A dream of wessex, p.1
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A Dream of Wessex


  A Dream of Wessex

  Christopher Priest

  First published 1977 by Faber and Faber Ltd This edition published 1978 by Pan Books Ltd,

  © Christopher Priest 1977

  ISBN 0 330 25543 6

  to Martin Walker

  ‘May you live through interesting times.’

  Ancient Chinese curse

  one

  The Tartan Army had planted a bomb at Heathrow, and Julia Stretton, who had gone the long way round past the airport to avoid the usual congestion on the approach-roads to the M3, had been delayed for two hours by police and army checkpoints. By the time she joined the motorway further down she was so late that she was able to put thoughts of Paul Mason out of her mind, and concentrate on her driving. She drove quickly for an hour, breaking the speed-limit all the way and not particularly concerned should one of the police helicopters spot her.

  She left the motorway near Basingstoke, and drove steadily down the main road towards Salisbury. The plain was grey and misty, with low clouds softening the lines of the higher mounds. It had been a cool, wet summer in Britain, or so everyone told her, and now in July there had been reports of snow-flurries along the Yorkshire coast, and flooding in parts of Cornwall. It all seemed remote from her own life, and she had registered only mild surprise when on complaining of the cold a few days earlier she had been reminded of the time of year.

  A few miles beyond Salisbury, on the road to Blandford Forum, Julia stopped at a roadside cafe for a cup of coffee, and as she sat at the plastic-topped table she had time at last for reflection.

  It had been the surprise of seeing Paul Mason that had probably upset her more than anything else; that, and the way it had happened, and the place.

  Wessex House in High Holborn was a dark, gloomy place at weekends, and she had been there only because she had been instructed to. One of the trustees of the Wessex Foundation, a dry, acerbic lawyer named Bonner, had called her in to see him before she returned to Dorchester from leave. The urgent summons had turned out to be about a minor, irritating matter, and when she left his office in a mood of suppressed anger, and was walking down to the car-park, she met Paul Mason.

  Paul at Wessex House: it was like the breach of a sanctuary. Paul an intruder from her past life; Paul who had almost destroyed her once; Paul whom she had left behind her six years before. Sitting in the roadside cafe, Julia stirred her coffee with the plastic spoon, slopping some of the pale brown liquid into the saucer. She was still angry. She had never wanted to see Paul again, and she was reacting as if he had deliberately followed and waylaid her. He had sounded as surprised to see her as she was to see him, and if he had faked it he was faking well. ‘Julia! What are you doing here! You look well.’ Well enough, Paul. He was still the same Paul, hard-featured but plausible, more debonair now, perhaps, than the egocentric student he had been when she fell for him during their last year at Durham. They’d lived together in London after that, while Paul built his career and she squandered three years of higher education in a succession of secretarial jobs. Then at last the break-up, and the freedom from him, and the lingering, paradoxical dependence on him she’d felt. All in the past, until yesterday.

  She glanced at her wristwatch; she was still late, and all the hurrying on the road had made up no time. She had been in touch with Dr Eliot at Maiden Castle before the weekend, and she had told him she would be in Dorchester by lunchtime. But it was already past two-thirty. Julia wondered if she ought to telephone again, and warn Eliot and his staff, but she looked around the interior of the cafe and couldn’t see a pay-phone. It didn’t matter; if she was delaying them, they would have to wait. Someone would ring Wessex House, and find out she was on her way.

  Such indifference to the administration of the Wessex project was not like her. She had Paul to thank for that. She was still marvelling to herself at the way he had the ability to invade her life. He’d always done it, of course; while they were living together he had treated her as he would treat one of his arms, as an unquestioning, uninteresting, but useful part of himself.

  But now, six years after she had last seen him, she was furious with herself for letting him do it again.

