‘TO THE WEST’. The road curls round in a steep bend and forks unexpectedly. The old sign, almost obscured by the bare, out-thrusting branches of an ancient thorn hedge, is barely legible but she drives confidently on; both road and sign are familiar to her. ‘TO THE WEST’: the words always have the power to thrill her. When she was a child the phrase conjured up mysterious, mountainous landscapes, tall pinnacles and towers showered with powdery golden light and lapped by the shining tides of aquamarine seas; a magic place where she might escape the confusion and unhappiness of her own small world. Romantic tales of courtly love in castles and courts across Shropshire and Herefordshire and along the Welsh Marches, and stirring stories of fierce battles and bloody ambushes in the stony mountain fastnesses, were told to her by her grandfather: a descendant of the great Roger de Mortimer,` Baron of Wigmore, Earl of March and Lord of Brecon, Radnor and Ludlow. There were other, older, stories reaching further into the West, to Tintagel on the wild north Cornish coast, of King Arthur and his knights, of Guinevere his queen, and the magician, Merlin.
Involuntarily she glances quickly at the small bronze figure on the passenger seat: the boy Merlin with the falcon on his wrist. She has set him up as a talisman; someone to watch over her and the Turk on this long journey to the west.
‘Take the little Merlin,’ her grandmother says earlier, appearing beside her as she swung her tapestry holdall into the camper van and settled the terrier on her rug. ‘Go on. Take him. You’ve always loved him.’
She takes it unwillingly. The bronze is smooth and heavy in her hand, the delicate detail giving the boy the same intent expression as that of the falcon. His tunic swirls as if he is in perpetual motion, invoking an urgency of purpose that hurries him forward to some unknown destination, his chin lifted and unafraid. Her heartbeat quickens at the prospect of her own journey; the bronze would give her courage – yet still she hesitates.
‘To please me.’ The older woman, breathless from the quick, last-minute dash into the house to fetch the charming little statue, speaks pleadingly – and uncharacteristically.
‘It belongs to my father,’ she replies reluctantly.
Her grandmother gives a cry of angry impatience. ‘Everything belongs to your father now. It’s how your grandfather arranged it years ago, and I didn’t gave a thought to how it might be for you when he died. It never occurred to me that your mother would die soon afterwards, or that your father would remarry. I must be grateful that he allows me to stay here, I suppose. A custodian of his treasures which will all go to his son by that Frenchwoman. At least take the Merlin. He’s been standing on the shelf in the Red Room for years and nobody will miss him. Take it, Tegan.’
Always Tegan: never the little name ‘Tiggy’ that her friends use. She opens the passenger door and places the little figure – no more than six inches high – amongst the impedimenta on the seat: a rug, maps, some chocolate. Nestled in the warm folds of the rug, he stares forward, his profile as imperious and compelling as that of her grandmother. Tiggy settles him more firmly, shuts the door and takes the frail old woman in her arms.
‘Thank you,’ she says. ‘You’ll look after yourself, won’t you?