A Triptych Tale...

The Valley

A Triptych Tale

 

‘Why did the old school close?’

I’m having tea with Jean in her sunny kitchen. She’s bending over the sink, rinsing out the pot. Her back stiffens when I ask my question and there’s a pause before she starts up again with the spooning out of leaves and pouring of steamy water. When she turns around her face is open and scrubbed-bright as ever. She’s in her sixties but could pass for ten years younger. Alex says it’s all the smiling.

‘So lovely that spring is here,’ she says. ‘It’s always a relief when the winter’s over. Are you looking forward to your first summer in the valley?’

I say that I am, and start to explain about Poppy’s illness, how it clogs her lungs and weakens her with constant infections. How taking her away from city pollutants might give her more of a chance. I talk on; Jean sips tea and listens, and it’s only later that I realise we’d left my query hanging in the sunbeamed air, unanswered.

I say, ‘We were so lucky that a cottage came up for rent here and that the estate accepted us as tenants ― I think it helped that we were coming for Poppy’s health.’

Jean nods and turns her head so her expression is hidden in the fall of her thick, corn-blond hair. There’s a deliberation in the movement, a curtain-down on the conversation, and I wonder if I’ve been insensitive, whether there were local young people keen to move into our cottage and Jean thinks we’ve pushed them away to the town beyond the high slope of the hill; made them sad and rootless like so many rural kids displaced from their homeland by better-off city incomers.

And it’s not like that with us: Alex and I aren’t rich, and I grew up in the country, further down towards the Bristol Channel. This is north, for me, this long, curved-bowl valley that shapes part of the border between England and Wales.

‘We’re keen to get involved in the community,’ I say, ‘we want to be part of everything and not take this lovely place for granted. Give something back.’

Jean goes to the fridge and reaches for the milk. ‘That’s good,’ she says, nodding in that odd, stilted way again, ‘very good. We’re glad to hear that.’ She opens a cupboard and brings out a jar with a crimped, cotton-gingham lid. ‘Honey from our bees. For Poppy. It’ll help build her up.’

#

The abandoned school lies at the end of the village and I wander down to have a closer look at it later that afternoon. It’s still in good condition, well proportioned, with solid red-brick walls under high gables and a border full of daffodils at the front. The air is layered with birdsong and I sit and listen, imagining how the children would have played there in the yard, marking out chalk hopscotch squares, skipping, playing with bean bags and footballs.

Later that night, I tell Alex about my visit to Jean and how she avoided answering my question. ‘There’s a story behind that school closure, I’m sure of it.’

‘A lot of small, rural schools close. It’s all to do with economies of scale.’ He butters a chunk of my homemade seed bread. ‘It stands to reason that they can’t keep a school going for ― what? Twenty children?’

‘About that.’

Alex says, ‘It barely makes up a class, and they’re all different ages anyway. They have to travel out of the valley for the secondary school so it’s just as well they get used to the journey from the start.’

‘There’s a story behind that school closure, I’m sure of it.’

‘It seems a shame though. It would have been nice for Poppy to lose the stress of the travelling.’

‘She’s all right ― she’s so much better since we’ve been here, far less tired. And she’s plumper.’ He drizzles Jean’s honey over the buttery bread and I watch it catch the lamplight, clear and liquid gold. ‘By the way, did you mention the other thing that’s been puzzling us?’

I shake my head. ‘No, I got distracted.’

‘Be good to know though, wouldn’t it, why she’s got that windsock by her gate. I’m starting to wonder whether she’s got a secret landing strip behind her cottage. And there’s all those hefty fortifications on her outbuilding …’ He grins, and gives me a conspiratorial wink. ‘I reckon she’s a drug runner … or imports immigrants for slave labour … ’

‘You’ve been reading too many thrillers. It’s a cow barn, you can see all the stalls when the door’s open. Maybe there’s been some rustling going on ― I know there’ve been reports of animal theft in the papers. And farm equipment is very nickable.’

‘Sign of the times perhaps, then. Still, I can’t really see the valley as a crime hotspot, whatever dodgy business Jean might have going on.’

I treat him to a look. ‘The thing is, Jean’s cottage isn’t the only one with a windsock. Most of the cottages have got them ― windsocks or oversized weathervanes. It’s odd ― why’s everyone so bothered about which way the wind’s blowing?’

