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21/04/2015

Scorper

Rob Magnuson Smith

You’re on your way to Ditchling. It’s a Thursday afternoon in late March during the unfortunate year of 2012, the year the bookshops are closing and the libraries are downsizing and the Internet attempts its final stranglehold on the written word. You’re an American. You’re on vacation in the home of your English ancestors. The US economy teeters on the edge of another recession, and you’d better be back at work in a couple of weeks or you’ll lose your job.

Leaving Heathrow, your rental car’s satellite navigator guides you out of the parking lot. She directs you to the motorway. Two hours in the company of her authoritative female voice pass without incident. Then, deep in Sussex, she tells you to exit the motorway onto a series of narrow roads. A sign says South Downs National Park. It’s difficult to see because it’s raining. At a roundabout you miss your turn and go around in circles, clinging to the outer lane like a sock in a dryer.

The navigator loses patience. She orders you through a maddening sequence of additional roundabouts, up a steep hill, and down an empty road toward a patch of gravel.

‘You have reached your destination,’ the navigator says.

You leave the engine running and step outside. After the eleven-hour flight from Los Angeles and the long drive in your rental car, being out in the elements has an invigorating effect. The rain needles your face, soaks your shirt, and finds its way into your shoes. A fence, maybe a gate, waits in the distance.

Your khakis flapping in the wind, you make your way to what is indeed a metal gate. You place your hands on the cold crossbar and hold on. A derelict chalk pit stretches before you – mounds of grass, pitted with white craters. This is an abandoned place, the bed of an ancient ocean. Rainwater fills the craters and overflows luminescent and milky white, like lava bubbling out of volcanoes.

Your conception of time is challenged here. You recently turned thirty. Naturally you feel old in the company of children, but often you feel too young, especially in the company of more mature men, the ones with respected professions, wives, or domestic partners, not to mention children or pets. You’ve always wanted a respected profession. A partner remains improbable. In the past, your friends have said you’re not bad looking, but these were your adolescent friends, the ones you are no longer technically friends with. Recent acquaintances have told you to your face that you are, at best, a Stone Age throwback.

It has to do with the size of your head. Some cows have smaller heads. You’re tall, six-foot six to be exact, and your dirty blond hair sticks out in tufts and clumps. At the holiday office party, a female co-worker came over to you in her heels. She stood up on her tiptoes, a glass of red wine in one hand and a glass of white in the other, and she drunkenly surveyed your face. ‘Tell you what,’ she said. ‘You’re like Frankenstein – but cute.’

You get back in your rental car and drive away from the gate, back down the hill. At the nearest petrol station, you park and run inside for directions. The man at the counter has never heard of Ditchling.

‘Ditch-ling,’ you say, a little louder. ‘Maybe it’s my accent. Ditchling. Any chance you can you help me find it?’

The man nods. ‘Ditchling. It’s nearby. That bone ash works, I think.’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘The bone ash works. I think.’

‘Bone ash works? For what?’

‘We sell road maps,’ he says, pointing at the stack beside the register. ‘I think Ditchling’s just after the bone ash works.’

You have no idea what he is talking about, but you buy a map and return to your car. After unpeeling the plastic wrapping, unfolding the pages and prying apart the unwieldy tight creases, the thin plastic wrapping spiders down your wrist. You cannot rid yourself of it. You smash the map with repeated blows of your fist and leave it crumpled on the seat beside you.

The windows of your rental car have steamed up. Your forehead against the steering wheel, you give yourself a moment to relax, to return your breathing to normal, then set out again.

You obtain directions from farmers and postal workers. Everyone you encounter is just as polite as you’d heard they would be. Even though you’re lost, you cannot deny that it is slightly thrilling, speaking English to people in England.

The sign BONE ASH WORKS appears, along with a picture of a small truck. Then there is a sign for a nature reserve, followed by a smaller wooden sign that points to a gap in the hedgerow: Ditchling.

You hesitate on the road, your signal flashing. The gap is barely wide enough for your car. Slowly you turn into the narrow lane under an archway of trees. The sun, for a moment, disappears. The road sinks further, and further still, and the horizon falls away as you plunge down into the darkness before emerging into the sunlight again. There is a stone war memorial. Behind this memorial stands the town – the church with its conical spire, the High Street bordered by flint walls, the Tudor houses and shops below. The surrounding hills are misty and green and dotted with sheep. There is a windmill, a beacon.

You drive slowly past the war memorial. The cobblestones under your tires have been pounded smooth by centuries of rain, and you drive over them tentatively, your shoulders hunched over the steering wheel. A sign beside an empty pond says, DO NOT FEED THE DUCKS. The sign has a picture of a duck on it, and an outstretched human hand with a line drawn through it.

All the houses along the High Street have their curtains drawn. Iron railings protect their gardens. The shops under the Tudor houses seem to huddle together – a jeweler’s, a greengrocer’s, a post office, a café. The church oversees a sprawling and well-populated graveyard. At the end of the High Street, a pub called The Lantern occupies its own corner. The pub has a chimney, tar-blackened walls, a swinging sign of a glowing, handheld lantern. There are pots of flowers around the perimeter and small circular windows that look like portholes.

The road rises up to a Village Hall, then splits into even narrower lanes. You turn back around, over the cobblestones, searching for your B&B. Yours is the only moving vehicle on the road. A few pedestrians scurry into their homes or disappear along the footpaths between stone walls. Ditchling seems designed for ducking and whispering.

