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Beneath the Angel Strain

December 23, 2018 9:33 PM

When the folk song collector Herbert J H Hunt visited Somerset in 1912 he was struck by the survival of the most extraordinary oral traditions.

"One lady of a good eighty years," he noted, "could recite her own ancestry for some forty generations through the male line. I was particularly excited by the way her stories matched events in the history of our nation. Not just recent events like the French wars, but those occurences deeper in history such as the civil wars, the great plagues, and even the Norman occupation."

Hunt suggested that the habit of recording history by memory was common in illiterate societies, and compared his English peasants with Middle Eastern storytellers. He prophesied that advancing education would obliterate the tradition, and as if in fear of the rising tide of compulsory learning he worked furiously to get as much as possible into his own notebooks.

Hunt died in the next bit of history. Despite being forty-two years old he joined the Royal Flying Corps and was lost over the French lines. When one of his students retraced his footsteps after the war she managed to find the grand-daughter of Isabella Wolfson, the lady mentioned above. "That Mister Hunt wrote everything down", she explained, "so we didn't have to remember it no more."

But memory may be more reliable than paper. Hunt published his 'Songs of Somerset' in 1914, but his written stories were lost in the wartime mist.

This little exercise is an attempt to imagine the English oral tradition. A man of eighty tells his tale to a boy of ten. Seventy years later the same individual, now an old man, tells his story on to another ten-year old, and so on. Not many people lived to eighty or more in past centuries of course, but some did.

Enough, perhaps, to create a chain linking the last child, born just before the end of the second millennium, to the first man, born in the year we call AD1, the time of Christ.

In this chain a variety of tales, some based on folk stories and others on history, are used. Like most human conversations they're inconsequential. Religion, identity, myth and violence were the common heritage of our forefathers.

It's a surprisingly short chain, a bus-full or so, 29 men and a boy.

...................................................................

One 80

This is where I stood! The old man beat his hawthorn stick against the ground. Look at that stone, the round one. Pick it up. We threw those. He laughed as the boy picked up the heavy flint slingstone.

Can you believe it? They had ballistas, siege engines, catapults and all the rest, and what did we do? Threw stones at them.

He gazed into the distance, beyond where the smoke rose from the red-tiled farmhouse. We lost nearly all our men. Just me and a few of the lads - we fought our way out. Oh it was no shame to lose that fight, son, but shame it was to lose our land, to be no more than slaves.

We hid in the hills over westward for ten years, you know, still fighting. Then they said we could come back and take a little - just a little mind you - of the old land. So that was it. We couldn't beat them. Perhaps you will. Join the legion boy. Learn to fight. Not the way I've taught you, that's for savages. Go across the sea, see this great empire they brag about. When we poor Britunculi have done that, then we'll send them home, with more than a few stones about their ears. What do you think - will you do that?

The boy looked as far as the man. He said yes to please him, but felt in his heart no burning desire to upset the comfortable world in which he lived, despite the heroic stories the elders told every night round the fires in the village.

…………………………………………….

The hills are deeply wooded. Where the slopes run down to the marshland the trees fade out, and are replaced by small meadows or patches of ploughed earth around the villages. Small streams run down to the marsh. In the summer the marshes are dry, and the people take their cattle to graze on the flats. In winter the marshes flood up to the fields, and people and animals retreat to the hills. The land is called gwlad yr haf, the country of summer.

……………………………………..

Two 150

When I was your age I didn't want to be a soldier. The old man rasped as he spoke. The wound to his throat he'd ignored for fifty years was at last destroying his voice. The boy was throwing stones into the little stream that flowed at the foot of the fortified hill.

But when I was sixteen and the recruiting party came, there was only one thing to do. Damned glad I did. I've seen the whole world you know. Africa, Iberia, Germany, forests, desert, seas. Then that bastard Alman took my hand off. I never saw him, you know. Just heard a whoosh…

The boy stopped throwing and looked in awe at the man, as if he'd never noticed the stump before. My mates got him though, and brought him back for me. Shall I tell you what we did? Maybe not just now. Another time, eh. The army looked after me, you know, gave me those two acres and a bag of silver and as much freedom as I needed. There's no better life, nor a harder one. Here, take this, don't let your mother see it. I'm damned sure I won't need it no more.

From the folds of his clothing he took a gladius, in a leather sheath stained dark with blood. The boy took it hesitantly, turned slightly pale, and ran off to his home, leaving the old man watching the water.

……………………………………………………..

There are more fields now, and the hills have been improved by cutting back the woodland. New houses have been built, of stone with neatly thatched roofs. The people who live in them, though remote from the city, consider themselves to be civilised.

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Three 220

How did you get to be so old, Grandad?

He scowled, and waved his walking stick at the boy's head. You get to be old by staying out of trouble and paying your taxes, that's how. By doing what you're told, and by not working too hard if you can help it. I had a brother, you know, who got to be as old as you and then no more.

You mean he died, grandad?

