Once and Future
Early mornings, before the tourists show up, Gordon Barrow likes to lean against the hotel roof and watch the trains. There are two of them, each carriage as big as his size seven shoes, and they circle the village at a leisurely pace, with a gap of about nine or ten feet in between them. Today, nearing winter, steam wreathes the whole track, and the engines race onwards through each other’s ghost.
He takes out his hip-flask — with ‘Teesside’ engraved on it — and has a quick swig of the whisky it carries, telling himself it’s to keep out the chill.
He thinks of his father; looks at the church.
It’s one of many reminders of his childhood around here, in the stone of this village. Actual sandstone, dressed by actual masons, set down by school kids from his time and after. He’d personally laid many of the blocks in the hotel — formerly the manor house — which is why he often stands beside it. He feels sure that it will not collapse with his weight.
Some of the cars as well, they had been his. The older, tin-chassis ones. A Rolls Royce Silver Phantom that was the pride of his collection now rests by the door of the old village hall. A pair of Mini Coopers, one red and one blue, are parked half on the kerb a short way down the road. A rust-freckled E-type on a cul-de-sac driveway, with a figurine placed by the passenger door, to cover the void where it should have a wheel. An old cream and brown bus by the solitary stop; never driving its appointed route, but then never late either.
Timing is important.
Gordon keeps track of everything, due-dates for bills, for bank statements, electricity readings, in a series of pads on the desk by his bed.
Routine is important.
Every day, before the tourists arrive, he parades along each street in turn. He stops at each house and peers down at the gardens, their hedgerows and fences; savours the crystalline shimmer of dew. Bends to reach and rectify any resident or lawnmower that might have been felled by the wind overnight; brushes cobwebs from the bonsai that are set in each lawn. Little beeches and birches, a few Japanese maples. There’s even a laburnum, bare at the minute, but which in summer trails flowers like miniature corn.
He checks nothing’s missing. Checks all the delicate windows for cracks; paying particular attention to those in the hotel, and the stained-glass arches that cap three of the four sides of the church. But this is more out of habit than because he suspects there’ll be anything wrong.
The village proper has always been of the type that one might call idyllic. Traditional. Full of old and well-established families and businesses; not a chain-store or a supermarket anywhere in sight. Of course, it had not been without a small criminal element, though whatever minor misdemeanours have occurred there through the years, none have ever been copied out here. Not on his watch. And at least this version isn’t afflicted by the roadworks he hears, banging on in the distance. At least nothing gets nicked or besmirched with graffiti. Not really.
People, even tourists, seem to respect the things they’re bigger than; albeit in a different way than they respect those that are bigger than them.
There is, he imagines, in each of them a lurking, latent notion that they could all too easily run amok and smash buildings at will. Perhaps especially in any of the locals that visit. The sense that they could raze the abode of their irritating neighbour, or the primary school, or even the replica of their own house, if the stress of the mortgage payments and the extensions and general maintenance has all become too much.
Yet they exercise mercy, and feel better for it.
They become saviours here. Life is in their control.
Away on the fringes, Gordon feels like he is in control, too. Sometimes. He feels special. No, maybe not special, but useful, which is all he has ever really wanted to be. He wouldn’t say he feels godlike — brought up as he was, that still rings sacrilegious — though he is almost priestly; safeguarding values and keeping the faith.
Except, that faith has been lately disturbed by those signs. That’s the one problem.
‘Everything must go!’
On the inside of shop windows. Sometimes there, sometimes not. Almost like make-believe, but the kind that feels true. The kind he remembers from back in his childhood. Not the long Sunday mornings in the front pew at church, gazing up at the lectern. But the faraway school-nights of being six and seven, and the small copse of trees beyond the back garden fence.
There had been circles of wild mushrooms, toadstools, in the shelter of lumbering ashes and elms. It was his older sister, Jemima, who pointed them out. She’d delighted in escorting him along the shadier paths in that body of trees, and as he’d gripped her hand tightly and rushed to keep up, that was usually when she had told him her tales.
They would often be about the Olden Days, as she called them, when that copse joined the forest that spanned the whole country. She told him how ancient, magnificent knights had once roamed through that woodland, from the North to the South, to protect it from goblins, and great flocks of dragons, and legions of wolves.
