A sample from the novel, ‘English Arcadia’ by Simon Petherick
There is something particular about the English landscape: claustrophobic, damp, silent. A contained savagery, a cramped stage where for centuries man and nature have grappled for ascendancy. The willow whispering her secrets down into the silent river, the red-tongued brambles creeping over unfrequented bridleways to render them impassible, the endless trickles of water which tell tales of escape from farms, canals, reservoirs. Ancient oaks bear mute witness to the devastation of rape fields, gnarled fingers of ivy strangle furious statues. Dark-eyed kites soar over bleached motorways, settling now and then on blue roadsigns advertising fried chicken. The dead give up their bodies to devouring worms in cemeteries filled with crooked gravestones stained with lichen.
In this clearing, surrounded by thorned hedges and despairing willows, a young woman lies awkwardly on the grass. She is wearing jeans, and one leg is bent behind her in an unnatural pose. She has a white cotton top and her blonde hair is spread out upon the neat, short grass. Her long fingers lie calmly upon the ground, palms facing up to the canopy of branches overhead. The scene is so still, so quiet and the only movement, barely perceptible, is the steady flow of blood from her eye down her cheek, nestling stickily into the stark white of her collar.
And then, from the other side of the clearing, a scream.
Chapter Two, English Arcadia
Darius Frome approached the heavy iron gates that stood just back from the narrow road. The light was beginning to fade on this early summer evening and the tranquillity of the late June air was for him filled with anxiety. He had felt it uncomfortably in his stomach as they had walked the two miles from the station at Marlow. The closer they had come to this entrance, the further they had climbed up the long Quarry Hill road through the darkening woods, the more he had smelled the disturbance in the air. He hadn’t expected it. Perhaps it wasn’t a smell; it was a deeper sense than that, which communicated itself to him directly.
Now as they stood in front of the tall gates held on both sides by heavy stone pillars, he felt it sharply. All his senses were alive to it and it seemed for a moment that there were sounds in the air too, sounds of agitation. He heard the breeze whisper in the trees. A blackbird began to call.
He lifted up the rusty gate lock. He pushed at the wrought iron which shrieked from corroded hinges in the still evening air.
– Is this really it? The woman’s voice was light, curious.
– This is it, Tink, said Darius.
– It’s funny, she said, and her laugh created an island in the dense summer evening.
Darius looked down at her and smiled.
– That’s good, he said.
He took her hand and they walked through the gateway. He pushed the metal behind him as they passed, and the gate clanged loudly, echoing down ahead of them into the gloom.
– You really lived here? she said.
They began to walk slowly, hand in hand, down the driveway away from the gates. He was taller than her, and carried a bulky rucksack on his shoulders. The straps dug into the T-shirt he wore over his broad shoulders, and his long dark hair reached the top of the canvas. One of his bare arms was covered in tattoos. His eyes glowed wide in the evening light, which was just strong enough still to see the tanned brown skin of his face. She wore a purple dress which brushed the cracked tarmac of the drive, and green sneakers which made no noise as she walked. In the twilight her dyed silver hair was ruffled gently by the summer breeze.
He looked at her. She was searching ahead into the disappearing light and he could see the delicate line of her cheekbones. Her body arched, seeking to find what might be ahead and she seemed somehow both to reassure him and by her very presence to emphasise the disjunct of this return.
– Yes, I did. A long time ago.
On either side of the driveway, elms reared up out of the earth, their branches reaching out to entwine with one another above them, a canopy of twisting limbs and leaves which blocked out the last of the fading light. In between the tree trunks, grey lawns stretched out into the far distance on both sides. A monochrome movement caught his eye, a flicker of black on the grass.
He raised his arm and pointed.
– Rabbits, he said.
He looked back at the entrance gates as they continued their slow progress, and could still see the cold grey stone of the single-storey coachhouse they had passed. The shutters were all closed and a bird, heavy enough for an owl maybe, spread its wings and lifted itself from the roof. Fly away, he thought. Fly away from here.
– Are you OK, Darius?
– I’m OK. He squeezed her hand. You must be tired. I’m sorry I made us walk from the station. It used to be my walk home from school.
– I liked it. It’s not Cornwall though, is it?
– It’s another world.
He thought of the valley in Cornwall they had left that morning. The buildings scattered around, the old barn, the vegetable allotments where they all grew communal food, the brightly painted walls of the cottages. He missed the smell of salt water in the air. Couldn’t he have brought that with him to overcome this sensation, this tangle of worry that sat in the pit of his stomach? Or had he just brought his concerns with him? Was that he was feeling?