He went to the marshes at midwinter time. Now you know what happens on midwinter's day, when we take the evergreens and the mistletoe into our houses to guard them from spirits and evil things. But while we sit inside and celebrate the turning of the year the fields and the bogs are unguarded, so it's best not to go out. My brother was wild though. It was freezing fog, bitter cold and so thick you could hardly see a yard in front of your face. The goblins took him to live with them, they always did like a wild one, and he never returned.

How do you know he didn't fall in and drown?

Because I still see him sometimes, as fresh and young as you. I see him running in the mists, or sitting with his flute, or standing high in the hills. Still wearing that old gown and cloak he had when he ran off. And sometimes I hear their evil cackling, like a fire in the bracken, and then he runs back to them, into the bogs where they live.

Do you think he's happy with the goblins, grandad?

I know he's not, for no human creature could be. He seems to be when I see him, but that's a trap. Perhaps I'll find out in the next world. But mind yourself - you're just the same age - stay away from the marshes when the mist comes down at midwinter.

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Four 290

I suppose it was natural for a bog-trotter to end up as a sailor. The man looked up at the hills and shuddered as he remembered the stories he'd been told as a boy. There was no question of belief: he knew he had a relative there who never grew old as surely as he knew every rock on the coasts from Cornwall to Brest.

What does the sea look like? I mean, is it like when the water comes up in winter or is it …

Bigger, the old man smiled, and stronger. So strong - he stood up and shouted into the wind - so strong it tears men and boats to pieces, and so deep, so deep you could sink seven thousand galleons and see not a trace of any of them.

I went down to Portsmouth first. Not much bigger than you. Got a job building boats, fetching and carrying planks for the men to knock together. The army kept an eye on us of course, like they did everything else. Then one day the centurion told me I had to stop making boats and start sailing them. That was it then, that was my life for the next forty years. Silver and lead to Gaul, fancy pots and spices and that filthy Italian fish paste back over here. Sometimes slaves, sometimes soldiers or colonists from the Med who didn't speak a word of British. I could sail that sea blindfold, you know. I could row as hard or fast as any man of any nation, and when the wind blew I could set such a sail as would cross from Brittany to Devon in half a day, and then row back against the wind the other half. I saw a dragon once.

A dragon! The boy had been dreaming of home and supper as the old man bragged. And the old man had noticed the lack of attention hence, perhaps, the change of tack.

………………………………………………………..

Five 360

If you're my great grandfather, then you must have had a great grandfather too. What was he like?

He was a barbarian, not much more than a galley slave. We've come a long way since then, my little Roman. He used to believe in all sorts of dragons and sea monsters he said he'd seen.

Aren't there dragons then?

Oh I guess there may have been once, before our Lord came to drive them back to Hell where they belong.

Although his family called themselves Christians the boy found some embarrassment in the new religion, especially as the boys he played with were happy to taunt the spirits of the woods, or call down with their oaths the Gods of the hills.

The old man though was devoted to his saviour with the fanaticism of the convert.

The way was clear now to the top of the hill where the little church, its new wood gleaming white, was just completed.

That's where you'll bury me, up by the new temple, ready for the resurrection. I'll be the first, with luck! He hesitated, looking at the boy with some confusion. Or is that vanity?

New religion takes some getting used to, especially for a proud and boastful people.

……………………………………………..

Six 430

Tell me about the Romans.

Well it was a funny thing really, they told us we should look to our own defences, which we've done of course.

Dad says they were always here to guard us.

Well that's one way of putting it. But you know it's only the army who left, and a few others. Most of them are still here, and they left their God behind, up in the old church. He pointed his stick at the old, rather dilapidated wooden building on the top of the hill. So they'll be back, sooner or later. The empire's still going strong, you know, over in Gaul, and Honorius, that's the Emperor, he'll be back to help us see off those murderous Saxons.

I thought the Saxons were on our side.

Some of them, if we pay them. The ones we had here last year…

They showed me how to use their swords.

The boy leapt onto a tussock and sliced the air with his hands, cleaving the old man's head his imagination and then jumping off and kicking it down the hill.

I'll show you how to use a sword, if your father will buy you one. Not the way they do, the barbarian way, but like a good Roman. Then when they come back you can join the legion, how would you like that?

Yes. The boy continued to slice the old man. I would like that, and to go to Gaul and fight Saxons and see the world.

…………………………………………………

Seven 500

As the sun rose the warrior stepped outside his hut, stretched, and sat down on the wooden bench. Soon after the boy crept sleepily out, walked to a clump of trees nearby to urinate, watched for a while his mother who was rekindling the fire, then came back to sit by the old man, who was carefully polishing a long gleaming sword.

They sat in silence till the old man stopped.

Will you give it to me to kill Saxons with? The boy spoke quietly. He was leaning back against the hut and slowly kicking his heels.

I will not. This must be buried with me when I die, which if the Gods are merciful will be before next winter time. I'll want it with me in the next world. Besides, it's shed its share of Saxon blood already.

You fought them ten summers, you said.

