Invited to lunch at Priory House, Julia is curious of why her old school-friend and cousin, Fliss, has abandoned a glittering career in America to return to Wessex.
Fliss spoke of changes; could the two be connected?
The bus-driver dropped me at the end of the lane with apologies for not taking me further. “Go up there, love, I’d never get out. And I’ve passengers waiting to see me cheery old face.”
I smiled, and thanked him. As he pulled away in the livery-painted minibus, I figuratively girded my loins and set off at a pace up the dry, dusty lane. Ahead, I could just see the pitch and tilt of the priory’s several roofs.
Fliss’s address wasn’t as grand as her parents’ Plessey Hall, but in its own way it was equally imposing. A hotchpotch of extensions and annexes of different dates, the earliest 14th century, the latest something post-Dissolution, all held together with an invisible glue called ‘historic’. I imagined what it must look like inside: a muddle of interconnecting rooms. In that I was wrong. But I was right in that it no longer had extensive grounds. In its priory-days it had owned a whopping swathe of land, grazing and arable, let out to rent, a patchwork squeezed between the other manors. It had more-or-less owned the village, too, cottage, well and soul. It was for the sake of those souls that the land had been gifted. And what had became of the souls and the prayers they had bought, when Henry came along with his axe? Ho-hum, hey; the wheel rolls on. All that remained of the extensive domain was a crazy-paved forecourt and a narrow strip at the back. Purple and white flowers surrounded the paving in a tumble, punctuated with the acid-yellow of Creeping Jenny (one plant I can name). Lavender (another), with its bee-peppered heads, formed a grey guard between lane and domain.
The door was open, though dark in its deep porch. It looked very ‘churchy’ with its Gothic arch—or was it English Perpendicular? Fliss called to me to come in before I’d yet reached it. Inside was wonderfully cool, like entering a cave but lighter: cream-washed walls, terracotta floor tiles. Not the original floor—no dip in the middle from numberless feet. I confess, I envied my old friend her new abode—until she emerged from a side door.
I tried not to stare but it was a shock. Why had no one told me? Mum must have known. She knew enough to know she’d moved back. I tried to find words. I had none.
“No, Jules-darling, I’m dandy. I’ve accepted.”
“How? Is it an illness?” She was strapped into a high backed wheelchair, black. And so pale, she looked like some ivory carving sat there. The effect was heightened by her choice of clothes: a cream silk shift that draped rather than sheathed, so thin she’d become; and voluminous trousers. The only colour was her jewellery, huge chunks of amber set in silver. I thought of honey: the creamy-beige ‘set’ and the golden of ‘runny’.
“You didn’t see in the press?” she asked.
I shook my head, guilt taunting (how dare I not follow her career. Yet I had—until it became a blur of sun-spot activity that cast my own career into perpetual shadow).
“A drunken driver, but . . .” she aired a dismissive hand “. . . irrelevant now. Please, do come through. This place has a den ideal for our gabfest.”
To me, the word ‘den’ conjures the notion of a small wrap-around room with furs and textured tapestries, and a carpet that swallows the feet and encourages snuggling together in front of a fire. Felicity and Ken had other ideas. Their ‘den’ was formed of the old priory church: original hammer-beamed roof, thirty feet or so above us; windows reaching up as if to their god in his heaven; walls, like those at the entrance, cream-washed and naked. The floor was new: honey-coloured beech-wood. It would have been overwhelming had the whole not been divided into smaller spaces. Two facing four-seater deep-padded settees, upholstered in soft cream leather, formed a ‘conversation pit’, which was probably what Fliss meant by a ‘den’. A long low table was set between them with more, smaller, tables set at their ends. At the end of the settees, back to the wall, was an armchair of similar design. The opposite end was left open, clearly intended for the wheelchair. It was here that she bid me repose. (Yes, that is how she talks.)
