“Come on, mum,” said Jenny as they walked up the slope towards the cathedral approach. “We’re going to be late. It’s supposed to start at eight!”
“They won’t leave without us, Jenny, I promise, and it’s only five-to.”
Nevertheless, the little girl grabbed her mum’s hand, curls bobbing in the light breeze as she tugged her across the cobbled street, adding surprising velocity to Elizabeth’s steps. Her daughter might only be eight, but she was growing fast and strong. After the diagnosis and the personal hell of the last chemo-fuelled year, her heart sang with the gladness only a mother knows, at seeing her only child pull through.
“See!” Jenny called, leaning against her mum’s counterweight. “They’re setting off!”
She was right. In the square, they could see a throng of about fifteen people had gathered. As they neared, a blond-haired young woman, in baggy jeans, jumper and swinging pony tail, beckoned to them. The twisted cord of a lanyard rested around her neck displaying an official-looking badge.
She called, “Just in time! We need to start or we’ll get behind.”
Behind what? It was only a bloomin’ tour; a leisurely walk around the town, the guide offering some local history and, hopefully, a spooky story or two. Why the rush? It rankled Elizabeth that she and Jenny had been singled out. It wasn’t as if they were even late. Elizabeth glanced up at the dominating presence of the cathedral’s clock tower, just its huge second hand quivered to a stop on the figure twelve. Eight o’clock.
The walk began, the woman soon in full spiel, walking backwards as she gave them a potted history of the cathedral’s foundation. Why she couldn’t have done it while they were all standing, Elizabeth had no idea. She took in a long breath. Not important. What mattered most was the now and that she was with Jenny.
Elizabeth had been looking forward to this, having picked up a discarded leaflet in a coffee shop. Jonathan had wanted to go with them, but he’d picked up some sort of stomach bug and had to stay behind at the B & B. Such a shame. He’d been through the mill as well, of course, and it had been his idea to come to this neck of the woods for a break. Working too hard, trying to support the family through the worst times imaginable, Jonathan had been her rock. He’d been running on empty himself these past few months, a situation which had no doubt contributed to his indisposition. Pity, a twilight stroll through Sandmarsh would have done him the world of good.
“We’re going to love this,” Elizabeth said to no one in particular, as if saying so would make it so. Luckily, the party were so rapt in the words of the tour guide, no one, except possibly Jenny, heard her.
Or so she thought.
An elderly lady, with no obvious companion, slowed slightly at her words and turned around. With an easy smile, echoing almost exactly the sentiment of the guide, she said, “My, but you just made it!”
The woman’s friendliness deterred Elizabeth from getting cross at yet another reference to her perceived tardiness. Instead she went with the flow. “I know, right?” Elizabeth replied. “We took the train in from Ledbridge. All was going to plan before we had to make an unscheduled stop. Something on the lines, apparently. We weren’t held up for long, but enough to cut it fine on the walk up.” She couldn’t help adding, with just a smidgeon of petulance, “But we’re not late.”
The woman nodded her blue-rinsed head, glanced down at Jenny and said, “The Walk is very popular. It always sets off on the dot or people grumble and things get left out.” She frowned slightly, shivered and opened her bag as she walked, pulling out a neatly folded cardigan.
“Here, let me,” said Elizabeth. She held the bag as the woman put on her cardie. “It has got a bit chilly,” she said as she gave it back.
“Indeed, though the forecast said we were in for a warm night.” She shrugged.
“You can’t rely on anything these days. My name’s Esme, by the way. Esme Flowers.”
Elizabeth couldn’t help but grin.
Noticing, the older woman chuckled. “I know, It’s a daft name but it does seem to make people smile. I never got married so didn’t have to change it. A good thing, perhaps.”
“Shuuuuuuush,” said Jenny, putting a chubby forefinger to her lips. “I can’t hear what she’s saying.” Elizabeth smiled apologetically at Esme before quietly giving her own name. Then, following her daughter’s request, she shut up and listened to the guide.
