The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Bamworth Legacy - Episode 6
Monday 16th June, 3.30 pm
"Unless you have any better suggestions," mutters Side-step to Benedict Riggs as they crouch behind the hedge, "I reckon we ought to make like we're enjoying a stroll in the country and try and engage these kids in conversation. Kids aren't known for being tight lipped. I'll have a go at the lad with the knife while you see what the other two have to say."
A narrow path flanked by a hedge skirts the pond, allowing the pair to approach the children unobserved until they enter the clearing. Riggs approaches the elder pair, and introduces himself as an undercover FBI agent, visiting to investigate mysterious local occurrences, due to their link to similar events in America.
Mary Sexton bites her lip, as if in self-restraint. "Yes, I know," she declares solemnly. "We've already been questioned by agents Scully and Mulder, haven't we, Neil?"
Meanwhile, as Side-step approaches, the younger boy looks up. His face is still rigid with concentration, and it takes a moment for the angry, unfocussed light of his eyes to clear.
Side-step sits down nearby, wiping his forehead with one arm. "Hot day, isn't it? You know, there are less painful ways of getting a tattoo. What are you trying to carve into your arm anyway?"
"Just my name. So they can identify my body if I'm hit by a car, or something." The name 'Eric Drayes' has been carved in four different places on the forearm he holds before Side-step's eyes. "Don't faint," he adds, cheekily.
Side-step holds out a hand. "My name's Side-step." Eric looks at him sceptically.
"Whatever you say. You got a cigarette, Side-step?" Without waiting for an invitation, he swiftly tweaks one from his interlocutor's packet, and puts it in his top pocket. Finding that he suffers no immediate ill effects from this act, he seems to become more confident and relaxed, allowing Side-step to bring up the subject of Tracey Hammond.
"She just took something and couldn't handle it. She's such a baby. I told them not to take her along. And I told them not to do it in the fields." Eric rises, wiping the blood from the face of his digital watch. "I gotta go. My father's waiting to yell at me."
With seeming disappointment, Matt Culver listens as Mike Drayes disclaims ownership of any farming artefacts of antiquarian interest.
"Too bad. Any idea about the other local farmers? I thought I might try Lewis's farm next."
"Yes, Lewis is worth a try. And Friar got left some odds and bods by his grandfather, but most of that's plate." Mike Drayes' gaze has a directness and energy that is belied by traces of swollen slackness in his features, like the sag of a windless sail. Deep grooves mark the corners of his mouth. "Sorry I can't help more."
Culver makes his farewells, and departs. When safely out of sight of the farmhouse, he doubles back and soon encounters Riggs and Side-step who, abandoned by the children are retracing their steps
At the archives of The Watcher, the research of Professor Twitchin and Darius is interrupted by the arrival of a considerate receptionist, who brings in tea and custard creams. They pause to wash the printer's ink from their hands, and to rest their eyes.
"I think we should go on searching for a while," says Darius. "Let's see whether we can find out anything about the Women's Institute or the Middlechase cooperative that connects them to witchcraft - it's possible that one of them might be a cover for sinister activities."
Another two hours is spent scanning page after page of smudged text. Twitchin finds no reference to juvenile disappearances in Middlechase. There is one report of a boy vanishing from a village ten miles distant, but another article a week later describes his discovery living on the Oxford streets.
There are numerous pictures of members of the Women's Institute pushing cheques into church collection boxes, posing in pantomime costumes or lining before the primary school to point at the new climbing frame, for which they had raised money. Among them Darius recognises Margaret Hurst, and a younger Harriet Bamworth. Another woman in nearly all of the pictures is named in the captions as Beatrice Friar.
Darius also finds a article headed "The Cooperative Triumphant," giving details of the local group's success in dissuading the county council from permitting a power plant to be built within miles of several farms. The picture shows a smiling group with glasses raised as if in celebration. Most of the faces are unfamiliar, but Darius recognises one as his recent acquaintance, Simon Farrel.
After the receptionist starts to make hints about locking up the offices, the Professor gives Darius a lift back to the village, where they rejoin the rest of the party.
John Henry shows his colleague the invitation sent by Gerald Bamworth, and advises accepting it. "I can't imagine why Gerald Bamworth would want us to attend his lodge meeting, but maybe we will learn something to our advantage. We should keep our wits about us, though - I don't suppose it is a trap, but you never know..." Henry's expression of uncertainty sits incongruously upon his customarily confident features.
