing to do in the village. I walked to the mill, climbed to the folly, took the view from the ridge. The long, straight road was an old scar, exploding through the broken hills, pulling fields in to meet it, sequestering land. Where the lanes snaked in turning-heads for horse and plough, the old road made no compromises. Alarming, still, in its arrogance, its rush of invasion.
There was a message when I got back.
"You're blessed," the landlord’s wife laughed. "Vicar called."
He called me Professor, in the donnish way of old men. He recalled we'd spoken by telephone, getting the matter orderly in his mind. Wasn't sure what he could tell me, said he was: "Just an amateur in these things. An interested amateur."
I made polite noises: a lifetime of college fundraising events builds a deal of flattery.
He suggested tomorrow, after dinner. "I've a very good port."
When the bean-counters of the church, who quantify their religion, reviewed their estates in that part of the world, perhaps they were influenced by the same blood-dark liquid he raised in my glass. I can't think why else they left him there in the huge, ancient vicarage with its panelled stairs and Tudor rose plaster, instead of turfing him out to a flat and selling the place for a golf course. He opened the door himself, still holding his napkin from dinner. He was comfortably padded, his large head sunk low on his shoulders, a luxuriant back-growth of white hair long retreated. His fleshy face was remarkably unlined, as though he’d led a good life; his eyes had a spark I understood as intellect, though he might have called it devotion. Every inch country clergy, I was reassured he was in his garb and looked like he wore it always. I’m not a believer, but I appreciate proper form.
He was modest at my genuine admiration of his library. “Oh, it’s all inherited from previous incumbents. I’ve simply made a few minor additions. Introduced some works by atheists.” He gave a wine-rich laugh. “I’ve one of yours here.”
I was listening carefully to his voice, so carefully I didn’t recognise the book he produced with so needless a flourish. It was an early text, a tentative usage of economics. I read a page at random. Like a chance encounter with a long-lost son, it was neither bleak nor satisfying, but implausible and strange. I thought he was joking when he handed me the pen, but he was that type, that age, for whom books have fetish value.
“I have a small collection of autograph works. This is the most recent.”
It was a catalogue statement, my signature historicised while the ink still glistened.
I sat with the port as he fussed his papers. “I’m not sure where I can help you. It was a very long time ago.”
I knew exactly how long, perhaps better than he did.
He had journals, thin monographs in typefaces that no longer exist. He stared, trying to focus on the text of events long ago. “It was…ah…wait a second. It was…here.” His hand, his guide through Bible columns, found the ways of science. “My word: was it that long?” He looked up. “I’m not sure where the years go. I’ve been fortunate,” he added, in case I took his surprise for doubt. “There are not many spared to enjoy their career in the same living.”
Indeed. I took the journal. The essay, by some long-departed with all proper thanks to his field team, summarised the most thorough archaeological survey ever performed in that district. With no more than shovels and trowels and a good eye for the landscape, they uncovered a stretch of the old road, found remains of temple bones, a small hoard of coins, fine ceramics, and a suggestion of mosaic floor: marker for a villa. That was very exciting: even back then to record a fresh villa was rare. Surprisingly few villas, I was told, were built in Britain. But the archaeologists were disappointed. They found a tile, a handful of brick; nothing substantial. They dug till farmers chased them off: ‘we agreed to the bounds of a delimited area of investigation’, was how the writer glossed it.
They were supported, encouraged in their investigation by the local clergy. Especially the young deacon, recently attached to the parish, who’d been given the task of setting straight the parochial papers. It seemed he’d found a reference, some eighteenth century parson who fancied himself an antiquarian, as they all did then. This predecessor noted old men’s tales of masonry, statues, ‘divers richesse of color’d flor’ dug from beside ‘the Stone Strete’. These old vicars, meticulous in local curiosities, were often sound-enough as secondary sources. So the great archaeologist and his students dug and dug. But found nothing. He went to his death, I was told, believing if they’d just had more time, just pushed the bounds a bit wider, they’d have found what the old men spoke of, the ‘visages turn’d by the plow’. But archaeology has fashions and fieldwork has costs; the place hadn’t been dug since.
“Perhaps,” I said, as he poured more port, “a geophysical or aerial survey might show it.”
“Oh, you know what these chaps are. It’s all economics now.”
I looked politely puzzled.
“County archaeologist has determined this area couldn’t support a villa. It was subsistence farmed till enclosure began in the late seventeenth. As the tithe rolls tell us. No point looking if the economics decree it can’t be there, eh?”
“What about the vicar’s journal?”
He didn’t seem to hear.
“Could I see it? The reference?”
