I admit that with the current Covid-19 situation, I’ve digressed a bit from the normal remit of my website with some ‘factual’ pieces (in as much as anyone’s personal diary can be considered ‘factual.’) It’s high time, then, that I returned to some experimental fiction, and as such I’m posting the opening section of my first novel (still very much a work in progress), The Folks Across the River. I would welcome your criticism, comments and suggestions. Thanks for taking the time to visit this post!
THE FOLKS ACROSS THE RIVER
SECTION 1: TOWARDS THE RIVER
CHAPTER 1, The Journey
30/08/18, in flight to Bucharest
The photograph could have been taken 100 years ago, or yesterday. A formal studio portrait, sepia-tint with a matte finish, its texture pixelated and grainy. Its subjects, twin girls, stood side by side: identical, but posed differently as if to tell them apart. One had her arm around the other’s shoulder, and both were smiling, the identical smiles revealing matching rows of pearl-white teeth. Their black dresses were indistinguishable one from the other; austere but perfectly tailored; puritanical almost. Their eyes were bright, alive, but not in the earthly sense: they burned somewhere beyond life; already out of reach but enticing as the fragmented light of a spring rainbow.
I tried to hold the twins’ gaze as I took the photo from the envelope within my carry-on bag, but found that I could not. Their eyes burned into me, beyond and through me almost; straight to the part of me I thought could not be seen. I was forced to confront myself, and found the confrontation drew a blank: there I was, face to face with nobody; staring into a vast and dark abyss.
An abyss: like the oblivion from which I had emerged after the accident. The doctors called it a coma, though to me it was, and still remains, an almost overwhelming darkness.
The photo of the twins had been attached to my latest assignment: a bundle of papers held together with an oversize paperclip. Below the photo was a newspaper clipping, written in a language similar to Romanian, from my knowledge of which I was able to glean the following information: the twins were Valtayrian heiresses, daughters of the Baron Erdély of Kosička, vanished from their ancestral home, Kosička Castle. The disappearance had taken place in May, on the night of the Spring Ball held for students of the prestigious Valtayro Academy for Girls. What drew my interest first and foremost (after the photo itself) was the place name. Though I had travelled extensively in Europe, I had never before heard of a land called Valtayro.
Immediately my suspicion grew, especially when a cursory Google search brought up nothing on any country named Valtayro. At this, I headed straight to the Editor’s office to discuss my concerns with him.
Pat Stubbs, or ‘The Stub’ as he is known by friends and colleagues (on account of the cigarette butt which hangs perpetually from a corner of his mouth, endlessly burned down and smouldering, but never quite finished) is the editor of the publication for which I work, The Outsider. His office has remained untouched by the Clean Air Act, its fireproof door serving as a barrier between him and those who would disturb his peace. Any would-be intruder must accept that upon entering he or she will be doused in tobacco fumes and go through the rest of the day perfumed by the acrid stale smoke smell. On this occasion, I was prepared to make that sacrifice.
As a mark of grudging respect, he ground his cigarette butt into the glass ashtray on his desk as I entered:
‘My star investigative journalist, welcome!’ He greeted me.
‘Hello, Stub. How are you?’ I answered.
‘Pretty good, pretty good overall, thanks. I know you’ve come about the twins, and I think this is going to be a big story…’
‘I’ve never heard of a country called ‘Valtayro’ Stub, and neither, it would seem, has Google. Are you sure your source is trustworthy?’
‘Sure as I can be, which is good enough for me.’ He continued:
‘There are no corners of the world left unexplored, and yet no one I’ve asked has ever heard of Valtayro, either. You are right that there is very little information available online, though I have found out more in older reference books. And if it’s not on Wikipedia or Google, then it’s because something top-secret, and high-level is going on there.’
‘I assume there are many conspiracy theories?’
‘Of course, I’ve done some digging and managed to find out a little, but very few people have actually had the chance to go there and attempt to uncover the truth. It is incredibly hard to obtain a visa, but yours was sent to me along with the following anonymous tip-off:
Find the twins, and you will find out so much more. Matters of global concern, most definitely in the Public Interest. Send the best you have.
An Interested Party.
‘You’re to use an alias, of course…’
‘Who am I to be this time?’
‘Erica Jackson, PhD Student in Comparative Theology. You will stay at the prestigious Valtayro Academy for Girls and help to teach them English in your spare time. The ostensible reason for your visit is to examine the parallel practices of Christian and Pagan worship within the Principality.’
‘Apparently there is a place within the Principality where Pagan practices still continue…’
‘I’m feeling more than a little apprehensive…’
‘I knew you would think it a hoax, but this is a real place: the visa is genuine, and all your travel costs have been….’
‘Stub,’ I interrupted, ‘it could be worse than a hoax: it could be a trap.’
‘If you don’t feel safe going there, I can send someone else. But you’re the best I have and you know it. I’ve no one else with your linguistic skills for one thing. They’re having a delegate from the school meet you at the border; I’m sure you will be well looked after: take the school prospectus…’
At this, he handed me a glossy brochure from the Valtayro Academy for Girls. It certainly looked prestigious. And certainly I didn’t want any of my colleagues getting sent on this assignment in my place. So I agreed, and promptly went home to prepare for the journey.
