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Authors: Nick Christofides

The Border Reiver

BOOK: The Border Reiver
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The Border Reiver

 

 

 

 

 

Nick Christofides

 

The right of Nicholas Christofides to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

 

Copyright ©2015 Nicholas Christofides

 

ISBN 978-0-9930862-6-7

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

 

This work is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author's imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental

 

 

Published in the United Kingdom in 2015 by Cambria Books, Wales, United Kingdom

 

Original cover design © M.J.Forster

 

For Andreas

 

 

ONE

 

The end of the world for one man can be a new beginning for another. For the men who met in that barn, the end was here.

It was January, just above freezing, but the Siberian winds swept over the land like Mongol hordes biting flesh with icy fangs. The rain fell like daggers; it rapped off the tin roof of the stone shed.

They were south-west of Wooler, close to the Scottish Border. The Cheviot Hills loomed in the darkness. The howling weather battered the already beaten structure, but there was an orange glow radiating from lights within, offering the warmth of the inn to a traveller.

The heat from the assembled men appeared like smoke, rising from rain drenched coats inside the confines of the shelter. There must have been a hundred ruddy farmers rammed into the barn. They gathered not through choice - it was the fear of change that brought these normally solitary beasts together.

The smell of silage wafted through the space, while a muted hubbub filled the airwaves. The rotund, red-faced orator who now hushed the crowd was a man named Rowell. He farmed near enough four hundred acres outside Hexham. Fit as a fiddle though well into his seventies, the man was flanked by his three sons. As he smashed his fist into his open palm, he bellowed and blustered about the choice these men had to make. Give up their land and livelihood to the local collectives or, with support from Scotland, fight the land reforms. For most, the decision was already sown in the land.

The howling wind which whipped the shelter foretold the storm that was to come.

In a dark corner sat a hunched figure, head down with white hair hung loose, meandering around his weathered brow. His hands were clamped together, resting on his lap, swollen and sore from pulling sheep out of snow.

As he opened his eyes, Nat Bell looked upon the throng; although he knew every face, he had nothing to say to one. Some looked towards him for direction, but he bowed his head once more, his mind ready to explode as the evils amplified within his skull.

 

*    *    *    *    *

 

Three hundred and twenty-two miles to the south, there was another man alone in the midst of the frenzy. Ben Baines was sitting in the ebbing blue hue of the television screen. His elbows rested on his knees, as absorbed as a toddler in front of cartoons. Controller in hand, he was flicking through the channels. His morning routine, unchanged for years.

Over past decades, he had watched economies crumble, Islamists threaten the western world, the right wing backlash; now
he
was the centre of the storm - Ben Baines and his New Socialist Order.

On screen, the crowds were blowing horns and cheering at the camera in an ecstatic outpouring of joy. The shot panned around to a chubby-faced reporter. He had rosy cheeks and thinning wispy hair drifting up off the top of his head; it was not cooperating with gravity.

Baines raised his hand to quiet the other man in his office. They listened to the reporter speak; his voice was excited, slightly raw and raised to be heard over the throng. He had an ironed-out northern accent. The young journalist managed to master the atmosphere and engage the watcher with clarity as he articulated the salient details like a seasoned correspondent. Baines would have liked him on the payroll had it not been for the impartial tone of his report, which continued,

“...As you can witness from the crowds around me, the mood here on the streets of the capital is jubilant. The Baines-era of politics has been legitimised by today's overwhelming results and, for tonight at least, the NSO can sit back and enjoy their victory.

“However unimaginable the New Socialist Order's meteoric rise to power has been, it is now that Baines and his ministers will have to back up their promises with action. Their support is unquestionable, but Baines has inherited a country on its knees, bankrupt financially, with a creaking infrastructure.

“His land reforms are causing unrest and increasing violence…how long can this charismatic man persuade generations born of Capitalism that his ideology will work? Only time will tell…”

Baines pressed hard on the red button. As the picture closed in on itself, he threw the remote onto the table at his knees. Resting back in his seat, he stared up at the regency coving thirteen feet above his head, his mind racing to construct a more palatable package for the delivery of his land reforms.

TWO

 

The Tyne Valley rolled away to the West. A breath-taking mishmash of organic matter dissected by the churning waters of the river; from this distance, just a glinting ribbon winding its way around the undulations of the valley floor.

The wind was tearing its way over the orange and browns of the rugged countryside to the valley sides and the lush greens of farmland on its floor. The trees shaped by this persistent wind bent and arched like claws tearing at the ground, and across the endless sky a mass of belching clouds fought its way to the farmhouse perched on top of the hill.

Carlins Law was an ancient homestead. A grand house, it stoically faced the full force of the prevailing winds; the farm yard and outbuildings on either side protected it from the ferocious northerly winter gales. To many, the old house standing atop a rugged hill engulfed by infinite sky would have been a lonely desolate place to live, but not to Nat Bell and his family.

Back when Nat was in his mid-teens, he saw his father killed by the boots of others, over a game of dice, in the Dockers’ streets of Wallsend in the east end of Newcastle. Nat fled the city after that, and he drifted from farm to farm, labouring, until he met his wife’s father. Now Carlins Law had been home to him for thirty-odd years and to his wife’s family for six generations before that.

