Ring of Stone - Part 1

Ring of Stone

Castlerigg1.jpgA Novella by Bronwen Welsh

Part One - A Disappearance

When I persuaded Leonard Bolton, my friend and an expert in Middle-Eastern antiquities that he might spend some time investigating British prehistoric monuments, what followed was to change both our lives in ways we could never have anticipated.

Chapter 1 — A Disappearance

My name is Jack d'Anglais, and the story I have to tell is so unusual that I would not blame you if you think it is pure fantasy. Only two people can swear to it being the truth and one of those disappeared over seven years ago.

Recently I was contacted by a solicitor practising in Oxford. With a name as unusual as mine I was not difficult to find. After introducing himself as Edward Martin of Martin, Fry and Associates, and asking me some questions to establish that I was indeed the person he was looking for, he informed me that his inquiries were in relation to a person who disappeared seven years previously and that I was a beneficiary of his estate.

A chill ran through me and I said “You mean Leonard Bolton?”

“Yes indeed,” he replied. “I don't know if you are aware that Mr Bolton made us executors of his will, and in Britain when a person has been missing for seven years or more and every inquiry has failed to locate them, then an application can be made to have them declared 'missing, presumed dead'. This is the case with Mr Bolton. We have completed the necessary formalities and it is now our duty to wind up his estate. Is there any possibility you can visit our office in Oxford to complete the necessary paperwork?”

“Err, yes I can do that,” I replied. I work as a teacher of physical education and it was school holidays during the following two weeks, so I could travel up from London.

“Excellent,” said Mr Martin. We arranged an early afternoon appointment on Wednesday in a week's time and concluded our conversation.

I sat back in my chair and once again thought about the mysterious disappearance of my friend, and wondered if Mr Martin had anything further to say on the matter, although it seemed unlikely.

Leonard and I had first met in primary school where we both started within days of each other, and as 'new boys' and knowing no-one else perhaps we naturally gravitated to each other. While I had two parents, a brother and two sisters, Leonard was an orphan in all but name, since his mother had died in childbirth and his father, a merchant seaman, had left some months before he was born, never to be seen again. No-one knew if he was alive or dead, so Leonard had been brought up by an elderly aunt. New boys can be bullied, and I was fortunate in already being stronger and heavier than the other boys in our class and so had encountered no problems, but Leonard was very slight and on several occasions I had to step in and inform prospective bullies that they would have to deal with me if anything happened to him. In return, he was already showing evidence of developing a brilliant mind and was happy to help me with my studies.

This symbiotic relationship continued through to secondary school. Here I did my best to help him achieve a minimum of competence in ball games but with little success. He, however, still helped me with my studies and it was largely due to him that I achieved modest success in my final examinations, gaining sufficient marks to train as a physical education teacher. Leonard starred with numerous 'A's and could easily have studied law and made a fortune, but he was not interested, and went to Oxford to study ancient Middle-Eastern civilisations and their languages.

We still kept in touch but not as frequently as before, and then one day out of the blue, Leonard contacted me and suggested that we take a week's holiday together to catch up. Both of us were still single, I because I had never found that 'perfect woman', and Leonard I believe because women held no particular interest for him. I don't mean by that that he was gay, I think he had no interested in men or women, he was totally absorbed in his work.

Leonard left the choice of destination to me, and I suggested the Lake District partly because I still felt a sense of guilt about an incident that had happened when we were in our mid-teens. One of my other friends had invited a group of five of us go on a bicycling and camping holiday there. I had suggested that we invite Leonard along too, and foolishly told him about it, but they had scoffed at that, saying that with his physique he could never manage a bike laden with camping gear on the hilly roads. They were probably right, but I have never forgotten the look on Leonard's face when I told him the group's decision. He looked so forlorn that I immediately said I wouldn't go either, but he smiled bravely and said the boys were right and he would have held everyone up, but that I must go. To my eternal shame I leaped gratefully on these remarks and went on the holiday, but it was slightly soured for me as I couldn't get the vision of Leonard's disappointed face out of my mind. Apart from that it was wonderful holiday and the Lake District, which is notorious for its unpredictable weather, blessed us with two weeks of sunshine.

I was a little concerned that returning to the Lakes as an adult I might be disappointed, but in fact I found it more entrancing than ever. We had driven up in my car, and visited some of what I remembered as my favourite places; Windermere, despite its having become a bit commercialised, where we travelled the length of the lake on a boat; Grassmere, where we visited the local church and the rather plain tombs of the Wordsworth family; Wastwater, the westernmost and remotest of lakes where we climbed part of the way up Scafel to enjoy the views, and Coniston Water, said to be the main setting for many of the Arthur Ransome 'Swallows and Amazon' books which I had loved as a child.