– Maybe Cornwall is over, Tink.
He could see her shake her head in the gloom and then she looked up at him.
– No, Darius, it’s not. Not if you don’t want it to be.
The others would be there now: someone would be making supper, the chickens would be being shut in for the night. He thought of the big skies that soared above their valley and out to the sea.
– I’m not sure what I want, he said.
She took his arm.
– Stop thinking. Just for once. Were you a little boy here?
– I guess.
– I can see you, she said, straining her eyes to look past the elm trees bordering the drive. You’re running on the grass. You’re laughing. You look happy, Darius.
– I don’t think so.
She tugged at his sleeve.
– Oh but you are. I can see you!
She let go of his hand and stepped in front of him briefly, her eyes shining up at him, then she swept her arms around her, encompassing the darkening parklands.
– You are a happy little boy! she laughed, her voice ringing out in this still summer silence.
His deep, strong voice sounded tired:
– I was, Tink. Once. When I was a kid, before it all happened. I’ve never really told you about it. I’ve never really told anyone about it. I will. Now we’re here, I will have to, I know.
He frowned again.
– On top of everything else, he said.
She touched his cheek and her smile looked sad to him now.
– Sorry, he said and they carried on walking down the driveway as it curved past the outline of a broken statue on a plinth. He reached down and picked up an arm with a jagged edge where it had broken off.
– I remember this, he said. Why is it broken?
– You’ll have to remember lots of things, Darius.
He would, he knew. He would need to remember.
It was just four days ago, the previous Sunday, that he had found the envelope on the doormat in the little cottage in the valley where he had lived on and off for the last ten years. He had found the valley first. It had lain uninhabited for years, and the scattered farm buildings were falling apart. It was no more than about four or five acres in all, with one untarmaced road going in and out. Ten years ago it was a wilderness of gorse and fallen trees and broken glass. He and two friends had bought it cheaply at an auction and had begun the slow process of rescuing the land and buildings, gradually making the broken down cottages habitable, the land fit for growing.
Darius’s grandfather, Sir Zachary Frome, had been the leader of a political party in the 1940s called Level Ground which had fought for common ownership and the end of private property, and in honour of him Darius had proposed that they named the valley Level Ground too. He and his friends had wanted to create a new way of living, a communal place where people would share and grow together. It was more a vision of living with nature than it was a political endeavour but now, with what had happened over the last two months, it looked like that vision was dying and he felt despondent about its future.
He’d taken the white envelope into the kitchen and laid it on the table while he began making coffee. Once he’d sat down, he ripped the envelope open. Inside was a card, stiff and cream-coloured, with these words printed in one line:
Down There. 4pm, 25thJune 2017. You are invited.
He’d known the significance of the date immediately. It was a week away, but the date itself had its own particular meaning: Sunday the 25thJune would be exactly twenty five years since it happened.
Now, four days’ later, as he and Tink walked slowly and patiently down the long driveway, he went over it again in his head.
Only four people in the world knew about Down There. Him, his brother Francis, Francis’s wife Belinda, and his father, Sir Richard Frome. Any one of them could have sent him that card – or all of them. He hadn’t spoken to any of them for years. Occasionally Belinda would write with news, carefully written letters which kept him informed of family matters – the birth of her two children, his father’s dementia, her work and the work of his brother Francis – without imposing any demands on him. Occasionally he would send a postcard in reply, but the last time he’d done that must have been a couple of years ago.
– Tell me again, Tink: what did my brother say to you when you phoned him the other day?
Tink was silent for a moment, then:
– Well, I wasn’t really sure why I was phoning him, she said.
– Because I didn’t want to, he said. And I didn’t have his phone number. You were being nice to me.
– Tink is always nice to Darius, she said, and he felt her squeeze his arm again. What I most liked, she said, was getting the number from Directory Enquiries. When they said there was a number for Francis Frome at The Range near Cookham Dene, I said, it’s not pronounced Frome as in Rome, but Frome as in Room.
– It’s important, I said to the girl. These things are important. Anyway, she gave me the number, and I phoned, and your brother answered, saying, Francis Frome – and he pronounced it like room, so I knew it was your brother.
– And then what?
– I said, my name is Tink and I am making a telephone call on behalf of one Darius Frome.
