And the next. And the next.  In fact, by the end of the third week, she was ready to scream with it.  Still, at least the summer breeze blowing through the library windows carried the sound of insects and birdsong (which was curiously never as loud as when it woke her first thing in the morning), replacing the white noise of the air conditioning and the hum of fluorescent strip-lighting in the archives.  Occasionally, she would get up and stretch, swinging her arms and sometimes even dancing to a tune in her head to loosen the kinks and crimps gained from being hunched over spidery handwritten accounts kept by lords and estate managers in times gone by.  It was whilst engaged in one of these loosening-up sessions that a voice from the door of the library startled her.  She hadn’t heard anyone enter, as she had been whirling in the middle of the floor, singing.

“What exactly are you about, Miss Alexander?”

Jen stopped abruptly, turning to find a figure standing in the doorway, regarding her coldly.  She was immensely embarrassed at being caught like this, particularly as she was aware that neither her singing nor her dancing were any kind of spectator sport.  Unless the spectator wanted a good laugh, that is.  “Oh!  I… I didn’t realise anyone was there…” she stammered stupidly, her face flaming.

“Evidently.” said the figure, raising an eyebrow.  Now Jen heard his voice properly, she was even more embarrassed.  She had last heard that same clipped, oiled silk tone in Brian’s office.  “I was unaware that archivists were required to perform musical theatre whilst dealing with rare and delicate documents.”

Jen bristled a little at this, as she was clearly nowhere near any books or documents, they being either safely shelved, or at her desk at the other end of the room.  Before she could stop herself, she blurted out “Well, not normally, Lord Harrington-Harrington, but since this is rather a special assignment, I thought I could add that little extra service.”, then cursed herself, thinking, “How unprofessional can I get today?” with an inner wince.

“Please do not,” said Lord Harrington-Harrington frostily.

Jen tried again.  “Actually, sir, I was taking a stretching and eyesight break.  Sitting at a desk all day can be astonishingly bad for you if you don’t take a few precautions.”

“Be that as it may,” said Lord Harrington-Harrington in the same frigid tone, “it would be preferable if you stretched in a more decorous way in future.”

Jen snorted inwardly “Decorous!  Stuck up git!”  She thought.

“Do you have everything you need?” continued the stuck-up git.

“Yes, thank you.  However, I’ve noticed that some of these volumes could be better stored in a controlled environment – they’re getting a little old to be on the shelf.  They’ll start to decay soon.”

“That may be a consideration for the future, Miss Alexander.  For now, though, I merely wish to know what I have.  Please annotate those you think may benefit from specialist storage.  And now I will leave you to return to your allotted task.”  And he was gone from the doorway.

Jen curtseyed and muttered, “Yes your Lordship!” sarcastically, before sighing and returning to her workstation.  “Friendly sort of chap” she thought.  “I bet he’s a riot at parties”.  She mused that he probably was – amongst those of his own social circle.  Some people just couldn’t seem to function socially with those that they deemed not on their level.  Or perhaps he just thought her beneath his notice as she was working for him, and “servants” should not be fraternised with.  Well, whatever his problem was, Jen resolved to ignore it and treat him as just another person – even if he didn’t, or wouldn’t, or couldn’t, extend her the same courtesy.  “And that makes me a better person” she thought smugly.

So, she continued to read, record, photograph, and generally archive stuff for the next few days.  She’d even started working into the night because a) the quicker she finished the quicker she could get home and b) there was little else to do here.

She mentioned this second to Mags one day, who had expressed a worry that she was diligent, which was commendable, but was possibly working a bit too hard.

“Don’t be ridiculous, dear – there’s plenty to do!  You could go walking, or down to the village pub – or both!  You could ask Rick to take you riding one day.  The horses always need exercising after all.  Really, dear you mustn’t stay at that desk all the time – you are entitled to time off.”

Jen was a bit uncomfortable with the notion of just taking off for a walk to the pub – it would seem too much like goofing off, or treating the place like a hotel, or whatever.  She expressed this to Mags as best she could.

“Nonsense, dear.  In fact, I believe Dave is off down there this very night.  It would be a good chance to get to know him – you haven’t met yet have you?  No.  Well, even better.”