Finally, with two days to go, we arrived at Keswick and booked into our hotel. I had told Leonard with his interest in Middle Eastern history, that he should pay some attention to the many ancient historic sites in Britain, including the stone circles, barrows and ditches. Everyone knows Stonehenge of course, but in my view, the stone circle with one of the most spectacular settings was 5000 year old Castlerigg, just out of Keswick, set on a low hill and surrounded by some of the most spectacular peaks in the Lake District. This would be a great place to start. I told Leonard about it being an astronomical observatory with stones lining up to certain events like solstices, and also the theory that ancient man built the circles in areas of special power, often on fault lines, and this might be responsible for sightings of mysterious lights among the stones and other phenomena. He looked at me with the faintest suggestion of a smile on his face and I could see he didn't believe a word of it.

That night was not one I look back on with pleasure. Leonard had wisely chosen steak for dinner, whereas I had gone for the seafood platter. About two in the morning, I awoke with the sensation that all was not well and made a dive for the ensuite, thankful that it was close-by. That was not my only visit, and when Leonard tapped on my door around 7am and asked if I was getting up, I told him I didn't feel like going anywhere that day. He immediately said he would stay with me, but I told him there was nothing he could do, and since the forecast for the following day was rain, he should go up to see the circle himself. After some persuading, he agreed to go.

It was late in the afternoon when he again tapped on my door. The landlord had been very good, and after Leonard had explained my situation, they had supplied me with water and dry biscuits, and I had slept most of the day which probably was the best thing after the night I had had.

“Well, what did you think of Castlerigg?” I said.

“It was......interesting,” Leonard replied.

“Interesting?” I responded “Now that isn't the reaction I was expecting.”

“I mean, it was spectacular of course, but it was something more,” he went on.

“You mean spiritual, almost like the atmosphere of a cathedral, only outdoors?” I prompted.

“Yes, something like that,” he replied.

Next morning I awoke to find that the weathermen had been right in their predictions. There was a steady drizzle outside, but at least my insides were more like their old self. After a light breakfast, Leonard and I agreed there was no point in hanging around, especially since we were due to go home the following day, so we agreed to pack and head back that day.

As we drove back, Leonard did seem unusually quiet, but I prefer not to have a talkative passenger, so I was grateful for that. He did ask a few questions about the 'mysterious happenings' at stone circles and I told him what I knew, which wasn't a great deal. I dropped him off at the house in Oxford where he rented a room, and then carried on to my flat in Finchley, North London. I tried to ring Leonard twice during evenings in the following week, but there was no answer, so I assumed he was at one of his numerous academic meetings.

It was a few days later that I had a phone call from his landlady. It seemed that an hour or so after I left him, Leonard had taken an overnight bag and gone out again, this time in his car. She hadn't seen him since and wondered if I knew where he was.

“I'm sorry Mrs Benson, I have no idea. I understood he was going to work on some lectures.”

“Do you think I should ring the police?” she asked.

“Well, that's up to you, but why don't you give it a few more days?”

Four days later, I had a phone call from the Oxford police. Mrs Benson had finally called them. They had checked his room for clues as to where he was but found nothing, so they were ringing me as one of the last people to see him, just in case I could help with any suggestions.

“Well we have just returned from a short holiday in the Lake District,” I said, listing the various places where we had been. I hesitated, and then went on “The last place we were at was Keswick, and he visited the stone circle of Castlerigg alone because I had a bout of gastroenteritis. He seemed particularly taken with it, so perhaps that's a place to look for him. Maybe he went for a walk and had an accident.”

“Thank you sir,” said the constable, and he promised to keep me informed if there was any progress in their search for Leonard.

For a week I heard nothing, and then came a report that was progress of a kind but only caused me to worry more. Leonard's car had been found in the parking bay beside the gate leading to Castlerigg, and his wallet had been found in a hedgerow close-by. It seemed likely that someone had found it since there was no cash inside, but all his cards were still there, and he hadn't accessed his bank account since the day he presumably disappeared. The police had also established that he had booked a room in a hotel for three nights, not the one where we had stayed when we holidayed there. He had only stayed there on the first and third nights, but the mystery of the second night was eventually solved where it appeared he had travelled to Oxford to see his regular solicitor to make his will and stayed overnight. It was all very strange.

