Royden Tales

Unfortunately we did not have enough interest to continue with the ‘Royden Tales’ idea, but we did receive three entries which are worth mentioning and recognised for their creativity along with my own entry.

Thor’s Quarry by P.J Roscoe

A Thousand Years by Jean Maskell

A Walk in the Park by Julie Dean

Yellow Chalk by Fiona Holland

 

Thor’s Quarry

“Sir, please sir, you need to come and speak with the men …”

The manager sighed loudly and sat back in his chair. His office was stifling hot and he was in no mood to hear about the apparent goings on at the quarry site. “Look, this is getting out of hand. These are men whom I presume to be of sound mind, am I correct?”

“They are indeed sir; I chose them myself and have worked with many of these men before, which is why—”

“Indeed.” Mr Florence interrupted. “I believe you informed me of this twice before, and yet, you expect me to leave my own work, to travel to the quarry and speak to grown men of something that is quite preposterous. Am I correct in my assumption?”

Mr Gibson bowed his head. His face flushed with embarrassment, but he had to do something, or the men would leave the site and the contract would be in jeopardy, as would his reputation. He would never have presumed to behave in such an unprofessional manner had it not been for his own experience last week. He remembered the event so clearly and he abruptly wiped his brow as perspiration trickled down his face. Not only from the heat of the room, but also from fear and he swallowed hard attempting to gain some form of strength and not be reduced to a gibbering wreck.

“Well? I await your reply.”

He looked up then at Mr Florence who was watching him without any signs of concern, merely disdain at his intrusion into his day, again. “I … I do not believe the men to be untruthful, sir, for I have witnessed it myself. I am not a fanciful man sir, but a hard-working, honest, god-fearing man who would never allow such behaviour among my group of men, and yet, there it is sir, I cannot explain it away.”

Mr Florence looked him up and down and stared hard at his face, before glancing away and thinking to himself. He was quiet for a long time and Mr. Gibson began to wonder if he’d forgotten he was there. Finally, he looked back at him and shrugged. “Very well. I have time later this afternoon; I will call down to the quarry and see for myself the cause of this constant delay. But be aware Mr Gibson. We need that sandstone and whether it be your men who retrieve it or others, it will be used to our advantage. I shall see you at three. Good-day.”

Gibson almost ran out of the office. Another morning almost gone and barely any work had been achieved. The men were muttering about leaving for other work elsewhere where they were not victims of what some had considered nothing more than a sick prank; now, they knew better. The problem was the men needed the job. If they did not work, there were always others who would gladly take the wage.

He walked quickly. It was a good hours walk back to the quarry site and he wished he’d brought his bicycle that morning as was his usual routine, but a flat tyre had put paid to such idea’s and he’d run to work, scared of being late, but more scared of being at the quarry. That morning had felt like he was running to his doom, but he needed the wage as much as the next man and he answered to Mr Florence who wasn’t known for his compassion.

John Gibson had worked hard since leaving school aged twelve to work with his father in Wales among the quarry men and miners. He’d gained a good reputation as a blaster and a man who knew a decent vein to follow after joining a group of copper miners for a while. But he’d headed back over to Wirral, following a group of quarrymen and he’d earned the title of supervisor last year.

He’d been given this job three weeks ago and there was a time limit as to how long they may quarry the sandstone to build nearby houses and surrounding walls. He recalled how he’d felt elated at being given such a position and together with his wife, Molly, they’d celebrated in the local inn with many of his group celebrating alongside. Since that night, the men had met many a night at the same inn, but the mood had changed dramatically since quarrying began.

At first it was Davey Roberts who refused to discuss what he’d seen at the quarry, but he’d sat silently drinking his ale, pale and shaken, before abruptly leaving the next morning to find work elsewhere. The men mumbled their own opinions on his behaviour, but work continued as normal. Soon though, day after day, another man would be found sweating and shaken, pale and in some cases, incoherent. All the men found had been allocated the area around ‘Thor’s Stone’. It was nothing more than a large rock outcrop that John had heard many tales and myths surrounding it, but that are all they were and none of the men had ever taken any of the stories seriously. These were hard men. They drank hard. They worked hard and took no nonsense from anyone. Their behaviour was irrational and completely out of character. These men never shied away from hard work, yet, they could barely bring themselves to touch the rock, never mind quarry it.

Gibson finally reached the entrance to the quarry and found all the men gathered there. “Are none of you working the rock?”

The men refused to look him in the eye and shuffled their feet.

“I have spoken with Mr. Florence this very morning; he is coming at three to sort this out.”

