I recently completed a critical read and a rewrite of Return from Avalon (and Points West) [referred to hereafter as RFA], the novel that’s being published by Soul Mate Publishing this summer. I’d put it off because I’m so obsessed with the novel I’m writing the first draft of, but it had to be done. So I made it the top priority for a couple of weeks.
I hadn’t read RFA for a few years, so it was relatively new. And I made that ultimate discovery for a writer: it was better than I remembered it as being. Much better. Found myself laughing out loud at stuff I’d written. Way cool.
And then I came across the original woman who wouldn’t behave, Meg. Meg had only one role in this book, to call Arnie “Mr. Artie” by “mistake.” After that she was slated to disappear from the scene. No way. Meg crossed her arms and stamped her foot and insisted that, heck no (Meg would never say ‘hell’) she’s not leaving, write her a bigger part. And in the end, softy that I am, I did.
Just reading the chapter where she first makes her appearance made my heart go chunka-thunk all over again. OK, I confess it: I’m in love with Meg. So I’m going to share with you an extract from that chapter. See if you agree.
What’s happening in this chapter: Our hero, Arnie Penders, is looking for a stone farmhouse from a battle that he’s only dreamed about. He has used logic to narrow down the area to a 30-mile stretch of the Avon River between Salisbury and the English Channel at Christchurch, but there’s still a lot of area to search. After a fruitless few hours, he falls back on a tried-and-true source of information on his journey so far, the waitress. We pick up the story early in the afternoon of his second day of pub-hopping, looking for a waitress that can recognize the sketch he’s made of the battlefield in his dreams.
* * * * *
Fourth pub of the afternoon – The Wounded Stag, probably named back when there were actual stags living around here – I hit paydirt. “Millie” was her name – maybe 30 years old, 20 pounds overweight, wavy hair styled 10 years out of date, highly prone to laughing at the slightest excuse or even with no discernable reason, slightly florid of face, likes to touch your arm when she’s talking to you, and laughs a lot (OK, I made the part up about the hair style just to keep the number progression going, but you caught me; what do I know about hair styles?). Oh, did I mention that she laughs a lot?
“That’s Clive’s place,” she told me when I showed her my sketch. “I used to be chums with the dolly next door. #LOL# We played all along the river there, before I grew tits and discovered better things to do with my time #LOL#” (I thought I’d give you a flavor of the way that loud bursts of laughter punctuate Millie’s conversation – hence the #LOL# indication).
“That’s great! Can you tell me how to get there?”
“No chance I can give you directions that you could follow. #LOL# Course then, I never met a man who could follow directions worth a frig. #LOL# ‘Touch right there, but not so hard,‘ I’ll say as plain as water #LOL# but certain as MP’s are crooked he’ll be touching me too hard AND in the wrong place. #LOL#” OK, you get the point. Just assume anytime Millie is talking she’s laughing. “But I’m off tomorrow – how ‘bout if I just drive you there?”
With the distraction of the one-woman laugh track, I couldn’t tell if I were being hit on or not. Well, I’d have my trusty singing walking stick along, how bad could it get? Plus I guess somewhere along the way you have to pay your dues – maybe Millie was mine. I was working really hard not thinking about making love to Millie while she directed traffic. Trying to keep it up when, instead of moans of passion or cries of ecstasy, a little spurt of laughter escapes her lips at every stroke.
In any case, we decided to meet there at the ‘Stag at 9:30 the next morning. “Give us a place to leave your car, and I’m pretty sure you can find your way back without directions #LOL#.” Soon after that I left and headed north before I ended up pissing off my only lead so far.
* * *
Millie pulled up five minutes after I did, and all of my worries about being hit on vanished: she had three kids packed in the car with her. Andrew “who we call Drew, not like the bloody prince” was a stout lad of about nine with his mom’s ruddy looks and quick smile; Megeth “just call her Meg,” a slight and solemn young lady, maybe eight, that must have been adopted, considering the total lack of physical – and personality – resemblance to the rest of the family, and “Baby Gail,” a curly-tow-haired charmer, despite a penchant for snot, who immediately came up and put her arms out for a hug.
“Climb in,” Millie ordered, thumbing her oldest toward the back seat and sweeping off a mountain – well, at least a molehill – of litter, crumbs, and other debris that accompanies small children in cars everywhere. And laughing, of course.
Millie the mom was markedly less vulgar than Millie the waitress had been the day before, although muttering “bugger” and yelling “piss off” were apparently necessary to the act of driving. Surprisingly to me, the kids were totally well mannered with never so much as a hint of their mum’s spicy vocabulary.
Ten minutes later we turned onto a rutted dirt lane and crept along for maybe a mile. Then we rounded a corner and there was the stone farmhouse. The stain wasn’t visible from the road, but the “whump” that my heart made was right up there on the Richter scale as when I saw you carrying my letter – clear evidence that my subconscious recognized where we were and was excited about it.
In retrospect, the new Arnie never doubted that I would find this spot. But the old, skeptical Arnie never really believed it, either. But for one delicious moment, I was at one with myself. Totally at peace with whatever this quest was and my altered view of the universe.
Seconds after Millie parked the car, Drew was out the door and racing toward the river with Baby Gail toddling along behind on chubby little legs, trying valiantly to keep up. Millie watched long enough to make sure that her youngest wasn’t in real danger, then yelled at Drew to keep an eye on his sister and headed toward the farmhouse to pay her respects. Me, I just stood there a few moments longer, quietly taking it all in, before starting to walk slowly toward the gravel bank.
A moment later a small hand crept into mine. I looked down in surprise to find Meg looking solemnly back at me. She watched me carefully for a minute, then tugged on my fingers and whispered, “Let’s go see, Mr. Artie.”
