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95

Back to today or at least to the today of our story. “Please, tell me about the trove,” Andrew repeated. “They don’t have the faintest chance, do they?”

John McIntyre began to enumerate the grounds that the family had for relaxed confidence. Ted’s smile grew increasingly bright and patient, until he had to finally cut the solicitor off. “These buggers are impossible. Each time you phone them up, there’s a new person in charge and they say something completely different.”

But the Worthingtons are talking about the retreat and we will need to fade out of their drawing room once more if you wish their conversation to be intelligible to you. The next significant thing along the dual carriageway from Joppa Grange was a Celtic retreat: a “centre of Celtic Christianity” and “a global capital of world peace and world health.” The retreat was only nominally Celtic, since it was effectively a repository for frivolous religions which were all equally unloved and unwanted. Practitioners of Shamanism, Buddhism, Reiki, Yoga and Aromatherapy each had their designated corners and amiable fiefdoms, rather like the different departments in a comprehensive school. The retreat was led by a chaplain, a very wise and formidable looking woman, who wore white robes and had long, silken, sand-white hair. Her steadfast refusal throughout decades of ministering to ever assert any one theological belief over any other made her ideally suited to run the community.

Imagine about two dozen yurts, stuck to the landscape in random rows like barnacles which have been left behind by the sea. They are arranged around a small crest of shiny log cabins, which each have an earthen hillock and a topping of turf for a roof. Andrew had never set foot in the retreat, fearing that he would lose his temper and punch somebody, but he had inspected the glossy leaflet which displayed it in synopsis. He had pictured a gardener having to clamber up a ladder with a lawn mower to trim the turf roofs. He had pictured earthworms falling from the ceilings inside to land unseen in cups of decaffeinated coffee and thistledown tea.

Actually, if Andrew was being straightforward with himself, the reason that he had never visited the retreat was that he knew the people who he met there would be most probably likeable and sensible. They would be intelligent people who on reaching middle age had found, perhaps for the first time in their lives, that their luck had become faulty. They could have plausibly led investment banks or law firms, but they would have some ready explanation, slightly too smooth from the constant repetition, that they had been on maternity leave at the wrong time; that their family home had been repossessed due to the inheritance tax; or that that most common of upsets, the empty nesters divorce, had put them on the back foot in their careers. After a spell of depression, they would have drifted into taking a yurt at this retreat. They would find the change of scenery refreshing; they would be cheerfully sarcastic about the retreat’s stodgy food.

Andrew preferred to take refuge in a more satisfying, satirical account of this community. His son had two good stories up his sleeve about them. The first sounds more believable than the second.

One autumn afternoon, in an early and still civil stage of the family’s dispute with the retreat, Ted had nipped over in his car to deliver a letter to them. He was accompanied by Victoria Blackwood, the Worthingtons’ friend and neighbour, since she was bound for Edinburgh and he had agreed to drop her off at the station on his return route. They had parked the car in a lay-by on the main road and then walked up the long winding drive, to where the ground levelled out and the crop of yurts began to sprout. Soon they were strolling through the yurts and being stared at by the campers.

Suddenly they came across a hand-painted wooden sign, the sort of sign which usually reads “Fresh Eggs For Sale.” This sign, however, announced the existence of a “Labyrinth” and it featured an arrow which pointed down a little slippery mud track between the yurts.

“A labyrinth – how splendid!” From this word alone, Ted pictured something like the maze at Hampton Court, a dizzy, infuriating system of leafy tunnels. They would no doubt spend the rest of the afternoon chasing the elusive exit around indistinguishable bends and along hoary passageways. This glee jumped up in Tori too, as if they had both nibbled the same tablet, and they were immediately tottering down the muddy path, their letter errand forgotten.

But yurt after yurt gave way, each like a magician’s hand which opens to reveal nothing. Aside from that mysterious sign, there was no evidence of the labyrinth to be seen. At last, the chaplain was wading across the campsite towards them, her long sand-white hair swinging around her and clanking against her robes. “Madam!” Ted called testily. “My friend and I are looking for your damned labyrinth. We’ve been walking round and round these yurts for hours – they’re spinning around my ears!”

The chaplain smiled, her eyes flashing with an unexpected motherly mischief. “Mr Worthington, you’re standing on our labyrinth,” she laughed.

Ted looked down at his feet and then, after a moment’s pause, he had looked up again. His face was now a bright crimson. Tori took a step back from him. A faint, swirling pattern had been sprinkled across the grass with what looked like ashes.

