by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
“What’s all the secrecy about?” said his mother. She frowned. “Are you in any trouble at work?”
“No, I don’t think it’s trouble. No – not trouble… Not really.”
“Alan!” She came over and hugged him. “What’s been happening to you?”
He pulled away. “I don’t know, Mum. Matron’s released me on two weeks’ leave. I’m getting full pay. It’s not dismissal – and it’s not suspension. But she said I was to get right away from things… and not leave a forwarding address.”
“Not even to tell your father and me where you’re going…?”
“I think I’ll go camping. Out on the South Downs – but please don’t tell anybody. Not even if they call and ask. I suppose it’ll be all right to phone you from a GPO box. I might get around to sending a postcard…”
“Alan! Is someone stalking you? A nut-case? You must go to the police…!”
“No – not the police!” said Alan, panic tightening his throat. “There’s – there’s nothing I could tell them! There’s nothing they’d be able to do…”
But it struck him there was lots they’d be able to do. Lots he didn’t want.
“So you’re just going to go away? All by yourself?”
“No… Matron said I was to take someone with me. Someone I could trust. She let me choose who it was. I said Mr Pye – you know, the guardsman. You’ve met him – he’s been in the bar. She said she’d get special leave for him as well.”
“Heavens! – she is serious! Can they spare you both at the hospital?”
Alan shook his head, shutting his eyes. “I don’t know… Perhaps she feels I’m in need of a good holiday – and she might just be right.”
“Alan! What the dickens is going on?”
“Gerald! Thank God – I was getting worried. Look… I am sorry to land you in this mess…”
“Two weeks’ extra paid leave isn’t a mess! I think it’s pretty good myself! Is that what she’s given you, too?”
“No – I thought I was taking the two weeks’ leave that’s owed to me.”
“Well, I should ask Matron about that if I were you. When you come back.”
“Will I come back?”
Gerald sounded surprised. “I expect so! Why – did Matron give you any reason to suppose you wouldn’t?”
“There won’t be much time – I’m due to leave in mid-September anyway.”
“Well, she certainly gave me no cause to think you were out of favour.”
“Then why is she letting me go? We are so short-staffed…”
“Alan! She’s concerned about you!”
Alan narrowed his eyes. “What exactly has she told you?”
“She’s told me to look after you carefully – and not to let you out of my sight.”
“Is this some fancy alternative to having me locked up? Perhaps they think there’s nowhere they could lock me up – except in our own bloody Unit!”
“I didn’t get the idea she meant that at all!” Gerald sounded indignant. “She’s taking it seriously, Alan! She wants you to lie doggo for a fortnight. For your own good…!”
“Well – isn’t that just what I’m saying?”
Gerald sighed. “Look – I don’t want to talk over the phone. It’s not – it’s not… secure. Can we meet up?”
“Can you come round to the Green Man? Mum will be relieved to see you. She’s having kittens.”
So it was that Gerald and Alan, with knapsacks on their backs, wandered off into the evening air without telling anyone where they were going. In spite of that they had managed to reassure Alan’s parents, more or less, that he’d be all right. Having seen Gerald and spoken to him they appeared ready to accept that Alan would be in good hands. But as they kissed him goodbye, they must have wondered in the back of their mind if they would ever be seeing their son again.
Taking a roundabout route – to throw off anybody tailing them, as Gerald said to Alan with a heavy wink – they found themselves next day on the electric train from Eastbourne to Brighton.
Alan used to take this train a lot as a child, when he spent the holidays with relatives, but he hadn’t had occasion to do so recently. Whenever he’d travelled on it he’d been smitten by the view. The South Downs billowed across the surface of the land like vast green breakers on a petrified ocean.
“It’s always struck me as strange how you never see any trees on the Downs. I suppose they don’t grow well in chalky soil.”
“There you go again, Alan,” said Gerald. “Looking for natural explanations of what’s wholly an artificial terrain.”
“What do you mean? It looks natural enough to me. No pylons, no telegraph poles – why they even built the railway with a third rail just so as not to mar the countryside with overhead wires…”
“The Downs were once wooded,” said Gerald, “but you wouldn’t know it now. It’s the sheep they graze all over it. Sheep won’t let trees grow. If you took the sheep off the land, the trees would come back in about twenty years or so.”
Alan looked at him and smiled, blinking in the dazzling warm sunshine which poured through the train window. “I can’t believe that.”
“It’s true. It’s what you see in Palestine.”
“It’s called Israel these days. Have you ever been there?”
“I was there before the handover,” murmured Gerald. “In the last days of the Mandate. I still think of it as Palestine. Habit.”
They fell to talking about tree-planting in Palestine/Israel, and how the trees were growing back naturally now they’d stopped grazing sheep all over the landscape, which Gerald maintained had been the rule for the last 2,000 years. Alan was puzzled as to why “they” couldn’t get together to agree on such simple policies. Gerald had to remind him that there was an awful lot of bad history in the region. Battle-lines had been drawn for generations.
Millennia, if you go back to Abraham.
“At times,” he said, “I used to think we were simply there to get shot at by both sides, Jews and Arabs. Now the UN is taking the flak.”
Presently there came into view the sight that Alan always used to look out for. The Long Man of Wilmington. A chalk giant traced on the olive-green hillside, its white outline standing guard down the ages. Far older than Palestine’s 2,000 years, it was a silent memorial to nobody knows whom.
The Long Man stood holding two vertical staves.
“Two spears, they say…” murmured Gerald. “One pointing up to heaven, the other down to hell.”
“Or perhaps they’re the picture frame?” suggested Alan, practical as ever. “Or a doorway?”
“That’s the other theory. The Guardian of the Gate.”
“The Gate to Hell.”
“Bosh. Perhaps as you get closer it comes clearer what they are.”
“Well,” shrugged Gerald, “we’ll have a splendid view of him where we’re going.”
“I’ve always wanted to do that since I was a child,” replied Alan. “Camp out where I could see him all the time. It’s a heaven-sent opportunity.”
…to be continued.