Once and Future

 

Early mornings, before the tourists show up, Gordon Barrow likes to lean against the hotel roof and watch the trains. There are two of them, the engines no bigger than his size eight shoes. They circle the village at a leisurely speed, with a buffer space of about three or four metres between them. On some of the colder mornings, like today, the steam wreathes the track in its entirety, and the engines race onwards through each other's ghost.
 
He takes out his hipflask -- the one with ‘Teeside’ engraved on it -- and has a little swig of the whisky it carries, telling himself it’s to keep out the chill.
 
He thinks about his father, of what his father might have said.
 
There are hundreds of reminders of his childhood around here, in the brickwork of this village. The stonework, rather. All of it actual sandstone, fashioned by actual masons, set down by schoolchildren, from his time and after. He’d personally placed and cemented many of the blocks in the hotel -- formerly the manor house -- which is why he often stands beside it. He feels quietly confident that it won’t collapse beneath his weight.
 
Some of the cars as well, they’re his. Had been. The older, tin-chassis ones. A Rolls Royce Silver Phantom that had been the pride of his collection now rests in the local Councillor’s parking space. A couple of first-run Mini Coopers, one red, one blue, sit parked half on the pavement on one of the streets. A rust-afflicted E-Type, another former favourite, is laid up on a driveway, a figurine placed cunningly near its passenger door, disguising the void where it should have a wheel.
 
There's an old cream and brown bus, double-decker, which had been his as well. Idling forever by the village’s only bus stop; never driving its appointed route, but never late either.
 
Timing is important. Gordon keeps track of everything, due-dates for bills, for bank statements, electricity readings, in a series of notebooks on the desk beside his bed.
 
Routine is important.
 
Another thing he does is push off from the hotel roof and parade along each street in turn. The daily inspection, he calls it. Though, in truth, it’s twice-daily. Before the tourists arrive, he pauses at each and every house and peers down at the finely-kept lawns, the pristinely-pruned hedgerows; savours the saccharine glint of the dew on the grass. Bends to reach and rectify any gardening resident or stray lawnmower that might have been toppled by the wind overnight; clears any cobwebs from between the branches of the bonsai trees that are rooted in each small strip of turf. Little beeches, birches, a couple of Japanese maples. There's even a laburnum, bare at the minute, but which in summer trails flowers like a floating field of baby corn.
 
After the tourists leave he makes another parade, stopping before the gates of each house and each building to check that nothing is missing, no persons abducted, no family pets stolen, that no branches have been broken on any of the trees. He inspects the windows for cracks; paying particular attention to those in the hotel, and the stained-glass arches that cap three of the four sides of the cruciform church.

Lately, he's been inspecting the windows for signs as well.
 
'Sale!' signs.
 
'Half-price!'
 
'Everything must go!'
 
The village proper has always been of the type that might be considered idyllic. Traditional. Full of old, well-established families and businesses; not a single chain-store nor a supermarket anywhere in sight. Not within miles. But still, for all that, it hadn't been without the occasional criminal element. And it hadn't been immune to the financial crash.
 
Whatever minor misdemeanours had occurred there, however, none have been replicated here. Not on his watch. Not really. The signs are something different -- he doesn't know what to call them. But at least this version isn't afflicted by the road-works he witnessed the last time he was out in the actual centre. At least nothing ever gets nicked or tagged with graffiti.
 
People, even the tourists, seem to respect the things they’re bigger than; albeit in a different way than they respect those that are bigger than them.
 
There is, he imagines, in each of them a lurking, latent notion that they could all too easily run amok and level buildings, entire streets. Perhaps especially in any locals that come to visit. That they could raze the abode of the next-door neighbour who often annoys them, or the primary school, or even the replica of their own house, if the stress of the mortgage payments and the extensions and general maintenance has all become too much.
 
Yet they exercise mercy, and feel better for it.
 
They become saviours here. They are in control.
 
Away on the fringe of the settlement, unobtrusive but omniscient, Gordon feels himself to be in control, too. Sometimes. He feels special. No, maybe not special, but useful. He wouldn’t ever say he feels Godlike -- brought up as he was, that still rings sacrilegious -- though there is a sense in which he feels almost priestly; a guardian of some ancient, faraway faith.
 
