A loud snort startled Nigel awake and his back and neck muscles groaned as he sat up on the bench. He was embarrassed to realise that, with his belly full and his face warmed by the sun, he’d dozed off and he was the snorter. He rubbed his face to get himself fully awake and was in the middle of a good, long stretch when he heard a voice with a thick country burr call out, “Digby! You’m come ’ere, boy, and not be botherin’ the gen’leman.”
A very large, very shaggy dog came from behind him and sniffed around his feet. Nigel put out a hand and the dog sniffed that too before licking his fingers and then sitting down and placing his handsome head on Nigel’s knee. He scratched the friendly dog’s soft ears and caught a surprising waft of lemons coming from its fur.
“Hello there, Digby” he said, “Where have you come from?”
An old man strapped into a hand-painted sandwich board ambled over and touched his fingers to the peak of his cloth cap in greeting. “Apologies, sir. Digby likes people, y’see. And mebbe you’m got some food about you?”
Trying not to laugh at the image conjured up by the words painted on the board of Jesus driving an ‘ambulunse’ to aid those ‘run over by the buss of life’, Nigel replied, “Er, no, I’m afraid I haven’t. Maybe he can smell the tuna sandwich I had a little while ago in the café?”
“Oh aye, mebbe that’s it.” He narrowed his eyes. “Not seen ye afore, not lost are ye?”
“Not lost, no. Just looking around.”
“And why would that be?”
Taken aback by the directness of the question, Nigel wasn’t sure how to answer. Two curious pairs of eyes were pinned on his face, the dark, appealing and rather wise ones of the dog and the pale, miss-nothing ones of the old man. The odour emanating from the man was eye-wateringly pungent, like raw garlic and onions and something else he didn’t want to put a name to. Wanting to bury his nose in Digby’s lemony fur, Nigel wondered when was the last time his owner had washed his body or his clothes, and thought it must be like a sauna inside the shabby winter coat and the wooden boards. After extensive rummaging in his pocket, the man produced a pouch of tobacco and a blackened clay pipe. He pointed the stem at Nigel and said, “Be ’appy to show ye round, for a small consideration, like.”
It was a good and useful offer, but Nigel wasn’t sure he could stand the various smells that were fighting each other to be the strongest and the worst, especially now a far from aromatic smoke from the pipe curled and wafted towards him. On the other hand, though, he needed information quickly, and this might be a good and efficient way of getting it. But what, he wondered, was meant by ‘a small consideration’?
As if Nigel had spoken his question out loud, the man gestured to the pub and said, “The price of a pint o’ mild over in the Anvil, now, that’d do me just fine.” He unstrapped the boards and set them against the back of the bench. Now more of the filthy overcoat was revealed, Nigel saw that most of its buttons were missing, and the belt was no more than a frayed piece of string knotted round the man’s middle. He smiled as the man whipped off his flat cap and bowed from the waist, announcing, “Stanley Hubertus Invincible Trout at your service, sir. Lived ’ere all my life, as did my forefathers goin’ many generations back.”
“Well, Mr. Trout-”
“Stanley, if you please, sir. Now, ye see that there?”
Nigel followed the man’s grimy finger to a small, round, stone building on the far edge of the green; he’d noticed it already and wondered what it was. It had a domed roof, a tiny barred glassless window, and a rough wooden door studded with large, rusty nail heads. He reckoned maybe five or six people would be able to squeeze in and stand up inside it.
“That be the Blind. You be seein’ the like all over the area, sir.”
“Blind? What’s it for?”
“Not used any more, sir, and there be some diff’rences of opinion as to their original purpose, but this’n was used fer chuckin’ the drunks in to let ’em sleep off the booze and their foul tempers. My grandpappy used to spend a lot of time in there, that ’e did.”
Not knowing how he should react to that bit of news, Nigel could only mutter, “Really?”