“Oh, all those historic volumes have gone to the British Library for digitalising or something. Some parish records project. Very exciting. They hope to cover the whole country.”
“Do you remember the dig?”
“My word: it was fifty years ago.”
“Anything would be helpful.”
He seemed to find something in his port as arresting and pensive as a stray word in an old text. Gradually, he began. “It was a hot summer. Hotter even than this last gone. I recall the old Reverend sat in the garden in shirt sleeves, like a tripper at the beach. Most surprising. I was a keen cyclist then. We all were. It’s come again, hasn’t it? Cycling. All the youngsters have taken it up. My word: these new bikes are so fast. We had to slog. I’d change in the vestry. So the housekeeper wasn’t offended. I rather doubt sturdy legs in the vestry would offend the Almighty, don’t you? A rather minor sin, I think. We don’t talk about sin anymore, have you noticed? The Church, I mean. We talk about understanding. The road seems less arduous that way.
“I’d change in the vestry. The church is built on a mound, have you noticed? Iron Age site, we believe. Iron Age temple. The early Fathers were keen on that: taking over existing sites. Mergers and acquisitions I used to call it in Sunday School. When we had Sunday School. I’m fond of children, aren’t you? Sometimes think… The Romans put their temple by the road because the road mattered more to them than the village. Military highway, you see. To the coast. Supply lines and all that. They worshipped spirits associated with embarkation and journeys. With departure. But the early Fathers wanted men’s souls and they were in it for the long term. So they built their temple on the old mound. Buried the old gods with stone and crucifixion. Grisly death, don’t you think? Crucifixion. Barbaric. Took days sometimes.
“It was a very hot summer. But freewheeling the slopes cooled you down. I’d end at the pub. I drank cider then; I was a very young man. On a hot day, after a good ride, a pint of cider is nectar. There used to be orchards, all about here. A lot of the farms had presses. ‘Much cider made, ne’er duty paid,’ they used to say. You won’t find an apple tree now from here to…so far.
“We knew there were strangers about. You always know. But that afternoon in the pub yard…I’d not seen so many young people since the Seminary. And that was all boys, of course. I think women priests are a jolly good thing, don’t you? Women strengthen the Church. I’ve heard a few went Roman because of it. I can’t think that says much for their faith. We may not always agree with their Lordships but to apostatise…
“I rode my bike into the yard, into this crowd of youngsters. Young women. In those cap sleeve shirts we thought quite racy then. Here, I mean. Not in London, I’m sure. News moves slowly here, as it did in the days the coaches would bring down the London fashions. Or French fashions, up from the coast. You learn so much about everywhere, staying in one place.
“These young women were clustered around this very distinguished-looking man. Young women and men, I should say. But I was not long from the Seminary. I always wanted to be a clergyman, isn’t that strange? From childhood. I thought there was something rather fine in fixing on the immortal. And they didn’t enquire too closely about exams back then. It was piety that mattered. I had piety. And diligence. That’s very important. The Church is a vast ladder, you gradually inch your way up. Sometimes someone would give you a hand. More often not. Preferment and position: a fine house on a cathedral close, liberty to devote your life to cerebral pursuits. Better than flogging yourself in some city parish, seeking out God’s will in the dust. I did neither. I stayed here.
“This very distinguished man was holding forth on trenches and layers. I knew what he meant. We were all amateurs of everything then. It was part of our education. And, when you consider it, there’s a lot to learn about God’s will, unearthing the past. I think these spats about evolution are otiose, don’t you? Evolution so plainly works it must be God’s design.
“What this man was describing was the most thorough survey ever planned for this district. Always interesting, you see, digging along the old roads. Armies pitch camp. Travellers rest. Things are lost. Or hidden. Battles are fought. Trade ebbs and flows. The economics, do you see? There was one young lady especially. Very bright. Keen to talk and knew her subject. Knew bicycles, too. I had a very snazzy model. My word: things we used to say.”
He’d talk and tell me nothing. Remember all night and say nothing. I’d have to unearth him, layer by layer: a mound of spoil and the daintiest brush. “Did you become involved?”
He blinked. “Not sure what you mean by involved. I’d often ride by to see them. They were strung two miles along the straight road: you couldn’t miss them. I’d stop to see what they’d found. There were some interesting coins and broaches. It’s in the monograph.”
“And the fragments of mosaic?”
“Yes, there was that.”
I swirled the heady wine, watching its glossy surface break and settle. “And you remembered the vicar’s journal?”
