The morning smelt of sweat. Perspiration clung to the mist and filled my nostrils. The daybreak reeked of saltly musk and of horses. The doe could smell it too. Before me, before I was more than simply unconsciously aware of the approach, she paused, looked north and then ran, brambles flicked away in her wake.
They came across the horizon at a canter with wild yelps that echoed through the forest. Cries of aggression and buoyant macho adrenalin vocalised to rebound off the clustered trees. The lead horse slipped in the wet and churned mud in a grey-brown arch along its flank so that its rider cursed it all the way to black pit as one of his rivals whisked on past.
And then, they were gone; nothing but the gently settling earth and the throbbing vibration of hooves striking dirt vibrating through the earth, through time. I sat on my fallen tree trunk in silence and took a sip of coffee poured from a silver thermos. The New Forest was alive yet dead simultaneously; trapped in-between worlds.
He appeared as though from behind history. A flame haired man atop a chestnut stallion. He was slightly hunched forward, his purple cloak was wrapped tight around his shoulders. He urged his mount to trot forwards, his eyes scanning from side to side, but looking for what I couldn’t tell – the doe? His comrades? No, not his comrades. It was clear they weren’t his equals, but his minions. He paused in front of me and seemed poised to say something, to speak in a tongue I wouldn’t recognise.
That was the when the crossbow bolt hit him in the centre of his chest.
‘An end to Punch and Judy politics,’ David Cameron announced as he stepped up to the lectern for the opposition in the House of Commons in December 2005 – before going onto remind Blair ‘you were the future once.’
I never watched a Punch and Judy show as a child. Puppets tended to scare me, especially those representing humans. I even found the old men who sat up in the box seats for the muppet show somewhat disturbing. But, from what I understand, it’s a dark tale not only of incessant slapping and that’s-the-way-to-it-ing, but of lying and of murder. After Baby, after Judy, after the Policeman and the Crocodile and the strings of sausages Punch just can’t help himself. He has to go on and on like a force of nature.
Towards the end Mr Punch fools the Judge into placing his own neck in the noose and thereby hanging himself.
The rider looked down at the shaft jutting out of his torso and let out a surprised groan. He slid almost wearily, as though resigned the thankful inevitability of it all, to the ground. There he lay, his horse patiently waiting for orders, whilst a growing pool of crimson soaked through his purple finery at the root of the wooden bolt.
I lowered my head and closed my eyes out of respect.
And when I opened my eyes again there was, of course, nothing there. It was nothing but a ghost of nine hundred years prior.
William the second; middle son of William the bastard otherwise known as the Conqueror – the Norman Duke who sailed across the Channel to smoother the land. William, also known as Rufus for his fiery red beard; who reigned for barely ten years and managed to fall out with everyone. William who was slain in the private hunting grounds of the New Forest, Dorset, killed by a solitary crossbow bolt in circumstances that have never been fully explained. An accident or murder, no-one seems too sure. Rufus was childless, arrogant, variously accused of homosexuality and being warlock, renowned for a ferocious temper, happy to make war with his own kin, yet strangely affectionate for finery. Who killed him, we can never know because nobody hung around to find out. In 1099 England the rule of law died with the King and so everyone in the hunting party pelted back to their newly acquired lands and castles and serfs desperate to beat both word of mouth and the grubby hands of their neighbours. After all, he was dead; just another corpse. In those days, no-one cared whodunit as long as they didn’t try to do them too.
Another Rufus had been a more frequent companion recently - high-camp sub-operatic warbling playing in the background of my subconscious.
‘If anyone wants me,’ I cheerfully called out, sauntering across the office floor, ‘I’ll be in the basement making snuff films.’ It got one laugh and even then only after I’d repeated it.
‘Mmmm, making movies of myself,’ I minced as I rode the lift down, deep down underneath the surface of London. And there as I messed around with green screens and video cameras and pretended I understood what we were doing I watched the careful reading of the autocue and the image projected in the directors’ monitor and it all seemed more real than life itself. It was, in that moment, as though the ultimate representation of ourselves was being stolen from the waking world and digitalised, to be flung across a thousand computer screens. Were we losing ourselves?
