Blue Eyed Stranger (A Trowchester Blues Novel)
This title is part of the Trowchester Blues universe.
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Billy Wright has a problem: he’s only visible when he’s wearing a mask. That’s fine when he’s performing at country fairs with the rest of his morris dancing troupe. But when he takes the paint off, his life is lonely and empty, and he struggles with crippling depression.
Martin Deng stands out from the crowd. After all, there aren’t that many black Vikings on the living history circuit. But as the founder of a fledgling historical re-enactment society, he’s lonely and harried. His boss doesn’t like his weekend activities, his warriors seem to expect him to run everything single-handedly, and it’s stressful enough being one minority without telling the hard men of his group he’s also gay.
When Billy’s and Martin’s societies are double-booked at a packed county show, they know at once they are kindred spirits, united by a deep feeling of connectedness to their history and culture. But they’re also both hiding in their different ways, and they need each other to be brave enough to take their masks off and still be seen.
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“I am Hasheput! Tremble before my mighty sword!”
Martin Deng detached himself from the shelter of the school’s back porch to watch tiny Trisha Nkembe flourishing her badminton racket like a legendary weapon of yore. She had an army of five followers, their scowly-faced seriousness a little belied by the plastic bobbles in their hair. They were facing off the dastardly Ammonites, led by Oscar Peterson in a bucket helmet liberated from the gym equipment storage room.
Martin smiled and walked into the standoff, where he was eyed with resentment and trepidation, and one cry of “I never did nothing!” from Natalie Hoon in the back.
“We don’t mean no harm,” Trisha got out, preempting his teacherly wrath. “We ain’t going to have a real battle. It’s a peace talk, right? Because they know already that Queen Hasheput is gonna smash their heads in if they try anything.”
The combination of defiance and enthusiasm warmed his heart. “Oh, no,” he said, before he could spoil their playtime entirely. “That’s fine. It’s just that her name is Hatshepsut, which is a little harder to say but worth it, don’t you think? And it’s not a sword; it’s a mace.”
“What’s a mace, sir?”
“It’s like a big club.” He gestured. “Like a baseball bat, but made of stone. You really would be able to smash people’s heads in with it.”
“Just—” he backed off with a hand gesture that gave the breezy May lunchtime back to them “—checking your historical accuracy. Might as well get it right, right? Carry on, then.”
A real punch-up across the other side of the playground caught his eye, making him turn and stride away to break it up, but he did it with an internal smile. It was great to see the kids responding to history with such enthusiasm. Great to see the way they bloomed when they realized that the world was full of heroes just like them.
He relived the memory of Trisha’s head coming up, her eyes widening, as he told them about the Nubians in Egypt. When he first took over the class, she had been one of those students who laid their heads on their arms, draped over their desks like the dead.
He knew how she felt. The teaching of history in UK schools could so easily be an all-white thing. Not a deliberate glorification of the Anglo-Saxon race, nothing as egregious as that, but simply the underlying assumption that all the important things in world history had been done by white people, whether those people were British or Roman.
Trisha’s astonishment when he began to put up images that proved there had been people of colour in Britain since Roman times, and that people of colour had had a long and glorious history in the world, had been echoed all over the class. Children who’d picked up the modern myth that all black people had once been slaves, and who therefore had rejected history as something they didn’t want to know about, suddenly began to see themselves as kings and prophets and world leaders.
It was Martin’s magic. Once he’d seen the transformation in his black kids, he’d hunted down little-known facts for the children of other ethnicities, and for the girls. Through warrior queens, pioneer aviators, the Night Witches of the Second World War, and the pirate empire of Ching Shih, he had taught his girls that they too could be glorious. Now they came into his class prepared to be amazed and inspired. They came with their heads up and their little faces bright, reassured of their own noble heritage and potential.
And apparently it spilled out onto the playground too.
After dealing with the scrap before anyone got a bloody nose, he handed off the playground watch to Mrs. Hobbs, the chemistry teacher, so that he could retire to the staffroom and get some lunch.
Satisfaction carried him buoyantly through corridors whose yellowed paint was pocked all over with the greasy spots of Blu-Tack. The macaroni art of the junior school wing gave way to the informational posters of the GCSE curriculum as he swung past the ground floor toilets, up two flights of stairs, and into the attic room the teachers had claimed for their own.
Mr. McKay, the PE teacher, looked up from his Tupperware container of quinoa salad to say, “All right?”
“Pretty good,” Martin agreed, putting the kettle on for a cup of tea and a pot of instant noodles. “You ever thought of teaching them fencing? They don’t know the first thing about real armed combat.”
McKay laughed, and gave him the you’re a weirdo but you seem harmless expression he so often got when he forgot himself and talked about his obsessions. “Well now, I would have said that was a good thing. Actually, I think sports were invented to replace the use of lethal weaponry among our schoolchildren.”
Early summer sunshine slanted into the room through the windows at the eaves and heated up the old sofas and the paint. With the advent of the hot dust smell he associated with summer, his mind turned to the weekend. The first show of the season.
It was Friday, and freedom was only three hours away. And there were so many things he still had to do.
The kettle switched itself off. “Yeah,” Martin said, tipping water on his lunch and filling the air with a smell like Marmite. “But you have to force them to do games. I bet they’d be queuing up for sword fighting, and it’s good exercise.”
McKay looked at him sideways from beneath his sandy lashes. “You’re itching to get away, aren’t you? Got one of your events this weekend?”
“How could you tell?” In Martin’s day, PE teachers had been nasty, small-minded little martinets. He was always thrown when McKay said something insightful.
McKay laughed again. “Any time you start talking about sword fighting, I know you’re due in on Monday bruised and hungover and stinking of smoke.”
Martin found himself by the window, gazing out over car parks and the backs of the suburban streets, tapping on the glass. He wasn’t sure if McKay’s comment had provoked his impatience, or if it had been simmering all day, simply interrupted by the satisfaction of having something he’d taught finally sink in.
“Well, it would be good if I could get away.” Articulating the sentiment seemed to make it worse. “I’ve got a show over in Trowchester that opens at nine o’clock tomorrow morning. Which means I’ve got to get the car packed and drive over there tonight . . .”
