Summerhouse land, p.1
Text © Roderick Gordon 2016
Cover illustration © Stanley Donwood 2016
First published in Great Britain in 2016
by Mathew & Son Limited
Roderick Gordon has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998, to be identified as the author of this work.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.
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British Library Cataloguing in Publication data available
Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past.
From Burnt Norton, Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot
Part One : BEFORE
Part Two : THE VALLEY
Part Three : RETURN
Bibliography and Inspiration
You walk, in no particular hurry, taking in the streets as you go. Evening is approaching and, under the last light of the sun, commuters drag ever-lengthening shadows behind them.
You turn a corner to find yourself in Harley Street, which you stroll along, glancing up at the windows of the consultants and medical specialists. The slow-moving flow of cars is constantly brought to a halt as black cabs pull up outside the Georgian terraces. The sick and the elderly alight from them and pay the drivers, seemingly oblivious to the car horns fretting behind in the queue.
As these people are helped to their appointments, you notice that there are many large cars in the bays along the street, condensation dripping from their exhausts as chauffeurs keep the engines ticking over. But even the bright chrome and highly polished bodies of these expensive vehicles can do nothing to dispel the winter gloom. And there’s a hush over the place, as if the street is holding its breath with respect for the unwell, many of whom are only postponing the inevitable.
There’s sadness and futility here. You begin to quicken your pace.
Then you glimpse something, a sliver of normality, and you grasp it with your eyes.
A boy and his parents are walking from the opposite direction. The boy is young, perhaps not yet in his teens. His school uniform is gray, as gray as the sky at that moment, but you notice the triple bands of pink around the neck of his pullover and the similarly colored stripes on his tie. These bright points of color are unexpected, like a cluster of tiny flowers in a slush of traffic-stained ice.
The boy is being borne along by his mother and father as they support him under the arms. At any moment you half expect them to hoist him up – ‘One, two, whoop!’ – accompanied by delighted laughter as he meets the sidewalk again.
But then you notice his parents are both staring straight ahead, their expressions far from joyful. This isn’t an outing to treat their son to a toy from Hamleys or see a show at the theater. This is something different, serious.
And as they come closer, the man speaks to his wife, indicating one of the buildings. They head toward it.
The boy, whose face has been lowered until now, raises it. He catches you looking at him and turns in your direction.
You try not to gasp.
You see that his head is misshapen. His mouse-brown hair is raised and uneven on the right-hand side. Because there is something large under it. And on his forehead there is a protuberance, a skin-covered egg. You also notice the corner of his mouth is hitched up, as though it’s badly swollen.
This isn’t the result of some incident in the playground. There’s no sign of broken skin or scarring. Something malignant is growing inside him.
And although his body is slight and frail, you realize that he’s older than you first thought. Possibly even as old as fifteen, although it’s difficult to tell.
As he hangs back from his parents, his eyes are still on yours. Eyes that can tell precisely what’s going through your mind. Eyes that know only too well that his disfigurement has made you uncomfortable. Shocked you.
And he’s right.
You feel a wash of guilt and of embarrassment. More than anything, you want to avert your gaze, look away, down, anywhere, but that would be an admission.
So you don’t.
And, for what feels like several lifetimes, yours and the boy’s eyes remain locked together.
There’s a glimmer of a smile on his face.
You see beyond his deformities. He’s only a child. The injustice makes your throat tighten.
‘Sam,’ the mother prompts in a soft voice, she and her husband intent only on the doorway at the top of the steps. You know his name now. Sam’s eyes are finally parted from yours as he’s led up into the building with its freshly painted door. You know you will never see him again. But you can’t help but stare unfocusedly at the illuminated windows of the consulting rooms.
You wonder what his life must be like, and how one so young could possibly deal with it.
‘Sam,’ you repeat to yourself, moving quickly down the street, no longer taking any notice of your surroundings.
It is 1646. A girl sits by the gnarled trunk of an ancient elm. Her hands are stained with mud and her clothes ragged, and there is no expression on her face as she works. Her fingers are moving with astonishing dexterity as she weaves together a combination of twigs and dried grass, occasionally adding reeds from a sheath on the ground beside her.
The woods in which she lives are a damp, forlorn place. The almost unceasing rains since the beginning of summer have taken their toll, and rather than the palette of verdant greens one might expect for that time of year, the tree canopies and the undergrowth appear gray and washed out.