Ten summers, seven battles, plus a good few scraps and skirmishes. Those were the days! Such men we had then, and only me still alive. Did I tell you about Baden? We were twelve thousand and they were twenty thousand. We were on one hill - you can almost see it from here on a clear day, he pointed his sword at the risen sun - and they were on the other. For two days we stood and shouted at each other, or sent a few horsemen out to draw a few men out for a fight. Then on the third morning, I don't know how, nobody seemed to give the order, but suddenly Ambrosius was leading us out in a headlong charge, right at them. All the morning we fought, sometimes in bands, or sometimes man to man.

The sword glinted as he spoke, the boy imagined it too was remembering its time of glory.

Such a noise there was, you couldn't imagine it. No-one could imagine the noise that comes from twenty thousand men at fight, all either yelling in war-cry or screaming in pain. Only Ambrosius was silent, with his huge sword he cut a path through the Saxons as if he was a God and invincible which some say he was. Which some say he is.

But then, at about noon, it just seemed to go quiet. You know how when people are talking or shouting sometimes everyone stops at the same time, for no apparent reason, well it was the same thing. Even the dying stopped screaming. I thought that the Gods of the hills had come down then to tell us to stop. I looked at the face of the Saxon I wanted to kill at the time and he looked back at me. Then a cry from below broke the spell and we started again and I took off his head with a swing of this sword and the cries and the screams rose again but it wasn't the same and we tired and decided the time now had come to cry off and the foe thought the same and we staggered our way to the hilltop we'd left in the morning and gazed at the field. Do you know what it was?

It was Ambrosius …

Yes, boy, I told you before didn't I. No-one knows by what treachery, but they slew him, and not just the field but, so they say, the whole world froze for a moment as his spirit parted.

You said he'd come back if we needed him …

They say he will, if Britain needs help, and that may not be long. Our enemies seem to get stronger every year. But then with young men like you we'll see them off, eh?

A man needs a sword to fight, and a sword is no good rusting in a grave.

The old man stroked again the quiet sword, then slowly slid it into the scabbard, and passed it to the boy.

………………………………………………………………..

Eight 570

You know, it seems crazy now, but there was much blood spilt between my father's people and the tribes of your mother.

It was time, the boy's mother had decided, for the old man to try to explain the history of the two peoples.

In my grandfather's time, the old man continued, it was big pitched battles, with thousands of men on either side, struggling and killing for land and glory. When I was your age I was given a sword, I thought to be spending my life using it. I thought the battles would continue.

Well the fighting got less but the Angles and the Saxons got more. Lots of our people moved west to escape, but lots more just stayed where we were and tried to get on. It wasn't always easy, there were still troubles of one sort or another. For a while I joined a band of men who thought we could resist by attacking their farms and settlements, but there was no glory in that. They hunted us down, I escaped, and laid low for a while. Then it got quieter, I came home. I was old enough by then for no-one to worry about me. And I found that people were talking to the enemy, trading with them, speaking their language, drinking and laughing with them, even marrying them.

He reached down to the boy who sat at his feet, and ruffled his red-brown hair.

And producing youngsters like you, half British half English.

The boy frowned. He'd always taken his parentage for granted, seeing it as perfectly natural to grow up using two languages. Now he wasn't sure, and looked to the old man for reassurance.

You said you were given a sword - what happened to it?

Oh, I lost it, or rather the saesnegs stole it from me. But that doesn't matter now - it was a long time ago.

………………………………………………….

Nine 640

Do you see that thorn that grows beside the ruins on that hill?

What are you going to tell me about it old man? My mother said it came from Jerusalem, and that it grew from a piece of the cross.

Some say that, but I'll tell you what really happened. Two hundred years ago some men were digging a grave on that spot, to take the body of a young man who was dying from battle wounds in the village over there.

What was his name?

His name … was Andromicus. That's a Roman name you see, it was in those times.

They brought him out to rest in the sunshine, then he saw the men digging on the hill and grew mortally afraid. In the night he dragged himself to the woods and swore to the spirits that if only he could live a hundred years he would give them his soul. When he got back to his house an old man was waiting.

Was he as old as you?

Older, boy, if that's possible. Don't interrupt.

Several more children, smelling a story, had clustered round the pair.

The dying man looked hard at the visitor, but couldn't see his face in the darkness. At length he spoke.

Who spoke, grandad?

The old visitor of course. I grant your wish, he said, but you have to know that the going rate for a human soul is not a hundred years but a thousand, a whole thousand.

The young warrior sat up from his bed. A thousand years of life! Think of that!

Give me your hand, said the stranger, and shake on the deal.

As they touched hands the visitor disappeared. The young man felt cured of his wounds, and in his elation ran out of the hut and back to the woods. Then he turned back, intending to tell his wife and sisters.

But then he realised that, although the woods and the hills were the same, he saw them differently. He could remember much more about them, when they were wider and thicker. He could remember strange creatures and giants and dragons walking the hills. He could remember when the Romans first came, all those years before. He could remember the days when there was no village here, nor any human kind, but only wild beasts and goblins.