Indeed, when he takes it into his head that the village is a kind of temple, suitable for contemplating mankind's place within the grander universal scheme, that's often when he thinks most about the days of his youth. Not the long Sunday mornings spent warming the front pew, neck sore and stiff from staring up at the lectern, jaw aching from trying to stifle a yawn. But the summers and evenings of being six and seven, exploring the small copse of trees beyond the back garden fence.
 
*
 
Sometimes, there were circles of wild mushrooms. Toadstools. In the shelter of larger flora, the taller, more lumbering ashes and elms.
 
It was his older sister, Jemima, who’d pointed them out. She delighted in escorting Gordon along the more shadowy paths in that body of trees. And as he gripped her hand tightly and hurried after her, only an inch or two behind her heels, that’s when she would tell him stories.
 
Most often, those tales would be of the age when that wood was joined to the forest that covered the whole of the country. The Olden Days, she called them. History, she said.
 
She told him how ancient, magnificent knights once roamed throughout that forest, from the top of the land to the bottom, and back again, protecting it, guarding it from evil spirits and malevolent wizards, and great flocks of dragons, and legions of wolves. At the mention of which she would always go quiet and stop walking, as though waiting to hear the sound of such an animal howling or otherwise licking its slobbering jaws.
 
He shivered at those moments, and clung to her hand even tighter, and she'd turn and look down at him and ask, "What's the matter with you, Gordon? Don't tell me you're scared?"
 
But he always shook his head, composing himself, pushing his shoulders back and his chin up, the way he'd seen his father do whenever his mother used a similar tone; and so Jemima always carried on.
 
She told him how, in the Olden Days, one of these knights decided that he would no longer patrol through the forest, from the top of the land to the bottom, because, besides anything else, the forest had started to shrink. The knight saw that the woodland was going because there was too much ill magic, and too many trees had been burnt down by dragons, and he decided that it was unfair of him to risk the lives of so many men by riding out across the open country.
 
Instead, he felt the best way to keep his people safe was to build a castle. It took six years to assemble -- "That's how old I am!" said Gordon, awe-struck and beaming -- but it was worth the time and the effort, because, when it was finished, it was the finest, strongest, most astonishingly powerful and beautiful castle there ever had been or ever would be. This knight, she said to him, had called the castle Camelot, and when they saw what he had made, his people crowned him King.
 
"Was Camelot near here?" he asked her, and grinned in further bewilderment when she'd simply turned to him and nodded, "Yes."
 
A few steps later, he became confused. He stopped walking of his own accord -- maybe-wolves be buggered! -- and peered into the dim. Then he turned back to Jemima and asked, "Well, where is it now?"
 
And she'd looked down at him again and said, "I'll tell you tomorrow."
 
*
 
When Gordon was six of course, he'd believed almost anything. Now that he's going on sixty-seven, there's the fear he's heading back towards such depths of gullibility. Or, worse still, that his faculties are failing; that his eyes or his mind, or both, are giving up.
 
If that's not the case, then where have the signs come from? And how have they got there? Actually inside, behind the glass. The doors do not open; the roofs cannot simply be unhinged and lifted off.
 
He's tried.
 
Also, those posters aren't around all the time. That's the thing. There wouldn't be so much room for doubt if they were.
 
Maybe he'd only started spotting them after he got back from the funeral -- that's something he worries. That he's been seeing things that aren't real because he can't stand the coldness of anything that is. That he's been drinking more than he should.
 
Exceeding his weekly limit, as his doctor would have cautioned.
 
Though, he doesn't go to see his doctor any more.
 
He doesn't really go to see anybody in particular. And even the people he can't avoid, the ones who come here, he keeps at a distance, as much as he can. 
 
He should probably make more of an effort to remember their faces, on the off-chance that they ever visit again, if only so as he can keep a tally of such regulars; it might show the Council he's being proactive, doing market research, which he knows that they like. But it’s easier, he's discovered, to let the visitors largely blend together into a single entity, a unified mass.
 
Tourists, is how he thinks of them. Even the locals that sometimes come down.
 
Besides, whenever he has made eye-contact lately, the expression he's been met with hasn't set him at ease. Particularly when someone's gone out of their way to be noticed. Only the troublemakers stray from the herd, he remembers his father saying. Or was it "only the troubled"?
 
