Stourhead

Stour: Archaic, armed combat; battle

            British Dialect, a time of tumult/confusion

The surface of the lake ripples slightly with the unhurried activities of the ducks, and the reflections of autumnal trees tremble into indistinct shades, golds and reds without form. The grass bends under a breeze that does not quite have the strength to lift the fallen leaves from the lawn, and the treetops barely sway.

It is from the gift-shop side of the Gardens that he emerges, issuing from the dense treeline before crouching, stock still, his eyes wide as he scans the open space before him. Even approaching from the west, from the high ground, he couldn’t get a good view of Stourhead until he was within this perimeter of trees.

He grips the thin parcel tightly in his left hand; the other is flat to the ground, keeping him balanced as he struggles to moderate the volume of his breathing and keep the tension in his legs, ready to run.

Across the lake he can see the ducks meandering over the water. He exhales and stands.

The midday sun casts an inverse spotlight of shadow under his feet and he moves in short, energetic bursts, pausing every few feet to squat and glance around. When a flock of starlings erupts from the trees ahead of him he hits the ground, clutching the parcel to his chest and staring into the woods. He lies like that for a long time, panting and blinking until he is confident that he is alone. 

‘Always wait,’ is what he’s been told, ‘because it’s always too soon to assume you’re safe.’ He marks the advice well, but then, he’s also been told him not to venture out alone, and here he is.

He doesn’t stand upright now, inching across the lawn in a military crouch, always pirouetting to take in his surroundings. He’s exposed, and he knows it should worry him, but he’s too relieved to be out of the forest to think about it rationally.

Near the edge of the lake, passing the mock Temple which he circles twice, checking it’s empty. The lake laps at its own borders, oscillating with a dream of tides, and he scoops bowled handfuls of it to wash the sweat from his neck and to slick back his hair. Somehow he wants to look his best for this.

Most of the flowers in the bed have been fully choked by weeds and others have shrivelled without the ministrations of the staff, but still there are a few late butterflies attending what remains, wings beating the air with foppish persistence. He doesn’t know a thing about gardening save for what he can or can’t eat, but he recognises the plush honeysuckle by its hated smell. She had always wanted them in the house, before, and he had denied her that. He raked up a few rough bundles now, grinning morbidly at the small rusted sign beside them: ‘Do NOT pick the flowers.’

Clutching this gift under one arm, and the package under the other, he begins to move along the shore of the lake. Across the water he can see another of the estate’s anomalous buildings, a grotto set into a natural outcrop of rock. When they had come to this place together she had read the guidebook cover to cover before they even found the path, pointing out every eccentricity. It’s a blur now, the history lesson, a small detail in the memory of the day, the memory of the experience. She had explained the building’s foundation in Greek myth as they held hands, so he recollects exactly the texture of her palm, and the lilt of her voice, and nothing of what was said. Squinting, shielding his eyes from the glare, he can make out a family of squirrels scampering over the surface of the grotto.

He has nearly arrived, and finds himself checking that his laces are firmly tied, that his small backpack is sealed and that there is enough water in it for the return journey. He is taking an unconscious inventory of the contents of his pockets when he scolds himself for delaying; juggling the parcel and flowers, he frees up a hand to run through his hair, and strides towards the place where she is waiting.

The mound of loose earth is not adorned, no headstone or wooden cross. He had rushed the job, racing against the setting sun with a tiny hand-held shovel, smearing mud over his face as he fought with his own streaming eyes. Bringing her here had been a huge exertion, and in the rush he had fallen short of the traditional six feet. He had laid her to rest in this place she loved, just like she said on their one previous visit, before everything, before the world had fallen apart. Now he stands at the foot of her grave, suddenly heedless of his surroundings.

‘Hello Hen. Can you hear me?’ He lays the parcel on the ground, suddenly embarrassed by it.

‘I didn’t have time to say anything when I… when I was last here.’ He gestures towards the lake behind him, the trees on the hill, the gardens.

‘I hope you weren’t joking about being buried here,’ he says, ‘I had a hell of a time bringing you.’ His face flushes. ‘Not that I minded, I… I’d do it again.’