The girl’s fingers abruptly cease their movement and she rises to her feet with the fruit of her labors held before her. Shaped like a bowl, it is an object of exquisite artistry, the exterior depicting a sky of cumuliform clouds shot through with the sun’s rays. She has created these by carefully weaving in blades of dried sedge grass that do seem to give off a golden radiance when they catch the pale light of the real sun overhead.
She twists around to face the tree trunk behind her and, for a moment, considers it. Then the girl appears to decide what she is going to do next. Placing the item she has made on her head for safekeeping like a diminutive rice hat, she begins to climb the elm, taking time to choose her hand and footholds, until she is almost fifty feet above the ground. She stops as she reaches the crook between two branches in which there is a lopsided bird’s nest. Pummeled by the high
Adjusting her position so she can use both hands, she cups them around the nest and ever so gently lifts it aside, balancing it on a thick bough beside her. From her head she takes the object that she has woven and, flipping it over, she substitutes it for the old nest in the crook. She pulls some lengths of vine tucked under her belt and binds the new nest securely in place. When she’s satisfied that no amount of wind or rain will be able to unseat it, she gently picks out the eggs from the old nest and places them in their new home. Normally the scent of a human on the eggs might have driven the parents away, but Damaris has been living in the woods for so long that she smells like them. There is almost no trace of her own species still left to trouble the animals.
Then, with a last look at the eggs, she shimmies down the tree and begins toward the old woodman’s hut where she sometimes sleeps. As she goes, Damaris is in her own world, devoid of any contact whatsoever with other people. And she is completely unaware of the impending danger several miles away.
‘Where is she? Where is the miller’s girl?’ Hopkins demands, still astride his mount. He has ridden it hard, and sweat streams from its flanks.
The town elder clears his throat nervously, but neither he nor the priest offers a response. The way they are holding themselves is supplicatory, respectful, but they are both edging slowly away from the rider as they try to avoid his scrutiny.
‘Are you deaf? I said where is she?’
Although Hopkins hasn’t taken the trouble to formally introduce himself, there’s no doubt in their minds as to who he is. A lieutenant from his company turned up in town several weeks previously to notify them of the day and even the hour of Hopkins’ arrival.
This lieutenant, a large and burly man, had lodged at the inn to give himself enough time to conduct his investigations. He seemed to have most success during the morning of market day when he collared unsuspecting people and frightened them half to death with threats of torture unless they cooperated with him. Although, with his farm-laborer’s manners and burly demeanor, he didn’t look the type who could read, the lieutenant constantly referred to an old leather-bound book as he asked his questions. These ranged from the mundane, concerning the size of their cows’ udders or how many crows roosted on their land, to the fantastical; none of the people had the remotest idea what an imp looked like, even if one had scurried up in broad daylight and bitten them on the nose.
And now as Matthew Hopkins fails to receive an answer from the two uneasy men before him, the self-appointed Witchfinder General claps a hand to the wooden crucifix hanging from his neck. ‘I come here in His name,’ he hisses at the priest, looking sharply at him as if to challenge the strength of the other man’s faith.
Hopkins, hailing from a town only twenty miles away called Manningtree, is far younger than the priest has been led to believe from the stories circulating through the county. He has a soft, rounded face, his clean-shaven skin is the color of putty, and he sports a tall hat with a large brim in the style of the Puritans. But despite his youthful appearance, he has the manner of someone who is used to his orders being followed, without hesitation.
Hopkins sweeps the town with a practiced eye, then draws in a long breath through his nose. ‘Something ungodly is near,’ he says. He nods slowly to himself. ‘I smell a miasma – the stench of maleficium.’
‘But … this is a good town,’ the elder insists.
‘And my flock is God-fearing,’ the priest adds quickly.
Hopkins is shaking his head. ‘That’s what Satan would have you believe.’
‘No—’ the priest begins.
‘Enough!’ Hopkins growls. ‘You know nothing of these matters. This is my calling, and I am sent here for your salvation.’ Still reading the skepticism in the faces of the two men before him, he raises a clenched fist. ‘I will cleanse your town. By the Lord’s will, I shall not suffer a single witch to live,’ he shouts. ‘Not here, not anywhere!’
People are holding back in the doorways of their wood-framed buildings. If they can possibly help it, no one wants to cross paths with the Witchfinder General. But they also know that to avoid him could be construed as the devil’s doing. However, some of the town are supportive of Hopkins and his cause. If the unseasonably heavy rains which waterlogged the fields and spoiled the crops hadn’t been enough, there had been a widespread epidemic of stillborn calves and lambs. Nobody could explain it, and the farmers are quite ready to accept that sinister forces are to blame.
