Monday, 18 February 2013

Another revision

Prologue - The Castle.

The moon shines on the river and the castle. The day, June 2nd, 1915, has been unusually hot; the walls of the castle soaking up more sun than they can easily absorb. Windows gape wide to let the night's breezes cool the interior. Those asleep inside fall to more peaceful slumber as the walls breathe out heat and sweat dries from bodies.

Outside, the air turning cool and sweet, the moonlight glints on the river in slow dancing patterns. Owls fly; small animals scuttle; trees sway like graceful women who’ve forgotten the steps of the dance.

From out of the trees, walking slowly on the gravel path to the castle entrance, come two figures. Look at them, dear reader and tell me what you see.

One a man; the other a woman. True, but look closer; there is more to them than that.

Wearing clothes the silver white of the moonlight. Yes, yes. And do you see? These are not clothes worn by people of this time. But look more carefully. There is something else.

You have it now, don’t you? Subtle, isn’t it, the way the moonlight shines not on these two, but through them?

At the edge of the castle's gravel courtyard, both pause while the woman looks around at the scene. She looks down the small hill which the castle sits atop at the view of the river, the bridge and the distant mill. The hill forms a natural Amphitheatre; a grass-covered lap of earth leading away to the line of the woods.

The woman nods; pleased by the prospect? The man stands, arms akimbo, proprietorial pride written on him. He was on this hill before the building started, ordered the design of the castle, oversaw its furnishing, was the force behind it becoming a beautiful stately home, watched as it acquired a patina of age and is well pleased with what he's wrought.

He looks to the woman, makes a slight bow and extends his hand in a gesture of formal invitation. The woman gives him a smile, drops a playful curtsy and walks on towards the entrance. By force of habit, both enter through the door. A less remarkable feat this, had they opened it first. Perhaps you enjoy the sight of them passing through solid timbers on a tour of their new habitation. Or perhaps not.

Inside, they climb the stairs and survey the bedrooms. War has taken the men away and in the house, only women and girls remain, peacefully sleeping, unaware of the spectral forms moving amongst them.

At length the two stop. The woman nods, her face perhaps still slightly pensive, but content.

The man looks at the woman. "And, Miss Mason?"

"Perfect, Turing. They told me about this to get me to sign the contract…"

"But seeing it is different. Yes, I understand. Seeing is believing."

"Will he remember…?"

"Some things. They are what he is, not merely what he does. But have no concern. He will believe he is what they tell him he is. It is in the nature of the cure."

The man smiles. At his gesture, the two fade into the air.


Part One - Jack and the Women.

"Wentbridge, Wentbridge. All passengers for Wentbridge. Excuse me? Young sir? You're getting off here, aren't you?"

Jack heard the voice and felt it was dragging him up from the bottom of a black lake. Exhaustion crushed him like a weight of water. The surface still an impossible distance above his head and him wanting nothing more than to sink back into the darkness, the voice came again, injecting unwanted buoyancy.

"Are you alright, sir? You're looking very peaky. You are getting off here, aren't you?"

A sudden banging came from beside Jack's head. Glass, he thought. Someone’s rapping their knuckles against the glass of a window. He'd been asleep with his head resting against the window and now someone was knocking on its glass. He started and his eyes twitched, lids almost parting.

"Isaac! Isaac! He's mine darling. Can you be getting him up for me? I've to drive him to the house."

A woman's voice; Irish by the accent. Muffled by the glass, but still with a bubbling huskiness almost enough to make Jack prise open his eyes to see the owner.

"Trying Mrs Maguire, but I've seen slaughtered sheep faster to move than this one. He alright, is he?"

"Ah, the poor love's been ill with the scarlet fever, so he has. Can you give him a hand up, darling?"

"For you Mrs Maguire, the very shirt off me back."

"A thousand thanks Isaac, but the boy's what I'm after and not your laundry. Yer mammy can do your shirts for ye."

Someone chuckled and hands slipped under Jack's armpits from behind. His arm was raised and wrapped around skinny shoulders.

"Upsidaisy. Up you come now sir, can't be keeping Mrs Maguire waiting now, can we?"

Half lifted by Isaac; Jack pushed legs like dead meat against the floor to help raise himself. His eyes fluttered open and colours danced for a moment before shapes coalesced. An old, old lady, clothed in something last fashionable when Queen Victoria was single, sat facing. She looked at him with concern.

"Can someone get this young gentleman a glass of water? He looks faint. I fear the heat has been too much for him."

