Thanks to my rather ascetic scholarly ways I am accustomed to starting the day while half the world is still a-bed, but this morning I am awake far earlier than I intended. After the events of last night I am unsurprised that my sleep was so fitful, but it was the sound of tiny animals scrabbling among the eaves that finally woke me. I have dim memories of such noises repeatedly disturbing me during the night. As the sun laboured into the sky I finally abandoned my bed and made my way stealthily down through the tight, creaking stairway to the kitchen. I put on the kettle for a fresh pot of tea.
Overnight, to my disgust, the milk had gone off. Its stench turned my stomach.
I drank my tea black. It was bitter stuff. A spoonful of honey made it more palatable.
My first thoughts were, as always, of the translation on which I am working, but as I had left my notes in my luggage and did not fancy stirring from the armchair that looked out over the puddled driveway and into a sodden orchard, I fell to pondering what must have befallen Sprake after we left him at the pub last night.
As with Charteris, I knew Sprake from my undergraduate days at the University of M––––––. An archeologist by training, he had always seemed to take his ancient Anglo-Saxon name – with its connotations of agility and liveliness – quite seriously, devoting considerable energy to carousing in low houses and pursuing women of questionable virtue. As a postgraduate he had developed a more sober persona, and his subsequent academic career saw him metamorphose into something of a ladies’ man, bedding a succession of female students with a discretion that I did not expect. There had been a sudden marriage to a Classics scholar from another university, and within a year he had with equal abruptness found himself a widower. I was not clear how she had died. There was talk of a wasting illness, a lengthy confinement. That was some years ago. I had not attended the funeral and when he returned to the cottage with the others there was no private moment in which to express my belated condolences. The opportunity passed, but I knew at some point I would mutter something awkward that would make us both uncomfortable. There had been a definite decline in the quality of his work since her death, and there was plentiful gossip about his rather unconvincing sexual renaissance as a tweedy, balding lothario.
After a peremptory dinner of bread and cheese, some small tart apples and a rather dry fruitcake purchased at the neighbouring farm, I accompanied Charteris, Sprake and the others through the rain, which was heavier now, into the leaden heart of the village.
Lower Wirklesworth is hidden away low in an odd fold of land. It clings to the banks of a small river prone to flooding when the encircling moorland is sodden, and climbs unsteadily up the steep hills on either side. Like all such villages, it is presided over by a church built on a site whose links to Christian worship can be traced back more than a millennium. Deposited heavily among the higgledy-piggledy houses are several stolid lumps of Victorian civic architecture – a town hall, a school, meeting rooms – provided by the philanthropy of an eminent industrialist who made his fortune from the exploitation of local workers, lured off their failing farms to be indentured, more or less, into his pits and quarries, mills and factories. There used to be a pub on each of the three sides of the triangular marketplace, but only one remains in business. Long and low, it rather resembles a barrow. On entering the dim public bar, I half expected to find the funereal accoutrements and cursed treasure of an ancient king from some race that walked these lands before the coming of Rome.
While the others supped brimming foamy tankards of a local ale, I contented myself with a half-pint of port stout, relishing its slightly bitter tang. They chattered on about this and that, but as if by common consent there was something about which my companions clearly avoided talking. Something they had decided to keep from me, at least for now. I had anticipated this so it did not trouble me greatly. Charteris had obviously invited me here with a purpose in mind. He had unearthed something requiring my expertise, of that I was certain.
Soon Sprake’s attention was drawn to the barmaid, and he began to spend as much time propping up the bar as sitting with us. She had a pallid complexion, and I felt sure that in the barroom’s peculiar light he, up so close, would not be able to discern its rather jaundiced tinge.
Over my second drink, I fell to observing the locals. There was something unappetising about them. Blocky features seemed to blur together, and recur from face to face. Something in their heavy brows hinted at abnormality. They rarely blinked. Their milky eyes indicated a shared, generations-deep imbecility. The village’s isolation and limited gene pool, reaching back through meaningless and obscure centuries divorced from the currents of history, had undoubtedly played its part, and I recalled Charteris mentioning centuries of lead mining in the district. Perhaps the water – and thus the local crops and livestock – had been contaminated, concentrating toxins in the blood and bones – and wombs! – year after year.
They were an unattractive people on the whole, dark and surly. Their thick-fingered clumsy gestures were quite brutish – expressions of their dumb animal nature – yet in the crowded bar they moved around each other with a disturbing grace. Elbows never collided. There was no jostling, and no drinks were spilled. They moved around like bees communicating with each other, as if some ancient shared consciousness animated and choreographed them all. Their mumbled conversation, slurring words together into an incomprehensible hum, only served to confirm this impression. It was only with the greatest of efforts that any would stir themselves to respond to my companions’ attempts to engage with them, but from the little I overheard it was hardly worth the effort involved.
Except, that is, for the barmaid, with whom Sprake seemed to be making his inevitable unsavoury progress.
I attempted to excuse myself early, claiming fatigue from the day’s journey, but Charteris and the others insisted on returning to the cottage with me. Sprake stayed behind.
In truth, I was relieved to have their company. Something about the night had made me anxious about running into the locals when I was on my own. One half expected to find them in the jumbled streets, staring dully at their own reflections in dirty puddles, or yelping at the thin moonlight breaking through the clouds here and there. I dreaded some such encounter.
As we walked, my companions fell silent, as if exhausted.
I was already in bed when he returned a mere hour or so after closing times. He was ashen-faced and gibbering. I have never seen anyone so unmanned. We could get no sense from him.
Charteris eventually got him to his bed and sat with him until he slept.
Little wonder that my night was so disturbed, or that I am up so early.
I have half a mind to return home. Yet I am, I confess, curious about why Charteris summoned me. I realise now that that is what his invitation really was – a summoning. And there is something here that intrigues every bit as much as it repels me.
I will see what the day holds and then make a decision.
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