Jen tried to protest, since it was weirdly shaping up to sound like a blind date.  However, Mags was implacable.  “It will do you good, dear.  You need a break and I’m sure you’ll get on well enough.  I’ll tell him to stop by and pick you up before he heads off.  I’m sure he won’t mind.”

And seemingly, he didn’t.  At any rate, he came and found Jen in the library.  An untidy mop of blonde hair poked itself round the library door at about six, followed by a very long face with wickedly twinkling blue eyes and a demonic smile to match.

“Are you Jen, then?” said the face.  Jen turned, startled – people would keep creeping up on her!

“That’s me,” she said.

“I’m Dave,” said the demonic face.  “Mags threatened me with a fate worse than death if I didn’t take you out and show you a good time.  We’d better get going; the pool tournament will start in a bit.”

“Oh, really, you don’t have to take me, it’s fine.  I think Mags was just worrying that I’d turn into a hermit or something.”

“Listen, girl,” said Dave, with a comical roll of his eyes “Around here, when the boss isn’t home, what Mags says goes – she is the law.  So come on, or I’ll have to pick you up and carry you.”

Jen smiled, she couldn’t help it “Ok, ok, I’m coming!  Give a poor new girl a chance.”  So saying, she grabbed her jacket off the back of the chair, and followed the retreating head, which turned out to be attached to an extremely tall and thin body, clad in dirty jeans, boots and a t-shirt.

“So it’s not a black-tie do then?”  she asked.

“Nah.  Don’t think the place has seen a tie since the coronation” said Dave as they sauntered down the stairs towards the back of the house.

“Still, at least I won’t feel overdressed” she said, glancing down at her own cut-off jeans, trainers and short-sleeved shirt.  “I’d hate to make a fashion faux pas.”

“You never know” answered Dave “you could start a fashion – get some of the locals driving tractors in twin-set and pearls, or mucking out the cows in a ball gown…”

They discussed various possible, but unlikely sartorial combinations as they headed for the woods behind the house, exiting the wall via a small wooden door set deeply into the stone.

Once outside, Jen took a deep breath and looked up at the sky, now deepening to indigo with the onset of evening.  “Wow” she said.  “I didn’t realise how cooped-up I was feeling.  Maybe this is a better idea than I thought.”

“Yeah – everyone needs playtime.   What the hell do you do up there all day anyway…and all night, come to think of it?”  They started to walk through the trees.

“I’m cataloguing the books and papers in the library.  Looks like it’s not been done in any sort of serious way since the family started collecting them.   And it seems that collecting them is all they have done.  I don’t think anyone’s used that library in years.  It’s all dusty old tomes that would be incredibly interesting to historians, bibliophiles and researchers, and not much else really.  Although, I have come across a couple of really beautiful illuminated manuscripts.  I suspect the family must either have been at it a very long time, or someone was a serious collector.”

“Dunno about that.  If you want to find out, the best person to ask is Merry – she’s a bit of a family historian.”

“Merry?  Who’s that?” asked Jen, curiously.

“Lady Meriel Harrington-Harrington” said Dave, in a grand voice. “Nice old girl, mad as a hatter.  Lives in the attic.”

“You’re kidding!” laughed Jen.  “Has he really got a mad wife locked up in the attic?”

“Nah – Lord H-H never married.  Never found anyone he thought was worthy of him.  She’s his grandma.  Got to be eighty if she’s a day.  You should pay her a visit – I bet she’s been in the library a fair bit.   Says she’s writing a family history.  Comes down and talks to me about the gardens, sometimes – who planted what, which lord laid out which flowerbed.   Who brought the seeds back from wherever.”

They fell silent to enjoy the walk.

The evening deepened as they got further under the trees. Rustlings in the undergrowth and a warm breeze whispering through the leaves above them, soothing Jen and allowing her to relax into Dave’s easy company.   She began to worry after a bit, though.   “Dave, it’s going to be very dark under here on the way back.”