– What did he say?
– He said, I’ve been expecting this.
– Of course he was expecting it. He sent me the card.
– He didn’t say that. He was quite rude. He just said, when is he coming, and I said we would probably turn up at some point on Thursday 22nd. And then he said fine, and then he put the phone down.
– And that was it?
She crossed her arms and stopped.
– What do you mean, that was it? I think Tink performed her task quite admirably.
Darius laughed, and was aware of the feeling of release which Tink’s humour gave him.
– Tink is always admirable! I just meant, my brother didn’t say anything else?
– Nothing at all. He doesn’t have your aura, Darius. It is missing from him.
– Well, I couldn’t say. I haven’t spoken to him for fifteen years. Maybe it was a mistake coming early. We should have just come on the 25th, just come and gone on the same day. I don’t know why I thought we should come earlier.
– You said you had a feeling, she said.
– I know.
– You always trust your feelings, Darius. They’re the only things we can trust.
He knew that was true. But once again he sensed the lack of harmony about him, this persistent discordancy. He was starting to feel overwhelmed.
They continued to walk, Tink back beside him. Ever since he’d received the note on the 18th, she hadn’t asked him what Down There represented. That was her way, not to probe or ask questions. Darius admired her natural opposition to attachment, had admired it since they had met a few months before. It contrasted with his own determination to control, to manage, to overcome.
What didDown There represent to him? Everything and nothing. Everything that was primitive and essential and savage and beautiful about nature, about the world, about life itself. But nothing too. Because since it happened twenty five years ago, he had never been back, and he had banished it from his mind. He had escaped Down There. Until now.
– By the way, Down There is a place, he said. It’s on this estate. I’ll show you before Sunday.
Tink didn’t answer, because at that moment, the crowding elms ended their hold over the driveway, and the two of them emerged into open space. Ahead, a huge house stood quietly about a hundred yards away. As they stood, the moon broke free of some clouds overhead, and a silver light suddenly played down over the lawns in front of them and illuminated the building.
The house was white, and presented a long low facade to them, about a hundred and fifty feet from one end to the other. Bold lines of white stone ran horizontally between three floors, each with twelve sets of latticed windows separated by a dark render. The window frames were all painted white, and they glowed all along the front of the building in the moonlight. The overall effect was extraordinary, as though this were not a static building but a moment caught in time, an architectural capture of the fluidity of a powerful river. In the sudden moonlight, thick streams of ivy could be seen clinging to the walls, tentacles creeping out onto window ledges and up onto the tiled roof. The walls looked stained here and there where pieces of render had come away, as though the house itself were bruised. On either side of the low, wide building, huge rhododendrons, fat with green leaves and pink flowerheads, hemmed the structure in. Four tall sets of chimney pots along the ridge of the dark roof thrust up into the night air, seeking escape.
– Blimey, said Tink.
Darius suddenly felt unprepared for this return, his first visit back to the Range, his family home, for twenty five years. He stared at it, horrified.
– You’re serious? Tink continued. You lived here?
He nodded, not able to say anything. As though drifting towards a whirlpool, he felt his senses accelerating madly: he could smell new scents in the night air, he could feel the movement of the rhododendron leaves up ahead as they marked his arrival, he could sense beneath him the workings of the earth: the moles, the worms, the ancient chemistry of plants. His face now was caught in the moonlight: his brown eyes wide beneath a creased brow, his olive skin taut at the cheekbones. He swept a hand through his tangled dark hair.
Tink put a hand on his arm.
– It’s all right, Darius, she said quietly.
He realised his muscles were tight; a bead of sweat ran down his strong bicep, down towards a clenched fist.
– Breathe, she said.
He nodded, and began to take deep breaths, filling out his stomach and lifting up his chest, breathing out slowly into the still night air. He closed his eyes, and he let the noise in his head rage for a little until it began to quieten and he was able to imagine a familiar landscape in his head, the green of the Level Ground valley. He kept his focus on that for a few seconds, seeing the line of trees that stood on one ridge of the valley and then following the slope down to the familiar cottages and the barns and allotments. Then in his mind he saw a small boy standing still and looking back at him and he realised it was him, thirty or more years ago, playing here on the lawns at the Range. To the left, an old woman watched him: his beautiful grandmother, who first told him about his grandfather’s vision and how it all began, back then. Down There.
He opened his eyes again and stared at the silent house. Then he looked at Tink.
– It’s OK, he said.