And I have to unpack when I’m there, and set up my tent and the work shelter, and find the people in charge of providing sand and wood for the firebox, and locate the standpipes for water. Which will inevitably not be turned on yet. And hunt down the guy responsible to get him to turn them on. And fill the water barrels, and haul them from tap to tent. And cut up the wood because it will be too thick. And inflate my mattress. And locate a shop where Edith can buy fresh milk and bread. And . . .
Fucking organisers who wanted their shows open first thing in the morning had no idea. If he had to spend all day at school first, he’d be doing all of it in the dark, working flat out until midnight or later. He’d start the weekend exhausted and cranky, and it would only go downhill from there.
“I’ve actually only got one lesson scheduled for this afternoon,” he ventured.
McKay snorted, and rose to check the timetable pinned on the corkboard by the fridge, above the dozens of used tea bags heaped on the empty foil takeaway container. “I . . . happen to be free at that time. But I don’t know shite about history.”
Tempting. Very tempting. “I . . . uh. I have a programme about the Air Transport Auxiliary I’ve been meaning to show them for the Second World War module. If you were kind enough to take over for me, all you’d need to do would be to wheel the TV in and switch it on.”
McKay put his whistle between his teeth and gave him a double thumbs-up. “But you’ll owe me. Next sports day, you’ll be my second-in-command.”
Martin rolled his eyes as though he were very put-upon, but couldn’t help grinning, immensely relieved. This would help so much. “It’s a deal.”
His back was to the door, and his nose in his plastic pot of noodles as he slurped them down. He didn’t register there was something wrong until McKay straightened up, tucked his whistle inside his shirt and gave him the urgent side-eye of doom.
Only then did he hear the faint creak of leather shoes and scent the Old Spice aftershave of the Head’s PA, standing silently, judgmentally, directly behind him.
Glossy was the word that came to mind when Martin contemplated the Head’s personal assistant. One of the new breed of young men who spent more time than pageant queens beautifying themselves. Charlie’s carefully cropped red hair had a curling spiral shaved above one ear. There was a gold ring in his left eyebrow, but from the neck down he was plastic perfect, as though he had spent his lunch hour pressing his slacks and starching the points of his collar.
“Mr. Deng. The Head would like a word with you.”
Martin’s good mood took a nosedive, as though the engines had cut out catastrophically on both wings. “I’ll be right along. Let me just . . .” He waved his fork to illustrate the inch of noodles and the half cup of tea he had left to consume.
“Of course.” A cold smile, too indifferent to be called hostile, and the PA departed.
“I hear tell he files his socks on the Dewey Decimal System,” McKay murmured sympathetically, “and only goes home to plug himself into the wall to recharge.”
The noodles had in fact lost their appeal. Martin pinched the foil cover back in place over the top of the tub and dumped them in the bin. “What have I done now, I wonder?”
“One way to find out.”
The school was laid out on a roughly cruciform pattern, all four corridors coming together to form a central hub. Here, the desks of the school’s administrative staff surrounded the inner sanctum of the Head’s office. Martin waved to Maureen on reception, but she was too busy trying to puzzle out a spreadsheet—nose pressed to the computer screen—to acknowledge him.
Going past, he stopped outside the white-painted door in the white-painted wall, retucked his T-shirt into his trousers, and smoothed down his jacket sleeves.
The door sat ajar in its frame. Snatches of voices filtered through the crack. Martin stepped up to knock, and heard the gravelly alto of the Head’s voice scoff, “I even heard he might be gay.”
He froze midmovement. His heart stilled and his ears strained to hear more. Charlie was saying something now, but it was too smooth, too low-key to make out.
“Well, one doesn’t want that kind of person in charge of vulnerable children.”
The air around Martin burned away in a short-lived inferno of rage, and when it was gone, fear rushed in to fill the gap. He loved this job, this school, but damn, he despised the Head, and she . . . well she obviously returned the sentiment. But she couldn’t do anything. Even if she did find out he was gay—and God knew how she would do that when he hadn’t had time for a relationship in the last three years—she couldn’t fire him for it. He would take it to an employment tribunal. He would win.
And then everyone would know.
He swallowed, all the joy of the playground gone beyond recall. He wasn’t ready for anyone to know. Not yet. Not with his father already disappointed he was a jobbing teacher and not a professor. Not with his mother already blaming herself for his sister’s depression, certain to blame herself for this too.
Queasy, seasick from being tossed between anger and dread, he pushed the door open without knocking and went in.
“. . . don’t want to do anything illegal.”
The door bounced off the rubber stop screwed into the blue carpet. Charlie fell silent and turned to look at him, pulling the lever arch file he carried closer to his chest.
Behind the desk, the Head placed her pen carefully in its penholder. She had finely coiffed bright silver hair and wore a black polyester blouse printed with white dots.
“Thank you, Charlie.”
She indicated the seat across from herself, and as Martin lowered himself into it, Charlie left the room and closed the door behind him.
“Mr. Deng. I won’t keep you long. I know you have a lesson coming up in—” she checked her watch, which hung around her neck on a chain like a steampunk pendant “—ten minutes. I presume you know why you’ve been called here.”
“I don’t,” Martin said curtly. If she was going to insult him, she could damn well have the courage to do it to his face. “I’ve not been made aware of any problem.”
“Oh well, consider this fair warning, then.” She smoothed her skirt over her knee and tilted her office chair back to stare out of one of the small windows through which she kept her eye on the surrounding desks. Her pink lipstick matched her nail varnish so perfectly it looked as though she’d lacquered her lips.
Time was suspended for an agonising moment, and then she began to speak. “I’m afraid, Mr. Deng, that your performance is subpar. I’m going to have to insist on some changes in future. Firstly, this is a school into which parents compete to place their children. Your appearance should reflect that. This—” she gestured at his clothes “—is unacceptable.”
He could see that, he supposed. Truth was, he’d put on something this morning that he would be able to load the car in. The work shelter was coated inside with soot, the cooking equipment coated with it outside, so he was wearing a black Metallica T-shirt, and perhaps he should have gone the extra step and added Get changed into camping tat to the long list of things he had to do this evening.