  It was this anger at herself that had started the row yesterday. She stared blankly at the dirty table-top, seeing Paul’s face again, his eyes narrowed with cold indifference to her independence; she could hear again his calm but provocative words, subtly insinuating her reliance on him. Playing the truth game she had called it in the old days, the destructive days of that last lacerating year with him. He had a way of playing on secrets she had once confided to him, then turning them against her to expose her weaknesses and to get his own way. Yesterday he’d done it again, and the old truths still held; the old secrets still betrayed her. He didn’t get it all his own way, though: the inevitable sexual pass had been made, and she passed it straight back, as cold with her body as he was with his eyes. It was her only moment of triumph, and it was one that made her feel sordid; another strike for Paul.

  The coffee, like the recollection, left a bitter taste in the mouth. She was still thirsty, but decided against having a second cup. She went to the loo, then returned to the car.

  It had started to rain while she was in the cafe, so Julia ran the engine and turned on the heater. The weekend encounter with Paul was still foremost in her mind, and some rebellious quirk made her disinclined to drive on, the irritation transferred illogically from Paul to her job. She sat and watched the rain run bright channels down the windscreen.

  She still hadn’t found out what Paul had been doing at Wessex House at all, let alone on a Sunday. The only explanation could be that he had taken a job there, was working for the trustees. The thought induced a quiet panic in her; when she had started to work for the Foundation four years ago, she hadn’t been able to shake off the notion that it was a refuge from Paul, and even today, deeply involved in her work as she was, she couldn’t rid herself of this residual motive. But Paul had found her there, by accident or design. She could ask Dr Eliot if he knew anything about it ... he needn’t be told why she wanted to know.

  It was a relief to return to Dorchester, because Paul, even if he was working for the Foundation, could not follow her. No one could follow, and like a genuine sanctuary it was impregnable and timeless.

  She drove on then, still annoyed with herself for letting Paul disrupt her life again.

  Three miles before she reached the town of Blandford Forum, Julia was waved down by an army checkpoint, and she drew in behind a line of three other cars. Passing through these checkpoints was normally a matter of routine - she carried a government pass, and her car was listed as a regular user of this road - but even so she was detained for ten minutes.

  This remote area of Dorset seemed an unlikely place for acts of terrorism to happen, even though there were army-bases all over Salisbury Plain, and Blandford Camp itself was only half a mile from here. Julia stood in the rain, leaning against the side of the car under the dripping trees, realizing that guerrilla violence was now a usual, almost expected, part of everyday life in the big cities, but that the countryside continued to feel immune from the troubles. However many targets there were around here, a bomb explosion in Dorset would be an extraordinary event.

  She felt cold and restless. Two soldiers came to inspect her documents and car, and they searched the passenger-compartment and boot. An officer watched them, watched her. Julia thought how young they all seemed.

  Later, when she and her car had been cleared, and she was driving on towards Dorchester, she thought about David Harkman. He was believed by some of the Wessex participants to be a soldier now, but it was just a theory, as good as any other. No one knew where he was, nor what he was doing, and in the weeks ahead it would be Julia’s responsibility to find him. During her week’s leave she had spent some time in London talking to Harkman’s former wife, hoping to gain some extra insight into his personality; it had been a dispiriting meeting, though, with his ex-wife still suppressing resentments, seven years after their divorce.

  The character profile was her only hope of finding him. A lecturer in social history, David Harkman had been at the London School of Economics before joining the Wessex project. His colleagues at the LSE had spoken of him as an assertive man, stable and authoritative, but not ambitious. Julia would agree with the judgment of assertiveness; during the time the Wessex project was being set up, Harkman had often been stubborn, pressing his own ideas and opinions in the face of others. She had not much liked him, and now she found it ironical - after her disastrous meeting with Paul - that she should be the one chosen to look for him. She was escaping from one man she detested, to seek another she did not care for.

  Even so, she was not discontented. She was glad to be getting back to work.

  She drove through Blandford Forum and took the Dorchester road. As soon as the car had breasted the first rise after the river the rain stopped. Looking ahead as she drove, she saw the sky was brighter, but low clouds moved quickly from the southwest. It was Dorset weather: windy, wet, changeable.