Cut-glass accent, Jack thought. Home Counties? Isaac sounded West Country. Mrs Maguire Irish. Where the Hell was he? Jack, lost in a mental fog, only knew he had to get off this train. He reached out a free hand and grasped the seat top. Wood. Solid and good to lean his weight on. Steadied between the seat and Isaac, he tried to pull his mind to the jobs at hand: standing first, walking next, getting off the train. Luggage? Did he have luggage? He couldn't cope with luggage.

"My bags?" His voice croaked with the rasp of a hinge never oiled. His mouth was dry and he wanted a drink. "Where are my bags, please?"

"Oh, don't you go worrying yourself over them, sir. They're in the guard's van and he'll get them off for you. Now, can you just come this way?"

Isaac was Jack's height, but a skinny youth, and Jack's weight caused him to struggle. Jack, ashamed of his weakness, marshalled his will and directed his legs to walk. They staggered instead, but, grasping for the support of the seat backs, he and Isaac lurched down the carriage to the door and the brightness of the sun beyond. He half fell into the arms of Mrs Maguire. Like falling into a warm bed, fresh laundered linen brushed his face and calmed his nerves. The flesh beneath smelled of lemons and sweet, summer sweat.

Isaac climbed down from the carriage and helped Mrs Maguire steer Jack to a small, horse-drawn … buggy? Has a name, thought city boy Jack, one I know, but it hid in his mind's fog. He tried to pull himself up to the passenger seat, but had to be wrestled aboard like a sack of onions. He slumped forward, elbows on knees, head in hands, fighting the fog and a wave of nausea. Why so sick?

Like an actor responding to a cue, a voice came out of the back of his mind.

"You're very lucky to be alive and have no complications, young man. Scarlet fever is easier to treat nowadays with Dr. Moser's horse serum, but still drags most sufferers to an early grave. You'll need weeks to recover and somewhere better than this wen, but you'll heal in good time, have no fear."

A face from another century, Jack thought, with a beard to rival Darwin's. The stethoscope around his neck confirmed the bedside manner. A doctor. His name? No, it was lost in the same fog. Finders? Something like that. The face was familiar; known from early childhood perhaps, but not seen for a long time. Gruff voice. A Lowlands Scot, with a reassuring aura of competence – someone to trust.

"His father's message came just this morning, doctor. His friend will put Master Jack up for the summer at his place in Devon while he recovers." The woman (a housekeeper?) looked at Jack. "You'll stay at the castle and can roam the grounds until you are well. It'll be an awful adventure for you. They say Wentbridge is a beautiful place. Quiet, but very lovely."

She smiled at Jack. Accent's from the Hebrides, he thought, face from an angel's grandmother. I've seen her before, somewhere. Grey hair, tightly bunned, grey eyes, lightly smiling, covering, barely, a worry. Not a woman to fret, said instinct, but concerned over him. He'd been, and surely still was, worse than they wanted him to know.

"Marvellous Janet, marvellous. Arrangements have been made; I take, for his travel?"

"Indeed, Doctor Cameron. He'll go by the morning train and be met at the station."

"Excellent, excellent. So we'll see you when you get back then Jack."

Memory closed there like a curtain, leaving nothing else but fog until he'd woken on the train. Before? Injections, hospital beds, pain and confusion. Darkness and people moving him around – getting him aboard the train? Shards of a story he'd rather forget.

" 'At's right Mrs Maguire. Eighteen tomorrow."

She opened her mouth, but before she could speak, Isaac blurted out.

"An' I'm joining the regiment on the weekend. They wouldn't take me before. Knew me proper age, see, and told me the railways needed men too. Can't stop me now, though."

Jack caught, though Isaac missed, the pain flashing across Mrs Maguire's face. She wiped it off almost before it registered, replacing it with a smile like the sun rising.

"And isn't my Seamus there as well? You must be looking out for him. Both in the same regiment, he'll look after you, sure an' he will. Tell him, when you see him, the odd letter will never be taken as an insult now, won't ye?"

"Well, I will if I do, but they're saying the fightin' won't last much longer now. Probably all.."

"…over at Christmas, I know. God willing it will."

Isaac's flushed face darkened a moment and Jack guessed the question he wanted to ask. It wasn't hard. Jack had seen the newspaper reports. So had Mrs Maguire.

"Ah, but you'll look the very devil of a handsome young buck in your uniform, an' you will so. Sure an' the girls will all be after ye. Well, never let anyone say Bridie Maguire got left at the back of the line. Come here an' give me a kiss now, for yer birthday an' going away an' all."

Isaac blushed red to the tips of his ears. He looked around. To note who was watching, Jack wondered, or for a place to run? A skinny, pimply, pasty-faced youth, the weight of rifle and pack would probably topple him. If this wasn't his first kiss… No, surely this was.
Bridie Maguire, even through the fog, struck Jack as a woman who knew about fun, and how to have it. Isaac had never been kissed by anyone like her before, Jack would bet.

