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An excerpt from Chapter One of RED DIE 

The Soldier's Return

 

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He circled the house watching for Maggie Fox through the windows. When he saw his brother seated at the desk in the study, he entered the house quietly by the side door. He climbed the back stair to the corridor where his bedroom was, with Maggie’s next to it. With only the briefest glance at the photograph by his bed of himself looking serious in his mother’s arms when he was five or six, he took off his army denims and stuffed them into his kitbag and stuffed that in turn under his bed. He put on britches and a woollen jersey and from the top drawer of the desk he took out pen and paper and a ten shilling note hidden at the back. He went into Maggie’s room and wrote a message which he put on her pillow. I’ll be in The Giant’s Club at Cerne tonight and again tomorrow night, it said, without greeting or signa≠ture. When he went down again, he walked through the rear part of the house and left by the boot-room door, but not before taking a jacket and a pair of motorcyclist’s goggles from the pegs there. The jacket was Spanish leather lined with sheepswool, with a generous collar. Charles had paid too much money for it in London and was as proud of it, almost, as he was of his motorbike.

Jack Yeoman took the Zenith from its shed, wheeled it down the drive keeping to the verge and watching over his shoulder, and when he got to the spinney, he kick-started the machine and drove away.

All the road long by Ibberton and Woolland, the shells were bursting behind the hedges and the rattle of gunfire was chasing him down the lanes and in his nostrils once more was the smell of cordite and filth. But he left it behind as he went up Bulbarrow Hill, where along the top blew the Bulbarrow wind, as if the hill had its own familiar wind that blew only here. He stopped, wanting to sit for a while in this famil≠iar wind and look out over the Vale. He left the bike on the turf and stepped downhill to get away from the road, and here there were overgrown tussocks of grass that he sat against comfortably, looking out at the land between his bent knees.

This was really the heart of Dorset, this high ridge of Bulbarrow, with Rawlsbury Camp to the west and the valley of Woolland laid out perfectly below. No one else makes hedges quite like this, he thought, as he looked down across the patchwork of fields, some still green, others stubble white, and the dark lines of hedge like the intricate seams of a great garment worn by the land. From here he could see as far as West Hill at Sherborne and beyond that, too, towards Glaston≠bury Tor. And these places ought to have changed as he himself had changed, but it seemed that they had not. From here, you couldn’t make out a road or a car or a telegraph pole or a railway track. There were only the fields and woods and hedges and a cottage here and there, and there was no way of saying for sure what century this was, any more than he could say when the wind would cease blowing against his face. The tussocks made good pillows, and the wind sang a delicate song through the grasses and the gorse, and among these easy pillows and this fine music, the soldier slept.

He dreamed of a great head lying on the land and at first he wouldn’t look at it supposing it to be a head among millions, severed and disfigured. Then he saw that its beard was forest and its wrinkles were tracks, and earthen mounds made cheeks and chin. Its teeth were of stone and its eyes were lakes and its nostrils were caves. It was crowned with a band of fire. As he watched, the head rose from the land, hauling upward a dark body of scorched grass and withered trees, and from the shadowed lands of its torso an arm lifted aloft a massive black club. From all around and below it, from the houses and churches and fields, a cry went up which had more of adulation than fear.

It was the cold that woke him much later, and he set off southwards towards Cerne. The chill air clutched at his face. Out of the dark came the villages, first a stray cottage, then rows of uneven dwellings huddled together. A yellow glow came from behind the curtains, from worlds inaccessible. He stopped by a curtainless window where an old woman was bent over a table, reading by candlelight. He was inexpli≠cably touched by the sight. Then she glanced up in surprise, and a fear≠ful look crossed her face. He wanted to pull off his goggles and explain, but no explanation was possible so he drove on.

Behind the houses grew the black hillsides and the trees met over the road, blotting out the stars. He took the track leading up to the ridge above Cerne. It grew colder. The hills were no more than a few hundred feet of limestone rising from the clammy loams, yet there was the true feel of the uplands. A half-moon shone in a velvet sky and the land glinted back. Tall clumps of beech stood along the top of the ridge, and burly hawthorns squatted around the track, bent backwards by relentless winds out of the west. The track was narrow and the land fell steeply away on either side. It was as if he rode along the spine of some huge beast that might rear up and throw him off.

  The way to Cerne dropped steeply downwards between high hedges that hid the moon and the fields both, leaving a scarf of midnight blue above his head, shot with stars. The track was thrown up in deep ruts and the wheels of the bike jarred in the furrows of clay. There’s a road to heaven and a road to hell, but damn the road by Kiddle’s Bottom, the locals said. His father Louis must have told him that, for he liked such country speech, and Jack smiled to remember it as he drove into the old town of Cerne, where the houses of Abbey Street rolled the sound of the motor to and fro between them. He parked the bike by the wall of The Giant’s Club and went inside.

 

 An excerpt from Chapter One, pages 6 - 9, of RED DIE © Roger Norman


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