A single house stood on the left side of the road. Hardly much of a road, he thought, as there was no sign that the rutted track had ever been tarmacked. Smoke issued from the chimney and he could see pigs in the yard behind. The landscape seemed familiar but alien and he could not quite work out why.
He rode slowly up to the gate, worried about getting a puncture, sat back stationary on the saddle. A face peered out at him from behind the shutter of a roughly constructed unglazed window. It seemed to be wearing a long pointed hat. Simon returned the gaze then quickly looked away, worried. It was hot and he wondered whether it might be impolite to ask for a drink. Suddenly something struck him from behind.
"Oi, you. Got a mizzard on yer chopper."
Simon jumped at the man's voice. A black cat, fresh from marking its territory on his tyre, squealed out of the way. His foot catching against the pedal he struggled to keep his balance. Attempting to turn round at the same time he stepped on a rut and stumbled back. Lurching against the fence he took a large splinter into his arm before rolling onto the ground. The bike fell on top of him. The man was holding two potatoes in his left hand. Picking one of them he took aim at the top of Simon's head. Simon put his hands over his helmet and the missile bounced harmlessly into the bushes.
The man was bald apart from dishevelled greying tufts either side of his head. Below his ears sprouted a vast beard and moustache flecked with ginger. Hair engulfed his neck front and rear and ran down into a shapeless tunic which looked as if it might have been stitched from cabbage leaves. The shagpile emerged again at his wrists and continued to the fingernails which were gnarled and ingrained with grit. Below the waist he wore rough sacking which revealed a faint shadow of his legs in the bright sunlight. His shoes were little more than pigskin bags fastened by what might have been a length of intestine, overshadowed by more tufts of hair from his feet. He smelt like a farmyard. Walking over to the bike he cautiously picked it up by its wheels, holding it upside down, visibly perplexed by the way its pedals rotated as the wheels moved. He lifted it into the air and threw it a considerable distance.
"Hey, careful with that," shouted Simon getting to his feet. "It cost me over three hundred pounds." He found it difficult to avoid staring at an enormous wart on the side of the man's head, for some reason reminding him of the siren on the police car in an American cop show.
The man looked awed. He waved his wife out.
"Ere, Maud. This lad got more money than the king imself. Tree undrerd pound. Ere, best take it in. Keep an eye on that, mind" - he pointed to Simon's helmet - "it might awaken up." He went back to the bike and carried it over to the house, still holding it upside down by the wheels.
Maud had black hair done up in a pile above the ears, tapering towards the top. Her oily skin was worn but smooth. She was barefoot. Her drab cotton skirt full of stains and patches and she wore some kind of chemise that had probably been expensive two decades earlier. Some faint kind of scent did nothing to disguise that she smelt as if she had slept in the pig trough.
She took Simon inside. It was gloomy but not too dark to hide the cobwebs. He worried about meeting their occupants. In the living room two ancient dogs slept in the shade below the window. On the sill stood an unopened tin of pineapple chunks, its bright label making a visible contrast to the wilting flowers set nearby in a brown clay vase. The hallway smelt of rotting mice and the kitchen was right next to the pigsty. He prayed he would not be invited into the bedroom. He started at seeing two silent figures in an alcove but on closer inspection they turned out to be harmless broomsticks. She examined his arm. It was starting to swell nastily. She yanked the splinter out and blood started to flow.
"Ere, feel better now?"
"Er, yes. I guess so. Have you got any iodine?"
Maud laughed. "Ere, Joe. I-o-dine. Must be a right prince or sommat. I'll make you all right in a spell, aye. I'll get a twilling of pig dung. I knows all the proper words to put over it."
Joe smiled as she left the room, revealing a scattering of stumpy teeth. "Aye, us country folk, we knows some ways to cure ill. City they knowsn't nowt. Call ye spirits that's what we says. We got magic out ere, we ave. Say, whatzat on ee arm?"
Simon took the watch off his wrist. He offered it to Joe who examined the fastening mechanism with fascination.
"No, it's the front you need to use. It tells you what time it is."
"So what time is it then?"
"It's quarter past four. Look, the big hand's on the four and the little hand's quarter of the way round."
"Well not much good is it then cos it us 'alf six."
"How come? I mean, how do you know?"