She grabbed the youth by the shoulders and pulled him to her. He stood like a beast about to be slaughtered, not sure where to put hands and face. Bridie looked him coolly in the eye.

"Now ye'll need to be taking more of a grip on things, me lad. Try like this."

She took his hands and slapped them to her rump. The boy's eyes widened further than Jack thought possible, but before he'd the chance to say anything, she had his face between her hands and had plastered his mouth to hers.

A kiss, the voice in Jack's head said, to pour lust into the loins of a bronze statue. Can't argue, thought Jack. If eyes on train or platform missed it, Isaac surely burned every one of the heartbeats it lasted into his memory forever.

Jack remembered reading about a Confederate soldier who survived a tremendous battlefield blast to find himself utterly unharmed, though stripped of every scrap of clothing. Yes, he thought, Isaac's expression in front of him, that's how he must have looked.

Bridie released the boy with a hesitation, a near reluctance that didn't look part of an act. Husband at the war, came the voice from the back of his mind, hasn't in a while, I'll be bound.

"Woah, missus! I'll have a one o' them too an' you've got any to spare."

"Away wit ye," Maguire shouted to the driver. That grin, said the voice in his head, is one the devil'd buy at auction and keep for his Sunday best. "The lad's off to the wars and needs something to keep him warm of a night-time."

"Well, I'm off to Coventry tonight an' I've all the same needs, darling. If you've done with him, can I have him back? I've a train to run an' we're late already."

Isaac regained the train with a curiously crouched shuffle; Mrs Maguire the constant north to his compass's needle. She stayed on the platform to wave him off and give him a wink. What's the word for that one, wondered Jack? Lascivious, came the voice, and that's stretching the term tight. Bridie mouthed something Jack thought said: 'Come back for more'.

A ticker tape of thought crossed and recrossed the youth's face, repeating and repeating the only important idea in his mind. Jack read the message as the train pulled out. 'I did that, me. It was me did that, I did.' They'd likely need iced water to get his mind to anything else for the rest of the day. It's like watching Charlie Chaplin at the kinema, isn't it? said the voice from the back of Jack's mind. Words pop up occasionally, but the rest of the time, your eyes tell you the story.

Bridie stayed on the platform, waving, till the train rounded a bend, her radiant smile fading. She walked to the buggy, hitched skirts and swung herself up with athletic grace. She took the reins, shook the brown horse into movement and sank back into herself.

"That was kind."

She looked at him.

"I'm sorry young master, what was that?"

"He's worried about the fighting. You took his mind off it. That was kind."

She shrugged. "Ah, it's nothing. These boys are all after running off to the war, so they won't look like cowards. Isaac's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but even he can read. He knows how many are coming back with bits shot off them, or not coming back at all. I pray it's over before he finishes the training and gets shipped off to France."

Jack nodded. Dates and figures and names of battlefields hid somewhere in the fog, but he agreed with a line he'd read. The Western Front was a maw chewing up young men and leaving them to fertilise the ground they battled over.

"And Seamus? He's your…?"


Jack'd been raised by an army of aunts, so had heard the title pronounced as a curse before, but never such as Bridie Maguire made it. She'd slapped the word down like a fish full of lead weights on a filleting board.

"He's at the front?"

"Not yet, still at Aldershot going through his basic training."

"How long will that take?"

"Not sure. He's been gone a month and thinks he's eight weeks more before they'll ship to France, but says it's a terrible mess and not one of them knows how to find his arse with both hands… ah, excuse my French. God willing they'll never see the trenches."

"Volunteered, did he?"

Bridie laughed. "God bless you no, young sir. The magistrate did the necessary for him when he punched a copper. Said if he had such a taste for fighting men in uniform, he'd accommodate him with pleasure. Catch Seamus Maguire volunteering for anything more than another man's whiskey, an' it'd only be 'cos he'd another man's whiskey already inside him."

Jack looked sideways at her and his eye caught on the smooth swell of a breast half released by the opening of her blouse's top buttons.

Oh look, came the voice in his head, Moby Dick sighted on the starboard side.

Her eyes flicked sideways to his gaze and she smiled a small, but intensely knowing smile.

"Sorry," he said, catching her eye on him, "but isn't a young man supposed to admire the beauty of the hills and dales when he comes to the countryside?"

She snorted a laugh. She thinks you're a bold one, said the voice in his head, she'll have heard better lines than that, but she'll keep an eye on you now.

Jack found the movement of the shay lulling and had no argument with it pulling him back to sleep. His head sank to his chest. Only dimly aware of the ride to the castle, he missed the village entirely.


