Dark clouds loom ominously over a hill, a cottage, and a chestnut mare. A masked man treads stealthily across the roof, arms outstretched. He has a rose between his teeth (but if he were to speak, he would sound Mediterranean). He somersaults, lands noiselessly onto a balcony and smiles. He lives in a remarkable world of sword fights, adventure, and intrigue, and he has finally reached his destination.
This is a familiar story, but it is not our story.
Our story is set in Wootton Bassett, population 4,401, ten-mile stretch of drive-through farmland in the damp British county of Wiltshire, all of which is significantly less remarkable.
Wootton Bassett appears twice in history books. Once, for standing up to marauding Danes with blunt swords, and being unceremoniously sacked. Centuries later, it was sacked again, this time from Parliament, largely for being insignificantly small. For the following hundred and fifty years of farming, the only intrigue is whose funny-sounding relatives are visiting each summer.
It is a humid May evening in the late 1980s, and a teenage boy lounges on a worn settee, nose deep in a book. He loves books, particularly those brimming with sword fights, adventure, intrigue, and more recently, bodices.
His current favourite is Ramsay’s Rod of Righteousness, which he keeps hidden under his pillow, about nuns wearing in racy outfits who are possessed by demons, and the hero’s unconventional means of exorcising them. He has spent the last two hours fervently examining some of the illustrations with hormone-charged curiosity.
When his mother bursts through the door unexpectedly, hands full of shopping bags, he leaps from the sofa in shock, coughing. She glances in his direction and bolts out of the living room. He slides the book under the sofa and stands up awkwardly, then walks over to the television set and turns it on.
His mum’s voice reaches him from the safety of the kitchen. ’“Hullo, Bertie. What you up to?”
“Er… nothing,” he bumbles, “Reading. About to watch this thing on telly. About history. Er.”
Thankfully, Mum is a grounded, country woman, practical as garden shears and just as blunt. She recognises a teenage boy’s need for fresh air. Less chance of getting caught with his pants down, though at his age, one can’t be sure.
Besides, she has left her considerable patience on the M4 motorway, between road accidents in Grittenham and Hook, and has other designs on the telly.
“You know,” she says casually as she potters around the kitchen, “I ran into Michael Hodges earlier, from over the hill.” She peeps around the cupboard door. He doesn’t reply, but she sees him tense up on the sofa.
She smiled to herself, and goes on. “His daughter Catherine is ill. Hasn’t been to school in a week. Have you noticed?”
Bertie has noticed. Catherine Hodges borrowed his sharpener once, a year ago, and he’d almost fainted. She hasn’t spoken to him since, but every day without a glimpse of her is total agony. So yes, Mum, he’s noticed.
“Anyway,” she says, “I have just the thing she needs to get better. Would you be a hero and bike it over there for me?”
Bertie stands up slowly and leaves the room, walking up the narrow staircase as calmly as possible. Only when he is safely behind his bedroom door does he resume breathing. He feels a heart-quake coming on.
A girl’s house? And not just any girl. A maiden of such eye-watering beauty and melodious voice that bullies and teachers routinely fight for her attention?
Bertie pauses, for he is on painfully close terms with rejection. His palms start sweating.
Then a deep, authoritative voice invades his head, trampling his nervous thoughts.
“AT LAST,” it booms, each word rolling and cascading with echoes. “A mission from the Queen. A virgin princess in distress.”
It is a familiar voice, with a Mediterranean accent. It is also an omen of impending humiliation. Hiding behind it, Bertie’s sense of self-preservation speaks in its own, timid whine: “But it’s going to rain later. And it’s really far.”
“You hold the elixir to end a hundred years of sleep. You are the chosen one.”
“But I’m not ready.”
“One is never ready.”
“I don’t even know what to say to girls.”
“When the time comes, you will know.
“You have a gift.”
Bertie shudders. His last gift, a heart-shaped sharpener, had the whole school laughing for days.
“She has other suitors. Anyway, I’m not even sure she’s a virgin –”
“Bertie Casanotta! The only one standing between you and her is yourself. Every virtuous woman within ten miles has already turned you down. Now, take the blasted potion and get moving.”
On his way out, Bertie’s mum solemnly presents him with the Cloak and Trident of Neptune, which look suspiciously like a raincoat and umbrella. Protection against devils intent on raining destruction, she says, giggling. Then she smoothes down his hair, hugs him, and wishes him good luck. Bertie untangles himself awkwardly and enters the tiny, cluttered garage to retrieve his rusted bicycle.
Light is fading, and the air is charged with potential as the castle portcullis goes up. Mastroberti, Roman warrior-prince and fabled lover, gallops out astride his giant chestnut mare, a stranger in a foreign land, an exile in this Kingdom of Wiltshonia.