  She was tired from the long journey, and not in the best condition to start work. Even more unsuited, perhaps, was her state of mind; she needed to be calm and single-minded and receptive, and instead she was fretting about Paul. As she drove quickly through Dorchester, and took the road towards the south, Julia wondered again about what he wanted. She sensed an urge in him to destroy - for that, after all, was what he had done to her ever since she had known him - and she wished she knew more about what was going on. Why hadn’t she asked him while she had the chance?

  The gate to the car-park of Maiden Castle was closed, and she blew the horn until Mr Wentworth appeared. He came out of his wooden hut, smiling when he recognized the car.

  When she had driven through the gate, and parked the car, she climbed out and waited for him as he walked towards her.

  ‘Only a week off this time, Miss Stretton?’ he said.

  ‘It was all I needed,’ she said. ‘Look, Mr Wentworth, I didn’t have time to go to Bincombe House. Do you think you could have these delivered to my room?’

  She gave him her suitcase of clothes, and a holdall containing several books. This had been her fourth period of leave since the project began, and as she found on the other three occasions, the return to London had destroyed her concentration. She intended spending her next leave in Dorset; Bincombe House was large and comfortable, and she had a room of her own there. At Bincombe one could always see other members of the project, and so help to maintain a continuity of purpose between spells inside the projector.

  ‘Will the car be OK here?’ She glanced over the long line of cars, parked in three ranks, close to each other. Several of them were dirty; one of Mr Wentworth’s tasks was to wash the cars from time to time, but he only did it under protest.

  ‘You leave it there, Miss. I’ll get it out of the way if someone wants to move.’

  She gave him the ignition-key, and he took a paper tag from his pocket and tied it to it. Julia leaned over, and looked towards the far end of the car-park. David Harkman’s yellow Rover 2000 was still there, as it had been for two years, unclaimed by its owner.

  ‘Has anyone been asking for me?’ Julia said.

  ‘Well, Dr Trowbridge rang down earlier.’

  ‘Yes?’

  ‘He said to send you to see Dr Eliot as soon as you arrived.’

  She turned away from him, casting her eyes towards the ground. Julia had a minor superstition, that persisted from childhood, that if she looked at anyone thinking that it was the last time she would see him - and thus hold a mental photograph - then it would come to be so. It was always there, as she went back to the Castle, this feeling of finality, the danger of never returning. As she started to climb the grassy slope of the lowest and nearest rampart of the Castle, Julia looked back in Mr Wentworth’s general direction, trying to see him with her peripheral vision, so that she would have no clear memory of how he appeared on her last sight of him. This sideways look that Julia gave people as she left them was something of which she was acutely conscious. Paul used to call it her shifty look, but he was the last person she would ever have tried to explain it to.

  She came to the top of the first of the earth ramparts that surrounded the ancient hill-fort. On this northerly side of Maiden Castle there were three of these, each one higher and steeper than the one before it, and there was no other way in to the Castle than to climb each one. A well-worn path took the easiest route and she followed this, her hair blowing across her face in the stiff wind. She was cold now, her thin city clothes pressed against her body, her skirt whipping in the wind. As she walked down into the lee of the second earth ridge the wind let her alone, and she swept back her hair and laughed. The Castle often engendered an elemental unconcern in those who found it, whether they were casual visitors - who were still allowed access to certain parts - or the staff of the Wessex project. The Castle was ancient and solid, and permanent; its grass-covered shoulders had shrugged off decay for five thousand years, and it would still be here in five thousand years’ time. Julia felt this sense of abandonment whenever she arrived at the Castle from London, and today was no different. By the time she had reached the top of the second ridge she was running, gasping in the cold wind, and she left the path and skipped over the tufty grass.

  From here she could see down into the dip between the second and third ramparts, where the entrance to the underground workings lay. No one could be seen there. Although Mr Wentworth had probably telephoned the word of her arrival to Trowbridge or Eliot, she had a few minutes to spare.