He loved his home - it was part of him; he worked the farm and on occasion it damned near killed him, but he enjoyed the physicality of the struggle against the elements.

His age was lost somewhere in the passage of time, but the years had taken little toll on his body. He was sinuous and powerful, stood six feet two and straight as an arrow, and he could work for days at a stretch. He used words sparingly and his wife loved him for it; although she yearned to delve deeper into his psyche, even she was only allowed so far. He made up for this distance by an unwavering dedication to his family and home; he was the rock on which their life was built.

His skin was leathered and tanned by the weather and he had a thick shock of white hair and grey whiskers. His eyes were encased in wrinkles from years of squinting into sun and gales. But, if you did catch them for a moment, the piercing cobalt was a window into the beating soul lying under that gnarled exterior. He had hands like bags of spanners and bones toughened by years of hard labour. The longer he lived, the more he became like the countryside he worked, weather-beaten and hardened; but, like the water off the hills, his eyes shone crystal clear.

It was the middle of the afternoon when he saw the black estate car pull into his driveway. The car was half a mile away, but it was a straight run down the hill from where Nat stood and the drive was unfenced to grazing land either side: an open approach. Nat stood in the middle of the gravelled parking area to the front of his home and waited their arrival.

He knew who approached now. He had done more talking in the past few weeks than the past ten years. He knew it was more people from the NSO with smiles and offers, searching eyes and veiled threats. He was doing his best to keep the peace, but he could not give an inch.

 

*    *    *    *    *

 

The car approached the house at a respectful ten miles per hour, give or take. The speed was partly out of deference and partly the occupants’ examination of the possibilities the property had to offer the Hexhamshire Collective. There were five men inside the car. The driver, Gerry, was in his forties, a big guy and fit for his age, dressed in a fleece and jeans, his muscular physique was defined even below the thick clothing he was wearing. He had light brown hair and a few days’ growth of stubble that didn’t quite conceal the six inch scar running from the centre of his chin around the right side of his mouth and up to his cheek bone. A civilian for twenty painful years now, he had gained the scar when shrapnel from a roadside bomb in Afghanistan struck him in the face. He had served as a Sergeant in the First Battalion of ‘The Old and The Bold,’ a period in his life had loved.

On leaving the army, he had struggled with civilian life. Having drifted to London in search of work, he had bounced from one bar job to another, struggling to pay rent and secure anything permanent until he had found himself sleeping rough. It was from a bench on Embankment that he first saw the NSO marching on Westminster. He joined the march through instinct more than any belief or knowledge of the ideology and found himself a part of the historic occupation of Parliament Square and College Gardens which lasted for fourteen months. ‘The Equity Protest’ as it became known by the media was the first example of peaceful dissent by the NSO.

The demonstration showed the growing acceptance and support of the organisation. It was a flashpoint which demonstrated to the country the lack of control and weakness of the government of the time. Westminster was forced to a standstill and parliament had to meet in St Paul’s.

It was at this protest that Gerry met Roland who sat next to him in the car. When they met, Roland was a politics student racking up crippling debts for a degree which promised little chance of work. He was introduced to Ben Baines’ beliefs and the principles of the NSO, both academically on his course and informally within the student's union.

By this time, most students believed in collectivism or other strands of anarchism because the idea of professional self-improvement or wealth was now beyond the reach of anyone. The elite had a monopoly on all forms of commerce; there was no hope anymore, no matter how educated or determined a person was. This marginalisation of the young talented generation united them with those from poor backgrounds. The result was a severe backlash, beginning with rioting, but evolving into more sophisticated propaganda which had an even more crushing effect on government and business.

Roland was an intelligent man of twenty-nine. His slightly rounded face was ruddy in the cheeks and his hair covered his ears in curls. He was athletic and, to all intents and purposes, a winner. He and Gerry, side by side, made a good team; both were capable mentally and physically, and over the years had become close friends. Roland had dragged Gerry out of a meaningless existence, and Gerry had helped Roland focus and organise with military precision.

The third person in the car was Davey. A twenty-four-year-old from Hexham who had never worked in his life - not through laziness, but because there were currently seventeen people unemployed for every unskilled job in the North East of England - until he became a member of the NSO. After that, he had been assigned a job in a local warehouse which was under the Collective’s control. He was the local member of this team. Although he had no great knowledge outside of the town, he had once visited the pub in Great Whittington. That was as close as he had ever been to this address.

Davey’s face was thin and pinched, his hair was cropped and he was as skinny as a pole. He was a boy who could eat as much as he liked because nervous energy would burn away any excess calories. He sat in the middle of the back seat, stooped forward and leaned each arm on either side of the two front seats - he was annoying his two companions in the front.

On either side of Davey sat two quiet brooding lumps of meat. Recently assigned to this detail, Steve and Connor were both Marines who had been on active duty in Afghanistan, Syria, Greece and Spain in recent years. They had only met the others a few days previously when assigned as security for this small detail.