Alex shrugs. To him, everything that isn’t city is strange and new. He hasn’t had the benefit of my country upbringing although, to be fair, he’s trying to acclimatise. He’s bought a book on gardening and keeps telling me how all the tender plants in our garden shouldn’t thrive this far north.

I’ve come to realise that this is how the valley is ― special. Everything grows tall and strong, everyone is happy. All the animals look like show-winners: big-muscled Herefords with smooth chestnut coats and curled fringes, lambs with haunches rounded under springy fleeces. They’re mild-natured, too. There’s a bull in the field we cross on the way to the school bus, over two hundred stones of flesh, bone and testosterone, and as we walk, he watches peaceably from amongst his harem, cropping the grass and giving an occasional amiable swish of his tail.

I’ve come to realise that this is how the valley is ― special.

The other mothers at the bus stop are welcoming to Poppy and me. She is invited to play, I am offered surplus eggs, jars of chutney and advice on my new garden. There are shadows, though, every time I ask questions about the old village school. Mouths tighten, eyes lose their warmth, and I, anxious not to alienate them, drop the subject and resort to the internet.

‘It was shut down back in the summer of 1963.’ I relate my findings to Alex after an afternoon of research. ‘A little boy had died there the previous November. According to the inquest, something happened to the paraffin stove in the classroom and he managed to set himself on fire. None of the children knew what to do to help him.’

‘Where on earth were the teachers?’

‘It happened in the middle of a severe storm. It sounds like one of those awful stories of “if onlys,” you know? The headmaster and his teacher were outside trying to catch the head’s two dogs who’d gone berserk ― presumably with the noise of the thunder ― so the adults had no idea what was going on. When they came back in, the boy, Derek Wilson, was dead. Both members of staff resigned and the school was closed.’ Alex frowns. ‘The newspaper archive said that Derek was being fostered by one of the villagers. He was a lad from Birmingham who’d come to recuperate after a bout of polio. He had a calliper on his leg so he couldn’t move away quickly enough when the stove tipped over and he couldn’t get away from the flames.’

‘Surely one of the kids could have done something? There must have been more of them back then and some of them would have been almost senior age. Practical country kids as well, they’d have known what to do.’

‘It didn’t mention any specific attempts to help.’ I’d felt, when I read the report, that the omission was significant, but I don’t expand on this to Alex now. ‘I expect they just froze in panic. And it probably all happened very fast.’

‘Nasty little story. No wonder no one will talk about it.’

‘Like poor Jean. She’s the right age to have been there at the time. I feel insensitive for asking now. It’s not the sort of thing a child’s ever going to forget witnessing.’

‘Nasty little story. No wonder no one will talk about it.’

‘You weren’t to know.’ Alex looks past me out the window. ‘That windsock really is such a strange thing to have in a cottage garden. Surely it wouldn’t be a problem to ask Jean about that. I’m getting more and more curious.’ He tips back on his chair to get a better view. ‘Tell you what I have noticed. It’s always pointing in the same direction. The wind seems to blow down the valley and never the other way. The hills must funnel it so that it gets forced down towards the narrow gap between those cliffs at the far end.’

I frown at him. ‘I can see how it funnels, but surely it must change direction sometimes. It’s only logical.’

‘Except that it doesn’t. You keep a look-out and see.’

Alex is right. I develop a minor obsession with Jean’s orange windsock but there it is every day, swaying in one direction only.

#

I spend my Poppy-free mornings exploring the lanes and footpaths. I take our two spaniels; our elderly dog, Bimbo, has gained a new lease of life since we came to the valley and keeps up easily with Jackson, the younger one. The sun shines, growing brighter and warmer as the spring advances. Wood anemones line the track through the copse, primroses clump into groups like fallen spots of sunshine. Lambs skitter in the fields and the air holds the scent of hay and blossom.

One day, I decide to hunt for Derek Wilson in the churchyard, and find him in the shade of the yew tree. He has a headstone of polished granite carved with his name and a startling bas-relief of a crying angel. His youth is unusual, I notice, although I can see four other child-graves more recent than his. On the whole, they’re long-lived here, the local families: not many early deaths, even in the olden days of disease and infant mortality. The few there are stand out, not least because they seem to be tended more than the others, endowed with trinkets and other paraphernalia. Even the more ancient graves, grizzled with lichen and weather-chipped, are decorated with pots of fresh flowers. Someone must still feel a responsibility for them to take the time to make them pretty.