Occasionally, a tourist, or more often a few, will stop and loiter around a certain point in the village, as if something untoward or obscene has occurred, though they can't say for certain that this is the case. Maybe those 'Sale!' signs, that whitewash, maybe it's meant to be there? They look towards Gordon to confirm or deny.
 
Yes, that's how it should be, he nods to reassure them.
 
Admitting that something is askew or off-kilter would break the calm they've come here seeking. The peace they obviously need.
 
*
 
No sooner had they pushed through the treeline than he'd pulled her to a stop and demanded, "If Camelot's so near here then how come I can't see it?"
 
She turned around to shush him, and then carried on walking, over slick, dead leaves and breaking twigs, her eyes fixed noticeably upon those autumnal phenomena, upon the ground they covered. He hadn't followed her gaze, had kept watching her face, biting his tongue, eager to repeat his unanswered question but not to disturb her evident focus. She did have a temper on her, after all, as their father had often remarked.
 
A minute or so later, she brought them to a stop, and looked back towards him. He took this as a signal to ask again. "Where's Camelot now?" he said, and stood there abuzz with expectation.
 
"It's right there," she told him. "It's just difficult to see."
 
"Why?" he asked, far less than satisfied with such an elusive response.
 
"Well," she said, "that's just how King Arthur wanted it."
 
"It is?"
 
"Yes."
 
A pause.
 
"But why?"
 
She actually seemed stumped by this for a moment, and looked down again, then up again, and then at him. "Because the wolves kept on getting hungrier and wilder, and the dragons kept on getting bigger and breathing more and more fire, and the forest kept on shrinking, and so finally Arthur told his magician, Merlin, to shrink the castle down as well. Because that was the only way that he could keep his people safe."
 
Gordon had stared up at her, he remembers, and felt utterly entranced. By that image. By the idea of a magic capable of such an otherwise impossible thing.
 
"So, how can I see it?" he asked.
 
Jem looked down and he followed her stare.
 
"This is a fairy ring," she said. "It holds a tiny, tiny version of Camelot, and it's guarded by fairies."
 
Gordon crouched down to inspect it, peering hard at the small, slightly wonky mushrooms and their reddish, yellow-dotted caps. A woodlouse or something similar climbed one of the stems. Leaves were in between them, halfway rotted to their bones.
 
"I can't see the castle," he said, looking up.
 
"Of course you can't. You can't even see the fairies. They're too small. That's how they stay so well hidden. But there is a way to see it full-size…"
 
"How?" he all-but shouted.
 
"You put one foot inside the ring, and then you close your eyes and say 'Camelot' three times. And if the fairies think that you want to see it badly enough, they'll let you."
 
She'd sounded so convincing back then. So authoritative. He did exactly as she said, and on the second attempt he saw it. He saw the vastness of its pale and crenelated walls, the banners streaming down along them, the trumpets raised and catching light; he saw the cloud-wreathed peaks of its towers; the drawbridge, larger and more impressive by far than the old wrought-iron gates of his school.
 
He felt honoured to see this. He felt in control, a part of some huge and antique and mystical secret, but felt as well like there were things in this world that were far more powerful and more special than him at the self-same time. Hadn't perhaps known that was what he was feeling -- hadn't wanted to step out of the moment and try and put a form to it with words -- but he can remember it and pin that description to it now.
 
He developed a habit of going there, to that circuit of fungi, every few days -- Jemima had warned him not to do it any more often than that, in case the fairies became tired and spiteful, and decided he was being greedy, and hid the castle away even further -- and he kept up that routine for the best part of a year.
 
The more he went, the more he saw. The better he became at putting himself in the scene, at travelling around the hallowed grounds. He would squeeze between the bars of the portcullis, take a tour of all the stalls and happenings that filled the courtyard, from the stables to the blacksmiths, from the public well to the archery range. Medieval strangers would smile at him and ruffle his hair -- behaviour that seldom passed muster in his parents' house -- and maybe even throw him crumbs of food; which he could taste, he swore, as he made his way back through the woods, through the shrinking copse of trees. He would burp, in the isolation of the field, and marvel at the flavours that returned to him.
 
Once or twice, he even snuck past guards and found himself in the great hall, with the round table, with the shields and swords of all the knights laid out upon it, though none of those knights were in attendance themselves.
 