“OK,” I whispered back. “But it’s Mr. Arnie.”
Meg nodded her head once in compliance if not agreement and off we went.
Except for the lack of a bridge, the battlefield was exactly as I had seen it so often in my dreams. Hand in hand, without words, Meg and I explored the entire place. I carefully examined the ground where the bridge should have been, and imagined that there might be the vaguest remains of pilings or something, but couldn’t really tell for sure (“maybe it was a pontoon bridge,” a silent voice in my head suggested. Pontoon bridge? Historically possible; they’d been used in battle as far back as Xerses, but I think I would have noticed that detail during one of my dreams. Well, if I had that dream again, I’d be sure to check).
Finally we sat down under one of those twisted oaks whose trunk was large enough for the two of us to lean up against. After a couple of minutes of silence – well, silence except for Drew and Baby Gail laughing and shrieking their joy in the background – Meg leaned toward me and whispered, “What are we looking for?”
Never having been a parent, I wasn’t sure what the protocol was for when to lie to kids and when to tell the truth. But Meg’s fierce intensity argued for full disclosure.
“I keep dreaming about this place,” I answered in a calm, low voice, “and I don’t know why. About being in a battle that took place here about 300 years ago, except that there wasn’t really a battle here. But something in the back of my head kept nagging me to come see it. So here I am.”
Meg chewed on that for a bit, then nodded her head once. Apparently that was the perfect gesture for a girl of few words. She pondered a bit more, then asked, “What do we do now?”
“I’m going to breathe deeply and go into a light trace so I can see if there are any ghosts here,” I replied, opting for truthfulness again. And got the head nod again for my troubles.
So I did my thing, only vaguely aware of Meg matching my breathing (which must have been quite a trick considering how much larger my lungs are). When I opened my eyes I was not at all surprised to see that there was nothing to see. How could there have been – there wasn’t really a battle here. What did surprise me was Meg’s next comment. “There aren’t any ghosts, are there?”
“No. How can you tell?”
“I would have seen them if they were here, Mr. Artie.”
I opted for the single head nod as the correct response, not bothering to correct her about my name this time.
“Let’s see if we can get across the river without getting wet,” I proposed.
When we reached the bank I took off my shoes, rolled up my pants legs as far as they would go, and put my keys and wallet in my shirt pocket. Meg was wearing a little one-piece jumper-with-shorts (sorry, I’ve rifled my vocabulary of little girls’ fashion but can’t come up with a better term) and flip-flops, so she was good to go. Choosing the exact place where the French infantry had crossed, I was rewarded by the water only coming up to my mid-thigh at its deepest. Of course that would have been pretty high on Meg, but when she got to the point of getting her clothes wet she lifted her arms up and I carried her over.
I quietly explained to Meg. “In my dream I’m standing over there, holding a musket and scared to death, while the French cross the river right where we just did. But just at that moment, King Arthur rides up with a squadron of cavalry, charges the French, and chases them back across the river.”
She considers that – Meg never spoke without due consideration as far as I could tell – then answered resolutely, “There weren’t any muskets when King Arthur lived.”
“No. But in my dream he’s returned from Avalon to fight the French invaders.”
A nod signaled understanding. “Let’s see if there are any ghosts over on this side.”
There weren’t, of course.
We explored a bit more and then headed back over the river. “What should I say to mum?” she whispered, a bit conspiratorially this time.
“It’s OK with me if you tell her the truth, if you think it’s OK.” As soon as those words were out of my mouth I had to stop and consider what I had just said (as you well know, unlike Meg, I obviously don’t always think before I open my mouth). Was I really telling an eight-year-old to decide if it was OK to tell her mother the truth? But it felt right – felt like the responsibility lay where the wisdom was – so I let it go.
When we got back, Millie was standing with an elderly man dressed in tweed (of course), reminiscing while they watched the kids playing. “So, my nippers have managed to keep their clothes dry but I see that you haven’t. What have you and my changeling daughter been up to?”
Millie’s choice of words startled me a little, but Meg was of course unfazed. “We’ll discuss it later, mum” she replied with a finality that allowed no discussion.
Back at the ‘Stag I offered to buy lunch, but Millie said that she had already indulged enough for the day. “My husband is coming back tomorrow from three weeks on a project in the North Sea,” she told me in a voice low enough so that the kids couldn’t overhear. “And while I can’t hardly go that long without a diddle to tide me over, this time I haven’t had so much as a rub. By a man, that is (you can figure out where the laughs go yourself). And now it’s too close to take the edge off, else I’da had you in my knickers already. But I don’t want to have no cooking or chores left to do when he walks through the door. So I gotta get home.”
I guess my earlier premonitions weren’t totally off the mark. Good Ol’ Millie, salt of the earth. She’d probably brought her kids with her to keep temptation at bay.
“OK, then. Thanks ever so much for showing me the place. Can I contribute gas money or to the kid’s college fund?”
“Naw, it was great to get back and see Clive again. Plus I’ll get a good story out of it – I can see that Megeth has a secret to share. But if you really feel that you have a debt to pay, why, just drop back by in a couple of weeks, we’ll settle up then.” She punctuated this last proclamation by patting my ass as well as the requisite chortle.
As soon as she had gotten in the car, Meg climbed back out. I squatted down to be on her level.
She gently slipped her hand in mine again – apparently, hugs and kisses were for other kids, she expressed her affection her own way – looked me square in the eyes, and said, “Once you find out what your dreams are all about, will you write me and let me know, Mr. Artie?”
I took both of her hands before answering. “Megeth, if and when I find out what this is all about, I’ll come by and tell you personally. And that’s a promise.”
She held my glance for a long moment, then sealed the deal with a nod. Me too.