A four-hour journey, four at least, heading south. He'd almost missed the train. Missed the one before it and dozed while waiting for this one, and when it came almost missed it too. But in the carriage, far too warm in there, stifling, few windows open, harsh sunlight turning diamond window scratches into wounds, he again grew drowsy, again dozed.
'Is this seat taken?'
He jerked awake. Shook his head. The enquirer seated himself across the table from him, diagonally, stretched his legs, tried to get a conversation going, but he, still more inclined towards sleep than chat with a stranger about nothing that interested him, pulled up a newspaper stuffed down the side of his seat. He unfolded it, read the headline: HITLER ESCAPES EXPLOSION IN BEER CELLAR. He blinked. Read it again. And again. He sought the date of the paper. Thursday, November 9, 1939. Muddle-headed, he looked out of the sun-grazed window, at bland countryside and pre-war houses that gave nothing away. He glanced about him, at the two people within his limited angle of view. The sports coat of the man sharing his table was as timeless as his bad toupee. The woman in grey tweed across the aisle was reading what appeared to be a library book. The interior of the train also told him nothing. More than a little alarmed, questioning his sanity, he considered the prospect that this was indeed 1939 and that he'd imagined his life. Or dreamed it.
That life. That year. As field days go, the second Tuesday of August was a corker for the British tabloids.
ARTIST CROSSES U.S. CHURCH
A CONDOM TOO FAR!
ART WORLD CRUCIFIXION
The broadsheets were rather more restrained, relegating the story to modest pieces on inside pages, but the rolling TV news looped it all day long. Some reports included the outraged face of Reverend Stoner of The Church of God's Great Light, based in Traverse, Mississippi, who offered a million dollar reward for the life of the artist. 'The bullet of the Lord shall be borne upon the wings of Salvation to the blasphemous heart of Willard Tench!' roared the apoplectic reverend.
The work in question, Bones of Golgotha, was a two metre tall scarecrow made of animal bones, filthy rags and used condoms. Its head was a First World War gas mask. A large wooden cross, upside-down, dangled sporran-like from a chain around its waist. In no time, reporters, photographers and camera crews were blocking the pavement outside the house in Alpha Road. Peeking out through the curtains, Will said: 'I don't believe this.'
'Well I bloody do,' said Nina. 'I warned you. Just asking for trouble, I said. Remember that?'
'Shortlisted for the Turner,' he reminded her.
'I can't believe you're actually proud of that,' she snarled.
'Not that it stands a chance. Far too pedestrian compared with pickled cows, light bulbs that go on and off, coats draped over chairs. It's just a spot of whimsy anyway. Christians can usually handle stuff like that.'
'Clearly not this Mississippi faction, even if it has taken four months for the news to ruffle their holy feathers. Now come away from that window please!'
It quickly became known as the 'American Fatwa', a joke to many, but not Nina, who agitated for their absence from home until the kerfuffle 'died down' as she put it, generating a laugh from Will, who would have none of it - 'Are you kidding? You can't buy publicity like this!' - an attitude that changed the night they returned from an evening with Wendy and Don. No lingering reporters at that time. Always a relief for Nina.
'What the hell?' Will said, pushing at the front door.
Forcing their way in, they found their two year old Labrador, Brancusi, spread-eagled on the inside of the door, throat slit, all four paws nailed to the wood.
Of the two, Will was the quickest to react in any way that might be considered positive. While Nina ranted and wailed he put in a call to the police. A pair of uniforms duly turned up. The female officer was the more affected by what she saw. The man stared without flinching - 'Not a dog lover meself' - while the WPC joined Nina in the kitchen. By this time fury had taken hold of Will; fury he turned briefly on the copper - briefly because the man was used to householder rage and unwilling to suffer it.
'Don't take it out on me, pal, I'm just responding to the call.'
Will told him of the threat on his life, which rang bells with the man - 'Oh, that's you, is it?' - after which he arranged for Brancusi to be taken away and promised to follow up any leads.
'Not dog leads,' he added, barely suppressing a smirk.
Nina was upstairs when people arrived to take Brancusi away. When she came down she was carrying a bulging suitcase. Will asked nothing, but his question was in his expression.
'You don't seriously think I'm staying here after this, do you?' Nina said.
'So where are you going? Back to Wendy's?'
'No. Out of Cambridge.'
'What about me?'
'What am I supposed to do?'
'Do whatever you want. Stay here or come with, up to you.'
'I'll get some things.'
She waited in the car, engine running. He chucked his bag onto the back seat and climbed in beside her. She was off before he'd clicked his seat belt, hands rigid on the steering wheel, knuckles white, expression fixed, unreadable. They were some fifteen miles along the A428 when she suddenly screamed, drove a few hundred metres further as the echo of the scream died, and pulled over to the verge, and to a halt.
'What?' Will said.
'What?' she yelled. 'What do you think? What do you think!'