Lighting whips across the sky as he crosses the medieval bridge, built by the Danes to facilitate the abduction of their English prisoners. Mastroberti pictures his ancestors, descendants of Roman settlers kidnapped or murdered here in cold blood. He spits on the grey stone of the bridge. Like echoes of approval from the gods themselves, the raindrops start landing seconds later. It is decided, then. If the Viking armies ever return, this is where he will make his valiant stand.
(Bertie once overheard a very tipsy Mum give a dinner guest a different account of his heritage, involving a witty long-haul trucker from Italy, a chance stop in town for a pint and a pizza, and a local barmaid. The next morning the trucker drove away forever, over this very bridge, leaving the barmaid to raise their son alone. At his age, Bertie doesn’t see the irony.)
Mastroberti approaches the Wootton Methodist Church. He must hurry: the raining really has stepped up and there is a lady in mortal danger. He is sidling up to a dense rose bush when a trio of nuns emerges from the church, barely three yards away. He jumps into the bush to hide, stifling a scream, and reminds himself of Princess Caterina’s smile.
The nuns walk past towards the gates, where they begin twitching and contorting, sending his pulse racing. He squints through the rain for more signs of demonic possession, Neptune’s Trident at the ready. They are all very sensibly dressed. No black halos, monstrous shadow, or smell of decay. If there are any signs of satanic activity, he can’t see them.
The Sunday evening Ladies’ Walking Group finishes their customary stretching and set off. Disappointed, he cuts a stem free and rides off.
It is an hour later and the earthen country lanes are long, winding slides of muck. The mighty steed, trapped in a sinking swamp, has been left behind. Mastroberti is glad for the camouflage of raindrops on his face.
The last half-mile has been a slow traipse through the bog-path. Raindrops like grapes have soaked through the Cloak of Neptune. The Lance of Neptune, wrecked by the howling gale, has also been abandoned. He is wet, tired, and hungry, but his spirit remains intact. He thinks of the maiden, and finds new energy to go on.
At last he reaches the gate to an abandoned garden. A large cottage sits in darkness at the end. Desperate to escape the deluge, he squelches through endless brambles that scratch his face. He reaches the front door, only to see the wide, covered driveway on the side of the building. Never mind, he thinks. I am here.
He holds out the rose in a shaky hand and finally talks himself into knocking. Nobody comes. He tries the back door. Locked. He peers through various windows into darkened rooms. A single weak light shines from the balcony window of the second floor.
Mastroberti walks to the wooden trellis at the back of the house, and doesn’t hesitate, shooting up the wall. This is a mistake, for it is covered in firethorn, and a sharp thorn sends him hurtling back to the ground. But he stands back up again. He is so close. He wraps his jacket sleeves over his hands, and slowly makes his way up.
Unexpected as it may seem, Bertie Casanotta is not, in fact, the suave, acrobatic stranger from the fanciful beginning of our story. He does carry a rose, in a sodden jacket pocket. But Bertie has no mask, and his steed’s wheels have fallen off. He’s trembling like a leaf, blinded by rain and wet through to the unmentionables.
Physically he is of such total average-ness that most teachers couldn’t identify him in a line-up. Except for the gym teacher, whose nickname for Bertie is Hop-hop-potamus.
This is why, in the real world, Bertie is flailing gracelessly across the slippery roof, losing the battle to stay upright. Inevitably, he slips, landing face first on the tiles. Pain shoots through his jaw. He slides headfirst towards the edge. He strikes out clumsily, and several tiles come loose. The edge comes closer and closer. Then it disappears. Bertie is falling. He closes his eyes and wonders, briefly, what his tombstone will say. Bertie Casa-not-ta, World’s Most Tragically Hopeless Aspiring Lover, 1975-19 –
He crashes down hard. Multiple bones crack once, twice. Then a couple times more. And yet he feels no pain, which seems odd. Perhaps he’s already dead, he thinks.
He opens his eyes and pats his joints, thanking Mastroberti’s heroic strength, then realises he has only fallen four feet. He is lying on the corner of the balcony, surrounded by broken roof tiles.
He pulls himself up, dazed, breathing in the humid night air. He smiles up at the clouds. The drizzle feels pleasant on his face. Somewhere across the fields, a dog is barking. He is very, very much alive.
He is smiling at his own luck when a blur of pink pyjamas jumps out and smashes him in the stomach.
Bertie doubles over, winded and on his knees. Above him, the object of his desire, holds an iron poker in her hand.
“What do you think you’re playing at?” the girl screams.