Mrs Benson was very good, but after no word from Leonard after two months, she rang and asked what she should do. She was in business of course, so I offered to come up to Oxford and pack up Leonard's things and put them into storage so that she could let his room.

“I'm sorry about this Mr d'Anglais,” she said, “But I don't see what else I can do. I can't keep the room for him indefinitely, especially with no rent.”

“I'm sure he'd understand”, I reassured her “If, I mean when he returns I'm sure he'll find somewhere to stay if you don't have any vacancies. In the meantime, I'll pay his outstanding rent and collect it from him when I see him.”

I found a storage facility close by. Fortunately, Leonard did not seem to have many personal possessions and most of his books were at the university, so it was mainly his small wardrobe of clothes (and more about these later) and a few items like reading lamps and a desk and chair that had to be stored. The small storage unit didn't cost much, certainly it was cheaper than paying for his room. After that I returned to London.

Time passed, and gradually the mystery of Leonard's disappearance slipped to the back of my mind. The police had told me that thousands of people disappear each year, but most turn up in a few days. In a small number of cases their bodies are found, and then there are those who just completely disappear for no apparent reason, and are never heard from again. It gradually became apparent that Leonard fell into this category.

So now with the solicitor's phone call there was to be an ending of sorts with Leonard declared officially dead. I felt sad in a way, especially since there would never be any real resolution to his disappearance. I decided to contact my Great Aunt Mary who lived in Oxford. It had been far too long since I had seen her, and since I was going up there anyway, it would be 'killing two birds with one stone', although I wouldn't be telling her that. I decided to telephone her.

“Jack my boy, how lovely to hear from you. I was beginning to think you were dead, or should that be the other way around?” The touch of amusement in her voice took the sting out of her words, but I was annoyed to find myself blushing. She was right — it had been far too long since I'd been in touch.

“I was thinking of coming up to see you Aunty, I'm on holidays for the next two weeks.”

“That would be lovely, I don't have much of a social life so I'm free most days” she replied “What day did you have in mind?”

“How about next Wednesday?”

“Oh dear, how very awkward. That's my monthly bridge afternoon, but I could cancel.” she said. I could hear the disappointment in her voice. There was nothing for it but to stretch myself.

“Please don't do that, how about Thursday instead?”

“Thursday would be fine. How about coming at three? Then you can stay for tea.”

'Well it looks like I will have to stay a couple of nights in Oxford, but that won't be so bad.' I thought, and my next task was to find a suitable hotel.

The following Tuesday I drove to Oxford in the afternoon and settled into my hotel, near the centre of the city. The next day I arrived at the solicitors' offices at the appointed hour and was shown into Mr Martin's office, a magnificent room with oak paneling on the walls.

“Good afternoon Mr d'Anglais, I trust you had a pleasant trip?” he began. I assured him I had, and pleasantries over, he turned to a small bundle of papers in a manilla folder on his desk.

“As I explained on the phone, Mr Bolton used our services to prepare his will, and now that over seven years have elapsed since his unfortunate disappearance, it behoves us to deal with his estate. We have applied to the Family Division of the High Court, and they have now issued a 'presumption of death' order which means we can set about finalising Mr Bolton's estate. I should tell you that despite his having two distant cousins, he has made you his sole beneficiary. After the necessary disbursements which are higher than usual due to the circumstances of Mr Bolton's passing, the total value of his estate is three thousand, one hundred and sixty pounds. In view of the relatively small amount involved, his cousins have indicated that they do not intend to contest the will.”

“I see,” I said. “Well I knew he had no close relatives, but it was very generous of him to make me his sole beneficiary.”

“There's one more thing,” Mr Martin went on, producing an A4 size brown envelope, “Mr Bolton left this document with the specific instructions that it should be given to you by hand, and no-one else. In fact he specified that if you pre-deceased him or were unable to be located, then the envelope should be destroyed without being opened.”

With that he handed it over. My name was written on the outside, together with the words 'Private and Confidential'. I wondered what on earth it was, but I wasn't going to open it in Mr Martin's presence, and he seemed to be doing his best to conceal his curiousity. He gave me various papers to sign, and obtained my bank details, informing me that the money would be transferred to my account in the next week, and with that I stood up, we shook hands and I left his office.

I returned to my hotel room anxious to read what was in the envelope and wondering if it held a clue to Leonard's disappearance, and if so, should I inform the police of the contents. In the event I didn't, and there were obvious reasons for this as I shall relate. Having made myself a cup of tea, I opened the envelope and withdrew a sheaf of papers covered in Leonard's handwriting and sat down to read.

Next time: A letter

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