He went back to his bed, tired and mystified by these strange feelings. The old man was again waiting for him. You have lived one thousand years, now I come for your soul.

I meant a thousand years from now, not a thousand years in the past, he cried.

But of course it was too late, and they set him in his grave on the hill in the morning.

How do you know, asked the boy, if no-one else was there?

The old man lashed out with his stick, pinioning the child by his chest. If you don't believe me, clever one, go sit by the thorn on the hill at midnight, and you'll hear his moans echoing all the way from Hell.

…………………………………………………………

Ten 710

Our ancestors were savages, you know young John, they had no idea. We've come so far in my lifetime.

The old man stood against a young elm tree. The two had been walking through the copse on the hillside, now they emerged at the edge of a small wheat field, looking down at the water meadows where a gang of men were digging a ditch.

There's Dad! The boy waved, but the men didn't notice him.

What do you mean, savages? Were they cannibals, like the people the priest told us about?

No, that's not what I mean. But they believed in strange things, elves and goblins and pagan Gods. And they sacrificed little boys to their Gods, boys like you!

John, who knew that there really were elves and goblins in the woods, having been told so by his friends who had actually seen them, and who had no fear of being sacrificed, started to run down the slope to his father.

Wait!

The boy stopped. The old man took an earthenware jar of cider from the pocket of his cloak, took a swig, then replaced the stopper.

Give this to your Dad, they're probably ready for a break.

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Eleven 780

Before I go to meet my maker, I have some things to tell you, my little Englishman.

I don't like this place, father John. It's so cold and dark. My friends are playing at outlaws in the woods and I want to be with them.

But you should like this place. The deep, sonorous voice of the old man rose angrily.

This is where we worship our Lord, our salvation. You should love this place.

The boy gazed around the wooden church, looking through the gloom at the paintings of old testament scenes on the plastered walls.

You know I've been all over this country, to London and York and Canterbury, preaching the word, visiting the sacred places, hearing others preach the word, sometimes in tongues I could barely understand. I've seen our King sit in judgement, and our bishops say the sacred mass.

Now I'm home. Home to be buried in our own sacred spot. There's something I want you to do for me.

Tomorrow I go to my bed to die. Your mother and father know, and they won't be sad for I've lived a long and holy life. Look at this.

The old man took a coin from his pocket and passed it to the boy.

Can you read what it says?

Not in this darkness father John. Let me take it to the door.

In the daylight he peered at the coin, rubbing it. The coin shone silver in the daylight. A radiant head and some well-worn letters could be seen.

C O N S … cons. That's all I can read.

Constantine, grunted the old man. It's a coin of Constantine. He was the first Christian Emperor. He founded the first holy places in Rome. Come back inside.

When I'm dead, I want you to put this coin in my mouth. Let nobody see what you've done.

But isn't that …

Shhh. I know what I'm doing. It's our little secret, you understand?

The boy nodded and tightly grasped the coin. Can I go now, father John?

Aye, be on your way. But come back to the church at nightfall to help me home.

………………………………………………………

The year of our Lord eight hundred and fifty was the hottest anyone could remember. The crops grew dry and stunted, and the cattle had to stretch down into the fetid ditches to get water.

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Twelve 850

The old man was blind and almost completely crippled. He struggled to shout at the boy as the youngster set down the leathern bucket of water he'd fetched up the hill.

The children kept away from the old man. He was erratic in temper and free with his stick. In his quieter times, before his voice went, he would tell of the wars in the east, and the joy of the slaughter. Nor was he popular amongst the villagers, most of whom he was related to in one way or another. Old people who could no longer work or fight were tolerated for their knowledge and their ability to teach and entertain the children, but this one seemed to have no purpose.

The boy approached, and helped the old man as he struggled to stand. The old man tapped with his stick on the doorframe, then drew the stick along the dry ground for some distance.

Eventually he drew a circle, about a foot in radius, on the dusty earth. His face was contorted as if in great pain.

Dig, he said, here!

When the boy hesitated he screamed the command again.

The boy picked up a mattock and swung weakly at the soil. A group of men, attracted by the commotion, came over. One of them took the mattock and broke into the compacted earth. After four or five swings a small white disc dropped from the soil.

Was this what you wanted? laughed the finder, flinging the coin at the blind man.

The old man caught it in the palm of his left hand, then dropped it with a squeal as if it were white hot.

The child picked it up. The letters meant nothing to him but he could see the head of an emperor turning blue in the daylight.

Take that mattock to the hilltop, said his father. We must dig a grave for this old man.

………………………………………………

Thirteen 920

The two horses raced across the levels, splashing their hooves in the first floods of the autumn. The riders shouted against each other as they rode up the rounded hill which looked like an island. At the top they stopped.

At fourscore I should be stopping this nonsense and settling down by the fireside for a well-earned rest.

Then who would take me riding and fishing and tell me about the Danes?

The Danes! You know I stood on this hill fifty years ago. You could see the Danish army camped across the levels, over there on the Poldens. And yonder there were more of them. In the other direction, over there, just out of our sight, were the Welschen, ready to come and pick our bones when the Dane had done with us.