'Just sit here a while. Let it all out.'
She didn't let it all out. Merely sat, staring straight ahead.
'This is down to you,' she said at last.
He groped for some sort of defence, couldn't find one. 'I know. I know. I don't know what else to tell you.'
She got out of the car. He watched her go round the front of it. Come to his side, open his door.
'You drive,' she said. 'I'm too fucking angry to be safe on the road.'
He got out. 'Drive where?'
'Didn't I already answer that?'
'I don't know, did you?'
'I said anywhere. I don't care. Anywhere, anywhere.'
They switched seats. 'I don't think we should go far while we're like this,' he said.
'While we're like this?' she snapped. 'You seem to be handling it pretty damn well.'
'I don't think it's hit me yet.'
She slapped him round the back of the head. 'Does that help?'
'Nene…' he said plaintively.
'Just drive, goddammit!'
He drove just a few miles, to the forecourt of a hotel on the edge of Huntingdon.
'Hell of a way,' Nina muttered.
'We'll spend the night here. See what the morning brings.'
'I can tell you that now. It'll bring the very strong wish to kill whoever did that to that lovely creature.'
He went into the hotel and took a room for the night. Returning for their bags, he had to coax her out of the car. Entering the hotel, she didn't look at the receptionist, merely followed Will to the lift.
Next morning she still had little to say other than that she wanted to get as far away from Cambridge as possible.
'Ending up where?' he asked.
'I don't care. I really, really don't care.'
The A1 being so convenient, he drove north. Approaching Lincoln, again asking for suggestions, receiving only a noncommittal grunt, he turned west, towards Chesterfield and the Peak District. He stopped the car a couple of times in the National Park, for a break or refreshment, then headed for the Yorkshire Dales, where they spent the night at a small faux olde-worlde tavern. The following morning they went on - always he drove; Nina had no interest in driving, she said - to Carlisle, signs for it at least, at sight of which she said, 'Not there, I don't want a city, any city,' and north-east for seventy miles or so, deep into Northumberland, where two things happened in fairly quick succession. The first was that he became exasperated with driving for the sake of it, under her rancorous instruction or to her bitter silence, with no destination in mind. The second was his realisation of their proximity to the house he'd seen a few weeks earlier for the first time in twenty-five years. There'd been a For Sale sign at the foot of the hill then, and it was there still, but maybe, he thought, maybe...
'If it's for sale they won't want to rent it out,' Nina said when he mentioned this, 'and if it's empty there won't be any furniture.'
'They might. There might be.'
As it turned out, the house was rentable, on a temporary basis, and the owners - a Mr and Mrs Morley - had abandoned most of the furnishings and implements when they moved away for 'family reasons'. Will learnt this from the landlord of the village pub, who the Morleys had commissioned to show prospective buyers round - something he hadn't needed to do once, there having been no interest in the many months the house had been empty. Through the publican, liaising with the Morleys by phone, Will arranged to rent the place, interior unseen, for a period of three months at a modest rent on the strict understanding that if anyone stepped up to buy it he and Nina would vacate immediately if required.
'Three months?' Nina said when she heard this. She'd stayed in the car during the negotiations. 'I can't stay all the way up here for three months. I have a job. Remember my job? The little thing that pays most of our bills?'
'We don't have to stay that long,' Will said. 'We can leave any time we want. As for your job… extenuating circumstances? The hospital will understand.'
'Not necessarily,' she said.
'OK, but for now, let's go up to the house we've agreed to rent.'
'You've agreed to rent.'
'You could have said no if you'd bothered to shift your arse out of the car,' he said.
'You should have come out and discussed it.'
'Well, it's done now, so let's go.'
'This is going to be a disaster,' she said. 'I know it is, just know it.'
They drove up the track to the house. A track which, until a quarter of a century ago, Will had often climbed alone, sometimes with a friend, and once with Stalin, who was nobody's friend.
It was just a shell of a building then, open to the sky, the elements, most of the roof having caved in a decade or so earlier, smashing through the upper floor, between the great beams that had supported it for so many years, to become one with the rubble and nettles that carpeted the floor below. Over time, all but two of the windows had been smashed, and the fallen door was a mouldering gangplank to an interior which even on the brightest and warmest of days was gloomy and dank. The only evidence of anyone ever having lived there was in the dismembered bits of old utilitarian furniture, an overturned mangle, the stuffing from a shredded horsehair mattress that resembled lumps of mummified flesh. Half fixed, half leaning against one wall, the remains of a wooden staircase teetered upward. Sometimes he would risk the precarious climb, and at the top, crouching within the ribcage of torn and wheezing rafters, gaze up at the open sky and out across the distant world that encircled the hill as far as any eye could see. At that semi-ruined hovel, nothing could touch him. There he felt powerful, independent, complete. He went there as often as he could, without company if possible.