Stanley chuckled and there was pride in his voice, “Oh, aye. Grandpappy Trout were a ton of trouble.” He indicated the centre of the green with a sweep of his arm. “Used to be a duck pond right there. But Grandpappy, now, ’e fell in it one night after a mighty long drinkin’ session at the Anvil and bloody-well near drownded ’isself. Most Saturday nights ’e was, as I said, thrown into the Blind, because my Granma didn’t want ’im ’ome till ’e was good ’n sober ’cos she said ’e snored like a pig when ’e wus drunk. But on this day, seems ’e left earlier than usual, and nobody noticed. Weren’t till next mornin’ ’e was found lyin’ in the pond, with a bloomin’ duck perched on ’is face. Lucky fer ‘im he hadn’t landed face down or ’e would’ve been a goner, that ’e would.”
Stanley chortled, clearly enjoying the telling of the story. “Mind you, everyone said it would’ve been the perfect way for ’im to go, soakin’ drunk and oblivious, like, but the scare made ’im gave up the drink and so ’e lived a good few more years. But they filled in the pond anyway, so there’d be no chance of someone stumbling in and gettin’ drownded, and only us old-uns remember it were ever there. Shall we move on to the church, then, sir?”
Nigel walked alongside Stanley and Digby led the way. When they reached the Church of St. Peter, Stanley told Nigel to go on in and look around. “Take yer time, sir. Digby and me’ll wait out ’ere.”
It was comfortably cool inside. The stained glass windows were rather fine, the silver candlesticks on the altar gleamed with polish and tapestry-covered kneelers hung neatly from hooks on the back of the pews. All around the walls were plaques, dedications to village inhabitants who had passed on a hundred years ago or more. The same name appeared a few times, probably, thought Nigel, the members of some old squire’s family, for there was bound to be a manor house attached to a village like this.
He strolled over to the church organ and paused to read a beautifully etched brass plaque placed on the wall to the left of the great grey pipes.
Nigel read it twice to make sure it really said what he thought it said, then photographed it. There had certainly been some extraordinary accidents and deaths in this place.
When he re-emerged into the daylight, prepared to breathe through his mouth again when in close proximity to Stanley, he was led around the churchyard. It was impossible to miss the signs of a new grave, and while Stanley whipped off his cap to show his respects, Nigel quickly scanned the cards on the wreaths that still covered the freshly turfed mound. How many of those names, he wondered, would he get to know in the coming months… and for what purpose?
Back out on the road again, Nigel tried to get his bearings. The green was behind them and out of sight, to his left the road continued round a sharp bend, and in the distance ahead of him were steep rolling green hills dotted with black and white cows. The cattle, Stanley informed him, belonged to Merryvale’s, a farm which ran in a long strip almost bordering the entire east side of the village. He pointed up at the high and brooding hill that loomed over the place, its surface creased and contorted in places by geological folds.
“That be the Lym, and as you can see, sir, this village bein’ at its feet explains where the name Ham-Under-Lymfold come from.”
Nigel, aware that time was getting on, nodded and said, “Debbie, the young waitress in the café, she mentioned an old water mill? Is it possible to see it.”
“Oh, aye,” chuckled Stanley, refilling and lighting his pipe. “That just ‘appens to be where I was a-takin’ ye next.”
They walked along at a steady pace, following the line of a very high, probably ancient stone wall.
“Is there a manor house behind there?” asked Nigel.
“No, sir, not any more. Burned down years back. Lightnin’ strike ye see, and the fire spread so quick the whole darned property was lost. There be nothin’ to see nowadays, just a few stones scattered ’ere and there. Used to ‘ave magnificent gardens but Hilda Merryvale puts ’er animals in to graze sometimes, so there’s nuthin’ left o’ them.”
“And the house wasn’t rebuilt?”
“No-one left to see to it. Owner was the last of the line, so it passed to some distant cousin twice removed who lives abroad. He ain’t never even been to see it, far as I know, and people do say it will never be rebuilt cos o’ the curse.”
