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Authors: Jodi Taylor

WHEN A CHILD IS BORN

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WHEN A CHILD IS BORN

By Jodi Taylor

It's Christmas Day 1066 and a team from St Mary's is going to witness the coronation of William the Conqueror. Or so they think… 

However, History seems to have different plans for them and when Max finds herself delivering a child in a peasant's hut, she can't help wondering what History is up to.

I was in trouble again. No surprise there. It’s my default state.

Dr Bairstow raised his eyes from my report and regarded me steadily. Behind him, his PA, Mrs Partridge, sat scratchpad in hand, making the Sphinx look like a collection of facial tics.

Yes, I was in trouble again.

He cleared his throat. Here we go.

‘Dr Maxwell, the assignment was – I believe I have I have the details here. Ah, yes – jump to London, Westminster Abbey, 25th December 1066. Witness the coronation of King William I. Ascertain the cause of the disturbance that interrupted the ceremony and discover the extent of the subsequent fire and riots. I’m almost certain I impressed upon you the importance of our client and the need for a successful conclusion.’

‘Yes, sir. You were very clear.’

‘I also know that while brevity is admirable, I do require something a little more detailed than just “It was very cold”.’

He shut down the data stack and regarded me again. ‘You don’t see the need to perhaps – flesh things out a little?’

I racked my brains for something that wouldn’t make things worse.

‘It was snowing, sir.’

The silence in the room grew very loud.

‘So, to recap. I despatch my two most senior historians – you, Dr Maxwell and Dr Peterson. I assign the head of security, Major Guthrie, to support you, together with – and the reason for this escapes me now – Mr Markham. And your combined talents and expertise can produce nothing more remarkable than “It was very cold”.’

‘And snowing,’ he added, seeing me open my mouth.

I shut it again.

‘Where is the rest of your team, Dr Maxwell?’

‘In their quarters, sir.’

‘They did not feel the need to join us this morning?’

Of course they bloody didn’t. They were in the bloody bar. We’d drawn lots. I’d lost.

He pointed.

‘Sit down.’

Half of me was glad to sit down. The other half was clamouring to join the others in the bar.

He settled back in his chair.

‘Report.’

I opened my mouth.

‘In full, this time.’

I discarded what I had been going to say and gave him the truth.

We work for St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. We investigate major historical events in contemporary time. We do not call it time travel. The Boss, Dr Bairstow, gets very annoyed about it. Actually, many things annoy him. Currently top of the list – me.

Using our pods, we jump back to whichever time period we’ve been allocated and observe. Just that. We do not interfere. It’s supposed to be our prime directive.

That doesn’t always turn out so well.

Peterson bumped the pod on landing. I don’t know how he manages it.

When we got ourselves sorted out, we realised we were in the wrong place. Instead of being tucked away in a neat little alleyway only a stone’s throw from Westminster Abbey, we were actually several miles away in a snowy wood on a hillside, looking down at smoky London town below us.

‘I can’t understand it,’ said Peterson, defensively, his breath clouding in the cold frosty air. ‘The coordinates are spot on. Maybe IT made a mistake.’

It was more likely the coordinates were right and we were wrong. It does happen occasionally, and at least we weren’t perched precariously on the lip of an active volcano or at the bottom of the sea. It just meant we had a two-mile walk downhill through a Christmas card landscape to get to our destination. It could have been worse. You can’t outrun a pyroclastic flow.

We sent Markham on ahead as a kind of human snowplough and trudged along behind in single file. It wasn’t unpleasant. Although the day was bitterly cold, the sun shone, the exercise kept us warm, and we had one of England’s more exciting coronations to look forward to.

Just two months after his victory at Hastings, William the Conqueror, anxious to consolidate his hold on a sullen and resentful Saxon England, had ordered his coronation at Westminster Abbey. Peterson and I were keen to see the Abbey since we’d jumped there once before to watch its early construction. We hadn’t seen a lot on that occasion because a huge block of stone had fallen out of the sky nearby and Peterson had peed on me.

Contemporary records say that at the part of the ceremony where William was crowned, the cries of acknowledgement were so enthusiastic that the soldiers stationed outside panicked and set fire to part of the building, thereby unleashing riots and generally disruptive behaviour.

‘Typical military,’ said Peterson, wading through a snowdrift.