“He cannot sort anything!” Shouted one man. “No, he will only make it worse!” Shouted another.

John Gibson raised his hands to hush the growing murmurs. “He comes today and expects to see work progressing. If he does not, then you will not be paid. I urge you to return to the quarry.”

The men reluctantly walked back along the path to the site where they were cutting sandstone. Thor’s stone rose up before them and John saw each man turn to look beside him, as if to check that he was not alone. He understood their fear, but whatever they were seeing, could not stop their work. They had progressed closer to the giant tor and were now within its shade when the morning sun shone. By mid-afternoon, the sweat trickled down each man’s back as the summer sun touched each man; there was no other shade on this common.

John glanced at his pocket watch, a wedding gift from Molly two years ago. It was barely midday, a whole morning wasted in pursuit of some answers he’d known wouldn’t come from those on high; they never did. “For now, let us work yonder and leave this area until such time as Mr Florence visits.”

The group readily agreed and picking up their pick axes and spades, chisels and sledgehammers, they turned their back on Thor’s stone.

The afternoon went without anymore incidents, but by three and Mr. Florence hadn’t turned up, the men became restless and angry, but Gibson refused to allow anyone to slack off and work continued. By seven, the men were beginning to collect their coats when Mr. Florence abruptly appeared. He was dressed ready for dinner and looked out of place among the sweat and grime of the workers. “Good day gentlemen, my apologies for being late. Meetings do tend to go on. Now, what is all the fuss about?”

John Gibson moved to greet him. “Mr Florence, so glad you could make it Sir, but the men are just leaving, their shift has ended …”

“Yes, yes, I see that, though there is enough light to continue work …”

John Gibson was about to protest as he saw the men’s agitation increase as their honour was being questioned.

Mr Florence continued. “They may leave. I have come to see this problem of theirs.”

John looked around at the group of men who looked between him and Mr. Florence. He could see them weighing up their options. Stay and be around the quarry at dusk, or leave and not have their concerns listened to? They eventually chose to stay as Mr. Florence refused to wait for them anyway and had already headed into the quarry. As one, the group of men walked behind him until they were back where they had been cutting rock that day. Here, Mr Florence stopped, glanced around the site and shrugged. “I see a fair amount of cut rock here. Am I ill informed gentlemen, or should there be more?” He asked nobody in particular, but John stepped forward.

“You’re right in your assumption, Sir. Normally the men would have proceeded far quicker had they not had these interruptions.”

“Ah yes, the so-called, interruptions. Perhaps when they do not get paid for their work, these interruptions will cease, do you not think?”

The murmurs of the men grew louder, but Mr Florence didn’t bat an eyelid. He stood arrogantly staring down at the men as he waited for the noise to stop. “I refuse to pay men who stand around all day crying over shadows and tales. I expect the work to have doubled by tomorrow, or else wages will be docked. I suggest an early start, or continue until the expected amount of rock is made up…?”

He looked around at each man as they stared back at him. Many shook their heads, shifting from one foot to the other. “Sir.” It was John who spoke. “I will suggest an early start. It would not be wise to continue in the dusk or into the night. The risk of injury is too great. Would you not agree?” Gibson saw and felt the tension within the group. “However, it doesn’t change the original problem, sir.”

Mr Florence exhaled loudly in frustration. “Damn it man! You insist on continuing with this tale of shadows and death? It is pure nonsense to even speak of it as a grown man!”

The light was fading fast and some men quickly lit nearby lamps to illuminate the path away from the quarry. Then, as one, the group of hardy quarrymen turned and walked away to their homes. Mr Florence and John Gibson watched them go, no one spoke until they were nearly out of sight, at which point, John became agitated. “Sir, I think it best we leave also, it’s getting late.”

“Poppycock! This is my site and I’ll walk among it so long as I wish. You go if you must, I wish to remain and inspect this Thor’s Stone myself before dinner. If you’d be so kind as to light me a lamp, I’ll bid you goodnight.”

John did as he was asked, lighting himself one also and with a slight hesitation, he bid Mr Florence a good night and walked quickly towards his village and safety. He needed the reassurance of Molly’s arms tonight. Living flesh, warm and comforting. As he neared the road, he hesitated again and looked back toward the common. Silence. Not even the birds sang their last tunes to herald the night. John hurried home.

The next morning, earlier than usual, he made his way towards the quarry. One by one, his men joined him as the sun was just peaking over the horizon. They began to feel better within themselves as the warm glow pierced the last of the dark and they reached the site, anxious, but intent on working hard to gain their well earned pay. It was going to be a beautiful, sunny day and they had already discussed that they would quarry stone further down the common, away from the stone. All the men felt easy about that notion.

