The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Bamworth Legacy - Episode 8
Tuesday 17th June, 5.00pm
Evidently a little taken aback, Eric Drayes wipes a nervous hand across his forehead, leaving a smear like a bandana. His hands are red to the wrist with paint.
John Henry glances down at the dried blood on the boy's arm.
"You should put something on that," he remarks, drily. "You never know what you might catch." Before Eric can react, Henry strides past him into a long art-room, lit by six great windows set in the southern wall. "I understand you're a bit of an artist, Eric."
A long table runs along the centre of the room, its rough grain puddled with a mess of colour from abandoned brushes and the plastic pallets that strew every available space. Affixed to drawing boards, twenty or so efforts in poster paint are drying. Many depict a central tree studded with fruit, or squat birds of various implausible colours. The skies are a flawless blue, the suns resemble fat, smiling, yellow hedgehogs.
At the far end of the table, a space has been cleared for a larger picture, the damp corners of the paper pinned down with paint-stained jars. Seldom discomposed, Henry feels a little spasm in his stomach akin to vertigo as his eye drawn into a swirl of colour that seems to kaleidoscope before his gaze, with the vigour and frenzy of festival.
"It's for Midsummer." Eric's voice is faintly defiant.
Hands linked like a chain of paper cut-out men, a crowd of dancers spiral and eddy. The air seems to swirl with activity, an accomplice in the dance. Trees arch their limbs to imitate the dancer's motions. Birds and beasts as large as men grip human fists and join the waltz. Behind them, a sun of impossible size lowers like a red, swollen eye. It stains the dancers with crimson, as if touching them with blood, or fire.
"You must have quite an imagination to come up with ideas like those. Or was it not imagination at all, but something you dreamed - or something you saw? Where did you see these scenes, Eric? At home - or in the fields?"
Eric has been standing by one of the great windows, his slight form thrown into silhouette, his expression invisible. His brushes are suddenly flung from his hand as if in anger. The next moment, Henry recognises the boy's gesture as a convulsive clutch at the sill for support, as Eric collapses to the floor, his limbs jerking uncontrollably. His eyes are a pallid, empty grey, like clouded glass.
Margaret Hurst appears at the door, then hurries to the boy's side with a muttered execration. Taking an unlabelled bottle from his pocket, she pours a dose into a plastic spoon, which she levers into his mouth. After a few moments, the bluish shadows around his eyes and mouth start to fade, although his fingers still tremble like petals.
"Margaret." It is an infant's moan. "You didn't tell anyone about the dreams, did you? You said you wouldn't."
"Of course I didn't, lovely." Her long, freckled hand gently pushes the coppery hair back from the pale, narrow face that rests against her lap. She casts a reproving glance up at Henry. "I think you'd better leave any other questions until another day."
As Henry leaves the art room, he hears Eric murmuring softly.
"Margaret, can I stay at yours tonight? Can we stay up at the barn?"
Back in the guest house, Side-step watches as Matt Culver finishes reading Kate Walsh's note, and tosses it aside.
"Well, what do you think? I know Henry is all in favour of taking them up on their offer, or at least letting them think that."
"I'm inclined to agree with you, Side-step. Demanding cash at least gets the Gruesome Twosome off our backs for a day or two - and if we ask for, say, used twenties, they're gonna need a big briefcase..." No objections are raised to this plan.
"Now, if we all agree, Henry seems to think this should be my party," continues Side-step. "I'm happy with that if you are. I'll need somebody with me though because they haven't seen me with the team before, remember." After discussion, it is decided that all available members of the group will attend the meeting.
Benedict Riggs, who is sitting on the edge of the bed quietly humming to himself, contributes little to the conversation.
"Kate Walsh..." he sings. "...Katie Welsh... Katty Melsh... Walsh... Welsh... Melsh..." When he finds the others staring at him, his pale face darkens into a scowl. He rises and leaves the room.
Riggs strolls into the Star, which he finds almost empty. Mark Ashford, who is setting out card menus in preparation for dinner, is more than willing to chat.
"Doing some research, are you? Well, we don't have any archives as such, just accounts, personal papers and the like. You're welcome have a sift through them."
The papers in Ashford's possession prove to date only from the point where The Star passed into the hands of his family, four generations before. From the accounts it is clear that the public house, and in particular the brewery, have dealings with the Middlechase Cooperative. One 1993 entry mentions a large sum paid to Ashford by Sir Harvey Bamworth. When questioned by Riggs, Ashford explains.
