Paul Dance is an ex prison tutor who concentrates on stories about the people who don’t fit into society, sometimes positively, often not. He has met many of them in his prison tutoring and seen the effects of not fitting in. he hopes his writing can throw a light and some understanding.
He has previously worked as a chef and with adults who cannot read. He lives in Cambridgeshire.
The stones were much smaller than Sarah had expected. The information board at the perimeter spoke of “this historic monument” and “the mystery” and “incredible journey from the Preselli Hills in Wales to Wiltshire”. Monument made her think of monumental, massive, breathtaking but these stones stood in a field on a small hill, surrounded by lots of grass and unconcerned sheep. The surrounding hills made them seem almost insignificant and their importance seemed to rest in people’s desire to be awed. Of course tourists came – from other parts of Britain, from around the world – but they were like squirrels investigating a stray piece of litter. A little time to see if it could be useful, then a scurrying away to find something better – a beach perhaps, Westminster Abbey or Land’s End, the stones ticked off the list of things to fill the people at home with envy.
Sarah resented the ropes that kept her at a distance from the stones and she resented the tourists who chattered while they half-looked. She wished she had come here years earlier when she could have approached the stones, touched them, like a child reaching up for its father’s hand. She was thirty four now and this was her first trip to the west country, England folding up as she travelled from the well-made bed of East Anglia to the happily crumpled duvet of Wiltshire..
Her six-year, deliberately childless marriage was behind her and she was back to her old pre-marriage feelings of rootlessness. Sarah had always been envious of people who spoke of ‘finding themselves’ in their relationship or job. She had always felt she should be somewhere else, the way a refugee might if they could not remember their home. Her marriage to Roy, whose family had farmed in East Anglia for at least eight generations, was part of her search for roots. Roy’s family had enfolded her warmly, the way people can when they have nothing to prove, plenty to share and no fear of loss. His mother had taught her local recipes and introduced her to the shopkeepers. She went to the pub on quiz night with all of them and was introduced to all the rounded vowels and rising cadences that lived locally. It was like a holiday but the point about holidays is that they are a break from life and when Sarah looked around for her life it wasn’t there. She had been living a holiday for six years and she knew that sadly the time had come to leave. Roy accepted this fact with a stoic resignation and the knowledge that she was right. His mother tried to talk Sarah out of it but Sarah had thanked her and simply faded from their lives which, she knew, would continue with the rhythms of the trees and animals that had always been part of them and not of her.
Now she stood before the stones and felt a deep sense of her own body, the way we feel lying in the sun after swimming off our favourite beach or waking the morning after the best sex. She knew her future was uncertain but at the moment it didn’t matter to her, all she felt was the here and now. The permanence of the stones calmed her and made everything else ephemeral, transient; the trees that bloom and die, the grass that grows and is eaten, the clouds that scud past, the sheep, like earthbound echoes of the clouds, that wander near the stones and also die. Everything except the stones moved and changed.
As the shadows stretched and yawned the private security men reminded people that the area would be closing in half an hour, fifteen minutes and finally ‘Excuse me madam, we are closed now.’ Sarah was the last person to leave and felt as if the grass had begun growing around her feet as she brought her mind back to the present. She smiled absently at the guard and walked towards the gate. She felt as if her feet were more definite than they had been, more full of purpose. She stood on the road looking at the stones and thinking of icebergs, small protuberances supported by massive underneaths. Finally when the dark caressed the stones and the grass around them, leaving only outlines, just visible against the crescent-mooned sky, Sarah walked the mile to her rented cottage, thinking of the flimsy fence on the far side from the road and she smiled.
At the cottage she showered, ate a sandwich, some olives and drank half a carton of juice then sat in the garden chair, a cup of coffee held in both hands, and looked at the stars. Even the stars, she thought, are changeable, they throw out energy for millennia but, like people, they too eventually run out of it, burn out and explode. The stars we see are not even there as we see them, some have moved, some have gone completely and only their light remains, a sort of afterlife. The music of the spheres must involve a lot of percussion she thought, if only we were close enough to hear it, lots of crashing and banging. The stones last. And the stones first.
