Authors: John Whitbourn
Published by Spark Furnace Books
Spark Furnace is an imprint of Fabled Lands LLP
Copyright © 2011 John Whitbourn
The right of John Whitbourn to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the United Kingdom Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
The Binscombe of these tales bears no relation to the actual Binscombe, and any supposed resemblance to persons living, dead or in-between is purely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy, adaptation or transmission of this work may be made in any form without the written permission of the publisher. Any person who violates the Copyright Act in regard to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages
Binscombe is a village in the south-east of England, a community with its roots deep in history yet now almost invisible to the casual visitor because of the encroaching boundaries of roads and neighbouring towns. And then there is the
Binscombe, the setting for these tales, which is perhaps how you might experience it if you were able to read the bloodlines and traditions of the place, and hear the voice of the landscape and the people echoing through the generations. The second, fictionalized Binscombe is linked to the first by subtle but invisible bridges of ‘what if?’
This other Binscombe is a place where things go bump in the night and often in the daytime too. Here you will find stories to prick the imagination, quicken the pulse, and chill the blood. It is a place where waiting for a bus may take a lot longer than you think, where the rustle in the bushes is likely to be something considerably more secretive and more dangerous than a badger, where inanimate objects may have strong views of their own, and where past, present and future sometimes collide with pyrotechnic results.
To this inward-looking corner of the Home Counties comes Mr Oakley, a newcomer in the village but one whose family name appears on some of the oldest gravestones. Mr Oakley believes in the comfort, convenience and security of the modern world and he fancies that the past is safely dead and buried. It is a world view that he will have repeatedly challenged by the mysterious Mr Disvan, who acts as his (and our) guide to the winding byways of the bizarre that thread through Binscombe life. Now that Mr Oakley has returned to his ancestral homeland, he will soon discover that reality is a relative concept—and the world outside Binscombe will never seem quite the same again.
John Whitbourn’s Binscombe Tales were originally published in various anthologies and collections between 1987 and 1998. This omnibus edition from Spark Furnace Books is the definitive set of all twenty-six tales in the saga.
Tired of unpacking and arranging furniture, I decided to take a brief preliminary look around my new village. Traipsing at random along the quiet streets I came, at length, to the recreation ground and seeing a cricket match in progress decided to watch for a short while. It was also perhaps in my mind that I might pass a social word or two concerning the weather or progress of play with my fellow villagers. For the foreseeable future this place was to be my home and it was desirable that I should get to know some people so as to start the long process of becoming accepted.
The ‘Rec’ (as I was told the locals termed it) had very distinct physical boundaries. On one side its expanse was stopped dead by the edge of a lake and opposite what passed for a major road in these parts, together with a fence and a screen of tall fir trees, separated the grass from the outer frontier of the housing estates. The rest of the Rec’s containing box comprised, on one side, the new and brutal high wall of a secondary modern school and on the other, an ancient and even higher wall protecting some of the village’s original houses from curiosity and cricket balls.
In between the trees on the road-side were interspersed some wooden benches on which spectators were sitting and it was to these that I crossed over. Not all of the seats were occupied and should I have so wished I could have sat alone. However, for the reasons given above, I chose to join an elderly man on a bench which gave a clear view of the pavilion, pitch and scoreboard. Beside the seat were sprawled a number of young lads, their BMX and Chopper bikes beside them, who were paying only occasional attention to the game in progress.
No one looked up at my arrival or paid any heed to me at all and, though I put on my most amiable and approachable expression in the hope that a conversation might ensue, the local silence was maintained. Eventually my attention was caught up in the cricket (passably good for village standard I thought) and an hour passed quickly and imperceptibly by.
The church clock striking seven broke my reverie and caused me to recall the state of unfettered anarchy my house was in. Tomorrow was a working day and so a great deal of progress remained to be made that very evening: meeting the natives must therefore await another occasion.