King Alfred stood on his horse. "Look around you," he said, "you see your Country - all of it! This narrow sphere is England. There's nothing else. The Danes and the Norsemen have taken everything that was yours, they've put to the sword your countrymen and our women and our children. If we lose the fight today then we can never rise again, for there is no land for us to rise from, no stock to breed an English fighting man!"

The two rested in silence, the old man leaning on the neck of his horse and scanning the horizon.

It was close, so very close. The old man spoke quietly now. But God was on our side. How else could half a thousand ragamuffins beat that horde? Though if he was on our side why on earth - his voice rose again to a triumphant laugh - did he cut it so fine? Come on, there's work to be done. I'll race you back!

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Fourteen 990

Come nearer priest. This is my last confession. I have a heavy crime and I want you to hear it. Wait, don't send the boy away. Bring him close, I want him to hear this too. Never mind the rules, I'll take my chance. It's me that burns in Hell, not you.

Sixty years ago Wessex was at peace. We'd driven the Dane back. But our people in the east were still cursed. So I went east to join our armies, to rid the land of … I'm sorry … just let me.

We fought battles and won them all. We grew stronger and they grew weaker by the year. We chased their armies in the summer, and waited and feasted in the winter. In Mercia we had a great slaughter, and after the battle we marched on their town. The elders came out to beg for mercy, but we cut them down before they could speak. Then Eldred our leader stood on his horse and spoke. He praised us for our victory, then said there was more work to do. We needed to cleanse the soil of England, to end the battle so we could go to our villages in peace for ever.

Come closer, I'm tired and my voice feels weary. Pray for me, priest, and you child, pray for me till the end of your life.

In the town we put all to the sword. The old men, the women, the children. We were crazed with blood, may God forgive us. When the last of them gathered in the Hall we burnt it around them, and our bowmen shot any who tried to run out.

I haven't heard those screams these sixty years but I hear them now. Or am I sliding through the gates of Hell already? Tell me priest, can I be forgiven?

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Fifteen 1060

You know, when I was your age, or maybe a little older, we thought the world was going to end.

Why was that, grandad?

Now let's get this right. I'm not your grandad, I'm your great great grandfather. Your father …

But I don't want to call you all that all the time. And anyway my real grandfathers are dead so you might as well be. Why did you think the world was going to end?

It's important to get things right, boy. You see, some clever bishop had worked out that it was a thousand years since the birth of Christ, and Christ himself had said that he would return to judge the living and the dead after a thousand years. Of course we all believed it so at midwinter we slaughtered all our beasts, had the most enormous feasts, drank all our wine and ale and cider, let the hedges grow and the ditches silt up, then sat in the cold at the top of the hill by the church and waited.

What happened?

We didn't know what to expect. Nobody knew what the end of the world would be like. The priest who'd told us about it had gone off to Canterbury to be with his bishop. Some people prayed, some just kept drinking. The children cried or fell asleep. Then we saw a glow in the sky. It got bigger and brighter and spread across the heaven.

But it can't have been the end of the world grandad otherwise …

I stood up and looked at their faces reflecting the light. Then people started laughing. This happens every morning, someone cried. We all went home, annoyed and relieved, and slept for seven days in our nice warm houses.

Was the bible wrong then grandad?

I don't think the bible can be wrong, son, but I wouldn't trust those priests to get their sums right. It is important to get things right.

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Sixteen 1130

What's wrong with great grandfather?

Hush, child.

Never mind, Mary. I heard him and I'll tell him. It's because we are slaves, young Henry, and when slaves grow old, and can no longer work … It's like an old horse. Now when we were free, before the Normans came, we kept our old folk, we fed them and enjoyed their company and their stories. It was different then, we owned our cattle and pigs and the fields. Now nothing is ours, all is theirs, and our lives and our souls are theirs to give and take. It is a terrible way to be, and please God we shall soon be free. Tonight at sunset I go for a walk in the marshes. I have two bottles of strong liquor for company, which the Norman doesn't know about or he'd take those too, and I shall not return. Remember me boy, and if the chance comes to fight for your freedom, then take it.

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Seventeen. 1200

They built their church of solid stone, just next to our old wooden one, and of course that bit higher. They dug their foundations straight through our graves without a thought, scattering flesh and bone as they did.

The old man and the boy walked towards the decaying wooden church, looking up as they walked to the shining new stone of the gothic church nearby.

Our Lord Henry came down from the castle when the bishop came to bless the new church. The earth around was freshly raked and seeded, but he managed to spot a piece of bone. I saw him firtle it out with his boot, then give it a good kick down the hill. Then him and his crew went in to pray. They prayed good and long and by the time they came out it was dark.

On the way, just as he was passing the same spot, his ankle went and he fell. He cussed so much the bishop had to come and start praying over him. Then old mother Mabel appeared beside them and cursed our Lord Henry most religiously, in old cawderwelsh which none of them understood.