Here I am a day later, starting a record of what looks set to be an unusual assignment, even by my standards. Now to get some sleep before the onward journey, overland by bus to the Valtayro border.
The mist is clearing, and I see them now in front of me. Posed, as in the photo, except that they move here. Impossible to tell if they’re alive.
‘You’ll find us’ they chant in unison, ‘you’ll know where, when the time is right.’
Now I’m walking down a long and empty corridor, which looks like it belongs to an abandoned hospital. However far along the corridor I walk, it stretches out to vanishing point ahead of me. Then I hear footsteps behind me: at first a long way behind, then picking up speed and gaining on me. I can’t go any faster: my legs become like lead; it feels as though I’m walking through treacle. Realising with horror that any attempt at escape is futile, I steel myself to turn and face my pursuer when…THUD!
Erica’s Diary, Continued
30/08/18, onboard a ‘RomaTurs’ bus to the Valtayro border
‘May I have your attention please, this is your Captain speaking, I would just like to inform you that the ‘fasten seatbelt’ signs have now been lit as we are experiencing a few lumps and bumps due to inclement weather. I would ask that you remain in your seats with your tray tables stowed and your seat backs in the upright position. Cabin crew: to your seats please.’
Though I regularly fly all over the world whilst on assignment, I always get a little nervous when the crew get ordered to their seats. It doesn’t happen very often, but whenever it does you can be sure of more than a few ‘lumps and bumps.’ I was already unsettled by my nightmare, but I tried to ignore the sudden shifts in altitude and constant shaking of the fuselage by turning my attention to the assignment literature I carried with me.
There were some photocopied pages from an Encyclopaedia Britannica entry headed ‘Valtayro,’ which read as follows:
Valtayro has existed as a Principality since the Middle Ages. It is a Roman Catholic country ruled over by a Council of Elders formed of Church leaders and the Aristocracy. Prior to the advent of Christianity, a Pagan form of religion now known as ‘Old Valtayrian’ was practiced throughout the land. Evidence of cult practices belonging to this religion and dating back as far as the Late Neolithic period has been found in the cave-paintings and cult objects of the many cave-sanctuaries concealed within the mountains North of the Kosička river. After the forcible conversion of the Old Valtayrian people, most of these sanctuaries were converted into hermitages, however they are said to still exist in isolated communities within the Principality.
Located in the Carpathian Mountains bordering Romania and Hungary, in terms of geology, Valtayro is a mountainous region with its lowest-lying valleys being found at an altitude of 3000ft above sea-level. In addition to the great mountain peaks, the most notable geological feature of Valtayro is the Kosička gorge, 70 miles long, with cliff walls plummeting 1000ft to the river at its deepest point.
No celebrities or other notable personalities are known to have come out of Valtayro. Neither is much known of Valtayrian Art and Literature. National artistic treasures are reputedly kept behind lock and key, with only a privileged few being granted access. There is rumoured to be a Cabbalistic element to the highly hierarchical and complex organisation of the ruling class, but very little is known in detail by outsiders.
The Britannica article comes from a 19th-Century volume. It is strange that there is no corresponding Wikipedia article, almost as if the place itself had managed to circumvent the modern world (much to The Stub’s delight, I’m sure).
The turbulence was still not over, so I tried to distract myself further by reading up on my destination, as detailed in the Academy Prospectus. Though unfamiliar with the Valtayrian language, from my knowledge of Romanian, Hungarian and Serbian I was able to produce the following approximate translation:
The site where the Academy now stands is endowed with a rich history which stretches back to the pre-Christian era. What was once a revered pagan site was converted to a convent in the 12th Century AD. During the Great Plague, it became a makeshift hospital, and later a hospital wing was added to the building, which functioned as an ‘insane asylum’ within which the Sisters cared for afflicted patients. This was considered a philanthropic work on the part of the Church. However, as modern methods for dealing with mental illness rendered the asylum obsolete, the building was converted once again, this time to our prestigious Academy for Girls, at the behest of the Baron Erdély of Kosička. His Lordship made the conversion possible by means of a generous endowment, hence the renaming of the Hospital building to the Erdély Wing in honour of our most gracious benefactor.
This information fired my interest: the Baron’s daughters had attended the school he himself had founded prior to their disappearance. This could certainly be significant. I also noted that the Baron must be a figure of some standing in the local community. Perhaps his daughters were kidnapped for ransom, or to do damage to the reputation of the school. Of this same reputation, the glossy prospectus had the following to say:
The Academy offers the most prestigious education available to the Daughters of Valtayro, boasting a dramatic and peacefully secluded setting high above the Kosička valley and the town of Savrilovič. The comfort and safety of the girls is guaranteed on account of the secure nature of the building, a responsible and caring staff, and newly refurbished accommodation finished to the highest of standards. Alumni can be assured of excellent nutrition as the dining service offers up the freshest, healthiest and best of Valtayrian cuisine prepared daily within the onsite kitchens.