Then, just as I got up to go, the old man with whom I’d shared the bench spoke although he did not turn his head or take his eyes from the match.
‘Are you a newcomer?’ he asked.
I wondered for a second if it was indeed me he was addressing for he’d already had ample opportunity to put the question before. However, seeing that the children were the only other people in immediate earshot, I assumed I must be the one spoken to and replied accordingly.
‘Yes, I am.’
He looked round in a most friendly manner.
‘Nice to meet you and welcome to Binscombe. I’m Mr Disvan.’
‘How do you do, Mr Disvan. My name’s Oakley.’
He pondered this for a longer time than the mere revelation of my name strictly justified but appeared to come to no conclusion about it for the time being.
‘Do you like cricket, Mr Oakley?’
He smiled: ‘My feelings entirely. What is your sport, then?’
‘Well, I don’t really have one as such. I quite like backgammon... and darts.’
‘Oh well, they’re good enough games—especially darts. You’ll not lack for companions around here I’m thinking.’
‘Some of the people hereabouts only live for darts and everything else is an intrusion. Go into the Duke of Argyll on a Friday night and you’ll see what I mean.’
I couldn’t think of a sensible sounding answer to this and so silence returned. It stretched out into a full minute or so and I was once more on the point of taking my leave when the old man spoke again: this time with a note of great seriousness in his voice.
‘Where exactly is it you’ve moved to, Mr Oakley?’
Mr Disvan continued looking straight ahead but the young cyclists, hitherto oblivious to our presence and conversation, stopped their chat and, as one, stared directly at me. Almost involuntarily I returned their stares. They in turn looked to Mr Disvan as if for guidance and then, finding none there, returned instantly to juvenile banter.
I found it hard to accept that this scene had actually occurred. Could they have misheard my reply and imagined it to be something outrageous? In any event, the old man’s voice, when he spoke again, had not changed its tone.
‘Yes, I’d heard there’d been a change down at Binscombe Crescent. What number is it you’ve bought, may I ask?’
I told him the house.
‘I know it well; built middle fifties. Mr and Mrs Trevisan lived there and then, in his turn, their son Daniel. He works up North now.’
‘Yes, that’s right. Slough or some such place. Presumably, it was Daniel that sold it to you.’
‘Very nice house.’
‘Well, Mr Oakley, I mustn’t keep you any longer. It’s been a pleasure meeting you and I hope you’ll settle in happily very soon. No doubt we shall bump into each other again before long,’
‘Yes, no doubt.’
And so saying I went back to my wearisome work.
* * *
Months elapsed before I saw Mr Disvan again; a fact that I thought distinctly odd considering the size of the village. Several times I enquired after him and publican and shopkeeper alike would say something along the lines of: ‘Oh yes, he’s about all right, I saw him only yesterday. Perhaps you’ll see him tomorrow.’
Curiously enough, however, his paths never seemed to cross my line of vision even though all my evenings and weekends were spent in Binscombe. Accordingly, he had almost faded from my memory when, entering the Duke of Argyll one night, I was surprised to see him sitting peaceably in the corner by the chimney stack and the charity-bound tower of ten-pence pieces. On the small round table before him was a vast bound book and a glass of something dark. My path to the bar took me past that particular corner and so I greeted him as I went by.
‘Evening, Mr Disvan; how are you? Haven’t seen you for a long while.’
‘Nor I you. Pleased to meet you again.’
Being English, neither of us presumed to transform our cordial greeting into conversation on the basis of so casual an acquaintance. Therefore I carried on up to the bar and spoke similar hellos to the familiar faces there.
In the interval since my arrival I’d managed to make several friends by means of assiduous and persistent socialising but it so happened that none of them were present that night and so I drank alone.
