'The Upper Heads'
(taken from 'Beneath The Panic')
Peppermint faded as The Wanderer looked ahead of him down the winding lane. He noticed a gathering in the far distance.He set his stick hard against the ground and pushed off in the direction of the happening, deciding that his intended destination could wait a while. As he drew closer to the scene he started to make out what appeared to be a crowd of people, all with their backs to him, apparently looking at something with great interest. The throng was three or four thick and was very unusual in the way that there appeared to be no or very little movement at all. In any other crowd The Wanderer had ever seen there had always been a certain degree of animation. However on this occasion the people were almost stationary, as if what they were staring at had grabbed their attention to such an extent that the thought of moving didn't even enter their minds. He carefully made his way around the outside of the circle searching for a space to look through. The people he walked behind paid him no heed at all. They just continued to gaze inwards so attentively that the only thing that enabled him to see that they weren't mannequins or statues of some sort was their small patches of breath momentarily caught on the sharp morning air. From where he was now standing he noticed that he had been mistaken by his initial estimate of the depth of the crowd. As he attempted to see what they were looking at, he managed to count the circle being at least seven or eight people's heads thick. He also started to become aware of another aspect of the crowd that was very curious. The composition. Farmer's smocks, top hats, riding boots, cloth caps, frocks, working boots, tail coats, baby bonnets, braces, long hair, short hair, no hair, walking sticks. In fact the gathering was made up of literally every part of rural society you could think of. The Wanderer was confused. He'd only ever really seen everyone in this close proximity before at church and even then the lower classes were expected to show deference to the gentry. Here some people from the upper classes were actually standing behind the working people and they didn't seem to mind!
He carried on around the outside of the circle still trying to catch a glimpse of what was happening when suddenly the trance-like state of the people was broken. The crowd started to break up and move away back down the hill towards the road. "That was an excellent one. It seems so obvious now." "What do you think they meant about sink your thoughts?"
"He looked so well today, I wonder if..............."
The conversations trailed away as the people moved off into the distance until all that could be heard was the odd shout of ‘goodbye’ and an occasional peal of laughter. The Wanderer turned and walked slowly towards where the crowd had gathered, determined to discover what had held their interest in such a peculiar way.
The grass where the people had been standing so still was flattened into an almost a perfect circle and in the centre of this circle was ‘a let-down’ or else that is how The Wanderer saw it. A wooden cover. After all that just a wooden cover! On the ground in front of him was what appeared to be a man hole cover made of moss-slimed wood going rotten around the edges. It lay contained by a rectangle of plain stone and appeared to be held in place by just two rusty hinges. He bent down and tried to lift it.
"There must be something else here," he thought to himself. The cover would not shift an inch. He tried again. "It won’t move! Not unless they want it to."
The Wanderer stood up immediately and looked round. The first thing he saw was a smiling face. The man was tall, broad shouldered and dressed in a heavy gingham jacket buttoned up to the neck to combat the early morning chill. On his head he proudly wore a red hat pulled tightly down over his ears.
" Yes. I'm sorry. I was just curious to find out what all that was about."
The stranger stepped forward chuckling to himself and shook The Wanderer by the hand.
"I can see you're not from these parts. Why don't you come back to the Old Smithy and have some breakfast with us. It's only a few minutes walk away and there'll be plenty on the go. You can have a bite to eat, a rest and I'll tell you the story behind what you saw this morning."
The Wanderer hesitated.
"I'd take it as an insult if you refused!"
There was something about the blacksmith that The Wanderer immediately liked. It wasn't just his generosity. It was something about his whole bearing. He was one of those people who you just couldn't refuse. The twinkle in his eyes, his openness, his gait. It just all seemed to fit together.
"And," he thought to himself," I am starving."
The two men were soon chatting away as if they had always been the best of friends and before The Wanderer knew it, he found himself walking up the pathway towards a small, stone cottage nestled between a boisterously running brook and a huge over-hanging willow. The walls were covered in ivy intertwined with a beautifully fragrant honeysuckle which dashed the greenery every so often with a delicate red flower. As The Wanderer looked admiringly up at the blanket of thatch that ran as a roof for the cottage, he noticed a trail of smoke that hung delicately onto the chimney bringing with it the smell of freshly cooking bacon and bread. It was a scene that made his heart sing.
"The Smithy's round the back, "said the blacksmith. "The village is only two minutes walk up the road and you'd be surprised the amount of business I pick up shoeing strangers’ horses. There seems to be an endless stream of them at the moment, especially on the Upper Head days."
The Wanderer looked at his new friend blankly. The blacksmith smiled.
"Come on then, let's go on inside and I'll tell you all about it."
Inside the cottage the blacksmith's wife was busy preparing breakfast. As soon as the two men came in through the door she stopped what she was doing and came over and gave the blacksmith a hug.
"What did they say love? Did they choose you? Did you ask them about the baby?”
"Hang on, hang on!” shouted the blacksmith playfully. "There's plenty of time for that later. I'd like you to meet a new friend. We met up on the hill. He's come down for some breakfast."
During the introductions The Wanderer noticed how pretty she was. She had beautiful feline eyes, shining blonde hair tied into a bouncy ponytail, the reddest, fullest lips he thought he had ever seen and her natal skin was glowing, translucent and alive..
