Kicking the thin sward, he brings up chalk in the roots of knapweed and bladder campion. Eyebright, rockrose, sainfoin. In the morning light, Bee Orchids dance dark and purple against the pale green of marjoram.
Sun up. Showtime. Julian is eight and every Saturday his father marches him out of the house at sunrise and down onto the hillside, where the wind whips east to west and cuts him raw. Mr Brewer’s act of communion, of penance. Julian assumes he is being punished, though for what he hasn’t been told.
He is the youngest of the Brewer children. An afterthought. An eight-year gap to Francesca, ten to Ernest.
‘You were planned. Just not very well,’ his mother will tell him when he’s old enough to hear it. ‘We wanted a third for so long. Eventually, we just sort of accepted it wouldn’t happen. God’s will. Of course, we forgot to stop trying.’ At this, she will giggle and blush, despite being too old for such behaviour. Besides, by the time she tells him this Julian will be twenty-two and know just how much she lies. She lies about his father. She lies about the house, about her finances, about Kitty from down in the village who swindled her out of First Prize in the Victoria Sponge category at the W.I. fete. She lies, he thinks, sometimes just for the practice. To keep her hand in. Because by then he will know that he is the biggest lie of all and if she gets rusty, she might just let it slip.
Every Saturday for three years Julian and his father head out onto the hillside to tend to the Spiral. His father likes to wander down from the ridge before breakfast and watch the weak, orange light scud across the land, dark shadows in the lee of the hills slowly melting away, beaten back by the rising sun. He goes out again alone at dusk and watches those same shadows recapture the same ground. Back and forth, fighting for the same patch of land in an endless arm-wrestle.
Julian and his family live in Rendell Manor, stationed on a ridge overlooking the North Downs, looming over the village of Holksham down in the valley. Manor is a grand term for what is merely a slightly bigger than average house, set apart from the rest. There had been a proper Manor house on the ridge once – servants, scullery, gatehouse and great hall. But it had caught a V1 in the war and nobody had bothered to stop it from burning to the ground.
Down on the hillside, they start with the Spiral. Cleaning and cutting the turf away. Weeding plantain and agrimony from its edges. For some reason, his father has designated himself its caretaker. Cerne Abbas has its priapic giant and Uffington its white horse carved into the hillside, but Holksham has its Spiral. Julian will take a pilgrimage around the country’s chalk carvings when his father is all but gone, will put them in a slide-show in the hope of bringing him back, if only for a few minutes. The Uffington horse flows, more the abstract idea of a horse—of speed, of grace—than of the animal itself. Beautiful. The giant is laughable, a bad joke that makes him feel nothing. Most of the other hill chalk carvings fall somewhere in-between. But the Spiral is something else. It is geometric, precise. A glyph, more Nazca than North Downs. A double spiral, a milky way galaxy cut out of the sward of thin, species-rich grass. An inverse black hole on the edge of the village, drawing in all sorts of waifs and strays. Babylonian. One hundred feet across, the landing pad for a UFO. A million miles away from medieval mud huts. No one knows its origin but nobody seriously believes it is ancient.
During school holidays, Julian and his friends come out to the Spiral and play a game. Julian makes friends easily throughout his childhood. He has a charming lack of guile that lets him mix with the farmer’s girls as easily as the boys from the new estate at the far end of the village. It never matters that he’s from the Manor on the ridge.
Julian devises the game. It is brutal, like most children’s games are. He will stand at the end of an arm of the Spiral. Another kid will stand across from him, at the end of the other arm. At a signal, they will sprint along the chalk cut, winding inwards in tighter and tighter curves until they reach the middle where they will collide. He doesn’t tell them to watch out for the Bee Orchids, not to trample the cowslips, to take note of the Chalkhill Blue and Marbled White butterflies they disturb as they run. All these things will come before long and, Julian being Julian, the other kids don’t tease him mercilessly for his newfound passions.
‘Coccoliths,’ his father says one Saturday morning. ‘The chalk. It was alive once. Still is in its own way, I guess. Tiny little calcium carbonate-covered algae. Compacted one on top of the other in their trillions on some ancient sea bed. Crushed under the weight of their progeny, turned into something hard, inanimate. The next generation on top of the last, on and on. A lot of weight to bear.’
His father stares down the hillside for a long time. Finally, Julian asks a question. Even to his pre-teen ears, the metaphor isn’t subtle.
‘Is that how it feels? Having children?’
The corner of his father’s eyes wrinkle. He breaks into a smile. ‘Now Julian, are you absolutely sure you’re only twelve? I must have miscalculated your birthday. No, I was just… waxing lyrical, is all. Ignore me. Now, take the Chalkhill Blue. Polyommatus coridon. As caterpillars, they secrete honeydew and the ants feed on it. In its chrysalis stage, ants take it into their nest, build a chamber for them, protect them. A mutually beneficial arrangement. The ants take these delicate things into their homes, even though they are a completely different species, and in turn, they receive succour, sustenance.’
Julian forms a question but then lets it pass.