It should not be thought that the people of Binscombe were unapproachable or hostile to strangers, for they were not. Nearly every person I’d come into contact with in the course of my short stay had been friendly or, at worse, benevolently neutral in their attitude towards me. But even so, although there must have been two dozen villagers with whom I was on ‘good morning terms’, even with these there seemed a point of familiarity beyond which only the elapse of time could grant me pass. I attached little importance to it. Their insularity was not an intended rebuff to me but merely something natural, even in so urbanised a place as Binscombe.
Thus, I sat at the bar with half a dozen other men in contemplative quiet whilst consuming a few pints and considering the decorative tasks still to done in my house. It was this silence that caused my eye to wander about the interior of the Argyll seeking diversion and noting, for the first time really, its plain and traditional furnishings. There wasn’t much to catch or grab a gaze: pictures of long deceased local football teams, obscure trophies and prints of the last king but two—that sort of thing. All else was functional and solely intended to facilitate social drinking and therefore it took little time for my attention to return, uninspired, to its starting point.
It was then that I noticed the full but apparently ownerless glass on the bar beside me. There was nothing unusual about this in itself, for customers often popped out to make a phone call or see a friend in the saloon. However, when a full fifteen minutes elapsed without anyone returning to claim the drink, I felt moved, for conversation’s sake if nothing else, to mention it to the landlord.
‘Didn’t someone like your beer?’ I asked, nodding towards the lonely pint of bitter.
Strangely for a normally talkative and cheerful sort of host, the landlord wasn’t drawn by my question. He didn’t look up from his glass washing and said, in a manner that was almost curt:
No one around the bar, though in easy hearing distance, betrayed so much as a sign of having heard my quip; no one even looked towards me or the glass in question. If commonsense hadn’t dictated otherwise, I could well have believed that I’d said something wrong.
It was this half felt sense of solecism that caused me to think that I should retreat from the bar and join Mr Disvan for a few words before adjourning home. An unmistakable air of unease had entered my social evening but since I felt that its creation was none of my doing I didn’t consider it proper to leave straightaway.
Fortunately, Mr Disvan seemed disposed to entertain company and pulled up a chair for me when he saw me approaching.
‘Can I ask what it is you’re reading?’ I said.
By way of reply he lifted the large hardback book up and presented it spine-wards towards me so that I could read the title:
THE HOLY KORAN
This was a hard thing to make an adequate response to.
‘I see… I’ve never read it myself.’
‘No?’ he replied.
‘No,’ I answered weakly, whilst hoping that a topic of conversation would suddenly and miraculously occur to me. In the event, the old man came to my rescue and provided one.
‘And what do you think of our area now you’re settled in, Mr Oakley?’
‘I like it very much.’
‘And in a sense it was a home area to me already.’
‘In what way?’
‘My family lived in this village for centuries, so I’ve been told; before moving away in my grandfather’s time.’
‘That’s right. I thought your name was familiar when I spoke to you at the cricket match. There’s been Oakleys here since records were kept and for goodness knows how long in the time before—the time before records I mean,’ he added hastily.
‘Are you a local historian, Mr Disvan?’
‘Of a sort, Mr Oakley; in some specific fields. For instance, I know of your great-grandfather on the paternal side, Malachai Oakley, a carpenter. Then before him was his father, Jacob Evelyn Oakley, publican and churchwarden (an unusual mix in those days). If you were to press me I could probably recite you a dozen successive generations of Oakleys, all by name and occupation.’ He looked keenly at me over the edge of his raised glass. ‘And now you’re back.’
I was still winding in this hitherto unknown genealogical information but felt obliged to agree with his last words even though, at that point, I’d no intention of remaining for another twelve generations.
‘Yes, I suppose I am.’ I said. ‘Look, what you say is fascinating, Mr Disvan but how on earth did you acquire such detailed knowledge?’
‘Its not so difficult. Everyone knows everything about everybody here and in Binscombe memories are powerful strong.’
The evidence of my local ties and Disvan’s close familiarity with them emboldened me enough to ask him the question which had inexplicably frozen the atmosphere at the bar: