The deep cold shadow of the tomb still lingered over the valley of Southwick – a stubborn presence even after a generation. The indiscriminate scythe of pestilence had spared few, and John Roche took a moment every morning at cockcrow – whilst his wife was despatched to fetch the day’s water – to contemplate the rare fortune that had befallen his parents and secured his being. Together with his post-apocalyptic cohorts he had inherited a semi-vacant world in which untended fertile lands and stout, uninhabited properties slowly surrendered to a virescent tangle of neglect. As a young man, John had arrived in Boarhunt, near Southwick, and immediately negotiated for his use a parcel of acreages and tenements the like of which his forebears could not have dreamed. The jewel of his estate was a cruck house, newly built under instruction from the Prior of Southwick as an enticement for a new tenant to take care of the domains of the Priory. Close to the end of a troubled century, standing on the shoulders of those who were forced off this world by the Plague, John held in his hands everything he had desired.
Today’s personal ritual of thanksgiving was interrupted by an insistent thudding. Even in the chamber, separated by an inner wall and several yards, the intrusive sound of the front door was inescapable. John closed his eyes and stood still, as if that might be sufficient to make the interruption cease, but the clamour morphed into a desperate call for help. A man’s voice, distress wrapped tight around his tongue, wailed through the wattle and daub as if there were no walls while misery rained through the thatch as if the roof were open to the skies. John grumpily pulled his warmest tabard over his neck, tied it at the waist with a cord and scabbard and tucked his rusty knife into it where it could be seen clearly. His hood was still damp from the previous day’s storm, but he chose to wear it regardless since the chills of winter had yet to loosen their grip on the air.
‘Praise you, praise you!’ spluttered the man at the door. John eyed him through crusty eyes of suspicion, keeping one hand poised upon his blade while he assessed his endangerment. His unannounced visitor was not of the peasant class: he was clearly a man of higher status than was usually to be seen in these parts. The hands that were held towards him in supplication showed none of the trademark callousness of workers of the land. His tunic was woven from fine hemp, trimmed with silk and tied with a ribbon of leather. His hood was likewise a work of quality, dyed a shade of faded emerald. John stood back and waved the visitor inside.
Irascible embers still glowed in the fire in the centre of the open hall beneath the main cruck arch. John fed fresh kindling and logs to the voracious cinders and sat on a floor of dusty straw, and was soon encompassed by the hypnotic incandescence of the rising flames. The stranger spied a simple oak stool and dragged it to the other side of the unbounded hearth – a seating posture more befitting his social class. Across the lambent blaze they regarded each other patiently, separated by the sweet smoke that already was filling the hall and starting to seep out past the soot-blackened battens and through the porous thatch.
‘I am undertaking a pilgrimage,’ declared the stranger at length.
‘I know of it,’ said John. ‘Our Lady at Southwick, I presume? I encounter travellers on their way to the Priory each year, usually around springtime. You are not far from journey’s end.’
‘Indeed, however I have suffered a gross injustice, a terrible misfortune. I have fallen victim to vile bandits who have taken the coins from my purse and the strength from my limbs. My pilgrimage cannot continue until I am able to rid my body of the fear and quaking that consume me. I ask not for silver or food, only that you permit me to shelter a while within these walls.’
‘I cannot refuse such a modest request, good sir,’ replied John. ‘My home is at your disposal.’
‘And though I cannot repay your kindness in the coin of the king, having none to my name, I can reward you with a turbulent tale of chivalrous conflict and elegiac tragedy. For I am a poet.’
John hoped the turbid, fuliginous atmosphere had obscured the involuntary sigh of disappointment that accompanied the revelation that the stranger was a bard. John had no time for storytellers. What use was a wordsmith? Did clever rhymes ever put food on a table or repair a leaking roof? In the pressure to survive, thought John, poetry was a passing fad, a luxury that society could ill-afford. He had no need of idle distraction. His fields were capable of supporting himself, his wife, and the children that would hopefully come, but it required every minute of daylight throughout the year to eke enough produce from the ground for food and tithes. John was not comfortable with frivolity.
‘Of course, it is ironic that I should find myself in such a predicament at Southwick,’ said the poet, ignoring the blank stare at the far side of the flames. ‘For it sounds not unlike “Southwark”, does it not? And it was at Southwark that I once frequented a tavern wherein I was to draw inspiration for my greatest work. Perhaps you have heard of it? For it also concerns a pilgrimage.’
A slow shake of the head was all John could muster in reply, feeling at once out of his depth socially and culturally, and yearning to make a start in his fields.
