North of the Wall

Entry for JM Greer’s 2014 story competition

The place is swept clean except for fragrant dry leaves, but there are still stories here. The trees cluster tight to the tumbled walls and to my overhung shelter. I have questions – why are there so few tracks of animals and why is there empty ground where there might be trees? I heard no wolves last night while beside my precautionary embers, but I am in strange country and do not know enough of the habits of the wild creatures. And where will I find villages again? The precious map would have looked very different in the sunlight of our ancestor in his light-hearted fast-moving assurance. The railway is still definitive and I know more than rumour of a city far off – but well guarded of course as these things should be from malign intelligence probing. Our wireless base must be used with discretion.
This journey might have been attempted 100 years ago, but if it was, the records are lost. Our family kept diaries for much of that time, so I think I am the first to follow the old idea; to keep a promise, a faith in a question. Our ancestor knew his world had entered a period of great discredit – and this was a blotch in the diary that our family must share. To follow such a forward vision and then to look forward again is a strange past-time; a hazard of bread unless the journey is in hope of giving back value to the hope of those who went before, and value to those who might follow after. But even now, why here; and why do I hazard a chance?
I am a responsible family man still moving cautiously. There is a limit to how much preparation we could have made. How not to attract attention or to be misunderstood?
The good pony and I are heading north and further inland, and are likely weeks away from any wireless base. We had some discreet wireless contact with this Land over the last decade, but none during our voyage. It could be many days yet, but I travel in hope of meeting our previous contacts, the wise couple and their family and probably other good families along the way, and I should be able then to get my first message home. I expect these are public-spirited people. If that is so it could begin to answer the signal question we are almost sure was not written in jest so long ago.

After another early morning I am now paused for us to eat a little. This is a more uncertain region than I guessed when I travelled the water-guarded roads between hills and had hospitality among the good hearted Statesman holdings, even though it has been only five days of walking since then for me and Pony. The rail line going north appeared to be in order, though sparingly used, but my tongue would have raised questions in others and I had chosen to head for the area my ancestor had crossed in such good heart when he returned home. He must have been an old man by then but he travelled with old stories of others travelling with hope in their hearts; young men and women through the oak woods with their promise of generation under these same skies – carrying a Church of Blessings for the families. More than two millennia since for some of these stories, but time is not an enemy of the family.

Tonight I am higher, near the old stone cross with its weather rubbed western face. It has been a most interesting day. I found a used path with a few cattle marks and occasionally those of wild creatures, through deep fringes of trees – some of them growing thickly together. There were pasture glades at intervals and an opportunity to rest and feed Pony on his tether. I explored on my own for half an hour another path that crossed with ours, to gain some point of view above the trees, and had an unexpected meeting. At a good pace coming toward me was a wide-horned cattle bull. We were both hemmed by trees above and below the path. I stepped below and leaned against a trunk. The bull came on, but courteously strode a pace uphill from our path and grunted as he passed. I grunted back. I guessed he was heading for company, and I knew that habitation could not be so far; though of the herders saw no sign.
Some miles passed and Pony and I reached wider pastures with distant structures on the skyline, and converged with the first person we had seen for a six days; a child leading his own pony in that direction. The child was circumspect but not afraid and hailed me appropriately from a respectful distance. I took some assurance from both his and his dog’s reaction to my unexpected presence. On asking if I might reach what I took to be his home he indicated I could come with him, though his speech was not so easy to follow. This proved a good introduction to what has been my lodging tonight. The people here are in good fettle; several adults, and two infants still being carried and the child I had met. Two younger persons appeared during the evening, apparently curious about my presence. This place has very good vegetable gardens and nut trees and fruit bushes where there is shelter. The crops of oats seem to have been good this year, the seasons being mellow enough even at this height, and the rain not always incessant. The people all appear literate and in good health with good teeth, and talkative enough after the quiet period of adjustment following my arrival. I am appreciative that this custom of quietness applies properly in these parts, and allows the rightful sense of trust. The talk was slow to begin but quickened after food when they knew my interest in history. Before dark they were able to show me the great cross and I was excited to learn they had old documents and drawings of the carved marks on this and other stone crosses, and a record of their ancient religious poems. That time was more than a thousand years before my ancestor came this way, and I was impressed by the scholarly interest and sense of depth in the intellect.
Good people; and I left them some small money and the summary account of my family history as a token of my visit, and a small glass jar and lid from the store Pony and I carried. The good woman looked me steadily in the face as I made my goodbye.
“You can travel safely across our land – and there are no wolves hereabouts,” and she smiled.
I have been careful not to ask too many questions of the land to the north. There is government, we know that, but I am on personal quest; merely a well-meaning ambassador of my family and our extended relations. Books and learning and long held stories that we have in common from childhood to old age can come alive if we find the right country and company.