They carried him out, white as a sheet he was, and the bishop struck dumb, which is not a good way for a bishop to be, as you know.

What was the curse, old man? What happened to your Lord Henry.

The curse was his destiny. As soon as his ankle was better he joined a troupe of knights and went off to the crusades. The saracens caught him and cut off his head, and then they kicked it around amongst themselves like boys with a pig's bladder.

But I still don't see, old man, why this mother Mabel cursed him so.

The old man squatted down to be level with the boy. They say she was a witch, though no-one ever charged her and she died a Christian. You see boy, it was her head he'd booted out of the graveyard.

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Eighteen 1270

I want to tell you, my child, why you don't have a grandfather between me and your father. You'd never thought of that, had you?

I had a grandfather until last winter …

I mean on your father's side, Simon. Let me tell you.

One night in January forty years ago … I had three sons you know, fine young men they were then, but a bit wild. Your father was just born. His father was Isaac, my eldest. Anyway he decided his wife should have some meat if she was to raise a healthy child, so the three of them went to the forest to take a deer. They'd done it before and not had any trouble. They shot a young doe, just a small one, and trussed her up to bring home. On the way back they ran into some of the Lord's men. They tried to hide but somehow they were spotted and taken.

They took them to the castle. Then the next morning they carried them back to the place where they'd been caught and they built a gibbet. They were all three hanged, and to make the point they strung up the deer as well.

The Norman since has died and gone to Hell, but another Lord rules over us in the castle, and there is no justice in this land, whatever the king may say.

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Nineteen 1340

I was brought up to hate the lord in his castle. Then one day when I was, what, a little older than you, the abbot came through with our lord. I was milking the cows in the morning. They told me to leave the cows and go with them. I remember my mother was crying but they gave no time for leave taking. I thought they were going to hang me, that was all I thought they did to us for some reason. Are you listening boy? Keep still there, damn these eyes I can hardly see you. Do you hear me?

Yes, I hear you. The boy was tired of the old man. He had work to do before the sun set and wanted to return to the fields rather than risk a beating.

There'd been a plague in Wells and the craftsmen and city folk had been carried off. So they needed fresh and healthy country boys to work in the cathedral. I became a carpenter. Seven years apprentice and then a master. I worked on half the screens in Somerset. The letter A was my mark. Look for it, boy, look for it. My work was good, though they paid me little enough.

Enough to live I suppose, and better than grubbing in fields and milking cows and cutting pig's throats like the rest of you.

The old man looked up, peering almost blindly through his cataracts. The boy had escaped, and was running down to the fields without looking behind.

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Twenty 1410

The old man and the boy walked steadily along the ridge. They were far enough from their own village that only the church tower could be seen. Both were well dressed in sturdy clothes with good leather boots.

What are those walls, grandad?

People used to live there boy, long ago. It was a village, called Laverham. The plague caught it, so there weren't enough people left to work the fields. Even the manor house - see it, over there? That heap of rubble? Sit down and I'll tell you about this place, and the people who lived there.

The old Lord of the Manor, his name was Joseph Laver. He had a fine daughter, a dark haired beauty, who was courted secretly by some knight from far away. This fellow told her such stories that she swore to ride away with him to his castle in the north. She went through the manor house and took all the gold and silver of her parents she could find, along with her finest silken dresses and clothes, and at night by the full moon they rode away.

If you ride north from here, boy, you meet a mighty river. When they got to the river he took her off her horse, and told her to undress, so that he could take her gold and silver, and her silken clothes, and could throw her into the great river to drown.

She wept and she pleaded but she saw 'twas no good so she asked for his cloak in her shame to cover her nakedness. As he threw it around her she stepped to the side and tripped him and he never was seen again.

She came home and asked for forgiveness, which of course she got, for anyone would take pity on her. But she never took another man for the rest of her days.

Is that a true story, grandad?

Of course it's true. Your great grandmother, my wife God rest her soul, became that lady's housemaid for a while, so that's how I know it.

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Twenty-one 1480

Help me to the church, young Henry. I need to pray.

The boy half carried the shrunken old man into the church, and helped him to kneel.

"Dear God I thank thee for my life, and for giving me the strength and the skill to tame thy beasts and to slaughter thine enemies. I come to thee now at the end of my life. Praying is the priest's job. I'm a simple man, thou knowest. Take me as I was."

They walked out through the graveyard, and sat on a low stone wall.

What were those enemies you slaughtered?

Before you were born I was a soldier. There were lots of good wars in those days. The noble house of York fought the noble house of Lancaster and I was in every battle.

The boy's brow furrowed. But, I mean, I don't know much about these wars you speak of. Which side were you on?

Which side? Who cares which side? The side that paid best, of course, whether that was the noble house of York or the noble house of Lancaster.

But which side was God on? How did you know?

Because God is always on the side which pays best, you young fool. Now fetch me the priest. This damned praying job needs to be done properly.

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Twenty-two 1550

Old Henry was a good king. He put those priests in their place, thank the Lord. Do you remember - what was it, about seven or eight years ago I guess, that preacher came through from Bristol?