Sick, thought Bridie, looking at the dozing boy, but sharp and… strange. She was used to young guests to the house being confident beyond their years. You got that way, after all, when you'd been raised as gentry. And though some were thick as pig shite, you did get them bright as buttons too. Well, you can buy the best teachers when you've got money like the gentry.

Usually you could rely on the boys to be interested, but put a brazen face on it. The Quentins of the world knew the likes of Bridie were made for their pleasure and knew you were wrong to disagree. Shy ones pretended they didn't have any interest while sneaking looks they didn't think you'd see. This lad… there'd been honest appreciation in his look; no sign he thought himself on forbidden or dangerous ground. That was a look a man gave to a woman when he was interested and thought she might be too. How old was he? She met young ones who'd tumbled a daft young maid or two, but still they didn't have that much cop on.

She had to admit to being powerful curious. Where'd he come from and how'd he get to be like this? Good looking one, sure and he was. Another few years and he might be getting his look back and her confessor a story as could curl his hair.

God, she thought, Maguire hadn't been gone so long for her to be itching like this. Him and her had been in more rows before he went than she'd been able to count. Her saint's name, Helena, patron of troubled marriages, had been starting to look like a sign of her old mam having second sight. Still, her bed was too wide and too cold of a night without the bugger. Ah, naught to do about it, Bridie, she thought, drive on.


"Master Jack? Master Jack? Sorry darling, but we're here now and you're going to have to get down."

Jack opened his eyes, got his first view of Wentbridge Castle and liked it, instinctively. He couldn't have said why just then, but later put the pieces of it together. Someone's stately home, of a certainty, but with square built towers at each corner, crenellations atop the whole roof and the general air of a house giving injury if receiving insult. Later too, he'd wonder why such pugilistic architecture lived in Devon, but for now it gave him a solid sense of security.

His arrival had clearly been expected, a group of people came out of the front entrance as he stood by the shay, swaying lightly. No faces familiar to him, but picking out the lady of the house was as easy as picking out the lion in the pride. A handsome woman with an air of command, she looked him straight in the eye, shook his hand and welcomed him to the castle.

"Yes, you'll need time to recover from your journey, surely. The deck chairs are set up, so perhaps you'd like to take a rest in the fresh air until lunch. You can meet the others properly later."

The others took their cue from this and disappeared back into the house. Bridie led Jack around the side of the building to a walled area where two deck chairs looked the answer to a prayer. He slumped onto one and stammered out a half apology for his state. Bridie promised him a flask of beef tea and he drifted off in the silence when she left.

An indeterminate time later voices came back towards him, but he hadn't the energy to open eyes and engage in conversation.

"Ah, sound asleep again. So obviously most desperately ill, Bridie, why did they ever let him travel alone?

"Percival knows the father from the Army, apparently, respects him enormously, says William Fairbairn is quite the most dangerous man he's ever met. Scarred from face to feet from fighting with natives and knives, if you can believe such a thing. The family are Trade, but Percival says he's a good sort. Typical Percival. Apparently, the mother's dead and father's in the East. Singapore, he said, training troops, for goodness sake. The boy was at school when he fell sick and the father contacted Percival to ask for help, so… Oh, just leave the flask. He can have something when he wakes."

"Good looking young lad, he is ma'am, bright too from what I saw of him in the shay. Mind, twasn't much. Slept most of the way, he did. He'll need rest and feeding up if he's to even stay awake for the full day. To think, he's nigh on the only thing you'd call a man in the whole of the area now. Well, the only one not long since decrepit. Even the schoolboys is running off for being soldiers. I met Alice Buckland's eldest only this morning. He's finished with the railways and enlisting this weekend."

"Damn young fools. I know I shouldn't say so, but since they started using gas, I can't see any good end to this war. It's going to grind on until even fatuous idiots like French get tired. Why they can't end it all with a compromise I can't understand."

"How old is he ma'am?"

"Fifteen, Percival said. Looks older, but then… "

"Has he been out in the East, ma'am?"

"Honestly no idea. He'll have seen a bit more of the world than most his age if he has. I dare say we'll find out."

They drifted off, or Jack did, though his mind attached to what they'd said. Fairbairn, William E. Troops? No, he served with the police, training the riot squad in self-defence. He tried to put a face to the name and biography, but came up with nothing more than an image from a photo. A slim man, bespectacled, clearly hard as nails. Memories of him? So distant it was hard for Jack to think of him as father. All his tired mind could muster were scenes that might as well have been from the Saturday morning kinema. They lacked accompanying music, but equally, lacked any feeling. He couldn't find himself in any of those scenes.