Acknowledging the fairness of her point, he nodded, chastened and not liking the feeling very much.
“Your timekeeping leaves a great deal to be desired.”
The weight in his stomach sank a little lower. Looked like she had a point there too. “I’m sorry?”
“Unpaid leave is for emergencies, Mr. Deng. Not so you can drop your responsibilities here whenever your bizarre hobby calls you.”
Guilt began to tip back into anger again. “That’s not fair. I don’t do it that often. It’s been, what? Three times this year so far.”
“Three times this year and we are barely into May.” She levelled her chair off and skewered him with a gaze that was like an icicle driven through the eye. His lips went cold. “Last year it was twice before May, seven times over the summer, another three over the autumn term. I note therefore that it’s escalating. There is little point in retaining a teacher who can’t be bothered to be here.”
“Bretwalda is young,” Martin said defensively. “My reenactment society, that is. This year is important for it to establish itself. But when it has—when it’s properly up and running—I’ll be able to ease back and let other people do some of the work.”
The Head looked at him as though he had been trying to explain how the dog had eaten his homework. “The troubles of your private life do not concern me. I need to know that when you are employed by this school, you will actually be available to this school. I expect more from my team, Mr. Deng. I expect commitment, and I’m not sure you have it.”
“That’s a bit rich. I spend hours at home, fact-checking the curriculum, figuring out how it can be tweaked to make it interesting and affirming for my class. I’m utterly committed to—”
The Head raised her painted-on eyebrows at him. “And that,” she snapped, her voice so frigid it was a wonder the particles of dust in the air didn’t precipitate as snow, “that is my third point. Mr. Deng . . .”
It was really beginning to annoy him the way she kept referring to him. Yeah, that’s my name. Don’t wear it out.
“I must insist that you return to teaching the curriculum as it is set. No more of these wild forays into the realms of the outré. You’re giving the children a false impression of the past. A parade of freaks and exceptions do not constitute history.”
Martin had taken the other two points relatively calmly, since they reflected on nobody but himself. Touching this one was like touching a match to petrol. He filled up with so much fire he could feel it squeezing out through his pores.
“‘Official’ history—” Martin curled his fingers in the air to make the condemning quote marks plain “—the history they want us to teach, is nothing more than a tool designed to make every one of those kids think that if it’s not done by white men, it’s not important. You know what I found when I started looking? I found that people of colour had been here all along. We’d been doing amazing things all along, and someone deliberately took that knowledge away. Someone chose to cover those facts up to keep us in our place. I’m not teaching my kids exceptions. I’m teaching them the truth.”
He had half risen from his seat, his fingers gripping the edge of the desk tightly as the flip side of Trisha’s joy scoured through him. Fury. Because finding out that you’d been here all along also meant finding out that you’d been lied to all this time. Deliberately lied to so you would carry on feeling small and worthless and foreign, so you would feel you had less of a right to be here than your neighbours.
“That’s quite enough.” The Head had shrunk back into her seat. A shrill note in her voice sobered him up. He hadn’t meant to frighten her.
She pulled a lace-edged handkerchief from her pocket and wiped her brow. “This school is in the business of making sure our children pass the exams they will need for their future. Regardless of your opinions on the veracity of the material, you will teach your class the curriculum as it is given to you. Do you understand me?”
Oh yes, he understood. He thought again about Trisha, how her whole soul seemed to light up when she learned of Kandace of Nubia, of Nefertiti, and Hatshepsut. He would welcome an angry woman with a stone mace at his back right now.
Could he do it? Could he teach the pap that was handed down to the kids here as history? Next year, could he watch the new faces stay closed, and live with himself knowing those kids’ hearts were withering inside with every iteration of the unspoken message that they weren’t interesting enough to make it into the books?
But in this climate of recession, with jobs hard to come by and his father’s disappointment like Banquo’s ghost at his feast, could he refuse?
Fury blazed and then burned out. He didn’t need this right now. He had a show to get organised. The rest of the garrison were depending on him. He could figure this one out later if he could only get away. “I understand.”
“Good,” she said and smiled at him, driving a nail straight through his heart. “Then you may go.”
Billy didn’t notice the light at first, as dark grey slid into pale. Mist pooled in the churchyard and dripped from yews and gravestones alike. Skeins of it floated into the porch and silvered his black trousers with dew. Every so often one of his hands lifted by itself and wiped the damp from a face that was no warmer than the stones on which he sat.
There was no time. He’d left time behind with everything else when he sat down. Since then there had only been the creeping awareness of wet and cold and misery. The night was endless and Billy was captured by it, as dark and chill inside as the star-sprinkled void above.
But now the sun was pushing its curves over the distant street of terraced houses where Billy lived. He could look out and see the footpath pass through the lich-gate, leap over the small runnel of water that moated the church, and widen out to run along parallel to his road. He could see the wall of his back garden with its blue-painted gate, the locked and shuttered windows of the ground-floor flat, and the marigolds in the window boxes of his kitchen.
It was perhaps five hundred yards away. He was a well-fed, healthy young man of twenty-four, and it should be perfectly within his capability to get up, walk over to his back gate, let himself in, and go to bed.
So do it, he thought, gathering his resolve for the thousandth time that night. Get up. Get up and walk to your house. Get up!
But he didn’t get up. Somewhere between the intention and the action, a gear in his mind failed to mesh with its opposite. The cogs spun, but the clutch was disengaged.
He pulled his knees in to his chest and rested his forehead on them. There was a brief billow of cold as the warm air he had generated around him was disturbed. It built up again slowly where he was folded in two, his belly still warmish, though there was no heat in his knees to soothe his numb face.
This was bad. Worse than it had been for a while.
Get up, damn you! Get up before you die of exposure. Get up. Walk home and have a bath. You can do it.
That was a bloody lie. Other people managed to avoid spending the whole night zoned out because they’d reached the end of their strength. Other people had the resilience, the determination, to walk or even crawl to safety, when it was in sight.
But you’re not other people. I fucking wish you were, you loser.
Sunlight slid across the graveyard towards him, dissipating some of the mist, making the droplets glitter as they pitter-pattered from the trees. Yew berries glowed like blood spatter among the dark needles, and Billy looked at his cuffs, where the bloodstains were beginning to brown.