I am now much further on, and think I might have missed the sunlit banks of hills that so impressed the ancestor on his afternoon. The cloud and rain has been among the trees and it has not been possible to boil my kettle. I still have my slices of porridge and Pony his bag of meal. The dried extract of berries from my last hosts is a blessing. I think of the Thousand Year House, but first must find the wise folk and their Library – started as a grange of the greater learning, but now by repute one of the refugia and a place for wandering scholars to bring their contribution.

This is unexpected. I have reached the village still retaining the name attributed by the ancestor and identifiable on the old map. But I learn to my dismay the wise man has died and the wife is old and gone to live with a daughter on one of the new farms in the drier east of the country south of the big river. The family is thereby dispersed, and I have not ascertained the location of the Library. There is a new Church but no books and no visiting scholars. The Church people are courteous but I cannot see past invisible walls. They are not apparently suspicious and offer the basic hospitality, but nothing of themselves. This is not Dispersal of Blessings, and is entirely new to me. I am even hesitant to mention family or to hope for better acquaintance. The Library in physical form is perhaps elsewhere in a civic structure under the far City dispensation, or part of this new Church? The new building is to a pattern – not the first I think – and must have required a deal of bread for the builders and diversion of the great horses. I wonder about the other railways on the old map. This was an outpost. In the hostelry where we found stabling, a young fellow talked half-remembered stories of the Three Hills, marching camps and straight roads. I wonder which millennium he is remembering. Still, we are dry, and my clothes and bag have baked enough on the hot bricks. I do not sense old sorrow nor I hope a new shadow; more a kind of hidden impatience with the here-and-now. Such matters will be important, but should I make this an end? I am intrigued still by visions of witness-bearing tall trees that allow this land to be a safe place yet. Have I found the answer to the ancestor’s question?
The village is bigger than I had expected – nearly a small town and there is a regular market. Seeing the painted black and white ashlar fronts of old houses still standing along a street reminds me this is a very old country. There are two bakeries, but only one open, and this one also cooks family meals wheeled over in large pots by children early in the day. As I wandered back, a young woman hurrying at mid-day from work in the wood joinery shop by the mill to meet her child outside the tiny school, stopped briefly beside me.
“Are you Mr Toms?” and on hearing my astonished answer, said, “You will be wanting Mr Andrew’s house – I will show you and let you in. There is a message.” And by way of explanation, grinning back at me: “We look for the house for the family just now.” So that is how I am here in the house and thinking about Mr Andrew’s message, and the selection prepared by him in case of future visitors.
This is a warm house and I feel as never before in a strange place that if chance required my stay, I would be welcome and might never leave – a strange fancy it seems. The families who come to live here will be very blessed.
My studies continued at the small window for another hour. Then the door opened and the young woman appeared with her child, a girl of perhaps 5 years.
“Janet would have baked you a cake, so Lucy and I have done it for her.” And the smiling child brought her covered plate to the table and her mother a jug of hot water for infusion, and we sat and had small cake each and infusion in delicate old cups from the kitchen drawer. I heard a little more of the story.
Mr Andrew and wife Janet had been important people for Lucy’s mother as a child and as a young person. He had coached youth football in those days, and that included her. They also organised the dances and choirs and were known as ‘the Ministers’ and were ‘asked for’ at most marriages, funerals and naming. I know more of this old tongue than many, but it was curious to hear old words come alive while the small candle burned for our taking of tea as the dim deepened.
I had already understood from my reading that the Library had fared better than I feared. Mr Andrew had received support from afar and the books and archive had been moved close to a place of learning in one of the old Cities. But there were no names or locations written down. Lucy’s mum looked at me.
“These are better just remembered,” she said. “It is not a big matter. Just a precaution, Mr Andrew said. I can tell you though the name of a family friend who can help.” She gave me the name.
“These are old names; including yours Lucy,” I said. “And you like old things?”
The child shone in the candle light. “Yes, but not just old things”, she said. “I like wee Jimmy next door and he is very new.”
So we washed and dried carefully the cups and put them back in the drawer. I judged it wise to return to the hostelry and Pony and make these shorthand notes, and spend quiet contemplation. I will need to find a way of engaging a wireless base. It seems I will need to visit the family friend who shares a name with Lucy. I would like to return to Andrew and Janet’s house – there is more there to see than was visible in the afternoon. I sensed a latent functionality in the simple dwelling as well as the accumulated good will. But that must wait another day – or perhaps I will be able to return this way.

