A new novel I am working on. As yet it is untitled.
‘Did you know, Mina, that The Red Lion is the only pub in the Empire built within one of our Neolithic circles of stone? No coincidence then that the spiritualists believe it to be the most haunted.’
Mina smiles at her father, taking a foamy, sharp-flavored sip from her chilled glass of cider. ‘I had better set Elly to watch tonight in our room. Though I do believe we shall have more difficulty with rats than apparitions of the past.’
The glass is not too clean but the beverage is good, crisp, just a hint of sour and over-ripe sweetness. Just right for June, it soothes her throat. The carriage court behind her is a flurry of bustle. Her father’s men from Oxford are directing the servants, mostly locals, squat men with bull faces and the braces of farmers. Denim trousers rolled above thick oiled boots, hands horn hard from working, father to father, back in a line that leads, like the sea, to the stones. In all this rush, Mina knows that she and Elly are the only female non-locals, and Elly is upstairs civilizing their rooms.
Mina knows that her father is worried about the equipment, the picks and the brushes, sifters and trays. His roll top writing desk that he dragged to India and back on the spines of his coolies. The three arc sodium lamps for night digs, the same kind that draws crowds at the end of season in Bristol, though they have eight. They are set to ignite the fields with sunlight at midnight, expensive and easily broken and the petroleum generator is, at best, chancy. Sir Winston has a right to be worried. Mina knows enough to let him talk.
‘Rats in the rafters,’ Her father says, ‘at home in the thatch. Across the street a village church with windows from the time of the conqueror, and all around us countless precious archeological sites, standing stones set guard by people we emerged from but do not yet understand, being torn down by farmers to line their pig biers.’ his moustache droops above his mouth, ‘it makes me bitter.’
Mina reaches across the rough courtyard table, taking the old loose fleshed hand. ‘We shall work fast, to preserve and know them. The treasures of our ancestors shall not vanish entirely into the past.’
Winston is not listening. His sun brown face is looking across the road at the church, small, cut in such a way that it looks grown, an elk tooth rising from a healthy gum. It has never been disused, the constant infusion of prayers has kept it young. His thumb traces out the taut white knuckles of his daughter, its path unhampered by the presence of rings. He is glad to have her with him. He does not like to share.
‘No, not from the time of the conquest. It is a little later. But were I a man who took to chancing, I would lay down my sovereigns that the place where it stands has always held a church. As long as there were men.’ he swigs his large ale, golden and flecked, it forfeits the tongue and moves down the throat. ‘The men who stood these stones, the men we seek, probably welcomed in the solstice there.’
Musing now, his voice drops, he is not speaking to her. ‘We do not give up our holy places, though we change the names.’ his eyes brighten, blue glass, glistening, ‘But no, I should not blaspheme. Excuse me, darling, but I must see to the men. If they shatter a bulb I shall take payment in hide. And not from the horses.’
Mina watches him departing with a look of amusement not usually seen on the face of old spinster women. It is the mischief loving puck-smirk of a little wayward girl. Her father, brash of speech, is as gentle as always. He looks the man whose arm he holds in the eye, makes a small joke to remind him that this is delicate equipment he is unloading and not feed for the horse. The Wiltshire man laughs loudly, nods, tugs on his cap. The horse beside him fagged out and blowing from the long trek from Swindon station. The local gently pets its long neck.
Sir Winston returns, looking sprightly and boyish, as some men do over seventy. He groans and takes his seat on the bench. ‘Well that’s that, dearest, the last of the baggage. Have you your notebooks?’
‘Elly is unloading them. I’ve plenty of leads for my pencil.’
‘Excellent, truly excellent. Let’s get some supper, some rest if we can. I expect I shall not. Tomorrow we dig.’
He swallows, without tasting, the dregs of his cask ale. The barmen had labored on the recipe that made it for the last thirty years, blending the taste so that it hovered gently between vanilla and honey, and was anxious that it pleased the palate of the Lord. He took the gentleman’s vapid nod-and-smile as well worth it praise. Mina has finished her small ladies cider while her father gruffly talks to the people he calls his English Coolies. He tells her, ‘They’re the same all over, dearest; you miss nothing by remaining home.’
He takes her hand, helps her to rise. She would never admit it, but Mina is looking forward immensely to forfeiting her corsets tomorrow. It would be walking skirts from here on out, and thank the Lord Most High.
The inn is tall, two storied, lime painted so white that it’s blinding. The door is wide and low, the rooms organ-like, wood paneled, dark. If the pub is a lion, this is its throat. As they cross over the threshold, minding the dark silk of her traveling skirt, keeping the hated tatty lace free from catching on the lintel, Mina thinks, if there was always a church here, or something like it, an indoor place to mimic the cause of the stones, you can bet there was also a pub. Maybe it was here, where we stand now at the brass of the bar. Some prehistoric gathering place where the other side of the spirit was watered. That is what I would know. There are so many unmapped rooms in this world that I would love to explore.
And with that thought, as though summoned, the slat-sided barmaid leads them to their seat by the fire grate, cold this time of year. Father and daughter are seated at a table that had stood there from the time of Elizabeth. They bow their heads in a prayer both brief and heartfelt, and afterwards the two visiting relations set to their soup, excitedly waiting for their work on the morrow.