The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

Bridge at War: Chapter 17

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The next few days passed in a whirl of activity. The very morning after their discussions with Bram's father, arrangements were made to enrol both Tom and Alistair in what Bram rather obscurely called Guardian School. Tom was not entirely sure exactly how those understandings had been reached, but seemed to involve Bram's father writing several letters, one of which was given to Tom and Alistair to deliver by hand when they reached the School. The letter was written on old-fashioned heavy paper, folded into a packet and sealed with red wax. It was addressed in a careful hand, as if the writer was not entirely comfortable with writing in English.

Light trap and horse They were returned to the causeway later that morning by light horse-drawn trap, driven by Hamet, Bram's uncle. The trip took about forty minutes, following exactly the route they had walked the previous day. Their driver sat hunched over the reins throughout the trip, morosely answering their occasional questions in muttered monosyllables.

Alistair seemed to be fascinated by the Lyndesfarne countryside, even though they had seen exactly the same stretches yesterday. He repeatedly pointed out subtle factors in the surrounding fields that suggested to him differences in the way farming was carried out here in Lyndesfarne. These differences were completely invisible to Tom, although Bram seemed happy to engage in a detailed discussion.

They dismounted from their transport, politely thanked Bram's uncle and set off walking across the causeway. A gusty wind was blowing the spray from the sea over the low walls that edged the roadbed and seagulls glided on the wind, screaming fitfully over their heads.

As they approached the arches of the bridge, Tom and Alistair marvelled again at the curiously motionless lights in the stones of the bridge, clearly visible in the weak morning sunlight.

"So this is magic, is it?" Alistair asked Bram, running his hand over the gently glowing masonry.

"Yes, of course," Bram replied blithely.

"So what are they, really?" Alistair pressed, apparently trying to watch the sparks from the corner of his eyes.

Bram laughed.

"Let's call them sprites," he suggested, "You'll learn more about them, I feel sure, but think of them as a way of holding an intention, a desire for action, which is then carried out forever."

Both Tom and Alistair digested this in silence for a few minutes as they walked on. When they reached the mainland end of the causeway, Bram interrupted their thoughts and pointed out a few of the men which could again be seen hanging around.

"Let me introduce you to a couple of people," he suggested, "Several of these blokes are in fact members of the Guardians, and you may very well find yourself working with them in the future."

Tom and Alistair shook the hands of several men, one of whom Tom recognised as the man who had guided Bram to the money-changer the day before yesterday. Many of the introductions passed in a whorl of names that Tom failed to catch. However, he did remember that the name of the man he recognised was Fred, who seemed to be a particularly affable chap not very much older than himself. They were also introduced to Arden, an older man with a slightly stand-offish attitude. Once out of earshot, Bram explained that Arden was one of the Duty Wardens, and therefore relatively senior, and that he had a reputation for unswerving, even over-zealous, dedication to duty.

Using his contacts amongst the Guardians, Bram managed to cadge a lift for them on a lorry back to the main road. The three young men clambered on top of the tarpaulin that covered the back of the truck and tried to make themselves as comfortable as possible. The load, whatever it was, was lumpy and irregular, and seemed to shift slightly when they moved. As they bounced their way along the narrow road, Tom reflected that this was only just better than walking.

All that remained of their journey was the walk up the hill, along the hidden lane that Bram has described as St. Cuthbert's Way, and then the footpath across the fields that returned them to the farm.

Over the next few days, the three young men sorted and packed their belongings back into their kitbags, as well as completing a few outstanding tasks around the farm. While they were packing, Alistair wondered aloud what he should do with his Granddad's watch.

"Well, you'll understand why you don't want to take it to Lyndesfarne," Bram advised, "But if I were you, I'd hang onto it for the time being. You'll be over here most of the time, and I would be very surprised if the School did not have some secure place to store things like that."

On their day of departure, the companions took their leave from the farmer and his wife. John and Edna seemed rather sorry to see them go, but appeared to understand that, in this day and age, they could not expect young men to stay forever on a farm in an out-of-the-way part of the country. The slightly tearful farewell felt a little to Tom like the time he had left his home with Granny after he was called up to join the Army..

The young men were collected by a lorry driven by a rather taciturn driver. They tossed their baggage into the back of what looked like an ordinary army truck with camouflage paintwork. Nevertheless, the number plates and the absence of decals made it clear that this was a civilian vehicle, although probably army surplus. It was certainly very familiar to Tom; indeed, "a right pain in the backside" was his considered opinion.

The lorry set off down the lane towards the village. At the familiar junction, the lorry stopped and the driver sounded the horn. Bram got up suddenly, grabbed his kitbag and threw it out.

"I'll be leaving you here," he said, to their great surprise and confusion.

"What? Why?" Alistair managed to stutter.

"Don't worry. You'll get to the School just fine," Bram replied, "I'll be in touch from time to time, and I promise we'll meet again very soon. It's just that I've got a number of other things I absolutely must do, and this may be the last opportunity for me to do them."

With that, he hopped over the tailboard and out of the lorry. There was a bang on the side of the truck and it set off with a jerk. Their last view was of Bram standing in the roadway, clutching his kitbag, and waving and grinning broadly.

Tom felt slightly strange at their abrupt and unexpected separation. The three companions had spent so much time in each other's company that it was unnerving to suddenly be without one of their group. Several times, Tom found himself turning to ask Bram a question, only to realise belatedly that he was not there. Bram had been the focus of their enquiries and questions, especially of late, and Tom realised that he had only recognised this fact after Bram had left them.