She noticed him looking at her bump pushing through her loosely fitting floral dress.
"Our first, "she said.
"When's it due?" he asked softly.
"He! We've done the needle test. He’s a little boy coming in about six weeks."
The Wanderer smiled. In such a short time he felt a kinship with her and wished her all the best. He felt a glow of warmth inside. She seemed like the perfect partner for the blacksmith. Open, strong and delicate at the same time. Receptive to his male force but not submissive. Holding it, nurturing it and helping it be what it is. His power lay cradled in her germinating softness, her within him and him within her. Together they seemed to complete.
The two men sat around the table by the window as she brought over a pan of sizzling bacon and put it next to a basketful of chunky home made bread, still warm and crisp from a morning baking. Eggs were served still in their shells plucked from the bowl of boiling water that hung over the crackling log fire. The table was completed by a huge pot of strong coffee slowly letting out its breath, filling the air with a deliciously rough aroma.
"Now you wanted to know about the Upper Heads," smiled the blacksmith pouring the other two a large mug each. He looked The Wanderer straight in his eye and started to tell him a most peculiar tale.
As the two men had been walking off down the hill to their breakfast the Upper Heads were scuttling away down their underground tunnel, away from the manhole cover, back to the warmth of their small chamber, desperate for a recharge. They'd had a large amount of questions this morning and, although you would never have spotted it up on the surface, they both felt absolutely washed out.
"Come on!" sent Big Upper Head." Why do you always take so long?"
"What's the rush!" sent back Small Upper Head. "You're always telling them up there to slow down. Just because you've got to get those big flapping things banging away on the floor; flip, flip, flip, flip, flop, flop, flop, flop. Why? I'm sure it's just that you love the sound of your own feet. It's ridiculous!"
"Oh for pity's sake don't start all that again!" sent back Big Upper Head.
The two figures carried on moving down the tunnel. The larger one in front, every so often banging into a wall or stumbling over a bump on the floor and the smaller one hanging behind, just keeping up, sending complaints every few strides . After what seemed like hours to Big Upper Head he turned the final bend and lurched into the chamber taking half of the doorway with him. He hurried over to his position, lay down and closed his eyes.
"Not yet!" sent Small Upper Head." Oh no you don't. You did it by yourself last month and look what happened. Can't you just wait? Anyway this place is a mess. Before we do anything I want to get everything back to where it should be."
Big Upper Head sent a resigned sigh to nobody in particular.
He stood up from his position, kicking over a cup of something and looked around. "It isn't too bad," he thought to himself.
Just at that moment Small Upper Head appeared in the doorway of the chamber, not looking very happy.
"Come on! The quicker we start, the quicker we can get in position," she sent. "Don't look at me like that, it's not my fault you can't move a couple of inches without destroying everything around you!"
Big Upper Head sent a tut to himself and started moving things back to where they should be. As he picked up a book he hadn't realised that he was standing on one of the pages. It tore away in his hand.
"Oh wonderful! Don't worry it's only one of mine. Who cares? That nice farmer gave me that. ‘How to grow your own mushrooms.’ Why should I bother to do that? You'll only end up sitting on them or something," she sent. "Why don't you stand all over your own books? I really don't know why I try to keep anything nice around here. Why don't you look what you're doing you clumsy.....?
In mid tirade Small Upper Head stopped what she was sending. She had looked across at Big Upper Head and noticed that his face had broken into a huge grin. She put the broken saucer she was holding down on a shelf, stared straight back at Big Upper Head and started to chuckle. Quietly to herself initially but then gradually out into the chamber until the chuckles had turned into strangulated yelps of glee punctuated by moments of silence every four or five seconds. These silences were joined by Small Upper Head bent double on the ground desperately trying to get her breath back and to control her helplessly twitching body.
Big Upper Head, forgetting his tiredness, ran across and picked her up and swung her around, dancing and leaping through the air. By this time his laughing had joined with hers into a huge chorus of squawks, staccato yelps and thick gutteral sounds that echoed around the chamber making each of them roar with delight even more. Their two bodies, now almost appearing to be welded together, flew wildly through the room, banging into furniture, spinning against the walls and crashing into pots and pans, all the while squealing until you couldn't tell which sounds came from where. Suddenly it all came to a halt and the two of them fell to the floor as if something had taken all the bones out of their bodies. They lay there wrapped around each other, their chests rising and falling, staring into each other's eyes, their smiling faces content and together. They were deeply, deeply in love.
They both felt it was the right time so they got into position. It was Small Upper Head's turn to say when to begin so she sent the command and together they started. Synchronised they individually climbed into the upper layer of each of their heads, Small Upper Head into hers and Big Upper Head into his. They climbed the ladders and simultaneously entered each of their own pineal glands. It was inside here where they met with The It and gained the wisdom that they had become so famous for throughout the terrestrial world.
"So every week on a Friday at 5.30am most of the village go up onto the hill hoping they're going to be the ones chosen to have their questions answered," continued the blacksmith.
"How do the Upper Heads choose who they're going to speak to?" asked The Wanderer.