Upon arrival, nothing seemed amiss, until they neared Thor’s stone. John walked faster than the group and so arrived at the foot of the giant outcrop before the others. He saw a lamp, perhaps the one he had lit for Mr Florence, lying on its side. He edged closer and noticed spots of blood, a trail leading up to the base of the stone, and then stopping.  The men gathered close behind him. The lamp still lay on its side, nobody touched it. Nobody moved closer to the rock. The men huddled together, needing each other, as they attempted to make sense of what had occurred. Of Mr Florence, there was no sign and each man knew, without doubt, there never would be. It was a bone deep knowledge. A horror accepted and feared as children and dismissed as an adult. The men had come to renounce such a gesture. They no longer dismissed the terror’s known from childhood. They now understood that some myth’s are real and should be respected. They shook their heads and walked away. John Gibson was alone.

He felt it rather than saw it. A change in the air. A knowing of something old and to be afraid of, born from childhood horrors. His body shook. His skin sweat profusely. A gasp of breath. Adrenalin rushes through his blood and he looked up.

YELLOW CHALK

Despite the heat of the September morning, they are told to wear their coats, if they have one.  Any small possessions can be put in their shoe bags but – be sure – if they leave anything behind, it will not be there when they return.  If they ever return.

The sun is rising high in the – so far – empty blue sky.  As Johnsmith waits for the children at the head of the queue to start walking, he watches a couple of sparrows nip at the moss on the metal railings.  On the move again.   A goods train, slow and rumbling, shakes the ground.

During drill, they had been told that danger would come out of the sky.  Is this how danger arrives – through the elements?   The sky?  What about the sea?   It was the sea that killed his Daddy and all else on board the fishing boat.  But maybe the sea also spelled safety, for it was sailors from the requisitioned HMS Amazon that pulled him from the dark depths off Talacre Point and brought him to Liverpool.  Liverpool – where the city dwellers are as raucous as the gulls.

The head of the crocodile slowly detaches itself from the body as Classes II and III make their way through the gates and down the hill towards the river.  “Stay in line and hold hands, everyone”, shouts one of the nuns.

As soon as they are out onto the pavement, Billy Atkins lets go of his hand and runs towards his chums.  No doubt Johnsmith will get into trouble for losing his partner but his knuckles have been squeezed hard enough in Billy’s spiteful grip.

The nuns and the teachers harass and harry the one hundred and sixty or so children down Brownlow Hill.  Gravity and expectation quicken their steps although a few, mainly girls, are tight-lipped with concern.

The City fathers had quizzed him but he could not tell them where he was from, whether he was  Eng-lish, from Angle-ter-re, or Gross Brit-ann-i-en, whether his mother or other family were still alive.  Somewhere in the rolling, boiling dark Irish Sea it seemed that if he was to be spared his life, he would lose his tongue.  As Sister Theobald rightfully but grumpily points out, he still has a tongue in his head.  He has just lost the use of it.

So, in the two years since that night of loss and terror, he has learned to write, in English, and adjust his ear to the unfamiliar spoken sounds.  At Founders’ Day, in the Chapel, he silently gives thanks to Messrs Brocklebank, Beazley, Royden for the shelter and education that the Liverpool Seamen’s Orphan Institution at Newsham Park is giving a wretch such as he.

As they arrive at the railway station, there are streams of children approaching from all directions.  Police and Home Guard shepherd parents and onlookers to the other side of the street.  Beneath the arched steel and glass, there is an air of activity and near chaos.  Children stand in irregular groups, at risk of bleeding into the wrong group.  Loudspeakers beneath the pigeon haunts cast tinny instructions into the air while Guards point to the instructions and platform numbers on the hand-chalked boards.

They are travelling in their Sunday best.  The girls in blue pinafores, collars edged in blue and white; the boys in smocks with similar collars; little sailors all of them.  This makes them conspicuous.

“Orphan boy!  Orphan boy!”

“Lost your Mam and Dad, have ya’ then?”

 A sallow lad sticks out his foot as Billy Atkins passes.  Billy recovers from his stumble in time to land a bruise on the lad’s cheek with the corner of the box containing his gas mask.

…….

Johnsmith stops at the large gates and stares past the rhododenrons and elms into the setting sun.    The house looks like one of those man-o’-war ships – vast and cumbersome.  “Sister Alice says it’s entirely made out of wood”, whispers Eleanor as she walks past him.

“Don’t be stupid.  The chimneys are made of brick”, someone replies.

Tall chess piece chimneys sit atop a many-gabled black and white house, black wood tracing a dizzying pattern against white stucco.

