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Nuwe skryfwerk | New writing > Fiksie | Fiction > English > Published authors

The Third Earl - I


Richard Jurgens - 2010-06-25

“A storm had gathered at the borders of the garden. Giant blue stick men stalked stiffly among the dense clouds on the horizon, stooping here and there to aim lightning bolts at street lamps, roofs, trees. With each step they drew nearer.

“Inside the imposing Victorian villa lurked a boy. He was in the library overlooking the lawn, staring wordlessly at the gathering darkness. Rain was beating against the leaded casements. All around him the old house groaned under the weight of the wind.

“At one point it was as if the library was lit by a series of massive camera flashes: the long ranks of old books along the far wall, the long table with its high-backed chairs, the circle of leather armchairs and sofas around the hearth, the shadowed niches in the walls with their pieces of Ming Dynasty china and Modernist sculpture. Many a controversial editorial campaign had been planned here, many a confidential mediation conducted. It was a Room of Power.

“He was wearing flannels which were rather too short, a white shirt, rumpled and half-tucked, and a tight blue blazer. He was aware that he looked like Tweedledum, probably, but he didn’t care. He looked at the storm gathering its forces like an army outside as if at a welcome conqueror. Maybe they would merge in one great flash of thunder and destroy this house.

“Detecting the sharp note of a voice coming down the corridor over the howling of the wind he ducked under the long table. The eerie note drew nearer. From his vantage below the table he saw the double doors swing open and the lower part of a heavy black dress move into the room.

“With chilling certainty, as if following a scent, the dress moved to the great bay window. A crack of lightning revealed its owner in stark black silhouette against the leaded panes. The old woman, lacking only a jagged broomstick, turned sharply, as if sensing the boy’s presence. She began to tiptoe around the room, hideously warbling, ‘Come out, come out, wherever you are!’

“Under the shadow of his father’s table, the boy’s heart quaked in his chest.

“‘Got you, you little horror!’

“A hand reached in and pulled him kicking and struggling into the room. Still holding on to him, the old woman flicked a light-switch. The over-plump schoolboy and the crone with the growth on her chin were confronted with each other in the sudden light.

“‘What are you doing in the library?’ said Miss Warlocke. ‘You know you’re not allowed to be here while your father is away.’

“‘It’s my house, and I can be where I like,’ the boy replied. ‘Don’t get your knickers in a twist.’

“‘You awful little boy,’ said Miss Warlocke. ‘So uncouth!’

“In a trice the boy’s face was pressed sharply into the long table. The old woman was strangely powerful. The cane cut rhythmically into the tight seat of his trousers. He was aware of the pain, but it was far away, as if someone else’s. Outside, the storm settled into steady, heavy rain.

“‘I’ll soon wake up, and you’ll be gone!’ he shouted.”

                                                          *

Hilton Ellis closed the notebook. It was a relief to get a dream down in writing; that way you could forget about it.

He considered his situation. At this moment, he was comfortably ensconced in his room at the B&B he’d booked for the weekend. He was, in fact, in the scenic Somerset village of Bishops Wood. The village consisted of a neat old high street dotted with ancient stone shops and a few rambling streets of houses, some thatched, some with quaint little leaded windows. His window overlooked a green and a solid nineteenth-century pub, the Britannia. A squat grey old Norman church at the centre of the village watched over its parish of quaint houses like an Alsatian guarding a herd of sheep, and the grey turrets of an ancient castle loomed over the trees on the steep hillside above.

It was like a scene out of Arthur Ransome, maybe, or Enid Blyton – only, inevitably, the real world was invading. The evidence of it was everywhere. The sleek neon logo of the garage at the end of the high street, the tobacconist offering internet services, the trendy little gallery with brightly coloured installation art, the polished town cars jostling with the muddy tractors that thumped through the Saturday afternoon traffic.

From the table at the window he had a fine view of the village green, the pub, the thatched roofs beyond beneath their canopy of green leaves. The afternoon traffic had vanished. A steady quiet was settling with the early dusk. A solitary man was walking a blond Labrador on the green, and a Union Jack was flying from a pole above the entrance to the Britannia. It lent an oddly imperialist note to the scene, as if at any moment the ghost of Kitchener might appear to press-gang recruits for another Great War.