He and his father begin cataloguing the wildflowers next. Monitoring and surveying every May as they come into bloom. They count the orchids. Seven species on their little scrap of hillside alone. Common spotted, Fly, Man, Bee, Pyramidal, Butterfly, Early Purple. Orchid names are easy, he can cope with them, but his father drills him in the Latin, too − Ophrys apifera, Anacamptis pyramidalis, Platanthera chlorantha − until one day, when he is fourteen, his father makes the first slip, stumbling over the pronunciation of Dactylorhiza. It is nothing, at first. But it signals the push-off from the top of a great slide that drops quick and steep with a long, plateaued run-off that will last until Julian is twenty-six and his father sixty-seven.
Francesca and Ernest are back from university for the summer. They look at their father, see the infinitesimal changes the first mini-stroke has made to his stern face and shrug. Indifferent, like their mother. No big deal. Dad is dad, he’s always there. They don’t understand Julian’s new sense of mania, their younger brother’s obsession with the Spiral and the chalk.
‘You can say no, Julian. You’re fourteen. Just tell Dad you find it boring. Or, if you must, that you’d prefer to catalogue the flowers in our own garden and at a more respectable hour,’ Francesca says.
‘Different soil strata. Flinty up here. Clay. The real chalk is down past the copse and on the hillside. Down by the Spiral.’
‘Bloody Spiral. It’s not old, you know. Not special. Well, suit yourself. Why you want to be up that early anyway, I don’t know. You’re such a weird little kid, Jules.’
The Spiral has never worked its magic on Ernest, Francesca or their mother. But for a certain type of person, it is a magnet set deep in the chalk. People like Mr Twitcher.
Julian and his father find Twitcher at sunrise the morning after Frankie and Ernie come home, and their routine will be destroyed forever. Coming down the ridge for dawn chorus, to wait for the moment the light grows strong enough for the Skylarks to take to the wing, shoot into the air and belt out their tune, rising and falling, declaiming this patch of chalk as theirs and theirs alone. Mellifluous. There is no sound like it. They pick their way through the beech and hazel copse at the edge of the Manor’s boundary. Over the gate and down to the Spiral. Mr Twitcher is there waiting for them at the Spiral’s centre. Laid out like an offering. Two empty litre bottles of own-brand vodka have rolled down the hill and come to a stop in one of the cut trenches that form the outer arms of the galaxy. There is vomit on his chest and blood seeping into the chalk, washing down the hill. Even the lower reaches of the Spiral take on a pink hue. Julian wonders if it washes all the way out to the coast.
No one knows who Mr Twitcher was. No one knows his real name. The kids all called him Twitcher because of his ticks and jerks and occasional obscenities. The Police put their cordon up and their tent and a month later they bury him with no name and Julian and his father scratch at the chalk with a wire brush until all traces of Mr Twitcher are gone.
‘He must have had a family,’ his mother says.
‘Must have,’ his father says. ‘Else what would he be escaping from?’
His mother shoots a look that should leave marks, but his father chuckles, shuffles his morning paper. ‘He’s been around years. I… I feel like we had a name for him too when we were kids. Or maybe that was a different man. Tramp. To tramp. that’s where it comes from, you know? To tramp around the place, to walk from one town to another. Tramp. You walk down into the village much more than I do these days; you must have seen him around. Tramping.’
His mother narrows her eyes and Julian has the sense he has missed something. Grown-up arguments are strange. They move silently under water like submarines, occasionally surfacing to launch a missile before disappearing again, leaving only smouldering, unidentifiable remains.
There are wilderness years that follow, when the Spiral becomes untamed. After Mr Twitcher, Julian begins to slouch out of their Saturday trips. He takes up cross-country running and traverses the hills as an excuse.
‘That’s not an excuse, Jules! That’s replacing one chore with another,’ Francesca laughs. ‘Someone is going to have to teach you how to have fun one of these days.’
His father never mentions it, allows it to slide. The Saturday morning ritual remains one of the few fixed and reliable points in his mind, but his body is failing him too and he can’t cut the turf any longer. He satisfies himself with cataloguing his orchids alone, fewer every May.
The wind whips east to west. The wind that used to cut him raw. But he doesn’t feel it any longer. One winter, Colm from the estate steals the pizza delivery kid’s moped, thunders off Hanbury Avenue, through the broken kissing gate and down the hillside. Together, they torch it beneath the Spiral. In dry summers the scar line from the fire remains visible a decade and more later. No one moves the charred skeleton until it has been partially claimed by bindweed.
Year by year, the chalk becomes a place to despoil. They start bonfires and drink, their bottles and cans rolling down the hill to nestle in the scrub at the south end. But Julian won’t let them touch the Spiral. They take lumps of chalk from the earth, walk down the path to the B-Road at dusk and sketch their own tributes to the Cerne Abbas giant. Enormous penises deface the road into the village for a quarter-mile. When he is seventeen, the game reaches its inevitable conclusion: they take small spades onto the chalk under cover of night and cut away the turf with glee. When Julian stumbles down the stairs the next morning with dirty hands and a raging hangover, he shudders with shame. The next week outrage courses through the village as news of their vandalism spreads. People look up from the valley at the fifty-foot penis now sitting alongside the Spiral. He is glad his father is too weak to visit the hill. A month later, Julian back-fills the trenches, but the outline takes two years to disappear and by then, Julian has left.