"I don't know that,"murmered the blacksmith." All I do know is that the people who have been chosen, speak of being almost sent for in their thoughts. They feel a sort of a gentle pull and then know the Upper Heads want them to join them for questions.”
"Have the Upper Heads ever not known an answer to a question?"
"I've can't remember that happening," said the blacksmith. He paused for a moment.
"Oh wait a minute, there was one occasion. The baker asked why we cried. They didn't answer for ages and then a most odd thing happened."
"They started crying, both at the same time. Then they stopped and started laughing. Very strange."
The Wanderer giggled to himself.
"What's the matter?" asked the blacksmith.
"Well maybe that was the answer. Perhaps they were telling the baker to think about the fact that laughing comes from the same place as crying and that he needed to look inside himself to find it."
"What! You sound just like them! They're always saying that stuff about looking inside yourself and not expecting to be given the answer like a present."
The Wanderer smiled and took, from a plate in the centre of the table, a piece of hot freshly buttered toast and covered it with a thick layer of sweet smelling marmalade. He took a bite. You could immediately tell by the way his eyes scrunched up and his lips made a whistling shape that it tasted absolutely delicious.
"This really is very kind of you," said The Wanderer looking across the table at the young couple. "Maybe I'll be able to return your hospitality one day."
The blacksmith seemed to be deep in thought for a few seconds.
"Perhaps you can. How about you doing some work for me in the Smithy for a few days? I could do with a hand. We've got a spare room you can sleep in, we've got plenty of food and if it all works out you could come along to the Upper Heads' next appearance. They always welcome new faces and if you were to be chosen I think they'd find your questions quite interesting."
The Wanderer let his mind settle on the idea.
"Why not!" he said with a huge smile stretching across his face.
He'd been hoping that something like this would happen from the moment he'd started hearing about the Upper Heads.
"When do I start?"
"How about this morning? I've got four carriage horses that need shoeing and a rush job, renewing the teeth on some worn- out harrows, for the farmer up the road."
The next week just flew by for The Wanderer. Working a twelve hour day, eating heartily and spending the evenings in deep conversation with the blacksmith had given him a great feeling of contentment. Rising with the sun, washing in the brook, picking vegetables from the garden and talking under the stars had brought him closer to the natural way (the moment; being and not doing) Closer than he had been for a long, long time. However he could not help rising from his bed every morning wishing the day away so that Friday and the Upper Heads would arrive more quickly and he could decide whether or not to ask the question that had been bothering him all week.
"So what are you going to ask them if they choose you?" shouted the blacksmith, as he was bringing over yet another round of drinks from the bar. The conversations around the table immediately changed in focus with everybody not really paying attention to what they had been listening to before but instead waiting to hear what the answer to the question from the blacksmith would be. From another part of the tavern you wouldn't have noticed anything. People were still speaking at the same volume, their eyes were still set on the faces of the folk talking to them but there had been a change. The question had dug a large hole in the vicinity of the table and anything being said was sliding quickly down into the centre of it and away. The Wanderer looked over, with a big grin on his face, and after a few seconds silence, filled it.
"Why, I'm going to ask them when my new friend will stop asking me embarrassing questions!"
The whole table erupted with laughter.
"Serves you right," said the parson, wiping the remnants of his last swig of beer from his mouth,"You've been asking for that for a long time!"
"I'll second that!" blurted out the baker, his mouth still half full of food."Your bloody nose'll get you in trouble one day."
The blacksmith placed the drinks carefully in the middle of the table and sat down, his face shining with mischief.
"Well I just reckon he's got a really interesting one up his sleeve. Can't you tell by the way he's smiling now? Come on friend share it with us!"
The Wanderer laughed out loud.
" You can just wait until tomorrow morning. I'm going to keep you guessing all night. It's a punishment for driving me so hard all week. Just look at these hands! They were as smooth as a baby's bum last Friday. Now they look as if they've been driven over by a carriage wheel." The laughter started up again as each of the company helped themselves to their fresh drink.
"I've been thinking about that question from a few weeks ago," exclaimed the barber suddenly. "You know the one you asked about tutting?"
He looked over at the undertaker who had already busily drained half his tankard of beer.
"What about it?" he spluttered, as he endeavoured to keep his last mouthful in.
"Well, you asked why do we tut and the Small One answered ‘because we don't tot’ and you looked confused."
"I still am," gurgled the undertaker. "And I should imagine everybody else is!"
The people at the table all nodded their heads in agreement.
"Yes that was one of their more cryptic moments, "mumbled the verger to the parson, nervously rubbing his hands together in his lap.
"I must admit I was confused at the time but I think I can understand what they're getting at now," said the barber with a smirk starting to creep from his lips to the rest of his face.
"Come on then," snapped the undertaker sarcastically, "let's hear your amazing words of wisdom."
"Well," started the barber and then proceeded to wait a few seconds until he was sure he had everybody's attention. The undertaker shifted around on his chair becoming more and more irritated.
"Tell us then, we haven't got all night!"
"OK then. When do we tut?" asked the barber.
"When people like you start to speak," answered the undertaker, making himself laugh for a few moments.
The barber ignored him and continued.
"Normally we tut to ourselves and, more often than not, we tut under our breath."
