THIS RUINED PLACE (a novel)
I hold all rights to this book.
Evy Cobb, 37, returns to the village of Rouklye twenty-one years after her last visit in 1999. She had a different name back then, she was sixteen, and resentful of being left with her grandparents while her peacenik parents were off trying and scupper a weapons test in the South Pacific. It was then that she met a man who'd lived in Rouklye until 1943, when he was evicted, along with everyone else, by a War Office that required the land for troop training and tank manoeuvres. The village, badly treated by the occupiers and never handed back to its former inhabitants, was allowed to fall into the haunted ruin that it remains to this day. This is the story of the man's return to that ruined place, of his not entirely accurate memories of being young there, and of his brief friendship with the young Evy, a friendship which, by its conclusion, immeasurably changed her perception of the world and her place in it.
It's August, another dazzling August, and if I half close my eyes it's as if no time has passed, no time at all. It has, of course. Can't deny it for long. I'm Evy Cobb these years, a different person in so many ways, with a different name, different values, two fast-growing sons. I've told my boys about this place, told them often, but they're young, I know they've never more than half listened. Someone else's life, Mum's past, let her get on with it. They seem a bit more interested now they're here, though, which pleases me. I encourage them and their dad to wander off, explore, experience as much as the authorities allow. I'll meet them back at the car in an hour, I tell them, but not to rush for the sake of it. An hour should be enough for me to do my own wandering. My more specific wandering. For my mind to fill up once again with all that happened here the last August of the old century, twenty-one years ago. Twenty-one to the day, near as dammit.
She was Midge Miller then, sixteen, and bored out of her mind. Determinedly bored. Banished from home, away from her friends, from everything she knew and liked and owned, in the dullest backwater imaginable. She hadn't smiled for a week, yet even she couldn't help a small laugh at the sight from her window above the bookshop. The gangling old man who'd parked outside the inn across the road had just struggled out of his prehistoric Volkswagen, and, straightening up, revealed that he was one of the tallest men she'd ever seen, which made his car seem one of the smallest.
She jumped – hadn't heard the floorboards – and before she could turn, Inger was crouching at her shoulder, also peering out.
'I was beginning to wonder if he was going to give this year a miss. He's usually here before the second week if he's coming. Must be slowing up at last. Or do I mean down, I can never remember.'
'You know him?' Midge said.
'Oh, yes. An old, old friend. And he and Edwin were boys together. Juby comes over every August from Germany to prowl round childhood haunts.'
'No, he just lives there. Wiesbaden. He could stay here when he visits, but him and Edwin – tuh! The tension when they're together, you could cut it with scissors.'
They watched the incredibly tall man lean into the car for the jacket that matched his sagging black trousers. As he attempted to put the jacket on, all arms and elbows that seemed uncertain which way to go, Inger rose from her crouch.
'What I came up for,' she said, 'was to ask if you're helping in the shop again today.'
Midge stiffened. Thumb and fingertips of one hand on the window glass. Five tense digits. The other five a claw at her side. It's like being at home. You always have to be doing something. Can't just sit at a window minding your own business, oh no. Criminal offence, looking out of a fucking window.
'If you like.'
'It's not compulsory,' Inger said with a very slight edge.
Midge let her hand fall from the glass; tried to sound less fed up.
'No. Really. I don't mind.'
'When you're ready then. No rush.'
Then she was alone again, watching the ungainly old man negotiate the doorway of The Ferryman. To pass through the entrance – low even for people of normal height – he had to drop his head to shoulder level, but as his shoulders were higher than the top of most men's heads he still managed to crack his skull. Again she laughed. Woh, two laughs in two minutes. A laugh a minute, have to watch that, people will think being abandoned by your parents is fun.
Abandoned. Well, it felt like it. Most of the time her parents shuffled papers at the Earthsave International offices in Worcester, but every now and then some big threat to humanity would crop up somewhere in the world and they'd be off with a boatload of other superheroes to try and prevent it, frustrate it, or aggravate its perpetrators. This time it was some lunatic dictatorship (the Inanians, her dad called them) testing their latest weapon of mass destruction in the South Pacific. The long-promised trip to Orlando had been scrapped and they'd cast about for somewhere to deposit her. Usually when they went on these missions she was left with Nessa and her parents, but the Friedmans had gone away a couple of days before the Inanian thing came up, which reduced the alternatives to one. Her grandparents in South Dorset.
She turned angrily from the window, into the gloomy little cell she'd been sentenced to for the best month of the year. Angrily because her parents made it plain (if not in so many words) that they thought more of others than of her. Didn't they realise how unsettling this knowledge was? That their selfless efforts to protect the planet at her expense were the real reason her school work was suffering? She'd tried telling them this, but she always came badly out of such confrontations. Compared with their brazen humanitarian objectives, her pitiful attempts to present her case made her sound like a self-centred brat.