“And apparently it was brought four or so miles down the road because the lady who lives here wanted her house moved.”

“Don’t be a dick.”

Two nuns steer the last of the raggle taggle group round to the back of the house.  “Quiet, children.  You are going to have to be very, very quiet, so we don’t disturb Sir Ernest and Lady Royden.”

…….

Within a month of the move to Hill Bark House, France capitulates and Germany starts to fly missions North from newly-acquired bases in Normandy.  The boys are beside themselves with excitement.  At the start of each school day there are prayers for the safe-keeping of our brave troops and a swift end to the War.  Although not so swift that our unholy adversaries don’t feel the sharp end of our brave Allies’ boot.  Amen.

Afternoons are spent on fence repairs, playground drill, gathering wood, erecting air raid shelters.  Animosity towards the Germans, and Johnsmith, intensifies.

“Bet you’re German.  Go on.  Admit it.  You’re a spy, aren’t you?  Cat got your tongue, has it, Fritz?  You don’t fool us.  You’re an infiltrator.  Go on, lads.  Let ‘im ‘ave it.”

Boys have tied him against a tree.  They are poking him with rifle butts made from splintered planks.  Someone is steadily pouring water onto his head from a high branch.

Johnsmith closes his eyes and grits his teeth.  He returns in his mind to the inky deep and fights against the almost overwhelming draught of the sinking vessel; he bites and claws and scrambles vertically to the water’s surface until the boys get bored and leave him.

He cannot shout for help.  Instead he rubs one leg against the other until the rope loosens and he steps out from his bonds.  Over there are the barley twist chimneys, the sounds of digging and hammering .  Johnsmith turns on his heels and runs and runs and runs.  To the sea.

The morning had been warm but the wind must have changed direction, bringing with it cold air.  The fine mist parts and then closes around him as he runs over close-cropped turf, dodging clumps of gorse that stretch out to pull him into their fragrant, thorny mass.

Sheep and ponies scatter as he runs and runs and runs, hauling cool air into his fevered lungs.

He heads for the cliffs.

The ground rises slightly.  A low mechanical roar filling the misty air disorientates him.  As the harsh, faltering noise vibrates, louder and louder, he falls to the ground, as if the turf beneath him had been lifted and shaken out like a carpet.

Two more engines join the raucous knell.  Beneath the fine, opaque veil, the German Junkers Ju88 crashes onto the east beach of the Dee estuary, and the two Hurricanes return triumphant to Speke.  Hurrah!

The next day, an expeditionary party sets out from Hill Bark, despite strict instructions otherwise.  Boys scramble down the dunes to scavenge the wreckage.  Billy Atkins – who else? – comes back with a length of pipe, pungent with rubber and aviation fuel.   Sandpipers and curlews resume their hunt for food in the muddy flats.

 Sister Theobald reads aloud from the newspaper,

“The German pilot, wireless operator and rear gunner all escaped miraculously with their lives and have been taken by ambulance to Clatterbridge Hospital.  The wreckage will be removed from Thurstaston beach and taken to Hooton Park for examination by military personnel.  The wreckage site is being closely guarded by members of the Local Defence Volunteer force and members of the public are instructed to keep away due to unexploded armaments.”

Billy smirks.

…….

The nights are starting to get colder but there is no sign of any extra bed clothes.    A boy further down the seventy bed dorm shouts out in his sleep.  Johnsmith tucks his blanket around himself, like a pastry crust, blocking out draughts that chill the scant warm pockets of air.  It is a whole night-time’s work.

By the tall diamond paned window, another boy turns; his metal bed frame groans along with him.  The harvest moon has gone but tonight’s moon is nonetheless  bright and showy, winking at the sleeping boys through the close-clustered tree tops.  There are no curtains as yet.  It’s girls’ work sewing up the yards and yards of black-out material. Johnsmith watches as light and shade sway across the polished floor boards.

A violent thought slaps him.

Scrabbling to sit up, he observes the shadows of the moonlit branches.  Quietly, he tiptoes out of bed and kneels down to trace with his finger moonlight and shadow.  The spindly branches criss-cross the back of his hand.

The thought emerges in an explosion of froth and foam and droplets like a terrifying, emerging Kraken.

He knows who he is and he knows where he is from.  He does. He does.  He does.

Letters and sounds form joyously in his mind, struggling between his new language and his old language.   He moulds his mouth round each letter and pushes air through his throat.  But he is still mute.

Never mind.  There is a way.

…….