The rest of the table looked at him blankly.
"Well..........let me give you an example. Think back to your days at school. They might be difficult for you to remember seeing how far off they are," he said glancing at the undertaker.
All he got in return was a glare.
"Imagine you're sitting at your desk and the teacher says something that really irritates you."
"Like "Get your hair cut barber!""chipped in the undertaker.
The table burst into laughter again.
The barber's face turned red.
"Well he wouldn't have said that would he because I wasn't a barber then
or can't you work that out?"
The undertaker leant back in his chair, pleased with the fact that he had got under the barber’s skin, and just sat there holding his beer mug, almost maternally, in his lap. The barber calmed himself down and continued.
"As I was saying, if he said something that really irritated you, you would tend to tut to yourself under your breath almost as a reflex to affirm to yourself that something is wrong and has displeased you."
"We understand that barber but why a tut?"asked the parson.
"Well............,"he replied leaving yet another gap in the conversation, a habit that was now starting to annoy the rest of the people around the table, their concentration severely lacking due to the amount they'd all had to drink. There was a fair amount of shuffling and shared looks of annoyance and a few of them had even started to have their own conversations again. The barber saw it was all or nothing.
They all looked up angrily.
"Sorry, sorry, sorry! You can't do anything but tut without moving your mouth and then you'd be seen."
There was a silence.
"What are you talking about?" interrupted the undertaker. "I've heard enough of this. Who wants another drink? Your round parson."
The parson gave the undertaker a stare that was hardly god-given and then nodded to the verger who sprang up and started taking the orders. Everybody else seemed to have lost their patience with the barber's explanation as well. The Wanderer moved off towards the toilet, the blacksmith started telling a joke about something to do with bellows and a randy steeplejack and even the instigator himself seemed to have given up, setting himself in his chair again, tutting at their total lack of understanding and foresight.
"Hang on! I think he's got something."
The others looked over to the corner where they thought he'd fallen asleep and saw the baker, blurry eyed and red nosed, still with a morsel of steak and kidney pie hanging from the corner of his mouth into his beer sodden facial hair. It had been there almost from the moment he had started eating the pie about twenty minutes previously and now it was moving as he spoke. Laying there, not sure whether to fall out or to be scooped up by the baker's huge sloppy tongue and whipped inside his cavernous mouth to eventually end up alongside the rest of the flesh he was currently digesting in his ample bubble of a stomach.
He started making one of the strangest noises. It was like a combination between the sound of distant tapping and thick mud being stirred with great difficulty. He accompanied this with a fountain of damp pastry flakes being sprayed from behind his lips straight into his lap, forced there by his head lurching forward in time with each of the peculiar sounds. The barber shot back to his feet.
"He understands! He's got it! He's totting...or is it tatting? No it's definitely totting. Look it's impossible to do it without moving your mouth. Baker, show us a tat."
The baker immediately changed tack. His cheeks opened out to the side and his mouth widened into a dripping mobile canyon of saliva. It dribbled from the two corners into his beard in the gaps between the tats and then seemed to emerge almost like a sheet when he actually made the sound, landing at his feet in small pools. The noise that he was making was even stranger than the original one. If you shut your eyes you could imagine a lone pot holer trying to hammer a crampon into a rock face whilst suspended by a rope above what sounded like a bottomless gorge. The peculiarity that was inherent to the noise was that it sounded as if, whilst trying to do this, the pot holer was spinning at a huge velocity creating a background resonance that filtered through from behind the main hammering to create an almost two dimensional soundscape.
"That's it!" shrieked the barber, dancing around his chair."Tutting is the only one you can do without moving your mouth. Not totting or tatting or titting or tetting. Only tutting." " Now you imagine..." he said, starting to slow himself down a bit.
"What would have happened to you if that had been your response to what your teacher had said that irritated you?"
He pointed over at the baker who by now was bright red in the face from making what sounded like a tut, a tot, a tet, a tit and a tat all rolled into one!
Now whenever anything appears that can be physically tried out, like touching your nose with your tongue or wiggling your ears or making farting noises with your armpits, you know it will spread like wildfire, especially in a tavern where literally everybody is drunk. This is exactly what happened on this occasion but it didn't really spread like wildfire more like when a dog starts barking late at night. The canine message is passed on to the next nearest and so on until within a few minutes every dog within ten miles will be baying as if there were no tomorrow. The verger told the landlord as he was ordering the drinks, the landlord passed it on to the chimney sweep and his mates at the end of the bar, one of this company passed it on to the road layer and his gang who were playing skittles and before you knew it the tavern was home to some of the strangest man- made noises you're ever likely to hear.
The blacksmith shook The Wanderer by the elbow.
"Time to get up. They'll be coming out in three quarters of an hour."
Within minutes the two men were dressed and making their way hurriedly up the hill, eager to find a position near the front. As they approached the crest they saw that the gathering had already organised itself into a circle around the manhole and was two or three people thick, even at this early hour.
The blacksmith tutted.
"For goodness sake don't do that; not after last night! We'll both start up again, "said The Wanderer. "I don't think I can laugh any more."
"Do you remember that road layer saying he could make a tit without moving his mouth? And the chimney sweep swearing that a tot and a tat are the same thing,"said the blacksmith.