The families are tight in the valley, loyal, the bloodlines thick. Every time I think about how they’ve let us come here, I feel a quick rush of gratitude. They’ve allowed us in, allowed us a chance to build our own line. Boys with Poppy’s condition are infertile, but the girls are not, and maybe it’s not too much to hope that Poppy may grow up past the limited life span the London doctors had allocated to her, grow to adulthood and marry one of the strong young valley lads who’ll look after her and allow some of his vigour to pass into her. Maybe a grandchild for Alex and me would not be too much of a miracle if we continue living here.

Every time I think about how they’ve let us come here, I feel a quick rush of gratitude.

Poppy is six now. It’s a while since she’s had one of her infections and her lungs must be strengthening. I can see her running after the others when they play together at weekends, and some of the time she can almost catch them. I like to watch her, willing her on. Come on Poppy, you can do it. You can be as quick as them. I leave Derek Wilson’s shrine and sit on the low stone wall that borders the churchyard, close my eyes and point my face to the sun, whispering, ‘Thank you, whoever you are, for bringing us to the valley.’

#

‘We’ve become intrigued by your windsock,’ I tell Jean. We’re in my kitchen this time, late afternoon. She’s brought over some new-laid eggs for me. ‘It seems a bit redundant seeing as the wind direction never changes.’

She turns her head away but not quickly enough for me to miss that look in her eye. There’s a flash of fear ― and something that looks a little like pity.

I feel a prickle of unease. ‘Everyone appears to have some sort of wind-vane but why? The breeze is always gentle here.’

‘Not always.’ Jean stands so abruptly that her tea slops from its mug to form a tiny slick on the table. She picks up her bag, ‘Thank you for the tea. You’re so kind.’ And then she’s off, almost at a run, not pausing to shut the gate behind her.

‘It was a bit spooky,’ I tell Alex later. ‘I like Jean, she’s normally so smiley, but it was like I’d trespassed onto a complete no-go area and she looked almost … guilty, I’d say. And it’s pretty weird. I was only talking about the weather.’

‘Perhaps she’s got some sort of weather phobia.’ Alex stands up and ambles over to the window. ‘People have phobias about very peculiar things. I shouldn’t worry about it.’ He turns to smile. ‘Have you seen Poppy playing out there with the other kids? You’d never guess she had cystic fibrosis, would you?’

I move to join him, put my head on his shoulder. ‘No. It’s changed her, being here. I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently. There must be some magic elixir in that wind everyone’s so aware of. Perhaps we should get our own wind-vane, if they’re that vital.' I snuggle into his side, enjoy the peace of our togetherness, the warmth.

My body is relaxed from walking; like Poppy, I’ve been growing fitter since we’ve been in the valley. My calves manage the gradient up to the rim of our scooped-out, fecund cwm as easily as the lambs that follow me and it’s become a daily treat for me, tracing the narrow path through the fields that lie behind the village, knee-deep now with bright spring flowers, and then taking the hill at a stride, kicking through the tiny furls of new bracken amongst the russet spread of the old, and coming abruptly out at the top. The air seems thinner when I leave the comfort of the valley and stand looking down on it, finding our cottage amongst the cluster of tile roofs sprinkling out from the church. The colours harmonise into muted slate and oak timbers linked by green; the orange and white dots of nylon garden windsocks add an odd, jarring note to the organic whole. Anachronistic, unnatural.

It’s unusual that I meet anyone on my hikes up to the rim of the valley bowl. The other mothers seem content to stay within the confines of the village and its hinterland of fields. No one else feels the need to stretch, and breathe, and see what’s over the horizon. Maybe it’s because I’m new here that the blossom-scented air sometimes catches in my throat, too fragrant, too sultry; that the more I walk the familiar paths, the more my spirit kicks to roam free. I ask Jean for suggestions for places to visit, lesser-known byways to explore, but she shakes her head, pointing at the swell of the hill, the wave of the fields. The cage of orchard, coppice and knoll. I ask the mothers at school but they smile and shrug, tell me that nowhere will ever match the beauty of the valley.

...white dots of nylon garden windsocks add an odd, jarring note to the organic whole. Anachronistic, unnatural.

