A novel by
Copyright and publishing information
First published in 2011 by Exoddy Books.
Exoddy Books, PO Box 1206, GUILDFORD, GU1 9RH.
The right of Stephen Morley to be identified as the author of the work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
© 2011 Stephen Morley
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser. eBook versions of this publication are only licensed for use by the original purchaser and must not be lent, distributed or made available to any third party by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher. The original purchaser is permitted to maintain a single backup only copy of the eBook.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
Exoddy Books – England
Contact details available from: www.exoddy.co.uk
With special thanks to my wife for her assistance and encouragement during the writing and production of this work.
“God knows, I am still dark within.”
Moses the Black
Table of Contents
One – Keepers in trust
Two – Fortune smiling
Three – Money and means
Four – England swings
Five – Summer of love
Six – Divining the way
Seven – The wilderness
Eight – Moves afoot
Nine – Pastiche
Ten – Descending the mountain
Eleven – The drowning pool
Twelve – A brush with insanity
Thirteen – A woman who stands alone
Fourteen - A game of consequences
Fifteen – A plague of circumstance
Sixteen – In the court of sad society
Seventeen – In tablets of stone
Eighteen – ‘And did those feet…’
One – Keepers in trust
It was the hills that made him. Silver, gold, green and grey, they stand austere or warming, naked or shrouded. There is no silence across the fells, but a man can be silent there. All living things achieve equality and equanimity among the rocks and streams and heather. The boulder fields are alive with weather, wind and water, their moods as various as the sea. The solid rock of those hills holds the truth in tumbling screes, unconquerable cliffs or gentle sands that slide down into mirror lakes. They hold no artificial life. Perhaps they are the only real places left in a country created and moulded by the hands of man. In those hills, a man may find his place in the world, a world where he feels so small and so full of life. It is still an adventure to seek out the secret paths where the mountains and the fells reveal their hearts; to stand in places where the work of man is seen below in true perspective, the farms that fill the valleys, the tracks that wind across the hills, the distant plume from a coastal factory, all are seen and understood. But these truths are only shown to those who take the time, who struggle through the wind and rain, who climb breathless to the ridge to see yet another ridge above them but still climb on with aching limbs, foot by foot by stony foot only to find the summit clouded and obscure.
This story begins with the hills. Mark Hunter was born between the hills and the sea one wet, windy day in March 1942.
The shroud of damp fog had seeped in through the window. Mrs Hunter lay gasping, sweating and distraught.
“Never again,” she swears, “never again. I will never suffer this pain again. I’ll die before this child is born.”
“That’s what they all say, dear,” the midwife smiles. “You’re doing just fine.”
And nature would have her way, so the child was born. But Mark was her first and last baby. From that violent first breath of his life, he could shout louder than his mother ever did. She just lay back exhausted and weeping. Above them, the bombers were droning on and then came muffled explosions but she did not hear them.
Mrs Mary Hunter did not take to motherhood any more than she had taken to being a wife. If you had asked her, which no-one ever did, she would have told you the war that took her man overseas was a blessed relief. But now she regretted her husband’s last leave in the summer of ’41.
A year later and Mark was crying at midnight as he had done every midnight for months, as he would do for many months and years to come. Slowly the wretched screech of the baby turned to the silent tears of a lonely toddler. Mary, alone in her bed, gripped her hands to the sheets to prevent her succumbing and going to the child.
Mark’s world was a small terraced house in a Cumberland coastal town. A brick prison of damp and cold in the wilderness of wet grey streets. Another year passed and a small child gripped the window sill to stare out across the coastal plain to the rain drenched and ancient hills. It was such a strange and dreary place and it scared the small boy, so he ran to the front of the house and looked that way instead. Out there in the distance was a grey and endless sea, as featureless and barren as the clouds above. At night, in the winter storms, he peeped out across the terraces wondering if the invisible, distant roaring waves would break in.
In his small way, he became aware of changing times. The ozone took on a new flavour. All about him, people were celebrating the end of the war and not daring to think of the future. By the hidden coast, piles of debris, brick and twisted, rusty steel were all that remained of the factory bombed the night Mark was born.
One spring morning in 1946, amid a blast of steam, rattling chains and squealing flanges, the heavy train pulled out of Euston with a full load of soldiers all returning home. An extra coach of kit bags weighed down the engine. Young men, who looked older, smiled with exhausted faces hiding a deeper weariness. They leaned out of every door and stared from every window, passing banter, as men will who wait for action. Inside, some of them sat in groups chatting quietly, smiling, laughing, smoking, happy or sad. Others stood restless in the corridors, nervous, exalted, and glad to be on their way at last. Clouded mirrors beneath the string luggage racks reflected the dull nicotine stained cream paint and teak. Astute officers sat in their compartments wondering how quickly the life of command would fall away and the mundane world of normality could consume them again. It was hard for them to see a future but they were desperate to forget the past of wasted lives and falsehood. At every station, as comrades parted, perhaps for good, there was a shaking of hands and a hollow thumping of backs. Girlfriends, mothers, wives stood on the platforms scared and excited by the moment. A signal clacked up the track. A shout went up from the platform end as a wisp of steam showed above the trees. A long minute later and a hundred women were waving as the train clattered in across the points, rounded the platform and rolled in to stop in a cloud of steam and scolding brakes. Coal dust black and caked with grime, the engine was as tired as the heroes it pulled home at last.
Corporal Hunter sat with two chums from the Royal Engineers.
“Can’t believe it Danny,” said one.
“Nor me, on the bloody train. The best we’ve been. Hey Jack, what do’ya say? Best day, thought it would never come.”
“Maybe...” replied Jack Hunter watching the fields roll by. “We’ve been good mates, but that’s all gone and what’s gonna come?”
“Come on, Jack, this is a happy day. You wanna go home, don’t yer?”
“Maybe I do, I guess. Don’t know what I’ll find there. Don’t know if I’ll find anything there.”
“Well, here Jack, take a tot of this and let’s drink to the good things to come, anyway. Home to a wife and a bairn, eh, Jack?” said Danny producing a battered flask from his jacket and handing it round.
“Things to come!”
They all drank the toast, swore they would stand true friends and the new world would be good. The cheap French brandy tasted of warmth and sunshine.
“Look at them fields and farms and such. This is what we fought for. It’s good to see and don’t say it ain’t, Jack.”
“Maybe it is,” murmured Jack.
Hours later, Jack Hunter arrived at the end of the terrace where he had been born, where he had been a boy, a lover and where he had brought home his wife.
“God, so this is it. The end. The end of the road. The end of the world, maybe.”
He stood there for five full, long, silent minutes, scared to step forward, scared to return to the house he used to call his own. Scared but empty. He had passed the first flowers of spring blooming outside the station beneath a warming sky but Jack Hunter felt cold inside.
In the distance, he saw a huge building site on the coast. He had heard whispers of this. More secret than the enemy, Calder Hall, the brave new world, electricity so cheap they won’t bother to bill it, the nuclear age. It might as well have been a different planet for all Jack knew of it. The promises for the future were as cold to him as the bombs so recently dropped a world away were hot. The incongruity of the old world now lost and the new world not made pulled at his mind and left the vacuum he felt in his heart.
All day he had seen other men run to their wives and laugh despite it all, the joy of returning overwhelming all the past terror and toil. The noise and commotion of a homecoming train had led to spontaneous outbursts of friendship and devotion. The first sight of their war born babies enthralled other men. Other men, who had not cried through years of terror and danger and pain, wept plainly, openly, proudly, on returning from the nightmare of war to this simple reality. Other men had dreamed of this moment, fought for this moment, waited and waited, and longed for this moment when the front door opened, to be home again. Other men felt exultant pleasure to sit in rest, to be their own master, to live their own time, to be honest and gentle and quiet, to be at peace.
Jack Hunter struggled against the desire to run back to no man’s land, to barbed wire and broken bricks, drifting smoke and broken spirits, and dragged his feet forward step by step to the front door.
“God knows I’ve faced it all and now I can’t even do the easy thing,” he murmured.
The dull red paint was faded and scratched. The brass had lost all lustre. He fumbled for the key before remembering he had none. Then he stood, silent, sad, deeply hurt but could not weep; he had no tears left for the world. So he stood and stood. Across the street, faces could see him but he was blind to their watching.
Suddenly, with a sound like a rifle loading, the door opened. Jack jumped back, shaking. Mary stepped forward into the sunshine, Mary holding Mark’s hand. She opened her mouth to speak but stopped silent. Jack felt the panic return as he saw the young boy for the first time. For a moment, they stood in silence.
‘My God, how changed he looks,’ she thought.
Mary smiled, the sun shining on her hair and glinting in her eyes. Then instinct cut in. She picked up the child in her arms to protect him.
“Hallo, Jack. Meet Mark, meet your son,” she smiled down at the boy and lifted her eyes to her husband’s empty face.
But he just stood with his hands on his kit bag; he dared not touch the boy. In the child’s face, he saw the smoking remains of a bombed city. Jack Hunter had never held his baby. And Mary, he didn’t know her, had never once dreamed of her. Jack Hunter was home from the war but he was lost on some foreign border.
“You’d better come in, Jack,” sighed Mary, resigned to another lost moment in life.
“Maybe, maybe you’re right.”
Indoors, the sunshine struggled to penetrate the dirty windows. The slim young woman Jack had married ten years before was looking careworn and plain. Jack looked at her but didn’t see her, he saw a nurse from the military hospital. Mary turned away into the house. Her long hair was tied back, she wore no make-up, her clothes were old and in the dull light, her eyes were sad, tired, averted. She settled the child and busied herself preparing a meal. So they ate their supper with barely a word spoken.
“Jack, won’t you speak?”
“I’m eating; can’t you see I’m eating?”
The eating done, Mary and Jack sat opposite each other in the small room and their eyes met for a moment but no emotion flowed between them. Mary looked away.
“I’ll clear away,” Mary sighed again and stood up. Going to pick up Mark’s plate, he took her waist.
“Mark, Jack,” was all she said as she pulled away to wash the dishes in the crazed porcelain sink. The child, perched on his cushion, watched the strange man silently.
“Maybe, maybe…” and Jack’s voice trailed off.
In truth, Jack never came back from the war. At first, he was just morose, then he was drunk and then he was violent. But he didn’t remember hitting Mary, he didn’t remember smacking his son, he didn’t remember the sobbing boy crawling away. The last memory he had was ‘somewhere in Germany or maybe France,’ he didn’t know where. It came to him every day, and far worse came to him in the nightmares that woke him cold and shaking, while Mary lay wide awake, eyes closed, with her back to this man, this strange impostor who had replaced her husband.
Before the war, Jack Hunter had worked at the factory, building sub-assemblies for ships, working with the steel. It was a man’s work, hard, heavy, skilled, and he worked in the gang, proud and satisfied. But there were no jobs when the war ended and the bombed factory was never rebuilt. Back home, the only jobs were down the coal mine, or working up at the new nuclear power plant being built on the coast.
“I’m not having you down a mine. I couldn’t stand it, worrying,” said Mary. “You going to take the plant?”
“Maybe I will, since I have no choice,” said Jack. “Maybe you’d like to do the work, an’ all, ’stead of me, seeing as how you know so much about it.”
So Jack worked for the plant on a maintenance crew, a job he hated for the twenty years he did it. If Mary had only known, it was even more deadly than the mine.
Meanwhile, Mark grew into a little boy caught between Jack and Mary, between silences that made him stop still, waiting for the argument to start. By the age of five, the smell of over cooked vegetables meant home to Mark. Beef gravy but no beef accompanied the dumplings, beans, radish and swede. But Mark grew plump and quickly. There was rhubarb from a neighbour’s allotment and apples in the autumn to colour the grey rations in a world that was making do.