Joe pointed at the sun. "Thee got so much divvilry ee doosn't even know to tell time."
Maud returned with a handful of sludge. She slapped it over Simon's arm, most of it falling on the floor. She incanted words over it then fastened a piece of old cloth using two pieces of twine. Joe grinned. "Now let's be seeing some magic of yours on that flimmin contraption out yer."
Simon wheeled the bike through the little house to the back yard, carefully avoiding the fresh dung Maud had dropped on the floor. When he got there he realised he could just as easily have gone round the side. Lifting the rear wheel he showed them how moving the pedals would cause it to rotate. Then he showed that if the wheel was kept on the ground while turning the pedals the machine would move forwards. Finally he rode it around the yard in front of them.
"Ey, where be yoos words?" shouted Joe.
"Words? What words?"
"Magic words. Ow say, Maud? In-Can-Ta-Tum."
"Oh, well, er ..." Simon racked his brains. "I know. Try this: Fiddle-de-dee, up and down. Make my wheels go round and round."
Joe beamed with delight as Simon rode round chanting. Joe instantly wanted to have a go.
"It's not easy. You have to balance right. I don't want to..."
"No. I must. The Divvel if you won't let I. Tell im, Maud."
"Thee better let im, whatever thy name. Go on, Joe."
"Oh and I better ave yer magic cap too."
Simon fastened the pink and green helmet onto Joe's head with some reluctance and wondered whether to take a photo with his mobile. Maybe later. The sudden appearance of a phone would complicate matters and he wondered why he had not already used it long before dealing with any absurd rustics. Joe sat on the saddle and immediately toppled over. Simon caught him. "Here, just balance and I'll push you along. When you've got the hang of it you can try on your own."
After much difficulty and the death of a stray chicken Joe appeared comfortable and swore he could do it by himself. Simon showed him how to sit on the saddle with one foot on the ground and the other on the pedal. Joe pushed down mightily and lurched ahead, wobbling furiously. Simon ran after him as he moved in a line towards the cabbages.
"Fiddle-de-dee, ups and downs. Ey, how doos I stop ee?" He careered towards the ripe plants and caught the front wheel on one of the bulging heads. Tumbling over the bars he landed head first among the leaves. After a while he discovered that nothing was broken and picked himself up. Simon was too tactful to point out the worm hanging from the side of his sparse hair but he did take the opportunity to recover his helmet.
"Is work of the Divvel, I swears. Oo are you anywise?"
"Me? I'm Simon. Simon Wyche. Of Wyche Farm."
"Witch?" They both edged back a little.
"No, not witch. Wyche. W-Y-C-H-E. It just means a place. It's at Yate Gate, near Bradburn."
Joe and Maud looked at each other. "Breadbourne," said Joe. Old Tom from Pigsty Hill went there. Two year ago. We ain't never seen im since. Oh and you come over all that way on at? Ow many days it take?"
"Er, listen Joe. You've been very kind to me, you and Maud, but I really had better be going now. I've got to find my way home somehow. I just don't know where I am. It's like I've landed on some kind of film set or something."
"Aye, ee don't know our land," said Joe to Maud. "Ee be bit alien with ey clothes. Thought ee were Vrench or sommat. Say what, why don't thou put a spell on im for pertection? Safe from Master Nick like."
Maud jumped in front of him, both hands extended. Simon was astonished at the change in her voice. "Orbum orbum mysticum nostrum. None can see Simon ... Wyche" - she crossed herself - "when he is protected by ..." She looked around for inspiration. A flock of birds flew over. "... geese!" Joe looked delighted.
"Well, yeah, thanks anyway," said Simon. I guess I'd better go a bit further down and maybe I'll find someone who knows what's going on. Aliens, did you say? That would explain a lot. Well we'll see. It's all very mysterious. I think I'll go for proper medical treatment though. Don't want to get tetanus. Or worms for that matter." He smiled and waved to them as he tried to jolt slowly down the hill.
"Ere, gert near forgot," called Joe. "A present, like, from simple country folk just to show we means well." He ran into the house and fetched out a large turnip.
Simon moved off down the hill, wobbling dangerously on the stones while trying to balance the turnip in a hand way too small for the task. At the same time he tried to scan the landscape for hidden clues. As soon as he was out of sight he tore the filthy rag off his arm and wiped away as much of the stinking goo as he could manage. He squeezed the wound hard to make it bleed. Licking the cleanest part he could find of his fingers he wiped it clean. He felt sick and was starting to get hungry. Carrying on down the path he was certain there would be a village.