As they neared the top of the hill, they saw a lone figure, standing, and waiting. The wind whipped at the man's white tresses; his face was a tight mummified grizzle of wrinkles with a grimace showing white clenched teeth. His eyes were bullet holes of blue in a sea of crow’s feet, unblinking, trained on the car. He wore the seal skin poncho a friend had given him; it was the best and warmest windbreak and left him totally free to work. Underneath, he wore his quilted wax jacket and his long jeaned legs hoofed in solid work boots. In his right hand, he held a long handled axe. The axe was at ease but it was a foreboding sight, and Davey didn’t feel at all sure about it.

As they approached, he sat back in the seat; his instinct was to put as much distance between himself and the gruesome behemoth waiting for their arrival. The atmosphere in the car had indeed tightened by the time they were a hundred yards out; none of the men in the car had visited this farm before.

Gerry piped up, “Oi, oi, look at this geezer, lock up your daughters.”

By the time they hit gravel twenty-five yards from the eerie statuesque figure, there was no chat, no jokes, just concentration. Gerry slowed the car to a crawl. He pulled it past the figure, who just stood, only his eyes followed the car. Then a slight turn of the head.  As they passed behind him, his head bowed as if now that they were out of his line of vision he had swapped senses to listen to their movements.

Now Roland spoke, “Ok, guys, let's be sensible here - this guy looks crazy. I’ll do the talking. Just keep your distance and remember we are on a fact-finding mission. If he doesn’t want to cooperate, don’t go starting a fight at this stage. Steve, Conor, you guys stay in the car - let’s not be too intimidating.”

“Oh yeah,
we're
the intimidating ones,” said Conor, before adding with a smirk, “Davey, you keep away from that axe.”

Davey said nothing. The three men stepped out of the car, crunching feet on gravel. The farmer stood with his back to them, head down, listening. Roland took the lead; the other two fell in a foot or so behind him in an arrowhead formation. They stopped a good six feet behind the man, who at close quarters proved to be as colossal as he was menacing.

He stood stock still. Gerry and Roland looked at each other briefly; then Roland cleared his throat.

“We’re looking for Nathaniel Bell. Is that you, sir?”

There was no discernible movement.

“Sir!” Gerry said with a slight elevation in his voice, a little aggression. Roland flashed him a look as if to say ‘my show.' The stony hand constricted on the axe handle. The head slowly began to turn to the left until the chin met the shoulder and one dragon’s eye captured the three men in its view.

In a low, calm gravel pitch, he uttered, “You raise your voice at me again, boy…”

Davey took an involuntary step backwards; the other two men looked at each other, and the ghostly figure turned slowly to face down the three of them. His face was more gnarled by weather than by years and his gaze was one absolutely centred on them, the concentration was piercing and unnerving. Roland felt it, Gerry felt it, and Davey wanted to run away.

 

*    *    *    *    *

 

As he stood to face the three men, thoughts raced through his mind; he had known this would be coming. He had read the papers and seen the news. Rowell had warned them of it a few nights previously. After all, it was the only thing people watched on TV now that the country was self-combusting. He had a good idea that he was swimming against a tide that was too strong, he was backed against the wall, and he had no answers and no plan.

He studied the three of them; he saw fear, but he also saw their conviction - at least in the two older men, the young one cowering behind was no more than a child. He said nothing, concentrated, waited for them to give him direction. 

The guy with the scraggly hair and round face said, “Have you heard of the NSO?”

“Yes.”

“Were you expecting us?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know what we are here to do?”

“No.”

“Can I explain? Or are you non-compliant?”

“You explain and I’ll tell you whether I comply,” growled the farmer.

“The NCO is the new government and we want to improve the...”

“Save your bullshit. What do you want from me?”

Nat saw the boy’s face change from ambivalence to deadpan in a split second, and he knew that he was going to cut through the rhetoric and talk directly.

“We want information from you so that we can account for and record what you produce here and the productivity of the farm. Then, we will look at how that can be improved. After that, we will calculate how many people could be employed on the farm. How your produce will fit the jigsaw of self-sufficiency for the Hexhamshire Collective. You will either come under the umbrella of the collective or you will be re-housed somewhere else.”

Nat’s face crumpled in thought, his bottom lip began to protrude and his shoulders rose as if to say ‘whatever.' With that, he turned his back on the men and walked off back to the house. His footing was solid, and he didn’t look back. He was done with the visitors.

The three men followed him, however; they hadn’t finished. The older man strolled back around the North West corner of the house and in through the rough old back door, the same route he had passed thousands of times, except now the three younger men followed. He knew they would follow. There was less room in the house. It was a concentrated space which limited movement.

Nat pulled out his chair at the table and sat down facing the three men as they entered his kitchen.  It smelled of oil from the Aga and farm machinery and dirt from the fields.

  He was wrought like the gates of a prison. Sitting with one leg over the other at the old oak table where he sat every day, he had his arms lying one on top of the other like a lion warily basking in the sun. His eyes darted between his visitors attempting to make sense of the situation but trying desperately to hide his emotion. The pose offered a pensive calm, but his eyes would betray the whirlwind of anger within.

BOOK: The Border Reiver
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