And from there on down into the cellar, a great subterranean cavern through the ceiling of which he could see the roots of trees like loose, stripped wires intruding, almost sparking in the darkness, flashing in the damp. He nearly opened his eyes, nearly ran, wanting the light through the canopy, the open field, the fence. But carried on, bravely, boldly, stepping between pillars, tearing through cobwebs, until at last he reached the resting place.
 
The cold blue chamber in which the King lay sleeping, on a slab, with Excalibur upon his chest. Ready to be woken -- so Jemima had said -- should his people ever have a need of him again.     
 
*
 
It was the building of this place that disillusioned him, he thinks, that went most of the way toward breaking that spell.
 
He had thought, upon looking at the tiny, fingernail-sized bricks, that no building could be smaller than these, magic castle or otherwise. But that hadn't saddened him. The reverse, in fact. In the absence of actual magic, he found himself fascinated with the world of miniature craftsmanship, which, at the age of seven and three-quarters, had seemed more or less the next best thing.
 
That fascination had, before he scarcely knew it, become a lifelong passion. He'd never gotten too much into the actual manufacture, besides contributing a new bus shelter when the original had succumbed to rain-damage and rust, but his real talent, his real calling lay in curation. In keeping it safe and cared for. In taking note of any subtle alterations -- those figurines and scaled-down lawnmowers sent scattered by an overzealous breeze -- and doing what he could to set them right. It was the way he had found to be useful, which is all that he'd ever really wanted to be. Ever since that first time he'd been brought here.
 
Seeing these signs -- the little posters behind the glass reading 'Sale!', reading 'Half-price!', reading, most recently, 'Everything must go!' -- it makes him feel shaky. Instils in him a fear of Viking raids upon this, his monastic seclusion.
 
He's come to prize that early morning stillness all the more each day. Those moments when he can knock back a dram or two of whisky, can lose himself in the silent salutes that he levels at the trains. Can lean against the hotel roof and feel its security, its solidity behind him.
 
It is only when the gates open that he begins to think it possible that some malevolence might wend its way in. The first group of tourists, striding across the patch of bare grass before the village outskirts -- the no-man's land between the village proper and the village that he, more than anyone else, can claim for his own -- they seem sinister and ghostly, increasingly, behind the veil of steam.
 
They step through that ring without acknowledgment, as though it isn’t even there. They walk up and down the streets, only missing cars, sometimes, by an inch or so. Missing miniature pedestrians by even less.
 
He has to turn away. He has to look towards the small church, its small graveyard. Has to look beyond, towards the distant brown stalks of winter-struck trees, in another field, three over from this. Takes deep breaths, tries and then fails and then tries better not to think too much about her. About how things are ending up.
 
He can tell himself as much as he wants to what the tourists come here for -- all that peace and control and contemplative sanctuary -- but that doesn't make it true. When he sees them all walking the streets without caution, without passion, he just doesn't know. He doesn't pay attention to their faces, really, at least not as much as he watches their feet. Is entranced -- or incensed -- by the footprints they leave. The mud that they trail onto the thin strips of tarmac.
 
On the days when it has rained, when the surrounding field is churned up like a rugby pitch, he goes to his shed, his gatehouse, and fetches the broom. He doesn't follow them around, sweeping up as they go. As much as he might want to. He saves it all up until his post-tour inspection. He waits and looks about himself to be sure the coast is clear, and then swallows most of what's left in his hipflask and sets out along the streets, brushing the mud into the gutters as he goes. Picking up any small scrap of litter that's tumbled out of pockets, whenever tourists reached for their chewing gum or their cigarettes or mobile phones.
 
When the roads are clean he makes another pass through the village, checking for any damage, for any changes. It is during that pass that he's most likely to see the signs. More of them lately than even last week, last month. And now one of the windows gone whitewashed; through the gaps in the paint, the insides look empty. Another with its shutters drawn down. Though he wasn't even aware that they had any shutters.
 
In twenty or so years, he's barely taken a holiday. Has only rarely called in sick. One time when he fractured a finger after slipping on some ice; another when he caught a vomiting virus, and was laid up in hospital for a week, the December before last. Most days, he's here before opening time, and stays until well after closing. So he isn't sure when anything like that would have been fitted. Or why he's never noticed them before.
 
The Council should have notified him, surely, if anything had been done. They'd always assured him they would. It was in his contract.
 