Village life. No doubt every summer Saturday ended in this soft gloaming.

Oh for a quiet existence – with a private income. But as things stood, Hilton had a performance tonight, and he liked to arrive at the venue early. He liked to sit in the punters’ seats, or to pace the room if there were no seats, before he gave a performance. He liked to speak a few words at different volumes to test his voice against the acoustics. He was quite superstitious about it. A show could be still-born without the necessary reconnaissance.

He’d made all this clear before Sparks had headed for the Britannia; and he’d promised to be back in time for a leisurely departure. Now the clock was ticking and he’d still not returned. Hilton wondered if he’d have to cross the village green, like a neglected wife.

He thought about it seriously for a moment and then rejected the idea. They’d grown up on opposite sides of the railway line back in the Republic. Without the foundation of a shared past, their friendship didn’t extend as far as recrimination. All they had in common was the present.

He caught a glimpse of little red travel clock which he had placed beside his bed, and was immediately reminded of his impending performance. Still no Sparks. To divert himself, he opened the notebook again. It was one of those publisher’s dummies – a plain, hard-backed octavo volume very practical for any sort of mobile work, and cheaper than the fashionable Moleskine. He’d filled a lot of them over the years. Several shelves groaned under the weight of the memories they contained back in his flat in Amsterdam.

He’d decided on a programme of fables, rather than the cynical real-world stories he usually told. It was a wedding, after all. He’d gone through an animal story phase some years ago. Aesop, De la Fontaine, Credo Mutwa … He thought he’d begin by telling the story of how a wild dog fell briefly in love with a hare.

Wild Dog one day had gone out hunting
hungry for a morsel of fine bunny
when in the shadows of the thorn tree
he spied a real honey …

There was a knock the door. Caught mid-psychic gear change, in the difficult transition from reality to imagination, Hilton was mightily annoyed. It would be Sparks, of course, returning from his merry digression in the pub.

“Come in!” he bellowed, startled to hear how much like his father he sounded.

“Oh dear, I’m sorry, am I disturbing?” Mrs Watson, the owner of the Mad Hatter, appeared round the door.

The first thing he’d do when he got home, Hilton decided, would be to have a large sign made that he could hang on door handles whenever necessary. DRAGON AT WORK, it would say, DO NOT DISTURB. He stood up, dislodging the notebook, which fell on to the floor.

“I wondered if you would care for some tea,” Mrs Watson continued. “Oh dear, let me get that.”

She picked up the notebook and handed it to him. She was a slender, harassed woman with prematurely white hair who prided herself on her use of organic products. She had given her guests a description of the impeccably local provenance of all her soaps, oils, fish, meat and vegetables. In his bath, earlier, Hilton had savoured the scents of her hand-made lavender soap and bath oil of flowers-of-the-field. And dreamed of Miss Warlocke.

He explained that they were about to go out.

“I don’t know about that,” said his hostess, idly straightening a pillow on his bed as she searched the room for other imperfections. “From what I hear, your gentleman friend’s having a high old time over at the Britannia.”

                                                          *

The plan, the day before, had been to take the ferry, enjoy a leisurely drive across the island, check into the B&B, then take a meal in some local restaurant and get to bed early. But they had run into a storm on the Essex highway after crossing the Channel, and by the time they had passed the enormous orange smudge of London and got into the West Country it was dark. The following afternoon they were still driving, having spent the night in a lay-by.

Hilton’s vision of a leisurely journey had long since flown out of the window. Sparks, it turned out, wasn’t as proficient at map-reading as they’d both thought. Although it was, possibly, quite difficult to drive and navigate at the same time – Hilton gave him that. Still, an unpleasant tension hung in the car. The question now was whether they’d make it to the church on time.

The lanes, lined on both sides by high trees, were like shady tunnels. He caught flashes of meadows, orchards, manses, cottages, church towers, power lines. At last, fleetingly, he thought he glimpsed the long-sought name on one of those antiquated country road signs like quaint props from a TV series. “That’s it,” he said. “Go back!’

Sparks slammed on anchors and reversed back down the lane. Hilton’s head swirled. There was an urgent hooting behind them. A car was approaching through the dappled shadows. Sparks was studying the rear-view mirror, but apparently he hadn’t seen the other car. Hilton put his hands to his ears. The back end of their hired car reversed into the elegant front end of the approaching German limousine. Glass crunched, metal groaned.

