Book 5 in the Batch Magna series, published August 22nd 2019 by Farrago Books.
The Ghost of Artemus Strange
The bells of St Swithin’s, carrying on their ancient sides saints and merchants, squires and parsons, rhymes and prayers, rang out under a moon pale like ice, out over the Marcher village of Batch Magna and its river, where the lamps of the boats were lit and a mist smelt of frost and fires.
The full peal of eight, sweetened by a tower of Norman stone, falling in an avalanche of sound, tumbling across fields iron with winter, until lost among the stripped wooded hills of the valley.
The present squire of this March, Sir Humphrey Franklin T. Strange of Batch Hall, the 9th baronet of his line, in a Yankees baseball cap and a shirt with parrots on it, was putting his heart and his considerable weight into it, the rope with its woollen sally coloured like seaside rock leaping in his meaty grip, the giant shadows of the ringers under a naked overhead light moving on the lime-washed stone of the tower like ogres, like ancient imaginings.
Humphrey was on the other end of the tenor bell, the heaviest and loudest of them, giving voice with it as if it were something he’d been bursting to say but hadn’t the words for. The Tower Captain, a retired headmistress and committee member of the WI, led the dance with the lightest bell, the treble, calling out the ringing changes in tones made for corridors and playgrounds, handstroke and backstroke, bell on bell, their iron tongues speaking over and over, the language of faith and mathematics.
When the bells were silent again and their ropes tied, the narrow spiral stairway of the tower echoed with the ringers’ shared pleasure and a job well done. The stone of the stairs sculpted by the centuries, the passage of fellow ringers who had felt the same, and who had made the same journey afterwards to the village pub, within singing distance of its church.
The red dragon of Wales above the entrance of the village post office and shop was a riposte, in this place where England turns into Wales, and Wales back into England round the next bend, to the flag of St George flown from the Steamer Inn. On the inn’s sign a paddle steamer was busy making smoke, from a time when the houseboats on the river were working craft, plying the waters of the Cluny and the Severn.
The bell ringers used the bigger of the pub’s two bars, a room of worn Welsh slate flagstones and high-backed settles under beams of estate oak, the ceiling varnished a yellow-orange with the smoke of centuries, the air scented with logs burning in a fireplace big enough to stable a pony. Bill Sikes, a large white Boxer, with the face of the spike-collared dog in a cartoon backyard, dozed in front of its warmth, sharing it with the pub’s two dogs. Bill’s owner, Phineas Cook, off the houseboat the Cluny Belle, was perched on a bar stool when Humphrey arrived with the others.
“Ah, Humph. Now you’ve finished drowning out sin, or at least deafening it with your well-tuned cymbals, have a pint.”
“No, thanks, Phin. I’m just stopping for a quick half with the team here, and then getting back. Hey! I didn’t tell ya – we’ve found a Santa Claus outfit.”
“Ah, good. Where did you – ”
“I didn’t. Clem did. After phoning round half the day she found this costumiers in Trehenydd,” he said, his Bronx accent getting to grips with the Welsh language. “I’ve got to have a fitting tomorrow. You know?” He patted his ample front and looking doubtfully at Phineas.
“You’re Just the right size, Humph, for the bringing of good cheer.”
“Yeah, well, anyway, they donated it for free when she told them what it was for. How about that?”
“She can be very persuasive, that Clem of yours.”
“You’re telling me.”
“I’m looking forward to it. Father Christmas arriving on a paddle steamer.”
Humphrey embraced the thought with a slow, wide grin. “Yeah. Yeah,” he said, glancing over at Priny Cunningham, It was Commander Cunningham, Priny’s husband, who, as skipper of the estate’s working paddle steamer, the PS Batch Castle, would be bringing Christmas to Batch Magna.
Priny was sitting at the table with Bryony Owen, eldest daughter of Annie Owen who helped out at the Hall, discussing, at this busy time of the year, business tactics. Priny, puffing away at a long-stemmed amber cigarette holder, and scented with Guerlain, was dressed for winter in a pink duffel coat and a Russian style fur hat, boots, and the pearls she was never without, unless it was one of the times they’d gone across a pawnshop counter, to provide marching money, as she and the Commander put it.
Bryony was dressed as if she had a tractor parked outside, which, running a small holding in the valley, she often did have. She was also the woman who, some time back, had introduced the village to life on the never-never, in the enticements in the home furnishing and clothes pages of mail order catalogues. She had recently gone into partnership with Priny and they were now planning expansion both sides of the border, Priny with the cost of Plymouth gin in mind, and Bryony, a single mother, with Christmas morning and presents under the tree. Humphrey joined the other ringers with his drink, sitting with them at one of the bigger tables, a tribe apart. The language of the bells, of Kent trebles and the Queen’s change, holt’s singles, royals and weasels, and grandsire triples, a shared secret. The key to that other world they were taken to, taken to as if hypnotised, or drugged, standing in a circle as if in obeisance under the avalanche of sound.
A world reached not down a rabbit hole but found up in the air, where arithmetic becomes mystery, a conversation with God, and the eager clamour of bells running seemingly pell-mell through their endless changes had for them its own logic, its own perfect sense, as in that of a dream. .
Another world to where Humphrey, for one, could briefly escape from his current problem in this one.
Things were fine – or as fine as they got at Batch Hall – until the boiler finally needed replacing. Before that happened, when discussing with the matron of Kingham General his proposed visit as Santa Claus to the children’s ward, he’d offered, with an impulsive, generous sweep of his large hand, to make a contribution of a sackful of toys.
It was an offer made straight from the heart, without thought, without adding up or taking away. An offer made because it should be made, because the world should be that kind. And if he couldn't make it as Father Christmas, then who could?
He had no idea what a sackful of toys might cost, but whatever it was they hadn't got it, a situation unlikely to change in the few weeks to Christmas. When the family booked in for the weekend to attend a local wedding left on Sunday, the Hall would be empty of paying guests, and no advance bookings. The profit from the pre-Christmas pheasant shoot had already been spent, and apart from things such as the weekly village bingo sessions in the servants’ hall and the sandwich runs to local businesses, there was nothing else in the diary. And not much more than that in the bank.
He hadn't told Clem because he regarded it as his problem, even if one he had no idea how to resolve.
And he hadn't told Clem, a woman who would be there, by his side, even if the roof fell in, because of a fear of looking foolish, even to her, perhaps particularly to her. A fear that had followed him through a life before Batch Magna of always getting it wrong, always left wondering what other people knew that he didn't.
A fear that had followed him across the Atlantic. And the times since it had found him, in that place in him that had still to catch up, it had found a Humphrey not a lot older than the one in an elementary school playground.
But surely something will turn up, he told himself, simply because it was only right that it should. Told it himself then, and reassured himself at other times. Thinking of the matron of the Kingham General, her starched politeness when he had made the offer thawing instantly into a smile that turned her young again, as if Father Christmas were sitting across the desk from her.