At the mention of which she would freeze and go quiet, as though waiting to hear such an animal howling, or otherwise licking its slobbering jaws. He would shiver at that, and grasp her hand even tighter, till she looked down and said, “Don’t tell me you’re scared?”
But he always shook his head, and pushed his shoulders back and chin upright, the way he’d seen his father do whenever his mother used a similar tone. And so Jem carried on.
She told him how, in the Olden Days, one of the knights had decided he would no longer patrol. The woodland had shrunk because of too much ill magic, and too many trees had been burnt down by dragons, and so he decided it was unfair to risk the lives of his fellows by making them ride through the wide open plains.
Instead, he felt the best way to keep his people safe was to build them a castle. It took him six years — “That’s how old I am!” said Gordon, awe-struck and beaming — but it was worth the time and the effort, because it was the most astonishingly powerful and beautiful castle there had ever been or would ever be. This knight, she said, had called it Camelot, and when they saw what he had made, his people crowned him King.
“And where was it?” said Gordon, squeezing her fingers.
“Well,” she leaned closer, “it was actually here.”
When Gordon was six, he’d believed almost anything. Now sixty-two, there’s the fear he’s sliding back into such gullibility. Or, worse still, that his eyes or his mind, or both, are degrading.
If that’s not the case, then where have the signs come from? And how have they got there? Actually inside, behind the glass. The doors do not open; the roofs won’t lift off.
Also, those posters aren’t there all the time. That’s the thing. He wouldn’t be so taken with doubt if they were.
Maybe he’d only started spotting them after the funeral — that’s something he worries. That he’s been seeing things that aren’t real because he can’t stand the coldness of anything that is. That he’s been drinking much more than he reasonably should.
Exceeding his weekly limit, as his doctor would have cautioned.
Though, he doesn’t go to see his doctor any more.
He doesn’t really go to see anyone in particular. And even the people he can’t avoid, the ones who come here, he keeps at a distance, as much as he can.
He should probably make more of an effort to remember their faces, on the off-chance they do ever visit again, if only so as he can keep up a count of such regulars — it might show the Council he’s being proactive, doing market research, which he knows that they like. But it’s easier, he’s discovered, to let them blur into a unified mass.
Tourists, he calls them. Even the locals that sometimes come down.
Besides, whenever he has made eye-contact lately, the expression he’s been met with has not set him at ease. Particularly when someone’s gone out of their way to be noticed. “Only the troublemakers stray from the herd,” his father had told him. Or was it “the troubled”? He can’t quite be sure.
Occasionally, a tourist, or more often a few, will loiter by a certain shop, as if something untoward or obscene has occurred, though they can’t say for certain that this is the case. Maybe those ‘Sale!’ signs, that whitewash, are meant to be there? They look towards Gordon to confirm or deny.
Yes, that is how it should be, he assures them.
Admitting that something is askew or off-kilter would hamper the peace that they’ve come here to find.
“Why can’t I see Camelot?” Gordon had asked her.
“If Camelot was so near, then how come I can’t see it?” He was thinking of other castles they’d visited, on holiday in Wales.
She turned around to shush him, and then carried on walking over slick, dead leaves and breaking twigs, her eyes clearly fixed on the autumnal ground. He was eager to repeat his unanswered question, but not to disturb Jemima’s focus. She did have a temper on her, after all, as their father had often remarked.
A minute or so later, she came to a stop, which he took as a signal to ask her again.
“Where’s Camelot now?”
“It’s right there,” she told him. “It’s just difficult to see.”
“Well…that’s just how the King wanted it.”
She’d actually seemed stumped by this for a moment, and looked down again, then up again, and then at him. “Because the wolves kept on getting much wilder and hungrier, and the dragons got bigger and breathed more and more fire, and the forest kept shrinking, and so at last the King told his most trusted magician he wanted the castle to be shrunk down as well. Because that was the only way he could keep people safe.”
Gordon had stared up at her — he remembers this vividly — and felt utterly entranced. By that image. By the idea of a magic capable of such an otherwise impossible thing.
“So, how can I see it?” he asked, almost dancing with excitement.
Jemima looked down and he followed her stare.