He'd received a letter from them a couple of weeks ago, but he hadn't bothered to open it. It'd be his annual pension statement, early though it was, and he rarely checked those these days. He was always plenty aware what the numbers would be. He kept track of them all in a grid-paper pad that he kept on his beside desk with the others. He kept track of everything. He was always reliable like that, his father had said. 
 
#
 
Jemima, though.
 
She'd been through a lot of jobs, and had moved away to do some of them. Her last one, in fact, had been all the way up north. It was something an old boyfriend had managed to find her -- out of pity, Gordon suspected -- and which she only ever explained in the vaguest of terms. Something to do with importing products. Logistics, she called it. Even if he had found the words to ask, she probably wouldn't have told him exactly what the products were. Or she would have lied outright, and he'd have known she was lying, and still would have been none the wiser.
 
When he and his classmates were brought out here, one early-summer morning, and he'd been confronted with the sight of these miniscule bricks, he'd felt something twist and rearrange itself inside him. Not just in relation to his ideas about magic, but in relation to his idea of her as well.
 
Before that point, whenever his parents had been arguing about her, had been debating how much of what she'd just told them was a falsehood, he'd always found himself jumping without pause to her defence.
 
That was to change.
 
He didn't condemn her straight away -- he didn't understand what was happening inside of him straight away -- but, despite being distracted by bricklaying, and the fact that, if he turned his head to the left and squinted a little, he could see the roof of the hotel proper poking up in the distance, he resolved to question her about it as soon as he got home.
 
He couldn't do it at school, because her class hadn't come to help out, and besides she'd started making more friends her own age and didn't always want her younger brother around. She'd shooed him away on more than a few occasions, but he had taken it, because he knew she must have her reasons and would tell him in good time.
 
At home, he managed to catch her before any of her new friends came calling, and asked her, cautiously, if she'd like to come with him for a quick walk in the woods. She nodded yes, and they set off. Both of them clambered over the fence at the same, school-wearied pace. His hands hurt a little as he made the vault, from the work he'd done earlier, but he didn't let on. He didn't mention anything, not until they were safely behind the treeline.
 
Then all he said was, "You lied to me, Jem."
 
They no longer held hands on their walks but, had they been, he got the sudden feeling she would have let him go. She turned to face him, her temper simmering quite clearly under her skin; her cheeks and forehead flushing red. She stepped closer, bending down so that her face was only an inch or so from his.
 
"Lied to you about what?" she said.
 
"About Camelot," he said, doing his best not to blink.
 
"Oh."
 
"You told me it was so tiny I couldn't see it, but I don't think there's any building that size. I don't think it's possible."
 
"Well, you won't see it again," she said, "if you think things like that. The fairies won't let you. I told you that as well, didn't I?" He couldn't be sure, as she said that, whether she was about to cry, or hit out at him, or both. As it turned out, she did neither. She simply walked back the way they'd come, not bothering to check if he was following.
 
He watched her, the sharp silhouette, as she broke out through the treeline; which already seemed thinner, sparser, more open. He made his way along the lightening path towards where the fairy ring stood, or squatted rather, in the shadow of an ageing, mouldy-barked ash.
 
He set his left foot down, slowly, within the circle, and closed his eyes. He didn't see the drawbridge any longer. Or the high, pale walls, and the banners that fluttered along them. Or the cloud-spearing towers. Just the fading stripes of the trees that he'd been looking at in the moments before, and was looking at again when he got tired of waiting.
 
He kept them like that, staring straight ahead, as he withdrew his foot from the circle.
 
He kept them like that as he pulled his foot back, and then let it swing forwards in a swift little kick.
 
Only risked looking down again once it had landed, to see the wreckage of those small, crooked mushrooms, their caps and stems splintered and ripped from the earth. Bits of them clinging to the tip of his school shoe as well, which he wiped clean on the grass when he was back in the field.
 
#
 
Gordon takes another sip of whisky, but doesn't like the lightness of the flask upon his palm. He reaches out and scratches at the whitewashed window, but no paint comes away beneath his nail. He ruffles the shutters on the shop next door and they feel real enough, but then when he looks again the shutters are gone. So is the paint. The 'Closing Down Sale' sign in the shop after that, also.
 
He rises, a tad unsteadily, but doesn't topple, and knows by heart the places on the street where it is safe for him to stand. He walks out of the village via the main road, and then steps out over the railway line, directly above one of the trains that has come to a stop.
 
