As I've started giving early previews, I'd better stick to my word and give you chapter two for your ongoing entertainment. This is even rougher than the first chapter, and I only finished it about half an hour ago. I decided to put it out there straight away before I lost my nerve and started over-tinkering with it.
Only one more preview to come after this, chapter three is the last freebie you get for now.
As before, I'm likely to give this a major rework of this in the second draft, but I'm reasonably pleased with how it's holding together, and I'm settling down on how I'm going to let this story unfold now.
I'm sure within a few of sentences into chapter two that you'll have realised that everything you've read in chapter one may not be exactly as it seemed. Read on, after my Avebury photo...
[Update 18 Nov: Just moved Erica Immurson's house from Chippenham to the nearby Lacock as it fitted more nicely with what I'm writing in chapter three.]
Chapter 2: A Lunch With Alex
Gradually, Chris became aware of a nearby presence as he surfaced from his late-morning slumber in the sun atop the long barrow. He opened his eyes, blinking away his somnolence and the bright sun which was haloed behind the head of the woman standing over him. He held up his hand to shield his eyes from the glare as reality began to coalesce through the confusion of his sleep-addled mind.
Who else could it have been standing there? As if he could ever forget that beautiful, smiling face, its light brown skin perfectly framed by her dark, curly hair.
'Hi, Alex,' said Chris, his heart warmed as always to see his daughter. 'Finished your walk?'
Alex smiled broadly.
'Yup,' said Alex. 'I'm back. Come on, lazy, let's go.'
Her smile always brightened his mood whenever it was directed at him. He wasn't sure he'd have coped through the pain of the last year without her support.
'One minute,' said Chris, sitting upright and taking a deep breath. 'Not quite awake yet.'
He leant back on his hands and admired the view down the hill one last time. He'd never tire of it.
'Shall we go there next?' said Alex, clearly noticing where his gaze was directed. 'Avebury, I mean. Maybe grab a bite to eat?'
'Sounds good to me,' he said, remembering he hadn't had any breakfast yet. He pushed himself unsteadily up to his feet. 'Can I just poke my head inside the barrow before we go?'
'Sure, Dad,' said Alex, taking his hand and leading the way.
He couldn't come up here and not complete his obligatory tour of the place. Hopefully, the neopagans had finished their ritual, or whatever it was, by now. Somehow, he felt the need to pay his secular respects before he left too. He had no idea why, this place had gotten under his skin in the few visits he'd made so far. It was part of him now.
Perhaps, it helped to fill the void left by Lisa's death last year, something meaningful to cling onto while the rest of his world fell apart. Other than Alex, of course.
It had come out of nowhere, a stupid accident just after they'd relocated to Calne to build the next phase of their life away from the rat-race. Everything had started so well after their move, rekindling the closeness that had been slowly stifled from their lives by the stresses of the daily grind. Then, as if she'd never existed, Lisa was gone. But Alex remained. It was something to live for.
Without Alex's regular visits every couple of weekends, he didn't know if he'd have the strength to go on. He was sure they were part of a coping mechanism for her too. Although Alex had never been as close to Lisa as she was to him, it must have been a major upset for her as well; he was sure she was putting on a false show of strength just to help him. He appreciated it. Her visits gave him something to focus on, the anticipation as important as the event itself.
'Are you sure Daniel is OK with you visiting so often?' said Chris as they sidled down the slope behind the stones guarding the entrance to the long barrow.
'Of course, Dad,' said Alex. 'I've told you before, don't worry about it. He's pretty busy at work and needs to chill a bit when he gets a weekend off.'
'Stop it,' said Alex. 'Come on, let's go inside.'
Alex stepped down towards the entrance and disappeared inside the darkness. Carefully, Chris followed her footsteps.
He knew what Alex said about her fiancé Daniel Oliver wasn't the whole truth. They'd never entirely hit it off, and that was primarily his fault. At first, he hadn't been convinced Daniel was the right man for her; she could do better than a naive working-class lad like him. Eventually, he'd seen how hard a worker he was, how his career was taking off and, more importantly, how much he loved and doted on Alex. He'd do anything for her, and did.
By then though, the damage was done. Daniel wasn't so naive to not be aware how Chris had felt. Daniel had always remained polite and courteous – but had kept his distance ever since. That was a problem for another time, though. Right now, he had his own life to sort out but he was sure Daniel was being as big a help to Alex as Alex was being to him.
Chris followed behind Alex into the main chamber of the long barrow, just high enough to walk upright all the way without needing to stoop. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the dimness, despite the tiny ceiling windows that had been added in more modern times. Ignoring the small side alcoves, they made their way straight to the far end.
There was an unexpected smoky smell pervading the chamber, which increased as they reached the final space. His foot kicked something on the floor, barely discernible in the gloom. After a few seconds waiting for his eyes to adjust further to work out what was there, he gave up, pulled out his phone and turned on its torch. The cold white glare illuminated some wild flowers and foliage scattered in a circle surrounding scorch marks on the earth, presumably an offering to whatever god or goddess the devotee adhered to.
