'My father sought a miracle for his son, possessed or eaten up by devils as I was'
My father took me first to old Glastonbury, my beloved isle, sailing through the mists. It was where King Arthur had his end, where Excalibur was thrown into the salt marshes that surround it. My father sought a miracle for his son, possessed or eaten up by devils as I was. I was given to fits and rages then.
I sometimes think the old man was as much a pagan as he was a strict follower of Christ. He kept some odd charms sewn into his robes and mail, I know that. Glastonbury is far older than the true faith’s arrival on these shores. Thousands of years of witchcraft and worship have seeped into that damp ground. So they say. I went out on the midsummer a few times, all a-fevered and looking for the naked women. I never found them, nor caught even a glimpse of breast or leg. It was ever thus, with me.
The boat had slopping black water in its bilges, I recall. I was thirteen years in the world and I kept tugging my father’s sleeve and trying to draw his attention to it. I could not understand how a vessel could float and yet take on water, and I was afraid it would rise up and swallow us along with the poleman, who was red-faced and seemed somewhat addled in his wits.
My father pulled his sleeve from my grasp and I left him alone. I’m told Heorstan had been a great barrel-chested fellow thirty years before, when he was made thane to King Edward of Wessex. In his own youth, to me then as far off as the days of King Arthur, my father Heorstan had known Alfred Magnus, the Great, the man who made Wessex the kingdom that would one day rule all of England. Reigns were longer then. Nowadays, it seems a man cannot turn round without finding a new face wearing the crown.
My younger brother Wulfric stood up in the prow as the boatman poled us along.
‘Be careful, boy!’ my father snapped.
Wulfric tried to look abashed, but he was too full of wonder at the strangeness of the island and the mist that lay all around. Creeping things dropped into the still waters as we passed through reeds. Those dark marshes stretched all the way to where the sea had broken its banks, some dozen miles away. They rose and fell with the tides, so thick with salt that not much grew.
Once or twice, some sleeping bird would be startled and rise in a mad flurry. The waterways lay like veins around us, unseen, so that the sounds echoed oddly and were changed.
As I watched, Wulfric reached out to wisps of white fog, unable to understand how it could seem so thick and yet vanish before his eyes. I will say I loved him, but his head might have been a block of polished bone for all the good it was. Wulfric seemed sharp enough in speech, but he could not master his letters. As his older brother, I tormented him for it.
In so many ways I am not the boy I was, with my spites and quick judgements. I was so sure then that I was surrounded by enemies! It has taken generations for me to understand I made them come at me. Yet when I think back to my own cruelty and torment of Wulfric, well, it still makes me laugh.
Wulfric tried to jump from the prow to the dock and I saw my father snatch him back, more concerned with him falling to drown than he had ever been with me. The old man must have been seventy then, just about, his two boys born to a woman forty years younger. Heorstan gave my mother a fine home on twelve hides of land, good coin in exchange for her youth. Perhaps he needed a nurse and I was the happy result. Or perhaps she plucked and stroked him back to life.
The isle of Glastonbury did not get so many visitors in those days, nothing like it does now. We were greeted on the docks by two boys to carry the bags and two Irish monks who spoke only Gaelic, which I did not know. In the mists, that liquid stream of sounds seemed strange to me, almost magical, as if I only had to listen hard enough and it would no longer sound like someone choking to death.
My father bowed his head to give them honour, he a thane who had known kings. I kept my silence, though Wulfric bounded out amongst them, exclaiming on everything while I winced and wished he would just keep his peace.
I could see the porter boys were amused. The two lads nudged each other and grinned, and of course, poor Wulfric smiled back at them as if they were his equal.
I pulled him roughly to me and was bending down to whisper that they were no friends of ours when I caught a sickly odour wafting up from him. I shoved him away then with a sound of disgust. It had been a long time in the boat and Wulfric had soiled himself. Yet there he was, skipping along as we took to the path and headed to the little abbey they had there then, where miracles were an almost daily occurrence.
The rest of our party trudged on and the mists thinned as we climbed onto a higher path. No one was listening and the only noise was from our steps.
I whispered, ‘You have shat yourself, Wulfric.’
I said it in a furious hiss, because he was so cheerful, but I felt even then that he was a reflection on me and especially my father. Heorstan seemed oblivious to such things in his later years, but I could protect his dignity even so.
Wulfric looked wounded, as if I was the one in the wrong rather than him. He flushed deeply and glanced at the two boys carrying our bags. They seemed to have noticed nothing, but they surely would.
‘Go ahead, Wulfric,’ I said. ‘The wind is behind us. Go on ahead of the rest so that we cannot smell you.’
He looked close to tears as he did as I told him. I think I hated him then, for his weakness. One of the Irish monks called out to him, but no one spoke their strange tongue and my father barely looked up from his travails. It was enough of a struggle for the old man just to keep up with the rest of us, his furs and mail weighing him down like a millstone around his neck.
Looking back on it, I know I should feel ashamed that Wulfric fell off the path. He vanished from sight as he stepped off an edge and broke a bone in his heel, landing too hard on a stone. We had to wait, though we were tired and hungry, while the two monks climbed down and brought him back up. They muttered to each other when they saw him limping, though we would not know till later that he had actually cracked his foot. He was weeping – and looking in accusation at me, if you can believe it. I was ashamed for him. If he had fallen into the marsh and been drowned it would have been a thing to grieve, but I would have forgotten him by now. I always tried to protect Wulfric, but some lives are touched by dark.