'If no-one reacted against such things, Midge, the world would be right up shit creek.'
'It is up shit creek, you're always saying.'
'Yes, but someone has to try to make things better.'
'Well, why can't it be someone else?'
'If we all said that, darling, nothing would ever improve.'
The end result of which was that she 'must be strong' and look beyond her 'own domestic preferences': arguments she had no option but to submit to.
She wondered how Nessa would handle such parents. Better than her, no doubt. Ness handled everything better. As well as enviably good looks and effortless charm, she could express herself concisely and tellingly and was good at everything she wanted to be good at – on top of which the boys only had eyes for her when the two of them were out together. She sometimes wondered why Ness bothered with her. Probably for no other reason than that they were neighbours and had known one another forever. Another year and she was bound to move on, find friends more like herself – attractive, quick-witted, mistress of any situation – while she, Midge, would continue to be condemned to cells like this because…
She dashed an arm across her eyes and allowed them a watery inspection of the room she'd been so unceremoniously dumped in. What a hovel. No carpet, just a big square rug on bare brown boards: a thin faded thing with unravelling ends that she longed to tug till there was nothing left. Ornaments included an ancient jug-and-bowl set (bowl cracked, jug the last resting place of a dead spider), a pair of dusty Staffordshire dogs, ugly fragments of rock on every flat surface, a wooden chess set with a piece missing. On the walls, in thin black frames, there were a couple of dozen old photos that held no interest whatsoever. The pictures were wonky, all of them, and wonky they would stay. Nothing to do with her. Inger had attempted to make the room more welcoming by placing – side-by-side on the huge, badly-scuffed Edwardian chest of drawers – a pensionable china doll from someone else's childhood and a one-eyed bear (with stuffing leaking out of its bottom) that might have been found on a council tip. Midge could take or leave the doll, but she'd hated the bear on sight and turned it to the wall so its single staring eye couldn't watch her getting undressed. You never knew what went on in these old bears' moth-eaten minds.
Then there was the mirror: a creaky, full-length mahogany chevalier which seemed to catch her reflection wherever she went about the room. It was her general practice to avoid mirrors as much as she could. The obligatory peek before going out was rarely more than that; just a glance to make sure there was no sleep in her eyes, food lodged between her teeth, that her hair was reasonably tidy, and so on. Mirrors were a curse. They revealed what everyone saw when they looked at her: gawky frame, too-wide shoulders, big nose, patchy complexion prone to spottiness, hair like tangled rope if she didn't wash it daily. If she didn't look quite as bad in the chevalier, it wasn't because its old specked glass possessed some special quality or power, it was merely that it was slightly darker than the mirrors she was used to, and reflected a different arrangement of light and shade than more familiar rooms. Maybe the girl in the mirror is the real Midge, she thought sardonically. The Midge in the mirror smiled. Clearly she'd been thinking that too.
Then they both turned, one to the left, one to the right, and went out to their separate landings, where at least one smile quickly faded. Midge couldn't speak for the real her in the mirror, but her day did not look promising. She might have viewed it with more optimism – or at least more interest – if she'd known that it would be a day that would reshape her life. Set the wheels in motion anyway.
And all without mirrors.
Her grandparents, Inger Bjølstad and Edwin Rainey, had been together and unmarried for over forty years. Inger in particular saw no point in marriage and insisted on her surname being used on all documents and communications. 'We're two separate people,' she said, 'two single people, and we'll be treated as such.' Almost every adult who knew them on anything approaching a personal basis called them by their first names. So did Midge, but only in her head. She'd known them all her life, yet felt that she knew them hardly at all. Visits to them or by them had never been frequent, so she'd spent very little time alone in their company until now. Without her parents there, they made her nervous, especially Inger, who could be quite spiky when crossed. Midge had witnessed her anger with Edwin and Mum a couple of times and hoped that she herself would never be on the receiving end of it. She loved the way her grandmother spoke, however. Her accent was slight, her English more precise than most English people's, but every now and then she would put a Scandinavian spin on a word that suddenly made her seem the most colourful person around. Which she probably was anyway in a hole like Steepridge.
Inger was removing the old display from the shop window to make way for a new one while Midge went from shelf to shelf putting newly-delivered titles in alphabetical order. She was helping out because she felt obliged to. A way of earning the keep she didn't want. She could think of any number of things she'd rather be doing. No. Correction. She couldn't think of one, here.
'Midge, we have a visitor!'
