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[Arthur] was the moste kynge and nobelyst knyght of the worlde […] and yet myght nat thes Englyshemen holde them contente with hym. Lo thus was the olde custom and usayges of thys londe, and men say that we of thys londe have nat yet loste that custom. Alas! thys ys a greate defaughte of us Englysshemen, for there may no thynge us please no terme.
Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur (c. 1469)
Outside the town of Little Gidleigh in Somerset lay a hill – not a stately tor like Glastonbury, crowned with its sacred tower, or a grand hillfort like Cadbury, where trees spread along the ridges in bristling ranks. This hill wasn’t even really a hill. Locals simply referred to it as the ‘mump’: a suitable word, they thought, for this large-ish, round-ish mound that formed a bump in the Somerset levels, yet had never really interested nor inconvenienced anyone much. Indeed, its only notable feature was the scattering of stone blocks at its top, as though someone long ago had half-heartedly attempted to build a henge, but quickly given it up for a bad job.
At weekends you’d occasionally find a couple of local teenagers lounging at the mump’s summit, or some sightseers declaring loudly that this really was nicer, more authentic, than Glastonbury, yet struggling to conceal their disappointment at the view – and themselves for being fool enough to leave the tourist trail.
But as dawn broke on a Tuesday morning, the mump was deserted. A pity as, for once, it looked almost impressive: a low, dark shape wreathed in the mist which sat across the levels like a shroud. Soon the sun would burn it all away, but for now the mist stretched as far as the eye could see, drifting across the fields, curling over reeds and watery reens, turning trees into ghostly sentinels. The air smelled pleasantly damp; the sun was a low, pale orb. In all, it was the kind of ethereal glamour that would bring visitors flocking – along with the obligatory tea rooms and gift shop.
The first car rolled along the B-road just before 7am. Not long after the sun found a break in the low cloud, the light suddenly blushing from grey to a gold-tinged pink. A bright shaft fell upon the mump, gilding it with a crown of fire that flared, brilliant, before dying again with the sun’s retreat.
From deep within the earth came a rumble.
The mump shivered, as though some great beast lying just beneath the surface had twitched its skin. The stones lying about its top shifted a few inches, scouring dark furrows in the grass before settling again. All, that is, but one. The stone nearest the centre of the mump continued to shake even after the ground had stilled, vibrating so hard that the air was filled with a deep, audible hum, punctuated every now and then with a sharp crack. A hairline fissure appeared down the stone’s middle, quickly deepening and widening until, within minutes, the block had split clean in two. The mump shivered again and both halves shuddered away from each other, revealing a dark opening into the earth.
Arthur emerged into the early morning light. He had to wriggle a little to fit between the broken stones – a task made harder by his armour – and he held one gauntleted hand against his mouth, forestalling a cough. But at last he stood upright on the mump, peering blearily through the mist.
His first thought was that the three queens had been true to their word; he had been healed of his mortal wound, struck by the traitor Mordred, and laid be-spelled beneath the earth. Dimly he remembered the ship with its black sails, and Morgan’s hand cool upon his brow. His second thought, less grateful than the first, was that his half-sister could have found somewhere grander to put him. Was he not a true and anointed King? But then again, he supposed Morgan had been pressed for time, what with the civil war. Yes – better she had found him somewhere remote, out of the way to await the Day of Destiny.
To await this very day.
Arthur started down the hillside, noting curiously that there was no lake in sight. He must have been asleep a good long while for it to have dried out. Years? Decades? He trudged across the misty fields, armour groaning in disuse, until he reached a fork in the path. Here he paused and looked around, hoping for a damsel to appear and tell him the right way to adventure. But when, after a good ten minutes, no such instruction was forthcoming – not even a rustle in the nearest bushes to suggest the presence of a lurking damsel – he relented and chose the right-hand path. It was, he reasoned, the right way after all. Also he could see buildings up ahead in that direction.
