Part two of the In the Web of Time series. This story is about friendship and truth overcoming bigotry and prejudice.
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History repeats itself until the mistakes of the past are put right.
Six hundred years ago Brother Edgar Kegel, a fanatical Knight of the Teutonic Order, came to the sleepy town of Helmsbury, bringing with him prejudice, torture and death. At his hand, Enid lost the man she loved and her two Stracceli sisters.
She did nothing to stop him then, but when Kegel returns in the 21st century to lead yet another crusade of hatred, Enid is ready for him.
“Don’t make us all wait, Boyd, tie up your hair!” Mr Kegel held out a dirty-brown elastic band, the kind used for bunching onions in supermarkets. His lips were curled down with contempt. They were dry and chipped. His bulging fish eyes stared at her without blinking. “Get on with it!” He shook the band in her face.
Everyone was watching them as Eleanor tried to hold together her unruly red hair and force it into the elastic with shaky fingers. Mr Kegel sucked in air through his teeth and put his hands on his hips. “You don’t want me to do it for you,” he said.
One of the girls chuckled. Eleanor looked in their direction. They were clustered together, away from her, keeping their distance. In their crisp white t-shirts and bright designer trainers, with their hair in smooth pony tails and their faces lit with smug grins, they couldn’t be more different to Eleanor. Nor any more superior. She was smaller – had always been smaller than the rest. Her hair was usually a mess: long, curly and flaming red. She hated her hair. At last she managed to bind the elastic around it – so tightly that it was pulling at her temples and at the nape of her neck, making her eyes water.
“No, she isn’t going to cry, is she?” Katie spoke with mock concern.
“Poor thing... looks a bit ruffled. I say she definitely should keep her hair down. Suits her better.”
Satisfied with the level of humiliation he had exacted on her, Mr Kegel strode off to fetch the megaphone. It was King Henry V School’s annual cross-country festival. Years Seven and Eight had already run. It was now Year Nines’ turn. The girls would go first. Once they had covered one and a half loops around the school grounds, the boys would commence their race.
Some parents had come to watch. They had lined the course along the yellow tape that marked the track. Most of them gathered around the finish line on the higher ground. Some brought portable chairs and tables; others sat on blankets and took out picnic baskets. Eleanor’s parents were not amongst them. Her father was away at the Nottingham branch of the national recycling company he worked for. Her mother was at home, but busy, as usual. She was a powerful businesswoman running a successful PR firm. In the daytime she worked from home, in the evenings she would be out attending social events which were important for the business. She had no time for being a mother in the strict sense of the word, but she was brilliant at being a competent breadwinner and provider for Eleanor. There was nothing that money could buy that would be denied to her: when Eleanor was a child she had the most expensive toys and was looked after by highly qualified nannies; now she could have any designer labels she wanted, the latest in technology, luxurious holidays in the most exotic locations – anything. Money was no object. Only Eleanor didn’t care. She wished she had a mother. An ordinary mother. One that was listening until the sentence was finished. One that was at home, baking scones. One that came to school events and parents’ meetings. One that wore flip-flops and shorts...
Eleanor’s mother would not be seen dead wearing flip-flops or baking scones. She did not have time for such trivialities. In fact, she had not found the time to give birth to Eleanor. By the time she realised a child would be a nice addition to her many other achievements, it had been too late for her to bear children so Eleanor had been borne from a surrogate. The woman, whom Eleanor never met, had been handsomely paid for her efforts and told to disappear, and Mr and Mrs Boyd were presented with a cute little baby daughter. And so here she was now, about to run in the cross-country race, wishing her parents had been here to save her and take her home.
She scanned the outer boundaries of the school field. The cross country track wound around them like a distant river. It mounted the steep hill rising above the football and rugby pitches, disappeared behind a line of hedge separating the field from the staff car park, wrapped itself around the PE sheds and, circling the fenced off netball courts, came back to its starting point. It was a daunting course: hilly, muddy and slippery in places, ugly and pointless. The loop had to be run three times by the girls and five by the boys.
Eleanor buried her head between her shoulders and joined the runners, standing at the very back of the group, amongst girls from classes other than her own. It would be easier to lag behind strangers. There would be less shame in it. Hopefully, no one would notice her.
Mr Kegel drew the megaphone to his mouth: “On your marks... GO!”