“What’s wrong?” he chuckled, “Worried about ghosties and beasties?  Don’t worry, I’ll protect you.   I’ll fight them all off with my special brand of horticultural Kung-Fu, passed down in secret from gardener to gardener since time immemorial.”

“No, I’m just worried we won’t be able to find our way back.  We could miss the path in the dark or something.”

“Worry not, fair maid, for I have come prepared.”  Dave said grandly, brandishing two torches that he produced from his pockets.

“Oh, thank goodness – my night vision’s dreadful!” said Jen with relief.

“Nah, we’ll be fine,” said Dave.  “And the only spirits we’ll have to worry about are the ones they’ll be serving in a glass at the pub.   Speaking of which, we’d better get a move on if we’re going to make that tournament.”

As they quickened their pace, Jen said, “I don’t play very well, you know…  Maybe I’ll just watch.”

“Out of the question!” said Dave.  “You’ve got to play at least one round, if only to prove that you are crap.  I won’t believe it until I see it.  Anyway, you might surprise yourself.  Have you played much before?”

“Not much” she admitted.  “Usually only to make whoever I was with look good.”  She smiled wryly.  “He did like to look good” she said, almost to herself.

“Oho!  So it was bloke made you think you’re no good, was it?  Well let me tell you something – you can be as good as you want to.  You’ve just to decide that that’s the way it’s going to be.”

Jen smiled “Maybe” she said.  Then the lights came into view between the trees.  “Oh – is that the village?”

“Yep, nearly there.” Dave replied.  “Come on – race you!” and he took off at a run.

“Hey!” Jen shouted, chasing after him.

They emerged at the edge of the village green, panting and laughing.  Dave was just ahead.  Jen said, “You bloody cheat!  You got a head start.  And you’ve got longer legs!”

“It’s not my fault you’re a short- arse, girl!”  Dave replied with a grin, dodging a punch she aimed at him.  “Come on,” he continued, “First round’s on me.”  He led the way across the grass to the pub on the other side of the green.  It was called (much to Jen’s amusement) The Cock and Pullet.

“Hey, good name,” she giggled, as they crossed into the yard.

Dave grinned again. “Yeah – it’s amazing how many people don’t notice, though.  I suppose since the people around here are mostly farmers, it means something different to them.  They’d been keeping chickens long before they’d heard of the double entendre.”

“Aren’t you, then?” Jen asked as they entered the pub.

“What?”

“A ‘people round here’?”

“Not me – city boy, born and bred.  Never liked it much, though.  I like to be outdoors, which is a bit crap when you’re breathing traffic fumes and making your feet sore on concrete.  Evening, Bob.  Usual, please.” He said to the barman as they reached the bar.  “What can I get you?” he asked Jen.

“Um…  Cider, please.”

“Pint of cider, too, please, Bob.”

They got their drinks and stood leaning against the bar, surveying the room.  It was a nice old place, all low beamed ceilings with the ubiquitous swags of hops draped all over the place, comfortable-looking benches and chairs around the knackered-looking but sturdy tables.  And a pool table, crammed in at one end of the room.  Jen eyed it a bit dubiously.  “Isn’t that a bit cramped over there?  Don’t the cues catch on the walls?”

Dave laughed.  “It is a bit.  We have to use sawn-off cues.”  He indicated a rack at the far end of the bar which, had previously escaped Jen’s notice, was indeed filled with three-quarter length cues.  “Which reminds me,” continued Dave, “we need to sign up.”  There was a blackboard on the wall with a few names on it already.  Dave wandered over and added his and Jen’s to it.

Returning, he said, “It’s a doubles tournament tonight – at least I can cover for you if you really are rubbish.”

“Oh great!  Now I’ve got to worry about letting you down as well.”

“Hah!  You don’t need to worry about me, girl – I’m a whizz with a cue!”

“You’re only saying that to make me feel better.” accused Jen.

Dave just shrugged and said, “Misspent youth.  Anyway,” he continued, “I still say you’re better than you think you are.  You just have to think it as hard as you can.”

Jen pulled grimaced.  “I’m still not sure about this…”

“Nervous?”

“A bit.” she admitted.

