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A Dark Enterprise in Brandon

Historical fiction by Angela Bates

The plough hit something in the soft earth with an all too familiar dull clink. Peter sighed and halted old Maggie, the plough horse, to check what had fouled the wooden ploughshare. He hated ploughing near the Staunch Meadow. Maggie turned her head to try and see what he was doing. Her blinkers kept her from seeing him when he was directly behind her, but she waited patiently for him to walk wide of the fresh furrow into her limited field of vision.

“It’s okay, girl,” Peter murmured softly and rubbed her nose as he reluctantly looked behind her to check what the plough had turned up this time. The sight of yellowed white bone hooked on the end of the ploughshare was what he had been expecting. The rounded dome of a skull and glaring, dirt-filled eye sockets weren’t expected.

“That don’t look like no animal bone to me,” Peter muttered to himself. He stared at the skull and it stared back. More damp soil fell away from the skull as he watched, revealing more bone. The skull glared at him accusingly as though annoyed to be disturbed. Peter stooped down and snatched a stone from the ground which he sent winging into the skull. The old bone cracked and fell apart as the dirt that filled it crumbled.

Peter kept his back to the church only a couple of fields away and made sure he was facing the river as he retrieved the pieces of skull and a few bone fragments that the ploughshare had broken off. He dropped them into one of the old baskets hanging from Maggie’s harness for just that purpose, wiped his hands on Maggie’s haunch, and, with a furtive glance over his shoulder at the church, shuffled back to the plough handles to continue work.

A few more bones came up that day – a couple of ribs and a broken long bone, but no more skulls. Peter emptied the basket into the sack waiting in the barn, after he had settled Maggie for the night. The sack was nearly full and he hoped that it wasn’t wet tomorrow. The only thing worse than picking up the bones in the field was grinding them to bonemeal afterwards; a good job for a wet day Farmer Crick said.

Farmer Crick always insisted that the bones were just animals that had died in the field years ago. Jerman – who had worked for Farmer Crick since before Peter could remember – agreed with Peter that the bones weren’t quite right for animals, but he said they were so old that it didn’t matter; they weren’t in the cemetery so they weren’t Christian. Disturbing the dead, Christian or not, still didn’t feel right to Peter.

Peter just wished that the Rector would take a walk across the fields to the river for a bit of fishing at the right time to see the bones. He wanted some reassurance from someone who dealt with the dead that it was okay to grind up the old bones for Framer Crick to sell. If he didn’t need his job he might have mentioned it to the Rector himself.

“If wishes were horses…” Peter sighed and shut the barn door. He needed his wages more than the bones needed to be left in the ground.

 

Author’s Note:

Archaeological digs in the Staunch Meadow, Brandon in the 1980s found the remains of a rich middle Saxon settlement with two churches and two cemeteries. Bones had been unearthed in the area for many, many years before the dig took place and enterprising local farmers used to grind them up for valuable bonemeal – until the practice was discovered and stopped. Remains of more than one hundred and fifty individuals were found during the dig.

Further Reading:

East Anglian Archaeology – https://eaareports.org.uk/publication/report151/

DI Nicki Hardcastle series by Michelle Kidd (Bury St Edmunds based)

Hidden Norfolk series by J M Dalgliesh (North Norfolk Coast/Hunstanton)

 

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