As he approached the town yet more curiosities presented themselves. The dirt track beneath his feet was replaced by a road, but the smoothest road he had ever seen, made of some slick grey substance. When he passed between the first houses, he saw that they too were remarkable, tall and strong and well-tended. True, they weren’t as impressive as many-towered Camelot, and he didn’t quite understand how so many peasants could afford gleaming glass windows … or why every building had a series of metal prongs jutting from its roof … or what these large, wheeled objects were lining the roads, their coloured surfaces shiny and hard like a beetle’s carapace … or – well, there were just no words to describe that …!
But he judged it to be a very fine town on the whole.
Reaching the main street, Arthur finally came upon a handful of people. The sight of them made him stop, heart racing to a charger’s gallop. The villagers’ clothes were strange but their faces seemed so familiar, so like the faces of people he had once known … Holding back, he simply watched them for a moment, hardly knowing whether to rejoice or weep. How would they receive him? He had left them alone for so long … And of course, he still didn’t know what the Day of Destiny required. Something perilous, no doubt … Yet the people walking about before him looked neither sickly, nor afraid, nor afflicted in any obvious way. One even had the courage to climb inside one of the great coloured carriages, and didn’t so much as cry out when it began to roll down the road as though pulled by invisible horses.
Arthur waited until it had passed, then forced himself to stride confidently forwards, raising a hand. ‘Good morrow!’ he called – or tried to call. His voice emerged as a hoarse croak, but since people were already turning in his direction – prompted more by the screeching of his armour than his lacklustre greeting – he was obliged to continue, ‘I am Arthur Pendragon, rightful King born of all Lloegyr, and many kingdoms there besides. I am come again that I should make fair deliverance of my people, and to stand with true justice all the days of this life.’ He ended this short speech with a smile that he hoped carried just the right air of regal benevolence, then waited for the obeisance to start.
There was no obeisance. There was no response at all. Silence reigned among the onlookers, who were staring at Arthur as though they half-expected to wake from a dream.
It took Arthur a moment to realise his mistake. Scolding himself for foolishness, he explained, ‘Fear no evil, good gentlefolk. I was laid in the earth by the wise arts of Morgan le Fey, for that Lloegyr may yet have need of me. The time is come!’
Still nothing. Perhaps they were all deaf? It would be a strange thing indeed, Arthur mused, to come back just for the sake of widespread hearing loss among the commons …
‘Tell me,’ he implored, a little nervous now, ‘what great sorrow afflicts this realm? Be it slander and strife, or war most grievous, or … some other matter … I will make reparation. Merlin deemed it so.’
At this, there was finally some kind of reaction. The young woman standing closest to him shifted uneasily and glanced around, as though hoping someone would step forwards and take her place. When no one did, she opened and closed her mouth, then opened it again and asked, ‘Merlin? Did you say … Merlin? As in the wizard?’
Now it was Arthur’s turn not to speak. What language was this? Some words were familiar to him, certainly, but what was a ‘wizard’? Even Merlin’s name sounded wrong in this maiden’s accented tongue.
Another woman, perhaps seventy years of age, came forwards. Arthur was mildly comforted to see this one had the decency to wear a skirt, not men’s breeches. She laid a hand on the maiden’s shoulder. ‘What’s going on, Stephie?’
‘He’s talking about Merlin,’ replied Stephie in a whisper. ‘And I think he said his name is Arthur. I – I can’t really understand …’
‘Oh … Is that so?’ asked the older woman, looking at the King with interest.
‘I know what this is!’ came a loud voice. A brawny man in blue trousers and a shirt strolled up to the gathering, thumbs hooked into his pockets. ‘It’s a publicity stunt. Local council musta organised it, to get the tourists in. Knights and castles and all that … Yanks love it!’
‘At 8am on a Tuesday?’ asked the older woman. ‘That hardly seems likely.’
‘If they can carve Merlin’s face on that cliff down in Cornwall, why not this? Coulda given him better armour though.’ The man snorted. ‘Bit grubby, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. It looks quite old … Very old, in fact …’
‘Should we call someone?’ Stephie asked. ‘Just to check? The council … or the police?’
‘Yeah, might be a good shout,’ said the man.
Arthur found his voice again. ‘I pray thee, what year is this?’