How would I remember that, old fool, when I was only a baby eight years ago?

Have you no respect for your elders? Your mother's too slack with you, my boy.

What did this preacher say to you then?

Oh, lots of things, but one thing I remember. King Henry was in London, dining with all the great lords and ladies there. A star from heaven came through the window, shone its light on the king, and then disappeared.

The king asked his counsellors what the sign meant. They huddled together, divining between themselves. "It means," they said at last, "that the mantle of Christ's representative on earth will pass from Rome to the King of England."

Now Henry was suspicious of flattery, being an honest man. "If that be true," he said, "then that roasted piglet that lies in the dish shall up and run back to its dam."

The boy laughed. And with that the pig leapt up unroasted and ran from the hall! I've heard that tale before old man, and I don't believe a word of it.

Well, the preacher that came through swore it were true, and anyway what do you know - you're only a boy, and one that's too clever for his own good. I'll tell you one thing, young'un - you'll never live to be my age.

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Twenty-three 1620

When I was young, a few years older than you, just enough to be a man rather than a boy, I decided I wanted to run away to sea.

To see what, grandad?

You stop your nonsense and listen. You might learn something.

So I went down to Pompey and I finished up as a ship's carpenter. I worked on all sorts of ships, in dock and at sea, and had a few good fights along the way.

But listen and I'll tell you about another fellow. I didn't know him but I heard his story, and as he was also a ship's carpenter it interested me.

He was a Dorset man, or maybe Devon. Name of Tucker. He courted a young girl and got her with child. But then he decided he didn't want this girl, for some reason. So he went into the woods and dug a grave in a secret place. Then he went back for the girl and brought her to that place. Are you listening?

The boy shuffled his feet, wondering to himself if he was not too grown up now to be listening to the old peoples' tales.

She pleaded for mercy, but he stabbed her to the heart and tipped her into the grave.

Then he merrily went off to sea, but before the ship was out of sight of land the captain lined the crew up on deck.

"There's a murderer on board," he said. "The ship won't sail round. I'm going to ask each man if he's guilty, and by God you must tell me the truth."

So he asked each one, and each one denied it. Then young Tucker stood up and swore it was not he.

But as he turned away he went white in the face, and cried and screamed at something he could see. Then he ran for the side and jumped over.

Did he drown, grandad?

No he didn't drown, for before he hit the water his body was cut in two as if by a giant hand.

And that's as true as I sit here for the man who told me saw it himself, and you know the sea is a different world, where strange things happen.

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Twenty-four 1690

When I was your age, young Thomas, the old men and women told us children all sorts of stories about the wonderful and terrible things that happened in this land. But I think that in my lifetime, long and painful as it's been, there have been more tragedies, and maybe more comedies, played out in this poor country than ever before.

Your mother has asked me to tell you about what happened to your father, God rest his soul.

I know about my father, I know what happened. Mother told me how he died fighting against the wicked King James.

It wasn't quite the way you've been told, Tom. Be still and listen.

You know how our men were betrayed in the night. Someone alerted the king's troops. Of course they put up a fight, but they never had a chance against those brutal villains, and our army was dispersed. Your father, with many others, was taken and locked in the church at Wedmore for three days with no food or water.

They pretended to hold a trial, but it was no kind of a trial, just a show.

He was hanged with twenty more good men in Bridgwater market. I went with old Samuel to claim the body, but they drove us away. They'd as little respect for age as they had for justice.

Don't cry now, Tom. Stand up and be proud. It's because of your father and men like him that justice has been done. The papist has been driven out, running like a coward when the next rebellion came. There is at last peace and good government in England, though God knows it was hardly won.

I won't be here much longer to care for you and to play with you. Be a comfort to your mother, and a good Christian.

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Twenty-five 1760

As the old man looked around the church his heart swelled with pride.

We've much to be thankful for, he said to the boy who'd brought another basket of bread from the farmhouse.

The boy looked at the thanksgiving tables, with their harvest of vegetables, grain and fruit, and bottles of cloudy cider.

You're to come home, Grandfather Tom. Mother's time is come and Aunt Mabel says I've another brother.

God is indeed great in his bounty. Let's go, son. Is all well, you say?

I think so. Everyone is saying so. I've another brother, Grandfather Tom.

They clasped hands and ran from the church down the cobbled road. The late summer sun was high over the hills and the air was still, and between the rows of stone cottages the heat reflected from the whitewashed walls.

As they approached the farmhouse at the bottom of the hill the boy ran on through the open door. The old man felt faint and dizzy as the cries of his newest great grandson reached his ears.

He looked up at the house he'd built with his young wife fifty years before, then his heart stopped beating, and he fell against the wooden door.

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Twenty-six 1830

'Agnes Appleby, 1751 to 1770. Mary Appleby, 1753 to 1773. Ellen Appleby, 1750 to 1779. Why did you have so many wives, grandad?