‘It was at Southwark,’ continued the poet, ‘that I found myself in the company of a merry band of pilgrims. They came from all corners of the realm. From miller to manciple, from ploughman to parson – all stations in society bemingled. Since we were departing the next day together upon the road, our tavern host suggested we hold a contest for the best tale that we could tell along the way. Twenty-nine of us, two tales to be told by each on the outward journey, two more on the return. More than a hundred stories in total. An excellent idea, thought I, and decided to create a poetic record of our travels. It is still a work in progress, I admit, but per chance you have heard some of the tales that I have already scribed?’
Again, John shook his head, willing a premature return of Mrs Roche to provide him with an excuse to depart from the hall. There were ditches to be dug. Animals to be fed. Furrows to plough. Logs to chop. Tools to sharpen. His daily routine had no slack into which poetry could squeeze. He was beginning to regret his compassion.
‘Will your recital take long?’ he found himself asking.
The poet appeared unable to comprehend that his host’s time was precious. He ignored the question and began to describe the pilgrims with whom he had shared the road to Canterbury. A knight. A monk. A merchant. A wife. A yeoman. And the list continued. Rhyming details of their personalities and their attire filled the minutes. Where was Mrs Roche? John fidgeted on the floor, lacking the social dexterity to emancipate himself from his poetic entrapment, his bored mind taking numbing relief in the details of the immense roof purlin above him. The grand cruck arch was worthy of the Priory itself and the impressive height of the hall gave the residence greater grandeur than its status really merited. John drifted away into a reverie of pride at his achievement in tenanting such a place as this, letting the poet’s couplets float aimlessly about the room like the particles of smoke.
Soon the poet had finished describing the pilgrims and had launched into the first of their stories, as told to him, apparently, by the knight. It was an exotic, lofty tale of the destructive power of love. The interminable details of Arcite and Palamon’s years in prison whilst both lusting after the same woman who they could spy from their window made John briefly feel like he, too, was incarcerated. But then he began staring into the flames. The rhythm of the poet’s unending iambic pentameter became the heartbeat of the cruck house. He sensed something unfamiliar. The poet’s words were beginning to unveil a world he had never seen. More than a painting, more than a distant view: it was as if he were there, sharing the adventure, feeling the passionate love and hatred and despair that so tortured Arcite and Palamon. He found himself engrossed, spirited away from his cottage and into a dreamlike castle at Athens. Every twist in the tale shocked him with a violence that was almost physical. He was sharing their fate, at one with their destiny, their triumph and their tragedy. When it was revealed that there was to be a tournament to decide whether Arcite or Palamon should marry their shared paramour, John visibly flinched with anticipation. And when it turned out that the winner, at his moment of triumph, was cruelly cut down by an accident involving a horse, the poet could see his host’s eyes bulging wide with astonishment.
As the knight’s tale reached its conclusion, John wiped away tears, mumbling excuses about smoke-induced irritation. The poet paused, granting his host a moment to return from the incredible mental journey he had made, giving him the space to reconnect with the reality of the fire, the cruck house, his role in life. John quickly regained an awareness of his immediate surroundings and shook his head to dispel the dreams and the drama. But they would not leave.
The recital appeared to have been therapeutic for the poet. There was no indication of the anguish that had weighed heavily upon his shoulders when he had first entered the property. Telling his tale had flushed the recent trauma from his mind. He stood up and gave thanks to his host before stepping out into the clean morning sunshine to complete his pilgrimage.
John closed the door behind the poet and returned to the stool by the fire. All was as before, and yet all was different. No visible trace remained that the poet had ever graced this spot within the cruck house. But John felt an ethereal presence in the hall, a lingering sensation that his life had just been altered by a stranger whose name he forgot to ask. He had experienced wonder. He had felt the force of imagination. It was as if his soul had departed his body and taken a voyage across the world before returning replete with magical memories of new acquaintances, bold philosophies, alien vistas and bizarre experiences. Boarhunt was not everything, and he was not the epicentre of all that mattered. It was simultaneously exhilarating and humbling.
Awe gave way to contemplation; contemplation to melancholy. Would the poet’s rhymes one day die with him? Would future generations ever know the thrill of being engulfed by a lyrical torrent of heroism and courtly love? Perhaps. But John’s senses had been awakened. The cruck house was no longer a mere building: it was a receptacle that had been filled with story, its walls saturated by phantasms of rhapsody. He could feel the beat of the poetry still resonating through the timbers, the echo of verse in the air. He was confident that hundreds of years from now, visitors to the cruck house might hear a whisper on the breeze and sense the presence of the poet.
Stewart Ferris is the author of The Ballashiels Mysteries, a series of novels and novellas that includes The Sphinx Swindle, The Sphinx Scrolls, The Genesis Glitch and The Dali Diaries. He has also written The Reluctant Rescue (May 2018), the true story of how a stray dog in a Greek port found her way into the hearts of an English family. Stewart has an MA in Creative Writing and is currently studying for a PhD.