'What … year?’ repeated Stephie.
'Yea, if it please thee. I was laid low in the year of Our Lord four hundred and—'
‘Oh sod off Lancelot, you’re not fooling anyone.’
Arthur was still struggling with the people’s manner of speaking, but he did catch the name of his best knight and unfortunate rival. Tears suddenly pricked at his eyes; he swallowed hard, and replied, ‘Sir Lancelot and my good knights be gone away from me, that I should nevermore hold them together with my worship. I return alone.’
The man rolled his eyes, but the older woman regarded Arthur with some concern. ‘Are you all right, dear? We don’t mean to upset you …’ She paused, then said, ‘I know, how about we go have a little talk, just you and me? It must be very tiring, standing in all that heavy armour.’
‘Fiona, what are you doing?’ asked Stephie.
‘You don’t know him! What if he’s some kind of whackjob?’ agreed the man, who seemed to have dropped the idea that Arthur was an actor very quickly.
‘At least he has manners, Mike Jeffries, which is more than can be said for you. No, don’t you worry, Arthur and I will be just fine. Won’t we?’ the woman asked Arthur pleasantly.
The King hesitated, then inclined his head.
‘Lovely!’ She placed a hand under Arthur’s elbow and began to steer him down the street.
‘I – I’m calling the cops!’ said Mike behind them.
‘Yes, tell them old Mrs Jenkins has taken King Arthur home for tea. That’ll make them fire up the sirens.’
Stephie and Mike watched, stunned, as they walked away. Arthur too found himself staring at his new companion. Merlin was known to take on such disguises from time to time, usually when he needed to give Arthur bad news; Arthur honestly had no idea why. Could this old crone be more than she seemed? But then Arthur remembered Merlin was trapped beneath a stone for eternity, victim of the seductive powers of his pupil Nimue. Served the old fool right.
Mrs Jenkins led him to a little whitewashed house at the end of the street, just before the town petered out into countryside again. The front door opened straight onto a cosy living room, and Mrs Jenkins encouraged Arthur to take a seat on a large sofa that groaned and sank under his weight. Arthur waited patiently, taking in his surroundings with a curious eye, while she bustled around in the kitchen. At last she returned, pressing a cup of hot brown liquid into his hands.
‘Nothing like a cup of tea to make you feel better. Very English!’
Arthur supposed he ought to be thirsty, given his long slumber, but at this moment his mind was bent on just one thing. Trying not to sound ungrateful, he replied, ‘I thank you for your hospitality, Mistress Jenkins, but by my faith I dare not tarry, for I am in a quest that I must need follow. I am risen that I should make fair deliverance of my people out of woe. I pray thee, what evil abides in this realm? I think that it be not long come, for to have awakened me this day.’
Mrs Jenkins frowned as she sat, considering his question carefully. At long last she replied, ‘Well I don’t know about evil … it depends on your point of view … but I suppose you could mean … Brexit?’
The very word struck fear into the heart of Arthur. ‘This is most grievous indeed!’ he cried. ‘But what manner of beast is it? Can it be slain with sword or spear?’ He went to put a hand to Excalibur’s hilt, before remembering with a pang that Sir Bedivere had thrown the sword back into the lake on his command. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.
‘It’s not a beast, Arthur. It’s … I don’t know how to explain …’
‘I would that thou did thou best.’
Mrs Jenkins took a very long slurp of tea. She was ashamed to admit it, but her knowledge of Brexit was rather poor. Arthur was looking at her with such hope, though, she didn’t want to let him down. Also, a little voice in the back of her mind whispered that he probably wouldn’t understand anyway; what was the harm in trying?
‘All right, then.’
And so she told Arthur how there had once been a great alliance of kingdoms, but the people of Britain – that was the name of this realm nowadays – had grown discontent, and so just a few weeks ago had voted to leave. At this point she realised she also ought to explain the concept of ‘voting’, seeming this was the man who had become King by pulling a sword from a stone. Or had he been given it by the Lady of the Lake, her hand clad in purest samite? Mrs Jenkins remembered hearing both versions … but it hardly mattered which was true. The point was, democracy was probably lost on him.