They died on me son, poor little maids. That was a terrible time. And yet we were all happy for a while. Four weddings I had, then each time a year or two of happiness, and then … But that was God's will. They were hard times, people died young. At least your grandmother stayed with me. She'll outlive me now, eh? That's the way it should be.

The two walked away from the churchyard, past the scaffolding on the side of the old church.

And, did they all go to heaven, the three that died?

Please God. Oh, I'm sure they did. They were all so good and beautiful, you know.

Will you go to heaven, grandad?

That's not for me to say, you know that young William.

Well, if you do go to heaven, whose man will you be?

The old man ruffled the boy's hair. The question was one which had exercised his own mind for fifty years.

Vicar says there's no man nor woman in heaven, only God's servants, there to praise Him.

Oh. I hope it isn't like the vicar says, grandad. That don't seem right to me.

Hush, boy. It is as it is. I'll find out, soon enough.

The old man hoped the boy was right, and the vicar wrong.

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Twenty-seven 1900

It's an exciting time George, don't you think. A new century. I've seen a fair chunk of the old one. I'll be eighty years old in January. What's a hundred take away eighty?

Twenty. That's easy.

You learn these things in that school. We never had that, you know. What a way we've come. Look at this great empire we've got now.

Dad says the old Queen won't last much longer.

He may be right, she's about as old as I am. It'd seem strange without her there, but I suppose we'd manage. So what's going to happen in this twentieth century, sonny, what do you think?

Dad says the trains will go faster and faster.

The boy peered southward. From the top of the hill on a clear day he could see the puffs of smoke from the trains on the London line.

And dad says there'll be no more wars, because people are too sensible now.

I don't know about that, son. You can't run an empire without the odd scrap. But that shouldn't concern you. Just make sure you keep out of the army, eh. Stick to being a farm boy like your dad. You'll be alright then.

Look, there's a train now. What time is it, grandad?

The old man peered into the distance. His eyes wouldn't show him the smoke the boy could see, so he looked at his pocket watch instead.

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Twenty-eight 1970

The boy looked round, bored by the funeral service. He glanced behind him at the grave of George Appleby and his four wives. A flicker of interest crossed his mind, then faded as he caught his great grandfather's eye.

As the small gathering dispersed the old man came and took his hand.

What did you think of your great aunt Edith?

She was a bit funny, wasn't she?

She was very funny, Jim. She went funny in 1918, and never changed from that day onward. Do you know why? Come here and I'll tell you.

Edith married my brother Fred in 1916. They'd only been wed a little while when Fred, like the rest of us, went off to do his bit in the war. He was dead within six months. There he is, look.

The old man pointed with his stick at the war memorial. Frederick Appleby, Somerset Light Infantry, headed a list of some twenty names.

When the letter came, Edith started to walk. Nobody saw her go. Down the lanes she went and across the levels, still clutching that wretched letter.

She felt betrayed, I think, by what she said later. He'd promised to love her, to protect and care for her, but now he wasn't coming back for her.

She walked all day and into the night. Luckily in the dark a farm hand going home from work spotted her and followed her a while. He tried to speak to her but got no reply, so he let her walk on, but kept her in sight. Then she threw herself into a rhine. The farm lad heard the splash and ran to pull her out. It wasn't easy for him, poor chap, but at least she didn't resist.

She still had her letter, so he got a message to us and we went to collect her. I was here on leave at the time.

We put her on a cart to bring her home. She'd always been a merry soul till then, though you'd never believe it now. We tried to talk to her, to console her, but got nothing. Then in the morning when the daylight came I sat her up and looked into her eyes. They'd been so bright before, but there was only a kind of blackness where the light used to be.

And she lived with that till now, and we lived with it till now. I've seen his grave a few times. Thousands of crosses there are, such a waste, you think when you see them. But no-one ever thinks about the wasted lives of those who stayed at home.

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Twenty-nine. 2000

Good news, Thomas my son. I've arranged a baby-sitter for you and your sister for millennium night. Cost me three hundred quid! Your mother and I are off to London for the big celebration. Should be quite an event, eh?

Can't I come with you, Dad?

It's not for children. I'll tell the baby-sitter you can stay up late if you want to, watch it on the telly. Tell you what, I'll get you your own little telly, how about that. You can watch it in your bedroom.

What will happen after the millennium Dad? Will it be different?

Ha! I should think not. Life goes on, you know. You'll still have to go to school, and your mum and I will have to keep working to pay for it all.

Are we definitely going to move away from here?

It's for the best. We'll get two hundred grand for this old place now, we can get somewhere quite decent for that, nearer to London. It'll be handier for that nice school we've got you booked in for.

I don't want to go, Dad. All my friends are here. Can we go up the hill for a walk?

Not just now, son. I've got some work to do.

The boy looked out of the window to the church at the top of the hill. He desperately wanted to run up to the churchyard where his own surname appeared on so many of the stones, and then beyond it to the country park where they went for picnics in the summer.

He knew he couldn't go. He was not allowed out on the road on his own because of the traffic, but after checking that no-one was looking, he opened the door and ran free.