"What about the baker ordering that next pie and getting another bit stuck in his beard in exactly the same place on the other side of his mouth and then proceeding to blow them both off at once with one of the biggest tets of the evening?" added The Wanderer, starting to chuckle.
"Did you see where they landed? "said the blacksmith, giggling.
"In the rim of the parson's hat. I bet they're still there!"
Both men burst out laughing.
"It really was a great night," said the blacksmith. "Even the barber and the undertaker were getting on at the end. Did you see them dancing and singing around that table together? That must have been a first."
"Yes I did," said The Wanderer stopping suddenly at a gap in the circle. He looked around. "Sorry to interrupt but what about here?" he continued. "You can see the manhole and we're only two people in from the front."
"Great. We'll stop here. It doesn't really matter anyway. You can see wherever you're standing as long as you're here at the beginning. It's just that I feel I've got more chance of being chosen if I'm near the front. Just superstition I suppose."
"What do you mean you can see wherever you're standing? When I was here last week I couldn't see a thing"
"If you'd been here at the beginning you would have done."
The blacksmith saw The Wanderer looked confused.
"It'll all be as clear as anything soon. Just be patient."
The two friends stood silently, hands in pockets, staring into the middle of the circle.
Around them the gathering was rapidly increasing in number. It was now at least seven people thick and still growing. The folk who were arriving late were just taking up a position anywhere on the circumference not appearing to be at all interested, as the blacksmith had said, in having a view into the centre. Nobody tried to push their way forward or search for a gap or even stand on their toes to look into the centre. Everybody just seemed content to be where they were, seemingly waiting patiently for it all to begin.
However The Wanderer did feel an undercurrent running through the crowd. Although the conversation was jovial and everybody appeared to be in good humour, he felt a collective competitive urge rising from the circle, almost visible like a heat haze, the urge to be chosen, the urge to have their question answered. From outside it was probably hardly noticeable but inside it was most definitely there and was growing more powerful every second. The conversations appeared to become more and more matter of fact as the strength of the urge grew, almost as if the reduction in the one aided the expansion of the other and vice versa. The Wanderer found himself moving with this and he let his question, that had been itching in the background all week, go floating up to join the others. Like hundreds of barrage balloons, captive at the end of the lines held in their parent's hands, the questions floated en masse above the crowd creating a hermetic roof over the early morning pleasantries going on below.
'It's time again' sent Big Upper Head.
"I hope they're a bit more interesting today than they were last week. Any more questions about crop rotation or when's the right time to put out your tomatoes and I think I'll scream!" sent back Small Upper Head.
Big Upper Head felt a pang of deep affection for his partner rise into his heart as he sent a laugh spinning across to her.
"Come on then. Let's go, "he sent again.
He put his foot on the first rung of the ladder and started to climb up towards the manhole cover. Small Upper Head followed close behind. When he reached the top he mumbled something to himself and then slowly pushed open the cover, letting a rectangular slab of sunlight slide onto the tunnel wall opposite. He looked back down and couldn't help but smile as his love's frowning face appeared framed by it.
She sent a nag.
"Hurry up and don't trip over this time!"
Small Upper Head glanced up at him thinking how handsome he looked, his profile bold against the clear slash of sky that was now showing between the open cover and the top of the tunnel. She felt a cauldron of warmth glow from her stomach as she carried on climbing and as she took hold of his strong hand to be helped up the last few rungs and through up onto the surface, she realised how absolutely and completely happy she was.
The Wanderer had been one of the first in the circle to see the manhole cover move and then.................lightness. Everything seemed to soften and roll on to a breathing ball of space, inhaling and exhaling the future, past and present into one way and the other at the same time. No fear, no body, no me, no you. Up is down and round is flat, through is back and front is not. And the music. Melodies that cannot be imagined, sounds that are seen. The tune danced around The Wanderer's head like unfettered dreams, rising and falling gently as if carried by a magical wind through his imagination. The voices harmonised, each individual being heard yet also the whole spreading itself, a velvet sea, over and under, washing the rhythm of the words into a swaying incantation.
"Silver the secret and golden the game
Turning the oceans on top of the sky
Lost in the found of night under day
Finding the way in the blink of an eye."
The Wanderer felt his whole focus drawn towards the manhole cover. It was not forced but directed. He was still aware of who he was and where he was but that didn't seem to matter. All that did was the scene that was unfolding in the middle of the circle.
The music continued to weave amongst the words of the quatrain, in and around and out and back again, delicately entwining The Wanderer's attention in between the two figures that were now climbing out of the hole in the ground that the open manhole cover had left. The big one had appeared first and had bent down to help the smaller one out into the open. They were now standing arm in arm, smiling their way around the circle.
They were both dressed in bottle green tunics and red gloves. The smaller one wore a pair of purple breeches with gold rings hanging from the belt whilst the larger one wore a black and white checked skirt dotted with various coloured pictures of trees. Their shoes could have individually easily been mistaken for the hull of a child's colourful wooden toy boat but for the fact that each of them had thumb size holes drilled all the way round the edge laced with what looked like huge plaited strands of fresh seaweed.