After a lengthy digression into the current system of government, political parties, general elections and so forth, she moved on to the Brexit campaign itself. Here Mrs Jenkins faltered. She tried to present Arthur with the facts, racking her brain for any titbits about immigration, EU quotas, or the European parliament which had happened to stick, but there were precious few, and even those sounded somewhat unconvincing. The problem was, all she could really remember was her own sense of bewilderment watching the news each day. How was she supposed to understand or trust anything when Leave campaigners said such-and-such and were accused of fearmongering by Remain, only for the reverse to happen almost instantly? And what was the point of trotting out all these economic and political experts when their predictions were shouted down as inaccurate – and, yes, fearmongering? And had any of the politicians actually believed in a better and stronger Britain, or had they just been thinking about the next elections when they chose sides? It had all seemed like an endless merry-go-round of name-calling, misinformation and outright lies – Mrs Jenkins couldn’t even bear to mention the NHS – and despite her best efforts, she told Arthur more about her own disappointment than anything else.
She hadn’t even reached the actual consequences of the vote when Arthur cried, ‘But what King allowed this?’ Until this point he’d remained silent as he desperately tried to follow along, tea cup and saucer poised forgotten just below his golden beard.
Mrs Jenkins sighed; she had hoped to avoid this particular issue. Now she explained all about the Queen, including how Her Majesty didn’t really get involved in politics, saying Brexit was the people’s choice. At this news, Arthur looked utterly crestfallen and muttered to himself for a good while – she didn’t catch exactly what he said, but she was fairly sure there were a few unpleasant words.
It was nearly lunchtime by the time Mrs Jenkins eventually finished talking. Arthur had lapsed into silence again following several more difficult questions, and was now staring down into his cold tea as though it might hold supernatural answers. She felt terribly sorry for him.
‘Are … are you all right, dear?’
‘Are you hungry? I’m famished!’
‘How about I pop out and fetch us something? You can take a look at the news while I’m gone.’ She picked up the TV remote, hit the on button and scrolled through to a news channel. The reporters were still talking about Brexit, of course. They would be for months – perhaps years.
Arthur jerked in surprise, then leaned forwards eagerly, entranced. ‘Magic!’
‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ Mrs Jenkins assured him.
The trip to Co-op took considerably longer than a minute. Mrs Jenkins was repeatedly stopped and asked whether she was OK by both the people who had witnessed Arthur’s arrival, and those who had since heard the story. She grew so tired of insisting that Arthur was perfectly safe and they were having a lovely chat – yes, really – that she was tempted to whack the well-wishers/busybodies with her shopping basket. Or a sword – suddenly she saw the appeal.
When she finally returned home, the front door stood open. Arthur was not in the living room, nor anywhere in the house.
Mrs Jenkins’ first reaction was to call the police, but she wouldn’t give Mike Jeffries the satisfaction. Instead she headed back outside, and on a hunch followed the path behind her house. She had always liked living on the edge of Little Gidleigh; it offered a quick escape route to fields, trees and silence.
Sure enough she found Arthur sat on a bench by the river, watching some ducks milling around. She was about to scold him for running off when she caught his morose expression. Sitting down, she delved into her shopping bag and ripped open a packet of biscuits.
‘You seem put out, dear.’
‘I am right heavy,’ agreed Arthur, accepting a custard cream.
‘I find it always helps to talk to someone when I’m feeling down …?’
Arthur sighed heavily. He usually turned to Merlin for counsel, but this crone – no, this venerable lady – was all he had now. ‘The magic box telleth it is the year of Our Lord two thousand and sixteen.’
'Yes …’ replied Mrs Jenkins awkwardly.
