Quite suddenly there was no more road. It ran down the valley like any other road and then past a broad field of wheat, standing alone. It came up beside the small white house that belonged to the wheat field and then just faded out, as though there was no more use for it.
Jesse Harding pulled the old car up. “Sorry, kids, I must’ve taken a wrong turn.”
Simon turned his freckled face up to the sun. His pale blue eyes were almost translucent and the pupils like pinpricks of black ink. “I’m tired, dad. Is it much further?”
Jesse looked down at his young son, then at Lucy, his daughter, a couple of years older, fourteen, going on twenty-four. “Not much further, son, we’ll be at the hostel before it goes dark.”
“Hostel!” exclaimed Lucy, “Why can’t we stay at a proper hotel? Somewhere with clean sheets and … and room service!”
“Now, you know why,” said Dolores, Jesse’s wife, “times is hard right now, but your dad’s got a new job starting soon.” She crossed her fingers underneath her pale green dress. It was hard to tell if that was its actual colour or faded through the endless passing of time.
Jesse looked at the white house. All the windows were covered with blinds. Opposite the house was a freshly sown field of green shoots. But there was nowhere else to turn the car. With a slight feeling of trepidation, he backed the car onto the edge of the field, feeling the slight give of the earth before he straightened back up onto the road.
Just then, a woman emerged from around the house. Jesse felt he wanted to stamp on the accelerator and get the hell out of there, but out of politeness, he pressed a button to wind the window down. “I’m sorry, Ma’am, I had to turn the car around somehow. We’re heading for Castle Tor; we’re staying the night.” He felt embarrassed.
The woman was in her fifties. She had a pleasant face, browned by the sun, and straw-coloured hair tied up behind her head. She wore a long green smock and carried a basket. “Castle Tor, well, there’s no hotels in Castle Tor. Are you staying with friends?”
Jesse felt his face flushing. “Well, not exactly ma’am, er … er, well, it’s somewhere off the beaten track … er, not so expensive, like.” He forced a laugh.
The woman put her basket down on the ground and crossed her arms. “Well, if you and your family would care to stay the night, well, there’s fresh linen on the beds, and I’m sure I could rustle something up for dinner, if you don’t mind pork chops and roast potatoes?”
Pork chops and roast potatoes! Jesse almost swooned. “Well, er, that’s most kind of you, Ma’am, but ….” He noticed the faces of Lucy, Simon and his wife. “Er, well, if you’re sure ….”
The woman smiled. “My name is Maggie, and it’ll be my pleasure!”
The sun burned down on Jesse’s bare flesh as he scythed the wheat. Maggie had been most insistent. “‘Wheat should be harvested the proper way; by the old methods,’ that’s what Arnold, my dear departed husband used to say.” She had given him Arnold’s old scythe and the sharpening block he’d used and shown Jesse how to get the blade razor-sharp. Dolores had rubbed sun cream into Jesse’s back and torso before he’d gone out into the heat of the day to cut the wheat, whilst she’d gone to help Maggie with baking bread and pastries. Simon and Lucy had been sent to milk the cows at a neighbour’s farm and seemed happy and content.
As Jesse’s strong, sun-tanned arms wielded the scythe, he realised his family had been at Maggie’s for a whole month. Somehow each day had morphed into the next, time passing inexorably, but he’d enjoyed the physical work while Dolores and Maggie got on as if they’d known each other all their lives. Simon and Lucy seemed at home on the smallholding, school and friends forgotten, as if they’d never existed. Somehow, it was as if they’d moved into a new dimension, a dimension of simplicity, a dimension of simple friendship.
After six weeks, Maggie told the family to take the day off. There was to be a special celebration that evening.
Then, around a campfire, neighbouring folks began to gather. Some were farmers and their wives. Others, clad in tunics and long rustic dresses, were from the backwoods. Serious-faced, they carried drums made from buffalo or beaver skin, and long rattles made of interposed discs, fashioned from wood and silver.
Jesse was surprised to see Simon, Lucy and Dolores, sat around the fire, moving in time to the rhythm of the drums, whilst he felt somewhat out of place.
“Don’t worry, all is well!” It was Maggie, passing him a slim drum and beater.
As the fire blazed, the drums began to pound louder and louder, and Jesse found himself beating the taught skin almost subconsciously. Then someone appeared, holding a struggling beast. Jesse recognised it as a small deer, a muntjac. The man, someone wearing a leather helmet with horns, held the creature up as the drums began to beat faster and louder.
Suddenly, blood sprayed over the company to a roar of approval, as the helmeted man slashed the little deer’s neck open with a silver blade.
Jesse watched in disbelief as the animal’s skin was stripped, its flesh butchered and put onto bamboo stakes and then onto an iron grid over the flames.
“Dad, that looks great, I’m starving!” exclaimed Simon.
“Me too!” Lucy’s lips were wet, her tongue licking her lips and her eyes wide-eyed and staring with excitement.
On the other side of the campfire, Delores was beating her drum like a woman possessed.
Jesse decided that the next day he would leave for Castle Tor – whether Simon, Lucy, or Dolores wanted to go or not.