The barley dips and bows in the wind, ripe and golden it extends every which way. Man-high, the ears brush my cheek, and as I balance along the narrow pathway that divides one field from the next, I suspect I’m almost invisible. Not so Matthew Graham. My favourite 17th century man, my very own personal dream-boat, comes walking through the barley, careful measured steps so as not to damage his crops.
I stop to properly absorb the pleasure of seeing him move, all the way from how his worn shirt strains over his broad shoulders, to how lightly he plants his feet, long legs striding effortlessly over the uneven ground. Now and then he pauses, crumbling an ear or two between his fingers. To judge from his smile, the crop looks good – as does he.
“A picnic?” He tilts his head to the side, using his hat to fan some much needed air his way.
I point at the basket. “Weighs a ton.”
“Ah.” He points at a distant grove. “Over there?”
Seeing as he’s a gentleman, he offers to carry the basket.
“Have you ever had a picnic before?” I ask him as we spread out the tartan rug. He eyes the pattern with something akin to mild disapproval. Matthew Graham is a Lowland Scot and has little affection for Highlanders – after all, he had his Scottish home invaded on repeated occasions by Highland soldiers, there to pester him and help themselves to whatever they needed. Here, in Maryland, Highlanders rarely come to raid, yet another plus point for the colony according to Matthew.
“Have you?” I repeat, thereby shaking him out of his contemplation of what I suspect is a bastardised version of the Royal Stewart tartan. (What can I say? IKEA is not into historical accuracy)
“You mean eating outside?” He smiled. “Aye on several occasions.” Like when he was in the New Model Army back in the 1640s, or when he was fleeing gaol in 1658 which was also when he met Alex, at the time concussed and singed after her fall through time. A right picture she was, he says, and his face softens with memories.
“Yes, yes, I know all that.” (Obviously, as I wrote it) “I meant like this: a blanket, a nice hamper full of nice stuff…” I dig deeper. “A bottle of IPA to go with the ham sandwiches, some nice…”
“IPA?” He studies the bottle. “Some sort of ale?”
“Yup.” I find a bottle opener and open the bottle, handing it to him with one of the sandwiches.
“Alex does this a lot with me,” he says. “She enjoys our wee picnics.”
Matthew winks. “We do have a life without you, you know. Days and days which you know nothing about.”
“How can you?” I ask. “After all, I made you up.”
“And sometimes creations take on a life of their own.” He reaches for a second sandwich, nabs a boiled egg in the process. “You should know that by now: neither Alex nor I always comply with your instructions.”
This, dear reader, is true. I tell them to go left, likely Alex will insist they should go right, because ‘one can’t trust a writer’. These days, I have become much more manipulative, so if I want them to go right, I’ll point them eagerly the other way.
Matthew laughs. “You forget we know exactly what you’re thinking.” He leans forward and taps my head. “We sit in here.”
All very weird, seeing as he is presently extended on my picnic rug, propped up on one elbow while methodically eating his way through everything in my basket. He rather likes the brie, he tells me, popping the last piece in his mouth. As there’s not a gram of excess fat on him, I conclude he must have a fantastic metabolism.
Matthew snorts – loudly. “I work. Hard.” He surveys the fields. “Each and every one of these, I’ve cleared. I’ve ploughed them and planted them, soon enough I’ll be harvesting them, and then there’s the threshing.” He shifts his shoulders. “It never ends,” he says softly. “But at least here I can provide for my family without being persecuted for my faith.”
Which is why the plot arc of The Graham Saga, which started off so firmly embedded in Scottish soil, ended up here, in the innovatively tolerant Colony of Maryland. You see, as Matthew developed from shadowy outline to the flesh-and-blood character he now is, he also acquired certain characteristics I wasn’t expecting. Like being a devout member of the Scottish Kirk, not about to kow-tow to the Anglican Church as required after the Restoration. Or like being a former soldier in Cromwell’s army, and as a consequence a young boy in his teens developed firm convictions as to the merits of a republic.
“Grand ideas,” he now says with a little smile. “Far more difficult to realise than theorise. Even Cromwell had problems adhering to the concept of a nation ruled by the representatives of the people.”
“Seeing as he essentially did all the ruling by himself,” I mutter.
“Aye.” Matthew sighs. “He lost his way.” He looks up at the distant sky. “And when he died, it all collapsed like a house of cards.” True enough: no Olly, no capable leader, and so Charles Stuart was invited back as Charles II, happily restored to his throne. Matthew makes a face, saying he’s right glad that his bairns, his grandchildren and their bairns, live here, in Maryland, where soon enough a new nation will be born.
“Alex has told you that, has she?” I ask.
“Aye.” He smiles. “A nation of free men, ruled by no one but themselves.” He pats the ground he’s sitting on. “O, my America! My new-found-land.”
“Not yet,” I tell him. Besides, John Donne’s poem has very little to do with the future U.S.A., far more to do with a man and his mistress – which Matthew knows.
“No.” He scratches himself. “And you keep us on your toes, don’t you?”
I grin. I am very, very good at keeping Matthew Graham and his wife on their toes. I’ve done it in Scotland with English dragoons and rebellious ministers. Here, in their new home, I give them raiding natives, dastardly bandits, I give them unwelcome visitors from their past, I give them revenge and retribution, I give them joy and loss. But I also give them each other – two halves of the same whole, no matter that she was born three centuries after him. And speaking of the devil…
“Is that Alex hiding behind those shrubs?” I ask.
“Aye. “You know she’s been there all along, don’t you?” Matthew stretches for the last of the sponge cake, his tongue darting out to catch the crumbs stuck to his lips. “She doesn’t like it, that you and I meet up without her.” His hazel eyes glitter with laughter. “I think she’s jealous.”
“Of me?” I must admit to preening a bit.
“Aye, I know: incomprehensible, isn’t it? It would be like me falling for my mam.”
“Oh.” I deflate. But I suppose he’s right, and besides, I stand no chance in hell versus Alex. I raise my hand. “Alex? Want some tea?”
In less than three seconds, she’s sitting beside us. This is not due to inordinate speed, it is rather the consequence of how fast I think, but there you are: Alex plants herself between Matthew and me, leaning back against him in a way that screams to the world – and in particular to this author – that this man is taken. As if I didn’t know…
“It’s Earl Grey,” I tell her, and she looks about to swoon with joy, inhaling deeply when I hand her a mug. “And I even brought you a chocolate bar.”
You see, that’s two things we have in common, Alex and I: an addiction to chocolate and to Matthew Graham. Over her head I meet Matthew’s eyes. He smiles at me, while draping an arm round his wife and pulling her closer. “Thank you,” he mouths. “For her, for my life.”
My pleasure, Matthew. I leave them like that, close together on that tartan picnic rug with an empty basket by their side. They need the rest. After all, in book nine of The Graham Saga….nope; for now my lips are sealed.
Anna Belfrage is the author of the acclaimed time-slip series The Graham Saga, winner of multiple awards, including the HNS Indie Award 2015 and eight BRAG medallions. The Graham Saga is the story of a man and a woman who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him.
Her new series, The King’s Greatest Enemy, is set in the 1320s and features Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures during Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first book, In the Shadow of the Storm, was published in 2015 and is also the recipient of a BRAG medallion. The next book, Days of Sun and Glory, has just come out and Anna urges you to “enter a world of political intrigue, and watch my protagonists Adam de Guirande and his wife Kit navigate a world in which loss is certain and life is not.”
If you want to know more about Anna, drop by her webpage or her blog!