Through the pain, he sees his shoes, caked in mud, his clothes filthy and ripped. His hair is plastered on his forehead. He can taste blood, and is pretty sure he’s lost a tooth. Then, surprising both of them, he bursts out laughing, deep guffaws that send spasms of pain through his body.
“That’s just it,” he wheezes, laughing, arms wide open. “I’m not playing! I’m not a fantasy hero! I’m just a clumsy nerd and I have no idea what I’m doing!”
She continues to stare, poker in hand.
He manages to get his fit under control, and looks up. “Not bad for a grand entrance, though.”
“A what? Breaking and entering, more like. Intent on indecent assault, I bet,” she says, without much conviction.
“I brought you something,” he says, and pulls from his pocket a soggy, scrunched up, purple mess with most of the petals missing.
“What,” she asks, lowering the poker, “is that meant to be?”
“It’s a wotsit. A token of affection. An amorous overture. You know. Romantic gesture.”
“And what gesture was that? Running it over with a car?” There is a trace of a smile on her face.
“Alright, alright. It’s the thought that counts.”
“I’m going to count to three before I –”
“Mum spoke to your dad. I was to bring you this.”
She unwraps the almost-disintegrated paper bag, which does not contain medicine.
“Chocolates?” they say in unison, equally surprised.
The penny drops like a lead balloon. Mum’s innocent tone, her awkward encouragement. Thanks, mum.
She pushes open the door. “Well, I suppose you’d better come in and get cleaned up.”
“Thanks. You won’t believe the evening I’ve had.”
They sit on her bed, she in pyjamas, and he in her dad’s bathrobe. He recounts his epic journey in detail, minus the nuns, and she giggles along.
Something catches his attention: a book, poking out from under the bed, partly hidden by a discarded bra. It’s not the bra, but the book’s cover, which sets the familiar fire spreading across his cheeks. She catches him staring and snatches the book away.
“That’s for my English class,’ she says quickly, turning a deep crimson too.
Pretty incendiary material for the Wootton Bassett Academy for Girls, he thinks. More suitable for Biology than Literature, at any rate. But all he says is: “Never read it.”
As he resumes his story, a curious thought sneaks into his head. It is a bold thought, and it lurks on the edge of his consciousness, so as not to overwhelm him, where it quietly collects evidence. He is in a boudoir, a (possible) virgin’s sanctum. There is a bra half-resting on his foot. He is with a girl, alone, and wearing nothing but a bathrobe. A world of firsts, any of which should have sent him running for a cold shower. And yet… he feels no panic. His palms are dry. In fact, he feels great. On fire, even. And as this thought gradually rises up, making itself felt, Bertie’s story becomes ever more animated and embellished, and Cath laughs so hard at his rotten luck that tears pour out of her eyes.
Watching her face crumple up, it occurs to him that he has never looked at her directly. Always scuttled away for fear of being exposed. And without all the make-up, he thinks, Cath has a rather plain face. Without the rolled-up uniform skirt, she really isn’t all that. On the pretty side of average, yes, but she could have been anyone, really.
And this in turn, leads to another realisation. Underneath her mask and costume, she too is sensitive and geeky, just like him. He likes her real face; can’t take his eyes off it. And her laughter is the sweetest thing he’s ever heard; he wants to make her laugh again and again.
When he finishes the story, he realises that she has inched up the bed a little. Her hand is resting on his. Her face is closer than any woman’s has ever been before, excluding those related by blood, of course.
“You know, it was very sweet of you to come over like that. But tell me...” she says.
She leaned in closer still, then pauses, close enough that his insides shake like leaves in a storm. Her eyes flicker down to his lips, and she continues: “Did you only come because your mum asked you to?”
It is his turn to pause. He wants this moment to last forever. Mastroberti starts to say something witty, but plain old Bertie silences him, and leans in to kiss the princess.
Outside the window, the clouds have cleared. The sky is full of stars, and the air is calm and full of summer promise.
When the world of courtship opened up to me, I thought it was all about swagger, mangled roses and grand entrances. And though I did not see it until much later, underneath that story lie the laughter, commonalities, and being vulnerable that make for real lightning bolt moments. That’s the story that sneaks in on a rainy day, when your mask is down and you’re looking your worst, then hits you in the gut like a sack of bricks and leaves you breathless.
The Kingdom of Wiltshonia has expanded significantly since those days, with the Swindon-Bristol corridor trebling in population. Recently, British princes in ceremonial garb have visited our town and the Queen herself has elevated the town’s name to Royal Wootton Bassett. My own interest in sword-toting noblemen is over, however; Cath and I have contributed a new inhabitant to Wootton Bassett, and that is remarkable enough for us.