He should get up.
They’d called themselves “the beaters,” although that wasn’t at all accurate. He and Jimmy James and that fellow from the Black Bull, all employed for the day by Lady Harcombe to do the grunt work at a rabbit shoot on her estate.
Billy had inherited his family house when he had to move his mum into the nursing home, his father long dead by that point. He had split it into three flats and kept the middle one for himself. The rent from his tenants now covered most of his bills and necessities, but he picked up work where he could to finance the rest of it—to buy little treats, to pay for lunches at fast-food vans during the summer season’s shows. To buy an occasional round, to keep the heating on an extra hour in the winter.
So when Jimmy told him he could pick up sixty pounds for spending a day driving a party of toffs around the fields and woodlands of Harcombe House, he’d gone along like a dog to a walk, tail wagging. And yeah, there’d been something properly satisfying at taking part in such a country task, more or less like his ancestors must have done since Anglo-Saxon times—because when the censors of the Domesday book came to Rosebery Wood, Billy’s family had already been there waiting for them.
His mood had matched the bright morning as Mr. Carter, the gamekeeper, had given them a rundown on the task of rabbit hunting. He and Jimmy and Black Bull Man in a respectful row behind the Barbour-clad guns.
“If you’re not sure you can get a clean shot to the head, don’t try at all,” Carter said for the third time. “We want a humane kill. The little buggers are undermining our land, killing our trees, eating the grass that’s meant to feed the deer, so they’ve got to go. That doesn’t mean we should be cruel. If you’re not confident of your aim, don’t shoot. Don’t go for any trick shots. There’s no bloody glory in bagging two at once if one of them’s suffering.”
Carter shrugged apologetically. “Rabbit’s poor sport, I know, and we’ll set up to try for goose tonight, but at this time of year you have to take what you can get. Now gentlemen . . . and your ladyship. To your vehicles.”
Billy hadn’t expected it to be so easy. His job was to drive a party of three guns on a predetermined route through the gorse and grass of the meadows to the west of the house, swinging round to take in a band of woodland before coming out on the emerald-green lawns that swept up to the great doors.
Rabbits clearly did not recognise cars as a threat. They were lolloping about in the fresh May sunshine, nibbling on the lush grass, grooming their ears, and busying themselves with pressing rabbit concerns, when pfft went the silenced .22 rifles, like a man tutting against his teeth, and they fell over, quite silently.
He had braced himself for the shots, but they were quieter than a polite lady’s sneeze. The shattering thing was the way some of the rabbits jumped when they had a bullet in their brain. Two feet off the ground, kicking wildly in an electric fit of death. Billy had watched in astonishment the first time, scarcely aware of the little snake of cold that entered his chest at the sight.
“That’ll do,” Lady Harcombe had called when the field was pockmarked with furry corpses. She caught Billy’s uncertain eye. “You can’t risk spending too long on one field. If they notice what’s going on, next time you come they’ll all go underground at the first shot.”
He moistened his mouth, swallowed at the thought that this happened regularly, at the thought that the animals were intelligent enough to get scared. “Right.”
“Well, off you go and pick them up, then.”
Perhaps that had been the most shattering thing, come to think of it—the warm paws twitching in his hands, the way the animals jerked as if they were trying to get away from him, though half their heads were gone. The warm spurting blood on his fingers, on his coat, on his cuffs.
Billy hauled himself out of the memory, put his hands between his knees, and felt like a cancer cell in the body of the universe—something that needed to be destroyed. He was a country boy, through and through. How could he be so pathetic as to mind a little blood? Two of those rabbits were in his freezer right now, a bonus on top of his pay, and he was going to eat them. He was. Because what else was meat for?
His dad would be ashamed if he were still alive to see it. His mum, who had raised chickens and wrung their necks when the time came, would also be ashamed. Billy was ashamed.
He was ashamed, and that was why he couldn’t get up.
But it wasn’t the only reason. After all, he had got himself back from the shoot okay, put the rabbits in the freezer, and started making lunch with something like a normal person’s aptitude. The church bells were the real culprit.
Billy had checked his watch while he waited for his toast to pop and found out he was already ten minutes late for his regular slot showing the tourists around Rosebery church. He’d just turned the flames out under the beans in the pan and left.
Generally he enjoyed the church, enjoyed showing visitors around it, explaining the differences between the very earliest Saxon stonework with its mock-wooden joists, the round-topped Norman arches and the later perpendicular architrave added on by Sir Hubert Harcombe when the abbey gifted the village of Rosebery Wood to the Lord of Trowchester in exchange for the eel-fishing rights on Peover Marsh.
Billy had a fund of historical information and local folklore to draw on, and usually managed to inform and entertain the tourists enough to earn a fiver or two in tips from each party. But today the bell ringers had been practising for an upcoming wedding and the walls had shaken with the clamour of harsh metallic voices, bellowing.
He’d had to shout his anecdotes until his head and throat hurt. People had shouted questions back at him, and he couldn’t pick out the words from the bellowing of the bells.
He’d tried to keep it together, honestly he had. Not hard enough. But it . . . it shook him apart, all the noise. It got hooks into the fabric of him and teased and pulled all the threads until they began to unravel and unravel and fray and snap and . . .
The noise, the clamour, the discord, had shaken his tight grip open. The world had fallen out from his grasp because his skull was splitting and the noises were everywhere and everything was cracking and he couldn’t fit it together again because it had shattered into too many shapes and there was no picture and there were no edge pieces and he couldn’t make his fingers close on them anyway because his fingers had burst into too many shapes too.
So he’d locked the door behind the last curious couple and given them a perfunctory wave good-bye. Then he’d sat down.
He’d meant to sit down only for a moment, to use the peace for which he had been parched to refresh himself before he went home. But the thought of home was forbidding. When he felt this flayed, the mere living aura of his lodgers was like a cheese grater being drawn across his skin. Mrs. Webb’s heavy presence above his head was saddening but tolerable. Mr. Kaminski, in the flat beneath his, was not. The man looked like a threat, sounded like a Russian mobster. His pressed suits talked of civilization, but there was something about his eyes that spoke of having seen men die, maybe of having killed them himself. Kaminski looked at Billy like the guns had looked at the rabbits, like a man looks at a small, nervous thing he intends to kill cleanly when the time comes.