Mark started at school when he was five, a tiny child about to lose his innocence. School was full of hardness: hard floors, hard walls, hard desks, hard rulers held by hard men, hard boots kicked by hard boys, hard words screamed and shouted, hard lessons learned and unlearned. School smelt and smacked and smothered as the endless minutes were tossed into the lost hours, lost days and lost lives. Drowning children learnt to swim or sink in this storm. And learning was a mystery of letters, of numbers, with no ideas and no thoughts and no freedom. So school passed hour by day by year, fenced in from the wasteland that surrounded it, unmarked by Hunter M. who hated it, was stifled by it and counted the seconds away: one, two, three, so many blasted hours, so many wasted days.
School failed the child as easily as the child failed the school. They were matched in their ambivalence. The institution saw no freedom and Mark saw only a prison. He secretly pursued his love of words and music before he knew it was love. But he found no home for them at school; he found no love at school. Mark would sit near a window looking out at the stone walls racing up the field boundaries into freedom, as lessons and teachers passed him by. On Thursday afternoons, he would bunk off games and head for the beach or the hills. In the evenings, when other children did their homework, he would spend hours staring at distant fells.
Looking back, he would remember how he walked along the beach with his mother to collect sea coal and driftwood for the fire. By the sea, she would stop and stare out to the horizon, remembering better times when Jack had been a smart young man courting her. She would talk to her child as though he couldn’t understand. How Jack used to lift her up and sit her on the high breakwater. How they would laugh together and run down the strand. While Mark looked on with dark eyes, she sighed to remember the long summer evenings laying together with her lover among the tussocky marram grass on the dunes, with no thought for the future, the sea singing lullaby as the moon rose up and they lay wrapped in Jack’s warm and comforting greatcoat.
As Mark ran splashing at the water’s edge, she smiled her rare smile. It would be good to spend endless summer evenings on the beach sitting on the hull of an upturned boat watching her son playing. The war was over for some but not for Jack and Mary Hunter. When would it end? When would the real Jack Hunter come home?
“Look at yourself, Jack. Proud of yourself, are you?”
“Maybe not, maybe, maybe…”
Happy times were rare in those early years after the war and mother Mary never forgave the pain she suffered or the man who made it. She fed the child, she clothed the child and she regretted the child. It was this child that kept her subservient, sad, wasted and inwardly angry: this child was to blame.
Mary worked in the kitchen while Mark sat silently watching. And in the silence, the tension was building until it burst. “Don’t stare,” she shouted. Mark jumped up and ran away, back to his room where he could be alone with the distant hills and remember a hundred other days the same.
Every morning Mark looked out of his bedroom window and could see beyond the weary streets to the grey misty outline, a place as far away as dreamland. On spring days, the clouds blew in from the sea and sailed across those fells in bright flotillas. He hardly knew how or why, but he loved that view as a comfort and a certainty, a solid belief in a vague world. On darker days, the clouds swept in with the rain that smeared the greasy dirt across the glass and subsumed the greys and greens of rock, and fell into the shapeless mass of sky. As he watched the ever-changing view, he felt a yearning. As yet, he was too young to understand it, but the emotional caress of that view stayed in his memory for a lifetime. Down on the street there was no sight of hills, no distance, no dreamland, only the rain. Down on the street was not a happy place.
But Mark was not just a dreamer. He saw the world as a place to escape from and discover by turns. Mark was not lazy; he would work for hours at hard, physical labour. Nor was he the quiet, shy boy he play-acted at school. On his wanderings, he met farmers, fishermen, carpenters, road menders, dry stone wallers and many others. An eleven, twelve, thirteen year old Mark could be found passing time with working men out on the roads, on the beaches, in the fields. At first, he would stop to talk and watch, and maybe share a tea break. Later he would offer to help the dry stone waller or the farmer or drag the fisherman’s boat to earn a sixpence here and there. A big lad and good with his hands, he learned to mend fishing nets in place of playing football, he grew strong stacking heaps of fallen stone ready to lay a new wall instead of writing essays. These men eyed him up and knew at once that this boy was not one for school, as surely as they recognised themselves.
“Hey, lad, your folks’ll be having a go at me keeping you up here when you should be down there learning books and stuff,” said Simon the dry stone waller, a particular favourite of Mark’s.
“I’m learning up here,” replied a twelve-year-old Mark, lifting another stone.
“Well, since you is here, we can sort this ’ere gate post. Needs two.”
Mark quit school at fifteen and started hanging around the streets just to get out of the house. But his freedom was all the freedom a shilling could buy. The town that had seemed so vast to the five year old was now a small and desolate place. The streets were empty, watched by empty eyes behind empty windows as Mark trudged by. A year passed, his father swearing ‘Get a job’, his mother staring silent accusing stares which spoke only of failure.
At sixteen, he no longer feared his father; he ignored him. Mark was four inches taller than his father, eight inches taller than his mother. Mark had no trouble from bullies or the roaming small town gangs and Mark walked alone. His substantial frame could not contain him any more than the desolation around him. He could see over the walls into hidden places and he felt the world he was born into was no world at all. He was the cuckoo in the nest.
A few more months and Mark was no longer on the streets. He picked out a living from helping out a dozen local farmers and the dry stone waller, Simon Simple, working up across the fells. But every penny he earned he kept ready for an uncertain future.
A new obsession entered his life. Music filled his waking hours. At home, he spent his time alone with his cheap guitar and the old valve radio he had bought from a junk shop for 2/6. It didn’t work, but he mended it. He listened to skiffle, and rock and roll, and despaired at the safe diet of the Light Programme. He dreamed of a different world, a world with an edge of excitement. The fifties were falling away and fading like a childhood memory into monochrome.
Post-war Britain was about to wake up from shades of grey night and start to dance into the colour and light of a new dawn. With the sixties came a fresh breeze. It was okay to challenge, it was good to change, to knock down the old world and build anew. All over Britain, a new generation was stirring. Ambition had turned the tide from past to future and the future looked good. Success looked like a new car in place of the bicycle, a holiday once a year. It was no longer taboo to talk about money. But not for the Hunters, where life went on unchanging, grinding away the years.
Mark was not getting a job even though there were jobs to be done. Mark was nowhere to be seen all day long. Mark was far off in the distant hills or down on the beach where he learned a new kind of survival. At sixteen, he had spent his first night alone in the hills up above Wast Water. It was the first of many. As his world expanded, so did his confidence and all the time he was growing bigger and stronger. He picked up enough work to feed himself and save money, cash in hand. At home in the evenings, he would spend hours with his soldering iron fixing radios and record players for townsfolk. He built a guitar amplifier to his own design and sold it to a local rock and roll band. They had friends who asked him to build another. With money came a new freedom and certainty. Two years passed. He knew he would leave soon.
On his eighteenth birthday, his father came in from work and poured Mark a pint of beer to go with his supper.
“Right then, that’s the first and last pint of beer I buy yer. If you don’t get a job by this time next month, you get out. Understood? Happy birthday.”
His father had no idea that Mark was already earning more than he did; neither did the taxman.
“No problem,” replied Mark quietly and leaving the beer and his birthday card unopened on the table, he stood up, picked up his haversack from the hall and walked out without a word. He did not return for two days. When he did get back there was a frightening row, at first between Mark and his mother and then between Jack and Mary.
Mark went into the kitchen and shouted, “Shut up, both of you.”
There was a moment’s silence before Jack walked out slamming the door behind him and strode off to the pub. Mary glared for a moment at Mark and then screeched at him with tears rolling down her face.
“Why don’t you get out? I don’t ever want to see you again. Get out. Now!”
But Mark just turned and went to his room. For the next few days, there was a cold silence in the house. None of them were talking. A week after the argument, the first of April, the day he left, Mark felt no need to tell his father or mother he was going. He saw no need to leave a note. He was sure of never returning. He had no forwarding address to leave. The certainty of another world was enough to survive. Survival was a word he would soon be acquainted with at first hand. But he already possessed the essential qualifications for survival in this hostile world. He was strong, self sufficient in thoughts and deed. His one sadness was leaving behind his beloved guitar.
It is still a long way from Cumbria to London. In 1960, it was much further. For a naïve teenager whose entire compass was restricted to no more than ten miles from his home, the distance was immense. But London was the goal, the only goal. He didn’t know how or why but in his mind, it was the place where the future lived.
He started out across the hills on the old slate road known as Moses Trod. It was cold and damp, and the remnants of winter snow still filled the cols on the fells. He walked on past the deep, shadow filled Wast Water where the screes slide endlessly into the depths of the lake from the grey crags high above. With each mile, the weather closed in and the freezing rain prickled and blistered the surface of the lake. Thickening clouds drove in across the fells until the huge world of distant hills had diminished to a space no more than a few yards across, surrounded by foggy drifts of cloud and wet. Suddenly he felt alone and scared. The cold damp was eating through his clothes. His eyes were sore. It seemed to Mark that the weather was trying to beat him back, but he was not so easily beaten. This old path led him over the ancient stone packhorse bridge into the cavernous, hard jaws of Feldale Head. There, the looming might of mountains, though invisible, could be sensed through the deepening gloom of the day. In the village, he took shelter by the church and sat soaking and miserable, watching the incessant rain falling, falling, falling and flailing the mist. Water flooded off the slates above him and clattered onto the stones in orchestrated cacophony.
‘What have I done?’ he thought. ‘Stupid, stupid, stupid.’
Ten minutes later he was still sitting hunched up with his back to the wall in a dry nook when a figure loomed forward.
“Well I never. If it ain’t master Mark. Long way from ’ome on a miserable day and nowhere to go, I’ll be bound,” said Simon, the stone waller.
“Jus’ taking stock.”
“Well, lad, I’m up ’t hotel. Why not follow on and get yerself dry?”
At the hotel, Mark followed Simon into the lobby and round to the bar.
“Your friend’s a bit young for here, Simon?” asked the barman.
“He’ll do no ’arm, Joe and ’e needs a place to dry off. You don’t mind ’im. I’ll vouch for ’im.”
An hour later and much refreshed by a hot lunch and warm fire, Mark stood to take his leave.
“I’d better get on, Simon. I need to get across the hills.”
But the barman looked at him.
“Lad, I wouldn’t go up there today. It’s bad enough down here but there’ll be a blizzard up in the pass, I’ll warrant.”
“Joe’s right, young Mark,” said Simon.
“But I can’t stay here; I need to get over the hills.”
“I suggest you go back home, lad. There’s going to be a right storm tonight,” said Joe.
“I can’t go back home,” replied Mark looking down at the floor.
The two men exchanged a knowing glance.
“Well, Mark, how about you come back to my place. That’s just a mile up yonder and you can lay up there ’til morning. Storm’ll be through and I’ll warrant t’morrow be a good day in the hills.”
So the pair buttoned up their jackets and Mark hoisted his pack on his back as they bent their hats into the streaming rain. At eighteen, Mark was already an impressive figure and stood nearly a head taller than the stone waller. In his oiled cotton jacket and leather hat, he passed for a man in the pouring rain. The paths ran like streams. The green grass in the fields was half-covered with cold spreading lakes and the sheep clustered beneath gnarled and stunted old oaks or sheltered by the walls.
Simon’s cottage was close by the beck as it flooded down from the fells. Behind the cottage, the hills rose up to unseen heights. The old track passed the small garden. The rough stone walls and green Honister slate blended into the dim soaking heather hillside behind. Inside, there were just two small rooms downstairs and a tiny staircase going up to the bedrooms. Simon’s two dogs ran to greet their master at the door. Many years had passed since Simon’s wife had passed away and now he lived alone in the cottage. The two dogs settled in front of the fire as Simon and Mark played dominoes at the small table.
“Well, now, lad, what brings you up here all set for a journey like you are?”
Mark looked at him with such a look of disappointment that Simon carried on.