It is not, and has never been, his job to deal with the engines. They are running, more often than not, by the time he arrives, seen to by the steam enthusiast who built them. He's just about the only other employee who comes out here. But he's a doddery old bugger, these days, and so there's no reason for the finger of blame to fall on him. He couldn't have set up anything so elaborate as whatever's going on here. It's not his style. When they've talked in the past -- that is, when they've traded a few words here and there -- the older man has confided that, for him, it is "trains, always trains". And Gordon, tending to the housing and street repair as he does, believes that. Respects it.
 
But the Council, he doesn't respect them. Lately, he's been getting the sense that the feeling is mutual. No matter how many times he asked them what would happen, and what was happening in his absence, when he went up north for the week of her funeral, he had always been met with the same response.
 
"Don't worry, it's being taken care of."
 
A whole week of being three hundred miles away from this, his village, and that was all he was told. He couldn't fathom why. They'd been mostly alright on that front before, when he'd been sick, or taken a weekend off here and there, but not recently. There had been subtle alterations. Their timing had grown increasingly off. The posting of his annual pension statement was just another example to add to the list.
 
Feeling the lightness, the rattle of his flask in the inside pocket of his coat, he begins to worry that maybe someone has told them about his drinking. But that doesn't make sense. He's always so very careful. Always checks, is always vigilant, making sure that there's no-one else around if and when he has a snifter. He doesn't even go down the local for a pint anymore.
 
Besides, he only started drinking like this after Jem had passed away. He only bought this hipflask -- the first one he's ever had -- up there, the day after the funeral, as a kind of morbid souvenir. It says 'Teeside' on it. That's where she's buried. Not in the churchyard of the village proper, in the plot beside their parents.
 
#
 
She hadn't been back home, back here, for about eighteen months. Not even for Christmas, despite his repeated invitations. Not even for his birthday. For either of the birthdays he'd had since he saw her last.

He hadn't travelled up to see her either, but she'd never invited him, and it was such a long trip, and it would have meant leaving his village behind, taking holiday time that he might, he kidded himself, need to save up for later.
 
He asked her to visit, again and again, but all she ever said on the matter was, "I don't feel welcome there anymore." She'd fallen out with their parents many times over the years, but had more or less patched things up with them, by the end. When they both caught some kind of hospital bug, and went within six weeks of each other.
 
After that, she started trying for more and more distance, more and more space. Whenever he did see her, she had a hounded look about her, as though all the temper of her youth had steadily been redirected inwards. Instead of seeming flushed, she seemed to grow paler whenever anyone said something that might have upset or enraged her. Whenever he said anything like that.
 
Since she left, he doesn't go out much. He takes the shortest way here and the shortest way back to his house -- the house their parents left him. He's never been one for having too many acquaintances, not since his school days, and so nobody really seems to miss him at the pub. Nobody who cares enough to call him up and ask him where he's got to, anyway.
 
Tonight, however, he takes the turning that leads towards the village proper. It's thinking about their parents that's done it. Whenever he stops to realise they're no longer around, he feels the need to at least walk by the churchyard. To make that realisation more concrete, or to fight against it, he isn't really sure.
 
He can't help but notice how poorly the roads are kept in some places. And how much work is obviously going on in others. The cones and temporary traffic lights standing as an indication that Council funds are being put to at least some other use. He's heard the drilling and digging, sometimes, from his house in a morning, and from his village, but has never yet been tempted to come and have a closer look. He doesn't like the smell of tar.
 
They seem to be constructing another roundabout, to compliment the smaller one at the other end of the street, and diverting the traffic in another direction; but it is even colder at night than in the mornings, and so he doesn't pause to read the laminated notice that's been taped against a lamppost, doesn't ask the workmen who sit idling in their van.
 
On the high street, he is reminded further just how little attention he's been paying to this version of the village. It's partly been a conscious effort to minimise his daily commute. But still he didn't realise quite how much has been changing. How many of the small shops -- the cobblers, the greeting cards place, the bookshop -- are now closed. Even the grocer's -- whom he has arranged to have his weekly shop delivered by, early on Sunday mornings -- doesn't seem in the healthiest state.
 
A lone cabbage wilts in the window tray, joined only by a half-dozen irregular spuds.
 