“What the devil is this?” Ted screeched.

“This is our labyrinth, Mr Worthington. It is a place for calm and reflection. For some in our community, this labyrinth can be used as an aid to meditation. You are meant to untangle your mind in its gentle arabesque design…”

Ted’s hands were knotted into fists. “Madam, you’re supposed to get lost in a labyrinth! You cannot get lost in a two-dimensional… pattern on the floor!”

“But why do you want to get lost?” the chaplain asked simply. The mischief was gone from her eyes and, as Ted had said later, the stupid woman probably thought that she was being profound. Yet Tori had intervened to steer Ted back to the car before the labyrinth became the scene for a strangling.

Ted also tells a rather silly story about a detoxification session at the retreat. It is the sort of story which should really begin with “once upon a time…”

In this story, the entire community had finally resolved to purge their bodies of all “toxins.” Foremost amongst these was the dreaded caffeine. Coffee had lived and died by the same puritanical sword: where once temperance campaigners had tried to replace pubs with “coffee taverns,” this lot now pledged to replace coffee with herbal teas and mineral water. Anything that could not be verified as caffeine free was expelled from the premises.

Unfortunately, the community soon found that life was steadily slowing down. Previously, the elder campers had sometimes slipped away for a brief afternoon nap, but this had now been extended to a three hour siesta for everyone, along with another groggy hour for recovery. Bedtime was getting ever earlier, from ten to half past nine and then eight. The whole community was rarely back at the breakfast table by ten. At first, the chaplain refused to admit that there was any problem, and then she had attributed the invading lethargy to caffeine withdrawal. More forcefully strained nettle and knotweed tea, she insisted, was the remedy, along with a lighter supper than their usual handful of salad leaves.

By the time that the paramedics arrived, two thirds of the community were in a state of clinical hibernation. The retreat were subjected to a regime of caffeine injections – syringes literally filled with espresso were directed straight into the recipients’ upper temples. The community’s entire stock of herbal tea, millions of teabags containing shrivelled leaves and berries, was destroyed through a controlled explosion.

Still, there is a smile playing on Ted’s lips when he tells this story, unlike with his brusque rendition of the labyrinth, and so it is perhaps the less believable of the two.

This retreat had designs upon the Joppa trove. They claimed kinship with the trove’s prehistoric owners and their simpler, less environmentally detrimental way of life. They insisted that the trove had been taken from their ancient lands and in this, at least insofar as their lands could be identified as existing places, they might have been correct. The Worthingtons opposed the retreat’s bid only because they deemed it to be an impertinence and they had no wish to give their neighbours any further encouragement. Who knew what these people were capable of – they might consequently apply to dig up the whole estate.

Yet the prize in this game had gone unnoticed by every player. Iron Age experts looked askance upon the Joppa trove, seeing the inclusion of the gaudy diamond as a sign that it had been interfered with by Victorian romantics. The Worthingtons had never been interested in the worth of the diamond; they had written it off as part of the general annoyance of the trove, this half-nationalised garbage-heap which they were legally compelled to look after. For their part, the retreat were not Iron Age experts but if they were successful in seizing the trove, to glory over its decomposing bones and worship its bits of ineptly-hammered rock, they would unwittingly acquire a diamond which was worth millions of pounds.

“By the way, we’ve been cursed,” Ted added.

Andrew gazed up at him with beautiful amazement. “Cursed?”

“Oh, they emailed us to let us know. You’ll be saddened to hear that it’s as disappointing as the labyrinth. It’s not an old-fashioned curse, in which we’re all killed by coincidental accidents over the next few days. It’s a more spiritual, holistic curse. We’ll feel very out of sorts and this will bring us to a greater, more profound awareness of our own negativity.”

“John, does this have any legal bearing?” Andrew wondered. John McIntyre made efforts to indicate that he was sharing in the joke, but nobody really listened to, or could later recall, his answer.

Ted became concerned about the levity. “This is slightly serious, Pa. The leadership is sensible, of course, but there are all kinds of hangers-on connected to the retreat: schizophrenics, revolutionaries, sexual maniacs. Somebody could spring at one of us with a knife. I know it’s boring, but we do need to take precautions.”

Andrew inquired whether they were in contact with the police about this and Ted assured him that they were. He turned out to be very proud of his intimacy with various important police officers.

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