Chapter 14. More than one
“Oy, you up there, what are you doing?” For some reason, the fact that it wasn’t a spirit made Maeve fearless. She was sure that she could handle this, so sounded authoritative, someone you should answer.
“Ah, um, nothing really, just keeping a look out.” The voice came back. It sounded familiar,
“Is that you Matthew?” As Maeve peered up into the branches, she was glad she had remembered his name, it was the plummy accent that made her think it might be the same man. And there is nothing like the power of using someone’s name to get them to do what you want. Turning to Orla, she explained,
“It was Matthew that pulled me out of the mud.”
Orla was leaning back, admiring his tree climbing skill, strength, and agility, as he came down to their level. Her voice was warm as she said,
“I didn’t know there were any tree huggers in Kent. Glad to meet a fellow eco-warrior.” She held out her hand.
“Um, well, I suppose so. Thank you.” Matthew shook her hand, smiling ruefully.
“You are here to protect the trees aren’t you?” Orla went on, “I didn’t know that any of these were under threat? Actually they don’t look that old, what are they, two hundred years?”
She had been looking up in the boughs of the tree where he had come from,
“Oh, now I can see, you have been sleeping up there too. Well I know what that’s like, bloody uncomfortable.” Unwittingly Orla had hit the nail on the head, only Matthew wasn’t part of any movement.
Matthew was reserved, or slightly uncomfortable as he said,
“Well, I am more of a lone wolf, really. I keep an eye out to make sure that everyone is safe.”
Maeve picked up on it in a flash,
“Safe? From what, or from whom?” This might add a different, and maybe dangerous, perspective to the situation. After an uncomfortable pause as Matthew didn’t answer, Maeve went on,
“Is there something we should know about?”
Matthew spoke. They got the sense that he didn’t often talk to people, as more words came out, his voice got stronger and with growing confidence,
“You know.” He nodded his head as if this was enough to communicate his thoughts. The blank look on their faces indicated that they were waiting for more. After another pause he went on,
“You know, the woman in the river. Didn’t you hear about the woman in the Stour? It was just over there,” he waved in the direction of the river beyond the woods past a small housing estate.
“It’s only about ten minutes walk from here. She drowned. People said it was suicide. I don’t think it was, I think it was made to look like suicide. So I watch, and make sure that nothing bad happens to the civvies in the woods while I’m here.”
As he was talking Maeve had stepped back, and was taking a good look at him. When he rescued her from the mud, she had noticed that he had an athletic body, and was attractive enough to distract her. He hadn’t seemed to be in a rush, so not a walker she thought, maybe he had been fishing in the lake. She often saw men who seemed to spend the day there, or even camp, by the reed pond. Now on closer examination, she saw that he was wearing army fatigues rather than fishing, or forestry, gear. When he referred to people as ‘civvies’, it rang a bell, ‘that’s army speak’, she thought.
Maeve took a risk,
“Were you in the service? In the army? Were you based here?”
“Look, I’m okay, I’m fine, I don’t need any help. Like she said,” he gestured towards Orla. “I look after the trees, and I keep watch. It keeps me sharp. Not ready for civvy street yet. I need the space. Soon. One day. When things are better.” He seemed to think that this was sufficient explanation, then as an afterthought looking directly at Maeve said,
“But you are okay, I won’t frighten you again. Must go.”
He had clearly had enough conversation because with that, he turned and did a sprint up the steep incline that led to the flatter open spaces and gorse bushes before the old barracks. He was out of sight before they moved.
“What was that all about?” Orla asked.
“No idea,” Maeve said, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if we found out that he spent some time in this barracks, and maybe it was a good time for him, or he felt safe, or he had friends here, but there is something acting as a draw to this place.”
They started to move off, and resume their walk, as Maeve went on,
“I really know nothing about people who leave the army, but from things you see on the news, the military doesn't seem to do a lot for them. Once they are out, they are out. I know there are a number who have PTSD, so he might not be that stable, he might have unresolved issues.”