Billy had taken a moment to nerve himself up to face that. And then . . . well. And then the black dog had come. It was sitting here with him, filling his mind with the fog of its breathing, sleeping heavy on his chest. So heavy.
He should get up. Something, something was happening today, he could almost put a name to it. Would, if his head was not so weighed down by the claws of the beast.
He didn’t understand why he didn’t get up when he knew he wanted to. He was a fundamentally wrong thing, a mistake, a freak of nature, and he was so tired. He was so tired of his miserable self, his miserable wretched self that could not get up.
But thinking of freaks stirred something to life in his head. What was it he was supposed to be doing today? Something flappy, black like a crow, spiralling to the ground on broken wings. What was . . .?
Creaking with the effort, like rusted train wheels grinding themselves loose, he thought, It’s Trowchester show tomorrow.
Ten minutes later, when the sunlight had reached across the porch floor, groped up his body, and lain reassuring fingers on his cheeks, he added, And it’s tomorrow today.
The words jogged something free. Wasn’t he supposed to be at the meeting point in Werrington, all kitted up and with the sticks, at half past nine in the morning?
The warmth on his face lifted some of the mist inside him. He tilted his closed eyes up to it and opened like a sunflower.
Fuck yes. Yes, he was.
He checked his watch. It was eight fifteen. He had enough time. Just. If he ran to his house and changed his clothes, ate yesterday’s toast for breakfast, strapped the sticks on his bike and pedalled like mad, he might make it yet.
First you’ve got to get up.
He let go of his knees. He put his feet down on the ground and slowly but surely he pushed himself upright until he was standing, cold as death and surprised as always to find out there was nothing physically wrong with him at all.
He took a stumbling step forward, his ankles almost turning under him, and it worked. His body answered his mind’s commands again. He could walk.
Shoving all the darkness back into its place, he stamped on the lid of it until he could latch it down with the faulty catch—the world’s least-entertaining jack put back into its box for the moment.
God, don’t let them go without me! He took a deep, astonished breath, and started to run.
An hour and a quarter later, Billy slammed on the brakes outside Werrington church hall just as the van was leaving the car park. He hurled himself off his bike and ran into the centre of the road, waving his arms. The minibus lurched to a halt with a grind of gears, and he saw Matt at the wheel, looking at him like a man who’s just woken up and realised he’s missing an arm.
While the minibus backed apologetically into a parking space, Billy locked his bike to a lamppost and unstrapped the stick bag from his carrier. His back tyre looked considerably worse for wear after carrying the weight of twelve long ash sticks and a further six short ones. Billy’s legs weren’t too happy about it either. Next time, one of the blokes with a car could bring the sticks.
“Sorry, Billy!” Parked again, Matt rolled the window down and hung a white-shirted elbow over it. “I thought you were on board already.”
“No problem.” Billy smiled through the residual panic, disappointed but not surprised that nobody had noticed he was missing. “Can someone—”
The doors at the back swung open, pushed by Graham and Pete. Billy passed them the sticks and clambered inside, over the dozen bags that cluttered the aisle and jingled when he nudged them with his feet. Nancy’s drum in its carrying case stood like a small table in front of the only spare seat. Both seat and drum had been piled with ragged jackets, Colin’s cameras, and the blacking kit.
“Are we all in now?” Matt called. “Okay, I’m going.”
Billy had to hold on to the roof while they jogged and swayed over winter-pitted concrete, out of the car park and onto the smoother tarmac of the road. Then he dumped the jackets on the floor, resituated the blacking tin on his lap and eeled into the seat next to the other Billy.
“How do, Constant.”
“How do, Billy-boy.”
Billy-boy was a gentleman of seventy-five, with a beer belly and a beard that would have done Father Christmas proud. He had blacked up already, so his white moustache and eyebrows stood out startlingly from a face whose features could have been called handsome, fifty years ago. He passed Billy a battered hip flask with the top unscrewed, which Billy took hesitantly.
“That’s last year’s plums, Constant. You look like you need it. Up all night poaching, were you?”
“Something like that.”
The side had solved the problem of having two Billies by the traditional means of nicknames. Naturally, the older of the two became “Billy-boy,” or “the Boy” for short. Billy himself, since he had never yet missed a practice or a dance-out, had been christened “Constant Billy” after the dance of that name. This was often shortened to “Constant” to avoid confusion. He wasn’t sure that there was really any confusion at work, but he liked the name and the praise that it implied.
The home-distilled plum brandy was hot and sharp on the tongue. It burnt his throat like paint stripper and settled uneasily in a stomach empty of anything but a slice of cold toast. Still, he took it for the kind gesture it was, and smiled. “It’s not bad. Have you got a new still?”
“No, not at all. More like the old one’s just getting settled. She’s a bit of patina on her now. Stills’re like people, aren’t they—better when they’ve had a bit of time to mature.” The Boy smiled and accepted Billy’s hip flask in return. There was nothing special in it, just the same Famous Grouse whisky from the bottle he’d managed to eke out all year.
Traditionally, both flasks, having been opened, now had to be handed around to everyone in the side, and all other owners of flasks were obliged to join in the informal communion. So for a time, the minibus was full of hands rising out of seats, curving around seat backs to grope for the next bottle and pass it on. Seven men in the side meant seven flasks, seven sips of concentrated spirits, and it was only half past nine in the morning.
By virtue of their sex, the women of the side, in the four seats closest to the driver, could refuse to drink alcohol at any time without incurring the raised eyebrow of shame. They were having their own communion of coffee from a thermos, and declined the offer of early morning drunkenness in favour of talk about music and the birth of Nancy’s first great-grandchild.
Fatigue and alcohol settled into a warm glow of peacefulness in Billy’s chest, a bubble strong enough to hold back depression and darkness for a while at least. “How long until we get there?” he asked, wondering if he should black up in the van or wait until they arrived, when things might be a little more stable.