Several small houses stood towards the bottom of the hill, and more clustered beyond at a point where the valleys of two streams converged and gave way to broader land which promised to lead towards a town. The brook of the hill he had come down ran along the backs of the cultivated gardens, though the summer heat had reduced it to a dirty trickle. Small amounts of smoke issued from every roof and he wondered if they ever put the fires out. The air smelt heavily of animals and was filled with their cackling, braying and several different types of snorting. Simon saw a boy in rags rush into one of the houses and stand inside, gawping at him through the window hole. The stones on the track petered out into mud and he was grateful the dry weather had made it as hard as concrete. As he bounced along avoiding the ruts a man leapt out of the first house with a pitchfork and stood crouched in front of him brandishing it in his face. Several villagers emerged from their houses and circled some distance behind. Simon noticed crows circling high above.
"Ain't seen you before. What you doing round here?" The man with the pitchfork eventually decided Simon was not going to attack and stood the weapon on its end. "We're a bit suspicious of strangers here, mind." He adjusted his shirt which was rough and patched but at least looked clean.
"Er, yes. Sorry. Yeah, I've hurt my arm. Here, tell you what, I've got a little present for you to show you no harm, like." He handed over the turnip, feeling relieved to be rid of it. The man looked unimpressed. "That guy Joe up the hill, his wife put some, well, er, stuff, on it and I was wondering if there's a doctor nearby who can give me some antibiotics."
At the mention of Joe's name the crowd took a breath and stepped back. The man tightened his grip on the handle of the pitchfork. He savagely stuck the turnip on one of the prongs so that it looked like a giant glaring eye. "Don't you go messing with they folks. Kiddie next door died last month after he'd been up there. Ain't that right, Sammy?" He turned to a swarthy man standing behind him brandishing the butt of a Lea Enfield rifle.
The was a murmur of assent from the crowd. The man looked at Simon's arm. "Ey, Kylie, come 'ave a look at this."
His wife came out from the crowd and looked at the reddening wound. Simon was relieved to find that she had not the slightest accent. "It stinks. You want to wash this and use a hot poultice of dandelion root. Come inside."
Simon took a tissue out of his pocket and blew his nose. The villagers looked amazed. He started to move towards the house. They moved a step away in unison for each step he took forward. Ignoring them he wheeled his bike up to the house and propped it against the wall. He went inside.
"Now, husband, you go tell those ignorant peasants that he's the son of a very important foreign merchant. Don't want them blabbing on to everyone for miles around. Come here, lad, I'll see to your arm."
When her husband was safely outside she closed the door. It was clean inside and smelt of bread. "What's your name?"
"Er, Wyche. Simon Wyche. Of Wyche Farm."
"Thought it might be. You just arrived here, all of a sudden like?"
"Well, yes. Where on earth am I?"
"Well you're still on Earth. As far as I can tell. You're in Brigstolle, or Bristow to educated folks, just as you always have been. Or at least, that is to say, you're in one of the many villages that will grow into the city which, after the Industrial Bubble and the Climate Wars, is set to become the capital of England. The when is the more important matter right now, and that I can't tell you. 1600s maybe. There aren't any newspapers or public libraries round here and women can't really go round asking too many questions."
"In the past? But ..."
"Don't worry about it. Just worry about the fact that people who come down the hill don't tend to last very long. Good job you weren't in a car or they'd have set up the bonfire underneath you before you even had a chance to get out. One guy ran over three villagers and they've never forgotten. Just get yourself quietly married and out of the public eye and you'll have no problem really."
"Yeah, thanks. So, er, ... yeah. The past. And you're from, ... well, never mind. I can't just come in and marry someone can I? I mean how would I get a certificate? I don't exist officially do I? How would I get id? Can I use my passport?"
"There's no bureaucracy here I can assure you. Not that you'd recognise. When everyone gets to know you you'll be accepted pretty quickly and then you can do what you like. It's all word of mouth here. Tell me, did you have a girlfriend before you came through?"
"Well, yes. I was supposed to see her this afternoon. Or evening. That's why I was on my way back. Cause I overslept. I mean ..." He looked at her, frightened. "How can I get back?"