“This is a fairy ring. It holds a tiny version of Camelot, and it’s guarded by fairies. The magician made a deal with them, and they swore to keep it hidden from all of their enemies, and only reveal it to those who believed.”
Gordon crouched to inspect it, peering intensely at the small, wonky mushrooms with their red and white caps. A woodlouse or something climbed one of the stems. Leaves were on the dirt between them, halfway rotted to the bones.
“I can’t see the castle,” he told her, frustrated.
“Of course you can’t. You can’t even see the fairies. They’re too small. That’s how they stay so well hidden. But there is a way you can see it full-size…”
“You put one foot inside the ring, and then you close your eyes and say its name three times. And if the fairies think that you want to see it badly enough, and that you mean it no harm, then they’ll let you.”
She’d sounded so convincing back then. So authoritative. He did exactly as she’d said, and on the second try he saw it. The vastness of its pale and crenelated walls, the banners streaming down along them, the trumpets raised and catching light; the cloud-wreathed peaks of its myriad towers; the drawbridge, much larger and more impressive than the wrought-iron gates of his primary school.
He’d been utterly gobsmacked. Couldn’t stop smiling as he described it to Jem.
He developed a habit of going there every few days, even without her, and the more that he went, the more that he saw. The better he got at exploring the grounds. He would squeeze between the portcullis’ shiny steel bars, and take a tour of the courtyard, from the stables to the blacksmith, from the public well to the stocks to the archery range. Medieval strangers would smile at him and ruffle his hair — behaviour that seldom passed muster in his parents’ house — and maybe even throw him morsels of food; which he could taste, he swore, as he made his way back through the small copse of trees. He would burp, in the isolation of the field, amazed by the flavours that haunted his tongue.
Once or twice, he even snuck into the castle’s great hall, with the Round Table, with the shields and swords of all the knights laid out upon it, though none of those knights had been present themselves.
And from there on down into the cellar, a vast subterranean cavern, through the ceiling of which he saw the roots of trees like wires intruding, almost sparking in the darkness, flashing in the damp. He nearly opened his eyes, nearly ran, wanting sunlight through branches, the field, and the fence. But strode ahead, bravely, in between pillars, tearing through cobwebs, until at last he had come to the burial place.
The cold blue chamber in which the King had lain sleeping, on a slab, with Excalibur upon his chest. Ready to be woken — so Jemima had said — should his people ever need him to save them again.
It was the building of this place that had disillusioned him, a year later; that went most of the way towards breaking the spell.
He had thought, upon seeing the knuckle-sized bricks, that no building could possibly be smaller than these, enchanted or otherwise. But that hadn’t saddened him. In fact, the reverse. In the absence of any actual magic, he found himself fascinated with miniature craftsmanship, which, at the age of seven and three-quarters, had seemed more or less the next best thing.
That fascination had, before he scarcely knew it, become a lifelong passion. He never got too much into the manufacturing side, beyond contributing a new bus shelter when the first rusted through, but his real talent, his real calling, lay in curation. In keeping it safe and well cared for, and taking note of any subtle alterations, and doing what he could to set everything right.
Seeing these signs, it calls his talent into question. It makes him feel shaky, and he dreads the return of the dragons and wolves.
Which is why he’s come to prize the early morning stillness — the times he can push all those worries aside. The times he can knock back a few drams of whisky, and lose himself watching the circling trains. Trying his hardest to shut out the roadworks; the drilling and banging that drifts through the air.
But then the gates open. As the first group of tourists approach up the path, some of them crossing the grass by the railway, they seem spectral and sinister, especially when viewed through the trains’ veil of steam. They step through that ring without any acknowledgement, without any ceremony, as though it’s not even there. They scarcely miss cars by an inch, often less.
He can’t bear to look, when they near his Rolls Royce. He seeks the small church, with its miniature graveyard. Takes some deep breaths, as he tries and then fails not to think about her. Jemima. Tries not to think how it’s all ending up.
He can tell himself as much as he wants to what the tourists have come for — all that peace and control and contemplative sanctuary — but that won’t make it true. When he sees them all walking the streets without caution, without passion, he just doesn’t know. He doesn’t pay attention to their faces, not really, at least not as much as he watches their shoes. He is entranced — or incensed — by the prints that they leave. The mud that they trail on the thin strips of road.