‘Yes,’ said Major Guthrie sarcastically. ‘Because the history department’s never set fire to anything in its entire life, has it?’

How this little discussion would have ended was anyone’s guess, because at that moment, Markham halted, bent forward and said quietly, ‘Blood.’

‘Stay here,’ said Guthrie, as he pushed past us on the narrow path and went to look. We ignored him and crowded round. Blood – a lot of blood – spotted the glistening snow. Indistinct scuffed tracks looked as if something had been dragged.

‘He went this way,’ said Markham, pointing down the path.

‘What did?’ I said, peering between the trees.

‘Not an animal,’ said Guthrie. ‘We need to go this way anyway, so everyone stick together and stay alert. For the benefit of all historians present, that means
do not wander off alone
.’

We followed the bloody tracks around the next bend. Guthrie was right. It was a man and he was badly hurt. He lay across the path, right in front of us. He wore thick coarse trousers and a long tunic. His head and shoulders were covered with some kind of hood which was pushed back to show tangled, fair hair. His boots were sturdy, but he wore no gloves. A blood-stained axe lay nearby.

‘He’s a woodcutter,’ said Guthrie. ‘Had a bit of an accident by the looks of things.’

He paused. ‘Max?’

I sighed. I was mission controller. That meant they all did exactly as they pleased until an unpleasant decision needed to be made and then, suddenly, it was all down to me. I looked at the man, blue with cold, barely conscious and his left leg wet with bright, red blood.

We should leave him. If you want to put it in the harshest terms possible, we should step over him and continue on our way. Peterson and I had nearly been wiped out once when I just
thought
about intervening in a robbery. History really doesn’t like us doing that sort of thing.

On the other hand, I’d saved lives when a wartime hospital blew up. And survived that. And I’d killed Jack the Ripper. And survived that. I’d even meddled with Mary Stuart. And survived that as well. This was just an ordinary woodcutter. In the scheme of things how important could he be? As I looked down at him, his eyelids fluttered.

Above us, a dark cloud passed across the sun. A few snowflakes drifted down.

I sold it to myself on the grounds that he was probably dying anyway. Even just moving him might be enough to kill him. We were just taking him somewhere to die in peace. And it was Christmas Day. Goodwill to all men …

They were all looking at me. I nodded and Peterson and Markham heaved him up. He never made a sound.

Guthrie picked up the axe and examined it.

‘Was he attacked? Did he defend himself?’

‘No. This is a workplace-related accident, I think. Swung at the tree and the axe rebounded. Hit his own leg. It happens.’

‘Will he die?’

‘Probably.’

Ahead of us, Markham halted again. ‘I smell wood smoke.’

We inched our way forward to see. Ahead of us, in a small, snowy clearing stood a typical Saxon hut with several inches of snow on its sloping, straw-thatched roof. A tiny plume of smoke rose straight up in the still air. A lean-to literally leaned against the walls and several pens and enclosures were dotted around. Somewhere, a hungry sheep baa’d plaintively and others took up the bleat.

Hanging between Peterson and Farrell, the woodcutter made a small noise,

‘Wait here,’ said Guthrie. They lowered him to the ground and Guthrie and Markham crept forward. Peterson watched the clearing and I watched the path. The times were dangerous. All across the country, Norman overlords were taking ruthless possession. Saxon culture was being dismantled and destroyed. Desperate, landless Saxons roamed everywhere. Rebellions were bloodily obliterated before they even got going. William, aware of his still precarious hold on this country, was not messing around.

I shivered. With the sun gone, the temperature was plummeting.

There were no other footprints in the snow, but we were cautious all the same. Guthrie thumped on the wooden door and after a few seconds, carefully pushed it open. He disappeared inside. Markham remained on the threshold, covering him.

Guthrie reappeared suddenly. ‘Max! Quick!’

Responding to something in his voice, I was across the clearing and stepping down through the door almost without thinking.

The floor was further down than I thought and I stumbled slightly. Coming in from the blinding whiteness outside, I couldn’t see a thing. The smells hit me immediately, however. Wood smoke, earth, old cooking, animals. And fear.

