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|Edwin Drood's Column
|31 March 2015
|Anyone for tennis?
A memoir of my schooldays
|In which Edwin recalls an exploration that was the start of a dangerous game,
the story of a set of bones, an entrance without an exit to match
and the inevitability of team sports.
|“The Bentley-driving guru is putting up his price:
Anyone for tennis, wouldn’t that be nice?”
Anyone for Tennis, Cream
It wasn’t only the viola; I was pretty useless at games, too. It’s not that I was unfit. I just lacked motivation. I couldn’t see the point of drowning in mud twice a week for the good of my house (rugby), since doing the same for Queen and country (Combined Cadet Force) was already compulsory, and wading thigh deep through mud for three hours (cross country running) didn’t seem much better. I also dreaded the robust camaraderie of the changing room and shower block, where flicking each other with wet towels in places that REALLY hurt was considered the height of fun. Neither could I get enthusiastic about winning, which was just as well as it very seldom happened, and the annual carousel of cups, trophies and badges was completely lost on me.
|Foiled by the French
As one of humanity’s natural opter-outers, I hoped to avoid blame by excelling in some marginal sport. Taking up fencing, a suitably individualist discipline, would be my revenge on the obsessive culture of “joining-in” so typical of the British private school system. Unfortunately, as my skill progressed with the French Foil, fencing also began to take on all the signs of an authentic team thing. It appeared that French was ready to foil me for the second time in my short life. Sure enough, our fledgling club acquired a badge, a motto (“we don’t get the point”) and the use of a dented old Ford Bedford to take us to competitions where other schools, with a culture of the blade going back to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, would roundly trounce us. So, although I still enjoyed fencing, after a year of it I began to look for alternatives.
It had already been decided, while I was yet at prep school, that I had a slight talent for tennis that might be worth nurturing. This was the reason why, at age fourteen, I could be found “on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but mainly on the latter days” whacking balls around one of the school’s many practise courts. It was no love match. I quite cordially hated tennis and the whole tennis ‘set’, but it was slightly to be preferred over falling asleep in the outfield at cricket and waking to find I had brought dishonour on the entire team, house, school or known universe as an easy catch sailed past where my waiting hands ought to have been lovingly cupped to receive it like an eighty-mile-an-hour communion wafer.
The clay-surfaced tennis courts were part of a large, enclosed complex of athletics grounds, walled vegetable gardens, barns and cottages that went, for some ancient reason, by the name of “Deer Park”. Along with being the site for all the minority sports, it was also home to the school chaplaincy, the bursary the groundsmen’s maintenance garage and the janitor’s lodge, as well as the CCF parade ground, shooting-range, obstacle course and quartermaster’s store. A second such satellite group called “Merton” was home to the headmaster’s house, the music school, the observatory and the swimming pool.
|Of Gog and Magog
Both these areas were about half a mile in different directions from the main island of school buildings centred on the former abbey. Taken together they were the points of an almost equilateral triangle. As St Martin’s had expanded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, its campus had absorbed more and more bits of this Wiltshire village, until getting around school on a typical day might involve “going native” for half an hour at least. To make the most of this freedom, which was scrupulously calculated into my timetable, I would leave the courts as early as would seem reasonable and arrive back at Main Quad as late as was considered possible without incurring comment. This was because I had a secret. I had become an explorer of new worlds, down in the dead zones of “Gog” and “Magog”.
“The Gogs”, as they were called colloquially, were two strange, steep-sided, wooded depressions right in the heart of the village. They were chilly, sinister and sunless in winter, but in the summer they became oases of cool freshness, bursting with life. They harboured legends. Villagers told of unwanted intruders, prying strangers – tax collectors, land assessors and the like – who had been waylaid and thrown down there centuries ago. Our deputy head, who was something of a local historian (the only member of staff actually from the region), believed that the Gogs were the reason people had settled here in the first place.