On the days when it’s rained, when the surrounding field is churned up like a rugby pitch, he heads to his gatehouse and fetches the broom. He doesn’t follow them round, as much as he wants to, but saves it for later, his post-tour inspection. He waits until the coast is clear, and then swallows back most of what’s left in the flask, before sweeping the streets, and collecting the rubbish they’ve scattered as well.
Then he makes one more pass, checking for damage, for any slight changes. It is then he’s most likely to notice the signs. More now than ever. Including a window that’s been fully whitewashed; through the gaps in the paint, the insides look empty. Another with its shutters drawn down and then padlocked — though he didn’t even know it had shutters to start with.
In twenty or so years, he has seldom been absent. Has only rarely called in sick. Once, after slipping on some ice and fracturing a finger, and then when he caught a bad flu last December, and was laid up in hospital for nearly a week. Most days, he’s here a good while before opening, and stays until well after the tourists have left. So he isn’t sure when anything like that had been fitted.
The Council should have notified him if work had been done. He’d had it put into his contract they would.
He had received a letter from them about a week and a half ago, but hasn’t opened it yet. It’ll be his annual pension statement, though they’ve sent it through early, and he doesn’t really check all that stuff anymore. He is always aware what the numbers should be. He keeps track of them all in a pad on his desk. He keeps track of everything. He was always reliable, his father had said.
She’d been through a lot of jobs, and had moved away to do some of them. Her last one, in fact, had been all the way up north, just outside Middlesbrough. It was something an old boyfriend had managed to find her — out of pity, Gordon suspected — and which she only ever explained in the vaguest of terms. Something to do with imports and deliveries. Logistics, she called it. Even if he had found the words to ask, she probably wouldn’t have told him exactly what they were importing. Or she would have lied outright, and he’d have known she was lying, and still been none the wiser.
When he and his classmates were brought out here, one early-summer morning, and he’d first encountered these miniscule bricks, he’d felt something twist, rearranging inside him. Not just in relation to his ideas about magic, but also regarding his thoughts about Jem.
Before that point, whenever his parents had been arguing about her, he’d always jumped in to his sister’s defence.
That was to change.
He didn’t condemn her straight away — he didn’t understand what he was feeling straight away — but, despite being distracted by bricklaying, and the fact that he could see the roof of the hotel proper in the distance, he resolved to question her about it as soon as he got home.
He couldn’t do it at school, because she’d finally started making more friends her own age, and didn’t always want her young brother around. But he managed to catch her that evening before her new friends came calling, and asked her, cautiously, if she’d like to come with him for a walk in the woods. She nodded yes, curtly, and then they set off. His hands hurt a little as he vaulted the fence, from the work he’d done earlier, but he didn’t let on. He didn’t reveal anything, not until they reached the trees.
Then all he said was: “You lied to me, Jem.”
They’d no longer been holding hands on their walks, but he got the feeling that she would have let go if they had. Her temper was simmering under her skin; her cheeks and forehead flushing red.
“Lied about what?”
“About Camelot,” he said, doing his best not to blink.
“You told me it was so tiny that I couldn’t see it, but I don’t think there is any building that size. I don’t think it’s possible.”
“Well, you won’t see it again, if you think things like that. The fairies won’t let you. I told you that as well, didn’t I?” He couldn’t be sure whether she was about to cry, or hit him, or both. As it turned out, she did neither. She simply stormed off.
He watched her, the sharp silhouette, as she broke out through the treeline; which already seemed thinner, like more of the copse had been burnt to a crisp. Then he turned and made his way along the path to the fairy ring, lying squat in the shade of a mouldy-barked ash.
He set his left foot inside it, and then closed his eyes. But he couldn’t see the drawbridge any longer. Or the high, pale walls, and the banners that draped brightly between crenellations. Or the cloud-spearing towers. Just the fading stripes of the trees that he’d been looking at beforehand, and was looking at again when he got tired of waiting.
He kept staring ahead as he stepped out of the circle.
As he lifted his foot back.
As he let it swing forwards in a swift little kick.