The city is very different from what it was even a few months ago.  There are military vehicles, lorries loaded with Jeeps, parachutes, barrage balloons.  A sense of renewed purpose contrasts strangely with the dereliction all around.  For the city has taken quite a hit – the terraced houses, the mansions, the street shelters, offices, factories, warehouses – so many buildings curiously wearing their innards on the outside.  People’s homes popped open like seeds bursting out of their husks.  A bomb down a chimney.  A fire bomb.  A blast bomb. What was once so solid now dissolved.

Johnsmith retraces the journey he and the other orphans made that September morning up the hill from the water’s edge.  There are klaxons and watch lights on the top of George Henry Lee’s.  Bricks, steel and glass disgorge from the curiously intact façade of a cinema.  A bath sits two floors up against an exposed papered wall in front of a cold fireplace.  The air smells different; less of the sea, more of lime from shattered masonry  – lime to cover decaying flesh.

It does not add up.  Instant destruction against infinite restoration.

The nuns had told the children that their new home, Hill Bark House, had been minutely taken apart, parts numbered in yellow chalk, catalogued, blue-printed, crated, moved and reassembled – a gargantuan and fantastical task.

He has scrutinised shutters, cupboard doors, pelmets, floor boards, brackets, window frames, panelling, door knobs, corbels, architraves, mantels, curtain poles, shelves, fireplaces, bannisters, treads for their tell-tale yellow chalk marks.

He has learned to open his eyes again.  To see shapes and clues.  To remember shapes and clues.

He walks nonchalantly the length of the metal railings separating Newsham Park from the pavement.  The old orphanage has changed.  Now there are military vehicles and ambulances in the playground, red crosses painted on doors.  The chapel is at the far end.  No-one seems about to apprehend him but he scurries nonetheless behind wheeled laundry baskets on his way to the chapel door.

There has obviously been some attempt to tidy up.  Piles of broken slate have been pushed into the corners along with the smaller pieces of rafter and plaster.  A cross beam has dropped at one end, forcing the upper end up through the hole in the roof.  There is dust everywhere.

It takes a while to find what he is looking for.  There are so many shields on the still intact west wall.  Sailors’ guilds, maritime insurance companies, city shields, benevolent seafaring saints.  His eyes scan and flicker over ships, sails, olive branches, mermaids, crosses, white-crested waves until he finds the one he wants.  He stares up at Neptune.  Neptune in full swing.

He sits on a pew and stares and remembers.

The light has shifted and the shadows switched place by the time he hears the latch on the chapel door lift.  He tries to scurry out of sight but, too late, he has been spotted.

“Boy!  Come here!”

Slowly and stiffly he rises and faces the man who has just walked in.  He recognises him as the man who owns Hill Bark House, Sir Ernest Royden.

“Come here, I said.”

He approaches the man who is removing his gloves and hat, placing them on a coat stand just inside the door.

“No need to be nervous.  What are you doing here?”  Sir Ernest Royden peers at the boy’s name, chain-embroidered onto a patch sewn onto his chest.  “John Smith.  That you?”

The boy shakes his head.

“Oh well, never mind.”  He looks so weary;  a silent young boy with the wrong name tab in a bombed-out chapel across the water from home is the least of his worries.  “I’m early.  Used to try and catch Evening Prayer once a week.  Hard habit to break I suppose.”

Sir Ernest sits on a pew, unwinding a long scarf.  He looks long and hard at the boy.

“Where are you from?”  Johnsmith rises from his seat and goes to the shield with Neptune writhing in full force of combat with a sea creature, his left hand raised up, gripping a trident.

Under the shield, he points to each individual letter, G.D.A.N.S.K.

And in the dust on the floor, his mouth twisting, a guttural sound beating in his throat, he writes his name, Piotr.

www.fionaholland.co.uk

A Thousand Years

I stand aside as they crowd around to look at my necklace. Their language is strange to me, but I know from their faces and voices that they admire it. All those who come here do.

    When it was first taken from me, my spirit stirred. I woke from dreams, but was powerless to stop them. And there it sits, unworn, locked behind what they call glass. I stand among them, but they cannot see me, cannot hear my pleas to return it. Although I cannot touch, I can feel it still, warmed with the heat from my skin; can feel the symbols and trace the runes of the gods with my finger-tips.

Long ago, the men came from the sea.  I stood on the great red sandstone tor and watched the boats – strange long boats – sailing towards the shore. I scrambled down the rock easily, it had been our place to climb since we were children and my bare toes knew every ledge and foothold.

    In those days I could run like the wind, through the gorse. The smell of food would always draw me home, where mother was stirring the pot over the fire.