I stood still, waiting for my eyes to adjust themselves to the semi-darkness. When I could see properly again, I could make out a surprisingly spacious interior. The roof sloped down to become the walls. Thatch on the outside, planks with pitch on the inside. Two wide shelves held bowls and cooking utensils. Two small wooden stools sat by the fire and a high bench, which perhaps doubled as a table, was pushed against one wall. A few clothes hung from pegs around the walls. The beaten earth floor was swept clean. Everything looked to be in perfect order. Apart from the occupant.

A central fire, now burning very low, gave just enough light to see the woman on the hard earth floor, curled in rough blankets, her face twisted in pain. She brandished a broom handle threateningly, but even as I looked, her whole body convulsed and she let out a cry between clenched teeth.

I’d once done a stint as a nurse in an army A & E hospital and I knew that cry. I didn’t need Guthrie to tell me what was happening here.

‘Warm water,’ I said sharply. ‘Now.’

Warm water was about the best I could hope for. Hot water was out of the question.

The dying fire gave off little light and even less heat, but I could see she was almost certainly younger than she appeared at that moment, with her pale face and shadowed eyes. She had light, flaxen hair, darkened by sweat. I found a cloth and wiped her face. She jerked away, eyes wide and fearful. We were well dressed. We spoke strangely. She had us pegged as Normans.

I have a few words of Old English. I did my best. I don’t think she understood much of it, but she seemed reassured. I caught the word ‘hus’ and ‘dohtor’. When she said, ‘Aelfric’, the penny dropped.

‘Bring him in,’ I called. ‘She’s his wife.’

Of course she was – who else would live in the woodcutter’s house but the woodcutter’s wife?

They lugged him in and lowered him gently to the ground on the other side of the fire. She cried out and tried to sit up but was gripped by another contraction. I gently pushed her back down again.

Peterson appeared at my side. I asked him if he knew what to do.

‘A bit,’ he said tersely, ‘but this world is not yet ready for male midwives. I’ll stay over the other side of the hut and shout advice and encouragement.’

‘I can’t find the well under all this snow,’ said Markham, appearing at the door.

‘Use the snow,’ said Guthrie. ‘Just pack some in that bowl and set it by the fire.’

‘Not the yellow stuff,’ instructed Peterson.

Markham grinned and disappeared.

‘How’s Aelfric?’ I asked, rolling up her coarse, woollen dress to reveal her linen underdress.

‘Is that his name? I’m cleaning the wound now while he’s still unconscious. It’s a bit gruesome and I don’t have anything to sew it together with, but we can think about that later. How are things over there?’

‘Oh, just peachy. Anyone know Old English for – “Put down the broom handle”?’

Sadly, no one did.

‘I need a knife.’

Guthrie pulled out something with which I could have skinned an elephant.

‘Serious overcompensation there, Ian,’ said Peterson, sterilising it in the fire.

The next ten minutes were quite busy for all of us.

She was still fearful, so I touched my chest and said, ‘Max.’ She blinked a little at the unfamiliar sound, but said nothing. I tried again. ‘Max.’ I pointed to her husband and said, ‘Aelfric,’ and then pointed at her. At first, she stared at me and just as I was going to give it up, she said, ‘Alice.’ I persuaded her to relinquish her weapon and after that, she was as good as gold.

Peterson took her hand and then tried not to be girlie about having his fingers mangled.

Guthrie worked away on the woodcutter’s leg.

‘I can’t believe he’s still alive,’ he said on several occasions, ‘but he is.’

I tried to tell myself this was good news but we were racking up demerits right, left, and centre. Without us – without me – he would probably already be dead. Without him to provide for her, and all alone out here in this biting cold weather, his wife might well have died too. And her baby with her.

It got worse. She kept pointing and saying ‘dohter’. Peterson, who could see what I could not, looked thoughtfully over my shoulder and got to his feet.

An old blanket lay in the corner, apparently just carelessly dropped, which was suspicious enough in this immaculate interior, and when he carefully pulled it aside, a tiny face peered up at him. She must have scurried under there when she heard us coming.

‘Hello there,’ he said gently, and squatted beside her. ‘My name’s Tim. I’m very pleased to meet you.’

If you ever want to charm a woman, Peterson’s your man. From nine to ninety, they just drop out of the trees whenever he walks by. And if you want to reassure a terrified tiny tot then you couldn’t do better.

She reached out to him. He sat with her on his lap, carefully shielding her from what was happening to her parents and I could hear him singing snatches of nursery rhymes and childhood songs.

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