Their faces were most enticing. They both had a look of mischief in their eyes but it was tempered by a shining happiness that infectiously sang its way across to whoever they were sending to. Their eyes were round and infant innocent yet at the same time as old as the sky and as wise as wise. On their lips they wore a striking, orange lipstick that looked as if it had been put on in the dark with a wet flannel. To complete the peculiar picture their heads were about half as big again as normal. Width wise they looked about average but the gap between their eyebrows and the top of their heads gave the impression that a force had been exerted on each ear simultaneously and that their skull had compensated for this by simply moving upwards and inwards to create what was an almost perfect ellipse. The overall effect was further accentuated by the fact that neither of them had a single hair on their head.
The Wanderer heard it but could not at first fathom where it had come from.
This time the words were communal and he had felt himself, along with the others, say it in reply although he knew he had not uttered a sound.
"Maybe we could have our table and chairs and then we can start," sent Big Upper Head.
The opposite side of the circle parted and two flustered looking men hurried through with a small wooden table followed by three young children each dragging a chair behind them. They set them up just in front of the manhole cover, which had now been lowered back into its shut position, and looked apologetically at the Upper Heads.
"I'm really sorry we're late," mumbled-sent one of the men. "We couldn't find the key for the barn and then one of the cats is pregnant and we thought she was going into labour and what with having to get breakfast for the kids we just...."
"Can't seem to shake off that hangover from last night?" interrupted-sent Big Upper Head with a huge grin.
The whole circle sent out a huge wave of raucous laughter.
"Thank you for this anyway," sent Small Upper Head, shaking them all by the hand, "It was most kind of you to help again."
The two men smiled sheepishly and, nodding at the Upper Heads, walked away, followed by the three children, into the crowd.
Everything was being passed in a different way. Not conversations as The Wanderer had come to know them. Nobody had spoken but everything had been heard. Some things were hidden but everything could be seen. The sifting strains of the music still completely filled him, took it all to him but at the same time he could hear the slightest sound in the centre of the circle, even down to the flapping of the seaweed as the Upper Heads went to their table.
The circle parted to the right of The Wanderer and a boy of about four walked out and sat down. The Upper Heads now lay on their backs under the table with the tips of their heads touching each other, their arms by their sides, their eyes closed and their legs propped up, crossed at the ankle, each on the edge of a chair.
"My Mummy and Daddy tell me that I must eat what is put in front of me or I won’t grow big and strong but a lot of it like mashed potato and cauliflower cheese and rice pudding with jam in it and the white bit of eggs and every salad I ever have all taste so horrible. I can't eat them. What should I do?"
The answer was almost immediate.
"Hold your nose closed while you're eating and you won’t taste a thing and just breath through your mouth slowly as you chew the food. I know your Mummy and Daddy tell you to hold your knife and fork properly but we're sure on these occasions they won’t mind if you pinch your nostrils together with one hand and use a fork or spoon to lift the food to your mouth with the other one. All the goodness from the food will go inside your tummy but you won’t taste any of the nasty things you don't like."
The reply was sent in unison and had a joyful harmonic quality with Big Upper Head's soprano lying comfortably over Small Upper Head's baritone. The little boy looked absolutely delighted with his answer, a beaming smile stretching right across his lively little face. He turned and walked towards his two parents who were standing at the front of the circle, roughly where it had opened to let the little one through a few minutes ago.
"Go on. Don't be shy," they sent, waving their hands towards the still stationary and horizontal Upper Heads.
The little boy looked back at the two bizarre figures and then back again at his smiling parents who were still motioning him in the direction of the peculiar scene in the middle of the circle.
"Go on darling. They've helped you. Just go and say thank you."
He slowly wandered over to the table, got down onto his hands and knees and looked at the two Upper Heads laying there perfectly still.
"Thank you," he mumbled- sent, stood up quickly and ran back to where his parents were.
"Come on, Let's have another go. They 're not going to hurt you. You've seen it happen before. Remember?"
The boy smiled as his father lifted him up and carried him back over to the table. He crouched down on his haunches and put the toddler onto the grass so he could see the Upper Heads again.
"Four trees and then pull a gold ring," he whispered- sent into his son's ear.
The little boy giggled to himself and, filled with the courage that small children only find when their parents are by their sides, crawled under the table and very quickly, as if he had done it a thousand times before, pressed four of the coloured trees on Big Upper Head's skirt and gave one of the gold rings on Small Upper Head's belt a good yank.
There was a delay of a few seconds and then the two of them kicked their chairs away, rolled from under the table and, without using their arms, flicked themselves up into a standing position. They both bowed to the small child and then took off, sprinting around the inside of the circle. The incantation, that had been almost subliminally there, now came to the fore again as the two of them gathered speed keeping exactly half a circle's distance between themselves. They were now moving at such a pace on the ground that it was difficult for the crowd to distinguish any detail but as they somersaulted each time the chant reached the words "eye" and "sky", you could see them more clearly again. They twisted high up into the air in unison wiggling their backsides at the little boy causing him to send a flock of chuckles floating up towards them. As they started their descent the two Upper Heads plucked the chuckles from the open sky and sent them spinning back into the crowd, spraying the gathering like a soft rain. The people on the ground then started to send laughs until the whole soundscape was drenched in a frenzy of rolling, mellifluous mountains of notes which rose to tease the summits and fell to fill the canyons deep with their resonating touch of happiness.