The sun rose on my right shoulder as we went on, clattering along a wooden walkway that must have been as old as Caesar. I found myself at my father’s side, scowling at Wulfric as he limped and made more of his injury than he should have. My father was breathing hard and sweating like a dray horse. He nodded in relief to me as we came to the outer wall of the rough place they dared to call an abbey in those days. Even after the peace of Alfred and King Edward, monks still knew the value of a good wall. It was fine, golden Wessex stone too, none of your stockade camp. Yet the gate they heaved open for us was made of wood and had to be lifted by the two Irishmen, to keep its trailing foot from dragging in the mud.
Nowhere was truly clean then, at least where men worked and slept. The passage of our feet turns grass to a quagmire, which is the way of the world and means nothing more than that. In time, we take that mud and make bricks and tiles, so you can keep your damp peasant huts and shiver as I warm my hands in the dry.
Wulfric was given into the care of a tutting matron. I watched the woman put her big, pink arm around him to help him along. I was still scowling when he looked back. I raised my head sharply, trying to remind him to keep silent and to be watchful and to remember his name and line. I saw Heorstan greeted by a man in plain black wool, his scalp like a brown knee, with knobs and freckles and odd planes to it. I waited patiently, content as they talked just to stare around the abbey yard. I looked up to where some men were labouring, and my entire life changed with that glance.
There was a cart piled high with grain sacks and four young monks stood on the cart bed. Above those working lads, two more gestured from a high window cut in what must have been a grain store. I didn’t know. What caught my eye and held it was a double pulley, with ropes that whirred in polished wooden grooves. I swear to you I felt hair rise on my neck.
I have told this story a dozen times and there’s always someone to laugh or scoff and tell me it couldn’t have been the way I remember it, but I will tell you the truth here. I saw those pulleys and I understood them in the instant, that turning a rope over the spinning blocks would halve the weight. I saw a device, a machine so extraordinary it looked the work of angels. I knew nothing then of Euclid’s mathematics, nor the engineering of Archimedes. I was just an empty sheet, waiting to be bitten deep.
I stood there, though my father was tugging my sleeve as I had done to him before, trying to break my perfect concentration and introduce me to Abbot Clement. Yet I saw it all: how four pulleys would be better still and give a ratio of four to one, while the rope would travel four times as far. My mind lit up, and if you have never experienced such a thing, well, I am sorry. There are many wonders in the world, if you look.
I know them all now. Even today, these old hands could make the six great engines of the Greeks, that built the modern world and in combination will make wonders for a thousand years to come, if the Day of Judgement does not interrupt all our labours. The lever, the wheel and axle, the inclined plane, the screw, the wedge – and the wonder of the pulley, which sailors call the block and tackle. No great sail can be raised without the last. Those six, simple machines have given us dominance over all the natural world. I saw my first at Glastonbury Abbey and I stepped onto a new path.
‘Dunstan! His head is in the clouds, I swear it. Dunstan!’
‘Yes, Father, I’m sorry. I saw . . . the pulleys, how they raise the bags.’
He didn’t understand my wonder, of course.
‘Well, pay attention now, boy! Bend your knee to Father Clement or I will redden your ear for you.’
'He was in earnest, I learned later, one of the true old believers who lived with God on his shoulders and thought evil could be beaten out of a boy'
I knelt, though I felt my mind aflame. I bowed my head, but still tried to glance over to the pulleys and ropes even as I felt the abbot pat my shoulder.
‘Boys, Heorstan, eh? Always distracted at that age. Yet there are worse things to tempt a boy than pulleys, is that not so?’
My father smiled, as if accepting the point. I saw he was flushed and I realised he was truly annoyed with me.
‘I am sorry, my lord Abbot,’ I said, looking up. I did not dare to rise without my father’s permission. ‘My name is Dunstan of Baltonsborough. I give you honour and I am pleased to meet you. I have never seen such a . . . contrivance before. Please forgive any hurt I may have caused.’
The abbot raised his eyebrows at that, then grinned at me, revealing just three brown teeth of unusual length.
‘You must call me Father Clement, boy. Your father and I were friends so many years ago it seems another age. I am astonished to see him once more with young sons – and you are welcome here, of course – a local lad brought to follow Christ.’
‘Thank you, Father Clement,’ I said, dipping my head once again. He was in earnest, I learned later, one of the true old believers who lived with God on his shoulders and thought evil could be beaten out of a boy. He lived only another year and almost all my memories of him are bitter. Still, he smiled away, all nut-brown and healthy from a life working under the sun.
‘Perhaps you should go and see how Wulfric is faring, Dunstan,’ my father said. ‘And leave me to discuss our stay at the abbey with Father Clement.’
‘I would rather speak to those men by the cart, Father, if I may,’ I said. The reply was thoughtless and innocent enough, though I saw from the tightness of my father’s expression that it was the wrong thing. There was a hint of thunder in the abbot’s eyes as well, though I did not see the danger then, as I did with my father. Heorstan was too old and slow to catch me, but then I was too young to know I could dodge. So I stood still as he backhanded me across the face and sent me sprawling.
‘See to your brother,’ he snarled at me.
I scrambled back up, my cheek flaming as I stood and bowed carefully to them both. Only when my father dismissed me with a sharp gesture did I actually dare to leave. He’d shown another old man he still had authority over a lad, which was important to him. I accepted it out of love, if that makes any sense. I would certainly have borne a thousand blows from him rather than see him reduced in front of strangers. Looking back, I think so still. If he lived, I’d back him so today. Not the abbot, though. I’d strangle that old bastard and put him down the privy.