Drills in fighting. Those he remembered. Playing with a knife. A slim, beautiful, vicious-looking knife. 'A thing forged in Hell and made for only dark deeds.' Who'd said? He had the knife in his luggage, where an instinct told him it was staying. There was something deeply wrong about that knife. Did it come from William E? And was that all? All he could find of a father –a picture on a bedside dresser and a knife for killing? Mother? No, nothing in his foggy memories. He'd been on his own for a long time. Well, never mind, he'd grown used to the independence and grown up faster. If you won them all, you'd get bored. Stiff upper lip, etc. etc. A face, a woman's, pretty and concerned, floated into his mind, but then the fog rolled over him again and he slept.


Look at the cracks in the ceiling: at the patterns on the bathroom tiles: at a splash of water on a concrete path. There will be faces in the dots and lines, patches and splashes. Perhaps also dragons and demons, but always faces. Human minds find them in things human eyes observe. On the wall behind Jack, in the lichen covering and the cracks and crevices faceting, were two. One a man's; the other a woman's. The woman's, pretty and concerned, turned to the man's.

"He looks like death!"

Jack slept, with nothing in his ears but the distant soughing of wind in branches.

"As close as he's been, how else would he? He will heal, though. This place, these people, they will do that for him. Rest assured, he'll get well here. A day, two, you won't recognise him. "

She knew it to be true. His opinion of the doctors of their time was low. 'Bloodletting leeches treat a patient only to find how many of the next nine they'll kill with the same poison.' Yet he'd trusted the Scot. This place offered a treatment their own time could not. She nodded her head. A tear might have run down her face, but it's hard to tell with cracks in a wall.

The faces faded and only cracks and lichen remained.


Eleonora walked out to the deck chairs and looked at the young man.

" Quel povero raggazo." she murmured. Handsome boy, she thought, but terribly ill. Something of the poet or warrior in the face. Dark hair, an expressive mouth. Young, but lean and shapely, unlike Quentin. She noted the beautiful confluence of line where his neck met his open collar and the swoop of the collar-bone. She wished for her sketchpad to draw it. Her eye traced his shoulders. Wide, proportionate to his frame, probably excellent definition to the muscle. He would make a beautiful study for a portrait. Perhaps he'd model for her sometime. The line of the eyebrows and the lips… She pulled her eyes away. No better. Now they caught a young man's flat stomach and slender waist. No, she did not wish to compare with Quentin. Two months gone and every second of his absence a blessing – she hadn't felt his hands on her, trying to enact his perverted ideas of love. This boy's hands… the fingers of a pianist, long, sensitive. She imagined them stroking the keys, she imagined them stroking…

Why? Why did this happen with almost every man not her fat pig of a husband? This boy, this sick, sick boy… She reached out a hand towards his face, but stopped herself before she touched him. No. No, not a good idea. She took a step back, her foot inadvertently scraping the gravel. She flinched, waited to see if he would wake, wanting and not wanting him to. The head moved, but the eyes didn't open. The lips parted and formed, perhaps, a name. They marked a line across her vision those lips, like charcoal marking paper, the shape of them captivating her. Imagining the pressure of charcoal stalk on paper, the pressure of finger onto skin… A single bead of sweat stood at his temple and Eleonora's hand moved to wipe it, stopped, started, stopped again. Her hand wanted to touch… she caught herself, turned quickly and walked back to the house.


Jack had no idea how long he’d slept when he woke, throat leather dry. The sun was high now, but he couldn’t remember where it had been, so the knowledge didn’t help. On a small table beside the deck chair stood a battered old flask. Something to drink. He opened it to a wonderful, warm, meaty smell. Bovril? Memories of football games in winter swung through his mind. Though no. This had something more. Bridie had said she’d made up some beef tea for him. He couldn’t remember ever having any before, but knew it was recommended for invalids. Well, that's me, he thought, so poured himself a cup of the still-warm brew and took a long swallow. As the liquid went down his throat, he felt every cell of his body greeting it like a Royal procession, with clapping, cheering and ecstatic flag waving. What on earth had she put in this? Put hairs on your chest and part ‘em down the middle that would, said the voice in his head.

He couldn’t argue with it. He must have been dehydrated and was surely starving. He’d no memory of eating, not even of which day he last had or what he'd eaten. He drained the cup and poured himself another. This one he sipped whilst gazing at cloud galleries.

Birds sang, the wind soughed, the clouds changed exhibits. Somewhere in the distance a cow passed a casual complaint to a friend. A decent time later, after careful reflection, the friend replied. Bees buzzed over his head and commented on this latest gossip. At length, the cows made more remarks on the gossiping bees, melodious birds and rustling leaves. Perhaps this was a busy day here.