But that day he was not alone, and he was annoyed. Eric would have been all right at a pinch - nearest thing he had to a friend in the village, Eric - but Walter Finch? The local kids called him Stalin because he liked to lord it over the youngsters, push them around, snarl at them. The reason he and Eric were with him today was that Stalin had been at a loose end and demanded their company. They knew better than to argue with Stalin, or refuse him.
The house had been the last place they'd come to. They'd walked and dawdled and tramped for miles in the heat, all the time hoping that something interesting would turn up. Nothing had. Late in the afternoon they came to the hill and Stalin started up it. Will and Eric had held back, but he'd returned for them, grabbed them by the collar, one in each fist, and hauled them the few steps it took for them to fall in with him. Eric didn't want to go up there because the old house made him uneasy. Will didn't want to go because he preferred to be alone there.
Inside the dull remains of the building a shaft of dusty sunlight spotlighted a section of floor. When Eric pounced on something amid the weeds, Stalin demanded to see it.
'It's only an old belt,' Eric said.
Stalin snatched it off him. 'Soldier's belt,' he said, examining the broad band of coarse khaki, the heavy buckle.
'What would a soldier's belt be doing here?'
Stalin shrugged. 'On leave?' A thought brightened his eye. 'Deserter, hiding from the MPs.'
'Deserter from what? There's no war on.'
'There's always a war,' Stalin said. 'Troublespots. They get sent all over. Bet he brought a tart up here.'
Will and Eric exchanged glances. Tart?
'Some village bint, Fat Betty or Nora Braden maybe, always up for it, those two. Reckon he brought one of 'em up here, poked her in the dark, couldn't find his belt after, shot off in a hurry.'
'Because the MPs were coming?' Eric said, winking at Will.
'No, 'cos the tart was.' Stalin threw his tongue over his lower lip and panted like a breathless dog.
Will took a closer look at the belt. Now, it was more than just a belt. It had belonged to an army deserter who'd shagged a bird here in the dead of night.
He was still inspecting it when Stalin tossed the belt aside in favour of the graffiti on the walls: hairy fannies, exploding dicks, messages like 'I'll suck yours if you suck mine'. Fascinated as Stalin was by all this, his attention was soon drawn to a diseased-looking girlie mag on the floor. He leapt upon it, then stood plying its cum-glued pages apart in the beam of dusty light. Eric craned his neck to see, while Will's eye was caught by something else. He bent over it - a rubber, used and wrinkled - picked it up between finger and thumb, examined it. The teat contained a dry white powder. He imagined it in use, hugging a stiffy inside a female on this very spot. The deserter's stiffy. With his back to the others he tied a knot in the open end and pocketed the thing. (Later, in his room at his grandparents', he examined the condom closely. Sniffed it. It smelt of the house. It must have been there for quite a while for the juice to turn to powder, he thought. He kept the rubber for the rest of that summer, sandwiched like a pressed flower between the pages of a book. The book was Treasure Island.)
A suppressed giggle from Eric, who'd stepped away from Stalin. Walter was rubbing the front of his jeans while ogling the porn mag. He noticed their amusement.
'What's so fuckin' funny?' He dropped the magazine and took out his penis. 'How's about you givin' me a laugh then? Come on, let's see what you two got.'
Eric paled. 'Me mam's expecting me for tea.'
Stalin stroked his tool like a pet. It grew some more. Veins stood out all along it. An unruly brown tuft licked the root. He delved into his jeans, wriggled a bit, cupped his balls with one hand, encircling the shaft with the other, sweeping slowly up and down it. Eric and Will edged towards the doorway, mesmerised but ready to make a run for it if need be. Stalin strolled to the wall and stood before the scribbles, pumping his colossus. A growl started low in his throat, rising slowly to a roar that coincided with the spirited gush that struck the graffiti, burst after burst, and dribbled down and through it. Then Stalin stood motionless, silent, eyes closed. A string of semen swung from the end of his declining prick, thinning and lengthening until it reached the rubble and weeds at his feet. Opening his eyes at last, he cast about for something to wipe himself on, stooped for the soldier's belt, used it, then hurled it up through the void where a roof had once been. Up it went, up and up, before turning earthward again. Will hoped the buckle would smack Stalin on the back of the head as he bent to tuck himself away and zip his fly, but it caught on a beam that ran across where a ceiling had once been, looped it, and swung there, the buckle tap-tapping against the old oak. While Eric wandered outside and Stalin checked the progress of his spunk down the wall, Will watched the belt swinging on the beam.
It reminded him of a noose.
THE SILENCE OF BLEAKRIDGE (2020)
A novel about art, love, lust, murder, reality and history.
I hold all rights to this.
A price has been put on your head. People are after you. People who want your life. So where do you go? Back to childhood, of course - or at least, to a place you knew when you were young, when it was a ruin. A ruin with a history that no one speaks of these days, that few remember. But sometimes, at Bleakridge, things get mixed up. Confused. Past and present overlap. And you're not sure where you are. Or even who.