I didn’t ‘repose’. While she disappeared off—to fetch coffee, she said, refusing my offer to help—I wandered around this ginormous cavern. A glossy chrome-and-black multi-media system occupied one of its corners, the design of the controls too esoteric for me to dare touch. The hi-tech futuristic look contrasted with the canvas safari seating. The opposing corner was taken by a baronial sized table and ten matching chairs. Wow! That alone must have cost ten times that of my canalboat. Book-laden shelves with occasional tables and chairs set in odd places against the walls gave the impression of a fragmented library while also defining the separate areas. The whole was lit by uplighters, some widely arching, others severe and erect. For all the evident cost of it, to me it looked sterile. I wondered who dusted the beams.
Fliss returned wafting a rich aroma of coffee and a trolley affixed to the front of her chair, the cups and pot softly chinking.
“Impressive,” I said with a gesturing look round the room. “But why, Fliss, why move here? It can’t exactly be wheelchair friendly.”
“How typical you, Jules: blunt as ever.”
But it was true. And she didn’t exactly hide her disablement, not with that wheelchair straight out of some Gothic Hollywood movie.
She inhaled deeply through her delicate upper-class nostrils (mine in the past two generations had become common).
“We bought the place primarily for its ground floor. Extensive, as in ad-gab. The bedrooms are . . .“ she pointed airily non-directional. “And, natch, all the domestic appointments. We’ve had the downstairs floors re-laid. Or rather, laid over—’listed building’, they said, ‘to hell with it being wheelchair-friendly’. But that gave us the op to install under-floor heating. As for the doors, being old they are wide—which, incidentally, makes them wheelchair-friendly. Perhaps they haven’t the height of a modern door but that’s Kenneth’s problem not mine. The rooms up . . .” again she pointed non-directionally. “Those are Kenneth’s. His stores and workshops. We’ve kept that on a separate circuit.”
“A separate—that matters?”
“Yes, Jules-darling, that matters much-o. I’ll show you after the coffee. You’ll then understand.”
After the coffee—hurried; she was itching to show me whatever it was—she led me along a long covered walkway (one of several that connected parts of the priory). One side was a featureless wall, the other cut by low windows. I suspected these were a new feature, installed especially for her. (It helps to be wealthy when confined to a wheelchair.) They gave onto an enchanting garden. Hemmed in by the hillside, that garden climbed some little way up it. Our trek ended at the priory’s refectory, architecturally the younger brother of the church-cum-den.
My eyes briefly took in walls lined with work-benches, clipboards hung above them, plastic filing boxes, pots of pens and pencils, maps on the wall, one of Salisbury Plain and adjoining areas, the other of Marlborough Downs and the Vale of Pewsey, both dotted with flat-headed marker-pins. But my attention was taken by what sat at the centre.
They looked like two Egyptian sarcophagi, but not at all ancient and more the size of a modern coffin. They weren’t wooden, but shaped out of grey granite. And they were connected to a confusion of electrical cables and undefined tubing.
“What the bo-diddly!?“
“Oh, Jules-darling, you’re not still saying that? It was archaic when we were at school.”
“But what are they?” I asked.
“Gosh, what a nincompoop,” she waved another airy hand. “I ought to have explained at least part of it first. You’ve heard of Hake Mattesson? He’s the real father of this.”
I shook my head. I’d no more heard of him than I had of Mad Grinning Jenny. (Who’s she? I don’t know, I’ve not heard of her.)
“I cannot credit it.” Fliss shook her head in arch-despair. “You don’t know of Mattesson?” We were back in the cavernous den. Despite again she’d said to ‘repose’ I remained cautiously perched lest the deep-padded settee tried to swallow me. “But then, he was an American—authored The Water Wall, published in the ’60s. Apparently at the time it was enormous. But it then was forgotten. I found a copy in a secondhand bookstore, not long after I arrived in the States. I was at a loose end, not knowing anyone then. His thesis was absolutely compelling; I even took the book to the labs with me. A couple of fellow students saw it and . . . For a few months we bounced his idea around. It was the ‘in’ I needed. So, natch, Mattesson and his ideas remained dear to me.”
I could tell how special the book was for her. She was beginning to sound almost human. I almost expected a tear. But I was still none the wiser. What was this thesis Hake Mattesson espoused in The Water Wall? I assumed, if it dated from the 60s, it had some kind of hippy appeal, but I couldn’t imagine what. Self-sufficiency? Altered states? But I couldn’t imagine that being Fliss’s thing. Apparently, she read the look on my face.
