The breeze scatters the wisps of pine needles bringing with it was the smell of horse breath and churned turf. At last, the impatient crowd of the berfrois grandstand, which lines each side of the list, fall silent with wide-eyed anticipation of the spectacle to come. Riding forward, the gleaming, armoured stallion is held in check, and snorts loudly. Steam shoots out of his nostrils and colours the air a misty grey; the frosty night has lingered into the early morning. The horse stamps his hooves on the chalky tilt yard and demands its release. However, no signal has been given; the lance handler has just retreated. People grow restless, rowdy in their chants.
The tension grates on the rider, who tries hard to keep his steed under control. Through the eye slits, he focuses on the wooden barrier of the list, then into the distance, where his foe similarly struggles with his mount. Oblivious to the cool damp air, he sweats into his undergarments. The weight and oppressive nature of the garb provides no ventilation. Twisting his rigid form, he attempts to spot the scarf, still held up high and blowing in the breeze. Leather creaks as the saddle strains under the extra movement. Discomfort for the rider is inevitable and serves only to make the seconds feel like hours, and it has only been merely ten or so breaths since their lances rose.
The red cloth falls. Floating, for a moment it catches an up current and drifts, unsure. Then it slumps. Briefly, the jittery horses rear with excitement; the command is given. Unfettered by their grooms, both charge in unison towards each other. The joust has begun.
‘Are you all right, luv? You look… dizzy.’
I jerked, my eyelashes fluttering. A curtain of sunlight breeched my lids with a golden flash. Above me was the silhouette of the stranger whose chafing voice had interrupted me at a crucial moment. I huffed and grabbed the strap of my handbag. Between the teeth of the zipper, I slipped the camera out of sight.
‘Yes, fine.’ I rose and hurried off the small ridge.
By the time I reached the edge of the sunken earthworks I regretted the curtness. Glancing back, I searched for the old lady. She had vanished, speedily for one with so many wrinkles and grey hairs. With a shrug, I slowed and meandered over to the Great Tower.
It didn’t matter, not really. I’d relived the same daydream every time I visited Ashby-de-la-Zouch Castle. Lost in a slipstream of fantasy, I always, without fail it seemed, inhaled horse sweat and heated metal through my charmed nostrils, and, through my soles, I felt the rumble of the roaring crowd. What was my stimulus for escaping the humdrum of the real world? A solitary, covert yearning; I sought out ruins, chivalry and romantic tales; I was a sucker for them. If only, I mused again and again, photographs could capture my imagination in perpetuity; perhaps then I wouldn’t need to keep coming back here and spending fruitless hours pretending I had some magical ability to travel back in time.
Time wasn’t on my side and the brisk walk to the car park was accompanied by a flurry of late autumn leaves. Halfway there, I overtook the silver-haired lady ambling along with her shepherd’s crook walking stick. I halted, aware of the gnawing discomfort in my belly. Turning on my heel, I approached the woman and bent slightly, hoping not to offend.
‘I must apologise,’ I said. ‘I didn’t mean to sound rude.’
The wrinkles multiplied as the lady’s face broken into a smile. ‘I interrupted you. I shouldn’t have spoken. You seemed almost… catatonic.’
I flinched. ‘Did I?’ A worrying development. Nobody had commented before now on my appearance.
‘In an occupied sort of way.’ She clutched the walking stick with a hand that was all knuckles and veins.
‘I was thinking about jousting.’ I glanced past the woman to the severely pruned walls and towers.
‘Ivanhoe by Walter Scott.’ The old dear’s voice brightened. ‘He wrote the scene here.’
I exhaled and met her gaze; she possessed sharply focused eyes as blue as a summer sky.
‘Yes, I know.’
‘You’ve read it?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I should really, I suppose. I’m more of a visual kind of person. Or maybe it’s because I prefer my senses telling a story.’ I stopped, realising that what I was saying to a perfect stranger was ludicrous. However, the woman held me in her gaze, nodding sagely in the way an older person does when told something they have mastered years ago.
‘You shouldn’t be afraid to be what you feel,’ she said.
For a second, I thought my hair had stood on end. What she said wasn’t weird or unrelated to my own experiences of visiting places like Ashby. To me, at least, she made perfect sense.
‘I can’t help daydreaming, imagining things.’ I was attempting to tell this unknown woman something deeply personal. ‘I feel so…’ The translation fell apart.
‘Here?’ She nodded, slowly. ‘For me it’s food. Great feasts. Roasted swan, smoked eels. Rich aromas. Earthy flavours, right there in my mouth.’ She stopped. ‘I’m not scaring you, am I?’
My pulse had quickened. ‘No. Absolutely not. You’ve reassured me, in fact. I thought I was… am crazy. It doesn’t just happen here.’
‘Of course not. Why would it?’ Her lips tinged purple, she shivered. ‘I have to keep moving or I stiffen up.’
We walked side by side to a turnstile.
‘I live in the village,’ she said. ‘I’ve seen you here before.’
I laughed softly at my weakness for the castle. ‘You probably have. Sorry, I haven’t noticed you.’
‘It’s comforting, isn’t it, knowing you’re not alone?’ The growing smile dissembled her face into a mosaic of blotches.
We hadn’t exactly defined what we were truly discussing, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted it to be defined with a word, like a medical term from a textbook. Somewhere, somebody probably had a whole vocabulary for what I felt and none of it would be flattering. Mum already had her suspicions of something malign based on certain unexplained events in my childhood.
‘Yes, it is. Does it get easier with… age?’ I grimaced at the indiscretion.
The multitudinous lines on the old lady’s brow deepened thoughtfully. ‘I don’t remember it ever being difficult. Think of it as a gift. Scott wrote books. I cook. What will you do?’
I clutched the bundle of keys in my coat pocket and stumbled slightly on the roots of a tree. I had never arrived at that conclusion before – harmonising the two things into one. But it made sense. It meant there was a good, or better, reason to keep trying, to not give up.
‘One day, I’m going to visit…’ I hadn’t the words to express my wish and my feelings weren’t readily packaged into neat verbal statements. Perhaps I had more in common with missionaries who ventured out with only spiritual needs to fulfil. ‘I like photography,’ I said instead. ‘It’s my hobby. I’d like it to be more than that.’
‘Then it shall be, shan’t it? Us dreamers must never stop hoping.’ She held out her hand.
I held it gingerly; the bones under the translucent skin were strong, though.
‘Good luck,’ the stranger said.
‘Thank you,’ I said, with genuine gratitude.
I wished I had the chance to share our experiences over a cup of tea and a piece of cake. I would have liked to have known what she meant by a gift, because I’d never considered frequent daydreaming a talent or skilled activity, more of a childish and inconsequential distraction which sometimes caught and dropped me unawares into a scene that was equally as vivid, if not more so, as a book or a film. I had created this longing within me to be somewhere else in time and I was somewhat disconcerted by its growing insidiousness. However, the unexpected conversation had boosted my mood and for once I didn’t scowl when I checked my watch.
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