As he should have expected, this prompted a round of I know the roads better than you do one-upmanship from which he tentatively drew the conclusion that there were five different ways they could get to the Trowchester Summer Festival and that the timings could vary from an hour to an hour and a half. Once this had been properly chewed over, everyone had forgotten that Billy had asked the question at all. He was far too bored with the subject to ask again and risk setting it off a second time.
“Did we ever get a vote on Cotswold versus Border?” Matt called over his shoulder, prompting a general groan.
“I’ve just put the face paint on!”
“We’ve only brought the ragged jackets.”
The Boy reached into his bag and triumphantly flourished a set of red baldrics. “I brought Cotswold kit. I could go for a bit of proper dancing instead of all this galumphing. There’s no art in this Border stuff at all; it’s just skipping about like big girls’ blouses.”
Billy sighed as the bagman’s feathers began to flutter with wrath.
Graham, the bagman—the man in charge of the side’s finances and bookings—was already fully dressed for the Border style of dancing. His face was so heavily matt black it looked like a hole beneath his top hat, which was festooned with crow feathers. Despite the heat from the risen sun warming the white metal roof, he sat like an angry blackbird in full plumage, tattered jacket closed to hide all evidence of a shirt. “I’ve said it a dozen times, Boy, the public don’t want to watch Cotswold. They think it’s silly. They like Border because it’s masculine and aggressive and it looks pagan, and that’s what’s in at the moment.”
Howls of protest burst from various corners of the bus, but Graham waded on like a lone voice of reason. “And big shows like this will pay us to do Border because it fits in with their . . .” he waved his hands in the air like windscreen wipers, describing vague shapes of indignation and scepticism “. . . theme—which seems to be a sort of ‘Robin of Sherwood woowoo mystic ancient greenwood’ sort of thing. So what they don’t want is Cotswold with its ring of church bells and cricket and ‘Is there honey still for tea?’ fuddy-duddy wholesomeness.”
At the continued cries of indignation, Graham’s hands flew up, tossing a ball of helplessness into the air. “Don’t look at me, I think it’s as stupid as the rest of you do.”
“I quite like Border,” Annette put in. As the fiddler, she was theoretically entitled to leadership of the musicians, but she was locked in a polite war for the position with Margery, the melodeon player, whom nature had fitted out with a more dominant personality. “They have some very good tunes.”
Cotswold versus Border was a conversation topic that could run and run. Everyone in the side had an opinion, and a strong one. Billy liked both, but that wasn’t the point, of course. It was undeniably true that Cotswold required more technical expertise, was more of a challenge to dance, and was far less of a crowd pleaser.
Cotswold was also the real deal in terms of being the tradition that had been handed on intact from its fifteenth-century roots. The ethnologists of the nineteen hundreds had got there just in time to record the original Cotswold dances and tunes as they had been handed down for generations in each of the villages where they had been danced. By the time the erudite gentlemen had tried collecting the dances of the Welsh borders, the tradition had almost completely died out, with only a handful of original dances surviving. When revival fever blew through the borders, the majority of dances had had to be made up from scratch.
It irked Billy on a deep level that the public—having decided that Border looked more ancient, looked more pagan, and was therefore more exciting—had taken to the modern reconstruction with far more enthusiasm than they ever showed the real thing. It was surely wrong, on a moral level, to prefer the fake to the true. Yet people seemed happy to lie to themselves gleefully about the past, turning it into some kind of theme park and refusing to look at what was really there.
Billy hated it, hated playing along with it.
But, on the other hand, the Border styles were also fun and alive, changing with the times and vibrant with possibilities, an honest reflection of what the folk enjoyed right now, and he loved that. He also quite enjoyed the fact that the outfit scared the willies out of small children and gave the side an air of danger that Cotswold with its flowers and hankies, bless it, could never dream of.
Billy’s opinion was complicated and would take a long time to explain. He supposed it was fortunate that no one ever left a gap in the conversation long enough for him to give it.
As if to mock their careful discussion of routes, the A23 was closed due to flooding, and the diversion choked with such heavy traffic the journey took an extra hour to complete. It was almost lunchtime when they pulled up in the exhibitors’ car park at what looked like a very impressive affair indeed. Three finely shorn fields around the showground shimmered with multicoloured rows of vehicles. In the distance, a wire-mesh fence curved around several acres of enclosure. Feather-flags on carbon poles bent and strained at each gate. Inside, distant bouncy castles bulged like overweight rainbows. Billy could hear the cheery boom of someone talking over the PA in the central exhibition ring.
Spilling out of the sweaty hot minibus into the fresher warmth of the late-spring day, Billy wiped his brow on a spare towel and then waited as the musicians finished painting their faces. They had just begun to put the kit away when he plucked it out of Nancy’s hands so he could do his own. It’s like I’m that character from Ballad of Halo Jones, Billy thought. If I don’t remind people I’m here all the time, they forget I exist.
A single strand of bells buckled on around his black trousers at the knee. He clipped his tankard to the black leather baldric he’d made for it and shrugged that over the shaggy jacket, covered in torn strips of cloth, that clipped around the throat and fell to mid thigh. Black silk top hat, somewhat worse for wear for being third-hand, with a pair of steampunk goggles with red lenses strapped to the front. Leather fingerless gloves and a long red-painted stick in his hand and he was ready to go.
The side stepped away from their van, and a change came over them. Before, they had been eleven not very remarkable people. Now, in kit and among the public, they were the strange and fearsome priests of a lost religion. Even the musicians—otherwise ordinary middle-aged women—clad all in black greatcoats, with faces as black as their coats under red-veiled, wide-brimmed black hats, were making festival-goers shiver with delighted terror at their eeriness as they passed.
When Billy walked through a crowd now, heads turned to follow him, eyes widened. He stood tall, let his stride open out, reflecting back confidence, arrogance, a little hint of danger in return for their wariness. His legs had more than recovered from this morning’s bike ride. Warmth and company and half an hour’s snooze had put some fire into him. He was ready to perform, to dance and laugh and heckle. To bask in the fact that, even though it only happened when he had a mask on, everyone was actually seeing him.