Sarah waited until midnight, not for superstitious reasons but because she thought it was unlikely anyone else would be about. She walked along the lane, retracing her earlier steps almost exactly until she reached the gateway half a mile from the public entrance to the stones. She looked along the lane in both directions but in the low light from the waning moon nothing showed. She paused to stare at the moon and felt that, as its life rejuvenated each evening, so she was about to create the renewal of her own life. She looked along the road again then quickly climbed the five-barred metal field gate and dropped down the other side. It was only ten feet from the road but when she stepped away from the gate and looked back she saw nothing; no tarmac, no walls, no people, nothing except grass and the gate.
Sarah walked across the field towards where she knew the stones waited. The ground rose as she went so for the first five minutes they were invisible but Sarah knew she was walking directly towards them. She had never had a great sense of direction in the country but tonight she had no doubts, no trepidation, she could feel in her core that she was drawing closer to the stones with every step. As she reached the top of the rise the stones appeared slowly, rising from the ground like whales breaching a calm, dark sea. Then they were level with her feet, two hundred metres away but simultaneously inside her. Sarah felt a smile begin in her lower stomach and spread as a ripple up through her body and head and as a tingle down the back of her legs. The cry of ‘hey’ from the night security guard felled her like a blow and she rolled a few yards back down the field where she had just walked.
For a moment she thought she had banged her head, the rumbling was so deep, felt rather than heard, but as the sky darkened Sarah felt the change of air that precedes a downpour. She had only ever liked rain when she was inside looking out at it. She never understood the people who ran in it, sang in it, laughed in it, cried in it for love, or despair. But she had never had a purpose like this before so she picked herself up, headed a few hundred yards west to avoid the guard if he was heading towards where she had been and then, as the rain began, she climbed the slope that hid the stones. As she neared the top she crouched and crept more slowly, ready to throw herself down if necessary. The rain now caked her hair to her head and ran down her face, her boots filled with water and the ground squelched as she crept. Sarah’s hatred of rain had disappeared, subsumed by her purpose. The rain on her body transmuted into part of her connectedness. She peered over the brow of the hill and a smile took over her face. The torrent of rain had swept the security men into their hut. The stones, seeming so small in the daylight, now stood like remembered loves, perfect and immutable and greater than the hills from which they had been carved 180 miles away and the hills in which they now stood. She walked now, without losing her footing despite the sliding mud and the rain curtaining her eyes.
The rain began to slow but the thunder sounded louder and, as Sarah stopped to try to identify the direction it came from, it rose through the ground and up her legs moistening her inside. The force of the vibration rooted her to the mud, the rain had stopped and for a moment it seemed as if the trees had been petrified and the grass had stopped growing. Sarah stared at the stones and she knew, the way you know what you are saying even when you can’t hear yourself, she knew that the stones sang. They sang very low and perhaps not always but they were singing now, not words but a song of ancient times, of the growing of the Earth, the creation of hills and a song of the changes that were happening on the planet now. Not songs of sadness or of joy but songs of record. The songs of stones that had seen all and survived, that had been moved all those miles by the hands of men and remembered the journey.
Elephants sang like this, Sarah remembered hearing, lower than people can hear but in a register that links them to each other and to the geography of their home. She took the last few steps toward the stones, towards home, and as she did the vibrations inhabited her body from the inside out. When she touched the largest Sarsen stone supporting the lintel, a wave seemed to flow out of each pore and envelop her. A final smile filled her face. A moment later her body became indistinguishable from the stone and every cell began to join in the song.
When the security guards walked their desultory tour of the stones the next morning, one of them noticed two faint footprints at the base of the stone and vaguely wondered how they had survived the downpour. Michael, a sixty-two year old who had arrived for every summer solstice in the last forty-three years and visited the stones as often as possible in between, came at ten o’clock that morning. He stood as he had stood so many times before, at the fence, pretending the barrier did not exist, feeling the vibrations. The guards knew him, thought him bonkers but harmless and took little notice. This morning Michael looked quizzical and felt the stones had a different energy coming from them, not hugely different but slightly more – he struggled for a word to put to the feeling – more feminine. He examined the big stone as best he could from that distance and thought he could see some new marks, one in particular like a crescent moon on its back – or a smile. He continued staring at the stone and a voice inside him began to suggest a plan, to be carried out on the next dark, rainy night when he would finally come back to the stones and caress them as he had in his youth, before the barriers. Michael smiled to himself and to the stones and mouthed a promise that he would join them soon, perhaps only for a night, perhaps longer.