#
 
Gordon leans against the churchyard wall, peering through the long grass towards where his parents' headstones stand, a little crooked, in the shadow of the church's east wing. The smell of the turf seems to prognosticate rainfall. He wipes his nose. He reaches inside of his coat for the flask.
 
He likes the seclusion, the quiet, the peace of the model village. He likes to take his time surveying the stillness of the dawn, when his heart and the trains on their tracks are the only things moving. And maybe a pigeon or a blackbird, as tall as a house.
 
But he knows for certain, right at this moment, that he doesn't like being alone.
 
Even the tourists, even they are comforting, after a fashion. Watching them, he knows that his own problems are not so big. He can put himself in their shoes -- the shoes that he keeps track of, fastidiously -- and look down at the houses, and then up at the other people, all of them giants in comparison, and know that none of their problems are such big ones, really.
 
Here, though, on the pavement below the raised ground of the churchyard, he doesn't feel safe in that knowledge. He feels small. Wretched. The stones tower over him. The walls are cold to the touch. Clammy. It is not as welcoming, as helpful, this church, as the one inside the other village. It doesn't do its job the same.
 
Another swig, and his eyes are closed against the threat of weeping.
 
It takes a few seconds, but he sees himself, even smaller, slipping inside through a gap between stones. Into the mud, pushing down through the topsoil. The clumped roots of weeds, the tendrils of fungi like cold iron chains; the bulbs of latent snowdrops and bluebells like torches.
 
Follow them, carry on, deeper and deeper. Past the spent shells of woodlice, like discarded saddles; past the still lengths of worms, like dragons slain in the dark. Onwards and onwards, as though pulled, as though guided. Until the cold and the blue of an underground chamber, and his breath steams and circles his head like a halo. And in the middle are two slabs, and on them two bodies. And his father bears a cross on his chest like a sword.
 
#
 
Back at his house, he's halfway through the fiddly business of refilling his hipflask before it dawns on him that in here he can just use a glass. He empties it out into a tumbler he's taken, not fully clean, from the draining board. Bids the cheap blended whisky godspeed to his gut.
 
Then downs another.
 
Finds his way, cradling the third glass, through the living room to his armchair. Which was his father's before him.
 
Finds his way, after the sixth glass, upstairs to his bed.
 
#
 
This early morning, he is running a bit late. His head aches a little, and he had a bad stomach until he took an antacid with his first cup of tea.
 
But that isn't why he feels so sluggish, so lethargic. He doesn't think so, anyway. He barely knows if he's slept. He thinks he was probably awake most of the night, tossing and turning, but cannot now be sure.
 
He feels, besides the ruin the whisky wrought, a twisting, a rearrangement taking place inside him.
 
On impulse, because he noticed it on the kitchen worktop, beneath another empty bottle, he'd picked up the Council's letter. Torn it open with a butter knife -- unwashed and greasy -- and squinted at the flickering words, trying hard to comprehend. It became clear, after a minute or two, that it wasn't his pension statement. Their timing wasn't as off as he'd thought.
 
It is scrunched up in his pocket now, that letter. Balled up inside his fist inside his pocket. He feels as though he wants to kick out at something, but has not yet found anything suitable to kick. Not yet. But here he stands at the gates.
 
He unlocks them, passes through, and then locks them again behind him. His feet sink just a little bit into the mud of the field; the aftermath of the heavy rain overnight. He walks across the grass, squelching, leaving indistinct footprints. The trains are out there ahead of him, three or four metres apart. Steam billows from their engines, roiling behind them, forming a wreath around most of the track.
 
A couple of yards short of that track, he stops. Looks down towards the ground, as though in contemplation. As though he's his own older sister, readying himself to make something up.
 
Even though, today, he doesn't need to.
 
Doesn't have to close his eyes to see the wide, white bulk of that building, the one that is coming, that will be here within months. Even without setting one foot inside the ring of that track, he can see it. The bright, antiseptic lights that stream out through its windows the size of regular houses. The 'Special Offer' signs behind that glass. The promise to give people whatever they need. The masses of tourists, milling inside it. The shopping trolleys. The car park, three or four or five times the size of this village. His village.
 
Even without closing his eyes, without saying its name three times, he can see it. Even without setting one foot over the track, breaking the chain. He doesn't have to do that, not to know what's coming.
 
But he takes that step, all the same.