“Okay, I’ll not pry. Let me tell you a tale instead. You might think I was born and bred in these hills but I ain’t. It was thirty year back I came ’ere. Start of the depression and there weren’t no work down Manchester way. So I thinks to meself, I’ll take a hike. I had a few quid put by and a few quid went a long way back then. I ended up here, it being the end of the road; it seemed a good place to stop. There was a bit o’ work to be had for a jobbin’ builder, which was my trade. ’Nough to keep a man alive. This cottage was derelict, no roof, no nothin’ ’cept the walls, and they was in a state. Farmer down the dale let the cattle in it. I had lodging in the village and was working for the farmer, and got to talking ’bout this little place. He tells me if I fix it up, I can live in it. So we shakes on that and I did fix it up. Few years later I’m gettin’ married to Dora, who’s this farmer’s daughter and he says to me, ‘Simon, you are family now and I want to give you the cottage.’ ‘No,’ I says to him, ‘that won’t do. I will make an offer.’ ‘Simon,’ he says, ‘the work you done on this place, more than pay for it. You look after this place and you look after Dora and I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll put it in my will to Dora and you.’ So that’s how it settled. Anyhow, I’m sixty-five now and I am thinking to meself I need to pass it on somehow, but that’s another story. Guess what I’m sayin’ is, if you find a place to be, you must work at it, an honest livin’ an’ it’ll turn out most likely.”
Simon lit up his pipe and sat back looking into the fire.
“What happened to Dora?” asked Mark. “Or maybe I shouldn’t ask.”
“No worry lad, I don’t often speak of it but I’m minded to tell you what happened.”
Outside, the rain had turned to sleet and there was a distant rumble of thunder in the hills.
“Me and Dora was very happy here. She was a lovely lass and I couldn’t believe my luck. By that time I had got working out on the hills, a doin’ the walls. There ain’t a wall round here that I haven’t put my hands to it and there’s more than enough for me to do. But then the war comes along an’ everything’s changed. No-one was mending walls on the fells. I was struggling to feed my lady and me. I wasn’t took up as I was already over forty, but Dora says to me they needed gals down at the factory in the town. So every day she catches the bus down to the factory and comes home each afternoon. We never dreamed that any German planes would ever come over here. But they did and they bombed that damned factory and Dora was badly hurt and never recovered. When I saw her, she was already goin’. I held her hand but I don’t know if she knew me or no. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t, I was so angry. A bad day, a bad day for everyone,” and Simon sat staring into the crackling fire in the early evening twilight with a battering wind jabbering outside and the hard icy rain clattering on the glass with a monotonous rattle.
“My birthday,” whispered Mark.
“Eh? What, today?”
“No, no. The day the factory was bombed. It was the day I was born.”
“Well, some good came of a bad day after all. Dora would’ve been pleased about that.”
They sat in silence for a while, listening to the flames in the grate.
“Like walking in the hills, you. I seen you often enough going up across the fell. The weather were like this back in ’32. We all met up at Bowden Bridge before going up over to Kinder. Last Sunday in April, it were, and everyone was expecting trouble and we got it. But we also got freedom, not just for us but for everyone. They called it mass trespass but there ain’t no law of trespass, nor never has been and all those hills, they don’t belong to anyone but everyone that works in ’em and walks in ’em. So now, you can walk free but who knows where one day we might get to. Who owns the land? No-one owns the land, we are jus’ passing through. We are the keepers in trust for them that follows. So I do my bit and mend the walls and clear the ditches. Then you come along from nowhere with nowhere to go and I figure I can teach you a little of what it means to be out on the fells and free. Well, then I done some good.”
The next morning dawned clear following on from the wild night. The hills were sharp against the backdrop of ragged clouds.
“Told you so,” smiled Simon as they ate breakfast at his old wooden table in the kitchen. “Well, lad, I guess you’ll be on your way. I hope you manage all right. The hills will be good today. Now I want to run a deal with you. I know you’re off and I don’t ask why or where but I want you to drop me a line every once in a while. Postcard’ll do. Drop me a line back to this place. Here, I wrote down the address for yer. And when you settle for a while, which you will, then maybe you can think about Simon Simple, the old stone waller. Here’s twenty pound to get you goin’ as no doubt you have little enough.”
“Oh, no. You can’t do that. I can’t take it. That’s too much.”
“You can and you will and you will thank me for it yet.”
So saying Simon thrust an envelope into Mark’s jacket pocket.
“Don’t lose it. As it’s Saturday I will come on a little way with you with these here dogs as need a run.”
So it was that on a glorious April Saturday in 1960, Mark, Simon and the two lively collies set off up Moses Trod by Sty Head over towards Honister. At the head of the pass beneath the huge bluff of Great Gable, Simon stopped to turn back. They took their leave and Simon sat on a rock to smoke a quiet pipe. He watched Mark walk on out of sight and sighing turned back down to his cottage.
‘He’ll learn the hard way and no doubt,’ he thought, ‘but perhaps he’ll remember this time and place, remember it as a place to come ’ome when there ain’t no ’ome to go to.’
Two – Fortune smiling
Mark felt fortune smiling in the April sun as he set off across the shoulder of Great Gable towards the slates of Honister. The music ever in his head kept pace with every step of the way. After an hour or so, he came to the top of the disused tramway that led down from the old mine to the pass. At Honister, he struck east and then north to Keswick. He had no map and was well out his territory but from Keswick he caught a bus over to Penrith. There seemed to be no turning back. But London was still over three hundred miles away.
In the centre of town, Mark found a small shop and bought some food. It did not take long to wander around the market town. As the afternoon closed, he sat near the castle to eat when he noticed a small group of people loitering near the gate. There were two young men and two girls and one of the lads had a guitar case. Mark felt emboldened by the guitar.
‘Anyone with a guitar must be okay,’ he thought and he walked over to talk.
They turned out to be an aspiring folk group. Chloe was a short, plain looking girl, perhaps a little plump, wearing a baggy, old Aran sweater, her favourite. She was the singer. Ronny was a gangling, rough looking youth with a loud mouth, slicked back hair and a well-worn leather jacket. Angular and abrasive, he played the bass. He also had a drum kit, but that was hardly folk. You could feel the energy emerging from his limbs as he never stopped fidgeting. An older lad called Vinny carried the guitar. He was quiet, slim and neat with a studious, earnest air and a tweed sports jacket. Julia was a handsome girl who played violin. Tall, well dressed, with long brown hair and dark, enticing eyes she immediately took Mark’s notice. A teacher’s daughter, she carried an air of confidence and elegance. The group had been to school together, except Ronny who came from Kendal. Ronny suffered the folk club for the opportunity to play and he had a secret soft spot for Chloe. He didn’t know why and didn’t question it either. He had once tried to date her but she hadn’t taken him seriously. So he shrugged and carried on playing bass. His real passion was for drums, rock and roll and the blues.
Mark towered over all of them and his easy sociability soon broke though the questioning gaze. Out of season, strangers were rare in the town. It only took a few words and he fell in with them easily. Without any effort, they invited him along to the folk club that night where they would be doing a couple of songs.
“Can I take a look at the guitar?”
Vinny took out a fine Gibson acoustic. It was a far better guitar than any Mark had seen or played before. He took it reverently and was conscious as he sat on the bench that the others were watching him critically. But Mark was confident of his playing and quickly ran through a couple of simple tunes before playing a more challenging classical piece he had learned from a library book. It sounded a bit odd on the steel strung folk guitar. As he finished he looked up just in time to see Julia nudging Vinny with an air of satisfaction on her smiling face.
They all laughed and clapped.
“Nice guitar,” said Mark handing it back to Vinny.
“Nice guitarist,” laughed Julia.
“Good playing,” Vinny agreed quietly, putting the instrument away.
They parted, but not before Mark had directions to the church hall that housed the folk club on a Saturday night. He had never been to a folk club before. He had never really been out at all. At eight o’clock, he was in the dusty hall and found himself a chair at the back. The lights were too bright and there was no stage, somehow it was not what he had expected. But the failings of the venue only emphasised the wonder of the music. It was a revelation to him as the different singers and instrumentalists stood up to play. Some of them just stood up where they sat in the audience and sang unaccompanied, while others, such his friends of the afternoon, stood at the front, in the space that took the place of the stage, and played two or three songs.
Ronny, Vinny, Julia and Chloe came on about half way through. Ronny’s big upright bass made a solid thump in the small hall. Between them, they acquitted themselves well. They played an arrangement of the classic sea shanty ‘Rio Grande’. Mark was surprised that the audience quietly joined in the chorus while Chloe’s clear voice sailed above them. Then they played a new song written by Vinny. Mark thought this was very good. Vinny could play his Gibson with accomplishment. But it was the singing that took his breath away. As soon as Chloe started to sing, he looked at her afresh. She might have looked plain but she sang like a professional. She had a full, clear, bell like voice that belied her young age and sounded very womanly and ageless. She could hold the words from silence up to soaring. He did not realise that he was staring at Chloe open mouthed until Julia waved and distracted him. When Chloe sang, she half closed her eyes and gave herself over to the music. The audience liked it too and they were offered a third song. This last one was Clementine. Mark was amazed. He had always thought it was a kindergarten song, something to be sung by rote, but the arrangement he heard that night elevated it to something far greater. The audience joined in the chorus with gusto and thoroughly enjoyed it but the last two verses were sung full of pathos and many eyes were moist as Chloe sang the final chorus just accompanied by a solemn violin ‘Oh my darling, oh my darling, oh my darling Clementine, thou art lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry Clementine.’ It was moving and beautiful.
For Mark, it was a musical awakening as the audience waited for the final note of Julia’s violin to fade away before standing to applaud them. They were good and they deserved it. After their set, they came down the hall to Mark to share the last couple of performances.
The club over, Ronny dived off to catch the last train down to Oxenholme, while Vinny set off home.
“Where you off to, Mark?” asked Julia.
“I don’t actually know,” admitted Mark, “but I’ll find somewhere.”
Julia raised her eyebrows. “You staying around here or what are you doing?”
“I don’t really know, it depends.”
“Depends on what? Don’t you have a home to go to? I mean it seems a bit strange, doesn’t it?”
“Leave him, Julia,” said Chloe, “none of our business.”
Julia whistled low through her teeth and announced that she had to go anyway and giving Mark a final quizzical look disappeared into the night. By now, there were only a handful of folk left in the hall.
“We’d better go, now,” said Chloe. “They have to close up pretty sharpish after the club.” Seeing Mark hesitate, she tugged his sleeve and smiled, “Come on.”
Outside there was a light drizzle drifting across the cool night air and they wandered along the street together.
“You sing beautifully,” began Mark. “You’re all so good. I really enjoyed it.”
“Thanks. We’ve been at it a long time, except Ronny that is. Strange thing to do, I’ll bet you’re thinking.”
“No, no, not at all. Made me feel odd when I was listening to you. Sort of proud and emotional, all mixed up.”
“You play well. Maybe I could sing for you sometime?”
“Listen, Chloe, it’s really kind of you to be here but I need to find some place to kip so you had better go home.”
“That’s okay. There’s no hurry, you can sleep at my place.”
“What! I couldn’t do that. What would your folks say if I turned up out of nowhere like and asked for a bed?”
“They wouldn’t say anything. I have a flat over the Post Office. It’s dead pokey, like, but there’s space on the floor and it’s got to be better than sleeping in the rain. Besides, I like you, you seem alright.”
“You’re mad. You don’t even know me. I could be anyone.”
“Maybe you could be, but you aren’t. Take it or leave it. It’s just a piece of floor, mind, nothing more. Understood?”
“Well yea, yea,” stammered Mark, completely unnerved by this mouse of a girl.
“How old are you anyway?” asked Chloe.
“I figured about that. That’s okay then. I’m twenty.”