The group universally agree that the meeting at the lodge should be attended, despite their reservations.
"If it's one those Freemason efforts it could be a trap," opines Side-step. "Those guys are as thick as thieves. Maybe one of us should hang around outside just to keep an eye on things. If no-one has any objections, I'll volunteer." Darius agrees that Side-step should miss the meeting, but suggests that he take advantage of Gerald's absence to make another attempt at secretly viewing the library.
The discussion then moves on to the group's strategy for the remaining hours of the day. Matt Culver volunteers to approach the Women's Institute, and Darius offers to chase up the Middlechase Cooperative. The Professor expresses a desire to visit the church again. Riggs and Side-step agree to visit the dairy to investigate the ailment of the Lewis cattle.
"By the way," adds John Henry, "does anyone have any idea why Sir Harvey might have paid Martin Lockwood's legal bills when he was in trouble for forging cheques some time ago?" He gives an account of his telephone call with Clive Marx.
Side-step listens, lighting a cigarette before leaning back in his chair, resting his feet on the table and clasping his hands behind his back. His Zippo lighter, which he stands before him on the table, is engraved with a picture of a military rifle, and the inscription, 'IRA-0, Side-step-6'.
"I think we should play both ends of the stick." He squints through the smoke, a cigarette clenched between his teeth. "Why don't we tell Walsh and Lockwood that we know about their nasty little habit with rubber cheques, and if they pay us in cash we'll back off from the auction? Then we carry on and do what we set out to do anyway. That way we REALLY rattle their cage and we've each made five grand apiece tax free."
John Henry finds Bill Norse in the restaurant, hopping from one foot to the other in his hurry to attend to the wants of a skeletal old woman, who stares rigidly at his efforts with eyes like pale, ceramic marbles.
"Tea, Mrs May. Nice tea." A brown talon grips the cup, trembles, and slops the liquid.
"Too full! Idiot!" Her walking stick strikes Bill in the ankles, explaining his anxious footwork a moment before. "Where's Karen? Where's my daughter?"
As Karen rushes in from the kitchen, wiping fat from her hands with a flannel, Bill welcomes this opportunity to abandon his cantankerous charge and limps over to Henry, wearing his public smile.
He shows no unease when the SITU agent mentions the lodge meeting the next day.
"Don't worry, the Middlechase Lodge isn't secret hand-shakes and masons, just a chance for most of the men of the village to get away from our families, and talk with someone on our own level. After all, the ladies have the Institute meeting for their girl-talk, don't they? Oh, I should mention, dress is preferred formal, and," he casts his eyes over Henry's sky-blue tie and paisley shirt, "and, conservative."
John Henry telephones SITU, but they have no records relating to the 'Middlechase Lodge.'
As he crosses the village square with Side-step in the direction of the dairy, Riggs experiences a chill reminiscent of that he had felt when the bird-shaped shadow had crossed the field earlier that afternoon. His ever-present sense of being observed is, for an instant, unusually acute.
Once inside, they are made to wait as the unkempt, chubby youth behind the counter serves another customer, laboriously counting out the change under his breath.
After buying a bottle of milk, they enter into conversation and swiftly learn that the youth is Ian Lewis's eldest son, John. John Lewis has a habit of picking chunks from the cheese on display with his grime-crescented fingernails, and tossing them into his mouth.
"Dad thinks the cows got foot'n'mouth," he says, through a mouthful. "But it don't spoil the milk," he adds quickly, remembering the bottle in Side-step's hand.
Finding no mention in "The Watcher" or the telephone directory of an address or telephone number for the Middlechase Women's Institute, Dr Culver finds the number for Friar's farm.
"Hello? Yes, this is Bea Friar. Don't mention the Women's Institute to me, I'm up to my eyeballs in muffins for their meeting right now." The voice is throaty and thickly dialect, with an infectious chuckle.
"I'm in Middlechase to attend the auction of the late Sir Harvey's books," explains Culver, "and I'm interested in making a donation towards the plaque. Perhaps we could meet this afternoon?" Mrs Friar responds favourably, particularly when the possibility of tea and cream cakes are mentioned.
"Just give me half an hour to get this batch out of the oven. I'll see if I can drag Gillie Sexton and Jo Drayes along too."