Chris turned off the torch. He felt as if he was intruding again. Whatever his own lack of spiritual belief, it seemed that the space was being put to good use. This was in keeping with its history. If it still served a purpose right through to the modern day, that was good – a seemingly unbroken connection of worship linking our prehistoric ancestors to technological man.
'Let's go,' said Chris, feeling content.
After a gentle walk down the farm track bisecting the upper field, made a little slippery by the recent autumnal showers, they emerged near the lay-by on the A4.
'Clean the mud off your shoes, Dad,' said Alex pointedly as Chris went towards the passenger door. 'Your car may be a polluting wreck, but that's no reason to make mine dirty.'
Chris rolled his eyes theatrically but scraped his shoes on the kerb one-by-one.
'Better?' he said, lifting his feet in turn to let her see.
'It'll do,' she said.
They got into Alex's new Nissan Leaf, which she'd only had a couple of months. It was her pride and joy and she never missed an opportunity to point out how much more environmentally-friendly it was than his old Renault. He knew she was right, but he had higher priorities than changing it right now. Cars were something that got him from A to B, hopefully reliably, not something he had any particular interest in. Once he'd got his head together and understood what his future held, he'd probably contemplate getting something a bit more responsible.
Chris still found the quietness of the electric vehicle unnerving as it drove back down the A4 past Silbury Hill and right into Avebury. It seemed unnatural but guessed he'd get used to it eventually. Anyhow, it was only a short drive which passed almost unnoticed and after a few minutes, they'd parked in the National Trust car park and were walking into the village.
'Where shall we eat?' asked Alex.
'Would you mind if we walked around the stones first?' said Chris. 'I'm still feeling a bit…muzzy headed after my sleep.'
Chris hadn't felt exactly himself since he'd awoken. It was hard to put his finger on it, but he was sure he was forgetting something. Something he was supposed to be doing, maybe. He wasn't sure.
The sensation wasn't unusual, it had been a regular companion over the past year. He'd been told it was an aftershock of Lisa's death, a traumatic impact on his psyche that would fix itself eventually. Time's a great healer or some such clichéd claptrap, he was assured. He wished time would get its act together and sort him out. He hated feeling like this.
'You OK, Dad?' said Alex.
'I'm fine,' he said. 'A bit of fresh air will clear it.'
'Go on, own up,' she said, smiling warmly to banish her concerned expression. 'You want to cuddle the stones, don't you?'
'Maybe,' he said, returning a good-natured grin. 'Depends if one of them is my type.'
'Cold, hard and stony, you mean?'
'I was thinking upright, dependable and inspirational,' said Chris.
'You do know how to cheer me up, you know?'
They broke into a comfortably familiar spontaneous laugh. Alex put her arms around Chris and hugged him tightly.
'Come on then, Dad,' said Alex, opening the gate to the field containing the stones to the south of the village.
Silently, they walked along the line of neolithic stones stretching around the henge like sentinels. Chris rested the palm of one hand on each as they passed, the coldness of the communion gradually permeating through to his bones. He stuck his hand into the pocket of Alex's coat for warmth.
'How…' began Alex uncertainly. 'How's your memory?'
Chris extricated his hand and stuck it in his own pocket, hunching forward slightly.
'I…I can't remember,' he said, trying to deflect from his own uncertainty with humour, but failing. He honestly wasn't sure how to answer. He knew what was coming, part of the familiar pattern with Alex as she lovingly but annoyingly tried to coax his memory back to normality.
'You can do better than that. Do you remember how you got to the long barrow today?'
'You drove me,' said Chris.
Of course that was what had happened, they'd just come from there in her car. Alex nodded.
'Thought you'd say that. That's good, means you're connecting things better now. Do you remember the journey? What did we talk about?'
Chris frowned. The memory was admittedly a bit vague, as was too often the case at the moment. The concept was there, the details were missing.
'About…eating in town when we first came here. About me climbing up on Silbury Hill?'
'Good,' said Alex. 'At the very least it's not gotten any worse.'
She put her hand into his pocket and squeezed his.
'We'll get there, Dad.'
Chris squeezed back, then took his hand out and placed it against the nearest standing stone. It was so frustrating. He knew there were gaps in his memory, but Alex's reminders bought it painfully to the forefront of his mind. He closed his eyes and leant his cheek against the icy stone, raising his other hand to rest against it as well. That was better. The contact with the power of the ancient sarsen seemed to ground him emotionally.
He knew Alex was only trying to help, make him face up to the problem, but he was happier when he could just ignore it. At least when he was with Lisa, she didn't keep going on about it.
Chris's legs suddenly felt weak as a pain stabbed through his temple. That wasn't right. It couldn't be. Lisa was dead. So, who had he been thinking about?
'You OK, Dad?' said Alex, noticing his obvious distress. She took his arm to help support his weight. 'Dad?'
'I'm sorry, I just felt…' said Chris, at a loss for the right words. '…felt as if your Mum…'
'Don't worry,' said Alex, reaching to wipe away a tear from his eyes. 'I know. You felt as if you'd been with her recently, didn't you?'
'Y…Yes…it felt like a dream. Damn, my head aches.'
Alex hugged him gently.