Gradually the two figures slowed down until they once again came to a halt in front of the child. They bowed slowly to him, their foreheads just touching the ground, and then sauntered back over to the table, picking up the chairs on the way and took up their positions, on the ground, ready for the next question. The little boy, sending out chatters of excitement in front of him, was lead away back into the crowd by his parents just as the other side of the circle opened up and a new questioner stepped out.
This sequence of question, reply, thanks and celebration continued with people asking different things ranging from" Why do we yawn?" and "Why can't animals speak?" to " What side of the bed is it best to get out of?" and "How do I stop snails getting at my sorrel?" The answers were always immediate whether straight or cryptic and as soon as there was a ‘thank you’ the unusual circumambulation started. The Upper Heads never tired despite the sprinting, the somersaults and the relentless questioning and every answer was given in the same exuberant way. The lightness that had feathered the air since the beginning settled upon the gathering like a fine silk sheet and immediately sent a static charge of ‘yes’ through everybody who was there. It seemed to chain all together, linking with a soft strength, pliable in its power, delicate to its very centre which lay caressing the whole scene. The sense was passed as an eternal pulse, sparking to and fro across the universal synapse. Out of time, out of place and secret in its openness and complete love.
The circle opened and out stepped the parson who strode purposefully over to the table and sat down. He kissed the crucifix that hung around his neck and then sent the question.
"How can I help more people to find God?"
The answer was, as usual, instantaneous but this time in the form of a list.
1. God needs us as much as we need it. It's incomplete and had to create man to try to make itself whole.
2. To find God one has to look inside and not bother with external images that are just projections of the real deity within.
3. The concept of the Trinity can only be made true by integrating the Devil to make The Four.
4. If you preach any of these ideas parson, you're going to be out of a job.
As the Upper Heads had started sending their answer from under the table, the music had faded away and an oppressive silence crept over the top of the hill, beginning to suffocate, with its thick, stagnant entropy, the lightness that had previously been dancing so easily amongst the gathering. The ‘yes’ had become a ‘no’ and the ‘no’ had brought with it doubt. People were looking worriedly around, shuffling nervously, exchanging anxious glances and appearing confused. This had not been seen before on an ‘Upper Head’ day. The tone of the answer was far from exuberant. The harmony of the previous responses had disappeared and had been replaced with a flat, monotonous drawl which seeped from the two suspicious looking characters laying under the table. Then point number four hit home.
Within a flash the few moments of darkness were easily stripped away like decaying bark from the trunk of a tree and thrown spinning off into the distance as the incantation, the music, the connections, the rhythm, the intoxication and the flow all returned spiralling in, lifting the crowd away with it all back into the warm vibration of normal Upper Head time. The euphoria that was sent was immense. The sense of relief catapulted huge chunks of laughter from the crowd into the centre causing the two Upper Heads to twitch with delight, both straining, waiting for a ‘thank you’, ready to speed off around the inside of the circle to celebrate yet another answer.
But a ‘thank you’ from the parson seemed an age away. As the reply had reached the beginning of its second point he had stood up, swirling his black cape around and stamped off back into the crowd, his crucifix thumping angrily against his chest and his face as dark and as menacing as the centre of a deep, murky, still pond. However by the time he had pushed his way through to the other side, muttering curses under his breath, the Upper Heads had decided to start themselves up with what would turn out to be their final celebration of the day.
"Thank us!" they shrieked-sent as they leapt from underneath the table, obviously unable to contain themselves any longer. They pulled a ring, pressed four trees and the sprinting and the somersaults that followed were the fastest and the highest that had been seen all morning. The leaps were so high in fact that Small Upper Head, at the start of one of the descents, could just make out, over the top of the crowd, the hurrying figure of the parson at the bottom of the hill being trailed by the verger who was desperately trying to catch up, waving his umbrella at him. This picture made Small Upper Head send out a huge roar of laughter which incredibly seemed to give the two of them even more energy as they continued hurtling around the circle, sending the gathering into raptures.
Eventually however everything started to slow down and it was obvious that the morning on the hill was coming to a close. The Upper Heads returned to the centre of the circle next to the manhole cover and stood back to back looking into the crowd. They rotated themselves slowly clockwise three hundred and sixty degrees, bowing and waving until they finished up back where they had started. The two of them quickly, before anybody really had a chance to send anything, lifted up the cover and disappeared back down into the tunnel.
The lightness lifted. The Wanderer was absolutely astonished. He had never witnessed anything like that and he didn't think he ever would again; although there had been one thing. As the Upper Heads had been rotating at the end Small Upper Head had looked straight at The Wanderer and sent what appeared to be a personal message.
"Interesting question! Come again next week and you'll be the first on."
The Wanderer had taken this to mean that he would definitely be chosen the following Friday. This was an opportunity he could ill afford to miss and he set himself thinking how he could go about staying another week. He needn't have worried because as they made their way back to the cottage, the blacksmith solved the problem for him.
"Shame they didn't choose you. I was sure they would. Fancy staying this coming week and giving me another hand? I could do with it."