“Right then – you need to relax a bit.  Get that pint down you and we’ll get another one in.  That should help.”

They chatted easily about this and that as the bar (and the blackboard) gradually filled up.  After a while, Bob the barman announced the start of the tournament and called up the first players.  The atmosphere was very convivial, and almost everyone seemed to know each other.  The drinkers were vocal in their enjoyment of the match – calling out encouragement and friendly insults in equal measure.  At last, Jen and Dave were called to play and made their way to the cramped pool table.  This came as some relief to Jen, who had been getting more and more nervous as the wait had gone on.  As they got to the table, someone called “Hey, Dave.  Who’s your girlfriend?”

“How remiss of me” Dave said, turning to face the pub.  “Ladies and gentlemen, it is my honour and delight to introduce the lovely Miss Jen Alexander, lately come to work up at the big house, for her sins.  She, too, did something dreadful in a former life and is now toiling, along with the rest of us, to atone for whatever it was that she did.”

“Can’t have been half as bad as half the things you get up to in this one!”  shouted another voice from the crowd.

Dave chuckled.  “You’d better believe it, Mick!”  he replied, turning to grab a couple of cues from the rack.

Jen laughed with the rest, beginning to feel the nerves ease a little now the wait was over.

They eased even more when Dave leaned over and whispered “Remember, Jen – you can be as good as you want to be.”  He racked up the balls.  Placing the cue ball on the table, he said with a wink “Think fantastic!”

She smiled at him and went to break, thinking, “I’m the best pool player there ever was.  I’m fantastic.  I’m going to knock their socks off!”

And, to her astonishment and delight, she did.  They aced the first round, and the second.  Jen couldn’t fathom why she was playing so well, but concluded it must be a combination of the relaxing effects of the alcohol, and Dave being as good a player as he said he was.

As they went into the final, Dave said, “You’re doing great, Jen.  Told you so!”

“Nah – just lucky.” she replied self-depreciatingly.

“Don’t you believe it!  Told you – you’re as good as you think you are.  Keep at it.”  And play began again.

Now, the attention of the whole room was on the game.  Each successful shot was met with cheers and whistles.  Good-natured derision greeted each mistake.

At last, there was only the black ball left on the table.  And it was Jen’s shot.  “Oh no” she said quietly.

“Come on, Jen!” someone shouted.  “Name your bag and sink it!”

“Yeah, come on – get it in there!”  shouted someone else.  She was more nervous now than she had been the whole evening.  She glanced at Dave, smiling his encouragement, and then round at the rest of the room, who were now practically roaring theirs.  And suddenly, it all melted away.  She chalked her cue in a leisurely manner, indicated the pocket she was aiming for, took up her position, and made the shot.

It went it went in as if it was on rails.

The pub erupted with cheers and whistles.  Dave grabbed her in a bear hug, jumping up and down and whooping with delight.  Jen hugged him back and jumped up and down too.  Bob rang the bell and announced the winners’ drinks were on the house.

Jen and Dave proceeded to get drunk.

 

Much later, they were stumbling back through the woods, giggling and occasionally bouncing off trees, tripping over roots, stones and their own feet.

“Oh, boy, I’m going to regret this in the morning!” said Jen, with difficulty.

“Don’t worry,” slurred Dave.  “Mags’ll look after you – she’s nursed me through a few hangovers”

“She’s really nice,” said Jen.

“Yeah – mothers us all to death,” said Dave, with affection.

They stumbled on for a while, and then a thought struck Jen.  “Hey – I forgot to ask.  Was it you that taught those mag…mags…birds to swear?”

“What birds?  Who?  Wasn’t me – was never there.  You’ve got the wrong man, offisher…” said Dave, ricocheting off a tree and landing on the ground in a heap.

Jen doubled up with laughter.  Then, heaving him back on to his feet, she said, “I think we’d better hold on to each other as we go, or we’ll never get back in one piece.”  Arms firmly linked, they set off again, torch beams bobbing all over the place.

“Hey!  This works really well!” said Dave.  “Never would have thought of it in a million years…never…” he trailed off into his own little world.