“Look, I’m sorry. Maybe you can take it back?” Martin, now under his ninth-century name of Ametel, massaged the back of his head. The leather strap of his helmet had begun to rub through his arming cap. It felt like it was rubbing through his hair too, would leave him with a stripe of bald patch like a Celtic monk’s tonsure. He wished the sun wasn’t quite so warm. Light on chain mail looked very fine, but it made you feel like you were trapped in a toaster, and he didn’t need this grief on top of everything else.
Stigand, who was new to reenactment, didn’t know when to take a bit of friendly guidance. “That bloke on the Viking stall swore to me it was a Viking brooch. I’m a Viking, it’s a Viking brooch, what’s the problem?”
Martin cast a help me! look towards his second-in-command, Rolf. Got a sympathetic eye roll in return but nothing more, and wasn’t it great that Martin had to handle everything himself? Surely there was someone in the society better equipped than him to argue authenticity? Some backup somewhere would have been nice.
At least Rolf was dressed for the part, his spangenhelm hand welded and worn through a ten-year career with that other society we don’t name, until the cheek pieces were impregnated with genuine dirt and sweat, and the shine of the metal glinted unevenly over dozens of dents.
His armour was much the same. Top-quality chain mail of riveted rings, over a gambeson of leather that had once been woad dyed but was now so stained with ground-in fat that the colour of it couldn’t be guessed. Rolf was such a fiend for authenticity he stored his chain mail in pig fat to simulate the pigs’ stomachs in which it was said the Vikings sewed their armour to keep it gleaming and waterproof for long voyages. Certainly the smell of him was something you rarely encountered in modern life.
The new recruits were a different matter. Martin couldn’t fault the kit of Kayleigh (also known as Ulf). Basic, but entirely in line with the guides, and she’d even managed to make her own turn shoes. The colours were excellent—bright weld yellow and undyed sheep’s-wool brown. The weave was perfect in the cloth, thread count per inch was fine. She’d even overstitched the seams with a contrasting undyed sheep’s-wool white, in a display of dedication to which some of his old members hadn’t yet risen.
But that chest! Double D at least, and obvious as a neon sign. Plus, she’d pulled her hair up in a high ponytail, like Sif from the Thor films, and done her face in eyeliner and lip gloss.
He sighed. “Ulf, you’ve got to make an effort to look less like a woman. Firstly the makeup’s right out. Secondly, ponytail gathered at the base of the neck, or put it under a hat. Thirdly, can someone lend her a gambeson? You might want to cover that . . .” He gestured somewhat helplessly towards her front. “You’ve got to disguise your shape. The rule is, women are allowed on the battlefield so long as they look like men. A sports bra might help. Squash it all a bit, you know?”
Stigand sniggered, and Kayleigh swiped at him with her borrowed shield. “At least I haven’t bought a bit of overpriced jubbly tat. It’s so gay! I told you.”
“It is not gay!”
Martin scratched at the sore stripe in his hair again and hoped he had not visibly flinched. He should say something. Something along the lines of, If you don’t like gay, you’d better get out of my society. But God it was hard enough being one minority. He really wasn’t sure he could face being two.
Besides, Bretwalda needed the new members, needed to grow, needed not to have people worried about watching their language, or worse, pissing off because they couldn’t bear to have a leader who was both black and gay.
He was being a coward, he knew that, but there was too much to do, too much to worry about right now. This could wait. “Stigand. It is jubbly.”
The brooch in question, well, he could barely bring himself to look at it, the experience was so painful. An electroplated Thor’s hammer that owed more to Marvel than to mythology, covered in enamelled designs and studded with semiprecious jewels that glittered in the sunlight.
“I can’t count the number of ways that this is wrong.” He turned it over. “Look at this clasp—invented in the 1980s. Pseudo-Celtic knotwork. Even if the Vikings weren’t an entirely different people to the Celts, with an entirely different style of art, the Celts themselves would piss on this as making no sense. Viking jewellers didn’t use any of these stones, and in any case, they certainly hadn’t invented faceting yet. You try and wear this, I will ban you from the field.”
It had already been a very long, very hard day, after a very long, very hard night.
Angry with the Head and everything she represented, Martin had taken up McKay’s offer to teach his class yesterday afternoon. He had gone home seething and packed his car. He had driven here, seething. He had put up his own heavy Viking ship-tent, assembled the firebox, and filled it with sand. Assembled his bed frame and made up a bed with a blow-up mattress and reindeer-skin rugs. He had put out the benches and the cauldrons, the tripod, the trivet, the baskets of spare mugs and plates.
Then he’d cut up some wood, started a fire, fetched water from the standpipe, boiled a kettle, and made himself another Pot Noodle, which he ate in solitary splendour before retiring to bed at midnight. At which time—naturally—the other senior members of the garrison had arrived, shining their headlights through the walls and shouting as they put up their own tents.
This morning he had risen at dawn. The sunlight through the white canvas of the tent left little option. Besides, some unutterable bastard over in the World War II encampment kept blowing reveille on a bugle, and at five o’clock in the morning the sound carried like an air-raid warning.
So the day had started with first-day-of-a-show-lack-of-sleep dizziness. Things improved a little over breakfast, once he had cut more wood, remade the fire from the embers, fetched more water, boiled another kettle for three black coffees, and then eaten a plateful of bacon and eggs.
By the time he’d got dressed in kit—a story behind every piece of clothing, every one made by himself or a friend, and precious in a way nothing of disposable modern-day life was valuable—he’d come out of his tent and had one of those it must have been just like this moments.
Athelstan and his family had set up their weaving enclosure by then, and Edith, in charge of the society’s encampment, had managed to erect shady pavilions under which the warriors could lie in the heat of the day. She’d dressed the canvas rooms with food and artefacts of the period and was now feeding the picketed horses their hay.
For just one moment, so long as he didn’t lift his eyes above the rope barrier that cut off their encampment from the rest of the show, he might have been waking in the ninth century. Everything he saw was Viking or Saxon, handmade, perfect for its purpose, simple, beautiful, and right.
The early morning air had smelled of woodsmoke, dew, and horses. Edith already in full kit—mantle and kirtles and wimple—was like a figure from an illuminated manuscript brought to life.