    ‘Did you bring any tinder back?’ She spooned a ladle of steaming broth into my wooden bowl and placed it in my open hands. My brothers, served before me, were already wiping their bowls with bread.

    ‘No…’ I haltered, playing for time, ‘There’s still time before dusk. But I did get this’. I diverted her questions with the wild garlic I’d pulled up in the woods. It crushed easily between two stones, releasing the sharp sweet smell of the woods and she stirred a pinch into the pot.

    ‘Is that all you got? You know your father loves the flavour. Take that sack-cloth tomorrow and get what you can before it goes over. It will store better if plucked now.’

    I nodded; then remembered the men. When I told her what I had seen, her face darkened.  Agitated, she wrapped her shawl round her shoulders.

    ‘Your father needs to know. If anyone comes, run as fast as you can.’ She was gone, the ladle thrown down and the bubbling pot forgotten.

    I never saw her… or my father again.

That was long ago, when I was just a lass. Now I am old. Every day I watch the sea drawing away from the land. Slowly, slowly, red sand dries and crumbles, runs through my fingers, till time is spent and the waves flow back, creeping up the edges of this land. There are no boats again today, and I return through the woods, along ancient paths, crossing the streams that flow to the sea.

    The evening draws me toward the hill, as the golden sun slowly drops, to rest beyond the vastness of the ocean, now dark against a silky orange sky. The cattle pay me no heed as I pass through the low-land. The sharp sweet scent of strawberries hidden in the grass, and honeysuckle tumbling through the undergrowth, clears the air as I start to climb up the old sandy trail. Outcrops of sandstone half hidden in the gorse, like crouching men, no longer make me afraid. The great stone – we call it Thor’s Stone now – glows blood-red, for even beyond the horizon, the power of the fading sun streaking across the sky casts a mantle of colour radiating into the clouds and reflecting on the smoothness of the worn sandy surface.

    My bones ache but I must climb up again, as I do every night, to look out across the sea, in case they come back.

     Slowly, slowly I inch my way up the rock, my hands cannot grip so well now and every  stretch and pull, every bend of the knee and push, is agony. I manage to heave myself up to the top, and lie to rest, gasping for breath, on my back. The June Rose Moon is full and the sky sparkles with stars. As time passes my breathing eases. A star shoots across the sky, then another.  The smooth rock holds the heat of the day, I feel the warmth spread through my shoulders and back, easing my aches. I could drift to sleep, but I must stay alert. I kneel, then manage to stand and face the sea.

     Moonlight glistens across the water, it is too light for raiders to land tonight, but perfect for our returning men, if only they would come.

Those first weeks when they sailed in from across the sea will remain deep within me forever. My brothers were easily slain, they were young and had no weapons to match the invaders.  When I was given – thrown roughly to Eirik – I was lucky, compared to the fate of some of the other women. The men thought it a joke to give me to a boy and there was much crude gesturing and drunken comments from his uncles as we were pushed into a rough shelter. Terrified as I was, I could see the boy, around my age, was, despite his glowering fierceness, as scared as me. In the morning, the men told him he was now one of them. Only Eirik and I knew he was not. We had tried to talk, and somehow through the nights that followed we came to a pact, and I became his woman. Many of the invaders took local wives and in time, we forgot our old ways and learnt their customs. As I picked up their language I was entranced by the stories that they told around the fires at night, or when feasting. They told of their history and their gods. Odin, the god of wisdom and war; Frey, god of fertility and generosity, and Thor, god of thunder and the protector of all. There were many stories told deep into the night of dragons and giants, fantastic beasts and of course, of love and betrayal.

    Eirik was a good man; he loved this land and said the Pine trees reminded him of home. We grew together until we were as any man and wife, settled and contented, until the boats were prepared once more to sail.

    He said he would return and I said I would wait. We stood on the great rock and he placed his amulet of Thor’s hammer, encircled with the runes of his language, about my neck. It was his sacred promise. My heart was breaking as I watched him walk away through the gorse, down the sandy path to the sea, his long golden hair tousled in the breeze. He had been kind to me, and I held my sons hand tightly, as he cried – too young to understand why his father had to go.

 The air is still. A hint of brimstone in the salt sea air, as a low rumbling from the North foretells a coming storm. Far out on the horizon a flash of lightening.

     I see a man striding up the hill, his blonde hair shines like moonlight, my heart leaps, is it him returned?

     ‘Mother. We’ve been looking for you. How did you get up here again?’ What a fine man my son has become. He gently takes my arm, and his daughter, Gudrun, tall and slim, beautiful as a princess, wraps a cloak about my shoulders. As we make our way back to the hall, teardrops of rain begin to fall.