Only risked peering down again once it had landed, to see the ruins of those toadstools, their caps and stems splintered and ripped from the earth. Bits of them clung to the tip of his school shoe, which he wiped on the grass when he was back in the field.
Gordon takes another sip of whisky, but doesn’t like the lightness of the flask in his palm. He reaches and scratches the small whitewashed window, but no paint comes off. He ruffles the shutters on the bookshop nearby and they feel real enough, but then when he looks back the shutters are gone. So is the paint. The ‘Closing Down’ sign in the next shop as well.
He rises, a tad unsteadily, but doesn’t topple, and knows by heart the places on the street where it is safe for him to tread. He walks out of the village via the main road, and then crosses the railway, directly above one of the trains that has stalled.
It has never been his job to deal with the engines. They are usually running by the time he arrives, seen to by the engineer who built them in the first place. He’s just about the only other employee who comes out here, but he’s a doddery old bugger, so Gordon doubts he’d be capable of something like this. It isn’t his style. When they’ve talked in the past — that is, when they’ve traded a few words here and there — the older man has confided that, for him, it is “trains, always trains”. And Gordon, tending the buildings and streets as he does, believes that. Respects it.
But the Council, he doesn’t respect them. Lately, he senses the feeling is mutual. No matter how many times he has asked what would happen, and what was happening in his absence, when he’d travelled up north for her funeral, he had always got the same response.
“Don’t worry, it’s being taken care of.”
Three days of being three hundred miles from his village, and that was all he was told. He couldn’t fathom why. They’d been mostly alright on that front before, but not recently. There had been subtle alterations. Their timing had grown increasingly off. The early arrival of his annual pension statement was one more example to add to the list.
Feeling the rattle of the flask in his coat, he begins to worry that maybe someone has told them about his drinking. But that doesn’t make sense. He’s always so careful. Always makes sure that there’s no-one around if and when he has a nip. He doesn’t even go down the local for a pint any more.
Besides, he’d only started drinking like this after Jem passed away. He’d only bought this hip-flask the day after the funeral, as a kind of morbid souvenir. It says ‘Teesside’ on it. That’s where she’s buried. Not in this village, in their old family plot.
She hadn’t been back home, back here, for about eighteen months. Not even for Christmas, despite his invitations. Not even for his birthday. For either of his birthdays since he’d seen her last.
All she had said whenever he asked her was, “I don’t feel welcome down there anymore.” She’d fallen out with their parents many times through the years, and hadn’t quite patched things up by the time that they died; they had both caught some kind of hospital bug, and gone within a couple of weeks of each other.
After that, she had wanted more and more distance, more and more space. Whenever he did see her, she had a hounded, haunted look, as though all the temper of her youth had been turned back inside. Instead of seeming flushed, she grew paler whenever anyone said something enraging. Whenever he had been guilty of something like that.
Since she moved away, he’s become even less sociable. He’s never been one for having too many acquaintances, not since his school days, and so nobody really seems to miss him at the pub. Nobody who cares enough to call him up and ask him where he’s got to, anyway. And he makes sure not to pass it, and risk being seen through the windows, or to go anywhere else where he might still be recognised; prefers the most out-of-the-way route between here and his house — the house that his parents left him and not Jem.
Tonight, though, he takes the turning that leads through the big village.
Having thought about his parents, he feels the need to at least go and walk past the church.
As he gets closer to the centre, he can’t help but notice the state of the roads, and how the cones and temporary traffic lights are like Halloween decorations; to go with the pumpkins in some of the shops. He’s heard the drilling lately from his house in a morning, and from his version of the village, but has never yet been tempted to come and have a closer look. On top of everything else, he doesn’t like the smell of tar.
It appears that this isn’t simply a case of renewing the road surface, however — there are other, more substantial alterations on-going. They seem to be building another roundabout, for a start, to compliment the smaller one at the far end of the high street, and diverting the traffic while this is completed. Though, the need for such an eyesore is far from obvious to Gordon. Perhaps he could ask the workmen who sit idling in their van, but they don’t look too approachable, so he decides to press on.
He leans against the graveyard wall, peering at his parents’ headstones, which stand in the shade of the church’s east wing. The smell of the grass prognosticates rainfall. He wipes his nose. Reaches inside of his coat for the flask.