"I don't know if it's even possible. Too dangerous to try. I told you, you're not the first and so far you seem to have been lucky. Don't push too far. These are difficult times. City folk worry about unrest in the countryside and it may lead to civil war. It makes them all the more suspicious. You've got to make as many friends as you can in as short a time as possible. And that includes a new woman, however ugly she is."
"And how would I find one of those?" he asked with resignation.
"Well there's a few teenage girls around who aren't already spoken for. All pretty hideous but better than a public burning. Well, perhaps."
She finished tying the bandage to his arm. "There, that'll do you fine. Just keep it on for a day then leave it exposed to the open air. Those two, Joe and Maud, I don't know how they get away with it. If anyone deserves a public execution, well... They have some kind of a spell they put on the Witchfinder. It's all innocent people get the chop and they just do what they want up there. Now lets get your clothes off and give you something more in keeping with the times."
Simon looked about for a room in which he could change without embarrassment at the eyes of this attractive woman of his own age. Well, not exactly his own, about ten years older and according to what she said maybe a hundred and fifty years younger, but in any case civilised, which was more than he could say for the villagers. Just then the man came bustling in.
"Osbert, I thought I told you to stay outside and keep the villagers away."
"Oh, but I have my sweetheart. I told them about how important he is and how we mustn't let on that he's been seen in these parts. Then I told them a joke and we all started and of course we went cracking jokes about the Witchfinder, how he always misses the proper witches and picks on people who aren't witches at all. Anyway Bill Williams was going on about the Slater case last year and he weren't holding no punches like, and everyone was having a good laugh, and then we saw him behind us."
"What, John Slater?"
"No, stupid. He's been ashes thirteen months now. The Witchfinder. Old Nick Scantlebury. Face like the Devil. Went up to Tom Barker and said, well you may laugh but it's bad witchcraft in this village and I'm after someone to show for it right soon. Then he turned away. We all scarpered. Anyway at least our new friend's safe in 'ere."
There was a loud knock on the door, insistently repeated. They looked at each other. Simon searched for somewhere to hide. Somehow he managed to squeeze into the pantry. Kylie went to open the door. He heard a sharp voice demanding to be let in.
"Right, where is he? Come on, or I'll have the pair of you as well."
"Ain't no one but us in here."
Simon realised that the game was up and he would have to reveal himself to protect his hosts. Pushing the door open he stumbled out. As he did so the shelf dislodged and a bag of millet fell over his head. Geese wandered in through the open bottom half of the back door and started pecking. He shooed them away but they were so insistent. Another came in through the front door and pecked the Witchfinder sharply on the ankle. He killed it in a single blow and as he did so stumbled over the dog who had come in to see what all the commotion was about. It was then Simon realised his bicycle had been propped against the front of the house. Shaking millet out of his hair he pulled out his T-shirt to release the remaining grains. Some went down his trousers. He made his way to the front door only to see the Witchfinder's figure retreating down the path.
"No one in there," he said angrily to the villagers. "I hope you haven't been tricking me or it'll be the worse for you."
Standing by the gate Simon watched him disappear. "Well that worked like magic," he said to no one in particular. "Maybe they did me a good turn after all." He took his bike by the handlebars. A hand thudded down on his shoulder.
"Magic, did you say lad? Ain't no magic round here unless you brought it yourself."
Simon turned round to see a stern looking man with a well tailored leather coat and dark britches. His shirt showed him to be a man of distinction though it could hardly conceal a growth the size of a small marrow protruding from beneath his ribs.
"Who are you?" asked Simon.
"I'm Mister Perthwick, vicar of this parish. Who are you more to point?"
"Er, my name's Simon."
"Simon? Simon what?"
"Simon, er, Wyche, But not ..."
"Well that's very good isn't it? Let's have you to Bridewell and see what you can tell us. Haven't got much time left to earn my place in Heaven, you know." Yanking Simon's arm nearly hard enough to dislocate his shoulder he dragged him off down the road.
Bio: Having taken early retirement from the local council I now try and inspire young chess players with my work as an organiser and coach. In between I take time to write a bit. Have been writing short stories on and off for about thirty years and the three novels on this site are gradual updates of old stories I have put online as one of my lockdown projects.