An hour later, Culver is seated in the restaurant room of the guest house, wedged between Gill Sexton and Bea Friar. The latter is a bright-eyed, broad-smiled woman whose short, rotund figure comically recalls the foreshortening effect of a fairground distorting mirror. Both women appear quite capable of sustaining a conversation single-handed, and are currently subjecting Culver to an affable verbal onslaught on two fronts. He resigns himself to pouncing upon brief intervals in the flow, in his attempt to steer the conversation.
Both have only good to say of Harriet Bamworth, and agree that Gerald is 'very handsome.' When the trio are speaking of Sir Harvey Bamworth, Culver imagines for a moment that he detects an ambiguous expression in Bea Friar's volatile countenance.
"Well, if you're interested in the Institute, we do have the meeting on Wednesday night at the community centre," Mrs Friar remarks, cautiously, as they prepare to leave.
"Bea! You know we can't! We can't have gentlemen."
"Well, Gillie, there are all the shelves. And setting up the stalls, and carrying all the trays of the goodies..."
"I know, Bea, it would be nice to have help with the Midsummer preparations, but we couldn't possibly ask guests to help us with them." She beams winningly at Culver. "Could we?"
Since his search through The Watcher archives had not yielded him the name of any leader of the Middlechase Cooperative, Darius resorts to visiting his previous acquaintance, Simon Farrel.
He is greeted amiably enough, and shown into a comfortable living room. Farrel gently pushes a lolling red setter from the couch to create a space for Darius. Coffee is brought in by Farrel's wife, a reserved, delicate woman with a bluish pallor to her skin, like that of a china doll.
"The Cooperative's just a friendly society, I guess. It helps out members with financial troubles, and it's useful to have other voices added to your own when you're fighting the council. Of course, being in the Cooperative means you can't just off and do your own thing with your farm. Pity. We were thinking of market gardening, weren't we, Eliza?"
His queer, cold, wife gives his shoulder a compassionate little squeeze.
After telephoning the Bamworth Estate to accept Gerald's invitation, he Professor attends evensong at the elderly church, and even manages to maintain consciousness during the tedious sermon by the Reverend Sourley. He is surprised to note that the women uniformly seat themselves upon one side of the aisle, and the men on the other.
After the departure of the congregation, Professor Twitchin approaches the vicar, a slender, balding man in spectacles, who listens obligingly as his visitor interrogates him, under the guise of one suffering from affronted religious sensibilities.
"Are you not worried about pre-Christian Midsummer festivals, new age neo-pagans and the like, even rumours of witchcraft concerning the poor Hammond girl? Surely this is not the sort of goings on local God-fearing folk are comfortable with? Even the local squire collecting unholy books..."
Sourley blinks behind his big lenses, looking a little harassed by this harangue.
"Well, it doesn't do to start preaching hellfire, and saying people can't have fun, and can't buy books. The church would be empty in a week. And you can't go around stamping out pagan festivals, unless you're planning to throw out Christmas, and Hallow's Even too. And Easter, even the name comes from Eostre, the pagan goddess of I-forget-what. The early church knew what it was about, you see. Sometimes the roots of a custom go so deep that all you can do is cover them up with your own symbols, until everyone forgets what lies underneath."
Culver sits up once again reading the journal of Joseph Bamworth.
...and Ann says I must sleep for I have not for some days but how may I when I look at that mild countenance and consider that she too is a victim how can I trouble that quiet soul by telling her of the voices that call to me from the fields...
A little after one, he too retires to bed.
All share the dream.
A lace of clouds glide before the moon, casting a fabulous and intricate web of shadows upon the silver fields, a web that oozes and alters form in every instant, cheating the eye. Sometimes the patterns of shadow seem to chequer the fields like a chessboard, or like the floor of the hall in the Bamworth Estate. Sometimes they resemble a mass of mad, black letters.
The women stand hither and thither amid the corn, stiff as playing pieces. In the dim light, their faces are ash-white ovals, their eye-cavities traces of shadow. Mouthlessly they scream out malignancy, resentment, grief, pain, appeal. Limblessly, they glide through the silver flames that part before them.
Avril Bamworth ghosts across the field with a silken hiss of skirts, her white ruff stiff as a lizard-frill. As she nears, her lips part, but her speech is drowned by the flapping of her wind-filled mantle.
As one, the group awake. Lying in the dark, the images of the dream still hanging in the dark before them, each man becomes aware he can hear beyond the window a sound not unlike that produced by the flapping of a cloak, or by the beating of wings.
Tuesday 17th June, 4.00 am
All are at the guest house