After a few minutes, the lorry stopped again, this time to collect a couple of other people who were waiting at a petrol filling station in a small village. The newcomers were two rather quiet and shy young men that Tom at first took to be brothers but in fact turned out to be cousins. Stan and Charlie seemed nervous about the company and reluctant to engage in much conversation, although Tom was not sure whether this was ordinary shyness or from some deeper concern.

Sat in the back of the lorry, Tom could not see very much except for an interminable sequence of country lanes bordered by hedgerows. The weather had turned overcast, becoming a grey autumnal day, and it had started raining off-and-on. The journey seemed to drag on, and Tom began to wonder whether their transport was taking the most direct route to their destination.

At one point, the road ran alongside a high and well-maintained stone wall, with mature trees and thick growths of rhododendrons visible on the other side. Shortly afterwards, the lorry drew up at a gatehouse, obviously the entry to some grand residence. The entrance itself was surrounded by wrought iron fences and an impressive double gate, all neatly painted in black and gold. The driver sounded the horn and a man dressed in a dark blue uniform appeared, waved briefly at the driver, and then proceeded to push open the gates. As they drove through, Tom caught sight of a discreet sign at the side of the gates which read "Cliviger Grange. RTDE. Keep out." Reserve Defence Training Establishment, thought Tom, a name like that could mean almost anything.

Cliviger Grange Life at Cliviger Grange, Tom thought later, felt like reverting to a familiar routine, counter-pointed by the astonishing - indeed, magical really was the only word, he considered - nature of the material they were being taught. Even so, on their arrival, it all felt very confused and rushed, and it was only later that he began to build up an accurate mental picture of the environment and regime.

On their arrival, they were greeted by a cheerful little man in a rather informal blue uniform, who was clutching a clipboard and who introduced himself as Arnie.

"You'll be Thomas Perkins and Alistair McLaughlin, yes?" he asked cheerily.

"That's right," Tom answered, handing over the letter of introduction he had been given, "I'm Perkins."

"Good to meet you, Tom, Alistair."

Arnie took the proffered letter and clipped it to his board, then shook the hands of the two young men in turn. Glancing around, Tom noticed that Stan and Charlie were being greeted by a different official, a rather prim-looking woman with mousey hair tucked under a uniform hat that seemed very slightly too big for her head.

"Well, come on then," Arnie insisted, "Grab your stuff and I'll show you around."

He briefly guided the new arrivals through the grounds, rattling on at machine-gun speed about the function of each of the buildings. They passed to one side of a rather grand old residence now almost completely covered in Wisteria and Virginia creeper. Their destination was a long low building constructed of bricks painted a rather sickly pale blue colour, which gave the impression of being part of a military hospital thrown up during the recent hostilities.

"In here," Arnie said, holding a door open for them.

The two young men were shown the room they would be occupying. Tom was not surprised, and actually rather pleased to be sharing a room with Alistair once again. After Bram's unexpected departure, he felt that it could be rather lonely here if he lost Alistair was well.

"Just leave your stuff here for now," Arnie suggested, "They'll be plenty of time to get settled in later on."

They were instructed to join an "Induction Session" in Lecture Room 3 with the rest of the new intake. This room was on the ground floor of the House, the old building Tom had noticed earlier, which he had taken to be the original Cliviger Grange.

The lecture room was large and rather stark room, with rows of hard seats and functional wooden desks, and a raised dais in front of a pair of large blackboards. Looking around, Tom could see Stan and Charlie, whom he recognised from the lorry, and perhaps a dozen other people - not all of them men - that he did not recognise.

After a few minutes waiting, and a certain amount of shuffling and fidgeting, a man who Tom took to be a senior officer swept into the room. The officer was trailed by several others, including Duty Warden Arden and, to Tom's surprise, the Guardian who had been introduced as Fred at the crossing. Both Tom and Alistair automatically stood to attention, following their military training, as did several of the others.

The officer was a tall, fit man in his late forties with greying hair cut short-back-and-sides, regulation-style, and who wore the uniform of the Guardians with a military dash. He stood front-and-centre on the raised platform with his fists on his hips, and smiled wryly.

"Sit down, sit down everyone," he said calmly, gesturing with his hands.

Tom and the others subsided into their seats.

"Well, good morning and welcome to RDTE, and indeed welcome to the Guardians," the officer continued, striding up and down the stage as he spoke, "My name's Markham, and not so long ago I was a Major in His Majesty's Armed Forces. Now, however, I'm the Warden in charge of this Establishment, and it is my duty and my privilege to ensure that you learn everything you need to know for your chosen role in protecting the Lyndesfarne crossing."

Despite his military title, the Major stressed that the Guardians are a civilian organisation, like a police force.

"I can tell that some of you have seen military service," he said, looking pointedly at those who had leapt to attention on his entrance.

"And those skills will be useful, but you are here to learn - and learn much more than the Army ever taught anyone. I hope you're all looking forward to that. Here, we recognise that personality and personal skills are much more important. You will learn to know and identify frequent travellers, to spot strangers and suspicious behaviour, and to recognise the signs of attempted smuggling."

Looking back, Tom found that the Major's introduction more-or-less right. There was a certain amount of military-style discipline, and it was just a little bit like being back in the Army. Even so, it was certainly not as brutal a regime as, say, basic training, with its square bashing, spit-and-polish and spud peeling. Instructions were always couched in polite terms, but it was clear that they were intended to be followed immediately. The biggest difference, in Tom's view, and the one he found most unusual by comparison with the military, was that the students were actively encouraged to think for themselves and even to ask difficult questions of the teaching staff.

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