Chloe took Mark to her flat above the shop and Post Office. It was tiny with a small kitchen containing a miniature cooker, a small old porcelain sink and a table for two. There was a room that doubled up as living and bed room with a double bed on one side and a small settee opposite. The old rug in the middle of the floor had just enough space for a man to lie down and in one corner was a basin. The toilet was downstairs by the entrance and shared with another flat. It was all tidy, if a hotchpotch of odds and ends.
There was a guitar hung on the wall.
“Do you play, then?” asked Mark.
“No, not really. I can strum a few chords, that’s all. Not like you or Vinny.”
“Listen,” continued Chloe, “house rules. You can stay tonight if and only if, one: you take off your shoes indoors and two: you tell me what you’re really up to and three: you don’t run off without letting me know. Is that okay?”
“I guess so. You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. I’ve slept out on the hills plenty of times.”
“Maybe, but this isn’t the hills, it’s a town and some of the folk won’t take kindly to finding you in their back yard. So you tell me what you’re about and kip on my floor tonight. Then we can work out what to do with you tomorrow.”
“Well I’m not goin’ back home.”
“Who says you are? But now you’re here, I take an interest.”
So they found a home for Mark’s pack and shoes, made some tea and sat down. He was on an old wooden chair and she sat on her hands on the bed. Mark related his story. Once he had started, it poured out of him while Chloe listened. It was the first time he had ever had anyone listen to him that way. Suddenly he stopped, embarrassed, realising he had been talking for ages while she had not said a word. She just watched him with her small round face smiling, seemingly fascinated.
“Go on, you’d better not stop now. You tell a good story.”
So Mark carried on right up to meeting her and her friends that evening. The time had moved on to midnight. Mark felt a strange excitement about him as he waited, still unsure if he was doing right or wrong.
“Well, Mark,” Chloe said quietly, “there’s some food for thought. Let’s sleep on it and tomorrow we can work out what happens next. Oh, and thank you,” she leant forward and touched his hand, “thank you for trusting me.” And she stood up and started to clear away the mugs while Mark got out his sleeping bag from the pack and laid it out on the floor.
“Okay,” said Chloe, returning, “here’s how it works. You go in the kitchen and have a wash – because, believe me, you do need one. You get to borrow my shampoo and a new bar of soap and the spare towel I’ve put ready because I’m guessing you don’t have any of that in your bag, right?”
“It’s okay Mark. You don’t need to worry. Women think of this kind of stuff and men don’t. While you’re doing that in there, I’ll get ready in here and that way I won’t embarrass you, ’cause I’m guessing you would be embarrassed. And so might I,” she added with a chuckle.
So Mark got to spend his second night under a strange roof. He lay in the dark of that room for half an hour wondering about the day and especially about this strange girl. She wasn’t like any type of girl he had imagined. He couldn’t place her; she was entirely a new experience. All the girls in his imagination had been beautiful and quiet and dreamy and complicit and soft, and Chloe wasn’t any of these and yet she was a real live, living person.
Then a soft voice came out of the dark. “Mark, go to sleep.”
And he felt more comfortable than ever in his life before and he closed his eyes, emptied his mind and slept.
Mark was awoken by the sound of Chloe singing from the kitchen:
‘Early one morning,
Just as the sun was rising,
I heard a maiden sing
in the valley far below.
Do not deceive me,
Oh, never leave me,
How could you use
a poor maiden so.’
It became a memory that sustained him and became increasingly dear to him through the rest of his life. This extraordinary girl with her plain Jane looks could raise his spirits in a way that no other woman would ever do.
Chloe walked in, smiling, bright and wrapped in a dressing gown with a towel around her wet hair.
“Up you get, lazy bones.” and she gave him a gentle kick.
She went over to the window and cast it wide open as Mark followed her with his eyes. She turned and stood framed in the light, holding her hand to her chin and looking quizzically down at him, still in his sleeping bag.
“You don’t have a sister, do you?”
“You’re still scared of me. Don’t be. I’m not your mother; I’m your friend. So I’m going to get some breakfast ready and you can sort yourself out in here, better air that bag, and then we can sit down and have chat about what’s next.”
Chloe stepped over him to the other room and he caught her glimpsing earnestly back as she closed the door. Later, at the breakfast table, they talked.
“So you’ve run away from home. You’ve got some vague idea of going to London, where you’ve never been. You’ve not left so much as a note for your folks. You haven’t bothered to think about money. And you’ve no notion of the disaster that’s about to hit you. Naïve or what?” and Chloe rapped her fingers on the table for a moment. “But it’s not all bad news, ’cause you’ve met me and the others and we can help. I am prepared to raise the cause, as it happens I have no other just now.”
“You’re too good to me and I was not expecting any help. I’m still not expecting any help and I don’t want to cause you any trouble. And, okay, I admit all you say. Call me stupid if you like. But if you don’t decide to do something, to take a risk, then nothing ever happens. I’m not prepared to just let life happen to me. I want to make my own life. Don’t you see?”
“Yep, I see. And I never called you stupid. Happens I wish I had the guts to do what you are doing. Only thing is, I might not be much older, but I’ve been dumped on by my past, by Hitler and by idiot men who I stupidly believed when they said ‘I love you’.”
Chloe raised her eyes to his.
“I’m a sucker, you see.”
“You don’t sound like one. And I’m sorry; I’ve been all selfish again.”
“‘Don’t be scared of society, it’ll get you where you want to go, but only if you believe in me and trust the man you know.’” She sang in reply. “Well, the one thing we know is there’s no hurry to do anything stupid. You’ve plenty of time to work it out. I don’t think you should head off to London just yet. You need to plan this stuff and besides you ought to think about other people a bit more,” and Chloe looked straight into his eyes as she spoke, “I might want to come too.”
There was a moment’s silence before she continued, watching him carefully.
“I know a bit about London. That’s where I come from. We moved up here when I was eleven. My mother is a nurse and got a job in the hospital here. She wanted to get away from London and all the bad memories of the war. We lived in the East End, out Limehouse way, near the river. The whole place was like a bomb site when I was a child, some of it still is. There’s rows of terraces and in every row there’ll be a few houses missing, like broken teeth. Me and my mates used play in all these heaps of rubble. People think that all the children got sent away from London during the war. All the posh kids maybe, but there were hundreds of them roaming around the East End. When I was four, I used to hang around with a whole crowd of girls and boys of all ages while my mum was at work. My dad was in the expeditionary force in France when I was born in 1940. He never came back from Dunkirk.”
“I’m sorry, Chloe.”
“No, don’t be sorry for me but maybe you should give a thought to your own folks. So how about we concoct a note for them, so they at least know you are okay and you can tell them you are visiting a friend? Then every once in while you can drop them a line.”
“Okay, I’ll think about it.”
“Meanwhile, I think you should stay here for a while.”
“It’s not a problem. I work in the shop downstairs. That’s how I come to get the flat and they really won’t mind. They’ll think you’re my new boyfriend,” she laughed. “They’re pretty liberal minded.”
“But, I’m not. It wouldn’t be right. We only met last night.”
“Mark, it’s the 1960s. No-one cares. Let them talk. In any event, you’ve got to stay somewhere. Well, think about it. If you don’t want to, that’s up to you. I am going to see Vinny and Julia tonight, I suggest you come along and we talk about it all together. They’ll have good ideas too and you know that Julia fancies you!”
“What?” Mark could feel the heat in his ears.
“Just kidding. You need to calm down a bit. Look I’m sorry, but I am worried about you and I really think that between us we can help,” and with a beseeching look, “Do you forgive me?”
“Nothing to forgive. I must be an idiot but I kind of need to do this. And yea, you’re right. I really am grateful and, of course, you’re right, I just took off without really thinking it through. I’m not going back but I don’t want to get you into trouble and I don’t want anyone jumping to conclusions about you and me, ’cause I know that we’ll both regret that one.”
“Why do boys always relate everything to sex?” Chloe seemed mildly miffed for the first time and Mark frowned at his clumsiness.
“Sorry, Chloe, but it’s not the boys I’m worried about. I’ll stay today. I’ll meet your friends tonight. Then tomorrow I’ll see if maybe there’s some work round about and perhaps a place to live while I sort out what to do next.”
“Sounds like a plan. Let’s write that letter to your folks and then you and I can try a song. You can’t keep your eyes off that guitar.”
So the day went well enough and Vinny and Julia were bemused. Vinny was looking for a flat and suggested that Mark join him. Mark kept catching Julia’s sparkling eyes looking at him like unanswered questions and Chloe kept noticing Julia too. Mark spent three weeks on Chloe’s floor and a week out looking for work. It was Julia who found him a job. A friend of a friend was looking for a labourer in forestry. Two weeks after that Vinny rented a tiny house and Mark moved in.
All through those weeks, Chloe had remained restrained, friendly and smiling but she didn’t like Mark leaving. She had got used to him. Despite herself, his affable gentleness was beguiling. She liked to think of the big lad asleep on her floor and the first night he had gone, she lay awake and felt sad.
She had also got used to his guitar playing and together they had quietly worked up half a dozen songs between them, including one of her own and she knew they worked well together. Every other Saturday they all went to the folk club and Chloe tried to convince Mark to play a slot with her but he would not.
But even though Mark had grown to respect Chloe, he did not recognise her growing affection for him and all the time they shared a room he was scrupulous in his avoidance of any situation that might entangle them, even though Chloe had begun laying traps.
‘I suppose I wouldn’t stand a chance with a chap like Mark when he can see Julia every day. I always used to think I was above all the beauty stuff. But really, it’s just I know I can never be beautiful and attractive,’ Chloe sighed.
Mark was very pleased to move out and share with Vinny. Vinny was the quiet one and found no need to talk when silence would do. But Mark soon found he was a friend. Vinny might not have much to say but he could listen so well and the few words that came out were direct and thoughtful. When they first met, Mark had thought of Vinny as introverted, shy, uncomfortable, but soon discovered that those easy labels didn’t fit this intelligent young man who seemed able to trace the depths in any character.
Vinny was also a first class guitarist and with the loan of Chloe’s guitar they spent many hours playing together. The two voices of their guitars would intertwine and understand each other in a way that words never could. Sharing music was a new experience for Mark; first with Chloe and now with Vinny. Often in those days, there were times when he felt the sublime pleasure of a shared emotion. He had moved from passive music lover to creative musician. His ears and eyes had been opened to see and understand new patterns in his life.
It was a week before the thought struck Mark that he had never been close to any boy in thoughts or conversation. A friend was a revelation. He could talk freely on any topic, something he had never done before, something he had not felt able to do with Chloe.
Through the summer, they all began a musical journey. Vinny, Ronny and Mark started playing skiffle and blues, pulling slowly away from the folk. From the week that Vinny and Mark set up in the flat, Julia became a frequent caller. She would often bring along cider on a Friday night and hang around while Vinny and Mark played away. During those long, easy summer evenings, Julia watched Mark with her intelligent, beguiling eyes and he was forever aware of her feline, flexible body. Chloe would sometimes come along too and sit at the back of the room watching the boys. She seemed more restrained now than when Mark had first arrived.
“Well, Mark,” she said one evening when the others had gone, “have you got a plan yet? You’ve been here a while now. You going to stay?”
“I don’t know. Not really thought about it. We are kind of happy and settled here, aren’t we?”
“Things change. They already have, since you came a lot has changed. You’ve changed them. Don’t you see that?”
“Have I? I don’t understand what you’re saying?”
“No, no you don’t,” said Chloe quietly, almost to herself. “I guess what I mean is you can’t expect to walk into a place without being noticed, without people caring. Well, maybe I don’t know what I’m saying. Take no notice. It’s just that, when you first came and stayed at my place, it meant something. I don’t know what. It just meant something,” and Chloe stood up to go, leaving Mark wondering what it was she meant.
At the door she turned and said, “I just don’t want you to forget about where you were going the day you arrived.”
“I won’t forget, Chloe. And I won’t forget that if it wasn’t for you I probably would be crawling back long past. But I’m happy here and I’ve never had friends before. That matters and I don’t want to lose that. Not yet.”