But unlike the farmers, the priest and the elder are both men with education. They don’t believe for one moment there is such thing as a witch or, even if there is, that one would be hiding in their midst.
Despite this, they know only too well what is expected of them, and of the town. Hopkins has to have his scalp – there’s no way he will ride out empty handed, particularly as that means he’ll forfeit his bounty of twenty shillings. If a suitable candidate isn’t handed over as a prize for his troubles, Hopkins will remain in the town until he roots someone out, or more likely several victims from among the womenfolk. Then he’ll put the unfortunate souls to death, or leave them horribly maimed after subjecting them to his trials.
As Hopkins hears a sound from behind him in the distance, he swivels in his saddle to study the track along which he’s just ridden. His company is doing its best to catch up; there are three men on horseback and Hopkins’ lieutenant is driving a cart laden with the instruments of Godly justice and assize.
Hopkins turns back to the priest and the elder. ‘So, the maiden?’ he demands, his voice vicious as a whip.
Although it would result in the death of an innocent, the elder has no alternative. ‘Over there,’ he says, as he indicates the wooded hill beyond the town, then lowers his gaze to the ground in shame. ‘She’s over there.’
In a time when so many children die at birth or in their first years, the miller considered himself fortunate to have such a large family of three sons and two daughters. His second last born was Damaris, and she’d been a normal, healthy baby and had grown into a strong and happy child.
But shortly following her ninth birthday a sudden and dramatic change had come over her. Just after dawn when, as routine dictated, her mother would brush her straw-blond hair to get her ready for what passed as the town school, Damaris had screamed and screamed. Her mother couldn’t seem to reason with the girl, and she couldn’t understand why each time she tried to hold Damaris to calm her down, the girl would start up all over again. The miller’s wife persevered, but Damaris became so distressed she could hardly breathe, her lips turning blue. The mother was forced to leave her alone in the room, fearing that the young girl might stop breathing altogether.
From that day on Damaris became increasingly withdrawn. If any of her family came too close she would become highly agitated and flee to a corner of the house where she’d tremble in a small huddle. And she refused to make eye contact with her parents or siblings, let alone talk to anyone or allow herself to be touched.
The previously carefree and gregarious child stopped playing with her brothers and sisters, shunning any form of human interaction whatsoever. Instead, she took to living in an outbuilding beside the mill where the grain was stored. Here she spent nearly every waking hour making baskets, working on them as if her life depended on it. Her hands may have become raw and covered with cuts as she threaded the reeds and goat willow saplings, but her fingers moved like magic as she wove at incredible speed. It was something her grandmother had taught her at an early age, and at which she’d shown remarkable aptitude.
And what had begun as short expeditions to fetch fresh materials for her basketry graduated into longer and longer periods away from home. At first she wo
The miller and his wife despaired. When they finally did manage to find her in the woods, they tried to persuade her to return home with them. But Damaris wouldn’t speak or look at them as they remonstrated with her. Her eyes downcast, her fingers were constantly on the move as if she was weaving invisible materials. With the onset of winter, the family repaired an old woodsman’s hut toward the top of the hill, so at least Damaris had somewhere to shelter from the snows.
People in the town had no cause to object to her way of life. Although lonely calls of anguish had occasionally been heard by trappers in the deepest parts of the woods, she continued to keep herself well out of anyone’s way. Indeed, she began to be revered for her craftsmanship. With each passing year, word of the unconventional girl who had such an incredible ability spread across the region, with some even calling her the Basket Girl. As she couldn’t be expected to survive on berries and roots alone, particularly not in the colder months, most days one of her brothers would leave bread or meat for her on the flat stone by the river. And each time there was something Damaris had made waiting for them there. The miller’s children would take the articles back with them to be sold in the market every week.
It wasn’t only baskets – she would weave reed mats and screens of stripped willow that could be used to keep the flies out of the houses during the summer months. And also corn dollies – bizarrely shaped figures that had begun as precise copies of the cloth toy she’d so adored when she was young, but later mutating into the strangest looking effigies that were neither man nor beast. It has to be said that these two headed human figures with serpents’ tails and crows’ wings caused some consternation among the townfolk. But the miller and his family had no way of preventing Damaris from making them. Instead, as soon as the miller’s children had collected them from the flat stone, they were hidden in empty grain sacks and taken back to the mill where they were promptly burned.