One of them, Magog, provided fresh water in the shape of a not-very-enthusiastic little spring, which bubbled at best, but mostly seeped out of the sodden turf and was linked by an underground watercourse to Gog, where it again went to ground and emerged who knows where… I intended to find out. And once upon a distant time, perhaps, the Gogs were probably excellent places to entrap small or even large game. If a wild boar could be tricked into one of them, there was little chance that he would get out alive. However, by the second half of the twentieth century, with a new housing estate cutting off access to open land, there was nothing larger than a rabbit worth taking and the Gogs had become little more than a default dump for old gas cookers. Yet they still had a reputation as fertile hunting ground, whereby dodgy deals and illicit copulation had long replaced the horn and the hound.
|Hunting the hunter
One Saturday afternoon, with more time than usual on my hands, I was poking around in the green gloom of Gog Bottom trying, with the aid of a long bamboo cane I’d liberated from behind someone’s garden shed, to ascertain the general direction of the outgoing underground watercourse, when I heard a voice, so charming and friendly that it could have been the spring itself addressing me. “I see you, but you can’t see me”, said the voice. Looking around, I pretended not to notice the corner of a skirt that obtruded from behind a nearby tree trunk. Feigning unconcern, I carried on my aqueous research, knowing this would arouse more curiosity than any other reaction. After a long minute, my observer’s next move was to toss a stone into the little stream inches from my head. I spun round fast. “Cut that out!” I said sharply, “you could’ve hit me.” “Couldn’t”, said the voice, “unless I wanted to, of course.” This was proven in short order by the next two stones each hitting one of my shoes. I was impressed, but also confused, because the stones had not come from the same direction as the little triangle of hemline.
Graciously the forest creature descended from the tree she was hiding in, wearing just her vest and knickers. I found the sight of my new acquaintance demurely wriggling her skinny body into the dress she’d taken off to avoid damage about as powerful as if I’d watched her wriggle out of it. With her short pointy hair, pointy little nose and upturned eyes, she looked like a wood elf. Having felt her superior competence with a missile, I was ready to believe she could do almost anything. She told me her name was Franka; that she’d be thirteen “come Christmas”, and that she knew all there was to know of the Gogs. She squatted down, bunched her dress modestly about her knees and began to curdle my blood with horror stories about this sleepy little village, her silvery voice rising and falling like a recitation of something learned by rote.
|Tales of blood and current buns
She told me about the Bloody Postman. I’d heard another version of that one. I realized my version had been bowdlerized. She told me how One-Eyed Mab would get me if I came to the Gogs after dark. I’d already heard that, too. At school we’d all heard that. Any mythology that kept us inside our boundaries was encouraged. She told me about the lecherous vicar who went missing only ten years ago, last seen descending into Magog carrying a paper bag full of current buns. She told me of the Assistant Enclosures Commissioner who was lured down here by a local girl in 1845 and never sent his report back to London.
Then she told me she knew where Black Jack Tisbury was buried. I said I’d heard that the torso of this notorious highwayman and mass murderer was supposed to be under the five-way crossing on the road to Salisbury and that we would probably all be cursed if the planned construction of the new roundabout went ahead and disturbed his dread remains. Everybody knew that, but Franka promised more. She told me that after Black Jack’s “quartering” in 1691, a leg and an arm from each side of him had been buried in each of the Gogs and that she knew exactly where. This was stirring stuff and I was bewitched. But it got better, for Franka knew the secret of Black Jack’s missing head. “He only drank strong spirits and human blood”, said Franka, with eyes as wide as saucers, “he would never touch a drop of water. So they condemned him to drink water for the rest of time.”
Apparently the stream from Gog used to emerge in the garden of Franka’s house, about a mile away. I knew the house, a lovely seventeenth century pile that had, for many generations, been home to the Norton family. They were ostensibly the village squires for three hundred years, as most people paid them rent. But it was not nearly enough to save the family from financial ruin when its massively overstretched investment portfolio went south in the nineteen-thirties and they were forced to sell. Mrs Parks, our “dinner lady”, had told me the house now belonged to a wealthy surgeon from Salisbury. I thought he lived alone. I didn’t know of a wife or a child. I was curious, but too polite to ask. Anyway, the missing stream interested me about as much as the girl, maybe more, although this would soon change.