A few days after Jean’s flight from our kitchen, I decide on a radical change of route. One end of our valley slopes up to the plateau at the top but the other narrows into a gap between high cliffs of weather-sculpted sandstone which the locals call The Craw. I pack a few sandwiches and some water into a backpack and set off in the opposite direction from my normal ramblings, the graveyard at my back and the dark height of the valley’s neck some three miles off in the distance.

An hour into my trip, the angle of the hillside sharpens vertically and the sun is lost to me, the season still too early for it to rise above the incline. There are trees packed close here in the shade and I shiver, under-clothed, smelling the sweetish must of leaf-mould as it rots down into the earth. I can see why the villagers told me not to bother coming out here. The air hangs still with a waiting quiet, like the valley is holding its breath. Despite the soft decomposing layers on the path, the tread of my boots sounds loud and intrusive.

As I approach closer to the rocks, the atmosphere grows ever more chill and dank, as if the sandstone is porous, sucking down any residual heat into its core. I begin to look forward to scrambling up to the summit; to regain the light and warmth of the day and, I hope, to see a new perspective on our valley and the flat plain on the other side of The Craw, but when I near the base of the cliff I realise that it is fenced around with a tight-packed line of ten-foot metal palings, sharpened at the top like spears, and bound round with a knotted weave of ivy.

I stop, then continue slowly, wondering if there might be a gap. A few yards on I halt again and stand, staring. A sort of cairn is built out from the fence, a pile of objects: eclectic objects, but mostly toys. Old teddies, half-rotted and weather-faded. A doll’s pram with a baby doll tucked into it, the brittle plastic of the face cracked across the forehead. Some metal trains in a tin box. There are rags, which might once have been clothing, melding now into the damp vegetation. I pull at the wheels of a rusty bike and dislodge it. There are older-looking toys behind it, a hoop and a croquet mallet. Something falls to the earth with a soft thud, and I reach for it, dragging it past the bike into the open. Twin metal struts bound in two places by preserved, dried-out leather, a construction roughly the length of a young lad’s leg. It smells of decay; the backs of the leather straps are dotted with pale mould and as I run my fingers over the pitted surface of the steel splints, I find that my hands are shaking.

There are rags, which might once have been clothing, melding now into the damp vegetation.

I replace the collection back as I’d found it and retrace my steps. My shirt is sticking to my back despite the sunless chill; I’m moving fast, pushed on by a kind of reverse magnetism, feeling that I’ve lifted a stone and seen the hidden life that teems, slides and scuttles beneath it. After a hundred yards or so, I look back. I can no longer see the cairn obscured beneath the shadows of the towering sandstone pillar and the cliff seems to stand impenetrable, ancient rock folding back into a silent darkness the colour of dried blood.

#

At home, Alex notices that I am quiet and comes up to me, rubbing my back and stroking his fingers through my hair. ‘Have you overdone it? It’s a punishing walk to The Craw and back. What was the view like when you got there? Was it worth the hike?’

I shake my head. ‘No. It’s all fenced off. You can’t get up to the top.’

‘Oh, shame. Perhaps a kid or someone fell off and they closed the access. Health and safety bollocks and all that.’

I say nothing. I want to tell Alex about the sad relics heaped against the rock base, but I can’t seem to find the words. I’ve started to frame thoughts that I’m afraid to voice, afraid that I might pollute our perfect life here if I spill any hint of these toxic, festering imaginings. I wonder what will happen to us if I stop believing and then I wonder whether my introspection is tilting my perspective towards doubt and irrational fear. Perhaps it’s time I should think about finding a job again now that Poppy is stronger ― in the town, not here in the valley. Somewhere where the air is sharper and grittier, where the breeze slaps from all directions and has no hint of sweetness.

I detach myself from the comfort of Alex’s body and go outside to the herb garden to gather some rosemary to flavour the meat. I can see the cows in the field behind Jean’s cottage; a few of them are lying down, their legs tucked under them. I stroke the narrow rosemary leaves before I cut the stalk; the bruised fragrance catches at me.

Alex joins me. ‘Glorious, isn’t it?’

I hesitate, then say carefully, ‘I’m not so sure anymore. I’m starting to find the valley almost sinister, in an odd sort of way. Everything is so lush ― the air, the grass ― it’s like everything’s saturated with perfection.’

