The Sacred Combe
My new book, The Sacred Combe is published this week. Here’s the first chapter.
1. The Valley
It was the moment when I noticed someone was eating my house that I knew I’d come home. It was my first night in the Valley: perfectly black, the air filled with swishing, ripping, munching. The house in question was a thatched hut a few yards from the river. There wasn’t much of a window; the place wasn’t designed for anything except sleep, but I got from my bed and peered through the insect-gauzed strip.
There were about half a dozen of them, a cheery and sociable little group lightly snacking on my roof and on the trees that surrounded the hut. Their footsteps made no sound, in the eerie fashion of elephants: vast bedroom-slippered feet. They were quite unafraid: happy, relaxed, comfortable. I wondered what would happen if I were to step out among them, perhaps to attempt to a mystical communion with them, perhaps to run for my life. But I had no real thought of doing either.
It was alarming, but it wasn’t frightening. Important distinction. Being about a foot from a group of animals that could tear both me and my hut apart was curiously soothing. There was a thrill of wonder in this – wasn’t I an adventurous devil to be in such a place and in such company? But that was only the superficial emotion. Behind it was a great soul-deep happiness: a profound sense of having arrived.
If I could have been sent straight back home – right now, after just four hours in the Valley, back to Hadley Wood, in Hertfordshire, where I lived in those days, a couple of miles beyond the furthest reaches of the Northern Line – I would have been satisfied with the trip and I would have been changed forever. The adventures of the rest of my first trip to the Valley were all wonderful enough, but they were just confirmation of what I learned on that first elephant-haunted night. The world was no longer the same and nor was I. I had been in the magical valley: I had found the sacred combe; I had entered the secret garden.
The great round wet loaves scattered around the hut when I rose at dawn were proof that it was not a dream. Or perhaps it was dream-dung. No matter. I had dreamed all my life of being in such a place: to be there at last, dung, ripped roof and all, blurred the distinction between dream and reality so completely as to make both concepts irrelevant. I walked on into my first day in the Valley. My Valley. Their Valley. Our Valley. Whatever: certainly magical. Sacred. Secret. And above all home.