“They dug and dug, you know. In the most ghastly heat. Nights, too, with lanterns. Until the sheep farmers complained. He was a very determined man. Driven, in his way. I suppose great men are, don’t you? I’ve seen it in the Church. That will to be right. The troubles with farmers were endless: they said the trenches encroached on crops, the night work worried the ewes. There were arguments. Most distasteful. He was utterly convinced they were engaged on some great labour and the locals were, well, ignorant frankly. Most unfortunate. Lead to friction. Some of the farmers were ignorant. Most were just concerned for their living. The crash and the war weren’t such ancient history, you know. His students were devoted to him. She was devoted. She would always tell me some wise thing he’d said, some interpretation he’d made of a fragment of jar or bone. I’d nothing much in return. The Church has tenure on eternity: our foundation is faith not demonstration. I didn’t think she’d be interested in liturgical exegesis. But there was that reference.”
“Could I see it? The journal?”
He blinked. “I thought I said: they’ve all been loaned. It will probably be on the…um…the internet, in due course. Marvellous thing, don’t you think? Invention of the age. I’m in contact with my fellows all over the world. Must help no end with research.”
“Yes, it’s very useful.” It’s how you dig out the static lives of old men. “I suppose she was disappointed.”
Despite a half-bottle of tawny confusion, a sharp light entered his eyes. “I beg your pardon?”
“About the villa.”
“They dug to the natural. You know that’s what they call it? When you dig down to the layer of earth before men disturbed the land. Where the shifts and upheavals are pure geology. Are the pure work of God, I should say. My word. The natural. The pristine to everything that comes after. They opened more trenches and dug again. They dug and dug. To the natural.”
“But they couldn’t prove the journal?”
His face churned. “He recorded old stories. Village tales. He said those things were taken out of the ground. Robbed out. Stone was a prized commodity, you know. If you took apart some of the old cottages here, if you looked under their hearths, you’d probably find Roman stones. Much of the road was gone, remember, by Saxon times. It’s entirely possible the whole villa was reused. Entirely possible. Now, not to be rude…”
“Yes, it’s late.” I drained my glass and stood too quick, the room hazing, its order seeming to dissipate in strata of wine-dark ages, to a time the leather bindings were new; the gilded Bible-edges glorying a still-living god; candle light trying to make out canon script on winters’ nights; and the parsons of yesterday: solid, fighting, hunting men, hardened to life in a wild fringe of empty country, lining their pockets, making law, and saving souls with a vengeance. They wouldn’t lie about the junk old men said to find in the plough-waste. They didn’t need lies: they got their way with a bird for the pot and half a crown left on the table.
His handshake was soft, undefined, like the worst of sandy soil.
It was night. Beyond his rapidly-closed front door an autumn wind picked up from the north, biting its way down-country. It brought a restlessness of doomed leaves, a tidal sigh to the treetops. The old house stood behind me, stern as the days widows and orphans would trail to the Reverend’s pity. When Heaven was a shilling saved and the glory of god a vague assurance to enquire who might need a servant. When a quick, bright girl could get on as a seamstress or lady’s maid, untroubled by archaeology.
Ahead of me, the wooded drive curved back towards the village. The trees were old, their skin scabbed and peeling, their limbs deformed with the amputations of centuries. Our time is short to the lives of trees, to their knowing and their seasons. The old master with his gnarled grip deep beneath the ground was in his rich maturity when parsons rode to hounds and damned the excise men who’d stalled their brandy. Was a brash stripling when lords intrigued in castle walls and kings drove the land to hell in showers of red and white roses. Was a seed when the iron men with iron hearts cast their straight roads through the country. What traveller from another star wouldn’t think trees the inheritors?
My head spun as the night threw drunk thought on the shredding wind. It was dark, cold, the first whispers of a long, hard winter in the rain that found me out, alone, through breaks in the trees. Centuries from the city, from research and theory and discourse of meaning and doubt. From my distinguished mother’s freshly-wept grave, her final excavation. In a country of empty fields, jagged hills topped the chalk pastures, tore the steady, night-long clouds with memories of sour times, of droughts and mud, of sickness. The straight road, bringing death from plague-struck towns on every traveller’s shoulder. One candle, then night without stars.
They dug to the natural and found no more. Nothing beyond the natural. Nothing immune to the indifference of soil and blind rock. Only we, in our fragile lives, cling to archaeology, to sequence and succession. Only we think the past can heal the future, anatomists of skulls and bones and stony scraps of coloured nothing. Scrabbling for where our days went bad, in the days before we were born.
I found the village lane, snaked and turned by the ploughshare. Took one look back between the trees, to where a tiny speck of light feared darkness. The light in that room of books and hours and hopeless reparations. An unknowing father, confined in guilt, and summer gone.