‘So? That’s why we love it here, isn’t it? Our own Eden.’ Alex gives me a look and nods over at the cows. ‘Still, you’re not alone in feeling overcome. It certainly seems like it’s all too much for them.’

‘It means it’s going to rain. They can sense it. They lie down to conserve body heat.’

‘Rain? Here? I don’t think so.’

‘Of course it rains, how do you think everything grows so green and rich?’

Alex shrugs. ‘I can’t remember it raining.’

‘It certainly seems like it’s all too much for them.’

‘That’s because it only ever rains at night, and it’s that sort of steady, gentle rain that never makes much of a noise.’ I shake my head. ‘See? It’s not like other places. It’s unnatural.’

‘I refer you back to my previous comment.’ His voice hardens. ‘What’s up with you? We were worried sick about Poppy, you agitate to move out of London and force me into coming here. So we come, and it’s great! I like it, Poppy’s thriving, and still you can’t stop chucking stones into the mill pond.’

My eyes smart. Alex says, more gently, ‘Look, you spend too much time on your own. You must miss all your old friends, and wandering around alone all day is not the healthiest. Next week, how about we revamp your CV together and see if there are any opportunities out there, eh?’

‘Okay.’

‘Okay. Good. When you’re back in the grubby old real world, you’ll soon start appreciating this place again.’

#

The following evening, the cows are missing. I can hear them, lowing and bellowing in their massive fortified shed. Poppy is invited to play with the other children in her friend’s wooded garden beyond the school and I walk down with her. All the animals have gone from the fields and the land is silent and bare, empty of everything but scattered hay bales and deserted feeders.

When I come back, Jackson, the younger spaniel, is panting, and circles around my feet so much I almost fall over him. I ask Alex, ‘Please could you take him out for a bit? He’s got himself overexcited.’

Alex isn’t listening. He’s bending over, peering through the window. ‘Do you know, that bloody windsock’s pointing the other way!’

I look over at Jean’s cottage. The sock is billowing out, distended. Above, there are clouds forming, the first I’ve seen in daylight since we came here: high up cumulonimbus, black and angry-edged. And then a lower cloud, a swift, swooping body of darkness that has a sound to it: a screeching, cawing, frenetic loop of noise.

‘Christ!’ Alex says, ‘Look at those birds!’

In a minute, they’re gone, away down the valley, circling out to the west to fly wide of The Craw, and I can see the trees again at the edge of the garden. The wind is strengthening and the branches are bending away from the direction they’ve moulded into. There’s a creaking as they protest, a moaning as the air is forced through them. There’s another sound as well: barking, then a high yowl of pain and terror. I say to Alex, ‘Where did Jackson go?’ and then I see him by the path, straddling something coloured liver and white, jaws locked. I shout, ‘Bimbo! Jackson’s attacking Bimbo, Alex! For God’s sake, go and stop him!’

There’s a creaking as they protest, a moaning as the air is forced through them.

I watch through the window as Alex runs down the path, hauls on Jackson’s collar to pull him off his old friend. Watch how Jackson rounds on Alex, his muzzle stained with Bimbo’s blood. Bimbo lies lifeless on the ground and I see Alex, both hands clamped around Jackson’s flailing body, kick open the door to the old outdoor privy and chuck the thrashing, barking animal inside.

When he comes back, his face is drained of colour. He has a deep gash by his wrist where Jackson’s teeth have caught him and his pale T-shirt has smears of red across the chest.

He sits down at the table and stares at his arm. ‘Bloody dog’s gone nuts. I don’t understand it. He was never upset by storms in London.’ His voice breaks. ‘He’s done for poor old Bimbo as well, gentle silly thing. I’ll take Jackson to the vet tomorrow ― I can’t risk him being like this around Poppy. And I’m bloody glad she didn’t have to witness that.’

I run the tap and soak some kitchen paper, press it up against the cut by Alex’s hand. ‘I think we ought to fetch Poppy back.’

Rain smacks against the window. The sky outside is graduated grey to black; clouds bank, pushing against each other, plunging up the valley. Up through The Craw.

Alex says, ‘You must be joking. She’ll be inside with the others, tucked up in the warm. We’ll go down when the rain eases.’