The girls took off to their parents’ and the boys’ enthusiastic applause. Katie and her entourage were at the front of the group. They looked magnificent as they glided across the field like dazzling bright kites. The rest of the competitors followed them from a respectful distance and with much less panache. They were all sorts of misfits – Eleanor amongst them. By now the elastic band was feeling like an iron vice gripping the back of her head. Tears trickled down her cheeks, but luckily it started to drizzle and the tears blended in with raindrops. Parents pulled out the artillery of dark umbrellas and huddled closer together. It had been raining on and off for the past two weeks; the ground had become soggy. After so many feet treading over the same track, it had turned to a mud trough. The runners started to trip and slide; their shoes covered in mud were heavy. Once they were out of sight behind the car park hedge, the leaders abandoned their graceful trot and started to walk. They would walk all the way to the PE sheds and from there would once again emerge in full gallop with the wind in their pony tails.
Well into their second loop, Eleanor heard Mr Kegel on his megaphone, starting the boys on their race. Soon the stampede of male runners would roll over the back of the girls’ peloton where she was following a heavy, large girl who was puffing like a steam train. Reluctant to overtake the steam girl and possibly upset her, Eleanor was making tiny steps, hardly lifting her feet off the ground. The elastic band was still hurting her. She tried to pull it off but it was well and truly stuck in her hair.
Indeed, in no time the panting of the boys hit her on the back. They were catching up fast with the girls. Most of them ran past Eleanor without a word. They had not as much as registered her. She wished she could make herself even smaller to get out of their way. How many were there, she panicked as they stomped and splattered mud around her. She dodged and ducked.
A hot breath washed over her left cheek and a hoarse voice whispered: “Out of the way, ginger freak!” She received a vicious elbow nudge into her ribcage and went flying into a puddle. Mud splattered, covering her head and face. She sat staring at the bulky body of Nathan Murdoch who was pressing forward like a bulldozer. His large head sat uncomfortably on his thick, bull neck. Without stopping he looked over his shoulder, a spiteful glint in his eye, and sneered. There was pure hatred in that look. Eleanor shuddered.
Two boys ran past and laughed as she was getting to her feet, slipped and fell again. All she wanted now was to go home, leave this pointless race behind, walk away and never ever come back to school. But she couldn’t do that. The closest gate was on the other side of the field – she would have to cross it and face Mr Kegel before she got to it. There was no point. She would just sit here and wait until dark fell. She attempted to wipe the mud off her face, but all she achieved was a smudge running across her cheek from the bridge of her nose. Pathetic, she told herself, you’re so pathetic...
“You’re all right?” It was Tom. He was tall and skinny. His hair was wet – plastered to his forehead. His glasses were steamed up. He was walking towards her, extending his arm. “Can you get up?”
“Yes, yes I can. I just slipped,” she said quickly, guiltily. She didn’t want to delay him. “Go on, Tom. Thank you.”
“Come on, let me help you.” He was holding out his hand. “Let’s go.”
Another runner passed them by and chuckled under his breath. She half expected Tom to start laughing at her, but he didn’t.
“You’re sure you’re not hurt?”
Perhaps if he had laughed, she would know how to react: grind her teeth and tell him to get lost, but his concern for her threw her off. She burst into tears. Her chest rumbled as she hid her face in her hands and sobbed. “I don’t want to be here... I want to go home...”
He still didn’t laugh. “It’s not far. Come, let’s get to the finish line. You can do it, Eleanor. Show Kegel what you can do, yeah?”
A trio of runners wheezed by. They were running arm and arm, heads down, elbows close to their waists, fists clenched.
“Why do you care?”
“I don’t know. Just do. Won’t leave you here till you get up.” So she did. Of course she could do it. She could run – she was light on her feet, just didn’t see much point to it. Tom nodded, “Okay, let’s go!”
They broke into a steady jog. It was easy. She smiled inwardly. If she wanted, she could fly.
“You’ll be alright?” Tom asked. “You don’t mind if I pick up pace? You’ll be alright on your own?”
He sped up: his stride lengthened, his breathing became faster. Normally, she wouldn’t be able to keep up with him. At least that was what she thought. But she wasn’t thinking anymore. She was just running. Running. Running. Her feet were hardly touching the ground. She was fast. The world had become a blur. She didn’t realise that she was overtaking other runners, not only those who by now were only walking, struggling with a stitch, panting with exhaustion, but also those who were still running. Even the boys. She was faster than them.
At the start of the last loop she caught up with Katie, who gaped at her in disbelief, unable to speak, unable to force her body to pick up speed. Mr Kegel stared, too. He too didn’t believe his eyes.