"Yeah, I remember that business. Some guy got caught forging cheques in the name of several Cooperative members. I guess he thought, what with our semi-communal finances, we wouldn't miss the money. Sir Harvey was ready to have his kidneys for cuff-links, I can tell you. But then, a couple of days later, Sir Harvey got in contact with us all, and said that he'd sorted everything out of court, asked us not to press charges, and handed out cheques for the amount we'd lost. I never quite got my head around that..."
...here lies Ann Bamworth, Loyal Servant to her God, her Husband and to her Pledge...
Professor Twitchin is studying this commemorative slab in a corner of the church floor as the Reverend Sourley enters, flanked by some four or five children who seem determined to burden him with flowers.
"Thank you, yes, of course I'll put them up in the window. Oh. Oil seed rape too, how pretty. Thank you." After the girls have departed, Sourley smiles apologetically at Twitchin, wiping his streaming eyes with one sleeve. "Hayfever is enough to test one's faith in the Almighty, don't you think?"
Twitchin refuses to accommodate the vicar's flippancy. Once more assuming the persona of a concerned Christian visitor, he drops hints of a connection to a confidential diocesan investigation into possible heresy in the parish.
"Heresy? But that's medieval. Anything goes now, women priests, contraception, homosexuality... If it meant that we'd have more than two people and a dog attending services, the Church of England would probably decide that Satanism was 'differently Christian."' The Professor pushes the issue, suggesting that the vicar talk to his bishop concerning the strange occurrences in the village, but Sourley is not receptive.
"I don't think that's necessary. I'm not saying that the pagan festival element of the solstice celebration won't alarm some of the more self-righteous, fanatical..." He trails off. "Ah. No offence."
John Henry, Benedict Riggs and Professor Twitchin arrive back in the guest house in time for the evening meal, and by eight o'clock, all are waiting in Side-step's guest room for the arrival of Kate Walsh.
At ten past eight a curt rap sounds at the door. As Kate Walsh enters with Lockwood in tow, Side-step stands, exhaling cigarette smoking and grinning in a fashion not designed to soothe.
"Hello, Mr Lockwood, remember me? We 'bumped' into each other the other day in the street. I can't tell you how happy I am to meet you once again." Ugly lines appear at the corners of Martin Lockwood's mouth.
Kate Walsh seats herself without waiting for an invitation.
"Are we going to waste time being catty to one another, or are we going to talk business?" she asks, coolly.
Side-step complies. "My associates have told me about your little business proposition. Now we have agreed to take you up on your generous offer with one minor adjustment."
Walsh raises an eyebrow interrogatively.
"Cash. We will only accept cash as our sources tell us that your cheques have a nasty tendency to ricochet. I'm sure you'll agree that this would be most unfortunate."
"Used twenties, if you don't mind," adds Culver.
"If you are suggesting that such a sum should be paid to you in advance of the auction, you must imagine that my associate and I are completely stupid. We would have no guarantee that you would honour your side of the bargain."
"This is non-negotiable," insists Side-step. "Take it or leave it. Once we have the... er... donation, you will be free to go about your business unhindered. On the other hand, however, should you decline, I can assure you that to our employer money is no object and we SHALL succeed in purchasing the goods in question."
"I have contacts in the press, locally and nationally," adds John Henry in a menacing tone. "Maybe you'll be surprised to know that you're already well known to them. It would only take a telephone call to blow you little scam wide open. And what will your boss say when he finds out how careless you've been?"
The dark-haired woman seems determined to ignore this threat, but blinks rapidly as if troubled, and drums her long violet nails on the wooden arm of her chair before speaking.
"Thirty thousand in cash. Half to be delivered here, tomorrow night at ten, and half after the auction. And that is non-negotiable."
Half an hour later, the SITU agents have found a quiet corner of the Star, and are discussing the day's discoveries over a drink. John Henry has a new theory concerning the group's shared dream.
"What if the villagers - and us too now - are the victims of some kind of poisoning that causes hallucinations, weird behaviour, madness and the like? Matt, do you know of anything that might have such an effect? Maybe it's linked to the meteorite! It could have been leaching heavy metals into the ground for centuries!"
Darius disagrees. "I was wondering if it might be some sort of telepathic message sent to us from a person unknown, maybe deliberately, maybe subconsciously. In any case it would be well worth analysing the symbols to see if we can find any meaning."