Arthur’s face fell. She was about to apologise when he went on, ‘I know well that in me was not all the stability of the realm, but in that I did my utmost. And well I am sure I knew many rebellions in my days that by me and mine were appeased. Yet war and wrack is ever born of privy hate, and hate there was enough, by Jesu. Sir Mordred and Sir Aggravain held against Sir Lancelot, that I loved passing well, and noised that he lyeth with my queen, Guinevere. Then was Orkney arrayed against Gaul, and Sir Gawain set to the wars upon Lancelot after he slew Sir Gareth his brother through misadventure. I myself thought but to mine honour and had great despite that I be shamed. I know not if it be true … Then many hardy knights were slain and I set a siege upon Lancelot, and in mine own lands Mordred raised a great host and the most part of Lloegyr, that I had upholden, held with him and forgot their love for me.’
Goodness! thought Mrs Jenkins. Was this what her explanation of Brexit had sounded like? ‘What are you trying to say, Arthur?’
‘Merlin said that I had gotten a child that would destroy me and all my realm,’ replied the King, turning to her. ‘But I think not that my sin was in great default. Yea, Sir Mordred – my son – had desire of kingship, and watched upon me daily and nightly. But never had I fear of him till that he set a great unhappiness among my knights. Then slander and strife came full swift and those that be friends called themselves enemies, and the commons were full wroth and cried that I must be cause, and that they would have a new King. In that they were much misled by Mordred, and I cry them mercy …’ Arthur paused, and Mrs Jenkins saw that his eyes were bright with tears. He sniffed and continued, ‘I made the Table Round that no man may sit higher than the other and all may be alike in love and virtue, but at the last my people wouldst not hold together. And, by my council, Mistress Jenkins … it seemeth that the people of Britain be not so different these days. And that grieveth me sore.’
The tears started to fall. Mrs Jenkins could think of nothing to say, so she reached for her handkerchief and offered it silently.
‘How shall I make an end of this?’ Arthur asked.
Mrs Jenkins thought of the famous Knights of the Round Table, split by factions and destroyed by hatred. She thought of the anger and confusion of Arthur’s people, who had seen only the rivalry of those in power and, losing faith, turned to Mordred and his deceitful promises. And she thought of Arthur himself – Arthur, who had tried his best but made a fatal mistake. Arthur, who now wept openly for the fate of his people – real, penitent tears, not the kind of rehearsed apology that would be broadcast live on air. Arthur, who had been given a second chance – if only it were enough.
She said, ‘I’m not sure anyone can, dear.’
The sun was setting over Little Gidleigh as King Arthur and Mrs Jenkins slowly climbed the mump. As they reached the top a couple of teenagers turned their way in surprise, then, seeing Arthur’s large, armour-clad form silhouetted against the reddening sky, stubbed out their cigarettes and slouched off. Arthur led the way over to the hole in the earth.
'Is this it?' Mrs Jenkins asked.
‘Yea, by God.’
They both stood on the edge for a moment, staring down into the darkness. At last, Mrs Jenkins reached out and took Arthur’s hand in both of hers, giving it a firm squeeze. He turned to her and a huge smile broke upon his face, like the sun coming out from behind the clouds.
‘Thou never asked if I were truly Arthur,’ he said.
Mrs Jenkins looked out across the levels, the great, ancient vista. In the far distance, Glastonbury tor was a black speck. ‘I always knew there was something special about this place,’ she replied simply.
Arthur followed her gaze and nodded. ‘By my faith, Morgan chose well.’
He waited a moment longer, then withdrew his hand and began to clamber down into the hole, twisting this way and that to fit.
He paused and looked up at her enquiringly.
'Are … are you sure you want to do this? You never know … You might be able to help us, somehow?’
Arthur smiled again, though this time it was full of sadness. ‘Comfort thyself,’ he said, ‘and do as well as thou may, for in me is no trust for to trust in. And if thou hear nevermore of me, pray for my soul.’
Mrs Jenkins nodded. ‘I will.’
She watched as Arthur disappeared from sight, the last of his golden hair swallowed up by the darkness. Even then Mrs Jenkins continued to wait, hoping against hope. In the far west the sun dipped below the horizon.
The mump shuddered violently. Mrs Jenkins cried out and fell to her knees.
When she looked again, the earth had sealed itself like a wound stitched tight, the broken stones the only sign that anything had come from beneath.