“Go Katie! Go!” yelled Katie’s father, and Katie tried. She had made one last inhuman effort to catch Eleanor. Her veins were bursting at her temples, air burned in her lungs, sweat was stinging her eyes, but there was no use. Eleanor – the small, weak Eleanor – was steadily putting more and more distance between them. It was as if she was flying while everyone else was falling off their feet.
The last loop left no memories with Eleanor. She didn’t know how she had completed it. She didn’t even realise that it was over when she hit the finish line and dragged the yellow ribbon with her, still running. She didn’t hear the roaring ovation from the spectators. She didn’t hear Mr Kegel scream: “Stop! Stop, Boyd, you’ve won!” She kept running. Flying. Setting herself free.
It was Tom who shouted from behind (for now even he could not keep up with her), “Eleanor, stop! Come back! You’ve won the race!” And at last she had heard him.
She stopped. Looked around her, puzzled. People were clapping. Patting her on the back. Telling her to go back to the finish line. She won. She was the winner. She had won the race!
She saw Mr Kegel approaching with a strange, wild expression in his eyes. For a split second, she had an urge to take off and run again – away from him. Every muscle in her body twitched, crying to escape, but she stayed put. She had nothing to fear. She had won.
The award ceremony took place in a downpour of rain. Still, people stayed on to witness and marvel at the smallest girl in Year 9 to receive the gold medal. She stood there bewildered, with a shock of red hair entangled in a mad scream with elastic, with her face dotted with dry mud and marked with a smudge running from the bridge of her nose all the way to her right ear. It was hard to believe that she had it in her to win. It was hard to believe she beat the next person by three minutes.
She looked at Tom. He was smiling and nodding. “Blimey! You did show Kegel big time!” he was saying to her. Tom had come second in the boys’ race. He could’ve won if he hadn’t helped her, she thought. She mouthed: “thank you”.
Her eyes were pulled away from him, towards someone else. It was Nathan Murdoch. He was also looking at her, but he wasn’t smiling. He hated her with every beat of his heart and every fibre in his body. Nasty, spiteful thoughts were spilling out of his mind. She could read them, feel them: ginger freak! Daddy’s rich girl... has it all... Slut! Choke on it, slut! Nathan sucked up his saliva and spat it out on the ground. He put his hands in his pockets and disappeared in the crowd. His venomous thoughts still ringing clear in her head. Eleanor didn’t know how but sometimes she could read people’s minds. Right now she wished she couldn’t.
Market day in Helmsbury
The rain had come and gone. By the time Eleanor was walking home the wind had blown away the smoky grey rain clouds, leaving behind wisps of cirrus high in the otherwise clear blue sky. The sun sprawled lazy and distant on the horizon. It gave out little warmth and little comfort. Eleanor felt shivery in her soaked clothes. She was caked with mud. Her bag, slung across her right shoulder, weighed her down to the ground. She had put her medal in it – out of sight. She didn’t want to flaunt it in people’s faces. Her winning the race was probably an insult to their weeks of training.
She was walking alone. She usually did. Her house was on the outskirts of town and it would be quicker to take a school bus, but she was in no hurry and enjoyed her own company. Other people could be a nuisance. They liked being listened to and she was a poor listener. Only too often she would drift away into her own dream world, deaf and blind to everything and everyone around her. She didn’t mean to be rude but when the parallel world of her day dreams called out to her, she could not resist. It was more real to her than the world she lived in. She belonged there – not here.
Today was market day. Goose fairs had been traditionally held on Wednesdays since King Henry V granted Helmsbury town privileges in 1415 to which fact a large bronze plaque testified on an old stone well dating back to prehistoric times. Stalls covered most of the cobbled town square offering all kinds of produce and craftworks from fruit and cheese to pottery and metal sculptures. Recently the market expanded into the grounds of the abbey. Once upon a time the abbey had been a magnificent edifice built in the 12th century, expanded and added to over the next three centuries until Henry VIII dissolved the monastery it had been home to and pillaged the place thoroughly, ripping off its lead roof and lifting all its riches. Still, even today after years of neglect, it stood proud with its arched porch and high vaulted ceilings and a skeleton of a spire most of which had been torn off in a violent storm two hundred years ago. Of the general abbey outbuildings the stables remained in good condition and had on and off been used for trade. Mrs Trout held her bakery stall there and she made the best flapjacks in town. Eleanor thought she deserved a flapjack after today’s race. She joined the line and waited patiently as Mrs Trout dished out cakes and endless gossip to her keen customers. Mrs Trout had a long smooth face with pouting lips and large pale eyes popping out ferociously every time she pronounced her customary: “... and would you believe...” Indeed, Eleanor observed with amusement, true to her name Mrs Trout did look like a shiny fat trout.