'It's fine,' she said. 'It's not the first time, and hopefully, won't be the last. It's happening more often now. The doctors say that it's a good sign, that things are starting to knit back together. You just have to let it happen naturally.'
'I wish it would hurry up.'
'Time's a–' started Alex before Chris interrupted brusquely.
'Don't you dare. It's about the only thing I can reliably remember, that's time's a great fucking healer. I'm sick of it.'
'Sorry,' she said. 'Look, maybe it's time to try something new. I think you might be ready.'
'I'll try anything. What?'
'Not here,' said Alex. 'Let's talk over some food. How about the Red Lion?'
'Sure,' said Chris. He realised he was starving now, and his legs still felt weak after that wobble by the stone.
Needing one final sight to reorient himself, he looked in the direction of Silbury Hill and the West Kennet Long Barrow. He held his breath as he tried to make sense of what he saw, or rather, didn't see,
There was no sign of either of them. It made no sense. He'd clearly seen precisely the spot where he was now standing when resting atop the barrow earlier. He looked all around the horizon, but there was nothing.
Further disoriented by his Swiss cheese memory, Chris turned and followed Alex back into Avebury village.
They were quickly shown to a window table next to the old internal well, now disappointingly covered by a clear plastic enclosure.
'Can I get you anything to drink?' said Ashley, the pleasant young waitress with a name tag, a warm smile and dead eyes.
'Diet coke, please,' said Alex. 'Seeing as I'm driving.'
'Pint of HSB, please,' said Chris. 'Seeing as I'm not.'
Alex raised her eyebrows as the waitress left them with their menus.
'What?' said Chris.
'It's a bit early for a pint, isn't it? It's only midday.'
'I know, but I couldn't resist when I saw they had HSB on the way in. It reminds me of…the past.'
Chris trailed off, as the details wouldn't emerge.
'You mean, Hampshire?' prompted Alex.
'Yes!' said Chris, as the memories crystallised. He'd been born and raised in a small village in Hampshire for the first twenty-or-so years of his life before university and Lisa had tempted him away. 'My first local pub served HSB. There's nothing else quite like it.'
Alex smiled reassuringly.
'If it helps the memories to come back, then drink away.'
'Well, if I have more than one, I'll probably fall asleep, but maybe the one will help.'
After a couple of minutes, the waitress came back with their drinks.
'Are you ready to order?'
'I'll have the all-day breakfast, please,' said Chris, not even having looked at his menu. He knew what he wanted. It was better late than never.
'I'll just have the halloumi fries starter, please,' said Alex. 'Bit early for me.'
'Sorry about that,' said Chris after the waitress left. 'I'm starving.'
'Don't worry,' she said. 'Daniel's cooking when I get back anyway, so don't want much.'
Chris took a first, small sip of his bitter, followed immediately by a longer mouthful, swooshing it around in his mouth before swallowing.
'Ah, that's good,' he said. 'Haven't forgotten that taste.'
'Good,' said Alex. 'So, what was the name of your local?'
'The Kings Head,' said Chris without hesitation. 'An old coaching inn. Had a skittle alley out the back.' He narrowed his eyes suspiciously. 'Testing me again?'
'Maybe. Just doing what the doctor said. The more memories we can get to stick, the quicker your recovery.'
He knew that. He knew she was doing the right thing. It just made him feel like a patient all the time, not her father. The only role he really cared about right now was that of being a Dad. It had always been the most important thing in his life from the moment he'd first held her, and he knew he'd let her down. He hated being a burden.
'You mentioned trying something new?'
'Yeah,' said Alex. 'Something your doc said would be worth trying when the time was right. I'm no expert, but I think you're ready. You're definitely remembering things better now, so I reckon it's worth a try.'
'Don't get too excited,' she said. 'Just a new style of consultation, probably including some cognitive and creative therapy.'
'Is that all?'
He could remember having plenty of one-to-one counselling sessions in the early days, even if it was a bit vague now. It hadn't found it helpful at all.
'It won't be anything like your early treatment,' said Alex, recognising the doubt in his eyes. 'You'll stick with the same therapist throughout and have a customised program of sessions and exercises to follow at your own pace. Honestly, it may not sound much, but apparently, if it clicks, you'll make rapid progress.'
'Keep an open mind, Dad. Surely, it's worth a try?'
'Where would I have to go?'
Alex fumbled in her pocket and pulled out a business card.
'Luckily, there's a specialist who lives in Lacock and takes consultations in her own home near the George Inn. So, you can get therapy and a beer at the same time. What more could you want?'
He took the card and studied it. At least it would be somewhere he already knew how to get to, and even knew where to park. One less thing to worry about. And it was another place he loved to visit.
'Erica Immurson, Reconstructive Cognitive Therapist,' Chris read out. 'That's quite a mouthful.'
'She's Norwegian, apparently.'
'I meant her job title.'
'I'm sure she can explain what it means. Want to give it a try, then?'
'I guess it would be churlish to say no,' said Chris, holding up the card. 'Seeing as you've gone to so much trouble.’
'That's good,' said Alex, pulling out another card from the same pocket. 'Here.'
'Your appointment card,' said Alex grinning. '2pm tomorrow afternoon. Don't be late.'