Day 42 – the Olympic Torch passes through Derby
Although I grew up in Cheshire, the border to Derbyshire was only just up the road. Literally ‘up’ in this case. We would drive into Alderley Edge (where – if local legend, and the author Alan Garner is to believed King Arthur lies sleeping under the cliff. I have drunk from the Wizard’s well there, but I can’t confirm or deny this possibility.) Then out again, through Alderley and up into the Peaks, where the countryside changes from gentle farmland to rugged hillside covered with gorse and moss and standing stones.
In Anglo-Saxon times this bony, inhospitable landscape was the home of the Pecsætan – the Peak Dwellers – and perhaps it’s they who have left the tumbled roundhouses and the stone circles. Or perhaps it’s the elves – it’s a landscape that disappears often into mist and fog, where it’s easy to be lost and alone, and ramblers still die of exposure, when they overestimate the power of humans over nature. Easy to believe there are other intelligences out here, watching us with very little love.
At the same time, these high, wild moors give way to little tourist towns of charming grey stone houses and hanging baskets full of flowers, of ice-creams and tea-shops and village fetes. Everything is terribly cosy there, though the hills look down on all of it.
I love this part of the world – the contrast of sweet, tamed towns with the mystery and threat of their setting. I couldn’t think of a better place to set a tale in which the uncanny powers of Elfland invade the smugly safe realm of mankind, to the bewilderment and improvement of both. Although my Under the Hill books, Bomber’s Moon and Dogfighters are set in Matlock and Bakewell rather than Derby itself, I like to think there’s enough of my love of Derbyshire in there to count.
Excerpt from Bomber’s Moon
Ben bolted out of sleep, halfway to his feet before he realised he was awake. What was that noise! Something was wrong—he could feel it pressing under his breastbone. He thought he’d dreamed of a subterranean groan, felt again the rush of sticky re-breathed air and then the smoke. God! The smoke, pouring through the shattered windows of the train…
But this was his bedroom. Look, there—the alarm clock cast a faint green light on the claret duvet and gold silk coverlet, familiar as closed velvet curtains and his suit trousers hanging on the back of the bathroom door. 3:14 a.m.
His breathing calmed slowly. Was that what had woken him? Just another flashback? Or could there be an intruder downstairs?
Tiptoeing to the wardrobe, he eased open the mirrored door, slipped on his dressing gown and belted it, picking up the cricket bat that nestled among his shoes. The closing door showed him his determined scowl—not very convincing on a face that looked as nervous and skinny as a whippet’s. Licking his lips, weapon raised, he seized the handle of his bedroom door, eased it down.
And the sound came again. All the doors in the house fluttered against their frames, the ground beneath him groaned, tiles on the roof above shifting with a ceramic clatter. A crash in the bathroom as the toothbrush holder fell into the sink. He jumped, crying out in revulsion when the floor shuddered and the carpet rippled beneath his bare feet as if stuffed with snakes.
Earthquake! An earthquake in Bakewell? Home of well dressing and famous for pudding? The sheer ludicrousness of the idea flashed through his mind even as he raced down the stairs. You… What did you do in an earthquake? Stand under a door lintel, wasn’t it?
As he reached the living room, it happened again. He clutched at the back of the sofa while the entire house raised itself into the air and fell jarringly down with an impact that threw him against the wall. Bricks moving beneath his fingers, he pulled himself along the still-drying wallpaper into the hall, flung open the front door.
There was blackness outside—the streetlamps all guttered out—and silence, a silence so profound that the pressure began again inside his throat. It was so much like being buried underground. As he strained his ears for something friendly—a barking dog, a car alarm—a wind drove up from the Wye, filling his ears with whispering.
No stars shone above. But in the neighbour’s windows, he could see something silver reflected, something that moved with liquid grace.
The curve of a horse’s neck traced in quicksilver reflected in a driving mirror. A stamping hoof—drawn out of lines of living frost and spider web—splashed in a puddle. Drops spattered cold over his bare ankles.
Coming up from the river, across the bridge, up the sleeping suburban street they rode, knights and ladies. Glimmering, insubstantial shreds of banners floated above them like icy mist. Harps in their hands, hawks on their fists, and now he could hear the music; it was faint, far away, wrong as the feeling that had driven him out of bed. Alien and beautiful as the moons of Saturn.
He clapped both hands over his mouth, but it was too late. The words were out, full of blood and earth and inappropriate, human coarseness. Their heads turned. He caught a glimpse of armour, shadows and silver, as one of the knights reined in his horse, glided close, bending down.
The creature smelled of cool night air. Its inky gaze raked over Ben from head to toe, like being gently stroked with the leaves of nettles, a million tiny electric shocks. His skin crawled with the prickle of it, ecstatic and unbearable, and he gasped, held on the point of a pin between violent denial and begging it to do more.
Long platinum hair slid forward over a face drawn in strokes of starlight. “Which eye do you see me with?”
“I…” croaked Ben, his mouth desiccated, his lungs labouring. “What? I…”
Something in the garden—something huge, covered in spikes, lifted up the house, foundations and all, and shook it like a child’s toy.
Terror goaded him into action. Lurching back into the hall, Ben slammed the door, locked it, shot the bolts top and bottom, fumbled the chain into its slide and reached for the phone. Nine-nine-nine got him a brisk, polite young woman saying “What service please?”
Outside, crystalline laughter tinkled in the starless night. The walls flexed like a sheet of rubber. “Police please! I…” …think I’m being attacked by fairies.
And everything went quiet. Down the street a burglar alarm brayed into the night. He opened the door a crack to see the streetlamps shining vulgar yellow-orange over a score of double-parked cars. There was, of course, no evidence the creatures he’d seen had ever been there at all. He took a deep breath, decided against setting himself up for a charge of wasting police time, and let it out in surrender. “Never mind.”
-- Alex Beecroft http://www.alexbeecroft.com/ "Swashbuckle with a bit of swish."