There was a sudden screech of tyres and a smoky sigh from a huge REMOVALS lorry that appeared stuck on a sharp bend of Shambles Road which hooked itself around the market square like a stone coil. Everyone in town knew not to enter that road in big vehicles as it was treacherously narrow and winding. Obviously the REMOVALS people were from out of town. The driver opened his door and immediately smashed it against the overhanging top floor of the Oxfam shop. He shut it again. A man jumped out from a car behind the lorry. He was wearing a pair of shorts with bulging pockets and a t-shirt which said: BEEN THERE, DONE THAT. He went to the lorry driver’s door and they had a brief but lively exchange. The lorry driver was waving his arms animatedly through the window, displaying his despair at being well and truly stuck in this God-forsaken medieval town. The man in shorts asked him to calm down and follow his instructions. He got back to his car, reversed it out of the way and stood in the middle of Shambles Road in order to navigate the lorry driver out of trouble.
By this time, every shopper in market square poured onto the pavement to watch the spectacle. The man pointed to the left and the lorry shuddered, its huge wheels rotated and it started moving. The man raised his hand with his palm up and the lorry came to an abrupt halt. It was now pointing its taillights into the florist shop. Mrs Edwards, the florist, emerged from the door and, looking positively combative, took position in front of her display window, blocking the lorry from crashing into it with her own body. The man in shorts waved the lorry slightly to the right. The wheels turned again and, inch by painstaking inch, the process of back-and-forth reversal began. Soon the lorry was on a straight and narrow backwards journey to the nearest junction where it was able to turn left and resume its course. The man went back to his car and started the engine. All the curious bystanders looked the other way, pretending they had never seen anything. Slowly they began dispersing. Mrs Trout was saying to an elderly lady wearing a funny small hat not unlike one of Miss Marple’s: “That’s Craig Powell, that is. We went to school together – same class, me and Craig.”
“You’re saying he’d be Jenny Powell’s lad?” Miss Marple spoke in a delicate, breakable voice, like thin glass.
“Exactly,” said Mrs Trout.
“Looks like he’s moving house. Moving back to Helmsbury? What’s here for a man in his prime, I wonder...”
“He’s been living in London, I know for a fact. Going on twenty years now. His wife, what a tragedy...” Mrs Trout leaned over the counter and lowered her voice, “She got one of those muscle wasting diseases, and died, I hear. A couple of years ago, maybe a year... Left two children behind, one – the boy – only seven years of age. Tragedy...”
“Good God!” Miss Marple’s voice rang with dread.
Craig Powell reversed his car and waited for a gap in the traffic. On the passenger seat next to him was a girl, Eleanor’s age. There was something familiar about her, maybe the dark hair resting on her shoulders like a black hood, or the thick straight eyebrows, or perhaps the expression of recognition in her eyes. She was looking back at Eleanor, a somewhat indecisive smile flickering on her lips as if she too thought she knew Eleanor, but wasn’t quite sure. Eleanor smiled back at her and waved. They must have known each other from when they were very small. Maybe that girl used to come here with her dad for holidays, to visit her grandmother? Maybe they used to play together in the park when they were toddlers. There certainly was something familiar about her. She waved back to Eleanor just before the car joined the traffic and disappeared round the corner.
Eleanor got home just as her mother was leaving. “Oh, here you are darling!” she chirped. “Off to an important function, I’m already late. Dad won’t be back till Friday afternoon, he just rang. I really ought to be going. Look at the time!” She kissed Eleanor in the air so as not to smear her ruby red lipstick. She had to bend down awkwardly to do that as her impossibly high stilettos added ten inches to her already impressive height. In her tailored black jacket, a tight skirt revealing those long, thin legs, and her bright red lipstick, mother looked like a heron, Eleanor noticed. A whiff of sweet perfume trailed behind her as she swooped to the front door. She glanced briefly over her shoulder, “And darling, I’ll be eating out so don’t worry about me. Just find something for yourself in the fridge, will you?” Without waiting for an answer, she blew her another kiss and added, “Mummy loves you...”