Somewhere there had to be other people in the world and they had to be doing things; important, noisy, difficult and dangerous things. They weren’t doing any of them here and nor was he. Peace, and beef tea, soaked into Jack like warm rain into dry soil. He felt life return. When had he last felt so relaxed? Who cares, sang the birds. Enjoy it while you can, rustled the leaves. He felt himself in a pool outside the world of clock-ticking time. And it was good. He floated, exulting. He had nowhere to go and nothing to do beyond drink beef tea and relax, so, like a man climbing back into warm water, lowered himself once more into restful sleep.


He heard the clicking of heels and swishing of skirts coming towards him, opened his eyes and sat up. Um, easier than expected, he thought. The girl coming towards him was young, perhaps seventeen, dressed in something simple saying 'maid', casually pretty and, he'd swear on a stack of money, an outrageous flirt. Some things you just know, don't you? said the voice inside his head.

"Oh, you'm awake sir. How you feeling now, then? Lady Ambridge said I's to ask you if you'm well enough to take a bite for lunch with the family?"

Jack didn't fancy fighting dragons yet, but lunch and meeting his hosts...? He could do that.

"Well, that case, I laid out a change of clothes in your room. You can wash up a bit 'fore it's time to eat."

He followed her into the house and up the stairs. The view from behind was pleasant and, he'd swear, twitching more than nature intended. Farmer's daughter, came the voice in his head, knows what the bull is for and what tupping and covering mean.

She showed him into a room. Simple, but tastefully decorated with four blue walls, a change of clothing lay on the bed and a basin with a ewer of water stood on a small dresser near the window. He walked to the dresser and caught sight of himself in the mirror.
The face belonged to a stranger. Black-ringed, blood-shot, wasted eyes, sunken cheeks and, God, was there a blood cell left in his body? A line from a poem rattled in his mind, 'A face something, something, ghostly, something, whiter shade of pale.' Where did that come from? If in doubt, said the voice in his head, say Shakespeare. Bram Stoker hadn't made Dracula so pallid.

"They'm saying you was sick with the scarlet fever, sir. My mum says 'at took two of her sisters when they was young 'uns. Must have been awful. You feeling better now? "

She stood just a touch too close as she asked. Just a touch. Jack had a feeling she'd have been closer still, but that he was an obvious invalid.

"Well, if Dr. Frankenstein'd found that on his slab," he gestured with a thumb at the mirror, "He'd have burst into tears and taken up dentistry, but, yes, I suppose so. The fever's over, so I can only get better now, can't I?"

She grinned. " 'At's the spirit sir. You'll like here, I'm sure. Um, is there anything else I can get you?"

She twirled slightly as she stood, her skirts (petticoats under there?) moving and whispering. It's an excuse to stay longer, Jack thought. I haven't had enough beef tea yet, Jack thought.

"Ah, no, thanks, not for now. Though, sorry, what's your name, please?"

"Me sir? I'm Abigail, sir. Pleased to meet you, I'm sure."

She bobbed him a small curtsy, the smile on her face happy and saying, 'Knew you'd be interested.'

"And I'm Jack. Delighted to meet you."

She grinned again; twirled that tiny twirl again and paused for just a second, before bursting into giggles.

"Oh, sorry sir, you'm waiting to get changed, amn't you? I'll come back in just a bit and show you the dining room, then?"


The dining table was Jack’s image of a stately home's dining table. If Jesus had fed the five thousand here, he thought, they’d have mostly been seated. His hostess, Lady Charlotte Ambridge, was largely what he thought the lady of the Manor would be: business-like, in control and, since the men were away, in total charge. The sort of woman you'd describe as handsome and elegant, Jack imagined her fox hunting in the modern age, sharing a chariot with Boadicea in an earlier one.

He’d expected more servants than Bridie and Abigail, but, with the butler and all the other men gone; he wasn’t surprised the family had found little need (and fewer opportunities) to replace them. He hadn’t expected a governess, because he hadn’t known the family had a daughter, Deidre, absent for reasons he didn’t catch, but expected back at the weekend. Finding one, he wasn't surprised. That too fitted his preconceptions. The governess, Miss Brampton, wore her blonde hair in strict and uncomfortable-looking fastened-up braids, her mouth in a permanent moue of disapproval and, Jack decided after entire seconds of forced conversation, her mind in a strait-jacket of rules and restrictions.

The last member of the family, however, Jack had not expected to find in this country, or century, never mind this house. Eleonora Angela Ambridge, the Italian wife of Lord Percival’s younger brother, Quentin. If Janet from the doctor’s office was the grandmother, this was surely the angel granddaughter. If dictionaries had pictures, he thought, she'd be the one for gorgeous.

Strange then, he thought, that a woman who could stun most men into adoration by simply looking up at them through her long eyelashes was surely the most timid, shy and twitchy of Heaven’s inhabitants to ever exit the Pearly Gates. Afraid of her own shadow, her, he thought, a baby could see that.