So they parted. But a seed had been sown somewhere deep in Mark’s mind. He found himself reflecting on Chloe, comparing her to Julia. There was something anxious about her manner when he was around. He could tell she was on edge where once she had been relaxed.
One warm Saturday in early June, before the holiday season took off, Mark, Vinny, Julia and Chloe all went down to Bowness and hired a boat. It was Julia’s idea but no-one remembered that, until later. They rowed off across Windermere to a quiet beach by a small inlet on the western shore. They had their picnic and lazed away the hot afternoon. Mark was being monopolised by Chloe, who had rarely seen him over the previous month or so. It must have been three o’clock when the sultry heat was beginning to tell. Julia looked up and innocently suggested a swim. Mark and Vinny were game in their naïvety, but Chloe saw through Julia immediately and stared in disbelief as Julia returned a sweet smile from her beautiful face.
“I’ll stay here in the shade, thanks,” said Chloe. They all looked at her.
“Is there something wrong?” asked Mark.
“No, you go on. I like to sit and watch.”
Mark shrugged and turned to the lake.
Chloe looked out at the three of them in the water. ‘Why did God make you so damn pretty Julia? All things bright and beautiful on the outside and so dark and strange within. It’s hardly fair on the boys and girls who want to go out to play.’
For the next hour, Chloe sat on the beach hugging her knees in the heat, feeling exasperated and sad and ignoring the cries of the others to join them. Looking out, she had ample time to admire Mark. Vinny seemed small and inconsequential beside the broad and muscular Mark while the willowy beauty of Julia in her carefully chosen underwear kept both boys’ eyes sharply focussed on her supple, sensuous shape. There was much laughter and splashing from the lake. Chloe looked up from time to time, feeling inadequate. But the magic spell of summer worked on her and she began to relax, the hard eyes softened and smiled. ‘I must not break this happiness through my foolishness.’ Without further thought, she started to sing gently: “Oh say, were you ever…” After a while she looked up to find Mark standing knee deep in the water, hands on hips and staring at her direct and long. She stopped singing and there was a moment’s silence, enough to catch Julia’s attention to the two of them. Julia splashed the harder at Vinny, but smiled.
Back on the beach, they sat in the slowly falling sun to dry off while Chloe poured them all a drink. They had exhausted their words and just watched the lake and felt the breeze. It was a classical English summer’s day, an evocation of the English countryside in June. Julia stretched herself out, carefully positioned, to Mark’s full benefit, closed her eyes and smiled. But Mark looked at Julia and then at Chloe as if comparing them. He looked at Chloe so long and hard she had to respond and their eyes met. Her face was quizzical, even playful. But now neither of them could withdraw. Despite herself, Chloe smiled and Mark responded, and the involuntary laugh that escaped them made Julia open her eyes. Watching them through her half closed lashes, Julia lay back with a sigh.
They got back home late in the evening and Chloe went back to her flat but Julia went along with Vinny and Mark.
“Can I come in?” she said.
“Of course,” replied Vinny as Mark shot him a glance of disapproval. His mind was full of thoughts of Chloe singing on the beach and he did not want them displaced.
“We should do that again. Us girls don’t get to see such fine young men often enough.”
“Fine young woman as well,” muttered Mark and Julia cast him a suspicious glance over her shoulder.
Once inside, Julia pulled a small bottle out of her bag. “Drink anyone?”
But Vinny declared himself ‘dead beat’ and retired to bed leaving Julia and Mark alone in the living room. They sat opposite each other for a moment or two in silence when Julia stood up and sat next to Mark on the old settee.
“Julia, I know what you’re up to and it won’t do. You’re really nice and God knows you’re beautiful but it just won’t do.”
“Mark, you have no idea what I’m up to,” she replied placing her hand gently on his knee as she spoke. “You think I am trying to seduce you,” cheekily stroking him, “well, you’re wrong about that. If I could get you to seduce me, then maybe that would be interesting for a while. But I just find you interesting. I don’t like to think of you going to waste.”
At this point Mark lifted her hand and placed it back in her lap.
“Julia, it’s been a good summer so far, and a lovely day, but I am still a stranger here and you are a stranger to me. I think you should go home before we both regret it.”
“Mark, I can assure you, I will have no regrets. But tell me, is it Chloe that makes us strangers all of a sudden and you so restrained? Because if it is, then you know less about Chloe than is good for a boy to know. You are not the only one around here who fancies Chloe.”
“What do you mean?” replied Mark as he felt the heat rising in his face and a strange confusion in his mind.
“Ah ha! So it is Chloe. Well, that’s sweet and laudable and must be more than skin deep. I shall not spoil it for you, but I want you to remember this. Chloe has a past history of leaving her lovers deserted in the ditch. Look at me Mark, with both eyes, that’s better. Now we can understand each other. So I lay an offer on the table with no strings attached,” and she laid her hand back on his leg. “An offer for pleasure and enjoyment with no commitment. Just let me know. Even after you and Chloe…”
“Julia, I think you disgust me and I should throw you out, but I like you way too much. You’re up to something. I thought I knew what but now I haven’t a clue.”
“So what am I up to Mark?”
“No doubt you like to wind blokes up; perhaps you even want them that way. I have no idea. But I’ve already told you. You’ve been good to me. You’ve all been so good to me. And just in case you didn’t realise it, but I know you do, you are gorgeous. I have never sat this close to a beautiful woman before and I have never met anyone else like you. You scare me to hell sometimes. I guess I am flattered by your interest and maybe under different circumstances it might work out. But it cannot. It just won’t do. So let’s go home and leave it.”
“Mark, no harm done,” whispered Julia. “Just one kiss for friendship and I’ll go home, promise.”
So Mark kissed Julia and they kissed kindly and then silently studied each other’s eyes for a long time with her hands in his hair.
“There, you see, we can be just good friends. Good night, Mark. Oh, and by the way, you passed the test and I love you for it. Give my love to Chloe.”
The beautiful Julia gathered herself together and left Mark deep in thought. On Sunday he went to see Chloe but did not return to Vinny’s that night.
On Monday morning, in the Post office, Chloe could not restrain herself from singing. She was glowing. The post mistress looked at her sideways, opened her mouth and then decided better of it. ‘So this is love,’ she thought making a mental note that it had never had that effect on her.
Mark had started building guitar amplifiers again. He gave one to Vinny who had got hold of a cheap electric guitar. He managed to get one into a music shop on sale or return and it sold quickly. Before long, he gave up the forestry job to concentrate on building the amplifiers, and worked in the music shop part time as well.
Chloe and Mark were performing as a duo at the folk club, sometimes with Julia or Vinny but Ronny never went along there anymore. It was a time of fulfilment for Mark and he wrote songs for Chloe and never failed to be surprised to hear his efforts turned into real music by this magical girl.
When they were not playing music together, they went out for long treks across the hills and quickly grew to love the autumn fells in all their moods. They would walk in all weathers and every walk was a journey of discovery, discovery of themselves and the country that influenced and reflected all their moods.
It was on one of these outings that they found the valley. It was a small, hidden place with a rushing beck tumbling down from fall to fall. The stony walls of the place had been carved out over millennia by the passing stream. Even in the late autumn, the sun could make the sheltered valley a warm and happy place. Mark and Chloe spent long hours there, sitting and chatting as new lovers will. There was no path leading down to this spot and it came to be their place, a refuge and a backdrop for their dreams. Plants surrounded the small pools and the sun glanced off the ever-moving water to draw magical moving patterns of light across the rocks and illuminate the shadows beneath the small and noisy falls.
“One day, we’ll come back here and see this place and remember how it was,” Chloe mused.
“Let’s build a small cairn with these stones and put something in it,” suggested Mark.
So they did. They gathered small stones and pieces of rock from the pools and built a small beehive cairn on a sheltered platform well out of the way of the water. In the centre, they had placed an old tobacco tin with a note from themselves and the lyrics to a song that Mark had just written for Chloe. When they had finished, they smiled and kissed.
“I wonder if we’ll ever come back when we are old and find this place and the old tin? Or maybe someone else will,” said Mark.
“I don’t mind if we do or don’t, but it’s a kind of keepsake to us. It seals our fate together, a token of love,” replied Chloe and they stood over the small cairn and kissed again.
As Christmas approached, the friends started a beat group with Vinny on electric guitar, Ronny on drums and Mark on bass. They needed a singer and Chloe was obvious but her sweet voice was too pure for most of the material. Mark met a lad called JJ at the music shop and invited him along to a rehearsal. JJ looked like a choir boy but when he sang with the band, it left them all laughing with pleasure. Julia was their audience and stood clapping after the first song. JJ could sing the blues like a man from Missouri and Chloe set off his smoky drawl with spiritual harmonies. Ronny was really in his element at last, and set up a solid rhythm section with Mark that held the band together, but still let it swing and groove. That afternoon they knew they could make magic with the band playing tight blues and Julia dancing out front.
Ronny had a big collection of American blues records and brought them around for the new band to learn. There were classics from John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson, all great delta bluesmen, and they proved an inspiration for the band. JJ bought a harmonica on the strength of Sonny Boy’s ‘Nine below Zero’. Within a few weeks, there was material enough for their first gig that they played at a local pub to a disappointingly small audience of about twenty. But the band played their hearts out that night and the tiny audience got a real treat. The landlord was also impressed and asked them to come back two weeks later.
But the next gig was quite different. Blues bands were not so common. Word of mouth and a few lines in the local paper filled the pub. The band had spent the intervening weeks practising and learning new material including some Chuck Berry numbers to liven the pace up, so as not to repeat themselves and now had quite a set lined up. Together they had a great time and years later, Mark and Vinny would reminisce on the great gig they played at the Red Lion. The landlord was delighted and set up a band night where the blues band made regular appearances. The local reporter was a big blues fan and wrote a piece about the band. They became local heroes and found themselves playing twice a week at different venues. Vinny bought a small van to carry the gear, and Mark and Chloe would travel to gigs on Chloe’s Triumph Tiger Cub, arriving windswept and often wet while the others squeezed into the van. Julia went to the gigs as unofficial manager.
By Christmas, they were talking of going down to London. They played a New Year’s Eve concert at the local town hall supporting a London band. After the gig, the other band’s manager came up to Mark. He was a small man who chain smoked small cheap cigars. He had slicked back, greasy hair, getting a bit thin on top, was maybe forty and dressed in an old, shiny suit, double-breasted to hide his increasing girth, achieved, no doubt, by the consumption of copious portions of greasy spoon transport café meals.
“Hi big man, I’m Maxy, Maxy Million, the manager who can make you a million! You got the blues tied down good. You wanna move on up into beat. That’s where it’s at. We could cut a deal. I could get you on the majors in no time. Heh, mebbe you wanna talk about money? You guys could make a lot of it with the right deal. Course, we’d have to invest a bit, tidy you up. Mebbe get a different backing singer,” and as an aside, “she’s not very hot, yer know.”
Mark just sat still and looked at him, stunned.
Not perturbed by this lack of response, Maxy ploughed on.
“In fact, here’s an offer, cards on the table, straight as a die. Why not bring the guys down the smoke next weekend and we could give you a trial? Heh, mebbe?”
Mark stood up, towering over Maxy.
“We’re busy next weekend. Leave your card. I’ll think about it.”
“Ah. So you are the leader, heh?”
“I’ll think about it,” replied Mark taking the proffered card from Maxy’s sweaty hand.
Later he talked to the other band’s bass player.
“What’s this guy like, your manager?” asked Mark as the van was packed.
“Okay, I guess, if you like working hard and earning nothing. Always making promises of records and that never quite ’appen. Better than the last one, he was just a bastard crook. This guy’s a crook too, but at least he doesn’t do it sneaky, like.”
“So you reckon don’t go to London then?”