You park on the shoulder of the High Street near the jeweler’s. When you step out of the car and close the door, the electronic beep of the alarm ricochets against the walls. Your wet shoes slap against the pavement, no matter how carefully you tread. Up in one of the houses, a hand parts a curtain.

Near the church, you reach another sign:

Ditchling Museum: Culture and Cake, Art & Local History

Winner of Heritage Lottery Fund!

 

The sign, in the shape of a hand, points to an opening in the flint wall. You escape onto a narrow footpath, and soon you are walking unobserved under a canopy of lime trees. Rows of headstones appear. They are orderly and legible. Some of them lean toward each other, as if conversing.

It’s been a long journey. You wouldn’t be blamed for skipping the museum for now and turning back, maybe going for a pint at the pub. But you’ve come all this way to make sense of your malaise. It isn’t exactly the time to go into it. But these conspiratorial gravestones seem to be inviting you to go into it. If you don’t press forward now, the gravestones seem to be saying, you’ll find an excuse not to press forward in the future.

Under the dripping lime trees, you hesitate. At work – copy-editing print ads – you’ve started to slip. You haven’t been formally reprimanded, but you’ve come close. Ordinary phrases have lost their meanings. Slogans like ‘Eat Healthy’ and ‘Nature’s First Fruit Bar’ present you with endless hours of bewilderment. Maybe it’s because you work in a cubicle decorated with a cheap calendar of safari animals, or maybe it’s because your agency handles the last remaining print publications in existence. At home, reading novels, or books of poetry, you’ve caught yourself staring at a single word until the letters become hollow, drained of ink.

‘Take some time off,’ Dr Craft advised. She is an obese and persuasive psychologist with offices in Beverly Hills. ‘Some people searching for meaning in their lives,’ she said, gazing out the window at the palm trees in her courtyard, ‘find it helpful to trace their ancestors. You know, to see how you’re connected. This English grandfather of yours, for instance. Where’s he from?’

‘Sussex. A place called Ditchling.’

‘Ditchling. Ditch-ling. What an interesting name. You might make a pilgrimage.’

You continue under the lime trees until you reach the end of the footpath, where you come to a one-story wooden structure with a porch and front garden. At the door, birdbaths and ceramic flowerpots overflow with rainwater. You wipe your feet on the doormat and go inside. The bell on the door jingles, and you enter a gift shop – books on local history, pictures of the South Downs, tea towels of Ditchling’s church, mugs printed with images of the museum itself. There is a black-and-white antique print of chickens in an enclosure.

The woman behind the counter has short brown hair cropped like a monk’s. She backs up slightly as you come toward her. This sometimes happens because of your height. As a teenager, you learned to limit public discomfort by speaking softly and clearly, and generally keeping your speech to a minimum.

‘Hello.’

The woman replies, but she speaks softly, too, and you cannot be certain of her words. She blushes as you take out your wallet and offer her a ten-pound note. One of her eyes starts to twitch, and she covers it with a handkerchief.

‘May I please buy a ticket for the museum?’

‘We’re only open,’ she says, ‘for another hour.’

‘That’s all right.’ You put the note on the counter.

The woman picks up the money and gives you the change. In the course of this transaction her embarrassment infects you, and by the time you leave the counter, you are blushing as well. You pass exhibits on flint and local types of chalk. Then it hits you – an overpowering smell of creosote and ink. An antique printing press stands in the corner with broadsheets curling under it. A wooden cabinet has open drawers of letters. Engraving tools hang from the ceiling like weapons – hammers, spikes, scalpels. Stone tablets and headstones lean against the wall.

You come to a darkened booth, where a man sits motionless on the other side of the glass. The exhibit has a placard:

This man is Eric Gill (1882-1940), best known for his typography and fonts that bear his name. Gill was an engraver and sculptor who emphasised sensual qualities in sacred art. In 1914, he helped to form the Guild of Saint Joseph and Saint Dominic, a group of Catholic artisans who modeled themselves after the arts and crafts guilds of the Middle Ages. The Guild moved from Ditchling village to the Common where they established artists’ studios, raised animals and worked in close relation to nature. Each day they rose before dawn and devoted themselves to holy work and prayer. Eric Gill is part of the museum’s interactive exhibit. Push the button and watch him work!

 

You push the button outside the booth. A light goes on over the man’s head, and he starts to swivel on his stool. There are blocks of wood around him, bottles of ink, loose sheets of paper. He takes up a carpenter’s tool and turns to his worktable. He’s middle-aged, with a thick beard, round spectacles, and a four-cornered paper hat. He wears a roughly hewn tunic and belt, knee stockings, and rope sandals.

Eric Gill has his back to you as he engraves. Then he turns, his mouth open in a smile. Each time he picks up a different tool from his table, he glances at you behind his spectacles with probing, predatory eyes.

You leave the exhibit in something of a hurry. When you turn around, Gill has returned to darkness behind the glass. The next exhibit holds woodcarvings of nudes posing seductively on letters, erotically adorning various forms of typography. In a glass cabinet, there is a child’s alphabet reader. The raised O sails high above its fellow letters like a moon. The T, with its gimlet shaft, warns you not to look away. A book is opened to an illustration of couples, men and women holding hands, walking in sequence over a hilltop. In the sky are flocks of birds. Underneath the drawing is an inscription in calligraphy:

Ditchling is ruled by God’s brothers and sisters. A stranger threatens this bloodline – you shall know him by the disappearance of birds in the sky. Whoever buries the hand of the stranger rules the rest.

 

Scorper is published by Granta Books.

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