The Wanderer took this as fate at work and immediately accepted.
The next seven days just shot by and before he'd really had time to think about it, it was Thursday night again and another magical time on the hill was close at hand.
The Wanderer lay in bed contemplating how he would phrase his question in the morning. He'd spent the evening in the Smithy garden having a farewell dinner with the blacksmith and his wife and was now letting the taste of the spit-roasted suckling pig, the fresh vegetables and the cider mingle with his tiredness as he waited for the first touches of sleep to take him away.
He could just make out the brow of the Upper Heads’ hill in the distance through the window, outlined against the full moon and was dreamily imagining the scene in the morning. Their first appearance. Would they be dressed the same? How would he feel as he walked out into the middle of the circle to ask his question? Would the lightness and joy be as intense again? What would their answer be? He turned over onto his side, listening to the occasional pop of the dying fire in the garden, and let himself start to slide away into sleep; the questions gradually fading off into the distance. He nestled deeper into the soft, warm folds of his feather filled quilt.
At first he thought it was the sound of the brook chattering away to itself as it made its way across the valley but as he lay straining his ears he started to make out the low whisper of human voices. Initially they appeared to be coming from inside the room itself but as his ears became used to the new sound he realized they were coming from outside the open window and he started to be able to make out what they were saying.
"Have you got all the stuff?"
"I think so."
"Don't think! Have you got it or not?"
The whispers were barely audible and although The Wanderer couldn't place the voices at all there was a familiarity about them. He carefully slipped out from underneath the cover and padded slowly over to the window. Something about the whispering had made him think he should keep himself quiet and hidden until he found out exactly what was happening out there.
"Good. We'll show those two arrogant bastards who's who around here!"
The voice had moved up a register and The Wanderer placed it immediately.
He peeped out from behind the curtain and sure enough standing in the lane under the overhanging canopy of the willow was the large, rotund frame of the parson. Opposite him stood the stooped figure of the verger who was rapidly nodding his head at the parson's every word. To the side of the two of them stood two other figures The Wanderer didn't recognise who were each carrying a lumpy bundle over their shoulder.
"Right! Come on then. Let's do it."
The parson pointed in the direction of the hill top and the four men set off quickly, one behind the other, up the slope.
The Wanderer was disturbed. What would the parson and the verger be doing here at this time of night and why the unholy language? He'd heard a few profanities fall from the parson's lips on his visits to the local inn but that had all been in good humour. There was no humour at all in the clipped tones he had been using just then. The Wanderer tried to place the two strangers with the sacks. What were they carrying? He started to think that maybe it was none of his business. He had only been in the area for two weeks and perhaps late night activity like this was nothing out of the ordinary. But he kept coming back to the phrase the parson had used. Why would he have said "arrogant bastards"? That was something The Wanderer couldn't get out of his head. Something was definitely wrong. He looked back out of the window and saw that he must have been preoccupied with these thoughts for longer than it had felt. The tail of the four men had reached the brow of the hill and was just disappearing out of view. Instinctually The Wanderer knew he had to follow them. He quickly pulled on his clothes and as quietly as he could, tiptoed down the stairs and let himself out of the front door.
The hill loomed large and harsh as he stood looking up at the brow. Its outline seemed different from when you looked at it in daylight. The smooth edges had been replaced by an ominous jaggedness which violently cut into the spectral sky, tearing and penetrating, fertilizing the heavens with its hanging darkness. As The Wanderer started the steep climb he continually felt its presence as a tightness around his throat, pulling him towards something that he knew he didn't want to find. His steps were no longer completely his own. The hill seemed to be lifting him to its top as an invited witness of what was unfolding up there. He felt his breathing quicken as he was sucked upwards and only by a supreme effort was he able to break away and stop.
He looked ahead of himself. He was by now over halfway there. Something had changed. Initially he thought it was the first push of the morning sun climbing up over the hill but the dim reddish- yellow glow, that was playing a halo above the very top, was far different to a sunrise. It pulsed in its intensity, fading to literally nothing and then rising again. Curiously the increase in the colour's depth seemed to coincide with each breath of a wind that was now spiralling around the hill.
The brow lured him onwards. He felt the tightness and heaviness return again as he gradually began to realise what it was that was causing such a strange effect. A fire. Smoke and the spit and crackle of flames flavoured the air as he struggled the last few feet to the top. It was not the density of smoke you would expect from a forest fire but more like the wisps you would see from a controlled blaze, drifting in patches of grey in front of the moving night sky. The Wanderer climbed out onto the top of the hill and looked at the scene in front of him.
1 The fire was pouring from the opening where the manhole cover used to be.
2. The smell of burning oil fouled the air.
3. The area around the fire was littered with scattered pieces of burnt or burning clothing.
4. The two naked bodies of the Upper Heads lay cruciform, wooden stakes through their throats, genitals, wrists and ankles and both their skulls smashed and pulled open.
"What have you done?"
The Wanderer spun round and spat out his words.
"I said what do you fucking want?"
"You've got the Duper Syndrome," repeated Peppermint.
'The Upper Heads Theme' music here
'Early Morning Near The It' music here
'Violet Thyme' music from The Tavern scene here