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Most dreadful MURDER!
Here on the night of June 1st
in the year of our Lord 1787
did Matilda Jones wrongfully and
most cruelly smite down
Eliza Jones, her crippled sister.
“That’s my birthday – give or take 300 years.”
“Your name too,” he said flatly.
“Oh, yeah. I…” she began, but he had walked away striding along the path to Moel Lâs. She read the text again or at least the part of it that wasn’t hidden by a thick clot of weeds.
She turned and saw he had already put a good 200 yards or so between them. Another glance at the stone and she was running to catch up with him.
They walked in silence for the most part, each lost in his or her thoughts. The path rose steadily passing over straw-coloured hills and plateaus under a great blue sky. Here and there it followed a tumbling stream that sparkled and gurgled. Flocks of sheep stood on higher ground eyeing them warily, or scattering in a panic, one following another, many of them swinging great pregnant bellies that broadened their already wool-swollen girths, their little legs like brittle improbable sticks. Occasionally other walkers passed, exchanging a greeting or a comment on the fine weather after so many months of rain.
In the distance Moel Lâs hunched its giant’s shoulder, darker than the surrounding land and reminding her of Yeats’ Ben Bulben in Sligo.
When they reached the lake they stopped to read the information board, but she hardly took it in, she was still thinking about the murder stone.
“Drink some water,” he said and for an instant she imagined he meant the expanse of water before them, but he was putting his bottle to his mouth and tipping back his head. She did the same.
“You okay?” he asked, looking at her carefully.
He had been told about her illness then; no doubt Iain had thoroughly briefed him. Perhaps, she thought, perhaps this date was undertaken as a kindness and was not driven by a real desire to get to know her, to court her.
Court – an old fashioned word for an old fashioned date. A drive, then a walk and picnic. He probably already had a girlfriend. She would have been told that he was taking Iain’s sister out.
“Poor thing,” the girlfriend would have said. “Be nice to her won’t you.”
The path followed a high ridge that loomed over the lake. Distant figures, groups of three, of two, of five, moved minutely along it silhouetted against the sky.
He was tall and extraordinarily good looking. Like Iain he was studying medicine at Kings. Unlike Iain he came from money.
They toiled upward, still hardly speaking, she might have made more of an effort at conversation, but what was the point? There was nothing to be invested in this. The further they walked the more she was certain that, really, they were going nowhere.
“What about here?” he said, stopping and unhitching the rucksack from his shoulders. She made to sit down, but he stopped her. A picnic blanket was produced, Black Watch tartan, backed with a waterproof sheet. She sat and he produced a thermos, then package after package of food. A salad of raw grated vegetables, another of brown rice, sunflower seeds and tahini. Nut rissoles. A weighty brick of homemade wholemeal bread.
She ate but without enthusiasm or pleasure. Without much concern either, what did it matter if some of the spinach stuck in her teeth?
Her mind turned again to the murder stone. Her instinct had been to clear the weeds away and read the entire text. She would have copied it in her notebook, made a rough sketch of it, noted the exact place. She would have done that even without the coincidence of the date and the name. With them her interest was even stronger. She resolved to return, next time alone.
“Had enough?” he said.
Everything was carefully packed away again and they set off, her following him and wishing she could do something to attract him to her, to see her as more than Iain’s troubled and sickly sister. She wished she could think of something funny or clever to say.
If she married him this was how it would be, everything wholesome and healthy, nothing dark and dirty and dangerous. Sex, she thought, would be akin to a gynaecological examination and a work out in the gym. This thought made her laugh out loud.
“Something funny?” he said, frowning as he turned to look at her.
“Do you always laugh at nothing?” He makes it sound like an interrogation; recognition of a symptom.
“There’s nothing wrong with me you know.”
“I never said there was.”
“Look. We seem to have got off on the wrong foot. It’s me. Never know what to say.”
“Well, let’s just walk then.”
“Ok,” he says.
Along the high ridge they go. Down by the lake another couple are standing where they stood by the information board and yet another is heading away from the lake. She might be seeing the past. Or the future.