They stalled by a wooden gate that led to a green meadow sprinkled with yellow flowers. A large brown cow with a numbered tag in its ear was standing at the gate as if it had been expecting them. The early afternoon was golden in the sudden stillness.

Hilton wound down his window. They listened to the ticking of the hot engine. Behind them a car door slammed.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

A man in a smart morning coat appeared at the driver’s window, his hands on his hips. Behind him, at her gate, the cow considered the exchange with astonishment, tilting her head to one side like a country yokel.

Hilton leaned over. “Sorry,” he said. “We’re late for a wedding.”

The man leaned an elbow on the car. “Then you’ll want to turn right and follow the lane up the hill.”

“Excuse me?” said Sparks.

“For God’s sake,” said the man.

It was Jeremy. There was a round of handshaking.

“Thank god we ran into you,” Hilton said.

“You certainly did that,” Jeremy said, ruefully inspecting the damage to his car.

“Sorry, brother,” Sparks said. He held out his half-jack of whisky.

Jeremy looked at the bottle. “Don’t mind if I do.” He tipped the bottle in salute at each of them, and then at the cow.

The cow swung its head in disapproval and turned back to its golden meadow.

*

They had followed Jeremy’s bent Mercedes up the lane to a village. A crowd of family and friends were waiting. Suits, morning coats, satin dresses, bouquets in the bright June sunshine. Despite the heavy, soldierly aspect of the solid Norman church it made a happy scene.

“You’re cutting it fine,” one of the younger men said. His morning coat and worried manner suggested that he was the best man. “Your better half will be arriving any moment.” He caught sight of the mangled front end of Jeremy’s car. “Fuck me!”

“I ran into some friends,” said Jeremy.

“Looks like they ran into you,” said his friend. “You can’t let Bella see that. She’ll take it as a bad sign. Give me the keys, I’ll move it.” He got into the damaged car and reversed it back down the lane.

Jeremy introduced Hilton and Sparks to a throng of people standing on the steps that led up to the arched door. Hilton had an impression of well-scrubbed middle-class faces, but he wasn’t ready for names. His underwear was releasing its stranglehold on his scrotum. He repressed an impulse to scratch.

A verger, womanishly white-skirted in recognition of the happy occasion, shooed everyone into an atmosphere of cool and musty stone. It had been a long time since Hilton had been in a church. He had attended an expensive Wasp boarding school during one stage of his upbringing back in the Republic. From his point of view that school hadn’t been a success. “Boy, it’s all education,” his father had said in his grand dismissive way. But of course it hadn’t been his father who’d done the learning.

He and Sparks took a pew at the back, to be out of the way. The church of St Julian the Compassionate had been consecrated in the year 1086, he was informed by a pamphlet that accompanied the order of service. It had been donated by a cousin of William the Conqueror in penance for murdering his wife and her lover. Faded, moth-eaten regimental banners hung along one wall like the standards of long-defunct legions. Visitors to the church were invited to make donations to the upkeep.

Christianity up close and personal seemed quite pagan, Hilton thought. St Julian was patron of fiddlers, hotel-keepers, hunters, jugglers, knights, travellers, wandering musicians – and murderers. Even killers had a saint up there in heaven to look after them ...

“Hey,” Sparks said, jogging him sharply with an elbow.

Hilton started. Had he missed something? Indeed. The congregation – well-heeled bankers, doctors, accountants, no doubt, their wives in stylish hats and dresses, their children in Laura Ashley outfits – were already filing out, smiling and making jokes. The organist was playing a version of “When I’m Sixty-Four” that sounded like a barrel organ tune.

“What happened?”

“The wedding, it’s over, my bra,” Sparks said, as he drained the last of his half-jack.

All of which proved one thing: bringing a friend on a job confused things. Sparks was looking at him as if it had been perfectly normal to let him sleep through a wedding.

“Hey, you were tired, comrade,” said Sparks.

Ultimately, Hilton knew that all this had really been his own fault. He had broken the single most important hitman’s principle: work on your own. Fellow travellers only tied you down. You had to make allowances for them. Worse still, you had to rely on them.