“Mattesson had a theory—and you understand that I use the term loosely. It began when he was investigating reports of ghost sightings along the East Coast, particularly in New England. No, Jules, don’t jump to conclusions; just hear me out. Absolutely, he was flying with the lunatics—the stuff he had done up till then . . . But, during the course of his investigations it began to register that these sightings had one thing in common.”
“They all sought publicity?” I couldn’t contain the sarcasm.
She ignored it. “Ninety-seven percent of the sightings were in close proximity to running water. Not just streams, though those too yes, but also all forms of ground water, the natural drainage; even, on one occasion, a broken underground pipe. He . . . you could say he formulated a theory—that the water, in contact with the natural magnetic rock or the soil, acted as a recording medium. And the recording was played back when the water was again in contact with certain kinds of rock.”
“Granite,” I guessed from the coffins.
“Igneous,” she said. “And there’s no need for that tone; you don’t have to believe it. Clearly the faculty heads had deeper vision than you when I took it to them with a request to research it further.”
“Water and rock as a recording medium of ghosts?” And while she was doing this oh-so-valuable piece of research I was starving and sweating to achieve a reputation for excellence of display design. And to think, I used to admire her.
“Look, Jules-darling, you don’t know this side of research, so remove that sneer. They were happy to fund me. But there were the usual provisos. They wanted possession of patents on the equipment developed in the course of our study. That’s when I brought Kenneth in. He worked with me. It was he developed the equipment. We hit a few dead ends, I admit. Yet overall we were making progress. In fact, I was kissing-close to proving Mattesson’s theory. Then some maniac with a drink-habit poorly controlled knocked me flying. The university closed on me as if they thought me a marrow content to be stuck in a barrow.”
Wow, was she angry. Her previous pale face now showed livid. I sat in silence, eyes averted. She may have thought me considerate, but truth was I didn’t know what to say. The granite coffins she’d shown me told their own tale. I hardly needed her to say it. Yet she did.
“I already had a trust fund from the sale of the Hall. Okay, it had been no great amount, not once the debts were paid off, but I had invested it wisely. But like the proverbial cake, you can’t have it and eat it. So if you must have some idiot upturn your life, best have it happen in the States. I wouldn’t have got half the compensation if it had happened in England. But, Jules, I was so close, so exceedingly close. I couldn’t give it up. But they held the patents. We had to begin again, from the start. A slight change in design—it doesn’t take much to break a patent. But when we reached again that stage—we needed a way to test the system and where better than here, in Wessex, with a verified history extending six thousand years.”
I glanced back to the door, to the general direction of the granite coffins. “Let me see if I’ve got this right. Those . . . contraptions can play back recordings made, what, a thousand years ago? Two thousand? Longer?”
“According to our instruments—and Kenneth is our ‘instrument man’—four and half thousand years.”
“But that’s when Stonehenge . . .”
She smiled, her hand brought up to squeeze her lip. She was gloating; she always did that in a gloat.
I knew I was going to regret asking this. “What sort of ‘ghosts’ do your machines record?”
“Time-pods, darling,” she said. “That’s what we’ve christened them. Well, Dave did—our name for the gizmos was too technical for his simple Wessex brain. But in answer, thus far we’re only getting feed from the environment. Flora, fauna, weather; nothing more exciting. As yet. But Dave can fill you in on that side of it. He’ll be here soon.” She looked at her watch, all but hidden beneath an amber-studded bangle. “He’s to join us for lunch. Dave Eastman, you remember him?”
Did I remember Dave Eastman? And she had accused me of being tactless? Dave had been my first proper boyfriend, when I was fourteen and he sixteen, until she interfered. I was going to marry him, or so I said (to myself in the quiet of my room). I used to try out the name, Julia Eastman, writing it on scraps of paper; David and Julia Eastman, before hurriedly scrunching the paper and throwing it away.And he was to join us for lunch.
I’d been so stunned at hearing his name—and from her, after what she had done—that I almost missed what else she had said, that Dave would fill me in on that side of it.
In the next episode: what’s causing that crackle? Could it be the dynamics of an ancient triangle?