“London is the music biz. You’ve got to be there to make it. You guys are good enough too. But don’t expect to get rich quick. Don’t happen.”
“Why do you do it then?”
“Happens we like the music.”
New Year’s Day found them all at Vinny’s and in high spirits except for Julia.
“You’re not really thinking of going to London are you? What will you live on?”
“Oh, come on Julia, this is our chance to get somewhere.”
Maxy has offered us the gigs and seems he can get them.
“Well, I think you’re stupid to go down there. It’ll spoil everything.”
They all agreed to leave it a couple of weeks and see how they felt. They never heard from Maxy, but Mark did sell one his amplifiers to the other band.
Two weeks later Mark and Chloe went up into the snowy hills and climbed to the summit of Great Gable. In the clear air, the view was magnificent.
“When I die,” Mark said to Chloe, “you can bring my ashes up here and scatter them on the wind.”
Chloe looked at him and opened her mouth, but then didn’t speak. Instead, she put her arms around him and they stood there in the freezing wind holding each other and looking out across the frosty hills.
“Let’s go down the other way,” said Mark, “there’s someone I’d like you to meet and there’s something I need to do.”
So they turned down the hill towards Wast Water and Simon Simple’s little cottage in Feldale Head. Snow had been falling off and on all week but now it started to settle around them as they strode down the rocky paths. They arrived just as it was getting dark and were greeted by Simon’s two collies running round from the back. The door opened and Simon stood to see the two of them framed in the falling snow ‘like a Christmas card’, he said.
Simon was surprised but seemed pleased to see them and soon they were inside the warm cottage. Chloe sat making friends with the excited dogs while Mark and Simon went to the kitchen.
“Simon, I came to give you this back,” and took out an envelope containing £20.
“Good lad. You made a good start and found a good friend,” indicating the other room.
“More than a good friend, I think.”
Returning to the parlour, Simon offered them a room for the night, which they were glad to accept, so they settled down to an evening of talk.
Simon watched the two of them closely and when Mark was out of the room for a moment, spoke to Chloe, “Mark’s a good lad. No doubt you won’t want my opinion, but I think you make a good pair.”
Chloe smiled at him with a quiet, knowing smile and started talking about music. She got him to sing some old songs he had learned from his father, which left him pleased and then in return Chloe sang.
Simon sat back listening with a gentle smile flickering across his old face in the firelight as Chloe’s gorgeous voice filled the evening and transported them all back to an older England. Chloe had an encyclopaedic memory for songs. At the end of the second song, Simon’s eyes were glistening and the two dogs sat, heads tilted and mesmerised, watching this marvellous girl. Mark felt his pride for Chloe glowing in his heart. He already knew he loved her.
In the dark of the night, Mark woke up and could hear the silence of the snow as it fell outside. The air was cold in the room but they were warm in their bed together. Beside him, Chloe slept quietly, breathing peacefully. Something in the beauty of the moment filled his heart and he felt he would weep with the strength of the emotion inside him. In his mind, he pictured the years ahead. Sleeping again, he dreamed of a time when he and Chloe lived in the cottage beneath the fells.
Three – Money and means
Between Cheapside and London Wall, they were busy rebuilding. They built tall and glassy, marble elegantly emblazoned with gold leaf lettering, not too restrained but not flashy. Brushed steel and bronze enumerated across mahogany doors. They dug deep through Victoria and Rome, deep into the clay, past corpses of plague and fire. They were building a new world set in the heart of the old. Palaces of gold and platinum rose up from the temples of Roman centurions. The industrialisation of money, manmade and invisible, imaginary transport of power and delight, of ruin and destruction bred here in shining halls, kept hoarded deep behind steel bars and massive doors. The old engine had broken its back on the oceans of war. The new money machine had been invested to become the lifeblood of a technological revolution. With gold in its veins, the city tripped high in a land of false dawns, false hope and lost dreams. This was where the banker apothecary finally achieved alchemy and beyond, turning the smoky London air into bars of shining gold. Appropriately courted by St. Paul’s, the religion of unreality controlled the power and the dreams of a population held in thrall.
Goldburys had been an old fashioned bank among old fashioned banks, run by generations of the family. Before the war, they kept a select clientele among the less well known but very profitable businesses of the kingdom. They were a banker’s banker, solid, dependable, British to the core but born from émigré money lenders. But the war had changed them. It was not just their ancient offices that had been bombed out. Old man Goldbury had retired back in ’36, but his son JC had died in a German prison camp in North Africa in 1942. Lord Goldbury came out of retirement to take the reins until he too died aged eighty-three, in 1955. During his inadequate tenure, the business had fossilised. Goldburys had become a byword for conservatism, a hermitage of empire. JC’s wife was passed over in the will by the old man, who had ‘never liked the gal’. So it was that Jocelyn Goldbury found himself the inheritor of a noble and ancient City institution at the age of nineteen, held in trust until he was twenty-one.
But Jocelyn had other ideas. One Thursday shortly after his eighteenth birthday, he was enlisted under National Service into the army. Unlike many, Jocelyn looked forward to the army. A natural sportsman, athletic, confident and handsome, he thought he would do well and was enthusing about an overseas posting. Even the reality of drudgery, abuse and endless drill in the remoteness of Bodmin didn’t dissuade him. He had even thought a career in the army might suit him. But his eventual posting to a cold and isolated northern barracks where the day to day work was escort duty for fissile ordnance, filled him with tedium as the two year term of service dragged on, and on. He had a generous allowance and never understood what it meant to survive on a conscript’s measly wage. His comrades appreciated his generosity but could never overcome their surprise of his naïvety about the way most people lived. At a time when the average national wage was around £15 a week, Jocelyn could call on £25 as an eighteen year old. He was fed up long before his two years was up.
Despite disillusion with the army, he did form a lifelong affection for motorcycles and bought himself a BSA Gold Star as soon as he got back to Civvy Street. In the autumn, he went up to Oxford but never even started to work. The whole of academia bored him. He pursued three months of socialising involving much drinking of beer, experimenting with substances and discovering women, all three to the point of obsession and all to the total loss of any hope of beginning his course work. As soon as he was twenty-one and had access to even greater funds, he disappeared from view. Gathering a passport and his motorcycle, he headed for the coast. At first, he travelled randomly, crossing Europe, heading into Iran. The bike was abandoned at the border with India where he took to trains and steamed across the sub continent. Eventually he boarded a listing cargo boat left by the British after the war and set sail across to Japan. The Japanese were inscrutable and strange but their country was alive, vital and energetically emerging from the chrysalis of defeat into an industrial power. From there he went to New Zealand and caught memories of snow capped mountains arising from the empty landscape. Along the way, he picked up and set down wayfaring companions. Later, in Baghdad, he met a Russian girl who stayed with him for months. She said she was a spy on the run. Maybe she was. He left her in Cairo. At Luxor on the Nile, a courier latched onto him and he spent long dreamy nights with his Egyptian princess under the stars. They made their way as far as Addis Ababa. He was stuck in Ethiopia for three months trying to get money and visas to move on. While the antiquated banking system struggled to dispense his cash he contracted some virulent sickness that left him a stone lighter and shaking for days as he lay in a mud built guest house. Through the long days, he heard local women singing as they went by and their voices stayed with him for a lifetime. Eventually, he got a passage on a ship through the Suez Canal and travelled the length of the Mediterranean in a hotch potch of leaky tramp steamers, many of them had been built on the Clyde and were left over from the first world war.
From Tobruk he went on a pilgrimage out into the desert to find the place where the Afrika Korps had taken his father prisoner, among many from 7th Armoured Division. It was there his father had died. But all he could find were some rusty hulks of burnt out tanks preserved half-buried in the desert sun beside the shell of an old concrete outpost.
“Hi, yea,” the old turbaned man said. “This here, they shoot the prisoners. They dig the graves in the sand, then they shoot. Many, many, bang, bang.”
Jocelyn stared dispassionately at the heat haze rising from the empty compound where the prison camp had been and turned aside, empty of feeling. It was a disappointment that lead him back to the road and searching.
In Tunis, he found a back street garage with a batch of tatty wartime bikes in their yard.
“I need a good bike to ride a long way,” he said in poor French to the young proprietor. “Across Africa,” he explained.
The man was about his age and Jocelyn sensed an enthusiasm for the proposed expedition. He took him round to a lock up behind the yard where there were half a dozen wooden crates.
“Special bikes. These are British, you like one of these?”
“Fell off a ship, I bet,” Jocelyn quipped and the young man’s face broke into a broad smile.
Lifting the lid revealed a brand new Matchless 41/G3L in desert livery, obviously intended for the army fifteen years earlier.
“Good journey, friend. I like to come too, but I stay. My wife is big with the baby.”
Jocelyn gave him a fair price and then pressed an extra 100 francs into his palm.
“For your baby.”
Jocelyn rode the Matchless the thousands of miles from Tunis to the Cape, a journey he later described as epic. Five thousand miles as the crow flies turned into nearly ten thousand along the dusty roads and dead end trails of a dozen countries as he headed forever south through the last days of empire. Two sets of tyres and with many a dent and adventure later he crossed an unmarked border into South Africa. The big country was self-possessed beyond any other he had discovered on his travels. After a series of wrong turnings one hot and stormy day, the bike’s much abused clutch finally gave out in Pretoria and the machine was left by the road side.
Jocelyn moved over to four wheels, even though he had never driven a car before. One day, driving through a torrential downpour he saw a black family hastening through deep muddy puddles on the edge of a township and stopped to give them a lift. The drenched mother with three children slid into the back of his rusty former taxi. It was the biggest mistake of his odyssey. He followed her directions into the dismal shanty town. Dropping off the woman, she invited him into her shack. It was little more than a hovel, but it was her home. They sat and shared a drink of cheap but warming brandy from his flask. Even the little ones each had a sip. There was small conversation, she had little English but they managed well enough. He stayed while the rain poured outside, hammering on the corrugated iron roof. He left her some money tucked in her bag before leaving. Driving off, he noticed a car load of young men parked up on the edge of the township. Later, he went to a bar in the white district. When he left, it was dark. There were several Afrikaner men hanging around his car, blocking his way.
“Scum bag, meester. Whoring blacks. No meester, you ain’t driving no place. You come with us, posh boy.”
They grabbed him, took his keys and threw him into the back of his car before driving him out to a patch of rough scrubby land a mile from town. There they beat him, kicked him, stole his money and left him with two broken ribs and a bleeding face. The car drove off at speed. Feeling faint and wracked with pain, Jocelyn crawled to a road where cars and trucks just drove past with their headlights blinding him. There he lay in a faint. Hours later, as the sun was rising, a woman in a car saw him and took him to a local doctor. It took six weeks for Jocelyn to get back on the road. Before he left that proud but shabby country, he went back to the woman’s shack, but it was derelict and he could only guess what might have happened to the family.
There was no reason to stay in Africa. He cashed a cheque, took a ship across on a stormy passage to Argentina, and drifted up into the pampas. But the wanderlust was coloured by his experience. He spent days alone in the high places and mountains, looking for a peace he couldn’t find. So the journey continued. Six months later, he was bribing his way out of a jail in Mexico. The two fat policemen took the last of his cash and his passport and told him it would cost him a $100 to get it back. The border guards wouldn’t let him into the States and he had no money; the local bank laughed when he wanted an international money transfer. He walked to the port and cajoled a Spanish steamer crew to let him stow on board and work his passage across to Liverpool. He spent ten days peeling vegetables, washing toilets, doing the laundry and cleaning the cabins before Northern Ireland hove into view one cool night. His journey around the world had taken three and a half years. It felt like an age to Jocelyn and it showed in his suntanned face and in his experienced blue eyes.
Getting back into Britain was hard work. Pallid faced customs men and grey suited officials searched him and questioned him. The concept of travelling for its own sake was not on their list of plausible excuses. Arriving penniless with little more than the clothes he wore seemed suspicious. Eventually, they phoned his mother and she had to pay a surety bond before they let him go. Even then, it was only the power of his surname that set him free. Walking out together, mother and son went to an hotel before returning home.