“Course she does,” Eleanor mumbled under her breath. She stood in the window, watching her mother slide gracefully into her slinky Alfa Romeo and take off into the sunset with a roaring of the engine and gravel spluttering from under the spinning wheels. As soon as the dust settled, she sat at the kitchen table, took her flapjack from a brown paper bag Mrs Trout had packed it in, and ate slowly. It was so silent that she could hear herself chew. When she finished, she fumbled in her school bag and took out her medal. It was quite heavy and shiny with the school’s logo inscribed on the back and the word “WINNER” on the front. She smoothed out the blue and white ribbon on the table and gazed at the medal. It didn’t make her feel like a winner – not in the slightest. It reminded her of Katie’s disappointed, resentful look and the tears welling up in her eyes, and of Nathan’s poisonous thoughts. If winning meant making sworn enemies, Eleanor wanted no part in it.
There was nothing to do at home. It was large and empty – soulless. It always felt cold to Eleanor. The high ceilings, white walls and white furniture, respectable titles of leather-bound books that nobody had read, the black hole of a flat screen TV staring at her from a glass stand, the fluffy rug on the marble floor like a dead animal on a stone slab, and the sharp points of the crystal chandelier aiming at her head like deadly arrows – all of that made her uneasy. And there was the silence. Because nobody was ever home...
She decided to go to the wood. She always went there. Not a day would go by without Eleanor taking one of the overgrown, narrow woodland paths at the back of Shamrock Cottage.
The cottage was one of the oldest buildings in Helmsbury. It was two storeys, had tiny wood-framed windows and a small front door. Birds nested in its thatched roof. In fact the roof seemed to have a life of its own: deep-green moss covered one side and vibrant tentacles of poison ivy climbed up on the other. Lilac and holly bushes grew riotously all over the front garden. The cottage was named after Enid Shamrock who lived there – or perhaps it was Enid who adopted the cottage’s name considering that the house had to be hundreds of years older than she was. Still, Enid was known as Enid Shamrock so that had to be her real surname. She ran a shop selling herbs from the ground floor. People said she was a fully trained medical doctor, but she had settled for alternative medicine, dispensing herbs and potions for all kinds of ailments once conventional methods had failed. She was well respected for her skills and compassion, though sometimes behind her back there were those who would call her a witch.
You would be justified in calling her that if you looked inside her shop. It was truly a witch’s den! Bunches of dry weeds and herbs hung from the black beam running across the ceiling. The smell of rosemary and thyme filled the air. Wreaths of garlic were suspended from hooks on the wall. Clay jars housed extracts of camomile, stinging nettles, birch bark and plants you could neither name nor recognise, never mind guessing what they were for. A wooden table, black with age, was heaving under the weight of objects whose purpose was unknown to an ordinary mortar. There was even a hearth under a triangular belly of a chimney, and in that hearth fire lived all year round and a cauldron bubbled with a mysterious concoction.
Enid herself looked at odds with the rest of the world. She never followed any fashion trends and yet she was the funkiest – and most desirable, though no man would admit that – woman in town. There was something alluring about her, something mysterious. For one, you could not tell her age. Her skin was white as alabaster, her hair chestnut brown and curly. Some people, the same ones who called her a witch, claimed she knew potions to maintain eternal youth even though she was as old as the Queen, if not older.
Eleanor didn’t believe in all those vicious rumours. She liked Enid who was more like a mother to her than her real mother. She would often feed her a square meal or two when mother was out and about, and ask her about things. Not only did she ask – she was actually interested to know. Right now, as Eleanor was passing by Shamrock Cottage on her way to the wood, she saw that there was someone in the shop – a customer. Despite being busy, Enid acknowledged her with a smile and a wave. It reminded Eleanor of another greeting she had received earlier – from that girl, Powell girl, the new girl in town. Again, Eleanor felt an urgent and inescapable sense of familiarity with that girl as if she had known her as well as she did Enid.
Mrs Powell’s house was closer to the main road, only some hundred yards to the left of Shamrock Cottage. From the corner of her eye Eleanor spied the REMOVALS lorry parked in front of it. So the girl was indeed moving in. Eleanor paused to take a closer look. There was a slight tremble of a curtain in the window under the roof. She had a distinct feeling that someone was watching her, and she was certain it was the girl. Eleanor smiled: they were spying on each other. She turned and carried on to the wood.
The narrow path – never used by anyone but her – led to what she called the heart of the wood where a family of ancient yew trees curled and twisted their long and heavy arms of branches. She loved these trees. They made her feel at home. She belonged here with them more than in her house. Their beauty lay in their gnarly imperfection as if they could feel pain and joy, love and hatred, as if every twist was a testimony to another, complicated cycle of life. Often, just like now, Eleanor would climb the lowest branch of the largest yew where there was a cradle-like dent in the trunk, and she would sit there, thinking and day dreaming. And sometimes, she would fall asleep.