Jen rolled her eyes and said “Come on, champ, keep going.  Let’s get home tonight, shall we?”  The cool night air seemed to be sobering her up quite well.  Dave, however, was still pretty drunk and continued to stagger as they made their way along the path.  Jen’s torch was still illuminating the path, thank goodness, as Dave’s was shining on the leaves of the canopy and his own feet more often than anything useful.  Then he fell over again, this time taking Jen with him.  As they went down, Dave hit his head on a branch and Jen landed on top of him.  “Ow!  That hurt!”  said Dave.  Then he threw up and passed out.

“Oh, god, Dave!” said Jen in disgust at the vomit.  Fortunately, it had missed her, or she might have thrown up too.  She scrambled upright and began trying to haul Dave upright.  She didn’t get very far.  “Oh, bloody hell!  No what?” she exclaimed.  “Think…think…erm…  Right!  Recovery position.  …uh…”  Jen racked her brains, attempting to dredge a distant first aid course through the fog of alcohol that seemed to have chosen this moment to mount a further assault on her synapses.  Hazily, it began to come back to her.  By dint of much pushing, shoving, grunting and swearing, she eventually managed to get Dave into something at least approaching the recovery position.  Exhausted from the effort and the effects of the alcohol now turning sour in her bloodstream, she picked up both torches, which had rolled away in the fall, turned them both off to save their batteries and sat on a nearby log to consider what she should do next.  She leaned back on a tree trunk behind her, closing her eyes in order to think.  Somewhere in amongst the considerations of whether she should stay here and see if Dave woke up, or run (or stagger) to the house and attempt to summon help, hoping Dave wouldn’t come to and go stumbling about the woods in the dark, a wave of exhaustion washed over her and she fell asleep.

 

…she was walking through the woods a long way from the path towards a reddish glow she could see through the trees. as she moved closer she realised it was coming from a hollow in the floor of the wood. the source was unseen but the redness seemed to be caused by rags and tatters of what looked like curtains or hangings – some sort of blood-red material draped from bare branches all around the hollow. there was a wind tugging at them that she couldn’t feel or hear. curious she moved closer and pushed between the nearest pieces of fluttering cloth. beyond these were bookshelves arranged in concentric rings around the centre of the hollow. the books were the source of the light – all faintly glowing with some luminescence of their own. their spines were embossed in gold and silver in a language she almost understood. strange compelling characters danced before her eyes as she reached out a hand to the nearest shelf. the glow intensified as she touched the spine of one of the books – so bright she had to snatch her hand back and look away lest she be blinded. turning to her left she walked along until she came to an opening between the shelves on her right. she passed through and continued in the same way until she passed between the last set of shelves. emerging into a large space in the centre of the hollow she stopped with a gasp. seated on an ornately carved  stump in the centre of the clearing was a naked figure. from the shoulders down he was human, his perfectly proportioned and solidly muscled body glistened faintly in the glow cast by the books. from his shoulders upwards, thick glossy brown hair rose over the neck and head of a bull. she guessed that if he stood he would be well over ten feet tall. his massive head was bent over a glow coming from something cupped tenderly in his huge hand. at her gasp the minotaur slowly raised his head to regard her with liquid dark eyes. she realised the glow coming from his hand was made by a book. the look in his eyes was a mixture of hope strength and a profound sadness that brought a lump to her throat and made her vision blur with tears. welcome said the minotaur. his voice was so deep she felt the vibrations in the centre of her chest. the ground began to shake and the glow from the books to pulse erratically…

“Jen!  Jen!  Come on, girl, wake up!  We’re going to get pneumonia if we stay out here all night.”  Dave’s voice and the flashing of the torch in her eyes brought her back to the here and now, the log, and the smell of vomit.

Blearily, she opened her eyes in confusion.  “What…?  Dave…?”  she mumbled.  Then, “Ok, ok, I’m awake!  Stop doing that!” shielding her eyes with one hand and attempting to push Dave away with the other.

“Come on, girl, up you get.  There’s a nice warm bed waiting for you back at the house,” he said, hauling her to her feet.

Together, they staggered the rest of the way through the wood and back to the house.  Jen had no memory of getting to bed.