     I am tired.

     Eirik did not come today; but perhaps tomorrow…

The tour guide turns away from the display case and points the party of tourists towards the exit.

     ‘Well, I hope you enjoyed your visit to the Wirral Viking Cultural Museum today. Don’t forget as you go out through the gift shop there’s a great range of gifts and souvenirs including replicas of the Viking silver amulet found right here at Thurstaston.’

     As the visitors depart, no-one sees the wisp of reflection that glistens for a brief second in the air above them, and then, is gone.

 

A Walk in the Park

I love Royden Park it’s full of stories, secrets, and magic… but only special people can see the magic, special people like me. That’s what I tell Mum and Dad, who aren’t really listening: “You always have so many tales to tell,” they laugh shaking their heads. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing – grown ups are so confusing. Still I tell all my friends about it, and Nana and Grandad too, and I even whisper it into the soft furry ears of my dog Mitzy, who I think loves Royden Park nearly as much as I do.
We go to the park all the time. In spring we explore the garden with the walls all around it. I call it my secret garden, but Mum says that’s a silly name because everyone knows about it. I don’t think she’s right. Only I know that in spring there are beautiful yellow flowers that hang down all floppy, making a magical yellow tunnel. As you walk underneath you see the sun shining through the flowers, and you can hear millions and zillions of bees all talking their special bee language. I’m the only one who can understand them. I tell Mum and Dad what they are saying, about how they’ve come to collect the nectar, how they are going home to their hives to make the best honey ever, and how much they like their stripy jumpers! Mum says bees can’t talk they just buzz… a lot.
We go there in summer when all the birds are twittering. If the mower man hasn’t been to cut the grass I can make daisy chains and hang them around Mitzy’s collar. Mitzy just loves daisy chains. Then I run and run around on the grass under the blue sky. I spin round, and round, and when at last I lie down and feel the cool grass on my face, all the trees go whizzing round me. So it must be magic if trees can do that in a park without anyone else noticing. We even go in the winter because Dad says dogs don’t walk themselves, though I think they can really. Sometimes it’s so cold I turn to ice, and I have to go to the café and drink a special magic potion … yes with extra marshmallows please, and cream. It’s the only thing that will make me all melty and warm again. Even dogs go to the café but they prefer water and sometimes toast.