Still thinking aloud Maeve changed her tone and was more upbeat when she added, “Anyway, at the moment he seems harmless, and frankly I am glad to know that if I hear any more strange noises, or twigs cracking, it’s probably Matthew and not someone going to mug me. Plus he is a good looking man, and I love that accent, he’s like a cross between George Clooney and Hugh Grant, playing someone who’s gone a bit wild.”
Orla was thoughtful,
“There is something about him that makes you trust him immediately. Shame he’s not an eco-warrior, it would be great to have someone like that. I bet he wouldn’t take any shit from the digger drivers and the developers. And with a voice like that the money men would listen to him.”
Good humour returned, they were both enjoying stomping through the woods and had almost forgotten why they were there. Orla was showing off her new found knowledge and green credentials. Oak, willow, poplar, hawthorn, blackthorn, rowan, Orla was listing them off as they walked passed, and Maeve was enjoying it. Orla might not be in school, but she definitely hadn’t stopped learning, if anything it was giving her a new appetite for knowledge. Orla was about to launch into her most recent preoccupation, which was how to effect change in government policy, when Maeve stopped suddenly.
“Ehm, Miss? Please Miss, did you bring us sum’fing to eat? Any’fing ‘ll do.”
Maeve jumped, it was that voice in her ear, she almost felt his hot breath down her neck. Far too close. She really didn’t need this, she had business to do today and this wasn’t it,
“Stop!” She held up her hand to keep him at a distance, and said the first thing that came to mind,
“Tell me about Christmas? What did you do?”
The man had almost the same reaction as Edward, when she asked if he was a Parliamentarian, or a Royalist. Agitated and clearly nervous, looking around to see who might be listening, he now backed away, voluntarily
“Wot did you see? I did nuffin. They wuz chasing all of us. We just had to git away ‘n hide. For Gawd’s sake, it was Christmas, we don’t trade on the birthday of our Lord. We wuz right. It’s always been like that, for ever. They can’t just declare a work day.”
Maeve felt she was clearly onto something, but didn’t know exactly what, so taking another risk,
“Do you know Sir Edward Hales?”
The man spat,
“Bastard! He’ll ‘ave us all hanged if ‘e ‘as his way.” He took a breath,
“But you know wot,” he moved closer into Maeve, this time she noticed his clothes and they might be from the same time period as Edward’s. But she wanted to get away from him, she felt that he hadn’t washed in a long time, maybe not ever. She thought she could see lice, it made her skin crawl.
“But ye know wot?’ He said as he got closer still, “It’s not going to go all going ‘is way. I hear tell of a thousand Men of Kent joining a force, from Nonnington ‘n’ Canterbury an’ ‘round abouts. That number of men will be sum ‘ot to be reckoned with. I’ll join ‘em fer food, if they’ll ‘ave me.”
Maeve could feel it slipping away from her, she was losing the thread of who was who, so she made one last push to get some information that she could work on,
“What’s your name? I think you have a friend in Edward Hale's household, over by St Stephens.”
He laughed, a chesty laugh, which didn’t sound too good and wasn’t a pretty sight either, as most of his teeth were missing or rotten.
“Oh, Edward Hale, you mean the grandson, they say he’s on our side. It’s the grandfather as wot wants us strung up. A friend in ‘his house, you say? Yes, I know a man works there. ‘E’s no friend, ‘e’s a coward, and that’s being kind, some might say ‘e’s a traitor! You speak to ‘im, you tell ‘im Thomas Apps knows where ‘e is. I may need food in my belly, but I never sold no one out!”
Then Thomas turned to face Maeve full on, and with a sly, menacing attitude said,
“‘Ere, you give me an idea. Maybe I’ll go and find ‘im me self.” He tapped the side of his nose, grinning to himself,
“I knows where you come from.”
With a menacing leer, the spirit Thomas, turned, and now facing the direction of Maeve’s home, disappeared.