“That gravestone back there,” she says.
“It’s a murder stone.”
“Oh. Isn’t that the same thing?”
“No. It’s a memorial rather than a grave. Unconsecrated ground.”
“I didn’t think it would interest you.”
“Girls don’t like that sort of thing.”
“I thought it was interesting.”
“Because of the name.”
“And the date.”
“A spooky coincidence?” He altered his voice slowing and deepening it, intoning, “And three hundred years later her direct descendant, Mattie Jones was born…”
“Do you know how many Joneses there are in Wales?”
“You might be though.”
“Who would want to be related to a murderer?”
“Hey, calm down. I was only kidding.”
Why is she so angry? Like a creature who has been cornered and is lashing out? Even if the ‘date’ is in reality a kindness, he doesn’t deserve this.
“Look,” she says and he does just that, he looks at her face and obediently awaits her next words. She shakes her head. What is the point?
There is a silence, then he says, “Come on.”
They set off again, walk to the end of the ridge, then take the path that drops down behind it, so that the lake can no longer be seen. The landscape changes, they go into a wood, the bluebells aren’t in flower yet but the ground is covered with clumps of their dark broad leaves.
“We should come back in a couple of weeks,” he says.
“Come back?” She is surprised; could it be that he really wants to spend time with her?
“Well, if you’d like.”
Would she like? Would she like what? More medicine? More well-meaning gestures?
“Why?” she asks bluntly.
“Because of the bluebells.” He is unsettled now.
She stops walking. “You don’t have to do this.”
“Be kind to me. Do Iain a favour; take his crazy sick sister out.”
His mouth, his handsome mouth drops open in surprise. His eyes widen.
She looks away.
“Is that what you think? That I asked you out because Iain wanted me to?”
She still doesn’t meet his eye. Of course he would deny it. Deny it until death and doomsday. She shrugs and walks on.
She hears him just behind her. The path is narrow, looping up and down through trees, over rocks. Now the river is visible far below, deep and rushing, rain filled, dirty yellow looking in places.
She wishes he weren’t behind her, she senses his eyes on her, seeing when she stumbles or struggles. Poor cripple girl.
And then they are out of the woods and back at the car park. Still in awkward silence they go to the car. He opens the hatch back, takes off his muddy boots and puts shoes on. She looks down at her own feet, thick mud cakes the soles like the rubber bumpers around dodgem cars and she has no clean shoes to put on. She begins to wipe them on a clump of grass.
“It’s ok,” he says. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It does. I’ll make your car dirty.”
“Take them off then.” He guides her to the car, makes her sit on the tailgate, bends and begins to unlace her boots. He puts them next to his own, small replicas of his, brown leather, the same style and make. She hadn’t noticed that until now. She was about to remark on the coincidence, but she’s shocked into silence as he has lifted her up. One arm around her back, the other under her knees. He carries her to the passenger door, manages somehow to open it.
“Have you read Tess of the d’Urbervilles?” he says.
He puts her gently into the seat, closes the door and goes round to his side.
He puts the key in the ignition. “I’ll buy you a copy.”
She frowns a question at him.
“If you read it you’ll know I don’t care about a bit of mud in my car.”
After that she avoids him. He rings several times and texts her. One text read simply “Bluebells?” She refuses to discuss it with Iain. Eight years go by, then she is at a friend’s house and they watch the film Tess. Angel Clare carries each of the girls across the flooded lane. Tess is last. He has carried each of the others only to have a chance to lift her in his arms. To press her close to him, to feel her weight in his arms, her warmth, her scent.
She begins to sob.
“I know,” her friend says.
“No. you don’t know. You really don’t.”
More years pass and in an idle hour, she looks up murder stones on her laptop. Quickly she finds ‘her’ stone and the full text is revealed. “Matilda Jones was hung at Carmarthen for her crime protesting her innocence to the last. On his deathbed in the year of 1831, Eliza’s husband Thomas Jones confessed to the crime and begged forgiveness for the destruction of two blameless women.”
Now we have gone full circle she thought, but knew in her heart that she had taken her own path and it had been the wrong one.