“Archaeologists have confirmed that the cathedral developed out of two sites of pre-Christian Celtic activity and worship. The substantial nature of the stone cross in the centre of the marketplace indicates Sandmarsh had been—and, indeed, still is—a vibrant trading centre.” The guide pointed vaguely towards her left. “You should really visit the museum and have a look at the pots, jewellery and artefacts that have been uncovered over many centuries. Its pride and joy is a threaded pot, the only one of its kind found outside of the five thousand year old settlement of Skara Brae in the Orkneys.
“It is also clear that the city has been the centre of religious activity for thousands of years. To this day, the entrance to the cathedral’s graveyard is marked by two standing stones. They are both equidistant from a series of others and form a three-mile corridor one can track all the way to Tiny Barrow near Flammark.”
Though the guide obviously knew her stuff it evidently it bored her, since she provided not the slightest variation in intonation that might keep a youngster interested in what she had to say. Luckily, not a peep came from that quarter. Elizabeth wondered at the degree of concentration on Jenny’s face. She’d expected her to be much more of a chatterbox.
“This in itself, was a very interesting find,” the guide continued. “The importance of Tiny Barrow had been overlooked because the burial mound is exceptionally small, its true purpose only discovered in the late fifties. The archaeologist who did so, by the way, is our very own Solomon Barnes. He lives in the Cathedral Close to this day.” Then she added almost as an afterthought, “Tiny Barrow is a popular place for the Sandmarsh Pagan Society to gather on their ritual days and picnics although Samhain is, of course, always celebrated on the craggy heights of Seely Tor which can also be found on the outskirts of Flammark.”
As they moved along, Esme asked, “Have you been to the tor, my dear?”
“No. We only arrived a few days ago, but we intend to. The B & B is in Flammark, so we’re very near. My husband knows I’m a sucker for anything to do with legendary Britain. He was pleased when I said I’d got some tickets for tonight. He’d have come with us, but he’s unwell.”
Esme frowned her sympathy. “Aww, that’s such a shame. I hope it’s not too serious.” She looked across at Jenny. Elizabeth followed her gaze, for the millionth time wondering at the very great fortune that had plucked her daughter from death’s door allowing her to be here, cocking her head in almost unbearable cuteness, as she processed the words of the guide.
“This is Jenny. She’s been very poorly, but is much better now – aren’t you, sweetie?”
It was Elizabeth’s turn to chuckle. She was enjoying herself and almost without realising it, her conversation with Esme had taken her attention away from their host’s recitation. She’d catch the thread later. In a lowered voice she asked, “Are you a visitor too?”
Esme shook her head and flapped her palm. “Oh no. I’ve lived here forever. I often take the Walk; you get to meet such interesting people. Being on one’s own makes for a lonely life, you know.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Don’t be. It’s one of those things. Not being attached to anyone, I like to think I’m free to help, where I can.” She glanced at Jenny again. “I believe we’re going to stop at the Healing Well today. It isn’t a well, really, more a spring. The guide will tell us all about it as we get nearer. They say it isn’t a pleasant experience; that one may see things in it one would rather not. I haven’t been lucky enough to discover its charms myself, but you never know, this evening may be different.”
Elizabeth fumbled at the leaflet she’d brought with her. “There’s nothing in here about any healing well.”
“Isn’t there? How strange. They must have forgotten to include it. I could be wrong, of course. The route may have changed.”
Their conversation dwindled as the tour guide stepped up the pace, leading them further into the city. They learned about the gallows erected to the rear of the walled courthouse (entrance on Execution Day costing a farthing), a ghost sighting of a murderer (complete with rope around neck), and the scene of an unsolved homicide where an indelible stain on the flat cobbles was to this day attributed to the blood of an unavenged victim.
Jenny lapped up the stories, now chattering from stop to stop, stimulated by the ghastly tales. The guide’s flat delivery turned out to be a boon, disarming the gruesome facts.
After a few twists and turns through narrow shambling streets, they eventually turned off the main thoroughfare, the party coming to a stop in a dark alleyway, so confined, it was possible to stand only in twos and threes.
“This is it,” gasped Esme. “I hoped as much!”
The buildings either side loomed and leaned, robbing the huddled tourists of even the slightest benefit of any warming ray from the late evening sun. The chill-factor was palpable to everyone now, as members of the little party donned layers and rubbed their arms to ward off the cold.