But best of all I love the park in the autumn when the trees are on fire, all red and gold and orange. I can rush about and kick the heaps of leaves and see them fly up into the air, though Mum keeps telling me not to … like today. Today after the leaf scattering I run around being a squirrel finding acorns; the shells feel nice, all smooth and lovely as I fill my pockets. I think if I were a squirrel I wouldn’t bury the acorns but keep them in my pockets so that I could have a feast whenever I wanted instead
of losing them. I just need to work out how to make pockets for squirrels first.
Soon we are all climbing through the prickly gorse up towards the huge sandy rocks.
Suddenly Mitzy barks and plunges into a dark watery pool and comes out with her fur a shiny, greeny, muddy mess. That’s what happens when you take a clean dog for a walk!
“Look out a bog monster”, I shriek and scramble over the rocks with Mitzy following me, spreading ribbons of gloop behind her.
“The bog monster is going to eat me raaaarrrr.” I shout. I run and jump and leap out of the way just in time as the big hairy mud monster goes thundering by.
Mum and Dad just remind me not to get myself mucky – didn’t they see how I was nearly eaten by a huge scary monster from the deep? As the rocks rise up above us, they make a big stony mound. Dad helps me to climb higher and higher, until we look over to see Mum still standing at the bottom, because for some reason heights and Mum don’t go together. Well I think Mum should make an effort because it’s very old rock and very special. Long, long ago, the Vikings were here. I’m not sure why they were here but they were here somehow. My teacher said they came from Ireland but that can’t be true because they are VIKINGS not leprechauns, and anyway Vikings come from “Scandy navia,” wherever that is. A really fierce Viking chief used to make sacrifices to the gods right here on this very spot!
I shout down to tell mum it must be true because I can see where all the blood has gurgled and trickled down the rock, and turned it all red. I can even see where the rest of his clan have scratched their names in the stone, which is a bit naughty isn’t it? Dad laughs and helps me down. He says I’ve too much imagination and that it’s just a Kwar… a Quar… a place where they used to dig out the sandy rocks for building. Well that’s boring I know the Vikings were here … after all it wouldn’t be called “Thor’s Rock” otherwise would it? Bit tired now actually. Dad puts me on his shoulders until we get to the ridgey bit. They want to look at the view. What’s the point in that? Going to stand in one place to see what another place looks like. We could see the view perfectly well if we went to stand down there in the view. Still I enjoyed the sandwiches and crisps when we got there, and I noticed Dad wasn’t really looking at the view at all, he was just sitting on the bench trying to breathe properly. I don’t think he should really be doing all that walking if he can’t even breathe properly carrying something light like me. I don’t have too long to wait once I’ve eaten. After Dad has got his breath back, and Mum has done something very important on her phone we move on. I’m excited because there is a special fairy place further along where there is a waterfall, all frothy and bubbly. It’s a magic waterfall because sometimes it’s there and sometimes its not. It just disappears. Today it’s there hooray! I scramble down the hill to see where it ends, maybe some fairies or goblins magicked it up today because they knew I was coming, and they know I can see things other people can’t. Mum says it’s there because there has been a lot of rain, but Mitzy and I know better. I think Dad should have taken longer getting his breath back because he doesn’t seem as excited as me as he pulls me all the way back up the slippery bank.
I’m still excited as I run on though, because we are coming to another favourite bit. It’s a special rock… ANOTHER special rock though nothing to do with the Viking leprechauns from Ireland. If you stand there watching it’s just a rock but if you’re not watching carefully then it’s really a crocodile, or maybe a dinosaur, or maybe even a giant lizard. It waits and waits until you aren’t looking and then it pounces on you. There must have been a witch in the woods who didn’t like crocodiles, or dinosaurs, or giant lizards, and put a spell on it and turned it into stone. It’s a green colour and you can see its teeth and its eye, though Mum says it’s been painted on. Even if it is paint you can see there really are teeth and eyes underneath, and anyway witches do exist because one turned the crocodile into rock. And it
can’t be painted because painting rocks would be naughty. So it has to be a witch, and I think we should all run away now because a crocodile, a dinosaur, or the witch is going to get us if we don’t Mum and Dad aren’t very good at catching up. They’ve not even tried really. They keep telling me to run to that tree over there and stop, and then run on further to the next one when they get closer. Even Mitzy is fed up with this game. If they stopped holding hands, and chatting they would be here a bit quicker, and I’ve nearly forgotten what else I was going to tell them about dinosaurs in Royden Park. I think Dad is a bit out of breath again so I kick him REALLY gently this time to make him go faster. He’s my horse you see, and we are going to my special secret moat. It’s not much of a moat because there’s no water but I’m sure it was once a huge moat around a magical castle. Mum insists it was a sort of lake where they kept fish, but that’s not as good as my castle which had a princess in it, and a king and queen, and probably a dog called Mitzy.
When we get there Dad says I don’t need a horse anymore and that all riders have to
dismount when they get to castles, or lakes. When I’ve jumped down I drag Mum over and point out the square hole and a sort of slot in the stone by the path. “See Mum that must have been part of the drawbridge to the castle: “halt who goes there?”
She laughs and says something about too much imagination. She tells me it was probably part of a little gate to let the water in and out of the mere, which is a bit silly as she said it was a lake just now. I wish she would make up her mind. Still it’s obviously a moat and a magical castle; you can’t see anything left of the castle which proves its magic! So I play jumping in and out of the moat for a while until even Mitzy looks bored.

“Look how tired Mitzy is,” Mum yawns, as Dad looks at his watch. “I really think we should
think about going home now”.

Dad kind of braces himself but I don’t want another ride. In fact I run ahead with Mitzy, who obviously isn’t tired at all, but maybe I am – just a teeny tiny bit, but I definitely don’t want to go yet. We haven’t even been on the magic tiny train.

Now as the blackbirds are singing in the trees, we are getting closer to the big black and
white house with its garden. We’ve passed it before but I’ve never really looked at it
properly. It looks really, really nice. It also looks very, very old, it must be old because I think Shakespeare puts on plays near there in the summer, and I know Shakespeare is really, really old, and probably even dead but perhaps his ghost lives there… “Mum,” I squeal jumping up and down “I bet the ghost of …”
But Mum isn’t listening. She’s taking a photo and telling us it’s an amazing house because it didn’t used to be there. She says that once upon a time there was a different house but the owner – Sir somebody or other- didn’t really like it so he knocked it down. But he had
another house somewhere else which he did like, the black and white one, and so he took it
apart, picked it up, and moved it all the way across the Wirral, and put it together again just right there, and this is that very house…
WHAT? And Mum thinks I’ve got too much imagination! You can’t really pick up houses and move them can you? That’s too silly!
“Come on,” I sigh, grabbing her hand and giving Dad a really disappointed look “let’s just go home now.”