His stay at home only lasted two weeks before he was off again. The young would-be banker who hitched up the A5 to Wales was not the same former student who had left London in ’57.
It was late 1960 and Jocelyn spent the winter months living in a caravan in the corner of a remote farm that spread its ragged fields along the banks of a fast flowing river. It was freezing but delicious to stay in one place with no-one around and going nowhere, slowly. Between the magic mushrooms and the silence, he had found his first and only peace. In early ’61, he went home to see his mother again and announced he was going to work at the bank.
For six years, the maggots had worked at the still living corpse of the old firm unseen. J W Goldbury walked into his inheritance and his office for the first time on his twenty-fifth birthday. The bank occupied a slightly grubby stone edifice alongside the ruins of the old office. They had never rebuilt after the war but at least the site was now being cleared ready for a replica of the Palladian temple that had once been Goldburys.
The directors of Goldburys bank were always clear on one point: there is nothing that cannot be improved with the judicious application of money. So they were also of the opinion and had discussed at length, that not only could a youngster millionaire banker’s playboy grandson be easily bought, but he could be bought cheaply. They had planned accordingly and those plans were already well advanced when ‘JG’ turned up. For six years, they were the cats in charge of the ship. They had assumed power and were prepared to tolerate the boy for a short period, even to amuse themselves by engaging his vanity.
Directors Carter and Sonning were wily enough to understand the power of distraction, which was why they had employed a charming hostess to act the part of personal secretary to the new owner. For all they cared, and it would have been amusing, JG could elope with Christina. At twenty-four, she was old enough to take control but young enough to appeal, and she was very appealing, lithe and lively. Her CV was more entertainment than office and they had thoughtfully provided an entertainment budget. Her task was to keep JG out of the way and at all costs diverted from the business. They had rightly assumed he had no knowledge of offices or office procedure. They felt it incumbent upon them to let him discover that the owner of a bank could gain endless enjoyment and have a really good time without ever having to understand anything about business, preferably not to waste time in the stuffy offices at all.
JG might have been young and he might have dropped out of Oxford, but he was no fool and to the horror of his new colleagues, it soon became clear he really did mean to run the bank. On the first day in the office, he saw no-one but the private secretary allocated to him. JG was bright, sharp, confident and very handsome. His years on the road had left him tanned and given him a rugged air of self sufficiency, not at all what his new colleagues had expected. It was he who charmed Christina with his good looks, frank countenance and powerful experience. She knew that the directors were employing her body, not her mind and had completely overlooked the possibility of her gorgeous head enclosing any wisdom (being too busy looking at the body they had bought). She had been happy to flirt just enough with the fifty something, overweight Carter, investments director, to get the job with generous emoluments. She was happy to give him a knowing smile each time she saw him to keep him sweet. She was happy to remember that she had seen him frequenting a private men’s club where the bedrooms were more commonly used than the smoking room. She was happy enough to take a trip down to Surrey to accidentally bump into his quiet, neglected wife and introduce herself with an innocent air. By the end of her second day she was already a double agent and complicit.
Christina could charm anything out of any man with a coy smile and a light touch of her elegant hand upon a jacket sleeve. Heads turned as she curved her way deliciously through the office. She turned the animosity and jealousy of less desirable secretaries to admiration with tactfully placed compliments, sisterly friendship and carefully tempered anti-management rhetoric. And since the word had been put about to assist her endeavours, the grey haired clerks and plain Jane secretaries were eager to win favour by providing files and insider knowledge, their only currency being the flotsam and jetsam scumming across the tide of untouchable gold.
Together, JG and Christina looked through the bank’s affairs and did not like what they found. Their ignorance and naïvety only heightened their wariness and they insisted on seeing all the accounts. Over the next few days they delved through the establishment but found too much shaky investment in titled family firms, too little funds, too many directors with too many perks and unwarranted off-account remuneration, a profusion of staff with obscure job titles and uncertain purpose, a portfolio of property and many quality assets all let too low to friends of the firm and bringing in next to nothing. What they saw, or were quickly convinced they saw, were the feather lined nests of indolent hangers on accrued through favour and design over half a dozen generations. JG also received a note from the board making him a ‘very favourable’ offer for his shares.
Meanwhile, the directors were delighted that he spent hours in the company of his new personal secretary. Reports of their evening entertainments were fed back. Late evening meals at Soho eating houses, perhaps not very expensive, but very chic nevertheless, were greeted with hoots. Reports of long hours spent together back at JG’s new London flat were as delicious as they were salacious. By the time the four key directors shared a drink on Friday evening, they were toasting the success of their plans. Carter bought a meal for his fellow conspirators Sonning, Hoskin and Jeffrey.
“One week in and already in his bed. Good work, my pretty girl,” said Carter pouring another glass of a very fine Chablis.
“Wish it was my bed,” murmured Jeffrey. “Some fellas have all the luck.”
“Here’s to the charms of our feline friend and her playful mouse!”
“Here, here,” they guffawed, glasses raised.
During his second week, Jocelyn received all the directors and senior staff individually and quickly saw them sizing him up. He remained polite, impassive, neutral and played the part of ignorance and naïve youth while noting every comment before meekly asking their advice. He presented a quiet and disinterested young man. Trying hard, he averted his brilliant eyes, and spoke to the walls while they played their alpha male roles. They painted a picture of a small, old fashioned bank with little to interest anyone outside.
“All rather boring really, don’t you know,” said Jeffrey who looked after the ‘personal’ accounts. “These customers are all half dead and living in draughty castles, bit of a liability really. Mortgaged to the hilt of course.”
“Just ask, if you need anything. Of course I do understand it must be a little confusing at first, but so happy to advise,” patronised Carter.
“It’s a bit tough at the moment. The old firm’s not worth much in today’s market,” opined Sonning.
“Here’s a tip, lad,” Hoskin winked, “Take the money and run while there still is some. Certainly what I would do if I could.”
‘At least,’ thought JG, ‘one of them is telling some kind of truth.’
Before the week was out, JG knew very well that behind his back they were laughing and referred to him as ‘easy meat’ or ‘the mouse’ or ‘grandpa’s baby’. One of the secretaries had let slip to Christina that JG was ‘only going to be here a few weeks as he wasn’t a real banker’. He distrusted them all, remembering the words of his mother after the will was read:
“I wish to God your father had lived to sort them out. The old man’s lost it completely. If your father had taken it on, he would’ve shaken up the damn bank until all the fleas and leeches fell out.”
“Well, we’ll settle a few scores for you, mother dear,” he had murmured.
None of these people could help him, so he took to walking through the offices and chatting to his employees. It was the first time any of them could remember a top floor man speaking to them, let alone listening. So JG charmed the clerks and secretaries while slightly unnerving the middle managers who were used to abusing their young recruits. All the time he was looking for someone, he didn’t know whom. He couldn’t act on his own, he needed allies, and in Robinson he found one.
Robinson’s tired and creased suits hung across his frame leaving the impression that he was little more than a skeleton underneath. Living alone, he desperately needed someone to mother him and wash his lanky hair, replace the holey socks and polish the dull grubby shoes. He wore ties cast off by his schoolteacher father and did not fit even an old fashioned bank like Goldburys. The office girls smirked at him and exchanged knowing glances that said ‘bet he’s a virgin’ as he went by. On Fridays, he wore a sports jacket and threadbare cords, because that’s what his father did.
Robinson was only two years older than JG and had joined the bank with a first in maths from Cambridge (the old firm was very particular about where their staff came from). Robinson had quickly grasped the bizarre, imaginary world of city finance and he drew a picture of the bank, which reflected JG’s own views. He was openly critical of the bank’s lack of direction and had gained an obvious knowledge of the inner workings of the firm’s finances. He knew all about the numerous companies, subsidiaries and associated firms that had been set up over the last hundred years. This complicated tapestry was a subterfuge to hide the real value and assets of the bank. Robinson looked beyond the picture everyone saw and into the warp and weft where he perceived a very different image. Robinson was convinced that all was not well in the dusty cellars of the old firm. His quick mind found sums that no longer added up, inventories of impossible assets lost in time. Some of these tombs had been raided by directors past and present leaving little more than memories of skeletons. But there was one dark and dusty door which no-one seemed meant to see.
“Are you sure about this guy?” asked Christina after Robinson left their office the first time. “He’s a bit of a wimp. I mean he wears tweed jackets for god’s sake.”
“Ah yes, but it is Harris Tweed. That shows a bit of discernment you know. Trust me; he knows what we want to know. Maybe not yet, but he will.”
At their next meeting, Robinson gave a clumsy sideways look at Christina’s short skirt as he sat down and an even clumsier smirk in answer to her shining smile. She immediately embarrassed him by sitting on the edge of the desk opposite and carefully crossing her bare legs.
“It’s about the books you see,” he began, the sweat prickling his brow. “They don’t conform to best practice, at least not always. I, I think they, they need careful attention. Then there’s Pharaoh.”
Jocelyn sensed this was the moment and nodded at Christina.
“Go on. Pharaoh, why and what is Pharaoh?”
Robinson told JG about the one account that he had divined by deduction, by what wasn’t there, hidden beneath elaborately patched ledger entries, a mere sub-code in the text of an auditor’s opinion. This special account did not contain any money. It only housed one asset. The account had the code name ‘Pharaoh’ and lived a separate life in a subsidiary of a subsidiary. There was a building, a property in the country worth exactly one pound and apparently, it belonged to JG, not the bank. Christina found the title documents and they confirmed that the property had belonged to JG’s grandfather. That was all, but there had to be a reason to keep it so well protected and hidden.
It took a while to find Dedmere Court. Robinson, Christina and JG drove down to the damp, bracken filled Dedmere Vale in rural Hampshire. They stopped for lunch at the Dedmere Arms. There were a handful of locals in the sparse bar.
“We’re looking for Dedmere Court. I figure it must be somewhere near?”
The publican laughed, “Aye. I thought so. Popular place this last couple of months.”
“How do you mean?”
“Men in suits and fancy cars is how I mean. Happen to be friends of yours but I doubt it. Business men with a liking for whisky and asking for fancy wine we ain’t never heard of. You wanna watch yerself up there, young lady, you know.”
“Why, so?” asked Christina.
“They say the old hammer pond contains the body of a girl. It was the last daughter of the house. They say she was sent mad by her lover and drowned herself in the pond. He was an artist and it’s reckoned he painted her to death. Pretty bizarre, but there’s no doubt it’s a strange place. That’s what made the family leave just before the Great War. After she died they couldn’t stand the memory of her, kind of haunted them.”
The young would-be bankers left their car at the pub, were directed up the lane, and across the gorse covered heath into a gloomy, damp valley where they came to a high, strong wall. It was old but had recently been repaired. A pair of nondescript, green painted, solid wood and well padlocked gates denied access. It seemed to be the only entrance. The dark brick wall was about eight feet high and had a broken glass coping. There was no name, but this had to be the place.
“Well, I guess I’m allowed in my own place,” said JG eyeing up a tree near to a corner of the wall. “Give us a leg up.”
He climbed up into the tree and could see over into the old garden.
“Okay, I’m going to have a go at this.”
With the others looking on, JG balanced on the branch and by carefully squatting down was able to drop down the other side. A few minutes later the top of an old ladder appeared at the gate and then JG’s smiling head. Another couple of minutes and he threw a rope over.
Christina pulled off her shoes, threw them over the gate and dexterously climbed up to the top where JG helped her on to the ladder. Robinson watched Christina with a mixture of jealousy at her fearless athleticism and fascination for her supple attractiveness. He took the rope in his hands and tried to pull himself up but ended up dangling stupidly while Christina tried not to laugh. After another false start, he took a deep breath, surprised himself by scaling the gate, and found himself being supported by Christina.