He puts the parcel and the flowers on the ground, and runs a hand through his wiry hair.

‘That was a bloody silly thing to say wasn’t it?’ He chuckles. ‘You wouldn’t have let that one go would you? “I’d do it again.” Jesus.’

He kicks his toe against the grass and stays silent for a while.

‘I brought you flowers. I got them myself- no service stations open.’ He grins. ‘Honeysuckle. I still think they stink. Like locker-rooms, I always used to say, right? They stink of sweaty locker-rooms, but, well, they’re for you, and you don’t mind. I’ll put them here for you.’

He places them on her grave, which looks the better for having them, and lights one of his precious cigarettes.

‘Not many of these left about Hen,’ he says, exhaling. ‘Not nearly enough for a lifetime- it looks like you might finally get your wish. I’ll have to quit if I smoke the last cigarettes in the world.’ He twirls it about his fingertips. ‘Not much of much really. Canned food’s gone so far as we can tell. People I’m with now have a few farmers. They’re teaching us, keeping the knowledge alive. Keeping us alive.’

He hears a thudding behind him and the parcel is in his hands, wrapping torn off faster than thought; the stock sits in his shoulder, a finger on the trigger in a fluid reflex born of long nights, unexpected screams, running; he is looking down the barrel at a deer, a doe, not fifty feet away. The doe watches him watch her and neither moves. In this moment he considers shooting it, weighing up the meal against the attention the sound might attract. No. He didn’t come here to kill anything today, so he slowly eases the hammer down and exhales.

‘Beautiful, isn’t it Hen? I don’t remember seeing deer when we were here. Maybe they’re doing better without people around.’ He doesn’t look around at the grave, but keeps talking aloud to her, to himself, whichever, and he feels as if the two of them are sharing a moment. The doe paws a hoof at the grass but doesn’t leave.

‘I wanted to bring something of yours from the old house,’ he says, ‘but there’s no way into the city now. They’re everywhere. There are more of them than there are of us, millions of them, billions. So maybe it belongs to them now, the world. ‘ The end of his cigarette is still smouldering in the grass next to him and he reaches towards it. The doe shifts it weight between legs but doesn’t bolt, so he drags out the last few puffs before sending the butt arcing into the lake. Still the doe gazes at him.

‘We used to say it was the end of the world, didn’t we Hen, when the trouble first started up? But look around- world seems to be getting on without us.’

The doe turns away in a sudden, wild scattering of hooves, and glides across the wide lawn, disappearing into the cover of hedges. He sighs, and scans the treeline around the lake.

‘Well that was nice while it lasted.’ He frowns at the stillness a minute longer before getting up from the ground and turning towards the grave; the earth there is shifting in molehill sized mounds, the movement creating the illusion of growth as two hands push their way upwards. He doesn’t flinch as the arms, ragged, exposed to the elbow, make clumsy progress into the open air; he’s seen too many of the creatures up close to be genuinely shocked. The smell is a factor though; after three weeks in a shallow grave, she is shedding flesh in broad strips, with the small pressure of roots and stones tearing sections of the ruined face that is beginning to emerge.

He gags a little, feeling impolite, and puts a hand over his mouth, smelling honeysuckle.

‘I’m sorry Hen. I didn’t know. They didn’t get you, so I didn’t…I thought you’d just rest. I didn’t know it could…I didn’t know.’ As he talks he is checking the cartridges, dry, the action on the trigger,oiled. ‘Maybe if I had buried you deeper…’ He backs up a few feet, levelling the shotgun at her face. A robin lands on the lawn just a few feet away, digging for worms.

‘I hope you won’t mind if I don’t bury you a second time,’ he says, ‘but I’m going to have run. More will come.’ Her head is fully out now, unrecognisable against the paragon of youth and beauty he holds in his mind. There are two deep pits in her face, sunken and dry, with thin trails of pus weeping from either side. To her left, the robin is shaking an unearthed worm into its gullet.

He’s waiting for a clear shot, needing the entirety of her head to rise up before he’ll risk a valuable shell. Her emergence is slow, like a birth, and the sun is low over the trees when the shotgun’s first report finally echoes around the grounds, scattering birds in every direction, but the second one has less impact.

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