‘I’ve got so much to tell you, babes,’ said the girl with the dyed red hair who had inexplicably reappeared.
She tucked her chair closer across the crowded bar and whispered into my ear a tale of filth until someone broke the moment by saying: ‘I can’t hear what she’s saying, but I doubt it’s desired effect is a face so horrified.’
Far from ending Punch and Judy politics, Cameron seems to have pushed it on to another layer of perverse macabre.
He’s making the early slavos of the election battle about individuals and the trust we are prepared to place in them; our faith that they are real people rather than anything they might actually do in the future.
Cameron calls Brown shameless over the expenses scandal as the whip is withdrawn from the three Labour members of parliament facing prosecution, conveniently forgetting that the fourth is a Conservative. He then moved onto calling electoral reform proposals ‘cynical attempts to save his own [Brown’s] skin’ and attacks a non-existent death duty. You know what? Just fuck off, Dave.
What’s the alternative to actual policies? The two of them (and they are almost as bad as each other) going on chat shows to be interviewed by sycophantic slimeballs as they try to our mourn each other for the death of their children. Both are enormously tragic events, but don’t – don’t either of – politicise it. So, don’t talk about it. Because you’re politicians so everything you say becomes political.
In the end Mr Punch even manages to fight off the devil himself, refusing to be dragged down in hell and preferring to wander this world, homeless, doomed to recount his bloody tale again and again until his immortal soul has paid its price.
The crowded commuter train was steamy from the rain. Outside, it was unseasonably icy and the torrential downpour thumped off the roof of the carriage, but inside the heater fired wafts of smelly hot air across our faces and water roses up from sodden jackets into the air. The couple pressed up close to me could not help but display their adoration for each other and over minutes gentle nuzzling of noses and little kisses to the dents of chins became fully fledged tongues slipping between teeth replete with squelchy saliva smacking sounds. It ruined my enjoyment of In Cold Blood. I felt like a passive voyeur in a three-some. The whole porno experience was amplified by the ipod of the short bald middle aged man pressed into the small of my back. From out of his ears comes the eighties power electric keyboard chords of Van Halen’s: Der-der-der-der-der-de-dah-‘Jump, you mighta well jump.’
Back in 1099, whilst all the barons fled for home, one man – Rufus’ younger brother Henry – rode for the Winchester and the treasury. Money talked as much then as it does now.
William Rufus was buried almost grudgingly by a suspicious clergy in Winchester Cathedral. When, a few years later, the tower collapsed it was said to be the presence of his blacked heart degrading the holy foundations of the church.
I stood up in the afternoon sun broken by the thick forest canopy and flicked the remnants of the coffee, bitter like burnt bark, onto the floor. As I turned I saw a figure and for a moment wondered if it was the culprit, but it was only a dog walker. A sensibly wax jacket and flat capped man with wisps of grey escaping ears and hyperactive collie collared to a lead. On I tramped out of the woods and across a boggy ridge, my boots squelching through pools of green slop. In my wake I was followed by the muddled memories not of despatched kings, but of idle afternoons, total disorientation amongst the trees, of insects and fish and of the bristle of autumn heather against sun saturated skin.
Later, I drove back up out of the country and towards the city. The motorway slipped away behind me in a haze of fuzzy electric lights and high up above a colossus silver skinned moon hung in the sky like a painted backdrop. The earth felt unnaturally close to the weirdly neon moon as though its craggy craters were carved in high definition. I drove towards the city, back towards answers and that was when it struck me for the first time. Perhaps the city wasn’t the place to find what I was looking for. Perhaps, I needed to look in the country, into our murky past to find the simmering tomorrow. Pop music blared out the speakers and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was driving to the moon itself, leaving that world behind for the blissful void of space.