  She put down her briefcase and looked about. The sky, the wind, the grass. Two or three seagulls, soaring above her in the wind-waves thrown up by the humps of the Castle; they were a long way from the sea, but gulls were common inland birds these days.

  The city of Dorchester lay below her and to the left, spreading out untidily across the side of its hill. She could see the wireless-telegraphy station on the heath behind it, and traffic moving on the roads around the town. A train stood at a signal just outside the station. Beyond, the soft rolling Dorset hills around Cerne Abbas and Charminster and Tolpuddle. She stared at the view for some time, drawn to it by the images and memories she had of another time, another summer...

  It was not far to the view across to the east, so Julia picked up her briefcase and strode out along the edge of the ridge, looking ahead. Soon she reached the place where the ramparts circled round to the south, and from here the view across the Frome Valley was uninterrupted. It was flat and windswept, the river meandering across its floor, flowing slowly towards the mud-flats of Wareham, and Poole Harbour beyond. This was Hardy country, Egdon Heath and Anglebury, Casterbridge and Budmouth ... she hadn’t read the books since school. From this position it was difficult to see why so many people liked the Dorset scenery, because it seemed grey and flat and dull. Only to her right was there a green rise of land; the downs leading to the Purbeck Hills beyond, far to the east, hiding the sea.

  Time was pressing; she had taken too long already. The wind had chilled her. Clouds, looming up in the south-west, threatened another shower.

  Julia walked back, scrambling down into the lee of the third ridge, looking for the entrance to the workings.

  two

  In the third century BC, the inhabitants of Maiden Castle had fortified their hilltop home by the building of wood and earth ramparts that entirely circled the two knolls on which the settlement had been made. Never a castle in the commonly understood sense, the ramparts had enclosed farming-land and a village, to which most of the inhabitants of ancient Wessex fled whenever hostile tribes invaded the region. In the twentieth century, by which time the earth walls had weathered to rounded, grassy slopes, such defences seemed inadequate, for they could be penetrated in a few minutes by even the most unambitious walker, but in pre-Roman Britain the ramparts and their closely defended gates were precaution enough against sling-shots and spears.

  The site had been thoroughly excavated during the 1930s. Remains similar to those found in hill-forts all over southern England had been discovered, and the more interesting fragments placed on display in the Dorchester Museum. There had been a massacre of the villagers by Vespasian’s legions in AD 43, and the most singular discovery in Maiden Castle was that of a primitive mass burial-ground, containing thousands of human bodies.

  The archaeological workings had been covered before the Second World War, and from then until the early 1980s Maiden Castle had reverted to a former role: agricultural and pastoral land, walked over by casual visitor and sheep.

  Maiden Castle had been selected as the site for the Wessex project for various reasons. It was partly because of its proximity to Dorchester, and road and rail connections to London, partly because of its height of 132 metres above sea-level, partly because of its commanding view across the Frome Valley, but especially because the Castle, of all the man-made constructions in the region, was the one most assured of permanence.

  Julia Stretton had not visited the Castle while the underground laboratories were being tunnelled and equipped, and she had only a dim childhood memory of visiting the place with her parents, but she assumed that after the construction crews had left, and the surface had been tidied up, the outward appearance of the Castle had not been much changed. The carpark had been enlarged, and there was the entrance to the laboratories, but as far as possible the outside was untouched. The Duchy of Cornwall, the owners of the Castle, had insisted on that.

  In the entrance to the laboratory - the only part open to the public - several glass cases held a selection of fragments unearthed during the tunnelling. The ancient Wessexmen buried tributes with their dead, and many cups and trinkets and pots had been found, as well as the inevitable macabre selection of bones. One almost complete skeleton was on show, the neck-bones neatly labelled where they had been shattered by a Roman arrow-head. A security-guard sat at a desk beside the case containing the skeleton, and as Julia passed him, holding out her identity-card, he nodded to her.

 
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