I have been busy, too busy for my usual diary, but many notes will be attached. They are mostly a catalogue of work books and manuals. These people have more tools to work with than we have. The family friend was able to lead me to a wireless base – the antenna among old dry-stone walls (stane dykes in the old speech) is hidden among sparse trees on the cap of a hill. The stones were perhaps once an ancient signalling station but not part of any empire we have rumour of. It seems not to be part of a growing new one either. I have wondered about Mr Andrew’s precautions and about the promotion of new Churches – I still have no idea of the teaching or the source of money – and half-speculated the Cities with their sheltered access to the sea were becoming impatient again with present slower ways.
But these wireless people seem to have little connection with schemes of profit. They are of the Dispersal of the Blessings and know something of Libraries and the old ways of lending the greater learning; they were interested to see my links with so many family trees and some guessed there were old connections we could trace between us. They called the house with the transmitter half buried near the bottom of the sunlit side of the hill the “wee bothy”, but I could see the slow water below the turbine where the big trout lay nose forward, and the workshop had some of the precious old lights. Could these even be new replacements? I was not yet relative enough to ask. It was a good house and as cheerful as the hill water, and would be bright with berries later. And these would be dried for winter – precious; they are gifts across all lands.

My message home had to be short. I have made arrangements that when my brother is ready with the boat I will be called. There is a swift path to a haven I now know that brother and I can trust, perhaps a day or two of travel from here. When the time comes, I will need to be ready. I will trust Pony to these people because they know the pack trains that cross the lonely hill paths the way I have come and sometimes take trades as far as Pony’s stable in the southern haven. Pony will earn his keep as usual. The two light-weight wheels I brought with me are strong enough and will attach to frames they have here, and the path has long sections engineered for swift pedal travel. I will leave the wheels as recompense for these good people. From Mr Andrew I learn that we cannot save everything. We can copy so little. I can risk taking his selection of precious discs because we have rebuilt the old machine for translation and transcription, but we must trust the earlier choices made so long ago when knowledge became an impossible burden. Knowledge can shred like the mist that sometimes blows through these old hills. I will bring back or send a copy in readable form if that is not too bulky. I will leave one small paper book here as a token for Lucy. A child can always make new speech out of old stories.

I am conscious of the work I am surrounded by. I remember the old story of an empty hillside, the people long gone, where one could still hear the clink of spades but only in the ear of the mind. Now I see down the green road a croft; washing on the line.
I think he loved the lands I have just travelled and in his youth was carefree with good friends and came to find places he had memorised from stories in his childhood. Perhaps that begins to account for the sense I have felt in these places. Even when they are long gone, lives are bright again like leaves on the tree. The ancestor said that if it was still possible to return safely and travel these places then that would be much of his answer.
Perhaps I am beginning to know the freedom to be at home across wide lands as in the accounts of the ancestor.

*****

Hi
This is Lucy. I am the transcriber now. Mr Toms never did come back. My mother has the story such as it is. Wireless told us that he and brother had been delayed in another country but had sent on papers and discs to his family land. The message thanked us and relayed a script for me with its key. I and mother were to be one with the family and we were blessed with old names! I am still interested in old things and have read Mr Andrew’s message. I do not understand it all; he seems to be talking to people like Mr Toms. I still do not know what question Mr Toms’ ancestor wrote in that long ago and it is not clear that Mr Toms ever knew exactly when it was written. Mr Toms seems to have found at least some beginning of an answer. I hope so.
I still hope that Mr Toms will reach his home. Mother says it is possible and that he has not given up. Wireless tells us that Mr Toms’ country wireless has become very discreet. There are matters afoot in the wide world, but we know only rumours. Mr Andrew said that it was always hard work, and that what was important was the feel of what was handed on to us. Mr Toms seems to have understood that feeling.
But Wireless is passing messages to me from, I think, a relative of Mr Toms. She encourages me to keep reading and to learn more of the languages we can both use, and wants me to send helpful transcription from the three we know best, including, she calls it, “your old speech”. It is possible to record and send speech and I am doing that just now. I know from Mr Andrew and Mr Toms that it does not matter that there are few of us. Our knowledge and work can pack very small like seeds and stories grow again.
I am keeping diaries for us, and that includes wee Jimmy who is growing up now. He always says he will write it down, but he is too busy outside with his friends or down at the Mill.
We will keep writing.

L