I wrote a short story in response to a competition at the writing group, the subject being a local town which is - so the story goes - the longest inhabited place in Britain. There was a limit of five hundred words. Here it is, nothing special, just an idea which came to after a couple of drinks with colleagues from work.
“Oldest town in England?” The shepherd laughed derisively. “So that’s where you live now.”
I looked out across the valley, which was green and fertile. Beyond the red tiled roofs of a straggling village rose a wooded slope.
“It was there when the Romans invaded England.”
“Yes, and Balcfalau was here long before the Romans.” The shepherd extended a gnarled hand. “There, after the trees, the Dacians lived – and their ancestors. We’ve always been here.”
I couldn’t return home on holiday without trudging over the hill to meet old Viorel. He’d been here when I was a boy and now, twenty years on, he scarcely looked older. Yes, he’d always looked ancient. The wiry old man might be a Dacian.
I’d learned about the Dacians at school, we all had. I, too, was their descendent - which made me neither Hungarian nor Saxon and certainly not Gypsy.
“It’s nice where I live, with shops and restaurants, and a hospital. There are jobs too.”
“Yes,” Viorel replied in that toothless voice of his, “the people there have all those things. You have a job and money. But who are you now?”
I looked at the homespun old man. His sharp grey eyes interrogated me.
“I’m me, the same as I used to be.”
“No, Octavian, you are serving others just like the people in the valley used to serve the communist pigs.”
“I’m earning money to send home.”
“Come up here and learn a real trade. Send down meat and cheese. Cut timber and build yourself a house.”
I laughed, gently out of deference to the old man. A part of me would love to spend all summer up here.
“You could marry Bogdan’s daughter. You’re still single, aren’t you?”
I nodded. I shared an apartment with two Polish men and a Czech. Our lives were framed by monthly visits to the Western Union office. And what had my family done? Bought a car whilst I still took the bus!
“Yes, Viorel, what have I become?”
“I’m old, Octavian, I’ll sell you the land.”
“For how much?”
“For enough to buy an apartment in the town - fifty thousand euro, or sixty.”
“And how much do you sell the cheese for, and the meat?”
Viorel shrugged. He knew perfectly well how little he made – perhaps a thousand euros each summer to supplement his two hundred euro monthly pension. He knew that I could guess this.
“It’s too expensive,” I continued.
Wordlessly we sat on a sun-bleached log. Down the grassy slope below us ragged sheep grazed, guarded by a shaggy dog.
“You’ll never be English,” Viorel remarked.
You’re wrong, I thought. I belong to the oldest town in England now. The Dacians will die with you, Viorel, and then just empty hills shall remain. I’ll carry your memory when I walk beside the Thames, and I shall dream.
Yes, and I will become more English when I cease sending money home to be squandered without shame.