‘The soil is low nutrient here,’ his father had told him before his mind started to go. ‘That’s why you have such a diversity of plant life. People think high nutrient means high yield, but you just get rank grasses. Bramble. Nettle. When everything is scrabbling around for their own little scrap of the action, that’s where you get beauty. Orchids. You don’t get these orchids by throwing down fertiliser. Anything with beauty has got to be hard-won. That’s why all the great art comes from poverty.’
It’s a neat line and for a while in his mid-twenties, Julian buys it. He plays at squalor, knowing the whole time that Rendell Manor always sits there, waiting for him to come home. He writes in squats, paints on a diet of bread and vodka, he composes in the dead of winter, burning chair legs in the fireplace. He creates and sooner or later he realises: they were all posers. To a man. Woman. Every single artist that pleaded poverty and hardship was playing at it. Because real poverty was trying to scratch out your own place in the chalk, fighting off bindweed and vetch and birch seedlings for your moment in the sun. Real poverty didn’t have time for Art. Real poverty didn’t have space to spare for the clean, white cut of the Spiral. Every day the threadbare plants try to claw it back. He decides that if he is to be an unrewarded and unappreciated artist, then he may as well do it from the comfort of the family seat.
Julian is twenty-six when he moves back to Rendell Manor. The Spiral is all but gone and it takes him three days of back-breaking work to restore it to something close to its former glory. When he is done, he props an easel and paints out on the chalk. Shitty little landscapes in watercolour that take him no more than an hour or so. He sells them at a fraction above what he paid for the pristine canvas. He doesn’t sell many. With the right eyes, he can still see his fifty-foot act of phallic vandalism next to the Spiral. Walking the hillside, he can pick out every indiscretion of his missing teenage years; the scorch mark of the burnt-out moped, the site of the bonfires they lit after their exam results came in, the centre of the Spiral where on long summer evenings he would sit and count the tiny green pinpricks of glow worms.
May comes around again and Julian walks the Spiral, cleans it, surveys the orchids and wildflowers alone. Father is lying in an upstairs bedroom at the Manor; his moments of lucidity are fleeting. The hillside is grazed well for the first time in years and the orchids come back stronger than ever, Bee Orchids and Common Spotted popping their delicate stalks up through the thin sward, heartlessly putting on a show for an audience of one. The clouds part and columns of sunbeam spotlight the display and Julian decides that his father must see it, even though he knows he won’t remember. For him, it will always be the thin, scratchy count of a score or so orchids scattered loosely, to be hunted down and recorded. Each one a marvel. Perhaps he will find such largesse vulgar. Perhaps it won’t hold the same academic thrill for him. But all the same, Julian makes plans to have him wheeled down, despite his mother’s protests, and at sunrise the following Saturday morning, his father looks south over the hillside under a golden hue and tells Julian that he isn’t his son. He says it bluntly and if Julian hadn’t already discovered the truth, he could easily dismiss it, believe he had become untethered in time again.
‘Yes,’ Julian says firmly. ‘Yes, I am. I am your Chalkhill chrysalis.’
His father seems to consider this. ‘Yes. Julian. My son.’
Julian looks away, toward the village, biting his lip. His father’s frail hands flail uselessly at the woollen blanket covering his knees.
‘We’ll need to cut the Spiral.’
‘I’ve already done it, Dad. It’s fine. We can go look at it if you like.’
His father shakes his head. ‘Silly bloody thing. Grandfather’s foolish idea. Why a Spiral?’
Julian turns to his father, a smile breaking on his face. He forms a question but then hesitates and chuckles to himself. Had his father been dragged down to the Spiral every Saturday? His father’s father?
‘That poor man.’ His father’s eyes grow watery.
For a moment, Julian thinks he means his grandfather, but then he follows his father’s eyes to the Spiral. ‘Mr Twitcher?’
‘Sometimes the seeker is also the sought,’ he answers cryptically. ‘Sometimes folk find themselves and then wish they hadn’t. Spend their whole time trying to lose themselves all over again.’
‘Is… is that how you see me?’ Julian asks, but his father is gone again, staring open-mouthed in the direction of Holksham, a blank look on his face. Julian makes to wheel him back inside, but his father grabs his wrist and Julian looks down into a face that is for a vanishing moment the same as the face of the man who dragged him out onto the same hillside a decade and more before. His father is struck dumb, as he sometimes is, but his face and insistent grip say stay. Sit a while. Wait.
The sun unfurls itself over the horizon. Over the next half-hour, creation uncorks across the land. Julian reaches out and takes his father’s featherweight hand, the twig-like bones and paper skin shifting uncomfortably in his light grip.
His father mutters something indistinct as the rising sun spills down the hillside, turning the chalk the colour of a dwindling fire. Julian leans down, puts his ear close to his father’s mouth and can decipher a single word:
Julian’s father smiles to himself as the skylarks take to wing and the light catches the orchids, poking up like church spires in a wide, endless valley. Beneath their feet, the Spiral cuts golden bands through the turf.
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