The place was not devoid of light, however, since an old-fashioned leaded streetlight, redolent of the old gas lamps, offered more than adequate illumination. Next to it, a small, bricked archway, no more than about four feet high and wide, had been built into the wall. It framed a hollow stone outcrop, shaped like a huge sink, out of which emanated curls of white mist and the sound of water.
The guide climbed some steps adjacent to the arch, an elevated position from where she was better able to address her charges. “This … is Hallows Way,” she intoned, finally managing to capture some sense of atmosphere.
A frisson of anticipation riffled through the group.
“And this … is The Healing Well.”
Perhaps it was the change in mood—or maybe the drop in temperature—that made Jenny nervously squeeze her mother’s hand. Elizabeth bent down, whispered, “We can leave if you want to.”
Jenny chewed the inside of her cheek. “Erm …”
“But I think it’ll be okay. I won’t let go of you, I promise.”
“Double-promise?” Jenny replied, her lips moving into a tremulous smile.
Elizabeth nodded. “Triple-promise.”
Jenny tightened her grip. “Okay. I don’t really want to leave. It’s like when Dad reads me Goosebumps. They can be a bit scary, but I still want him to read them.”
Elizabeth smiled and glanced up at the tour guide. For some reason the woman looked only at her as she spoke. It made her uncomfortable, as she had when they were singled-out at the beginning of the walk.
“To hallow means to bless. The well is one of the most sacred sites in all of Great Britain. It has been a place of healing since our Celtic forefathers first discovered it. It is accessible only to those whose suffering is unbearable, and when there is nowhere else to turn. If you have been invited here, know that you will be blessed with the gift of healing and sight, no matter the pain it might cause.”
Well, that can’t be right. If it’s so famous it would be locked away and visitors milked for an exorbitant entrance fee. Anyway they hadn’t been invited; she’d merely picked up a discarded leaflet. No suffering here either. Not now.
Still the tour guide held her eyes. Elizabeth wanted to tear away from their gaze but the woman compelled her to stay just as she was. She felt Esme leave her side, mumbling something about it all being far too cold for her and she would wait in the mains street, out of the shadows. It seemed to Elizabeth as if she’d been left in a kind of spotlight, weirdly connected to the guide. Again, she tried to look away, perhaps to follow Esme, and couldn’t.
Her eyes widened as she heard, “Step forward, Elizabeth, and look into our spring. Receive the warmth of our healing and the light of our knowledge.”
What the ..? The hairs on the back of her neck rose and Elizabeth licked her drying lips, uncertain whether to comply. She looked around at the others but all sense of anyone else had fallen away, as she was left suspended in the beam of the guide’s gentle gaze.
Except she looked like a tour guide no more. Jumper and jeans had been replaced by, of all things, a robe, white and glowing under the leaded light, her lanyard now a rough belt. Her hair, no longer fixed in a ponytail, had become a halo of blond. Some force propelling her forward, Elizabeth stepped towards the hot-spring and reluctantly, unable to resist, bent over it.
Stared into it.
And Jenny stared back, her toothy grin wide and innocent. Her eyes laughed as they’d always done, love written within every contour of her smiling face as it riffed and rippled on, then beneath, then once more upon the water.
Like the echo of a wave, the pain Elizabeth had ignored deep within rose. The agony of it threatened to consume her, before it floated away, her heart suddenly brimful with a joy she hadn’t felt in what seemed forever. With tears running down her cheeks, in wonder she turned to her daughter, the words, “Jenny! You look so well—” strangled before they were born as she finally realised her hand was empty and no one there.
As if the heart of the world had stopped beating Elizabeth turned to her Guide, who smiled back with the sadness of ages. “It will hurt, Elizabeth. It will hurt. But only in revelation can you find truth and once that is found and accepted, healing will follow.”
As she stared up at the robed vision before her, the woman she knew as Esme returned to her side and took Elizabeth in her arms. Hallows Way and the people she thought had been there with her, dissolved like mist in spring water, leaving only the two of them.
After an age, they turned slowly away and made their way through the now-moonlit streets, back towards the station, as if they were the only people left in the world. The young woman leant heavily on the Ancient, shoulders heaving, her sobs like howls.