He likes the seclusion, the peace and quiet of the model village. He likes to be there for the calm of the dawn, when his heart and the trains are the only things moving. And maybe a blackbird, as tall as a house.
But he knows for certain, right at this moment, that he doesn’t like being alone.
Even the tourists are comforting, after a fashion. Watching them, he feels like his own problems are not really so big. He can put himself in their shoes — the shoes that he keeps track of, fastidiously — and look down at the houses, and then up at the other people, giants in comparison, and none of their fears seem as bad as all that.
Here, though, on the pavement below the raised ground of the churchyard, he isn’t safe in that knowledge. He feels tiny and wretched. The stones tower over him. The wall feels clammy. It is not as welcoming, as helpful, this church, as the miniature version. It doesn’t do its job the same.
Another swig, and he closes his eyes against the danger of weeping.
It takes a few seconds, but he sees himself, even smaller, slipping inside through a gap between stones. Into the mud, pushing down through the earth. The clumped roots of weeds, and the tendrils of fungi like cold iron chains; the bulbs of latent snowdrops and bluebells like torches.
Follow them, onwards, deeper and deeper. Past the spent shells of woodlice, like discarded saddles; past the still lengths of worms, dragons slain in the dark. Further and further, as though pulled, as though guided. Until the cold and the blue of an underground chamber, and his breath steams and circles his head like a halo. And in the middle are two slabs, and on them two bodies. And his father bears a cross on his chest like a sword.
Back at his house, he’s halfway through the fiddly business of refilling his hip-flask, before he finally twigs he can just use a glass. He pours it back out into a tumbler he’s taken, unwashed, from the worktop. Bids the cheap blended whisky godspeed to his gut.
Then downs another.
Finds his way, with the third glass, across the lounge to his armchair. Which was his father’s before him.
After the sixth glass, he finds his way, crawling, to bed.
This early morning, he is running a bit late. His head aches a little, and he had a bad stomach until he took an antacid with his first cup of tea.
But that isn’t why he’s so drained, so lethargic. He doesn’t think so, anyway. He barely knows if he’s slept. He thinks he was probably awake most of the night, tossing and turning, but he cannot be sure.
He feels, besides the hangover, a twisting inside him.
On impulse, because he’d spied it on the worktop, beneath another empty bottle, he had reached for the letter the Council had sent. Torn it open with a butter knife — unwashed and greasy — and squinted at the flickering words, trying hard to comprehend. It became clear, after a moment, that it wasn’t his pension statement. Their timing wasn’t as off as he’d thought.
It is scrunched up in his pocket now; balled inside his fist. He feels as though he wants to kick out at something, but has not yet found anything suitable to kick. Not yet.
But here he stands at the gates.
He unlocks them, passes through, and then locks them again. His shoes sink a little into the mud of the field; a mark of how much it had rained overnight. He squelches on, heedless. The trains are ahead of him, ten feet apart. Steam billows out from their engines and trails them, forming a wreath around most of the track.
A couple of yards short of that circuit, he stops. Looks down at the ground, as though in deep contemplation. As though, like Jemima, he’s busy preparing to make something up.
Even though, today, he doesn’t actually need to.
Even without closing his eyes, without saying its name three times, he can already see the white bulk of that building, the one that will surely be here within months. The bright, sterile lights that beam out through its windows, as big as regular houses. The ‘Special Offer’ signs posted behind all that glass. The masses of tourists that stream in beyond them. The rush and the bustle. The stray shopping trolleys. The car park, at least twice the size of this village, full of cars so much bigger than his Rolls and his Jag. The roadworks expanding and leading to here.
He doesn’t need magic to know this is coming.
But he takes a step into the ring, all the same.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He has a scar on his arm from a ritual performed unto the Watchers Just Beyond, imploring them for the boon of great knowledge, but all he got were the lyrics to Dashboard Confessional’s album The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most stuck in his head forever. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement.
His surname rhymes with “Dopey” but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He’s an associate editor at PodCastle, a member of Codex and Villa Diodati, and has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including all four Escape Artists podcasts, Analog, and Diabolical Plots. You can keep up with it all at mattdovey.com, or find him timewasting on Twitter as @mattdoveywriter.