It sounded like a welcome change from the microwave dinners and in-flight meals I have grown accustomed to whilst on assignment. I found myself hoping that the part about security and safety being assured was really true, in the light of the twins’ disappearance, albeit from their ancestral home across the river.
For all the in-flight turbulence, our landing in Bucharest was mercifully uneventful. I took a taxi to the bus station, and the driver asked where I was headed:
‘Valtayro.’ I told him, ‘on an academic assignment. Have you ever been?’
At my question he shook his head:
‘Can’t say I’ve heard of it, I’ve plenty to keep me busy right here.’
It may have been my imagination, but I’m almost sure I saw the blood drain from his face at the mention of my mysterious destination. He didn’t say a word to me after that, except to confirm the fare.
The bus was tatty and smelled of stale urine, but I was glad enough that it wasn’t crowded, which meant that I was able to take up two seats to myself and my luggage. I have been devoting the time since to studying the Valtayrian language, with the help of a dictionary, basic grammar, and a book of poems by Eben Erdély, XI Baron of Kosička (Which would make him, by my calculations, Great-Grandfather of the current Baron). The Stub gave me all of this material before I left. He told me he’d found a reasonable amount of historical literature on Valtayro, but nothing published after 1900. I found this more than a little disconcerting.
With the help of my knowledge of related languages, and the dictionary and grammar, I have been able to get to grips with the poetry without too much trouble. It is somewhat grandiose, and seems to use a self-consciously antiquated style, looking back to past days when Valtayrians were ruled by some kind of Mother Goddess, whom the philosopher poet Erdély apparently idolised as a hybrid wood nymph-cum-fantasy object. If it hadn’t had been for the linguistic intricacies which I enjoyed trying to pick apart, I would have found it tedious in the extreme.
Though I’ve been able to glean some knowledge of Valtayrian grammar and vocabulary, I still have no idea how the language might sound. I could guess at it based on the languages I am familiar with, but I could be as far off the mark as if I were trying to deduce Portuguese pronunciation based solely on a knowledge of Spanish. Time will tell. I hope there will be at least someone in Valtayro who will be able to speak one of the languages I already know. In this respect at least I am fortunate to have many options!
This studying, combined with the early morning flight and seemingly endless bus journey, has left me more-or-less exhausted. Time to put my pen down and rest my mind again. Time to tune into some music, tune out of concentration…
DaydreaminandI’mthinkinofyou/DaydreaminandI’mthinkinofyou/ DaydreaminandI’mthinkinofyou/ Look at my love/ Floating a-way…
My love…His eyes, though dark, shine with a kind of primordial light. When I look into them, I have the feeling of looking back through time, as a deep-space telescope sees back towards the origins of the Universe. There is something elemental and forgotten in his look. Then there is desire which sparks between us: reciprocal function, alternating current. There is also a smile, which though appearing warm could easily conceal a hidden menace. Like the archetypal wolf in sheep’s clothing, he extends a large, firm hand in welcome. Already I’m wondering how to know him better, and what there is to know. What secrets does he hide?
Nikola Zvezdovje awakes with a start to the shriek of his alarm clock. It’s 5pm. The previous night had been a heavy one, drinking late with some friends from his hometown, Savrilovič. The night had extended well into the morning, hence his extensive afternoon nap which has just now been cut short, much to his annoyance.
He curses the Baron Erdély out loud, though he wouldn’t risk it if there were anyone nearby to hear him. He has to prepare for the forthcoming school term, he has his research, and on top of it all he has to go and pick up some Englishwoman from the border, seduce her, make her feel comfortable then hand her over to the Baron. At any other time of year, this might have been an enjoyable prospect, but right now, he just can’t be bothered. He’s been raising hell all summer: drinking himself into oblivion most nights, waking up in countless unknown beds of women whose names he can’t remember. But now the school term starts, and he must be responsible. He feels responsible for his girls, his prodigies. The disappearance of the twins just about sent him over the edge, reminding him as it did of the disappearance of his wife some five years earlier.
He tries to drum up some enthusiasm for the task in hand: splashes on some after-shave, without first shaving. Stubble suits him, he thinks as he takes a look in the mirror and drags a comb through his dishevelled hair. She’ll like the stubble. He hopes. If she doesn’t like him, what the hell will he do then? But when do women ever not like him…?
‘Erica Jackson.’ He’s read her file and she sounds like a monumental bore. She’s apparently very studious, and though only 23 she probably has the first sproutings of facial hair upon her chin and upper lip. He knows the type. Though he admires intelligent women, the only one he’s ever found attractive was his wife, now vanished. He dares not think of her.
Resignedly, he pulls on his best pair of jeans, t-shirt and jumper, and some comfortable shoes for driving. He then storms around his apartment looking for the keys to his pick-up, which he eventually finds next to a half-drunk bottle of vodka. He takes a shot for luck then heads out on the road towards the border.
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