No one can find a perfectly satisfactory explanation for the 'grey bird' seen hovering outside Riggs' window, although Culver sees some plausibility in Henry's suspicion that it might have been Margaret Hurst's parrot.
Darius is also developing another theory concerning the strange occurrences in Middlechase. "Have you noticed that the village children seem to pop into our investigations rather frequently? It's starting to remind me of Children of the Corn. Could some of the children be involved in some witch-craft induced plot against the adults? Perhaps we should keep a discreet eye on Eric and his friends."
Culver leaves the group at ten to return to the guest house, and continues with Joseph Bamworth's journal. Glancing through the witch trial documents, he notes the names of the women tried. Avril Bamworth, Nell Myers, Jenny and Susan Fulton, Mary O'Keefe, Joan Lethbridge, Katharine Hurst, Rachel Harris and Verity Wallis. One Andrew Douglas, named as the "partner" in Avril's "unholy rites," clearly found an opportunity to flee before the trial.
When the Star closes, Darius separates himself from the rest of the group to pursue his theory concerning the village children. As he approaches the school, he notices the lights in Margaret Hurst's house becoming extinguished one by one.
Ducking quickly behind the wall, Darius watches as the front door opens, and the elderly schoolmistress ushers out a young boy whom the SITU agent recognises from the description of Eric Drayes. Eric has a heavy, grey raincoat thrown over his frail shoulders. His forearm is bandaged, and his right hand grips convulsively at the rounded shoulder of his companion.
Leaving the playground, they follow the western road for some half a mile, before climbing a stile. After a brief interval, Darius follows.
A throng of dun-coloured moths are disturbed by his feet and churn the air about him. They distract him for an instant, but he beats them away from his face in time to see a glimmer, which he recognises as Margaret Hurst's white coat, vanishing across the field.
Crouching as he runs, and exploiting his diminutive stature, Darius takes a path through the corn in pursuit. Halfway across the field, he pauses, raising his head to gain another sight of his quarry.
Margaret Hurst is standing some twenty yards away, with one hand resting lightly upon Eric's shoulder, motionless but for the slow, almost mesmeric swinging of her head from side to side. Her eyes are closed. Darius draws his head down swiftly, holding his breath. A few seconds later, he hears the rustle of rapid steps.
When he next dares to raise his head above the level of the corn, the field seems empty. Just as he considers abandoning the search, a white shape bobs in his peripheral vision. Something pale is moving with a swift, irregular motion along the perimeter of the wood. Sometimes it vanishes, where its route cloaks it in tree shadow, only to re-emerge like a moon from cloud. Stalking it through the hissing corn, Darius becomes unnerved by the figure's speed. It seems uncanny to imagine the old woman's hunched form galloping through shadow like a sylph.
The moon breaks from the trees, and the mystery is resolved. Darius watches the white doe that he has been following start at the sight of him, and flee through the thickets. The old schoolmistress and her young charge are nowhere to be found, and Darius returns to the guesthouse.
The night passes peacefully and without dreams, perhaps as a result of the Diazepam that Dr Culver has made available to all.
After breakfast, John Henry speaks with Karen Norse, and learns that Middlechase has no doctor of its own. Many of the inhabitants are registered with one Dr John Macklin, a general practitioner based in the nearby village of Chidsworth. Telephoning the little practice, Henry persuades the doctor to meet him for lunch.
Doctor Macklin is in his late fifties. He has a Cheshire cat grin and his pattern of speech is leisurely, as if he were tasting each word with relish. He confidently dismisses Henry's theory that the whole of Middlechase is suffering from metal poisoning. He seems more inclined the blame the village's "wacko" element upon in-breeding.
Not yet discouraged, Henry decides to hunt down a map of the local water pipes, and succeeds in finding one among the files at the village hall. No pipes run directly under the central site of the 'Fallen Star', but since the village is located within its original crater, water pipes inevitably criss-cross the dell caused by the meteor strike.
Meanwhile, after ringing several local numbers listed in the Yellow Pages under "Veterinary Surgeon", Side-step succeeds in finding the vet responsible for Lewis's cattle. Alan Dance, the vet, explains that he will be in surgery for the rest of the day, but is willing to answer queries briefly over the phone.
Side-step introduces himself as a researcher for Greenpeace looking into possible health risks posed by British agriculture, and investigating rumours of a case of foot and mouth disease.