Raised by a legion of aunts in houses where males were either husbands as absent as his own father or mere babies; Jack had been everyone's pet. He'd swum in a sea of other people's mothers, aunts, sisters and cousins. The married, the spinsters, the widows, the contented, the resentful: he thought he'd met the type of each one of these women somewhere before. If he didn't understand what made each one tick, he at least thought he knew the tick each would have.

Through the meal Eleonora avoided eye contact with him, whilst always giving the impression she knew where his eyes were and when they looked at her. She didn't seem any happier if he looked or didn't. If he didn't know why, Jack knew it was awkward and gave up on trying or caring until he was stronger. He concentrated his conversation on his hostess.

After the meal, Charlotte took him to the library, suggesting he'd find something interesting to read, then pointed out possible walks from the room's windows. The demesne included a holy well near the river, a pleasant walk to the mill, several places further upstream good for swimming from and a trail on the other side of the river which offered excellent views of the castle. None of them too far from the castle, she told him. Five minutes to the well, another five to either the mill or the farm on the other side of the river.

When asked, Jack admitted to enjoying sketching and was sorted out with sketchpad and pencils along with a shoulder bag to carry them in. Lady Charlotte told him to pick up sandwiches and a flask from Bridie before he went out and then left him to rest.

He took a lie down for a while and then returned to the library to pick out a book. The first thing to catch his eye was a copy of Pride and Prejudice. A book he'd heard of, but never read. Not one of the military histories he usually preferred, but snagging it saved him the energy he'd spend searching for anything else, so he dropped Jane Austin in his bag, collared sandwiches and a flask and headed out.


Charlotte found herself impressed with the boy. Surprisingly steady head on shoulders so young. She'd been prepared to put up with some Northern lout, but was charmed by his manners and the near-Scottish lilt of his accent. They discussed the War, of course, but he expressed her own idea that it should be finished by men sitting down around a conference table before the cataclysmic expense bankrupted everyone. He'd need to be careful where he expressed ideas like those. She was, certainly.

And a very handsome, athletic young man. He still looked ill, but had little of the deathly pallor which had made her wonder why he'd been put on a train at all yet. He'd asked if he'd be allowed to take a walk in the afternoon and she decided the risk to be negligible. Had boys of his age been so mature in her day, she wondered? Perhaps travel and a soldier father made the difference? She'd enjoyed talking with him. God knew it was difficult to have an intelligent conversation in the house nowadays and he was intelligent. Well, he agreed with her. But there was something more. He'd been polite, but a polite equal. And that, if she hadn't looked at the youth in his face, had been very welcome. You need to get up to Town, Charlotte, she thought, you're turning into mad Aunt Guinevere.


The faces on the wall monitored his progress across the grass.

"Isn't this too early?" asked the woman.

"He'll find he doesn't have the stamina he thinks he has, but he's no fool, he won't hurt himself. This is like him, isn't it?"

True, she had to admit. She might not want Jack up and walking around yet, but asking him not to was asking him not to be Jack.

"But why are they letting him do this?"

Did the crack forming the lips purse?

"They'll tend to let him have his head."

"He's controlling them?"

"No, no. Nothing so direct. He can't make them do anything they wouldn't normally. They aren't mesmerised by him. He'll merely get his own way a touch more easily. Though, you know him better than I, hasn't he always?"

Yes, she thought. Her darling boy had always been one of nature's princes. Born to lead and be followed, Jack had been talking people into doing what he wanted since he'd been able to talk.

She nodded.


The thing lurched, naked and ghastly white, through the shade of the trees. It looked, Turing thought, like the leavings from a shark’s interrupted feeding frenzy: dead, drowned and partly digested. The left eye was a ragged hole; the left side of the face a skinless mess of bloodless meat; the left arm a stump. The left leg was attached, but something had removed most of the quadriceps. It must once have been male, but the genitals were missing. Its skin had a look that suggested long immersion, seemed, indeed, to be dripping. The look in its remaining eye was one of tortured agony. The mouth moved, but no sounds came from it. The thing shuddered to a stop when it saw Jack on the grass, gave a soundless scream then staggered towards him. Turing caused his face to project from the trees between it and Jack. When it saw him, the thing stopped, writhing as if caught in a net, the mouth moving as though pleading.

“No,” Turing told it. “This is your place for now. Later you may go to him.”

The thing twisted in soundless agony, but could not break the line of Turing’s barrier. It turned and moved back, further under the trees, further from Jack.