|The curse of the headless highwayman
“That very night”, continued Franka in an eerie stage whisper such as would raise the hackles on a pit-bull, “some of the lads from the village, encouraged by Squire Norton’s eldest son, took Jack Tisbury’s head, all covered in gore, down here to the Gogs. They opened up the ground, right where the stream goes under, right where you was a-poking your stick. They wedged his mouth open with a stone and buried that bloody head in the bed of the stream. It’s nought but a little brook at the best of times, barely enough to slake a man’s thirst. They placed the head just … just right, so the water ran in through Black Jack’s mouth and out of his severed neck. Then they covered it over with stones and mud and moss and stuff and all went home.
The next day the stream stopped flowing in the squire’s garden. Within a week, his fish pools had dried up and all his carp were dead. The son who perhaps would have undone the curse could do nothing, because that same morning he received an order from his regiment to muster, and off he went to fight with the protestant troops under King William of Orange. It wouldn’t be he who would unbury that horrible head, for he was fated to die that October, the last English casualty of the Siege of Limerick. As for the others, they’d all sworn an oath never to tell what they’d done. But somebody must’ve talked, or I wouldn’t be telling you now.”
|The underground stream
Watching this little Arcadian elf with the silvery voice tell such a hideous tale in such a sinister place was both arousing and disturbing. She had a natural gift for theatre. There she sat on a fallen tree, her arms wrapped around her legs, for all the world like any normal girl-child. But she spoke words as dense as wood-smoke and I was falling under their spell. They crept into my brain, every dire image coming to life before my eyes. I could feel the hand of fate on my shoulder, the breath of the devil on the back of my neck. I would have been relieved if she’d stopped, but I had to know more. I asked her where the water went now, if it no longer flowed into the stone pool at her house.
“I heard it from the only one as really knows”, she said mysteriously. “There’s a reason why the squire had to suffer, and that was just the beginning of his suffering. Jack Tisbury was the squire’s own child, born of his serving wench. His wife cast her out without a penny and Squire Norton never lifted a finger to help her find a situation. So she hated that child and plunged them both into darkness. She raised the boy without love, terrible rough and cold, just to have her revenge. If he was bloodthirsty, it was on account of his mother, and if she was cruel, it was on account of the squire.
“That stream disappearing was only the beginning. It was Squire Norton who had ordered the hunt for Jack Tisbury; it was Squire Norton who sat in the assizes to judge him and Squire Norton who signed the death warrant. Who knows where the water went? The one I heard it from says it turns into blood in Black Jack’s mouth and goes down, down, down to the devil. The only thing that’s sure is that every generation of the Nortons lost a son from that day forward. Sickness, hunting accidents, the fortunes of war, suicide … all the grim things that can happen came to haunt the Norton family. There was always a male heir to continue the line and ensure the curse went on, but the family was crippled by these tragedies right up to the day in 1939 when Simon Norton turned 18 and sold the house for a terribly low price, some three years after his elder brother had lost all the family money and taken his own life. But all that was then. Now that you’re here, I think things are going to improve.”
“What do you mean? What’s any of this got to do with me?”
“Ah, that”, she said, “Well, I can’t tell you that now, there’s no time. You have to go!”
Hurriedly I pulled out my treasured Ingersoll pocket watch, another of the instruments of cool it was important to own at St Martin’s. Franka was right. I’d have to rush back now or risk detention. “But how do you know I’m late?” I asked her.
“You’ve come here before, boy, either to Gog or Magog, and I’ve watched you. That’s what I do. I watch people, and I like watching you. So of course I notice when you come and I notice when you go. I’ve seen everything
you do”, she said, meaningfully, “but today’s the first time you’ve shown an interest in the underground stream. That’s why I called out. That’s why I threw the stone. I had to get your attention before you went any further. You’re getting into dangerous things. But now you really have to go!”
She was right. And I went at once. But as I scrambled up the steep banks of Gog she had one last thing to say: “At least you could tell me your name. You’ve already got half of mine.”
So I told her.
To be continued ...
© Edwin Drood
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