The shop door sprang back and the hyperactive brass bell drowned out the thud of forehead smacking lintel. The incredibly tall man's knees folded and he staggered in clutching his head, one leg trying to walk away from him. If he'd been a character in a comic he would have had a halo of stars whizzing round his head. Inger jumped back from the window and threw a chair under the graceless giant just in time to stop him crashing to the floor.
'Juby Bench, how many years have I had this shop?'
He groaned. 'Please, not a quiz, spare me, woman.'
'And how many times have you banged your head on that door?'
'Can't remember, it's all that banging me head on the door.'
He removed his hand from his forehead and looked at it. There was nothing in it, but on his brow there was a reversed OU where it had rushed at the embossed MIND YOUR HEAD above the door.
'Bloody country. Everything's so low here.'
'Sit quiet a moment,' Inger commanded.
'I thought I was.' He scowled about him. The shop interior must have seemed very dull after the brilliant light outside. He peered Midge's way through the comparative gloom. 'Who's that?'
'Midge,' Inger said. 'She's staying with us for a few weeks.'
'Midge Miller, my granddaughter from Worcester. Midge, come and meet Mr Bench.'
'Juby,' the old man said. 'Just Juby.'
As she approached he raised his rump two inches off the chair and extended a startlingly long arm. The wrist on the end of the startlingly long arm was like a dog's favourite bone, while the palm that swamped hers was as smooth as a piece of worn old leather that's been left out in the sun. The knobbly fingers closed lightly but firmly, jerked her hand up and down twice, and withdrew. Then Juby Bench sat back and studied her.
'There is a likeness. Not sure who to. Does she look like your girl?'
'A bit,' Inger said. 'Not the hair, but the height, the shoulders. She also has Malena's eyes. And nose, to some extent.'
'Don't talk to me about noses.'
Inger laughed. Obviously an old joke between them. His nose was not one you could ignore. Midge had always been self-conscious about her own, but hers was positively petite beside his great beak. His eyes had not left her. Very pale, those eyes, an almost luminous blue, as if lit from within. Unnerving, the way they examined her.
'Midge, was it?' he said.
'Like the insect?'
'Lost none of your charm over the past year, I see,' Inger said to him.
He ignored this. 'Why would anyone call their daughter Midge?'
'It's a nickname.' Inger again.
'I repeat, why would anyone call their daughter Midge?'
'She was a very small toddler.'
'She's not a toddler now, or small.'
'Nicknames stick, Juby.'
'What's your given name?' he asked Midge.
'Evy,' said Inger.
He flashed her an annoyed glance. 'Doesn't the girl have a tongue?'
'You're making her uncomfortable, can't you see?'
'Me, making her uncomfortable?' To Midge: 'I'm not, am I?'
He was, but she wasn't going to admit it. 'No.'
'Midge,' he murmured, turning the name over in his mouth like a boiled sweet he wasn't sure about. He shook his head. 'Nah. Doesn't fit. Not the young lady I see before me. I'll call you Evy. Much better.'
'She might not want you to call her Evy,' Inger said.
The exceedingly pale eyes drilled a silent question into Midge's own. She shrugged off-handedly. She didn't care what he called her; just wished he'd stop looking at her that way.
'How's the head?' Inger asked their visitor, tactfully obliging him to release her granddaughter from his gimlet gaze.
'Oh, wonderful,' he replied. 'If it belonged to someone else.'
Midge escaped to her shelves while she had the chance. From there, watching the pair of them between and over books, she saw Inger reach out and touch the old man's unshaven cheek, very delicately, like someone attempting Braille for the first time.
'Why so late this year, old chap?' Almost a whisper.
'You know it. You're usually here before now.'
'I was taken a bit poorly.'
'Oh? Nothing serious, I hope?'
'If it was, d'you think I'd tell you? You'd send me straight to bed with a thermometer and a bunch of grapes.'
'But you're staying to the end of the month?'
'You're not usually so vague.'
Juby Bench gripped his knees to ease himself upward. His joints creaked as he rose. On his feet, he was forced to stoop in that low room, the ceiling flattening his unruly shock of wiry grey hair. He settled his angular jaw on one shoulder and his lips moved as though preparing to pass words, but then clamped shut. His eyes cut across to Midge, who tried to look engrossed in her work. He wanted to tell Gran something personal, she thought, but couldn't with her there, which made her feel very much in the way.
It wasn't that. It was nothing like that. But it would be several days before she discovered what was on Juby Bench's mind, and then she would be sworn to secrecy, unable to share it with anyone. Anyone at all.
People lived here once.
Worked the land.
Knew joy and sorrow.
Not any more.
There's nothing now.
No joy or sorrow.