A feud between two families in the Welsh Marches leads to a marriage and a death
Welcome to the The Shephearde's Armes, a small pub on the border between Wales and England, in the rolling Shropshire hills. As you enter, it's as though you're stepping back in time. The low ceiling with its dark oaken beams, the mist of tobacco hanging over everything, and the smell of heavy English bitter transport you immediately to a different world. The place is dark, the small, almost porthole-like windows to the north and the east only letting in the barest amount of light. The locals glance at you, eyeing you suspiciously - who are you? Why have you come here? You're not welcome.
If you, however, entered today, you wouldn't be noticed. All eyes are on the fight in the corner.
Except it's not really a fight. An older man, a thick black moustache perching on top of his scarred lip, sits astride a young man of no more than twenty, pummelling the hell out of him. He brings back his gnarled fist, already bloodied, and - a sickening crunch - the boy stops his squirming. He stands up, and looks around at the locals, a broad grin on his face. He walks towards the exit, and as he does he notices you. His eyes narrow slightly, but he decides that he will leave the stranger be - at least for today. The door slams after him as he leaves.
For a moment, everyone is quiet, motionless. The shock at what has just happened is too much for you to take in. Then the bar-maid jumps for the payphone, and dials 999. This breaks the spell. The whole pub is suddenly in pandaemonium. Some of the younger men run to look at the youth. The landlord swears loudly, and races out of the pub to give chase. Two old men start talking excitedly amongst themselves:
"Frank's gone too far this time,"
"Someone needs to go to tell Seth. He needs to put that lad on a bloody leash."
You stand up and ask everyone if you can look at the boy. They eye you cautiously. You explain that you've just retired as a doctor, and you could help. They look towards an old man sat on his own in an antiquated wheelchair in the opposite corner. Majestic, dignified and calm, the patriarch waves his permission.
You approach at a run, aware that some are muttering that "Simon is dead - the bastard's killed him". For a moment, you're not sure that they're wrong. The jukebox stops playing the awful '80s drone that Frank had put on, and you can hear a quiet whistling. It comes from Simon. A bubble of snot and blood slowly rises and falls from his broken nose.
The ambulance has been and gone. The boy is stable, but not yet conscious. Most of the villagers have gone home, but you are involved in tidying up. You have moved the blood-stained pool cue Frank started his assault with, and swept up the smashed, bloody pint glass that he crashed down on Simon's head. The landlord and the old man are whispering under their breath, and you can tell they're obviously talking about you. As the landlord moves back behind the bar, the old man beckons to you.
You walk over a little nervously. Who is this toothless, wrinkled old man, and how does he have such power over the locals? He notices you appraising him, and laughs.
"Come here, come here, there's no need to be scared," he cackles madly. You slow down, even more apprehensive now. He offers you a withered hand, and introduces himself as Edmund Rice, the retired headmaster of the local school. You explain to him that after a long and stressful career in one of London's busiest hospitals, you've retired to a quiet country life.
"Well, it's nice to meet another educated person in this uncivilised wilderness," he says, flashing his toothless grin. "What a day for your first trip to the Armes! What a mess you've stumbled upon! Poor Simon, that's what I say, though perhaps he should have known better."
You ask the old man why they'd been fighting. He pauses, pulls up his shrivelled frame as much as he can, and begins his story.
Of course, it wouldn't do to start with today's going-ons! This is just one act of a long-running saga, and I just hope that it's one of the last. It's hard to believe that such hatred can exist for so long - and instead of dampening down, in some ways it's still as intense as it was when it began. Especially for Frank! If you're serious about settling down here, you'll need to hear the whole story from first to last - it affects everything in this village.
Seth Jones and William Harris were inseparable when they were kids. The Great War had not long finished, Britain had been victorious, and even here in the back-end of nowhere there was a feeling of huge euphoria. Seth's dad was one of the lucky ones who returned from the trenches, but his uncle was not so lucky - the mustard gas got him on the fields of the Somme.
Only Will's father's body returned from the war. His mind was shattered. Seth's father told me that he had been found in the middle of no-man's land three days after the previous push. He hadn't responded to any of the rescue party's questions, and they had lost two of their men in their attempt to drag him to safety. He sat in the filth of the trench muttering gibberish to himself, his eyes glazed over. His fellow troops began to avoid him, spooked by his bizarre ramblings. It was only when they found him biting the legs off a live rat they decided to send him home.
He fared no better at home. His wife, Clara, was informed by the doctors what to expect, but I don't think she thought he would be so bad. He would lie for hours on his bed in the foetal position, and then suddenly run out of the house. He would vanish for weeks, and no-one knew where he went.
My only memory of him is a vivid one, which I wish I could forget. I was coming back from North Wales with my father, leading the horses through a dark wood. It was approaching twilight, and the sky was stained with a deep red around the falling sun. We found him sat in the depths of the wood, sat on a fallen log. He had skinned a fox, and tearing the meat apart with his hands he crammed it into his mouth. My father dragged me quickly away from the sight. Will's dad hadn't even looked up at us.
It came as no surprise to anyone when he was found dead, hanging from the beams of the big hay barn at Seth's dad's farm.
***Work in progress!!