I say nothing. The blood seeps through the wet paper, marbled, like yellow fat through raw meat. Like Bimbo’s ripped-apart body.

I think of the cows locked away before the storm. The lack of any neighbourly warnings. My body convulses in an involuntary shiver and Alex winces as I press too hard on his wrist.

‘Sorry.’

‘S’okay.’

‘I had that feeling ― like Mum always used to say, someone’s walking over my grave.’

‘Jackson’s shocked you. Shocked both of us.’ Alex peels the paper away and touches the edge of his wound with a finger. ‘He made a good job of it, I’ll give him that.’

‘Alex, what I was saying yesterday … about moving …’

‘I thought we’d agreed you’d look for a job?’

‘I don’t think that’s the problem … it’s more than that. More than just feeling bored and suffocated.’ I see his mouth tightening, his face closing into resistance. ‘Listen to me Alex, I’m serious. I’m genuinely worried there’s something not right going on. I want to move away. Soon. Tomorrow.’

He takes a deep breath. Pauses. ‘Jackson, just now … was … distressing. Terrible. I realise that, but he could have something wrong with him. A medical condition .. brain tumour ― we’ll ask for an autopsy when the vet’s dealt with him.’

‘I’m genuinely worried there’s something not right going on.’

‘And what if he finds nothing?’

‘Then we’ll put it down to a sad, one-off random event. It doesn’t have to affect our decision to carry on living here.’

‘We don’t fit here.’

‘Rubbish. The valley people have been really welcoming ― think how they were so accommodating when we applied for the house, especially when they heard about Poppy’s problem.’

‘I’ve started to believe they let us settle here for a reason.’

‘Yes, compassion.’

I shake my head and back away, resting my hip against the sink for support. My brain is sifting images, spinning, making connections so fast I find I’m holding my breath.

I think of the wind outside pushing through The Craw, stirring up the rust sand of its surface and bringing it up the valley to the village; particles of primeval dust streaming through air whipped to a roaring tumult, like a baying from that great deep red throat.

I say, ‘It’s the valley. It’s caught us. Trapped us. Chosen us.’

‘For Christ’s sake ― ’

‘Derek Wilson was an outsider.’ I feel my body start to shake. ‘They allowed him in for a reason, too.’ I see Alex staring at me like I’m as mad as Jackson. I say, ‘It’s demanding a sacrifice in return for all it gives …’

My mind races on, ‘It’s the only explanation. The wind through The Craw. It changes the children and the animals, makes them savage … turns them into killers. That’s what happened to Derek Wilson ― they set him alight and watched him die.’

‘But that’s lunacy! If there was any truth in any of this fantasy and the valley people were aware ― and believe me, I’m giving none of this the slightest little bit of credence ― surely they’d keep the children in and safe and guarded if they knew something like that was going to happen?’

‘Like they do the animals? Securely bolted away like Jean’s cows are now?’

‘Yes, exactly …’ He trails off, and I see his mouth is hanging slightly open.

‘It’s because they need to let it happen, don’t you see? They turn their backs and let the children do their worst and bring the valley what it asks for so that the perfect life here can continue for everyone. Those overblown graves are nothing but monuments to guilt! And they make damn sure their own children won’t be marked out for the slaughter. They allow one in who’ll be the runt, the one they’ll naturally turn on. Like Derek Wilson with his calliper.’ I clench my hands into fists. ‘Christ Alex, I even found that bloody calliper down by The Craw.’

Alex’s eyes are blank with disbelief. He reaches out his uninjured hand and holds me tight on the arm. ‘Calm down. Breathe deeply, and calm down. This is absolute raving superstitious madness. Tomorrow, I’m going to run you down to the doctor and ―’

I twist sideways and shake myself free. I think of Poppy and the illness that makes her slow and I pull the door open and start to run, down the cobbled front path slick with rain and spilt blood, past Bimbo’s savaged body, and off towards the ground at the back of the school where Poppy had been invited to play. I run, unconscious of the squalling rain and the cut of the wind, pounding across the fields, smashing wild flowers into the earth under my feet.

Liz Kershaw lives and writes in the English/Welsh folklore-rich border country, finding inspiration in the hills and rich secluded valleys. She was selected this year as part of Writing West Midlands (UK)’s best emerging writers program, and won a national competition (run by Pan Macmillan) for the best opening of a crime story, 2013.