Early, thought Turing. Too early. He’d not predicted there would be any yet, but he already knew there would be more by tonight. Even so, he could hold them back until Jack recovered his strength and was ready to battle them. Soon, however, Miss Mason would see them. And it wasn’t hard to predict that would bring trouble.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Two bits I did for The Source

The Source is a local free magazine. My friend Khudayja works as an associate editor there and she got me writing for it. I've done a number of pieces for them and realised recently that it was those pieces which made me feel like a writer when the work on Virus was stalled and I could convince myself that someone who'd only had one idea for a story really qualified. now that I've had a second and am working on it, I still feel that getting published in The Source counts for something and am writing for them. these are my latest two bits. I'm going to go back through the other articles I've written and put them up here. It's more to fill in space than anything, but this is supposed to be my writing, so I should have been putting them up from the beginning.
This is on the issue of single sex education.

As a father of a 12-year-old daughter and as a teacher, I have mixed feelings about single-sex education. Girls definitely do better under it in terms of their results. Boys tend to grab more teacher time, both because they grab it and because teachers give it to them – studies confirm that. Girls tend to be less inclined to contribute to lessons because of the harassment they can get from the boys. In the teenage years, classrooms can become the stages where boys act out to show how independent they are, so disrupting lessons. They can also be just another place where potential girlfriends are and, since some boys' idea of wooing is to make a nuisance of themselves, can lead to individual girls being disturbed.
However, that is the real world. So, creating an artificial space where girls might succeed in learning how to deal with fractions, but not the rest of the human race, might just move a problem to later in life. Girls become women who want to find jobs and most jobs mean interacting with men in the workplace. And, while most teenage girls find teenage boys to be immature, they can sometimes find that easier to deal with than the intensity of girls in groups. It also seems to be the case that girls who are continuously around boys are less interested in them. Since they aren't forbidden fruit, girls learn to be less fascinated. Well, I hope so, anyway. 

And this one on the importance of music education. Aki has studied piano since she was about five. It's a big part of her life now. Just hearing her play through her current pieces Habana and Toreador from Carmen, blows me away. Aki can work out songs she likes on both piano and flute. She played a Green Day number for her last performance (Boulevard of Broken Dreams). We pay for her to have lessons and we think it is worth it just to be able to have that contact with music. This is about some of the other things it can add. 

Music – an extra, or an essential?
Unless your child is going to become a concert musician, argue some, then music lessons are only for fun and can distract children from 'serious' studies. In the case of classes which require the children to be pulled out of another class for individual tuition, these people would argue, it can positively hurt their education by taking time away from the real work.  The argument might seem to make sense, but research disputes it.
Researchers in Hamilton, Ohio, USA, documented that students participating in a string pull out program scored higher on the reading, mathematics and citizenship portions of the Ohio Proficiency Test (OPT), than their non-music peers.
This study paired string and non-music students based on their verbal Cognitive Abilities Test (COGAT). Four groups of string students were released two times a week for instruction. Later, two of those four groups scored significantly higher on the reading and mathematics portion of the OPT than their non-music peers. Additionally, 68% of the string students scored at grade level or higher on all four sections of the test compared to 58% of the non-music students.
In high school, the results are also convincing. Every year juniors and seniors take the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT) for college admissions . These scores reflect several years of education and are intended to judge a person's over-all education.
SAT scores of students who studied music surpassed students who had not. Data collected from students taking the SAT indicated that students taking music and arts averaged scores that were higher than non-music students by 60 points on the verbal section and 43 points on the math section.
 The effect is cumulative with SAT scores improving for every year a student studies music. Additionally, studies have found that musicians tend to have better verbal memory and a better ability with learning foreign languages.
Why this should be is not 100% clear. Partly, it seems to be with brain growth. The brains of kids who started music before the age of five show a thicker corpus colostrum – the link between the left and right sides of the brain. An argument is that certain neural pathways are strengthened by music study and that these pathways are shared with other skills.
Another argument is that music training helps develop habits which transfer to learning other skills. In the case of foreign languages it can be the training of the ear to hear notes that allows a child to better hear things such as accent. With maths it could just be the discipline that helps a child go back to a difficult bit and practise it again and again until they've got it. And for English, it can't hurt that a student is routinely practising memorising sequences of notes that we name by the letters of the alphabet.
Another argument is that student confidence is built up by the habit of success. Work on a piece of music and you demonstrate that you can master it. Someone who does this often can easily come to believe they can master anything if they work on it, an attitude that often proves itself true.
Equally, children who study music tend to have more friends and, perhaps, more to talk with them about. Band members are forced into developing social skills, discipline and the ability to co-operate which are hallmarks of successful modern workers. Music students are also used to meeting with adults one-to-one and communicating and building relations with them. Such children are less likely to feel shy of asking questions to their class teachers.