Nigel pursed his lips and raised an eyebrow. “Curse?”
“Well now, silly superstition more like, but this place do get hit by lightnin’ rather reg’lar. Did ye note them fuel pumps on the way in to the village?”
Nigel remembered them well. Just past the white ‘Welcome to Ham-Under-Lymfold’ sign, right at the very edge of the road, three old-fashioned petrol pumps stood like old sentinels, rusty and of no use except as a museum exhibit, or something convenient for passing dogs to pee on. Behind them was a wreck of a single-storey brick building with boarded up windows, its roofline jagged and open to the skies.
“Well,” Stanley continued, that be old Sid Blackstock’s garage. Struck by lightnin’ in 1965. Old Sid got out with nothing but the nightshirt he was wearin’ and left the village never to be ’eard of again. Miracle, it was, that Blackstock was a-waitin’ a fuel delivery otherwise them pumps would’ve gone up and taken out half the village, I reckon. Church’s been struck a few times, too, but it’s got one o’ them lightnin’ rods, so there’s been no harm done. But then, o’ course, the earthquakes do loosen the masonry.”
“Earthquakes?” squeaked Nigel with disbelief.
Stanley chuckled. “Well, not earthquakes exactly, more like tremors. We get more than a few o’ them. There were tremors the night my grandpappy fell into the pond, so seems ter me it weren’t just that ’e were too drunk to stop hisself from topplin’ in. And they’re still ’appening, and it be said that’s what did for old Jack Heavysides at the Anvil too.”
Unable to credit that this little village really suffered from regular lightning strikes, floods and earthquakes, Nigel said, “But Debbie told me that the shelving had been affected by a flood?”
“Oh aye, there’s truth in that. But I think it were the tremors that caused the whole darned thing to collapse.”
Having nothing to say to that extraordinary story, Nigel walked on, his eyes on Digby as the shaggy dog stopped to investigate a smell of particular interest in the grass verge. But Stanley wasn’t quite finished with the lightning stories yet.
“And all them thatched cottages along the green? Can’t tell you ’ow many fires we’ve ’ad along there. Seems to me that them things are to blame for what’s become of this village.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, well now. Used to be so much goin’ on all the time: events on the green and craft fairs in the village hall. The hall was also used as a nursery, but now there aren’t enough little’uns, and they ’ave to go along all the way to Monkton Ridge. The church ’ad a wonderful choir, my great aunt ran the Women’s Institute, there was a Book Club, a Writin’ Group.” Stanley sucked on his pipe. “All gone now. Oh aye, it were plenty different. But then, if you ask me, the floods, the fires, the tremors, talk of a curse, all that put the wind up people and so whole families upped and left and the life got sucked out of the place.” Stanley shook his head in sorrow.
Digby continued trotting a little way ahead of them, his nose to the ground, occasionally cocking his leg against the wall. When the wall took a sharp turn to the left, Stanley led them on until the road ended in a car park in front of the village hall. Even as they approached, Nigel could see that the hall was in a neglected state. It wasn’t falling down, far from it, but the peeling paint, weeds and uncut grass to the sides gave it an air of disuse, which was a shame because it was a charming building. He walked around it, noting with his architect’s eye the fine arched windows and the attractive red and cream brickwork, then he studied the surroundings.
He could see that unwary tourists who entered the village in the hope of finding Ye Olde Tea Shoppe or some such, would quickly find they had come to a dead end and had no choice but to turn around here. Not to do so, as Debbie had so eloquently explained, meant ending up in the fast-flowing river.
“This be called the Turnaround,” explained Stanley. He pointed his now empty pipe at the building on the opposite bank, “And that there be Angel Falls Mill, so called ’cos of the waterfall there.”
Nigel watched Digby lope over the narrow stone bridge that linked the two riverbanks. The dog disappeared inside the old, dilapidated and long-disused building, the very water mill that Nigel had been sent to buy.
Next episode: Angel Falls Mill