"Oh, I'd say it's definitely foot and mouth. I don't think there's any harm in telling you that, now that Mr Lewis has called in the Ministry for Agriculture about it." He proceeds to describe the cows' symptoms in gut-wrenching detail.
"Could these symptoms be indicative of any other disease, or could they be caused by anything else, chemicals in the water supply for example?"
"Well, the pattern developing suggests an epidemic, rather than water contamination. It might perhaps be some other obscure disease, but frankly I doubt it."
Stopping in at the newsagent to buy a Guardian, Culver takes the opportunity to draw Gill Sexton into conversation, mentioning the lodge meeting of the day before.
"Pleasant, but not really my sort of male-bonding. I'm looking forward much more to the Institute meeting tonight." After a rather theatrical glance over his shoulder, he continues in a conspiratorial whisper. "We were threatened last night!" Gill Sexton gapes as she listens to a rather creative account of Walsh and Lockwood's attempt to scare off the group. "I don't know why they want rid of us, but we're thinking of pulling out..."
Once outside, Culver seats himself on the step of the war memorial to read his paper. His attention is drawn by one particular article which he resolves to show to his colleagues (see enclosed sheet).
Culver then strolls to the Star, where Mark Ashford recognises him from the lodge meeting the day before. He is delighted when Culver expresses an interest in looking around the brewery, and proudly leads the SITU agent to the neighbouring building.
After half an hour of staring at wooden tuns and bottle-capping machines and breathing the musty, queasy fumes of the fermenting hops, Culver is somewhat more nauseous, but little wiser.
While Dr Culver takes an afternoon nap, some of the other members scout out the area around the community centre where the Women's Institute meeting is due to be held. Riggs swiftly finds a number of suitable vantage points from which to observe events.
At a little after seven, Matt Culver sets off for the meeting, accompanied by Karen Norse, who is dressed in an expensive-looking moss-green jacket and has clearly taken some care with her make-up.
"I'm most intrigued to be invited along." Karen listens tolerantly to his enthusiasms and confirms that Harriet Bamworth will probably be present. She can provide no explanation of the 'grey bird' seen at the window. Apparently there are no local pigeon breeders.
At the door of the community centre, Culver's plans to make himself unobtrusive are shattered as Bea Friar hails him loudly.
"Ah here's my Dr Culver, yes, he's really a doctor and doesn't he look young..." Across the room, Gill Sexton is giving Karen's short skirt a rather pointed look.
"Could you be a life-saver and fit these shelves together, Dr Culver? You're a love. Who do you know here?" A surly woman with a broad, toad-like face, who is occupied in peeling grease-proof paper from a family of questionable-looking pies, is introduced as Janet Lewis. A pale, precise, little woman in grey is pointed out as Eliza Farrel.
The air is filled with the scent of recent cooking and a warm bubble of female voices, calling for Sellotape, reading off tape measures, asking for shelf space for butter cookies and coconut ice. Culver has been climbing ladders and erecting stalls for some two hours before the atmosphere begins to jar upon his senses.
There is something too even, too placid in the music of the voices, like the drone of sun-drugged bees. A few figures stand out in stark contrast to the prevailing mood of somnambulistic contentment, like rough stones in a warm brook.
Margaret Hurst, shutting her mouth with a snap after a long yawn. Mary Sexton, restless and resentful amid a small plantation of potted geraniums. Joanna Drayes, whose shadowed eyes reveal a sleepless night. Harriet Bamworth, striding across the floor towards his ladder.
"Hello again, Ms Bamworth."
"I'm hearing dark rumours about you, Dr Culver. I've heard that you're planning to slip off before the auction. That isn't true, is it?" Her smile is still perfect, enamelled, but her eyes seem tacitly to seek reassurance.
Outside the community centre, the rest of the SITU agents notice the village starting to transform itself. The war memorial is vanishing under a tangle of ribbons. Drayes drives a van into the square, and unloads a dozen young trees, which swiftly find posts about the square.
From the school yard something is rumbling towards the village centre with a squeak of wheels. Propelled by the efforts of fifteen or so young children, the effigy glides a few feet, rocks on its trolley, and glides a little further. It stands some seven feet high, and two stripped branches serve it as antlers.
Wednesday 18th June, 8.30
Matt Culver is in the community centre
All the others are outside the community centre