His troubles had been struck dumb, and he’d thought, It’s going to be okay.
Then Edith had come over to ask for money for the garrison’s food, handing him a stack of forms listing who had come, whether they were paying for a full day’s food or just lunch, how many children were present for whom she could only claim half a ration, and the moment had been lost. It had been one long administrative niggle from then until now.
Meanwhile, Stigand was still refusing to back down. “You’ve got orange stones in your necklace, so why can’t I—”
“I have got carnelian beads because my character is from the kingdom of Meroe in Nubia, one of whose principle exports was carnelian. Unless you also happen to have a Sudanese parent, that excuse isn’t going to fly for you.”
“But the bloke said!”
“Stigand. Are you going to believe the word of some shopkeeper who makes a living selling horned helmets and ‘genuine Viking claymores’ to people who don’t give a toss whether that’s what they were really like, or are you going to believe your authenticity officer, who reads archaeological journals for a hobby? Hint. One will get you onto the battlefield and one will not.”
“What am I supposed to do about it, then?”
Martin took his watch out of his belt pouch. There was just about time to bolt down some lunch before they had to go on and wow the public with their martial prowess. He sighed again. “Go back to the stall where you got it and ask for a refund. You were wearing kit when you bought it, right?”
Stigand nodded, his head still bent regretfully over the abomination of a brooch.
“Well, if he told you that was a Viking brooch, he told you a load of bollocks. He was trying it on because we’re a new society and he thinks we don’t know the score. Tell him if you don’t get a refund, I’ll send Rolf down to have a word with him. We may be a new society, but he knows all our thegns from way back, and he needs reminding that he can’t slip shit like that past us. All right?”
The newbie still looked surly and unconvinced. Martin wondered if this was one recruit who would not come back after his first show. Thought it would be like a live action World of Warcraft, did he? Thought he’d get to be oh so cool, because it was just a game and who gave a fuck, right? If that was the case, if the guy didn’t care about history enough to want to do it properly, Martin didn’t need him anyway.
“Go on. Do it now, before you miss lunch. We’re on in three-quarters of an hour.”
The rest of the muster of warriors fortunately turned up nothing to complain about. Like Rolf and Martin himself, these were all ex-members of that other society.
While fully in agreement with its ethos of being the most accurate depiction of life in the Dark Ages that was to be found in the country, they’d split from that society for purely personal reasons. The usual stories: political infighting, cliques, personality clashes. The tendency of Martin’s old group leader to spend the night around the fire telling homophobic jokes and needling him for having no sense of humour when he didn’t laugh. Even the fact that Martin ended up as a perpetual chew toy between people who wanted to put him into photos of the society for PC reasons, and people who wanted him kept out of the photos because he wasn’t what the public wanted to see when they looked for Vikings.
Bretwalda was meant to be Martin’s refuge, a society with the same high standards, but without the pissing contests. Maybe even a place where he could dare, one day, to openly bring a boyfriend without the certainty that he’d be the subject of every dirty joke around the campfire for years.
He just hadn’t really expected it to come with this much grief. Now even Rolf was looking at him askance. “If he comes back as surly as he was when he went, I’m not sure I want him on the field in charge of a spear.”
They had grown a great deal since Martin formed the society two months ago, with a round robin letter to his friends in that other society. There was a sense of hope over the whole encampment—the hope that this time they could all do their thing without petty little power plays getting in the way. But it still only amounted to a grand total of twenty warriors. With an audience like this, they couldn’t afford to lose even one. He really didn’t want Bretwalda’s first big show to be an embarrassment to everyone.
“Put him on the field,” he said now. “All that adoration will give him the motivation to want to do it right in future.”
“And if he puts someone’s eye out?”
Martin shrugged, pretty sure that even Kayleigh was good enough to prevent that happening. Truth was, she had the makings of a good line commander. “Bit of gore? The crowd’ll love it.”
Speak of the devil, he thought, coming in under the work shelter to saw at a loaf of bread with his handseax. Someone had loaned Kayleigh a padded gambeson which disguised her figure, and a helmet which disguised her hair. Her face was washed clean of makeup, and she had even given herself a five-o’clock shadow with some ash from the fire. He was impressed and ready to say so, but her expression was easily as sullen as Stigand’s.
“She says—” Kayleigh gestured dismissively at Edith “—I have to help her with the cooking. Why do I have to help her with the cooking just cos I’m a girl? I don’t do cooking in real life, and I don’t mean to start now.”
Privately, Martin thought she had a point. In that other society there had been no rule that the women had to cook, but still they had somehow ended up doing it anyway. He wasn’t sure if they preferred it, or if they just stepped in because no one else could be bothered. That was something at least he could improve on.
“Everyone should get to do everything,” he said, and his teacherly side prompted him to add, “I’ll draw up a rota after the battle.”
He folded roughly chopped ham, raw onions, and cheese into his wedge of bread. It had been a hard day, he thought again as he washed down the sandwich with a leather mug full of apple juice, and watched as the warriors began to muster into a two-column marching formation behind Biscop Weyland’s cross. A hard day, and it was still only half over. But when they blew the harsh discordant notes of the great hunting horns and all the milling public turned to look at his small army with admiration, he still thought it was a good one.
Let it be a good battle, with single combats between some of the seasoned warriors who know how to put on a good show, with some drama and some good death scenes and no actual injuries. Let us impress the organisers so we get asked back. Let us thrill the crowds and make more starry-eyed youngsters want to join up. And let us have fun, so all our newbies come out of the ring floating on their own glory, reassured that it may take extra effort to do it well, but we are fucking good, and it’s worth it.
[T]he trip [Billy and Martin] take together is gripping, emotionally rewarding, and results in what is one of my favorite books of the year to date.
Another beautiful love story from Alex Beecroft.
Such believable, human characters involved in a passionate pursuit that was made fascinating by the author's ability to make them real to the reader.
Reading ‘Blue Eyed Stranger’ was a slice of heaven. I found myself transported smack into the scenes via Beecroft’s colorful, lively and oh so vivid portrayal of characters and settings.
[A]s always, the author's ability to beautifully put together words that create a wonderful story of two men who help each other on their respective journeys of self-discovery is in full view here.