“Oh, Robinson, honestly. I thought all you guys had done this stuff in the army?”
“Never did national service. Army wouldn’t have me because of the TB.”
“You had TB?”
“Well, not really, but my father had it and I had some scars on the lungs.”
Finally on the ground, they removed the rope and ladder. Ahead of them, a lengthy driveway descended the valley and half hidden behind the high laurels and firs, they glimpsed a massive, grey house. The gardens close to the house were maintained but not with care. Everywhere was dank, cold and sodden in the confines of the steep valley. A brackish stream ran down below the driveway and plunged into a culvert beneath the gravel in front of the old house.
The house was built on a plinth cut out and levelled in the valley. Behind the house, they could see the remains of several old ponds dropping away. The house would once have enjoyed an excellent prospect across the old hammer ponds to the south where the valley widened. In the distance lay the grey hint of further hills beyond. But the view was obscured by overgrown laurels and woodland.
“Well, I guess that’s where she drowned,” mused Christina as she looked at the dark, brown stained water of the ponds reflecting the heavy grey sky.
The house had grey rendered walls. The windows were all blank with peeling pale green shutters pulled across the inside. The oak doors fitted well. The whole aspect was forbidding.
“Do we go in? What do you think?” asked JG.
“Got to, but not here. Try that little door round the side. I reckon that goes down to some cellar,” replied Christina.
JG put down the haversack he had carried on his back and got out a crow bar. It took a bit of effort to break in and the noise of the rending wood seemed too loud.
“I don’t know why we feel like burglars,” said JG, watching the faces of the others.
“But we do. Almost exciting. A touch of the Enid Blyton’s!” Christina whispered with flashing eyes while Robinson’s pale face looked on in disapproving but fascinated silence.
Before they went on down the stairs into the blackness, they wedged the door open from the inside. Torches to the fore, they advanced into the cellar. The smell of heating oil and coal dust filled the air. The walls were grimy and the bare joists above their heads were drenched with thick dusty cobwebs. The floor was covered in old boxes, bits of rusty ironmongery, indefinable grey wood and a large number of empty bottles.
The cellar was extensive and most of it was the same, undisturbed for decades. The far wall was dripping and covered in sodden moss. Immediately in front of it, the stream ran through a deep brick channel to the other end of the cellar. At one end, close to where brick stairs ascended to the main house, they came to a locked door, which had clearly been opened recently.
They could not force the door, it was an old strong room door set in an iron frame.
“Well, we can leave that ’til later, I guess. Let’s take a look upstairs.”
So saying, Jocelyn led them up. The door into the house was also locked but they forced that easily, if noisily. They found themselves in a large old kitchen. It looked like it hadn’t changed since before the war. Everything was dusty and there were footprints, recent footprints by the look of them, across the dirty quarry tiled floor.
The darkened rooms were all empty except for a few sticks of furniture. There was an air of cold and damp.
“This does not look like what I was expecting. Are you sure we are going to find anything here, Robinson?” asked JG.
“Something’s either here, or been here.”
“These rooms have been empty for years.”
“Maybe we’re looking for the wrong kind of something,” suggested Christina. “I wouldn’t leave anything in this place, unguarded, remote. Either it’s in that safe or we’re looking for the wrong stuff.”
“Well, what does your woman’s intuition suggest?”
“I think we should let someone else show us where to look. There’s a telephone in the hall. Let’s phone up Carter and tell him someone’s breaking in here and see what happens.”
So Christina called up Carter and put on a country voice.
“Thought you oughta know. Someone’s breaking in t’ Dedmere Court. Never mind ’ow I know. They’re smashing at the winders. Flash young bloke an’ his girl.”
“Now we go round the front and break a couple of ‘winders’.”
There was a long run of rhododendron near the gate that offered excellent cover. It was a long and weary wait, not helped by the intermittent rain. By five o’clock, it was getting dark and cold. Just as they were thinking of giving up, a car drew up outside. The lights shone through the gap under the gates.
A minute later and the grey Jaguar pulled slowly into the driveway, switched off the ignition and just waited. A few minutes later, another car drew up. Several dark suited men got out and went up to the house, looking for broken windows, then gingerly tried the doors. They unlocked the front door and went inside; there were four of them.
“Okay,” whispered Christina, “time to sleuth. Not on the driveway, on the grass.”
She ran stealthily through the twilight around the house until she could see a room with lights. It was the kitchen. Men’s voices, too indistinct to hear any words, drifted into the wet night. She went down into the cellar. It was pitch black but as she reached the bottom of the stairs, she heard the voices getting louder. They were coming down the stairs from the house. Christina squatted down behind an old water tank, heart beating fast. Suddenly a light went on. She saw two men go to the locked door. Carter was there and he looked around but did not see anything to disturb him. He reached up above the door to a shelf and took down a grey wooden box. From inside it he took a key and opened the door. They went in and then came out, locking up and replacing the key in the box.
“Just kids, I expect. Not been in here. Nothing to worry about. We shouldn’t have been so jumpy. But we do need to move this stuff. That stupid boy makes me uneasy.”
“Where’s he now? Couldn’t be him, the little rat, I s’pose?”
“No, sexy Christina’s entertaining him today. Best idea we had, that girl.”
Five minutes later, JG, Robinson and Christina watched the men lock up and leave.
Five minutes after that they were in the cellar and opening the door. It was a walk-in butler’s safe lined with shelves and drawers. They were tantalising, blank, suggestive and JG started randomly pulling open drawers.
“Let’s be logical about this,” said Robinson. “Start at top left and go through one by one. We don’t move anything but I’ll make a note of anything we find,” and he took out a pocket book. “If I’m right, it won’t be what you think it is.”
So they started. There were forty-eight small drawers but only the last two had anything in. They both had ledger books, one old and one new. In the old book was a complete listing of an art gallery full of objects. There were assets worth a fortune: blue john vases, porcelain, sketches, pastels, oils, and a great deal of jewellery and statuary, all the regalia of a great estate. Each one was itemised and each item had a code number. The cover had one word on it ‘Pharaoh’.
“Well, this is the first part of the puzzle anyway,” said JG quietly. “We do need to take this with us, but there must be another part to this.”
The second book had columns of numbers but they did not seem to mean anything.
“Robinson, I think this is one for you.”
Old boxes lined the shelves. Of the twenty-four boxes, only two contained information. One was a filing box with certificates and legal documents, presumably relating to ‘Pharaoh’. The second had six boxes of professionally taken black and white photos of the collection.
“Some of this stuff is exquisite,” said Christina, looking at photos of jewellery. “But I think…” and then she stopped.
“Think what?” asked JG.
“Well, take a look, what do you notice?”
“Looks pretty classical stuff, but I don’t know much about art.”
“Oh, well. Perhaps it’s just me,” and she put the photos back. “So do we take it or leave it?”
“We take it,” said Jocelyn without doubt. “This is the key and it is time to put an end to all this conspiracy stuff. I feel like I’m in a cheap whodunit. But tonight we only need to take the two books with the numbers; we’ll come back for the rest in the morning when we can take possession of this property.”
On Sunday, they all returned but this time armed with tools, bolt cutters, drills, locks and hasps. After an hour of breaking and entering, they had obtained the contents of the safe, secured all the doors and the gates with new heavy duty padlocks. They drove back to the pub and enjoyed venison sausages with chips and beer.
“Been back to the big house, have yer?” asked the landlord.
“Yes,” replied JG, “Apparently I’ve inherited it and I wanted to have a look at it, decide what to do with it.”
“Knock it down, mate, I would,” he said.
“Yes, maybe. There’s nothing there and it’s all a bit dismal.”
“Scotch drinkers came by last night. Wanted to know if I’d heard anything going up the lane. Told ’em ‘no’. Trust I did right?”
“I trust you did indeed. Can I get you something for yourself?”
On Monday, Robinson was missing from the office and Jocelyn began to feel unsettled. Then a message came through at lunch time for Christina.
“It’s Robinson. Wants me to meet him at King’s Cross in half an hour. He says you aren’t to come,” she put the phone down. “He sounded a bit nervous or excited.”
“Well, you must go, but keep your wits about you.”
Christina met Robinson in the booking hall. He looked ragged with tiredness but luminous with excitement.
“Follow me, I think I’ve got it,” he said.
“Got what? What is this?”
“You have come alone, haven’t you?”
“Yes, of course, but what’s the secrecy?”
“No secrets but someone keeps an eye on you, don’t they? So we have to give them the slip.”
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”
They spent the next hour going from tube to taxi to tube and back, finishing up at Waterloo, caught the ‘drain’ back to Bank and then phoned Jocelyn to meet them at King’s Cross, got in a taxi and took it to the front door of Goldburys and waited for Jocelyn to emerge and got him into their taxi before going to Waterloo and catching a train back into Hampshire.
“It’s all here, in this book of numbers. I spent all night looking for some complex cipher but actually, it’s so simple, it’s stupid. I could have kicked myself. I made the mistake of thinking we were dealing with some sort of grand conspiracy. You just need to put the column headings in and it all makes sense. Now we can check a couple of the entries and make sure it works,” Robinson was glowing.
“You see these two figures are grid references which is why some of them are the same. All these objects, on this page, will be found in the same place. These numbers are reference numbers, which relate back to the first book. They don’t include the number, you need to have both books to do it; that is why the two books should never be kept together, that was really dumb of someone. See, this one is page six, line twelve. So the item on page six line twelve, which is a decorated marine chronometer, can be found at...” Robinson unfolded a new Ordnance Survey map. “A quick look at the map tells us that it is about here. My guess is there are deposit boxes at that location. In any event, this other number has both letters and numbers, and appears to be a reference. All we have to do is collect from the box.”
“But don’t we have to prove our identity?” asked Christina.
“Maybe, but let’s just see what we find first.”
What they found was a removal firm depository housed in a disused Victorian hill fort. A few enquiries in the town and a visit to London to find a further box of deposit certificates in Goldburys’ safe vault gave them access.
So by Tuesday JG had the details he needed to take control of Pharaoh and of Goldburys. In return, he promised Robinson a good future with the firm, one day. They spent the rest of the week going through the books in JG’s office. There was a slight intensity and nervousness between them. They felt young, insignificant amid the City grandeur, but they also felt the power of discovery and the subtle thrill of subversion. They could not quite keep their emotions hidden. Whenever they walked through the offices, there was a tangible air of fear and suspicion among some of the staff. JG even changed the lock on his office door; he felt sure someone was trying to trace his trail through the books.
“Too much paranoia in this office,” he muttered as he fitted the screws.
At the end of the week, JG asked the company secretary to furnish him with information relating to all the bank’s assets including the Pharaoh account. He already had that information but he wanted to test trust. When the secretary failed to produce it following a dozen excuses and delays, he fired him on the spot and appointed Robinson. Robinson had a friend who had studied company law and they spent another week going through the intricate web of agreements and companies that was Goldburys.
That weekend ‘Pharaoh’ was collected from a dozen locations in the Home Counties and moved to a new secure vault in an old tunnel beneath the City. Many other assets were isolated and protected on paper. Out in the office there were nervous smiles as instructions were issued. JG realised that by then others would be aware that he was moving assets around but he decided to let them sweat and see who shouted first. But no-one did, which only made him more suspicious.
Back at his flat, Christina made JG take another look at the ‘Pharaoh’ photos.
“Now don’t tell me you don’t see something odd about this lot. Something very particular?” she asked.
“It’s of a type. In fact, you could say some of this is quite physical.”
“Oh, come on JG, some of this stuff is downright disgusting. It’s more porn than art.”
“Well, I wasn’t going to mention it in the presence of a lady, such as yourself, but you couldn’t stick some of these things in a gallery. When it’s masquerading as art and worth a lot of money I believe pornography is called erotica, by the way.”